Monday, August 7, 2017

Quick & delicious Cantonese pickles

I seem to be on quite the Cantonese roll lately, and I really don’t know why. Lots of fried rice, stir-fries, custard tarts (of course), and char siu have been traveling through my kitchen for some reason.

Perhaps it was because we had too much Sichuan food in Chengdu last month. (On second thought, no, there is no such thing as too much Sichuan food.) But nevertheless, I’ve been craving things like roasted meats and crunchy pickles and all the other things that get made exceptionally well in places like Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and my neighborhood Chinatown deli.

One day I’m going to master crispy-skin chicken (cuìpí jī 脆皮雞), as that is my absolute must-have. This is usually served with crunchy shrimp crackers – which are made out of ground-up fresh shrimp mixed with rice flour – but I much prefer a flavorful pickle to jazz up the proceedings. Until I wrestle that chicken recipe to the ground, though, I’ll satisfy at least half of my cravings with deli chicken and the other half with a homemade tasty pickle.

And, I’m happy to say, that’s what we have here today.
Salted up
Cantonese quick pickles really are worth mastering for many reasons. First, they are easy. Second, they are one of the prettiest pickles around because you have lots of gorgeous hues – green, orange, red, yellow, and white – and a range of crisp textures that makes each bite a pleasure. And third, the seasonings are juuuust right. You have your vinegar, salt, and sugar, but all in a perfectly balanced medley.

This is a standard in just about every Cantonese restaurant I’ve been to, and is especially beloved as an accompaniment to deli meats, like roast duck or char siu pork. I have to point out that homemade pickles are even better. They taste sparklingly fresh because they are sparklingly fresh, and I use super fresh organic veggies, and I spice everything up with a good handful of fresh ginger slices.

I’ve gotten so bowled over by this that I’ve been slipping it into tossed green salads (especially when something like grilled salmon or chicken is on the menu), where it bounces up the flavors a couple of notches and adds lots of texture to what might otherwise be just a boring salad.

Roll-cut the carrots & radishes
We also had it last week alongside some grilled sausages – Italian sausages, mind you – and they were the perfect supporting cast. So you see, having a bowl of these in the fridge makes dinner come together quickly and easily.

You might not believe this, but they also are the secret to great sweet-and-sour. Yes, I know, I know. I used to think that way, too. Sweet-and-sour is a tired cliché that you find on every steam table in every Chinese-American fast food joint. 

But sweet-and-sour has a hallowed history in many parts of China, so we will take a look at a lovely old school recipe that will make you reconsider your position on the subject. 

I mean, just think: those delightful pickles standing in for gassy, semi-raw bell peppers and onions, their tartness enlivening the sauce, their textures bouncing off the meaty nuggets, the sauce a subtle balance of everything you'd wish it might possibly possess, including (gasp) garlic. I know this will make you smile a whole lot and fight for seconds.
Sweet pepper triangles
Anyway, I’ll continue my argument next week. For now, let’s go buy some vegetables…

Cantonese pickles

Guăngdōng pàocài 廣東泡菜
Makes 1 quart (1 l)

5 ounces (150 g) yellow rock sugar (about ¾ cup crushed), or white sugar to taste
¾ cup (180 ml) pale rice vinegar
8 thin slices peeled ginger
1 pound (450 g) Asian radish of any kind or color
4 carrots, about 8 ounces (225 g)
3 seedless cucumbers
1 sweet red pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt

1. Place the sugar, vinegar, and ginger in a small saucepan, bring the vinegar to a boil, and then lower the heat to a bare simmer. Stir occasionally, and remove the pan from the heat when the sugar has dissolved. Cool the liquid to room temperature.

Tender cucumber wedges
2. Peel the radish and carrots, and then roll-cut them into pieces that are no more than 1 inch (2 cm) on the widest edge. Cut the cucumbers lengthwise into quarters, and then cut these wedges into pieces about 2 inches (5 cm) long. Cut the pepper in half, seed it and remove the stem end, and then cut it into strips around 1 inch (2 cm) wide before cutting these strips into triangles. Place all of the vegetables in a resealable quart bowl, toss with the salt, and let them sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour. You don’t need to drain the veggies.

3. Pour the sweet vinegar and ginger over the vegetables and toss well. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the pickles for at least a day. Don’t worry if the liquid doesn’t cover the vegetables, as it will gradually reach the top after a couple of hours. Toss around the pickles when you think of it so that they all get a chance to soak up some flavor. Use within 5 days for optimum flavor.