Monday, January 21, 2019

Rev up for Chinese New Year!

The Year of the Pig is almost upon us. February 5th is the first day of the lunar new year, which means it's time to get some holiday food ready. 

Radish cakes are always at the top of my list. 

The English name is, admittedly, lousy. Chinese radishes are nothing like our little red jobs... this vegetable is big and juicy and white. 

Some people call them turnips, but don't let them fool you. These taste like radishes, but without the heat. 

Crispy exterior, creamy insides
Chinese and Korean radishes (luóbō) are best here, but daikon will do in a pinch. The main thing is that the tubers are fresh and sweet and heavy. Asian radishes are at their best in cold weather, so now is the time to buy them.

Be forewarned: radish cakes don't look or taste like cakes. Luóbō gāo is a savory steamed pudding, if I'm going to get all persnickety on you, and the interiors of these slabs turn fabulously creamy when the exterior is fried to a crisp. 

Most restaurants serve this as semi-cold slabs that have been sautéed on two sides. However, radish cakes  can be oh so much more delicious, for the perfect luóbō gāo is served as crunchy slices or nuggets. A nicely browned crust on every side serves to (barely) control the chaos inside: a molten rice lava spangled with bits of Chinese cured meats and mushrooms.
Juicy Korean radishes

A gentle taste of radishes hover in the background, with gravelly bits of sausage and mushroom spiking each bite. My recipe goes a bit wild with all the savory bits, but trust me, you want it this way!

The preparation takes a bit of time to explain, but you'll see down below that it is actually quite easy to put together. That being said, this is a bit of a time suck, so feel free to prep bits and pieces over a couple of days. You can also freeze the cooked puddings. Just defrost them thoroughly (overnight in the refrigerator is best) before slicing and frying.

Radish cakes
Luóbō gāo 蘿蔔糕
Guangdong cuisine
Makes 2 large loaves, serves 12 or more

Cut up some radish batons
¼ cup | 30 g dried shrimp
Boiling water
About 4 pounds | 2.5 kg very fresh Chinese or Korean radishes, or daikon
12 black Chinese mushrooms, soaked until plump
6-inch | 15-cm strip of Cantonese-style cured pork belly
2 Cantonese-style sweet sausages of any kind
About 6 ounces | 170 g shallots, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 170 g regular rice flour (not sticky/sweet/glutinous rice flour)
Reserved cooled mushroom soaking water, plus more cool water as needed to make 1½ cups | 375 ml
Lots of freshly ground black pepper (at least 1 teaspoon)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce

Fry-up and serving:
Cornstarch, as needed
Fry the charcuterie
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
Flaky sea salt (like Maldon), for garnish
Chopped scallions or cilantro, for garnish

1. Place the dried shrimp in a heatproof boil and cover with boiling water; let them plump up while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, and then drain and dice coarsely.

2. Trim and peel the radishes. Cut them up to make 2 cups | 275 g of batons (around ¼ inch | 5 mm on 2 sides, and no more than 1 inch | 2 cm long), and coarsely grate the rest. Remove and discard the stems from the mushrooms, and then chop the caps into ¼ inch | 5 mm pieces. If the cured meat and sausages are at all hard, steam them for around 10 minutes to soften them up; reserve any juices and add them to the batter later on. Remove and discard the skin from the pork belly, and then chop it as well as the sausages into very small pieces about the size of lentils. Finely chop the shallots and garlic. 

Rice flour, but not the sticky kind
3. Measure the rice flour into a medium work bowl, and then stir in the water to form a thin batter. Line the bottom of 2 large loaf pans with parchment paper so that the sides extend above the top. Grease both the paper and the insides of the pans. If you are not using a bamboo steamer basket, wrap the lid with a kitchen towel so that moisture doesn't drip back into the cake while it steams.

4. Place the chopped cured meats in a cold wok and fry them over medium heat so that the fat is rendered as the meat cooks. Once the fat is translucent, add the diced shrimp, mushrooms, shallots and garlic, and stir-fry them over medium-high heat until the mushrooms have shrunk down and started to brown a little bit. Scoop the meat mixture out of the wok and into a work bowl.

5. Turn the heat under the wok to high. Add all of the radish shreds and batons to the wok. Sprinkle the black pepper over the radishes, and then cook them, tossing occasionally, until quite a lot of liquid forms at the bottom of the wok and the radishes are completely cooked but not at all mushy. Toss the meat mixture in with the cooked radishes, reserving, if you like, a few tablespoons of the meaty crumbles as decoration later on. Taste the radish-meat mixture and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

The steamed pudding
6. Remove the wok from the heat and stir the thin batter into the cooked radishes. Gently toss the radish with the batter off of the heat so that the bottom does not scorch. After about 30 seconds, the residual heat in the wok should cook the batter enough so that it starts to thicken. When everything is completely combined, scrape into the prepared pans. Sprinkle on the optional reserved meat mixture, and then use the parchment paper ends to compact the mixture and smooth down the top.

7. Heat a few inches of water under your steamer until it comes to a full boil. Either position the pans on a large trivet and cover them with the wrapped lid, or place the pans in covered bamboo steamer baskets. (You may need to steam the pans separately if your steamer is not large enough.) Steam the pudding for around 90 minutes to 2 hours, replenishing the water as needed, but otherwise not opening the lid, as this will help to cook it evenly. Test to ensure it is completely done through by inserting a paring knife into the center; it should come out clean. Remove the pans from the steamer and allow them to come to room temperature before covering the pans with plastic wrap and refrigerating.
... and then fry it up

8. To serve, slice the chilled pudding into either 1-inch | 2-cm cubes or into 1-inch | 2-cm thick slices. Coat them completely in cornstarch and shake off any excess. Prepare a serving platter by the stove and cover it with a few sheets of parchment or tempura paper. Heat about ¼ inch | 5 mm of oil over medium-high heat in the bottom of a flat-bottomed pan until a pinch of cornstarch immediately foams and subsides, and then add the dusted cubes to the hot oil piece by piece. Fry them all over, adding more oil as needed. When they are a golden brown, remove to the platter. Serve hot sprinkled with sea salt and fresh cilantro and/or chopped scallions. A dipping sauce may be prepared, but is not necessary.