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Friday, August 21, 2009

Salmon wrapped in Banana Leaf...inspired by The Last Chinese Chef for Cook the Books.

The latest Cook the Books Club selection, chosen by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen, was The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. I've been sitting here with my wrists resting on my laptop...fingers poises...and I do not know where to begin! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I enjoyed it with every sense of my being. I felt it to the core. Okay yes, I have a thing for foodie novels anyway, but some are far superior to others...and The Last Chinese Chef was in that upper crust (she says, tongue in cheek) for me. Wow, this pun works amazingly well. I mean, I would totally miss the bottom crust if it wasn't there...but it occasionally gets a bit soggy or seems to dissolve into the filling. But the top crust, all golden and shiny and enticing...sometimes completely hiding the filling, thus surprising me or giving me little glimpses as to what it what I long to bite into!

There was also a book within a book that Mones "quoted" from throughout. Much like Dean Koontz' Book of Counted Sorrows (which actually does exist now, since he had so many inquiries...he made it exist), I wish that this fictional book really existed.

 This is the story of Maggie. It is the story of Sam. It is the story of two people coming together...through food. Food is truly the universal language. Although the circumstances that bring Maggie to China may seem less than ideal (a paternity claim against her recently deceased husband), I believe they were a blessing in disguise. Being a food writer dream job!, Maggie was able to turn the trip into an assignment as well...a happy coincidence that introduced her to Sam. Ahhhhhh, Sam. Half American, half Chinese...both influencing his passion for food and cooking. But the Chinese side is what he has emerged himself into for the past few years and what leads him and Maggie into each others hearts.

 I think it must be Mones' knack for entwining history, lore, legend, feelings and description that kept me glued to the pages. I know that there are people (probably many) who only eat out of necessity; they fill their bellies and move on to the next task. But I cannot even think about food without marveling in the wonders of nourishes not just our bodies, but our minds and souls as well. Eating is social. Eating is pleasurable. Eating is desirable. Food is sharing. Oh my...I'm getting excited!

A Chinese term carried throughout the book, which I believe rings true in this foodie-blogosphere of ours is Guanxi. "Guanxi was connection, relationship, mutual indebtedness." There is a moment of realization in the book when Sam recognizes that not only is guanxi a term used in the business world, guanxi was also food! It was "people eating together, whether at banquets or daily meals" is an "engine"! Yes! He realizes this could be the reason that Chefs have always been so highly regarded in China. And I think it's the reason that the same regard is finally started to be recognized about Chefs in America...and everywhere else around the globe.

 I'm pretty sure I wanted to try each and every single bit of food that was mentioned throughout this book. But the one that I have not stopped thinking about was Pork Spareribs in Lotus Leaf. I was bound and determined to make this and knock all of your socks off. When Sam loving and painstakingly works on perfecting these...I can feel my cheeks starting to tingle and my mouth begins to water. They were short ribs, marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, scallions, ginger, sugar, peanut and sesame oils and bean paste with ginger and scallions. After marinating, they were rolled in a rice powder that was scented with 5-spice...making sure to get some larger rice crumbles for mouth-feel...and then wrapped lovingly inside a lotus leaf in bite-sized chunks. Amazingly, Mones has a recipe for this on her website, so I went about gathering ingredients.

But alas, I could not find a rice powder scented with 5-spice. No biggy, I decided it would be easy enough to make one on my own...well, at least what I guessed it would be. Although I had no szechuan peppercorns, I substituted a mix of black peppercorns and dried red chiles, so hopefully the flavor profile was pretty close. And it was actually a success...whether it was correct or not, I'm not sure, but I'm keeping it in my pantry for future use! My local Asian Market never seemed to be open during the hours that I could make it over there, so I didn't get any bean paste. I bought ribs but ended up letting them go to waste (seriously, one of the things I hate to do the most is waste good food) in middle of the hustle-bustle of life last week. Do I even need to tell you that I could not locate Lotus Leaves. Anywhere. Ugh. Okay, switch gears...but just slightly. I ended up making a salmon dish that was totally inspired by my desire to try the Pork wrapped in Lotus Leaf.

  Salmon in Banana Leaf
inspiration sparked from Henry Chang's Pork Spare Ribs in Lotus Leaf by girlichef
 Salmon fillets- 2
Banana Leaves- 2 (big enough to wrap your salmon in)

  for the marinade: Scallions- 2,sliced thin
Ginger- 1" piece, minced
Soy Sauce- 1 Tbs.
Fish Sauce- 1 Tbs.
Sesame Oil- 1 Tbs.
Vegetable Oil- 1 Tbs.
Tahini- 2 Tbs.
Crushed Red Chiles- to taste

for the Rice Powder scented with 5-Spice:
Rice (uncooked)- 1/4 c.
Star Anise- 1
Fennel seed- big pinch
cinnamon- big pinch
whole cloves- big pinch
Szechuan Peppercorns (or black peppercorns + dried, crushed red chiles)- couple big pinches

for dipping sauce:
Peach Preserves- 1 1/2 Tbs.
Sesame Oil- 3/4 tsp.
Soy Sauce- 1 1/4 tsp.
Rice Wine Vinegar- 3/4 tsp.
Garlic, minced- ~1/2 clove
Ginger, minced- ~same amt. as garlic
Scallions, sliced thin- ~1/2 of 1

for serving (all optional, of course):
Chinese Noodles
Sesame Oil
Sesame Seeds, toasted
 Corn on the cob

 Begin by mixing all of your marinade ingredients together and pouring it over the salmon in a big baggy or container. Marinate under refrigeration for at least a half an hour or up to 2 hours. While salmon is marinating, put all of your scented rice powder ingredients into a spice grinder and pulse until everything is coarsely ground. Remember, you want a few larger crumbles of rice for mouth-feel!Remove the salmon from the marinade (discarding any leftover marinade) and coat it with some of the scented rice powder on each side. You won't use it all with just the 2 pieces of salmon. Save some for another time. Lay your banana leaves out flat. Place one salmon fillet in the center of each leaf. Fold one side over the salmon.Fold the opposite side over that, then both ends to make a little package.Cut your corn (if using) into slices.
Place the corn in one steamer basket and the salmon packages in another. Set over ready-boiling water to steam. I actually added some Peach-Ginger Tea bags to my water in hopes that it would impart some extra flavor into the food via the steam. I don't think it actually did anything, but it was what led me to putting peach preserves into the dipping sauce...which was out-of-this-world tasty! I found some fresh Chinese-style noodles at the market and added those to some boiling water to heat through for a couple of moments. Then tossed them with the sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds.
Put all of the marinade ingredients into a small sauce pot or alternately, a microwave safe dish and bring to a heat. Whisk everything together and it's ready to serve.After ~10-13 minutes, both your corn and your salmon will also be finished. Flip the smooth side of the banana leaves up and make a slit through them to serve....they kinda look like tamales, huh!
The rice powder scented with 5-spice coats the salmon nicely and gives it this unexpected dimension in flavor and texture. Serve over or next to the noodles and corn with the dipping sauce. This is a meal I will be making again...and don't worry, I'm not giving up on the Pork wrapped in Lotus Leaf! I have some scented rice powder just waiting for my upcoming trip to the Asian Market. Now, are you writing another foodie novel Nicole? Because I want to be early in line. Come on over and join us at Cook the still have time to run and grab The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, too....entries are due August 28. Don't miss out...on your chance to read this tasty book or to see what everybody else was inspired to make!