Monday, June 29, 2015

Time to break out my favorite Chinese salad...

Summer Solstice was last week, and I don't know about you, but I always get sad on this day knowing that the days will start to grow shorter. I luxuriate in the long days and short nights of summer, feeling less lazy if I get up late since I know there will be plenty of sunlight throughout the evening. Perhaps I should grow wings and learn to migrate...

But autumn does have its definite good points, cooler weather being one. Until then, summer has finally hit the inland parts of our area with a blazing vengeance.  
Cool, crisp cucumbers

Last night the thought of actually cooking something seemed way beyond my abilities, so I dug around in the fridge and pantry and came up with the main ingredients for one of the best summer dishes around.  Its Chinese name is pretty prosaic and not really up to the challenge of stimulating a heat-ravaged appetite - shredded chicken with mung bean sheets - so I'll tell you what I usually call it: Manchurian chicken salad.

This is a popular appetizer in the northern provinces, with lots of places laying claim to inventing it, and who wouldn't want credit for something this tasty and easy? But from what I've been able to ferret out from following its sesame-scented trail, this is a native of China's far northeast, the New England - if you will - of China.

Fenpi from Tianjin
The only unusual ingredient is the dried mung bean sheets (fenpi), but you'll find this in just about any Chinese grocery, and it is quite happy to sit around on your shelf for ages. (Try it too in a No Excuses Tomato Casserole with Mung Bean Sheets.) The labels will have different translations of what it is, like "green beans starch sheet" in the photo on the right, but check out what the actual sheets look like down on the left. Also, there will often be something on the package that says it's from the port city of Tianjin, which tells you you're on the right track. If you don't have access to fenpi, whip up the basic ingredient in this super delicious summer recipe that calls for mung bean powder, and you'll be in business.

Tender little cucumbers bring a ray of cooling summer freshness to this dish, and I like to have leftover chicken on hand anyway whenever the heat takes off; in this case I bought a whole roasted chicken at a local farmers' market. However, if you don't have any chicken on hand, steam a couple of boneless breasts while the mung bean sheets are soaking, and they'll be ready in no time.

Dried fenpi
Mustard is a relative newcomer to Chinese cuisine, but it's entrenched itself firmly into many local dishes. Cantonese dim sum would be unthinkable to me without the sharp bite of Colman's mustard to cut the rich pork that adorns so many of its dishes. You can use Colman's here, too, by just mixing the powder with enough water to give it a creamy consistency. And that would be fine. But it wouldn't be great.

To really kick this dressing over the edge, use a nice Dijon-style mustard. It has a mellower edge that cozies up really well with the sesame paste. Bits of green onion and raw ginger give enough zip to entertain your taste buds, so the addition of a hot mustard here to my mind just ends up being startling instead of tasty.

The perfect dressing
Traditionally, this dressing is not cooked, but I've found that mixing it together in a small skillet brings the flavors together more and mellows them out. It also gives the sesame paste the chance to melt and smooth out, so you don't get any lumps.

This recipe makes twice the amount of dressing you'll need for an appetizer, but I am firm in recommending that you make this extra amount because it is a fabulous salad dressing. In fact, last night I whacked up a head of lettuce and divided it among two big dinner plates. Then, I layered this appetizer over each of the piles of lettuce and had an incredibly good salad. And the dressing was the exact amount needed.

You can make your own sesame paste, by the way, especially if you have a cup or so of Toasted Sesame Seeds.  Just whiz it away in a blender with some roasted sesame oil, and you're in business. It's really really cheap this way and tastes miles and away better than anything you can find in a store.

Manchurian chicken salad 
Jīsī lāpí  雞絲拉皮 
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer, or 2 to 3 as an entree

Bean sheets:
3 sheets dried mung bean sheets (fenpi)
Boiling water to cover
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 

Chicken and cukes:
12 to 16 ounces cooked, boneless chicken
2 Persian (or other small seedless) cucumbers

1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
1 green onion, green part only
½ cup toasted sesame paste
½ cup toasted sesame oil 
2 tablespoons good dark vinegar (like balsamic)
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup light soy sauce
3 tablespoons prepared mustard (Dijon is great here)
¼ cup water

2 tablespoons Toasted Sesame Seeds
Small bunch of cilantro, optional

Soaking the fenpi
1. Place the dried mung bean sheets in a large work bowl and pour the boiling water over them to cover. The sheets will begin to soften in a few minutes, so if any areas are sticking above the water, use your tongs to jab them down under. Allow the sheets to soak and rehydrate for about half an hour while you prepare the rest of the meal. (If you are making this a couple hours ahead of time, soak the mung bean strips during the last hour so that they don't become an unmanageable tangle.)

2. Shred or cut the chicken into thin strips. (You can remove the skin, if you like, but I enjoy the added texture and flavor that skin can bring.) Trim the ends off of the cucumbers and split them lengthwise before cutting them in half across the middle; cut each piece into thin strips as shown on the right. Cover the chicken and cukes and chill them until it's time to serve this dish.

3. Finely grate the ginger and chop the green onion leaves into small pieces. Melt the sesame paste and sesame oil together in a small skillet, using a silicone spatula to scrape the bottom. Add the vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and mustard, and then mix them together and take a taste, adjusting with more of anything so that it tastes really good. Stir in the ginger and onions, and then loosen up the dressing with the water; you should end up with a sauce that has the consistency of heavy cream. Let it cool down by pouring it into a wide bowl. (You can make the recipe ahead of time up to this point and chill everything.)

Silky sheets in the kitchen
4. Drain the mung bean sheets and pour cold water over them, but do this carefully; they will have turned completely clear at this point and are rather fragile. You probably won't have to cut them since they tend to fall apart into bite-sized pieces all by themselves. Gently toss them with the bit of sesame oil to keep them from sticking together.

5. Just before serving, layer the mung bean sheets on your serving platter, then the cucumbers and chicken, and pour half of the dressing over the top. Garnish with the sesame seeds and cilantro, and have the extra dressing on the side for anyone who cares for more.

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