"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Char Siu and Chow Fun with Chinese Barbecued Pork and Snow Peas

The whole time I was making both Char Siu and Chow Fun, I was pretty much convinced that I was doing it wrong. In fact, I was thinking about not posting at all about them because I didn't think I had quite captured the essence of these recipes.

Asian food is where I feel at a disadvantage with no photos to emulate. I'm not a photo-cookbook gal, but that's because most everything I cook is Western and I can visualize it easily.

Let's start with the Char Siu. In case your Chinese isn't up to snuff, I think that translates to "barbecued pork". If you were to go to Chinatown (I think I go once a year for dim sum in Boston) you might see these but they'd be scary bright red.

The recipe is pretty straightforward--marinate in tasty stuff, roast over water pan while basting. I just wasn't sure if I had cut the pork right--the recipe says to cut the shoulder along the grain into long strips 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. This is where my anxiety started. The pork shoulder was about an inch tall--did that mean to cut it up into, say, 8 blocks of pork an inch tall and an inch and a half wide? (all the while I'm turning the pork this way and that, figuring out which way the grain went). Could that be considered a "strip"? I didn't think so.

Anyway, I went with my first notion, and after marinating and roasting it looked like this:

At this point I could see that the smaller pieces definitely looked better--crisper and more saucy--and I was regretting my earlier cutting decision. And I'll confess--those small pieces didn't make it very far out of the oven before they went into my mouth. Mmm.

Well, on to the Chow Fun. By the way, I have to stop for a moment and tell you that usually if I see a recipe embedded in a recipe, it's a deal-breaker. Like, a long list of ingredients, with one (or more!) being something like this: tomato sauce (page 117). So Chow Fun lists the char sui as an embedded recipe, but the char siu looked so easy I went along. Well, also there's the whole "I"m cooking the entire book thing".

Anyway, here are some things I discovered while I was shopping for the Chow Fun. You can't buy peanut oil anymore. Where has it gone?? Another thing I discovered: Stop n Shop, for some idiotic reason, stocks dried rice noodles in the fresh pasta section. Why? Why?

Being unfamiliar with these ingredients, I didn't cotton on to this fact until I was at home, saying Hmmm, these don't feel that pliable. No, I had to soak them in hot water. More anxiety. Would it be right? Also, this stuff is the equivalent of angel hair pasta, maybe even thinner. Would THAT be ok?

I have a lovely deep wide flat pan that is perfect for stir-fries. And even though I suck at shopping and cutting the ingredients for Chinese food (obviously) I am opinionated enough to tell you that unless you have a stove that looks like this:

...there's no point in cooking with a wok. Why? Because the idea of a wok is that there is even HOT temperature on the bottom AND the sides. Notice how all those woks are sitting in nest-type things? That's what they do. The older ones (I'm told) just had holes in the top of the stoves and the rounded bottoms were exposed to fire below.

Can you duplicate this on your little flat-top stove? No, you cannot. Can you buy an expensive stove to replicate a Chinese restaurant kitchen stove? Yes, you can.

But it would be much less expensive for you to buy a wide, flat-bottomed pan that will heat evenly, that will fit YOUR stove. The snow peas will not sneer at you, I promise.

On with the cooking. It's standard stir-fry stuff--hot pan, cook ingredients in order of density, add sauce at end.

Hm. Now here I had some issues. The sauce (which was supposed to be complemented shortly thereafter by a cornstarch mix) was instantly absorbed by the rice noodles. Sluuuuuuurp! So, I left the cornstarch out--nothing to thicken up!

Here was the final dinner bowl:

Tasty? God yes. Did I wake up at 5 am starving? Yes, I did, but that's ok. And the next time I see fresh rice noodles--wherever I am (they must be somewhere)--I will snatch them up so I can try this again.


droidy said...

Hi hi (: Your blog and its archives have kept me company during late night feeds of our recently-ex-utero baby boy, so I thought I'd de-lurk and drop a comment - the char siu looks pretty damn good, if I may say so as someone with a chinese background (: There's a pic here of a non-scary-red but made from scratch char siu here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/cookandchef/txt/s2264630.htm
I think the rice noodles that the recipe was asking for were more like the ones you can see in the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shahe_fen

I've always known them as hor fun. Can't really help you on where to buy these besides unhelpfully saying the fresh ones are found in the fridge section of an asian grocery, but if none exist in your area, then it makes it hard to find... that, and I live in Australia so YMMV with what you can find and where it is (:

The rice noodles you did find are used too, and soaking them is what needed to be done so all is good there! Axtually - if you know where you can find the noodles that are used for pad thai, thsat's what they were asking for if you wanted to use the dried sort...

The wok thing - it is very hard to replicate the wok thing at home especially the way it's set up in a restaurant kitchen, but hot and continually moving is good (:

I'll stop rambling now cos this is getting to be rather a long comment!

Melissa Bach Palladino said...

droidy, welcome! Congrats on your baby boy, and I hope you'll comment often. I had a feeling those pad thai noodles were what they were after...

A funny story about Chinese noodles. I used to take karate from a rather eccentric fellow who was very proud of his real training in Chinatown (in Boston). He told me about his teacher, whom he revered, who gave him a really cool Chinese nickname--Lo Fan. He didn't figure out the joke until the two of them went to lunch one day.

Lo Fan (for those who don't know) is a type of noodle that is white, wide, and fat.