I was very excited to find these unusual vegetables on sale when we were in Vancouver in May. I first discovered Fiddleheads when I lived in Montreal. They are a traditional dish in Quebec and the Martimes, as well New England in the States.
Fiddlehead ferns are the unfurled fronds of ferns, but you can’t just pick any old fern, like these freshly furled ones we saw on our hike up High Creek Falls. I’m guessing we don’t have the right type of fern growing in the UK to harvest Fiddleheads since we don’t get them there (though we have plenty of bracken). Or could it be simply that no one knows which or when to harvest them?
Fiddleheads aren’t cultivated here so you only get them in season and they aren’t cheap, but they are well worth spending money on. Their taste is somewhere between asparagus and artichokes, and like those, they are delicious served with lemon and butter.
To prepare, brush off any loose brown leaves and give them a good wash. Then trim the woody or brown ends off the stalks. To cook them I would recommend steaming them until tender. Then serve tossed with a dob of butter, a good squeeze of lemon juice and seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Here is my favourite Sichuan dish posted now in response to a call from the London food blogger, Helen Graves, of the Food Stories blog. Helen has just started on a Sichuan food kick and recently shared her first adventures in Sichuan cooking in which she tried out the brilliantly titled “Pock marked woman” Bean-curd dish (I’ve made a variation of this which I wrote about here) and a rather enticing sounding Rabbit in peanuts with hot bean sauce which I must try.
I’m afraid this blog post isn’t strictly a food pictorial like this one (the inspiration for which I explain here), because I didn’t document every single step. I only decided to make the dish at the last minute, I didn’t have all the ingredients, and I was hungry! But since Helen has asked for other things to try, and I need to respond to this while she still has the wok on the hob, this will just have to suffice!
This recipe is from my Chinese Regional Cooking book by Deh-Ta Hsiung which I talked about more here. This dish actually comes from the Hunan province which borders Sichuan to the south-east, but their cuisine is closely affiliated, since they share a passion for hot chilli. The photo above is of the illustration for the recipe from Deh-Ta’s book.
You can see right away, it is one of those seventies cookbooks. Sexy food photography had not yet been born. But it is also one of those recipes that doesn’t match the illustration. Green pepper isn’t mentioned in the recipe (though I’m pretty sure it’s in that photo unless he had access to mega sized chillis!) but I think it looks better like that and tastes right too. In fact it is usually having got a green pepper-or a leek-in my veg bag that inspires me to make this recipe.
- 300g pork fillet (you don’t really get pork labelled ‘fillet’ in the shops here so I tend to use pork chops)
- 3-4 chinese dried mushrooms, soaked
- 1 tbsp chinese pickled cabbage (look for a little packet, may be labelled ‘preserved vegetables’)
- 2 tbsp bamboo shoots (you can freeze the rest of the tin for next time)
- 50g hot green chillis (no idea how many that is, I use 2 long thin green ones which-coupled with the HOT chilli paste-seems enough heat for us)
- 1 leek
- 1 green pepper (this wasn’t in the recipe, but is in the photo, and I think goes very nicely!)
For the pork coating:
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 egg
For the sauce:
- 2 tbsp chilli paste (see notes, below)
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp sesame seed oil
One detail of this recipe I haven’t quite got yet – though it doesn’t seem to hurt, is that Deh-Ta says you should “cut the pork into thick slices [and] score the surface with a criss-cross pattern” before cutting it into small squares and marinating in salt, egg and cornflour. The idea here being, that when you deep fry the pork “each piece opens up like a flower”. This never happens for me. However, I still score the meat each time like a good student. I guess I feel that at least it gives more surface for the egg to cling onto, and more places for the sauce to get a grip. I suppose I should try not doing this one time to see what the difference is. (I’ll add the results to the comments if/when I do this!)
The other tricky thing here I suppose is the chilli paste. You may find it difficult to locate. I was lucky the first time and found this squat little jar in my local Chinese supermarket that seemed perfect. Then they stopped selling that and the next best thing I’ve found is a much taller jar, whose English language label is titled with “Black beans” but the first ingredient is actually chilli (then soybeans). This stuff I find I need to chop or grind by hand (it appears to be predominantly black beans) to make it into a paste – the other jar was more a paste to start with. See how you do, and good luck!
Oh one more thing: can I just emphasize that the leek and preserved vegetables are crucial. Okay, so you can probably get away with out the latter-incase you struggle to find them too-but I just tried this with onion instead of leek and it was definitely missing something. So please use leek if you can.
You know what to do with the pork already (as decribed above: score/chop – add to egg, salt and cornflour). The vegetables: chop them all up finely; I find the green pepper should be roughly 1.5cm cubed, same with leek; the other can be chopped smaller, in proportion to their size. Grind the chilli paste if what you’ve found isn’t much of a paste. Get a colander/plate-with-paper-towels on it ready. Put some rice on.
Then heat a couple inches of oil up in your wok (a wooden skewer or chopstick left in the oil will indicate the appropriate temperature when it starts to fizz) and drop the pork cubes in, possibly in 2 batches so you don’t overcrowd it or cool down the oil too much. You’ll need to give it all a good poke to stop it sticking together. I have an enormous holey spoon that helps with both this task and the fishing out of the pieces later. It doesn’t take long. If the pork pieces open up like flowers please tell me how you did it. If not just take them out before they start to brown. Drain them in a colander and/or on some paper towel. Tip the oil into a saucepan to cool (I then put in a jar for reuse another time).
Add 1-2 tbsp of the aforementioned oil to stir fry the vegetables. They only need a few minutes on a hot heat, stirring ALL THE TIME. Then add the chilli paste and pork, stir well. Then add the soy. Take off the heat, stir in the sesame oil, and serve with rice.
P.S. Deh-Ta’s recipe suggests you add some cornflour slurry at the end to ‘thicken the sauce’. I don’t find I have much of a sauce when I make this dish – just all the flavours which are clinging to the ingredients. There is no liquid left in the pan for the cornflour to thicken. However, if you would like to try making this more saucy, I guess you want to add more water (or maybe chicken stock) and then the cornflour slurry (cornflour/cornstarch mixed with equal parts water) will have something to thicken and you will have a wet sauce. But I am pretty convinced you don’t need this.