My Secret Weapon

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When my mother married my father in Chicago in 1950, she did not know how to cook. Unlike her older sisters, she never learned the requisite homemaker duties taught to Chinese girls—how to cook, how to sew, how to keep up Chinese family traditions. She said she was treated like a boy—which was a great honor for a girl back in 1920’s China—and her father indulged her, so she never had to learn. I like to think she was his favorite. Mom did become a wonderful self-taught cook, and we always had a home cooked dinner on the table at 5:30pm. (Happy coincidence that Star Trek re-runs were on from 4-5pm? I think not.) But she didn’t use the oven.

My auntie, otoh, knew how to do everything. Auntie lived on Balboa street, just around the corner from my San Francisco home. She was a fabulous cook. She hemmed every pair of pants that needed shortening, sewed on wayward buttons, and knitted every sweater I wore through high school. It was at Auntie’s table that I learned to use chopsticks, and it was at Auntie’s table that I first folded won ton and kuo-teh (pot stickers). It is Auntie’s special dispensation that is referred to in my very first blog post. But she didn’t use the oven.

When my physician-mom took call, which was often twice a week, Dad would take over dinner and we’d have freezer-stocked ground beef patties with ketchup, plus Chinese take-out. And you know those biscuits in a can? He liked to cook them one of two ways: (a) pan fry them in a little oil for several minutes on each side. Inevitably, a couple of them would burn. (b) snuggle them together in a single layer in a large flat bowl and steam them in a wide pot. Both (a) and (b) would be placed on the table next to a dish of sugar and we would dip the pan-fried or steamed canned biscuit in the sugar and take a sweet chewy bite. Notice there is no oven involved in the preparation of aforementioned biscuits.

“Mom, why are the cakes on the dim sum carts steamed?”

“Because we don’t have ovens in China. We have to cook cakes on top of the stove.”

Ah, I see.

Which brings me to Baked Char Siu Bao. I don’t know when the Baked Bao was invented, but I do know there was NO SUCH THING when I was a little kid. All Char Siu Bao was snow white and steamed. And procured from Chinatown, because there were NO RESTAURANTS on Clement street yet. When they started appearing in take-out dim sum shops on Clement, we went ballistic at the first bite–So! Good!—sticky sweet golden brown bun with a nice chew, filled with bits of char siu and sweet onion.

So here is my version of the Baked (in an oven) Char Siu Bao.

Except

There’s no Char Siu.

Instead, I use my Secret Weapon.

Like the Blade of Isildur, the Sword of Gryffindor, and the FSNP (Famous Spock Nerve Pinch), everyone needs a secret weapon. My secret weapon is kalbi jjim, or Braised Korean Short Ribs.

In its original form, this Short Rib recipe, served with steamed rice and vegetables for a family dinner, is The Most Amazing dinner you will ever serve.

When cooked ‘for a crowd’—see below—this becomes a weapon that can be wielded in times of fear and trembling, turning an ordinary tailgate/vacation/potluck/party into something sublime.

Not to mention, it makes awesome filling for baked baos.

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Korean Braised Short Ribs (Kalbi jjim)

4 pounds English Cut Short Ribs with bone, (3-4 inch lengths)

5 cloves garlic

5 thick slices fresh peeled ginger root

¼ cup brown sugar

1/4 cup Black soy sauce (also called double black, or mushroom soy, available in Asian groceries)

2 tbsp regular soy sauce

2 tsp black pepper

1 cup wine (I use Chinese cooking wine, any will do)

½ cup water

Sometimes I add a squirt of sriracha, or a big spoon of leftover jam/jelly from the door of my fridge, or 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Or all three.

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Trim short ribs of excess fat. Slash meat across grain down to bone about 3 to 4 slashes per rib. Place, meat side down, in large deep pot over high heat and brown 3-4 minutes. Add all other ingredients and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to low, and simmer for 2 ½-3 hours, adding more water if it gets too low. Taste to check that it is fall apart tender; if not, cook another 30-45 minutes. Remove meat from broth, and pour broth into tall measuring cup, adding ice, or place in refrigerator till all fat solidifies on top. Discard fat. Return broth to the pot and turn heat to high, uncovered, allowing sauce to reduce until syrupy (watch closely or it may burn). Add meat back to the sauce and reheat over low-medium heat, tossing to glaze.

Serve with steamed rice.

For a crowd:

Costco sells boneless short rib meat in strips, about 4 pounds to a pack. Select well marbled meat.

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Cut into 2 inch chunks and cook as above, though I omit the browning step because I’m lazy and have not found it to make a difference.

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Remove the meat from the broth to a large bowl, cover and put in the fridge overnight.

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I now exclusively cook this in my pressure cooker for 45 minutes.

Pour the broth into a large measuring cup and put it in the fridge overnight.

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When you are ready to serve, remove the big white disc of fat from the top of the broth and discard.

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Pour the broth into your pot and boil on high, keeping an eye on it so it doesn’t burn, until it is reduced to a syrupy sauce.

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Add the cold cooked kalbi and gently warm on medium low, tossing in the sauce to glaze before serving. Garnish with sesame seeds and a bit of flat leaf parsley or cilantro.

Homemade Kalbi Bao Recipe

This is adapted from the “Baked Filled Buns” recipe from Andrea Nguyen’s Asian Dumplings cookbook.

Dough:

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

¼ cup (half stick) butter

2 tsp rapid-rise dry yeast

2 ½ tablespoons warm water

1 large egg

2 ½ tablespoons sugar

2 ½ cups flour plus more as needed

You will also need

1 egg, beaten, to glaze the buns before they are baked

2 tablespoons honey mixed with 1 tablespoon warm water, to glaze the buns after they are baked

Melt butter with milk in a small saucepan, and set aside to cool to lukewarm.

Stir yeast with warm water (I add a big pinch of sugar) and let sit a few minutes until it is foamy.

Whisk together the milk mixture, yeast, and egg.

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Stir flour and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the milk/yeast mixture and blend well with a wooden spoon (or in my case, the kitchenaid mixer). Knead by hand for 5 minutes, or with the dough hook in your stand mixer for 3 minutes, adding flour as needed so that the dough is smooth, elastic, and not sticking to the side of the bowl or your work surface. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place about 45 minutes, till doubled in volume.

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Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Punch down dough and cut in half. Take half the dough (keep the other half covered to prevent drying) and knead it a few times. Roll the dough into a 12 inch log. Cut into 8 pieces for large and 16 pieces for small buns. Take one piece and flatten it, then using your dumpling rolling pin, roll the disc into a 2 ½ inch circle, leaving the center a bit thicker than the rim.

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Kalbi Bao filling: also adapted from Andrea Nguyens book—except I used diced kalbi in place of char siu.

Flavoring sauce:

1 tablespoon sugar

pinch of salt

dash of white pepper

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tsp oyster sauce

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon rice wine

Mix above together and set aside.

2 cups diced kalbi

2 green onions, chopped

1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

Heat 2 tsp oil in a skillet. Add kalbi and green onions, tossing until onions are wilted, about a minute. Add the flavoring sauce and cook, stirring till heated through. Add cornstarch mixture and cook another 30 seconds, stirring constantly until the mixture comes together into a mass that you can mound. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. This can be done the day before, refrigerate overnight.

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To form buns, place a scoop (about 2 teaspoons) filling in the center of your dough round. Gather the edges of the dough, pleating as you go, to form a ‘closed satchel’. Pinch and twist the dough closed at the end. Place bun pleated side down on the parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.   Cover buns loosely with plastic wrap and let rise 30 minutes.

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Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a pastry brush, brush the top and side of buns with beaten egg to form the shiny glaze. Bake small buns for about 14 minutes and large buns for about 18 minutes, until they are golden brown. Cooked buns sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from oven and let cool 5 minutes. Brush warm buns with the honey glaze which also softens the crust.

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I’ve made these twice: once at home, and once as part of a dumpling class I taught. In the class, they disappeared immediately. They are ridiculously delicious.

For Korean tacos: I make the ‘for a crowd’ version at least one day before. Once the meat is completely cooled, preferably refrigerated, cut into a dice. When you are ready to serve, heat up the meat and keep warm while assembling tacos.

Korean Taco Recipe

Corn tortillas

Cooked short grain (Asian) rice

Chopped Kalbi jjim

Vegetarian version: Tofu

Teriyaki Mayo

Shredded daikon and carrot slaw, well drained

sweet pickles, slivered –sometimes called bread and butter pickles, from the pickle aisle in the grocery store.

Diced avocado

Toasted salted seaweed squares , cut into strips

Sriracha sauce

Sesame seeds

To assemble each taco, heat a tortilla in a dry frying pan over medium heat on both sides.

Layer ingredients in the order above

To steam rice:

Place 2 cups of uncooked rice in a nonstick 2 quart pot. Add cool water and stir to wash. Drain and repeat. Add enough cool water to come up 1 finger digit (phalanx) above the surface of the rice. Bring to a boil, then turn to simmer (lowest setting), cover tightly, and leave it alone for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, let sit another 5 minutes, then fluff with a rice paddle.

To make teriyaki mayo: mix 2 parts mayonnaise with 1 part bottled teriyaki sauce.   I like to use Veri-Veri teriyaki by Soy Vay.

To cook tofu:

Buy one block firm tofu. Rinse and cut into small squares. Place on 3 paper towels and press 3 more paper towels on top to gently press out the water.

Add to hot frying pan with a little oil and add 1 clove minced garlic, ½ inch minced ginger, 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp dark soy, 1 tsp regular soy, 3 stalks green onions, chopped finely, a couple dashes of pepper. Stir fry till tofu is coated and glistening. Add ½ tsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tsp cold water to thicken.

To make slaw:

Julienne 2 large or 3 medium peeled carrots and ½ pound piece of peeled daikon. I use the julienne disc of my food processor for this menial task.

Mix together: ¼ cup sugar, ½ cup vinegar, 2 tsp salt, and ½ cup water. Stir to dissolve. Add the carrot and daikon and allow to pickle for at least 30 minutes, turning after 15 minutes if vegetables are not submerged. This can be made the day before. Drain well before adding to taco

Lettuce Wrap variation: omit the corn tortillas, and wash and spin dry green or red leaf lettuce. Use the lettuce as the vehicle in which to mound your lovely taco filling.

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Above photo I took at another cooking class where we used flour tortillas instead of corn, and guac’d the avocados.

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And this one substitutes sheets of seaweed for the tortilla, one of the courses for a fancy dinner party.

I have made Korean tacos for a tailgater at the Rose Bowl, in cooking classes, at work for Nurse’s Day celebration, and illicitly in a room at Yosemite Lodge.

More than one person has told me “this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life”.

I nod and think: “secret weapon, indeed.”

And I didn’t use the oven.