Monday, February 11, 2019

Amaranth with crispy baby shrimp

This classic Taiwanese/Southern Fujianese recipe features two ingredients that might not be all that familiar if you shop mainly at places like Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods: amaranth and dried baby shrimp. 

But if you set a plate of this down in front of someone from the southeastern Chinese seaboard, you are going to have one very happy person digging in. This simply tastes of home cooking, and it’s also a dish that you don’t find all that often in restaurants outside of the homeland.

Amaranth is a beautiful leafy green, sometimes a solid emerald and sometimes bearing garnet-colored veins. I can’t taste any difference between the two, so go with what you can find. 

Trim off the leaves and tip
This is usually found only in Chinese markets around here, where it’s known as xiàncài. Amaranth usually will be bundled up into a bouquet, so try to peek inside to ensure that not much rotting is going on, as this is the sort of vegetable that dissolves into mush if it sits around too long. And that is also the reason why you should plan to cook this no more than a day or two after you’ve bought it.

To prepare amaranth, use your fingernails to nip off the side leaves and the tender cluster at the top of each stem, and then toss the stem. Rinse the leaves carefully and shake them as dry as you can. That’s it.

The prepped leaves
Amaranth is one of those vegetables that has to be salted with a light hand, though. It doesn’t absorb flavors in the least, and so everything that is added to it sort of sits on the surface. For that reason it’s a good idea to not add any extra salt to this dish unless you are sure it really needs it.

Baby dried shrimp are always great, but what I really adore about them is the way they turn into a luscious combination of crunch and funk whenever they are slowly toasted in oil. Yes, I know, the traditional way is to just toss the little guys into the wok with the greens, which gives them a nicely mellow edge, but try it my way and see. It's delicious. 

I often fry these shrimp up as a side for things like congee or even as a bar snack, and they are terrific in omelets and fried rice, as well. Another variation on this theme is to use salted whitebait (wěnzĭyú 吻仔魚 or mòzĭyú 仔魚), which are immature fish fry (i.e., baby fish). Both are very good in this lovely dish.
Dried baby shrimp

Amaranth with crispy baby shrimp
Xiāpí chăo xiàncài  蝦皮炒莧菜
Taiwanese and Southern Fujianese cuisine
Serves 4

1 bunch (about 1 pound | 500 g) fresh amaranth
6 tablespoons toasted sesame oil or vegetable oil, plus more as needed
A handful or so of dried baby shrimp
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1. Remove the leaves and tips from the amaranth stems, and then discard the stems. Rinse the leaves carefully in a colander and shake dry.

Like your Ah-ma used to make...
2. Pour the oil into a cool wok and add the dried shrimp. Fry the shrimp over medium heat, stirring often, until the oil is foamy and the shrimp have turned a golden brown, but are not yet dark. Scrape the fried shrimp into a small work bowl and return any oil back to the wok. You should have about 3 tablespoons at this point, so add more oil if needed.

3. Set the wok over medium-high heat and add the garlic first. Stir this around over the heat until it begins to sizzle, and then add the amaranth leaves. Turn the heat up to high and stir-fry the amaranth until it wilts and almost all of the liquid in the wok has evaporated. Toss in the fried shrimp. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.