Thursday, May 3, 2012

Steam-fried gailan with oyster sauce

Cantonese restaurants serve beautiful vegetables, especially the brilliant green flowering stems called gailan (jielan in Mandarin). Tender, crispy, and flavorful, there is just no excuse not to eat your veggies when they are cooked as deliciously as this.

If you are a devotee of dim sum, you'll recognize this as the sole green vegetable to make an appearance among all of the other meaty and starchy tidbits that are wheeled around the room. This is classic teahouse food, and gailan, or Chinese flowering kale, strikes a perfect balance with all of the steamed and roasted foods that are offered.

Making this dish at home is extremely easy, and now is the perfect time to cook it when the stalks are at their springtime best. The gailan that I picked up in the market the other day couldn't have been more delightful; there was no need to peel the stems or toss any part of it away -- they were that good!

A stalk of Chinese kale
When you go shopping for gailan, there are a couple of things to look out for to ensure that you're buying the best. Of course, if at all possible buy from someone who sells "no spray" veggies, which are almost as good as organic. Yes, you might find a few bug holes here and there, but overall the quality is better.

Second, look at the flowers. Actually, look for flowers, since the opened white blossoms will tell you in no uncertain terms that the stems are getting a little bit old. 

And, try to locate stems that are only around 6 inches long with perhaps 3 or 4 small leaves on them, like the stalk on the right. Tight green buds and just a couple of small leaves on thin stems is the best of all worlds. The reason for this is that such plants were grown quickly under optimum conditions, and so the skins of the stems will be tender, the leaves will still be young, and the flower buds will melt in your mouth.

If you're not too sure, do the fingernail test: press a nail into the bottom inch or so, and if it slides in fairly easily, that means you have a tender specimen in your hand and you won't need to peel it.

The fingernail test
Preparing these veggies is also quite easy. Just trim off the very ends and then rinse the gailan under running water. Shake some of the water off. Done.

Today we're going to look at an excellent Chinese cooking technique called "steam frying." A few tablespoons of oil are heated in a wok over high heat before the still wet gailan are tossed in; the hot oil starts the initial cooking, and the steam formed by the water on the leaves finishes the job.

Flip the stalks around in the hot oil for a minute or so to make sure that every part of the veggies is coated with a bit of the oil. It is all right if there is a little searing going on, as this adds flavor. Cover the wok with a lid (I often use the colander the gailan were sitting in just because I'm lazy and it's one less thing to wash) for a few quick minutes to steam the veggie stalks until they are just this side of raw.

Dull dark green when raw
When you open up the lid, you should see beautifully green flower stalks staring back at you. In fact, the best time to remove them from the wok is when they are a bright jade color. 

Look at the difference in the photos to the right and you will see what I mean. In their raw state, the leaves and stalks are a dark, dull green. But something happens when they cook because their color is transformed into something quite stunning.

Use tongs or a spatula to lift the cooked gailan out the wok and onto your serving plate. Then, quickly boil up the sauce and pour it over the waiting vegetables. That's it.

Bright green when done
Cantonese restaurants often cook and serve these vegetables a bit differently, and this is what they do: the gailan is given a quick dip in boiling water with a bit of oil added, as this gives the leaves and stalks a nice sheen. As soon as the veggies are blanched to a gentle crispness, they are stacked up parallel to each other on a platter, and then cut across the middle. A final touch is some oyster sauce right out of the bottle.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I order it all the time. But just about anything directly out of a bottle tastes like it came directly out of a bottle. The oyster sauce has a coarse, fishy smell this way and really needs something to whip it into shape.

What I do is cook it quickly in a hot wok with some rice wine, sugar, and sesame oil. Taste and adjust at this point, since not all oyster (and oyster-flavored) sauces are made the same way. You may need a touch more sugar or soy sauce or what have you to give it the perfect flavor. This is not a really big deal to do, but it makes all the difference in the world to the final dish.

Try it and see if you don't agree.
Perfectly done

Gailan with oyster sauce 
Haoyou jielan  蠔油芥藍  
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound gailan (Chinese flowering kale)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
6 tablespoons (or so) rice wine
6 tablespoons (or so) oyster sauce or oyster-flavored sauce
3 to 4 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons (or so) roasted sesame oil

1. If the stems need no more than a light trim on the bottom, do that and place the gailan in a colander; they should be about 6 to 8 inches long. If, on the other hand, they have thick skins, use a paring knife to peel this off, as well as any leaves that are tough. Rinse the veggies under running water and lightly shake dry.

Bubbling sauce
2. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat and add the veggies. Quickly stir-fry them until the color starts to change. Cover the wok with a lid or the colander and let them steam for a minute or two until the gailan turns a bright green. Remove the veggies to a serving platter and arrange them parallel to each other with the leaves in one direction. Cut them in half across the middle, if you like.

3. Add the rice wine, oyster sauce, sugar, and sesame oil to the wok and bring it to a fast boil over high heat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Pour the sauce over the gailan and serve while hot.


Avoid buying gailan that has more than just a few opened flowers, as these stalks will probably be tougher.
Lee Kum Kee label

Do the fingernail test to make sure the stalks are tender.

Pass over any stalks that have leaves longer than 4 inches, as the leaves will toughen up, too.

Find either an oyster sauce or an oyster-flavored sauce that you like. My favorite for years has been the Hong Kong brand Lee Kum Kee, which has a charming, old-fashioned label featuring monster sized oysters in a punt with a lady and a little boy, sampans sailing in the background. It's definitely one of the cooler labels around.

Vegetarians and vegans (and those who are allergic to shellfish) can opt for Vegetarian Oyster Sauce, which is available in most stores right next to the real stuff; no fish or seafood in there, but the flavor is quite good.

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