This was the first meal I made on the AGA.
In the illustration to the right, you can see that I am cooking scallops, and in the lower left corner, you can see what I was cooking with them–snow pea tips. Those little sprouty-looking guys are the very tender tips to the snow pea shoots–that is the plant that bears snow peas. They are sweet and very crisp, but not quite as sugary tasting as the peapods themselves. They have a little bit of a beansprout savor to them that helps keep them from being overly sweet like snow peas can be.
Anyway–those pea tips were fantastic cooked with the scallops, and they looked lovely–they formed a nice wreathlike nest of greenery for the tiny white bay scallops. Studded with the ebony fermented black beans and thin spikes of golden ginger and pale garlic, the dish was a treat to behold.
However, before we could post a picture of the finished dish, the rechargeable batteries for the camera died, so I never posted about this recipe.
This was tragic, because, as I said, the dish was a keeper, even if Morganna only ate the pea tips–apparently, unknown to me, she is afraid of most shellfish. (Don’t worry. I am working on helping her over this tragic phobia.)
But, a good dish will not leave my thoughts before it is recorded, and so, since Morganna stayed after school to prepare for her choir performance tonight, and it was just going to be Zak and I for supper, I recreated the dish, except no one has pea tips in Athens.
Instead, I used shredded Shanghai bok choi that Zak picked up at the New Market, our resident Asian/International Food market. (If I could have waited until the Farmer’s Market, I could have gotten sunflower or radish sprouts instead–I suspect those would be nearly as good as the pea tips.)
For those who are not familiar with it, Shanghai bok choi(mei qing choi) is similar to regular bok choi, but is harvested when it is younger and smaller, and instead of having white, very watery stalks, it has pale jade green stalks that are a little more flavorful. The leaves also tend to be a less dark green–more of a grass green than a pine green color. It is a very tender green, and it cooks very, very quickly. I like to use it instead of regular bok choi, but I still prefer choi sum or gai lan to it. (However, the stronger flavor of gai lan would overpower something as delicate as scallops.)
I shredded the bok choi finely across the width of the stalk–this simulated the long, slender shape of the pea tips, and made a contrast to the rounded shape of the scallops.
When it came to cooking the scallops themselves, I could have consulted one of my over 100 Chinese cookbooks, but I didn’t.
Instead, I remembered what I knew of Cantonese ways with seafood (with a touch of inspiration also from Sichuan) and improvised.
Ginger is nearly always used with seafood in Cantonese cookery, because of its purifying scent and its freshness. The Cantonese are fanatics for fresh seafood, but even so, they always want ginger with it to take away the fishiness in the cooking odor. It is also meant to be good for the digestion of rich foods, such as scallops. I remembered that fermented black beans are classically paired with steamed clams, I decided to use them as well, which meant that a bit of ginger was necessary, it being a perfect foil for the strong taste of the black beans.
In order to have the ginger and garlic blend with the greens, I shredded them finely. This is accomplished after peeling the cloves and roots, by cutting thin slices, stacking the slices three or so high and then with careful strokes of the knife, slicing each stack into grass-fine shreds. When I am in practice, this technique is quickly accomplished, but if I go a few weeks without cooking Chinese or Asian foods, I will lose my touch and end up with clumsy looking matchsticks, instead of the whisper-thin shreds I seek.
The scallops had a fresh scent, so I decided on a very simple marinade. A splash of Shao Hsing wine, a bare teaspoon of thin soy sauce, so as to not color the dish overmuch–I wanted the pale perfection of the scallops to show through, and a few turns of the peppermill to give a pang of heat. From the Sichuan “fish fragrant” sauce–known in American Chinese restaurants as “garlic sauce,” I nabbed the idea of adding a tiny bit of Chianking vinegar–black rice vinegar. This vineger is fragrant and gently acidic, somewhat like balsamic vinegar, and the sour note helps counteract any tendency toward fishiness the seafood may have, while contrasting with the scallop’s natural sweetness, thus bringing into play the Chinese concept of the balance of opposing flavors in food.
To the marindade I added a pinch of raw sugar to boost the sweetness of the scallops, and about a tablespoon of cornstarch, to make the marinade coat the scallops and stick to them a bit.
I marinated the scallops for a mere ten minutes–just long enough to give fragrance to them without overpowering their natural flavor. I very much wanted only to enhance the essence of the shellfish, without adding extraneous flavors that might mask its simple beauty.
Cooking went very quickly–the first time, I was so surprised at how hot the burner got, I nearly scorched the ginger, garlic and black beans! However, this time, I was ready for it, and briskly set forth, and tossed and turned and cooked–the dish was done in a mere three minutes, without any fuss or trouble. The wok went on the fire, it heated up in record time, sending a thin ribbon of smoke skywards like a hungry ghost, and then in went the oil. A few seconds later, as soon as it shimmered, in went the aromatics. After a few seconds of tossing, in went the scallops, and then after a few turns, the greens followed.
A splash of wine, a drizzle of sesame oil, and I turned it out into a warmed platter, and it was ready for the table, fragrant with wok hay and glistening with wine and sesame oil.
I have to admit to preferring the pea tips to the bok choi, but truly–I would never turn this dish down. It is a truly fine and elegant repast, one that I suspect we will ejoy again and again.
Now, if only I could figure out that lovely dish Huy used to make with bean sprouts and shrimp….
Stir-Fried Bay Scallops with Greens
1 pound tiny bay scallops
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon Chiangking vinegar
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pinch raw sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1″ chunk fresh young ginger, peeled and shredded
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and shredded
2 teaspoons fermented black beans, mashed lightly
2 tablespoons Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 heads Shanghai bok choi, washed, trimmed and shredded (or a double handful of snowpea tips)
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
Toss scallops in next six ingredients until well combined, then marinate for ten minutes.
Heat wok until a thin wisp of smoke appears, then add peanut or canola oil. When it shimmers in the heat, add ginger, garlic and black beans all at once, and stir fry until well fragrant, about thirty seconds to one minute. Add scallops and marinade and stir very quickly, frying until nearly cooked through–around one and a half minutes. As soon as wok dries out and a bit of brown crust forms on sides and bottom from the marinade, add wine or sherry and deglaze while still tossing scallops. Immediately add bok choi (or even better, the pea tips) and cook, tossing for about thirty seconds to one minute more.
Add sesame oil and stir one more time, then scrape into heated serving platter.
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