Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer on a plate: celtuce tops with sesame

We just got back from Chengdu, and I can’t recommend that city enough. 

The State Department invited us to the capital of Sichuan to talk about food and culture at various venues. It was a hectic schedule, and I'm still recovering, but I have to say that Chengdu is one delightful place to be. Period.

The people there are so nice, the streets are immaculate, and the food, well, the food was simply amazing. It was the height of summer, and nothing refreshed or delighted us more consistently there than celtuce tips with sesame dressing. We had it in restaurants and private homes, and its repeated appearance more than anything else showed us how beloved it is in Sichuan.
Chen's celtuce

Without a doubt, one of the best versions we tasted was at the famous Chen’s Mapo Doufu. This place is, of course, renowned as the originator of that iconic Chengdu dish made out of bean curd, beef, and lots of chile oil. 

And while we found their signature dish just this side of all right, we were blown away by the celtuce. It excited our appetites and made us look forward to the rest of the dinner with eager anticipation, which is what every good appetizer should do.

What they did – and what I’m replicating here – is to add just a suggestion of chile oil to a light, almost fluffy dressing. It definitely wasn’t noticeable unless you were paying very close attention, but it worked well as an undercurrent to jazz up the nutty, sweet, tart, and salty notes. The only complaint we had was that the sugar remained suspended in the dressing as annoying little crystals. Because it remained aloof from this culinary party, the sugar made the dish way sweeter than it should have been. That’s why I use powdered sugar here, which dissolves quickly and quietly into the mixture as a counterbalance to the vinegar.

The other great version we enjoyed was at the home of a friend, whose father, retired chef Yang Guifang, created a feast for us that included kung pao chicken and the best beef over crispy rice I've ever tasted. He allowed me to shadow him in his kitchen and bug him for secrets, so thank you Chef Yang!

Another way in which I’ve changed this up a bit is by using a touch of good soy sauce instead of the usual salt. This dish needs that tiny xianwei (umami) blast, and soy sauce is there to serve with its usual aplomb.
Chef Yang at the helm

The two basic things you need to aim for here in this dish are absolute freshness in the vegetable and nuttiness in the sauce. So, ideally, the day that you plan to serve this is the day that you buy your celtuce. That morning, bring the whole celtuce or celtuce tops home, trim and slice them up as directed, and rinse well before soaking them a couple of hours in ice water, as this will help to crisp them up even more.

Not everyone has the luxury of shopping when it’s best for the vegetables, so if circumstances force you to buy the celtuce a day ahead of time, rinse the vegetables in cold water, shake them dry, wrap them in a tea towel, place the towel in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Then, trim and slice them as needed before soaking them in the two cold baths of saltwater and ice water to clean them thoroughly and restore their juiciness.

That second point I mentioned was nuttiness, and to achieve that, the sauce calls for three kinds of toasted sesame: paste, oil, and a seed garnish. Together these will supply you with a nice range of warm flavors.

Fresh celtuce heads
However, not all sesame pastes are made alike. If you don’t use either homemade or a good store-bought sesame paste, the flavor might be a bit off. The same thing goes with toasted sesame oil: as always, aim for the absolute best. Korean and Japanese brands are often excellent, and I always buy mine in large (56 ounce/1656 ml) cans because this is a staple in my kitchen.

But that doesn’t mean that only serious Chinese chefs need to be this persnickety about their ingredients. Even if you are just an occasional East Asian cook, buy only pure sesame oil. Look at the ingredient list, which should tell you that it is 100% sesame oil with no fillers, like cottonseed oil and the like. (Kadoya is my go-to brand, but others are available in Asian supermarkets and online.)

As for the sesame seeds, try to get them in bulk bins, where you can smell and taste them for freshness, and then toast them yourself, which will only take a few minutes. You can even go from there to making your own sesame paste. And that will change your world because the flavor is unparalleled.

I get the big tins
If your store-bought sesame paste or sesame oil lacks oompf, substitute a bit of good peanut or almond butter to ramp up the flavors. Or, you can use all peanut or almond butter here (in fact, any good nut butter would do as long as it’s toasty), if you prefer.

One thing that you must pay attention to when you make this is the emulsification of the dressing ingredients. Just as with a good handmade mayonnaise, you need to whip in air while incorporating the ingredients. Ice water is gradually introduced, too, which will lighten the sauce both visually and texturally.

This is actually the secret to making great sesame sauce, because if you leave out the ice water, the texture stays thick and viscous, but the slow addition of ice water smooths out the sticky paste and makes it thin enough to drizzle over the celtuce, while remaining thick enough to cling to the leaves. Finally, the two oils are beaten in and make the dressing stable. This step is not at all hard, but it will make this dish absolutely superb.

Do note that this will make twice the amount needed, but it stores well for a couple of days in the refrigerator and can be used for another round of celtuce or as a new-fangled salad dressing or for cold noodles Sichuan style.

Celtuce tastes very much like romaine lettuce, so if you don’t have access to celtuce, that’s your substitute. Try to use the hearts of the lettuce, as they will be tenderer and milder, as well as easier to serve and eat.

The genuine Chinese vegetable has other attributes, though, that make it well worth seeking it out. For one thing, it’s beautiful. For another thing, it’s crunchy beyond belief. The brilliant jade of the stems also makes them visually tantalizing. Those stems add another layer of texture and flavor to the leaves, so that your tongue and teeth have even more to play with as you ravage your way across the plate.

I have absolutely no control when faced with a perfect plate of celtuce tips with sesame dressing. And I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

Silky and delicious
Celtuce tips with sesame dressing
Májiàng yóumàicài  麻醬油麥菜
Sichuan
Serves 4 as an appetizer
  
Celtuce:
1 head celtuce (around 6 ounces/150 g) that should be mainly composed of young leaves, along with tender stem tips
Ice water and ice cubes, as needed
2 teaspoons sea salt

Dressing:
4 tablespoons toasted sesame paste, well stirred
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons pale rice vinegar
2 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1½ teaspoons chile oil, or to taste
½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
 
Celtuce head cut up
1. Rinse the celtuce leaves thoroughly and trim off any tough or damaged parts. Cut the heads lengthwise into sixths or eighths so that you are left with long, thin, easily manageable wedges, and then cut the heads crosswise to make pieces about 3 inches/8 cm long. Set a serving platter in the refrigerator to chill.

2. At least 3 hours before serving, dissolve the salt in about a cup of cold water, toss the celtuce with this, and add more ice water to cover. Soak the celtuce in this saltwater bath for 15 to 30 minutes to cleanse it and reduce any lingering bitterness, then rinse and shake it dry. Finally, soak the celtuce in ice water to cover for at least 2 hours; toss in a good handful of ice cubes to make the leaves super crisp.

3. To make the dressing, use a whisk to beat together the sesame paste, powdered sugar, and soy sauce in a small work bowl until they are very smooth and creamy. Beat in the vinegar until it is smooth, and then slowly beat in the ice water in small dribbles as if you were making mayonnaise by hand, as this will give you the ethereally silky texture this sauce requires. Finally, beat in the sesame oil and chile oil until the dressing is once more smooth and very light. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

4. Once you have the dressing ready, drain the celtuce and use a salad spinner to remove any remaining water, or else wrap the leaves in a dry tea towel. Arrange the leaves attractively on the chilled platter. Drizzle the dressing over the celtuce leaves, and then sprinkle the sesame seeds on the dressing; you can reserve some of the dressing, if you like, and offer it on the side. Serve immediately.
 
Bolting head of celtuce
Tip:

When choosing celtuce leaves, select heads that are stiff with undamaged leaves and freshly cut stems. These are often sold in sealed bags, so you sometimes have to wing it. Even so, try to feel around the middle of the heads to ensure that there are no flowering stems. If the celtuce has started to bolt, it will not be as sweet, and you’ll have fewer leaves since most of the plant’s energy will have been directed toward setting blossoms.


Toasted sesame paste
Májiàng 麻醬
Makes about ¾ cup (160 g)

Unlike the Middle East, which prefers its sesame paste raw, Chinese people like it toasted so that the full flavor of the seeds comes to the forefront. You can buy sesame paste in any Chinese market, but unless you get the right brand, you’ll most likely find it mixed with cottonseed oil or sugar or other unnec­essary ingredients.
Plain but delicious sesame paste

1 cup (140 g) toasted sesame seeds
5 tablespoons or so toasted sesame oil
Sea salt, optional

1. Use a small food processor or a good-quality blender. Pour in the seeds and add a few tablespoons of the oil.

2. Puree the seeds on high, gradually adding the rest of the oil until you have a relatively smooth paste. Season the sesame paste with salt, if you plan to use it like peanut butter, but for Chinese recipes it is best to leave it unsalted. Store the paste in a covered jar in the refrigerator.
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