Monday, September 26, 2016

Totally homey, totally amazing

The homey dishes of China – those things that people make day after day when they want to treat their families very well – really define comfort food to me. No one could (or should) eat high on the hog very often, and it’s always nice to sit down to something that offers simple pleasures.

One such dish is this. There really is not all that much to it, and it certainly does not demand much in terms of time or money, but I always look forward to diving into a hot bowl of Honeycomb Bean Curd Soup just the same.

First, I get my hands on some good bean curd. If you have a shop in the area that offers the really fresh, homemade stuff, go buy that. Otherwise, search out an organic brand. Trader Joe’s, surprisingly enough, has some great bean curd I’m always happy to eat right out of the box, it’s that good. Don’t get extra firm or soft doufu (i.e., tofu) here, as the texture just won’t work.

Surprisingly amazing
I tend to think about making this whenever I have some stock simmering away on the stove. We had a roast chicken the other day, so all the bones and skin were tossed into the pot with a bit of ginger and rice wine. You can use mushroom stock if you want to go meatless, or even plain water for a super down-to-earth meal. Not too many rules apply here, so use what you have.

One thing I would insist on are dried black mushrooms for flavor and texture and color, as well as that ginger and rice wine. I mean you can go all Spartan here, but really, what’s the point. Even the simplest meal should be a reason for celebration.

This is called “honeycomb” because the bean curd is simmered in a couple of changes of water, which rinses out any chemicals in there (like the coagulants - plaster or salt water), leaving behind only the soy proteins. The doufu changes its character quite a bit in the process, with bigger and bigger holes running through it as the bean curd tightens up. This turns the white squares into perfect sponges for all of those vibrant flavors – mushrooms, ginger, and rice wine – which is another reason why they are so important here.

Don’t confuse this, though, with frozen bean curd, as that is quite resilient in texture, very chewy, and so able to withstand being boiled and swished around in a hotpot. This, rather, is more meaty and subtle.

The honeycomb forming
In fact, the texture here is utterly amazing: the bean curd "blooms" when it simmers this long, giving it an otherworldly mouthfeel and ridding it of any extraneous flavors. What's left is really rapturous - in fact, if you are an adventurous eater, you will immediately be reminded of lambs' brains. (If you're a vegan, sorry about that.) But when you are a meatless diner, you are always on the lookout for some new twist you can make on doufu or gluten because you need to have more than a tad of protein in your diet. So, study this clever way of making something new out of the same-old same-old.

As the days turn cool, this is the sort of thing that ought to start gracing your table with delicious regularity.

Honeycomb bean curd soup
Fēngcháo dòufŭ  蜂巢豆腐
Serves 4 to 6
Fresh regular bean curd

4 large dried black mushrooms
Water, as needed
Around 1 pound / 450 g regular bean curd, preferably organic and non-GMO
1 quart / 1 liter chicken or mushroom stock, or water
¼ cup / 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup / 15 g thinly sliced fresh ginger
2 green onions, whites only, kept whole
Mushroom powder or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup / 40 g frozen baby peas (or baby fava beans or thinly shredded snow peas)
1 green onion, greens only, sliced thinly on the diagonal
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Start this the night before you want to serve it by rinsing the mushrooms, placing them in a bowl, and covering them by at least an inch with cool water. Let them plump up overnight. The next morning, strain the liquid into a 2-quart / 2-liter saucepan; rinse the mushrooms, remove the stems, and cut the caps on the diagonal into thin slices before adding them to the soaking liquid.

Simmer the bean curd three times
2. Drain the bean curd and cut it crosswise into ½ inch / 1 cm slices. (Or, you can cut it into as many pieces as there are diners so it's easy to serve - just don't make these less than ½ inch / 1 cm thick.) Place these in a second saucepan, cover with water, and bring the pan to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook the bean curd for around 15 minutes. Drain the bean curd, cover it again with water, and simmer it again for 15 minutes. Repeat this for a total of three times. Drain the bean curd carefully using a lid, since it becomes more and more tender as it cooks, and then gently transfer it to the saucepan with the mushrooms. You will see the holes in the bean curd increasing and enlarging as it cooks.

Honeycomb writ large
3. Add the stock or water to the saucepan with the rice wine, ginger, and whites of the green onions. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat and add mushroom powder or salt to taste, as well as a couple grinds of black pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer the bean curd over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the slices are speckled with even more pretty holes. Remove and discard the ginger and green onions. The soup can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and then reheated just before serving.

4. Add the peas and bring the stock to a boil again. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour the soup into a serving bowl or individual bowls, sprinkle on the green onions and sesame oil, and serve.  

Monday, September 19, 2016

Deep-fried rice batons

To be honest, I haven’t a clue as to why something this simple and elegant and delicious is such a secret. It is just steamed rice cut into batons and fried. That’s it. But it’s also so much more, like mochi on steroids, and it’s something that I easily could (and do) dream about at night.

But when my friend Dianne Jacob mentioned this lovely way with rice to me recently, there was a happy look in her eye as she recalled the exact same dish her mother used to make for her. The daughter of Iraqi Jews, her parents and grandparents had lived in the free port of Shanghai before and after World War II. What Casablanca was to the West, Shanghai was to the East: a place where refugees and those who just wanted a bit of peace in their lives sought as a new home as they settled down and tried to achieve a touch normalcy.
Good rice is fresh rice

Dianne's mother obviously loved Shanghai because she wore Chinese clothes the rest of her life while dining on kosher Chinese. And you really can't blame her for finding joy and comfort in a dish like this, for it's one of those ingenious little things that make complete sense once you try them. Why we don't deep-fry rice on a regular basis is anybody's guess. 

You see, the outside is crunchy and hot, while the inside is creamy and faintly sweet. Dust these with a bit of sugar and a few sesame seeds or crushed peanuts for your morning treat. Doughnuts will never again look as good.

Actually, I could eat these all day.

Deep-fried rice batons
Zīfàn’gāo 粢飯糕
Shanghai and Jiangsu
Serves 8
Cut into batons

2 cups / 400 g sticky rice (brown or white), or use half white jasmine rice and half white short-grain sticky rice
3 cups / 700 ml water
Spray oil
2 cups / 470 ml peanut or vegetable oil (use ok if it smells fresh)
White sugar, optional
Toasted sesame seeds or ground peanuts, optional

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve under running water, drain, and place them in a saucepan. Add the water, bring the saucepan to a full boil, cover, and simmer it on low for about 20 minutes, or until all of the water has been absorbed. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit for around 10 minutes so that the rice can continue to steam. (If you have a rice cooker, follow the manufacturer’s directions for making 6 cups cooked rice.)

2. Spray an 8-inch / 20 cm square pan with oil. Pat the warm rice into the pan, even it out, and press down lightly on it so that the rice sticks together without any air pockets. Cover the pan and chill overnight.

3. The next day, empty the pan out onto a cutting board. Slice the rice crosswise in half and then lengthwise into 16 even batons. Have a plate ready covered with tempura or parchment paper; paper towels will stick.

Fry on both sides
4. Pour the oil into a skillet and place it over high heat. When a chopstick inserted in the oil becomes covered with bubbles, add as many of the batons as will loosely fit (or as many as you plan to immediately eat – whichever is less). Lower the heat to maintain a gentle bubbling around the batons, and carefully flip them over when the bottoms are a golden brown. When both sides have browned, remove to the paper-covered plate to drain. (You can make these as crisp or not as you like - little kids and older people will probably thank you for keeping these on the soft side, but I love these when they crunch and then weld to my molars. As always, to each his/her/its own.) Serve the batons hot with a sprinkle of sugar and some toasted sesame seeds, if you like.


This recipe can be changed up a million ways to fit your appetite and menu. Consider adding finely chopped ham, ground sea moss or laver seaweed (nori), toasted sesame seeds, minced green onions… whatever appeals to you.

Fragrant brown sticky rice
The rice used here is also a suggestion. Brown sticky rice is perhaps my favorite, since it has a subtly nutty texture and flavor, although I also really like the combination of the sticky rice with jasmine, as the texture remains light thanks to the jasmine rice, but tacky enough to hold together well due to the sticky rice. 

You can vary these as you like, of course, and add or substitute different rices (think Thai black rice and brown sticky rice for starters), with other grains like millet tossed in for variety.

One thing to watch out for is the freshness of the rice. The smell of stale rice will become achingly apparent, since this is all about the perfume and flavor and texture of the rice. Nothing else. Take a big whiff of the rice when you open the bag - it should smell sweet and delicious.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Crispy beef tomato chow mein + great reviews for All Under Heaven

Please check out the insanely wonderful review of All Under Heaven that Paula Forbes wrote for Epicurious. I'm still in a state of shock.

Dianne Jacob posted a lovely interview with moi for her blog, and I'm so delighted with the nice things she has to say. If you want to write a cookbook, please do read her books and blog - they're the best!

Also, Susan Gordon on Signature Reads gave All Under Heaven a big thumbs up. Thank you again, Susan, for  being so kind.

And a reminder: I'll be speaking at the 92nd Street Y and the Smithsonian this week. Hope to see you there!

On to this week's recipe...

* * *

Some folks say this dish comes from Guangzhou, while others insist it’s a Chinese American invention. I really don't know and, to be honest, don’t really care all that much because it is so absolutely delicious and wonderful and easy.

I kind of hesitate to confidently declare this a Chinese American classic because I used to eat it all the time in Taipei back when I was a student. Of course, it could very well be that someone might have brought a similar recipe back from the States. Stranger things have certainly happened in the annals of culinary history. But the Cantonese have a delicious way of pairing beef with tomatoes, usually with a light sweet-and-sour sauce that somehow fuses them together perfectly, along with the usual aromatic fireworks caused by fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions. So, like I say, who knows.

Over the years, I’ve come to make this many ways, but the recipe below is without a doubt my own favorite take. It’s a dish that I tend to reserve for late summer and early autumn, the time when tomatoes can’t get any better. Plus, the weather is still warm enough that a good plate of noodles will satisfy me completely.

These noodles are amazing, by the way. You can find Cantonese egg noodles in most Chinese grocery stores, where they will be perched in a refrigerated case alongside other pastas and chilled breads. Look for thin, light yellow strands – the thinner the better, because then they will fry up into crispy little shards that shatter with each bite.

When you find a package that looks about right, check out the ingredients: there shouldn’t be much more in there than flour and eggs. Avoid noodles that are bright yellow, since that’s usually the mark of food coloring. More and more American-based manufacturers are getting into the noodle-making game, so try to find one that’s made here, as the quality will be better and they will probably be a whole lot fresher. Keep them refrigerated, and use them up as soon as you can, especially if you open up the package.

The one thing that makes this recipe different from most others is that I like to cut the crispy noodle pillow into wedges. If you’ve ever wrestled with this dish in restaurants, you’ll know what I’m trying to avoid, since you want the noodles nice and crispy, but they won’t surrender until they’ve softened in the sauce a bit. I have avoided this problem by whacking them up before the sauce gets poured on top.

If you are serving more than two people, double all of the ingredients. However, if you double the recipe, fry two pillows; if you triple it, make three pillows; and so on. The reason for this is, if you make too large a pillow, it won’t heat through before the bottom burns, so keep this in mind.
 Now's the best time for tomatoes

Now, let’s talk about catsup. I’ve come to like Sir Kensington’s spiced, which has a great balance of flavors and just a hit of chile, but go with what you like. Taste the sauce after you mix it up and then adjust the levels with whatever seems right. The tomatoes will also play a big part in the final flavor spectrum, with sweet ones demanding less sugar, while tarter ones, of course, requiring a touch more. It’s all up to you and what tastes right.

This is a perfect meal in itself.

Crispy beef tomato chow mein
Fānqié níuròu jiānmiàn 蕃茄牛肉煎麵
Guangdong or Chinese American
Serves 2, but can easily be multiplied

Around 4 ounces / 110 g boneless steak
1 tablespoon mild rice wine (like Taiwanese Mijiu)
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
⅛ teaspoon baking soda

2 quarts / 2 liters boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
7 to 8 ounces / 200 to 225 g very thin Cantonese egg noodles (see headnotes)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Around ½ cup peanut or vegetable oil (used all right if it smells fresh)
My farmer's market overfloweth

3 tablespoons catsup (see headnotes)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon sugar, to taste
A little light rice vinegar, if needed

The rest:
8 ounces / 225 g flavorful tomatoes of any kind
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
3 green onions, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal

1. Slice the beef against the grain into thin pieces; the size really doesn’t matter, just make them bite-sized and more or less evenly shaped. Toss the beef in a small work bowl with the rice wine, soy sauce, cornstarch, and baking soda. Allow the beef to marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Bring the water to a boil and add the salt. Shake the noodles into the water and stir them for 20 to 30 seconds (or according to package directions), which will slightly rehydrate them, but you don’t really want them cooked at this point. Pour the water and noodles into a colander set in the sink and immediately run cool water over the noodles, tossing them around so that they stop cooking. Drain in the sink, tossing them now and again when you think of it. Sprinkle on the sesame oil and toss them with this so that they don’t stick together.

3. Mix the sauce ingredients in a small measuring cup; taste and add a bit of rice vinegar, if you think it needs it, but it all depends upon the catsup and Worcestershire sauce. Rinse the tomatoes and cut larger ones into wedges or slice cherry/plum tomatoes in half – again, they should be bite-sized and attractive. Have the other aromatics ready to go in little piles. This recipe can be prepared up to this point and everything refrigerated for up to a day.
Just amazingly good

4. First fry the noodles. Set a wok over medium heat and add the oil. When the oil starts to shimmer, pile the noodles in the center of the wok. Use a wok spatula to corral them into a neat pillow, and then lightly pat the noodles down so that they wind around each other into a firm nest. Fry the noodles and shake the wok a little bit now and then while keeping an eye on them until they are golden on the bottom, which will take around 5 to 10 minutes, depending upon your stove. Flip them over and fry until the second side is also golden, and then slide them out onto a plate. Drain any oil on the plate and all but around ¼ cup / 60 ml of the oil in the wok into a heatproof bowl. Use kitchen shears to cut the crispy noodles into wedges, if you like.

5. Raise the heat under the wok to high. Toss the ginger and garlic in the hot oil for a few seconds, and then add all of the beef. Break apart any lumps and toss the meat now and then so that it sears and caramelizes along the edges. Once that happens, toss in the tomatoes, green onions, and the sauce. Keep tossing until the tomatoes are hot, and then immediately scrape everything on top of the noodles. Serve and then revel in these early days of autumn.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Incredible edible eggplant

Like Oil Braised Spring Bamboo Shoots, today’s dish is often grossly misinterpreted by restaurant chefs, who take the “oil” part of the name too literally and drown these babies in less-than-stellar oil. And it’s a real shame when that happens, for that just makes them soggy and dulls the flavors. 

When made right, the eggplants are quickly pan-steamed to open them up for the sauce, and then slowly braised in an oil-free blanket of soy sauce and seasonings. Only when they are about to be removed from the heat is a smidgen of toasted sesame oil allowed to round out the textures and add a touch of nuttiness.

Another of this region’s brilliant members of the pentoucai brigade, these Oil Braised Eggplants are super simple and simply super. We used to enjoy them at our old favorite Yangtze region restaurants in Taipei, where they would sit expectantly in the fridge at the front of the shop, their lovely shriveled bodies promising rich flavors and melting tenderness.

Edible silk
We always ate them slightly chilled, for eggplants are at their absolute best in late summer and fall, when the heat is raging and the summer vegetables are in their final stages of glory. Really, eggplants are meant to be eaten now. 

I used to devour cold ratatouille all the time when I lived by myself in Taipei, usually as a big scoop straight out of the icebox. Cooling, delicious, and nutritious, it made me a happy camper of the first degree.

But Jiangsu just might have the jump on Provence here, for these splendid denizens of the Yangtze River area are the real deal. Even if you are not crazy about eggplant, something like this just might change your mind.

Oil braised eggplants
Yóumèn qiézi 油燜茄子
Zhejiang and Jiangsu
Serves 4 to 6

4 Chinese eggplants (about 20 ounces / 800 g), left whole with the tops still attached
½ cup boiling water
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots or onions
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
A long, elegant Chinese eggplant

1. Rinse the eggplants and cut them in half or thirds crosswise, so that you have fat batons or more or less the same size. Place them in a wok with the boiling water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook them covered for around 10 minutes, or until most of the water has boiled off. Toss them around gently so that all sides are cooked.

2. Remove the cover and add the soy sauce, sugar, and shallots or onions. Shake the wok to evenly distribute the seasonings, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Adjust the heat to maintain a good bubbling, but you want to give the eggplants time to cook down, release all of their moisture, and yet not burn, so adjust the heat as needed. Shake the pan occasionally, but don’t use a spatula, as the eggplants are going to turn very soft.

Utterly delicious
3. Check the wok every 5 minutes. This step will take longer than you expect because although you only added 3 tablespoons soy sauce, the salt will cause the eggplants to release their juices, and so the liquid will look pretty constant while this happens. When the soy sauce has finally cooked down to a sticky slick of only a tablespoon or two – around 45 minutes – the eggplants will have shriveled and look like your fingers when you’ve stayed in the bathtub too long. They will be very, very fragile at this point. So, drizzle the sesame oil over them, shake the wok to distribute the oil, cook the eggplants uncovered for a minute or two to further reduce the sauce, and then use a spatula or chopsticks to nudge the eggplants out onto a serving plate. (If you refrigerate them, do your best not to squish them down, as eggplants this done are rarely photogenic as it is, and pressure = mush. Still tasty, but...) They can be served hot or chilled and served cold the next day.