I have been on a cookbook-buying bender lately, even though we really don't have room for any more books and I already don't cook enough out of the books that I do own. There is just so much good stuff out right now. (I promise to do a post or two on new cookbooks and my cookbook collection in general soon. Don't you love knowing what other people's cookbook shelves are like? More fascinating than the bathroom cabinet!)
Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice is my latest baby, one I'd had on my wishlist since it was first announced. I own every one of her books and adore them all (even though I have yet to cook from any of them...until now). In fact, Fuchsia could take to writing cereal box copy and I'd probably buy every last thing her words adorned. I was thinking about it the other night and realized that, in my opinion, Fuchsia's the best living food writer out there these days. She makes everything she writes about - stinky tofu! cooking school in Sichuan province! chewy chicken cartilage! - utterly captivating.
Every Grain of Rice is Fuchsia's most recent book and it focuses on simple Chinese home cooking, with recipes sourced mostly from the south of the country. It's vegetable-heavy and beautifully photographed and, in short, will have you keeping your local Asian grocer in business as you keep trotting back for more ingredients, like black vinegar and dark soy sauce and dried shiitake mushrooms and chili-bean paste. (Actually, none of these things should cost very much at all. Which is sort of the point.)
Fuchsia's evangelical about the resourcefulness of Chinese home cooking, how light on the wallet and the waistline it is and what a shame it is that China's newfound wealth is corrupting a centuries' old reliance on simple things like vegetables and rice and a little bit of protein (far, far less than our Western diet could fathom). A bottle of black Chinkiang vinegar bought at my local Korean grocery the other day cost me less than 3 euros and it'll last me quite some time. So while you'll have to stock your pantry somewhat to get started with Chinese cooking, it's actually a very economical way to eat.
The recipe that jumped out at me on my last perusal through the book was a braised dish of chicken and dried shiitake mushrooms. Most of the recipes in the book require a wok, but while I actually own an authentic hammered-steel wok given to us for our wedding by a friend in Hong Kong, I don't have a gas stove. So the wok sits patiently in the basement awaiting the day that we move to an apartment that still has a gas line (not an easy feat in Berlin). And I try to find recipes in Every Grain of Rice that could conceivably be made in a different pan. (And yes, a flat-bottomed wok for an electric stove is at the top of my shopping list now.)
This braise sounded perfect - I was supposed to stir-fry the chicken and aromatics to start, but the bulk of the cooking was going to be braising. I figured this was one dish where I could circumvent the missing wok without too much trouble.
I've always been intimidated by Chinese cooking, just as I have been with Indian, for fear that I'd never be able to approximate the flavors and techniques of authentic Chinese food at home. But once again - ding ding! - it's nowhere near as complicated as it seems. What's crucial, besides assembling the correct pantry, is doing all the chopping and preparing before you start cooking. Because the cooking itself goes at lightning speed. The work is mostly beforehand.
In this case, you soak and chop dried shiitake mushrooms, chop chicken thighs into pieces roughly the same size as the mushrooms, peel and slice ginger and chop and bruise scallions. And that's it. After that's done, you put the pot on the stove and fairly fly through the rest of the recipe.
The chicken is briefly stir-fried before the ginger and scallions are added to the pan to let their aromas unfold. You pour in a bit of Shaoxing wine, the soaked mushrooms and their liquor, a bit more water, soy sauce, sugar and salt. This is cooked together for half an hour, during which time the broth goes a deep, rich brown. It's very exciting. At the end, you take off the lid from the pot and let the braising liquid reduce slightly.
What you're left with are chunks of tender chicken, thoroughly infused with the aromatic flavors of ginger, scallions and soy. The mushrooms are silky-soft. And the broth - the broth! - is so good that I wished I'd made an entire potful of it. It was like chicken soup that had died and gone to heaven?
Fuchsia Dunlop's Braised Chicken with Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Serves 4 as part of a larger Chinese meal or 2 as a main with rice and a vegetable dish
8 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 boneless chicken thighs
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
About 200 ml chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water to cover for at least 30 minutes. Then cut them into quarters, reserving their soaking water. Cut the chicken into similarly-sized pieces. Cut the scallions into 2-inch sections and separate the white and green parts. Crush the whites slightly with the side of your knife handle. Slice the green parts thinly and set aside.
2. Add the cooking oil to a seasoned wok or braising pan over high heat. Then add the chicken and stir-fry for a few minutes until lightly browned. When the chicken is nearly done, add the ginger and scallion whites and allow the hot oil to release their fragrance.
3. Add the Shaoxing wine, stir a few times, then add the mushrooms, their soaking water and enough stock or water to make up 300 ml. Add the sugar, soy sauce and salt to taste.
4. Bring to a boil, then cover the wok or pot, reduce the heat and simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid, increase the heat and reduce the liquid to thicken the sauce. Adjust the seasoning, add the sliced scallion greens and sesame oil and serve.