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Stir-fry Chinese greens with ham 苦菜火腿炒饭

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Chinese cooks know how to embrace the bitter. They realize how well it can balance other notes, especially salty and sweet. Kucai 苦菜, literally "bitter vegetable," has become one of my favorite leafy greens here in Kunming, and today I'd like to show you one good way to turn it into a tasty stir-fry.

 

My local outdoor market has several vendors that specialize in fresh greens. I particularly like one run by two young guys and their mother, because their family grows most of their produce themselves out on the south edge of the city. Dad stays there with one other relative and they do the farm work. Not only are their offerings always fresh, they grow some greens that I seldom see elsewhere.

 

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Here's what kucai 苦菜 looks like when it's still in the ground. It belongs to a family of wild plants that includes daisies and sunflowers. If you cannot find kucai where you live, you could substitute chard, kale, or collards. Mustard greens would also probably work.

 

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Sometimes one only finds it large and mature, with leaves 16 inches long. That kind is best for soup. (It can of course still be blanched for stir-fry use.) But this time I found some that was young, called 小苦菜,that was about a foot long, lush green leaves, very succulent and tender.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though the name of this fine vegetable contains the word "bitter" it really isn't at all difficult to eat. Don't let the name scare you off. It has an almost sweet afternote, and is very fresh and clean, a little along the lines of chard or kale. Chinese herbalists and TCM practitioners 中医 hold that it cleanses the blood and dispels excess internal heat. Here's what mine looked like when I got it home. I washed it well and cut off the thick base of the stems so I could begin cooking them a little before the more tender leaves.

 

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Slivered some famous Yunnan Xuanwei huotui, a premium cured ham, 宣威火腿 off the larger chunk that I keep in the fridge. One can buy this in packages at most supermarkets, but here I have the luxury of patronizing a couple at the market who even give me large ham bones free that I can use to make soup stock or cook beans. I also smashed and course-chopped a garlic, one of the single-clove beauties that I prefer to use when I can. 独蒜。

 

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Got out a plastic container of yesterday's left over rice 剩米饭 , spread it a shallow bowl, and then broke up the major clumps using chopsticks and moistened fingers. It's always best do that when making fried rice; if you just dump large pieces into the wok, they don't cook evenly. And day-old rice works better than freshly made rice for this application.

 

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As you see, I sliced some cherry tomatoes, and set out three dried red chilies 干辣椒。Everything is ready now, let's get cooking.

 

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Heat your trusty wok over high heat and add some oil. I used rapeseed oil 菜籽油 for this, because I was given a large jug of it by the phone company as part of a promotion. First add the garlic, peppers, huotui, and finely-sliced bits of kucai stem. These items need slight head start. Then quickly fry the minced greens. Keep stirring and flipping things over 翻炒 as the greens release their moisture. You can see the steam rising (I promise that is not smoke.)

 

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Next, add the rice into the center of the wok and break up any remaining clumps with your stirring tool 锅铲。Don't cover the wok, or the greens will turn a sickly yellow.

 

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Note a couple things at this point: First of all, the wok is not too full. You want to be able to move everything around fast and let it fry instead of stew. If you have too much volume, that cannot happen and you wind up with a gloppy mess. Second, notice the ratio of rice to meat and vegetables. You want this dish to be mostly rice.

 

Now the cherry tomatoes are in play. I've added a sprinkle of salt 食盐 and another of MSG 味精。Remember that the huotui is salty, so don't go overboard by adding too much extra now. This dish doesn't need any soy sauce. A good chaofan is kind of dry, not soupy. Most individual grains of rice are separate from each other. Don't cook it to death; the vegetables should retain some crunch.

 

Scoop it out into a serving bowl 起锅装盘, and presto, there you have the finished product.

 

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This is an easily-reproducible dish; I've made it many times and it always seems to come out well. Not much trouble, simple clean up, pretty healthy, and damned delicious. Give it a try and see what you think. 苦菜火腿炒饭。

 

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Footnote: The technique used here can serve as a rough general guide to making fried rice with other flavor ingredients.

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Shelley
34 minutes ago, abcdefg said:

Got out a plastic container of yesterday's left over rice,

This is a question I wanted to ask... I have some left over rice in a covered container in the fridge, how long will it last? I cooked it Friday can I use it today? Does it go smelly when its off? Sorry to side track but it was weird seeing you write this because I was going to ask you this today.

 

Your stir fry looks lovely, I bet it was delicious.

 

I wanted to do an egg fried rice with chicken, ham, onions, peppers (bell), carrots, sweetcorn and seasoning.

I find it is easier to fry cold rice, any other advice to stop it sticking?

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abcdefg

Glad you asked, Shelley. Leftover rice lasts 5 or 6 days maximum in my fridge. Might last a day or two longer if the fridge is modern and real cold. (Mine is an old model, a hand-me-down from my landlord.) If it smells "off" or has flecks of green mold, it definitely needs to be tossed out.

 

On 5/17/2017 at 7:52 PM, Shelley said:

I wanted to do an egg fried rice with chicken, ham, onions, peppers (bell), carrots, sweetcorn and seasoning.

 

Too many ingredients. Less is more when making a Chinese-style fried rice. That is one of the main reasons that fried rice at China Star Buffet in the strip mall in Smalltown, Texas where I live part of every year is not very good. They try to adapt it to western tastes, and load it up with way too many goodies.

 

On 5/17/2017 at 7:52 PM, Shelley said:

I find it is easier to fry cold rice, any other advice to stop it sticking?

 

Agree that cold rice works best, but it's not crucial. Take it out of the fridge, scoop it out onto a plate, spread it out and break up any clumps you see. This is an important step. If you drop a solid, fist-sized clump of rice into the wok, it takes too long to spread it out evenly so it can cook.

 

To keep it from sticking, heat the wok real hot, don't be stingy with the oil, then stir and flip it fast with your wok tool, ladle or spatula. Don't stop from beginning to end. Also, I'm not sure it's possible to make good Chinese-style fried rice on an electric stove top, since it requires seriously high heat.

 

This whole dish that I made today took only 3 to 5 minutes from start to finish (time on the flame, not counting prep.)

 

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889

Just a warning to those naive souls who might be tempted to order this is in a restaurant: "ham" on a Chinese menu means Spam.

 

And remember that cooked rice that's stored too long at room temperature can become downright poisonous. Cooking at high temperature for griddle cakes or the like does not kill the poison.

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abcdefg

@889 --

Quote

Just a warning to those naive souls who might be tempted to order this is in a restaurant: "ham" on a Chinese menu means Spam

 

Good reminder. That's true, and it's a pity. They often do try to slip in 火腿肠 instead of the the really good stuff. I try my best to avoid those "mysterious processed foods" here (as well as elsewhere) because heaven only knows what they really contain.

 

----------------------------------------

@Shelley -- Here's something else to do with left-over rice that you think might soon go bad.

 

https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53459-turn-left-over-rice-into-griddle-cakes-剩米饭煎饼/

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889

Genuine ham is so rare in Chinese restaurants that I can still remember the last time I had it, in Yangzhou years ago in a perfect dish of 大煮干丝. It's delicious and light and very representative of 淮扬菜:

 

http://mt.sohu.com/20150212/n408975324.shtml

 

And it only needs a few strands of real ham to give it flavor.

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abcdefg
10 hours ago, 889 said:

And it only needs a few strands of real ham to give it flavor.

 

Agree 100%. Even here, where it's not terribly expensive, I use it more as a condiment than as a substantial source of protein.

 

If you would like to learn more about Yunnan's famous Xuanwei Ham 宣威火腿, it is discussed here:

 

https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/52376-using-prime-local-ingredients-yunnan-huotui-芹菜炒火腿/

 

(@889 -- That dish to which you linked looks delicious. Don't think I have ever had it.)

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Shelley

Oh yes I remember those rice cakes.

I understand your comment on less is more and personally I would agree with you but I am cooking this for someone who is used to UK chinese take away versions of this and enjoys finding all the different things in his rice which is the last bit to bit eaten!!!

I do think however I will leave out the carrots not sure why I though they would be good, someone brought us some freshly picked asparagus and I thinking of adding the tips as a sort of garnish and making them the star of the meal. Although they are freshly picked the stalks are very thick and tough looking.

 

5 0r 6 days...friday sat, sun, mon, tue, today hmm will check the state of the rice, my fridge is "modern" but oldish according to my friends who just have to the latest, for me if works and is clean it will do. I have gas for cooking so getting the wok hot is no problem.

I do intend on contributing to the share your cooking utensils and kitchen topic, you will then have a better idea of my situation for future advice:P Just need to do some work and then I will go and take some pictures.

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889

大煮干丝  is basically a heap of noodle-like strips of doufu that have been simmered in a rich chicken broth.

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Alex_Hart

Looks great, abcd! I've never seen 苦菜 up here - girlfriend also has never heard of it. Seems it might be a southern veg? Will need to ask at the market, but have to admit 野菜 is relatively rare here. Appreciate that you first add the stems - lots of recipes skip that with the heartier greens, producing totally wilted greens or half raw stems.

 

2 hours ago, abcdefg said:

Heat your trusty wok over high heat and add some oil. I used rapeseed oil 菜籽油 for this, because I was given a large jug of it by the phone company as part of a promotion

I'll trade you some tea oil for pu'er and 苦菜 - my girlfriend's father owns a 茶树农场 and we get large jugs of 'premium' tea oil.:P

 

2 hours ago, abcdefg said:

Now the cherry tomatoes are in play. I've added a sprinkle of salt 食盐 and another of MSG 味精

I'm surprised you use MSG - do you find it adds something you can't get with other ingredients, e.g. soy sauce or some sort of bean? I generally use mushrooms or soy for that umami flavor in dry meals, or seaweed if I can incorporate some sort of stock. Some bean sauces such as 豆瓣酱 as well, though they tend to have a stronger flavor. Have never actually used MSG in my own cooking.

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abcdefg
11 hours ago, Alex_Hart said:

I'll trade you some tea oil for pu'er and 苦菜 - my girlfriend's father owns a 茶树农场 and we get large jugs of 'premium' tea oil

 

Sounds like a plan! I've never tried cooking with tea oil. How do you like using it?

 

11 hours ago, Alex_Hart said:

I'm surprised you use MSG - do you find it adds something you can't get with other ingredients, e.g. soy sauce or some sort of bean?

 

I use it sometimes, and then very lightly. I don't add it with a spoon, just sprinkle in a pinch using my fingers. In this dish, I didn't want to introduce any additional flavors; therefore something like 豆瓣酱 would have been too strong.

 

In the west, MSG has been demonized and people preach against it with quasi-religious zeal. But I think it has a well-established place in Chinese cooking, and am not reluctant to use it every so often when it serves a purpose.

 

In the recipes I post here, it's always optional, never essential. It's best to develop the desired flavors in the dish by natural methods, and not rely too heavily on 味精 MSG. Don't use MSG as a shortcut.

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abcdefg

About storing left-over rice in the fridge. A Canadian friend just called me out on my earlier answer. Sounds as though I might have been courting danger. Should revise my previous answer downwards in the interest of food safety. More than 3 or 4 day is risky. Rice is cheap; cooking it is easy. If in doubt, toss it out and make some more.

 

Here's a link to the "fried rice syndrome," caused by bacillus cereus. It's nasty business. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacillus_cereus 

 

Earlier this morning, I bought a kilogram of top notch rice across the street for only 7.98 Yuan, a little over a dollar. It would be silly to get sick, or worse yet make my guests sick, just to save three pennies and a little time. (Bought 秋然香米, a fragrant medium-grain rice from Anhui.)

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Alex_Hart
7 hours ago, abcdefg said:

Sounds like a plan! I've never tried cooking with tea oil. How do you like using it?

 

It's essentially replaced all oils other than EVOO in our kitchen - haven't touched the corn oil since we got it. It handles high heats well, like veg or corn oil, but has a slight fragrance to it that compliments most Chinese dishes. I find a lot of dishes taste less "oily" than if I make it with the other oils, especially in naturally oily dishes like 鱼香茄子. My girlfriend also says it's healthier. Not sure about this, but it was my primary impetus for using it. That and the fact that I often visit the farm where the tea trees are grown, which has made me grown attached to the oil.

 

It also comes in grades - like most oils. What we're currently using would be akin to an extra virgin olive oil - it's dark in color with a stronger fragrance. I think it was described as what I would translate to "first press," but the conversation had gone beyond my level and was with people who spoke dialect more comfortably than putonghua, so I might have misunderstood what they meant. We also had a cheap one that looked like any corn/veg oil, yellowish in color. That one is more oil-y, but I use it if I deep fry because the gifted one is rather expensive.

7 hours ago, abcdefg said:

In the west, MSG has been demonized and people preach against it with quasi-religious zeal. But I think it has a well-established place in Chinese cooking, and am not reluctant to use it every so often when it serves a purpose.

 

 

Indeed - "MSG hangovers" and whatnot. While I don't ascribe to that particular creed, I just never thought to purchase it myself. Perhaps should try it and see what it adds to dishes. 

 

Out of curiosity, do you only use white rice in your cooking?

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Su Haifeng

@Shelley In China, when it comes to stir-fried rice, we often say that "隔夜饭更好吃". “隔夜饭” means rice from yesterday evening.  

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889

Just so unknowing folks don't inadvertently try to disinfect themselves when whipping up some fried rice, it's useful to distinguish between tea seed oil (Camellia oil) which you can use in cooking and tea tree oil (Melaleuca oil) which you can't.

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realmayo

Ah, the cooking oil is tea seed oil? Because I've drunk 油茶 or oil tea in Guangxi, which is made from the tea leaves, I believe.

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889

Yes, oil tea is something else yet again.

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Shelley

Thanks for that clarification on the tea oils, I was confused and thought wow these guys are hardcore!!! Silly me:P

 

P.S. @abcdefg I did not use my 6 day old rice, it was looking very sad. So no bad tummies here. Will try again with one day old rice.

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abcdefg
3 hours ago, Shelley said:

P.S. @abcdefg I did not use my 6 day old rice, it was looking very sad. So no bad tummies here. Will try again with one day old rice.

 

Good! I am relieved.

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Alex_Hart
23 hours ago, Shelley said:

Thanks for that clarification on the tea oils, I was confused and thought wow these guys are hardcore!!! Silly me:P

 

Maybe we are!

 

Thanks for clarifying, 889!

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