Monday, June 17, 2013

Cai Fan - 菜饭 (Bok Choy Rice with Chinese Sausage)

This, to me, is comfort food.

Cai Fan (Cài fàn: 菜饭, sometimes also transliterated as chai fan, literally meaning "vegetable rice") reminds me of home, because I asked my mom to make it so often when I was younger. Even though it's not her favorite thing to eat, she has always obliged. (She's always said that when it comes to food, and basically everything else besides gender and height, I'm most like my dad, who also loves this dish. It's true: we're both Red Sox fans, both tend to procrastinate, and are both socially awkward penguins. Me more than him.)

Although I call it comfort food, it's not comfort food in a Paula "more butter!" Deen kind of way. In fact, this dish is healthy while still being hearty, at least in my opinion. Of course, how healthy it is tends to depend on how much you eat... and I tend to err on the side of eating my entire body's weight worth if I can get away with it.

In addition, it's gluten free! (Be sure to check that all the ingredients are actually gluten free if you're very allergic though. I didn't use any soy sauce, so that shouldn't be a problem, but also check the sesame oil if you're using that for an extra drizzle of flavor.) [EDIT] A commenter has informed me that Chinese sausage often actually has gluten/wheat products in it, so you'll have to substitute some other kind of meat (like salt-cured pork, which is actually a very tasty alternative) for the dish to be gluten free.

We tend to make this in a big batch, because it tastes just as good (if not better) the next day for lunch, and can be stored in the fridge for about a week. I say "if not better," because when heated in the microwave, the greens get mushier and gain an almost creamy consistency, blending well with the rice.

(By the way: did you know that "bok choy" is the English transliteration of the Cantonese pronunciation of "白菜," since the first British and American encounters of Chinese-speaking people were in typically in Hong Kong? In most of mainland China, in which Mandarin Chinese now predominates, "白菜," is pronounced "bái cài." Bai cai means "white vegetable." The bok choy I used is baby bok choy aka Shanghai bok choy, which is also referred to in Chinese as "青菜" which means "green vegetable." I believe that what "白菜" is called in America is Napa cabbage. Yeah. I'm confused too. Let's just stick to using "bok choy.")

This is a stovetop method of making cai fan, which is my favorite way because it's slightly faster and it yields guo ba (锅巴: Guō bā) the bits of browned rice that has stuck to the bottom of the pot and gained a deliciously charred flavor.

You can also make this cai fan all in a rice-cooker, but it won't have the guo ba. (Add the rice and water, then the Chinese sausage after you cook it in oil until the fat has rendered out, and then the bok choy on top. Turn on the rice cooker, and tada! A simpler way to cook cai fan! Still, the guo ba is worth the extra effort, and the stovetop version works for people who don't have rice-cookers.)

- bok choy (青菜: aka baby bok choy, pak choi, qīng cài)
- uncooked white rice
- Chinese sausage (also called 香肠, lap cheong) and/or salted meat
- vegetable oil
- salt and pepper
- (optional) sesame oil
- (optional) olive oil
NOTE: I haven't included any specific amounts, because it's really up to you how much and what ratio of ingredients you want. For me, it was approx. 1:2:2 with 3 rice-cups of rice, 5 Chinese sausages, & 6 bok choy bundles. But this is comfort food, not particle physics. Who am I to stop you if you want more sausage, or none at all?

Soak the rice in a rice-cooker bowl, or any large bowl if you don't have a rice-cooker, with water. Medium-grain rice works best. I used 3 rice-cups full (a rice-cup, which usually comes with a rice cooker, is approximately equal to 3/4 standard U.S. cup or 180 mL) of medium-grain rice and filled a rice-cooker bowl up to the 3-cup line with water, making it a 1:1 ratio. Let it sit while you're preparing the rest of the ingredients.

First, you need to wash the bok choy well. Break the bundles into individual leaves, although you can leave some of them on the stems. Cut off the tough ends of the stems. With the water running, place the bok choy leaves in a large bowl in the sink as you work to break down all the bunches into separate leaves, and let them soak in the water. A lot of sand and/or dirt will probably wash out, sinking to the bottom of the bowl.

Then, take each leaf out of the big bowl and wash them separately, to ensure that there is no grittiness left. I transferred the leaves to a large sieve. I then washed the big bowl that I used earlier, making sure to rinse out all the dirt collected at the bottom, and transferred the bok choy leaves back into the bowl, letting them wash and soak in some more water. This is probably the most time-consuming part of the whole process, but trust me, you don't want to ruin the vegetables with any dirt that might remain, because in my opinion, the veggies are the best part.

Then cut up the bok choy into smaller pieces. Line up similarly sized leaves for easier cutting. The leafy parts will shrink when cooked, so you don't have to cut them up very small, but the stem-pieces will stay pretty much the same size, so you can use your judgement for that (mine ended up being a couple of centimeters long, give or take - I didn't really measure them). Bite size pieces sounds equally inexact, but we'll go with that. As you cut them, move the bok choy pieces into a clean bowl (I just used the sieve from before) to set aside.

Now cut up the Chinese sausages. (Thanks to Dad for helping me with these shots, by the way!) Cut them on the diagonal, using one hand to make sure the sausages don't go rolling around the cutting board. Each pieces should be about a centimeter thick, I would say, but again, use your judgement. Whatever size you cut them will be whatever size they will be. Chinese sausages tend to be tougher than normal sausages (i.e. Italian or Polish sausages, hot dogs, etc.), so keep that in mind. I would compare Chinese sausages to something more like salami. You could also choose to use salted cured meat, something sort of like pancetta, I would suppose. My mom has made this before with both Chinese sausage and a salt-cured pork, and it's always delicious either way.

Throw the sausage pieces into a pot, with the stove on high heat. I used a cast-iron pot, but I'm sure any other sort of large pot would also work. (I should mention at this point that my mom took over the cooking so that I could watch and take photographs. But the steps that follow are simple enough that I'm pretty sure I can make this by myself next time!)

Anyways. Add some vegetable oil - maybe somewhere near a 1/2 Tbsp? Not really sure - again, use your judgement! It doesn't need to be too much. (Olive oil also works, but is more expensive and doesn't really affect the taste.)

Let the sausages simmer until the white (fatty) parts disappear. (Rendering the fat- see, I can be all fancy with culinary terms!)

Then add in your bok choy.

Add salt and pepper to taste. (These guidelines recommend 1/4 tsp of salt for every cup of rice, which sounds about right, but it is better to add less salt if you're not sure. You can always add more salt at the end if you need to do so, but there's no easy way to compensate for too much salt.) Let the leaves wilt, and stir it to let all the leaves get equally cooked.

Then you can add the rice, and the water in which it has been soaking, into the pot.

Stir it in with the bok choy and sausage, and allow to cook on high heat. Cover the pot with the lid and allow the dish to boil. When it starts to boil, turn the heat down to medium.

Stir once again. Taste the water to test the saltiness. Cover with lid, and cook for five minutes.

Turn the heat down to low, and let it cook for 10 to 15 more minutes, or until the rice is soft and the water has been completely absorbed. The bok choy will have become more yellow in color, and soft as well.

Add a drizzle of olive oil or spicy sesame oil for some more flavor, if you'd like!

Serve it up, and tuck in!

Mmm. Can't wait until I have the leftovers for lunch tomorrow!


northerlywind said...

I really love the recipe, I've made it three or four times and I'm making it again tonight! Just thought I'd say since I've been referring to this page a lot but never left a comment :)

Anonymous said...

Most chinese sausage (lop cheung) contain soy sauce. Unless specifically denoted gluten free, this is likely to contain wheat and barley and hence gluten. I have not been able to find chinese sausage in Australia that is gluten free (yet).

Amy said...

@northerlywind: Sorry for the extremely late reply, but I'm so glad you like the recipe! And thank you for the comment! :)

Amy said...

@Anonymous: Thank you for the clarification- that's good to know! I will update the post shortly. In the meantime, I'll be on the hunt for gluten free Chinese sausage, and will update if I find them!

Scott Kurman said...

bought the bok choy and lop cheung; will try this tomorrow.
do you recover the pan for the last stage of cooking? (i will assume so, since rice is usually cooked covered, so that more liquid is absorbed by the rice, and less evaporates away.)

Amy said...

@Scott: apologies for the late response, but yes, you're right! Cover the pan again at the end. Hope the recipe worked for you!