Friday, March 27, 2015

Technique Tips: Sichuanese Yu Xiang Eggplant, Purple


Alright, here we go. Vibrantly purple eggplant without deep-frying.

As I mentioned in my previous post about this (which I've updated with a note and my technique changes), the theory goes that exposure to air (oxygen specifically?) while cooking is what turns eggplant skin brown. Although I was skeptical at first, my subsequent trials with different methods have led me to believe that it may be so. In particular, when I tried covering eggplant while frying it skin side up in my wok, it seemed still to be purple until after I lifted the lid and fresh air started circulating over the eggplant. And I guess with microwaving, maybe not enough is shut in with the eggplant when you close the door for it to turn brown. ? But clearly there is air shut in with the eggplant both when microwaving or covering to steam. Could be the amount matters.

In any case, I've found that frying in some amount of oil does indeed seem to be the most effective and efficient way to keep your eggplant purple when cooking. But you don't have to commit to using the massive amount of oil needed for deep-frying! I found that shallow-frying actually works very well, too, though it seems like you get a bit of browning from contact with the hot wok. And I also tried shocking in ice water after frying--and found it to have no discernible effect at all. Don't bother.

Pictured in my trials below, besides the with/without ice shock, I also tried with/without the 15 minute salt water brine. Unsoaked eggplant seems to end up slightly prettier--less wrinkly, more purely purple--but I prefer the brined eggplant because it absorbs less oil and thus has better flavor and texture. (Unbrined is a bit of an oil sponge.)


Above: all were brined, but left side (vertically oriented) had the post-frying ice shock while the right side (horizontally oriented) did not.

Below: none were brined, but the right side (vertically oriented) had the post-frying ice shock while the left side (horizontally oriented) did not.


So, the upshot is if you want purple eggplant but don't want to use so much oil as deep-frying requires, shallow-fry instead, making sure you cook skin side down (as you would deep-frying, too). If you don't mind the amount of oil needed to deep-fry (maybe you're going to fry other things), deep-frying will get you slightly prettier results in that shallow-fried eggplant browned a bit where it touched the wok.

[Update: The other benefit of deep-frying is that you can cut the eggplant into other shapes an not be constrained by need the skin to all be in contact with a relatively thin layer of oil. Namely, you can roll cut the eggplant and still have beautiful purple skin like at this restaurant:]


Also, once you've fried your eggplant, when you add it back into the wok to coat with sauce, don't keep cooking over a high heat or the skin will continue it's browning progress.

Pictured at the top of this post and below is actually my yu xiang (fish fragrant) eggplant with pressed tofu variation of the dish. Pre-pressed tofu is actually super convenient, and I'll write it up in a future post.* Recipe (nearly the same, but adjusted for the tofu inclusion) is below.

*Thanks in large part to the tofu vendor at the weekly farmers market, which sells pre-pressed plain and five-spice tofu, fried tofu, and fresh tofu (as well as soy milk and dou (fu) hua), I've lately become a half-time vegan/vegetarian. It's just so convenient!



“Fish Fragrant” Eggplant Yu Xiang Qie Zi - with Pressed Tofu

Coarse salt
1 lb. Chinese or Japanese eggplants (about 2 large Chinese ones--Japanese eggplants are smaller), trimmed, split into quarters lengthwise and cut into 3- to 4-inch lengths

8 oz. pressed tofu (should come pre-pressed, so no need to press it yourself), cut into long blocks similar in dimensions to the eggplant

Peanut or vegetable oil for shallow frying

6 dried red Chinese chilies, sliced, seeds discarded (or Thai bird chilies, any small hot red chili)
~1-inch knob ginger, minced (about 1 TBS)
4 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 4 tsp)
4 scallions, whites thinly sliced, greens cut into 1/3-inch segments (keep scallion whites and greens separated)

2 TBS Sichuanese chili broad bean paste (doubanjiang)

sauce ingredients
1 TBS rice wine for cooking
½ TBS sugar
2 scant TBS soy sauce (gluten-free or tamari)
2 TBS black or chinkiang vinegar (use a not-too-fancy balsamic vinegar in its place if unavailable)

starch slurry
1 tsp tapioca starch (or corn starch)
1 tsp water

Roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

  1. Combine 6 TBS salt with 6 cups water in a very large mixing bowl (1 TBS salt per cup of water), stirring to dissolve the salt. Add eggplant pieces, skin-side up, and set aside to soak for about 15 minutes. If that’s not enough salt water, add more in the same ratio until all your eggplant has exposure to the brine.
  2. In a small bowl, combine rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, and black vinegar. Set sauce aside. In a separate small bowl, combine tapioca starch and water. Drain eggplant and spin dry in a salad spinner or pat dry with paper towels.
  3. Heat ¼-inch of oil in a wok over medium heat until inserting chopsticks into the oil produces small bubbles energetically. Add eggplant in a single layer, skin side down. Cook for about 2 minutes. Remove eggplant from wok and set aside in a bowl while you cook the next batch of eggplant.
  4. Pour out excess oil (leaving about couple TBS worth in the wok) into a heat-proof container to discard (or add back as needed). Add pressed tofu to wok and fry until lightly browned on one side, flipping to brown on the reverse side before continuing.
  5. Push tofu to side of wok (or remove from wok) and add ginger, garlic, scallions, and chilies to the wok. Cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broad bean paste and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Toss tofu with the ginger, garlic, scallions, chilies, and broad bean paste. Pour the sauce mixture over the tofu in the wok, toss and cook for a couple minutes to allow the tofu to absorbe some of the sauce.
  6. Turn the heat down to low and add the eggplant back into the wok along with the scallion greens. Give the starch slurry a stir to make sure the starch isn’t caked at the bottom of the bowl before pouring over the contents of the wok.
  7. Cook, tossing constantly, until sauce is thickened, glossy, and coats eggplant. Unless you've added too much fluid, this should happen quickly. If the sauce over-thickens, thin with a few tablespoons of water. Transfer the contents of the wok to a serving bowl, garnish with chopped cilantro leaves, and serve immediately with freshly steamed rice.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Okra for the Goo Averse


Hate the gooeyness of okra's guts? Try eating them raw and whole for a change. Raw okra has a crisp texture, kind of like a slightly softer cucumber, and it's insides don't turn really sticky until after cooking. Try to pick smaller okra, about 4-inches in length or less, for them to be more tender.

You can also cook them til they're just done, tossing them in oil and broiling, grilling, or stir-frying them before tossing with a little salt or other seasoning. The insides won't have turned super sticky yet, and the okra will be more moist. Keep the caps intact so the insides don't escape and turn gluey. You can trim them down a bit if preferred.

I don't actually mind the gooey texture of cooked okra, and think it's clever the way some Southern and African dishes take advantage of okra's goo in making stews. But when you're just eating okra straight up, I think it's a more pleasant eating experience this crisper way. And then you can always deep-fry okra, of course.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Kimchi Dashi with Unfrozen Tofu


Made a kimchi dashi (my preferred kombu and niboshi dashi, rather than using expensive katsuobushi), which was really delicious, especially with the spongy unfrozen tofu soaking up all that savory soup. Also tossed in a microwave soft-cooked egg for some smooth richness, and steamed black and white rice.

Since the kimchi was already made, and had been fermenting several weeks, this was a really easy dinner to make. I hadn't made kimchi dashi before, but it's a fantastic soup. And I've always got kombu and niboshi on hand, so that's an easy soup base to make, whereas I don't generally have Korean red pepper paste (gochujang) or soy bean paste (doengjang) on hand. There's often wheat flour in doengjang and sometimes in gochujang, too, so allergy sufferers take heed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Noodles T-Shirt Up for Voting

Do you like food? I'm guessing you probably do since you're reading this blog post. Would you be interested in wearing food? Not literally, but a food themed t-shirt? This is much more palatable than wearing raw meat, anyway. Well, I made my noodle background for my Tumblr blog Will's Plate into a t-shirt design that's up for voting over at Threadless.

Check it out, and if you like it, please give it a high score and share it with others!

You won't be obligated to buy it just by voting, but it doesn't even go up for sale if it doesn't score well with voters.

https://www.threadless.com/designs/all-the-noodles

Thanks in advance!


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Technique Tips: Sichuanese Yu Xiang Eggplant



Oh wow, this is how eggplant should be prepared. The two big things I learned this time making braised eggplant were: (1) brining your eggplant makes it cook faster, sear and develop richer flavor more quickly, and absorb less oil, and (2) actually don't stir-fry, but rather keep the skin side away from the wok surface as you sear the eggplant if you want it to stay purple.*

[*Update: hmm, this isn't the whole story--there's something more going on, since when I tried it again, I didn't get quite as good of results. I'll need to try and figure out what's going on.
Also, I tried the microwave technique Kenji mentioned in his piece linked below. Don't do it. The eggplant collapses and dries out too much, turning a little tough and chewy. Stick with the brining.]

[**Update 2: check out my my later post with what I found through further experimentation. If you don't want to deep-fry, shallow-frying's the way to go. I've updated my recipe below.]

Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats has the details on brining your eggplant to extract excess fluid versus other methods (salting, steaming, microwaving, and nothing). Drawing out the extra moisture collapses eggplant's spongy structure, making it so that you don't need so much oil to cook it, and the eggplant also soaks up less oil while cooking.

Where my approach diverged from Kenji's (seems easier than typing/saying Lopez-Alt whenever you want to refer to him) was that he seared his eggplant without regard to the skin, which makes it turn brown as it cooks--which, let me be clear, is totally fine and doesn't affect the flavor at all. But how to keep eggplant purple has been a backburner question of mine for a while now.

The common suggestion is that you have to deep fry eggplant to keep it from turning brown, but it's just not worth it to me to use all that extra oil. I've also read talk of how you have to painstakingly keep the skin from coming into contact with air as it cooks (skin side down in water, weighted with a plate?), but that's probably even more of a pain. I haven't bothered trying it, but it sounds fishy to me, since with deep frying eggplant it's still exposed to air...though I haven't tried the deep fry method either.

But look at this beautiful purple hue! And I didn't deep fry at all!


Basically, what you want to do is sear the eggplant one side at a time, but never on its skin side. You get all the delicious searing and softening of the eggplant still, but it's also gorgeous on the other side. Yes, this is just about presentation.

Anyway, for flavor, the important thing is brining or otherwise drawing out the moisture from your eggplant first before you get to frying and braising. My recipe below, adapted from Kenji's, seems like it's not that different from my previous one, adapted from Grace Yang's, but the brining step actually makes a big difference. Besides what I've discussed above, the shorter searing and cooking time means that it doesn't need to braise for very long either, which means you don't need to add the extra water in my previous recipe for the braising to soften the eggplant. The sauce gets thick quick, and the flavors are just stronger and clearer. This is how I'm making Sichuanese eggplant moving forward.


“Fish Fragrant” Eggplant Yu Xiang Qie Zi

Coarse salt
1 lb. Chinese or Japanese eggplants (about 2 large Chinese ones--Japanese eggplants are smaller), trimmed, split into quarters lengthwise and cut into 3- to 4-inch lengths

Peanut or vegetable oil for shallow frying

3 dried red Chinese chilies, sliced, seeds discarded (or Thai bird chilies, any small hot red chili)
~1-inch knob ginger, minced (about 1 TBS)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 TBS)
3 scallions, whites thinly sliced, greens cut into 1/3-inch segments (keep scallion whites and greens separated)

1½  TBS Sichuanese chili broad bean paste (doubanjiang)

sauce ingredients
1 TBS rice wine for cooking
1 tsp sugar
1 scant TBS soy sauce
1 TBS black or chinkiang vinegar (use a not-too-fancy balsamic vinegar in its place if unavailable)
1 tsp tapioca starch (or corn starch)

Roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish


  1. Combine 6 TBS salt with 6 cups water in a very large mixing bowl (1 TBS salt per cup of water), stirring to dissolve the salt. Add eggplant pieces, skin-side up, and set aside to soak for about 15 minutes. If that’s not enough salt water, add more in the same ratio until all your eggplant has exposure to the brine.
  2. In a small bowl, combine rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, and black vinegar. Add corn starch and stir until dissolved. Set sauce aside. Drain eggplant and spin dry in a salad spinner or pat dry with paper towels.
  3. Heat ¼-inch of oil in a wok over medium heat until inserting chopsticks into the oil produces small bubbles energetically. Add eggplant in a single layer, skin side down. Cook for about 2 minutes. Remove eggplant from wok and set aside in a bowl while you cook the next batch of eggplant.
  4. Pour out excess oil (leaving about couple TBS worth in the wok) into a heat-proof container to discard. Add ginger, garlic, scallions, and chilies to the wok. Cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broad bean paste and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add eggplant back into the wok along with scallion greens and turn the heat down to its lowest setting. Give the sauce mixture a stir to mix up the starch that’s settled at the bottom, and pour over the eggplant in the wok.
  5. Cook, tossing constantly, until sauce is thickened, glossy, and coats eggplant, about a minute (if the sauce over-thickens, thin with a few tablespoons of water). Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with chopped cilantro leaves, and serve immediately.