Monday, September 24, 2018

Hakka braised stuffed vegetables

You will find meat-stuffed 
vegetables and bean curd throughout much of China’s southern regions, but for my money the best version belongs to the Hakka.

Part of this has to do with the emphasis on the vegetables, rather than the stuffing. 

Hakka food is very veggie-centric, and so meat tends to serve as a seasoning most of the time, rather than the main event. And in this dish, the results are superb and perfectly balanced. 

Eggplant becomes soft and comforting, the peppers provide spark and interest, and the mushrooms add their own spin on meatiness. It’s an inspired combination. But what I really love is the eggplant, so there is a preponderance of eggplant in here. 

Rice wine, fish sauce, oyster sauce
My late father-in-law was a master at stuffing bean curd (aka doufu or tofu), and his preferred filling was a mixture of ground dace (a kind of fish) and pork. You often can find dace already pounded into a thick, smooth paste at Chinese markets with a large Cantonese clientele, but I tend to be wary, as who know what’s in there and how long it’s been there.

So, to get a taste of the sea, I use things like oyster sauce and fish sauce to ramp up the xianwei (umami) here. The results are absolutely delicious.

This Hakka dish traditionally has three main ingredients, which almost always includes eggplant, and the other main candidates are bean curd, sweet pepper, chile peppers, bitter melon, and mushrooms. 

Stuffed 'shrooms & peppers
Now that the eggplants and pepper plants are going crazy in my back yard, I feature them here with pleasure. 

This is not at all hard to pull together. In fact, you can do it in stages, if you like. To be honest, this braise is even better if you can manage to get everything done ahead of time so that it can sit in the fridge for a day or two, for it allows the flavors to mellow and mingle, and the sauce to permeate down into the filling and vegetables.  

All you need to do then is simply heat it up and serve it with steamed rice and maybe a green vegetable. 

Hakka braised stuffed vegetables chez Huang
Huángjiā Kèjiā niàngsānbăo  黃家客家釀三寶
Whack until sticky
Serves 6 to 8

1 pound ground pork (not too lean)
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 scallion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup | 50 g cornstarch, or so

5 to 6 fat Chinese or 4 Japanese eggplants (long, rather than egg-shaped)
1 large or 2 small sweet peppers (any variety), and/or 6 to 12 fat fresh chile peppers (of whatever heat level you fancy)
An eggplant 'sandwich'
8 brown mushrooms, or some other stuffable mushroom

The braise:
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
6 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly whacked
6 slices fresh ginger
1 scallion, chopped
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine
1½ teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups | 500 ml unsalted chicken stock plus 1 cup | 250 ml water, or 3 cups | 750 ml water

Chopped cilantro, torn basil, or chopped scallions

Filled sandwich
1. Place the ground pork on a cutting board and whack away at it with the back of a heavy knife, scraping it up and turning it over, until it is light. Place this in a medium work bowl. Add the ginger, scallion, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and egg, and beat these together with your hand (hold it stiff like paddle) to incorporate these fully. Alternatively, you can use a food processor, but what’s the fun in that?

2. Trim off the stem and blossom ends of the eggplant. Cut the eggplant crosswise into pieces about 1 inch | 2.5 cm thick, and then cut each of these almost all the way through the middle, so that they are connected at one side; this will help keep the sandwiches from falling apart. Dust the insides of the eggplant sandwiches with cornstarch.

Dusted sandwich
3. Cut the sweet peppers in half, remove the stems and seeds, and then cut them into pieces about the same size as the eggplant. Cut the chile peppers in half, remove the stems and seeds, and cut them into smaller pieces, if necessary. Wipe the mushrooms clean and remove the stems. Dust the insides of these vegetables with some cornstarch, too.

4. Fill the eggplant sandwiches, peppers, and mushrooms with the meat mixture, patting it in so that it’s glued inside the vegetables. Dust the meaty areas of the stuffed vegetables with cornstarch, as this will help prevent them from sticking to the pan and falling apart, and then knock off the excess. If you have extra filling or vegetables, don't sweat it. Just brown them, too, and toss them into the pot.
Frying up the eggplant
5. Now prepare the sauce. Pour about a tablespoon of oil in a large casserole or sandpot and set it over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallions. Brown these lightly, and then add the rest of the braising ingredients. Bring the liquid to a boil, simmer for a few minutes, and then reduce the heat to low.

6. Finally, fry the vegetables. Set a large flat pan on medium heat and add a good glug of oil. When the oil is hot, place the stuffed vegetables in the pan and brown all over, adjusting heat as needed. Remove these to the casserole or sandpot as they turn completely golden. You will have to do this in batches, by the way. Be sure and set the peppers and mushrooms meat-side up, as this will help keep the filling in place. The liquid doesn’t need to cover the vegetables, but they all should have at least their feet wet. 

So satisfying
7. Bring the casserole or sandpot almost to a boil, and then lower it to a very gentle simmer. Do not stir the veggies, as this might knock out the filling. Slowly bvraise the vegetables for about an hour, and then remove from the heat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as desired. This dish should rest for at least 15 minutes, and is even better the next day. 

8. Carefully pour off the liquid into a gravy separator, if you have one, as the eggplant will have dumped most of the oil by now. You can also simply skim off the oil with a spoon. (Keep this oil for stir-frying or eggs – it’s really aromatic.) Boil the sauce in a saucepan until thick. You will have a lot of food here, so you can do what I do: pack it up in containers and either freeze or refrigerate until needed. Microwave or steam the veggies until heated through. Pour the hot, thick sauce over the top. Sprinkle with cilantro, basil, or scallions, and serve hot.

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