Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’

Stuffed Bitter Melon

March 25, 2010

Ingredients: bitter melon, shrimp, scallop, crimini mushroom, water chestnut, rice flour, cornstarch, palm sugar, egg, soybean paste, scallion, garlic, ginger, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, peanut oil.

Served with: white rice.

When I brought this wrinkly green bitter melon home with me, I was under the impression it was a winter melon — oops. I’d had no experience with either variety, other than passively learning of their existence via Iron Chef (which is where all this curiosity for Asian vegetables comes from). No matter; I went digging for bitter melon recipes, and saw that several involved stuffing the fruit with minced pork. I liked this idea of an encased meatball, so I decided to try a similar approach using seafood.

Let’s get the big question out of the way first. How bitter was it? I dared not taste the melon before slicing, hollowing out, and parboiling it. Even afterward, the first nibble led me to physically recoil. It was like licking aspirin. Clearly, more boiling was required (or perhaps some other technique). I’m still not sure I boiled it enough in the end.

While preparing the bitter melon slices, I created the meatball filling with a base of minced raw shrimp and scallop. I don’t own a food processor, so I did this by hand. While I didn’t really mind the extra work (my Shun santoku knife is a joy to use), I must admit that the texture of the minced scallop never really approached the mousse consistency I was looking for. The shrimp moussified nicely, at least.

To this mixture I added diced crimini mushrooms, diced water chestnuts, garlic, ginger, scallions, rice flour, an egg, sesame oil, a splash of Shaoxing rice wine, and plenty of soybean paste (which is great for adding soy flavor without liquid). I was improvising here, and didn’t exactly want to sample the raw mince, so I fried a small patty of it and adjusted the seasonings accordingly. In hindsight, I would have used less soybean paste and compensated with plain salt, so as not to cover up the lovely sweetness of the seafood.

After letting the hollow melon chunks cool a bit, I packed them full and pan-fried them for a couple minutes in peanut oil. I knew this wouldn’t be enough to thoroughly cook the filling, so I also let them steam for another 10 minutes using a pot and colander. A bamboo steamer would have been ideal, but I don’t own one.

As a finishing touch, I prepared a quick Chinese glaze of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, sesame oil, and cornstarch. I dabbed this on top of each bitter melon section, and served them with white rice. As I said before, I’m not sure I cooked the melon long enough, as it was unpleasantly bitter (read: why-would-anyone-eat-this-twice bitter). The texture was quite nice though, firm and fleshy. Couple that with its undeniably cool shape, and I’m already thinking about working with bitter melon again someday.

Noodle Nest Stir-Fry

November 24, 2009

Ingredients: Chinese soup noodles, TVP (textured vegetable protein), broccoli, bean sprouts, onion, scallion, carrot, wood ear mushroom, soy sauce, corn starch, palm sugar, fermented tofu, garlic, ginger, dry vermouth, cooking oil, sesame oil, black pepper, salt.

Pondering what to do with a package of Chinese soup noodles led me to this dish, which was very tasty. It’s a fairly basic vegan stir-fry on top a “nest” of fried noodles.

I made the nests first. I boiled the noodles, chilled them in ice water to prevent them from mushing up, and dried them thoroughly in a salad spinner. Then I heated up plenty of cooking oil in my wok and fried individual portions of the noodles into solid masses. Although I wanted form birds’ nests, ultimately I had to settle for lily pads. They tasted great anyway.

For the stir-fry, I soaked some meaty TVP and seared it along with garlic, ginger, and onion. Then I tossed in sliced carrots, cubed broccoli stems and florets, and wood ear mushrooms (which I had rehydrated along with the TVP). Toward the end of cooking, I added fresh crunchy bean sprouts and sliced scallions. For the sauce, I mixed together water, soy sauce, corn starch, mashed fermented tofu, dry vermouth, palm sugar, sesame oil, and a bit of salt & pepper.

Combining the noodle nests with the stir-fry was a big hit. That transitional phase when something crispy gradually becomes saucy is such an amazing texture.

Chinese Shrimp-Egg Noodles alla Carbonara

November 10, 2009

carbonara

Ingredients: shrimp-egg noodles, dried shrimp, shallot, green peas, butter, egg, Parmesan, dry vermouth, parsley, black pepper, salt.

Ah yes, another valiant vegequarian attempt to re-create a baconcentric dish using dried shrimp! Check out my first post about it here.

Pasta alla Carbonara is a very simple and satisfying meal. The idea is to use beaten raw eggs (along with grated cheese) as a sauce, and to let the hot pasta cook it. To be honest, until I looked it up online, I thought Carbonara was just Alfredo with green peas & ham. Beaten eggs? I guess all those classy Italian joints I went to growing up were confused, too. It’s okay fellas!

Since I already planned on replacing the pancetta with dried shrimp, I decided to push the Italian/Chinese fusion angle even more by using shrimp-egg noodles for pasta. These aren’t egg noodles; they’re regular wheat noodles, fortified and flavored with pink shrimp eggs. I saw them on Iron Chef once (Japanese version) and was intrigued, so I picked up a package at the Asian market soon afterward. Very tasty.

Preparation was simple. I soaked the dried shrimp in vermouth to soften them up, then diced and sautéed them in butter, quickly, with shallots and parsley. I poured this over steaming hot shrimp-egg noodles, along with some frozen peas (which don’t really need to cook much, merely thaw). Then I folded in beaten eggs and grated parmesan cheese, which set rather quickly into a creamy sauce. Salt, freshly ground black pepper, delicious!

Next time I try this, I will use scallions as a garnish, for a more distinct Asian flavor. I might even (bravely) substitute fermented tofu for the Parmesan.

Kung Pao

August 16, 2009

kungpao

Ingredients: red and green bell pepper, celery, water chestnut, peanut, scallion, dried whole chili, Szechuan peppercorn, peanut oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, Chingkiang vinegar, dry sherry, palm sugar, garlic, ginger.

Served with: white rice.

Kung Pao is another one of my favorite things to find when opening a Chinese takeout box. [I wrote about Shrimp & Snow Peas here.] The authentic Chinese version is nothing but chicken and peanuts, but I find that Kung Pao translates pretty well as a vegetarian dish. The peanuts go a long way toward filling out the savory flavor profile.

All things considered, Kung Pao is not hard to make at home. However, there are 3 essential ingredients that you might not have handy.

First on the list are Szechuan peppercorns. These wonderfully fragrant little berry husks are not actually peppercorns at all, but do perform a similar function. When enough Szechuan pepper is taken at once, the effect is an interesting numbing sensation.

The next essential ingredient is the dried whole chili pepper. A couple of these are toasted in the wok before the stir fry starts, so as to add a deep smoky heat to the oil. I love how this combines with the Szechuan pepper to create multi-layered spiciness.

Finally, Chinese “black vinegar” is a must for the sauce. I used a variant called Chinkiang. It’s an aged rice vinegar with a pungent, malty taste. I don’t use this for anything other than making Kung Pao, but it’s totally worthwhile, and I’m almost finished the bottle I got a year ago.

I began the Kung Pao by chopping and organizing all the vegetables I intended to use. To prep the wok sauce, I made a slurry of cornstarch and water in a plastic bowl, then added soy sauce, dry sherry, the Chinkiang vinegar, and a big spoonful of palm sugar (which balances out the tartness of all that vinegar). I also added some crushed garlic and ginger, though I like to strain those out after their flavors have been absorbed into the sauce.

I set the wok on high heat, then tossed in 4 or 5 whole chilies. When they began to blacken, I added peanut oil to the wok, then the bell peppers. After a few minutes of stir-frying, I added the celery, water chestnuts, and peanuts, plus a heaping teaspoon of ground Szechuan pepper. The air was thick with spicy smoke, enough to force a few tears out! I put a stop to that by finally adding the sauce mixture, which thickened up quickly, followed by the scallions (which should always be added last, because their flavor breaks down quickly with heat). I swirled in a bit of sesame oil as a finishing touch.

I ate the spicy, tangy Kung Pao with plain white rice, and ascended shortly thereafter to Heaven. It was so good.

Shrimp & Snow Peas

July 22, 2009

shrimp_n_snowpeas

Ingredients: shrimp, snow peas, bamboo shoots, button mushrooms, scallions, corn starch, rice vinegar, dry vermouth, garlic, ginger, salt, white pepper, sesame oil, peanut oil.
Served with: white rice.

Growing up, some of my favorite dinners involved large brown paper bags fitted snugly with little Chinese takeout boxes. I loved every step of the process: scanning the menu, asking around the house for requests, balancing the order to make sure no two choices were too similar; waiting for the sound of the garage door, which heralded Dad’s arrival with our feast; unpacking the goods, setting the table; digging in; and lovingly storing the leftovers in the fridge for breakfast next day.

This is my comfort food.

In more recent times, I’ve made it a mission to recreate those tastes, smells, and textures in my own kitchen. Some of these are damn elusive, even with full access to Asian groceries and Internet recipes. Some are pretty simple, though. Shrimp & Snow Peas is one of the easiest Chinese menu all-stars to faithfully reproduce. Here’s how!

Get some large, good quality raw shrimp. Do not ever buy precooked shrimp, unless the store is out of chewing gum and you are coming down from a meth bender. Peel and devein the shrimp, saving the shells and discarding the “veins” (which are actually mud-filled intestinal tracts). Run the shrimp under ice-cold water for a few  minutes to firm up the texture, then marinate them for as long as possible in a mix of corn starch, rice vinegar, salt, and white pepper. As I have mentioned in other posts, this step protects the surface of the shrimp from scorching on the wok.

Meanwhile, boil the shells for a few minutes (plus a slab of ginger and a smashed garlic clove) to make a nice shrimp stock for the sauce. This is an optional step, but there’s flavor there and it’s a shame to waste it. After straining the shells, pour in a good splash of dry vermouth. Authentic recipes use Shiaoxing wine, but I’ve never seen it for sale. The vermouth tastes right anyway.

To guarantee perfectly-cooked snow peas, I like to blanch and shock them first. That means boiling them in salt water for a couple minutes, then quickly submerging them in ice water to stop the internal cooking process. A bit of their nutrition is lost through boiling, but vegetables prepared this way come out crispy and tender with amazingly vibrant colors. Try this at home, please!

Once all the components to the dish are prepped, get a wok or heavy pan sizzling hot and add a swirl of peanut oil. Dry off and toss in the slabs of garlic and ginger from the stock (to flavor the oil), then remove them once they start browning. Fry up the shrimp until mostly pink, then toss in the cold snow peas, canned bamboo shoots, canned button or straw mushrooms, and some roughly-chopped scallions. Let those sear a bit, then add the sauce. If doesn’t thicken up enough, add more cornstarch slurry. Drizzle some sesame oil on top when it’s finished, then serve with plain white rice.

Note that there is no soy sauce in this recipe, nor should there be.

Salmon Fried Rice

July 19, 2009

friedrice

Ingredients: white rice, salmon, green peas, onion, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, cabbage, egg, soy sauce, corn starch, rice wine vinegar, salt, black pepper, sesame oil, peanut oil, butter

Fried rice is an excellent way to use up leftover rice that has hardened in the fridge. In fact, you can’t really make it properly with freshly-cooked rice, which just gets mushy in the wok. Fried rice is also an opportunity to use up small quantities of vegetables. This is a very savory dish, and always includes scrambled egg, so I don’t usually bother to include other proteins. This time, however, I really wanted to try adding salmon. It turned out okay but wasn’t necessary at all.

I started by cubing and marinating the salmon in a solution of corn starch, rice wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a dash of soy sauce. This is stir-fry standard operating procedure. The idea is to provide a velvety protective layer for the pieces, so that they do not scorch when subjected to a flaming wok. Do not skip this step, as it is essential for that soft restaurant-quality texture. You can, however, use vermouth or white wine instead of rice wine vinegar.

After quickly frying the salmon chunks in a bit of peanut oil and setting them aside, I scrambled 2 eggs in the wok, then removed them as well. Next up were the veggies: first the onions, then shredded cabbage, followed in a few minutes by canned bamboo shoots and frozen green peas (neither of which need much time to heat up). All of that went into another bowl beside me, after which I gave the bean sprouts some alone-time in the wok. I like doing those last because I want them to be seared but still have plenty of “tooth” left (I suppose this term comes from al dente, “to the tooth,” when pasta is ever-so-slightly undercooked).

Before frying the hardened rice, I made sure to break up all the clusters that had formed. This ensures even cooking. Once the wok returned to high heat, I tossed the rice in, followed by a small hunk of butter. Then I did that cool Iron Chef move a few times, where you hold the handle sturdily with one arm and flick the wok contents up in the air (then catch everything). Note that it’s important to let the wok sit on the burner for a few seconds after each toss, because the metal cools off very quickly.

After a few minutes of those antics, I returned everything to the wok and splashed in some soy sauce, which was hungrily soaked up by the rice and began to form a nice brown crust underneath. I finished off the fried rice with a swirl of sesame oil (for aroma) and some imaginary scallions (since I ran out of real ones).