Monday, March 16, 2015

A brilliantly simple pickle from Shanghai

Jackson Street in San Francisco's Chinatown used to have a little hole-in-the-wall call the Star Cafe.  

It was my kind of place. Star Cafe was only wide enough to squeeze in the semblance of a kitchen in on the right, run a counter down the middle, and stuff a couple of worn tables and chairs in the back.

The toilet was a creaky affair in the far corner that didn't invite anyone to sit and read the paper, and it was obviously treasured more as a place to stash wet mops, extra to-go boxes, and extra chairs than it was as a restroom.

But what this little dive lacked in refinement, it more than made up for in flavor and price. These folks really were from Shanghai, they cooked what they knew, and we would usually stroll out of there completely stuffed for under ten bucks. Not many places in The City have that type of reputation.

What I really loved there were its Shanghai Mustard Pickles. A huge glass jar of them would be perched in their old cooler, the pickles kept crisp and cold, just the way I wanted them. We'd order a bowl of them to munch on while we perused the menu, and I'd usually commandeer the lion's portion of the pickles before washing them down with a glass of cold, sweetened soybean milk that was also homemade. 

One day when we tromped over there for another meal, we found the doors locked and a sign on them saying the owners were away on a trip to China. That trip turned into years while the storefront stayed empty, and I longed in vain for my pickles, as no one else I knew every offered them. Then, one fine day I ran across a recipe for Mustard Stems Pickled in Sweet Rice Vinegar in the wonderful Bruce Cost book Asian Ingredients. With a little tweaking, his pickles soon turned into the ones in my dreams. (Thanks, Bruce!)

This recipe calls for a Chinese vegetable called - depending upon the grocery store - gay choy, jie cai, or Chinese mustard cabbage. It's a slightly bitter vegetable that's great in a stir-fry with nothing else but lots of ginger and a healthy sprinkling of kosher salt. But it's in this pickle that this variety of mustard greens really shines. That gentle mustardy fragrance and flavor poke their way out from the sweet brine and spices, and they are strong enough to stand up to some brutal treatment, like being salted and having boiling vinegar poured over them. Make up a batch and store it in the refrigerator. If you like sausages, try stir-frying them with sliced onions and this pickle for a piquant and utterly divine dish.


Shanghai mustard pickles 

Tángcù jiècài 糖醋芥菜
Shanghai
Makes about 1 quart

5 medium heads of Chinese mustard cabbage
2 tablespoons sea salt
4 cups sushi vinegar (usually called "seasoned rice vinegar")
8 dried chili peppers
5 crushed cloves of garlic
10 thin slices of ginger
Boiling water, as needed

1. Trim off any flimsy leaves from the mustard cabbage and reserve them for some other use. Cut the stems into 2- to 3-inch lengths and then cut each length into pieces no more than 1/2 an inch wide. Rinse the mustard cabbage carefully, shake dry, and place it in a colander. Sprinkle the salt over the vegetables, lightly rub the salt in, and let them sit for an hour or so to remove most of the excess water.

2. Clean a quart-sized glass jar and lid, making sure that there's no oil or soap residue in there, as this could cause the pickles to mold. Rinse the jar and lid with boiling water and turn them upside-down to drain.

3. Bring the vinegar to a boil in a medium saucepan along with the peppers, garlic, and ginger; let the brine simmer for a few minutes. Shake the excess salt and water off of the mustard cabbage and place it in the glass jar. Pour the boiling brine over the vegetables and toss them lightly; add a bit of boiling water so that it almost reaches the top of the vegetables. Stir the vegetables every 5 minutes or so as they cool so that all of them turn from an emerald green to an olive shade. As they turn color, they'll shrink, and the brine should soon cover the vegetables. Add a bit more water as needed to keep the vegetables submerged.


4. When the jar is cool, refrigerate it for at least two days. Use a very clean pair of chopsticks or fork to remove the pickles. They'll last at least a month if kept clean and cold.

Illustration from ALL UNDER HEAVEN (McSweeney's, 2015)
Copyright 2015, Carolyn Phillips

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