Monday, February 27, 2012

Week Eight: A Journey to China

My journey into China resulted in a week best described as both filling and fulfilling.  With its rich history and culinary influence, China’s greatest challenge to me came in the editing department.  With such a breadth of options and regional cuisines, I found myself with a list of dishes to attempt that required more days and hours than I could possibly find in a month.  In the end, I made a plan to cook every night of the week and managed to do so six of the seven nights.  This was quite the undertaking.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize Chinese cuisine in a paragraph for this week’s blog.  Instead, I hope that the broad range of dishes I present below will paint that picture.  For anyone unfamiliar with the primary flavor profiles and seasonings for Chinese dishes, I will tell you that I have used more fresh ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and Shaoxing wine in this single week than I probably used in the last two years combined.  In addition, I used a considerable amount of garlic, onion, fermented black beans, chili oil, tofu, mushrooms, scallions, and cilantro.  Those ingredients may not define the flavor profile alone, but they certainly provide a strong platform.

Sunday Night Takeout:  Hot & Sour Soup, Egg Rolls, and Kung Pao Chicken
Sometimes, a girl just needs greasy Chinese takeout…and lots of it.  For me, that usually means a takeout order at Chef Tien’s in Coral Gables for Hot & Sour Soup, Egg Rolls, and General Tso’s Chicken eaten on the couch in front on the television with a beer in hand.  I thought it would be fun to recreate that menu, but of course, General Tso’s Chicken is not actually Chinese.  It’s American-Chinese, so I opted to make Kung Pao Chicken to maintain the authenticity of my project.

For years, I have wondered what exactly is in my Hot & Sour Soup, but for some reason, I never took the time to actually find out the answer.  The soup has a distinct, unusual aroma that always intrigued me, too.  After purchasing wood-ear mushrooms for my week of Vietnamese Cuisine, I pinpointed that they were the odd-textured mushrooms in the soup.  Now, I can authoritatively state that the key ingredient producing the unusual, alluring aroma is Dried Lily Buds.  Honestly, I didn’t even know that such an ingredient existed. 

I turned to Mark Bittman’s recipe for Hot and Sour Soup in The Best Recipes in the World, because I found his version to include the most authentic ingredients.  (Oddly enough, I always start with his recipes, and then I think that I’ll find something better or more authentic if I turn to the internet, and I almost always go back to his book.  Most of the time, his recipes turn out to be the most authentic.  I find that most internet bloggers or recipe websites eliminate the key unusual ingredients to present a version with ingredients that can be picked up quickly at a major supermarket chain.)  His recipe included Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, wood-ear mushrooms, dried lily buds, slivered bamboo shoots, tofu, rice vinegar, black pepper, and eggs.  A cornstarch slurry is added to thicken the soup, and a garnish of cilantro and scallion are added at the end.  While the lily buds provide the funky-good flavor and aroma, the rice vinegar is the key to the sour element of the soup.

For egg rolls, I made Mark Bittman’s vegetarian version, which includes cabbage, fresh bean sprouts, shitake mushrooms, scallions, and fresh ginger.  This was my first time to make egg rolls, and they are certainly simple to assemble.  One mistake that I made though was not rolling them tightly enough.  It didn’t affect the flavor, but the air bubble that formed inside meant that only one side naturally floated on the top of the oil.  In order to fry the “bubble” side to an even matching brown, I had to hold the egg roll upside down with my tongs.  I made Bittman’s Soy Dipping Sauce to accompany them (soy sauce, rice vinegar, water, fresh ginger, cayenne pepper, and sugar).  I also mixed dry Colman’s Mustard with water to create a hot mustard sauce, which is my favorite “packet” with Chinese takeout.  The egg rolls and sauces turned out well, and I wish I had made more than just one per person.  Next time, I’ll make at least three for myself.

Finally, I served Kung Pao Chicken with steamed rice to complete our takeout dinner.  I turned to Bittman, again.  His recipe was simple and the results delicious.  I marinated chicken breast pieces in a slurry of cornstarch and Shaoxing wine.  Then, I stir-fried them in a wok with dried chilis, garlic, and ginger.  Later I added sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallions.  We garnished with chopped, roasted peanuts at the table. 

Monday Night:  Clams Stir-Fried with Black Beans, Steamed Bok Choy, and Steamed Rice

Chronicle Books published Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking in Fall 2009, and after reading several glowing reviews, I knew it was a must-have.  (I have a “cookbook” habit.  The hubs laughs every time a new one arrives at our house.  I could sit on the couch and read cookbooks for hours while he watches football, basketball, or whatever ESPN is dishing out.)  I chose the recipe for Clams Stir-Fried with Black Beans mainly because I wanted to work with fermented black beans. The preparation is quite simple.  I cooked the clams in boiling water and removed each one as soon as it opened.  I made the sauce of stock, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch, sugar, and freshly ground pepper.  To complete the dish, I heated peanut oil in the wok.  Then, I added ginger, garlic and the black beans (which I rinsed and dried earlier) and cooked for a few minutes.  Then, I added the clams for another two minutes followed by the sauce, which I simply cooked until it thickened and coated the clams.  In the meantime, I steamed bok choy and rice in separate pots.  We drizzled sesame oil on the bok choy and garnished the clams with cilantro and scallions.  Because the clams are actually cooked in the sauce, instead of just being covered in the sauce, the flavors permeate every bite of the clams.  I really enjoyed the dish and discovering the distinct flavor of the fermented black beans.

Tuesday Night:  Braised Whole Red Snapper in Hot and Sour Sauce
This week seemed like the perfect time to try my hand at cooking a whole fish.  It seems intimidating, but I had read that it was actually simple to do.  I can now report that it is simple and a delicious way to enjoy fish at home. 

I prepared Mark Bittman’s recipe for Braised Whole Fish in Hot and Sour Sauce from The Best Recipes in the World.  Because I did not have a skillet large enough to make this dish, I used a roasting pan spanned across two burners, which he brilliantly suggested.  I began by heating peanut oil in the roasting pan, and then browning the flour-dredged fish on both sides.  I removed the fish and cleaned out the pan.  Then, I cooked onions and shitake mushrooms in the roasting pan until tender.  I added garlic, ginger, crushed red pepper flakes, and fermented black beans to cook for another minute.  I added Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and vegetable stock.  When the mixture boiled, I turned the heat to low and returned the fish to the roasting pan.  I covered the pan with aluminum foil as tightly as possible.  The recipe says that it should take about 15 minutes to cook the fish with a tight fitting lid, but with my aluminum foil, it was more like 25 minutes.  All in all, this dish topped our list of best dishes from the Y’all Taste This project.  The fish was perfectly flaky and pulled away from the bone exactly like it should.  The flavor of the sauce complemented the fish well, and we drug every bite of steamed rice through the sauce on the platter until the well ran dry.

Wednesday Night:  Simple Fried Rice
Of course, I have previously made fried rice, but when I read Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s recipe for it in Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, I decided it would be a nice addition to this week’s menus.  Plus, it would be a night for me to cook “project-worthy” food without a fuss. 

Earlier in the week, I made Mark Bittman’s Barbecued Pork recipe, because I needed the bbq pork for a noodle dish and the char siu bao I planned to make later in the week.  I had leftover bbq pork, so I tossed some of it into the Fried Rice, as well.  (The Barbecue Pork is simply pork tenderloin marinated in honey, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce, and five-spice powder.  I marinated it overnight and then roasted the pork in the oven.)

The Simple Fried Rice recipe held true to its title.  I heated some peanut oil in the wok and scrambled eggs in it.  I removed the eggs and chopped them so that they could be added later.  I cooked ginger, garlic, and shallots in the wok for a few minutes.  Then, I added the peas followed by leftover steamed rice from the previous night.  After two minutes, I added a mixture of oyster sauce, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, and salt to the wok and cooked it until the rice was evenly coated with the sauce.  I added the scrambled eggs and diced bbq pork, mixed it all up, and served!  The result was one of the best fried rice dishes I’ve ever eaten.  I think the key is the ginger, garlic, and shallots early in the process.  This is officially my new “go to” fried rice recipe.  Loved it!

Friday Night:  Tea-Smoked Duck and Spicy Cold Noodles
In full disclosure, my original plan was to make Spicy Cold Noodles dinner on Thursday night and the duck with a different noodle dish on Friday; however, on Thursday night, I needed a break from the kitchen.  I thought the chili oil in the cold noodles would provide a good balance to the richness of the duck, so I switched out my plan to this menu of Tea-Smoked Duck and Spicy Cold Noodles.  Both dishes were beautiful!

I selected Mark Bittman’s recipe for Tea-Smoked Duck for a few reasons, but primarily, I chose it because it offered a different type of preparation than I had previously made and because I was intrigued by his method for smoking the duck.  Here are the basic steps for the recipe:
  • I pricked the skin of a 4 pound duck with a sharp, thin-bladed knife.  Then, I rubbed soy sauce and five-spice powder into the skin.
  • I steamed the duck for forty-five minutes.
  • I transformed my wok into a smoker.  I lined it with two pieces of heavy aluminum foil and added dry rice, black tea leaves, sugar, orange peel, and cinnamon sticks in the bottom.  I set an inexpensive 1” rack that I grabbed at the Asian market over the dried, smoking agents (rice, tea leaves, sugar, orange peel, and cinnamon stick), and then I placed the duck on the rack.  I gathered the aluminum foil and tightly creased it together.  I added another layer over the top of the wok, and then added the lid on top of it.
  • I set the wok over high heat for 10 minutes.  Then, I reduced the heat to medium and smoked for another 20 minutes.  I turned off the heat and let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving and drizzling with sesame oil.

The resulting dish was a flavorful, smoky, rich meat.  As I tasted the duck, I could sense the background flavors of tea, orange, and cinnamon.  Because of the way it was prepared, I knew the skin wouldn’t be crispy, but I was curious to see if the affects of smoking would at least dry it out just enough to give it a different texture than the meat, and it certainly did.

I am so happy that I changed course and decided to serve the spicy cold noodle dish with the duck.  Oddly enough, we loved the duck, but found ourselves going back for noodles while we still had duck on our plates.  This was yet another Mark Bittman recipe.  I cooked fresh Chinese egg noodles (from PK Oriental in Kendall) until just tender.  Then, I ran cold water over them and drained.  The dish included the noodles, diced barbecue pork, grated cucumber, sliced radishes, and bean sprouts.  The sauce that tied it all together included soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chili oil.  We garnished with fresh cilantro leaves and chopped scallions.  The freshness of the vegetables and the heat of the chili oil complemented the rich flavors of the duck perfectly.

Dim Sum Saturday Night:  Watercress & Tofu Potstickers, Shrimp Sui Mai, and Char Siu Bao
The first time I tried dim sum was on a vacation in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and I must admit that I wondered why everyone makes such a big deal about dim sum.  It didn’t seem that great to me.  Years later, when I traveled to Hong Kong for the first time, one of the hosts insisted that we order dim sum for lunch.  Not wanting to be rude, I agreed.  Thank goodness I agreed, because that was how I discovered why people love dim sum.  Of course, my host was smart enough to start our lunch with char siu bao…I mean, what Southerner wouldn’t love something that is basically sweet white bread wrapped around pork barbecue?

Since the first minute I began planning for this week’s menus, I knew I would attempt a dim sum dinner.  I knew it had to be on a weekend, because I had no experience with this type of menu and needed the extra time.  As I planned out this menu, I consciously selected three very different types of dumplings.  The Watercress & Tofu Potstickers represented the only fried and vegetarian offerings.  The Shrimp Sui Mai presented a challenge because of the skill needed to artfully pleat the dumpling wrappers around the filling.  The Char Siu Bao presented a challenge in that I needed to make the yeast bread dough.  Each offered different addicting flavor profiles, and I will definitely make them again.

We began with the Watercress & Tofu Potstickers.  I used a filling recipe by Food and Wine magazine’s Grace Parisi.  The filling included wilted watercress, tofu, scallions, garlic, water chestnuts, egg, white pepper, salt and toasted sesame oil.  I used gyoza wrappers for these, instead of making my own dough.  (After assembling the dumplings, I set them on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper and stored them in the refrigerator until I was ready to cook them.)  To cook them, I heated oil in the bottom of a skillet and cooked them in the oil for 2 minutes.  Then, I added water and covered the skillet to steam them until they were cooked through.  Next time, I’ll turn the heat down to medium while they are steaming because the bottoms were dark brown (not burned) when I transferred them to a serving dish.  I served with a chili-soy sauce I made with soy sauce, chili oil, fresh ginger, and sugar.

For Shrimp Sui Mai, I used a recipe from a Williams-Sonoma San Francisco cookbook that my friend Jenny Walters gave me years ago.  To make the filling, I combined shrimp, pork fat, water chestnuts, scallions, ginger, garlic, Shaoxing wine, cornstarch, salt, sugar, sesame oil, and egg whites in a food processor.  That was the easy part…making them look pretty in the dumpling wrappers is not so simple.  Making dumplings is truly a craft and an art form.  Fortunately, they tasted amazing.  As a matter of fact, they were our favorites of the night.  I steamed them in a bamboo steamer for twenty minutes and served with the chili-soy sauce.

I made Mark Bittman’s recipe for Char Siu Bao.  They were actually much simpler to make than I expected.  The dough rose without issue, and it was simple to divide and roll out into even disks.  For the filling, I marinated the already-cooked barbecue pork pieces in soy sauce, oyster sauce, honey, sesame oil, ground pepper, and a cornstarch slurry for over two hours.  Forming them into the correct “shape” was not difficult; however, one lesson I learned is that they continue to rise as they sit out.  I should have steamed them more quickly after I assembled them.  My buns were huge!  They lost a bit of the daintiness normally associated with dim sum, but the flavors were still there. 

As an addendum to his recipe, Bittman notes that the dough balls are sometimes steamed without the pork filling to make Mantou, which is usually served with a pat of butter as a side item.  I ended up with two leftover dough balls and decided to add Mantou to the menu.  Instead of serving them with a pat of butter, I drizzled them in local Avocado-Lychee honey from Bee Heaven Farms for a fantastic dessert!  Maybe not so Chinese, but still delicious in its own right.

What a crazy week!  I definitely pushed the limits of my free time, and I enjoyed every minute.  I’m looking forward to slowing down the pace a little this week…

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