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This is a 100% meat free variant on a classic Chinese dish. It’s pretty substantial on its own, but some noodles dressed with sesame oil will work too.

My loyal followers bunnyandporkbelly will hate this, since it should be made with gelatinous ground pork, but hey, my shoulders are broad.

Here’s what you’ll need

TVP – textured vegetable protein. It’s dried, very light, and very filling. You can buy it in Holland &Barrett if you have more money than sense, but a lot of supermarkets carry it now. It may be in the bulk section. Don’t panic if you have to buy a sack of it. It never, ever ever goes off as long as it doesn’t get wet. Ideally you want the mince type variant but it should work with flakes, or even the chunky stuff.

Spring onions

Garlic. Two cloves, at least. Maybe four. Yeah, definitely four.

Fresh ginger. Do not buy this at the supermarket. Mr Hong is your best friend again, or pop down a West Indian shop or market stall. Even your local minimart may be a better choice than Asda. You can buy a chunk the size of your head for a couple of quid, and if you keep it in the fridge it lasts a long long time. Even if it goes a bit blue on the cut surfaces, you can trim that off.

Dried fermented black beans. Mr Hong again

Chinese leaf. You can use a Savoy cabbage, which is cheaper and adds a nice bit of texture.

Vegetable stock. OK to use cubes, but make it double strength. One cube to ¼ pint of water, which strangely gives you the ¼ pint of stock you need.

Dry sherry or Shaoxing wine (posh).

Dark soy sauce.

Cornflour

Salt, if you like.

A slow cooker, ideally. You can do the braising in a wok, but it’s dead easy to cock things up if you lose concentration for a while.

Here’s what you do

Put a half inch of water in the slow cooker, and switch it on High. Why the water? Well, if you forget, there’s a very good chance that the cooking vessel will crack and then you’re scuppered, aren’t you?

Get the TVP and soak it in water for five minutes. How much do you need? Well it bulks up, so about 1/3rd  the weight of meat you might use. Depends on how many of you there are and how hungry you are.

Take a teaspoonful of black beans and soak them in warm water for a few minutes.

Thinly slice a couple of spring onions across the length.

Slice another couple lengthways.

Take two good sized chunks of ginger, and peel them. Slice one very finely across the grain, and chop the other very vigorously into a puree.

Take two cloves of garlic, and peel and crush them. Take the other two, and slice them really, really finely. If the slices are translucent, that’s good, but you can afford to be a bit cack-handed. Dinnae fret.

Mix the ¼ pint of stock with 1/8 pint dark soy, and 1/8 pint sherry or cooking wine. A level tablespoon of cornflour and stir really well to disperse the cornflour

Drain the TVP well, shove it in a teatowel (you may need to buy teatowels in bulk off a market stall if you go through them at the pace that will occur if you follow my recommendations.) Squeeze out as much water as you can. Shove it in a good sized mixing bowl. Add some salt, and a tablespoon of cornflour, and a splash of dark soy.

Drain the black beans well, and add them. Add the crushed garlic, the finely sliced spring onions, the pureed ginger. Stir it all up, and leave it for a few minutes. Salt if you like.

Meanwhile, heat some oil in your trusty wok. Chuck in the lengthways sliced spring onions, stir ‘em about, add the sliced ginger. Stir it up. Add the garlic slices. Do not allow these to burn or brown!

Turn off the heat, and add the stock mixture. Keep it moving as it heats through, and as it starts to thicken.

Back to the TVP mix. Is it too sloppy? I can’t tell you, but if it is, add some more cornflour as you mix it up vigorously with you hands, until it makes a satisfyingly squidgy but not sloppy mixture.

You’ll need a Chinese leaf or Savoy cabbage leaf for each TVP ball you intend to make.

Wash them, lay them out flat. Take enough TVP to make a golf ball-sized ball, and roll it in your hands. If it sticks to your mitts, it’s a bit runny, so add some more cornflour but do not overdo it!

Form the balls and place them individually on the leaves. Gently fold the leaves over the balls. It really doesn’t matter if you can’t make them into parcels. The idea is that the leaves stop the balls sticking to each other as they cook.

Empty the water out of the slow cooker, and stack the leaf wrapped balls in there. Put the lid back on so things don’t lose heat.

Back to the wok. Heat the sauce up over a medium heat, and keep it stirring. Stir stir stir stir as it heats up, but do not let it boil! You’re aiming for a gentle simmer. It should thicken up, but not become gloopy.

Pour the sauce over the TVP balls in the slow cooker. Whack the lid back on. Leave on high for about twenty minutes to get back up to cooking temperature, then turn it back to low. Swanky slow cookers will do this for you, automatically turning the heat down as it all gets hot enough.

Leave things alone. If you’ve got it right, you can take your time. Half an hour’s about right, but it won’t make a scrap of difference if you lose track of time a bit.

Wash up. Have a glass of wine.

Cook some noodles, sprinkle with sesame oil in a warmed serving dish.

Carefully lift out the TVP balls and their attendant leaves, and arrange them on top of the noodles. Pour any remaining sauce over them.

You’ll believe a man can fly.

A variant

Mr Hong may stock Szechuan peppercorns. In theory you need to toast these before use, but I’ve fond they work just fine out of the bag. Grind some over the noodles before you add the TVP balls.

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