Monday, May 26, 2014

Yunnan's ham & wild mushrooms come together

Yunnan has one of the most varied assortments of flora and fauna in China. This includes a delicious array of mushrooms that grow wild in the rainforest. Many of these, like porcini and morels, are prized by the best cooks in Europe, while others have yet to have even their names properly translated into English.

I like to make today's recipe with as much a variety of the best mushrooms as possible. The different flavors and textures breathe sensuous life into something that becomes more than a mere bowl of soup. Fat slices of porcini rub up against nubby morels, which curl around the feathery maitake (hen-of-the-woods)... and so on. Each mouthful contains a whole range of pleasures to be slowly savored.

Parma ham & ginger
And while the wild wealth of the highlands is featured here, one also gets a taste of Yunnan’s great ham. Along with the hams of Rugao (Jiangsu) and Jinhua (Zhejiang), the ham known as Yuntui (Yunnan ham) is also referred to by the city most closely associated with its creation, Xuanwei. It is also the most prized of all China’s many dry-cured meats.

At present, true Chinese hams cannot be purchased in the United States. Until the day arrives when this beautiful charcuterie makes its way into our markets, substitutions will have to do. One of my favorites is a good Parma ham or prosciutto. They go perfectly with all of those chewy mushrooms; another possibility is Hunan-style charcuterie.

Enjoy this in cool autumn or spring weather when the best mushrooms are on display. If none are available, use good dried mushrooms in their stead. This is more of an outline than a recipe, as it should celebrate the seasons and the mushrooms.

Luscious

Yunnan ham and wild mushroom soup
Yěgū Yúntuĭ tāng 野菇雲腿湯
Yunnan
Serves 8 generously

2 tablespoons rendered chicken fat
2 tablespoons finely julienned peeled ginger
3 to 6 tablespoons (depending upon how salty and flavorful it is) finely julienned Parma ham, prociutto, or other dry-cured ham
6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 quarts chicken stock, salted or unsalted
2 cups (or so) assorted fresh mushrooms (wild ones best), or rehydrated dried mushrooms of any kind plus their soaking liquid
4 or more pieces of bamboo pith fungus, soaked until soft in hot water
Sea salt to taste
Freshly-ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon good rice vinegar, optional

Garnish:
3 to 6 tablespoons finely chopped Parma ham, prociutto, or other dry-cured ham
A few sprigs of green onion or cilantro

1. Heat the fat in a 4-quart pot and add the ginger. Slowly brown the ginger over medium heat and then add the ham. Stir the julienned ham around in the fat to release its fragrance, and then immediately pour in the rice wine, bring it to a boil, and then add the stock. Bring the stock to a full boil and then lower it to a simmer.
Use the best 'shrooms

2. While the stock is simmering away, clean the mushrooms. Cut them or tear them into pieces that are bite-sized: about ¼-inch wide for porcini, morels, and other thick mushrooms, or into separate “feathers” for maitake, oyster, and other stemmed mushrooms. If you are using rehydrated mushrooms, cut them into slightly smaller pieces since these will be chewier; strain their soaking liquid and add it to the stock.

3. Add all of these mushrooms to the stock. Simmer the soup for about 20 minutes, or until the thickest mushrooms are tender. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, and sugar. If you would like a slight edge to the flavors, stir in the rice vinegar just as you take the soup off of the heat; stir in the chopped ham, as well. Chop the green onions or cilantro and garnish the top. Serve immediately.


Tips

Bamboo pith fungus (zhusheng or "mushrooms") are only available dried. While most Chinese markets carry them, the best are found in dry-goods stores or herbal shops. 
Packaged bamboo pith fungus

Look for places that offer them loosely packed so that you can see each piece. Bags that are tightly stuffed will often only have nice ones on the outside, while the inside will be full of broken pieces that are of little use. The absolute best ones will be around 6 inches long, white, and still a bit supple.

To prepare bamboo pith fungus, soak them in warm water until soft. Trim off the hard bases and the frilly tops. Carefully rinse the webbed but fragile lengths clean of any debris, and then cut the crosswise into pieces.

Why eat these? They have a wonderful but subtle fragrance that permeates lightly seasoned soups like this. Their texture is also delightful: slightly crunchy with the feel of raw silk rubbing against the tongue. Highly recommended.

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