The well-meaning folks over at the Animal Welfare Institute have put up a shark’s fin map of the US, which lists Chinese restaurants in all 50 states that serve shark’s fin soup. I find it to be a little on the libelous side.
The trouble is that the list doesn’t distinguish between restaurants that serve shark’s fin soup and restaurants that serve imitation shark’s fin soup, a distinct dish in the Cantonese street hawker tradition. One of the restaurants on their list, Cha Chan Tang, is a favorite of mine, and I eat their faux fin all the time. How do I know it’s imitation? Well, even if I hadn’t been raised on the real thing, the $2.75 price tag would be a dead giveaway. Restaurants can charge up to $100 a bowl for the genuine article.
This is real shark’s fin:
This is the fake version (woon dzai tsee) that Cha Chan Tang serves:
It’s hard to see through the viscous broth, but firm shreds of clear vermicelli stand in for the fin itself, and goodies like slivered dried shiitakes, shredded duck, and wisps of beaten egg bring additional flavor and body. The broth base is not unlike takeout-style hot-and-sour soup, and I like to make it sourer still with red rice vinegar. Even though it was once intended as a substitute for shark’s fin, this delicious soup is now enjoyed in its own right, with no second-best about it. It no more endangers sharks than eggplant caviar threatens sturgeon.
Nevertheless, Cha Chan Tang has made it onto the AWI’s shitlist. It’s one of 35 establishments that appear with the disclaimer “claims to be imitation,” which is a bit like turning up on a list of sex offenders with the proviso “claims to not be a sex offender.”
I don’t know how influential this list is. I don’t have a problem with naming and shaming restaurants that truly are serving shark’s fin, but if any of the 35 eateries selling woon dzai tsee lose even one customer to a cultural misunderstanding, it would make me very sad.
On a cheekier note, I have to confess that I find the whole scenario darkly amusing on some level. I mean, the Chinese counterfeit everything, from eggs to walnuts to–and this is my favorite bit of fakery of all time–sandwiches, and the one time that they actually come out and say that an ingredient is ersatz, they’re accused of secretly subbing in the real thing!
I was thinking today about the evocative pleasures of color names in makeup, when it occurred to me that Shishito would make a fabulous name–and color–for a nail polish. Particularly as the peppers (which you might know better by their Spanish name, pimientos de Padrón) are famous for their 1-in-10 spiciness frequency–that is, out of every ten peppers, nine will be perfectly mild, and just one will pack heat. I thought at once of a “Blistered Shishito” manicure, a nod to that most classic of tapas, with a silver glitter top coat standing in for flecks of coarse salt. Soon, with the help of a virtual manicure app called Nail Salon, I’d mocked up my idea:
You’d wear it like this, you see, with just the one neon nail to represent the rogue spicy pepper:
Afterwards, I got to thinking that the Spanish tapas palette would make quite the capsule nail art collection. (Are you reading this, O.P.I.?) Jamón ibérico, for example, would make a superb French manicure variation:
Likewise, patatas bravas:
Then there could be boquerones, those tender little anchovy fillets in vinegar:
To represent pa amb tomàquet, a Catalan dish of fresh tomato rubbed over bread, I’d do a creamy base coat overlaid with chunky red glitter:
And finally, I’d do an ensaladilla rusa, that unaccountably popular Spanish take on Russia’s Olivier salad–a mayonnaise-mortared macédoine of peas, carrots, and potatoes, with or without canned tuna, hard-boiled egg, or roasted red peppers. It isn’t my favorite thing to eat, but I rather like it expressed this way:
1. Pork, poblano, and pinto bean chili
Two weeks ago, I brought home my first-ever pressure cooker, and this was the recipe I christened it with. It’s a Martha Stewart recipe, and it worked just great. Dry beans don’t just cook dramatically faster in pressure cookers, they straight-up cook better, with a consistent texture throughout. I served my chili with chopped cilantro and grated cotija, and it was excellent.
2. Short ribs
I didn’t use a recipe for this, unless you count a single line on the Modernist Cuisine blog that told me that short ribs take 50 minutes at 15psi (the higher of the two settings found on most pressure cookers). Sadly, it’s been a challenge finding recipes with a sensibility that appeals to me. So this is what I did: I browned the hell out of six pounds of short ribs (without dredging them in flour–never dredge anything in flour, no matter what the cookbook tells you, as it’ll do nothing but burn), did the same with aromatic vegetables in large chunks (smaller pieces will just disintegrate under pressure), and submerged it all in a mixture of red wine and beef stock. After just fifty minutes at pressure (well, the actual cooking time is longer, as the pot takes ten minutes to come up to pressure and another ten to come back down so you can open it), the ribs were so tender they slipped right off the bone. I strained off my braising liquid, quickly cooled it in an ice bath, and then stuck it in the fridge to let the fat congeal. With short ribs, there’s really no point trying to skim. Once the liquid had cooled, I spooned off enough beef tallow to fill an eight-ounce tumbler:
What I’ve just described is a skeleton recipe for short ribs; you can modify the braising liquid however you like. I opted to reduce it by half, flavor it with beautifully tart pomegranate molasses (I just love it with rich proteins like duck and fatty beef), and then thicken it with a beurre manié. When my guests arrived, I rewarmed and glazed the short ribs in the pomegranate gravy, and served them with sharp chimichurri over a puddle of coarse-ground grits into which I’d folded fresh corn kernels that I’d sautéed in butter and–secret ingredient alert!–half a brick of cream cheese.
If you have leftover cooked rice and a pressure cooker, you can have perfect congee in 15 minutes. In a regular pot, this would take me at least an hour, and I’d be constantly topping up the water as it evaporated, and stirring up the clumps to avoid scorching. I cooked this batch with dried shrimp, a chunk of Yunnan ham (like a Chinese prosciutto), and plenty of white pepper powder. Just before serving, I added some sliced, cooked fishcake and chopped scallion tops.
4. Steel-cut oats
Oatmeal takes 6 minutes at pressure. I put some dried blueberries and sour cherries in with the oats, and they came out wonderfully soft and plump. I happened to have some heavy cream in the fridge, so I poured some over with my maple syrup.
5. Multiple batches of 40-minute chicken stock, which didn’t make for interesting photos, but were remarkable for their intensity and clarity.
As you can see, I am very excited about my new gadget. I went to a book party last night and must have terrorized half the guests–the author included–with my pro-pressure cooker propaganda. Hopefully this post will go some way towards getting it out of my system, and I will be able to behave myself in public once more.