Monday, March 19, 2018

Dry-fried string beans + a Mother's Day card

I know, St. Patrick's Day has barely come and gone, but you know what? Mother's Day will be here soon. And if you love your mom as much as you love dim sum (and you know you do), then have I got a suggestion for you!

Papyrus commissioned me to make them a Mother's Day card with a dim sum theme, and how could I resist? 

You can most likely find this in your neighborhood card shop, but if not, it's available here, too. I love Papyrus's stationery, so this was a dream come true. So give her a card and treat her to the perfect brunch. And then apologize for that thing that happened, you know the one I'm talking about...

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To my way of thinking, there is only one divine way to eat string beans, and that is dry-fried. The problem is that these sometimes can be nigh on impossible to find, even in a good Sichuan style restaurant.

That’s because nowadays too many cooks are skipping the first step, the most important step, the one that turns these beany flavored green things into olive strips of silk. Instead, they plunk down a plate of what can only be described as stir-fried beans, and if they really want me to see red, they’ll toss in some zhacai (Sichuan pickled tuber) and chile sauce and call it a day. This sort of thing will put me into a major funk for at least a couple of hours.

Fry 'em up!
So, what’s the first step? The beans are washed and carefully dried, and then they are deep-fried until the skins are blistered and the interiors have turned soft and squishy. And if you taste them at this point, you may think to yourself that these are ok, but nothing to write home about.

That is where the sauce comes in. Once the beans have been turned a toasty brown, they are then stir-fried in a savory sauce that gets sucked up by these now thirsty beans. But wait, there’s more: a genuine dish of dry-fried string beans will be robed with yácài 芽菜, a type of preserved mustard green (kind of like a pickle) from Sichuan.

Yacai is a terrific ingredient you should get to know, for it has a darkly savory flavor, a touch of piquance, and (something really unusual for salty preserved things) a super silky texture. And that is what is going to make this dish particularly delicious. You will be tossing in what will seem like a whole lot of yacai, and yet it will turn around and cosset each of the beans so that there is yet another layer of texture in here.
So good...

Yacai is becoming increasingly easy to hunt down in Chinese markets; just head to the pickle aisle, where they will usually be waiting for you in a small cardboard box. They will be either whole or chopped—get whatever you want. Their flavor and texture really is a game changer, as you will probably already noted in that noodle dish from a couple weeks back.

Also like that noodle recipe, this dish is heavily influenced by the cuisine of Yibin, a city in the southwestern corner of Sichuan. It straddles the headwaters of the Yangtze River and is just a stone’s throw from Yunnan Province. In other words, you should expect to eat really, really well here, and of course you do. 

Every Yibin dish I’ve ever devoured has offered wonderful textures and flavors. Nothing overwhelming to spoil my reverie, just a balanced symphony that makes me smile. And so, you should put finding a box of yacai at the top of your To Do list.
Yacai, chile peppers, garlic, & ginger

Frying the string beans ahead of time is highly recommended. That way you can have everything cleaned up and your wok ready for the quick braise. I let the blistered beans cool off and then stick them into a resealable plastic bag. Then, from fridge to table requires only a few minutes.

A note for the nerds out there: This recipe uses a character you won’t run across every day: biān . This is used almost exclusively in Sichuan cooking and refers to quickly stir-frying. It’s usually found in two verb combinations: gānbiān 幹煸 (dry-fried, as in today’s recipe, where only a bit of oil is used in the final step) or biānchăo 煸炒 (stir-fried, with the wok set on the heat before oil is added, and then the ingredients are flash-fried).

Leftovers are good, too. I even eat this cold, like leftover pizza. Don't judge.
Dry your trimmed beans

Dry-fried string beans
Gānbiān sìjìdòu 乾煸四季豆
Serves 4

Around 1  pound | 500 g fresh string beans
Frying oil, as needed
4 ounces | 100 g good quality ground pork or turkey, optional
½ cup | 50 g finely chopped yacai
4 dried Thai chiles
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
Chop the meat until fluffy
½ teaspoon sugar

1. Rinse the beans and remove the stem ends, but leave them whole, if you like, and I like. Use a terry towel to rub off as much water as possible, since this will explode once it hits hot oil. Really now, get them totally dry. Have a spatter screen, a slotted spoon ready, and a clean medium work bowl ready.

2. First fry the beans: Set your wok over medium-high heat. Pour in about 1 inch | 2 cm oil. As soon as the oil starts to shimmer, insert a chopstick into the oil—it should be covered with dancing bubbles. Slide in a small handful of the beans. You don’t want too many, as these will fry up more evenly and quickly if you do this in smaller amounts. Adjust the heat as needed and stir the beans around as they fry. When they are browned and slightly crispy, use your slotted spoon to remove them to the work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the beans until all of them have been fried. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the oil.

Readying the sauce
3. If you are using meat in this dish, first use the back of a heavy knife or two to chop it back and forth, up and down, as this lightens the meat and improves the texture. Rinse the yacai and squeeze it dry. If it is not already finely chopped, do so now. Break the chiles in half and shake out the seeds before tearing the chiles into smallish pieces.

4. Now fry the meat and other ingredients: Set the wok back over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the optional meat, as well as the yacai, chiles, green onions, ginger, and garlic. Stir-fry these until the meat begins to brown. Add the rest of the ingredients, as well as the fried string beans. Turn the heat up to high and toss these all together until the sauce has been absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Easy Cantonese hotdish

Leftovers can be the perfect starting point for a creative yet utterly delicious dinner. Case in point: what do you do with a handful of cooked mild fish? Turn it into sandwiches? Feed it to the cat? If you’re like me, you’ll happily transform this into a Cantonese casserole, otherwise known as a bao.

Good, cheap Hong Kong-style restaurants will often offer you a page filled with bao dishes because this is a lovely way to eat. In a way, this is very similar to a Midwestern hotdish because it’s a complete meal, served piping hot, and usually is constructed out of cheap cuts of meat combined with things like bean curd (aka doufu or tofu), mushrooms, vegetables, and an interesting starch, like taro.
Doufu sliced into batons

A bao is homey stuff. In fact, this should be the sort of thing a mom would make during cold weather when she’s rummaging around in the refrigerator drawers, looking for odds and ends to put together for dinner. 

It’s definitely not banquet food, and probably not something you’d serve to fancy company. Rather, look on bao as a way to feed your family with the least amount of money and effort.

Today’s recipe is like that. Use what you have and wing the rest. For example, I call for firm doufu here, but silken can be used instead—just be sure not brown it, but rather add it at the end along with the fish, since it only needs to heat through. Don’t like fish or just don’t happen to have any hanging around? No problem. Toss in some leftover roasted duck, shredded chicken, extra vegetables, or whatever you want. It’s all good.
Drain it on paper towels

The only thing you need to keep an eye on is the timing and the moisture. Certain ingredients like mushrooms, onions, taro, and firm bean curd need time to cook down, and this requires more liquid to the mix, since it boils away after a while. Tender things, though, should be added at the last minute, much like the green onions and leftover fish here. A minute or two is plenty of time for them to get heated up, but it’s not enough time for them to cook down into nothingness.

It’s really helpful if you have a small sandpot to work with, as just the looks of a lovingly used one is enough to get my appetite roaring. When you’ve had a workhorse of a sandpot for a couple of years, the bottom will look crazed and gunked up. That’s a good sign. It means that while the pottery cracked over time, the juices of whatever was inside the pot leaked out and formed a waterproof seal. I just love the way this happens and try to make my sandpots last for years until there is more gunk than pottery.
Fry up the bean curd for better texture

So, if you have a sandpot, wash it carefully by hand when you’re through and always let it air dry. Also, don’t give it too rigorous a scrubbing on the outside, but rather a simple swipe with the sponge, as you want to encourage that natural glue to keep the pot in one piece.

Cantonese bean curd and fish casserole
Dòufú yúpiàn bào 豆腐魚片煲
Serves 2 to 4

1 block (about 14 ounces | 400 g) firm or extra-firm bean curd
The gunk on my sandpot bottom
5 tablespoons | 75 ml peanut or vegetable oil
Half a yellow onion
6 thin slices ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups | 500 ml water
3 or 4 fresh black mushrooms
1 carrot
2 green onions
Leftover fish (about ½ cup | 100 g), or whatever you like

1. Cut the bean curd horizontally and lengthwise into quarters, and then slice it into batons. Lay the bean curd on a sheet or two of paper towels to wick up most of the moisture.

Simmer for an hour
2. Pour ¼ cup | 60 ml oil in a frying pan and set it over medium-high heat. Add half of the bean curd to the hot oil and immediately cover the pan with a spatter screen. Fry the bean curd on two sides until it is golden. Remove to a plate and repeat with the second half of the bean curd. Use any leftover oil for something else.

3. While the bean curd is frying, pour 1 tablespoon oil into a 4-cup sandpot or casserole and set it over medium heat. Slice the onions into thin strips and add them to the sandpot along with the ginger. Stir these around, and when the onion has softened, toss in the garlic. When the onions begin to take on a golden tinge, pour in the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and 1½ cups | 350 ml water. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and tear the caps into large wedges. Add the mushrooms and fried bean curd to the sandpot, bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain just a bare simmer, and cover the sandpot. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 1 hour. The casserole can be made ahead of time up to this point and reheated later on.
Add carrots, green onions, and fish

4. Add ½ cup | 125 ml water to the pot and bring it to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Peel the carrot and slice it on the diagonal before adding it to sandpot. Cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the carrots are tender but still barely crunchy. Cut the green onions on the diagonal and break the fish into chunks as you desire, but try to remove any bones you find. Add the green onions and fish to the simmering pot, cover, and heat through for around 1 minute. Toss the fish gently into the bean curd and serve hot.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Taiwanese fried pork chops & mustard pickles

When I lived in Taiwan back in the late seventies and early eighties, this kind of pork chop could be found on almost every street and alley. I don’t think anyone ever got tired of it. I certainly haven’t. Forty years later and I’m still a major fan.

Like the popcorn chicken featured here a couple of years ago, this is a simple dish of marinated meat that is coated with sweet potato flour and then deep-fried. 
Pound the chops into thin cutlets

But because the chops are first beaten to a fare-thee-well, their corrugated surfaces first soak up a considerable amount of marinade, and that in turn acts as a glue that binds the dry sweet potato flour (aka sweet potato starch) to the chops.

Also like the popcorn chicken, Taiwanese pork chops are a study in texture, namely a resounding crunch that yields to an almost chewy interior and then a juicy taste of meat. 

The chops are always cut into strips for easy chopsticking (is that a word?). They are also almost invariably served on top of a big mound of hot rice with a side of Taiwanese mustard pickles and a couple pieces of stir-fried bok choy.

Pork chop vs. cutlet
This is to die for.

Taiwanese fried pork chops
Táishì zhá páigŭ 台式炸排骨
Serves 4

Pork chops:
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne, optional
A gorgeous marinade
Freshly ground black pepper
2 boneless pork chops (around 12 ounces | 350 g)

½ cup | 60 g sweet potato flour (also known as sweet potato starch) or tapioca flour, or as needed

Frying oil

Taiwanese mustard pickles:
1 head (about 9 ounces | 250 g) Taiwanese style pickled mustard
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
3 dried Thai chiles, broken in half and seeds discarded
1 tablespoon mild rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar

1. First prepare the marinade for the pork chops by mixing together in a medium work bowl the minced garlic, soy sauce, rice wine, five-spice, optional cayenne, and black pepper to taste.

Set your board on a wet towel
2. Prepare a work surface for pounding the chops by first wringing out a wet towel and laying it flat on your counter. Set a heavy plastic chopping board on top of the moist towel, as this will anchor it to your counter, and you will then be able to smack the chops with abandon.

3. Wipe the chops dry with a paper towel. Working on one piece at a time, lay the chop on your board and use the FLAT side of a heavy knife (not the blade!) to whack up and down the chop so that the entire surface becomes tightly ridged. Turn the chop 90° and whack it in the other direction. Use the outermost flat corner of your knife to really work on any streaks of fat, as that is where the tendons hide. Turn the chop over and repeat this. 

Cutlets in the marinade
4. Then, turn the chop 45° and make your whacks at one angle and then the other, up and down the chop; turn the pork over and do this on the other side. When you are finished, your chop should be thin and look almost fluffy, but not falling apart. Dip the chop in the marinade to coat both sides. Now repeat this step with the other chop. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes and up to a couple of hours. While the pork is marinating, prepare the Taiwanese pickles below.

5. Pour the flour into wide bowl and have a large plate or baking sheet set on the side. All of the marinade will have been soaked up by the chops, so simply dip one of the chops in the flour, carefully coating it completely. Gently shake off any excess, set the chop on the prepared plate or sheet, and repeat with the other chop.

6. Pour about ½ inch | 1 cm oil into a wok or wide frying pan and set it over medium-high heat. When a chopstick inserted in the hot oil immediately is covered with bubbles, slide one of the chops into the oil so that the meat lies flat. Cover the wok or pan with a spatter guard and fry the pork until it is golden brown and crispy on both sides. Remove the chop to a clean cutting board, and when it is cool enough to handle, chop in widthwise into strips. Repeat with the other chop. Serve the fried chops as is, or over a mound of hot rice with Taiwanese pickles and stir-fried bok choy.
Savory & crunchy

Taiwanese stir-fried mustard pickles
Chăo suāncài  炒酸菜
Makes about 2 cups | 250 g

1 head (about 9 ounces | 250 g) Taiwan pickled mustard, or suancai
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
3 dried Thai chiles, broken in half and the seeds discarded
1 tablespoon mild rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar

1. Rinse the pickled mustard under cool tap water and squeeze it dry. Cut the stem end in half and cut the stems into thin slices, about ¼ inch | 5 mm wide. The leaves are wide and floppy, so slice them lengthwise into pieces about 1 inch | 2 cm thick and then crosswise into thin slices.

2. Pour the oil into a wok, add the chiles, and set this over medium-high heat. Stir the chiles as they cook, and when they have started to blacken, add all of the pickled mustard. Stir-fry the pickles to remove their raw flavor, about 5 minutes. Add the rice wine and sugar, toss well, and taste. They should be just right at this point, but adjust the seasoning as you wish. Cool the pickle and refrigerate it in a jar, where it will stay perfect for a couple of weeks.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Yibin's nutty noodles

This is one of those dishes that make you smile at first bite. The ingredients read like a kid’s list of perfect foods: noodles, peanuts, walnuts, and a little bit of pickles. I mean, toss in a sticky sauce, and who isn’t going to love eating this?

It’s a classic street food from the city of Yibin in Sichuan Province. It has a weird name in Chinese (ranmian means “burning noodles,” but no one has ever convinced me that this makes any sense whatsoever—nothing is being set on fire here, so I’m sticking with “nutty noodles”). 

Moreover, this dish is something that even the fussiest of eaters will all agree is startlingly delicious. In fact, I’ve never known of anyone who hasn’t polished off their bowl and then scraped sadly away at the bottom, trying to find a few more of the crunchy crumbs to nibble on.
Delectable crumbs at the bottom

Let’s get the basics out of the way. I’m going to give you the classic recipe, but know that you can use any kind of noodles here and any kind of nuts. They are the main ingredients, yes, but this is the sort of thing that rewards experimentation. Want pecans and macadamias? Be my guest. Love buckwheat noodles? Couldn’t agree with you more.

The only item that you might have trouble hunting down if you don’t live somewhere near a Chinese market is the Sichuanese pickled vegetable known as yácài 芽菜. But don’t worry. Any leafy Chinese pickle will do in a pinch—like snow vegetables (xuélĭhóng 雪裏蕻) or Tianjin’s winter vegetable (dōngcài 冬菜) or even Taiwanese pickled mustard (Táiwān suāncài 台灣酸菜)—since the sole requirement is that there be a touch of slightly tart saltiness in the mix.

If all else fails, chop some Sichuanese pickled tubers (zhàcài 榨菜), or even a cornichon or some capers, into a fine dice, rinse off most of the salt, and you’re ready to go.

Toasted sesame, walnuts, & peanuts
What I’ve found that the pasta I really like here are thin, dried egg noodles. The egg in there makes the noodles fairly tensile and so able to hold up to the onslaught of all sorts of crunchy things tumbling around in there, along with a vibrant sauce. 

But any sort of noodle will do, as long as you don’t overcook it. Just make sure it retains its personality. Floppy pasta won't cut it. 

You can find this dish all over Sichuan, but to my mind nothing comes close to a homemade bowl of these nutty noodles. You get to use a good handful of nuts in here, rather than a miserly smattering, and so each strand of pasta becomes coated with crunch. Plus, homemade chile oil turns up the volume in so many luscious ways. 

Honestly, extra Brownie points are awarded if you have some excellent homemade chile oil (and sweet soy sauce) on hand, as things will just be that much better. Rather than a boring one-note oil that offers little more than heat, the homemade stuff layers on even more flavors and nuances.

Be sure that the nuts and sesame seeds are fresh. That would be my only request. They are the stars of this particular show, so taste them and really make sure. And then prepare to be wowed when they strut their stuff in this marvelous bowl of noodles.
Chewy pasta

Yibin nutty noodles
Yïbīn ránmiàn 宜賓燃麵
Serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as a side or a snack

¼ cup | 40 g finely chopped toasted peanuts (or sunflower seeds or other seeds or nuts)
¼ cup | 30 g finely chopped toasted walnuts (or pecans or other nuts)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
¼ cup packed | 30 g Sichuan yacai pickled vegetables (see headnotes for substitutes)
2 tablespoons | 30 ml toasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ tablespoons sweet soy sauce, or 1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1½ tablespoons chile oil (preferably homemade), or to taste
6 ounces | 180 g dried egg noodles (or whatever noodles you’d like)
2 green onions, green parts only, finely chopped

Super easy & amazingly good
1. If your nuts and seeds have not been toasted yet, do that first. The easiest way is to dry-fry them separately in a wok (meaning without any oil) over medium heat until they taste and smell toasty. Chop the nuts and any larger seeds into pieces not much larger than the sesame seeds, as this way they will mingle nicely with the noodles.

2. Rinse the yacai pickle (or whatever pickle you’re using), squeeze it dry, and chop it finely. Bring about 1 quart | 1 liter of water to a boil in a medium saucepan while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

3. Pour the sesame oil into a wok and set it over medium heat. Add the yacai and garlic. Stir these around until they smell divine, and then add the sweetened soy sauce (or soy sauce plus sugar), as well as chile oil to taste. Check the flavor levels and add more of whatever you like to make the sauce sing.

Crush the nuts before chopping them
4. Boil the dried noodles according to the package directions. Drain them and then toss them in the sauce over medium heat to reduce the sauce and to fully bathe each strand, about 3 minutes. Divide the noodles among your bowls. Sprinkle the nuts and seeds on top, as well as the chopped green onion. Serve hot. Each diner should admire this masterpiece before tossing the crunchy bits into the noodles.


Soy sauces and sweet soy sauces vary in depth of flavor and saltiness, so add less of either the first time around if you are not sure; you always can add more later.

Use the side of your Chinese knife to first crush the nuts before chopping them. You'll find that the nuts will be easier to corral that way.