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Gift ham and garlic bolts 蒜苔炒火腿


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Spring Festival 春节 bounty:A generous friend brought bought me back a big piece of slow-cured mountain ham from his village up in Zhaotong Prefecture 昭通州 and I asked about some of the favorite ways they used it back home. Today's dish headed the short list. Use the tender shoots of the garlic plant to make a simple stir-fry. I gave it a try and it turned out first rate. The complex aged ham was offset by the slightly sweet garlicky flavor of the tender spring vegetable. Let me show you how to do it yourself.


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Lately these garlic stems been abundant and inexpensive at my local wet market. The ones I got cost 4  Yuan for a big bundle, and the sign says they were grown locally. This is another of those vegetables I'd never seen until moving to China. My background reading says they are sometimes called "garlic bolts" or "garlic scapes" in the west, though I admit to never having heard either of those odd names. Farmers cut them off so that the (underground) garlic bulb will grow larger.


In any case Chinese love them and call them suantai 蒜苔。They are at their best right now. Later in the full heat of summer they become tough and somewhat woody; now they are juicy and tender. 






I bought one large bundle, washed them and cut them into pieces between two and three inches long. Trimmed and discarded a few brown tips. You can see the unopened garlic flowers near the growing end of most stems. (Yes, you eat that part too.) They have a pleasant garlicky flavor without any of that garlic bulb heat and bite. Almost sweet, though not quite. Texture is close to that of young asparagus. 


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Washed and then cut a couple of small red bell peppers 红甜椒 into thin slivers (removing the stem and the seeds.) 洗净、去蒂、去籽、切丝。


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Rinsed off a piece of ham and carefully cut it into very thin slices. Leave the fat, it adds to the flavor. (Sharp knife is essential. My trusty Hong Kong caidao 菜刀 did not let me down.) This ham was two years old; rich, complex flavor. The pigs from which it came are about half wild, roaming large pastures instead of being confined to small pens. Elevation 3,000 meters. Yunnan's most famous ham comes from Xuanwei 宣威, in Qujing 曲靖, a bit south of Zhaotong 昭通。It is similar in character to an Italian Parma ham. 


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Smack a large spring onion 大葱 with the side of the blade to crush it and flatten it somewhat, then slice it thin. Partly flattening it like that makes the volatile aromatics release easier when it hits the heat. 


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Boil a small pot of water and drop the garlic stems into it. When the water returns to a boil, scoop them out and drain them well 沥干水。You only want to blanch 焯 them; be careful not to overdo it. These were so tender I actually could have omitted that step. 


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Readied my soy sauce 生抽 and some cooking wine 料酒。Put a teaspoon of corn starch into a rice bowl along with a tablespoon or two of tap water, mixing them together to make 水淀粉。Will use this in the last step to thicken the sauce and bind the various flavors.


A little oil swirled around in the bottom of my hot wok to coat. Full flame, almost making it smoke. Add the ham, stir it around to render some of its fat. Quickly add the red peppers and spring onion, stirring constantly. Then in go the blanched garlic stems. 


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Continue to stir fry 翻炒 briskly and shake the wok at the same time to keep things from sticking and burning. I've turned the heat to medium, but the steel of the wok is still plenty hot. It smells real good by now. Add about a tablespoon of soy sauce and the same amount of cooking wine. No salt or MSG needed. When the vegetables are just beginning to take on a golden color, add the corn starch solution and stir a few seconds more. The entire cooking time was only a minute or two: fast and hot is the ticket for this.


You are done. Serve it up. Sip a glass of white wine. The vegetables are tender, but have retained their crunch. Eat it with steamed rice and a simple clear vegetable soup to make a light warm-weather meal. 


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If you can locate the ingredients, give it a whirl. A farmers market would be the place to look for these garlic stems. I've seen recipes which use processed ham links 火腿肠 and young asparagus 芦笋。Not quite the same, but probably still good. 

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The anatomy of garlic, a key Chinese cooking ingredient. I moved this post so it would be easier to find later. Here's a link:





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