Monday, August 29, 2016

The Books Are Here!!! + Zhejiang's Pork in a Crock!

Look at this! #1 New Release on Amazon's Chinese Cooking!!

And it's coming out TOMORROW!!

Please excuse my excitement... this has been a very long time coming. Ten years, to be exact, and I am so thrilled and grateful and downright happy that All Under Heaven is finally seeing the light of day. Thank you all for your incredible support!

The Dim Sum Field Guide is doing very well indeed, too: #1 on Amazon in the General China Travel Guides department! 

Other great news: We are getting great reviews across the board. Georgia Freedman had a generous couple of things to say on the Wall Street Journal about All Under Heaven. Tasting Table featured All Under Heaven in its article, "The Most Exciting New Cookbooks for Fall 2016." Both books are given a very nice mention on Eat Your Books. Virginia Miller @ThePerfectSpot called my twins "the book of the week (or 2)" on Twitter, and the Cookbook Junkies made my head explode with this insanely lovely bunch of words and cookbook giveaway - thank you, Jenny and Marc!

One of my recipes is up on Epicurious. Please, try it and rate it! 

Plus, a very kind reader pointed out that my dim sum illustrations for Lucky Peach were given a great shoutout last year on First We Feast. Nice, and wow! (I need to learn to Google myself...)

And if you're in NYC around the middle of next month, please try to join me at the 92nd St Y for a talk about, well, you know.


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You’ve never had tender until you’ve eaten classically prepared Chinese pork. I’m not talking about stir-fries here, but braises, those rich, decadent, lip-smacking, mind-blowing, insanely addictive dishes that slowly cook for hours until the pork belly or shank or what-have-you finally surrenders into a pillow of delectable textures that sponge up the sauce and make dinner that night a really good reason to celebrate.

Pork in a crock is popular throughout many parts of China. Shandong, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Hunan... it’s hard to find a Han Chinese cuisine that doesn’t fuss in its own way over this dish, adding local flavors to make it their very own. A lot of this has to do with history. Just like Europe, China’s food cultures are a reflection of mass migrations, wars, famines, and upheavals that sent entire villages out in search of better places to live. And, as with all people, they brought their families’ recipes with them, adding this and subtracting that as they cooked with what was there in the new neighborhood.

I witnessed a speeded-up version of this culinary evolution when I lived in Taiwan. The island was home to its own cuisine – basically a template from Quanzhou in southern Fujian tempered with flavors from the local Hakka people, a good dash of Japanese inspirations due to Taiwan’s status as a colony for 50 years, and influences from other ports of call in southern China. But as people from all over the country were busy setting down roots on the island following the fall of the Mainland and the ensuing mass immigration of 1949 to what we used to call Formosa, dishes from just about everywhere took root, too, and became part of Taiwan’s own culinary geography.

For example, Taiwan is renowned for its beef noodle soup, but when I first arrived in the mid-1970’s, few Taiwanese would even consider eating beef, as water buffalo were prized as farmers’ living tractors and were so important to their families that eating them would have been viewed as disgusting, and also incredibly ungrateful. But times have changed, and Taiwan is now a part of the developed world with semiconductor companies eating up the old rice paddies. 

But back to this week’s dish. This is basically red-cooked pork and is most definitely a Zhejiang delight, for you have your bamboo shoots, your ginger, your soy sauce, your generous amount of Shaoxing rice wine, and your touch of rock sugar. In fact, it calls for a whole lot of Shaoxing rice wine and only a smidgen of soy sauce, which means that it’s not terribly salty, but rather rich and decadent. My toes curl in excitement just smelling it cooking away on the counter.

I’ve tossed in a dozen hardboiled eggs, too, which makes my husband ridiculously happy. If you are not an egg fiend, use six or so, or even eliminate them – it doesn’t really matter. But around my house, if I aim to eat one of these eggs, I have to have a whole lot in there to distract him and to outwit his single-minded onslaught on this favorite food.

Use the best pork - with skin
One big difference between my recipe and the traditional one is that usually this calls for an actual crock that is sealed with cloth and mud so that not a drop of the juices is given the chance to turn into steam and disappear. I’ve gone a slightly easier route by turning to my trusty crockpot. It doesn’t emit a whole lot of steam, plus the heat is gentle enough to slowly cook the meat without ever burning, making this classic incredibly easy. Be sure and boil down the sauce until it is more concentrated, as this is one of the secrets to getting deeply hued meat, shoots, and eggs. If you’re lazy like me, just keep everything in the crockpot after the first day and plug the crockpot in once a day only until the liquid boils. Do that for two or three days, and the star attractions will turn a lovely mahogany hue through and through.

If you are having friends or even an important guest over for a meal, buy two bottles of good quality Shaoxing rice wine for the pork and a really good bottle for drinking. Dinner and your reputation as a great cook will have practically taken care of themselves.

Pork in a crock
Tánzi ròu 子肉
Zhejiang
Serves 4 to 8

Around 2 pounds / 900 g fresh pork belly with the skin on (see Tips)
Boiling water, as needed
1 pound / 450 g fresh or frozen peeled winter bamboo shoots
¼ cup / 1½ ounces / 45 g sliced fresh ginger
6 green onions, trimmed but left whole
2 (600 ml) bottles Shaoxing rice wine (see Tips)
6 to 12 large eggs, hardboiled and peeled
½ cup regular soy sauce
1 piece rock sugar, about the size of an egg

1. Start this at least one day - and preferably three - before serving. Cut the pork into 4 even pieces. Place these in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil and simmer the pork for about 10 minutes to remove the impurities. Then, dump out the water and scum, rinse off and dry the meat, and place it in a 4-quart crockpot.
Simmer away the scum

2. Cut up the bamboo shoots on the angle or with a roll cut into chunks around the size of a large egg. Add these to the crockpot along with the ginger and whole green onions. Bring the rice wine to a boil in a saucepan and then add it to the crockpot; pour in boiling water to cover. Place the lid on the crockpot and bring it to a boil. Cook the pork on high with the lid on for around 5 hours. The pork should at that point be very tender – check this by piercing it with a chopstick, which should glide through the meat as if it were soft butter.

3. At this point add the eggs, soy sauce, and rock sugar to the crockpot, cover again, and bring it to a boil on high before lower the heat and simmering it for another hour or so. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with more soy sauce or sugar as needed. Turn off the crockpot and allow the pork to come to room temperature overnight with the lid on. It can be refrigerated, if you like, for a couple of days, or do as suggested in the headnotes – whatever you do, time is what is needed to give the flavors a good chance to improve.

Yum, yumyumyum
4. About an hour before serving, remove the fat layer on the sauce and use it for something else, like stir-frying vegetables. If you want, each piece of pork can first be sliced into four pieces for easier dining, the eggs halved, and the shoots cleaved in two, as well. (If the dish is cold, heat it slowly in the sauce until everything is warmed up.) Pluck out and discard the green onions, and then plate up the meat, eggs, and bamboo shoots in a wide, shallow bowl. Drizzle the sauce over everything or serve it on the side. If you’d rather, arrange the tidbits on top of rice before ladling the sauce on top. Any way you do this, it will end up amazingly delicious. Be sure and eat the fat and skin sitting on top of and around the meat: it won’t be in the least greasy, but rather will be more like munching on heavenly scented clouds.

Tips

The quality of two ingredients here are absolutely vital to the success of this dish: the pork and the rice wine.

Get your hands on some good pork belly with the skin on at an excellent butcher. What's good pork belly? First, it should be humanely raised and butchered. Nothing smells as bad as supermarket pork that comes from a factory farm. 

The best pork belly (also called a side of pork) is half meat and half fat: lots of thinnish, alternating lines of red and white. You do NOT want lean meat here - it will turn out tough and stringy. And if the meat parts of the pork belly happen to be too thick, they will never become tender. Remove any thick flap of meat that's on the inner surface of the belly and use it for a stir-fry or something, because you can forget about it ever softening up.


The not-so-secret ingredients
If you can't find good pork belly, look for a well-marbled shoulder (also called the pork butt). Since you want it with the skin on, this might require you to call ahead and reserve it. So, nurture a good relationship with your butcher, and soon you'll be able to buy all of those lovely cuts that work well in Chinese cooking: anything with skin, plus trotters, tails, cheeks, kidneys, livers, and so on. 

Good quality Shaoxing rice wine is also necessary here. Don't get the cheap brands, which can be like rotgut. If at all possible, hunt down Taiwan's TTL brand Shaoxing rice wine, which as a good, mushroomy, sherry-like flavor. It makes all the difference in the flavor of the sauce. And be sure to nibble on the sauce if you happen to chill it... it's insanely good that way.

Finally, note that the soy sauce is added toward the end. Salt tends to toughen meat, so try to hold back on adding soy sauce and salt to braises and soups until you get toward the end. 
  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tomatoes, sour plum powder, & wonderful advance reviews for All Under Heaven

A quick bit of self-promotion before we get to this week’s recipe:

All Under Heaven is receiving terrific advance reviews! Here are some of the things people are saying:

"This unprecedented reference will thrill cooks who want to expand their knowledge and move beyond the mainstays of American Chinese restaurant menus. Those who enjoy the thoroughly researched cookbooks of experts such as Claudia Roden (The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) will appreciate Phillips’s comprehensive treatment, which includes historical information, an extensive ingredient glossary, suggested menus, and useful advice." — Library Journal, Starred Review

"Phillips (The Dim Sum Field Guide) offers a comprehensive and thoughtful examination of Chinese cuisine, providing a wealth of appealing recipes for beginner and advanced cooks... This is a broad and discerning approach to regional Chinese cooking... Buy This Book" – Publishers Weekly

"This has the makings of an all-time classic." – Epicurious

"This is sure to be this year's best cookbook, I have no doubt." – Cookbook Junkies

"Carolyn Phillips has written one of the best books on Chinese cooking that I’ve ever encountered. This is one of those books that will inspire all of us to get into our kitchens and cook. It is also one of those books that is almost as enthralling as a bestselling thriller. Phillips is a first-rate writer, and has made this a 'must-have' cookbook for inclusion in any respectable recipe collection." – NetGalley, Five Star Review

"What a work of art... I have always welcomed any book that expands the horizons of our knowledge of Chinese food; now comes one of the best I have seen in ages. All Under Heaven is not just a mere cookbook – in fact, it may be the most comprehensive work to date on an incredibly complex subject... I cannot praise Carolyn’s work enough; I am sure that in the coming years, All Under Heaven will come to be considered a classic, as well as an invaluable reference for any serious cook’s kitchen." – Ken Hom, OBE, celebrity chef and author

Thank you all for these amazing words. I’m humbled and delighted and thrilled! These two books hit the shelves on August 30, but can be preordered just about everywhere.

Also, this just got published on Food52: "How to Dim Sum Like a Pro." Happy eating!

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It’s the end of summer, a time when tomatoes and melons are at their absolute best. True, tomatoes are not constant members of a Chinese cook’s produce bin, but they do show up, especially in Muslim areas, as well as in Cantonese cooking, probably because these love apples go especially well with beef.

I practically lived on tomato beef over crispy noodles during my first year in Taipei, since there was one little Guangdong-style stand on Songjiang Road halfway between my classrooms and the Chinese home where I boarded. The lady there knew exactly what I wanted: a slightly sweet-and-sour sauce, barely cooked wedges of bright red tomatoes, thin and tender slices of seared beef, a scattering of green onions, and a crunchy pillow of thin egg noodles. It was intensely good.

Now's the time for tomatoes
As I started to become more accustomed to the local cuisines, the Taiwanese affection for matching salty with sweet drew my attention. First to hook me was the penchant for sprinkling salt on cold wedges of watermelon. At first this seemed totally unnecessary – after all, you really can’t find a better dessert than ripe fruit served up all on its own – but a few exploratory nibbles showed that a tiny bit of salt emphasized the sweetness and made each mouthful just that more delicious.

Pretty soon I was enjoying things like inspired mixtures of peanuts and cilantro and sugar, which hit all sorts of nerve endings in my mouth, puzzling and intriguing and pleasing and confusing my palate at the same time. And then I discovered sour plum powder, which my Chinese girlfriends liberally dusted on top of crisp guavas and ripe tomatoes.

To be honest, my girls all loved tart flavors much more than sweet – and that’s true even to this day when they can no longer be officially categorized as girls – and so anything that would lend a sour note to a dish was welcomed with open chopsticks. And when a dish or drink was especially puckery and delicious, the usual reaction was a delighted smile with a slightly agonized expression, a happy moan, and the rubbing of one side of the face while they exclaimed, “Ay-ya, that’s good!”

This one is just the flesh
Summer was celebrated in particularly lavish style: luscious tomatoes were seasoned with the sweet-sour-salty plums called huàméi . Dried little taupe nuggets, these are usually used to accompany tea, but also find their way into certain dishes, like these eggs or pork ribs. It’s an almost indescribable flavor, since you also have a fruity layer that somehow glues all of those disparate elements together.

You can cut off the flesh from the pits and then stick little slivers inside of cherry tomatoes before chilling them, or you can even peel the tomatoes, toss them with the sour plum powder, and let them marinate in the fridge overnight. Both are good.

But when you have some amazing tomatoes to work with, sometimes simplest is best. This requires that you first get your hands on Taiwanese style sour plums. Be sure that they are called huamei, as any other kind will taste very different and quite possibly be too sour to eat. (See Sour Plum Infusion for more on that.) If you can find the ones that are already pitted like this photo on the right, even better. If not, just use kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife to trim off the flesh – the pits can be reserved for tea, which is great hot or chilled.
Pitted sour plums

Do note that the flavor of each brand of plums varies wildly. Some are coated with lots of ground herbs, like licorice, while others are incredibly salty or a bit sweet or just mildly sour. So, taste the dried plums and add as much sugar or salt as you think it needs. Use a spice grinder here, rather than a mini food processor, as it gets the job done easily. Pulse the plums up in short bursts, not at full blast, and let the grinder cool down as needed. This will help prevent the sugar in the plums from heating up and gumming up the works.

Make extra sour plum powder, as it keeps well. Then get in touch with your inner Chinese woman and sprinkle it on pineapple, melons, cucumbers... whatever needs a flavor boost.

Note: you can occasionally find this powder ready-made in some Chinese markets, but it tends to be padded out with citric acid and other stuff, as well as red food coloring. So, try it if you like, but compare it with this homemade pinch of heaven. There's no contest.

Tomatoes with sour plum powder
Méizifěn fānqié 梅子粉蕃茄
Taiwan
Serves 4

Around 1/2 cup / 60 g pitted dried sour plums (huamei)
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 pound / 450 g ripe and fully flavored tomatoes of any kind, preferably a mixture of two or more varieties

1. If your dried plums are not pitted, then use kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife to remove the flesh. Place the dried plums in a clean, dry spice grinder and pulse until they are reduced to a fine powder (see headnotes). Add as much sugar and salt as is needed, pulse again, and taste – there should be a nice balance of sweet, salty, and sour, so adjust things as needed. Store the sour plum powder in a dry jar in the pantry.
Ready to go

2. Rinse the tomatoes, pat dry, and trim as needed. If they are cherry or plum tomatoes, no further work is needed. Slice larger fruits up into wedges. Arrange these on a plate or bowl. They can be chilled if you like, but I personally prefer room temperature, which allows their flavors to really bloom. Offer little saucers of the sour plum powder around the tomatoes and sprinkle a tiny bit on top of the fruit. Serve with forks, chopsticks, or long skewers.

Tip

Your spice grinder will probably have bits of sour plum gunk stuck on the blades and so forth. Don't soak the machine or wash it, but rather wipe it out with a damp cloth immediately after you've emptied it, then thoroughly air dry the grinder before closing it up.