Hidden in the glorious wildness like unmined gold.
~John Muir

A dried pantry must.

Wild rice is a grain harvested from four species of grasses from the genus Zizania. This now esteemed delicacy here has been historically gathered in both North America and China.

A pretender of sorts, wild rice is not truly a member of the rice family, although it is a grain producing grass, Oryza sativa, whose wild progenitors are Oryza rufipogon and Oryza nivara. They remain close cousins however, sharing the tribe Oryzeae. Wild rice grains have a chewy outer sheath with a tender inner grain that has a slightly vegetal flavor.

The plants grow in rather shallow and clear water in ponds, small lakes and slow flowing streams. Rising above the water surface, the flowering head is rooted in soft, mucky sediment with clusters of green, ribbony leaves which are tapered and float on the surface with stalks growing some 3 to 10 feet tall. The grain is eaten by ducks and other aquatic critters (as well as humans, of course).

Three species of wild rice are native to North America: Northern wild rice (Zizania palustris) is an annual plant native to the Great Lakes of North America, the aquatic areas of the boreal forest regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; Wild rice (Zizania aquatica), also an annual, grows in the Saint Lawrence River and on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States; and Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) is a perennial plant found only in a small area along the San Marcos River in central Texas. One species is native to Asia: Manchurian wild rice (Zizania latifolia), a perennial native to China.

Difficult to grow commercially and notoriously tedious to harvest, it was reaped from boats in open water, using beating sticks to knock the mature grains into holding containers. Now though, much of these water grasses are actually cultivated rather than harvested wild. Like other grains, wild rice must be winnowed to separate the chaff from the grain. In the box or bag, this dried whole grain commonly comes from Minnesota or Wisconsin and is high in protein, the amino acid lysine and dietary fiber, and low in fat — second only to oats (quinoa was third) in protein content per 100 calories

This black gold seems underused in many kitchens and cozies well with roasted, sautéed, and grilled meats, poultry or fish.

WILD & WHITE RICE PILAF

1 C wild rice
1 T unsalted butter
1/2 medium onion, peeled and minced
2 1/2 C chicken broth
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Pinch of dried thyme, crumbled between finger & thumb
1 bay leaf

2 C long grain white rice
1 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 t olive oil
1 t sea salt
4 C chicken broth or water

Heat the butter in a small saucepan. Add the onion and sauté for 2-3 minutes on medium heat, stirring. The onion should only sweat, become translucent, and not become brown. Add the wild rice and mix well, so that all grains are coated and they become somewhat translucent. Add the broth and the seasonings. Bring to a simmer, then cover tightly and cook for 50 – 60 minutes. For firmer texture, decrease cooking time, and for more tenderness, increase the cooking time. But, you should shoot for an al dente finish.

Try not to uncover the pan during the cooking process. Once the desired texture has been reached, remove from heat and discard the bay leaf. Drain excess liquid and fluff with a fork.

In the meantime, prepare long grain white rice (which takes less time). Place the rice in a large saucepan with the butter, olive oil, and salt, and chicken broth or water. Bring to a boil, uncovered, and then reduce the heat to the low and tightly cover the saucepan. Again, try not to uncover the pan while cooking. Cook for about 20 minutes and the rice is done when small dimples or holes appear on the surface, sometimes called “fish eyes.”

Fluff the white rice, combine the wild rice and long grain white rice together, then serve this exquisite biracial mélange. Then again, you could present this firm-sassy-wild-black grass alone.

Pourboire: sautéed mushrooms or other suspects could be added to the mix.

Advertisements

No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.
~Mahatma Gandhi

Buta no kakuni (braised pork belly) is most often associated with the southern Japanese island of Kyūshū, and in particular, the Nagasaki prefecture. The dish was reportedly adapted from a similar Chinese dish, called tonporo in Japan, that was introduced through the port of Nagasaki during isolationist times.

Formerly a secluded fishing village, Nagasaki’s first touch with the West was in the mid 16th century when a Portugese ship landed on nearby Tanegashima island. At the time, Japan was strife-ridden with potent feudal lords vying for supremacy, and the Portuguese possessed that equalizer in their ships’ hulls—firearms. So, Japanese provincial leaders, the daimyo, eagerly began regular trade with the Portuguese and even opened intercourse with mainland China with whom Japan had severed ties earlier.

A half century later, the Dutch expeditionary ship Liefde which was manned by a couple dozen starving sailors, arrived in Kyūshū. The Dutch captain somehow managed to win the confidence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Japanese unifier who had championed cultural seclusion and had just banned Christianity about a decade earlier. The Portuguese soon became unwelcome. Fearing colonization, the Japanese first persecuted, and then completely expelled all Portuguese diplomats, clerics, traders and their families. Enter the Dutch.

After Tokugawa’s death, shogun ordered the construction of the artificial, tiny island of Dejima (“exit island”) in Nagasaki Harbor. This mock isle became Japan’s single port and sole window onto the West yet was designed to keep that nether world at bay. A venue for lively cross-cultural merchant trade, the borders between propriety and pleasure on Dejima became blurred…a bizarre birth of trade relations between Japan and the Dutch East India Company that would endure for centuries.

Chinese ships first entered the port in the late 16th century and soon established trade routes there. Dutch and Chinese traders were the only foreigners permitted to enter Japan for over two hundred years, from 1639 to 1854. But, they were confined to certain ethnic enclaves: the Dutch to Dejima, the Chinese to the Tōjin-yashiki (“Chinese residence”). By the early 1700s, Nagasaki was welcoming hundreds of Chinese ships annually, and a notable portion of the population were from China. The influence of Chinese food culture on Japan, especially via the southern port city of Nagasaki, is palpable. In short, Nagasaki quietly boasts a singular Japanese cuisine that has benefited from Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese imprints. A paradox in a time of isolation.

Bona fide buta no kakuni? An authentic version? A genuine rendition? Faithful to the original? Perhaps not entirely. But, this is a close adaptation with some poetic license. As has been remarked earlier, fusion cuisine is far from a novel concept.

BRAISED JAPANESE PORK BELLY (BUTA NO KAKUNI)

1/2 T canola oil
2 1/2 lbs, uncured, center cut pork belly (without skin)

4 C water
1/2 C sake
1 T mirin
2″ piece fresh ginger, halved and smashed

3 C cold water
1 1/2 C shoyu
1 C sugar
2 star anise
6 black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks
2″ piece fresh ginger, halved and smashed

Steamed Chinese Buns (mantou)
Eggs, boiled, peeled and halved
Scallions, cut into 2″ lengths then lengthwise into thin strips
Daikon radish, peeled and thinly sliced
Sriracha
Hoisin

Sear
Heat the canola oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat until it shimmers and is before smoking. Add the pork belly, fat side down until golden, about 2 minutes. Turn and sear evenly on the other three sides. Do not allow the pan to smoke. Transfer the seared belly to a platter or sided sheet pan.

Braises
In a heavy Dutch oven or pot, combine the pork belly, water, sake, mirin, and ginger. Bring to just a boil over high heat, uncovered, then reduce heat and lower to a simmer, cooking for 1 hour. Transfer to a platter or sided sheet pan, then discard the liquid and clean the pot.

Next, place the water, shoyu, sugar, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and ginger into the same Dutch oven. Add the pork belly, and again just bring to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer. Cover and cook gently until the pork belly is quite tender and succulent, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Remove the pork belly, transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest. Meanwhile, remove and discard the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and ginger with a slotted spoon and discard. Reserve the braising liquid.

Press
Transfer braised pork belly to a deep baking dish. Pour enough of the braising liquid into the dish to just cover the belly. Top with a smaller baking dish and weigh down with small dumb bells, cans or bricks. Place in the fridge overnight. Once pressed, remove from dish and skim off and discard any fat that may have gelled on the surface.

Finish
Preheat oven to 400 F. Put the belly, fat side down in an ovenproof saute pan and add enough braising liquid to reach about 1/4″ up the sides. Cook in the oven, basting occasionally, until just heated through, about 15 minutes. Turn the meat over, and roast another 5 minutes, basting more often this time, until the belly is richly browned and glazed. Transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest some, then carve belly into cubes or slices depending on your needs.

Pour any remaining braising liquid into a heavy saucepan, bring to a simmer, and reduce to the consistency of a thinner sauce. (If boiled eggs are visiting your table, ladle some braise over the open halves in a bowl before reducing.)

Serve with whatever whets your appetite: steamed rice, Chinese buns, boiled eggs, scallions, daikon radish, cilantro, chiles, Sriacha, Hoisin Karashi (Japanese mustard), and, of course, the reduced braising sauce.

Tea + Duck, et al.

October 20, 2011

Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.
~T’ien Yiheng

With due cause…tea is a cultural icon, a ritual, even the stuff of ceremony and likely the most beloved libation on earth for centuries—sating rich and poor alike.

Tea is made from processed and cured leaves and buds harvested from various cultivars of an evergreen bush, Camellia sinensis. The plant usually grows on plantations in tropical and sub-tropical regions at varying elevations. The cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for easy access, and only the 1-2″ tops of the mature plant, known as flushes, are plucked.

The leaves of Camellia sinensis soon begin to wilt and oxidize if not dried promptly after picking. Leaf size and post-harvest processing, particularly fermentation, determines the type of tea. The word “fermentation” in tea speak refers to how much the leaves are allowed to undergo enzymatic oxidation during the drying process. The oxidation may be stopped by heat via pan frying or steaming before the leaves are completely dried.

The more ubiquitous tea types on the market are green, white, oolong and black. Green tea is withered with little oxidation and then heated to impart its unique flavor. A rather scarce commodity, white tea is made from silver fuzzed buds that are barely unfurled. It is unprocessed meaning that very little is done to the harvested leaf. Oolong is plucked and then laid out on withering racks in the sun which causes evaporation. The dried leaves are then tossed so the edges are bruised to allow partial oxidization. The leaves are fired to halt the oxidization process. Black teas are heavily oxidized and fully fermented making them deeply fragrant.

The Chinese character for tea is 茶, but pronounciations vary by region. One is , which derives from the Min Nan dialect while the other is chá, used by the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects.

Tea-smoking has a long culinary history in China. Originally, it was a means of preserving food, but later was strictly used to impart scents and flavors. This dish calls for a more robust black tea, Lapsang Souchong, whose fermented leaves are pressed into bamboo baskets and hung over smoky pine fires to infuse the tea with its notorious flavor. But, feel free to substitute another black, oolong or even green variety.

TEA-SMOKED DUCK BREASTS

2 (3/4 to 1 lb each) duck breasts, whole and boned, with skin on
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
Sea salt

Marinade
2 T Chinese rice wine (preferably Shaoxing)
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 T nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
1 t sesame oil
1/2 T honey
2 scallions, trimmed and cut into strips lengthwise

Peanut oil

Smoking Mixture
1/2 C dry Lapsang Souchong tea leaves
1/4 C packed brown sugar
1/4 C packed raw sugar (turbinado)
1/2 C dry rice
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
3 star anise

Toast peppercorns in a dry small heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking occasionally, until peppercorns are just fragrant, about 3-5 minutes. Allow to cool some, then coarsely grind in mortar and pestle or grinder.

Gently mix all of the tea smoking ingredients in a small bowl.

Pat the duck dry. Shallowly score the breasts in a diagonal pattern about 1/2″ apart, taking care to cut only into the fat and not into the meat. Season with the roasted, ground peppers and salt, massaging the mixture into the skin. Allow to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, whisk together the rice wine, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and honey. Add the scallions to this mixture and stir.

Place the duck either in a ziploc bag or tightly covered glass baking pan and cover with the marinade. Refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight and then transfer duck to a platter and bring to room temperature before proceeding. Discard marinade.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet or wok over medium high until nearly smoking. Sear the duck breasts on the skin side only until golden brown about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

To smoke the duck breasts, line a Dutch oven or wok by lining it with two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, leaving an overhang. Wrap the top in foil as well for easy cleaning. Spread the smoking ingredients in the bottom of the Dutch oven or wok and place a steaming rack about one inch above the smoking mixture.

Set the uncovered Dutch oven or wok over high heat and cook until wisps of smoke emit from the smoking mixture. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, on the rack. Tightly cover and smoke duck breasts, about 8 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand, covered, and additional 8 minutes for medium rare. Carefully uncover as smoke and steam will billow out. Remove breasts to a cutting board, loosely tent with foil, and let stand for 10 minutes. Carve breasts across the grain in thin diagonal slices and serve.

Pourboire: with minor variations, this same technique of (1) marinading, (2) searing or steaming and (3) smoking can be used for a whole host of fin and feather, even swine.

Five Spice

December 1, 2010

I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.
~George Bernard Shaw

An underused classic, five spice (五香粉) is intended to coalesce and balance an array of elemental flavors: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and salty. It need not be confined solely to Chinese cookery but can be integrated across the board. Fear not, as the blend does not have to be absolutely precise, freeing you to concoct your own favored ratios.

A word to the wise. Using stale spices to meld this mix may bring unrelenting reproach from the kitchen gods.

Fresh five spice should be used prudently as it can be uniquely pungent and intense. Just add in moderation and taste frequently, keeping the palates of your table dwellers in mind. A pinch goes far.

CHINESE FIVE SPICE

2 T fennel seeds
2 T whole cloves
2 T whole Szechuan (Sijuan) peppercorns
12 star anise pods
5 cinnamon sticks, broken into small pieces

Toast spices in a heavy, medium large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until aromas are just released. Do not brown or burn. Allow to cool. Combine all spices in mortar and pestle or spice grinder and pulse until mixture resembles somewhat coarse black pepper.

Store in an airtight jar in a cool dry place.

Huge lemons, cut in slices, would sink like setting suns into the dusky sea, softly illuminating it with their radiating membranes, and its clear, smooth surface aquiver from the rising bitter essence.
~Rainer Maria Rilke

An aromatic South Indian bend on a lemon rice recipe posted earlier. (Rice with Lemon & Pine Nuts, June 12, 2009).

Lemons are small evergreen trees (Citrus limon) native to Asia, which also bear the name of the trees’ sunny oval fruits. Although the specific regional origin is debated, it is believed to be somewhere in China or India, where lemons have been cultivated for some 2,500 years. They were supposedly introduced into southern Italy during ancient Roman times and were cultivated in the Mideast and North Africa by the 7th century. Prized for their medicinal value, Arabs scattered these tart orbs throughout the Mediterranean basin during their European conquests. The first European lemon cultivation began in Genoa during the mid-fifteenth century. Christopher Columbus introduced lemons to the New World when he brought seeds to Hispaniola along his voyages.

Not an atypical etymological path for the actual word. The Middle English word limon likely derived the Old French limon, which in turn probably came from the Italian limone—which reverts back to the Arabic word laymūn or līmūn, which comes from the Persian word līmūn.

LEMON RICE

1 1/2 C basmati rice
3 C water
1/2 t salt

2 T canola oil
1/3 C unsalted roasted peanuts

1/2 t cumin seeds, roasted and finely ground
1/2 t mustard seed
1 t turmeric
2 red whole dried red chiles, seeded and finely diced
1/2 T curry powder
Pinch of garam masala
1/4 C lemon juice
Sea salt, to taste

Freshly grated coconut, for garnish (optional)

Wash rice gently changing water several times until the water appears clear. Drain the rice and put it into the saucepan. Add water and salt, and bring to a gentle boil, then promptly reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook until the rice is tender and “fish eyes” appear on the surface, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and fluff the rice with a fork. Set aside, covered.

Heat the oil in a heavy sauté pan on medium heat. Sauté the peanuts until the change color to light brown, about 2 minutes. Remove the peanuts and place in a bowl.

Add ground cumin and mustard seeds and once the seeds crackle add red chili, curry, garam masala, turmeric, and stir briefly. Mix in the already cooked rice, peanuts and lemon juice, then season with salt to taste. Toss the rice in the pan so that the spices mix evenly in the rice, ensuring that the rice is evenly yellow. Much like paella, if the rice at the bottom hardens, do not scrape the bottom of the pan.

If desired, garnish each serving with grated coconut.

Pourboire: if locally available, add a few sprigs of curry leaves in lieu of the curry powder. The curry tree (Murraya koenigii), in the citrus family, has small, oval leaves with a pleasing aroma that hints of tangerine and anise.