Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thuffering Thanghai thuccotash

My maternal grandfather's favorite vegetable was succotash. Serve him that with Swiss steak, gravy, and mashed potatoes, and you'd have one very happy guy at your table.

I don't remember him being too crazy about Chinese food, and the most exotic we ever got at the grandparents' house was either tamale pie or raviolis for Christmas Eve. But I do know that if he had ever tried this dish, he would have granted it an exception to the Midwest-cuisine-only rule.

More than slightly different from the succotash I grew up with - a block of Birdseye lima beans and corn that was boiled, drained, and tossed with margarine and salt - this is actually a delicious melange of sweet corn, fresh soybeans, toasted pine nuts, peanut oil, the scent of green onions, and a dash of salt. Everything cooks quickly, ensuring that each kernel  stays bouncy and full of its individual texture.

As with many other dishes from this area of China's eastern seaboard, the flavoring is subtle so that the natural flavor of each ingredient gets to star in each delicious bite. Pine nuts and green onions are common ingredients in Shanghai and Jiangsu's cuisines, and they get equal billing in this dish, the toasted pine nuts lending a subtle nutty, perfumy layer, and a minced stalk of green onions tying all of the flavors together with its gentle sweetness.

I've served this alongside really fancy things like crab and duck, and it's amazing how this still is always one of the first dishes to get scraped clean. Perhaps this is due to its familiarity as a comfort food, both to Chinese and to Americans. Perhaps it's the pine nuts, which everyone seems to love. Perhaps it's the visual appeal of the tan, gold, and jade beads all tumbled together in a simple shiny sauce. Whatever the reason, adults and children all seem charmed by this delectable trio.

Frozen corn and green soybeans work perfectly here as long as they are of good quality and don't suffer from freezer burn. Green soybeans (also called by their Chinese name, maodou, or their Japanese name, edamame) are really only available frozen (mainly in Chinese and Japanese markets, although some places like Trader Joe's are starting to offer them), but peer into the glassine window on their packaging to make sure that they are not shriveled or cloaked in freezer frost; if you can't find the soybeans, either omit them or use baby lima beans. Good pine nuts are easy to keep on hand (store them in the freezer if you don't use them that often) and can be found shelled at health food stores, as well as as Middle Eastern and Korean markets, and, yes, Trader Joe's.

Toasted pine nuts lend fragrance
Corn & fresh soybeans with pine nuts 
Songzi yumi  松子玉米
Serves 4 as a side dish

2 tablespoons fresh peanut oil
1/4 cup shelled raw pine nuts
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn
1/4 cup frozen green soybeans
1 green onion, trimmed and minced
1. Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat until a flick of water immediately sizzles and evaporates. Add the pine nuts  to the oil and toss them continuously in the hot oil until they are slightly toasted and smell delicious. Remove them to a small bowl, leaving as much of the oil in the wok as possible. 

2. Raise the heat under the wok to high. Toss the salt into the wok and quickly stir it around in the hot oil to partially dissolve it. Add the corn and soybeans and stir-fry for a minute. Sprinkle the green onions over the corn and soybeans and continue to stir-fry until the corn and soybeans are heated all the way through and taste just this side of done. Serve hot.

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