Monday, November 7, 2016

Taiwanese pickles

Some more wonderful news this week: The Los Angeles Times listed All Under Heaven as one of its 27 favorite cookbooks of the fall. I could not be happier... I mean look at the company I'm keeping! Mom would have been so proud. (However, in all honesty, she never knew that the real reason I learned Chinese was so that I could eat the good stuff for the rest of my life.)

I'm also so thrilled that Jenny Hartin of Cookbook Junkies put All Under Heaven on her short list of her top ten (10!) must-have cookbooks for 1000 Cookbooks. If you are a serious lover of food writing, get to know the Cookbook Junkies and the friendly yet knowledgeable people there - the recommendations are fantastic, and it's where I've learned about and fell in love with many books I otherwise would have never noticed. Yup, I too am a certified cookbook junkie.

Finally, don't forget to come out to the Literary Feast hosted by Les Dames d'Escoffier this coming Sunday in San Francisco. It will be amazing, I promise you. Hope you can join us!

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When you visit Taiwan, there are a few places where you absolutely must eat. And I’m not talking about the big food palaces or those swanky little bistros that now line the more fashionable areas of Taipei cheek to jowl. No, you want to wander down the back alleys, out into the little villages, and into the night markets.

China’s great culinary masterpieces are, to be sure, still to be found in its finest restaurants, and I always make it a point to eat to the point of bursting when I go there with old friends, for the foods of Hunan, Jiangsu, Beijing, Sichuan, and Guangdong are rarely better than in my old favorite haunts.

But what I really hunger for are the local treats, the street foods. Deep-fried stinky bean curd, for example, is like a ripe cheese with a crispy crust when done right – and who can argue with crispy cheese? And then the hawker will shove a handful of crunchy pickled cabbage alongside those golden chunks, often bathed in a homemade chile oil. It’s a genius touch: sweet, sour, cool, fresh, and spicy notes bang around in my mouth against the pungent, hot, smooth, and rough character of the bean curd. I always eyeball each pile as I eat, timing things carefully and portioning them just so, and in that way end up with equal portions of the pickles and bean curd by the last mouthful. (That’s dedication, I tell you.)

Salting the cabbage, carrots, & chile
The Taiwanese are no slouches when it comes to the art of creating the perfect pickle out of little more than a handful of ingredients. This is the sort of thing you will find in busy night market stands, at mom n' pop restaurants, and in your friends' homes. There are good reasons for that: this is easy, cheap, delicious, and perfect alongside anything rich or fatty, like pork or a fried chicken leg or a good barbecued Taiwanese sausage. 

If you are hesitant about getting involved in pickling and fermentation, this is an excellent baby step toward mastery, for today's recipe requires that you first just salt the veggies, then toss everything together before letting them sit in a cool place (even a refrigerator will do nicely) until the pickle is as flavorful as you like. The vinegars do the heavy lifting here, so it's not naturally fermented like in this recipe for absolutely stellar Sichuan pickles that are soured with only time and a touch of salt. 

I’ve added some fresh chile pepper to the pickle, but powdered dried chiles work great, as does the addition of absolutely no hot stuff at all. What I really like to do is to drizzle homemade chile oil over a fistful of these chilled pickles, but that is a quick path to addiction that I must by law caution you against.

Be that as it may, something this good should not be reserved for your stinky bean curd celebrations. Consider this a great candidate for sidling up next to sausages of any ilk (shove a handful into a hotdog if you want your eyes to roll back into your head), slipping into sandwiches, or even tossing in a simple stir-fry of meat or chicken or sausage or bean curd – just do it at the last minute so that the crisp, fresh nature of this pickle can be enjoyed to its fullest.
Prep the colorful veggies

Taiwanese pickles
Táishì pàocài  台式泡菜
Taiwan & Southern Fujian
Makes about 8 cups / 2 liters

1 medium round cabbage (about 3 pounds / 1350 g)
1 carrot
1 fresh red chile of any variety, optional
2 tablespoons / 35 g sea salt
2 tablespoons / 30 cc Taiwanese Mijiu (or other mild rice wine)
½ cup / 120 g agave syrup, or some sort of sugar to taste (Turbinado or other raw sugar is nice here)
6 tablespoons / 90 ml white rice vinegar
2 tablespoons / 30 cc apple cider vinegar
Homemade chile oil, optional but insanely good

1. Set a large colander and a large work bowl in the sink. (This will seem like a whole lot of vegetables at first, so have the work bowl there to help manage things. Once the vegetables shrink down, they can all go into the colander.) Rinse the vegetables and pat them dry. Remove any damaged leaves on the cabbage, cut out the core, and tear the cabbage apart into bite-sized pieces (around 1 inch / 2 cm square). Work the leaves apart with your fingers as you do this. Peel the carrot and then cut it into thin julienne. Remove the cap and seeds from the optional chile before shredding it into thin slivers. Toss the cabbage, carrot, chile, and salt together thoroughly in the colander and bowl, and then let them shrink down few hours until they become more manageable. Dump everything into the colander, where they can continue to drain for a couple of hours (or even overnight) while you do something else.
The main seasonings

2. An hour or two before you want to proceed to the next step, simmer the rice wine, sugar, and rice vinegar together in a small (nonreactive) saucepan until it boils. Add the apple cider vinegar, which will provide the necessary sharp edge to this brine. Taste the pickling juice and adjust the seasoning to suit your taste by adding more of any ingredient. Take your time with this, as you are creating the main flavor of the pickle here. Remove the pan from the heat and let the liquid come to room temperature. 

3. Have a large clean jar or two large work bowl ready (again, nonreactive, like glass or steel is good – don’t use things like aluminum, which will have a chemical reaction with the vinegar). The pickles will shrink down over a day or two, so start them out in relatively ample containers so that you can toss them without having them spill out onto your counter. 

4. Squeeze handfuls of the vegetables relatively dry, discarding their juices, and transfer them to the jar or bowls. Pour the cooled pickling juice over the vegetables, toss things around a little bit, and then cover the containers and place them in a cool place, like a pantry, basement, or refrigerator. Taste the pickle after around 2 days – whenever it is cured enough for your taste, start eating. (It takes about 3 days for things to hit the sweet spot for me.) The pickle will continue to cure the longer it sits, so try to consume it relatively quickly. Serve chilled in small mounds with the optional chile oil.

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