Monday, June 3, 2013

Of quail eggs & the West Wind

This romantic-sounding dish, West Wind Tea Quail Eggs, gets its name from a white liquor. One of China’s oldest varieties, West Wind is made in Fengxiang county, which lies almost directly west of Xi’an in Shaanxi. 

This was once a center for the earliest beginnings of Chinese civilization. Not only that, but excavations of Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BCE) sites around Fengxiang have shown that a thriving brewing culture was already in full swing there at the time.

Made mainly from sorghum grown in the neighborhood, barley and dried peas are added to the mix along with well water to make this unique clear liquor, the different grains adding subtle layers to its perfume.

Beautifully marbled
In this beautiful dish, where the cracked yet unpeeled eggs form intricate webbed designs on the whites, white liquor is added mainly as a flavoring; since West Wind is still hard to find outside of China, any good white lightning will do, such as gaoliang or Meiguilu.

Pigeon eggs are traditionally used in this recipe, but quail eggs are much easier to hunt down here, as good Chinese markets tend to keep a steady supply of them on hand alongside the other kinds of eggs. And while every single other type of egg comes in dozens or half-dozens, quail eggs invariably come as a set of ten packed in little plastic coffins. No one has ever explained why.

Make these 3 to 5 days ahead of when you want to serve them. As with all tea eggs or braised eggs, they need considerable resting time in the fridge for the flavors to seep all the way down to the yolks.

Ten to a box!

West wind tea quail eggs
Xīfēng chá chúndàn 西風茶鶉蛋 
Serves 4 to 6

30 fresh quail eggs (see Tips)
Water as needed

Braising liquid:
4 cups boiling filtered water
3 tablespoons green tea leaves
4 slices ginger
2 green onions, trimmed
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 large piece dried tangerine peel
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon rock sugar
7 tablespoons regular soy sauce, divided
7 tablespoons white liquor 

1. Start this recipe at least 3 days before you want to serve it. Use a pin or tack to prick a hole in the round end of each egg. Place the eggs in a medium saucepan, cover them with hot tap water, and slowly bring the eggs to a boil over medium heat. Stir the eggs every 30 seconds or so until the water comes to a boil, as this will keep the yolks in the center of the eggs. Gently boil the eggs for about 3 or 4 minutes (it doesn’t matter, really, as the eggs are going to be cooked further in the braising liquid), and then empty out the water, fill the pan with cold tap water, and let the eggs completely cool down. Gently crack the eggs all over (but don’t peel them) and let them drain in a colander.

2. Pour the water into a medium saucepan and the tea leaves, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, tangerine peen fennel seeds, sugar, and 5 tablespoons of both the soy sauce and the white liquor. Bring the braising liquid to a boil and simmer it for an hour or two, or until the liquid has been reduced by half. Add the unpeeled eggs, bring the liquid to the boil again, and then lower it to a barely discernible simmer. After about an hour, turn off the heat and let the eggs come to room temperature. Add the remaining soy sauce and white liquor, taste, and adjust seasonings.

3. Place the eggs and the braising liquid in a covered container; the liquid should cover all or most of the eggs. Refrigerate the eggs, and when you think of it, lightly shake the eggs in the liquid so that they each get a good dunk in the flavorings.

4. After 3 days to even a week later, peel the eggs just before serving. I like to rinse them in the braising liquid just in case there are any tiny bits of shell clinging to the whites. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

Eggs starting to boil

Hardboiled quail eggs can sometimes be very difficult to peel, but I’ve hit on a solution for this:

First let them sit out on a cool kitchen counter in their plastic wrappers for about 5 days. This ages them just enough to make the shell easy to remove.

 I always use a sharp pin or tack to punch a hole in the round end of each egg, since the air sac there expands in the hot water and tends to break the shell. (Look at their flat bottoms in the top two photos: that's from the air sacs, which makes these shaped like gumdrops instead of eggs.)

Finally, use medium heat to bring the water to a boil; since the eggs will be at room temperature, the water will still boil fairly quickly, but it won’t be fast enough to surprise the air sacs into exploding.

I also stir the eggs every 30 seconds or so as they come to a boil, since this centers the yolks inside the whites.

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