Monday, May 5, 2014

Divine fish puffs from the lush Pearl River Delta

Fish is such an integral part of life in the Pearl River Delta that it is a part of just about every meal. 

And, because there is so much of it, ingenuity often comes into play when turning a commonplace ingredient into something that lures hungry diners to the table.

One such dish is this, where fresh, flaked fish is combined with beaten eggs and seasonings into little golden spheres that puff up as they are fried. 

These may not seem like much, but they are easy, versatile, and remarkably delicious. The puffs can be made ahead of time, too, which allows the final braise to come together quickly. 

Beat yolks into fish
My father-in-law used to make fish paste dishes like this, and so just the aroma of this dish makes me think of him.

As always, Shunde’s dishes tend to be designed for freshwater fish like carp or dace, as these are most plentiful in the surrounding waterways and fish ponds. And so, if you have them available, they work perfectly here. If not, use a mild saltwater fish. 

Any type of rockfish, flatfish, or even eel will work here, as the flesh is reduced to a pulp and any character it might have had disappears into the eggs, allowing it to be employed basically for its consistency and gentle seasoning.

This will be a delight for anyone who has ever tasted commercial Chinese fish balls and wished they had better flavor and a more delicate texture. 

Fried fish puffs
In fact, you can use the extra fish puffs just as you would fish balls: in clear soups, hotpots, stir-fries, other braises, and stews. The only caveat is that you cook them briefly so that these golden clouds do not disintegrate.

Shunde braised fish puffs
Shùndé huì yúfŭ 順德燴魚腐
Pearl River Delta
Serves 4 to 6, with around 30 extra fish puffs

Fish puffs:
8 ounces white-fleshed fish fillets, boned and skinned
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 green onion, trimmed and finely minced
A few grinds of fresh black pepper
Fish fillets & garlic
2 teaspoons rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
5 teaspoons cornstarch
3 large eggs, separated
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying (used is fine if it is fresh-smelling)

8 ounces fresh mushrooms (Chinese black, oyster, etc.)
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
12 thin slices peeled ginger
2 green onions, green and white parts separated, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
Half a carrot, peeled and cut into thin diagonal slices (see Tip)
12 fish puffs (from the above recipe)
3 tablespoons rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup unsalted chicken stock or water

Fish chopped with blade...
1. Rinse the fish and pat it dry. Remove any tiny bones or silver skin, and then finely chop the fish into a paste, first using the blade side of your Chinese knife and then the back. Scoop up the fish paste and place it in a medium work bowl with the salt, and then use chopsticks to stir it rapidly in one direction for a few seconds to mix in the salt. Add the garlic, green onion, rice wine, and cornstarch until fluffy. Finally, beat in the egg yolks until everything is fully incorporated. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a whisk until they form soft peaks. Fold the whites into the fix mixture with a silicon spatula until you have an even, cloudlike mass.

& with back of blade
2. Have a clean plate and a Chinese spider or slotted spoon next to the stove. Place a wok over medium-high heat, and when it is hot, add about an inch of oil. Swirl this around in the wok to coat the inside about halfway up, and then lower the heat to medium. Use a clean spoos (plastic spoons from the yogurt shop work well here) to scoop up about 1 tablespoon of the fish mixture and use another spoon to scoot in into the oil as a ball. Gently fry the fish puff until it is golden on both sides. Add as many balls of the fish mixture as will fit very loosely into your wok, remembering that they will swell up as they cook; I cook about 8 at a time. Use chopsticks or the spider to remove the puffs to the waiting plate. Repeat with the rest of the mixture until all of it has been fried. Set aside 12 of the puffs for this recipe and refrigerate the other cooled puffs. (The recipe can be done ahead of time up to this point.)

3. Clean the mushrooms and remove any tough stems. If they are small like maitake, separate them into clumps about the size of the fish puffs. And if they are large, like many Chinese black mushrooms, cut or tear them into halves or quarters so that they too are similar in size to the fish puffs.
Golden globes

4. Place the cleaned wok back over medium-high heat, and when it is hot, add the 2 tablespoons oil. Swirl this around in the wok to coat the inside about halfway up, and then lower the heat to medium. Add the ginger and let it brown, and then raise the heat to high. Add the white halves of the green onions and toss them quickly in the scented oil before tossing in the mushrooms and carrot slices. Sear these in the hot oil until the mushrooms are very lightly browned, and then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring the liquid to a full boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-high. Cover the wok and let the puffs braise for about 10 minutes, or until most of the sauce has been absorbed. Open the wok, quickly reduce the sauce further over high heat until there is only a mere slick at the base of the wok. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then toss in the green parts of the onions. Toss these together gently until the onions begin to slightly wilt, and then serve in a wide bowl.
Orange plum blossoms


To make decorative "plum blossoms," first peel the carrot. Cut 5 V-shaped furrows down the side, making them spaced evenly apart. Then, cut the carrot in thin slices. You can make these ahead of time and refrigerate them in a little container of ice water.