Braised chicken with tofu skins

Braising is just about my favorite way to prepare chicken because it’s so simple and gets such great results. I’ve posted some braises before, like here for example, so braising isn’t new to this blog, however this is the first time I’ve posted about tofu skins. If you haven’t used tofu skins in your own cooking, I hope this demystifies them a bit and encourages you to try them.

Braised chicken with tofu skins

Braised chicken with tofu skins

In the picture above, the tofu skins are the light brown crinkly bits. They’re made from the thin sheet that forms on the top of boiling soy milk. The soft sheets are gently lifted off the soy milk and sold directly or else hung to dry. Dried tofu skin, or 腐竹 (fǔzhú) is sold in packages like this:

Dried tofu skins in their package

Dried tofu skins in their package

The tofu skins look like the picture below when you take them out of the package. The shape shows clearly that they were hung vertically to dry.

Dried tofu skins

Dried tofu skins

The sticks are crispy and will snap into pieces if you don’t handle them carefully. You should rehydrate them before using, which is easily done by resting the skins in hot water for about a half-hour. If you have a large enough container, you can put the skins into the water whole. If not then simply break them into smaller pieces before soaking. After soaking they’ll be soft, and you can slice them neatly into the final size that you’re looking for.

Tofu skins, cut into bite-sized pieces after soaking and softening in hot water for 30 minutes

Tofu skins, cut into bite-sized pieces after soaking and softening in hot water for 30 minutes

Tofu skins have a pleasantly robust texture and have been used as a meat substitute in China for hundreds of years. They have a pleasantly nutty flavor, but more importantly, they carry the flavor of whatever liquid you cook them in.

Start by browning the chicken on both sides in a little oil. I used chicken legs with the bone in.

Browned chicken legs

Browned chicken legs

When the chicken is pleasantly brown, toss in the garlic and the spices and stir-fry for a few moments until the spices become fragrant. Take care not to burn anything. (The dried chiles burn especially quickly, so be careful.)

Browned chicken with garlic cloves, cassia bark, star anise, and dried Thai chile peppers

Browned chicken with garlic cloves, cassia bark, star anise, and dried Thai chile peppers

All that’s left is to add the braising liquid of chicken stock, soy sauce, and Shaoxing rice wine (绍兴酒), and the tofu skins. Cook gently for another hour and a half, until the meat can be pulled off the bone with chopsticks.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 1.5 lbs chicken legs, bone-in
  2. 10-15 dried Thai chili peppers, 4 star anise, 5 pieces cassia bark, 6 cloves garlic (peeled and crushed)
  3. 4 cups chicken broth (or to enough to cover the legs in the braising pot), 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup Shaoxing rice wine
  4. Tofu skins, reconstituted in hot water for about 30 minutes and then cut into bite-sized pieces, to make about 1/2 cups total

DIRECTIONS:

  • Heat 2 Tbsp peanut oil in your braising pot until shimmering. Swirl it around and then add the chicken legs (#1). Brown the chicken lightly on both sides.
  • Toss in the chiles, star anise, cassia bark, and crushed garlic (#2) and stir-fry for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Don’t let the chiles burn.
  • Then pour in the braising liquid (#3) and boil gently for about an hour and a half, until you can pull the meat off the bone with chopsticks. Add the tofu skins (#4) to the pot when there’s about 45 minutes left.
  • Garnish with chopped scallions; serve with rice and contrasting dishes.

VARIATIONS: When you taste this dish, you’ll love the texture of the tofu skins and how they carry the flavors of the sauce. Therefore, one simple variation would be to change the ratio of the tofu skins to chicken depending on your personal preference. You can even make a fully vegetarian version of this recipe by eliminating the chicken altogether, switching to vegetable stock, and adding enough tofu skins to make a good-sized finished dish.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

 

Posted in Braising, Chicken, Recipes, Tofu | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ground pork with fresh chiles and aromatic herbs

Here we have another Thai-inspired dish. Thailand is famous for recipes in which ground meat is simmered in a tasty liquid and finished off with plenty of fresh aromatic herbs. Called laarb (ลาบ), these dishes are simple to make and a real pleasure to eat. As with most popular and beloved recipes, there are many variations. If you peek into woks across Thailand, you’ll see all kinds of different ingredients being used. What they all have in common is protein that is sizzled in a fragrant sauce, and finished with herbs and chiles.

Ground pork with aromatic herbs and fresh green chiles

Ground pork with aromatic herbs and fresh green chiles

This version is straightforward. It’s also traditional and very tasty. The sauce combines the principle flavors of sweet, salty, and sour into a rewarding combination, while fresh chiles provide the heat.

Start by frying some ground pork in your wok until it is no longer pink. Pour the liquid sauce over the pork and stir on high heat until the liquid is boiling. Simmer for a few moments, and then toss in the green chiles and some shallots.

Pork with shallots and green chiles

Pork with shallots and green chiles

The shallots and chiles will cook for a while with the pork.

About the chiles: You’ll want to base your choice of chili pepper and quantity on the heat and flavor you’re looking for. Fresh Thai chiles are a great choice, but are also famously quite hot. If you go with those, three small chiles might be sufficient. You could also use milder peppers such as jalapeños or serranos, in which case three chiles, although a much larger quantity, wouldn’t be as spicy. This is a matter of personal preference, so you’ll have to experiment to know what you like.

The shallots and chiles will cook with the pork, mingling their flavors

The shallots and chiles mingle their flavors with the pork

After the peppers and shallots begin to soften, toss in the aromatic herbs.

Heaping mounds of fresh herbs make this recipe burst with flavor

Heaping mounds of herbs let this recipe burst with flavor

After the herbs wilt, it’s basically done and you’re ready to serve.

The finished dish

The finished dish

There are a few different ways to serve this dish, all “authentic” depending on the circumstances. One common way is to serve with lettuce leaves, so that diners can scoop some pork into a leaf and wrap it up, making a kind of instant spring roll. This is an easy and yet impressive way to add something unusual to your meal.

Another way is to spoon some laarb onto a plate of rice and use a spoon to bring tasty bites of rice and pork to your mouth. (Keep in mind that Thai people often eat with a spoon as the main utensil, alongside a fork that’s used to guide food onto the spoon.) Another common way to serve would be on top of a fried egg, which in turn is on top of a plate of rice.

Meanwhile, if you’re used to the Chinese style of dining, you can just spoon some laarb into your rice bowl and just eat it with chopsticks.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 1/2 lb ground pork
  2. 4 Tbsp lime juice, 2 Tbsp fish sauce, and 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  3. 1 medium shallot and 3 green chiles, sliced into similarly sized pieces (see the note about selecting your chiles, above)
  4. 2 cups basil leaves, torn into 2″ pieces; 1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

DIRECTIONS:

  • Heat your wok on medium heat until hot but not smoking. Then add 2 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the ground pork (#1) and stir fry until the pink color is just gone, about two minutes. Then pour the sauce (#2) over the pork and stir on high heat until the liquid is boiling.
  • Add the shallots and chiles (#3) and let everything cook for another minute, stirring constantly. Finally, add the aromatics (#4) and stir until the herbs are wilted and soft, about another minute or so.
  • Serve with rice and contrasting dishes.

VARIATIONS: The sky is the limit here. You can use any meat in place of the pork; you can also try non-meat proteins as well. You can be creative with the herbs, using holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) or Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) instead of sweet basil, and you can add scallions, mint, ginger, or galangal. When you experiment with various herb combinations, remember that you’re looking for a combination that tastes like a harmonious whole that is greater than the individual components. No one taste should ever overpower the others.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

 

 

Posted in Basil, Meat, Pork, Recipes, Stew, Stir-fry | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cauliflower with Guilin chili sauce

The farther south in mainland China you go, the more chiles become indispensable parts of the local cuisine. In Guilin, in Guanxi province, the local chili sauce has even been elevated to one of the “three treasures” of the region. (The other two are rice wine and fermented tofu.) Let’s start with a picture of cauliflower with Guilin chili sauce:

Cauliflower with Guilin chile sauce

Cauliflower with Guilin chile sauce

But before we get to the recipe itself, this is Guanxi, where it comes from:

On the Li river, between Guilin and Yangshuo

On the Li river, between Guilin and Yangshuo.

Breathtaking, right? The scenery, dominated  by those giant limestone karst formations, is so famious in China that it is memorialized on the back of the 20 RMB banknote. While the landscape gets most of the attention, the local food is noteworthy, too. In addition to the “three treasures,” you’ll find rice noodles, stuffed snails, all kinds of game, and of course, the renowned beer fish. But all that is for another day.

Today, we’re making cauliflower with Guilin chili sauce (桂林辣椒酱, Guìlín làjiāojiàng). The sauce is made of fresh chills, fermented soybeans, and sesame oil. It looks a little bit like spicy bean paste (辣豆瓣酱, là dòubàn jiàng), but the Guilin version has much less of a bean taste to it, bringing the chili flavors more forward. Remember that Asian sauces are not standardized, so different brands of bottled Guilin chili sauce can be quite different from one another. This gives you an opportunity to sample several varieties and decide which one you like best.

The recipe is so simple that it only merits one process photo along the way. Here it is:

2014-06-24 Cauliflower with Guilin Chili Sauce - steaming

Cauliflower, resting in a bamboo steamer.

Steam the cauliflower, and let the moisture drain off or evaporate. There are a few ways to do this. If you’re using a bamboo steamer, simply remove the cover and let it sit for a few minutes. An equivalent method would be to put the cauliflower into a colander lined with some paper towels. Once the cauliflower is drained, stir-fy it with the Guilin chili sauce and then finish it off with a generous handful of chopped scallions. That’s it.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets, steamed for 5 minutes, then drained
  2. 1 Tbsp Guilin chili sauce
  3. 4 scallions, chopped

DIRECTIONS:

  • Heat your wok on medium heat until hot but not smoking. Then add 2 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the steamed cauliflower (#1) to the wok and stir-fry for about 5 minutes, until heated through. If you let it sit for a few moments between stirs, some of the florets will start to brown on their edges, which is fine.
  • When the cauliflower is hot, add the Guilin chili sauce (#2) and stir-fry until everything is coated, about 30 seconds. Then toss with the scallions (#3).
  • Serve with rice and contrasting dishes.

VARIATIONS: You can make the dish more complex by adding other vegetables to step #1, such as zucchini, steamed carrots, or mushrooms. You night also try adding greens such as kale, water spinach, or amaranth to the stir-fry.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

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Stir-fried kale (甘蓝菜) with red chiles and shiitake mushrooms

This dish brings several tasty flavors together: there’s mild bitterness from the kale, sweetness and some heat from the chiles, and salty umami from the soy sauce and the mushrooms. Ground pork adds some texture, but is optional.

Stir-fried kale with red chiles and shiitake mushrooms

Stir-fried kale with red chiles and shiitake mushrooms

Kale belongs to the Brassicaceae family, also known as the crucifers or the cabbages. Kale itself is Brassica oleracea var. acephala, or in Chinese 甘蓝菜 (gānláncài). Brassica oleracea includes many other favorites as well, including broccoli and cauliflower (var. botrytis), cabbage (var. capitata), and Brussels sprouts (var. gemmifera). But never mind all that. Let’s just cook.

Kale is the star of the show:

About a pound of fresh kale

About a pound of fresh kale

But there are some tasty supporting actors as well:

Shiitake mushrooms, Anaheim chiles, green onions, and garlic

Shiitake mushrooms, Anaheim chiles, green onions, and garlic; not pictured is the ground pork

My cousin Amy mentions that her garden is practically overflowing with fresh kale right now. For her benefit I’ll just point out that this recipe can go from garden to table in the time that it takes to make some rice.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 1/4 lb ground pork
  2. 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  3. 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  4. About 1 lb kale, cut into bite-sized pieces (about 1″ x 2″, tough stems discarded)
  5. 4 Anaheim chiles, sliced thinly; 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, halved; 4 scallions, finely chopped; 1 cup fresh basil leaves

DIRECTIONS:

  • Heat your wok until barely smoking. Then add 1 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the ground pork (#1) and stir-fry until no longer pink. Toss in the chopped garlic (#2) and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Then stir in the soy sauce (#3).
  • When the liquid starts bubbling, add the kale (#4) and stir-fry for 5-8 minutes. The kale will wilt in 2-3 minutes, but keep on cooking it so that it gets tender.
  • When the kale has softened, add the chiles, mushrooms, scallions, and basil (#5). Stir-fry for about another minute, then serve with rice and contrasting dishes.

VARIATIONS: This dish is easily made vegan by just omitting the ground pork. The pork does deliver a bit of texture and protein though, so if you like, you can replace it with firm tofu crumbles or some other kind of vegetable protein. Thai cooks will see the basil and wish for fish sauce, so if that speaks to you, you can add 1-2 tsp fish sauce to #3 above. Feel free to vary the type and quantity of the chiles to achieve your desired level of taste and heat. If you use a chiles that are less sweet than Anaheims, you can add 1 tsp sugar to the soy sauce.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

Posted in Kale, Mushrooms, Recipes, Stir-fry | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Bitter melon (苦瓜) with sweet yellow peppers

This is another quick and easy dish, one that combines very well with meat, tofu, or other vegetables like long beans (长豆角, zhǎng dòujiǎo) or mushrooms. Sometimes chefs will add some sugar to bitter melon to offset it’s native bitterness. This recipe gets some sweetness from yellow peppers so no additional sugar is needed.

Bitter melon with sweet yellow peppers

Bitter melon with sweet yellow peppers

Bitter melon (苦瓜, kǔguā) is a wonderful vegetable. In my last bitter melon recipe, which you can find here, I mentioned that I’d never seen it in a Western grocery before. Well, the world is shrinking, and I think that’s a good thing. I found bitter melon today at a local Western grocery chain in Chicago. Unfortunately, the cashier didn’t recognize the vegetable and so she couldn’t give me a price. We searched her catalog under bitter melon, Chinese bitter melon, Chinese melon, and a few other permutations. It turns out it was listed in her book as “Indian bitter gourd,” also known as karela, which like bitter melon is also Mormordica charantia, but is a different cultivar than what one finds in China. Karela (“Indian bitter gourd”) is shorter and has a darker green color and a wrinklier texture, while Chinese bitter melon (苦瓜, kǔguā) is lighter in color, smoother, and can be up to a foot long. Both are presumably tasty. This recipe calls for the Chinese variety.

Bitter melon, of course, is bitter, so be ready for that if this is your first time trying it. The bitterness is actually very pleasant and goes really well with contrasting tastes. The taste can be cut by parboiling the slices for a minute or two, or by adding sugar or something sweet to the dish – in this case, the yellow peppers.

Slice the bitter melon in half and scoop out the pith and the seeds. Then cut into bite-sized pieces. Put the bitter melon in a colander and salt the slices generously, tossing them around a bit so that they’re fully coated. The salt will draw out moisture, rendering the pieces crispier. After about 20 minutes, rinse the pieces well and pat them dry with a clean cloth. Cut the the yellow peppers into slices that match the size and shape of the melon. (The pepper doesn’t need to be salted.)

Bitter melon, left, and yellow peppers, right

Bitter melon, left, and yellow peppers, right

Stir fry for a few minutes, long enough for the vegetables to get hot but not long enough for them to get soft.

The vegetables in the wok

The vegetables in the wok

And that’s about it. This is another TastyAsia signature “simple” recipe, meaning it will be finished in the time it takes to cook rice. I had it tonight with red-braised pork belly and a soy sauce egg, and everything went really well together.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. One bitter melon, seeds and pith removed, cut into 1/4″ thick slices, salted and drained for 20 minutes in a colander (see above), then rinsed and patted dry
  2. An equal quantity of sweet yellow peppers, cut into similarly sized pieces

DIRECTIONS:

  • Heat your wok on medium heat until hot but not smoking. Then add 2 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the vegetables (#1, #2) and stir-fry for about 4 minutes, until heated through and gently cooked, but not softened.
  • Serve with rice and contrasting dishes.

VARIATIONS: The pepper is in this recipe to add sweetness. If you like, you can omit the pepper and instead add 1 tsp sugar to the wok as the bitter melon is cooking. You can also add other vegetables for fun and variety, such as 1/2 cup parboiled carrot slices, a cup of parboiled cauliflower, or just about anything else. Salting the bitter melon is optional; if you want to skip that step, add 1/2 tsp salt or 1 Tbsp soy sauce to the wok.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

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Ground chicken with fresh basil and tomatoes

This simple yet flavorful recipe comes via Thailand. A more traditional Thai version would substitute holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) for sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). The former has a more peppery taste, while the latter is perhaps a little more fragrant. Both work equally well; you can use whatever you have and still be confident that you’ll be making a very tasty dish.

Ground chicken with basil and tomatoes

Ground chicken with fresh basil and tomatoes

What makes this really work is the mingling of fresh aromatic basil, savory soy sauce and fish sauce, and the gentle acidity of the tomatoes, all supported by the protein of the stir-fried chicken.

Start by chopping some fresh green chili peppers into slices. You’ll want to base your choice of pepper and quantity on the heat and flavor you’re looking for. Fresh Thai chiles (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum, also known as bird’s eye chiles) are a great choice, but are also famously quite hot. This is a matter of personal preference, so you’ll have to experiment to know what you like.

Sliced fresh chiles

Sliced fresh chiles

Next come sliced tomatoes and of course the basil itself:

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

Basil

Basil

Then with all the ingredients assembled and ready to go, you can fire up your wok and start cooking.

Clockwise, from upper left: basil, ground chicken, soy sauce and fish sauce, chopped garlic, green chiles, and tomatoes

Clockwise, from upper left: basil, ground chicken, soy sauce and fish sauce, chopped garlic, green chiles, and tomatoes

Start by stir-frying the chicken until the pink color is gone. Then add the chiles.

Ground chicken and chiles

Ground chicken and chiles

After the chiles turn bright green, add the rest in turns.

Just about done

Just about done

Once everything is heated through, you’ll be ready to serve. Prep goes quickly and the total cooking time is about five minutes, making this yet another “simple” recipe by the TastyAsia definition, meaning of course that the whole thing can be done start-to-finish in the time it takes to cook your rice.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 1/2 lb ground chicken
  2. Perhaps 5 Thai chiles, sliced; quantity adjusted to desired heat
  3. 2 medium tomatoes, sliced; 2 cloves garlic, chopped; 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  4. 1 Tbsp soy sauce, 1 Tbsp dark soy sauce, and 2 tsp fish sauce (or to taste; experiment with more fish sauce, not less)

DIRECTIONS: 

  • Heat your wok until barely smoking. Then add 2 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the chicken (#1) and stir-fry until no longer pink, maybe 2 minutes.
  • Add the chiles (#2) and stir fry until they turn bright green, perhaps 30 seconds.
  • Add the tomatoes, garlic, and basil (#3) and stir fry gently until the basil just begins to wilt, perhaps a minute.
  • Pour the sauces (#4) over the mixture and stir on high heat until the liquid begins to boil and thicken just a bit, maybe an additional minute or two. Serve with rice and contrasting dishes.

Variations: As mentioned above, use can use either the more peppery Thai holy basil or sweet basil, and of course you can play with the chiles to get your desired level of heat. Ground pork substitutes easily for the ground chicken. And you can also add about 1/2 cup sliced mango for some sweetness and some additional color. Remember that in most Chinese recipes, you will vary the saltiness by varying the quantity of soy sauce.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

Posted in Basil, Chicken, Recipes, Stir-fry, Tomatoes | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Congee with salted duck eggs and soybeans

Congee, or rice porridge, is an extremely versatile dish with countless preparations in countless traditions. In some cultures, congee is served instead of rice at main meals, while in others, it is a breakfast dish or even a hearty meal on its own. Westerners would probably be most at home seeing congee as a breakfast food but it can be enjoyed at any time.

Congee with salted duck eggs and soybeans

Congee with salted duck eggs and soybeans

Congee is extremely simple to make in your rice cooker. If you don’t have a rice cooker, perhaps this simple explanation will be enough to convince you how useful one can be: for perfect congee, start with 1/2 cup rice. Then fill the bowl with water to the “1/2 cup” line. Then add the other ingredients. Make sure it’s set for porridge or congee and hit start. That’s it.

Stovetop congee isn’t exactly difficult, but you do have to commit ratios to memory (such as 6 cups water to 1/2 cup rice) as well as cooking times (about 75 minutes), and you have to pay attention to it along the way so that it doesn’t burn or dry out.

The other ingredients are fairly simple. You’ll want to add Tianjin preserved vegetable, soybeans, and sesame oil to the rice before cooking.

Tianjin Preserved Vegetable

Tianjin Preserved Vegetable

Soybeans

Fresh soybeans

When the congee is finished, stir in some chopped scallions.

Would it really be a TasyAsia recipe without scallions?

Would it really be a TasyAsia recipe without scallions?

Garnish with slices of salted duck eggs. The duck eggs are available in two forms, raw and hardboiled. This recipe needs hardboiled eggs, so you can either purchase that variety, or else get raw eggs and boil them for 10 minutes before using.

Either way, the salted eggs have a delightful taste and texture. They are prepared in brine so they are permeated with a salty, umami essence. And compared to regular boiled eggs, they have a more complicated texture. Compared to chicken eggs, they seem a bit richer. A typical package looks like this:

Packaged salted duck eggs

Packaged salted duck eggs

And the eggs themselves often look like this, individually packaged:

An individual salted duck egg

An individual salted duck egg, individually vacuum packed after soaking in brine

Salted suck egg, packaging removed

Salted suck egg, packaging removed

To cut the eggs, crack them lightly and then run them through with a sharp knife. After cutting them in half, the shell will peel away. Then you can quarter them.

Duck eggs, still in the shell, cut through with a sharp knife. After this step, the shell will peel away and you can cut the eggs into smaller slices if you wish.

Duck eggs, still in the shell, cut through with a sharp knife. After this step, the shell will peel away and you can cut the eggs into smaller slices if you wish.

And that’s basically it.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 1/2 cup rice (for 2 people), combined in your rice cooker with the indicated amount of water and 1 Tbsp chopped Tianjin preserved vegetable, 1/4 cup soybeans, and 2 tsp sesame oil (see text above for stovetop directions)
  2. 2 scallions, finely chopped
  3. 2 salted duck eggs (hardboiled), quartered

DIRECTIONS: 

  • Combine the congee ingredients (#1) and cook until done.
  • When the congee is finished, stir in the scallions (#2).
  • Serve in individual bowls and garnish with quartered duck eggs (#3).

Variations: There are as many variations on congee as there are people in Asia. You can add basically anything to the porridge, from savory delights such as fried ground pork, bacon, or ham, to sweets like cranberries, goji berries, or mango bites.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

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