Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rosie Does Szechwan! It's Hongshao Rou.

 The Hawthornes have wonderful neighbors.
I'm always unexpectedly gifted
by my lovely friends.

Recently, my across-the-canal-friend, Gervais,
came over bearing his sublime egg rolls.

Gervais' egg rolls are the ultimate eggrolls.
I've never had finer.
(Not even mine.)

Gervais and I started talking,
and he let drop the name of a certain cookery book
in his collection.
I immediately ordered it on Amazon,
accepting another $30 credit on a new credit card
and using my points on some other Amazon credit card. 
Amazon keeps sending me offers for a new credit card
with $30.00 credit,
and I keep accepting.
Then I get points on the card for using the $30,
and I combine the $30 credits and points on all the cards
It's wonderfully delicious!

Anyways, back to Gervais.

I started reading it today
 on the way to the Outer Banks Gun Club
so the Mister and the Middle and I
 could go out and target practice.
The Family that Shoots Together
Stays Together.

I was entranced by the story
of the birth of this book.
It's the story of a friendship 
between Chiang Jung-feng and Ellen Schrecker,
along with her husband, John Schrecker.

The Schreckers ventured to Taipei, Taiwan
for Hubby Schrecker to pursue his Chinese language studies
and for the Couple Schreckers to pursue their love of Chinese food.

I was particularly drawn to this description
 of the Schreckers' journey:

"Our personal journey to a love of Chinese food is a story in itself, an odyssey that took us from the Cantonese restaurants of Philadelphia to a knowledge of what we came to call the zhen wer, the true taste of Chinese cooking.  My husband majored in East Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he haunted the local Chinese restaurants.  He could read Chinese and courted me in Chinese restaurants, where he would order dishes I had never heard of.  He soon taught me all he knew.  By the standards of Cantonese restaurant cooking in 1961, we were experts in Chinese food.

Then we went to Taiwan, where John was to take advanced language training.  Our illusions quickly disappeared; we had not begun to experience real Chinese food.  Its tastes and textures were always vivid, clear, and bright.  American Chinese food by contrast was muddy, bland, and crude.  Instead of smothering everything with a thick concoction heavily laden with cornstarch and monosodium glutamate, the chefs of Taipei usually relied on the cooking process itself to produce delicate, unobtrusive sauces."

Just, WOW!

I love stories that start out like this.

It only gets better:

 When we came back from that first glorious year on Taiwan, our worst doubts about American  Chinese restaurants were confirmed.  They were not preparing real Chinese food.  They were cavalier about altering recipes; we were now knowledgeable enough to be shocked when they served the famous Szechuan chicken with hot peppers and peanuts made with snow peas and cashews, or a simple Pekingese dish of lamb and scallions similarly touched up with snow peas and smothered in a thick brown sauce.  In frustration, we spent hours reminiscing with friends who had been to East Asia, analyzing how the "true taste," or "zhen wer," differed from what we were getting, and why it was not being produced.

In 1969, the Shreckers returned to Taipei on academic leave
and had the good fortune to find Mrs. Chiang,
a master of Chinese cooking.
She agreed to return to America with the Shreckers
to look after their children as well as to cook.
Could Szechwan home cooking
be successfully transplanted to America?
 Could the right ingredients be found?
Mrs. Chiang was used to cooking over an open fire.
Could the American kitchen be adapted to her methods?

Bottom line -  yes to all.

The cookbook is a collection of Mrs. Chiang's recipes,
written by Mrs. Shrecker,
with Mr. Shrecker acting as translator and collaborator.
The cookbook is limited to Szechwan cooking.
It is neither a translation of a Chinese cookbook 
nor an adaptation of Chinese cooking for American tastes.
As Mrs. Shrecker writes,
"We have undertaken to provide recipes
that will allow the American cook 
to produce the 'zhen wer,'
the true taste of Chinese food....
Our goal is to allow the American cook 
to learn about and recreate the true taste of Chinese food.
With care, attention to detail, and practice,
it can be done.
The zhen wer will not disappoint you.

Well, I don't know about you,
but after reading this, I'm excited.

As the Happy Hawthornes drive to the gun range,
I'm reading Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook
and picking out tonight's dinner.

Tonight's dinner is hongshao rou,
AKA red-cooked meat.
I happen to have every ingredient on hand.

In Szechwan,
meat meant pork and everybody raised pigs.
Mrs. Chiang's family had nine or ten big black ones
that lived in three small huts in the back of their house.
The pigs were raised for market,
but Mrs. Chiang's father always saved one pig for themselves.
Her father would butcher a pig right before New Year's
and her mother would make a year's supply
of hams, sausages, and salted meats.

"The meat from the family's pigs was incredibly fragrant and delicious, a far cry from the bland products of our chemically raised porkers.  This was because the pigs ate almost as well as the family.  Not only did they get table scraps, but they were also fed a special fodder plant called saocai, which was so fragrant and flavorful that the family used to eat it as well."

 I have pork on hand since I recently made
my ersatz version of Sweet and Sour Pork,
which I'm sure the Shreckers would look at
and sadly shake their heads at the horror of it all.
Maraschino cherries!
Canned pineapple!
I've never had the real deal,
so what do I know?
I do know that it tasted pretty darn good.

Each recipe in the cookbook comes with a little story behind it
and I particularly liked this one.
Mrs. Chiang recalls,"When my maternal grandmother visited us my mother would make a big pot of hongshao rou, red-cooked meat. My grandmother had lost her teeth, and her stomach couldn't tolerate peppers any more,but she loved to eat, especially rich meat dishes. A hongshao rou was the perfect way to honor her. When properly prepared, it is simmered for so long that the meat is almost disintegrating and is soft as paste. Its rich, dark sauce is spicy and fragrant with star anise, but it is not hot. In a sense, this is a Shanghai-style dish because it contains no hot peppers or hot pepper paste, as do most Szechwanese hongshao.  And it uses sugar ,which is typical of the region around Shanghai."

Ingredients for Mrs. Chiang's Hongshao Rou or Red-Cooked Meat:

2 pounds pork, cut into 2-inch cubes  (I used a sliced pork loin.)
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
3 scallions, tied in a bunch
2-inch piece ginger, smashed with flat side of the cleaver; you don't have to peel it.
5 garlic, cloves, smashed then peeled

 Prepared veggies.
I kept the diced potatoes
in water to prevent oxidation.

3 TB peanut oil
1 TB sugar
4 whole star anise
2 TB Chinese rice wine or sherry
6 TB soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup water

Heat wok or pan over moderate flame for 10 seconds, then add the oil.  Let the oil get warm, but nowhere near as hot as it usually gets for stir-frying. 

Add sugar and stir it carefully for 20 seconds, being careful it doesn't burn.  It will turn brown.

Turn up heat and add ginger and pork cubes.  Stir fry for 1 minute, making sure they are well coated with the caramelized sugar.

Add the garlic cloves and stir fry for another 1 1/2 minutes.

Toss in the scallions, carrots, potatoes star anise, sherry, soy sauce, and salt.

Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes, without stirring.  Cover and cook 7 more minutes.

Add water.  Bring to a boil over high flame and let it boil vigorously for 5 minutes before lowering the heat and covering the pan.

Simmer the pork for 1 hour, or until it becomes very soft.

Add in the sugar to the not-so-hot-hot oil.

Stir carefully and let brown.
Do not let it burn.
And don't worry, you'd be able to smell it if it started to burn.

Turn heat up and add in smashed ginger and ...

 ... add in pork cubes.

Stir fry a minute,
coating well with caramelized sugar.

Add the garlic cloves
and continue to stir fry for 1 1/2 minutes.

Toss in the carrots ...

... the scallion bundle ...

...  the potatoes ...

...  star anise ...

... the sherry ...

... the soy ...

...  the salt.

Bring to boil for three minutes.

Cover pan and continue cooking 7 minutes.

Add the water.
Bring to boil over high flame
and let it boil vigorously for 5 minutes before covering the pan
and lowering the heat.

This was insanely good.
Dare I say zhen wer was involved?

I didn't cook it to a paste or disintegration.
I like some substance to my meat
and, unlike Mrs. Chiang's maternal grandmother,
I still have all my 32 teeth.

 The pork was extremely tender.
 There are concentrated flavors here
that I'm not used to.

I served this with my bean salad
for an eclectic mix.

  I heartily recommend making this.
Such a different direction.
Big flavors and intensity.

I loved the heat of the star anise -
not a hot heat, but a subtle, rich, elusive heat
that I bet most people would not be able to identify.

I can now.
Ever since I had the ethereal pho
at Peking Garden Chinese Restaurant
in Larned, Kansas
on our last Great Adventure.
Who'd a thunk! 

Mr. Hawthorne is leery of the star anise.
Reminds him of Indian food
and, sadly, he is not yet a fan of that cuisine.

I, however, am excited by new cookbook -
Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook.
I'm looking forward to making more dishes.

I gave the book to Mr. Hawthorne this afternoon,
asking him to check it out and pick something.

He picked out Grand Duke's Chicken with Peanuts,
AKA gongbao jiding.

Stay tuned for another Szechwan meal.
Hopefully, we'll get some more zhen wer action going on.

Did I tell you I was excited about this book?

1 comment:

EAM said...

Rosie, next time you pass through on the way west, plan to stop in Carrboro. Fabulous Szechwan place if you ask for he right menu.