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Season’s Eatings: Chinese Steamed Bun Pockets with Braised Mushrooms and Pickled Chives

2012 May 31

by Jessie Chien

Guangzhou, China – Ramps, Ramps, Ramps.

Living an ocean away from the home, I’m able to keep my finger on the pulse of food trends by keeping my Google Reader full of food blogs. According to the internet, ramps was the go-to ingredient in May, and my fellow relayers have certainly proven this true! Living in China, where there is no sight of ramps for miles, I’ve started turning a little green with envy.

A trip to my local market this week cured a decent amount of my jealousy, as new batches of greens (not the envious kind) were presented- fresh edamame on the stalk, baby leeks, tomatoes on the vine, plump matsutake mushrooms, and more varieties leafy greens that I’m able to name. Plus a bevy of vibrant green chives, white chives, and chive blossoms, stacked at the front of my favorite vegetable vendors’ stall. Ramps, meet your match!

CLICK HERE for the full post and recipe.

Roaming through the aisles of the market, my mind began to churn with ideas. Living in China as a Chinese American has been a great experience for me in terms of developing my own cooking habits- I’ve seen the same ingredients that I had growing up in my mothers’ kitchen used in slightly different ways, and dishes that I learned to eat dining out in restaurants in San Francisco and New York have all made an appearance in their own, humble forms here in China. The locals eat just as seasonally as we do in the states, though there really isn’t any label for it. There are dozens of recipes for any one ingredient- a testament to the breadth of Chinese cuisine and the resourcefulness of their people from times good and bad. I’ve had to be thoughtful and creative in my own kitchen, and adapted to the availability of ingredients around me.

I wanted to play off Marc’s fresh Pasta with Tender Greens in a way that would be clearly relevant to my surroundings, as he had so enthusiastically done with his. As much as Marc’s dish reflected the bounty from his garden, I wanted mine to reflect what I’ve learned eating and cooking in China; a proper homage to my host country as I depart in just a couple short months. My mind wandered to steamed buns, and that’s where it settled: I would make my own steamed buns at home, just like Marc made his own pasta.

Instead of stuffing the steamed buns with duck or pork belly, as one would traditionally find in China (or at Momofuku in New York), I wanted to go vegetarian. A recent Bittman-like declaration had me cooking a lot less meat, and I was searching for creative and tasty ingredients to fulfill my new habits. I decided that I would pick up one of the plump matsutake mushrooms I had seen in the market, and roast them in a way that could be a viable substitute. Red braised pork is a popular home-cooked dish in China, involving braising the meat in a bath of soy sauce, sugar, and spices. A rich, umami-flavored mushroom in place of pork seemed like it could work. Marc had suggested using garlic chives, scallions, or leeks in the place of ramps in his post, and with that notion I ran back to the pile of chives and grabbed a small bunch alongside a handful of bean sprouts, for what I thought could make a fragrant and crunchy quick pickle to pair with the meaty mushroom.

Back at home, my chive and bean sprout ‘pickle’ came together easily, and I tucked it away in the fridge to sit for a few days. When it was ready for consumption, I had my red-braised mushroom dish soon simmering in a large pot (along with some smoked tofu). I wiped down the counters and opened a cookbook to get started on the buns. Ramps were soon a distant memory.

Chinese Steamed Bun Pockets

Recipe adapted from Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan

Prep Time: 3 hours 15 minutes (including times for dough to rest)

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 25 buns, or ‘pockets’

Ingredients:

  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1/4 cup milk (whole or skim)
  • 350g (2 1/8 cups) bread flour
  • 45g (3 Tbsp) sugar
  • 10g (1 Tbsp) cornstarch
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/6 cup vegetable shortening (plus more for shaping buns)

Directions:

  1. Combine yeast with warm water and milk. Allow it to sit for a few minutes, for yeast to dissolve. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, cornstarch, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and vegetable shortening with your hands. Add water/milk mixture and mix well. When the dough starts to come together, turn over onto a clean surface and knead for about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl (you can wash and re-use the same bowl) and cover with a tea towel. Place the bowl in a turned-off oven with the light on and let it rise until the dough puffs up, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
  2. Punch the dough down and turn it onto a clean work surface. Divide the dough into 5 equal pieces, rolling each piece into a log, and then dividing into 5 more pieces. They should be the size of a golf ball, and weight about 25 grams each. Place the balls side by side onto a clean surface and cover with plastic wrap. Let them rest for another 30 minutes.
  3. Prepare a medium sized work surface, and take out a nub of vegetable shortening and one chopstick. Coat one end of the chopstick in the shortening by rolling it over the shortening.
  4. Working with one ball at a time, flatten the ball slightly with the palm of your hand. Using a small rolling pin, roll it out into a 4-inch long oval. Lay the greased chopstick in the middle of the oval, and fold it over the chopstick to form the ‘pocket’. Withdraw the chopstick, leaving the pocket folded in half. Place the bun on a nonstick surface (I used a pan lined with silpat mats) and cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. After all the buns are formed, let them rest for 45 minutes- they will plump up ever-so-slightly.
  5. Set up a steamer- most people do not own their own restaurant-style bamboo steamers. If you do, lucky you. I used our rice cooker, and made the buns in batches of five. Alternatively a double boiler technique with a colander set over boiling water can work just as well. Do what you need to do to make these buns! Steam your buns, however many at a time, for 10 minutes each.
  6. If you are eating these right away, consume while they are warm. Otherwise, allow to cool completely then seal in freezer bags and freeze up to a few months. When you are ready to use them, reheat by taking frozen buns right out of the freezer and placing directly in a steamer for 4-5 minutes, until puffy and soft again. I’ve done this with the leftover buns and they are just as wonderful as when they were first made.

Pickled Chives and Bean Sprouts

Prep Time: 10 minutes (plus 3 days for marinating)

Cook Time: none

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 6 oz. (about 2 cups, loosely packed) bean sprouts
  • 4oz. (about 1.5 cups) chives, with or without flowers, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 carrot, julienned
  • 1 oz. (about 1 cup) celery leaves
  • 1 1/2 cup hot water
  • 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 6 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice powder)

Directions:

  1. Prep Vegetables, and place in a large sealable jar or container.
  2. In a separate bowl or pitcher, mix together hot water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and spice. Stir until sugar and salt has dissolved.
  3. Pour liquid over the vegetables. Cool for 10-15 minutes, then cover and store in refrigerator for at least 3 days, up to 2 weeks.

Red Braised Mushrooms and Tofu

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 large matsutake mushroom, cut into 1/2-inch slices
  • 4 pieces smoked tofu*
  • 1 medium-sized carrot, cut into large pieces
  • 3 Tbsp. Grapeseed oil (or substitute canola, vegetable, or peanut)
  • 2 Tbsp. white granulated sugar
  • 2 pcs. star anise
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 1 dried red chile
  • 4 pieces dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 3-4 cups water

*Smoked tofu is a deep brown colored, firm, and dense tofu that comes packaged in quantities of 4-8 square pieces. It can be found in many Asian grocery stores or health food stores. An excellent substitute for meat, it is often used in stir frys and braises, and does not have an overwhelming smoky flavor.

Directions:

  1. Heat oil and sugar in a large, nonstick pot over medium-high heat, mixing with a wooden spoon until sugar is dissolved. Add mushrooms, searing each side and rotating them so all slices get an equal amount of browning. After about 5 minutes, add smoked tofu and carrots and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add star anise, cinnamon, ginger, chile and dried shiitakes and stir. Pour in soy sauce and water so all the vegetables are just covered. Depending on how dark you want your braise or how salty your preferences are, you may add more soy sauce or salt as needed.
  3. Turn heat to low and cover pot. Allow ingredients to simmer for about 2 hours. Check periodically, stirring to make sure all vegetables get an equal braise. If braising liquid looks low, add a little more water.
  4. Before serving, take matsutake mushrooms and smoked tofu out of the pot to cut into pieces. I like to cut my tofu into 1/4 inch slices, and cut the mushrooms into 2-inch x 2-inch pieces, but it’s up to you. Serve in a large bowl with plenty of braising liquid.
Notes for Red Braised Mushrooms and Tofu: You may eat the shiitake mushrooms and carrots as well, but I put those in mostly to impart flavor and less to consume, especially since I’m not a fan of cooked carrots. Instead of the star anise, cinnamon, and ginger, you may also substitute 2 tsp. of pre-purchased ‘Chinese Five Spice’ powder that can be found in the spice aisle of any grocery store.
Jessie Chien is a freelance writer and blogger living in Guangzhou, China. Aside from waxing poetic about neighborhood markets, she is an avid photographer and traveler, and dreams of the day when she can shop at Whole Foods again. Read about her expat adventures on her personal blog, www.jessbopeep.com