Monday, May 16, 2016

Longan soup with lily bulbs

China has a rich and varied love affair with sweet soups. These are often served as afternoon treats or late at night as snacks, rather than as desserts, but I like them even for breakfast with some buttered toast or steamed buns. Hot soups are great in winter, while chilled ones make even the muggiest days bearable.

This recipe calls for delicate edible lily bulbs, a lovely vegetable grown mainly in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in China’s desert region up near Inner Mongolia. 

Packaged lily bulbs
These are gradually becoming more common on this side of the Pacific, so snap them up if they appear in your market, and they almost always appear as sets of four in little blue plastic bags. 

The only caveat when cooking with these bulbs is that you never want to overcook them, as their crispy texture quickly mushes up. So, just bring them to a boil and serve immediately. If you don’t have fresh lily bulbs in your area yet, a handful of peeled fresh water chestnuts or even some thin slices of jicama will do. 

Any one of these sweet vegetables will add beauty and contrast to the dark, almost caramelized flavor of the dried longans, or “dragon eyes.” 

Dried longans releasing their flavor
A relative of sorts to the lychee, longans appear fresh in Chinese markets at the end of summer, right after lychees finish their peak season. Smaller and more highly perfumed, they dry into beautiful little brown balls and are tasty to eat just as is. Or maybe I just love dried fruit no matter what.

But back to those lily bulbs.

First off, don't use just any old lily bulbs here, as not all of them are edible. This is important. Only use Gansu-style lily bulbs. 

When you prep the fresh lily bulbs, consider leaving enough connected to the root area so that they can have a chance to grow into plants. What I do is break off the "petals" on the bulbs until I get to a firm center that looks very much like a peeled clove of garlic. 

Peel off the petals
Then, I set the "cloves" in a pot with good potting soil, water thoroughly, and with any luck have a plant poking up in a couple of weeks.

These are gorgeous in the yard - they look for all the world like tiger lilies - and will keep coming back as long as you leave the little bulblets (miniature bulbs that look like white seeds) in the ground for next year's crop. 

Harvest the bulbs any time after the tops have dried. I tend to keep them in the soil until I need them, as they stay fresher. And, if I forget, they will be there for me next year.

Longan soup with lily bulbs 

Băihé guìyuán tāng  百合桂圓湯
Serves 6

½ cup/80g dried pitted longans
Baby lily plant
6 cups/1.5l water
1 tablespoon rock sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons osmanthus syrup
4 fresh lily bulbs

1. Rinse the longans in a sieve before placing them in a saucepan. Cover with the water and bring this to a boil. Simmer the longans until they have completely plumped up, about 30 minutes. Add the rock sugar and osmanthus syrup; taste and adjust seasoning.

2. Wash the lily bulbs to remove any sawdust. Trim off dark or bruised areas before separating the bulbs into petals; the tight centers can simply be sliced in half if you don't plan on planting them. Cover them with cold water if you are not serving the soup right away, as they should not be cooked longer than a flash.
A visual, textural, & aromatic treat

3. Just before serving, bring the soup to a boil. Drain the lily bulbs and add them to the soup. Bring it back to a full boil and then immediately remove it from the heat. Divide the soup into individual bowls before serving.

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