I was really excited the first time I got hold of Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger cookbook last year, and even moreso when I started leafing through the recipes – so many inventive fusings of high Chinese cooking and French technique – french-style braised chinese shortribs, shrimp and cabbage potstickers, duck two ways with garlicky mashed potatoes – oh, how delightful they sounded!
Imagine my disappointment when I tried to cook one of these, however, and discovered that it didn’t work as written. Blue Ginger is a damned sloppily-edited cookbook, one of the sloppiest I’ve ever owned, to be frank. Only by a determined application of intuition did I shape the following recipe into the dish it is supposed to be.
I know how it must be: you’re a successful chef, your restaurant’s doing well, and you’ve got a well-liked PBS TV show. Maybe you don’t oversee the adaptation of your restaurant’s recipes to home-cook proportions. Or maybe you’re doin’ it yourself and you haven’t hired a copy-editor. I understand, too, that chefs are not authors and that I should afford them some slack.
However, when a recipe won’t work as printed, because of obvious clerical errors, i can’t help getting irritated. For example, the instructions for the dough in this recipe advocate adding up to five more cups of additional water, depending on the humidity of the region. What I think Tsai meant to say was five tablespoons. Five cups of water in this dough would give you very thin paper-mache.
Anyway. This is all to say that this is mostly Ming Tsai’s recipe, still, with a few emendations thrown in by yours truly. With that in mind, let’s get a’crackin’.
So, first of all, what are baozi? They’re those little steamed buns that you get for dim sum (AKA Cantonese brunch, AKA the greatest meal in the universe AKA get some next weekend, for God’s sake). Usually they’ll have red-roasted pork (char siu) or shrimp or any number of other delectable fillings.
These steamed buns are chicken and mushroom. I have been lately given to understanding that several of my friends do not like mushrooms. I’m not sure what could be substituted here instead of mushrooms; little else approximates their meaty, woody flavor, their soft unctuousness, their delicate sylvan squish. I dunno. Consider tofu. Or consider EATING MUSHROOMS. Heretics.
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 tsp vegetable shortening, lard, or chicken fat
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp canola/peanut oil
- 1 tbsp garlic, chopped fine
- 1 tbsp ginger, chopped fine
- 1 lb mushrooms (button, crimini, shiitake or some combination thereof), chopped small
- 1 lb ground chicken
- 1/3 cup chopped green onion (or, as Tsai suggests, chives)
- 1 tbsp sesame oil (or, as Tsai suggests, truffle oil)
Note on flour: You may use all all-purpose flour if you want, but I find that the buns are a little bit TOO light and fluffy for my tastes, then. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve gotten too granola lately.
1. Melt your fat in the warm water, add the sugar, and then add the yeast to proof. While you wait for this, consider grinding the chicken, if you haven’t gotten it pre-ground.
I use chicken fat as a happy medium between lard and vegetable shortening, which I like to think is a fine compromise between guilt (also known as saturated fat) and flavor. Besides, it makes the dough itself vaguely chickeny, which I like.
2. When the yeast has proofed, add a scant teaspoon of salt, as well as the flour. Mix until a ball forms. If necessary, add up to 5 tbsp of water. Let this sit while you prepare the filling, maybe about half an hour.
Mark Bittman recently wrote a paean to the wonders of the food processor. Chief among his glad little cries was that he never again had to buy ground meat at the store. He’s right. Per pound, ground (dark meat) chicken made at home will be about $1.50 cheaper than the (generally breast meat but who’s checking besides the USDA?) ground chicken purchased at your average butcher’s counter. And no grocery stores that I’ve ever been to grind their own chicken in-store. It’s only beef that grocery stores process in-house, and even that’s kind of rare.
If e. coli outbreaks worry you (and they really should), stop buying factory-ground meats and grind them yourself. Your kitchen may be messy, but it’s unlikely to contain the deadly strains of e. coli that end up being mixed into industrial-process ground beef. Generally, there haven’t been a whole lot of chicken recalls for e. coli, but I’m not saying they don’t happen for other reasons. So grind your own. Hell, what were you using that food processor for, anyway? The annual pesto-making jag? The once-a-year latke binge? I bet you don’t even use it to grate huge quantities of cheese, do you?
Not that I don’t advocate good and responsible knife skills, but why deny yourself the convenience of the food processor? However, if you’re a lazy spendthrift, and you went ahead and bought pre-ground chicken (or you didn’t buy or inherit a food processor), you may disregard the preceding jeremiad, and I hope you enjoy your salmonella, you heedless son of a bitch.
If you are grinding your own, be sure not to process the chicken into a paste – I cubed mostly-thawed thighs and pulsed them until no large masses of meat remain. You want it to be an even consistency, but you don’t want it to be a gummy, gluey mass. Says me.
Set this aside, and wash your hands, my friend.
1. Chop your mushrooms finely – ‘dice’ might be overdoing it, but you want the pieces fairly small. (Mince, however, your garlic and ginger). I may enjoy getting a sudden spike of aromatic exploding in my mouth, like unto a zesty grenade, but I don’t know if you do. For even distribution, chop the aromatics nice and fine.
2. Heat a wok or a skillet and oil it once it is hot. Quickly stir-fry the aromatics until they become fragrant – about one minute. Then add the mushrooms. Stir-fry 10 minutes over medium heat. You could even turn it to low and vaguely pay attention to them, while doing other kitcheny things. I understand that this is very un-chinese, and therefore not really stir-frying. But I like to be gentle to mushrooms. After all, what have they ever done to you? Cook them until they’ve released and then reabsorbed their liquid.
3. When the mushrooms are cooked, add your choose-your-own-adventure options (that is, scallions/chives and sesame/truffle oil), and the soy. Taste now, because you won’t be able to in a minute.
I like to add a dash or two of fish sauce, but that’s just me, bastardizing the cuisines of the world to suit my ghoulish, demoniac whims. (Forgive me. I just read an H.P. Lovecraft collection.)
3. Turn off the heat. Wait five minutes for the mushroom mixture to cool. Upend the contents of the wok into a bowl, and spatulate your ground chicken into that bowl. The chicken is raw; obviously you can’t taste your filling now. Think of what you’ve got now as a fresh sausage filling, to be used within three days of its creation, or frozen.
Why don’t you cook the chicken with the mushrooms? Because the buns are steamed, and it takes as long for the dough to cook as it does for the chicken to reach a safe temperature. You also couldn’t really form the buns with cooked sausage, not as well. And it would be overcooked and chewy and kinda gross.
Now. You could stop here. You don’t have to make the buns. The filling described above makes a fantastic protein base for fried rice, for example. You could use it anywhere you might use a pork sausage (although spaghetti sauce might be stretching it somewhat, given the flavor profile). Less so if you used truffle oil – why would you bury that flavor?
You could make burgers from this stuff, crumble it on pizzas – I don’t konw. Go nuts and report back to me.
Meanwhile, let us sally forth with the rest of the recipe.
Bun Assembly and Steaming
Bao dough is a yeast-risen dough, but it’s not exactly a bread. It contains fat, but neither is it a biscuit. It… I dunno. It’s a bun. I’m not sure why I brought it up; let’s move on.
1. Divide your dough into as many pieces as you can – you should be able to get about 20 to 25 balls, about 3/4-inch to 1/2-inch in diameter. Flour a great big surface, your favorite rolling pin, and a smallish plate. Roll out the dough into thin rounds, maybe 2 1/2- 3 inches in diameter. Flour each one lightly and start stacking them on the plate. This will take a while.
2. Now commence filling the buns; atop each dough round, place a teaspoon or two (no more than a tablespoon) of filling in the center, and fold the dough up around it, bunching up the folds into a neat little package. You needn’t be fancy here; it simply has to be bunched closed. Mine look like little hobo bindles, without the sticks. Pinch them closed and set aside to rise.
3. Actually, I like to let them rise on the steamer racks. I use a cheapo bamboo steamer that I bought at a chinese grocery store (approx $15). Admittedly, these things are sizable, so if space comes at a premium in your kitchen… I’m, uh… still working on a solution for you.
But letting the buns steam on the bamboo is a bad idea, because they’ll stick. So what I like to do is lay down three or four pieces of Napa cabbage (or, as you can see, fork-pricked tin foil) over the steamer tray, and oil them assiduously before placing the buns on there to rise.
4. Allow the buns to rise for 30 minutes while you heat several inches of water in a large pot, big enough to place the steamer basket over. The buns should rise a little, and maybe double in size if you’ve got ‘em in a reasonably warm place.
5. Steam for 17 minutes or so. They’re done when the buns are glossy, and the filling is firm and cooked all the way through. Remove the whole steamer basket assembly from atop the pot and place on a plate. Carry this plate to the table to serve; it’s more fun that way.
Feeds four or five people quite happily for dinner, and two for dinner and again for breakfast and lunch.
Or one person for several absolutely wonderful days.
These buns freeze really, really well; simply place them on baking sheets and insert into the freezer. Once hard, pop them off the sheets and store in freezer bags.
Well. I’ve spent enough time workshopping this recipe. I don’t think the buns need any kind of sauce, but I suppose if you wanted to you could whip up something with rice wine, soy sauce, pepper flakes, and scallions – I think it’s scarcely necessary, though.
C’mon copy-pasting foreign characters, go!
食飯! (sik fan; let’s eat!)
Tell me how this recipe works out for you. I’d love to hear what you do with it.