Chinese Cabbage Hearts with Glass Noodles

雞油菜心

It took me years to bring myself to cook a plate of Chinese cabbage. My first week in Taiwan I ate virtually nothing but, being a panicky vegetarian who didn’t have the vocabulary to order anything else. Then, I lived with a very old Chinese who couldn’t chew worth a cabbage and would stir-fry the vegetable to a textureless, ignoble death.

  • What changed my mind was literally the heart of a female cabbage. There it lay on the chopping block, one small cabbage in a ring of miniature “babies.” (See TECHNIQUE NOTES, for the anatomy of Chinese cabbages.) I left the miniatures intact, cut the heart into thin coins, then concocted a dish to change my ways. It is delicate and delicious, a nice contrast of crisp vegetables and silken noodles.
  • The leftover chicken fat and juices from making Tea and Spice Smoked Chicken make this dish special. If you don’t have them, use steam-rendered chicken fat and a rich chicken stock, and spice it with a bit of Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt.
  • From start to finish, this is a 15-minute dish.

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Ingredients

  • ½ pound Chinese cabbage heart (cut from a cabbage weighing 1½-2 pounds; to equal 1½ cups thin-sliced coins or wedges)
  • 1 ounce bean threads (glass noodles)

For stir-frying

  • 5–6 teaspoons chicken fat, preferably rendered from a smoked chicken
  • ¼ cup thin-cut green and white scallion rings
  • scant 1 cup rich unsalted chicken stock, preferably the juices rendered from steaming a smoked chicken
  • Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt, to taste (optional)

Method

Preparations

Read about male and female cabbages in TECHNIQUE NOTES.

If the cabbage is a female, with tiny miniature cabbages arranged around the central core, pull off the miniature whole cabbages as you cut the core and put them aside. With a sharp cleaver or knife cut the base of the cabbage crosswise into thin disks, evenly 1/16 inch thick. As the leaves come free, stack them to the side, then continue slicing the base into thin disks and pulling off the whole baby cabbages. If once the entire heart is cut you don’t have ½ pound thin disks and tiny whole cabbages, then cut the crispest ribs crosswise into narrow bands to make up the desired weight. Include also any flowers you may find at the core.

If the cabbage is a male, with only a single disk for the base, cut the base off ½ inch from the bottom, and cut it pie-fashion into wedges a scant ¼ inch wide. Stack the leaves that fall free to one side, then cut another ½-inch thick slice from the base and cut it into wedges. If once you have cut the entire heart you don’t have ½ pound of wedges, then cut the firmest of the inner leaves crosswise into narrow bands to make up the desired weight.

Divide the usual 2-ounce package of bean threads in half by cutting through the loop ends of the skein with sturdy scissors and pulling away the required amount of noodles. Soak in hot tap water until rubber-band firm, drain and shake dry.

The cabbage and noodles may be prepared, bagged, and refrigerated a day in advance. Mist the cabbage lightly with water before storing.

Stir-frying the cabbage

If you are using juices rendered from a smoked chicken, taste them for salt. If the taste is too strong, dilute the juices with enough unsalted chicken stock to make an appealing scant cup.

Have all the ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a shallow serving bowl of contrasting color in a low oven to warm. Reserve ½ tablespoon scallion rings as a garnish.

About 10 minutes before serving, heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to sizzle a bead of water on contact. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add 4 teaspoons fat to the pan, and swirl to coat the bottom. When the fat is hot enough to gently sizzle one scallion ring—check after 3–4 seconds—add the scallions. Stir in small circles until fragrant, about 10 seconds, adjusting the heat so the scallions sizzle and the fat does not smoke. Add the cabbage, then toss several minutes just until translucent, adding a bit more fat if the pan gets too dry. Add the noodles, stir to combine, then add the stock and raise the heat to bring the liquid to a simmer, stirring. Cover and simmer gently for 1 minute, or until the noodles are slippery-smooth and there is only ¼ of the liquid left in the pan.

Turn off the heat, remove the cover, then taste and adjust with a pinch of pepper-salt if needed. Stir once or twice, remove to the heated serving bowl, and serve immediately, garnished with a sprinkling of the reserved scallion rings.

Eat this dish up. Like most things stir-fried with chicken fat, it is terrible cold.

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