Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jiangsu's sweet stuffed lotus roots

October is the best time of the year for lotus roots, or so I was told by a lotus farmer in Modesto many years ago. He scoffed at the tubers that were for sale the rest of the year and told me they had been in storage for too long or weren't ripe enough. Surrounded as he was by ponds full of insanely beautiful lotus blossoms of every imaginable color, I figured he knew what he was talking about.

Scroll forward to today. It is now October and indeed the lotus roots are the best I've seen them in ages. Plump and white, they practically beg to be taken home.

Lotus roots are actually long tubers that grow horizontally under the plants, the real roots being the hairs that bristle out from between the white segments. Cut into slices, these tubers are one of the most beautiful of all vegetables, lacy and perfectly patterned. And as for taste and texture, well, they are exquisite on every count. Blanch them and toss the thin slices in a Chinese vinaigrette for a delectable appetizer, deep fry them into chips that will blow people away, or stew them whole or in large chunks for yet another level of deliciousness... it's hard to go wrong with lotus roots.

A plump, fresh tuber
Do note that the fresh tubers will often exude long threads when they are cooked; if you don't know what's going on, you might think that there are hairs in the dish! But these are perfectly edible and just part of the sticky quality of these quintessentially Chinese vegetables.

When you buy fresh lotus roots, again, get them in autumn, as they are at their freshest then. Look for smooth, round, hard tubers that don't have any bruises marring their perfect exteriors. They should feel heavy because they are full of juice when very fresh. Also, try to find ones that have both ends sealed with at least part of the joint, as this keeps the mud and air out, and you'll end up with a clean root.

To prepare them, snap the tubers apart and rinse them carefully to remove any mud. Trim off the joints flush with the tubers so that you only see very tiny holes at the ends. Remove the thin skin with a vegetable peeler to end up with smooth, white flesh all over. Then, if you are planning on stuffing them like in the recipe here, cut off between half an inch to one inch from one end; this will be the cap, so reserve it. If you are going to either slice it or cut it into chunks or cook it whole, trim off both ends of the tuber.

Wash out the insides
Clean the inside of the tuber by running water through the holes and lightly scraping the interiors with a chopstick. (See the photo on the right.) Tip the roots upside-down to drain. Prepare the rest of the recipe right away so that they don't oxidize.

In this recipe, the tuber is stuffed with raw rice, poached for a few hours, and then chilled. It sounds so simple, so prosaic, but it's one of the most treasured sweets of China's answer to French cuisine: Jiangsu. If I keep writing love letters to the lush foods of this region, it's because I am helpless whenever I come face to face with its rich and yet oh-so-delicate creations.

But that doesn't mean that I don't fool around with the tried and true!

Traditionally, round sweet rice fills the holes in the tuber, but I am infatuated with Thai black rice. It smells divine as it cooks and turns everything a luscious shade of purple, so when I picked up some fresh lotus roots at the market and realized when I got home that I had used up all of the regular sweet rice to make lots of fermented rice, my trusty bag of Thai black rice suggested that it be used instead.

Lavender lace and polka dots
As I rinsed off the grains, though, I noticed how much larger they are than round white rice. They would be hard to stuff into the roots that way, so I slightly ground them in a mini-processor (about eight pulses did the trick), just to knock them down in size a bit without turning them into powder. It was a perfect fit, and they ended up making a terrific dish nothing short of superb.

You will find that this recipe is a whole lot less sweet than most versions. I prefer to let the distinct aroma of the lotus root and rice shine through, with the osmanthus syrup popping through with bursts of perfume and a slightly salty edge. If you like it sweeter, by all means add more rock sugar toward the end. As with all chilled desserts, it will taste less sweet when it is cold than when it is hot.

Most directions for these stuffed roots tell you to watch them carefully during the last hour of cooking, as the sugar can easily cause the tubers to scorch. But, I found that placing a trivet in the bottom of the pot keeps the lotus roots out of harm's way and saves me from worrying that I'm going to ruin my dessert.

Crystalline air bubbles

Lotus roots stuffed with sweet rice 
Jiangmi lian'ou  江米蓮藕  
Serves 6 to 8 as a dessert

2 fresh lotus root tubers (each about 6 inches long)
½ cup sweet (glutinous or nuomi) rice, or sweet black Thai rice
Filtered boiling water as needed
3½ ounces rock sugar (bingtang), about the size of 2 large eggs
½ cup osmanthus syrup (guihuajiang), or grated peel of a Meyer lemon plus another small handful of rock sugar chips and ½ teaspoon sea salt
1. Prepare the lotus root tubers as directed above. Cut off the caps, reserve, clean the insides, and drain.

2. Place the rice in a strainer and rinse under running water; shake dry. If using the black Thai rice, grind it very coarsely in a mini-processor or mortar so that the grains are chopped more or less in half.

Stuff the roots using a chopstick
3. Use one hand as a funnel to hold the top of one tuber and use the other hand to stuff the rice into the holes; a chopstick is useful in working the rice down. Pat the outside of the tuber to help shake the grains down, but don't pack the rice too tightly, as it will need to expand as it cooks. Use three chopsticks to pin the cap back onto the tuber. Repeat this step with the other tuber. Discard any leftover rice.

4. Place a small trivet upside-down in a pot that will easily hold the tubers in one layer. (Something that is about 7 inches in diameter is about right.) Lay the stuffed lotus roots on top of the trivet and cover with boiling water by about 1 inch. Bring the water to a boil again over high heat and then reduce the heat so that the water just simmers. Cook the lotus roots over gentle heat for 2 hours and then add the sugar. 

Pin the caps on with chopsticks
5. Continue to cook the lotus roots for another hour, adding more water only if the sauce cooks down too quickly. After the roots have been cooked for a total of three hours, remove them to a container to cool off. Add the osmanthus syrup (or the lemon peel plus extra sugar and the salt) to the pan and rapidly boil the sauce down until it has the consistency of maple syrup. Cool it to room temperature and pour it over the lotus roots. Refrigerate them at least overnight. 

6. To serve, remove the caps, cut off the other ends, and enjoy them yourself. Slice the roots into pieces about ½ an inch thick. Arrange them on a rimmed serving plate in an overlapping pattern. Pour the sauce over the slices and serve with hot green tea.

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