Monday, February 3, 2014

Double winter delight

This is a glorious cold-weather vegetable dish that goes by the equally glorious name of “double winter.” And it gets that name courtesy of the fat winter bamboo shoots and winter black mushrooms that shine here in all their, well, glory.
When we lived in Taiwan and happened upon an eatery that seemed like it might be good, but we were not sure what we’d end up with on our table, this was one of our “safety” dishes. 
It was hard for anyone to really mess this up because in Taiwan everyone used the fresh, sweet, succulent bamboo shoots that covered the endless hills, as well as the just-picked, meaty, swooningly aromatic black mushrooms that flooded the markets. This meant that even if the cook was asleep at the wheel, we would have something tasty in front of us no matter what.
The devil is always in the details, though. And when it comes to this particular dish, the difference between what is pretty good and what is intensely delicious is as broad as a highway. It’s sort of like fried chicken. If you have a good quality bird and fresh oil, you know you are going to end up with something scrumptious. But if you marinate that chicken right, give it the perfect coating, supply a bit of steam in addition to the hot oil, and cook it just until done, you will have yourself a plate of died-and-gone-to-heaven.
What I've discovered over the years is that there are a couple secrets to making this sensuous Zhejiang dish especially good.
First, parboil the bamboo shoots to get rid of any bitterness. No matter how hard you try, there often will be lingering tannic flavors that will fight with the silky mellowness of the other ingredients. So, cut up your freshly peeled shoots and boil them in nothing but water for around ten minutes. Take a taste, and if the shoots still are a bit bitter, parboil them again, discarding and rinsing the shoots each time you do this. (Get shoots with yellow rather than green tips, and the bottoms should not show any shriveling or molding; see the photo below.)
Super fresh bamboo shoots
Second, use really, really fragrant mushrooms. Nowadays the fresh black mushrooms in our Chinese markets are almost always flower mushrooms with the split caps, and they have an earthy, sexy perfume that manages to fill up the car on the ride home. So, use your nose and find ‘shrooms that advertise their presence.
Third, use chicken stock instead of water. This is very important because that stock supplies an underlying layer of xianwei, making the dish rich without being greasy, full of depth, and intensely flavored.
Fourth, use a good quality soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine. You won’t need a lot here, but this dish is so simply seasoned that if either of these is of poor quality, it will show. (FWIW, I almost always use Wan Ja Shan soy sauce and Taiwan’s TTL Shaoxing rice wine.) Do not add too much soy sauce to this dish: that is what almost invariably wrecks it, as the saltiness will take over the sweetness and upset the subtle balances at play here.
And finally, rock sugar is what lends the sheen and subtle sweetness to this dish. It may seem like a whole lot is being thrown in here, but black mushrooms absorb sugar like there is no tomorrow, and instead of turning sweet, the sugar emphasizes their meatiness.
This dish can easily be made ahead of time and then warmed up while the bok choy garnish is being stir-fried. It also tastes great if allowed to sit around a day or two while the seasonings work their way into the very centers of the bamboo shoots and mushrooms.

Red-cooked double winter
Hóngshāo shuāngdōng 紅燒雙冬
Serves 4

2 fresh, fist-sized, fat (“winter”) bamboo shoots, or about 2 cups defrosted frozen winter bamboo shoots (no canned ones, please)
6 large, fresh, meaty, fragrant black mushrooms, or 6 to 8 large dried and rehydrated black mushrooms
1 cup organic chicken stock, homemade or storebought
1 tablespoon good regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
3 tablespoons rock sugar, more or less (can be one large hunk, if you like)
3 green onions
1 tablespoon peeled, thinly-sliced ginger
Filtered water as needed

2 large handfuls bok choy, trimmed and cleaned
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil

1. If using fresh bamboo shoots, trim off the ends, peel off the sheaths, and trim away any tough parts around the bottom. Cut the shoots into pieces about the same size as half a mushroom cap. Place the bamboo shoot pieces in a small to medium saucepan, cover with filtered water, bring the pot to a full boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Parboil the shoots by cooking them for only around 10 minutes, and then pour off the water, rinse the shoots, and taste one. If it is still bitter, repeat this step. When done to your liking, drain off all of the water and rinse the shoots in a colander. If using frozen bamboo shoots, defrost, cut into pieces about the same size as half a mushroom cap, and drain, as these were lightly cooked before being frozen.
Peeled & not
2. Clean the mushrooms and tear off the stems; reserve the stems for something else and tear the caps in half. If you are using dried mushrooms, cut the caps in half; you should also use the strained soaking water instead of regular water in the next step.
3. Scatter the mushroom caps and bamboo shoot pieces in a medium saucepan or sandpot. Add the stock, soy sauce, wine, and sugar. Trim off the root ends of the green onions and tie the onions into loose knots before them and the ginger to the pan. Add just enough water to the pan so that you can barely see it around the edge. Cover the pan and bring it to a full boil, and then lower the heat to a bare simmer and cook it covered for an hour or two, until the bamboo shoots are tender and flavorful. Remove the cover and quickly boil down the sauce by raising the heat under the pan to high, but take care not to burn the ingredients. When the sauce is thick, taste and adjust the seasoning. Cool the pan, if you like, and refrigerate overnight, or proceed immediately with the next step.
4. Just before serving, shake the bok choy dry in a colander. Heat a wok over high and then add the oil. Quickly swirl the oil around and then add the boy choy. Flash-fry them over the highest heat you have until they are barely done but still tender. Arrange these in a rimmed dish around the edge to form a nest. Pour the hot bamboo shoots and mushrooms in the center. Serve hot.

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