I promised you a couple of crowd pleasers, and this dish is definitely one of them. Provided, of course, that you like mushrooms. The recipe I want to share with you today features no less than four different types, though really, I urge you to experiment with them all. Mushrooms are fascinating, occasionally exotic, and just a bit dangerous if you dare to pick them yourself (please don’t, unless you know what you’re doing). And their best feature — at least for this dish? They absorb all sorts of crazy things, if you give them a chance. Like bacon fat. Beautiful, smoky, gorgeous (antibiotic free, humanely produced) bacon fat.
Back in high school, I spent a summer working at the UCSB Medicinal Plant Garden, digging holes and learning about the unbelievably complex makeup of each species we helped raise. Fungi were one of the more memorable parts of the curriculum. They really are quite fascinating creatures — scavengers of the plant world, beneficial or devastating depending on their individual evolutionary path. The edible ones tend to be full of vitamins and protein, depending on the variety, and are savory and complex — the very essence of umami. They’re made up of all sorts of good amino acids, including glutamic acid, which (as Harold McGee points out) makes them nature’s own MSG.
But I’m getting sidetracked. My point? Umami is an important — no, essential — aspect of Chinese cuisine. Mushrooms — shitake, oyster, and various other varieties — are often used to contribute a rich, meaty flavor to a given dish. This recipe — featuring nature’s perfect umami creation and smoky, golden bacon — simply takes advantage of the best properties of both ingredients. And it gives you the opportunity to experiment a little, too.
Stir-fried mixed mushrooms (chao za jun)
Adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, by Fuchsia Dunlop. Serves 2-4, depending on the number of accompanying dishes served.
I use four different varieties of mushrooms, just because. Use more or less, as you desire, though I suggest getting a little adventurous here. Enoki — the long, white variety pictured in the second photo above — are a good choice, as they turn into something almost pasta-like in the final dish. Oyster and shitake mushrooms (fresh, or, in this case, rehydrated and sliced) provide a wonderful flavor to the dish. And crimini are meaty and simple (besides, I had them in my fridge). If you use dried shitakes and oyster mushrooms, you can use the mushroomy water remaining after hydration in place of stock for subsequent dishes.
If you’re vegetarian, and want to skip the bacon, you can — it’ll just be a different dish. If you want to have a go anyway, try grilling crimini or portobello caps to recreate the smoky flavor the bacon adds to the dish, and use more shitakes. Maybe add a little tamari, to up the umami flavor even more. And throw in some thinly sliced, extra firm tofu for good measure, if you like. Just make sure to cook it in the fat first, with a bit of tamari, ginger, and garlic.
- 4 slices bacon. The original recipe requires a 3 oz. chunk of smoked bacon, in one piece, but I imagine the author is referring to British bacon, which is (so I’ve heard) rather different from the stuff we get here. I’ve modified the recipe to make use of the high fat content of most American bacon in such a way that the drippings are used in place of cooking oil for stir-frying the mushrooms.
- 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced; various varieties. Re-hydrate dried mushrooms by placing in warm water for 10 minutes or so. You may have to slice them after re-hydration, and cut off stems that refuse to soften.
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced.
- 1″ fresh ginger, thinly sliced.
- 1 dried red chili, sliced and seeded.
- 4 T. mushroom water (from re-hydrating the shitakes), or stock.
- salt and pepper, to taste.
- 2 scallions, green parts only, finely sliced on a bias.
- Canola oil.
Place the wok over high heat. When the wok starts to smoke, throw in the bacon slices. Cook, tossing frequently, until the bacon is lightly crisped and a thin layer of bacon fat has distributed itself over the wok. Remove the bacon from the heat, tear into 1/2″ pieces, and set aside.
If you don’t have much fat in the bottom of the pan, add a bit more canola oil and swirl, until the bottom of the wok is coated. Add the garlic and ginger, and stir until fragrant and slightly colored. Add the mushrooms, bacon pieces, chili, and mushroom water or stock. Stir-fry for a few minutes more, until the mushrooms are fragrant, tender, and soft to taste, and the liquid has evaporated. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, remove from heat, and serve over rice, with scallions as a garnish.