Archive | May, 2010

A Family Tree of Palates

28 May

If you are familiar with the political history of Taiwan, my home until the age of 14, then you will understand the culinary diversity found in this wonderfully small island.  In 1949, the Chiang Kai-shek government fled mainland China, bringing close to 2 million of soldiers and civilians to Taiwan, all with various provincial backgrounds.  And among them were my grandparents.  

My grandma (nai-nai) from my dad’s side was a native of Sichuan, and thanks to her, I was exposed to the tingly-numbing Sichuan peppercorn early on.  My dad’s dad (yen-yen) came from Zhejiang, a province known for delicate preparation and vibrant, seasonal ingredients.

My mom’s mom (po-po) was a nurse during WWII in the city of Tianjin, a metropolis in Northeastern China.  As a kid I loved her pickled carrots and cucumbers, and the delicious noodles with pork and bean paste, known as zajiang mien.  Granddad (gong-gong) from my mom’s side hailed from a small village in the province of Hebei, where everyone knows how to roll out dumpling and bun doughs blindfolded.      

Raised by his Sichuan mother, Dad was trained to take on spicy food from a young age.  His twice-cooked pork is a must-learn on my list to master.  And although Mom never entered the kitchen before marrying Dad (and quite a few years after, too, as Dad would just cook for them both), she quickly discovered that she is blessed with a sharp palate and high aptitude after a few attempts at cooking.  Mommy is the best chef I know, also the chef I aspire to be one day.

So for me, it is rather difficult to sum up Chinese food in a few words given how differnt the style can be from one region to the next.  The most accurate way to describe “my” Chinese cooking is perhaps the word “homemade.”  No they may not be the dishes you find in your local Hunan Garden or the likes, but they are what I eat at home.  That’s why I want to share, so maybe you can enjoy such delectables and call them your homemade, too. 🙂

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Ingredient: Preserved Vegetable, Zha Cai (榨菜)

26 May

Zha cai, out of the jar, not cut

So what is zha cai?  As its vaguely translated name suggests, it is a type of preserved vegetable.  The vegetable is a variant of mustard, sometimes referred to as Chinese mustard (no way!), and its leafy part is considered a rather fancy dish usually stir-fried with dried scallops and served at banquets.  

The root of this mustard is the part where zha cai comes from.  It is harvested and compressed down to yield all liquid, as “zha” in Chinese literally means compress.  It is preserved by salt and stored in clay jars.  The taste?  Crunchy and salty, which makes a great condiment for many things, such as the Sichuan style wontons

 Another famous dish zha cai is well known for is the pork zha cai noodles, as fried pork and zha cai is served over soup noodles.

Stir-fried Squid with Chinese Celery (芹菜炒鮮魷)

25 May

Top Chef Masters featured giant squid as an ingredient a short while ago, and even the most seasoned chefs were baffled by its gross appearance.  

Top Chef Masters contestant, Tony Mantuano, knifing through the sea monster

Yet all I could think about while watching the episode: It’s delicious!  I’ve been eating squid since I was a kid.  What is there to be scared of? 

Ok, I guess it can look kind of creepy...

There is something in texture and taste with squid that its other leggy friends (octopus, cuttlefish, etc.) cannot compare.  It does tend to be a bit fishier, I must say.  To tame it, I let my julienned squid sit in 1/2 cup of Chinese rice wine. 

To accompany its oceanic savoriness, Chinese celery is used. 

Chinese celery has a stronger celeriac taste than the American celery, and is much more “petite” in size.  It works well with the squid as it adds a crunchiness to each bite.  The key is to cut the vegetable in similar size as the squid.  

Squid cleaned and julienned, Chinese celery julienned, and chilli pepper

Before stir-frying, make sure the following aromatic ingredients are chopped: 

5 gloves of garlic 

1 tablespoon of ginger 

1 small chilli pepper (Serrano will do) 

Throw garlic, ginger, and pepper into the hot oil for the aroma to come out.  Once the garlic is starting to brown, dump in the squid.  It will take some time to cook it, depending on your stove.  After about 8 minutes of constant stirring (or when most liquid is dried up in the pan), drop in the celery.  Stir-fry until the squid curls up.  Season with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of sesame oil.   

Sunday dinner: Squid with celery, Luffa, and rice

 

 

Stir-fried Luffa with Garlic (清炒絲瓜)

24 May

Most people associate luffa with that rough, fibrous thing you use to scrub down dead skin.  Yes, it is great for that, once it has aged to the stage where the center of the vegetable is hardened and hallow.  But before it gets there, luffa is a great seasonal vegetable that has a sweet taste that is great when stir-fried with some garlic. 

The most annoying part of prepping this dish is peeling the luffa.  How annoying?  Its irregular skin that almost has a resemblance to a cactus is very challenging even with the best peeler in hand.  And I have fallen victim to it, as illustrated here: 

So to be safe, pay close attention to your fingers while peeling these babies.  To cook them, simply heat up oil in a wok/frying pan and drop in coarsely chopped garlic.  When you smell that good old fried garlic smell, throw in the vegetable.  Stir-fry until the vegetable is soft.  Luffa is packed with water so your dish will have quite a bit of liquid from the vegetable.  Season with salt.  And eat with a bowl of steamed rice.

Luffa

Peeled and sliced

Pickled Daikon

20 May

This pickled dish can be served as a salad or an appetizer.  But since I am so Chinese, I eat it with rice like a side dish.

The glass jar was bought from IKEA years ago, and cost me $1.99 at the time, I believe.

What goes into the jar: One medium daikon peeled and sliced; 3 parts rice vinegar (filled up to 3/4 of the jar); 1 part water; 1 cup of sugar;  1/2 cup of kosher salt (according to Alton Brown that is the better salt to use when pickling); 3 gloves of garlic, smashed;  and 2 thai chillies, roughly chopped. 

Leave it in the fridge to soak for at least 3 days.  One week is even better.

For the 1% of you who are not familiar with this root vegetable, Daikon is related to radish and turnip but has a milder, sweeter taste.  Although it is now commonly known for its Japanese name (daikon— meaning large root), the vegetable itself is near and dear to many Asian cultures. 

May I say last month (April) was a great month for daikon— so fresh and sweet I could eat them raw.  Not so much this month, though, as they begin to get spicier and dryer…  But still plentiful it seems, if you live in the beautiful Bay Area as I do. 🙂

Must Have Soup >> Oxtail

19 May

“Must have soup” pretty much sums up this unofficial food tradition in my family.  We have various kinds of soup year round, usually having the broth base of either oxtail or pork spare ribs, with whatever seasonal vegetables we can get our hands on (e.g. daikon, winter melon, corn, etc.).  Once in a while chicken soup is also on the menu, usually providing the base for soup noodles.

This oxtail soup is made with one pound of oxtail.  The bones are first dropped into a pot of boiling water so all the marrow and blood can be cleaned out— this first boil is then dumped out and all the bones should be rinsed before starting a new pot of water.  This step is essential to making soups with beef and pork bones so that you will not end up having the gamey taste with all the marrowy/bloody mess floating atop.  Once you bring the new pot of water to a boil, leave it to simmer for at least 3 hours.  4 tomatoes and 2 medium yellow onions are then added for texture and flavors.  Season with salt and pepper before serving. 

This soup makes a good stand-alone appetizer or can be the base for some rice noodles.  One of the easiest yet most satisfying dishes any time of the year.

Grand Opening: Sichuan Style Wontons (紅油抄手)

18 May Sichuan Wontons

Wontons are definitely one of the most common foods in Chinese cuisine, and they vary from region to region, mostly popular in the south, as the north is better known for dumplings and buns.  The name for wonton also differs from one province to another. They are usually considered “snack food” in the afternoon or late night.  As I recall from childhood, they were often served in between ma jong games at my grandparents’.  And since my paternal grandma (nai-nai) was a native of Sichuan, the Sichuan style wontons are the ones I am most familiar with.

What goes into the wontons are 2 lbs of ground pork, 1/2 lb of shrimp, chopped, with rice wine, sesme oil, white pepper, and salt. Wrappers are store bought.

These “hot oil wontons” (as its literal translation denotes) are eaten dry, with a mixture of aromatic toppings (sans soup), which is different from the Canton and Shanghai styles, often served in a broth.

To cook the wontons:

Add wontons to a pot of boiling water.  When it is boiling again, add a cup of cold water to it.  When that comes to a boil, you’re done.  Remember: It is the same to cook fresh versus frozen wontons (as it will just take frozen wontons a bit longer to come to a boil), and there is NO need to defrost fozen wontons.

To serve:
Mix the finely chopped scallion, garlic, dried shrimp, zha cai (preserved vegetable) with soy sauce, hot oil, and sesame oil atop the wontons.

Wontons!

Toppings: Garlic, scallion, zha cai (preserved vegetable), and dried shrimp