Saturday, July 23, 2011

Finally Successful Frying

In all my past attempts at deep frying, my results have ranged from mediocre to fail. Not that I've made many attempts. But this time I succeeded! This time everything was under control and the Taiwanese pork chops (豬排 zhupai) were tasty.

First and foremost: get a thermometer (that can handle deep fry temperatures).

I know, you don't have to have one and there are other tricks like sticking a bamboo chopstick into the oil and seeing if the oil bubbles around it, flicking water and seeing if it dances, or dropping a bit a dough in and seeing if it sizzles and then floats. The problem is that these are imprecise. You don't know if it's too hot, and it's hard to track the temperature once you've put in the food and the food's all bubbling while the temperature of the oil drops. With the thermometer it's also easier to kick up the heat to high to get the oil to the right temperature more quickly and then turn things down while you fry.

The first time I tried making these pork chops, I didn't have a thermometer. The first pork chop was fine, the second one okay, and the third was blackened. Well, the skin was blackened while the meat was okay, but I ended up melting the slotted spoon I was using. This was toward the beginning of the year so I don't really remember the details, but I probably turned up the heat to get things moving and the oil kept heating up as I fried subsequent pieces of pork. In fact, I think this was probably also the issue the last time (2 times?), which was the first time I tried deep frying, several years ago. I remember an abundance of blackened crumbs in the oil, which were not present this time around. Though, actually, that was probably partially because of the panko breading that time, versus flour this time.

Other than the thermometer: some tools are better to use than others.

Tongs are handy for larger food, like pork chops. Last time I dropped them in with cooking chopsticks. This is fine, but because of the smaller contact area, chopsticks will probably disturb the coating on your food more than tongs, and certainly a metal strainer, will, since you'll have to squeeze harder. A slotted spoon should be just fine, too--but it's probably best to use a metal one, even if the heat resistance is claimed to be high enough.

On to the photos!

Take 1

Haha, hmm... So the one at 11 o'clock was the first one to deep fry. From there, the visual progression is pretty clear to 3 o'clock and then 12 o'clock. The bottom two I just pan fried after the chop-blackening and spoon-melting. It's hard to see in this pic, but the spoon is warped and rough in texture at the tip. For 11 o'clock, the oil probably wasn't quite hot enough. For 3 o'clock a little hot. And for 12 o'clock, too hot.

Take 2

Much better! The chops are golden brown and all of them more consistently cooked. The only thing is that the skin could have been crisper than it was. I'm not sure about why this is. Maybe it's because the chops I used were a little thicker than the recipe called for. Maybe I should have gone for 370 F and let the chops cook while the oil cooled down to 350 F (which was the temperature the recipe called for), rather than 360 F down to 340 F. Maybe it's the recipe. I don't know. Regardless, the chops were delicious. The juiciness and tenderness of freshly deep fried meat that hasn't been cooked for too long is the best!

Mmmm. The sauce is ketchup, oyster sauce, and a little sesame oil. Delicious!

This recipe is from Martin Yan, who apparently was a big deal around the time I was a little kid, hosting a cooking show on PBS, Yan Can Cook, for a long time. He's still active, though I think he spends more time in Asia, now. I ate it with shredded cabbage, in the style of Japanese tonkatsu, though I don't think that's standard.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Langue de Boeuf

Woops, forgot to adjust the white balance when shooting.

What's that? You have 3-4 hours to kill and a beef tongue on hand? Then boy do I have the recipe for you! Or rather, Andrea Nguyen over at Viet World Kitchen does. She's a great resource for Asian cooking from different countries (though, I disagree with her approach to luo bo gao, or turnip cakes, but that's for another post), but this particular recipe is French.

This dish just saved French cuisine from my eternal damnation. No kidding. I'd pretty much written it off as having dairy involved in too many things, as much Western cuisine, at least in restaurants, does. But this dish does not! (Alright, fine, neither does ratatouille.) And beef tongue is SO delicious when done well. The meat is so tender, melty, and rich. But--it takes a long time to cook. And this recipe was very involved, with many steps, on top of tongue's being a slow-cooking cut.*

Ah, there's another interesting point about Nguyen's recipe here. She's Vietnamese and learned the recipe from her mom, who drew from French and Vietnamese cooking. But this recipe apparently is essentially the same as a recipe from a popular 1920's French cookbook. Vietnam, of course, was heavily impacted by the French occupation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (On the plus side, that's how banh mi, the delicious Vietnamese baguettes, were created.)

Anyway, back to the beef tongue. Although it was really a fantastic dish, it did take a lot of time and effort. I'd probably only make it again for special occasions. I ended up spending 3-4 hours making it, from the parboiling, to skinning, to sautéing and browning, to simmering and turning, to cooling the meat and reducing the sauce, to cutting, plating, saucing, and finally eating.

Waiting for the water to boil for parboiling the tongue.
 Parboiled and now cooling in water. Notice the white skin on top; that has to be removed because it's very tough.

Sautéing the onions, browning the tongue, sautéing the rest of the ingredients and spices.
After that's done, we stick the whole pot in the preheated oven for 45 minutes per pound (so 1.5 hours for this one) and turn the meat every half hour to ensure even cooking.

 The tongue cooling (with another plate on top to keep moisture in) after braising, removal from the pot

 The other ingredients after straining the soup.
I ended up eating these anyway since they're still delicious

Reducing the strained soup to a sauce.
I had twice the amount of fluid left compared to what the recipe claimed!
Reducing took longer, then, and I also messed up the corn starch add by failing to stir the sauce as I poured. Oh well.

Finally done! The sauce isn't lying thickly on top of the meat because of my botched cornstarch add. 
At that point I didn't care. It was still delicious.

*I love these slow-cooking cuts that other Americans don't go for! They are full of flavor and much cheaper than the other cuts. Beef tongue, oxtail, pork shoulder, pork bones, beef shoulder, chicken quarters... Note, for example, that an oxtail costs the same per pound at the cheap ethnic markets as it does from the organic-local-delivering-farm that I got this tongue from. Meanwhile, the other cuts of beef average $15+/lb, which tells you something about the relative demand at the different venders. Furthermore, it's wasteful to throw out these perfectly good cuts of meat. It would probably be beneficial for us to expand our diet. But until that happens, I'll take the cheapness of these cuts. Of course, there is the time investment to trade off, too.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Take 2: 豆豉蒸魚 Black Bean Steamed Fish

Back for round two with a whole fish, this time! This is the first fish I've done all* the cleaning for. Except for that time I was working with whole sardines, but gutting sardines is very different from gutting larger fish. *Alright, almost all. Harris Teeter did a very poor job of gutting the fish, which it claimed to be "whole dressed fish". Now, I'm no expert, so I looked up what it meant for a fish to be "dressed", and according to How Stuff Works, "Dressed fish are gutted and scaled with the head, tails, and fins intact."Well, they left the scales, didn't remove the gills, and cut around instead of between the pelvic fins. At least they removed the guts, I suppose. Anyway, it was fine since I wanted to do the dressing myself.

The scaling and gutting all went fine (well, scaling I've done before). I looked at several video and written instructions beforehand. I don't know that I'll be working with whole fish too much, though. Having the skin intact is fantastic because first, the skin helps keep the meat moist, but also the skin is just delicious. However, as everyone on the web seems to warn, when you're removing the scales, by scraping with a knife or spoon, they fly all over the place. Unless you have a backyard to do it in, you're going to get scales all over your kitchen. Also, filets are just enormous time savers versus dressing fish. 

Furthermore, much as I love fish, I'm starting to get wary as overfishing is becoming more and more pressing an issue. This fish was a red snapper, which is apparently classified as "vulnerable", the first of the "threatened" classifications. Trying to track all the different species is difficult, too, as even for closely related fish, one may be fine while the other is endangered. All this while we are told to eat more fish because it's supposed to be healthier than eating other meats. Unfortunately, fish domestication has not been very successful, and furthermore, farmed fish seem to lose a lot of the nutritional advantages of wild fish (I imagine due to the diet). I suppose until there are technological/nutritional breakthroughs, people will somehow have to be made to rely more on other sources of protein.

Anyway, back to the steamed fish. So as opposed to the last times, whole fish, green onion, and more of it on top, less ginger on top, saving the ginger and green onion on top for the after-steaming hot oil pour. It went well! Flavor was good, slightly overcooked the fish since this was a smaller one than my reference recipe, and I was guessing a bit. I'm not sure what I would do with a larger fish, though. This one barely fit my dish which is just right for my wok-steamer setup. There's probably a way to use the oven, though that seems very inefficient, energywise. Might try a bit of salt and pepper rub beforehand for next time

 before steaming; this fish doesn't quite fit in the dish

 after steaming

ginger and green onion piled on top, ready for the oil pour

豆豉蒸魚 Black Bean Steamed Fish

2 thick firm white fish fillets or 1.5 lbs red snapper
2 TBS salted black beans, chopped
3 green onions, shredded into 1.5-inch long pieces
1-inch piece ginger, cut into very thin matchstick pieces
1 tsp brown sugar
2 TBS rice wine
1 TBS soy sauce

2 TBS vegetable oil
1 TBS sesame oil

cilantro for garnish

[if using whole fish, make 3 deep diagonal slashes on each side of the fish. This allows the fish to cook more evenly through.]

  1. Put half the black beans and ginger and one-third of the green onions, in a steamer-safe dish, and put the fish on top.
  2. Mix rice wine and soy sauce in small bowl.
  3. Sprinkle fish with sugar, pour rice wine, soy sauce mixture over the fish.
  4. Cover fish with remaining salted black beans.
  5. Cover and steam over briskly boiling water for 10 minutes for thick fillets, 20 minutes for  (1.5 lbs) whole fish, less than 10 minutes for thinner fillets.
  6. Fish is finished when meat flakes easily (and translucence is gone throughout)
  7. Remove dish from steamer and either pour the soup into another dish for serving or remove fish to another dish temporarily for the oil pour (next steps).
  8. Arrange remaining ginger on top of fish, and then arrange remaining green onion on top of ginger.
  9. Heat vegetable and sesame oil until they just begin to smoke and pour over the fish. The ginger/green onion should sizzle.
  10. Transfer fish to the dish with the soup and serve. Spoon sauce over the fish and your rice when eating!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Will's Master Mapo

麻婆豆腐 Mapo Doufu/Tofu is one of those very popular dishes of which countless variations exist and continue to be created. But I'll just get it out there first: my version is not your "authentic" Sichuanese mapo tofu. In fact, I just learned from my new copy of David Chang's Lucky Peach magazine [the awesome so far! I'm slowly working through it while simultaneously slowly reading another book, etc. etc.] that the Chinese government has specified one state-sanctioned recipe for mapo tofu. Right...

To me, the snobbery about "authenticity" in cuisines is just wrong-headed--though I understand the frustration when a restaurant claims it makes Chinese food, for example, but it tastes nothing like what your Chinese family/friends make for dinner. However, everyone makes their dishes differently, down to the individual, even if they're from the same country, in the same city, in the same neighborhood, in the same house, in the same family. Furthermore, food isn't static, and as people interact with each other and come upon new methods and ingredients, their cooking changes as well. Hell, the first time someone ever made "mapo tofu", it almost certainly wasn't as good as subsequent iterations and what the dish evolved to be. But the "original" form would have been "authentic", right? And then there's the arbitrary definition of what the original form was. On the other hand, you can probably speak more in terms of gradations, generalities and trends. The food associated with Sichuan is clearly very different from that of, say, Italy.

It was great to read Todd Kliman's professional thoughts, and amusing to see his hand-wringing as he faced a redefinition of values around "authenticity". He's of course much more knowledgeable than I, and his article has an illuminating passage speaking about how kimchi is fusion, and Korean food would not be what it is were it not for the introduction of peppers from China. Furthermore Chinese Sichuanese cuisine is only some three hundred years old, and peppers came to China from the New World...

Anyway, back to my little version of mapo tofu [which tasters have told me is very good (thanks!)], which is less spicy and more nuanced in flavor than what is traditional for the Sichuanese version [roommate said it]. I came to my present version through experimentation over time. The latest three iterations I've actually been indifferent between, though they're slightly different from each other. I'll give my thoughts on the recent iterations after the recipe, below. It should be easy to make a vegetarian version of this; just omit the pork! I'd probably substitute shiitake or black mushrooms in their place, if you wanted to do that. Or even without dropping the pork.

Will’s 麻婆豆福 Ma Po Tofu

½ lb ground pork
1 block medium-firm tofu
3 green onions, chopped, divided into white, middle, green sections
1 small onion, diced
2 small tomatoes, diced
2 TBS vegetable oil
¼ cup chicken broth or water
1 TBS corn starch mixed with 1.5 TBS water
[alternatively: 1 cup broth or water, 2 TBS corn starch mixed with 2 TBS water]

The Sauce:
1 heaping TBS 辣豆辦醬 spicy broad bean sauce
1 heaping TBS chili garlic sauce
2 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS 豆豉 salted black bean, chopped [omit if desired]
4 dried chili peppers
1/3 TBS brown sugar

  1. Press tofu 10 minutes or so, and cut into small cubes
  2. Mix the sauce’s ingredients in small bowl and set aside
  3. Heat oil in skillet or wok medium-high heat until shimmering
  4. Add onion and green onion whites, stir-fry until fragrant
  5. Add pork and stir, breaking the meat apart into tiny pieces
  6. Add the sauce and toss to coat
  7. Add tomatoes and green onion middles, stir for a 1-2 minutes
  8. Add tofu and water or chicken broth, gently mix to coat with sauce
  9. Once tofu has absorbed some flavor, turn heat down to low, push ingredients aside and add corn starch/water mixture (stir before pouring to make sure the corn starch is suspended in the water)
  10. Gently stir to spread the starch throughout as it thickens
  11. Turn heat back up to medium-high, add green onion greens and mix in (or add green onions on top at the end for a prettier look)

The first of the last three versions didn't have the the cup of broth (just a smaller amount of water) or the salted black beans. The next added the salted black beans, which brings it closer in flavor to the "standard" version, and the latest added the full cup of broth. While I like having the thick soup in the dish, I found that it homogenized the flavor somewhat. The flavors of the pork, tomatoes, onion, (tomatoes and onion totally not traditional) salted black beans, and sauces didn't stand out so much anymore. The process is much the same, though, and it's all good to me. And of course, I expect my mapo tofu will continue to evolve.

Green onion chopped with whites, middles, greens in their order.

Plated, or bowled, as it were.