Monday, June 19, 2017

Sichuan's bean sprout steamed buns

These are from Sichuan, so you know they are not even remotely as mild-mannered as the name “bean sprout steamed buns” suggests. They are also one of my favorite types of buns because they are so full of personality: meaty with a nice nutty crunch from the sprouts, spicy with a touch of Sichuan peppercorns, and almost creamy from the extra fat I’ve sneaked in there.

Traditionally, these are made with pork. But Sichuan is one of the few places in China that really revels in beef, so I’ve taken the opportunity here to make this one beefy. Of course, you can use whatever meat you like. In fact, if you are serving vegetarians, try a fake ground beef, like “Gimme Lean,” plus a veggie butter substitute – they are equally delicious and have made many a meatless friend very, very happy.

These buns often have some red oil flecking the outsides, which is not at all a bad thing. I actually like this decorative touch, as it also helps to set these apart from all other baozi.

The amount of hot bean sauce here is negotiable, depending upon both your and your guests’ taste and the amount of salt and heat in the sauce. So, start with 4 tablespoons and add more at the tasting step if you think it needs it. Each brand of Sichuan hot bean sauce is different, so you’ll have to wing it the first time or two and keep notes. But do be sure to make this filling at least a little bit on the salty and spicy side, since its flavor will be balanced out by the mild bread wrapper.
Trimmed soybean sprouts
One thing you must do is use soybean sprouts here, not mung bean sprouts. Soybeans make those big yellow seed heads that offer up so much texture to the mixture. Find the best quality ones in Korean markets, where people really know how to shop for their soybean sprouts. 

Keep them fresh by placing the sprouts in a resealable container and covering them with ice water. Refrigerate the sprouts for a couple of days, and they will still be perfect. Always remove the whiskery ends, which isn’t as awful a chore as it may seem. Just pick up 4 or 5 sprouts near the heads so that their tails are all in the same direction, then pluck off the skinny ends with your fingernail. That’s it.

The wrappers are slightly different from my usual steamed bread recipe since they have fat added. This helps make them more waterproof, but the fat can be left out if you don't care about some of the oil seeping out.
Wrapping the baozi

Serve these any time of the day. Freeze those extra ones for an almost instant treat whenever you need something really tasty to make your day right.

Sichuan’s bean sprout steamed buns
Dòuyá  bāozi豆芽包子
Makes 32 baozi

2 cups (500 ml) warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar
4½ cups (1000 g) regular Chinese flour, or 3 cups (660 g) unbleached all-purpose plus 1½ cups (330 g) pastry or cake flour, plus more as needed
4 tablespoons white shortening or lard, softened
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon baking powder

Around 7 ounces (200 g) soybean sprouts
The colorful finished filling
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 green onions, trimmed and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound (450 g) ground lean beef, pork, or turkey
4 tablespoons Sichuan hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang), plus more to taste
1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
4 teaspoons sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch

1. Get the wrappers started by sprinkling the yeast and sugar over the warm water. Place the flour and shortening in a large work bowl. When the yeast is foaming nicely, stir it into the flour and shortening, then turn it out onto a floured board. Knead the dough, adding more flour as needed, to make it smooth and elastic. Rinse out and dry the work bowl, lightly oil it, and place the ball of dough in there. Let it rise twice (this will take about an hour or two), and punch it down after each time. 

2. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling. Pinch the roots off of the sprouts, since they otherwise will feel like hairs in your mouth. Remove any seed casings while you’re at it. Rinse the sprouts, drain well, and chop them coarsely.

A happy array of buns
3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high, and then add the green onions and garlic. Stir these around to release their fragrance, and then add the beef. Use your spatula to break it up. When it is no longer pink, scoot everything up the side of the wok. Scoop the bean sauce into the bottom of the wok so that it can heat up quickly. Stir it around, and when it starts to bubble, toss it into the meat. Season this with the soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Toss in the butter and then the cornstarch, and remove the wok from the heat when the filling has thickened. Bring it to room temperature and refrigerate for at least an hour, as this will make it easier to work with as you fill the buns.

4. Turn the dough out onto a clean, smooth work surface and sprinkle it with the baking powder. Lightly knead it into the dough so that it is fully incorporated, and then divide the dough into 32 even pieces. Roll these into balls and flour them so that they do not stick to each other.

5. Follow the directions here on how to fill and shape baozi, making each wrapper about 3 inches (7.5 cm) wide. Let the filled buns rise for around 15 minutes. Prepare your steamer baskets by lining them with either steamer paper or cloth. Spray these with oil and bring your steamer to a full boil.

6. Arrange about 6 buns in each steamer so that they are at least 1 inch (2 cm) apart. Steam the buns for about 15 minutes, turn off the heat, and let the sit in the cooling steamer for about 5 minutes to set their shape. Eat immediately. These buns may be frozen at the end of Step 5 or after they have been steamed. To cook the frozen buns, place them in the steamer baskets while they are still frozen and steam for about 20 minutes; already cooked ones only need to be thoroughly heated through.
Nobel Prize alert


This is a great discovery of mine that I am so proud of: Freeze your unsteamed buns in muffin tins for about an hour, and then pack them in freezer bags. 

I have always had a real problem with buns getting squished in the freezer, no matter how careful I am. But this way, the buns are totally protected. 

Consider this my early Christmas gift to you!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Pastries for a dowager empress or a MIL

What an honor: Les Dames d’Escoffier International just awarded the story I wrote about my late mother-in-law the second prize in the Internet Category of Les Dames d'Escoffier International's 2017 M.F.K. Fisher Awards for Excellence in Culinary Writing!

This is the second M. F. K. Fisher Award that this story was nominated for (the other being this year’s Beards), and once again it’s just a bridesmaid, not the bride. Oh well, “Good Graces” is still in excellent company.

If you haven’t read “Good Graces” yet, here it is again. And if you are wondering what those chestnut thimbles taste like and how to make them yourself without breaking a sweat, I’m here to tell you that, too.

First off, though, let me tell you a bit about what these are and how they evolved. In North China, just about any pastry or starchy morsel can be called a wōwō 窩窩, and tóu 頭means "head" or "tip," so, wowotouer basically translates as pointy little pastries. Which is what they are.

Dry, hard-to-digest millet was the grain of choice for wowotouer until maize was introduced from the Americas, and, as in Italy, the lovely flavor of dried corn quickly upended millet’s standing in that part of the world. (Reliance on this admittedly delicious grain also was a deciding factor in the rise of niacin – aka vitamin B3 – deficiency wherever it was happily adopted and overused, but going down that rabbit hole would seriously derail the topic here.) 
Italian chestnut flour

Wowotouer were mainly eaten by northern Chinese for centuries because they were cheap and filling. And that is where they stayed for endless years.

However, these little thimbles eventually became refined enough to find admirers in the imperial household. Dowager Empress Cixi was said to have loved them, and enterprising palace chefs tried other ingredients to expand their repertoire and please the picky old lady. Much like I was attempting to do with my new MIL.

Back in the day, these were a genuine pain to make. I had to spend many hours soaking the dried Chinese chestnuts and then painstakingly ferreting out the hard red skins that cling steadfastly to the intensely wrinkled nuts.

But ever since I discovered Italian chestnut flour, I’ve happily given up on all that drudgery. The mild, smoky flavor of dried chestnuts is still there – admittedly not as strong as in Chinese chestnuts – and it gives these delicate little steamed pastries a wonderful airiness that makes it incredibly easy to breathe down half a dozen before realizing it. You can find this wonderful ingredient in good Italian delis and markets, as well as online.

Red dates
The addition of dates and milk make this a riff on the traditional recipe, as I never really enjoyed the dry and (I’m sorry, Popo) rather boring and even leaden texture of the originals. However, the dates offer little sweet-and-sour jolts in every mouthful and increase the moistness to a delicious degree, while the milk powder offers a subtle sweetness that amplifies the natural flavor of the chestnuts. 

You can easily put these together in half an hour, but they are just as easy to make ahead and freeze. I like them for a simple breakfast with black tea (lychee tea is incredibly good here) and fruit, or in the afternoon with green tea and a couple bowls of sweet sesame soup.

Beyond suitable for feeding a dowager empress or a terrifying Chinese mother-in-law, they are also perfect for feeding your homesick Beijing friends.

Chestnut thimbles
Lìzĭ wōwōtóuer  栗子窩窩頭兒
Makes 16 to 18
Ready to be steamed
10 small (or 5 large) Chinese dates
Boiling water, as needed
1¼ cups (TK g) Italian chestnut flour (farina di castagne)
1 cup (120 ml) boiling water
Spray oil (if you are using paper steamer liners)
2 tablespoons cake or pastry flour
1 tablespoon powdered milk
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon sea salt

1. Stem and rinse the dates before placing them in a heatproof bowl. Cover them with boiling water and set a plate on top of them so that they plump up quickly. When the water has cooled down enough for you to handle them easily, pit the dates and chop them finely.

2. Pour the chestnut flour into a medium mixing bowl and stir in the boiling water to make a thick, bouncy dough. Let the chestnut mixture cool down while you prepare the other ingredients and your steamers. Line 2 steamer racks with either moist cheesecloth or steamer paper and spray oil on the paper, if you are using that.

Shape it on a finger
3. Stir the chopped dates, flour, powdered milk, sugar, baking powder, and salt into the chestnut dough to make a moist mass. Set a work bowl with cool water next to your work area so that you can shape the wowotouer without the dough sticking to your hands. Pick up a golfball-sized wad of dough (around 2 tablespoons) and shape it into a ball. Repeat with the rest of the dough, which should give you around 16 balls.

4. To shape a wowotouer, wet your hands once again and then stick one of your smallest fingers into one of the balls, and then smooth the paste around it to form a thimble with a pointy tip. Smooth the exterior so that it looks elegant, and place the thimble in a warmed-up steamer basket. Repeat with the rest of the dough until done. Cover the steamer and steam the wowotouer over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Serve these thimbles hot or warm with tea as an afternoon. These can be made ahead of time and even frozen in resealable bags. Steam to reheat, rather than microwave, because as with all pastries, microwaving them gives them a tough texture.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Vinegar chicken that's not in the least bit sour

Whenever the family was around, my late father-in-law was most at home in the kitchen and in the yard. Like me, he loved places where he could be alone with his thoughts and where he didn’t have to take part in any arguments, and ideally this was also a place no one else was interested in visiting.

He was a retired fighter pilot and ladies’ man, but the years hung heavily on him by the time I showed up. He had turned into a shy and retiring gentleman who just wished to be left alone with the things he loved, and this mostly included rose bushes and the dishes of his childhood.

I described him and the way he changed my attitude toward many things in a short story from about two years ago called “Monkey Eve,” the first of a series of stories I’ve been writing about my life as a Chinese daughter-in-law. Writing about him woke up lots of memories, and many of them were very good, and a particular few were especially delicious. This is one of them: Vinegar Chicken.

Lovely green onions in the market
One of his favorite ingredients was chicken wings. I think he ate them just about every day, if he had the chance, for they were cheap, they were flavorful, and he knew how to make them sing.

Despite its name, this is not at all tart. In fact, the way that the vinegar is added – at the end, so that it forms just a wisp of aroma around the simply braised wings – turns it into more of a suggestion than a main ingredient. But it is enough to elevate the flavors here into something quite elegant yet homey.

I’ve wondered over the years whether this was a Hakka or Cantonese invention, but the truth has eluded me. I am guessing that this is something simple that his own family treasured, and I like to imagine that his mother and his grandmother taught him how to make it back when he was a boy.

This recipe is one of his prizes. My husband longs for it on occasion, so it is a dish I haul out when I want to particularly make him happy.

I’ve never found this recipe anywhere else, so this must have been a family heirloom, and therefore it’s the type of dish that most Chinese families would guard jealously as their clan’s sìfángcài 私房菜, or “private dishes.” But since no one in my in-laws’ extended family likes to cook other than me, I’m going to pass it on to you so that the wonderful cooking talents of my husband’s father continue to live on and can be enjoyed.

Brown the wings and aromatics
This dish is great served just after it’s made, when the scent of the vinegar still hovers over the chicken. But it’s also good the next day, by which time the scent of vinegar will have dissipated, leaving behind a vague perfume.

Serve this with lots of plain rice to soak up the sauce, plus a simple vegetable or two. And in his memory please offer something sweet for dessert – he always loved things from the local Chinatown bakery, or even a bag of cookies or sesame candy – with a cup of hot jasmine tea, his other must-have.

Vinegar chicken chez Huang
Huángjiā cù jī  黃家醋雞
Homestyle cuisine
Serves 4

About 1½ pounds (675 g) free-range chicken wings
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons sliced ginger (more or less)
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch (5 cm) lengths
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon pale rice vinegar

1. Pat the wings dry, remove any feathers, and cut them up along the joints. You can use the wingtips or save them for stock – my husband loves to nibble on them, so into the pot they go.

First add the salt to the hot oil
2. Set a wok over medium-high heat and swirl in the oil. Add the salt and let it bubble and melt for a few seconds before adding the ginger and green onions. Stir these around for a minute to release their fragrance, and then toss in the chicken wings. Toss these with aromatics until the chicken is nicely browned. Sprinkle the rice wine in around the edge to make its flavor explode, and then add the sugar and boiling water. Cover the wok, bring the liquid to a full boil, and then reduce it to low. Simmer the chicken for around 30 minutes. (The dish can be made ahead of time up to this point.)

3. Quickly boil down the liquid to a syrupy sauce. If the wings look like they are going to fall apart in the process, scoop them out and place them in a clean work bowl. When the sauce has been complete reduced, turn off the heat, return the chicken to the wok, toss it in the sauce, sprinkle the vinegar over the chicken, and immediately cover it. My father-in-law insisted that the chicken not be moved after this point, as otherwise the vinegar will turn sour. Open up the wok after a couple of minutes, plate the chicken and sauce, and serve immediately.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Taiwanese peanut tamales

Taiwan has an absolutely fabulous range of foods, as you’ve probably already figured out from my endless ravings on the subject. Really, though, the culinary creativity of just about every corner of China found a home on this island and then blossomed.

Case in point: Chinese tamales.

Also known as zòngzĭ 粽子, you are able to enjoy an immense variety in Taiwan, including the enormous sweet bean paste or savory pork ones from Hunan, delicately hued amber tamales that probably hale from the Hakka regions, sticky rice paste ones that also lay claim to Hakka ancestry, and lovely Shanghainese tamales with sweet bean centers.

But the list goes on and on, and we’ll most likely be enjoying more recipes each summer as Dragon Boat Festival rolls around again.

Today’s recipe is simple, and so I won’t keep you in suspense for long, since I really want you to try it as soon as you can. The ingredients are absolutely minimal, but they combine to form one of my favorite types of tamale, since it can be eaten sweet or savory, hot or chilled, with toppings or as is, and are beloved by everyone who tastes them.

Honestly, these should be part of your regular repertoire all year around.

Taiwanese peanut tamales
Táiwānshì huāshēng zòng  
Makes 16 tamales

2 cups (400 g) round sticky rice (try brown sticky rice, if you can find it)
16 large dried bamboo leaves (zòngyè
粽葉), plus a few extra just in case
1 cup (150 g) raw peeled peanuts
Lots of cotton kitchen string

Boiling water

Peanut sugar (optional):
½ cup (75 g) toasted shelled peanuts
Yup, that's it
3 tablespoons (or more) sugar of any type
½ teaspoon sea salt

or some plain old dark brown sugar

1. Start this recipe at least 8 hours before you want to serve the tamales. Pick over the rice for any foreign matter or stones, rinse it twice, and then soak the rice and peanuts together for at least an hour and up to overnight with enough cool water to cover it by at least 2 inches. Use your fingernail to test the rice and peanuts to ensure they’re ready: your fingernail should be able to split them easily.

2. An hour or so before you want to start wrapping the tamales, drain the rice and peanuts in a strainer over the sink and then clean and soak the bamboo leaves as directed in this recipe for Hakka tamales. Trim off the stem ends of the leaves and then cover the cleaned leaves with a moist towel.

3. If you have a slow stove, take a moment to set up about a gallon of water in a 2 gallon (8 L) pot on your stove over high heat so that it has comes to a boil while you are busy wrapping the tamales. 

5. Fold a leaf as directed in the Hakka tamale recipe with the shiny side on the inside and a slight fold at the bottom to keep the rice from squirreling out. Use a Chinese soupspoon to place 2 scoops of the rice-peanut mixture into the cone. Fold the leaf ends over the cone, allow about a half inch of slack in the fold (see the illustration and description in the previous post). Gently tie it up with 2 or 3 simple loops around the center and tie it off, keeping one end long so that you can tie 4 to 6 of the tamales together.

A personal source of happiness
6. When all of the tamales have been filled and tied, lower them gently into the boiling water, cover the pot, and boil them for about 5 minutes to set their shape. Then, remove the cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the tamales for about 90 minutes; add more boiling water if needed to completely submerge the tamales, and check them at 15 minute intervals just to make sure they don't need a bit more water.

7. Remove the tamales from the boiling water and drain. Eat them right away or cool down and store. They can be sprinkled with brown sugar, which is how many people like them. To make the optional peanut sugar, finely crush the peanuts and mix with the sugar and salt; adjust the seasoning as you like. You can then sprinkle them with this for a double peanut whammy, if you are so inclined. Children and children-at-heart will love you for it.