Monday, March 4, 2019

My favorite Cantonese deli side dish

This is a classic side dish in Cantonese delis, the sort of thing that supplies a bit of veg to your plate of rice and, say, char siu or poached chicken. 

In and of itself, blanched lettuce with oyster sauce is absolutely delicious, but it’s even better when sidled up to something super flavorful and meaty like that.

If you’ve never had cooked lettuce, you are in for a delightful surprise. Only the Chinese could look at a big head of iceberg and transform it into something so perfectly delectable. 

A quick blanch rids the lettuce of its slightly bitter and boring edge—and the emphasis here is on quick, because you really do not EVER want to eat soggy lettuce, cooked or otherwise.

The brilliant part here is the sauce, and it’s usually what most people get wrong. You never stir-fry the lettuce with the sauce, as that leads to sogginess (see above). 

Cook like a deli chef!
Instead, you whip yourself up a simple warm salad dressing. 

Really, that’s all this sauce is. But it’s so utterly silky thanks to that undercurrent of the sea and garlic and slick of oil that it will reshape your thoughts on salad dressing. 

Blanched lettuce with oyster sauce
Háoyóu shēngcài  蠔油生菜
Guangdong cuisine
Serves 4 as a side

1 head iceberg (or other crispy) lettuce, about 1 pound | 500 g
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
1 quart | 1 liter boiling water

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons oyster sauce (Lee Kum Kee is the best)
1 teaspoon sugar
Rip the thing apart
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce

1. Rinse the lettuce, remove the core, and tear the head into pieces about 2 inches | 5 cm long—in other words, bite-sized. Ripping the leaves apart makes them crispier, and also gives them a whole lot more visual appeal. Plus, it feels good to just vent on a head of lettuce.

2. Have a colander set in the sink and a low serving bowl or rimmed serving dish ready. Add the salt and oil to the boiling water, and then stir in the lettuce. Blanch the lettuce for mere seconds—as soon as you see bright green, the lettuce is done. It should still be very crispy, but will have lost its raw edge. Dump the lettuce and water into the colander and let the lettuce drain thoroughly while you prepare the sauce.

3. Set a wok or frying pan over low heat and add the oil and garlic. Let the garlic sputter in the oil for a few minutes, since you want it to release its flavor without browning. When the garlic is translucent, stir in the oyster sauce, sugar, and soy sauce. Keep stirring this over low heat until the sauce bubbles and comes together. Immediately remove from the heat and add the drained lettuce. Toss quickly and serve. 

Here's what you want for the sauce

Romaine lettuce also works just fine here.

As the lettuce sits, it will begin to dump lots of liquid into the bowl, for its cells are collapsing. That’s totally fine. You can pour off the liquid, if you like, as the sticky sauce will have coated the leaves very well by then.

If you want to go meatless, use vegetarian oyster sauce. Again, Lee Kum Kee’s version is the best.