With spring springing forth, leaping from each corner turned, and the next edition of An Honest Kitchen well underway, winter food is giving way to lighter eating in these parts. There’s a remarkably simple carrot and parsley salad among Kathryn’s next batch of recipes, one that I’ve been happy to call lunch almost every day for a week. Sometimes I include small cubes of smoked tofu, browned in oil, sometimes a crumble of snowy feta; half an avocado last Tuesday, lazily diced, and a spoonful of leftover lentils on Friday. The attraction – it’s a very pretty salad - is not least because it conveniently manages to provide a solution to the parsley that’s become a little uncontrollable.
Who am I kidding? It’s taken over.
I’m a recent convert to Chinese cooking wine. After watching Kylie Kwong use it in everything on one of her cooking programmes, I just had to get some. And I’ve been experimenting with it ever since.
As have I. A dusty bottle sat in the pantry untouched since we moved in late last year, retreating further each week. (This pantry is a weird, cavernous beast, able to swallow ingredients whole and spit them back randomly, months later, usually when on your knees scrabbling through the bottom shelf convinced that you had some Vietnamese rice paper in there somewhere. That package, in turn, will appear when you were looking for the cashews weeks later…) But the fault is largely, neglectfully, mine. I tend toward the sweet grape-based alcohols when cooking, though a splash of Japanese mirin works its way in from time to time. Sherry is, as Kathryn suggests, a good approximation, but cooking sherry is horrid. No point getting out your best Spanish Fino either. Instead, seek out a mid-priced bottle of Shaoxing wine and start playing. It adds a beautiful depth to the soups and braises it touches; a mysterious, quietly bitter note best rounded out with something sweet, something salty and some gentle, spicy warmth.
This inspired braise of mushrooms is the perfect segue between cooler nights and warmer days, be they winter-spring or summer-autumn. A combination of Asian mushrooms is best – oysters, enokis, shiitakes, shimejis - but at a pinch, any mushroom, bar the European exotics, will shine. Red braising liquor is simple to make but, though the recipe below produces more than you need, it is difficult to say exactly how much of it your wok or mushrooms will need. Besides, it freezes well. Fill ice-cube trays with the remainder, freeze until solid, release and then bag up. A single cube such as this added – while frozen - to a stir-fry is excellent. Made ahead, it can be left to mature in the fridge for up to 3 days. Things only deepen if you do.
Red braised mushrooms
The very reason I bought Maria Elia’s Modern Vegetarian, particularly as she suggests the red braising liquor is suited to more than just exotic ‘shrooms. Try eggplant (steamed first) or thickly shredded wombok (Chinese cabbage) prepared in the same way. The braising liquor was initially too salty to my taste (I say this as someone who gravitates toward salted food) so the quantity of soy has been knocked back. Elia’s method concludes, ‘Serve in deep bowls with jasmine rice and a spoon’. Do. And some greens, please.
For the braising liquor:
1/2 cup of light soy sauce
3/4 cup of Shaoxing wine
150g (5oz) of yellow rock sugar
2 long strips of orange peel (or dried mandarin rind, if you have it)
1 red chilli, pointed end slit with a sharp knife
5 thin slices of ginger
1 stick of cassia bark (or 2 cinnamon sticks)
2 star anise
1 litre (1 quart) of water
Place all ingredients in saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain and reserve (see above for keeping qualities).
For the mushrooms:
400g (1 scant lb) of mixed Asian mushroom
1 tablespoon of pale sesame oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 golden shallots, sliced
A small knob of ginger, grated
1 red chilli, sliced
Leaves from 1 bunch of coriander
Prepare the mushrooms as follows: shiitakes should be de-stemmed and quartered; larger oysters torn gently in two; shimejis broken up gently from their clumped base; enokis prised apart with care.
Heat oil in a wok and, when hot, add the garlic, shallots, ginger and chilli. Stir-fry for a minute of so. Add the mushrooms to the wok, give them a quick stir and pour in just enough red braising liquor to cover (this is important – in the photograph, I used far too much and paid for it). Simmer quietly for 15 minutes or until the mushrooms are tender.
Scatter with coriander. Serve with a slotted spoon over rice, pouring over just a little of the liquor.
(Oh, and Happy Birthday, mum XX)