Monday, September 25, 2017

Perfect garlic lava pork

I adore chilled dishes any time of year, and some of my absolute favorites hail from Sichuan. 

Part of this has to do with the alchemy of chiles and vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns bumping up against whatever is being served, for they wake up the appetite and yet cool down the body. This is Chinese therapeutic medicine at its most delicious.

As with just about all the cold appetizers of China, this can be made well ahead of time, which means that you won’t have to be stuck in the kitchen. 

That's why, when I have friends coming over for a meal, I get started in the cool morning hours and try to have all the grunt work banged out by 10. That leaves me plenty of time to tidy up and contemplate the upcoming festivities over a glass of iced tea. (By the way, I heartily recommending that you double or triple the pork, since it's then all cooked and ready to go for a week's worth of fine dining.)

Sichuan peppercorns & garlic
Garlic pork is yet another genius dish that is more of a composition than anything else. One of the best versions I ever had was at an Yibin style restaurant in Chengdu. Yibin is an old city, and I mean old even by Chinese standards, for it's been around for four millennia. The foods in this ancient city have had time to develop in wonderful ways, and so are a delectable fusion of Han Chinese and local minority (mainly Yi and Miao) cuisines, as well as a crossroads between Sichuan and Yunnan's culinary traditions. And so, yes, this is definitely a place for eating. 

But the recipes of Yibin are also incredibly easy most of the time. Especially when the results are so perfect, such as in this dish. The pork is gently simmered in nothing more than water with a dash of salt and Sichuan peppercorns, so it’s simplicity itself. That being said, the pork has to be of excellent quality. The pork is the star of the show here, and there is nothing to disguise anything less than perfection, which means you should first head to a great butcher.

What you want and need here is meat and fat, plus skin, if possible. The fat is necessary to provide tenderness between the bites of meat. The pork will not taste greasy when made this way, so don’t worry about that. And the skin supplies extra snap and texture to the dish. Skin is not always easy to find for some reason, even around here in the Bay Area, but its absence should not stop you from making this dish.
A fatty hunk of pork shoulder

As for the cut of the meat, pork belly is great, as is the rump or the shoulder. Ask the butcher what is available and what really looks great to her or him. If you’re offered the belly, make sure it has ribbons of fat interspersed with the meat, as that equals lovely mouthfeel and flavor. If it’s the rump, try to get a tender hunk of meat with a nice layer of fat for the same reasons. Any other cut will do, too, as long as it’s boneless and tender and does not include things like tendons, which won’t get a chance to cook properly in this dish. Pork cheeks will work exceptionally well, by the way, so be on the lookout for them.

Once the pork has been cooked and chilled, that is when you should slice it. Refrigerating the pork makes it easier to handle. It won’t fall apart as you slice it, but rather will behave well. Always slice the pork against the grain, as this increases its tenderness. And practice making each slice even and beautiful so that this dish turns out to be a feast for the eyes, as well as for the other senses.

You can play with the sauce as much as you like, but the emphasis should always be on the garlic. It can be fiery or not, so feel free to add lots of chiles or no chiles at all (the red does make this dish look particularly appetizing, though). However, whatever you do, be sure to not make the sauce too sweet. A good bit of vinegar prevents the dish from becoming cloying and cuts the fattiness, but nevertheless, still hold back on the sugar... you already have a nice little sweet jolt from the oyster sauce and sweet soy sauce. 

Secret: soak the raw garlic
One way in which this recipe differs from the traditional methods is that I add salt and spices to the pork as it is simmering to amplify and balance the natural meaty aromas. Be sure and reserve the stock after you've cooked the pork, as it is delicious. I'd suggest cooking a handful of thinly julienned Asian radishes in it for a perfect soup.

Note that the lots of garlic is called for. But at the same time, it is subtly tamed with an ice water bath. Raw garlic needs this secret little maneuver to cut back on its gassiness and stickiness, and this in turn allows its perfume to shine. A note on the name: in Chinese, it means "garlic mud" or even "garlic paste," but I've always preferred the garlic here when it's in tiny bits that get a chance to sparkle on the tongue, hence "lava" for the English name.

This is therefore definitely not date night food, unless you both are serious garlic lovers. And if you are, then this will probably prove to be an aphrodisiac. Yibin is also home to the Chinese white liquor known as wŭliángyè 五糧液 (literally, distillation of five grains), and that is actually the ideal accompaniment to this heady pork dish. If you don't have any in the liquor cabinet (do note that it's becoming more available in Chinese markets nowadays), then try serving this with another chilled white liquor like gaoliang, a gin martini, or perhaps even a cold beer.
Thinly sliced cucumbers

Garlic lava pork
Suànní báiròu 蒜泥白肉
Serves 4 to 6

Pork and vegetables:
Around 1½ pounds  (700 g) slightly fatty fresh pork belly or rump or shoulder, with or without the skin
Water, as needed
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
3 star anise
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 to 4 Persian or other seedless cucumbers
1 green onion, trimmed
½ red jalapeño pepper

6 cloves garlic, evenly chopped
Ice water, as needed
1 to 2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (homemade or store-bought)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon chile oil (homemade or store-bought), optional
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon pale rice vinegar

Ahhh... the sauce
1. At least 4 hours before you plan to serve this, place the pork in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring the pan to a full boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and blanch the pork uncovered for around 10 minutes. Dump out the water and rinse off both the pork and the pan. Return the pork to the pan and cover it with fresh water, and add the Sichuan peppercorns and star anise. Bring it once more to a full boil and then simmer it or about 20 minutes, add the salt, and then continue to simmer it for another 25 minutes, or until it can be easily pierced in the thickest part with a chopstick. Cool the pork in the strained stock and, if you have the time, refrigerate it in this stock overnight. About an hour before serving, remove the pork to a clean plate, flick off any clingy peppercorns and star anise, pluck out any hairs you might find at this point, and cut the pork against the grain into very thin slices.

2. While the pork is chilling, prepare the cucumbers by trimming off both ends and then using either a mandoline or very sharp knife to cut them into very thin ribbons. Pile these in a serving bowl or lipped plate and chill. Cut the green onion and optional chile pepper into thin rings.
Hot weather delight

3. Place the garlic in a small work bowl and cover with ice water, as this will remove a lot of its stickiness and heat. Just before serving, drain the garlic well in a fine strainer and then mix it with rest of the sauce ingredients, using 1 tablespoon of the sweet soy sauce first, and then tasting the mix to see if the second tablespoon is needed.

4. Fluff up the cucumber ribbons as much as possible to create an attractive nest. Fan the pork slices across the top. Drizzle the sauce over the pork, but not on the cucumbers, so that the green and white of the cukes remain clean. Scoot the chopped garlic over the top of the pork and then scatter the green onions and optional chile pepper over that.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chinatown's almond cookies

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by San Francisco’s Chinatown. Going there was a rare treat, but I always knew what I wanted when we got there: a box of almond cookies.

Packed up in a pretty pink box with a string tie, they were unlike anything we ate down in San Jose, which was pretty Midwestern when it came to food then. 

To me, Chinese almond cookies tasted more like Chinatown than any other sweet I tried, not that there was ever that huge a selection.

Later, when I was older, I tried to relive that experience, only to find that the flavors and textures were off. The cookies were bland instead of exciting, tasted of fat and sugar rather than almonds, and tended to be slightly soft, not tantalizingly crispy, as I remembered.

And so, of course, I had to rectify this.

Perfect snacking
As you can see, I’ve been on a bit of a warpath lately. Chinese American food is sooo good, but we never get to really eat it anymore. It’s as American as, say, Tex-Mex or Red Italian, and I am all in favor of seeing it make a genuine comeback. But cooked with pride and made with even better ingredients than before, of course.

Almond cookies seem like an obvious choice for this first salvo. The original inspiration for this recipe came from a 1979 cookbook called Better Than Storebought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie. I’ve made a lot of adjustments over the years, though, to make it more almond-y, less sweet, and a bit healthier. They even have that golden shiny glaze and crinkly fissures on top. 

I hope you agree that these are just what we need for snacktime.

Updated Chinatown almond cookies
Whip the sugars, fat, & egg together
Tèzhì Tángrénjiē xìngrén bĭnggān 特製唐人街杏仁餅乾
Chinese American
Makes 32

¾ cup (145 g) organic solid white shortening, or good lard
½ cup (100 g) white sugar
¼ cup (45 g) coconut sugar, or packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
¾ cup (100 g) ground almonds, or almond flour
1¾ cups (165 g) unbleached pastry flour
¾ teaspoon sea salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg, lightly beaten
32 whole almonds, either unblanched or blanched (i.e., with or without skin)

1. Place the shortening (or lard), both sugars, 1 egg, and both extracts in the bowl of a food processor equipped with a metal blade. Whiz it for around a minute, stopping the machine now and then to scrape down the sides, until you have a very light, creamy mixture.

2. Mix together the ground almonds (or almond flour), pastry flour, salt, and baking soda in a small work bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the food processor and pulse the cookie dough until it is evenly mixed.
Make logs & chill
3. Have 2 sheets of parchment paper or foil ready. Scrape out half of the cookie dough onto each sheet, spread it out into a log-like shape, and then roll the dough up in the paper or foil like a cigar. Freeze the dough for about 20 minutes, just until it is solid but still easy to cut.

4. Place 2 racks near the center of your oven and turn it on to 275°F (135°C); don’t use the convection setting. Line 2 baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper.

5. Cut each log of dough into 16 even pieces. (This is easy: cut each log in half, then each piece into half again, then half again, then half again; see Tip.) Place them on the lined sheets about 2 inches (5 cm) apart.

6. Brush each slice with the beaten egg, and then press a whole almond in the center. Bake the cookies for 25 minutes. Rotate the sheets from top to bottom and back to front, and then increase the heat to 325°F (160°C). Continue to bake them for about 10 minutes more. When they are golden brown, remove them from the oven and let them cool to room temperature. Keep them in an airtight container or freeze for longer storage.

Oven ready

If you can hunt down some good lard, try that. It’s wonderful.

Even better, make your own lard: Cut some chilled pork fat (it’s much easier to work with when it’s very cold) into small dice. Place the fat in a saucepan, add a couple of tablespoons of water, cover the pan, and set it over medium-low heat. Stir the fat as needed to keep the solids from burning. As soon as you have a nice layer of fat on the bottom, remove the lid so that the water can evaporate and continue to cook the fat, adjusting the heat as necessary. It is ready when the solids are a toasty brown. Drain the fat through a sieve into a container, and then refrigerate it. 

The toppings
Lard will keep a very long time if kept cold. And be sure to save the cracklings – one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sneaky snacks was white rice topped with cracklings, a bit of melted lard, and a drizzle of soy sauce. I have to agree with her here… this is pretty amazing stuff and is much better than it sounds, all buttery and crunchy.

Whenever you need to cut up things like pastry dough or cookie dough, see if you can make a number that is easily divisible by 4, like 8, 16, 32, and 64. The reason for this is that you then don’t need to measure the dough with a ruler, but rather simply slice pieces in half until you have the correct number of pieces. Brainlessly easy.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bangbang chicken chez Huang

Ok, let’s say you have some tasty leftover chicken from last week and it’s hot out and you don’t feel much like cooking. It could be that you only have a breast and a thigh sitting in the fridge, and you want to mix it up a bit and turn those bits into a dish that sparks the appetite and tickles the senses.

If that sounds right up your alley, then you should make bangbang chicken. (By the by, it's pronounced "bong bong," like you're whacking away on it like a drum.)

Similar in many ways to mouthwatering chicken, this traditional hot-weather appetizer from Chengdu has been updated here with fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar, which makes it even more refreshing. Plus, grated lemon zest adds a nice perfume to the nutty sauce, cutting the heaviness of the peanut butter with a bit of zing. Homemade chile oil is fabulous in any Sichuan dish, but store-bought will do in a pinch. Nestle everything on a pile of super crunchy tribute vegetable or strands of fresh cucumber, and you have the perfect way to begin a summer meal.

I like to serve this for dinner at home, but it’s also great on picnics, or even at potlucks, where it will surprise and probably seduce everyone there. This tends to disappear in a flash, so I tend to make more that I think I’ll need, and still it gets swooped up faster than anything else on the table.

Peanut butter + chicken = delicious
A lot of this has to do with the nutty sauce, I think. We just don’t do enough with peanut butter in this country, which is a crying shame. I mean, other than PBJ’s and Reese’s and peanut butter cookies, this flavorful nut butter tends to get short shrift. But everyone loves it, so here is an easy way to worm your way into the hearts and stomachs of everyone at the table.

Of course, if there are peanut allergies you have to deal with, try almond butter instead. Even soybean butter will work in a pinch, with toasted soybeans taking the place of the toasted peanuts. Or toasted sesame paste. All sorts of alternative exist nowadays.

Be sure to include the vegetables underneath to balance out the chicken and sauce. The green onions are likewise important players here. Their grassy, slightly hot nature complements the other flavors here, just like the garlic.

Crunchy toppings
If you make this ahead of time, be sure to keep the chicken, sauce, and vegetables separate until the last minute. Otherwise, the salt in the sauce will make the veggies soggy and will drown out the natural flavors of the bird. For picnics or potlucks, you can layer the chicken on top of the veggies and carry the sauce and toppings in small containers. 

A pair of chopsticks is a good choice for serving utensils, since they allow people to snatch up the whole layers without messing them up too much. Whatever you do, don’t toss them together, as the dish will look sloppy and unappetizing.

Whenever you have vegans or vegetarians coming to dinner, julienne some pressed doufu to take the place of the chicken. And for those hot days when just this one dish will have to suffice, serve it over a big pile of crispy lettuce, make double the amount of sauce, and get ready to enjoy a great salad.

Bangbang chicken chez Huang
Huángjiā bàngbàng jī  黃家棒棒雞
Serves 4

2 ounces (60 g) dried tribute vegetable, or 2 Persian or other seedless cucumbers
Boiling water, as needed
8 ounces (225 g), more or less, leftover boneless cooked chicken (roasted, poached, whatever), chilled

1 dried Thai chile
3 tablespoons peanut butter (crunchy or smooth, salted or not)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
Grated zest of half a medium lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
The sauce ingredients a la Pollack
2 or more tablespoons chile oil (homemade or store-bought)
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn oil (homemade or store-bought), optional
2 teaspoons sugar

Half a green onion, trimmed and sliced into thin circles
2 tablespoons chopped toasted peanuts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1. At least 3 hours before you plan to serve this, place the tribute vegetable in a heatproof work bowl and cover with boiling water. Set a plate on top to keep the vegetables submerged. After about 30 minutes, rinse the vegetables, shake dry in a colander, and cut into 1-inch (2 cm) lengths. If you are using cucumbers instead of the tribute vegetable, rinse and pat them dry before trimming off both ends, and then slice the cukes into a julienne. Arrange the vegetables on a small serving platter or bowl so that they will act as a nest for the chicken and then chill them until you are ready to serve this dish.

2. Hand shred the chicken into pieces about ¼ inch (5 mm) thick, although the length really doesn’t matter. The skin can also be cut into thin strips, if you have it.
Plumped-up tribute vegetable

3. Break the chile in half and shake out the seeds. Remove any hard bits and then soak it in boiling water to soften it up before slicing it into very thin circles. Mix the chile with the other sauce ingredients in a medium work bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you like, adding more of any ingredient to achieve the balance you like. Up to half an hour before serving, toss the chicken with the sauce to give it time to absorb some of these flavors.

4. Arrange the chicken on top of the vegetables in an attractive manner, and then sprinkle the garnishes on top. Serve chilled.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A soup made of silk, or so it seems

The beautiful mushroomy object known as the silver ear fungus can be utterly amazing when done right, and distinctly weird when not. 

To be honest, I never really liked it much, since it tended to be crunchy (not in a good way) and as close to annoying as an ingredient can get without being totally obnoxious.

One day, though, an older Chinese friend from Zhejiang told me that there was a simple secret to making it, for it turned these dried, plastic-looking balls into ethereal silk. I asked what it was, and she said, “Soak them for three days, change the water every day, and then slowly poach them for about eight hours.”

I went home and did just that. 
Simple, yet divine

And she was right on the money.

Since then, I’ve proudly been a silver ear devotee, as well as something on the order of a amateur silver ear pusher, as I’m always trying to turn people on to this. And that’s why I’m here today, talking about something you might not have ever heard of, and on the off chance that you have, you were most likely never quite impressed and and have been wondering what the fuss was all about.

Silver ears are eaten for their texture and texture only, as they are completely bland. However, no one ever cooks them correctly, which leads to that aforementioned annoying crunchiness. These need time and patience to make their innate beauty shine, for when soaked and slowly poached into submission, they are breathtakingly wonderful.

Those plasticky, brainlike objects eventually evolve into fluttery bits that melt on the tongue. Really, in their final form, silver ears end up as little more than whispers floating around your mouth, which is why things like small cubes of pear and ruby little wolfberries are needed to ground this elegant dessert soup to the earthly realm. Plus, the silver ears release a soothing thickener into the liquid that thickens it almost like cornstarch, but it's more like fairydust than your average binder. I know I'm being obtuse here, but once you try this you will understand.

You should know, too, that this fungus is considered therapeutic and filled with collagen. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s the reason why it is often wrapped up in pretty gift boxes and foisted on elderly Chinese folks as presents. My mother-in-law used to receive them on a regular basis from well-meaning people, and that meant that at least a couple of boxes in turn got foisted onto me whenever we visited, as she didn’t know how to cook them correctly and wasn’t ever that interested in the kitchen to begin with. Back then I was just as confused as anyone about what to do with them, so I’d try in turn to foist them on somebody else or just toss them out when they finally got buggy or decrepit looking.

But that is all in the past. Now I revel in these things and hope you will, too.

Once you master this simple soup – which is slightly sweet, rather than savory, and therefore meant to be served at breakfast, in the afternoon, or after a heavy dinner – you should expand its possibilities into other avenues. Try it in light yet fresh fish or chicken or meatless soups, places where it can weave among the other ingredients, stay visible through the use of clear broths, and have its satin texture amplified or contrasted by the right accompaniments.

For example, a Chinese-style mushroom soup would be a great home for some silver ears, or a clear chicken stock with barely poached shreds of chicken breast, threads of fresh ginger, and a splash of Shaoxing rice wine.

Fully soaked silver ears
Silver ear fungus is a distinctly Chinese ingredient known by lots of pretty names, including xuě’ěr 雪耳, or “snow ear,” in Chinese, as well as jelly fungus in English. Pur­chase it from Chinese dried-foods stores, herbalists, and busy grocery stores. Look for large, unbroken heads that are not too white; whiteness means they were bleached. Store silver ears in a sealed plastic bag, where they will remain in good shape for a very long time.

Sweet pear soup with silver ears
Yíněr tiánlí tãng 銀耳甜梨湯
Shanxi and all over China; therapeutic cuisine
Serves 8 to 10

2 large heads silver ear fungus
3 quarts (3 l) boiling water
1 piece of rock sugar about the size of a large egg
Trim the bases
2 teaspoons ginger juice
3 tablespoons wolfberries (aka gouqi or goji berries), rinsed
2 tablespoons osmanthus blossom syrup, or ½ teaspoon sea salt
1 large Chinese pear of any variety, peeled, cored, and cut into small dice
Fresh lemon juice to taste, optional

1. Start this recipe at least 4 days before you wish to serve it. Rinse the silver ears and place them in a large work bowl. Cover the fungus with at least 2 inches (5 cm) of cool tap water, adding more water as needed to keep the silver ears submerged, and either refrigerate or keep in a cool area of the kitchen. Change the water twice a day for 3 days. On the second day, you can trim the silver ears by placing them in a col­ander set in the sink for easy cleaning. Use a paring knife to trim off the hard cores and any dark yellow spots, then separate the heads into individual petals (they do not have to be the same size), being sure to rinse off any detritus you find.

Transformation complete
2. Rinse the silver ears once again in a colander and then place them in a slow cooker, if you have one, or in a 4-quart (4 l) pot with a heavy bottom. Add the boiling water, return the water to a boil, and then cover and simmer very slowly for 6 to 8 hours, until the silver ears are completely translucent but have not started to break apart. About 1 hour before they are done, add the sugar, ginger juice, wolfberries, and osmanthus blossom syrup. The soup may be made ahead of time to this point and refrigerated; just heat it up before proceeding to the next step.

3. When the silver ears are soft and tender, remove the insert from the slow cooker or the pan from the heat. Add the pears to the hot soup, then taste the soup and add lemon juice or more sweetener if you wish. Serve the soup hot, or let it cool to room temperature, chill it, and enjoy it cold.