Monday, November 16, 2015

Luscious Hakka-style ribs

I was sorting out my pantry yesterday and came across a huge cache of the pale green mustard greens called meicai, or “plum vegetable.” It was like Christmas had arrived early for me, and I knew exactly what I wanted to have for Sunday dinner.

As we’ve discussed earlier, there are two types of meicai: the chunky pastel heads of mustard that hail from Hakka territory (called Huìzhõu méicài 惠州梅菜) and the dark, deeply seasoned, and chopped variety from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province (Shàoxīng méicài 紹興梅菜). Both are absolutely delicious and for some reason rarely available in Chinese restaurants around here, so I’ve come to hoard them away for whenever I get this particular craving.
Split heads of Hakka meicai

Hakka-style meicai generally is sold out of open cardboard boxes on old Chinatown streets, its salt-flecked leaves beckoning you to grab some. You can also find it in Chinese supermarkets, where it will usually be vacuum-packed in plastic bags, with a brine substituted for the loose salt. Either way is good, but the packaged ones taste less salty. Adjust the seasoning accordingly.

We used to eat rich pork and chicken dishes seasoned with these cured mustard stems at a place called “Overpass Restaurant” (Tianqiao fandian) near the government center in Taipei. It was staffed by a cluster of grumpy old Hakka men who seemed to never really care whether there were customers in the place. Food steamed away on a huge stainless steel box by the front door, and the threadbare décor could best be described as Tenderloin on a Bad Day. But my husband adored that place because it offered the kind of dishes his father excelled at creating.
Hakka meicai

A small, ancient crock of chicken soup would invariably be ordered, its top coated with an inch-thick layer of chicken fat. Underneath would lie a whacked up chicken seasoned with ginger, green onions, salt, and whatever coated the inside of those ancient crocks. The bird itself was so tender it would fall apart with the most delicate nudge, and all of its juices had long ago been surrendered to the soup, so the meat and skin acted more as sponges for all of those homey flavors.

I would always vote for some sort of pork dish, preferably with meicai, and this could be the more common pork belly, but I’ve always had a deep love for ribs. Something about its combination of meat, tendons, and fat makes this one of the most remarkable cuts of all, and if it happens to be seasoned with meicai, well, life doesn’t get much better.
Divvy up the ribs

This recipe is absolutely packed with flavor. It has all of the Hakka ingredients that I love: fresh pork, preserved vegetables of some sort, and a rich, dark seasoning. The coating I prefer for most Hakka and Southern Fujian recipes is sweet potato starch, which supplies a nubbly surface to the meats and turns into a delicately chewy coating as it steams. We have nothing like it in the West, so pick up a bag next time you are in a Chinese market. It’s the perfect breading for fried chicken Taiwanese style, too: just marinate the chicken, coat it like the pork here, and you’re ready to go.

Do note that I have used whole ribs here, which is a bit wrong, I admit, but I picked up this meat at Trader Joe’s, which doesn’t offer to cut up meats for their customers. And, I don’t happen to have a band saw in my kitchen, so I reasoned that this was more a matter of aesthetics than anything else. It definitely doesn't change the flavor one whit.
Sweet potato starch

If you can get your butcher to cut up the ribs for you, great. If not, these still will send you to heaven and back again.

Steamed ribs and meicai Hakka style
Kèjiā méicài zhēng páigǔ 客家梅菜蒸排骨
Serves 6
1 side of trimmed pork ribs, about 2½ pounds
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
¼ cup sweet potato starch or cornstarch, plus more as needed
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil
Fry up the ribs

The rest:
14 (or so) ounces Hakka-style meicai (preserved mustard greens)
Warm water, as needed
¼ cup thinly sliced fresh ginger
1 bunch green onions (around 6), trimmed with both the whites and greens cut into ½ inch pieces; reserve the greens of 1 onion for a garnish
¼ cup mild rice wine
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. At least 4 hours before you plan to serve this, start by cutting up and marinating the meat. You can use whole ribs or have your butcher cut them crosswise into small (2-inch) pieces. Cut the ribs between the bones so that each piece is surrounded with meat. Place these in a large resealable plastic bag and toss them with the soy sauce, peppercorns, and rice wine. Close the bag and keep it in a cool place, squishing the meat in the marinade now and then, so that the ribs become fully seasoned. Marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to a day or so. A longer marinade will give you a much more flavorful dish.

Remove the cores
2. While the meat is marinating, rinse the meicai in warm water to dislodge any sand. I usually do this in a bowl so that I can see any grains that settle on the bottom. When the vegetable is clean, rinse it once again. Gently squeeze the meicai dry and cut out any cores at the base. Slice the vegetable crosswise into ½ inch or so pieces. Then, soak it in warm water for around 30 minutes to soften it up a bit and release the extra salt. Drain the meicai, squeeze it dry with your hands, and refrigerate it if you are not using it within an hour or two.

3. Have a steamer set up and a heatproof bowl that can fit easily inside it.

Nubbly surface from the special starch
4. Pluck the ribs out of the marinade (most of which will have been absorbed, but reserve any that remains for Step 5) and place them in a large work bowl. Add the starch and toss so that each piece is evenly coated, adding more starch as needed. Place a wok over high heat, and when the iron is hot, pour in the oil. Swirl the oil around to coat the bottom of the wok, and when a chopstick inserted in the oil bubbles all over, carefully add some of the ribs to the hot oil so that you don’t get splashed – I find that the best way to do this is to use chopsticks and gently slide them into the oil from less than an inch away. Add only as many ribs as will fit loosely into the oil so that they fry quickly and do not stick. As the ribs turn golden brown, remove them to the heatproof bowl. Repeat with the rest of the ribs until they are all browned. Discard any leftover starch and strain the oil into a small, heatproof bowl.

5. Pour the strained oil back into the wok, place it over high heat, and add the ginger and all of the onions, except for the garnish. Toss these around for a minute to release their fragrance before adding the meicai to the wok. Continue to toss these until the vegetables are dry and the ginger is starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the reserved marinade and the rest of the seasonings and stir-fry the greens until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed, and then pile this on top of the ribs.
Fry the vegetables

6. Cover the bowl with foil and steam over high heat for around 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender. Add more water to the steamer as needed. (This dish can be made ahead of time and steamed for another 30 minutes to heat it up, which will only improve the flavor.)

7. Just before serving, remove the foil, pour out the juices into a heatproof cup, and invert the bowl onto a rimmed plate. You can defat the juices and drizzle them over the top along with chopped onion greens, or just save it for later. Serve with a stir-fried green vegetable like bok choy and lots of hot rice or steamed bread.

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