Monday, June 30, 2014

Crunchy, delectable jellyfish the Hunan way

Jellyfish is yet another one of those cheap, good ingredients that is beloved for its texture, not its taste. Like tendons, sea cucumbers, swallow’s nests, and shark fins, this is pretty close to tasteless. 

It does have a wonderful squeaky texture that goes especially well with shredded cucumbers and a spicy dressing. 

The cucumbers lighten the mix and provide a juicy note to the appetizer, as well as slightly bitter edge from their bright green peels.

But what makes this such a classic Hunanese dish is the vibrantly flavored dressing that coats each strand of animal and vegetable. This appetizer really is about the sauce more than anything else, when you get right down to it. The jellyfish and cucumbers act more as mild foils for the spicy, sweet, sour, and savory dressing.

I have specified “jellyfish heads” (haizhetou) here — which are actually the fringy oral arms that cascade down from beneath the bowl-shaped hood — while that thin hood is what the Chinese refer to as “jellyfish skin” (haizhepi). They are interchangeable, but I just prefer the pronounced crunch of the heads.
Salted (L) & plumped up

As the oceans’ health continues to decline, jellyfish have come to take over what were once prime fishing grounds. It is time for us to take back the oceans. First step: eat as much jellyfish as you can. And with this recipe, the task suddenly becomes anything but onerous.


Cold tossed jellyfish
Liángbàn hǎizhétóu 涼拌海蜇頭
Hunan
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

Jellyfish and cucumbers:
8 ounces salted jellyfish heads (see Tips)
Water as needed

Dressing:
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1½ tablespoons finely minced, peeled ginger
1 red jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
Blanched fringes appear
The white half of 1 green onion, trimmed and minced
½ cup chicken stock (salted or unsalted)
2 tablespoons black vinegar
1½ tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Garnish:
2 Japanese or Persian cucumbers, unpeeled
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 red jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped, optional
Greens of 1 green onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, optional
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1. Start this recipe at least 3 days before you plan to serve it. Rinse the jellyfish heads and place them in a plastic container with at least 4 inches of head room. Cover them with around 2 inches of water, put the top on the container, and refrigerate. Change the water twice a day, and on the morning of the third day (or up to 1 week later), drain the jellyfish in a single layer in a sieve or colander. Boil about a quart of water and then douse the jellyfish with it, shaking the jellyfish around with the other hand, so that they all get blanched. This blanching will make the fringes spread out, which lets you know that they have cooked enough. Rinse again with cool tap water and drain. Place the jellyfish on a cutting board and slice them into thin julienne.

Aromatics
2. To make the dressing, place a wok over medium heat. When it is hot, add the sesame oil and swirl it around to coat the bottom third. Add the ginger, garlic, and the first jalapeno to the oil and let them sizzle until they are very aromatic but not yet browned. Pour in the rest of the dressing ingredients (adding the soy sauce to taste), turn the heat to high, and bring this to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Reduce the dressing over a full boil until it is syrupy, remove the wok from the heat, and pour this dressing into a medium work bowl to cool off. Chill the sauce.

3. An hour or two before serving, prepare the cucumbers: Rinse and pat them dry, remove both ends, and then cut them into thin shreds about the same size as the sliced jellyfish. Place the cucumbers in a colander set in the sink and toss them with the salt. Let the cucumbers drain while you prepare the sauce. Rinse off the salt and lightly squeeze them dry. Refrigerate the cucumbers in a closed container if you are not using them immediately.

4. To serve, toss the jellyfish with the sauce, cucumbers, the optional second jalapeno, onion greens, and cilantro together in a medium work bowl. Mound the jellyfish on small serving plates and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve chilled.


Tips

Unhelpful English label
Jellyfish are usually sold cleaned and salted, and they are packed into clear plastic bags. Often there is no English description on the label — just “jellyfish” — but it’s easy to figure out what is what. The “skin” is smooth and thin, and generally is folded up, while the “heads” are fat bits that look somewhat like beige cauliflower florets.


Keep the sealed bag in the refrigerator, where it will be fine for months. If you open the bag, don’t get any water in there. Close the opened bag in a resealable plastic bag and refrigerate it. Try to use it up within a couple of weeks. Once you try this recipe, though, this will not prove a problem.

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