Scallions

葱 mandarin: tsoong; Cantonese: toong

Also commonly called green onions, scallions are as common to Chinese cooking as yellow onions (called “Western scallions” in Chinese) are to European and American cooking. They form a complementary seasoning pair along with fresh ginger (scallion being yin, and ginger being yang), and are also often used in the company of garlic and red chili (two other yang foods).

Except in shrimp purées, where the traditional practice is to use only the white part of the scallion (a color prejudice to which I do not always adhere), scallions are almost always used whole, that is from the white bulb clear up to the top of the green stalks. The only thing that is discarded is the bearded, tough root tip and any wilted greens or bedraggled stalk ends.

In many recipes in this book, I have distinguished between thin, medium, and hefty whole scallions. Thin means a bit thinner than the average pencil; medium means a bit thicker than the average pencil; and hefty means the width of two pencils if you put them side by side (about ½ inch across). This is a general index and not a firm measurement, so if in doubt (as I frequently say also regarding garlic and ginger), use more.

When buying scallions, look for a smooth, unblemished bulb and perky, erect stalks. If you are forced to buy wilted scallions, trim them carefully and use more than the recipe calls for to make up for the loss of pungency. Store scallions unwashed and untrimmed, in a lightly misted airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will keep 1–2 weeks if they were perfect to begin. As the outer layers grow wilted and wet, discard them, wipe the scallion dry, then return it to the bag.
Scallions are easy to clean: simply pull off and discard the outermost layer, which is usually wilted or tough relative to the rest, then rinse them briefly with cool water or wipe with a damp towel.

Scallion brushes can be made from the white and light green part of the scallion. Using a small, sharp knife, hold the trimmed scallion length in your hand, then cut upwards from the middle of the scallion, rotating it a notch clockwise after each cut so that the upper portion is completely fringed. Turn the scallion length upside down, then repeat the process to fringe the end you’ve left whole, cutting from the center of the stalk upward but leaving ¼–½ inch uncut in the very center of the stalk. Then put the cut scallion in a bowl of ice water and watch the ends curl back. They will curl within minutes if the scallions were perfectly fresh, and then should be drained and the excess water shaken off before using. If you are working in advance, pop the brushes into a plastic bag, seal it in a “balloon” to keep them from crushing, and refrigerate until use.

It should be mentioned that the only place where scallion brushes and scallion lengths are eaten raw is in the area of Shantung, the northeastern province not far from Peking. Just as garlic is credited with magic powers in the West, the Chinese commonly say that it is by eating raw scallion that the people of Shantung grow so tall.

Scallion spider chrysanthemums were taught to me by my student, Catherine Kunkle, who frills these garnishes with a thin sewing needle. Start with the white portion of a long, medium or hefty scallion, trimmed of the hairy beard but with the root end left intact to hold the flower together. Hold the scallion by the root end in one hand, then use the needle to cut upwards from the root to the top of the scallion length, making gashes about halfway through the scallion and turning it a tiny notch clockwise after each cut so that it is fringed delicately all around. What you are doing, in short, is making half a scallion brush. If you want a tightly curled flower, use the ice water method above. For a looser look, put them into a water-misted plastic bag sealed in a “balloon” and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Scallion branches are much more my style. They can be made in seconds from a lively green stalk of scallion, cut about 2½ inches long. Put the piece of stalk flat on your cutting surface, then use the point of a thin-bladed cleaver or the point of a small, sharp knife (whichever is in your hand), and make a long cut 1/16 inch in from the side of the stalk, running from ¼ inch above the base clear through the top. As you complete the cut, the freed sliver of scallion will curl off to the side. Continue cutting at ⅛-inch intervals until you reach the other side. Then give the cut stalk a shake. If it was perfectly fresh, the limbs will curl outwards prettily. Scallion branches can be bagged in lightly misted plastic and refrigerated until use, overnight if you like. For a dainty garnish make them smaller, starting out with a 1½-inch stalk.

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