Monday, April 13, 2020

Eight treasure tea

Green tea leaves form the base for this traditional hot tea from the Hui parts of the Chinese Northwest. It is then seasoned with things like rock sugar, red dates, wolfberries, dried longans (dragon eye fruit), walnuts, apricot pits, and raisins. Additional herbs and flowers are added to add up to the nominal “eight” ingredients, but these are decided by local and personal preferences.

Other areas in China have their own versions, such as Sichuan. There the tea often contains some local green tea, ginseng, rock sugar, licorice root, wolfberries, raisins, red dates, and finally both jasmine and chrysanthemum blossoms. And instead of green tea, it sometimes is made there with black tea or even dark compressed teas like pu’er.

I’ve tried innumerable variations on this tea over the years, and there’s really no hard and set recipe, as it all depends upon the time of year, what you have available, what you are serving it with, and your personal tastes. But here is a basic recipe that you can tinker around with as you find the combinations you like best.

One thing I do want to point out is that a really good quality tea is important, as it provides that tannic edge that balances the sweetness and fruitiness of the other ingredients. Also, try to hunt down the small yellow chrysanthemums that are grown in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province (Hángzhōu júhuā 杭州菊花), as their fragrance is clean and fresh.

This tea is almost always prepared and served in thin, covered cups that hold around 8 ounces of water. The ingredients are added to the cups, the hot water is poured over everything, and the cover is placed on top. Then, you wait, for it takes around 5 minutes for the flavors to really bloom. More hot water can be added about halfway through the cup, and if you want more sugar, drop a few small pieces in too.

Eight treasure tea
Bābǎochá 八寶茶
Serves 1 (can be multiplied infinitely)

1 teaspoon good green tea leaves
2 small or 1 large Chinese red dates
1 teaspoon wolfberries
1 teaspoon rock sugar
1 teaspoon sweet apricot pits (nánxìng 南杏)
2 dried longans
1 walnut half, lightly crumbled
3 dried chrysanthemum blossoms
1 teaspoon raisins
Boiling water

1. The traditional way to prepare this type of tea is to place the tea leaves, dates, wolfberries, apricot pits, longans, walnut, chrysanthemums, and raisins in a 8- to 12-ounce covered cup before dousing them with enough boiling water to rinse them off. The cover is then angled against the cup as this water is poured off and discarded. Or, if you prefer, you can place these ingredients in a small sieve and simply rinse them under the tap before placing them in your cup.

2. Pour fresh boiling water over the tea’s ingredients, add the sugar, and cover the cup. Wait for a few minutes before sipping so that the tea leaves, fruits, and nuts have time to release their aromas and the sugar to melt. Angle the cover up with one hand to corral these ingredients as you gingerly hold your hot cup with the other and take your first sips. Most of these solids will sink to the bottom of the cup as they swell up, and you can remove the cover at that time, if you wish.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Pure comfort from the Northeast + Europe

 While the areas along the lower Yangtze are home to a vibrant Buddhist food culture that combines ingenuity with a kaleidoscope of fresh ingredients, China’s desert lands pose a challenge for those who prefer meatless meals. 

At least, that was our discovery when my husband and I, then very much dedicated vegetarians, traveled there in the fall of 2001. The problem really wasn’t the lack of vegetables — we ate well, that is for sure — but everyone else in the tour group (nay, the entire Northwest, it seemed) ate little else but meat, and so whenever a restaurant had to think up something to serve just the two of us, panic ensued.

The assumption by the waitstaff and the cooks was that we were undernourished because we were not consuming enough protein, and so we were given combinations of tomatoes with eggs at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For the first few days it was kind of funny, and soon it became a running joke with us, whether we would have tomatoes and eggs, or eggs and tomatoes, or tomato and egg soup, or egg and tomato over noodles, or some other variation on this increasingly monotonous theme. 

Full flavored even in winter
By the second week, I had had enough and insisted that I be able to order my own food. The tour guide assumed I was going to bankrupt them with wild demands, but I pointed out that vegetarian dishes were always the cheapest things on the menu. And so, once we were allowed to order our own meals, we ate great food while managing to completely avoid both tomatoes and eggs. 

It took me about four years before I could even face the idea of tomatoes and eggs again, but when I did, I fell in love all over once again. This dish is so good that it’s popular all over North China, as well as the Northwest. It's also turned into the sort of comfort food that I crave on a regular basis. Plus, it's so easy - and I usually have all the ingredients on hand - that it's turned into a go-to meal for any time of the day.

Not everyone gets such a seemingly pedestrian combination right, so I am going to impart a few secrets here that will turn this into something that is extraordinarily good: 

First, the tomatoes have to be deliciously ripe and the eggs must be fresh and free-range. However, you are not going to find good fresh tomatoes any time of the year except for late summer and early autumn. But the good news is, there is a great alternative: canned cherry tomatoes. 

The best ones are without exception from Europe. These come to you already peeled with few seeds surviving the processing, and that is definitely a happy side effect in my book. Plus, these tomatoes are canned without salt water and instead are bathed in a thick tomato sauce, which makes them even more tomatoey.

Second, you should season this with salt rather than soy sauce to keep the flavors sharp and the colors bright.

Really, this is what you want

Tomatoes and eggs
Xīhóngshì chǎo jīzĭ  西紅柿炒雞子
Serves 4 to 6

1 can (14.28 ounce | 400 g) Italian cherry tomatoes
5 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped, with the whites in one pile and the greens in another
½ to 1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. Drain the tomatoes, but reserve all of the juice. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, swirl in 3 tablespoons of the oil and all of the salt. Fry the ginger and the whites of the onions until they are golden, and then add the tomatoes. Lower the heat to medium-high and fry them, shaking and turning them over every 30 seconds or so until the liquid has evaporated and the tomatoes start to caramelize. Sprinkle on the sugar at this point, toss it into the tomatoes, and when the tomatoes start to get a nice caramelization going, scrape them out onto a plate. 
Caramelize the tomatoes - pure yum!

2. Pour the reserved juice into the wok. Quickly boil this juice down over high heat to concentrate the flavors. When no more than a few tablespoons remain, scrape this concentrated sauce in to the plate with the tomatoes. Lightly rinse the wok.

3. Return the wok to medium-high heat and swirl in the rest of the oil. Stir the onion greens into the eggs and pour the eggs into the wok. Flip the eggs over as they solidify and brown until they have formed a barely firm omelet. Lightly chop the omelet up with your spatula and then toss in the caramelized tomatoes and their sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then serve hot.


You can find canned Italian cherry tomatoes in some supermarkets (try Italian delis, too), as well as online. They're definitely worth the effort.

Thanks to Greatest Tomatoes from Europe for the canned cherry tomatoes. Seriously, folks, I am in love with these.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Honey ginger cheesecake with tomato jam

This is a very Taiwanese take on cheesecake. For one thing, it’s small and cute and light. 

Second, the sweetness has been cut way back. Not only that, but honey is used instead of sugar, which both matches that lovely jam from last week and also inserts a gentle warmth into each bite. Amplifying all this is a crust made from gingerbread cookie crumbs. 

And finally, that tomato jam beautifies an already stunningly caramelized top. A flavor profile like this is completely in line with the Chinese love for surprise, since the red jam suggests that cherries are in the offing, when actually something else is decorating the cake.

Even if you’ve never baked a cheesecake in your life, this way with cheesecakes is so easy to pull together that you will be amazed. 

Not chocolate... caramelized honey!
Here are a couple of secrets to make sure that the cake doesn’t crack and keeps its beautiful, mirror-like top:

First, use only room-temperature cream cheese, yogurt, and eggs. 

Second, use a handheld mixer to beat the cheese mixture. It’s too easy to work a bunch of air into the cheese with a stand mixer, but if that’s all you have, then be sure to keep the stand mixer’s speed on low and mix for as short a time as possible.

Third, let the cheesecake cool down slowly. Release the sides with a knife to prevent the cake from clinging to the pan as it continues to gradually collapse in an even manner. Then, refrigerate the cake when it’s come to room temperature.
Chunky cookies...

Honey ginger cheesecake with tomato jam
Fēngmì jiāngxiāng rŭlào dàngāo  蜂蜜薑香乳酪蛋糕
My take on Taiwanese pastry
Serves 6

Spray oil
¾ cup | 90 g gingerbread cookie crumbs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

cooked down to a smooth crust
6 tablespoons | 135 g honey
Around 1 pound | 500 g cream cheese, room temperature
¼ cup | 75 g sweetened Greek yogurt
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs, room temperature and lightly beaten
½ teaspoon lemon extract, optional

Boiling water, as needed

1. Spray the inside of a 6 inch | 15 cm springform cake pan with oil. Wrap the outside with two sheets of foil to prevent the butter from dribbling out into your oven and making a smoky mess. Set your oven rack in the center and heat the oven to 350°F | 175°C.
Fill the pan

2. Place the cookies in a plastic bag and bash them about with a rolling pin. You don’t have to crush them finely, as they will smooth out as they bake. Toss the crumbs with the melted butter and then spread this over the bottom of the cake pan. Bake the crust for about 8 minutes, or until the edges are slightly browned. Remove from the oven, but keep the foil wrapped around the pan.

3. Spray oil in a small measuring cup before pouring out the honey, as this will make it a whole lot easier to scrape out all the honey. Use a handheld mixer to beat the cream cheese only until it looks creamy – you don’t want to beat lots of air into it at any point, so stop when you can’t seen any large lumps. 

Water bath for even heat
4. Mix in the honey, yogurt, and salt only until they disappear into the cheese, and then gently beat in the eggs and optional lemon extract. When the mixture looks like sour cream, scrape this into the cake pan and gently shake the pan to even out the filling. 

5. Set the foil-wrapped cake pan in an 8-inch | 20-cm square pan and pour boiling water around the cake pan to create a water bath (aka a bain marie). Place the pans in the oven and bake for 75 to 90 minutes, or until the cheesecake is barely set. The top will caramelize somewhere along the way, and the cake will smell incredibly good. It will also have risen a whole lot like a soufflé at this point. 

6. Remove the pans and set them on the stove to cool off for 5 minutes or so – don’t remove the cake pan from the water bath, as you want the cheesecake to cool down very slowly. After 5 or so minutes, carefully run a sharp knife around the edge of the cheesecake to release it, as this will help reduce cracking. 
Souffle action!

7. After about 30 minutes, remove the cheesecake from the water bath to let it cool down a bit faster. After another 30 minutes, cover the cheesecake and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight, but keep the bottom wrapped in foil just in case some butter has escaped down there.

7. Just before serving, remove the cake from the pan to a pretty plate and either cover its top with the tomato jam or serve it on the side.

Canned tomatoes provided by the folks at Greatest Tomatoes from Europe - grazie 

Monday, January 6, 2020

Tomato and candied ginger jam

Ta-da, and welcome to my very successful attempt to bring the warm days of summer straight up into the dead of winter via tomato jam. 

Most folks don’t think of tomatoes as being good candidates for jam, but these are after all berries—we’re just used to finding them in savory dishes, is all. 

You certainly can use fresh tomatoes here, but good canned tomatoes are a couple million times easier, since then you won’t need to peel them. Plus, a really tasty canned tomato will be full-flavored, so most of the guesswork will be tossed out of the equation, too. 

In my recent experiments with this suddenly beloved ingredient, I’ve come to rely on the excellent canned tomatoes of Europe (Italy, really) that have nothing added—no salt, no water, no basil, no nothing. Most of the seeds have somehow been magically eliminated, too, which makes me even happier.

Instant summer
I’ve given this brilliantly red jam a really good spectrum of flavors with candied ginger for heat, fresh lemon juice and zest for tartness, honey for sweetness, and just a dash of salt to round these all out. You can pull this together from start to finish in around half an hour, and it really is delicious.

This is excellent with cheese and crackers or in toasted cheese sandwiches or on cold chicken. 

Tomato and candied ginger jam
Fānqié jiāngtáng guŏjiàng  番茄薑糖果醬
Makes about 2½ cups | 600 ml

2 (400 g) cans peeled tomatoes, preferably European
8 ounces | 225 g (about ⅔ cup) honey
Zest and strained juice of 1 lemon
2 ounces | 55 g candied ginger, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon sea salt

Half the fun lies in smooshing the tomatoes
1. Dump the tomatoes and all their juices into a tall 4 quart | 4 liter saucepan. Use your hand to squish the tomatoes into submission—they don’t have to be totally mashed up, as some larger chunks add a nice bit of texture to the final jam. 

2. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir this pretty much constantly over medium-high heat for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the tomatoes are reduced to a thick, glossy, syrupy, bright red goo. If you’re using a thermometer, the mixture should reach about 220°F | 105°C.

3. Remove the pan from the heat, cool it down to room temperature, transfer to a closed container, and refrigerate. This freezes well if you don’t plan to use it up quickly. 

Thanks to Greatest Tomatoes from Europe for the sample cans!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Rice cakes with yellow chives and mushrooms

One of the glories of East Chinese cooking is its artistry with rice, particularly sticky rice. 

In other parts of the country these grains are turned into equally sticky dishes or ingredients.

However, Zhejiang province in particular has mastered their transformation into hard white logs or small batons that are literally called year cakes, but which we know as rice cakes, which still doesn’t make much sense in English, but there you go. 

Be that as it may, since they are called year cakes in Chinese, they make the perfect vegan dish for the Lunar New Year (January 25 this year). Plus, these are so crazily easy to make that they should probably be on regular rotation throughout the year.

Korean sliced rice cakes
I’ve found that some of the most reliable brands now available in the Bay Area actually come from Korean manufacturers since they have become a beloved staple in Korean cuisine, where they’re known as tteok.

When it comes to Chinese yellow chives, the main thing you want to be concerned with is freshness. Each leaf should look bright, shiny, and full of pep. 

This vegetable goes south so fast no matter how hard you try to treat them with love and respect, so count on using them no later than the day after you buy them. 

If you've done that, they are easy to prep: just rinse and cut them into the desired length. 
Super fresh yellow chives

If not, you'll have to spend precious time slowly picking over them, pulling out the slimy leaves, and that is no treat. Plus, they smell awful if they're not extremely bouncy, so choose your yellow chives carefully and use them immediately.

Fresh mushrooms of any kind are delicious here. I've used Chinese black mushrooms, but feel free to improvise to your heart's content. And be sure to season this with salt, not soy sauce, since you want the beauty of the chives to shine through.

Rice cakes with yellow chives and mushrooms
Jĭucàihuáng xiānggū chăo nián’gāo 韭菜黃香菇炒年糕
Cook these only til wilted
Serves 4

½ cup | 125 ml peanut or vegetable oil, divided in half
½ teaspoon sea salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces | 250 g fresh mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1 pound | 500 g yellow Chinese chives, trimmed and cut into 1-inch | 2-cm pieces
8 ounces | 250 g sliced rice cakes
½ cup mild rice wine
2 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
Salt to taste

Sliced fresh Chinese black mushrooms
1. Pour half the oil in a wok set over medium-high heat and toss in the salt, garlic, and mushrooms. Stir-fry them until the mushrooms are golden on the edges, and the slide them out into a work bowl. Without adding any more oil, toss in the yellow chives and stir-fry them until they have barely wilted. Add these to the mushrooms.

2. Pour the rest of the oil into the wok and add the rice cakes. Toss these around until they have gently browned on the edges, and then add the rice wine and boiling water. Simmer the rice cakes, stirring often from the bottom, until the water has reduced to a thick gravy. Toss in the mushrooms, chives, and sesame oil, and then add more salt as needed to taste. Serve hot as an entrée or side.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Something special for the Lunar New Year table

Mark Saturday, January 25 on your calendar, boys and girls, for that is the beginning of the Lunar New Year. This time around we will be celebrating the Year of the Rat, as well as the beginning of a whole new decade that I hope will be much less stressful than the last and full of joy for you all.

With that in mind, I’m offering up this marvelous dish from Hunan. Its finished shape calls to mind the idea of togetherness or even a silver ingot (don’t get all judgey on me here… this is Chinese Culture 101), so it is an appropriately auspicious thing to serve as you usher in the New Year. 

As always, hunt down an excellent butcher to hook you up with this fresh pork hock (or shank). Its flavor is paramount to the success of the dish, and supermarket pork just won’t do. If you don’t have Shaoxing rice wine, sherry or even a dry white wine will work here, since it’s not a dominant flavor. 

Only a little bit of bean sauce is called for here (and, please notice, no soy sauce or salt), and that will probably end up being enough for your taste, as it imparts just a gentle salinity to the sauce and pork. Be sure and use a bean sauce that doesn’t have chilies in it, for this is a classic Hunan dish that offers up only muted suggestions of heat through the diced fresh chile that, of course, can way up be high on the Scoville scale if that is what spins your wheels. 

Make this over a leisurely three days to give the pork time to slowly braise and absorb the flavors while shuffling off the fat under its skin. This fatty layer will turn into a bit of buttery delight by the time you stick it in your mouth. And be sure and reserve the melted fat for something else—it’s flavorful lard that will be great in things like cōngyóubĭng (fried scallion flatbreads), where it will make those flaky layers even flakier. 

Hunan braised pork hock
Húnán zŏuyóu típăng 湖南走油蹄髈
Fresh pork hock
Serves 6 to 8

Pork and first braise:
1 pork hock (about 3 pounds | 1.5 kg), bone in 
and skin on
Water, as needed
1 cup | 250 ml Shaoxing rice wine
6 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
A handful of thinly sliced ginger
3 star anise
2 teaspoons ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns

Second braise:
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons bean sauce (such as Sichuan-style dòubànjiàng 豆瓣醬 or Cantonese yuánshàichĭ  原曬豉 or 原晒豉)
1 tablespoon crushed rock sugar
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Blanched and ready to go
Finishing ingredients:
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 red chile, seeded and finely chopped
2 green onions, finely chopped

1. Start this recipe at least 2 days before you plan to serve it. Place the pork in a saucepan, preferably one with a relatively tight fit so that lots of water are not needed, as this will dilute the flavors. Add water so that the pork is more or less submerged and bring the pan to a boil. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to blanch it, turning the pork over once or twice when you think of it. Dump out the water and rinse off both the pork and the pan. Return the hock to the pan.

2. Add the rice wine, garlic, ginger, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns to the pork. Pour in enough boiling water to almost cover the hock. Bring the pan to a boil and then lower the heat to a bare simmer. Slowly braise the pork for 3 hours. Turn off the heat, cover, and let it sit overnight. 

3. Pour the oil into a small pan and add the bean sauce. Stir this over medium heat until the sauce simmers, and then scrape this into the pan with the pork. Add the rock sugar and vinegar, bring the pan to a boil, and then lower the heat again to a bare simmer. Braise the pork for around 2 hours. Turn off the heat, cover, and let it sit overnight. 

Pour on the sauce
4. Remove the melted fat that has solidified on top of the liquid. Remove the pork hock and place it on a rimmed heatproof plate bowl. Steam the pork for around 2 hours. It will be perfectly done when you can easily twist the larger bone in the hock. While the pork is steaming away, strain the braising sauce into a smaller saucepan and discard the solids. 

5. Remove the hock from the steamer and pour any juices into the smaller saucepan. Bring the braising sauce to a full boil and quickly reduce it until it starts to thicken—you should have about 1 cup | 250 ml of thick sauce. Add the finishing ingredients, bring the sauce to a boil, simmer about 5 minutes, and then taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. Pour the sauce over the hock and serve it whole so that your diners can enjoy it before you slice it into wedges. Serve this with hot steamed rice.