Pen Cai (盆菜)
Pen Cai Recipe
Preparation Time: 1 hour | Cooking Time: 2 hours
In Pen Cai, the ingredients in the claypot are cooked separately, layered and topped with an assortment of luxurious delicacies such as abalone and conpoy. Feel free to adapt this receipe with other ingredients, e.g. sea cucumbers, roast chicken, pig skin, pacific clams.
Auspicious meanings of the ingredients: fat choy (dried moss) sounds like “fatt choi” (striking it rich); prawns (sounds like “ha” in Cantonese) symbolizing laughter (笑 “哈哈”) and happiness; green ingredients (broccoli): 青春常驻 (perpetual youthfulness); red items (carrot and wolfberries): 鸿运当头 (good fortune); white radish (daikon): 风生水起/步步高升(increasing growth & prosperity); abalone: 年年’包’有余 (increasing abundance). They also looked like ingots (ancient China currency symbolising wealth); gold items (scallops, tau kee, fish maw, tau kwa): 翩地黄金 (abundant wealth), carrots cut to flower shapes symbolise 花开富贵 (blooming success).
Equipment: a big claypot and slotted ladle
- 2 pieces of tau kwa (deep fried bean curd/炸豆干), from vegetarian bee hoon stall (DIY: deep fry until golden)
- quarter roast duck, sliced
- 200 grams roast pork belly, sliced (if making your own, check out siu yuk recipe)
- instant chicken stock or Chinese ham chicken stock* (if making your own, check out chicken stock recipe)
* note: Hong Kong actually sells the knorr brand of Chinese ham chicken stock in their supermarkets! But chicken stock will do just fine, in fact I prefer it.
B) Steamed Prawns
- 6 to 8 prawns, veins removed with head and shells intact
- 1 tbsp Chinese wine
- ginger slices
Line a plate with ginger slices and arrange prawns on top. Drizzle Chinese wine. Steam for 4 minutes or until prawns are cooked. Set aside.
C) Broccoli and Carrots
- 100g broccoli florets
- 1/2 carrot, cut to flower slices
Left: Blanched Broccoli & Carrots; Right: Cutting carrot flowers
In a pot of boiling water, add broccoli and carrot slices. Blanch for 3 minutes. Take out carrots and set aside. Take out the broccoli and plunge immediately in a bowl of ice water (so that it will retain its bright green hue). Drain and set aside after 5 minutes.
D) Napa Cabbage, Daikon and Fish maw
- 1/2 daikon (white radish), about 200g, peeled and sliced to 2cm thickness, soaked in a bowl of water for 10 minutes to remove bitter taste
- 1/2 head napa cabbage, ends trimmed, cut to big pieces
- 50 grams fish maw, soaked in hot water until softened and puffy, drain
- 1.5 litres chicken stock
Bring chicken stock to a boil. Add napa cabbage and as soon as they soften, take out and set aside (just about a minute). Add fish maw and daikon; simmer for 15 minutes or until fish maw is soft and daikon is translucent. Set aside.
Buy the premium and softer type of fish maw (I use threadfin fish maw) which softens quickly during cooking, only about 10 minutes. Ask the sales assistant for advice on the type to purchase. Some fish maw takes much longer to soften and the resulting texture is also not as good.
E) Abalone, Tau Kee, Mushrooms and Conpoy
- 1 can baby abalone (reserve abalone broth)
- 10 dried Chinese mushrooms, rinsed and soaked in a small bowl of hot water for 15 minutes to soften (reserve soaking water); trim & discard stems
- 10 conpoy (dried scallops), rinsed and soaked in a small bowl of hot water for 15 minutes to soften (reserve soaking water)
- 50 grams dried beancurd skin/tau kee, break to big pieces, then soaked in a bowl of water for 15 minutes until it turns a pale shade
- 1/2 tsp dark soy sauce (for the colour; adjust accordingly to your preference)
1. With the remaining chicken stock in the pot, blanch abalone in a slotted ladle for a few seconds until warmed. Set aside.
2. Add dark soy sauce, and mushrooms/conpoy soaking water. Add mushrooms, tau kee and conpoy (use a slotted ladle to hold the conpoy so that they won’t disintegrate; see photo). Simmer tau kee for 10 minutes and take out. Set aside. Continue simmer the mushrooms and conpoy for a further 10-20 minutes, or until softened. Make sure the scallops remains intact and do not disintegrate. Any time the liquid runs dry, top up with more chicken stock.
Buy the premium and thinner type of Chinese mushrooms (usually the slightly pricier variety) which softens quickly during cooking, only about 20-30 minutes. Usually these types of mushrooms are suitable for all methods of cooking (including stir-frying, steaming) and not just braising. Some mushrooms may take a whole day to braise! (those type are ideal for whole-day slow cooker cooking). Ask the sales assistant for advice on the type to purchase.
F) Make the Sauce
- 1/2 tbsp wolfberries, soaked in a bowl of water until puffy
- Cornstarch solution (3 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp water)
Add abalone broth to the remaining chicken stock. Top up more chicken stock if you need more sauce. Add wolfberries and simmer for 3 minutes. Season to taste (you can use soy sauces, abalone sauce, rock sugar cubes and/or concentrated chicken stock). Thicken with cornstarch solution until it reaches a semi-thick consistency.
Add the cornstarch solution a little at a time, stirring continuously. You may not need to use all the cornstarch solution. Conversely, if required, prepare more solution to thicken the sauce.
G) Layer the Pen Cai
a small handful of fat choy (fa cai/发菜), soaked in a bowl of hot water for 10 minutes, drained
Method (note: check out page three for step-by-step layering photos)
1. Layer Pen Cai in the following order: napa cabbage(layer 1), tau kee (layer 2), daikon (layer 3), tau kwa and pork belly (layer 4), 3/4 of the fish maw (layer 5).
2. Arrange fat choy, remaining fish maw, mushrooms and conpoy in a corner. Close lid and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Arrange the rest of the ingredients (abalone, prawns, roast duck, broccoli and carrots) to fill the top layer.
4. Bring the remaining sauce (E) to a boil and pour over the ingredients until the sauce is filled to the brim of the casserole.
The reason for layering in this way is because the bottom ingredients are those which can absorb the braising sauce most efficiently. The top layer are the luxury and auspicious items.
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