05 September 2017

Food Lab 40: Chinese Banquet

With the holiday weekend upon us, your Food Lab crew decided a Food Lab Field Trip might be in order. So the Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist secured the gracious hosting services of undergrad/grad school professors/mentor/friends, Pathological Entertainer and The Wine Steward for a weekend of Chinese Banquet, Pathological Entertainer being a long time student of and expert in Chinese cookery.

The appetizer course on the table awaiting the guests 
Mad Kitchen Scientist started from the idea of the Chinese mother sauces, but Pathological Entertainer suggested that an all-saucey evening would make for a boring and inauthentic banquet, and suggested that we instead focus on classic Chinese flavors.

To back up: What is Chinese Banquet? If you've ever seen The Wedding Banquet or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?), you've seen Chinese Banquet in action. It's a celebratory multi-course meal created from a mix of tastes, textures, and techniques (making it a perfect Food Lab subject!), where (to quote the extensive Chowhound thread on the subject), the hosts aim to "provide his/her guests with a wide range of dishes, often including rare, fancy, or expensive ingredients or preparations that would not generally be seen at a family dinner."

Having agree on a "classic flavors" theme, we began work on our menu about a month ago. As Pathological Entertainer explained: "When I plan a banquet, I try to alternate types of flavors; saucy vs. dry textures; type of cooking (steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, etc); type of protein (meat, fish, shellfish, tofu, eggs) and so on as we move through the courses."

As our plan developed, we realized that we wanted to include:
  • Technique: red stewing
  • Technique: dumplings (both shao mai and "crystal" dumplings, a new item for Pathological Entertainer)
  • Ingredient: roast pork (despite the fact that roasting is not terribly common in Chinese cookery, as not all kitchens come equipped with ovens) 
  • A soup course (which is traditional, and Pathological Entertainer pointed out that she has an EXCELLENT hot and sour soup recipe and she was not joking)
  • Two "wow" dishes: diamond shrimp and Shanghai duck with handmade sesame pancakes
Our final menu ended up being an auspicious eight courses (which is considered lucky because the Chinese word for "eight" sounds like the word for "wealth"):
  • Appetizers (considered one course): Sichuan eggplant, seafood shao mai, Sichuan dry fried long beans, Chinese roast pork, red stewed eggs, marinated cucumbers, chive crystal dumplings
  • Hot and Sour soup
  • Diamond shrimp
  • Ma Po bean curd, gai lan with garlic and peanuts
  • Sweet and sour pork, stir fried julienne carrots and zucchini
  • Shanghai duck with sesame pancakes, scallions, and hoisin sauce
  • Almond floats with lychees and mandarin oranges 
  • Sesame candies and fresh lychees 
The only advance prep Pathological Entertainer had to do, prior to Saturday, was to hard boil the eggs and marinate the pork loin. On the way out of town, Chef Spouse and I hit the fish market to get the shrimp, and The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist swung by the local Asian grocery to get gai lan, fresh lychees, and fresh bamboo shoots. 

Saturday morning, we got coffee, got out the knives and aprons, and got to work. 

The first thing to go in was the eggs for red stewing, which is just a simple process of simmering them in water, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, and seasonings to taste (we chose sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, a few thick slices of ginger, and a generous amount of anise seed). 

We also started the duck simmering, in basically the same sauce (it starts out red stewed, then gets brushed with honey and roasted just before serving to crisp the skin). The roast pork also went in the oven. Then we went out to the garden to pick the long beans.

We didn't really start work until around 11 am, and the other guests were due at 6:30 pm, and I was worried, looking at that list of dishes to prepare that, even with five cooks, we might not make it. One thing I quickly learned from Pathological Entertainer is that THE KEY to Chinese Banquet is ORGANIZATION, and thankfully, it was not her first time at the rodeo. 

The appetizer course is planned around things that can be entirely cooked (eggplant, long beans, eggs, roast pork) or at least fully assembled (the crystal and shao mai dumplings) in advance. So while the eggs and roast pork were doing their thing, The Executive Committee, Chef Spouse, Mad Kitchen Scientists, and I started chopping: the eggplant, bread, the beans, lots of bean curd, chicken, mushrooms, pork, onions, red bell peppers, pineapple, carrots, zucchini, and gai lan. We then staged ingredients in groups by dish. Chef Spouse also made up the almond gelatin for the dessert, as it would need time to set. 

Staging Area Number One
Meanwhile, Pathological Entertainer made up the dough for the sesame pancakes so it could rest and got started cooking the eggplant. Mad Kitchen Scientist then started deep frying the long beans. They get deep-fried first and THEN dry fried with ground pork. He got a little over-enthusiastic with putting too many fresh beans (that contained a lot of water) into the oil and nearly set the kitchen on fire, but Pathological Entertainer is highly experienced with that and averted the danger.

(Come to think of it, The Executive Committee may be the only one of us who HASN'T almost set her kitchen on fire. That may be why SHE's The Executive Committee, and we're not.)

Ma Po bean curd in process
While the long beans were draining prior to their dry frying, Pathological Entertainer started the Ma Po bean curd and got me rolling on making the sesame pancakes. The process is pretty simple: you make two small disks, brush one side of each with sesame oil, pat them together with the oiled sides facing each other, and roll them out to the desired size. Mad Kitchen Scientist then cooked them up on two comals. The only hard part is that you then peel them apart WHILE they're still hot. The sesame oil gives a nice flavor and lets you roll them out by hand but still get them thin enough, at least after the cooking process helps them separate.

Pathological Entertainer then made the filling for the shao mai, which also serves as the seafood paste that allows you to stick the bread croutons to the diamond shrimp. She fried some up for taste testing, and then Chef Spouse and I assembled the shrimp and the shao mai, while she started work on the Hot and Sour soup (after a brief digression for me to re-cut the chicken that I had originally julienned too wide).

The roast pork and eggs had already come out of their respective cooking processes, so The Executive Committee assembled them on the serving plate.

They were then stored on the top of the chest freezer in the garage, aka Staging Area Number Two, and it's a good thing it was a cool day, because they joined the eggplant, the long beans, the trays of assembled diamond shrimp, the fruit salad that would go with the almond gelatin for dessert, the plates of assembled shao mai dumplings, the platter of the Ma Po bean curd, and the stir-fried carrots and zucchini out there.

By this point, we were getting down to it: we still needed to make the crystal dumplings (for which Chef Spouse had already made the filling) and the marinated cucumbers, the pork chunks had to be pre-fried for the sweet and sour, and the Shanghai duck needed to be covered in honey to await its final roast and it needed its scallion brushes cut.

Chef Spouse and Mad Kitchen Scientist took on the crystal dumplings. The dough is an odd mix of wheat (or potato) starch and tapioca flour that, when mixed together, looks a lot like Sculpy modeling clay.

The idea is that when it's steamed, it becomes translucent, so you can see the filling inside the dumplings. We were intrigued but skeptical. So we made up the dumplings and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, The Wine Steward was finishing up the menus, checking the compatibility of our various signs of the Chinese zodiac, setting the table, and plying us with cook wine (not to be confused with cooking wine), while The Executive Committee and I prepared the marinated cucumbers. Then Chef Spouse did final prep on the duck and Mad Kitchen Scientist fried up the pork chunks.

Soon it was time to get changed and get the dumplings steaming. The other guests arrived shortly, and Pathological Entertainer announced that dinner was served.

Chef Spouse and I had managed NOT to screw up assembling the shao mai, and the crystal dumplings WORKED (and sorry their picture is fuzzy, but they were actually still giving off steam when I took it). They were still opaque when we took them out of the steamer, but when they're exposed to the air, they become translucent. It's like magic.

We cautioned everyone not to fill up TOO much on the appetizers, because lots of other good things were coming, although the Sichuan eggplant was so good even Chef Spouse liked it, and eggplant is one of the few foods he's not fond of, and we all had a hard time stopping ourselves from consuming ALL the red stewed eggs.

The soup course followed quickly, and it was seriously the best hot and sour soup I've ever had. It was so good, it's the only recipe I'm reproducing here in full.

Hot and Sour Soup 

½ ounce dried Chinese mushrooms (about ½ cup before soaking)
1 c fresh shiitakes, julienned
1 pound chicken breasts, boned, skinned, julienned
2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 cups homemade chicken broth
½ cup fresh bamboo shoots
¼ cup white vinegar
 2 tablespoons soy sauce
 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger root
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups firm bean curd cake, cut into julienne strips (about 8 ounces)
Sliced green onions
Sweet and Hot Sauces (recipes follow but this soup is more than sufficient without added sauce)

1. Place mushrooms in large bowl; cover with warm water. Place plate and water-filled bowl on top to keep mushrooms under water. Let stand 30 minutes: drain, remove and discard stems and cut caps into julienne strips. If there are any dry spots, soak strips for longer.

2. Parboil the bamboo shoots for about 20 minutes (otherwise they are INTENSELY bitter) and julienne

2. Stir fry chicken in sesame oil in 3-quart saucepan until chicken is tender, about 5 minutes; stir in chicken broth. Heat to boiling. Stir in mushrooms, bamboo shoots, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, cayenne and black pepper.

** To hold, cover and refrigerate at this point.

3. Heat soup over medium heat just until it simmers. Stir together cornstarch and water; stir slowly into soup, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens slightly and all ingredients are hot, about 5 minutes. (the cornstarch thickening is necessary for the egg threads to form when you add the egg yolks).

4. Remove from heat; add egg yolks gradually, stirring constantly. Stir in bean curd. Serve in small bowls. Garnish with sliced green onions.

Pass Sweet and Hot Sauces in separate bowls.

Sweet Sauce
Makes about 1/3 cup
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Stir together sugar, vinegar and soy sauce until sugar is dissolved. Store at room temperature no longer than 48 hours.

Hot Sauce
Makes about ¼ cup
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon sesame seeds

Stir together pepper, oil and sesame seeds. Store at room temperature no longer than 48 hours. Stir just before serving.

The pace of the evening then slowed down a bit, as the remaining courses all required some last-minute prep. Fortunately, the kitchen was adjacent to the dining area, separated only by wide counter, so Pathological Entertainer could still enjoy the company and conversation while she finished up the mains.

We started with the Diamond shrimp, and they were a show-stopper. Chef Spouse and I weren't sure that the bread croutons would stay stuck as they fried, but we had forgotten that ground up shrimp is basically fish glue, and it worked like a charm.

Pathological Entertainer then stir-fried the gai lan a la minute and served it with the Ma Po bean curd.

Then it was on to the sweet and sour pork, accompanied by the carrots and zucchini.

Then it was the piece de resistance: the Shanghai duck with sesame pancakes, hoisin, and green onions (and like a dummy I forgot to take a picture, at least in part because I was stuffed and possibly a little drunk by that point).

Some of the guests had made candied walnuts to accompany dessert, which is also traditional, and which we enjoyed.

I will say that, giant food babies aside, a good time was agreed to have been had by all when the party broke up well after midnight, and we're already planning our next trip for next spring, likely taking on Moroccan cooking, which is another passion of Pathological Entertainer's and to which I can at least bring the experience of having EATEN my way through Morocco.

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