Monday, October 16, 2017

Pork fluff is so amazing... and so easy

This way to prepare meat is beloved by just about every ethnic Chinese person out there. And for good reason. But strange as it may be, pork fluff has pretty much remained a mysterious secret to everyone else.

Yes, you can buy it in most Chinese grocery stores. And it’s often rather tasty. My personal favorite brand is from Taiwan: Hsin Tung Yang. This commercial variety has a really flossy texture that reminds me of cotton candy—and is probably why some people prefer to call this “pork floss”—and the quality is high enough to pass muster if homemade is not available.

How do you use it? Well, it is the ideal accompaniment to a bowl of plain rice or a friendly breakfast array of congee dishes. This is so delicious that it needs little more than a simple starch to back it up with not too many frills or bells. You really need the gentle sweetness of rice or wheat to complement all the glorious textures and flavors of the pork, and so the other standard ways to enjoy pork fluff are to either sandwich it between two slices of white bread or (my husband’s favorite) fill a fresh, hot steamed bun, or mantou, with as much as he can get away with.
Cube the pork

He remembers being conscripted for pork fluff duty at an early age. This was one of his mom’s recipes, and the most boring part—stir-frying and smacking at the meat in a hot wok—was generally relegated to her eldest and more hyperactive son. Since he has always been a picky eater with an enormous appetite, he would gladly seize this opportunity to climb up on a stool in front of the coal stove and get to work, mainly because this meant he got to sneak in more oil than his mom specified in order to get a really crispy edge to the meat and to heighten the flavors with a lot more seasonings. Now you can see where my very own culinary Mr. Blackwell got his start.

The recipe here meets his exacting standards, I’m happy to say. As with so many things, please view this as a template. You can use chicken or fish here instead of pork, or other meats like beef and goat. All of these are traditional in different parts of China.

Break up the cubes
The seasonings are also nothing more than a suggestion. Finely shredded ginger, for example, could be added to the wok when you start frying the pork, or you could use oyster sauce instead of soy sauce, or you could toss in finely shredded laver seaweed (aka zicai or nori) at the very end.

The only things you really need to do is 
a) make sure the meat is braised until it is super tender, as this encourages it to fall apart in the wok, 
b) use the right amount of oil, since you don’t want this either dry or soggy, 
c) keep stirring and whacking for 30 minutes, which can be viewed as a great aerobic exercise that builds up a Popeye-like forearm, and 
d) make sure that all of the liquids are fully boiled off before you remove the wok from the heat, as you want the meat to be crispy.

Hand-shredded & ready to fry
Pork fluff
Ròusōng 肉鬆
Jiangsu and all over China
Makes about 4 cups ( )

Pork and braise:
1 pork loin (around 1 to 1½ pounds | 450 – 600 grams)
¼ cup | 60 ml Chinese cooking rice wine or Taiwanese Mijiu
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
Water to cover

Wok seasonings:
¼ cup | 60 ml peanut or vegetable oil, used ok
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon (or more) toasted sesame seeds

1. Cut the pork into 1 inch | 2 cm squares. Place the pork in the bottom of a pressure cooker, cover with water, and simmer for around 10 minutes. Dump out the water and rinse off any scum from the meat and the pan.
After 15 minutes or so

2. Return the meat to the pan and add the rice wine, soy sauce, and water to cover. Cover the pressure cooker and set it over high heat. Reduce the heat as necessary to maintain second-ring pressure, and cook it for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and release the pressure before opening the lid. The meat should be tender enough at this point to crumble at the least pressure. Use a slotted spoon to remove it to a wok and reserve the cooking liquid for something else. Line a large platter with crumpled parchment paper or a paper towel.

3. Lightly whack away at the pork to reduce it to shards, and then crumble it into fine threads with your fingers. Toss the pork with the oil and set the wok over medium heat. Use a wok spatula to toss and break up the pork, adjusting the heat as necessary. Add more oil if the pork begins to stick, but be careful not to make the meat soggy. After about 20 minutes, the pork will be light gold and the edges of the shards will sprout fine filaments that will crisp up as you continue to fry them. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and sesame seeds at this point and continue to toss and break up the meat into finer and finer threads. After 30 minutes total frying time, taste and adjust the seasoning. The pork should be fine and crumbly at this point, and it will become even more divine as it cools. Scrape the pork fluff out onto the platter and let it cool completely. Refrigerate it in a closed container. It will stay perfect for weeks, if for some strange reason it happens to last more than a day.


A video of the tossing and whacking in action

Monday, October 9, 2017

Chinese cocktail redux

I’ve been a hooch maker for as long as I can remember. Something about making my own alcoholic beverages just tickles me for some reason, and I think that I like the process and the magic of it almost as much as the end result. 

In fact, when we moved last year, I ended up with approximately 30 gallons of homemade booze in my new basement. Not that that is a bad thing.

One of the first things I made long ago was peach booze, since I had a big white peach tree that ripened over the span of about two days, and I would always panic at this sudden onslaught of fruit threatening to decay on my kitchen counter. I found that after I had prepped enough for the freezer and jam, there was still enough starting to ferment on its own, so I just let it have its way, and before long I had some pretty tasty stuff to drink.

French prunes & Italian plums
I also am a big fan of elderberry wine, which is delicious, but is tedious to make, since each tiny berry has to be dislodged from the stems, which are also often havens for a variety of insects. If you have an elderberry bush in your neighborhood, the wine worth making if for no other reason than that it is pretty much impossible to find if you don’t do a homebrew.

However, today we are doing something much easier. This is a continuation of last week’s sojourn into making your own plum liqueur, because this is simply so easy and so delicious. 

A friend gave me some of her bumper crop of Italian plums this summer, which I then supplemented with a bunch of fresh French prunes, and these turned out to be really tasty when turned into booze. I used slab sugar instead of rock sugar, and the color is fantastic! I ended up with a lovely amber liquid that looks as good as it tastes.

And since my apple tree dumped a ton of windfall fruit all over the yard, these were snatched up and turned into another type of drink, as were some Asian pears that were sitting around.

Amber deliciousness
You can, therefore, use whatever you like here. Frozen berries work just fine, and pineapple is delectable. The only limit is your imagination…

Chinese-style fruit liqueur chez Huang
Huángjiā shuĭguŏ jĭu  黃家水果酒
Makes around 3.5 quarts (3.5 l)

3 pounds ripe fruit (see headnotes)
1 tablespoon sea salt, optional
Water, as needed
1 pound yellow rock sugar, slab sugar, or piloncillo – use more, if needed
2 (1.75 l) bottles soju or other white liquor or vodka or gin (add another bottle if you prefer a drier brew) 
Optional: a few star anise, dried licorice slices, a vanilla pod sliced open, some dried wolfberries (gouqi or goji berries), a few slices of fresh ginger, or what have you

Slash the skins of stone fruit
1. Rinse the fruit carefully and toss out any that are moldy or squishy or damaged. Small imperfections are all right as long as you discard those bits. If you are using whole fruit, like stone fruits or grapes, remove the stems and then slash the fruit skin all around so that the juices can escape; soak these in cool water plus the salt for a couple of hours to get rid of any bitterness in the skins (see the directions in last week's recipe). If you are using berries, just wash them carefully and drain. Other fruits (like mangoes and pineapples) should just have their inedible skins removed, and be sure to carve out the cores of apples and pears, as well as pits of things like mangoes.

2. Place the fruit in a 1 gallon (4 l) jar, add the sugar and alcohol, as well as any spice or herb you’d like, and then keep the jar lightly covered so that gases can escape. Stir this mixture every day for about a week, then secure the lid and let it age for a couple of months or, ideally, for much longer. Strain out the liqueur and bottle it, if you like.

Some cocktail ideas:

1. Any of these liqueurs are excellent served chilled or over ice, preferably crushed. Add a paper umbrella, if you want to get fancy.

2. Seltzer, tonic water, or sparkling water can be added for lighter cocktails: use half liqueur and half water, and serve over ice.

3. A slightly tart edge can be supplied via a wedge of lime or lemon.

4. Serve the fruit liqueur the fits the season. For example, an apple cocktail would be great in autumn, while a mango one tastes of summer.

5. Chunks of fresh fruit can be added to the drink, like a couple of fresh strawberries with a berry cocktail or a slice of pineapple perched on the rim of a pineapple or mango drink.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cocktails, anyone?

If you are anything like me, you probably like the sweetish and fruity Japanese liquor known as umeshu that’s sold with a couple of little fruits stuck inside the simple green glass bottle. I’m not going to name any brands here, but you probably know which one I’m talking about.

What you probably don’t know is that this is quite easy to make. Plus, you can use a good grade of alcohol (I like Korean soju, a higher octane white liquor that is much stronger than what usually goes into the stuff sold as plum wine) that makes this perfect for cocktails. 

I also prefer my drinks less sweet than what is usually commercially available, so a little DIY makes that possible.

Another good thing about making your own homemade booze is that you can put lots and lots of fruit in the mix, which gives the flavor a lovelier punch. My plum liquor really tastes like plums – a cause for celebration in my book.

I’ve been making this liquor for years and never get tired of it, not only because it really is quite tasty, but also this gives me a chance to play around with it a whole lot. 

For example, in today’s recipe, you will find perilla leaves (also known as zĭsū 紫蘇 or shiso) adding wonderful depth to the brew. It’s sort of a vegetal note that contrasts well with all that fruitiness. You might have only run across perilla in Japanese dishes like sushi or pickles, but they are delicious and go especially well with stone fruit like these plums.

One thing on the nomenclature before we go much further: the fruit known as méizi 梅子 in Chinese are actually a type of apricot. Sometimes these are referred to as “Japanese apricots,” but they originated in China  just saying. They are almost always used when they are still firm and green for preserves, pickles, or in wines/liquors. 

So beautiful at this point
You will find them in East Asian markets around the beginning of summer, and when that happens, snap them up immediately because their season is a short one.

All you need to do is slash their skins and then soak them overnight in salted water to leach out some of the bitterness. Then, just toss them in a jar with your soju, rock sugar, and optional perilla leaves. After that, simply give them the time to get to know each other – six months or more is ideal, and longer is even better – before breaking out your now dusty but delicious bottle.

If you don’t have Asian apricots in your area, stay tuned for next week, where I’ll show you how to use a different – but just as delicious – fruit to make an aromatic brew that will knock your socks off, as well as a couple ideas for Chinese-inspired cocktails.

Is it 4:00 yet somewhere in the world?

Homemade plum liquor
Korean soju
Zìzhì méizijĭu 自製梅子酒
Japan via Taiwan
Makes around 3 quarts (3 liters)

Around 3 pounds (1.5 kgs) green “Japanese” apricots
Cool water, as needed
2 tablespoons sea salt
About 2 pounds (1 kg) yellow rock sugar, or more if you like this relatively sweet
1 bunch perilla, optional
3 (1.75 l) bottles soju, Jinro brand recommended

1. Rinse the apricots well and check them over as you do so. You can trim any that have tiny nicks or bruises, but discard ones that are rotted or have insects roaming around inside. Pluck off the stems as you find them, and then slash the skin of each fruit 4 to 5 times. 

2. Place the prepped fruit in a large work bowl, cover with cool water, add the salt, and stir them around a bit to more or less dissolve the salt. Leave the bowl in a cool area overnight.

3. The next day, rinse the fruit well. Drain them in a colander and then rub the fruit lightly with a clean towel. Place the fruit in a 3 quart (3 l) or larger jar. Add the rock sugar and optional perilla, and then pour the soju over everything. 

Slash the skins
4. Cover the jar and set it somewhere convenient on the counter so that you can swish it around every day for about a week – this will help dissolve the sugar and also ensure that the fruits don’t get a chance to mold before they sink to the bottom of the jar. Enjoy this time, since the sugar will start to dissolve in the alcohol and will make the bottom of the jar look kind of magical, while the fruits bob around on top.

5. When the fruit has sunk to the bottom of the jar, place the covered jar somewhere quiet where it can mature for 6 or more months. You can drink it any time you like, but it does get better the longer it sits. The liquor is, of course, really good, and the fruits are lovely as little treats, too, but the perilla should be discarded. I either just ladle out the liquor as it is needed or put it up in smaller bottles, but with mouths large enough for the fruits to go in and out easily. And you definitely want to put those plums in the liquor, as they continue to mellow over time and turn into little amber morsels. I have some from about a decade ago, and they are now soft and delectable, and of course the liqueur is as smooth as satin. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Perfect garlic lava pork

I adore chilled dishes any time of year, and some of my absolute favorites hail from Sichuan. 

Part of this has to do with the alchemy of chiles and vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns bumping up against whatever is being served, for they wake up the appetite and yet cool down the body. This is Chinese therapeutic medicine at its most delicious.

As with just about all the cold appetizers of China, this can be made well ahead of time, which means that you won’t have to be stuck in the kitchen. 

That's why, when I have friends coming over for a meal, I get started in the cool morning hours and try to have all the grunt work banged out by 10. That leaves me plenty of time to tidy up and contemplate the upcoming festivities over a glass of iced tea. (By the way, I heartily recommending that you double or triple the pork, since it's then all cooked and ready to go for a week's worth of fine dining.)

Sichuan peppercorns & garlic
Garlic pork is yet another genius dish that is more of a composition than anything else. One of the best versions I ever had was at an Yibin style restaurant in Chengdu. Yibin is an old city, and I mean old even by Chinese standards, for it's been around for four millennia. The foods in this ancient city have had time to develop in wonderful ways, and so are a delectable fusion of Han Chinese and local minority (mainly Yi and Miao) cuisines, as well as a crossroads between Sichuan and Yunnan's culinary traditions. And so, yes, this is definitely a place for eating. 

But the recipes of Yibin are also incredibly easy most of the time. Especially when the results are so perfect, such as in this dish. The pork is gently simmered in nothing more than water with a dash of salt and Sichuan peppercorns, so it’s simplicity itself. That being said, the pork has to be of excellent quality. The pork is the star of the show here, and there is nothing to disguise anything less than perfection, which means you should first head to a great butcher.

What you want and need here is meat and fat, plus skin, if possible. The fat is necessary to provide tenderness between the bites of meat. The pork will not taste greasy when made this way, so don’t worry about that. And the skin supplies extra snap and texture to the dish. Skin is not always easy to find for some reason, even around here in the Bay Area, but its absence should not stop you from making this dish.
A fatty hunk of pork shoulder

As for the cut of the meat, pork belly is great, as is the rump or the shoulder. Ask the butcher what is available and what really looks great to her or him. If you’re offered the belly, make sure it has ribbons of fat interspersed with the meat, as that equals lovely mouthfeel and flavor. If it’s the rump, try to get a tender hunk of meat with a nice layer of fat for the same reasons. Any other cut will do, too, as long as it’s boneless and tender and does not include things like tendons, which won’t get a chance to cook properly in this dish. Pork cheeks will work exceptionally well, by the way, so be on the lookout for them.

Once the pork has been cooked and chilled, that is when you should slice it. Refrigerating the pork makes it easier to handle. It won’t fall apart as you slice it, but rather will behave well. Always slice the pork against the grain, as this increases its tenderness. And practice making each slice even and beautiful so that this dish turns out to be a feast for the eyes, as well as for the other senses.

You can play with the sauce as much as you like, but the emphasis should always be on the garlic. It can be fiery or not, so feel free to add lots of chiles or no chiles at all (the red does make this dish look particularly appetizing, though). However, whatever you do, be sure to not make the sauce too sweet. A good bit of vinegar prevents the dish from becoming cloying and cuts the fattiness, but nevertheless, still hold back on the sugar... you already have a nice little sweet jolt from the oyster sauce and sweet soy sauce. 

Secret: soak the raw garlic
One way in which this recipe differs from the traditional methods is that I add salt and spices to the pork as it is simmering to amplify and balance the natural meaty aromas. Be sure and reserve the stock after you've cooked the pork, as it is delicious. I'd suggest cooking a handful of thinly julienned Asian radishes in it for a perfect soup.

Note that the lots of garlic is called for. But at the same time, it is subtly tamed with an ice water bath. Raw garlic needs this secret little maneuver to cut back on its gassiness and stickiness, and this in turn allows its perfume to shine. A note on the name: in Chinese, it means "garlic mud" or even "garlic paste," but I've always preferred the garlic here when it's in tiny bits that get a chance to sparkle on the tongue, hence "lava" for the English name.

This is therefore definitely not date night food, unless you both are serious garlic lovers. And if you are, then this will probably prove to be an aphrodisiac. Yibin is also home to the Chinese white liquor known as wŭliángyè 五糧液 (literally, distillation of five grains), and that is actually the ideal accompaniment to this heady pork dish. If you don't have any in the liquor cabinet (do note that it's becoming more available in Chinese markets nowadays), then try serving this with another chilled white liquor like gaoliang, a gin martini, or perhaps even a cold beer.
Thinly sliced cucumbers

Garlic lava pork
Suànní báiròu 蒜泥白肉
Serves 4 to 6

Pork and vegetables:
Around 1½ pounds  (700 g) slightly fatty fresh pork belly or rump or shoulder, with or without the skin
Water, as needed
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
3 star anise
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 to 4 Persian or other seedless cucumbers
1 green onion, trimmed
½ red jalapeño pepper

6 cloves garlic, evenly chopped
Ice water, as needed
1 to 2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (homemade or store-bought)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon chile oil (homemade or store-bought), optional
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon pale rice vinegar

Ahhh... the sauce
1. At least 4 hours before you plan to serve this, place the pork in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring the pan to a full boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and blanch the pork uncovered for around 10 minutes. Dump out the water and rinse off both the pork and the pan. Return the pork to the pan and cover it with fresh water, and add the Sichuan peppercorns and star anise. Bring it once more to a full boil and then simmer it or about 20 minutes, add the salt, and then continue to simmer it for another 25 minutes, or until it can be easily pierced in the thickest part with a chopstick. Cool the pork in the strained stock and, if you have the time, refrigerate it in this stock overnight. About an hour before serving, remove the pork to a clean plate, flick off any clingy peppercorns and star anise, pluck out any hairs you might find at this point, and cut the pork against the grain into very thin slices.

2. While the pork is chilling, prepare the cucumbers by trimming off both ends and then using either a mandoline or very sharp knife to cut them into very thin ribbons. Pile these in a serving bowl or lipped plate and chill. Cut the green onion and optional chile pepper into thin rings.
Hot weather delight

3. Place the garlic in a small work bowl and cover with ice water, as this will remove a lot of its stickiness and heat. Just before serving, drain the garlic well in a fine strainer and then mix it with rest of the sauce ingredients, using 1 tablespoon of the sweet soy sauce first, and then tasting the mix to see if the second tablespoon is needed.

4. Fluff up the cucumber ribbons as much as possible to create an attractive nest. Fan the pork slices across the top. Drizzle the sauce over the pork, but not on the cucumbers, so that the green and white of the cukes remain clean. Scoot the chopped garlic over the top of the pork and then scatter the green onions and optional chile pepper over that.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chinatown's almond cookies

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by San Francisco’s Chinatown. Going there was a rare treat, but I always knew what I wanted when we got there: a box of almond cookies.

Packed up in a pretty pink box with a string tie, they were unlike anything we ate down in San Jose, which was pretty Midwestern when it came to food then. 

To me, Chinese almond cookies tasted more like Chinatown than any other sweet I tried, not that there was ever that huge a selection.

Later, when I was older, I tried to relive that experience, only to find that the flavors and textures were off. The cookies were bland instead of exciting, tasted of fat and sugar rather than almonds, and tended to be slightly soft, not tantalizingly crispy, as I remembered.

And so, of course, I had to rectify this.

Perfect snacking
As you can see, I’ve been on a bit of a warpath lately. Chinese American food is sooo good, but we never get to really eat it anymore. It’s as American as, say, Tex-Mex or Red Italian, and I am all in favor of seeing it make a genuine comeback. But cooked with pride and made with even better ingredients than before, of course.

Almond cookies seem like an obvious choice for this first salvo. The original inspiration for this recipe came from a 1979 cookbook called Better Than Storebought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie. I’ve made a lot of adjustments over the years, though, to make it more almond-y, less sweet, and a bit healthier. They even have that golden shiny glaze and crinkly fissures on top. 

I hope you agree that these are just what we need for snacktime.

Updated Chinatown almond cookies
Whip the sugars, fat, & egg together
Tèzhì Tángrénjiē xìngrén bĭnggān 特製唐人街杏仁餅乾
Chinese American
Makes 32

¾ cup (145 g) organic solid white shortening, or good lard
½ cup (100 g) white sugar
¼ cup (45 g) coconut sugar, or packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
¾ cup (100 g) ground almonds, or almond flour
1¾ cups (165 g) unbleached pastry flour
¾ teaspoon sea salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg, lightly beaten
32 whole almonds, either unblanched or blanched (i.e., with or without skin)

1. Place the shortening (or lard), both sugars, 1 egg, and both extracts in the bowl of a food processor equipped with a metal blade. Whiz it for around a minute, stopping the machine now and then to scrape down the sides, until you have a very light, creamy mixture.

2. Mix together the ground almonds (or almond flour), pastry flour, salt, and baking soda in a small work bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the food processor and pulse the cookie dough until it is evenly mixed.
Make logs & chill
3. Have 2 sheets of parchment paper or foil ready. Scrape out half of the cookie dough onto each sheet, spread it out into a log-like shape, and then roll the dough up in the paper or foil like a cigar. Freeze the dough for about 20 minutes, just until it is solid but still easy to cut.

4. Place 2 racks near the center of your oven and turn it on to 275°F (135°C); don’t use the convection setting. Line 2 baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper.

5. Cut each log of dough into 16 even pieces. (This is easy: cut each log in half, then each piece into half again, then half again, then half again; see Tip.) Place them on the lined sheets about 2 inches (5 cm) apart.

6. Brush each slice with the beaten egg, and then press a whole almond in the center. Bake the cookies for 25 minutes. Rotate the sheets from top to bottom and back to front, and then increase the heat to 325°F (160°C). Continue to bake them for about 10 minutes more. When they are golden brown, remove them from the oven and let them cool to room temperature. Keep them in an airtight container or freeze for longer storage.

Oven ready

If you can hunt down some good lard, try that. It’s wonderful.

Even better, make your own lard: Cut some chilled pork fat (it’s much easier to work with when it’s very cold) into small dice. Place the fat in a saucepan, add a couple of tablespoons of water, cover the pan, and set it over medium-low heat. Stir the fat as needed to keep the solids from burning. As soon as you have a nice layer of fat on the bottom, remove the lid so that the water can evaporate and continue to cook the fat, adjusting the heat as necessary. It is ready when the solids are a toasty brown. Drain the fat through a sieve into a container, and then refrigerate it. 

The toppings
Lard will keep a very long time if kept cold. And be sure to save the cracklings – one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sneaky snacks was white rice topped with cracklings, a bit of melted lard, and a drizzle of soy sauce. I have to agree with her here… this is pretty amazing stuff and is much better than it sounds, all buttery and crunchy.

Whenever you need to cut up things like pastry dough or cookie dough, see if you can make a number that is easily divisible by 4, like 8, 16, 32, and 64. The reason for this is that you then don’t need to measure the dough with a ruler, but rather simply slice pieces in half until you have the correct number of pieces. Brainlessly easy.