KitchenTigress: October 2010

Spring Onion Pancakes

葱油饼 are pancakes made with thin layers of dough wrapped around chopped spring onions.

Spring onion pancakes are best enjoyed hot from the pan, when they're crispy, flakey, and fragrant. When you tear the pancake, the soft, fluffy layers inside separate easily. Good 葱油饼 isn't excessively oily although it's fried in hot oil.

Follow these tips to avoid soggy, oily and rubbery spring onion pancakes:

1. Spring onion pancakes are made with plain flour but not plain flours are the same. Two flours may have the same amount of protein, but one stretches much better than the other. For spring onion pancakes, you need to use flour that stretches well.

2. Roll the dough as thinly as possible, but not so thin it tears when wrapped with spring onions. Thinner layers make pancakes more flaky and fluffy.

3. The quality of spring onions is crucial. If you can't get good spring onions, don't bother making 葱油饼. The small, thin ones (leaves about ½ cm wide or less) with purple stems are my favourite.

4. Use high heat for frying, but not so high that the oil smokes. High heat is needed to make the pancakes brown, crisp, and puff up so that the layers of dough are soft, fluffy and distinctly separate.

5. Put enough oil in the pan to reach the entire bottom of the pancake. Why? Because pancakes need high heat (refer to point #4). Oil helps conduct heat from the pan to the pancake.
Spring onion pancakes are made with just 5 ingredients: flour, spring onions, water, salt, and oil. If you get them right, they're delicious. If you get them wrong, try again.

(Recipe for 8 pieces)

350 g plain flour
2 tsp salt
6 tbsp vegetable oil
120 g thinly sliced spring onions (aka scallions and green onions)

1. Dissolve 1 tsp salt in ½ cup (120 ml) freshly boiled water. Drizzle over flour. Stir till well mixed. Add ¼ cup room temperature water. Knead till smooth, 10 minutes or so. Dough should be tacky but not enough to stick to hands. If too dry, wet hands once or twice whilst kneading. If sticky, sprinkle with some flour. When dough is smooth, roll into a ball with edges tucked underneath. Cover and set aside to rest for 30 minutes.

2. Dust work surface with flour, sparingly.

3. Divide dough into 8 pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a ball. Flatten with palm. Roll out as thinly as possible. Brush dough surface with about ½ tsp vegetable oil, leaving ½ cm margin around edges. Sprinkle with fine salt to taste (a large pinch or about 1/8 tsp). Sprinkle with 2 tbsp spring onions, to the edges. Roll up like a Swiss roll, tightly. Pinch edges to seal.

4. Twirl dough so that it looks like a snake coiled up. Flatten top down with palm. Roll out gently into a thin layer, pressing the middle harder and the edges more gently. This allows the edges to puff up more when fried, thus making the inside layers more distinct and flakey. Try not to break the dough. A few small leaks are OK but everything inside spilling out isn't. Repeat with remaining dough, redusting work surface sparingly when necessary.

5. Pan-fry pancakes in hot oil over medium heat till golden brown on both sides. Whilst frying, press middle of pancakes gently to increase contact between dough and pan. Lower heat if oil starts to smoke. There should be a bit of oil floating in the pan at all times. Do not put too much oil in the pan in one go. Drizzle more as you fry, especially after turning pancakes over.

6. Drain pancakes on paper towels after frying. Crush between palms to break up layers before serving. Scrumptious when piping hot.

7. To eat, tear a small piece with your hands or a fork and pop it in your mouth. If you bite into the whole pancake, you'd flatten the layers of dough and destroy the flakiness. The mouthfeel wouldn't be good, and all your hard work would be wasted. 

Minced Pork & Olive Vegetables Stir-Fry

If you're wondering what on earth "olive vegetables" are, it's olives and salted mustard greens cooked in vegetable oil till everything is a dark green mush. And what a marvelous mush it is!

The strong flavours from the olives and mustard greens meld together and mellow during the long hours of cooking. The taste is like olives, but better. It's more complex, more nuanced, rounder, smoother . . .

Olive vegetables are an absolute delight with plain rice porridge, straight out of the bottle. But I would say that, wouldn't I? I'm Teochew and "olive vegetables", aka 乌橄榄菜, is a Teochew specialty. It's one of our many ways of preserving vegetables.

Honestly though, I swear I'm not biased. Why would anyone eat an oily, inky black mush – since the Sung dynasty, apparently – unless it tastes really good?

Making 乌橄榄菜 is a long, tedious process. Want to see how it's done in China? Here's a video – in Teochew (!) with Chinese subtitles – on a school teacher turned farmer turned businessman who's made good producing 乌橄榄菜 (catch him around 3:40 looking mighty pleased with himself as he relates his success story):

The weather's been really hot lately, so hot I can't fathom the thought of eating rice. Give me porridge, please! Porridge is so much lighter, and requires less effort since no chewing is necessary.

I also can't fathom cooking anything elaborate in this heat. The quicker, the easier, the better.

Nothing is quicker and easier than stir-frying minced pork with 乌橄榄菜. I don't have to cut anything except for a few cloves of garlic. Which takes all of five seconds if you whack 'em hard with a cleaver à la Martin Yan. The pork, because it's minced, takes all of two minutes to cook. It's done before I get all hot and bothered. Now that's what I call a cool dish for a hot day . . .

(Recipe for 4 persons)

60 g 乌橄榄菜
3 large cloves garlic, peel and mince coarsely
300 g coarsely minced pork
light soya sauce to taste, 1 tsp or so

1. Drain 乌橄榄菜, reserving oil.

2. Heat wok till very hot. Add 1 tbsp oil drained from 乌橄榄菜. Heat oil till very hot. Add garlic. Stir-fry till translucent over medium heat. Add 乌橄榄菜. Stir-fry till fragrant and garlic is lightly golden. Increase heat to high. Add minced pork. Stir to break up lumps. Keep stirring till pork turns opaque, 2-3 minutes.

3. Taste pork, then season with light soya sauce if necessary. Mix well. Turn off heat. Plate and serve immediately with rice or porridge.

Pear & Snow Fungus Sweet Soup

Cantonese sweet soups (糖水) are usually served as a dessert, but they're not like desserts in any other culture.

Everyone regards desserts as an evil temptation that they should avoid as much as possible, except the Cantonese. To them, desserts aren't indulgent or sinful but a necessary health tonic for the body.
That's right, desserts are a health food! Isn't that an awesome idea?!

Forget the nasty stuff like wheatgrass and flax seeds. Heath food Cantonese style is what you want!

There're many restaurants in Hong Kong that serve only sweet soups. A lot of these specialty eateries are packed with people, even late at night.

Do the customers feel guilty when they're tucking into something sweet and yummy, sometimes just before going to bed?

Not at all!

Why would anyone feel bad about eating health food?

If they're feeling listless and tired, a bowl of red bean soup would give 'em an energy boost.

Having an acne breakout?

Red wouldn't be the right colour. Instead, go for green bean soup which is also good for eczema and lowering cholesterol.

Looking for smooth, milky white complexion? That calls for almond milk or steamed custard.

Been coughing lately?

Sea-coconuts and pears to the rescue.

Does black glutinous rice with coconut milk and mangoes sound good?

I hear it improves digestion.

Worried about hair turning grey?

Forget coconuts. Black sesame soup would do the trick . . . 

I haven't come across a sweet soup that cures cancer but there's something for just about everything else!

I had two bowls of pear and snow fungus sweet Soup (银耳雪梨糖水) after dinner. My throat, which had been quite dry for a few days, feels OK now. Worked like a charm, and it was a light and refreshing dessert to boot.

Who says you should avoid desserts? When it's a Cantonese sweet soup, you should have a second helping!

(Recipe for 4 persons)

1 piece dried snow fungus (雪耳/银耳), about ½ palm size or 10 g
2 big or 3 medium Chinese or Japanese pears (about 550 g)
1½ tbsp Chinese bitter almonds (北杏), rinsed
1½ tbsp Chinese sweet almonds (南杏), rinsed
10 Chinese dried red dates (红枣), rinsed and pits removed
rock sugar to taste, 70 g or so (or light brown sugar if not available)

1. Soak snow fungus in water till soft, about 20 minutes. Trim dirty, tough ends and discard. Rinse thoroughly and tear into bite size pieces.

2. Rinse, peel, core and quarter pears. Cut each quarter into 3-4 chunky pieces.

3. Put all ingredients except rock sugar in a pot with 6 cups water. Bring to a boil. Simmer gently, covered. Check after 45 minutes. There should be enough water for ingredients to just float freely. Top up if necessary. Or increase heat slightly if there's too much. Simmer another 15 minutes if you like snow fungus crunchy, or 30 minutes if you prefer it soft.

4. Season to taste with rock sugar. If you like, discard pears which would be quite tasteless after the long simmer. Serve hot, chilled or at room temperature, as dessert, afternoon tea or supper. It's up to you. May be stored in the fridge for 2 days.

Lemon Tarts

When life gives you lemons, make lemon tarts. They're much better than lemonade.

If you don't have free lemons from life, go buy some. Lemon tarts are worth it.

My lemon tarts are very lemony and tart. There's about half a lemon in each small tart.

If you like lemon tarts that aren't tart, this isn't the recipe for you. My tarts aren't for lemon wimps.

Are you a lemon fiend?

If you are, my sunshine yellow tarts will give you a lemon high. Just one bite will make your eyes spring wide open with a "Ding!"

The best thing about homemade lemon tarts is the homemade lemon curd. Eaten on the day it's made, it has a tartness that's really refreshing.

After resting in the fridge for a night, the tartness mellows. The curd becomes less sharp and more rounded. Mellow homemade curd is still very good and way better than those that are commercially produced.

Good lemon curd needs to go with good pastry. Mine is very buttery and very flakey. It's the perfect partner for the silky smooth filling.

The pastry I use doesn't need a rest before it's rolled and baked. The lemon curd is cooked separately on the stove. The cooked filling is poured into baked pastry shells and that's it, the tarts are done. This method is a lot quicker than prebaking the pastry shells, then baking the lemon curd in the prebaked tart shells.

Lemon tarts are good any day. Don't wait till life gives you lemons.

(Recipe for 4 tarts 10 cm wide)
Pastry (this is also sufficient for one 23-cm tart)
90 g unsalted butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp sugar
⅛ tsp salt
150 g plain flour
Lemon curd (scale up by 50% for one 23-cm tart)
50 g unsalted butter
100 g sugar
105 g lemon juice from 2-3 lemons
2 eggs, remove chalazea
½ tsp corn flour
1 tsp grated lemon zest

1. To make tart shells, preheat oven to 210°C (410°F). Put all ingredients except flour in a pot. Over medium heat, stir till colour darkens around the edges, about 5 minutes. Turn off heat. Tip flour into pot. Stir till thoroughly mixed.

2. When cool enough to handle, divide dough between tart moulds with removable bottoms, using about 60 g per mould. Reserve a small piece for patching up cracks after baking. Pat and press dough to form a thin, even layer. Bake till golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and patch up cracks if any. Flatten some reserved dough as much as possible between fingers. Press gently over holes for a few seconds once tarts are removed from oven.

3. To make lemon curd, heat butter, sugar and lemon juice in a non-reactive pot till melted. Slowly add mixture to eggs whilst stirring eggs with a spatula. Add cornflour and lemon zest. Stir till evenly mixed. Put mixture in pot. Heat using lowest setting possible, holding pot so that only half is on the stove. Keep scraping sides and bottom whilst stirring. If eggs start curdling, remove pot from stove. Keep stirring/scraping. Heat again after cooling down a bit. Curd is ready when it coats spatula, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust with a bit of sugar or lemon juice if necessary. Remove from stove. Continue stirring to dissipate residual heat, 2-3 minutes.

4. To assemble, divide lemon curd between pastry shells. Level and smooth top. Decorate with lemon zest, lemon slices or gold flakes (if life had given you strawberries instead of lemons). Cover (to prevent skin from forming) till curd is fully set, 10-15 minutes. Unmould and serve. Or keep chilled and covered in the fridge till ready.

5. When unmoulding, bottom of tart must always rest on a flat surface. Do not attempt to hold unmoulded tart in your hands. It would just crumble to bits.

6. To store, keep assembled tarts chilled for up to 2 days. Beyond that, curd may weep and soften pastry. Filling and shells may be kept separately and assembled just before serving. However, curd would have set so there wouldn't be a 'mirror effect' unless it's glazed.

Spinach with Salted and Century Eggs

There're a couple of vegetables I refer to as Chinese spinach. Yin choi (苋菜) is one of them.

I love yin choi because the texture is smooth when I cook it with minimal oil. Other dark green veggies would be gritty when there isn't enough oil.

Yin choi goes well with dried anchovies. I like the veggies stir-fried with dried anchovies that have been fried till crispy. That's quite nice.

Yin choi in dried anchovy stock – with maybe some fishballs or pork meatballs – makes a quick, delicious soup.

When I'm tired of pairing yin choi with dried anchovies, I use a mix of century and salted eggs. The veggies are poached, a nice change from soups and stir fries.

I love the dish because it's fresh tasting and there's hardly any oil. I first had it in Chinese restaurants and after ordering it several times, I decided to hack the recipe.

I thought making the dish at home would be easy, and I was right. It's just poaching a few leaves. How difficult can that be? Sometimes, I use yin choi. Other times, I use kow kei (枸杞, aka boxthorn and matrimony vine) like the restaurant version. Nothing to it at all.

(Recipe for 4 persons)

1 cooked salted egg, peeled and diced
1 cooked century egg, peeled and diced
350 g Chinese spinach (yin choi, 苋菜)
½ tsp salt
1 tsp oil
1 cup robust chicken stock
2½ tsp light soya sauce

1. Remove roots from spinach. Wash thoroughly and drain. Cut into pieces 7-8 cm (3 inches) long. If stems are old and woody, break them by hand instead. Tear off some of the peel on the stems as you do so. This helps make the stems more tender.

2. Blanch spinach briefly in boiling water with salt and oil. Drain and gently simmer in chicken stock, covered, till just soft and still quite green, 3-4 minutes. Add or reduce stock as necessary. There should be enough to cover 30-40% of the spinach. Drizzle with light soya sauce. Stir gently to mix well.

3. Remove spinach to a deep plate, leaving stock in the pot. Add salted and century eggs to the pot. Bring back to a boil. Simmer for 30 seconds, stirring gently.

4. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Pour eggs and stock over spinach removed earlier. Serve immediately.