Monday, May 18, 2015

A refreshing and crunchy appetizer from Beijing

As the weather heats up around here, it's time for me to start thinking about cool and refreshing meals, because if you're anything like me, your appetite lags in direct proportion to the rise in mercury.  

One way to make food more appealing is to offer a spread of what the Chinese call "stomach openers," or kaiweicai, the very definition of appetizers. Most of what I offer here are vegetarian - that's because to my mind few things are as refreshing on a sweltering day as cold salads and chilled veggies.

Today's recipe is a popular Beijing-style dish that is an easy toss of blanched spinach and fried peanuts. As with all things Chinese, though, the secret is in the balance, in the timing, and in the brilliant contrasts between flavors and textures.

If you've been cooking along with this blog, Spinach and Peanut Appetizer will prove to be particularly foolproof since it relies on the delicious fried peanuts I showed you how to make a long while ago. Plus, you'll want to spike this dish with either the dressing that's given below or, if you are really industrious, you'll be able to lace it with some of that glorious garlic-infused sweet vinegar that is the ambrosial by-product of the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves of Shanxi. In fact, this makes perfect sense, because Shanxi is up there in the northern reaches of China, not too far at all from Beijing, and so if it seems that these dishes come together as if they were closely related, that's because they are.
Easy peasy

The only thing I ask you to take particular care with - aside from frying the peanuts, of course - is the washing of the spinach. Nothing destroys a spinach dish faster than grit, and spinach seems to hold onto sand with impressive tenacity. The best way to wash spinach is to use the trick I learned eons ago from Marian Morash's Victory Garden Cookbook: Wash the spinach in a tub of warm water, which is easier on your hands and so makes swishing around the leaves a whole lot more pleasant. Rinse and swish the spinach, changing the water each time until there is absolutely no sand left in the bottom of the bowl. Then, shake the leaves dry; you don't need to get them totally dry for this dish, as they are going to be blanched.

Chinese dishes rarely call for spinach to be stemmed. If you have a tough bunch of spinach, though, this is a great time to learn how to remove the stems ala Julia Child: just grab the leaves with one hand while pulling up on the stems like a zipper with the other... totally easy and a skill that will come in handy more times than you'll think possible. No need to throw out the stems, though; toss them into your stockpot or rinse them well, chop them finely, blanch or stir-fry, and season as desired. (Sorry, but my thrifty Scot nature has a nervous breakdown at the first sign of waste.)

Enjoy this dish either chilled or slightly warm. If you are making it ahead of time, wait until the last minute to toss in the dressing and peanuts so that the spinach remains a lovely emerald green and the peanuts stay crunchy.
Wash the spinach carefully, please

Beijing-style spinach and peanut appetizer 
Bōcài huāshēng
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer, 2 to 3 as a side dish

1 bunch (about 12 ounces) fresh spinach, as tender as possible
¼ cup fried peanuts
2 to 3 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
3 or more tablespoons sauce from the sweet pickled garlic cloves (or
1 clove garlic, finely minced, plus 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, plus 1 tablespoon tasty dark vinegar, plus 1 teaspoon sugar)
Sea salt to taste

1. Clean the spinach as directed above, removing any tough stems. Blanch the spinach by bringing about 2 inches of water to a boil in a large (2 quart) covered saucepan before adding the spinach, covering the pot again, and then quickly tossing the spinach with a pair of tongs as soon as the water boils again. Once all of the leaves have wilted, but are still bright green and barely cooked, drain the spinach in a colander set in the sink. Spray cold water over the spinach to stop the cooking and preserve the color. Lightly squeeze the spinach dry and chill it if you are not serving it immediately.

2. If you haven't fried the peanuts yet, do so now, as they will need to cool down before they become crispy. 
The delectable dressing

3. To make the dressing, combine the sesame oil with either the sauce from the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves or the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Just before serving, toss the spinach with the sauce and the Fried Peanuts. Serve cold.


  1. It looks very good. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Sounds delicious. Can't seem to find your post on fried peanuts. Link no good, and search doesn't appear to find it.

    Another appetizer I'd like to see is chysanthemum salad. Simply leaves from an annual variety of mum mixed with heated sesame(?) oil. Had it several times a year ago in Beijing at the hotel restaurant (where we mostly had to eat because the new government employee regs severely limit spending on restaurants but dinners for my hosts and I could be added to my hotel tab, which they could pay. Go figure.)

    1. Many thanks for the heads up. I think that the links are fixed now.

      I'll look into that chrysanthemum appetizer. Sounds delicious! (Love bureaucratic weirdness... as an outside observer, of course.)

  3. With the utmost respect, I shiver at the thought of what the French chefs who taught me would do if they saw me throwing spinach stems into one of their stock pots. A month of doing nothing but peeling potatoes and onions, at the very least.

    1. Perhaps, but then again, we're now in a Chinese kitchen, it's your soup, and you should feel free to put whatever you like in that stock.