Monday, September 23, 2013

On cultural identities

Cooking from Every Grain of Rice
Exciting news! Today, a couple of other home cooks and I will be video-chatting live with Fuchsia Dunlop as a part of this month's New York Times' Recipe Lab. Dunlop is an expert on a number of China's regional cuisines and author of a fantastic travel memoir and three cookbooks, including Every Grain of Rice. We'll be talking with her about Chinese cooking and a dish from EGR we all made, Gong Bao Chicken. Tune in to Recipe Lab at 3 pm Eastern. It's going to be great! If you're a bit confused about why I'm participating in this chat (when, after all, was the last time that you saw anything Chinese around here?), see below for some background.

Cultural identity can be a funny thing. My mother is Cantonese. I grew up crunching my way through bok choy slicked in oyster sauce, wrinkling my nose at bitter melon, sneaking bits of crispy pork skin when I didn't think anyone was looking. But you wouldn't know it from the way that I cook and eat now, at least not in a way that I can see. Sure, I'm not half-bad at picking clean a small pile of spicy chicken feet, and I can appreciate the gelatinousness of vinegar-braised pork hocks. But I couldn't tell you much about the ingredients and methods. In fact, I don't really know how to cook any of the food I ate growing up. I just wasn't all that interested in learning to back then, and this part of my heritage is something I've always had a bit of a hard time with. I still don't really know how it fits in with who I am.
But lately, I've been trying to get a better handle on Chinese cooking (which is not to say that there's really one thing you could call that). See, at some point next year, I'm going to be travelling with my mother in China for a few weeks. This won't be the first time that I've visited, but I feel as though I've done quite a bit of growing up since my last couple of trips, and I want this one to be different. On past trips, I've left most of the planning up to my mother and her sister, and while we've seen some really amazing things together, the food, at least when travelling outside of Guandong, the province my family is from, has never been particularly good. But this, I'm pretty sure, has only been because we've relied on packaged tours when far away from Guandong. The meals are pre-arranged and totally unremarkable. My mother would probably argue that this is convenient, that it leaves us with time to see and do more, but I of course think that stumbling on a good place to eat just is a part of the seeing and doing. So this time around, I've decided to take charge, and the first step has just been learning more about some of the regional cuisines.
Deep-fried eggplant Mise en place Fish-fragrant eggplant
My starting place has been Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper. Dunlop, though British, has spent a great deal of time in China since her early twenties. She was in Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province) initially with a year-long British Council research grant and was supposed to be studying the government's policy on ethnic minorities. But when that didn't go very far (people, unsurprisingly, were reluctant to talk), she found herself drawn to the activity in Sichuanese kitchens and to the often strange but splendid food that came out of them. She talked to everyone she could about Sichuanese food, begged her way into restaurant kitchens to observe and take notes, and eventually trained as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, the first Westerner ever to have done so. She had found her calling. 
The memoir details Dunlop's experiences in China over the years. It's a compelling blend of sharp observation, personal narrative, and reflection on the cultural differences she has run up against. And food, unsurprisingly, is often at the centre of all this. Dunlop, for example, is struck one evening by how much her time in China has changed her appreciation of texture when she realizes that her parents are politely struggling with the items she's ordered for their hotpot--goose intestines, ox tripe and throat cartilage, rabbits' ears, and small bony catfish, all unpleasantly rubbery, squeaky, crunchy things in the average Westerner's mouth. But for her now, there's a distinct pleasure to these textures. Chinese gastronomy isn't just about flavour but the subtle play of temperature and texture. It takes time, experience, and a lot of polite crunching, to really appreciate this (which is not to say, of course, that all Chinese food is this challenging). Dunlop often connects coming to eat like the Chinese with coming to think like them too, and there definitely is truth to this. It's what, I think, makes her memoir so illuminating when it comes to Chinese culture and what has led me to the kitchen in preparation for this trip.
A couple of weeks ago, with all these thoughts about identity, food, and travel were simmering away in my head, I noticed that Fuchsia Dunlop was the cookbook author who was going to be featured in the New York Times' Recipe Lab this month. Recipe Lab is the Times' monthly feature in which readers are invited to cook a recipe from one of the featured author's books and a few home cooks take part in a live video chat with the author. Seeing this, I applied to participate in the chat and thought that I probably wouldn't hear back. But I did! And it's happening today! So, tune in live to Recipe Lab to see me and a couple of other home cooks chatting with Ms. Dunlop about Chinese cooking today at 3 pm Eastern.
For the video chat, we all cooked the Gong Bao (a.k.a. Kung Pao) Chicken from Dunlop's latest cookbook, Every Grain of Rice. (The cookbook, by the way, is gorgeous. I've been pouring over it obsessively.) If you want to hear more about that, you'll have to tune in today (or stream it later at your convenience). But the day I made the chicken, I was feeling ambitious, so I also made another of Dunlop's dishes to go along with it, Fish-Fragrant Eggplant. This eggplant is crazy good. I'm already planning on making it again later this week. It isn't the quickest dish to put together, but it's worth your time. You first fry slices of eggplant to a gleaming gold. Then, you sizzle Sichuanese chilli bean paste (a savoury paste made from fermented fava beans) in hot oil and add to that lots of minced garlic and ginger. This forms the fragrant base for the sauce into which you'll slip the eggplant. Stock, soy sauce, and a little sugar come next, then the eggplant, followed by cornstarch to add some body to the sauce, and Chinkiang vinegar (a dark, heady rice vinegar) and chopped scallions to finish. (There's no fish in this dish. Fish-fragrant refers to the seasonings in the sauce, which are traditionally used for fish in Sichuanese cooking.) The resulting dish is incredible. The eggplant has a silky, luxurious feel to it in your mouth, and the sauce is somehow tangy, bright, and deeply savoury all at once.
I still haven't attempted anything like the dishes I grew up with. Sichuanese cooking is spicier, punchier, than the cooking you find in Guandong. But I think I might just wait until the next time I see my mother for that. I'll ask her to show me what she does (finally), and I'll cook this eggplant for her.

Fish-Fragrant Eggplant
From Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (reprinted in Every Grain of Rice)
NOTE: Dunlop says that you can also bake or shallow-fry the eggplant for this dish. But instead of then adding the eggplant to the sauce, she recommends that you pour the finished sauce onto the eggplant--otherwise, it might disintegrate. I chose to deep-fry. However, I used a heavy-bottomed 4-quart stock pot instead of a wok for both the deep-frying and the sauce. I also used homemade vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, just because it was what I had around. You should be able to find Chinkiang vinegar and Sichuanese chilli bean paste at your local Chinese grocery store. Lee Kum Kee is a common brand that sells the latter. As Dunlop says, the brand is Cantonese and their version of the paste has some ingredients you wouldn't find in a traditional Sichuanese paste. Pixian brand is a better choice, but Lee Kum Kee will do.

600-700 g eggplant
Peanut oil for deep-frying

1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuanese chilli paste (dou ban jiang)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2/3 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce or tamari
3/4 teaspoon cornstarch, mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
1 1/2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar
4 scallions, green parts only, sliced into fine rings
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and then crosswise. Chop each quarter lengthwise into three or four evenly sized chunks. Sprinkle generously with salt and leave for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, the oil for deep-frying to 356-392 degrees F. Add the eggplant in batches and deep-fry for 3-4 minutes until lightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on paper towel.
Drain off the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, and then return it to a medium flame with 2-3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir-fry for another 20-30 seconds, until they too are fragrant.
Add the stock, sugar, and soy sauce and mix well. Season with salt to taste, if necessary.
Add the fried eggplant to the sauce, bring to a boil, then let let them simmer gently for a few minutes to absorb some of the flavours. Then sprinkle the cornstarch mixture over the eggplant and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Next, stir in the vinegar and spring onions and leave for a few seconds until the onions have lost their rawness. Finally, remove the pan from heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

High summer at the market, in the kitchen

In the days of high summer, there are few places in Chicago I'd rather be than Green City Market. It is the real deal--small-scale midwestern farmers committed to their land, astonishingly good produce in abundance. Even early on a Wednesday morning, the market hums with quiet excitement. Rounding the corner to the next stretch of stalls, I, anyway, am always buoyed by the prospect of discovering something beautiful and unusual, something I've never seen before.
And I'm glad that Sandra Holl seems to share my feelings about the place. A few weeks ago, I was invited to tag along with her on a market trip. Sandra is chef and owner of Floriole, and I've long been an admirer of hers. Her bakery is incomparable in this city. It turns out such gorgeous stuff--canelés with custard-like centres, mahogany sourdough boules, the flakiest croissants. When I'm in the neighbourhood, I always try and stop in.
Peaches, blackberries, plums Brown butter custard Homemade puff pastry
We met that morning at Floriole's market stall--it's where the bakery got its start--and then made the rounds. Sandra had already put in orders with some of the farms (peaches and green beans from Mick Klug, arugula from Green Acres), so we visited the stalls to collect them. (If you take your eyes off all the produce for a moment and peer behind the stalls at Green City Market, you'll see tall stacks of cardboard boxes scrawled with some very familiar names--these are all the restaurant orders from around the city awaiting pick-up.) But in between pick-ups and afterwards, we also spent some time looking at what else there was available that day. If something catches her eye, Sandra explained, even if it doesn't fit in with anything she has planned, she'll take it back to the bakery for her chefs to do with it whatever happens to inspire them. On this day, it was the indigo-rose tomatoes at Growing Home that stood out--small and inky purple with just a bit of a blush to them. (Sandra tries to source as much as she can locally for Floriole. And in the days of high summer, between Green City Market, her mother's garden just outside the city, and the bakery's own rooftop setup, that isn't particularly hard. But even staples like flour, eggs, and butter at the bakery come from producers in the Midwest.)
On our way out, we picked up a flat of fat blackberries from Ellis Family Farms and chatted with the Ellises about their teenage daughter Mary, who's in charge of the farm's laying operation. They showed us a recent photo of Mary scrubbing a hen with a toothbrush in preparation for a show. It was pretty clear that over the years Sandra's developed some lasting ties to the people at this market.
Back at the bakery, I was also invited to try my hand at some pastry-making in the kitchen. It was a bit of a dream come true, being there in the midst of that bustle, even if only for half an hour. There was a lot going on around us--challah being tested, tart shells being unmoulded, gougères coming out of the oven, sourdough loaves being sliced by hand. Our plan was to make some galettes with the fruit we'd picked up. The kitchen made it simple for us. There were already rounds of house-made puff pastry  dough ready at hand. All we had to do was slice some peaches for the filling (tasting as we sliced, of course--Sandra emphasized the importance of this) and assemble the galettes. So we spread the pastry-dough rounds with a thin layer of brown-butter custard, mounded each with a big handful of sliced peaches and blackberries, crimped up the edges over the fruit, and then slid them into the oven to bake. And, of course, they were phenomenal. How couldn't they be? Impossibly flaky pastry. Caramel-edged fruit. Nothing better together.
Spreading custard Galettes assembled Galettes ready to bake
Sandra was kind enough to allow me to share these galettes with you (thanks, Sandra!). How involved you want the process to be is kind of up to you. I took this as an opportunity to make puff pastry from scratch for the very first time. And though I found the work really rewarding and totally worth the effort, I suspect that most of you won't have the time and/or inclination. It can be a two- or three-day process, just because the butter needs to be cold when you're working with it and the gluten in the dough needs a couple of hours to relax after it gets rolled out each time. Instead, you could try making Gourmet's "rough" puff pastry, which is not as demanding and has been my go-to for a long time, or you could buy good-quality ready-made puff pastry (Sandra and lots of others recommend Dufour). The brown-butter custard, as Sandra says, is also optional. It adds extra sweetness and nuttiness to the galettes and prevents the pastry from sopping up too much of the fruit's juices during baking. What's important is that you use the best fruit available to you. It matters here--these galettes are really all about the fruit. Speaking of which--in the time that it's taken me to try out these galettes at home, high summer has come and gone, which means you won't be seeing peaches and blackberries at the market for much longer. But the galettes are very adaptable--you could probably work just about any fruit into them. I made two kinds this past weekend, some peach-blackberry, some plum-rosemary. You should be able to find plums at the market for a good long while still.
The homemade galettes turned out really well. In fact, they might be the best thing I've made all year. Seriously. They were so good. Octavian and I greedily demolished the two we kept for ourselves in seconds and then almost, almost, regretted having given the others away.
Plum and rosemary galette Hanging out with Sandra
When people ask, I always tell them that the best thing about running this blog has been the people I've gotten to know through it. It's always gratifying to find people who think and care even more than I do about good food, people who are completely dedicated to what they do. I feel lucky to have met the people I have. It's affirming and inspiring. And there's always so much to learn from them. Sandra is definitely one of those people. She is serious about good pastry--I've seen it. So, walking around the market with her that morning, it was heartening to see that a good blackberry could still excite her as much as it does me.

Summer Fruit Galettes
An at-home take on Floriole's sweet galettes
NOTE: While in Floriole's kitchen, we didn't do a whole lot of measuring, and afterwards, Sandra only gave me exact quantities for the brown-butter custard, so the quantities below are based on my observations while baking with Sandra and what I did at home. Floriole's galettes, I think, are in fact a bit bigger than the ones I made, but mine still make for nice individual portions. About the fruit. The galettes that I made actually had less fruit than I've called for below (I used about 225 g all in all), but I think they really could have used more. The fruit does reduce a lot during baking. Feel free, of course, to use only peaches and blackberries or only plums. About the temperature. If you have a convection oven, by all means, use the convection option. Just bake the galettes at 350 degrees F instead and for about 30 minutes. About the brown-butter custard. At Floriole, the kitchen goes through a lot of brown-butter custard. This is reflected in the quantities that Sandra gave me. For my batch of custard at home, I converted most of the measurements to grams and divided by eight. And still, I had way more custard than needed for these galettes. I put my remaining custard in the freezer for the time being. Unless you have ideas for what you might do with more than a pound of remaining custard (you could just make a ton of galettes), you might want to try scaling down the recipe more or just skipping it all together. Almond cream would also be a good substitute, if you happen to have any of that lying around. About chilling. It's really important that you chill the pastries after assembling them. This will help them keep their shape as they bake. I rushed mine a little, and they don't quite have the nice star-like shape they're supposed to.

650 g puff pastry dough, chilled
All-purpose flour, for dusting
4 tablespoons brown butter custard (optional - recipe below)

150 g blackberries and sliced peaches
150 g sliced Italian prune plums
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided

1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons heavy cream

Coarse sugar, like turbinado sugar, for finishing

Lightly flour your work surface and rolling pin. Place the block of dough on the work surface and dust lightly with flour. Gently but firmly roll it out into a 12-inch square, about 1/4 inch thick, using only as much flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking. Using a 6-inch cake ring or an equivalently sized plate as a guide and a sharp knife (you want the cuts to be as clean as possible, so as not to disturb the layers of butter in the dough), cut 4 6-inch circles from the dough. Place the circles on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.
Put the peaches and blackberries in one small mixing bowl, the plums and rosemary in another. Add 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 tablespoon flour to each bowl and gently toss to combine.
Whisk together the egg yolk and heavy cream for the eggwash.
Spread 1 tablespoon brown butter custard, if using, in a thin layer over one of the 6-inch circles, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge. Mound a quarter of the fruit in its centre. Then crimp the pastry in the following way. Start by folding up part of the edge about 3/4 inch over the fruit, then while keeping the fold in place, take another part of the edge, an inch or so to the right, and fold it up over the fruit so that it overlaps the first folded part of the edge. Now, where the two folds overlap, press down firmly with one finger so that the folds hold--you should be able to an indent from your finger. Continue folding and pressing until the crimp goes around the entire pastry. It should take about seven folds. (You may have trouble crimping the pastry with all the fruit mounded in the centre. If that's the case, remove some to make the crimping easier and tuck it back in afterwards. It may seem like too much fruit right now, but it will reduce significantly during baking.) Repeat with the remaining pastries. Brush with eggwash and chill in the fridge for 30-60 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Sprinkle the pastries with coarse sugar and bake for 30-35 minutes, until puffed and deeply golden. The galettes are best eaten warm from the oven.
Makes 4 individual galettes.

Brown Butter Custard
From Floriole Cafe and Bakery

170 g unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Juice of a medium lemon
3 eggs
220 g sugar
1/2 tablespoon brandy
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Kosher salt, a big pinch
33 g all-purpose flour
45 g heavy cream

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, bring it to a boil, still over medium heat and whisking constantly to prevent it from separating. Continue cooking the butter, whisking occasionally to prevent milk solids from sticking to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. The butter is ready when it is the colour of caramel. Check its colour by lifting some up in a spoon. Pour into a heatproof container, preferably something with a spout. Add the lemon juice and let cool.
Meanwhile, in a stand mixer fitted with the wire whip attachment, beat the eggs and sugar on medium, until pale and thick, about 3 minutes. Gradually incorporate the browned butter. Then add the brandy, salt, flour, cream, and vanilla and mix just until combined. If the custard starts to look grainy at any point, that's fine. Use immediately or store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Makes about 585 g.