Saturday, February 25, 2012

Braised Lion Heads 紅燒獅子頭 Hong Shao Shi Zi Tou

Now that's what I'm talking about! These are those pork meatballs that I'd been trying to recreate. Or thinking about trying to recreate mostly. Maybe I should have included something for scale in this photo; the meatballs are pretty big. And you know what? You don't necessarily need a binder in your ground meat ball/steak/loaf for it to be tender! (See my previous ruminations here.) There is no binding agent in this recipe--but that's because it's braised for a long time, taking the pork past the tough stage to collapse-in-your-mouth deliciousness. Now, if you want your meatballs to cook in a shorter time (like if you're making dumplings), then you may need the binding agent after all. And if you're talking about baking, like with meatloaf, then I don't have much experience to speak to that.

shi zi statue
image by Allen Chang

These are called Lion Heads, shi zi tou, because of their resemblance to the traditional Chinese stylization of lions' heads. Poetic, don't you think?

My recipe is adapted from John Sinclair's, over at Traditional Chinese Recipes. I've mentioned his blog before, but again, he really knows his Chinese cooking, and it's a great resource. I was missing a couple things he calls for, and so had to substitute for them, but they weren't big deals. He asks for dark and light soy sauce, both, and a sand pot, which is used a lot in Chinese braising. Grace Young also calls for a combination of dark and light soy in her recipes, so I might have to finally pick them up instead of subbing "normal" soy sauce for both. For the sand pot, I just use a 2 qt. pot, which worked just fine. I don't even have a casserole, which he mentioned as an alternative to the sand pot.

Anyway, this was exciting; I love this dish. It's also kind of a pain to make, taking a lot of time. Well, I also happened to have a pound-and-a-half of pork shoulder, and decided to try just grinding my own ground pork. It worked great, but added to the prep time. Fortunately, I have no problems at all with leftovers, and it provided many meals worth of protein.

Recipe after the pics:

 lion heads, dusted with cornstarch, ready to fry

 lightly seared, ready to braise

covered with napa cabbage before braising

[Update: check out my newer alternate recipe here! I cut out a couple things that I don't think are necessary, and changed the ingredients a little for a more tender meatball.]

Braised Lion Heads 紅燒獅子頭

1 1/2 lbs. Ground Pork
4 TBS Water
8 Water Chestnuts, large mince
3 Scallions, minced
3 tsp Ginger, minced
2 tsp Sesame Oil
1 TBS Rice Wine
1/2 tsp Salt
2 - 3 TBS Cornstarch for dredging pork balls

3 TBS Peanut Oil
20 oz. Napa Cabbage, root end trimmed, leaves separated

4 TBS Soy Sauce
1 TBS Brown Sugar
1 1/4 cup Chicken Stock

Potato flour slurry: 2/3 tsp each potato flour & water
1 TBS Scallion or carrot, shredded, for garnish

  1. Make potato flour slurry (equal parts water and starch, ~ 2/3 tsp each; cornstarch is okay, though it will not make as thick a sauce).
  2. In a separate container, mix chicken stock, soy sauce, and brown sugar.
  3. Combine pork and water in large bowl. Mix meat in one direction until it is somewhat fluffy and cohered, a few minutes.
  4. Add water chestnuts, scallion, ginger, sesame oil, rice wine, and salt. Mix well and form into 5 large meat balls about 6 oz. each, 2.5”  to 3" in diameter.
  5. Dust meatballs in cornstarch, remove excess, and set aside.
  6. Heat wok over medium heat with peanut oil. When wok oil is just barely smoking, add meat balls one at a time and fry, rolling and turning very gently, until slightly firm and browned.  Remove. 
  7. Clean wok, heat to medium, add 6 TBS of water and cabbage leaves, cover and steam ~5 minutes or until leaves are flexible.  Remove.
  8. Line 2 qt. pot (or sand pot (sha guo) or small casserole) with 2/3 of the cabbage. Gently add the five meatballs, then pour in chicken stock, soy sauce, and brown sugar.  Lay remaining cabbage over meat, cover, and simmer balls for 1.5 hours over low heat. 
  9. When done and cool enough to handle, carefully remove meatballs to a plate.  On the service platter, arrange braised cabbage in a circular pattern with meatballs in the center.  Reduce braising liquid to desired flavor intensity, give slurry a stir, and add slurry in a stream until liquid is thickened, coating spoon thickly, but still runs.  Pour sauce over lion heads, garnish with shredded scallion or carrot.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Luffa and Cloud Ears

Before making this dish, I'd always only thought of luffa has a hygiene product. You can eat them! Well, before they ripen and dry out, whereupon they're used as sponges. You have to peel the raised ridges, though, as they're tough, and potentially the hole outer skin if it's an older fruit. Actually, I had plenty of luffa, or 絲瓜 si gua, growing up but just never knew its English name or seen it uncooked. It's great; you should definitely try it. In America, we're far too narrow in our diets. Now that I know what it is, I'll look out for it more when I hit the ethnic supermarkets.

The dark, ripply things are a fungus. These are called cloud ears (雲耳 yun er), and are a more delicate relative of wood ears.

Other Thoughts
  • One of the things I enjoy about working out of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen is the occasional moment when the ingredients hit the hot oil in the wok and the fragrance is spot on, conjuring a sense of familiarity in me, even if I can't remember exactly with what dishes, where, when, I've smelled it before.
  • If you've read my older posts, you may have come across times when I've complained about my nearby Harris Teeter. In particular, the lack of freshness in produce and seafood due to low turnover, as well, of course, as not having most of the ethnic foods I want. Well, I tried checking out the closest Giant Food and Safeway, and am disappointed to say that actually, the Harris Teeter is the best there is within several miles of me. Giant was pitiful! Safeway was okay compared to Harris Teeter, if a little worse. Except it has much fresher ginger. Agh.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tounyuu Nabe 豆乳鍋 Soy Milk Hot Pot

Everyone loves hot pot! Though, I guess "hot pot" is actually based on the Chinese name of the manner of preparation: 火鍋 huoguo, meaning "fire pot". Notice that the Japanese nabe uses the same character as guo, and also means pot. Here, I'm just using a sauté pan to cook the ingredients before eating, since I don't have an electric hot pot, which would be great to have.

Niu Tou brand sha cha sauce
Usually the hot pot is kept hot while you eat out of it and add uncooked meats and vegetables to the pot as food is eaten. Finally, at the end, you add noodles to the broth to round out the meal. My family usually did cellophane noodles, though I know with nabe, udon noodles are popular. Then there's the dip component. Taiwanese people like to have some 牛頭 niu tou (Bull Head) brand sha cha sauce with raw egg to dip the cooked foods in. You can also just eat the food straight, as the broth will flavor it, too.

Tounyuu nabe is a soy milk soup hot pot, with dashi and potentially miso. I remember the first time I had it while I was in Japan and became somewhat obsessed with the soy milk addition to the broth. I'd never come across a soy milk hot pot before then. You can't use Western versions of soy milk, like Silk, however, because they try to make soy "milk" more like milk by adding thickening agents and other flavoring (like vanilla). You also have to be sure to use an unsweetened soy milk instead of the sweetened kind, both of which are commonly available in Asian supermarkets.

Grace Young notes, in Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, that the name "milk" is misused in this case. I agree. I assume the companies and people behind the development and marketing of soy milk to Western audiences were trying to make it more familiar and acceptable. It seems to have backfired, though, as I've heard many people say that their problem with soy milk is that they're expecting milk and instead get something very different. On the other hand, I can't think of a good word to use instead of milk for 漿 jiang. Jiang, like many Chinese words, can be transliterated in several ways, meaning broth, juice, syrup, or even other fluids.

For this dish, I referenced these two recipes. The pic at the top is before I added in the fish on top, for gentle cooking at the end. Neatly arranging the food in the pot is a Japanese nabe thing to do. Meanwhile, in Taiwanese and Chinese hot pot, we just heat up the broth and then start tossing food in to cook. Same with the Mongolian hot pot I had on my last trip back to Seattle.

sliced cod fillets

the food, arranged, before adding broth

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Wok Complete!"...?

See my new post, in which I discuss the resolution of the seasoning's "flaking" mystery, and other revisions to my wok/cast iron seasoning approach.

Well, I did it. I finally went and seasoned the whole inside of the wok. Well, except where the long handle meets the wok; that part's hard to reach. The seasoning had started to crack and flake in one part, so I tried to scrub it out and just season over the whole thing. Took a while to do, and I smoked up the apartment while I was at it. (Sorry, roommates.) Guess I should probably scrub the outside base and season that, too, as there's a bit of a rust ring where the wok rests on the stove-top... I think it'd probably just get scraped out as I used the wok anyway, though.

I'm not sure why it started cracking, though. At first I thought maybe it was the occasional steaming I'd use my wok for. But I'd done it previously without any problems. Rather, I think what changed in recent uses was that I'd started wiping up the oil more in my cleanup-seasoning, leaving little on the surface between uses. Someone on the web described the process as finishing with no coloring of your paper towel used to swab the oil around the wok. But I think that's wrong [edit: turns out that's just for the very first cleaning of your new wok before seasoning].
[update: hmm, still having flaking issues. I've seen suggestions that people mightn't have gotten off all the industrial wax or coating, but I had no issues for the first year of use, so I'm pretty sure it's not that. Maybe my original seasoning wasn't done in thin enough coats, and it's finally come to a head. Guess I'll have to try giving it a salt rub to start over some time.]

You can see previous stages of the seasoning in past posts here and here. Didn't really know how to do it then, but I know better now, thanks to the flaking. But that's how things go, right? You can learn to do something the right way, and stick to how you've learned it without problems, but it's when you make a mistake and mess things up that you really learn how things work. Just be sure to stay aware of what you're doing and what's going on so that you're able to catch the lesson.

[Can you name the oblique computer game reference I'm riffing on with the title...? #nerdiness]