Monday, August 19, 2019

Taiwanese comfort food in the guise of burdock and beef

I was introduced to this earthy, comforting dish during my first year in Taiwan, and I’ve loved it ever since. This is so perfectly balanced—basically vegetable confetti seasoned with a smattering of beef—that I usually just serve it with steamed rice and consider myself well fed. 

The Taiwanese version most likely evolved out of the Japanese dish known as gyu to gobo no shigure-ni (where the two main ingredients are braised in a sweetish soy broth), and I have to say with absolutely no prejudice at all that the Taiwanese version knocks my socks off to a much greater degree. 

Part of this is due to the texture. In a stir-fry, the burdock is allowed to retain more of its firm texture, so it comes across as some sort of cousin to bamboo shoots. Plus, all of the ingredients julienned, which allows them to mingle in delightful ways and giving each mouthful a range of mouthfeels and flavors.

Burdock doesn’t get a whole lot of love here in the West—to be honest, most folks here probably haven’t even heard of it—and so it’s sometimes hard to find outside of an Asian market. Japanese and some Chinese groceries usually carry it, though, and it will be displayed in a long box filled with wood shavings or sawdust. Sometimes it will go by its Japanese name, gobo, while others will call it níubàng 牛蒡, but it’s easy to recognize, as few other vegetables are as startlingly long as a burdock root. 

They appear as slender beige to brownish tubers sprinkled with hairy little rootlets. Most are around 1 yard | meter in length and about an inch | 2 cm wide, so they’re hard to miss. When you rub your hand along one, make sure it feels firm at both ends, as this tells you it hasn’t dried out. The skin will have the texture of an elephant’s hide, if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to pet a pachyderm. Burdock roots are typically sold by the pound, and so the grocery clerk will very likely snap it in half in order to set it on the scale. Don’t get upset, as this doesn’t hurt the tuber in the least.
Rounds, slices, and julienned matchsticks

When you get home, wrap it in a plastic bag, keep it dry, and refrigerate. You will need to peel it before you cut it up, so have a work bowl filled with cool water ready to hold the slivered tuber. One thing you’ll notice is that brown spots and rings seem to immediately spring up almost magically inside the milky white interior. That’s okay. These will disappear once the prepped burdock is soaked, and by the time you dump out the water, the burdock will have turned completely white and the water will be tan. 

Do note that this dish does require you to do a whole lot of slicing. It will probably take you about a half an hour to prep all the vegetables, so try to get into a Zen state of mind before you begin. Sharpen your knife, put on some nice music, pour yourself a glass of whatever makes you smile, and consider this a good time to practice your cutting skills. The burdock should be cut into thin matchsticks, and the rest—scallions, ginger, chiles, beef—should follow suit so that the resulting dish looks well-designed and the textures mingle with aplomb. That final sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds pulls the dish together and adds a modicum of crunch, so don’t skip it. 

Burdock and beef stir-fry
Níubàng chăo níuròu  牛蒡炒牛肉
Serves 4 as a main dish
Young (top) and old ginger
Beef and marinade:
Around 8 ounces | 225 g shaved beef or steak (nothing too expensive), frozen for 30 minutes
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)

1 burdock root (about 12 ounces | 325 g)
Cool water, as needed
2 inches | 30 g young ginger (or peeled older ginger, if that’s what you have)
1 fresh red chile pepper, seeds and cap removed
4 scallions, trimmed

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Cut the partially frozen beef into shreds and place in a small work bowl. Toss with the oil, garlic, soy sauce, and rice wine, and let it marinate while you prepare the vegetables.
A knife-skill workout
2. Remove the skin from the burdock with a potato peeler. Cut the root into lengths about 3 inches | 8 cm long. Cut off one rounded edge of each piece of root so that the burdock won’t roll around, and then slice them into thin pieces before cutting them again lengthwise into a toothpick-sized julienne. Place this julienne in the cool water to soak while you prep the rest of the burdock. Cut the ginger and chile pepper into shreds and put in one pile, and then shred the scallions and place them in a separate pile. 

3. About 10 minutes before serving, drain the burdock in a colander set in the sink, rinse it lightly, and shake off the extra water. Set your wok over high heat and swirl in the sesame oil. Toss in the beef and marinade. Toss these over the fire until the beef looks mostly cooked, and then scoop it up the side of the wok, leaving the juices on the bottom. 

Pure comfort food
4. Lower the heat to medium-high before adding the burdock, ginger, and chile pepper. Stir-fry these for a few seconds and then cover the wok, still keeping the beef away from the heat. Let the burdock cook in all that steam for a minute or two, toss, cover, and cook some more. When the burdock begins to look as if it is beginning to bend a bit, take a taste: you should be able to bite through it easily when it’s done. Toss the burdock with the beef at this point and add the sugar and scallions. Toss these for a few seconds more, and then taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Scoop the burdock out onto a rimmed serving plate and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. If there are any leftovers, they will still be delicious a day or two later.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Summer on a plate: celtuce tops with sesame

This is just about as close to a summer salad as China gets, and it's one of my favorite recipes from Chengdu. 

The two basic things you need to aim for here in this dish are absolute freshness in the vegetable and nuttiness in the sauce. So, ideally, the day that you plan to serve this is the day that you buy your celtuce. That morning, bring the whole celtuce or celtuce tops home, trim and slice them up as directed, and rinse well before soaking them a couple of hours in ice water, as this will help to crisp them up even more.

Not everyone has the luxury of shopping when it’s best for the vegetables, so if circumstances force you to buy the celtuce a day ahead of time, rinse the vegetables in cold water, shake them dry, wrap them in a tea towel, place the towel in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Then, trim and slice them as needed before soaking them in the two cold baths of saltwater and ice water to clean them thoroughly and restore their juiciness.

That second point I mentioned was nuttiness, and to achieve that, the sauce calls for three kinds of toasted sesame: paste, oil, and a seed garnish. Together these will supply you with a nice range of warm flavors.

Fresh celtuce heads
However, not all sesame pastes are made alike. If you don’t use either homemade or a good store-bought sesame paste, the flavor might be a bit off. The same thing goes with toasted sesame oil: as always, aim for the absolute best. Korean and Japanese brands are often excellent, and I always buy mine in large (56 ounce/1656 ml) cans because this is a staple in my kitchen.

But that doesn’t mean that only serious Chinese chefs need to be this persnickety about their ingredients. Even if you are just an occasional East Asian cook, buy only pure sesame oil. Look at the ingredient list, which should tell you that it is 100% sesame oil with no fillers, like cottonseed oil and the like. (Kadoya is my go-to brand, but others are available in Asian supermarkets and online.)

As for the sesame seeds, try to get them in bulk bins, where you can smell and taste them for freshness, and then toast them yourself, which will only take a few minutes. You can even go from there to making your own sesame paste. And that will change your world because the flavor is unparalleled.

I get the big tins
If your store-bought sesame paste or sesame oil lacks oompf, substitute a bit of good peanut or almond butter to ramp up the flavors. Or, you can use all peanut or almond butter here (in fact, any good nut butter would do as long as it’s toasty), if you prefer.

One thing that you must pay attention to when you make this is the emulsification of the dressing ingredients. Just as with a good handmade mayonnaise, you need to whip in air while incorporating the ingredients. Ice water is gradually introduced, too, which will lighten the sauce both visually and texturally.

This is actually the secret to making great sesame sauce, because if you leave out the ice water, the texture stays thick and viscous, but the slow addition of ice water smooths out the sticky paste and makes it thin enough to drizzle over the celtuce, while remaining thick enough to cling to the leaves. Finally, the two oils are beaten in and make the dressing stable. This step is not at all hard, but it will make this dish absolutely superb.

Do note that this will make twice the amount needed, but it stores well for a couple of days in the refrigerator and can be used for another round of celtuce or as a new-fangled salad dressing or for cold noodles Sichuan style.

Celtuce tastes very much like romaine lettuce, so if you don’t have access to celtuce, that’s your substitute. Try to use the hearts of the lettuce, as they will be tenderer and milder, as well as easier to serve and eat.

The genuine Chinese vegetable has other attributes, though, that make it well worth seeking it out. For one thing, it’s beautiful. For another thing, it’s crunchy beyond belief. The brilliant jade of the stems also makes them visually tantalizing. Those stems add another layer of texture and flavor to the leaves, so that your tongue and teeth have even more to play with as you ravage your way across the plate.

I have absolutely no control when faced with a perfect plate of celtuce tips with sesame dressing. And I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

Silky and delicious
Celtuce tips with sesame dressing
Májiàng yóumàicài  麻醬油麥菜
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 head celtuce (around 6 ounces/150 g) that should be mainly composed of young leaves, along with tender stem tips
Ice water and ice cubes, as needed
2 teaspoons sea salt

4 tablespoons toasted sesame paste, well stirred
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons pale rice vinegar
2 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1½ teaspoons chile oil, or to taste
½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
Celtuce head cut up
1. Rinse the celtuce leaves thoroughly and trim off any tough or damaged parts. Cut the heads lengthwise into sixths or eighths so that you are left with long, thin, easily manageable wedges, and then cut the heads crosswise to make pieces about 3 inches/8 cm long. Set a serving platter in the refrigerator to chill.

2. At least 3 hours before serving, dissolve the salt in about a cup of cold water, toss the celtuce with this, and add more ice water to cover. Soak the celtuce in this saltwater bath for 15 to 30 minutes to cleanse it and reduce any lingering bitterness, then rinse and shake it dry. Finally, soak the celtuce in ice water to cover for at least 2 hours; toss in a good handful of ice cubes to make the leaves super crisp.

3. To make the dressing, use a whisk to beat together the sesame paste, powdered sugar, and soy sauce in a small work bowl until they are very smooth and creamy. Beat in the vinegar until it is smooth, and then slowly beat in the ice water in small dribbles as if you were making mayonnaise by hand, as this will give you the ethereally silky texture this sauce requires. Finally, beat in the sesame oil and chile oil until the dressing is once more smooth and very light. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

4. Once you have the dressing ready, drain the celtuce and use a salad spinner to remove any remaining water, or else wrap the leaves in a dry tea towel. Arrange the leaves attractively on the chilled platter. Drizzle the dressing over the celtuce leaves, and then sprinkle the sesame seeds on the dressing; you can reserve some of the dressing, if you like, and offer it on the side. Serve immediately.
Bolting head of celtuce

When choosing celtuce leaves, select heads that are stiff with undamaged leaves and freshly cut stems. These are often sold in sealed bags, so you sometimes have to wing it. Even so, try to feel around the middle of the heads to ensure that there are no flowering stems. If the celtuce has started to bolt, it will not be as sweet, and you’ll have fewer leaves since most of the plant’s energy will have been directed toward setting blossoms.

Toasted sesame paste
Májiàng 麻醬
Makes about ¾ cup (160 g)

Unlike the Middle East, which prefers its sesame paste raw, Chinese people like it toasted so that the full flavor of the seeds comes to the forefront. You can buy sesame paste in any Chinese market, but unless you get the right brand, you’ll most likely find it mixed with cottonseed oil or sugar or other unnec­essary ingredients.
Plain but delicious sesame paste

1 cup (140 g) toasted sesame seeds
5 tablespoons or so toasted sesame oil
Sea salt, optional

1. Use a small food processor or a good-quality blender. Pour in the seeds and add a few tablespoons of the oil.

2. Puree the seeds on high, gradually adding the rest of the oil until you have a relatively smooth paste. Season the sesame paste with salt, if you plan to use it like peanut butter, but for Chinese recipes it is best to leave it unsalted. Store the paste in a covered jar in the refrigerator.

Monday, August 5, 2019

A chewy take on a Taiwanese classic bread

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to live in Taiwan for any length of time has probably been seduced by the bakeries there, and I proudly count myself among the many who can never say no to a fresh hot bun. 

These bakeries tend to offer Chinese takes on Western breads, pastries, and cakes, which can be odd and confusing at first. I remember biting into my first pork fluff bun and wondering what was going on in my mouth. (And if you’ve never tried pork fluff, or ròusōng 肉鬆, it’s a light and flossy creation that takes braised boneless pork and then tosses it with oil in a wok over heat until it falls apart into feathery bits. It’s totally strange and totally delicious.)

Anyway, back to that bun: the bread was on the sweet side, like a Parker House roll with a bit more sugar added, and mayonnaise had been used to glue the pork fluff onto the top of the bun. But after a few cautious nibbles, I realized what a great thing I had in my hand, and it disappeared in a flash.

Get lively, super fresh onions
Other local bakery delights – and many of these you can find in a Chinese bakery if you happen to live near a place with lots of Chinese folks – include pineapple buns (which don’t have any pineapple in them, as they are actually more like Mexican conchas and are topped with a crumbly layer that’s shaped like a pineapple skin), taro buns with the mashed purple paste inside, the usual suspects like red beans and custard, buttery fillings studded with raisins, and a million other concoctions.

One of my all-time favorites, though, are these Green Onion Baked Buns. They smell absolutely heavenly, and I adore the salty, oniony layer that cuts into the gentle sweetness of the bread, giving this particular pastry a lot of personality. The fact that it’s more savory than sweet also makes it especially attractive to me, since that means I can wolf down quite a few without feeling too ill.

This dough's ready to go
I’ve messed around with this classic, though, since I am of the opinion that bread should have more texture. (If you’re a purist, just pull out your favorite recipe for Parker House rolls like this one and use it instead of my bread recipe.) Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the green onions. You really want to pile them on, for the bread will rise in the oven and give those onions plenty of surface to grab on to.

In order to give the onions as skid-free a surface as possible, I’ve learned to cut a deep cross into the top of the buns after they’ve been shaped, since this opens up air holes that are rough enough to give the onions something to cling to and nestled down into as the breads bake away. And because they are cut this way, the circles turn into squares, like magic. 

Traditionally the bakeries brush these with a light sugar syrup to make them glossy and add another layer of sweetness. Again, I don’t do that since I just find it messy and I’m aiming to veer away from too much sweetness here, but if you prefer, you can boil up a light sugar syrup (1 part sugar boiled with 3 parts water until the sugar completely dissolves) and dab it on at the end.

Mound on the onions
I’d store any leftover buns in the fridge for a day or two. But I’m just guessing here. We plow through these the same day they’re made. These are great for rainy days when you want to stay at home, steam up the windows, and then revel in some good food while the storm rages outside.

Green onion baked buns
Táishì cōnghuā miànbāo  台式蔥花麵包
Makes 16

2 teaspoons active yeast
¾ cup | 175 ml warm water
6 tablespoons | 85 g sugar

1 cup | 140 g Chinese flour, or ⅔ cup all-purpose and ⅓ cup pastry flour, plus extra as needed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3½ tablespoons | 50 ml water
¼ cup | 55 g salted butter, softened
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil

8 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt
Spray oil

1. Mix the yeast with the warm water and sugar, and let it proof for 20 to 30 minutes. You should have a nice froth going on in there, and if you don’t, toss it out and buy new yeast.

2. Mix the flour and salt together in a medium work bowl. Whisk the egg and water together, reserve 1 tablespoon for the topping, and add the rest of the egg mixture to the flour, along with the yeast mixture and butter. Combine to form a soft dough, and then knead it on a lightly floured board until the dough no longer is sticky, but rather is as supple and smooth as an earlobe. Rinse out the bowl, oil it lightly, return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise until double. Turn the dough over on itself (fold the edges into the center all the way around), flip the dough over, cover, and let it again rise until double. It is ready when you poke two fingers into the dough and the holes don’t collapse on themselves.

"Tiger's mouth"
3. While the dough is rising, prepare the topping by tossing the green onions with 1 tablespoon salt. Scrunch the onions and salt together and then take a taste – if you prefer a slightly saltier taste, add more salt. (I do.) Prepare 2 baking sheets by spraying them with oil. Heat the oven to 350°F | 175°C and arrange the racks near the center of the oven.

4. To form the buns, cut the dough into 16 even pieces. (The easiest way to do this is to roll the dough out into an even rope 16 inches long, and then cutting it into 1-inch pieces – or you can figure out something equally easy using the metric system.) Toss the bits of dough lightly with some flour. Turn these knobs into evenly shaped balls using the “tiger’s mouth” technique: pop them through your fist as shown to the upper right.

Cut open each ball of dough
5. Use a sharp knife to cut a cross halfway through each ball (see photo to the lower right), and then set 8 balls on each baking sheet. Dab the insides of each cross with the leftover egg mixture and divide the green onions among the buns.

6. Let the dough rise another 20 minutes or so, and then bake until golden brown, or about 30 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and back to front so that they all cook evenly. Remove the buns from the oven, cool them on a cake rack, and enjoy them as soon as you can without burning your mouth.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Taiwanese raisin cream buns

One of the mainstays of any Taiwanese bakery worth its salt is the raisin bun. It’s unlike anything we have in the West. The filling is creamy, and yet not like pastry cream, but rather with a slightly sandy texture that contrasts wonderfully with the yeasty dough.

My main complaint whenever I ate these (yes, I found time to complain between big mouthfuls) was the tiny little nuggetty raisins. They were chewy and often blah, and so seemed to be there more for visual contrast than anything else. 

I guess it's because I’ve always been a major fan of plump raisins, which aren’t that hard to achieve: all you need are relatively fresh raisins (dried up fossils are beyond redemption) and boiling water, and voila, they’re delectable.

Plumped-up raisins
The other thing I’d get cranky about was the use of margarine instead of butter. I go totally Julia Child when it comes to pastries. Go butter or go home is my mantra. But not all butters are made equal. There’s salted and unsalted, organic and not, cultured and not, and so forth. Here’s my suggestions: salted is fine for the pastries here. The advantage of unsalted is that you can calibrate the salt levels a little easier, but truth be told, the pastries will turn out great no matter what kind you use here.

I’d always head for the organic butters simply because they’re better for me (and you). But use your own judgment. 

When it comes to cultured butter, though, if you can find it, do try it. There’s a fabulous depth of flavor in cultured butter that makes other butters seem bland by comparison. And in pastries like this one, where butter turns up everywhere, a really great butter will make a world of difference in the aroma and taste. So try it and see what I mean.

Fill the dough with cream & raisins
This recipe was a lot of fun to figure out. The main thing to nail down here was the creamy filling, which is called naisu in Chinese. 

I got rid of the things like custard powder that tend to clog up too many things with their stale vanillin flavor, and then played around with the ratios until it was like the buns of my dreams. 

The topping is pretty much the same thing, but without the egg, so that it ends up like little snowflakes on the top.

Beautiful and delicious.

Raisin cream buns
Pútáogān năisū miànbāo 葡萄乾奶酥麵包
Makes 16 large buns

Shape the filled bun
½ cup | 75 g raisins (see Tips)
Boiling water, as needed
½ cup | 110 g | 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
½ cup | 85 g powdered sugar
1 cup | 100 g powdered milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk
1 tablespoon bread yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading
The snowy topping
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons powdered sugar
¼ cup | 50 g Chinese flour
2 teaspoons powdered milk
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

Egg wash:
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water

1. First make the filling: Place the raisins in a heatproof bowl and cover them with boiling water. Place a saucer on top to speed up the plumping process. When they are fat and juicy (say, around 20 minutes), drain off the water and let the raisins sit on a paper towel to soak up the extra moisture. Cream the butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar, egg, and vanilla together with a food processor, stand mixer, or large work bowl until you have a light and relatively lump-free cream. Stir in the raisins. Divide the filling into 16 even pieces.

2. Now make the dough: Mix the warm water, powdered milk, yeast, and sugar together in your food processor, stand mixer bowl, or a large work bowl. (BTW, you don’t need to wash out the bowl before you do this.) Give the yeast time to wake up and become very foamy, which should take around 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t get a good head of foam, buy fresh yeast and start over.

Final rising
3. Stir the egg, flour, salt, and oil into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the hook attachment; use a metal blade for the food processor, of it you’re doing this by hand, flour a smooth work surface and dump the dough out on top. Quickly knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until it is smooth and bouncy. Roll the dough into a ball and lightly flour it. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel, stick the bowl over the top to help keep the dough moist, and wait until the dough has risen to at least twice its original size, which will take about an hour.

4. While the dough is rising, make the topping: Mix together all of the ingredients until smooth. That’s it.

5. Cut the dough into 16 even pieces. Toss them with flour and cover with a dry tea towel to keep them from drying out. Cover 2 baking sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Heat a convection oven to 350°F | 175°C (375°F | 190°C for a regular oven) and set 1 rack near the center.

6. Working on one piece at a time, and working on a lightly floured surface, roll a piece into a disc about 5 inches| 13 cm in diameter. Place one ball of filling in the center and bring up the edges around it to seal the filling well. Shape the bun into a oval shape with the smooth side on top. Repeat with 7 more of the buns and filling so that 1 baking sheet is filled. Let the buns rise for about 15 minutes.

Better than Taipei's!
7. Brush half of the egg wash all over each of the buns, and then break up the topping so that it can be easily scattered over the buns, sort of like snow. Sprinkle half of the topping along the center of each bun so that it becomes glued to the buns—don't worry if some of it ends up on the baking sheet. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the buns are a lovely golden brown. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 for the remaining 8 pieces of dough while the first batch is cooking.


I like to use Middle Eastern raisins for these buns because their flavor is often incredibly intense. See if you can find really dark, really deeply flavored raisins, since they will make these buns almost magical.

Use good quality butter for this recipe—there is so much of it that a really tasty butter becomes the main flavoring.