Monday, August 8, 2016

Bar snacks taken to a whole new level

Bar snacks and tapas are two of China’s great undiscovered culinary marvels. I mean, I could easily subsist and probably even thrive on little more than the amazing little dishes that are meant to be enjoyed with warm rice wine, chilled beer, neat little shots of white liquor, or even a hot pot of tea.

All that is required of these tiny jewels is that they be things you can prepare ahead of time and then either set out cold or wave quickly over the heat before serving. 

The chefs of Shanghai and the rest of the area near the mouth of the Yangtze River seem to have this talent in their blood, and restaurants there are filled with the offerings known as pentoucai, or “basins of food.” This all sounds very exotic, I know, but in actuality this is little more than deli food. Brilliant in conception and execution – I’ll certainly give you that – but deli food nonetheless.

Other parts of China also have vast repertoires that are designed to be savored before meals with a glass or cup of something exceptionally good, too. 

The main ingredients: sea moss & peanuts
Sichuan and Hunan immediately come to mind, as their slicks of chile oil, nubbins of fermented black beans, raw jolts of garlic, and shreds of fresh green onion are meant to wake up the appetite, stimulate the senses, and prime the culinary pump for more good things to come. And yes, it would be a fine thing indeed if I could be allowed the opportunity to eat nothing but these Chinese tapas until the day that I finally had my fill. I imagine I’d die of old age first, but wouldn’t mind being put to the test.

But up around the Yangtze Delta, seasonings get toned down a notch. Instead of fiery oils or numbing peppercorns or nose-tingling aromatics, these bar snacks are seasoned with a more restrained touch that perfectly complements the flavor spectrums of their most classic cuisines.

Shaoxing rice wine, for example, wiggles its way into many things, and sometimes forms the backbone aroma for crystalline aspics that cling to shards of juicy pork or tender chicken. Ginger is usually about the hottest thing on the ingredient list, and it often hums in the background of a stock or gets fried into frizzy threads. Green onions are probably the seasoning of choice, hands down, especially if they are first gently fried to a deep brown, which lends them a nutty edge that’s hard to beat.

Sea moss in its natural habitat
In today’s dish, two other iconic seasonings pop up for some much needed attention: good sea salt and dried sea moss.

The moss really does come from the sea and is not a seaweed, but rather clings to rocks on the shoreline and can be a bit of a pest for boats. The Chinese cleverly learned to turn this into yet one more delicious ingredient by drying it, which makes it look like long, green locks of hair. You can find it in most non-Cantonese Chinese grocery stores, where it usually hides on the same aisle as the dried seaweeds.

It stays fresh a long time if the package isn’t opened, so buy a couple if you come across it, as we have a couple recipes for it in All Under Heaven (only three weeks to go!) and very likely will feature more ideas on this blog, as I adore the stuff. Aside from providing a nice, olive hue to things, the moss tastes gently of the sea. It’s much more subtle than many seaweeds, and frying it gives it a delightfully crisp texture.

The other seasoning I want to talk about is sea salt. Whenever I write a recipe that calls for salt, I always specify sea salt. You can, of course, use kosher salt, but kosher salt is lighter and flakier, so the measurements will be different. Other naturally prepared salts – like gray salt, red salt, and so forth – can also be used, if you prefer; just pay attention to the amount. Always start with a smaller amount and work your way up until the dish is salted just enough. Do NOT use iodized salt, which has a bitter edge and also measures differently – in other words, a teaspoon of sea salt is much less salt than a teaspoon of iodized salt.

Maldon sea salt
My favorite finishing salt is Maldon, which comes in large, fat flakes that are a pleasure to fuss with. I keep a jar next to the stove, and though I measure out the salt into my palm with a tiny spoon, I always give myself the chance to sprinkle them with my fingertips, which for some reason really is quite sensuous.

The only other ingredient here you need to take care with is the peanuts. Buy fresh, raw peanuts, preferably in small amounts from the bins at a busy health food store. These are full of fresh oils (remember, peanut oil has to come from somewhere), and so will go rancid if you let them sit around too long.

Finally, check out this perfect way to make fried peanuts. The secret? Start them in cool oil. Almost everyone else will tell you to heat the oil and then add the nuts, but that makes the exterior cook quickly and even burn before the insides are cooked through. So, give the oil and peanuts the chance to heat up together, which allows the nuts to fry evenly. Just keep an eye on the heat. 

Smaller nuts should be given lower heat, as they will cook through really fast – an overdone peanut is a crying shame, all dry and bitter. Watch the nuts as they fry and regulate the heat. When the peanuts start to open up and smell peanutty, take the wok off of the heat, remove a peanut from the oil, let it cool off for a few seconds, and then take a taste. It will still be soft (they only turn crunchy when they have completely cooled off), but the taste will tell you everything you need to know.
The nuts in cool oil to start

The amounts here are pretty much ballpark. If you have a pound of nuts, go with that. Two pounds? Even better. The sea moss comes in packets of varying sizes, so don’t worry about that, either. More moss will taste fabulous, while less will offer more of a gentle seasoning. Chill the nuts to bring out their flavors and relax in the shade with a bowl of these chased down by a chilled beer. Summer dining definitely has its up sides.

Sea moss peanuts
Táitiáo huāshēng 苔條花生
Makes about 1½ cups

About 12 ounces / 340 g (a heaping 1½ cups) fresh, raw peanuts of any size, preferably with their skins on
1½ cups / 350 ml peanut or vegetable oil (used is all right if it smells fresh)
.85 ounces / 25 g dried sea moss
1 to 1½ teaspoons good sea salt, like Maldon

Calendar pages hard at work
1. Line a medium work bowl with parchment paper. (I use the old sheets from my Chinese calendar and fold them inside out so that the ink doesn’t transfer to the food. It lends a bit of charm to the cooking process and satisfies my cheap frugal Scottish ancestors.) Pour the nuts into a wok and cover them with the oil. Shake the wok around a bit so that all the peanuts are submerged. Set the wok over medium heat and bring the oil to a bubble. Shake the wok now and then to move things around, and keep an eye on the heat, as you want a bit of foam around the nuts, which shows that the moisture is being fried away, but not much browning should be going on before the nuts stop foaming. When the nuts taste cooked but not dry, scoop them out of the oil with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon and let them drain in the work bowl. Keep the oil in the wok, but remove it from the heat.

2. While the nuts are slowly frying, firmly but gently shake the hank of sea moss over the sink to get rid of any sand. Place the sea moss in a paper bag and then work it apart into smaller strands. Corralling the moss this way keeps bits from zinging around the kitchen. Set the wok over medium heat and add the moss. Use chopsticks to flip it over as it cooks. When it is uniformly brittle, shake any crumbs out of the paper bag and stuff the fried moss in there, as the paper will absorb most of the oil. Shake the bag around to dislodge the oil and cool off the sea moss. When it is easier to handle, crush it through the bag into shards.
The moss in a bag

3. Remove the paper from the work bowl and shake all of the sea moss into the peanuts. Add the salt and toss. Take a couple of generous tastes and add more salt, if you like. Store this in the refrigerator. The cold will make the nuts and moss crunchier, and thus tastier. Also, it prevents you from snacking on the bowl every time you pass by.

This dish will stay fresh a long time, I assume. Try it with Congee and a fried egg for breakfast, sprinkled over noodles instead of the usual fried peanuts, and so forth. This is one very versatile little friend to have hanging around.

If you are allergic to peanuts, use fresh almonds. (Thanks, Cynthia, for reminding me!)