Monday, October 10, 2016

A creamy, cold weather delight from South China

A wonderful surprise was in store for me a few evenings ago when I finally had time to catch up on my favorite podcasts, and lo and behold, there was All Under Heaven being featured and loved and totally understood. 

To top it off, I only discovered this spectacular review a month after it had been aired! (I still need to figure out how to Google myself without being weirded out by all the people who share my name but are simply the dearly departed or the recently arrested. Mine is one popular name, it turns out.) 

Anyway, a long time favorite cookbook reviewer, T. Susan Chang, started a new podcast last month called The Level Teaspoon, and my two books are featured in the very first episode! (The praise starts at the 5:00 mark, if you're in a hurry.) Subscribe to this free podcast while you're at it - you'll be doing yourself a favor if you love cookbooks as much as I do.

And you don't get to consider your bucket list fulfilled as a cookbook writer if you haven't yet been given the seal of approval by the esteemed cookbook site, Leite's Culinaria. Well, that just happened to yours truly, and All Under Heaven somehow made it to the top of their list of "Best Cookbooks September 2016." Call me stunned, thrilled, happy... All I know is that their wonderful reviewer, Melissa Maedgen, completely comprehended what I was trying to do, made a batch of recipes that worked for her (hallelujah!), and had all sorts of nice things to say. Thank you, Melissa!

The Wall Street Journal also quoted me this last Saturday in the well written and oh-so-timely article "Chinese Food in New Translations," which is celebrating the thoughtful and exciting exhibition "Sweet Sour Bitter Spicy" exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America. The author of this article, Jamie Feldmar, studied in China, so her love for the foods of my adopted country echo throughout this article. Plus, she's a heck of a lot of fun to talk with when you're barreling on a train from New York to DC. 

Finally, you can find me jabbering away about dim sum this week with Evan Kleiman on her tasty and knowledgeable podcast "Good Food," which is on the public radio station KCRW out of Los Angeles. Now that is one GREAT interviewer. I was told I'd sound better than I ever had before, and since that has been proved to be true, I must owe it all to Evan and her talent crew. Thanks, Evan!

* * *

The autumnal equinox has passed and the northern half of the world is becoming chillier. And that’s just the way I like it, because it means I get to dine on the warming comfort foods of China. This country has a marvelous battalion of soups, stews, and braises that are specifically designed to warm your toes and make even the crankiest diner happy. And this is one of them. In fact, this dish is downright luxurious.

Traditionally, this cured duck casserole is just pieces of the cured bird simmered with taro and a bit of ginger. And it’s good that way, but not the kind of thing that keeps me up at night with anticipation. Some recipes suggest adding coconut milk, and that is what got my mind really revving, since coconut milk always equals comfort food in my book. It’s sort of like adding heavy cream or a rich béchamel sauce to a dish, but with a delightful tropical twist.

I then went a bit nuts and took this dish many steps further down the road to hedonism: There’s rice wine in there to vibrate against the cured duck, the green onions and ginger are toasted to make them nothing less than absolutely mellow, I fry the duck after simmering it to give the skin a lot more interest and flavor, and the tangle of golden ginger is reserved to act as a chewy foil for all the soft textures underneath it.

Fuzzy baby taro
But I also took a cue from Macau’s great chicken dishes and broiled the top of the braise, which supplies yet another layer of texture, since a skin forms on the top of this rich coconut sauce and turns a rather boring looking dish into something that is quite beautiful. Finally, it all got lavishly decorated with garnishes that turn this dish into a celebration.

Do note that the ratio of taro to duck is huge. That’s because the duck acts more as a seasoning here than as a regular meat. When it’s cured like this, the bird becomes intensely flavored – a lot like prosciutto – which then turns around and seasons everything in its path. The duck is also very salty, and that’s the reason why it needs that initial hot bath to wash off a good part of the cure and also plump up the flesh a bit.

You can find cured duck (làyā 臘鴨) in most Chinese grocery stores all year around, but it will be best from autumn through spring, when the turnover is much faster. Try to find ducks that are grown and cured in the States, rather than China. Since the duck is completely cured, the unopened packages will keep forever in the refrigerator.

Use whatever kind of taro you like and is available. Mature taro – which looks a bit like a football and is very heavy and starchy – will make the casserole creamier and have more of a tropical flavor. Young taro are more vegetal and juicier, and in their own way are just as fine here. So, go with what you like.

Those lovely, creamy insides
I suggest you get a good-sized amount of taro because you will probably be trimming off a good portion of the flesh in addition to the skin, since things like bruises will have to be cut away. When it comes to young taro, trim off anything that is not creamy white, and keep only the lavender parts of more mature taro. (Do note that some varieties of mature taro will come in different colors – if you get a particularly pale or deep-colored root, you will be able to easily figure out what parts are good and what parts should be 86’d.)

To select taro, first eyeball them. They should look plump all over. When you see shrinking around the base, that means they have been hanging around too long and will be dry, which in turn means that they will take forever to cook. Avoid any with mushy spots, as this indicates rot. They are quite hairy, so you will have to fondle them in the vegetable bin – try not to make a scene while doing this or frighten the children.

Lots of times the mature taro will be cut in half or pieces and wrapped in plastic. There’s nothing essentially wrong with these, but do realize that they probably had their rotted parts trimmed off and so should be checked over very carefully for signs of further damage or excessive age.

Keep your taro dry and chilled and wrapped up in a bag with a paper towel, for this will help prevent them from sprouting or decaying. Wear kitchen gloves when you start to peel them if you are allergic to their juices. (Mature taro is much more irritating to the skin than immature ones, for some reason.) 
Fry the duck & onions

Use a potato peeler to remove the skins and then carve off any less than perfect parts. They don’t have to be soaked in water like potatoes, and if you do lots at one time (highly recommended if you are a taro fanatic like me), freeze them in a single layer and then store them in a freezer bag; they do not have to be defrosted first for most dishes.

Cured duck and coconut casserole with taro
Yézhī lìyù làyā bào  椰汁荔芋臘鴨
Southern Guangxi and Guangdong
Serves 4

1 Cantonese-style cured duck leg
Boiling water, as needed
Around 1½ pounds / 700 g baby or mature taro
¼ cup / 60 ml toasted sesame oil
¼ cup / 30 g thinly julienned ginger
4 green onions, trimmed and cut into fourths
¼ cup / 30 ml mild rice wine (mijiu)
1 (13.5 ounce / 400 g) can whole fat coconut milk
Sea salt to taste
1 green onion, trimmed and finely shredded
¼ cup / 30 g unsweetened grated coconut, toasted

1. This is great the same day that you make it, but gets even better with a day or two of rest in the fridge. Use a heavy cleaver to whack the leg into pieces that are around 1 inch / 2 cm wide all around. Place them in a saucepan, cover with water, and bring the pan to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes to remove the extra salt. Drain the duck well in a colander set in the sink, and then pat it dry with a paper towel.

2. Peel the taro, and if you are using mature taro, be sure to wear gloves if you are allergic its raw juices. Rinse the peeled taro and cut the baby ones in half or quarters, while the mature taro should be shaped into cubes that are also around 1 inch / 2 cm all around.

Chewy fried ginger!
3. Set a wok over medium-high heat and pour in the sesame oil. Sprinkle in the julienned ginger and stir the ginger constantly to toast it to a golden brown, adjusting the heat as necessary. Remove the ginger to a small work bowl. Return the oil to high heat and slide in the duck and green onions. Fry them all over so that they too are a golden brown. Pour in the rice wine, coconut milk, and a can full of boiling water, and then add the taro. Bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cook the duck uncovered until the taro is creamy, which may take from 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon the quality and age of the taro. Taste and adjust the seasoning with a bit more salt, if needed. At this point the sauce should have the consistency of heavy cream, so reduce it if necessary. The dish may be prepared ahead of time up to this point and refrigerated. Heat the dish through again before serving, of course.

4. Turn on your broiler. Scrape everything into a heatproof 4 cup / 1 liter casserole. Set it about 2 inches / 5 cm from the broiler. Keep a close eye on the dish, and remove it as soon as the top is covered with golden leopard spots. To serve, sprinkle on the green onions and then the coconut flakes and fried ginger. This is great with steamed rice of any kind plus a green vegetable stir-fried with little more than garlic and salt.

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