Friday, January 30, 2015

Hot and Sour Chicken Soup

Hot and Sour Chicken Soup
It was about 25 years ago in San Francisco's Chinatown that I discovered that hot and sour soup could really be a thing of beauty. I was splitting my time between Virginia and a residential hotel in Sunnyvale, down the 101 from San Francisco and I was spending most of my free time between Napa/Sonoma and Chinatown, learning both wine and Chinese food. This was back in the day before most of the good Chinese food had fled the city.

I was already a disciple of Henry Chung, at whose Kearny Street hole in the wall I was a frequent visitor before the scary 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shuttered it for good. The storefront was tiny: five or six tables and a counter, my haunt, where I could watch the ladies making the dishes. What amazing smoked ham and scallion cakes came out of that kitchen! Thanks to the Chung family's help and that of many other generous souls in Chinatown, I was just learning how amazing real Chinese food could be and I was cooking a lot of it back at home in Virginia, learning the ingredients, the techniques, and the metaphors. And already I knew enough to know that I didn't like hot and sour soup, that insipid gloppy crap that every Americanized Chinese restaurant served.

Once I got invited to a fancy fixed menu dinner at one of the big touristy Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, a place that hole-in-the-wall-spelunker-me would never have entered. One of the early courses in our banquet was a cup of hot and sour soup that blew me away with its rich broth, carefully curated spice, and fresh vegetables. A light went on that evening!

Yesterday was a wan, bleak day. Schools closing right after lunch signaled the coming rain, sleet, and ice and scared off all our lunch and dinner customers, so I decided to take the night off and cook dinner at home. The weather had me thinking soup. I proposed chicken soup to Ann and somehow we arrived at hot and sour chicken soup.

A quick stop at the market yielded some chicken legs, straw mushrooms, pressed tofu, lop cheung, slivered bamboo shoots, and a couple kinds of pickled vegetables. There are two kinds of preserved vegetables at the market of which I am especially fond right now, the one that is mainly stem mustard in chile oil labeled "Tasty Vegetable Good with Meal," and a sweet-and-spicy turnip pickle that is not labeled at all in English.

Ordinarily, I would make a rich pork stock for my soup, but given that this was a spur of the moment dinner, I went with chicken and added sliced pork lop cheung for the pork component. I poached the chicken in water with a splash of soy sauce, ginger, whole garlic, a couple of star anise pods, and a half a cinnamon stick, just enough spice for a background hint and nothing more. Once the chicken was tender, I fished it out and strained the seasonings out of the stock.

Into the stock went dried daylily buds, tree ear and straw mushrooms, tofu, both preserved vegetables, slivered bamboo shoots, and the lop cheung. I'm not a big fan of straw mushrooms, but Annie is and so I added them for her. Next, I picked the chicken and added the meat to the soup and let the whole simmer for about 15 minutes to rehydrate the dried vegetables. At this point, I then started to season, working the balance of sweet (rock sugar), salty (soy sauce), sour (Chinkiang black vinegar), and spicy (ground white pepper).

The very moment I was happy with the seasoning, I swirled in the tiniest amount of cornstarch just to amp the body slightly (something I wouldn't have done with a super-rich pork stock) and served the soup with a scattering of green onions over the top.

This was the soup I was meant to make on this dreary day. Not only was it warm and comforting, but it brought back some great food memories from my days in California, of a time when each new dish was a revelation, a discovery. Those days are mainly long behind me now, but the memories are vibrant still.

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