Punchinello’s Chronicles

August 17, 2010

Chinese Take-Out: More Ingredients

Filed under: Chinese Take-out Cooking — Punchinello @ 2:22 am
Tags: , ,

In the first part of this topic, “The Ingredients,” I wrote about the major ingredients you’ll want to have on hand for Chinese cooking. They include cornstarch, light (regular or ordinary) soy sauce, dark soy sauce, rice cooking wine, and sesame oil. This post examines the lesser (but necessary) ingredients.

A lot’s going to depend on two things. First, what are you trying to cook; secondly, will you need fresh or canned items. For example, if you decide to make sweet-and-sour pork, you probably won’t need to buy fresh items if you have a green pepper on hand.

Meat

You can find all kinds of recipes for fried rice online, and they all talk about using pork, beef or shrimp. Pork, we understand, and so too with shrimp. But what kind of beef? Lots of cuts of beef are very different from each other.

It turns out that you’ll want to use either flank steak or top sirloin. You’re only going to use about half a pound, so it’s not all that expensive. Plus, you can buy what’s available, cut it into half-pound pieces and freeze it. Take-out recipes won’t require the fresh, unfrozen taste of steak.

In a pinch, we’ve used chuck eye steak, or even the tender parts of a 7-bone chuck roast. But if you can do it, stick with flank steak or sirloin. And go with top sirloin, not round steak or bottom round. You want some fat for moisture.

One of the unusual cuts of meat we can get around here, and I’ve seen them in random other places, is something called a Charcoal Steak. This actually is part of the chuck, but it’s cut very thinly and has a significant amount of marbling (fat). It works superbly for Beef and Broccoli. If you can’t find that, you can go with thinly cut chuck steaks, but you’ll still be happier with flank or sirloin.

As for pork, a lot of people think that tenderloin is the best. No, it’s too dry. For small pieces you’ll be a lot happier with a shoulder roast. If you can’t find a shoulder roast, then use country ribs. That’s the same meat, just sliced into pieces. If you can’t find those, then look for a thick shoulder steak.

You’ll want to avoid butt roasts, as they’re not as tender. You’ll be using a marinade to tenderize most of the meat (recipe later), but even so, the more tender it is to start with, the better the final result.

While I was learning these take-out recipes, I ran across Greek souvlaki. That’s basically a Mediterranean shishkabob. Every recipe calls for “pork.” Almost everywhere I’ve bought it, they use center-cut or tenderloin. It’s very dry, and I didn’t think it was very good. Later, I’ll put up a recipe for Sino-Greek Souvlaki that totally solves the problem of dryness. Once again, it uses pieces of shoulder roast.

Shrimp can easily be pre-cooked if you’re using chopped or minced shrimp for egg rolls and wontons. But for fried shrimp, you’ll want raw shrimp. The best size is around 26-30 count. That gives you a nice, plump shrimp with some real meat. Buying food from a Chinese restaurant, you’ll more often get smaller shrimp and more breading.

You’re making all this yourself, so you can use larger pieces or more of a particular ingredient. It’s very inexpensive, and you’ll be surprised at what it costs to make, versus what you’re paying for the restaurant items.

Egg Roll and Wonton Wrappers (Skins)

People might like making their own skins, just like people like making pasta from scratch. I’m not into that, so I buy the wrappers already made. What matters here is that there are “general use” wrappers on the market, used both for egg rolls and for lasagna. Don’t get those!

You shouldn’t have any trouble finding both egg roll wraps and wonton skins in your local supermarket. Many times, they’re either in the produce section, up along the shelves, or they’re in the frozen section.

If you can find fresh, unfrozen wraps, you’ll be in better shape. You likely won’t use them all, and you can then freeze what’s left. These are very thin and made mostly of flour, so you actually can freeze, thaw, then re-freeze the wraps without a problem.

The main problems are dryness and thickness. Keeping both egg roll and wonton wraps moist enough that they bend easily is simple enough, but if you freeze, thaw, then freeze again, you might end up with freezer burn. It’s not that common, but it happens.

Wraps are so cheap, you can just throw away what you don’t use. But we’re pretty broke, so we tend to use everything. Wontons make just about two complete sets of Crab Rangoon, with one 8oz package of cream cheese, so you should know that you can freeze what’s left.

If you buy fresh, then when you’re done just cover in plastic wrap, put in a reclosable bag and stick ’em in the freezer. If you buy frozen wraps, you can thaw them out, use what you need, then freeze the rest again.

You’ll want to experiment with various brands to see what you like the best. Particularly for egg rolls, you’ll find that somewhat thicker wraps taste more like what you’ll get from a restaurant. Very thin wraps, or those coated with a dusting of flour may not suit your fancy. Try different brands until you find what you like.

Green Onions – Scallions

Fried rice and egg-drop soup both use the green pieces of the tips of green onions. They’re cheap, but you’ll want to buy them fresh. Over time, they get limp and slippery, kind of funky and they’re no fun. However; you can peel off the smushy outer parts and end up with nice, firm inner parts.

A good way to keep scallions is to loosely wrap them in a large piece of tinfoil, then put them in the fridge. Don’t close the ends too tightly, just sort of make a tube of foil. This works for celery, too, by the way. It helps them last a bit longer.

Sweet & Sour Sauce

Don’t bother keeping sweet and sour sauce on hand. It’s so easy to make, there’s no reason to spend the money. I’ll put up a recipe in due time. Initially, then sure, buy some of your favorite sauce. But later, you can make your own and have lots more for less money. Plus, you can mess around with various ingredients and come up with more personally satisfying versions.

Spices – Cinnamon

It took me forever to figure out what I was smelling when I bit into a nice egg roll! Turns out it’s cinnamon. There are a number of people who use 5 Spice Powder, but if you examine the five spices, you’ll find two that matter.

The first part of 5-spice powder is, once again, cinnamon. But the second part is anise, which tastes a lot like licorice. The problem I had was that I first used the 5 Spice Powder, and came really close to the perfect egg roll. But, it had a bitter flavor as well, which I learned came from the anise.

Then I had some Greek Moussaka (like Greek lasagna), and smelled exactly the same aroma. Looking it up, I realized it was cinnamon. It’s used very sparingly, but in combination with the sesame oil, it’ll give you that final “secret” and unique taste, and more importantly, the aroma.

Summary

When you get more sophisticated, you’ll get a chance to use Arrowroot in sweet and sour sauce, but it’s not necessary and not critical. Cornstarch works just fine. The main advantage of arrowroot is that it cools down nice and clear, without being jelly-like (like cornstarch).

The problem with arrowroot is that it looses its thickening agency when it gets too hot. Playing around with how much, and at what temperature is annoying, so I’ll get into that when I write out the recipe for sweet-and-sour sauce.

Everything else you’ll either have already lying around, or you can easily find in any store. You’ll find cans of pineapple chunks, fresh green peppers, and usually you can get fresh bean sprouts. They often come in nitrogen-packed plastic bags. If you can’t find fresh, then canned bean sprouts are pretty close in final flavor.

I’m not going to write out every single recipe on a take-out menu, only the things I like the most. But if you understand how the various ingredients work together, you’ll be able to figure out how to make whatever happens to be your favorite.

There are lots of really great videos online, some in Chinese but many in English. Even the ones in Chinese are easy to understand because you’re mostly just looking at ingredients. The amounts (measures) really don’t matter much, excepting with cinnamon, salt and pepper. But those you end up using to your own particular taste, for the most part.

By the way, the main ingredient in Sweet and Sour sauce is ketchup. You might question whether or not the Chinese had access to ketchup, or even to cinnamon. Keep in mind, Chinese take-out food is a hybrid of Chinese-American cooking! Ketchup is easily available, nowadays, but back 400 years ago, they used tomatoes.

I’ll start doing actual recipes in the next post, now that we’re done with the overall prep work. I’ll write out Crab Rangoon, Beef-Fried Rice, Shrimp Egg Rolls, Sweet-n-Sour Pork, Beef and Broccoli, and Sweet-and-Sour sauce. I’ll also include a recipe for Souvlaki with Greek Yellow Rice (turmeric). Plus, there’s an awesome recipe for Chinese Pork Chops, and I’ll do one for Shrimp Tempura (Fried Shrimp).

Nobody actually uses MSG, from what I’m seeing. At least not anymore. In fact, you can get MSG by picking up some Accent Meat Flavoring. To test this, I used some MSG in various recipes. What I found was that the boosted flavor actually interfered with the final product. So no, you don’t need monosodium glutamate.

Related – Table of Contents

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