Thursday, April 26, 2012

Asparagus and Cloud Ear Stir-Fry

I could talk a little about how springtime means asparagus, but: (1) I think there are probably already a lot of other blog posts and articles about it (such as this one), and (2) I'm not extremely knowledgeable about seasonality. I totally support it (produce in season is cheaper and tastier), but I have to look up what fruits and vegetables are in season when, when I want to know.

So instead, I'm just going to say that I love dried mushrooms/fungus. Especially ones that rehydrate relatively quickly, like the cloud ears I used in this stir-fry, and these sliced, dried shiitakes that I got from Costco recently. The sliced dried shiitakes (a.k.a. black mushrooms) rehydrate much quicker than whole dried shiitakes (which you can get from Asian supermarkets). But then, of course, you can't use them for when you want whole or halved mushrooms.

It's great to be able to have these flavor and umami boosters readily on hand to toss into whatever you're making. I'd been trying out several of America's Test Kitchen's recipes in their The New Best Recipe book for asparagus before moving onto my own recipes. A couple thoughts about my experience with their recipes: (1) they're not great with Asian recipes, but then again, they're trying to adapt things to an American palate and groceries, and (2) I must be more sensitive to sourness than they are, as they always seem to call for more lemon/lime/vinegar than I'd prefer.

In any case, I made my own take on stir-frying asparagus, and after a couple iterations, I remembered my dried cloud ears in the closet and thought, "Why not?" And it's great. Or really, adding any mushroom/fungus into stir-fried vegetables. The big thing that I got out of the America's Test Kitchen notes, though, was to be sure to brown the asparagus. The flavor is excellent.

My recipe is below:

Stir-Fried Asparagus with Cloud Ear
Serves 4 as a side dish

2 lb. asparagus (once snapped, will be less than 2 lb.)
16 dried cloud ears, or other mushroom/fungus
4 TBS water

4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 TBS ginger, minced

4 tsp soy sauce
4 tsp cooking rice wine
1 tsp brown sugar
2 Thai chili peppers, sliced into rounds

2 TBS + 2 tsp peanut or vegetable oil, separate

  1. Place dried cloud ears in small bowl and add cover with warm water. Set aside about 10 minutes to rehydrate. Once rehydrated, trim hard parts and cut any larger pieces in half to be bite-sized.
  2. While the cloud ears are soaking, trim the asparagus by gently bending stalks in half until they naturally snap at the right point. For quickness and efficiency’s sake, I take a handful at a time, holding them loosely at the middle with one hand and at the base with the other hand and bend. They all snap at their own trimming points. Slice the asparagus stalks at an angle into roughly 1.5-inch pieces. Rinse and drain in a colander.
  3. Slice garlic and mince ginger, setting aside in a small bowl.
  4. Mix soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar, and chili pepper together in another small bowl and set aside.
  5. Heat wok or large skillet over high heat until nearly smoking and add oil.
  6. Add asparagus to wok and brown, stirring occasionally.
  7. Once browned, push asparagus aside and add 2 tsp oil, garlic and ginger, and stir-fry 30 seconds.
  8. Add cloud ears and water, stir-fry until dry.
  9. Add sauce/chili combination, stir-fry until mostly dry. Remove from heat and serve.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Shoyu Ramen, William Edition

I think I've perfected my shoyu ramen broth!* As discussed before, making ramen takes a lot of work, but the great thing is that you make products along the way that can be used in other foods, like the pork stock from parboiling the pork belly, which can be used for congee, and the soy sauce broth, which can be used to flavor congee, steep hard-boiled eggs, or used in stewing other dishes (like the Taiwanese lu rou, though their stewing soy sauces are a little different).

This time 'round, I even tried making my own ramen noodles! ...with limited success. I followed David Chang's recipe for alkaline noodles in the first issue of his Lucky Peach magazine (Wait, what? It's now selling at $150+ on Amazon from resellers? Ha). But without a pasta/noodle roller, it's really tough to roll out the alkaline hardened dough to a sufficiently thin thickness, unless you work a very small batch, in which case there are other issues. Pictured above was my second attempt, in which I tried to roll out a larger ball of dough, but couldn't get it as thin as I wanted, resulting in rather thick "ramen" noodles. Pictured below was my first attempt, in which I rolled out a small ball of dough**, but because of the hardness of the dough, the edges were ragged, meaning it was tough to get longer noodles out of it. Fresh noodles cook very quickly, too, so I also just overcooked the first batch of thinner noodles. Otherwise they looked and tasted about right.

trying to cut what I can from a small, frayed ball of crumbly dough

looks alright! But there's so little of it...and it turns out it's overcooked.

Here's my recipe for the chashu pork/soy sauce broth and shoyu ramen soup:

Chaashuu Pork and Shouyu Broth

1 lb pork belly 
2 cups soy sauce
1 cup cooking sake (rice wine)
1/2 cup honey
2 stalks green onions, green parts only, bruised with back of knife (Reserve the white part for garnishing the ramen)
2-inch piece ginger, washed and sliced thickly without peeling
3 cloves garlic, crushed
4-6 eggs

  1. If the pork is too big to fit into your pot, cut it appropriately, then tie tightly with cotton twine. If you don’t do this, the resulting pork will be flabby and unpleasant.
  2. Boil water in a large pot (about 2/3 the pot), and add the green onions, half of the ginger, and the pork. Boil for 20 minutes, skimming any scum that rises. Remove pork, discard ginger and green onion, reserving the pork stock for making congee.
  3. Heat the pork (still tied) in a frying pan without oil until brown on all sides.
  4. Boil the soy sauce, honey, and sake in the pot. Once boiling, add the rest of the ginger and the garlic.
  5. Add the browned pork into the boiling soy sauce mixture. Simmer on low for about 45 minutes, then remove from heat.
  6. Cover with lid and leave for half a day. (about 9-10 hours)
  7. Remove pork from the soup, untie the pork, wrap in plastic wrap, and place in refrigerator. Separate the coagulated fat in the soup for making fried rice, and strain the soup to remove the ginger and garlic pieces. Store in refrigerator.
  8. While the pork is simmering, hard-boil the eggs: put the eggs in a small pot, covering with cold water, and bring to a boil. Cook for 7 minutes from the moment the water begins to boil. Remove eggs from heat and cool in cold water before peeling. Put peeled eggs in a container or ziplock bag with the cooled soy sauce broth, steeping in refrigerator for about 8 hours before removing from soy sauce broth. Reserve soy sauce broth for making the shouyu ramen soup.

醤油ラーメン Shouyu Ramen

ramen noodles*
equal parts chicken stock and dashi (totaling about 1.5 cups per bowl)
soy sauce pork broth made above, to taste (I like about 1 TBS per cup of chicken stock/dashi mixture)
chaashuu pork from above, sliced
marinated eggs from above
green onions, chopped thinly
garlic, minced
any other toppings you like, such as: bok choi, pickled bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, nori seaweed, kamaboko, naruto, (both are types of fish cakes), etc.

*Pre-made, precooked, and refrigerated wheat noodles found in your local Asian supermarket. Alternatively you could try making your own ramen noodles or substitute another type, including gluten-free noodles.

  1. Add soy sauce broth to the chicken broth and dashi to taste, and heat over medium heat on the stove.
  2. Add sliced chaashuu pork to the soup to gently reheat.
  3. Cook the noodles separately, according to instructions on package, and drain.
  4. Throw the noodles in a bowl, add toppings, and pour soup over the ingredients. 

from the first batch: few noodles, but broth and pork were delicious. Eggs were steeping at this time.

*of course, I also think there's always room to experiment further, but this was solid.

**the other reason for my going for so small a portion of noodles is my wheat intolerance or allergy. I can  only handle a very limited amount in a 1-2 day period.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Seasons of Wok

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.

I think I finally have a good understanding of how to season a wok. You really just have to properly cook with and clean it, and the seasoning will build naturally--the short cuts don't work. At least, the practices that I had read and been following didn't work. Here's what I've found in my experience:

If you search the internet for information on seasoning a wok--or even look at the instructions that came with my Joyce Chen wok, which were essentially the same--they'll generally give you one of two strategies, or both:
  • Lightly swab your wok with vegetable oil, peanut oil, or lard, and roast it in the oven facing downward so the oil doesn't pool at the bottom. Allow to cool completely and repeat this several times.
  • Lightly swab your wok with vegetable oil, peanut oil, or lard, and heat it on your (gas) stovetop over high heat until smoking (turn on your fan and open a window), tilting the wok so that the sides are heated and carbonized, too. Allow to cool completely and repeat this several times.
This doesn't work. Or at least, the stovetop strategy didn't work for me. Over a long period of time, too. I couldn't try the oven strategy since my wok has plastic components that don't detach.

The problem is that with the stovetop strategy, the oil burns onto the wok surface in a thin, hard layer, but doesn't seem to bond to the carbon steel correctly. You actually get a dark, black coating very quickly with the stovetop strategy--in the first round, even; the black coating on the higher areas of my wok are from just one round of stovetop seasoning with canola oil (more on canola oil later). Because the carbon layer isn't bonded correctly, it eventually starts to crack and flake away as you cook with it. This took a very long time to happen to me the first time, I'm not sure why. After the seasoning started to flake the first time, subsequent attempts to season my wok the same way only resulted in cracking and flaking much sooner.

So what should you do? Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to building up your wok's seasoning; you just have to cook with it. I think the carbonization of the oil has to build up very gradually, and very thinly in order to season the wok correctly. If the carbonization builds too quickly and thickly, you end up building a false carbon shell rather than true seasoning.

But, there are practices you should follow so that the carbon seasoning can properly build up. Here's what has worked for me:

Cooking with your wok:
  • Use a bamboo spatula. Chinese-style bamboo spatulas have an angled, rounded edge, which is great for your rounded wok. The bamboo also won't scratch the seasoning that you're trying to build up. Here's an example of one. If you have a Chinese supermarket near you, you can definitely pick one up for cheap, there. Grace Young always says to use a metal wok spatula in her Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen book, but I find that this scrapes up the seasoning a fair amount. Certainly, the metal wok spatula, which is sort-of shovel-shaped, is convenient as a stir-frying tool, but not helpful if you're trying to build up seasoning.
  • Don't use canola oil. This is mentioned on various websites, citing "gunkiness" that results from using canola oil. I've found the gunkiness problem to be true, too, though I also worry about the thickness with which canola oil carbonizes, probably related to its gunkiness. Canola oil burns on to your wok very thickly, which means that even after one round of stovetop burning, the carbon layer looks very black. I wonder, though, if this makes it easier to quickly build up the false carbon shell that gets in the way of true seasoning. I also wonder if the thickness of canola oil carbonization negatively affects the high heat transfer that you want for stir-frying and browning without sticking.
    • I've found peanut oil to work well for me, though you still can't use the stovetop strategy to season your wok. As mentioned above, stovetop strategy leads to false carbon shell.
    • You want an oil with a high smoke point, since the whole point of cooking with a wok is to use high heat to sear your stir-fries.
  • Acidic foods like vinegar and tomatoes will tend to inhibit or eat away seasoning. However, as long as you're not soaking the wok in acidic substances for long periods of time, I don't think it's really a problem.
Cleaning your wok:
  • Rinse your wok with hot water. After cooking with the wok, turn your faucet to full blast on its hottest setting. Then use the jet of water to rinse out the wok. Afterward, if there are still little bits of burnt food left, clean them out with a bamboo cleaning whisk, and rinse again.
  • Get a bamboo wok cleaning whisk. This made a big difference for me. The bamboo is stiff enough to knock away burnt bits on your wok without damaging the seasoning as it builds up. The bamboo is actually too firm to use as you might a whisk for beating eggs. Rather, use the whisk and bristles in a sort of "pushing" motion to clean burnt bits off the wok, and not a "swishing" motion. Here's the one I'm using, which is a good size for a 14" wok.
  • Dry your wok over the stove. Put your wok over a medium flame to speed up the evaporation and ensure complete drying to avoid rust.
  • You DON'T need to stovetop-season your wok after cooking. As discussed above, this only leads to false carbon shell formation.
  • You DON'T need to swab your wok in oil after cooking. Guides will often say to rub your wok down with a thin coat of oil before storing to avoid rust. This is vague, though I think when people say this, they mean before putting your wok away for a long time. But why would you put it away for a long time? So, alright, if you don't anticipate using your wok for a long time and you don't have a good seasoning built up, then a coat of oil probably helps. However, if you use your wok occasionally even, as I do (anywhere from a couple times a week to once in two weeks), you don't need to coat it in oil.
What to look for:
  • A deep brown, matte surface. Properly seasoned, the wok surface will have a matte (not glossy) finish and be deep brown--not glossy and black. If it's glossy and black, that's a sign you've got a carbon shell forming.

In the photo above, you can see both black and brown parts. The black areas are where I had previously built up carbon shell. The deep brown is where the carbon shell has gradually fallen away as I cooked and cleaned my wok, revealing or making room for (?) the deep brown, true seasoning. Honestly, I'm not sure about the transformation going on here. When I've done the seasoning incorrectly before, the carbon shell has fallen away to reveal shiny, silver metal. As I'm just going through, cooking, cleaning, and cooling without after-cooking-stovetop-seasoning, my wok is slowly transforming without the cracking and flaking.

Here, you can see an example of glossy black carbonization. The higher areas of my wok still have the false carbon shell remaining from when I stovetop-seasoned it with canola oil. Were these areas exposed to more intense heat, as the bottom of the wok is, they would eventually crack and flake away. Still, it is a quick and convenient way to make your wok look prettier, rather than having just the bottom dark.

What to do if your wok is cracking and flaking. Unfortunately, if this is happening, you can't just stovetop-season over the flaking parts. The cracking and flaking will continue and spread. You just have to scrape away the flaking parts of the wok (generally the bottom area, which is in contact with higher heat) and start over.

In summary, if you are patient and work properly with your wok, the seasoning will gradually build up on its own. I hope my notes have been helpful, and happy cooking!