Monday, June 24, 2013

Ready for hot weather with this Shanghai nectar

(Note to my readers: Starting today, Madame Huang's Kitchen will publish blog posts once a week on Monday morning because I'm racing against the cookbook's publication deadline.)

As the weather heats up, my thoughts turn to luscious beverages that make summer so worthwhile. One is this refreshing nectar from the Shanghai region (or thereabouts). Red date nectar is  often sold in cans or boxes, but nothing can hold a candle to the flavor of homemade. Plus, it's so easy I feel a bit embarrassed that there is a recipe attached.

Chinese red dates have an unfortunate English translation: jujubes. It is a lousy name because it dredges up memories of movie theater candies that are not even remotely as delicious as these beautiful mahogany fruits.

When fresh, Chinese red dates are the size and shape of large olives, their pale green skins often showing the first brick-colored mottling that increases as the fruits turns from fresh to dry. They taste like green apples when still crisp and have a lovely crunch to them, and the slender pit inside usually is just a minor distraction.

But as the fruit matures, it starts to take on a caramel coloration as it softens slightly and turns sweeter. Finally, when most of the juice has turned to sugar, the skin is wrinkled, the flesh is spongy, and the taste is heavenly.
Simmer the red dates

Get your red dates from a busy Chinese grocery store, herbal shop, or dry-goods store. Generally speaking, look for the fattest, biggest dates around (called “big dates,” or dàzǎo 大棗), which tend to be of superior quality. However, one smaller variety called “chicken heart dates” (jīxīn zǎo 雞心棗) is particularly tasty. 

If you live in a hot, dry area where apples grow well, consider planting a tree or two of this luscious Chinese fruit.

Red date nectar
Hóngzǎo lù 紅棗露
Makes about 8 cups

8 ounces dried Chinese red dates
12 cups filtered water, divided
Honey to taste

1. Rinse the dates and discard any imperfect ones. Slash each date in several places so that they fall apart easily as they cook. Place the dates in a large saucepan, add the water, and bring the water to a full boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook the dates slowly for an hour. Let the dates sit in the hot water until it completely cools down.
Squeeze out every last drop

2. Strain the juice to remove the pulp, skins, and pits, and then press down lightly on the pulp. Return the pulp and so forth to the saucepan, add the remaining 4 cups of water, and simmer the dates covered for another 20 minutes or so to extract every last bit of flavor. Then, let the pan cool down, strain out the solids, and add this liquid to the first batch.

3. Taste the juice and add sweetener to taste, remembering that the nectar will taste less sweet when it is cold. Cover and chill the nectar for a couple of hours and serve it very cold.

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