Monday, December 20, 2010

Steamed beef with Spicy Rice Powder

This is a staple of dumpling and tea houses (at least that where I always seem to have it) and one i looked forward to making.  There are only two ingredient questions: what does she mean by rice powder and what does she mean by hot bean paste?  Wikipedia says that rice powder is rice flour, easy enough.  For hot bean paste we found a jar of Guizhou Black Bean Chili Sauce. It has a nice earthy beany smell to it, and I've taken to adding it to lots of other stuff.  I also will take the lid off and take a whiff sometimes  when I'm looking around the fridge.  I really like this stuff, but is it what Pei Mei wanted?

So anyway, the basic recipe is marinate the meat in the sauce with soy sauce and the usual girls in the band, toss with rice powder and steam.  As I put it in the steamer, the thought occurred to be that you don't normally steam flour batters.  Sure enough, the result was goopey and generally unpleasantly textured mess. But the flavor wasn't too off, so maybe it was just the "rice powder". 

Double checking wikipedia with the tester, I was informed that the Chinese actually read, "meat-steaming powder" which sure doesn't sound like rice flour.  There are actually instructions in the recipe for making our own, involving toasting dry rice with peppercorns and star anise, and then grinding.

toasting rice
Grinding proved a little tricky.  I started with the food processor...
No luck here...
...but after several minutes, the toasted rice was still just toasted rice.  I switched over to a coffee grinder I keep for spices, and that work fine.  The spices were reduced to a genuine powder, while the rice had a bit of a granular texture.
In the steamer, the texture seems familiar.  Note that instead of the sweet potatoes called for, the base layer is regular potato.  I recall the taster saying that she never really like the sweet potato in the dish, she recalls saying that the sweet potato is probably too much trouble.  I'm sure we're each right in some parallel universe.
Steam for 15 minutes, and voila.
I know, looks about the same, but it's cooked now, so that's nice.
This version had the granular coating (rather like bread crumbs said the tester) desired.  As for the sauce, I thought it was good, but maybe slightly different from what I remember.  Further research (wikipedia again) turns up dou ban jiang which is plausibly the right thing, but why should we believe wikipedia?  Will have to get my hands on some of it to be sure.  Meanwhile the black bean paste has worked its way into the house recipe for dumpling sauce.

Stuffed Tofu

So, life got in the way for a little while.  This one I actually made a while back, but didn't get around to posting.  I hope I remember enough.

The plan here is to cut tofu wedges, scoop out some, and fill with ground pork.  Problem 1 starts with the ingredients: "2 pieces of bean curd" (tofu).  No mention of size or weight or shape.  From the picture, it appears that what she's expecting is square, not the american standard rectangle, so my first step was to cut it down to squares:
Anyone need some extra tofu rectangles?
The blocks still seemed too deep compared to Pei Mei's pictures, but without any numeric guidance, I was wary of doctoring too much.

Next, I cut the blocks diagonally to make 4 triangles from each block.  The instructions say to remove "some" bean curd from the "beveled" side.  Not exactly sure what she means, since there are three beveled sides.  Maybe just that you shouldn't use the other two sides.

Took some practice to get the hole right.  if you cut in with a paring knife along all sides, because it's a triangle, you cut all the surfaces and don't have to dig.  The sides were tricky because you need to insert the knife to the right depth, then rotate the knife down around the tip.
The rest is a standard stock + soy/oyster sauce + cornstarch sauce.  Coat the pieces in cornstarch and fry.  It came out looking pretty good:

Looks about right, pieces too thick.
How did it taste? Too tofuey.  The sauce was good, though basic, and the meatball was fine, though basic, but many bites were all tofu and the sauce wasn't enough to cut through the dreary blandness of the curd.  Although my pieces are thicker, and that might contribute, i don't think I'm too far off here.  I speculate that this might be something that my western tastes can't understand.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Beef Steak, Chinese Style

Tester's father once told me that texture is more important in Chinese food than in Western food.  In my limited experience I tend to agree.  At the time we were having steak, which when done well in a Chinese restaurant is always tender in a very different way from a fillet at The Palm.  Thus I was looking forward to trying this dish to see what it was all about.

They certainly don't mess around when it comes to tenderness.  Start with 450g of tenderloin, cut into steaks.  Pound flat (tenderizing).  Finally, marinate "for a while" in a baking soda meat tenderizer mix with soy, cornstarch and water.

Yellow?  Why is the marinade yellow?
The sauce is wine, ketchup, Worcestershire, sugar, salt and cornstarch. Always a bit odd when finding out that something that is essentially 'of another culture' is in fact made up of stuff from your own. 

The cooking method is deep frying.  By now I've adapted a system that is non-wok based.  For these things I prefer a sauce pan so the oil is deeper and I can easily attach a thermometer and get the oil to 375.  I find that gives me a lot more precision.

Golden, brown and delicious
It still feels a little weird, but I'm slowly getting used to cooking things for only 30 seconds.

The sauce is boiled and the meat is mixed in.

This shot is better than the one in the cook book, so at least I have that, which is nice.
In the end, the meat was exactly that Chinese restaurant texture that I know, but I really thought the sauce was too sweet.  Too much of the ketchup came through.  The  ketchup I used is the Heinz Organic, which i think is a little sweeter than the normal Heinz, so that might be part of it, but I still think I'll reduce the ketchup next time.

More creamed cabbage

Missed a month in there, but i was still cooking, just didn't have time to post.  If you recall from the last creamed cabbage, the tester lamented that although the dish was good, it was not the dish she remembered from her childhood.  Flipping through Pei Mei, book 2, I stumbled upon a baked version that sounded  just like she described: Baked Chinese Cabbage with Crab Sauce.

The process starts the same, stir fry some cabbage...
I think we're gonna need a bigger wok...
Then mix a roux thickened stock with cream and crab meat (I used cheaper claw meat).  It also calls for crab roe.  The problem is that it's been illegal to commercially harvest crab roe in Maryland since the 80s.  I could import some from South Carolina, but that seemed like a hassle, and anyway, there's a reason why its illegal, so I went with more chopped Chinese ham, just like the earlier version of the dish.  

The recipe also calls for "chicken powder" which my research indicates (Hi Jaden!) that it's just bulion powder.  I don't normally keep that around and although I could use reduced broth, that seemed like a pain.  Instead I went with something that would add the same amount of salt and umami, Maggi sauce...
And then I baked it.  The result?  Even better than the last version, and the taster reported that it was reasonable faithful to her childhood version. 

Creamy, rich, crabby, with little bits of brown crunchy on the top.  Not exactly healthy vegetables, but the tester says it's one of her favorites.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Rebound Chicken

Fresh off my first loss and out of chicken stock, my next choice was Deep Fried Spiced Chicken.  The technique of double frying was the same as last time, but I've learned a few things, and chicken can be more more forgiving.

Initial Investigation

Not much to say here, the instructions are clear, and the Chinese matches the English well.  Marinate in spices, soy sauce and wine, fry.  I was missing star anise (must be in my other spice rack) so I substituted a 1/2 tsp of 5 spice powder (containing anise as well as other flavors already in the dish).


This time I decided to watch the oil temperature more carefully.  It says "Heat oil to very hot, and deep fry ... over low heat."  I decided "very hot" meant 375°. Cooked for 3 minutes, removed, reheated to 375, cooked for 1 minute, and plate.

Sorry, I was too lazy to fetch the tripod.  Took 5 pictures, all of them blurry.
At the last moment you're supposed to drizzle to sesame oil.  For the first serving, I forgot the sesame oil, and the chicken was merely OK.  Adding the sesame oil brought everything together in just the right way. 


Even the next day, served at room temperature, the chicken was juicy, tender, and spicy.  The was an especially satisfying comeback because it used the same cooking technique as the last failure. 

My first failure

My first Cantonese style was my first true failure.  It was pork loin with orange sauce of the sort many are familiar with.

Initial Investigation

The recipe calls for 2 oranges, plus 1/3 cup of bottled orange juice.  The oranges were to be squeezed for juice anyway, there was no reason to not to use fresh squeezed entirely.

Outstanding question: recipe calls for 2 oranges to make 5 tbs of juice.  Are Chinese oranges especially small or non-juicy?


The meat is marinated with soy sauce, flour, and corn starch, then double fried (deep fried over medium heat, removed, and deep fried over high heat).  It occurs to me in the middle that I don't know if the marinade is supposed to act as a batter during the frying, but it seems to come off on its own.

Instruction is to fry "until done."  Not sure how long that should be, I went for 90 seconds and pulled it out.  The pork was done perfectly.  But then I had to re-fry for 10-15 seconds to brown.  That 15 seconds overcooked some of the pieces of pork.

The next step is to take the OJ, sugar, lemon juice, and more corn starch to a boil, take off heat, add pork, and  plate.

Plated pork loin soup?

As you can see the sauce was too thin.  I knew it would be a problem when I went to add the pork, but I was worried that trying to reduce the sauce would break down the corn starch (McGee in 'On Food and Cooking' classifies cornstarch as having "medium" stability under heat).

Worse, the taste was way off.  Instead of a tartly sweet sauce clinging to tender meat, it was a watery, vaguely bitter soup floating slightly overcooked meat. 

Was it edible?  Yeah, we ate it, but it just wasn't good.  Padma would send me home.

Interestingly, some of the sauce was left in the wok for an hour or two had dried out some.  Its flavor and texture was much more what I was originally going for.  I think that maybe all I needed to do was be braver in reducing the sauce.  This might be worth trying again, but my taster urges me to press on.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

West Lake Fish and Cabbage with Cream Sauce

Keeping with the eastern theme, this week was West Lake Fish and Cabbage with Cream Sauce (the latter because it is one of the taster's favorite childhood comfort food).

Starting with the fish, it calls for "600g fish (carp of any kind of fresh water fish)[sic]".  This is problematic around here since the only whole fish I can find are ocean fish.  I opted for a striped bass (locally known as rockfish) since they spend some of their time in fresh water.
Striped bass is striped
Next is the question of the vinegar.  The recipe calls for "Brown vinegar," but I've never heard of that.  Fortunately the Chinese version calls for Chinkiang Vinegar, which I already had.
I guess it is brown...
The fish is boiled for just two minutes
which can be tricky and I messed it up.  When it came time for removal, I didn't have a good utensil for it, and wasted another minute looking for one, and overcooked the fish. :-(

In making the sauce, everything was straightforward, except for the part where it calls to add 3 tablespoons of lotus root starch or cornstarch.  I was using cornstarch, and everyone knows you can't just add the starch directly, you just end up with lumpy balls.  But since other recipes in the book do explicitly call for make a slurry or paste first, I thought maybe Pei Mei knew what she was talking about.  I added the cornstarch and then I strained out out lumps and tried again with a slurry.

The final dish came out like this:
Tasting notes:  The taster said the flavors are right, but agreed the fish was overcooked.  I thought the the sauce became watered down from the boiling liquid that came off the fish.  Next time I'll rest them on paper towels.

Final notes:  The Chinese version has some comments that don't make it into the English:
  1. It calls for dark soy sauce not regular.  Found this out too late.
  2. It urges the use of live fish that you kill yourself.
  3. It notes that you can use caramel (we think) instead of soy sauce.  Intriguing.
The cabbage too, had some difficulties.  First off, it calls for "Chinese cabbage", which can be a translation for either Napa cabbage or bok choy.  It's Napa.  The other issue was minor, it calls for Chinese ham, which is unique enough that it should not be substituted for.  It so happens we were spending the weekend in NYC and managed a trip to Chinatown.
The recipe just says to chop the ham and use as a garnish, which scares me a little, since the package was clear that the ham is raw and must be cooked.  We Americans are used not cooking ham, and I could see a dangerous mistake (I cooked it).

The process is just to stir fry the cabbage, add salt and sugar, make a sauce with chicken stock, cornstarch and cream.  Sprinkle with chopped ham.
Tasting notes:  This one is a win.  Easy and tasty, with the rich sauce balanced by sweet cabbage, and salty ham.   The taster laments that the version from her childhood was baked as well.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wined Chicken

Pei Mei's first book is organized by four regions, starting in the "the east" (followed by Southern such as Cantonese, Western, such as Sichuan, and Northern, including Beijing).  Might as well begin at the beginning, so recipe 1, page 7 is wined chicken.

The concept is dead simple.  Steam a half chicken, marinate overnight in rice wine, stock, and fish sauce, and serve cold.  But on reading the recipe, some issues are immediately obvious.  It calls for 2 cups wine, 3 cups stock, 1/2 cup fish sauce and the steaming water in the marinade.  That's obviously way too much liquid for just a 1/2 chicken, and I hate to use the last 3 cups of my homemade stock on something to be thrown away.  Another question is how much steaming water?  Normally it wouldn't matter, but since we're using that water later in the dish, its volume is important in the balance of the dish.  Unfortunately, the original Chinese description is not any more detailed. I ended up letting my equipment decide.  I filled the wok just to the bottom of the steamer, and thats how much water I used.

To start, I selected an already parted chicken to make the halving of it easier.  From that I selected 1 breast, 2 thighs and 1 leg.  As directed, I applied a dry rub of 1 tbs of salt, and let the chicken sit for 2 hours.  Then I steamed the chicken for 20 minutes.  I had never steamed a chicken before; it's just not part of the western repertoire, which is a shame, because it works really well.  The heat is low and moist, so the white meat doesn't dry out, and the steaming liquid turns into a delicate broth.  I will have to add this technique to the toolbox.

For the marinade, mix the four ingredients in bowl, and add chicken:
(indeed one could fit a family of chickens in there)

Twelve hours later, out it comes:

The basil chiffonade was a last second hunch that worked out pretty well.

Tasting:  it was a shade too salty, but the fish sauce balance was just right (fish sauce is pretty strong .  The meat was perfectly cooked.  Must have been pretty good because seconds were asked for by the taster.  I would use less of the steaming liquid in subsequent tries to adjust the salt level.

Now, what to do about all this marinade... I'm thinking soup.   Cut it with water, chop up some baby bok choy and throw in some frozen potstickers, and we have faux-wonton soup.

Flavor was still a bit strong, but a fine leftovers soup nonetheless.

Mission Statement

It's cliche now; spend a year or so cooking all the recipes in some cookbook, blogging all the way.  Heck, there's even been a movie about it.  Cliche or no, the process can be useful to the cook as a learning tool, especially when the book focuses on a particular technique or style.  Three years ago, during my last sabbatical, I cooked my way through Molly Stevens's excellent All About Braising learning, well, all about braising, and picking up a few other techniques along the way.

I have, for some time, been interested in learning about classical Chinese food (not the Americanized style).  Unfortunately, for some time, my interest did not turn into action, and it is now clear that drastic measures, in the form of a cooking-thru-a-cookbook-blog, must be taken.

The next question is, which book?  The answer is actually fairly obvious: Fu Pei Mei's Chinese Cookbook (vol 1-3).  Fu Pei Mei is called the Julia Child of China all over the place, and aside from having respected books with a traditional perspective, her similarity to Saint Julia in these post-Julie&Julia  days makes the symmetry impossible to resist.   The idea is so obvious, that others have beaten me to it. But no matter, this is a learning exercise after all.

Pei Mei's books have been, from the beginning, written in both Chinese and English.  I don't know why she did that, since she was writing for a Chinese audience in Taiwan, but it is useful for me.  Oddly, despite  the book first appearing in 1965 and my edition dating from 2008, the English versions of the recipes have difficulties.  Some details are left out, and some translations are garbled.  So a side quest of this blog will be to revise and edit the English recipes in the book, thus the second sense of "fixing" in the blog title.

I must note that I will have a partner in crime in this endeavor.  Although she might do less of the cooking, she will do all of the translating, and at least half of the eating.  Without her, this effort would be impossible.

A final note of approach.  There will be no "modernizing" of the recipes.  If Pei Mei calls for lard, she'll get lard, and if she calls for fish intestine, she'll get fish intestine.  This means I probably won't get to do the Shark Fin's Soup, alas.