Monday, August 13, 2018

Black tea gelée

It’s so hot just everywhere that today we’re going to look at something soothing, cool, and easy to make. This one of those dishes that ought to be wildly popular, but few folks seem to have ever heard of it, much less had a chance to fall in love with it: black tea gelée.

First off, this screams Hong Kong through and through, simply because it is such a perfect Chinese riff on a British classic: black tea with milk and sugar. 

The first time I really understood the passion such a simple drink can induce was in, of course, Hong Kong. During my first couple of years in Taiwan, I would take little R&R trips over to the then-colony and indulge in things like red wine, good coffee, buttery pastries, artichokes, cheesecake, and tequila… you know, the six pillars of any sensible diet. 

No prettier place in the world back then
At that time, my favorite hotel in the world was the Star Ferry YMCA. It was cheap, it was convenient, and the older section was in full retro mode, with rattan furniture, slowly rotating ceiling fans, and Forties-style upholstery covered with hibiscuses. 

Up on the roof was a restaurant that overlooked the harbor, back when the harbor was still heartbreakingly beautiful. There were sampans, junks with massive sails, and floating restaurants… so romantic and now so totally gone.

Good tea makes all the difference
But anyway, back to the food. I’d have a proper English breakfast there, one of those gut busters replete with bangers, eggs, tomatoes, and enough food to keep me going until dinner. I’d be sure and have cup after cup of my sweet tea to wash it all down, and pretty soon this turned into a major addiction.

They showed old movies there on the rooftop, like Casablanca, and it’s also the first place I got to watch Roots, and both times I sobbed my way through pots and pots of tea and tried to understand why I didn’t live permanently in such an amazing place as Hong Kong. (Answer: Mandarin. Oh well.) 

So, I have more than a bit of an emotional connection to milk tea, and when it’s hotter than blazes out, this is a great way to chill out in every possible way.

Qimen black tea
Any good tea works here, and you can make the tea as strong as you like. In addition to personal taste, this all depends upon the variety and quality of the tea. 

I prefer my tea British-level strong, so be forewarned. I've used a wonderfully fruity tea here from Fujian called Qimen. The flavors are very complex, and although it doesn't stand up to repeated dunkings like some other teas, that first round is out of this world.

You can make the tea jelly a couple of days ahead of time and spoon out as much as you want, then decorate it with sweetened condensed milk or cream or what-have-you. When you see a particularly hot week on the horizon, consider stashing a couple of bowls in the fridge to keep you sane and happy.

This makes a lot, but then again, it goes down like lightning.

Black tea gelée
Cool, shimmering, luscious
Hóngchá dòng 紅茶凍
Hong Kong
Makes 6 cups | 1.5 liters, serves 8 to 12

½ cup | 25 g really good black tea leaves (Fujian’s Qimen is great)
4 cups | 1 liter boiling water
3 tablespoons powdered gelatin
2 cups | 500 ml cool water
Condensed milk, as desired

1. Place the tea leaves in a small strainer and run water over them for a few seconds to rinse them off. Dump them into a large measuring cup and pour the boiling water over the tea. Cover the tea and let it steep for around 10 minutes. If you like an even stronger flavor, brew them for as long as you like, and then microwave the tea until it is once again very hot.

My hot weather breakfast, too
2. While the tea is steeping, pour the cool water into an 8-cup | 2 liter pan. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cool water so that it has time to completely soften. 

3. Strain the hot tea into the gelatin and stir gently to dissolve the powder. Let the liquid come to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate for six or so hours until solid.

4. Just before serving, cut the gelatin into tiny cubes. Scoop them into (preferably) clear glass cups or bowls, and then drizzle the condensed milk over the top. 

Photo of Hong Kong Harbor from Hong Kong Free Press

Monday, August 6, 2018

DIY boba pearl tea

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave on the moon for a very long time, you’ve had boba – aka pearl milk tea – and most likely love it a whole lot.

I am, of course, a super huge big fan. These are nicely sweet and flavored by little more than the super dark sugar known as “black sugar” in Chinese. 

They’re chewy in the way the Taiwanese call Q (meaning it sticks to your teeth for a few seconds, but is easily dislodged, creating weirdly comforting jaw snaps). And they have this soft, cuddly exterior that caresses the mouth on the journey from a fat straw into your awaiting gullet.

Now, you can buy dried boba in most Chinese supermarkets, and by and large they’re pretty good. No matter what the brand, you’ll usually be rewarded with a glass full of tasty little balls that look like frog eggs and taste like brown sugar.

However, here is another way to get your boba fix: DIY.

In Taiwan and the golden triangle of its ancestral cuisines – Southern Fujian, Chaozhou, and the Hakka – homemade boba are known as fĕnyuán 粉圓, since only the commercially made ones are, strictly speaking, really boba.

Your ingredients
Fenyuan are the heftier siblings of boba, and unless you are even more obsessive compulsive than me about shaping them into teensy pearls, you won’t be able to suck them up your straw. But even when they’re the size of gingko nut, they offer up lovely texture in exchange for a less than dainty appearance.

They are not hard at all to make, just time consuming to work with until you figure out what the dough is trying to do on your hands, your work surface, and your bowl, which is to escape.

What I really, really like about making my own fenyuan is that this is a really strange and really fun way to play mad scientist in your very own kitchen. Tapioca flour is weird to the nth degree. Check out the video at the bottom there for a preview.

Once you turn this flour into a soft dough, it behaves like quicksilver or the bad guy in Terminator 2: it slips and slides and refuses to do anything but what it wants to do. And this is creepily fun.
Corralled into semi cooperation

As you add a bit of boiled dough and more of the tapioca flour to the raw dough, it begins to settle down, and by the time you’ve formed it into balls, it tends to give up and is resigned to live the rest of its short life as a no longer feral fenyuan.

The plus side is that you get to burn up around five calories in anticipation of downing 200, so there’s that up side. Hurray for obsessive compulsiveness, am I right?

Tapioca flour is available in most Chinese supermarkets. While you’re there, see if they also have black sugar from Taiwan, since it will supply your pearls with a lovely dark luster and a good hit of molasses flavor.

You’ll end up with truly gorgeous fenyuan here… chewy and comforting, and really delicious. Plus, this should give you plenty for your next fix or two. Happy summer!

Little pearls of dough

Homemade tapioca pearls
Zìzhì bōbà 自製波霸
Makes about 1.3 pounds | 530 g

⅔ cup | 100 g black or dark brown sugar, plus more as needed
⅔ cup | 150 ml boiling water, plus more as needed
2 cups plus 5 tablespoons | 275 g tapioca flour, plus more as needed (a 14 ounce | 400 g bag is perfect for this recipe)

1. Place the sugar in a medium work bowl and stir in the boiling water to dissolve the sugar. Add the tapioca flour and mix these together to combine thoroughly. The dough will not be soft at this point, but rather like a stiff clay as the tapioca flour seizes up and acts as if it’s going to misbehave. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of that in the next step.

2. Bring about 2 cups | 500 ml water to a boil in a saucepan. While it’s coming to a boil, nip off an apricot-sized lump of the dough and flatten it into a disc.

3. Drop the dough into the boiling water and wait for it to float, which means that it’s cooked through. This bit of cooked dough will calm the raw dough down for some reason that I can’t quite explain, but there you have it. Chop up the cooked dough into tiny pieces and then add it to the raw dough.

At the very pale stage
4. Knead the cooked and raw dough together in the bowl until well combined, and then turn the dough out onto a work surface lightly dusted with more tapioca flour. It will drool and dribble, but that’s all right. You don’t want it so hard that it cracks, just more or less tamed.

5. Grab a small handful of the dough and shape it out into a small rope of whatever diameter you like – I tend to aim for ¼ inch | 5 mm. Use a pastry scraper or knife to cut the rope into pieces, which I again try to make about ¼ inch | 5 mm in length. Roll these bits into balls and immediately dust them with more tapioca flour, which will prevent them from puddling up. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

6. As you are doing this, some of the bits will fall apart or refuse to cooperate. That’s ok and to be expected, for you are dealing with the most tantrum-prone starch known to mankind. You can deal with this two ways: One is to dab a bit of water on the offending morsel, which it will suck up and then try to slip away, but just roll the thing up and then toss it in the flour. The second is to scoot it over to the big pile of dough and then sprinkle water on the drier bits just before you work with them. This sounds awfully complicated, I know, but once you do it yourself you’ll see that it’s not that hard at all.

7. If you want to keep these tapioca balls for some future feast, line a shallow baking pan with parchment paper or plastic wrap and put the pearls there in a single layer so that they don’t clump up. Freeze and then store them in a resealable freezer bag.

8. To cook them, bring a pan of water to a full boil and slide in as many as you like. Stir the pearls occasionally as the water once again comes to a boil. When most the pearls are floating, cover the pan and reduce the heat. Simmer the pearls for 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon the size. They are ready for the next step as soon as they turn very pale, which means that they have cooked through and are full of itsy bitsy bubbles.

9. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit for another 10 or 15 minutes, by which time the bubbles will have collapsed and you will be left with relatively translucent gummy balls.

10. Have a couple spoonfuls of the sugar ready when you drain these. I’ve tried plunging the pearls into cold water to get them to stop sticking together, but that just makes even more of a godawful mess. So do this instead: drain off the water and immediately toss in the sugar while the pearls are still piping hot. The sugar will form a syrup that soothes their tendency to stick together. And there you have it.

11. The pearls are ready to be turned into something delicious. My favorite is lightly sweetened milk tea of some sort, either hot or cold.  I have a recipe for lychee milk tea in All Under Heaven, but use whatever flavors, milks, teas, coffees, or fruit juices you’d like. You should have a long spoon for this, as (again) straws don’t work with these. Or, spoon them on ice cream, shaved ice, or other desserts that would benefit from a wonderful bit of chewiness.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Cold tossed purslane Sichuan style

Purslane is one of those vegetables that tries to disguise itself as a weed. Most times, this is a successful ruse.

I often see it growing in people’s gardens, in public parks, and in fields that offer more obvious variations on produce, for it generally manages to duck under the radar of all but the most finicky gardeners.

Even they, though, can sometimes beguiled by the simple beauty of this succulent, for it is relatively unassuming and offers up jadelike leaves, reddish stems, and tiny yellow flowers in an attempt to curry favor.

I definitely succumbed to its charm long ago, both in my yard and in my kitchen. And now I can’t wait for summer, when the warm weather causes it to sprout all over the place. Like now…

In this recipe, the stems and leaves are quickly blanched and then shocked in ice water, which mellows the natural tartness of purslane and transforms it into a delicious regular on my summer tables.
Eat your weeds

The leaves and stems remain slightly crunchy when prepared this way, and they are then ready to be robed with whatever dressing you’d like. My favorite is something with a good helping of chile oil and goop, plus crushed toasted peanuts to make the texture even more interesting. I guess you can tell by now that in my book, peanuts are welcome in just about anything I make.

Farmers’ markets sometimes offer purslane, as do some ethnic and local greengrocers. You can also hunt it down in walks around your neighborhood. If you do find it, ask if you can weed their yard a bit, and then scurry home while they are still none the wiser.

One caveat: prepare purslane as soon as you can, for the leaves mush up easily. When that happens, prepping this lovely weed turns into a royal pain.

And so, this is what I do: I soak the purslane in a big bowl of ice water for just a little while to perk it up. Then I use my fingernails to trim it. Like asparagus, if you can’t stick your nail into the stem, it’s too tough to eat.

Pretty in its own right
Just break the stems into whatever lengths you like, and drain. They can keep for a couple of hours if wrapped in a paper towel and refrigerated, but they don’t improve much with the wait. So plan ahead, if you can.

The good news, though, is that if the purslane is super fresh, this dish comes together in a snap.

Oh, by the way, purslane is incredibly nutritious. In its raw state it has more omega-3 than any other greens. But even so, I recommend that you blanch it, for raw purslane is also high in oxilates, which is what leads to kidney stones. Besides, for my money purslane is much tastier after it has had a quick bath.

Today’s dressing is more of a suggestion than a recipe. Use it as a template, and then add or subtract whatever you like.

Purslane appetizer Sichuan style
Chuānshì măchĭxiàn 川式馬齒莧
A simple, spicy dressing
Serves 3 or 4

8 ounces | 225 g fresh purslane
Boiling water
Ice water and ice cubes

1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chile oil
1 tablespoon of the goop from chile oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup | 30 g chopped toasted peanuts

1. Rinse the purslane and gently shake dry. Use your fingernails to nip off the stem ends, and then break the stems into whatever lengths you like. Discard any dark or mushy bits.
Perking up the purslane

2. Bring 1 quart | 1 liter water to a full boil. Have a bowl filled with 1 quart | 1 liter ice water and a good handful of ice cubes ready.

3. Drop the purslane into the boiling water and cook for no more than 15 seconds, or until the leaves turn a bright green. Immediately drain the purslane, rinse it with cool water, and then plunge it into the ice bath. Swish it around to cool the purslane down quickly. Drain thoroughly.

4. To make the dressing, mix together the minced garlic, chile oil, goop, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you wish.

5. Just before serving (and not before), toss the purslane with the dressing. Mound the purslane on a serving dish and sprinkle the peanuts around it. Serve cold.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Three late great food writers and the books you should read

This week there’s no recipe, just a farewell to three food writers who influenced me immensely: Madeleine Kamman, Jonathan Gold, and Anthony Bourdain. 

And while I'm doing that, I want to point you in the direction of three books that I hope will change your life as much as they did mine.

You might not know the names of these three outsized personalities – in fact, unless you’re a serious food nerd, you probably only are really familiar with Mr. Bourdain’s work on television – but you will have felt their influence in today’s food scene, for they possessed unique world views and incidentally wrote incredibly well.

Let me start with Mrs. Kamman, who is rarely mentioned nowadays – I mean, she didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until recently, and the current one is cursory at best – but who nonetheless was a great teacher of France’s noble cuisines. She was even a television star in the long-running PBS series Madeleine Cooks, which still holds up as a great how-to guide to French techniques.

She is mostly remembered now for the famous dislike she formed for Julia Child. It’s true, this spat may seem a bit petty to us nowadays, especially as Mrs. Child is (quite rightly) held in such high esteem.

But at the same time, I wonder how much of this was blown out of proportion simply because we got to watch two great women battle it out while we munched on truffle-infused popcorn and sipped chilled chardonnay.

Yes, Mrs. Kamman was prickly, but she was also a classically trained chef. She was a complete pro who ran a glorious restaurant, Chez La Mère Madeleine in Boston. 

Male chefs get to have oversized egos, and they are rewarded handsomely if they can really burn as television stars in the process, but in the Seventies – and honestly, even today – “lady chefs” have always had to keep their personalities in check. I mean, she took on great chefs like Paul Bocuse, but her words got little traction there because, well, a catfight is always more interesting, isn’t it?

Anyway, what I want you to do is to hunt down two of her most marvelous books: The first one is When French Women Cook (1976), a truly delicious food memoir with recipes. It brings to life her belief in cuisine de terroir, cuisine des femmes, and cuisine du coeur.

To Mrs. Kamman, French cooking centered on the kitchens where women were in charge. She was a feminist of the first order, and this shines in the best possible way throughout this gorgeous story of how she learned to cook and eat well.

I have to admit that I really liked her as a person, too. We spoke many times on the phone, and she was generous with her time and knowledge. She even invited me to stay at the home in Vero Beach, Florida, that she shared with her husband, Alan, so I guess I’m prejudiced, but I hope in a good way. Here are two obituaries that describe her perfectly, from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Her other great book is The New Making of a Cook (1997). When I asked her what book she was most proud of, this was her hands-down favorite. She even sent me an autographed copy that I treasure, while my older copy continues to get stained and dog-eared and scribbled up. If you want to learn how to cook like a French chef, this one is a classic. 

*  *  *

Jonathan Gold suddenly left this world Saturday morning. He was without a doubt my idea of the ultimate food writer. 

He could turn a hunt for the perfect taco or some obscure Chinese bowl of noodles into  an adventure seeped in poetry. 

Mr. Gold wrote  for the L. A. TimesGourmet, and L. A. Weekly as a food critic. His legendary command of the English language was combined with unusual insight into the cuisines of the world that make up Los Angeles's culinary landscape. And for that he won the Pulitzer Prize.

And so, if I ever aspired to write like someone, it was Mr. Gold. He was one of the few Americans who seemed to really understand and appreciate the multifaceted cuisines of China – and pretty much every other cuisine he encountered, as well – with endless passion. In fact, passion was what gave his columns such heft, but they were also seasoned with a healthy helping of wit and compassion.

Perhaps even more important, he painted a picture of contemporary Los Angeles that went beyond Hollywood. He could find beauty in the perfectly cooked spleen from some tiny stand and also appreciate the nuances in some roadside bánh mì. I mean, look at the knowledge concentrated in this ode to congee. I read it and feel hunger, admiration... and deep deep envy.

And that is why even now I always look up from his writings with a new appreciation for all that the world’s people have to offer on their plates and in their kitchens. And that is also why when he told me that he liked my work, I felt as if I too had received a Pulitzer, and it gave me the courage to write All Under Heaven. Hero worship here? Yeah, just a little...

Fortunately for all of us, you can always find his columns online. If you hope to learn how to write like Mr. Gold or simply want to understand the cultural kaleidoscope of Los Angeles, read things like this column on the L. A. fires or, hey, any one of these

But if you really want to submerge into his genius, get a copy of Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles (2000). Even the title is insanely perfect, so imagine what you’ll find between those two covers. My copy is underlined, covered with bookmarks, and deeply creased. It is beloved beyond measure.

Here are two obituaries that really capture the inimitable genius that was Jonathan Gold: from Eater and this stunning remembrance from Ruth Reichl in the L.A. Times.

*  *  *

Anthony Bourdain was a celebrity, rightly beloved for his unique voice, effortless charm, and erudite entrees into places we otherwise would have never heard of, much less yearned to visit.

His televisions shows could at times be stunningly beautiful, at other times weird beyond belief, and a particular unforgettable one took us into the heart of Beirut's war. He dined with President Obama in Hanoi (my favorite local Vietnamese place will serve up their meal on request), and he racked up a shelf full of Emmys and other awards in the process. 

His programs were gut-wrenching at times, and at others made me so hungry that I'd have to hit pause and raid the kitchen before I could manage to sit through another minute.

He was a chef, a novelist, a television star, a publisher, and a perennial presence in our cultural consciousness. He even was the star of an episode of Archer, and you can’t get much cooler than that.

But he was always first and foremost an incredible nonfiction writer. His columns in places like Lucky Peach are classic Bourdain: mordant and beautiful.

If I were to pick a favorite book by him, it would be without a doubt his last one, Appetites: A Cookbook (2016). 

This is not a run-of-the-mill guide to cooking, but rather a lovely stroll around Bourdain’s mind as he feeds you the things he adores. You hear his voice in every line, and the recipes work.

Lots of this has to do with the firm hand shown by his cowriter and gatekeeper, Laurie Woolever. Together they made something marvelous. It's a terrific keeper of a cookbook, and one that I keep on my small shelf of favorites in the kitchen. Appetites is one of those lovely books that teaches, entertains, and feeds me in equal measure.

And now I hear that she is now writing his biography. I can’t wait.

His obituaries are legion, but the one in Eater is great, as is this one from the L. A. Times.

*  *  *

We in the world of food writing lost three masters lately. But their voices live on. We are all so much richer for that, and I remember these three with love, respect, and endless thanks.

Madeleine Kamman's photograph: The New York Times
Jonathan Gold's photograph: Associated Press
Anthony Bourdain's photograph: Ecco

Monday, July 16, 2018

Homemade mushroom seasoning

I admit it: I’ve never been a fan of MSG, which makes me really less than chic at the moment. 

And let me stop you right there before you send me an angry comment. 

I don’t want to hear again about how it’s only salt… I’ve listened to all the arguments and remain unmoved, no matter what its boosters say.

But mushroom seasoning? Everybody loves this, including me. 

It adds just the right touch of salt, and it amps up the flavors of whatever you’re cooking like nobody’s business.

Bottom: commercial, top: homemade
The thing is, I just can’t find it in my Chinese groceries very often. 

And if it’s hard for me to find, I’m guessing that folks who don’t live near large Chinese populations will have even a tougher time hunting it down.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that it is really easy to make. Only two ingredients are required: dried mushrooms and sea salt.

You’ll also need a good blender. And that’s it.

For this recipe I tend to rely on dried sliced black mushrooms. Since they are already sliced, this cuts down on the blender’s wear and tear. 

Commercial looks like cheesy poofs
You can use any dried mushrooms you like, as long as they have a great fragrance. Porcinis would be fabulous, or whatever looks good to you.

Do notice that the commercial mushroom seasoning is granular, while homemade is a fine powder. This means that you’ll need to use a spoon or shaker for this powder, instead of just sprinkling it into your pot.

But that’s a small price to pay for something that is so cheap, easy, and delicious.

Mushroom seasoning
Xiānggū jīng 香菇精
Chinese black mushrooms
Makes ⅔ cup | 40 g

1 heaping cup | 20 g sliced dried mushrooms
2 tablespoons | 20 g fine sea salt

1. Place the mushrooms in a dry blender. Cover the blender tightly. Blend the dried mushrooms on low speed until they are fine chunks, and then whirl these on high until you have a very fine powder. Keep the cover on the blender for a few minutes so that the powder has a chance to settle down.

2. Add the salt and pulse the blender a few times to mix. Scrape the mushroom seasoning into a resealable jar and store in the pantry.
Fine sea salt


If you like this as much as I do, devote a whole bag of dried mushroom slices to this recipe. Just weigh the mushrooms and use an equal weight of fine sea salt.

Iodized salt is not recommended, as it has a bitter taste. If you prefer kosher salt, just substitute that for the sea salt, as the measurements should be pretty similar.