30 March 2011

Szechuan feast

peanuts on the boil

You need to eat with lots of other people to get the best of Szechuan food. All this food fed ten or eleven people.

Aromatic peanuts (lu hua sheng) are just raw peanuts boiled with fennel seeds, star anise, Szechuan pepper, cloves and cinnamon for forty minutes. A good thing to have on the table before the meal starts. There's a moments confusion when you bite into them and find they're starchy and glutinous and not crunchy but they are very nice and dead easy to do. You can taste the anise quite clearly.

Spring rolls were crafted by my expert co-cook from cabbage, carrot, spring onions, shiitake mushrooms, bean-sprouts and pickled bamboo shoots. Delicious, the mushrooms added a welcome chewiness and the bamboo crunch.

Steamed aubergine (hong you qie zi) is again, super easy. Slice the aubergine (I omit the salting stage often specified by cooks/books including FD and have never had any problems) and put in a steamer with any flavourings you like. We went for fermented black beans, pickled chopped chilli and dried chilli flakes (just Turkish ones) but you could of course go for ginger, garlic, chopped spring onions, pickled vegetables or anything you fancy.


The wonder of the steamed aubergine is its texture: nearly as satisfying as a vigorously fried version, but thirstily drunk on water vapour rather than oil. An unexpectedly sweet smell emanated from this. They exuded lots of liquid which took on a sugary, malty taste that combined well with the spice of the chillies.


Cucumber salad (qiang huang gua) was just cucumber with the middle scooped out dressed with toasted dried chilli, Szechuan pepper and sesame oil. I forgot to smack these!

Mopo tofu - we had Hunan style with shiitake but sans meat to accommodate vegetarian brethren/sistren.

these are about 70p from Chinese supermarket - get involved!

The recipe in FD's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province specifies no less that four different preparations of chilli - chilli-bean paste, dried chilli, fresh chilli and salted chilli. Amazing. Check a full recipe for mapo tofu.

all the flavourings ready for adding to the tofu

the finished article

Twice-cooked pork (hui guo rou) is normally done with pork belly I think. I had some fatty chops  described as Chinese chops or something similar (they were streaked with fat and not your classic bacon shape one) and used those. You gently poach the pork until it's just cooked, then cool. It's then sliced thinly and fried till the fat runs. Chilli bean paste, black beans, sweet wheaten paste (I used Hoisin which a guy in a Vietnamese supermarket in Dalston suggested) are added and then spring onions chucked in at the end. I also went for some red pepper too, which gives the dish a bit of colour. They'll need a few extra minutes to start to soften.

Veg-wise we had cabbage, kale and bean-sprouts stir-fried with garlic and dressed with toasted sesame oil and Chinkiang vinegar.

in a pretty pink bowl

All in all a lovely meal to have with friends.

28 March 2011

St. George risotto

The horrors of terrinegate scarred me deeply. Not since I used up the last of 2009's annual leave to stay at home and cook Mark Hix's horrid rabbit terrine have I been so bitterly disappointed by a pig's trotter. The meat from the recent terrine was put in the freezer (alas, the shame was not so easily hid) for a later point when I, at last recovered, could take it from its chilly home and erase the ignominy of that best forgotten day. That time is now.

It's time, in fact, for a St George risotto. I just made up the name up to refer to do a risotto but with, err, English ingredients. I'd never done it before but it seemed like a good idea. The ingredients didn't really present any problems - plenty of leeks to start, barley has to do instead of rice, cheddar for parmesan and finished with the crisp meat. And how about a bit of mustard to flavour it all? Pork-Leek-mustard-cheddar. Nothing if not classic combos.

  • bacon or gammon or sausages
  • barley
  • cheddar cheese
  • lots of leeks (more than you think) and maybe a little spring-onion
  • peas
  • English mustard and a pinch of stock

Fry the leeks in butter. I wanted them to feature quite prominently so used more than might be expected. I've got mad love for the leek. Add the barley (as if doing normal risotto). Add stock gradually. Don't worry about stirring too slavishly: the barley seemed perfectly comfortable with me nipping off every so often and leaving it alone. Brown the pork in a pan - you are going to need something with a bit of fat. When the barley is cooked but still toothsome stir in the cheese and English mustard (be neither timid nor extravagant), thrown in a handful of frozen peas and finish with the meat.

looks the part, eh?

It's great! The starch of the barley works perfectly and combines with the leeks, gluey when broken down, to produce a pleasingly sticky consistency. The barley has a nice springy texture that is lacking in rice.

PS Mince and Skirlie did a St. Andrew's version - check it out! Great idea.

24 March 2011

Spicy braised fish with whole garlic (da suan shao yu)

cold, dead eyes

Just when you thought those spicy Szechuan sauces couldn't get any better... Whole garlic cloves - genius. This dish consists of a thick spicy sauce featuring all the usual suspects – chilli bean paste, ginger, spring-onions and dark soy – but this time with whole garlic cloves as well. An initial softening stage is required to partially cook the garlic and a ten minute spell of peeling is also needed. FD suggest cooking the fish in with the sauce but I think to keep things really simple next time I’ll just fry the fish separately. That way it’s easy to control the speed and rate at which the fish cooks, crisp up the skin and prevent it disintegrating the sauce.

  • dense, meaty fish (I used more Billingsgate mackerel from the freezer)
  • chilli bean paste, ginger, lots of garlic, dark soy, a smidgeon of sugar, stock/water
  • spring-onions

Firstly prepare the garlic: peel a bulb of the stuff per person or more if feeling foolhardy. Fry on a medium heat for five to seven minutes with a stir every forty-five seconds. The skin should crinkle lightly but not darken in colour too much. The cloves should be moderately soft. Remove.

Next, make the sauce: fry a few tablespoons of chilli bean paste in oil for thirty seconds and then add quite a lot of chopped ginger. Give this another minute or so – by now relentless heady waves of loveliness should be rolling off the pot and you should feel reassured and gladdened by the scent of frying chilli. Add a little splurt of dark soy and then top up with stock (or boiling water and pinch on stock powder) and reintroduce the garlic. You need enough liquid to make plenty of sauce: probably about 240 mills per person. Bring to a light boil to finish cooking the garlic.

Meantime fry the fish (after slashing the body) with a little oil in any way you feel comfortable. A nice crisp skin will be provide admirable textural juxtaposition to the garlic nodules and spicy sauce.

When the garlic seems pretty cooked introduce a little thickener (corn flour, potato flour etc) mixed with a dash of water to add gloss and thickness to the sauce. Add some chopped spring-onion at the last minute – FD suggests using the greens only (which is the authentic thing to do) but what’s a man to do with a load of half eaten spring-onions in his salad drawer? It all goes into my pot and I give them a minute or two on the heat to break the rawness of the white parts. (I forgot to add them this time which is why they are casually sprinkled on top.)
should have put the fish and sauce on top of the noodles really

Dish up the fish and pour the sauce over it. We had cabbage (the cannonball-heavy compact white type) fried with whole dried chilli, Szechuan pepper, chopped pickled chilli and dressed with Chinkiang vinegar.

Another delight then: quick, easy and tasty as you like. I've run out of things to say about Szechuan food really. It's just seems so perfectly balanced: numbing, hot, sour, sweet, vinegary. It's flexible and good at accommodating errant or forgotten vegetables and odd bits of fish from the back of the freezer. It's relentlessly tasty and pretty spicy which is surely a major plus in the minds of right-thinking people everywhere. Perhaps I better just say I really like it. Hopefully I'm helping convince you that you may too.

17 March 2011

Big boy steak and chips

turnips, looking strangely beautiful

It's hard to add anything new to the description of good steak really - meaty and succulent, rich and savoury, umami-rich, sure. But nice steak sometimes really just tastes of cow. And I guess that's as it should be.

  beef and spinach

So for this meal it's all pretty simple really. A lovely porterhouse (or is it T-bone...?) courtesy of Markymarket (follow @markymarket twitter) and spinach for the greens - an echo of grass for the cow on the plate. Fried potatos and turnips and some horseradish mayonnaise and it's good to go - the rightly revered trinity of meat, starch and veg.


Turnips are brilliant, standard. Slices boiled to 90% cookedness then fried in duck fat are amazing. I am positive these would be a good snack to have with a few pints of ale.

The steak was cooked on a cast-iron ridged pan and rested for about twelve minutes.

Just enough left over from this beast for a salad of meat, turnip and potato and baby spinach dressed with the horseradish mayo. This looks like something you might get at Bread and Wine - should go down a treat for lunch!

7 March 2011

Fish soup with pickled greens (suan cai yu)

All this fun with chilli-bean paste had to end some time. It's regular and welcome appearance in my fridge, pan and mouth was making me forget the amazing Szechuan food that existed without the wondrous paste. It was time for a go at something else.

This soup with pickled mustard greens and fish looked just the ticket as I had some super fresh mackerel from a trip to Billingsgate in the freezer. I thought an oily and meaty fish would stand up well for itself in a hot and sour soup filled with pickled vegetables.

wonderful pickled mustard greens

Here is a recipe modified from FD.

  • one mackerel per person
  • one pack pickled mustard greens (300g)
  • 1l+ stock
  • pickled chillies (if you have no Szechuan ones use Turkish)
  • Shaoxing wine, ginger, garlic
  • bunch spring onions

Firstly fillet the fish and pour a little salt and Shaoxing wine over the fillets.

Next you need a stock. If you have any fish stock to hand use (or maybe a light chicken one, just?), otherwise make a quick stock with the spines and heads of the fish, some appropriate spices and a pinch of veg stock. I boiled the bones (after smashing open the heads) with Szechuan pepper, a couple of dried chillies, fennel seeds, star anise, false cardamom and a scant handful of dried oyster and porcini mushrooms for some depth. I also added a small amount of Gentleman's Relish, containing as it does mainly anchovy and salt, this is a good short-cut when bolstering a fish stockStrain the stock well - lots of small black particles will have exited the fish heads and entered the liquid. My Le Creuset was a warlock's crock-pot of grey sediment and unidentifiable bits of mackerel matter by this point: muslin recommended.

false cardamom - amomum subulatum

Fry the garlic, chilli and pickled chillies, all cut fine. The yellow-green Turkish chillies that you get with kebabs worked great as they are a bit sour and suitably tangfastic. I asked Fuchsia Dunlop on her blog about the right pickled chillies to use and she was kind enough to reply. The ones in my previous post are a hot mountain chilli. What is needed here is the milder, sour ones - hence me using the Turkish option. I don't know what the authentic version of this soup tastes like and I don't think it matters hugely, but this substitution hits the right notes in my opinion.

Add the strained stock and mustard greens (cut ragged). Add the chopped spring onions. Bring everything to a simmer and leave for five minutes to bring things to a head.

Gently introduce the fish pieces and poach for a few minutes until cooked. FD suggests thickening but I loved the soup thin and broth-like. She also offers an option for chilli lovers of pouring on a layer of hot oil and Szechuan pepper. Now normally I'd be all over that, but the beauty, to me, of this soup lies in its soothing qualities. It is a balm, a tonic, and the pickled chillies give a gentle and suggestive heat that needs no augmentation. I saw somewhere the taste of the false cardamom described as 'antiseptic'. That's apt - initially I was worried by its strident flavour but the menthol notes of the pod assimilated well and added to the overall taste pretty well. You end up with a soothing savoury broth, the sourness of the pickled vegetables, some welcome squeak from the mustard greens and then the dense mackerel, surprisingly delicate in its liquid matrix. It tastes downright healthy this soup in fact.

note the beautiful, miso-like, fine particle cloud of the soup

I suggest eating this with a bowl of brown rice at your elbow.

2 March 2011

Boiled beef slices in a fiery sauce (shui zhu niu rou)

Until I had more properly explored Szechuan food through restaurants, FD's book and other sources the iconic dish to me always was (and still is to some extent) the giant bowl of hellish-red stock and oil strewn with chillies and Szechuan peppercorns. Having cooked and eaten a bit more now, I hope I have moved on from this perhaps slightly limited view of Szechuan food being hot-and-numbing above all else. This remains, though, a classic dish and something that needed to be tried at home. As ever, what I ended up with was a bit of an adapted version using the stuff I had to hand.

For three:
  • 4/500g beef (go for a cheap braising steak type cut)
  • dried chillies, Szechuan peppercorns, chilli-bean paste, Shaoxing wine
  • ~1l stock
  • crunchy veg (lots) - whole head of celery, Chinese lettuce or cabbage etc
  • spring onions

Marinade the beef (sliced) in Shaoxing wine and a little salt.

Fry the chillies and SPs in plenty of oil and add a couple of tablespoons of chilli-bean paste. Fry for sixty seconds, stirring.

Add the stock and two teaspoons of dark soy sauce and bring to a simmer. (FD talks about 'everyday stock' in lots of the recipes which is made with chicken bones and all the relevant spices. I never bother with that if I don't have anything to hand and just use water and a fat pinch of trusty vegetable bouillon and it's all good.)

Add the beef and crunchy veg and cook until the rawness of the veg is broken and the beef has lost any pinkness in the centre. Be very wary of overcooking the beef as more than a few minutes will make it tough. Add spring onions very near the end so they have a minute of cooking but retain a a certain freshness.

Try serving with smashed cucumbers. Smash them and chop them and salt them before doing anything else. After twenty minutes or so pour off the liquid they have exuded, wipe off any mega salt patches and mix in a mixture of sesame oil, rice vinegar, a little sugar, finely chopped raw garlic and pickled chillies (shown at the top) according to your preference.

Enjoy! I cooked some noodles in the broth but obviously it would be great with white rice too. You really don't need a huge amount of meat in a dish like this. The counterpoint of the vegetables and the starch of the noodles we ate balance it perfectly.