Thursday, May 15, 2008

Char Siu Hum Bao (Chinese BBQ pork buns)

Ever since my husband returned from San Francisco, he's been craving steamed Chinese pork buns. I hate making yeasted doughs, but as serendipity would have it, I came across a "cheater" recipe which utilizes frozen dinner roll dough. The first step was to make some char siu pork so that I'd have meat leftover. This is one of my favorite dishes to use the slow cooker for. I used a tried-and-true recipe from Cooking Light with a lean pork roast. The ketchup sounds unorthodox, but according to David Rosengarten:
The name "ketchup" actually is derived from an old South Chinese name for a
popular condiment, and in this century Chinese chefs have avidly taken to the
Western-style tomato preparation that borrowed its name.

Well, if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me! I intentionally made extra pork so I'd have plenty left over.

Here's the sad looking leftover pork after sitting in the fridge for a day. It was so tender that I just shredded it with a fork.
Next, I made a sauce with shaoxing, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce, and then drenched the shredded pork with it.

Finally, I stuffed the mixture into dinner roll dough (which had already thawed and proofed). I used something called Parkerhouse rolls which made small, dumpling-like buns. I put them in the bamboo steamer on squares of parchment paper.

I didn't take a pic of the final product because I didn't seal up the tops well enough and so the end result, while tasty, wasn't terribly photogenic. Anyhow, my husband ate nine of these in one sitting so I assume it didn't matter.
These aren't as candy-sweet as the pork buns I've bought in restaurants and Chinese bakeries. However, that was a plus for me. If you like them very sweet, just add some honey to the hoisin sauce mixture. The dinner rolls were a bit fluffier than normal but they still retained that chewy texture that is the hallmark of char siu hum bao.
You could probably do this with any leftover pork roast, or even leftover brisket, because the sauce is so flavorful and overpowering. Vegetarians could even use shredded seitan or fake ground meat.
Oh, and I swear I cook plenty of other stuff besides Chinese food!

Hot and Sour Soup, veganized

Sometimes I cook vegan just because it's a whole lot less stressful. No worries about cross-contamination or internal temperature, just a nice relaxing experience. I decided to make a veganized version of Sichuan hot and sour soup.

Traditionally, the hot part of "hot and sour" comes from copious amounts of ground pepper -- unusual considering the typically chili-happy style of Sichuan. Chinkiang black rice vinegar lends the sour component. I think that it tastes like a slightly smoky mellower version of malt vinegar.

Here's part of my mise en place. I've got half a block of lite firm tofu, julienned and marinated in a splash of shaoxing, julienned bamboo shoot, matchstick cut ginger, and enoki mushrooms, plus a quart of no-chicken broth.

This soup is really flexible, though. In place of or in addition to the tofu, you could use a number of proteins. Seitan, pork, ham, and/or chicken would all be good choices. And you could use any fresh mushroom, such as button or oyster. You get the idea. I'd keep the bamboo shoot and ginger, though.

By the way, if you've never seen whole, fresh bamboo shoot, this is what it looks like.

I also added some tree ears (a.k.a wood ear a.k.a. cloud ear a.k.a. tree jellyfish a.k.a. Auricularia). On the right you can see them in dried form, on the left you can see them reconstituted. You could sub dried shittakes but these have a gelatinous, rubbery texture that really is unmatched.

Anyway, you could saute some of your ingredients, but I just brought a quart of no-chicken broth to a boil and dumped my ingredients in. I also added a little soy sauce and shaoxing, plus of course tons of ground pepper. I let everything simmer until cooked through, thickened it with cornstarch, and finished it with a splash of vinegar.

To serve, I ladled it into bowls with sliced scallion greens at the bottom. Admittedly, the pepper wasn't enough heat for me so I passed Sriracha sauce at the table.

One of the great things about this soup is that it's very "anything goes", so it's a great opportunity to try out weird ingredients from the Oriental market that you want to taste but don't know what to do with. To name a few, dried tiger lily buds, snow fungus, flowering chives, or lotus root, would all be welcome additions! If anyone wants a detailed recipe though, just ask in the comments.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ecuadorian Ceviche

I've known for a while that, in Ecuador, popcorn is a traditional garnish for ceviche. However, I've never tried this unorthodox combination for myself, and figured I'd give it a whirl. Admittedly, I have a standby ceviche recipe from which I rarely deviate (this one, but I substitute sushi-grade tuna for the scallops). After some hunting around, I settled on a recipe from Maricel Presilla that I found in Food & Wine. Though a traditional garnish could also be corn nuts (maize cancha) or boiled corn kernels (choclo), I stuck to lightly salted popcorn with a chili seasoning (recipe). Just be sure that whatever popcorn you use does not have butter flavoring.

I substituted 1/2 lb squid for 1/2 lb of the shrimp. Additionally, be sure to rinse the onions after steeping them in boiled water; otherwise they will be much too salty. I think that the dish would have been prettier had I used yellow bell pepper instead of red, though there was some yellow in the salad I served alongside. Oh, and I would've inverted the proportions of orange and lime.

Finally, because apparantly sparkling white wine goes well with ceviche, I bought my favorite not-Champagne: a $7.99 bottle of Cristalino Cava. I think that even cheap Cavas blow Champagne out of the water!

Not sure if anyone reads this blog, but if any foodies are stopping by, tell me in the comments -- what's your favorite way to make ceviche?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Twice-Cooked Pork

I am absolutely enamoured with Sichuan cuisine (Szechuan? Googlefight says Sichuan). It's very interesting to me because, like French cuisine, it is highly codified. However, the methods are very divergent from what most western foodies might consider classical technique. Sichuan cooking is comprised of twenty-three flavors and fifty-six techniques. But instead of methods like "braise", "steam", "saute", and so forth, Sichuan cuisine boasts "explode-frying", "scallion-braising, "rice-meal steaming", and "hanging-oven roasting". Of the twenty-three flavors, "fish-fragrant", "strange flavor", and "salt-savory" are a few choice examples.

A while back, I picked up a copy of Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, determined to cook my way through the 23 flavors of Sichuan; so far I've made 14 (I keep track on an online spreadsheet). So when I saw this Chinese take-out party on Is My Blog Burning?, I thought that it would be fun to contribute a Sichuan dish. I wanted to do an authentic (yet lighter) version of a Chinese take-out staple, like Kung Pao chicken or Mapo Dofu. However, I settled on twice-cooked pork.

According to Wikipedia, the history of twice-cooked pork is as follows:
The dish is said to have originated from the Qing Dynasty while the Qianlong Emperor toured Sichuan. Qianlong demanded a feast in every stop that he made, and, when he approached one particular village, the villagers fretted. The crops had not been harvesting well that year and there may not have been enough to host the emperor. Fearing prosecution, the villagers hastily dumped their leftovers into the pot, cooked them again (thus "twice cooking" them) and served the resulting dish to the emperor. To their surprise, the emperor enjoyed it, and so the "Twice Cooked Pork" became a famous Sichuan cuisine.
Is it true? Who cares! It's yummy! This is a consummate example of jia chang wei xing, or homestyle flavor. Dunlop's description of homestyle flavor is as follows:
This uniquely Sichuanese taste is based on the hearty flavors of domestic cooking. Homestyle dishes are described as salty, savory, and a little bit hot...The basic seasonings are typically local: chili bean paste, salt, and soy sauce. Pickled red chilis, fermented black beans, and sweet fermented paste can also have a role to play.
Enough chattering, onto the food! First, you'll probably need to make a trip to an Oriental market for some of this stuff.

Like cute little itty-bitty baby leeks! You could substitute scallions if you can't find these. Unlike most Americanized twice-cooked pork dishes, Dunlop restricts the veggie content solely to leeks.

And fermented black beans! These are chewy, salty, wonderfully pungent little morsels of soybean. The flavor is kind of like a stronger, richer soy sauce. On the left you can see them in the original container. That big beige slab is a piece of dried ginger; fermented black beans often comes packaged with this. To the right you can see a couple teaspoons of these soaking in Shao Xing (Chinese rice wine). You could alternately soak them in sherry or water. Dunlop doesn't soak them at all, but I prefer the texture and lessened saltiness. I wish I'd used more, though. Next time perhaps! The recipe called for 2 tsp but I would've used 2 tbs.

You'll also need some chili bean paste. That's the stuff on the right. If you've ever tried the replicate the taste of authentic Sichuan food but couldn't seem to find a lost chord, it's probably because you were missing this. Nothing else tastes quite like it, but the flavor screams Sichuan like nothing else. Make sure to buy the stuff with fava or broad beans instead of soybeans. It's spicy and rich and salty with chili flakes and bits of fava bean. On the left is sweet bean paste, which I substituted for sweet wheat paste (I couldn't find the latter). It's an admirable substitute, though; it's kind of like a muted hoisin sauce.

Anyhow, the first thing you want to do is simmer your pork in salted water 'til it's just done. Dunlop suggests skin-on pork belly, but that sounded pretty decadent for a weeknight supper. I made this once for my mother-in-law with boneless country ribs, but tonight I used lean pork loin. Though mark my words, one day I will cook pork belly in its own fat. If you use pork belly, make sure it's completely cool before slicing so that the fat and lean hold together. I didn't have to worry about that too much so I just let it cool til I could slice it without burning my hands. Trim off the gristle as you do this; I fed it to an eagerly waiting mouth.

After slicing your boiled pork, heat up a wok or a cast-iron skillet with a bit of oil. More would work better but in the interest of keeping it light I just used a little canola oil spray. Cook it on both sides until it gets nice and crispy.

I couldn't get a good action shot because of the steam, but I love seeing the transition from soft gray slices to browned, crispy, Maillard-alicious little tidbits.

Then, add about 2 tbs chili bean paste, 1.5 tsp sweet wheat or sweet bean paste, fermented black beans (with or without the soaking liquid, you decide), a teaspoon of soy sauce, and a teaspoon of sucanat/agave nectar/evil white sugar/whatever you use. Cook it until the pork is all crispy and glazey and everything is all gloppy and fragrant and delicious.

Then, remove the pork from the skillet and add your leeks. You want about 6 tender baby leeks, sliced very thin on the diagonal. Just barely cook them and then spoon them on top of your pork.

I served this with green beans in ginger sauce, also from Land of Plenty. It's an easy recipe; just toss steamed green beans with fresh ginger, Chinkiang black vinegar (or malt vinegar), chicken broth (I used vegetable broth), and sesame oil.

I, of course, used organic haricots verts from the farmer's market.

Okay, okay, I didn't feel like snapping off the stupid string bean ends.

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