Thursday, February 7, 2008

Year of the Rat

The kitchen of my childhood was a remarkable place. More often than not -- and I really mean that -- all surfaces were clear of clutter so that ingredients could take center stage. The knife block was set aside so that flour could be scattered across the countertop to receive a heaping mass of bread dough; utensil crocks were nestled between the toaster oven and the refrigerator to make room for yet another bowl full of prepped vegetables; a teapot was temporarily relocated, sacrificing its home on the stove for a simmering soup that was about to outgrow its pot. Sometimes it was just the four of us creating this cherished upheaval in the service of dinner for the nuclear family. Sometimes (luckily, many times) we tore the kitchen apart with the help of beloved friends and extended family, which made the chaos and airborne flour and delicately splattering cooking oil all the more memorable and fantastic.

I remember these egg rolls falling into the latter category: they were a dish we made when company was coming. My parents had a regular crew of neighbors and friends who comprised what they called "Dinner Club" in the '80s. They would also host more free-form parties with guests that did not necessarily know each other; when each person arrived s/he would be assigned, along with a person who wasn't his or her spouse, to the last-minute prep and cooking of a particular dish that fit into the evening's menu. Though it sounds like cheesy getting-to-know-you racket, Mom and Dad insist that it was a quality good time filled with appropriate adult shenanigans and that it wasn't at all like a reality show. Of course, by the end of the evening everyone knew each other quite well (this had nothing to do with the wine). To a 10-year-old witness, it looked so sophisticated. I couldn't wait to be old enough to cook, and have friends who were old enough cook, so we could have cool parties like this.

I can see why Mom and Dad used this egg roll recipe for such occasions: lots of steps; lots of prep, lots of opportunity for people to get to know each other while chopping and woking and wrapping and frying. For whatever reason, it is the rolling of these egg rolls that I remember most. I have many memories of my dad and mom -- and Dad and Mom's friends -- placing the filling into the egg roll skins on the diagonal, dipping their fingers into water and perfectly sealing the little packages to ready them for their trip into the oil-filled wok. Food is always about taste, smell and sight. This recipe really uses your sense of touch.

Beyond the extraordinarily crisp shell and the salty, soft interior, I love these egg rolls because I know exactly what is in them -- which is more than I can say for a lot of the egg rolls I order at restaurants. As I said, this recipe requires a little bit of time-intensive prep-work, but, really, anything worth doing takes time. Your willingness to use several frying pans and mise en place yourself to the hilt will be rewarded with a delicious dinner and the smug satisfaction that you, little ol' you, can recreate Chinatown in your modest kitchen. Finally, though my parents' recipe calls for pork and shrimp, my adult self does not partake of those protein sources. I substitute chicken and tofu, but, like Steve Perry earnestly exhorted, any way you want it, that's the way you need it. Make them your own; add whatever meat you wish, or go totally veg. Just make sure that you pre-cook any meat or seafood you use before adding it to the wok with the stir-fried vegetables.

A note on MSG: this recipe is from the '80s. Like acid-washed tapered jeans, shoulder pads, the belief that George Michael was straight, and a single, sequined, oversized glove, people thought MSG was a good idea. I am well aware that here in the oughts, people aren't so into the MSG any longer. If you are so inclined, please feel free to leave it out of this recipe; however, it only calls for 1/4 t. and I never seem to suffer any ill effects from it. But then again, I still listen to tapes.

Happy Chinese New Year, dear reader! May this and every year -- Chinese or otherwise -- be replete with intense egg-roll-making kitchen upheaval.



For the filling:
2 T. vegetable or peanut oil (1 T. each to cook the tofu and chicken)
8 oz. extra-firm tofu, diced
1 lb. ground chicken
3 eggs
1 T. butter
2 T. vegetable or peanut oil (to sauté the vegetable mixture)
6 oz. bok choy, chopped
6 oz. bean sprouts, whole
4 green onions, finely diced
4 oz. mushrooms, shredded on a box grater (I like to use creminis, but any mushroom is fine)
1/2 T. soy sauce
1 t. kosher salt
1 t. sugar
1/4 t. Accent (MSG)
1 t. sesame oil

1 lb. egg roll skins
4 c. vegetable or peanut oil (to fry the egg rolls)

For the hot mustard sauce:
2 T. Colman's dry mustard
4 t. water

For the sweet and sour sauce:
4 T. white vinegar
4 T. sugar
4 T. ketchup
1 c. water
1 1/2 T. cornstarch
1/2 T. salt
1 t. sesame oil
3 T. orange juice
1 T. pineapple juice

Press the tofu: Remove the tofu from its packaging and water and cut into a small dice. Unfold one clean tea towel and spread on a rectangular cookie sheet; place the diced tofu in a singe layer on the towel. Place two clean tea towels on top of the tofu, followed by another cookie sheet. Weigh the whole thing down with a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven or foil-covered brick or something else suitably heavy. Press for about 15 minutes. 

While the tofu is being pressed, in a large nonstick skillet with 1 T. vegetable or peanut oil, sauté the ground chicken until cooked through. Set aside.

Disassemble the tofu-pressing rig and remove the tofu. In the same skillet you used to cook the chicken, sauté the tofu in 1 T. vegetable or peanut oil until it takes on a bit of color around the edges. Set aside.

In a small bowl, beat eggs together with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. In the same skillet you used to cook the chicken and tofu, melt the butter; add the eggs to the pan, cooking as you would an omelet. Flip once; finish cooking on the other side. Remove from heat, and cut into thin strips.

Heat 2 T. vegetable or peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Stir-fry bok choy, bean sprouts, green onions, mushrooms, soy sauce, salt, sugar, Accent and sesame oil for 2 minutes. Add the reserved meat, tofu and egg. Cook for 2 more minutes. Place the meat and vegetable mixture in a colander to drain away the broth; you want the mixture to be as dry as possible for egg-roll assembly. (You can simply place the colander in the sink because there's no reason to reserve the broth that drains away.) Allow the meat and vegetable mixture to cool completely.

While the mixture is cooling, make the dipping sauces. For the hot mustard, simply mix together 2 T. Colman's dry mustard with 4 t. water. (You can multiply these amounts for more sauce.) For the sweet and sour sauce, combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking from time to time. When the sauce reaches a boil, knock back the heat to low and allow it to cook and thicken for about 10 minutes.

Now, finally, my hungry friends, it is time to assemble the egg rolls! Fill a little dish with water, have an empty plate nearby to collect your completed gems, and hop to it. It takes less time than you might think:

(1) Place an egg roll skin diagonally in front of you. Put 2-3 T. of filling near the center of the skin. Moisten the corner nearest you with a dot of water; fold that corner up and over the filling, securing it to the dough. Then moisten the remaining flat edges of the egg roll skin with water.

(2) Fold the right and left sides in, over the filling, pressing lightly but firmly to adhere the dough to itself.

(3) Roll the egg roll closed, and make sure the edges are sealed. This will prevent excess oil from getting inside the parcel as it fries.

(4) Place the finished egg roll on a plate, and continue with the next one. Work quickly; your stack of raw egg rolls might start to stick together the longer they sit on that plate.

When everything is assembled, bring 4 c. of vegetable or peanut oil up to 350 degrees in a wok to fry the egg rolls. (I use my infrared thermometer to measure this.) Using tongs or a Chinese spider, carefully drop the egg rolls in, about 3-4 at a time. They cook very quickly, about 1 minute per side. You want them to be golden, brown and delicious -- but only a LIGHT golden brown. If they get too dark brown, their light, crispy texture is compromised.

Remove the finished egg rolls to a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. Serve immediately with the dipping sauces. Then, contemplate the Chinese zodiac.

Makes about 16 egg rolls. If you have filling left over after you've used all the egg roll skins, it makes a rather yummy addition to rice. You can add it to plain steamed rice and serve it alongside your egg rolls, or add it to steamed rice, then stir-fry the whole mess in the wok for a delicious, impromptu fried-rice side dish.

No comments: