Thursday, February 21, 2013

Golden-edged cabbage from Xi'an

Cabbage has such a lousy reputation here in the States, but in China it is prepared with reverence and served with delight. 

Part of this has to do with the willingness by Chinese cooks to find luscious aspects to every level of doneness: from raw shreds tossed in a spicy vinaigrette to crisp torn leaves in a stir-fry to the mellowest of squares in a braise. No matter how it is prepared, though, it is done with care.

To the Chinese, cabbage (báicài 白菜, literally “white vegetable”) means one thing and one thing only: napa cabbage, those football-shaped and -sized veggies that reveal just the palest green on their leaves. And it is precisely that light jade or even yellow coloration that tells you the cabbage’s flatulent aromas will be sufficiently tamed. Since the inner leaves of the plant are shielded from the sun, their flavor ends up sweet and grassy.

Another unique aspect to this vegetable is that the main parts of the plant are its wide, white stalks, the leaves serving more as frilly decorations than anything else. These stems are crisp and juicy, and they are what really lend this “white vegetable” both its name and its popularity.

Napa cabbage
Grown and beloved throughout all of northern, western, and central China, this is a cold-weather vegetable, but also one that stores well when the temperature dips down below freezing. And so, along with root vegetables, this is what has served people well when little else has been available.

Perhaps because of this, or even in spite of it, napa cabbage has become a permanent part of dining tables in these regions. One of the best renditions is this one from Xi'an in Shaanxi province, which contrasts the inherent sweetness of the vegetable with dried chilies and tart vinegar to make a refreshing and positively addictive cool weather dish.

A Xi'an specialty
Golden-edged cabbage  
Jīnbiān báicài 金邊白菜
Serves 4 

1½ pounds napa cabbage (about ½ large head or 1 small head)
5 dried Thai chilies
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
1½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1½ teaspoons regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Rinse the cabbage carefully, removing any damaged leaves. Shake the cabbage dry and then cut out the core. Separate the leaves into stacks of 3 or 4 and place them curved-side down on a cutting board. Use the side of a cleaver to lightly whack the stems; this will serve to gently break them open (see Tips), and then cut them into pieces approximately 2 x 1 inches in size.

2. Break the chilies open and discard both the seeds and the stem ends. Cut them into smallish pieces. Heat a wok over high heat and then pour in the oil. Immediately add the chilies and fry them quickly until they have crisped up. Toss in the ginger and the cabbage and stir-fry the cabbage over high heat. As soon as the cabbage has wilted, add the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Continue to toss the cabbage until all of the edges are a golden brown. Serve hot.

Fry the dried chilies til crispy

As noted above, select a cabbage that is as pale as possible, as this will help ensure its sweetness and delicate flavors.

Slightly whacking the cabbage gives it the opportunity to soak up flavors that otherwise would just slide off the slick stems. Be careful not to mash the cabbage, but rather open up the stiff stems.

The cabbage is then cut into what Chinese chefs call a “domino” (gŭpáipiàn 骨牌片) shape, one that is very common for stir-fries, as it is large enough to retain its character as a vegetable, but is small enough to be cooked quickly and evenly.

Add more chilies to this, if you like, and adjust the sweet and sour notes to fit your own taste.

Some people like to thicken the sauce with a final cornstarch slurry. If you are in this camp, mix a teaspoon of cornstarch with a tablespoon of filtered water and add it a few minutes before the cabbage is done so that the cornstarch has a chance to fully cook and lose its starchy texture.

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