Monday, February 13, 2017

Super simple year cakes for any season

Two bits of great news:

All Under Heaven made the Art of Eating's longlist of its twelve favorite books for 2017. Look at those titles - isn't that the best of company? I'm so delighted to be sharing the same shelf as some of my friends and heroes. 

From the Art of Eating announcement: "Although these books were chosen not for their subjects but as the strongest food books of the year, the judges wish to voice their support for peoples, places, cultures, and ideas now under attack. These books, as one said, 'celebrate the Other. But of course there is no Other, only so many beautiful varieties of human being and human experience.'" Words like that make those ten years spent on the book really worth it!

I also was incredibly honored to speak at Google recently. So much fun and so many intelligent people. We made fried rice and pickles together at noon, and then later on in the afternoon I gave a talk about the cuisines of China before a super quick demo on congee. 

At Google
Since it was Lunar New Year Eve, we celebrated with homemade dim sum by a couple of the chefs at Google. Here's a video of the talk. Can't wait to go back!

*   *   *

One of the true delights of the Lunar New Year is the chance to make traditional sweets. But I’m here to suggest that we not confine these to simply one time a year because they are just too good to disappear for months at a time and have waited until the two-week celebration is over just to make this point.
I’ve written about the Suzhou way with sweet year cakes (check them out here and here), and I suggest you master these even though they are a bit of work. 

But the thing is, over the decades I’ve learned another way to make sweet year cakes that are actually insanely simple, and that’s what we are going to look at today. You don’t need much in the way of equipment, time, effort, or ingredients – or even much of a recipe, for that matter – to end up with many delicious variations on a theme.

The results are very similar in appearance to the sweet year cakes that crowd any Chinese market in the month or two leading up to the Lunar New Year. But that’s just on the outside. Those commercial renderings are basically just super sweet, with very little flavor and boring texture – sort of like supermarket Christmas cookies.

But if you spend just a couple of minutes whipping these up, you will have sticky cakes that are full of rich aromas, deep flavors, and lovely textures. All you need is a mixing bowl, a silicone spatula, a lined cake pan, and a simple steamer.

As a bit of an aside, I’d like to try something more loosey-goosey today. I’ve come to feel that too much emphasis is placed on exact directions in recipes, when the fact is that almost every dish is actually about approximations. 

For example, I was making a recipe out of another book, for example, that called for a teaspoon of oregano and another one of thyme, and I wondered, why? What about other herbs? Another one wanted a tablespoon of miso in the sauce and another one demanded there be ¼ cup of peanut butter, and I started to think, what if I don’t have those in my pantry in the moment? Should the recipe just be scrapped? 

And, of course, the answer is no. Just find something approximate to take their place or adjust the recipe to fit your own taste. 

It’s not rocket science: it’s dinner.
There is no single recipe for any dish, ever, and so what I’m hoping for at this point is that we start to relax in the kitchen and allow ourselves to let the ingredients talk to you. So, let’s try something different today.

This recipe is at its most basic just about ratios. You want a one-pound box of sticky rice flour, 1¾ cups of liquid, sugar to taste, and whatever flavors and additions you’re looking to eat. And so, the first recipe is for a coconut year cake that calls for that box of rice flour, a can of coconut milk, some sugar, and a sprinkle of wolfberries to add a dash of color and contrast. It’s nothing more than the right amount of moisture needed to turn the powder into a paste that will steam up into a solid mass, with seasonings to taste.

If you know that, you can run with the concept and create your own riffs on this classic. Have fun and play. That’s one of the real joys of cooking at home.

Coconut sweet year cake
Yēzhī nián’gāo 椰汁年糕
All over China
Makes about 4.5 pounds (2 kg) and serves 8 to 12

Spray oil
1 pound (450 g) sticky rice flour (Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour recommended)
1 (13.5 ounce/400 ml) can coconut milk (Chaokoh brand is good)
¼ cup white sugar, or more to taste
1 cup dried wolfberries (also called goji or gouqi berries), rinsed

1. Line a 9-inch (23-cm) round cake pan with foil and spray the inside with oil. Set up a simple steamer (a trivet in a wide covered pan, or use your basket steamer) and fill the bottom with water.

2. Empty the box of rice flour into a medium work bowl. Stir in the coconut milk and sugar. Taste and add more sugar if you would like it sweeter. The consistency should be sort of like sour cream.

3. Scrape half of the mixture into the pan and sprinkle the wolfberries on top. Then, scrape the rest of the mixture over the wolfberries and smooth the top. Steam on high for about 20 minutes. Let the pan sit in the steamer for another 10 minutes to settle, and then remove. Cool to room temperature.

4. Cut the cake into ¼ inch (5 mm) slices. These can be pan-fried, dipped in batter and deep-fried, or simply served slightly warmed in the microwave. Refrigerate any leftovers.

Red bean sweet year cake with walnuts
Hétáo hóngdòu nián’gāo  核桃紅豆年糕
All over China
Makes about 4.5 pounds (2 kg) and serves 8 to 12

Spray oil
1 pound (450 g) sticky rice flour
1 can (15 ounces / 430 g) sweetened red bean paste (Ogura-an recommended)
Water, as needed
¼ cup or more sugar, or to taste
1 to 2 cups (125 to 250 g) whole or chopped walnuts

1. Prepare the pan and steamer as in the preceding recipe.

2. Mix the rice flour and red bean paste together in a work bowl, and add enough water to make it the consistency of sour cream. Add sugar to taste. Stir in the walnuts.

3. Cook and serve as directed above.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Good, really good, for what ails you

Unlike just about any other country I can think of, the therapeutic value of what you put in your body is considered by the Chinese to be almost as important as any other reason for eating. Simply put, food is medicine in China. Mighty delicious medicine, that’s for sure, but medicine all the same.

Much of this is common sense – stay hydrated, avoid fried foods if you’re feeling lousy, and eat mainly vegetables and grains with a bit of protein to keep things interesting – but Chinese therapeutic food therapy goes way beyond that into deep discussions on such things as the ways in which “cold” and “heat” work to make us healthy.

Fresh lotus root
Ginger and chile peppers warm up the body (as you might have guessed) and increase perspiration, while seaweed, green tea, and rice cool you down. A bout with the common cold, for example, will call for hot bowls of chicken broth seasoned with lots of ginger and rice wine to flush out the chills, restore balance, and keep your immune system in happy working order.

At other times during the course of that cold, your body very well could use some additional fine-tuning. This happened to me last week as I was clawing my way back out of the flu. The fever was finally gone, I had at long last stopped aching all over, and my brain was even beginning to work in spurts, but a terrible cough took over. I figured more chicken soup would be just the ticket, but it no longer appealed to me in the least. I asked my old Chinese doctor friend, Dr. Li, what to do.

Surprisingly delicious
He said that I needed cooling foods to stem the cough. Instead of fetching me some medicine, he told me that Chinese radishes, honey, and garlic were just what I needed. I figured he was just giving me the brushoff, as it sounded way too weird to work. But then my friend Chiaying chimed in and said that he was right on the money. There was nothing left to do but give it the old college try. And let me tell you this: It not only reduced my cough, but it tasted delicious!

I still was hungry, though, and so both of them ganged up on me and told me to make congee with a handful of other cooling ingredients, all pure white: lotus root, Chinese yams, and fresh lily bulbs. Again, nothing at all fancy here – not even a touch of salt or oil to mar this immaculate shade of pale – but the end results calmed my throat, fed my hunger, and made me feel cleansed. Plus, it tasted amazing. And I slept like a baby that night.

Here are these two recipes to help you and yours face down the cold season with delicious eating. Enjoy!

Radish juice and honey
Radish, honey and garlic syrup
Báiluóbo fēngmì dàsuàn tángjiāng 白蘿蔔蜂蜜大蒜糖漿
Therapeutic foods
Makes about 1 cup (240 ml)

About 2 pounds (900 g) white Asian radish (Chinese, Korean, Japanese)
1 clove garlic, smashed
Local honey as needed

1. Peel the radish, but leave on the stem end to use as a handle. Finely grate the radish into a bowl. Discard the stem end. Add the garlic.

2. Stir in enough honey to just cover the radish. Place a lid on the bowl and refrigerate it. Decant the syrup into a small teacup – about 2 tablespoons (30 ml) is a nice dose. Slowly sip it and let it glide down your throat, where it will start to get to work. You can repeat this throughout the day as you needed it since it is, of course, just food. More juice will be exuded if you can wait a day before drinking the syrup, but let’s be honest: you’re making this because someone’s sick, so give it at least an hour if you can. The radish will be pretty much exhausted after this, so just squeeze out as much of the syrup as you can before you toss the solids.

Broken jasmine rice

White cooling congee
Qùhuŏ báizhōu 去火白粥
Therapeutic foods
Makes about 12 cups (2.8 L)

1½ cups (300 g) broken jasmine rice (see Tip)
10 cups (2.5 L) water, plus more as needed
About 1 pound (450 g) fresh lotus root
Around 8 ounces (225 g) Chinese yam (shanyao)
2 or more fresh lily bulbs (baihe), optional but fabulous

1. Rinse the rice in a fine sieve and then dump it into a large pot. Cover with the water and bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally.

2. While the water is coming to a boil, peel the lotus root, trim off any less than perfect areas, and cut it lengthwise into quarters before slicing each piece thinly against the grain. Toss the lotus root into the pot with the rice and give it another stir. When the pot comes to a full boil, reduce the heat to the bare minimum and let it slowly cook for about 20 minutes.
Chinese yam

3. Peel the yam and slice it into ½-inch (1 cm) chunks, as it breaks down easily. Add these to the pot. Simmer the congee for another 10 minutes or so just to barely cook through the yams, since you want them to keep as much of their character as possible. Add boiling water as needed to thin the congee out if it gets too thick, but don't make it soupy. A big part of this porridge's charm is the slightly grainy texture of the rice against the soft/crisp/juicy vegetables.

4. Clean the lily bulbs if you have them, trim off any brown areas, and separate them into petals. Add them to the congee just before serving. The petals taste best when just heated through, as that way they remain crisp and fresh. So, if you’re not serving the whole pot at once, consider ladling out a bowl, adding as many of the lily bulb petals as you want, and then microwaving the congee until it’s nice and hot. Always reheat any type of congee in the microwave so that it doesn’t boil down into mucilage.

Beautiful broken jasmine rice

You can use regular white rice or long grain jasmine rice here instead of broken jasmine rice, if you can't find the latter. But try to hunt this ingredient down - it's incredibly aromatic and breaks down into congee like a dream! It's generally found in Chinese groceries that cater to southerners, as well as in Southeast Asian stores, and the best brands seem to come from Thailand.

Don't use brown rice here. That's just plain wrong.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Roast duck soup for the New Year

Happy Year of the Rooster!

One of China’s signature feast dishes is roast duck. Just about any deli in a Chinese supermarket or your friendly neighborhood Chinatown will have the Cantonese version hanging in the window. They’re usually pretty cheap (about $20) and delicious, too, and so I rarely make my own.

What this means when it comes to a New Year’s feast is that roast duck should definitely be on the menu. Serve the meaty parts of the duck as is (heat it at 275°F135°C for around 15 minutes to crisp up the skin and render most of the fat), with a bit of plum sauce that the deli might throw in for free. Be sure and save that duck fat to stir-fry some shredded napa cabbage until it’s soft and tender, and season it with a touch of soy sauce — this is very much in keeping with the Chinese food maxim of waste absolutely nothing, and such sensible frugality in the kitchen is believed to ensure plenty during the coming year.

I like to cut off and reserve the back, neck, and as many scrawny bits and bones as possible and then turn them into a truly delicious and easy soup to serve at the end of dinner. This is a downright luscious dish you can pull together in a matter of minutes if you do a little bit of prep work a day or two ahead of time: Prepare the stock, cut up the radishes and garnishes, and soak the cellophane noodles. That’s it.

We used to have a big bowl of hot duck soup in Taipei whenever we went out for a Peking duck dinner. It didn’t matter if it was in a dining palace or a little mom ‘n pop hole in the wall on Chung Hwa Road, because in China, when you order a roast duck, you expect a full feast out of the bird. We’d of course first have the crisp skin followed by the breast and leg meat sliced for us at the table by the waiter, and these would be wrapped in thin crêpes with a dab of sweet wheat paste and shredded green onions.
Your basic roast duck
A buttery custard of duck egg yolks would usually appear, too, and maybe some braised odd bits, like tongues or hearts, as well as vegetables braised in duck fat to round out the meal. The last course was always a steaming vat of duck soup, and my favorites would have cubes of sweet Chinese radishes and pickled mustard greens swimming inside among the cellophane noodles.

Over the years, I’ve gone one better on the original, as I’ve found that cutting the radishes into thin strips makes this soup exceptionally silky. They mingle sensuously with the cellophane noodles, and the radishes somehow turn out super sweet this way. Store-bought chicken stock and rice wine add oomph to the broth, and I like to toss in a bit of garlicky “winter vegetable” — a type of chopped pickled napa cabbage from my mother-in-law’s hometown of Tianjin — to add serious depth. Cilantro and a handful of reserved shredded duck are all that is needed to punctuate the top. Toe warming and delectable, this is Chinese culinary prudence at its most inspired. (First published in Food52)

The lovely seasonings

Roast duck soup with radishes
Kăoyā luóbo tang  烤鴨蘿蔔湯
Serves 6 to 8 as a main dish, or twice that much as a side

¼ cup (60 ml) toasted sesame oil
¼ cup (15 g) finely sliced fresh ginger
4 green onions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
Bones, scraps, and scrawny bits from 1 roasted duck
½ cup (120 ml) Taiwan Mijiu rice wine or sake
1 quart (1L) unsalted chicken stock (preferably free range and organic)
4 quarts (4L) boiling water, divided
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons chopped “winter vegetable” (dongcai) or Chinese mustard pickles (suancai)
1 medium (1 pound or 450 g) Asian radish of some kind (Chinese luobo, Korean mooli, or Japanese daikon)
2 small skeins cellophane noodles (fensi), about 1.3 ounces (37 g) each
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large handful shredded roast duck, optional but delicious
1 large handful coarsely chopped cilantro
Finely shredded radish
1. Start this a day or two before you plan to serve it. Place a large (2 gallon/8L) stockpot over medium heat and add the sesame oil, ginger, and green onions. Gently fry the ginger and green onions until they turn into thin brown tangles. Raise the heat to medium high, add the duck, and slowly fry it, too, to render the fat and release the flavors. Turn the heat under the pot to high and pour in the rice wine. When it comes to a boil, add the chicken stock, boiling water, and sugar. Bring the uncovered pot back to a full boil and then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. After an hour or so, remove the pot from the heat and let it come to room temperature. Strain the stock into a clean pan and skim off the fat before refrigerating.  

2. A day or two before you plan to serve the soup, you can also prep the pickles and radish: Rinse the pickles in a coarse sieve under tap water to remove most of the saltiness; the winter vegetable especially needs attention to ensure that there is no sand hiding in there. The winter vegetable is already chopped, but the mustard pickles should be cut crosswise into thin (⅛-inch) slices. To prepare the radish, peel off the skin and any tough webbing under the surface and then cut it into ⅛-inch julienne. Refrigerate the pickles and radish in closed plastic bags.

3. About 20 minutes before serving, place the cellophane noodles in a large work bowl and cover with cool tap water to soften them. When they are silky, use kitchen shears to cut across the soft skeins in the water to form 3- to 4-inch lengths. Drain the noodles in a strainer.

4. Bring the strained stock to a full boil and add the radish, as well as the black pepper. Taste the soup and add as much of the winter vegetable or mustard pickles as you like, as saltiness will vary due to the duck’s preparation; you can also add more boiling water if your soup turns out to be on the salty side. Cook this uncovered over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the radishes are tender and sweet, but not mushy. Add the cellophane noodles and simmer for no more than another 5 minutes, as you want them only barely cooked through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately with the optional duck meat and cilantro sprinkled on top.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Smoked trotters

Images of hedonistic joy do not generally come to mind when pigs’ feet are mentioned to most Westerners, at least where the unfortunately uninitiated are concerned. 

This is completely understandable, for once upon a time, way back in the dark ages, the charms of trotters were completely lost on me. I had tried them, once, at a German restaurant, where the chef had decided that they should be served whole and as tough as humanly possible. I did my best to wrestle with that foot, but the foot won. And for years after that, the idea that pigs’ feet were to be considered objects of drooling obsession honestly never even occurred to me.

But once you’ve tried them as they are done in China’s great gastronomic centers – particularly Guangdong and Jiangsu – you will forever be a convert. Suzhou in particular seems to have a serious knack for smoking porky bits like feet and tripe into culinary masterpieces. And I mean that with all sincerity.

It’s hard to describe just how intensely delicious smoked pigs’ feet are and how absolutely sensuous they are to eat, but I’ll try.

First off, the skin is like silk… smoky, luxurious silk. As soon as it touches my lips, I find it hard not to moan just a little bit. The skin is really what trotters are all about, because these feet are composed mainly of thick skin wrapped sensibly around a happy collection of bones and tendons, with just a touch of meat to hold things together. And when these feet are cooked correctly – and by that I mean that they are blanched properly, braised into utter submission, seasoned with gentleness, and then smoked into culinary nirvana – few things are better to munch on while contemplating how wonderful food can be.

Second, the tendons are gummy and insanely good when done right. I’ve given all sorts of recipes for tendons (like here and here), so you already know I have a bit of a mania for tendons. And I want you to get excited about this intensely Chinese love for sticky tendons, too. The more the merrier.

Like so many of my favorite dishes, this is more of an outline than jam-packed full of detailed directions on how to season it, because this really is all about the prep work. How you flavor it between the prep and the final smoking is something open to considerable interpretation. You can therefore play around with the middle part and find what makes you deliriously happy. And you should.

But pay close attention to selecting good feet, getting them ready, and turning them into trembling bits of seduction. That’s the secret. Then, don’t smoke them for too long, as the sugar will burn and turn acrid, which then deposits all sorts of sour tastes on your masterpiece. Other than these two things, you’re good to go.

Smoked trotters
Xūn zhūjiăo 薰豬
Serves 6

6 whole pig’s feet or trotters, preferably free range and of the highest quality (see Tips), cut up by your butcher as directed below
Water, as needed

½ cup thinly sliced fresh ginger
6 green onions, trimmed but left whole
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 piece of rock sugar, about the size of an egg
2 star anise
Half a stick of cinnamon

To smoke:
Spray oil
¼ cup raw rice, or more as needed
¼ cup sugar, or more as needed
¼ cup dry tea leaves, or more as needed
¼ cup dry Jamaica flowers, or more as needed, optional
In the smoker

1. Have your butcher use a band saw to slice each trotter in half lengthwise and then make 3 crosscuts, so that each foot ends up as 6 pieces. Clean the feet carefully, pat them dry with a paper towel, and poke around in the crevasses of the skin in search of hairs or anything else that requires your attention. Pluck out the hairs if there are only a few of them, or else use a disposable razor to shave your pig.

2. Place the feet in a pan, cover with water, and bring this to a full boil before lowering the heat to maintain a good simmer. Cook the feet for around 10 minutes to remove any impurities, and then rinse off the feet and pan. Cover them with fresh water, bring the water to a full boil again, and then simmer the feet until the skin feels soft and you can pierce through the thickest piece with a chopstick, topping off the pan with more boiling water as needed.

3. Add all of the sauce ingredients to the pan. Simmer the feet in this sauce until it is reduce to just half an inch (1 cm) or so at the bottom. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as needed. Simmer things a bit further until most of the sauce has been absorbed, and then remove the pan from the heat. Cool the feet on a platter. You can make them ahead of time up to this point and refrigerate, too.

4. To smoke the pork, prepare a smoker as directed here. Spray the tray with oil. Smoke around half of the pieces at a time. (If your smoker is smaller, then smoke smaller amounts and adjust the smoking ingredients accordingly, using, say a third of the fuel at a time. You know what to do.) You don’t want to pack things in there, as otherwise the smoke will not be able to circulate freely. Turn the overhead fan on your stove up to high.
Sheer heaven

5. Place a half (or whatever) of the fuel into the bottom of the smoker, arrange the empty tray on top, cover the smoker, and set it over high heat. When smoke comes billowing out, arrange the right amount of pork on the tray, cover, lower the heat to medium, and smoke the feet for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the smoker covered and on the burner. After about 15 minutes, check the pork: it should be a glorious mahogany brown and smell magnificent. If not, turn the pieces over, discard the old fuel, put in new fuel, and smoke it again. Repeat with the rest of the pork until all have been smoked. Serve the feet hot or slightly warm. This is fabulous with cold beer or a cocktail of your choosing.


Get your pigs’ feet from a really great butcher. If you don’t have a good relationship going with someone like that yet, now is the perfect time to start. You want a butcher who orders in whole or half animals for the shop, because then you’ll be able to ask for things like ears and feet and liver and so forth without getting too much pushback.

A really great butcher is someone who sells happy animals, or at least beasts that had many, many happy days and one really horrible one. (We all hope for that in the end for ourselves, too, don’t we?) Animals that are killed while they are stressed and terrified secrete their fear into their muscles, and that is not craziness speaking, it’s a fact. Get meat that was humanely raised and humanely butchered.

I always special order things like feet or pork belly with the skin on or fatback or whatever it is I want to cook with. Give your butcher a head’s up, as a week or so might be required to get them delivered. And make things worth your butcher’s while by being a steady customer who is nice and brings in friends.