Monday, April 16, 2018

Smoked pork cheeks chez Huang

Pork jowls, pork cheeks… whatever you want to call them, these are bacon-y parts of the pig that you rarely can ever find in a supermarket, or even in a high end butcher’s shop for that matter. I find this truly odd. Every pig on the planet is going to have two of these lovely chunks of meat, so where do they all go?

As for the other parts of the pig, you usually can’t find pork belly with the skin on that often, either, but at least that gets turned into bacon. But those cheeks? They look very much like the belly and have the same delicious layering of meat and fat—ribbons of red muscle interwoven with strips of white lard. I do wish Americans would get wise to this great cut of meat. Italians are sensible folks who turn this into guanciale by curing it. (Ergo, I love the Italians.) So, pester your butcher to start offering this.
Bouncy, bouncy

To get started, you will need to find yourself a good butcher shop and put in an order for jowls. Not everyone will be able to accommodate you, so look around. The delivery of this cut of meat might take a while, so do not even think about making this on the spur of the moment. While you’re doing that, order two or four pig’s ears, since we soon will have spectacular recipe for that, too. As always, make sure the pig comes from a responsible farmer who gave it a great life. And order more, if you love this, and then freeze the meat, either raw or already prepared.

Today’s recipe is one that I developed myself, and it is one that I adore. I braise the cheeks in a highly seasoned broth before smoking them. The results are out of this world. What happens is this: the salt and herbs and spices in the broth work their way into the meat and fat and skin of the cheeks over the course of about three hours. The pork cools off and firms up, and then it is smoked over tea and rice, which makes this much like the most subtle, creamy bacon you ever imagined in your wildest dreams.

That's four cheeks
The good news is that the cooking doesn’t take much time at all… you just let the chunks simmer away, and later on you plop them into the smoker. That’s it. And before you serve them, the cheeks are sliced into thin strips that are then steamed, which encourages most of the fat the exit the cells, leaving behind that extraordinary Chinese concept called yóuérbúnì, or buttery without being fatty.

You should set aside a bit of time for the prep work, though. There’s no two ways about it. Cheeks come with the skin attached, and that is definitely what you want, but pigs are hairy creatures, and the enjoyment of their skin will require a bit of effort on your part. No free lunch and all that.

Arm yourself with Chinese food tweezers (or a pair of needle-nose pliers plus regular tweezers), as well as a razor of some sort. You will have to carefully pluck out all the hairs. This is not hard at all, especially if you do this after you’ve blanched the jowls, since this tightens the skin and makes the hairs stick up a bit. But it will require you to relax, find yourself a comfortable chair and some good light, and then you will be busy plucking out as many hairs as you can find. After that you can shave off any renegades.

I like to serve this meat steamed, which will render out most of the remaining fat. The meat turns into silk at that point. I serve it over cucumber ribbons, which have a slight sweetness and bitterness that contrasts perfectly with the smoked meat. As a final touch, I like to make a garlicky vinaigrette. Perfection.

Smoked pork cheeks chez Huang
Huángjiā xūn zhū sāibāngziròu 黃家薰豬腮幫子肉
Northern Chinese
Serves 12 to 16 easily
Massive dose of flavor

4 pork jowls with the skin on, about 4 pounds | 1.75 kgs
6 star anise
6 pieces dried licorice root
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
½ stick cinnamon
½ cup white liquor (like gaoliang), or gin
2 tablespoons sea salt
6 slices fresh ginger

¼ cup black tea leaves
¼ cup raw rice
1 tablespoon sugar
Spray oil
Love demands sacrifices

Vinaigrette (per jowl):
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce

1. At least 3 days and up to 2 weeks before you plan to serve these, rinse the cheeks thoroughly and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover them with water and blanch the pork for 10 minutes, and then wash both the pork and the pan clean. Let the cheeks cool off until they are cool enough to handle easily. Use Chinese tweezers or a combination of needle-nose pliers and regular tweezers to remove as many of the hairs as you can. Shave off any fuzz. Rinse the cheeks again.

2. Place the cheeks back in the saucepan and cover them with water. Add the rest of the ingredients up to the ginger. Bring the liquid to a full boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Slowly cook the cheeks until you can pierce them easily with a chopstick, about 3 hours. Remove the meat, shake off any spices, and discard the broth. Cool the pork and refrigerate it overnight.
Out of the smoker

3. To smoke the pork, place the tea, rice, and sugar in the bottom of your smoker. Spray the rack and lid with oil. Arrange the pork on the rack skin-side up. Set the smoker over medium-high heat and then adjust the heat to maintain a good stream of smoke, but so not that the smoke smells bitter, as this will lend a sour taste to the meat. Allow the pork to smoke for 20 to 30 minutes, turn off the heat, and let the cheeks sit in the smoker for another 10 minutes to absorb more smoke. When the pork is cool, transfer it to a container and refrigerate overnight, where it will be fine for a week or two, although it also can be frozen.

4. Just before serving, cut the meat on a diagonal across the grain. Set the slices in a heatproof bowl. Steam the pork for 30 minutes or more, and pour out the fat that accumulates into another bowl. (This fat is excellent for things like flatbreads, so keep it, if you can. It will stay in good shape as long as it is refrigerated in a closed container.) The pork is ready when the fat looks translucent. Serve as is or arrange it on a mound of cucumbers cut into thin ribbons.

5. To make a simple Chinese vinaigrette, lightly chop the garlic. Set your wok over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl it around, and then add the garlic. Sauté the garlic until it smells amazing, and then add the vinegar and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour this over the cucumbers and serve immediately.

Monday, April 9, 2018

All sorts of beef jerky...

Beef jerky is a big deal in Taiwan. And it’s so popular that you don’t need to go about making it yourself, since there are whole stores dedicated to nothing but jerky and other preserved goods. Taiwan is definitely fabulous in so many ways…

But it’s hard to find Chinese style jerky here. Some good Western style ones can be found, but nothing with that Chinese flavor we miss. Plus, I like tasting the beef, not just the marinade. And so I make it myself. 

Here are four different varieties for you, just 'cause I’m in a particularly generous mood.

You should use whatever kind of beef you like. The cut can be expensive or cheap, but I’d go for natural, grass-fed beef, whatever you do, because this jerky really tastes like beef. Some folks like flank steak, but London broil is about half the price. See what’s on special and ask your butcher what would be good.

It's officially snack time
I did something very similar to this recently at Whole Foods, and my favorite butcher got almost teary-eyed. He’s from near Guadalajara, and his grandma makes beef jerky, and I think I was unintentionally hitting all sorts of nostalgia buttons. I, of course, asked him how Grandma did hers, and he said it was just salt and pepper, with maybe a squeeze of lime juice. How did she dry it, I asked.

“She hung it outside on the clothesline, overnight, and then brought it in the next day, seared it in a pan really quickly, on both sides, and then it was done. Man, it was delicious!”

“Really?” I asked. “Didn’t critters get to it first?”

He smiled. “That’s always a problem. Skunks, raccoons, cats… sometimes we didn’t find anything in the morning.”

Cut on a deep diagonal to ensure tenderness
That's why I like to do my jerky indoors. And so I’m happy to say that you will be able to harvest every last piece of your jerky, because it’s really easy to do in the oven. Two baking sheets will provide just the right amount of space for the beef. You can cut the meat as thinly as you like. I like it really thin, as it makes the meat almost melt in your mouth. But if you like chewier jerky, by all means cut thicker; the only caveat is that you be sure to dry it out completely.

Each of these marinades can work with 2 pounds | 1 kg beef, so if you want to try all four, divide the marinades into fourths. Do note that Chinese marinades have oil in them, which gives the jerky a nice mouth feel and lovely shine. It also counteracts any dryness in the meat. And tastes good.

Chinese beef jerky
Níuròugān 牛肉乾
All over China
Makes about 1 pound | 500 g

Shave to form a point
Around 2 to 2½ pounds | 1 kg boneless grass fed steak (see headnotes)
Spray oil

Satay marinade:
¼ cup | 60 ml Chinese satay sauce (Ox Head brand shacha is good)
¼ cup mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
¼ cup regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 50 g sugar
4 teaspoons chile sauce of any kind, or to taste
4 teaspoons chile oil

Sesame marinade:
½ cup | 125 ml toasted sesame oil
¼ cup | 40 g toasted sesame seeds
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
Your four marinades
¼ cup | 60 ml citrus chile sauce of any kind, or to taste
¼ cup | 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine

Red-cooked marinade:
½ cup | 125 ml chile sauce of any kind, or to taste
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup | 50 g sugar

Hot and numbing marinade:
½ cup | 125 ml chile oil
4 teaspoons ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
½ cup | 100 g sugar

Ready to wallow
1. Freeze the steak for about an hour, as this will make it much easier to slice thinly. Set a damp washcloth on the counter and lay your cutting board on top of that to keep it from sliding around. Use your sharpest knife to slice the beef at an angle, making the slices as thin as possible. As the pieces become too large, rotate the beef 90° so that you end up shaving the steak into a point.

2. Mix one of the sauces in a medium, microwaveable work bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute and stir. Microwave it in 1-minute spurts until the sauce is a little syrupy, which will help it cling to the meat and fully season it. Cool the marinade. Add the steak and toss gently, using your chopsticks to break apart any clumps. Try to ensure that each slice is thoroughly coated in the marinade. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for an hour or up to overnight; longer is definitely better. Drain off any extra marinade.

On the rack
3. Place two racks near the center of your oven. Set a convection oven to 150°F | 65°C, or a regular oven to 175°F | 80°C.  Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or foil and set cake racks on top; 2 racks per sheet is good, as you want as much room as possible. Spray the racks with oil.

4. Use your fingers to lay the beef slices out flat on the racks, and try not to overlap them. Dry out the beef for about 2 hours, then swap the sheets top to bottom, front to back, so that they dry evenly. Check them after another hour. They should look leathery. Turn off the oven and let them sit in there for another hour. Taste a piece. It should be chewy with no moisture. Cool the jerky and store, preferably in a resealable plastic bag in a very cool place.

Monday, April 2, 2018

New and improved tea eggs

This is one of my husband's favorite snacks in the whole wide world. It's celebration food, comfort food, and his beloved eggs all rolled up in one. 

He will eat these from morning til night, and then get into them again at night if I don't watch him like a hawk. And so, I make these only on rare occasions because he just can't be trusted not to finish them off.

I often used to make a batch of these whenever we went down to Southern California to visit my mother-in-law. She was a terror on most days, but calmed down significantly if she got to munch on something tasty and, preferably, from her childhood. Tea eggs fit the bill perfectly. If a dozen managed to make the eight-hour trip down to her home (you can imagine how many I had to start out with), we would have a happy beginnings to our stay. 

The tasty factor
I've found a new and better way to make these, though, that gives me a softer, creamier center. The whites are tenderer this way, too. And when you think about it, this makes sense, for instead of boiling the bejeezus out of them, they are soaked in the marinade. In a ton of spices and herbs and other good things.

Tea eggs are as beautiful as they are delicious. Pasture-raised eggs tend to have a nicer flavor, more personality in the yolks, and whites that are almost sensual in texture. 

Use older eggs, if you can, as they peel easier, and smaller ones absorb the marinade down toward their yolks, which is always a good thing. For that reason, buy the eggs and set them out on a cool counter for a week or so to age them a bit. 

Prick the fat ends to release the air
Now, about that marinade. Most tea eggs turn out wishy-washy in color, with none of that deep crazing over the surface that tells you the aromas of cinnamon and soy sauce have worked their way down under the shell. When you do a repeated dip like here, the yolks get to stay cool and so not turn powdery, while the whites never have the chance to seize up. To get the flavorings down in there, I have to let you in on a few secrets:

First, you not only need plenty of seasonings in the form of the usual suspects—soy sauce, rice wine, warm spices—but you need to amplify them. And so, you’ll find a lot more of them than normal in the marinade here. But I’ve gone a step further by adding the oyster sauce. This adds a gentle richness and subtle scent of the ocean, and it works marvelously with everything else that’s going on in here.

Cradle them into the hot water
Second, you need tannins. That means lots of black tea. They will stain the eggs just like your shirt and your teeth, and for once this is something nice. Thanks to the tea, these eggs will look gorgeous.

And third, the secret most people aren't aware is even important when making tea eggs, is acid. The makes all the difference in the world when it comes to getting the egg whites to accept the marinade. For that reason you have Shaoxing rice wine leading the way, as well as a big handful of fresh orange peel, plus my secret weapon: orange juice and a lemon.

You might expect these eggs to taste rather citrusy as a result, but they don’t. The other seasonings tussle with the orange and lemon and vie for attention, so they mainly are there to provide the proper chemical reaction.

If only high school chemistry had been this delicious.

Creamy tea eggs
Your ice bath
Tángxīn cháyèdàn 溏心茶葉蛋
Makes 2 dozen

2 quarts | 2 liters water 
½ cup | 40 g black tea leaves
1 fresh peel from 1 large orange (remove the orange part only with a potato peeler)
1 stick cinnamon
3 star anise
1 teaspoon fennel
1 teaspoon Sichuan or black peppercorns
4 pieces dried licorice 
½ cup | 125 ml Shaoxing rice wine
A porcelain spoon works great here
4 slices fresh ginger
2 whole green onions
2 walnut-sized pieces rock sugar
¼ cup | 60 ml oyster sauce
¾ cup | 175 ml regular soy sauce
1 large orange, juiced
1 whole lemon

2 quart | 2 liters water 
2 dozen medium eggs at room temperature 
a large bowl of ice cubes and ice water

Try to make spiderweb patterns...
1. A couple of days before you plan to serve these, prepare the marinade by simmering all of the ingredients (except the orange juice and lemon) together for about 1 hour, or until the liquid has reduced by around 1 cup | 250 ml. Add the orange juice and lemon, and bring the marinade to a full boil before removing it from the heat.

2. Next, prepare the eggs: Bring the water to a full boil in a largish pan. Poke a small
hole in the round ends of the eggs and then slide them carefully into the water. Simmer for 7 minutes. Have a large bowl of ice cubes and ice water ready. 

... which will give you this
3. Slide the cooked eggs into the ice water to stop the cooking. When they are cold, lightly crack them all over with the back of a spoon. Bring the marinade to a boil and then add the eggs.

4. After a couple of hours, remove the eggs to a work bowl. Bring the marinade back to a full boil before returning the eggs to the pan. Remove from the heat and let the eggs completely cool down. Repeat this step four or five times, or until the eggs are as dark as you like them. Shell the eggs just before serving and cut them into wedges, if you like. The marinade can be reused.  

Monday, March 26, 2018

Taiwanese crunchy fried chicken legs

Just up the block from our wonderful little home in North Beitou was a fried chicken lady whose legs were worth dreaming about. 

Her chicken legs, of course. 

Like most Taiwanese joints, her chicken was seasoned within an inch of its life with spices and aromatics and lots of friendly liquids before being given a dry coating and fried up into crunchy lusciousness.

I know, you probably think that nothing really could ever improve on fried chicken legs once you got someone or other’s basic recipe. I would disagree. You definitely want these. 

Your serving suggestion
They are marinated in a heady mixture of soy sauce, rice wine, five-spice, and a dash of ground chile peppers along with a jumble of minced green onions, garlic, and ginger. 

This is so perfectly seasoned that you won’t be wanting or needing a sauce for the end product, as that would be overkill, plus it would tamp down the crunchiness. And crunchiness must be preserved at all times.

If you want to know the secrets to perfect Taiwanese fried legs, it’s these: The first thing is, you remove the bones. This is not at all difficult, and I’ve included a little tutorial below to help you through this, which should take all of two minutes per leg. 

Cut away the thighbone
And second, since you are now faced with a flat piece of meat, you should whack it with the back of your knife to both flatten it out and also break up the tendons, because those legs are chock full of tendons. I mean, something has to keep the bird upright, right?

Because no bones are in there, the meat cooks quickly and has no chance to dry out. Plus, since it has been turned into a virtual patty, eating becomes sybaritic because you get to munch your meal unimpeded by anything hard. Just turn your mind off and eat away, my friend. 

If the idea of removing the bones sounds scary or too much of a bother, you still can use this recipe to make some excellent fried chicken legs, no argument there. But this is a skill you should master. It’s not only easy, but it makes you look incredibly competent.

Release the whole bone
Two other little things I’m going to whisper to you here that will make this dish even better: Slip a little bit of baking soda into the marinade to tenderize the meat, and then combine the usual sweet potato starch with an equal amount of panko (dried bread crumbs) to offer yet another layer of crunch.

I’ll stop here. I know you want to get started…

Taiwan-Style Fried Chicken Legs
Táishì zhá jītuí  台式炸雞腿
Serves 2 as a main dish over rice, 4 as an entrée

1 teaspoon minced or grated ginger
1 large (or 2 small) clove garlic, minced
Original leg vs. boned
1 green onion, trimmed and minced
⅛ teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon finely ground chiles, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 whole chicken legs (thighs and legs attached) with skin on
6 tablespoons | 12 g panko (Japanese dried bread crumbs)
6 tablespoons | 70 g sweet potato starch (sweet potato flour)
Frying oil
Pickles of some sort, like dakuan (Japanese pickled yellow radish) or these mustard pickles
Steamed rice
Whacked-up meat side

1. Get out a medium work bowl and mix together the ginger, garlic, green onion, baking soda, five-spice, chile pepper, black pepper, soy sauce, and rice wine.

2. Pat your chicken legs dry with a paper towel and set them skin-side down on a plastic cutting board. (You want to be able to really get this clean afterwards, so use plastic instead of wood for cutting up poultry.) Working on one leg at a time, use a long, thin knife to slit open the meat over the thighbone. Remove as much flesh as possible as you scrape up and down the bone, then go around the top of the bone to release it. Now cut around the knee joint. Finally, cut down the length of the leg bone to the ankle, and then clear the meat off the bone. Cut around the ankle, and you are done. Repeat with the other leg.
Dredge the legs

3. Lay the legs skin-side down on the cutting board. Use the back of a heavy knife to whack away at them for a minute or two, as this will flatten the meat and tenderize the tendons. Pull out any enormous white tendons you run across while you’re doing this. Place the meat in the work bowl, toss around to darken each piece, and then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to a day or so.

4. Just before serving, combine the panko and sweet potato starch in a clean work bowl. Dredge one of the thighs in the panko mixture, turning it over and lightly patting the dry coating into all the nooks and crannies. It should be a solid white. 

Fried to a deep brown
5. Set your wok over medium-high heat and add an inch | 2 cm or so of frying oil. When the oil is almost smoking, slide the chicken patty into the oil and over with a spatter screen, if you like. Fry the chicken until it is golden brown, and then turn it over. Fry it again on both sides to achieve a deep brown color. Remove from the wok and let the chicken rest on a plate while you repeat this step with the remaining leg. Cut the legs crosswise into strips and serve hot, preferably with some pickles and hot rice.