Monday, October 6, 2014

Dining in Jiangsu on what tastes like meat, only better

Vegetarian — and even vegan — food in China can be extraordinarily sensual. There is not a scrap of meat in this dish, for example, and yet the flavors are so rich and the textures so varied that you could almost swear pork was hiding in there somewhere.

Two secrets make this divine: a silky sauce that hits every note between sweet and savory, and the use of gluten puffs to complement the meaty texture of the mushrooms. Gluten puffs are rarely used outside of China’s Yangtze Valley cuisines. Taiwan is sole exception that I can think of, as there these puffs are braised with peanuts in a sweetish sauce that goes great with congee. My guess that they were probably introduced by Mainlanders during the great immigration of 1949.
Fresh outta the package

No matter where they are made, though, gluten puffs are worth knowing. They are sold as solid balls in plastic bags, but their looks are deceiving, for they resemble some sort of fried dough balloons. They crush easily, so transport them carefully from the store to your home. Keep them refrigerated, and they will stay fresh for at least a couple of weeks. 

When you prepare them, the most important thing to remember is that they must be soaked in boiling water. This softens them and so keeps them from crumbling into bits. The bath also gets rid of the oily residue on their surface, which can taste a bit stale. Once they’ve turned into floppy rags, cut them in half and toss them into a braise that contains some sugar, as is this what sets off their flavor. Satiny in texture, they will soak up the seasonings beautifully. Do note that even though I keep on adding more and more puffs to this recipe, there never seems to be enough once I start to eat. They deflate in the sauce, but they also take on a gentle chewiness that is indescribably wonderful.
Soaked puffs 'n mushrooms

Don’t forget the bok choy, either. It provides just the right amount of fresh sweetness and visual contrast to this beautiful Buddhist dish. (If you are aiming for a strict vegetarian dish, leave out aromatics and wine, of course.)

Braised mushrooms and gluten puffs
Xiānggū shāo miànjīn  香菇燒麵筋
Jiangsu and Buddhist vegetarian
Serves 4

8 dried black mushrooms
Cool and/or boiling water, as needed
15 to 20 gluten puffs
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger, optional
Whites of 1 green onion, chopped, optional
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
Lovely brown balloons
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or water
1 teaspoon (or so) rock sugar
8 ounces baby bok choy
Greens of 1 green onion, chopped, optional
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. If you have the time, soak the mushrooms overnight in cool water. Otherwise, place the mushrooms in a heatproof work bowl and cover them with boiling water by at least 2 inches, as they will expand. When they have become soft and pliable, cut off the stems (reserve them for stock) and cut the caps in halves or quarters. Strain and reserve the soaking liquid.

2. Put the gluten puffs in a heatproof work bowl and pour boiling water over them. After a few minutes, use chopsticks to toss the puffs around in the water so that their shells soften. Pour off the water, rinse the gluten puffs with tap water, gently squeeze them dry, and cut each one in half.

3. Place a wok over high heat, and then swirl in the oil. Add the optional ginger and onion whites, and fry these until they start to turn golden. Toss the mushrooms with this for a minute or so, and then pour in their soaking liquid. Add the soy sauce, rice wine or water, and sugar, and then sprinkle the gluten puffs on top. Bring the liquid to a boil and then lower the heat to a bare simmer, adding boiling water only if absolutely necessary. Slowly cook the mushrooms and gluten for 20 to 30 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been reduced. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
A nest is best

4. While the mushrooms are cooking, cut each bok choy in half or quarters, as needed. Rinse them well, paying special attention to the bases of the leaves where dirt collects. Shake them as dry in a colander. The recipe can be prepared ahead of time up to this point. Just before serving, heat the mushroom mixture until it boils.

5. Add the bok choy to the wok, cover, and bring the liquid to a boil. After a minute, remove the cover, shake the wok around a bit, sprinkle on the optional green onions and sesame oil, and then plate the dish. It is prettiest when the greens are arranged into a nest, with the mushrooms and gluten piled in the center.

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