Li Qun Peking Roast Duck

It’s almost that time of the year again, Chinese New Years! I’m practicing my roast duck techniques and figured I should share my inspiration.

On my recent trip to Beijing, I really didn’t intend to eat Peking duck. I already had a few excellent roast ducks on my trip and figured there will be plenty of other tasty things to sample. Alas, the food gods had different ideas. The first day in Beijing my friend Mike and I were walking around in some hutongs (old alleys) when we suddenly saw this sign.

I yelled excitedly “Do you know where we are???” If you are a food nerd like me, you’ll recognize this place as feature on Anthony Bourdain‘s show or Gourmet Diary of A Foodie. So even though we had dinner plans in just 4 hours we had to go in and get a little “snack”. 

We got a duck between the two of us and added a plate of peanuts in vinegar to tie us over. After a seemingly eternal wait (but really only 25 minutes) our duck came. It was cut into even little slices with all the accoutrements.

The duck was, well, pretty much perfect. Crispy skin, juicy meat, not overwhelmingly greasy and just a hint of smokiness. Parts of the duck  fat that hung closer to the fire had puffed up a bit kinda like pork rinds.

 

Wrapped in a flour pancakes, with hoisin sauce, scallions and cucumbers. I really can’t think of a better afternoon snack! 

The ducks are roasted over fruit wood for a nice hint of smokiness.

Ducks being dried.

China is a fast changing place and who knows if this gem will survive the redevelopment going on all around it. But if you do go, just follow the duck graffiti…

Li Qun Roast Duck

11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Lu, Chongwen District, Beijing

Yes, you can make Shanghai Soup Dumplings

Hello readers, it is I, the invisible Asian! I know it’s been a while, I’ve been traveling (or as I like to call it research) and certainly eating well.

Shanghai soup dumplings (Xiao long bao in Mandarin) are tiny dumplings filled with pork, gelatinous soup  and steamed. So when you bite into it, a squirt of pork flavored soup gushes out before you finish the whole thing. They are possibly the best culinary contribution ever by the Shanghainese.  I recently spent some time in Shanghai (which you will hear more about later) and I went on a 5 day dumpling binge, all for  research of course. I had them plain, with deliciously rich hairy crab roe, thin skinned, thick skinned, from street side vendors to fancy restaurants. And occasionally I had them multiple times in a day…

Now that I’m back in San Fran and faced with more then oh a walk down the block to fill my dumpling cravings, my other option was obviously to make them. Besides, it’s a damn sexy food project. So there are 3 components to a good soup dumpling, the skin, the soup and the filling. The skin is really quite amazing. It should be thin as you can possibly make it, still hold all the soup in when steamed and ideally has at least 18 pleats on top. The soup is usually pork stock made from pork skin so the collagen forms a jelly. This is mixed in the filling and when steamed it turns into soup. I’m a traditionalist when it comes the filling, meaning pork. No crazy shrimp, mushrooms, water chestnuts and such. Heathens.

I did some research on the existing recipes out there and found quite the range. A lot of them are wildly inaccurate and while others are better they are also missing a few steps. Over the course of a few days and help from my friend Laura and Little Miss, I ended up with the following recipe. It’s based off the one from Saveur but with many of my own changes. And since we also decided to have some Dungeness crab that day, we had to make some with crab meat as well!

Soup aka Pork Jello:

There are recipes out there that uses store bought gelatin and chicken stock. I’m sure it’s still tasty but not traditional. If you can’t find pork skin then by all means use gelatin. I usually buy pork belly and cut the skin off.

  • 8 oz or so pork skin, a little more or less won’t matter too much
  • 3 big slices of ginger
  • 1 scallion
  • a couple pieces of country ham bones with a little bit of the meat still attached, I use pre-sliced Virginia ham. You can use just a bit of country ham without the bone but don’t substitute with regular ham.
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 tsp salt (or more to taste)

Cut the pork skin into big chunks, put it into a soup pot with the ham bone and enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 30 seconds or so, you should see some scum form. Now pour all the water and scum off and rinse off the pork and ham. This blanches the pork and makes for a clearer soup.

Return the pork and ham along with the rest of the ingredients to the pot.

Bring the water back to a simmer and simmer with the lid slightly ajar for 2- 3 hours.

Strain all the solids out and you will be left with a couple cups of pork stock.

Pour the liquid into a container and let it set in the fridge. After a few hours, you should have pork jello!

Now if you end up with a lot of pork jello, don’t worry. It freezes quite well, but it will end up looking like pork granita (which I’ll have to find a use for.) Just melt it in the microwave and re-gel it in the fridge. And as Little Miss pointed out, you can also mix in crab stock at this point. Just don’t dilute it so much the jello doesn’t set.

Pork jello cut up

Skins:

Ok, so you can chicken out and buy some dumpling wrappers like some recipes suggest. But you already made pork jello, so why quit now? You did make pork jello right? Be a man, grab a rolling pin and get your hands dirty. Making the dough is quite easy and really satisfying once you get the hang of it. Home made skins also taste so much better. By the end of the day, Little Miss and I were cranking these out.

For 16 dumplings

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 + cup hot water
  • pinch of salt

Combine the flour and the hot water in a bowl and use a wooden spoon to form the dough into a ball, you might need more water if the mix is too dry.

Flour a work surface and scrap out your dough on to it. Now knead the hell out of it. Knead until you think you can’t possibly knead anymore. Let it rest for a minute or two and then knead some more. The ball should be smooth, feels very solid but easy to stretch.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for an hour. The amount of kneading and resting is really key here. It lets you roll out paper thin skins without it breaking.

Filling: 

After my dumpling binge, I think I’ve found a standard for the filling. The pork flavor should really dominate, with a little hint of sweetness and ginger. Not too much garlic or scallions. More importantly, the texture. The ones I liked the best had a silky texture in the meat while too many had a grainy chunkiness to it. The solution was using a fatty pork mix, adding corn starch and then pureeing the mixture a bit in the food processor.

  • 6 oz fatty ground pork
  • 2 tsp. grated ginger
  • white part of 1 scallion, minced
  • 1 tiny clove of garlic, grated
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. Asian sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. corn starch
  • pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and  mix well.

Now transfer the filling into a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough paste. Not into complete mush but you want the chunks gone.

Making of the dumplings: 

Ok, finally the fun part…

Take out the pork jello. I like to have an equal portion of filling and jello. But it certainly doesn’t hurt too much if you use more or less. Use a fork to break up the jello into small pieces and mix in well with the filling. Don’t leave the jello in big chunks, it makes it hard to wrap the dumplings.

Taste the filling/jello mixture and correct for seasoning. No, I’m not telling you to taste raw pork. Take a spoonful and nuke it for 15 seconds.

Unwrap the dough and roll it into a rope on a floured surface. Then cut it into 16 pieces. So here’s where you might freak out. Cause if you done this the right way, those pieces are going to look like the size of a big piece of gum. And you are thinking, there’s no way that thing will ever be able to hold fillings much less soup. But have faith.

Size comparisons of the dough piece

Continue on, roll the dough pieces into a ball, squash them into a circle with the palm of your hands. Then take the dough circle in your fingers and lay one side on the counter, roll the rolling pin in from the outside edge and rotate every quarter turn. Ideally you end up with a 2 1/2 to 3 inch wide skin that’s a little bit thicker in the middle then the edges.

Now you spoon up about a table spoon of filling and start pleating. Go easy on the filling at first, you don’t want to overload it. I won’t even try to describe the pleating process. There’s a nice slideshow here.

Get your steamer ready, you can line the basket with wilted napa cabbage leaves or parchment paper with some holes poked in there.

Finished product. I really need a bamboo steamer!

Steam the dumplings for 8 minutes over medium heat and eat! I like to dip mine in Chinese black vinegar with slivers of ginger in it. I tasted a few brands and this is the one I’m currently using, it’s the most similar to the ones I had growing up.

Chinese New Year

Every year I celebrate Chinese New Years with what else but a big feast? Sadly this year both Little Miss and Princess couldn’t make it due to ahem, personal obligations. But I did have a few guest cooks that volunteered to take on dumpling duties!

I never take Chinese New Years lightly, usually I shop the day before. Then start prepping that night and get up early the day of the dinner to start cooking. I think I owe it all my my grandmother who would start prepping the big dinner multiple days ahead. She would soak her own sweet rice and hand ground the flour with a big stone mill. She would buy the chicken and duck ahead of time and fatten them up for a few days in the courtyard before killing them. I can’t say I would ever bother to do all that but if I had the time, who knows?

Some dishes come and go but I do have my personal favorites that re-appear year after year. My favorite, braised pork belly. This year I changed it slightly by adding some dry marinated mustard greens much like the pork at Shanghai House and then braised it on the oven. I always have a whole steamed fish that I added fried pickled green beans and chilies. Another repeat is steamed fuzzy squash stuffed with stir fried chicken, fresh water chestnut and bamboo. Rounding out the rest are abalone and bamboo (see earlier post). Cold eggplants with a spicy sauce. Chinese celery and tofu salad. Bok choy and shittake mushrooms. Edmame with tofu skin and mustard greens (which was a surprising hit). Tea eggs made with quail eggs. I always seem to have on dish that doesn’t work quite well which this year was the shrimp in tea sauce, oh well! And Laura and Constanza made three different kinds of dumplings of mushroom, shrimp, garlic chive and pork. One happy eater said it was the best dumplings he’s ever had! And everyone was happily eating leftovers for days…

Anyway, on to the pictures!



And the money shot… Pork, sweet pork.

And for a fun little animation of us cooking.

All About Abalone

This is a long overdue post. Over the holidays I had some free time to kill, and since one of my New Years resolutions is to cook more with unusual ingredients I decided a trip to May Wah was in order. They had some fresh bamboo shoots and the abalone was on sale so why not?

For those of you who never cooked with fresh bamboo shoots before, the fresh and the stuff that comes in a can are totally different beasts. The fresh stuff is surprisingly sweet but takes a bit of prep work. First you have to peel it down to the tender/non-hairy shoot. Then you have to boil it for a good 20 minutes or so and finally you let it cool in the liquid and then it’s ready. The whole boiling and cooling process is key, otherwise the bamboo shoots end up being very bitter and astringent.

Peeled and unpeeled bamboo shoots

I’ve never cooked with abalone before and there seems to be two schools of how to cook it to make it tender. One advocates quick cooking while a lot of chinese recipes demands long cooking times to soften the abalone. So I decided to try both!

Abalone and it’s liquid

First I steamed a piece of the abalone in it’s broth for an hour. This made the abalone unbelievably tender, almost melting. I ended up making a braised abalone with bamboo shoots in a soy flavored sauce in the clay pot. Yummy!

Before

After

Then for the quick cooked abalone, I sliced up the rest of the unsteamed abalone and made a stir fry of bamboo shoots, country ham and abalone. This abalone was definitely less tender than the steamed but not so much as to be tough.