Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sweet stuffed pineapple from Yunnan

Located as it is in the southern reaches of China, just across the border from Myanmar (Burma), with a toe in Laos and a more ample thigh resting against Vietnam, Yunnan can be forgiven if its cuisine is even more exotic than might be expected. 

Lush, tropical flavors spark just about every dish, and the many ethnic tribes that have made their homes in this province's abundant rain forests have contributed spices and sensibilities that are a long way from Beijing.

Called Diancai in Chinese, the local cuisine is truly exotic, and this even extends to the ingredients, for along with Daliang in Guangdong and the lovely yogurts in various Muslim cuisines in the Chinese north, this is one of the few places where milk is a solid part of the dining scene, but you wouldn't know it from appearances. 
Edged (L) & hollowed (R) pineapples

That is because the most famous dairy dish here is made out milk that it is boiled with a coagulant, and then the proteins are stretched out and dried. A specialty of the Bai minority in the area around Dali in the western hill country of Yunnan, these are fried, braised, or even stuffed, and they have a gentle cheesy flavor. They look much like the soy skins enjoyed in the rest of China, but instead of being turned into flat sheets, these are often pleated, hence their name, rushan or "milk fans."

Chicken is prized here, perhaps because it is such a mountainous area, and chickens will live just about anywhere. The most well known of the local chicken dishes is Steampot Chicken, which uses an ingenious pot for steaming and trapping every drop of juice and flavor. Fish, too, is a favorite ingredient, as we see in another recipe, Crispy Bean Sauce over Steamed Cod

Most of Yunnan's beloved dishes, though, are very spicy. We'll be looking at some of the most delicious ones in the months ahead, especially during the summer when these vibrant flavors seem especially welcoming. Today, though, we are going to enjoy the sweeter side of this beautiful place.

Carve out the flesh in wedges
Refreshing, sweet, tart, soft, crunchy, and juicy, this is one amazing dessert from the Dai people who live in the mountains of Yunnan.  It looks as extraordinary as it tastes, too, and is a spectacular way to end a meal. 

Traditionally, the Dai people use white glutinous rice here, but I’ve come to love the color and enticing aroma of Thai black glutinous rice in this dish, where the velvety black rice looks gorgeous against the yellows of the pineapple and the tan longans, or "dragon eye" fruits.  It has a depth of flavor that turns this already wonderful dish into something utterly glorious. Besides, this type of rice is used in many other local dishes, so it's a very natural transition.

At the risk of putting earrings on an elephant, I sprinkle toasted coconut on top just before serving. This adds yet another tropical layer, a touch of crispness against the chewy grains and soft fruit, and a bit of richness from the coconut oil in this otherwise almost fat-free dessert.

Ready to eat
Yunnan's sweet pineapple rice  
Boluo fan 菠蘿飯
Serves 6 to 8 as a dessert

1 cup sticky (a/k/a glutinous, sweet) rice (see Tips)
Filtered water as needed
1 fresh, ripe pineapple (see Tips)
3 pieces of rock sugar, each one about the size of a walnut, bashed into smallish pieces if at all possible, or about ⅓ cup sugar (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sea salt, optional
½ cup dried longans (see Tips) or golden raisins
Boiling water as needed
½ cup toasted pine nuts or coarsely chopped almonds (see Tips)
Honey or agave nectar, optional
½ cup flaked or shredded coconut, optional but recommended

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve under running water and then soak the rice for at least 2 hours or overnight; it is ready when you can crush a grain with your fingernail. Drain the rice thoroughly and place it in a large work bowl. 

Into the steamer we go...
2. Scrub the pineapple all over with soapy water and a brush, rinse well, and pat dry. Cut off all but about 2 inches of the leaves, or as much as will help you fit the two halves into your steamer basket(s). Trim the remaining leaves so that they look nice, and edge off the whiskers on the bottom of the pineapple.

3. Place the pineapple on a cutting board and use a sharp knife to cut the pineapple in half. Then, use a sharp 4-inch (or so) paring knife to cut out all the meat inside the pineapple, leaving the skin intact since this will serve as the container; be sure and save as much of the juice as you can. Do this by first cutting around the edge of the pineapple just inside the yellow area; slice off lengthwise wedges by cutting out about a sixth of the flesh at a time. You should end up with what looks like 2 pineapple-shaped bowls. 

4. Remove the core and cut the pineapple meat into ½-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a medium work bowl and add all of the juice, rock sugar, optional salt, longans, and nuts to the soaked and drained rice. Toss them together and let them marinate for half an hour or so to give the sugar time to melt a bit (see Tips). At the end of this time, toss the rice again, taste a piece of the pineapple, and add more sugar if needed.

5. Spoon the rice and pineapple mixture into the pineapple bowls and place them on plates in one or two steamer baskets. Steam the pineapple for about 30 to 45 minutes; taste a few grains of the rice to make sure they are cooked through. Black glutinous rice make take upwards of an hour to steam thoroughly, so keep an eye on the water level in your steamer; see Tips. (You can steam the pineapple for a bit longer than needed without hurting this dish. This dessert can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and then re-steamed to heat it again before serving.)

6. Toast the coconut by cooking it in a dry pan over medium heat, tossing it with a spatula so that it doesn't burn. When it is evenly browned, remove it to a dish to cool. Just before serving, sprinkle the coconut over the rice, and then serve this dish hot. Spoon out the rice into individual bowls at the table so that your guests can enjoy the beauty of this dish.

Crushed rice grain

Use any kind of glutinous (or sticky or sweet) rice you like. Called nuomi in Chinese, it generally is available as fat little grains that are white and from either California or East Asia, or long heavy grains that are a blackish brown and are from Thailand. The black variety has a rich aroma when it cooks and adds a nice, toasty element to this dish.

If you have time to let the pineapple ripen in your kitchen, by all means do so because it will sweeten the room for days as it turns sweet and golden.

Select pineapples that smell good; even when they are slightly under-ripe, they should still have a faint pineapple aroma. Check them all over for bruises or soft spots. The stem end will tell you how long it's been picked, so pass by any with shriveled bottoms. 

Cracking rock sugar
Your pineapple will be ready when it smells heavenly and has a slight "give" all over. Don't worry if the leaves have shriveled up; they are going to be trimmed off anyway. Scrub it carefully with a brush and soap to ensure than there are no bugs or debris. Wipe it dry and use a sharp, heavy knife (or even a bread knife) to slice it lengthwise, all the way through the leaves and the stem end. Cut out the flesh as directed above, slice off the tough core, and you're done.

Rock sugar can be very difficult to smash, so here's my secret: if you are not going to melt it in a liquid, place it in whatever it is supposed to sweeten (like this rice dish) and let it sit there for about half an hour. Then remove it, brush off any bits of rice or whatever, and take a look at the grain of the rock sugar: it runs in one long direction. Place the lump on your cutting board so that the grain of the rock sugar is running up and down (perpendicular to the cutting board). Take a heavy cleaver and use the blunt side to gently smack the rock sugar; pieces should break off relatively easy that way. If you have more than you need, let these pieces air dry before storing them.

Dried (L) and plumped up longans
Longans (called "dragon eyes" or longyan in Chinese) are tropical fruits that are usually found dried here in the States, although fresh ones appear on the heels of lychees at the end of summer. Find them in groceries, dry goods stores, and herbalists, and look for ones that are not super hard, as hard = stale. They taste delicious as is, sort of like very sweet, chewy raisins. But they are generally plumped up, and become quite tender and delicious. Store them dried in a closed container in a dark area.

Just about any kind of nut can be used here. Toasted nuts provide a nice contrast to the other flavors, but be careful if they are salted, as this could throw off the flavor balance here. Taste a couple, and if they are very salty, rinse them before chopping and cut out the salt in the recipe.

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