Get stewing to beat the cold
As the cold air hits Shanghai this week, it’s time to have some hot sizzling stews, the perfect comfort food for the winter season.
Stews are easy and different cuisines have their own specialties, and they are great for sharing. In general, it’s about cooking solid ingredients in liquid, the textures of which should be able to endure a long cooking time.
The Chinese word for stew is dun, a slow-cooking process that cooks food in water or soup. The stews can be either savory or sweet.
There are two ways to stew food in Chinese cuisine. One is to cook all the ingredients with proper seasonings in water over a low heat for two to three hours after it reaches boiling point, while the other is to seal the ingredients in a container and cook it in a pot of water, which is similar to steaming food.
Either way, the important thing is to control the cooking time wisely in accordance with the ingredients’ properties and textures, as overcooked stews are mushy and bland.
Traditional Chinese medicine regards mutton as having very warm properties, For this reason, people normally consume more mutton in the colder seasons.
The fresher the mutton, the fewer seasonings required. The minimum seasonings needed to make a white-colored mutton soup stew are simply salt, white peppercorns and ginger.
In stews, mutton goes well with carrots and white radish, as both kinds of root vegetable can provide sweetness to complement the fragrant meat. You can also use jujube and onion for the same reason.
Some people also like to add TCM ingredients in mutton stews to boost health benefits, such as danggui (Angelica sinensis), huangqi (Astragalus root) and dangshen (Codonopsis pilosula).
Blanching the mutton and bones in water prior to stewing can remove the strong odor and flavor. The key is to put the mutton in cold water with some ginger and scallion and bring it to boil, rather than throwing raw ingredients directly into boiling water.
If you are working with frozen mutton, use more seasonings like bay leaves, garlic, cinnamon, cooking wine, chili, peppercorn, soy sauce and more to create bolder flavors.
Goose stew is another wintery classic in China because this protein is considered to be very nourishing for the body.
The goose meat is quite dense compared to other poultry like chicken and duck, therefore stewing is a good way to cook it. Fresh goose meat needs basic seasonings like ginger, garlic, peppercorn, scallion and soy sauce. The water used to stew the goose can be substituted with beer for a richer gravy and flavor.
Other classic stew recipes include beef brisket with tomato, pork feet with soybeans, shitake mushroom and chicken as well as pork tripe with chicken.
Vegetables also make great stews and they take much less time to prepare — 20 minutes is usually sufficient.
Starchier vegetables such as potato and taro are great in stews because they can thicken the sauce and absorb all the flavors. Potato and eggplant is a classic combination from northeastern China, but you can also throw in any vegetable you like such as yam, long bean and carrot.
Tofu stew is also popular. The tofu with harder texture can withstand the longer cooking time and be infused with the delicious sauce.
Leaf vegetables like Chinese cabbage can soften when stewed, and they are often paired with tofu or sweet potato vermicelli.
When vegetables are stewed for a long time with seasonings and spices like star anise, ginger, peppercorn and soy sauce, the very soft texture and rich flavors make them great to accompany steamed rice.
The sweet side
Warm, soupy desserts are popular in China, especially in the winter season. The sweet soups are known as tangshui in Chinese.
Traditional desserts in both Chinese and western cuisines are loaded with calories that come from butter, sugar and eggs. But tangshui is worry-free and low-fat, as they are made with ingredients beneficial to health, like beans, root vegetables, nuts and even tofu, and a lot of these creations are stewed.
Sweet potato soup is a simple and cheap dessert made from yellow-flesh sweet potatoes, ginger and golden slab sugar (a type of brown sugar) or rock sugar. For every kilo of sweet potato, about 20 grams of ginger is added for extra nutrients and flavor.
You can be creative when stewing sweet soups. White fungus (silver ear fungus), a mushroom with minimal flavor of its own, goes well with so many ingredients from papaya and jujube to lotus seed, pear and peach gum.
Pears are often stewed for their soothing property to relieve coughs and can also be paired with water chestnut or papaya.
A tip in making tangshui is to use rock sugar or brown sugar instead of granulated. Adding ginger boosts the health benefits and warmth of the dishes.
Pots for stew
The thicker and heavier clay pots, stoneware and cast iron pots are ideal tools for stewing food. They can preserve heat very well and keep the dishes warm for longer. Serving the stews directly in the pots also saves the trouble of cleaning more dishes.
Using electric pots to stew foods is quick and you don’t have to worry about overcooking the ingredients once the cooking time is set. Some products also have the function of cooking at a fixed time.
Electric stew pots are small kitchen appliances that cook small portions of stews over simmering water instead of cooking everything in water directly.
This method can deal with the more delicate ingredients and prevent them from breaking apart.
Smaller stew pots can make one bowl at a time, while the larger ones can stew four. They can also be used to make rice and other steamed dishes.
Health pots, or yangshenghu, are a new concept of kitchen appliance that combines a glass pot with an induction cooker,. It’s a good tool to stew sweet soups and you can see if the ingredients are perfectly cooked in the process. The glass pot is also easy to clean.
The health pots are not cheap. Those from the top brands can cost more than 2,000 yuan (US$288).