Monday, December 24, 2012

Comfort via Sichuan: pork & pickle soup

This is one of those dishes we would order at least once a month under a number of different incarnations when we lived in Taipei. It’s great as is or served over a bowl of noodles, where it makes the perfect complete meal. And if you would prefer this as a simple stir-fry, just blanch the pickles as directed in step 2, drain them thoroughly, and add the pickles to the wok in step 4. Simple and delicious!

The only real variable here is the saltiness of the pickle, so taste them and the broth after the zhacai has been blanched the first time.

Unlike so many of Sichuan’s street foods, this is not in the least spicy. In fact, it is downright mild. The main seasoning is the pickle, which (literally) tarts up the dish to such an extent that just about anything else would be superfluous, and so it is left with the starring role here.

What I’ve done instead of tossing in my usual handful of chilies is introduce more savory elements to the original recipe. Traditionally, pork shreds are simply added to the simmering pickles, and that’s it. It’s okay that way, but not stellar, because even if you use fatty pork instead of a lean cut, the fat ends up as cumbersome blobs that require serious chewing, and the broth never really coalesces into something truly flavorful.
Served with noodles & bok choy

So, I have substituted Chinese black mushrooms for half of the pork, and they provide a really lovely savory note, a richness that otherwise is missing. Then, because the meat is so lean, I stir-fry it in some oil that has been seasoned with a good helping of garlic and ginger. These, plus a nice glug of rice wine, give this soup its necessary oomph and transforms a ho-hum comfort dish into something stellar.

Shredded pork and pickle soup 
Zhàcài ròusī tāng  榨菜肉絲湯
Serves 2 as a main meal over noodles, 4 to 6 as a soup course

4 ounces lean pork
½ a piece of Sichuan pickle (zhacai; see Tips)
Filtered water
A large handful of fresh noodles, or 2 bundles cellophane noodles, optional
4 large Chinese black mushrooms, fresh (or plumped dried mushrooms)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 or 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
¼ cup rice wine
A large handful of cleaned and trimmed bok choy or other greens, optional
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 green onion, trimmed and cut diagonally into fine slices

1. Place the meat in the freezer for about an hour before you cut it so that it is easier to slice.

Pork, mushrooms & zhacai
2. Rinse the zhacai under cool running water, pat dry, and slice it into thin pieces about ⅛-inch thick. Then, cut these slices into thin julienne matchsticks; you should have about ½  cup. Place the pickles in a medium saucepan and cover with around 4 cups water; bring the water to a boil, simmer for about 10 minutes, and then taste both the broth and the pickles. If either is too salty, discard half of the water and add 2 cups more water to the pan; bring the broth to a boil again and then slowly simmer the pickles while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. (If you are serving this over noodles, you may add them to the broth, but pour in more boiling filtered water as needed so that you end up with around 4 cups liquid.)

3. Slice the meat very thinly against the grain and remove any fat or gristly pieces before cutting the slices into a thin julienne. Remove and discard the mushroom stems; slice the caps horizontally in half and then crosswise into thin julienne.

4. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high until it shimmers and then toss in the garlic and ginger. Fry these for about 10 seconds to release their fragrance before adding the pork and mushrooms. Stir-fry these together until the meat starts to brown. Scrape the pork mixture into the broth, add the rice wine, and bring the soup to a boil. (If you are serving this over noodles and want some more veggies in the mix, add the bok choy to the broth now.) Lower the heat and simmer the soup for around 5 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning, and then sprinkle on the sesame oil and green onions. Serve very hot.


Two whole pickles
Sichuan pickles used to only be available in cans, but more and more Chinese markets are now offering them either in shrink-wrapped bags or loose in a pickle jar or already packaged and weighed.

The best pickles are whole and covered with a light chili paste that – oddly enough – never gets absorbed into the pickle, so I have no idea why anyone uses it, but it does look pretty.

Keep any unused whole or halved pickles wrapped airtight and refrigerated, where they will remain happily for a very long time.

These pickles are made out of the knobby stems of a type of mustard called Brassica juncea that is salted, the juices are squeezed out, and it is partially dried. It is then coated with ground chili powder and allowed to ferment. The Chinese name  zhacai  literally means "squeezed vegetable" because the juices are wrung out before it is pickled.

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