Monday, May 21, 2018

Homemade Taiwanese mustard pickles

Home fermentation is way easier than it sounds. All you really need is a pickling crock and a weight to press things down nicely inside the crock, and you’re halfway home. 

A digital scale is also very helpful, if you have access to one of those, since it makes measuring things that much easier. But really, other than that, you just require sea salt, fresh vegetables, clean water, and time.

Make sure everything is squeaky clean, as the number one reason for pickles going south is that somewhere along the line contamination sneaked in. 

Check out this recipe for traditional Sichuan pickles on how to set up a pickle crock, where to get one, what they look like, and all that good stuff. 

Split open the cleaned heads
My secret to success is that I scrub the utensils and douse them with boiling water. My hands are washed thoroughly before I mess around with the pickles, and I ensure that the veggies completely air dry before they are salted. Plus, I like to add a small splash of white liquor to add flavor and a sort of bacterial Band-Aid.

I’m rewarded with pickles that taste the way they used to. Nowadays everything is made in such huge batches and then packaged for goodness knows how long. You really don’t know what is in that pickle, or how much and what kind of preservatives got used. With homemade, it’s all very simple and very natural.

In order to get a pretty yellow tinge, I've added fresh turmeric, about a finger or two will do it per batch. The amount doesn't really matter, as you won't taste it. And it is optional, in case you don't have access to it. Once the pickles are done, you can either remove the turmeric or keep it in.
Dry under the sun for a couple of days

The good news is that these pickles taste truly wonderful. They are not too sour, but rather gently tart and nicely flavorful. Unlike commercially made ones, you don't need to rinse off the extra salt or overpowering sourness. Instead, just pluck them out of the brine and slice away. They are even tasty raw!

The traditional way to use them in Taiwan is to stir-fry the pickles with dried chiles. Any way you cut them, though, these are delicious, with the tangy heat of mustard and the exceptional crunch of very happy vegetables.

Wilted mustard heads
Taiwanese mustard pickles
Táiwān suāncài 台灣酸菜
Taiwan cuisine
Makes as much as you want

Fresh head mustard
Coarse sea salt
Filtered water, boiled and cooled
Fresh turmeric, thinly sliced, optional
Gaoliang or gin

1. Start this recipe at least 3 weeks before you plan to serve it. If you have a digital scale, your job will be much easier, as the math will be that much easier to work with. Choose a sunny day to start this, as the mustard has to be sun-dried for 24 to 48 hours. Have a couple of clean flat baskets ready, or else cover your baking sheets with very clean tea towels.

Rub with salt
2. Weigh your mustard and write this down. Don’t throw that piece of paper away, since the remaining ingredients will depend upon it for accuracy. Rinse the mustard and cut the heads in half, or quarters if they are particularly large. Shake the mustard dry and lay it out on the baskets or towel-lined baking sheets in single layers. Sun-dry the mustard for 1 to 2 days, just until the leaves start to shrivel and the stems no longer look perky. Cover the mustard if you keep it out overnight. 

3. Prepare your pickling crock and the weights by cleaning and rinsing them very well. Place the weights in the crock and pour boiling water halfway up the crock. Dump out the water when it has cooled and air-dry the crock (as well as the weights) upside-down on a clean tea towel.

Weights on the mustard
4. Measure out your coarse salt: you will need 2.5% of the weight of your mustard. In other words, for every 1 kg you will need 25 g coarse salt. (If you don’t remember how to do this, multiply the total weight of the mustard by 0.025.) Place a head or two of the mustard in a large work bowl and scrub the mustard really well with the salt, as this will help release the juices and speed up the pickling. Transfer the raggedy mustard to the crock and repeat with the rest of the mustard and salt until they have all be used up. Add the optional turmeric.

5. Place the weights on the mustard and press down. Tuck in any pieces that are sticking above the weights, as a flatter surface will help cut down on spoilage. Cover the mustard and weights with cool water. This should be the original weight of the mustard times by about 0.7. (Or, around 700 ml cool water per 1 kg of mustard.) Sprinkle the top of the water with the gaoliang or gin, at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 1 kg of mustard.

Worth the minimal effort
6. Place the crock in a cool, dark area. Cover it and then pour water in the moat around the lid. Check the pickles after a couple of days, as they should start to smell a bit sour. Keep the water level around the lid high to prevent contamination. (If you use another type of pickling crock, follow package directions.) If you have a pickle crock with a moat, you will be rewarded with lots of farts within a day or two. As the farts die down, this means the fermentation is slowing down and the pickles are nearing perfection. Check them after about 3 weeks; cut off a piece and taste it. The pickle should taste tart and gently salty. When you're satisfied, transfer the pickles to sterilized Mason jars or brand new resealable plastic bags or some other spanking clean containers. Refrigerate the pickles in their juices until needed.


If the arithmetic seems confusing, think of it this way:
1 kg mustard
25 g sea salt
750 ml cool water
1 finger fresh turmeric
1 tablespoon gaoliang or gin

Monday, May 14, 2018

Cantonese cheesy fried chicken

Guangdong is home to some of the best southern fried chicken around. Yes, Georgia and Alabama and all the rest of our own Deep South can fairly lay claim to superb fried birds.

But think about this: you marinate the chicken in a wine-infused cheesy sauce before coating it in cornstarch. Then, you fry it up nice and crunchy, then toss it with green onions and salt. Sitting down to a summer supper that stars this dish would be one even your beloved grandma would be proud to call her own!

You can use storebought nanru or use homemade. If you have never made bean curd cheese before, this is a good excuse to start. Think of brie crossed with red wine. Oh yes.
Toss in cornstarch one by one

Not much work at all here. This is pure deliciousness.

Cheesy fried chicken
Nánrŭ zhájī  南乳炸雞
Serves 6

12 chicken wings (about 2 pounds | 1 kg), preferably free range
3 cubes red bean curd cheese (nanru), plus 1 tablespoon of the sauce
¼ cup mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
Frying oil (used ok if it smells good)
1 cup | 180 g cornstarch
Coarse sea salt, to taste
1 finely chopped green onion
Fry till crunchy and gold

1. Start this recipe at least 7 hours before you plan to serve it to give the wings time to marinate. Pat the wings dry and cut them between the drumstick and the second section. Leave the wingtips on, if you like.

2. In a medium work bowl, mash the bean curd cheese with the sauce and rice wine. Add the ginger and the chicken, toss lightly, cover, and refrigerate for 6 hours and up to a day or so to fully marinate the wings.

3. Prepare a baking sheet by covering it with tempura or parchment paper and heat your oven to 275°C | 135°C. Just before serving, pour about 1 inch | 2 cm frying oil in a wok and set it over medium-high heat. 

Yes, you want this
4. Place the cornstarch in a work bowl and toss the wings in the starch, one at a time, so that they become fully covered. Lightly shake off any extra cornstarch, and then slide the wing into the hot oil. Don’t overcrowd the wok, so cook around 6 pieces at a time. Adjusting the heat as necessary, fry them on both sides until they are golden brown, around 7 minutes. Make sure no blood seeps out of the cut ends, as that means the chicken isn’t fully cooked yet. 

5. Transfer the cooked chicken to the baking sheet, sprinkle with some salt and green onions, and repeat with the rest of the chicken until done. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, if you like. Transfer to a platter and serve hot.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Shishito peppers Hunan style

Pork fried with fresh peppers is a Hunan classic, and it’s one we ate time and again in Taiwan.

We never tired of it because each restaurant had its own spin on the flavors: some added fermented black beans, other piled on the garlic, and some added really hot peppers into the mix instead of the usual mild green ones.

But the weather is finally warming up around here in the Bay Area and so shishito peppers are in season. I can think of no better way to enjoy them than Hunan style. Even if you are somewhat heat averse, you probably will love shishito peppers. 

Seared and luscious
These have a terrific flavor that really blooms when you gently fry them whole. 

In fact, they are a whole lot like Spain’s padrón peppers in that most are mild, they’re green, and they can be turned into some of the best appetizers and tapas you’ll ever find. (And if you can't find shishito peppers but the padróns are looking good, use them instead.)

Shishito peppers are, I think, from Japan. Or, at least, the name is. Shishi means “lion,” and tōgarashi means “pepper,” so you might think, well, this English name is a mash up, things were cut off in the wrong place, and by all rights these should be called shishi peppers. But then again, shishi in Japanese also means to pee, so I guess more thought went into it than appears on the surface.

Anyhoo, shishito peppers are at their tastiest when you slowly fry them in a minimum of oil until the surfaces are blistered and the insides are cooked. You don’t have to poke holes in them or remove the stems or seeds. Just rinse, pat dry, and fry. 
Now's the season

The main thing to remember is to not rush the process, but instead lovingly brown them over a period of about 15 minutes. The results are divine. The seeds are edible, and so the only thing you’ll end up tossing are the stems.

This tastes like early summer…

Shishito peppers and pork Hunan style
Xiāngshì shīzĭlàjiāo chăo ròusī  湘式獅子辣椒炒肉絲
Serves 4

6 ounces | 170 g fresh shishito peppers
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
An updated classic
1 boneless pork chop (about 5 ounces | 150 g), frozen for about 30 minutes
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1½ teaspoons regular soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons finely julienned ginger
2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinse and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar

1. Rinse the peppers and pat them dry. Set a wok over medium-high heat and swirl in the oil. Add the peppers and reduce the heat to low-medium. Toss the peppers occasionally so that they brown evenly. You want them to be more or less gold and gently seared all over, although you don’t have to be utterly thorough about this. The total cooking time should be about 15 minutes. Remove the peppers to a work bowl and return all the oil to the wok.
Freeze for easy slicing

2. While the peppers are cooking, prepare the pork: Remove it from the freezer and slice it into thin julienne. (Freezing the meat for a short period of time makes it much easier to handle.) Place the meat in a small work bowl and toss it with the rice wine and soy sauce.

3. When all the peppers have been cooked, turn the heat under the wok back up to medium-high and add the garlic, ginger, and black beans. Stir-fry these for a few minutes to release their aromas. Add the pork and marinade, and continue to stir-fry them until the meat is no longer pink. Increase the heat to high and add the peppers, vinegar, and sugar. Toss until most of the sauce has evaporated. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve hot.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A Chinese take on coffee cake

It’s not that hard to turn a Western style cake into something that’s just a bit Chinese. All you need to do is sub in Asian ingredients, like ginger for cinnamon, black sugar for white, wolfberries for raisins, and so on. 

One other thing: you should lower the sweetness considerably in order to make it taste even more Chinese.

This is a classic case in point. It’s the sort of thing that I can confidently serve to my Chinese friends with the knowledge that they will go crazy for it. It’s just Chinese enough to feel and taste familiar, yet Western enough to still be good old coffee cake.

Coconut wolfberry coffee cake chez Huang
Sweet-sour wolfberries
Huaángjiā yēzĭ gŏuqĭ kāfēidàngāo  黃家椰子枸杞咖啡蛋糕
Makes one 10-inch | 25-cm Bundt cake, and serves 16 or more

¾ cup | 75 g chopped walnuts
1¼ cups | 180 g dried wolfberries (aka goji or gouqi berries)
1 cup | 50 g flaked or shaved coconut
1 cup packed | 200 g black or dark brown sugar
¼ teaspoon sea salt

1 cup | 225 g | 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed | 200 g black or dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon coconut extract or coconut rum
3 cups | 525 g cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups whole fat plain yogurt
Filling peeking out of the batter

Spray oil

1. Place a rack in the lower third of your oven and heat to 350°F | 175°C. Put the walnuts on a small baking tray and toast them until they are golden and smell great. Rinse the wolfberries, shake dry, and toss them in a work bowl with the toasted walnuts, coconut, sugar, and salt.

2. Spray a 10-inch | 25-cm Bundt pan (see Tips). Using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together until they are light. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and finally add the coconut extract or liqueur.

3. Mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a work bowl. Alternate adding these dry ingredients to the butter mixture with the yogurt in about six steps. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Fresh out of the oven
4. Pour about a third of the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle half of the fruits and nuts over the batter, add another layer of batter, then another layer of fruits and nuts, and then top it off with the rest of the batter. Lightly bang the pan on your counter to settle the batter.

5. Set the pan on a baking sheet to catch any drips, and then place it in the oven. Bake the cake for about 30 minutes. If the top is browning too quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Continue baking for another 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the thickest area comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool for at least 15 minutes before turning it over on a cake rack or plate.


If you are using a patterned Bundt pan, such as Nordicware, consider using spray oil that is mixed with flour, as this helps prevent the cake from sticking to the pan.

Always wash these cake pans by hand. I soak them just until the baked-on batter is soft, and then brush them gently before letting them air dry.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Not your momma's peanut brittle

I fell in seriously in love with Taiwan’s sweets practically from the moment I stepped off the plane. Peanut candy soon became one of the pillars of my diet. 

Part of the appeal was the lowered level of sweetness, as maltose is often used in place of part of the sugar. The other source of this lifelong addiction was the flavor and crispness of Taiwan’s peanuts, which are insanely good.

Penghu, or the Pescadores Islands, as they used to be called—Portuguese fishermen sailing around in Chinese waters just wasn’t that long ago, was it?—is an archipelago of about 90 isles scattered in the Taiwan Straits, right between Taiwan and Fujian. It also happens to be home to some of the greatest peanuts in the world. Yes, they are a bit on the small side, but these red-skinned wonders are worth seeking out.

I’ve played a bit with tradition here and come up with something that works wonderfully as a bar snack. Instead of the usual sweetness and light of regular old school Chinese peanut brittle, I’ve made this a whole lot zippier. These can be seriously addictive chile bombs if you can get your hands on good quality peanuts seasoned with chiles and citrus.

For, that heat is marvelous and cuts the cloyingness of the candy. Plus, the citrusy touch (probably due to citric acid, rather than real limes or lemons) will have you reaching for another square while your mouth is still working on a piece. Serve these with chilled beer.

If you would prefer straight-up brittle, use plain toasted peanuts. Add about ½ teaspoon salt if the peanuts are unsalted, and then serve the brittle with hot tea. 

Your best bet for toasted peanuts would be a health food store with a fast turnover and a good selection of bulk bins. In my area, that might be Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods. Places like Trader Joe’s have some good spiced nuts, too, but you won’t be able to sample them.

Caramelizing syrup
Get your maltose at any self-respecting Chinese grocery store. It comes in plastic tubs and usually is hiding on the sugar aisle. It’s easiest to weigh maltose, rather than spoon it out into a measuring cup. Either way, nuke the opened jar for about a minute, or just until the maltose has softened enough to spoon or pour out. It’s always a good idea to spray your measuring cup or bowl with oil, as otherwise maltose can be hellishly sticky.

That being said, that maltose makes for one heck of a great candy. The brittle really is crunchy, rather than sticky, because the sugars were all caramelized. So you see, we have caramel + peanuts + chile. I’m definitely in my happy place.

Crispy spicy Chinese peanut brittle chez Huang
Gooey strings that harden up
Huángjiā làxiāngcuì huāshēngtáng 黃家辣香脆花生糖
Makes almost 2 pounds | 850 g

Spray oil
1 cup | 200 g sugar
⅔ cup | 225 g maltose (see headnotes)
½ cup | 125 ml water
1 pound | 450 g toasted chile-lime peanuts, or any other unsweetened toasted nuts
¼ cup | 40 g toasted sesame seeds, optional

1. Prepare an 8 x 8 inch | 20 x 20 cm metal pan and a sheet of parchment paper (or foil) by spraying them lightly with oil, and have a silicone spatula ready. Place the sugar, maltose, and water in a high, 2-quart | 2-liter steel pan. (You will need the light color of the metal in order to determine when the sugar has caramelized, and it should have high sides so that the syrup doesn’t bubble over.)

Press into an even layer
2. Bring the syrup mixture to a full boil over medium heat, stirring it occasionally. As soon as it boils, cover the pan and cook the syrup for a couple of minutes so that the steam washes down any sugar, which might otherwise cause the syrup to crystallize after it cools, instead of staying nice and smooth.

3. Remove the cover and cook the syrup until it starts to caramelize, which will take about 10 minutes. The syrup will bubble up into a froth first, and then settle down into a smaller layer of bubbles just before the sugar darkens. Swirl the pan as it boils to achieve an even, light golden hue. It will smell like caramel when it’s ready. If you’d prefer to use a candy thermometer, that would be about 320°F | 160°C. When you have caramelized syrup in your pan, reduce the heat to the absolute minimum.

Perfect for Chinese New Year, too
4. At that moment, quickly stir in the nuts and optional sesame seeds, and then mix them thoroughly with the spatula so as to coat each piece well. Keeping the pan on low heat will help keep the syrup from seizing up. Scrape the mixture out into the prepare pan. Immediately cover the pan with the oiled paper and the towel, and then press down on it to create a level layer.

5. Cool the candy for a couple of minutes, just until the bottom of the pan is warm. Turn the pan over onto a cutting board and slice it into small squares or rectangles. Refrigerate in a covered container.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Smoked pork cheeks chez Huang

Pork jowls, pork cheeks… whatever you want to call them, these are bacon-y parts of the pig that you rarely can ever find in a supermarket, or even in a high end butcher’s shop for that matter. I find this truly odd. Every pig on the planet is going to have two of these lovely chunks of meat, so where do they all go?

As for the other parts of the pig, you usually can’t find pork belly with the skin on that often, either, but at least that gets turned into bacon. But those cheeks? They look very much like the belly and have the same delicious layering of meat and fat—ribbons of red muscle interwoven with strips of white lard. I do wish Americans would get wise to this great cut of meat. Italians are sensible folks who turn this into guanciale by curing it. (Ergo, I love the Italians.) So, pester your butcher to start offering this.
Bouncy, bouncy

To get started, you will need to find yourself a good butcher shop and put in an order for jowls. Not everyone will be able to accommodate you, so look around. The delivery of this cut of meat might take a while, so do not even think about making this on the spur of the moment. While you’re doing that, order two or four pig’s ears, since we soon will have spectacular recipe for that, too. As always, make sure the pig comes from a responsible farmer who gave it a great life. And order more, if you love this, and then freeze the meat, either raw or already prepared.

Today’s recipe is one that I developed myself, and it is one that I adore. I braise the cheeks in a highly seasoned broth before smoking them. The results are out of this world. What happens is this: the salt and herbs and spices in the broth work their way into the meat and fat and skin of the cheeks over the course of about three hours. The pork cools off and firms up, and then it is smoked over tea and rice, which makes this much like the most subtle, creamy bacon you ever imagined in your wildest dreams.

That's four cheeks
The good news is that the cooking doesn’t take much time at all… you just let the chunks simmer away, and later on you plop them into the smoker. That’s it. And before you serve them, the cheeks are sliced into thin strips that are then steamed, which encourages most of the fat the exit the cells, leaving behind that extraordinary Chinese concept called yóuérbúnì, or buttery without being fatty.

You should set aside a bit of time for the prep work, though. There’s no two ways about it. Cheeks come with the skin attached, and that is definitely what you want, but pigs are hairy creatures, and the enjoyment of their skin will require a bit of effort on your part. No free lunch and all that.

Arm yourself with Chinese food tweezers (or a pair of needle-nose pliers plus regular tweezers), as well as a razor of some sort. You will have to carefully pluck out all the hairs. This is not hard at all, especially if you do this after you’ve blanched the jowls, since this tightens the skin and makes the hairs stick up a bit. But it will require you to relax, find yourself a comfortable chair and some good light, and then you will be busy plucking out as many hairs as you can find. After that you can shave off any renegades.

I like to serve this meat steamed, which will render out most of the remaining fat. The meat turns into silk at that point. I serve it over cucumber ribbons, which have a slight sweetness and bitterness that contrasts perfectly with the smoked meat. As a final touch, I like to make a garlicky vinaigrette. Perfection.

Smoked pork cheeks chez Huang
Huángjiā xūn zhū sāibāngziròu 黃家薰豬腮幫子肉
Northern Chinese
Serves 12 to 16 easily
Massive dose of flavor

4 pork jowls with the skin on, about 4 pounds | 1.75 kgs
6 star anise
6 pieces dried licorice root
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
½ stick cinnamon
½ cup white liquor (like gaoliang), or gin
2 tablespoons sea salt
6 slices fresh ginger

¼ cup black tea leaves
¼ cup raw rice
1 tablespoon sugar
Spray oil
Love demands sacrifices

Vinaigrette (per jowl):
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce

1. At least 3 days and up to 2 weeks before you plan to serve these, rinse the cheeks thoroughly and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover them with water and blanch the pork for 10 minutes, and then wash both the pork and the pan clean. Let the cheeks cool off until they are cool enough to handle easily. Use Chinese tweezers or a combination of needle-nose pliers and regular tweezers to remove as many of the hairs as you can. Shave off any fuzz. Rinse the cheeks again.

2. Place the cheeks back in the saucepan and cover them with water. Add the rest of the ingredients up to the ginger. Bring the liquid to a full boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Slowly cook the cheeks until you can pierce them easily with a chopstick, about 3 hours. Remove the meat, shake off any spices, and discard the broth. Cool the pork and refrigerate it overnight.
Out of the smoker

3. To smoke the pork, place the tea, rice, and sugar in the bottom of your smoker. Spray the rack and lid with oil. Arrange the pork on the rack skin-side up. Set the smoker over medium-high heat and then adjust the heat to maintain a good stream of smoke, but so not that the smoke smells bitter, as this will lend a sour taste to the meat. Allow the pork to smoke for 20 to 30 minutes, turn off the heat, and let the cheeks sit in the smoker for another 10 minutes to absorb more smoke. When the pork is cool, transfer it to a container and refrigerate overnight, where it will be fine for a week or two, although it also can be frozen.

4. Just before serving, cut the meat on a diagonal across the grain. Set the slices in a heatproof bowl. Steam the pork for 30 minutes or more, and pour out the fat that accumulates into another bowl. (This fat is excellent for things like flatbreads, so keep it, if you can. It will stay in good shape as long as it is refrigerated in a closed container.) The pork is ready when the fat looks translucent. Serve as is or arrange it on a mound of cucumbers cut into thin ribbons.

5. To make a simple Chinese vinaigrette, lightly chop the garlic. Set your wok over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl it around, and then add the garlic. Sauté the garlic until it smells amazing, and then add the vinegar and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour this over the cucumbers and serve immediately.