Monday, May 23, 2016

A taste of the simple life - savory peanuts and gluten

I fell in love with this dish the first year I lived in Taiwan. I’d find it on the dinner table of the Chinese family I boarded with as an easy appetizer or as the perfect side for congee. But even way back then, people did not whip this up at home, as it was so much easier to simply buy it at just about every corner store.

And that’s the way I enjoyed it for years. But then I decided to try making it myself, and I have to tell you, the difference is night and day. Instead of the heavy sweetness and general softness of the canned version, this homemade recipe has a lovely spectrum of flavors and textures that hit all my buttons just right.

I’ve tossed in black mushrooms for a terrific xianwei undercurrent, some fresh ginger to back up the flavors with a touch of heat, and then lots of warm spices to amplify the comforting nuttiness. The result really is delicious.

Simmer the nuts and shrooms
This dish might have originally hailed from Shanghai or Zhejiang due to the fried gluten balls, soy sauce, and rock sugar. It seems that this was then turned into a classic side dish by Taiwan’s military families, who have given the island a wonderful range of homey dishes called juancuncai 眷村菜 (literally "military dependents' village foods"). 

Back in the day (we are talking about the early 1950's here), these villages were rather impoverished, as even the officers lived in very simple barracks that looked like old motels. A hallway ran down the center of the place where my husband's family lived, and each household had front doors that opened up on this. The balcony in the back was covered with corrugated steel and used as a makeshift kitchen. No running water back then, so my husband and his father had to haul water up the stairs in buckets that would be poured into the family cistern.

Small grocery stores run by retired soldiers would sell supplies like fresh produce, as well as steamed breads (mantou) and the deli dishes known in Shanghai as péntóucài 盆頭菜 ("basin foods"). Prepared by either the soldiers' wives or local aunties, these savory preparations literally were sold in aluminum basins and covered with window screen mesh. Then, someone had the bright idea of making this simple concoction even easier by canning it, and most folks never turned back.

Rock sugar always makes things better
I recommend, though, that you do. Consider this yet another one of those template recipes, a guideline that you start out with and then hone to fit your own taste buds. The peanuts and fried gluten are the perfect backdrops for experimentation. Do try this traditional take first, though, as it’s a classic.


Peanuts and fried gluten
Huāshēng miànjīn 花生麵筋
Taiwan Military Families and the lower Yangtze River area
Serves 8 as an appetizer or side dish

1 cup (6 ounces/170g) raw shelled peanuts
1 big handful of dried black mushroom stems (see Tips), or 3 dried black mushrooms
Water, as needed
3 slices fresh ginger
2 whole star anise (see Tips)
½ stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons/30ml peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon (or so) rock sugar
3 tablespoon/45ml oyster sauce (or oyster-flavored sauce for a meatless version)
1 tablespoon/15ml dark soy sauce
¼ cup/60ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 big bag (7 ounce/200g) of small fried gluten balls (see Tips)

1. This will be ready in two days from beginning to end (most of that spent just waiting around, truth be told). Start this recipe by rinsing the peanuts and mushrooms, placing them in separate bowls, and covering them by at least an inch with cool water. Let them soak overnight.

The collapsing gluten balls
2. Before you begin cooking, first rinse off the peanuts in a colander and place them in a 2 quart/2 liter pan. Reserve the mushroom soaking liquid and either rinse the mushroom stems or, if you are using the whole mushrooms, rinse them off before slicing them into thin pieces. Add the mushrooms and strain the soaking liquid into the pan, and add enough water to cover the peanuts and mushrooms by an inch.

3. Add the ginger, star anise, and cinnamon to the pan. Place the peppercorns in a mesh ball or teabag and add them to the pan, too. Bring the pan to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.

4. After about 15 minutes, add the oil, sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, and gluten balls – you probably will have to add the gluten balls in increments, as they start out huge, but then collapse as they soften, so add enough to fill the pan, cover, simmer for a few minutes, and then add some more until you’ve added the whole bag.

5. Bring the pan to a boil again over high heat, and then reduce it to a slow simmer. Cook until the peanuts are soft but not mushy and the gluten is silky. Allow everything to come to room temperature before chilling it overnight, as this will give the nuts time to absorb all of the flavors. Serve this dish as either a bar snack or as a side with bland but delicious things like steamed rice or congee.


Tips

I’m a serious collector of mushroom stems. Fresh or dried, whenever I use Chinese black mushrooms (which are very similar to Japanese shiitake), I remove the tough stems and dry them out in a strawberry box set out on the counter for this very purpose. When the stems are completely dry and are as hard as wood, they get tossed into a jar and stored in the pantry. This is an amazing resource for deep sauces like the one we have here, for stocks, and for whenever you want to add a serious flavor boost to your soups. For more refined dishes, strain out the stems before you use the stock; otherwise, as with here, keep the stems in if you have a good set of teeth, as they can be a bit chewy, but I think divinely so.

Fried gluten balls
If you are in a hurry, or just don’t have all these spices, toss in five-spice powder to taste. Start with a teaspoon and work up until the flavors hit your sweet spot.

Fried gluten balls come in two sizes: big and small. The big ones are used in such Shanghainese dishes as this. Try to get the small ones for this recipe, though. They will usually be found in Chinese grocery stores that cater to Taiwanese and newer Chinese immigrants. The gluten balls are called miànjīnqíu 麵筋球 and should be around 1 inch/2cm in diameter. 

This bag of gluten balls will be alarmingly large, but don’t worry, as the puffs will collapse into small wisps in the sauce. Check the expiration date on the bag – old frying oil always tastes like old frying oil no matter how hard you try to fix it – and store them in the refrigerator.


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