Monday, March 20, 2017

Chinese brisket & a couple of Beard nominations

Happy news!

All Under Heaven has been nominated as one of three titles in the International Cookbook division of this year's James Beard Awards

And if that wasn't exciting enough, a short story I wrote for Life & Thyme also got nominated. It's the one where I tell about cooking a northern Chinese meal for my terrifying mother-in-law, the daughter of a warlord and a woman of many secrets.

I don't know what I did in a past life to deserve this, but I'm not going to ask too many questions...

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China has a complex relationship with cattle. This probably is due to the late arrival of the animal on the culinary scene. Unlike Central Asia and points west, where dairy and beef cattle are absolutely vital to so many food traditions, China depended upon either the water buffalo or the yak until (probably) Muslims introduced domestic cattle to the country via the Silk Roads. 

The domesticated yak provides milk, meat, and hides to people in cold climates like Tibet, while the water buffalo has been – and still is, in many areas – more valuable as a beast of burden than as a source for beef. 

In fact, the water buffalo was responsible for the survival of so many families that it was as beloved as the family dog. No one would even consider serving it up.

Unmistakable pattern of brisket
This was so ingrained a belief even a couple of decades ago that most of the ethnic Taiwanese I knew refused to eat beef. (My Muslim friends couldn’t eat pork, of course, and the Buddhists were often vegans, so dinner sometimes was at times quite the goat rodeo.) 

With the influx of McDonald’s and other hamburger places, as well as the status that steak and red wine have conferred upon wealthier diners, you don’t see this as much in the big cities. But it at least gives you an idea why milk and beef have never been quite as popular in China as, say, pork or chicken.

However, there certainly are divine exceptions to the rule. Last week we tried a lovely milk dish from Guangdong, and today we are tasting a really remarkable brisket from the Huai Yang area of Jiangsu – my idea of culinary heaven on earth, for what it’s worth. The Huai Yang centers around the city of Yangzhou in central Jiangsu Province, and this gastronomic motherlode is bounded on one side by the Huai River and the other by the Yangtze, which is why it's called Huai Yang.

This cuisine is downright sophisticated, and I will most likely be offering up some of the area's haute cuisine over the coming months, since I'm becoming more and more entranced with the absolute stellar dishes it produces. But more on that later. Back to the food at hand.

The supporting cast
You will see some familiar players in this very refined dish. Just as any French chef worth her salt would do, a Huai Yang chef will toss onions, carrots, salt, bay leaves, and wine into the pot. But what makes this both Chinese and utterly divine is that instead of stewing or braising the brisket, it is slowly steamed, the vegetables are removed, the beef is chilled, and then it is served in thin slices in the hot broth with a shower of finely shredded baby ginger. 

In fact, there are two layers of ginger in here – the older brown rhizomes insert a nice sense of warmth to the broth and meat, and a shower of thin white baby ginger sparkles as the sole garnish. This soup is very simple, very unadorned. 

Since Chinese folks - especially in haute cuisine - often find beef and lamb to be rather overpoweringly strong in flavor, you'll find that the Chinese radish and Shaoxing rice wine in this recipe work with the bay leaves to tamp down any gamy smells and flavors.

This is a culinary secret the Chinese use again and again. The radish serves as sort of a purifying agent for anything with strong aromas, including pork and oilier fish, lightening the odors and adding an almost undetectable vegetal sweetness. You might be surprised at seeing bay leaves in a Chinese dish, but the herbal aromas of the Mediterranean tree known locally here as “moon cassia” (yuèguì 月桂) might have been introduced to the country thanks to the same folks who imported the beef: the Muslims.

There is no two ways about it, though: clear brisket soup is an austere dish. There is nothing fancy going on here. Rather, almost like the best Japanese kaiseki, it's about celebrating honest ingredients in a way that puts them in their best light. So, if you love the taste of excellent brisket and the mild heat of baby ginger, you are going to love this soup as much as I do.
Beautiful brisket

To be honest, the only thing difficult about this dish is getting a great quality brisket, some tender white ginger for the garnish, and hunting down the steamer to hold all that soup. Let’s take these one at a time:

Get a really good grass-fed beef, something that’s been raised with care and butchered humanely, since it makes all the difference in the world. I compared a couple of briskets the other day at a rather upscale butcher shop, and the difference was remarkable: the regular beef had a thick layer of hard fat and looked stringy and rather forlorn, while the better quality one looked bright and bouncy. Yes, it cost twice as much, but don’t skimp when it comes to food. "Eat less, but eat better" is a really great mantra.

Rimmed bowl & grabber
Baby ginger is becoming more available, especially this time of year and, of course, your best bet is often a Chinese market. But keep an eye out for other sources. If all else fails, you can use regular fresh ginger, but make sure the rhizomes are plump and heavy. Peel them, slice them as thinly as humanly possible, and then crosscut them into the finest of julienne. Since the older ginger will be much hotter than the young, add this to taste.

As for the steamer, I use my largest pot – the one I haul out for the New Year dumpling parties – and stick a trivet at the bottom. This way I can get the bowl in and out of the steamer without scalding myself. Use a rimmed steel work bowl, if you can, plus a Chinese bowl grabber (see the picture above) to maneuver the bowl out of the steamer. If you don’t have either, wait until the soup has cooled down to merely warm before you lift it out.

Add noodles for a complete meal
For what it’s worth, I’ve tried cooking this soup different ways – browning the beef, using a pressure cooker, etc. – but this traditional method gives you the best of all worlds: a flavorful broth filled with super tender meat. Serve the meat with nothing more than the ginger and save the vegetables for your lunch or something. I love their flavor and melting texture, but they’re not for company. Being the cook definitely has its own rewards…

Clear brisket soup
Qīngzhēng níunán 清蒸牛腩
Huai Yang (Jiangsu)
Serves 6 to 8 as a soup, 4 to 6 as a main dish with noodles (see Tips)

1½ to 2 pounds (600 to 800 g) excellent quality boneless beef brisket
Water, as needed
1 Chinese radish (about 1 pound / 450 g), peeled and trimmed
1 carrot, peeled and trimmed
Young white ginger
2 large stalks Western celery, or 4 stalks Chinese celery with the leaves on
5 or 6 green onions, trimmed
3 inches (8 cm) fresh ginger
½ cup (120 ml) Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground pepper
At least ½ cup (65 g) young white ginger, peeled and finely julienned (see headnote)

1. Start this at least in the morning if you want to serve it that evening; you can also make this a couple of days ahead of time and heat it up just before serving. Place the brisket in a pan, cover with water, bring it to a boil, and then simmer the beef for around 10 minutes. Discard the water and rinse off the scum. Place the brisket in a rimmed steel work bowl that fits easily in your steamer (see headnotes).

In the steamer
2. Cut the radish, carrots, and celery in to large chunks and add them to the brisket along with the whole green onions. Smack the ginger with the side of your knife before tossing it into the bowl with the rice wine, salt, sugar, and pepper. Don’t cover the bowl, but simply place it in your steamer. Cover everything with water (around 6 to 8 cups / 1.5 to 2 liters) up to about an inch (2.5 cm) from the rim and steam the brisket for around 3 hours. Let the soup cool off completely. Remove all the vegetables (see headnotes) and discard the ginger and onions. Place the beef in a clean bowl and strain the stock over the top. Cover and chill the beef and stock for at least a couple of hours.

3. About half an hour before serving, remove any hard fat on top of the stock. Slice the beef crosswise into thin slices and arrange them in a wide serving bowl or individual soup bowls. Scatter the julienned young ginger on top. Heat the stock to boiling, adjust the seasoning as needed, and just before serving, pour the boiling stock over the beef and ginger. Serve immediately.


Julienned ginger
This soup is incredible when served over thin noodles, like capellini. All you need to complete the meal is that julienned ginger, as it will weave around the pasta and season every bite with a touch of heat. 

My husband prefers more powerful flavors in his beef soup, so he tends to plead for a dish of chile sauce or something on the side to zing things up. I eat this lovely soup plain, though, and absolutely revel in the beefiness of it all.

I admit, I'm a sucker for this dish. I love it hot, I love it cold. If you've properly degreased the stock, the fact that the soup and noodles are cold will actually charm you. So, keep this recipe in your back pocket for whenever summer finally rolls around.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Steamed white custard from Shunde

The city of Shunde in the Pearl River Delta, downstream from the capital city of Guangzhou and north of Hong Kong, is home to most of China’s milk dishes. No one really knows why milk is such a big deal here, for beef certainly isn’t, but there you have it.

Cow’s milk is a true rarity in the traditional cuisines of China, although it has become more common over the past couple of decades as a beverage or as a major ingredient in things like ice cream and yogurt. Back when I was a student in Taiwan during the late seventies, though, the only milk to be had was powdered, and seeing Klim powdered milk in its iconic big yellow can still makes me nostalgic. Over the following decades, fresh milk made quite a headway in local diets, mainly because parents wanted to increase their calcium intake, and also because who can argue with the joys of ice cream?
Japanese custard pots work great

But Shunde is a completely different bird, culinarily speaking. Milk has traditionally not been consumed fresh there, but rather cooked and used as part of a dish, rather than drunk as a beverage. 

A lot of this has to do with the Chinese preference for hot foods over cold, but also because so many Chinese people have lactose intolerance. Cooking will not destroy the lactose in milk, but the relatively small amount of milk that is generally used in Shunde’s foods is another reason why it has become an acceptable – and most definitely delicious – part of one of Guangdong’s most delightful cuisines.

Called "double-skinned milk" in Chinese, I haven't a clue where the two skins are, as only one seems to form whenever I've made it, which is when you first heat up the milk. As every cocoa lover knows, that skin sticks to your lips at the wrong time, and to be honest, there never really is a good time to have milk skin glued to your face. Anyway, that's the moniker it's stuck with, so who knows...
Divide the custard among the bowls

Most directions for this dish demand that you preserve that skin and return it to the custard just before the final steaming. Honestly, I've tried it many ways and can't see the difference whether I mix the skin back into milk (as in the recipe below) or strain it out or fastidiously reserve it for the top. And so, out goes that step.

The customary recipe for this custard calls for nothing more than whole milk, egg whites, and sugar. And so, unlike just about any other custard recipe out there, this classic sweet is pure white. It’s therefore stunning when served with contrasting colors, like red raspberries or in a black bowl or with just a drizzle of honey on top.

But because no yolks were used, this custard is also exceptionally mild in taste. You won’t register much beyond the flavor of the milk and sugar. For that reason, use only really good quality whole milk here. You want that richness to shine through.

Egg whites only
You can make this custard as sweet as you like. It’s quite good with all the sugar mixed into the hot milk, but also exceptional if you reserve the sugar as a crunchy topping. Again, traditionally speaking, in Shunde the sugar is incorporated right into the custard so that it turns this into a genuinely sensuous, smooth dessert.

People who are getting over a cold or in some other kind of recovery will probably enjoy this, since it's pure protein, easy to digest, and quite delicious. According to Chinese medicine, you'd want to serve it hot or at least very warm, since cold foods are considered detrimental when the body is weak. 

That being said, be assured that you can serve this custard chilled, and that makes this especially perfect for a small tumble of fresh fruit on top. A couple of cookies on the side wouldn't hurt, either.

This is not at all what Shunde's grandmas do, but I won’t tell them if you won’t.

Good hot or cold
Steamed white custard
Shuāngpí níunăi 雙皮牛奶
Serves 4

1¾ cups (400 ml) fresh whole milk of the best quality
2 tablespoons sugar, or 2 teaspoons sugar for the custard plus more sweetener for the topping (see headnotes)(see Tips)
Pinch of salt
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten

1. Use a heatproof cup for measuring the milk. Add the sugar and salt to the milk, and then microwave it until the milk is very hot and a skin has formed on top (about 4 minutes on high - see Tips). Let the milk cool down until it is no more than warm to the touch, as you do not want it to curdle the egg whites. 

2. Gently whisk the cooled milk into the egg whites. Strain the milk mixture back into the measuring cup and discard any foam and solids in the strainer. 

Strain out the foam and solids
3. Use 1 large (3 cup / 750 ml) heatproof bowl or 4 smaller covered chawan-mushi (Japanese custard bowls). Set up a steamer that can easily hold whatever you are using here. Divide the milk among the bowls and cover them, either with foil or lids. Steam a large bowl for around 10 minutes and the smaller ones for around 7 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the bowls sit in the hot steamer for another 5 minutes to completely set up. Be sure that you do not over-steam them, as this will ruin the texture. Garnish the custard, if you like, and serve hot or cold or in-between.


If you want to use a sweet garnish like turbinado sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit, etc., use no more than 2 teaspoons sugar in the custard itself.

Keep an eye on the milk while you heat it in Step 1 if you are not quite sure of its power. You can always microwave the milk in 1 minute spurts if you are at all unclear of how long your microwave takes, since you don't want the milk to boil over and make a mess and ruin your day. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Yangzhou fried rice done right

To many Chinese, this is the ne plus ultra of fried rice dishes. And I’d have to agree that Yangzhou's favorite rice dish really is a classic. 

Like pasta carbonara or a good ham and egg sandwich, the moving parts here make complete sense and are open to endless variation. In other words, try as you might, it’s really hard to mess this one up. But some folks seem determined to do just that. 

The problem, as always, with places that put Yangzhou Fried Rice – sometimes calling it something instead like Yangchow Fried Rice – on the menu is that the magic often isn’t there. It’s just fried rice with some scrambled eggs, bits of sweet roast pork, maybe a dash of soy sauce, a sprinkle of green onions. Standard fare, nothing too exciting.

Traditionalists in Jiangsu go to the opposite extreme, though, and pack way too much stuff in there, or at least that's my take on it. In an attempt to make this as luxurious and as memorable as possible, these folks decorate a simple masterpiece with way too many ornaments, with dried scallops, duck gizzards, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, sea cucumbers, fresh pork, and chicken all fighting with each other in a bowl. What you end up with is the kitchen sink of fried rice dishes. Definitely not my style, either.
A home run

But when this dish is done right, it sparkles. As far as I’m concerned, if you really make this a perfect Yangzhou-style dish, stick with the basics: start with excellent long-grain rice, coat the cooked grains with fresh eggs so that each one has a golden jacket, season it with a bit of good country-style ham, and stud it with small langoustines or baby shrimp. Other than a dash of salt, a bit of oil, and a dusting of chopped green onions, those are your ingredients, and you really don’t need anything else.

So let’s talk about the rice, since that should be the star of this show. Long-grain rice, as always, is perfect for fried rice because it’s not bulky, yet it possesses enough character to stand up to being cooked twice without breaking down. Softer rice – and especially sticky rice or overcooked rice of any kind – will gum up your wok, stick to your spatula, and refuse to play right, so get the right grain and then cook it correctly.

Hom Mali jasmine rice
Go to a busy health food store and head for the bulk bins, locate the long-grain rice, and start smelling them. What you want is something that has a fresh, sweet aroma, for these grains need to be able to hold their own against the other wonderful ingredients in this dish. I like especially jasmine rice here, and will happily play around with whatever smells particularly good that day. For this recipe I used Hom Mali Jasmine from Thailand, but use whatever looks (and smells) especially good to you.

Now, that bulk bin will probably have cooking directions on it, so write them down if you like. But the basic recipe is 1 part rice to 1½ parts water, and that’s it. No oil, no salt. You don’t even have to soak it. Just rinse the rice in a sieve, cover it with the right amount of water, bring it to a full boil, reduce the heat to the lowest possible, cover the pan, and cook it for 17 to 20 minutes. Check the rice to ensure it’s done, and then keep it covered for another 10 minutes to give the steam a chance to make each grain blossom fully. Then, let the rice come to room temperature and refrigerate it. 

Chilling the cooked grains is absolutely essential to achieving great fried rice, because it cuts down on the starchiness and allows the grains to maintain a sort of integrity and chewiness. And then, just before you start to fry the rice, you will want to wet your fingers and break that ball of rice up to make it as lump-free as possible.

Now you’re ready to start cooking.

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner
And if you're wondering what to do with those two extra egg whites, stay tuned for next week's recipe...

Yangzhou fried rice
Yángzhōu dàn chăofàn 揚州蛋炒飯
Serves 4 as a main dish, 8 as a side

About 4 cups cooked, cooled long-grain rice (see headnotes and Tips)
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Around 20 (4 ounces / 100 g) shelled langoustine tails or small shrimp, fresh or frozen and defrosted (size around 80/100), raw or cooked (see Tips)
Around 2 ounces (50 g) country-style ham or Hunan-style cured pork (see Tips)
4 tablespoons (60 ml) fresh peanut or vegetable oil
Around 1 teaspoon sea salt, preferably something flaky like Maldon (see Tips)
2 green onions, green leaves only, chopped into circles

1. If you haven’t done so already, cook the rice the day before you want to make this dish and chill it. Dump the rice into a large work bowl and use your wet fingertips to break up the lumps as much as possible. Lightly beat the eggs and yolks together and then toss them with the rice to coat each grain. These eggs, by the way, will also help get rid of any determined chunks of rice.
Egg mixed into the rice

2. Prep the shrimp or langoustines by removing any sandy veins and shells. Rinse them and pat them dry. Cut the ham into  inch (3 mm) cubes, more or less.

3. Set your wok over medium-high heat, and when it’s hot, add the oil and swirl it around the inside of the wok. First fry the langoustines or shrimp until they are barely cooked through (see Tips); use a slotted spoon to remove them to a small work bowl. Then, toss the ham in the oil until it is lightly browned before adding it to the shrimp. Drain any of the nicely seasoned oil back into the wok.

4. Now fry the rice: Take the wok off of the heat and let it cool down for about 2 minutes before adding all of the egg and rice mixture to the wok. Quickly toss the rice and eggs together away from the fire to gently glue the egg to the grains – starting them out on a relatively cool wok is the secret to this sort of golden egg fried rice, as the rice will then have the chance to get acquainted with the oil and gentle heat without turning into clumps of rice and eggs. Once the oil and rice and eggs have combined well, return the wok to medium-high heat and toss them continually with a wok spatula until the rice is hot; as you toss the rice, lift the spatula up and shake it so that it stays light and not clumpy. Add the shellfish, ham, and green onions, as well as salt to taste, and toss well. Serve hot.


You can use more or less cooked rice here without really affecting the dish. That being said, if you want to feed more people, and are serving this with other dishes, a cup more rice will be fine. But as a main course, don't stretch this out too far.

Buy only shrimp that are both wild and responsibly harvested. Slavery is still a problem with some shrimpers, especially in Southeast Asia, and farmed shrimp may not be the healthiest option, so do your homework and be careful. If you only can get ahold of cooked shrimp, that's fine - just be sure not to heat them for too long, as they will toughen, so merely try to get rid of the chill.
Chinese style ham

Many Chinese grocery stores will offer country-style hams, which means that it is not brined, but rather cured with salt and then pressed. This ham is generally sold as whole legs or in more easy to handle slices. Look for the smallest bone, the most meat, and no mold. A more Chinese-y flavored country ham is starting to appear in the markets around here, too (see the picture to the right). Made in the States, it's actually not bad at all when used as a seasoning, as in this recipe.

I like to use Maldon salt here because it’s added to the fried rice at the very last moment, which allows it to retain its lovely character. This way you get to enjoy little sparks of salt when you eat, and it’s a terrific touch. The amount of salt you add will depend upon a number of factors: the saltiness of the ham, what you’re serving the rice with, and whether it’s going to just be eaten on its own.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Crunchy walnut cookies

Photograph by Scott Peterson, Edible East Bay
Edible East Bay's newest issue has an interview with me that features the husband and the bunnies. 

This was a lot of fun to do, as we made steamed bunny and hedgehog buns filled with red bean paste and walnuts. 

A huge shoutout and thanks to writer Anna Mindess, publisher Cheryl Koehler, and photographer Scott Peterson! 

And if you want to make your own edible critters (Little Bean obviously does not approve of that in this picture), check out the video in the middle of the article, while the recipes are right here.

P.S., I'll be a featured speaker and offering a culinary workshop at the Tucson Festival of Books on March 11 and 12, so hope to see you if you there!

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Walnut cookies have been an old standby in Cantonese bakeries around here for as long as I can remember. The only real problem is that they tend to be hefty, sweet, and more than a little light in the walnut department.

On the other hand, these dainty little morsels from Jiangsu (the province that lies just above Shanghai) are delicate, barely sweet, and packed with all of the natural flavor and texture of fresh walnuts. They’re really crunchy, too, and that makes me totally happy.

Like most Yangtze River tea snacks, these are designed to be savored in the afternoon alongside a hot cup of green tea. They’re not made with kids in mind (although no child I know of would ever refuse a handful) because these sophisticated Nanjing-style pastries emphasize that nutty flavor over sweetness, balance the fat and flour with an assured hand, and are meant to be enjoyed in three or so measured bites.
Perfect tea nibbles

If you are a Cantonese cookie aficionado like me, the absence of baking soda in here will immediately grab your attention. The best Cantonese bakeries around here in the Bay Area almost always have fresh almond cookies for sale, and occasionally even walnut ones will also be displayed. However, southerly cookies from lesser commercial bakeries tend to have a heavy whiff of something alkaline, and when that comes up against poor quality fat and too much sugar, you really can’t taste much else. And that’s why you want to have a recipe like this up your sleeve.

Make a batch of these and prepare to be converted.

Crunchy walnut cookies
Táorén sūbĭng 桃仁酥餅
Chop up toasted walnuts
Makes 36 cookies

2½ cups (400 g) cake or pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup (100 g) white shortening or lard, room temperature
½ cup packed (90 g) black or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten, room temperature
⅓ cup (80 g) chopped, toasted walnuts, cooled

1 large egg, lightly beaten
36 walnut halves or quarters

1. Heat your oven to 375°F (190°C) and set 2 racks in the center. Line two baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper.

2. Use a whisk to toss the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium work bowl. Beat the shortening and sugar together in a large work bowl with a stand or hand mixer until the mixture is light. Add the dry ingredients, eggs, and walnuts to form a crumbly, sandy dough that forms a ball when compressed in your fist. (If it does not come together easily, sprinkle a little bit of water on the dough and mix it in thoroughly.)
Sandy texture

3. Form the dough into approximately 36 smooth balls about the size of a walnut (around 20 g each) and set them on the lined baking sheets. They do not have to be too far apart, as they will rise a bit, but will not spread much. Use the palm of your hand to lightly flatten each ball into a disc.

4. For the topping, brush each disc with the extra beaten egg, and then press a walnut half or quarter into the center before dabbing a little bit of egg on the nut, too. Bake the cookies for around 18 minutes, rotating the sheets from front to back and top to bottom about halfway through. The cookies are done when they are a light golden brown and the egg wash has turned the color of tea. Remove from the oven and slide them onto a heatproof surface to cool. The cookies are best when they are no longer warm, as this gives them a chance to turn crunchy. Store the cooled cookies in an airtight container.