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Dry Ingredient Know-how

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Winter Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(4) page(s): 15 and 16

All ingredients, when dried and reconstituted and then cooked have their flavors intensified. For example, fresh shiitake mushrooms have sensual texture, but dried ones when reconstituted, have that and more. Think of apricots, they are soft and luscious when ripe and their mild flavor tantalizes. Not so dried apricots, their flavor increases and is more intense. Such is the case for most fruits and vegetables, even more so for some protein foods.

When a recipe calls for a dried item, do not substitute fresh ones and expect the same taste. Rather, the first step should be to buy the very best dried ones that you can afford. For some, you need to rely on price as a judge of quality, for others there are external clues. For example, when buying dried shiitake mushrooms, the best are thick with well-crazed top surfaces. Thin ones are good in soups and simple stir-fried dishes, but if you want to really savor texture and intense mushroom flavor, buy and correctly prepare the best quality mushrooms you can afford.

The purpose of this article is one step beyond purchase point. That is, it is to get the best results when reconstituting dry ingredients. Not every item can and should be soaked and prepared as every other one; and though many are unusual, not all of them are.

One general rule that does apply, is to keep in mind that the longer ingredients have been dried, the longer the soaking time. Another general rule is that thickness determines length of soaking time, thicker means more time in the soaking process. This is true if the item is a bean, a beet, an abalone, or a mushroom. Reconstituted items should have a texture close to that of the finished product. The only exceptions are for items that will be long cooked after they are soaked, such as in a soup.

The following is a list of commonly used dried items, most of them unusual--though becoming less so. The main purpose is to learn how to reconstitute them. Keep in mind that before soaking, clean them as best you can under tepid running water. Then soak them in a glass or a ceramic container. Do not soak them in anything made of metal because they make pick up a metallic or bitter taste if you do. And after soaking them, drain, and check the soak-water for sand or dirt. If you find any, rinse, drain again, then soak a few moments more. Check after every time you rinse them until there is no more sand or dirt.

Abalone: First rinse each abalone in warm water until it is clean. Next, soak for half an hour in cold water. Finally, bring the soaking water to the boil, and simmer for thirty minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the abalone to soak in the hot water for another half an hour. Clean and repeat the process using fresh water for another half an hour and repeat as before. If the abalone is not soft to the touch, repeat the process yet again but in fifteen minute segments until the desired texture is obtained. You can strain and keep each batch of water from soaking the abalone for thickening purposes or for making soups. Some people prefer to soak their abalone covered and in the refrigerator for three to five days rather than cooking them. If you prepare by long soaking in the refrigerator, be sure to change the water daily.

Bean curd sticks (and most dried rice and mung bean noodles): Bean curd sticks and thin mung bean noodles that are packaged in rolls need to be soaked in warm water for twenty to thirty minutes. For thicker rolls or thick sticks of mung or other starch sticks or noodles, soak them in warm water for one to two hours. Discard the soaking water from these types of foods. They can be used in soups but they have little to no flavor, so why do so?

Bird's nest: Soak bird's nest overnight in cold water and in the refrigerator. After that, bring them to the boil in the soaking liquid and simmer for ten minutes; then drain and cool. Next, clean each nest with tweezers being careful to remove every feather, stone, or other kind of debris found. After so doing, put the bird's nest in a pot with fresh cold water and bring it to the boil. Immediately reduce the heat and simmer on very low heat for an hour. Drain and clean again; and repeat, if/as needed. At this point the bird's nest(s) can be stored in cold water for up to three days; keep them in the refrigerator. The next step is to drain them, put them in a pot and cover them with a good stock. Bring to the boil and simmer them for half an hour, then discard this stock. They are now ready for use in a recipe.

Cuttlefish: Soak dried cuttlefish overnight in cold water, covered, and in the refrigerator. In the morning, rinse well and the cuttlefish are ready for use. However, if they feel tough, bring them to the boil in fresh water and simmer for about ten minutes or until they are firm but tender. Discard all soaking and simmering liquid because it often has a strong and fishy taste.

Fish maw, dried and/or pre-fried: Soak the maw in warm water for half an hour. Next, bring this to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Drain carefully and cool before squeezing out the water. The fish maw is now ready to be cut into needed piece sizes. If using them as a wrap, lay them flat on a hard surface and cut in half parallel to the surface. Be sure to keep the cleaver or knife angled downwards towards the surface as you cut them into thin pieces for wrapping.

Fish maw, whole and not fried: Prepare as above up until the fish maw is ready to be cut. At that point, put the maw into fresh cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour. Turn off the heat and allow the maw to remain in the hot liquid for an hour, then drain. The fish maw is now ready for use, however, if not soft enough, put the fish maw into fresh warm water and simmer for another half an hour; then use as the recipe directs or now heat one tablespoon of vegetable oil and one minced clove of garlic and one minced scallion. Stir-fry these for half a minute, then add the prepared fish maw and two tablespoons of rice wine, and stir-fry for one minute more. Next, add one cup of warm water and bring this to the boil, reduce heat, and simmer for five minutes. Drain and use as needed. Pre-prepared in this manner, fish maw can stay in cold water and in the refrigerator for up to three days. Keep the maw covered and change the water daily. Discard all soaking liquid, it has no flavor you might want to preserve, and can have a small bitter and fishy aftertaste.

Lotus root: Bring a large amount of water to the boil turn off the heat, then soak the lotus root slices for half an hour. Drain and use. Discard the soaking liquid. If using whole segments, repeat this process two more times, and cut them into slices if needed as soon at they are tender enough to do so.

Sea cucumber, dry: Soak dried sea cucumber for several hours in cold water, then drain. Next, put them in fresh water, bring to the boil and simmer for half an hour. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and allow to soak for two hours. Repeat the process, as needed, in twenty minute cooking times with at least one hour of soaking time between each of them, as needed, until they are tender. Then remove any entrails, clean the insides well, and re-soak them covered overnight in cold water and in the refrigerator. When they are soft enough, cut into sizes needed. You are now ready to pre-cook them. Heat one tablespoon of vegetable oil, add one minced scallion and one peeled and minced clove of garlic. Stir-fry this for half a minute. Add two tablespoons rice wine and two tablespoons of water, stir, then add sea cucumber and simmer for five minutes. Remove the sea cucumber from the liquid and set aside until ready to use. Discard the liquid and other contents. If not using these sea cucumber pieces within the hour, refrigerate in half rice wine and half cold water. They can keep in this liquid covered and in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Sea cucumber, purchased soaked: These are also known as pre-soaked reconstituted sea cucumber. We recommend bringing these to the boil, then simmering for half an hour. Then, allow them to sit in the hot water for two hours before cutting into sizes needed. Before using them, pre-fry them as indicated above.

Shark's fins: Soak purchased dried shark's fins in water that was brought to the boil, then removed from the heat source, for half an hour or until soft. Rinse with cold water and drain. Next, simmer for one hour with one whole clove of garlic, one scallion tied in a knot, and two slices of fresh ginger. Drain, then soak in the refrigerator covered overnight in some stock that has previously been brought to the boiling point. Remove and simmer them again, if needed. For best results, use within a day or two. Discard the soaking liquid, it can have a fishy taste.

Tangerine peel: Soak for thirty minutes in warm water, drain, cut as needed, and use. Discard soaking liquid, it can be quite bitter.

Wolfberries (also known as goji berries): Soak amounts needed in warm water for ten minutes. Drain, then use. Discard the soaking liquid.

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