This is a delicious dish, one that combines features from my two favorite Chinese cuisines—Hunan and Shanghai. The Hunan half of the dish is the stir-fry of plush scallops and crunchy water chestnuts, in a pungent sauce dotted with bits of orange or tangerine peel and chili. The Shanghai half is the border of deep-fried spinach threads. They have a wonderful, almost smoky taste, even better to my tongue than the fried seaweed which one finds often in Shanghai dishes and which inspired this spinach variation.
Rinse the scallops briefly with cool water, then pat dry. Leave tiny bay scallops whole. Cut large sea scallops in half through the middle to yield two thick coins, then cut each coin crosswise into fourths or sixths to yield chunky bits the size of a bay scallop.
Combine the egg white, wine, salt, and cornstarch, and stir briskly for about 2 minutes, until smooth. (Do not be tempted to use more egg white, or it will cling in skin-like bits to the scallops when fried.)
Put the scallops in a small bowl, scrape the marinade on top, then toss well to combine. There will be more marinade than scallops, but do not worry as the scallops will absorb it. Seal airtight, then refrigerate 8–36 hours. The longer the mixture sits, the plumper the scallops will be and the more marinade they will absorb.
Peel fresh water chestnuts. Or, drain and blanch canned water chestnuts in plain boiling water for 15 seconds to remove the tinny taste. Drain immediately and flush with cold water until chilled. Cut the water chestnuts neatly into a tiny dice the size of a peppercorn. Seal airtight and refrigerate until use, overnight if desired.
Clean the spinach leaves with cool water, then shake or spin dry. If you are working in advance, refrigerate the leaves covered with a damp cloth, overnight if desired.
If you are using home-dried orange or tangerine peel, cover with warm water until soft, about 10 minutes, then pat dry. Mince the softened home-dried peel or the scraped fresh peel finely, to yield ¾ teaspoon. Put the minced peel, scallion, garlic, ginger and red chili flakes side by side on a small saucer. Seal airtight and refrigerate until use, up to several hours.
Combine the sauce ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Combine the cornstarch mixture in a small bowl and leave the spoon in the bowl. This may be done hours ahead.
Be sure the spinach leaves are dry and blot up any tiny drops of moisture with a paper towel. Stack ¼ of the leaves shiny side down on your cutting surface, with the bigger leaves on the bottom. Roll up the leaves along the long side, like a carpet, rolling away from you. (The shiny side will be on the outside of the roll. This is to keep the leaves from breaking, by rolling them in the direction in which they naturally curve.) Then use a sharp, thin-bladed Chinese cleaver or knife to cut the roll crosswise into thin slices ⅛-inch thin. (This is called “silken threads” in Chinese, and chiffonade in French.) Fluff to separate the strands, put them aside on a plate, then repeat with the remaining leaves. If you are working in advance, you may refrigerate the cut spinach for an hour, sealed airtight but loosely to prevent crushing.
About 30 minutes in advance of serving, arrange the ingredients, a large Chinese mesh spoon or heatproof strainer or skimmer, and a baking sheet lined with a triple thickness of paper towels all within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter of a color to contrast with the spinach and scallops in a low oven to warm. Stir the scallops to loosen the pieces.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the frying oil to a depth of 1 inch, then heat until the oil is surmounted by a dense haze, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer. While the oil is heating, bring the water for velveting the scallops to a near simmer in a large saucepan, stir in the tablespoon of oil, then adjust the heat so the water does not boil. Put a colander in the sink, ready to drain the scallops.
When the oil reaches the dense-haze stage, turn off the heat to prevent the temperature from climbing. Test the oil with a single thread of spinach. It should bubble boldly on contact. Add ⅓ of the spinach threads to the oil (they will disperse immediately as they hit the oil), then fry until the bubbles almost cease, about 5 seconds. Immediately scoop the fried spinach from the oil in one movement, hold it briefly above the oil to drain, then invert the spoon and the spinach with a gentle knock onto the paper towels. It will look hopeless when you scoop it from the oil, but will be gleaming and crisp within seconds after it is turned out onto the tray. Do not blot or handle the spinach once fried, as it is very brittle. Fry the remaining spinach threads in two batches, one after the other so that the oil temperature does not fall.
As soon as the spinach is fried, put the tray aside. If you need to free the frying pot for stir-frying, carefully decant the hot oil into a heatproof bowl or pot, then wipe out the extra oil with a paper towel. Otherwise, let the oil sit until cool, then strain and bottle it for future frying.
Check to see that the water for velveting the scallops is at a superficial simmer, then slide the scallops into the water. They will sink to the bottom. Stir gently with chopsticks or a wooden spoon for 15 seconds, then drain immediately in the waiting colander. The scallops should be only part-cooked when they leave the water. If you are in any doubt, drain them sooner rather than later.
As soon as the scallops are drained into the colander, set a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 2 tablespoons com or peanut oil (you can use the frying oil), swirl to glaze the bottom, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a bit of scallion on contact, add the minced aromatics to the pan, nudging the chili flakes in last. Adjust the heat so they foam without browning, dribbling in a bit more oil from the side of the pan if the mixture is sticking. Stir gently until fully fragrant, 10–15 seconds, then give the sauce mixture a stir and add the sauce and the water chestnuts. Raise the heat to bring the liquid to a simmer, stirring, then add the scallops. Stir briefly to coat the scallops and heat them through, about 10 seconds, then give the cornstarch mixture a quick stir to recombine it and add it to the pan. Stir until the mixture turns glossy and slightly thick, about 10 seconds more, then scrape the mixture into the center of the heated platter. All of this should be done swiftly, so the scallops are just slightly undercooked when they leave the pan and will cook to perfect doneness from their own heat on the way to the table.
Gently slide or scatter the spinach threads around the border of the platter, then serve the dish at once.
This dish is only good when freshly made and newly served, so do not arrange to have leftovers!
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.