Extra texture .. Kwong’s home-made XO sauce elevates a simple dish of fried eggs, rice and tamari.Fifteen years ago, Kylie Kwong tasted a sauce in Hong Kong she says changed her cooking forever. The 28-year-old was on a trip with then boss Neil Perry when they ate at the famed Spring Moon restaurant at the grand Peninsula hotel. An impeccable maitre d’ wheeled out a beautiful rosewood trolley; there was bird’s nest soup and ”incredible, expertly carved Peking duck”. Most impressive, though, was the lobster, served with thin egg noodles and the Spring Moon’s XO sauce.
XO sauce, Kwong explains, is a relatively recent addition to Cantonese cooking and one she never stumbled upon growing up with a Cantonese mother who did not like chillies. The sauce originated in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Its name comes from XO (or extra old) cognac, considered supremely luxurious.
Kwong researched the sauce when she returned to Australia and has served her own version since opening her Billy Kwong restaurant in Surry Hills 12 years ago.
Good XO sauce, Kwong says, is like having ”money in the bank”. One of the main ingredients, dried scallops, can cost as much as $300 a kilogram and the sauce can be labour intensive. But Kwong insists it’s worth making. ”Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s versatile,” she says. ”All you need to do is fry an egg and steam some rice and put a dollop of XO on it and you’ve got a million-dollar dish.”
Kwong uses the sauce to elevate simple dishes, such as fried rice, salads and stir-fried calamari.
While the dried shrimp, dried scallops, garlic and chillies are integral to produce the sauce’s intense flavour and the ”chewy” texture so loved by Chinese cooks, Kwong says chefs have always put their own stamp on XO. Traditionally, XO sauce has used pork to impart a smoky flavour. Melbourne chef Tony Tan uses Iberico jamon because it’s the closest he can find to the Jinhua and Yunnan ham used by top chefs in Hong Kong. Flower Drum’s Anthony Lui opts for Italian prosciutto ham, saying its nuttiness is similar to that of hams used in Shanghai.
Among Kwong’s Sydney clientele are many people who don’t eat pork, so Billy Kwong’s chefs opt for dry salted fish. Her new book, Kylie Kwong’s Simple Chinese Cooking Class, provides home cooks with an accessible recipe calling for smoky bacon. Attempting to explain XO’s hold on Cantonese chefs, Kwong says: ”It’s the complexity of the flavour – this mysterious sort of smoky, spicy sort of seafood flavour … What I love most is the chewy bits. It’s the texture.”
Kwong remembers eating at Flower Drum in Melbourne when Gilbert Lau held the reins. ”He was always so proud of his XO,” she says. ”Gilbert would ask if you wanted to try some of his XO sauce, then he would disappear and he would come back with this amazing little ramekin of yumminess.”
Kylie Kwong’s Simple Chinese Cooking Class, Penguin, $59.95.Crispy soy-roasted pork belly
To get good crackling, it’s important to follow the steps here closely, especially the initial scalding of the skin, and then allowing the pork to thoroughly dry out, uncovered in the refrigerator, after it has marinated.
1 x 800g piece free-range, boneless pork belly, skin on and scored (ask butcher) 500ml boiling water 1 tbsp sesame oil 1 tbsp salt ﬂakes
For marinade:2 tbsp brown rice miso paste 1 tbsp ﬁve-spice powder 1 tbsp brown sugar 1 tbsp light soy sauce
Place pork belly, skin side up, on a wire rack over the sink. Pour over boiling water to scald the pork skin – this will help the skin crisp up. Pat rind dry with kitchen paper and place pork, uncovered, in refrigerator for two hours.
Remove pork from fridge and place, skin side up, on a chopping board. Using the tip of a sharp knife, stab the pork skin until the surface is covered with holes, being careful not to go all the way through. Turn the pork belly over and make cuts about two centimetres apart and one-centimetre deep. Combine marinade ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Rub marinade evenly over flesh side of the pork and massage into the cuts. Place pork, skin side up, on a wire rack (this rack will be used for roasting the pork, so make sure it is ovenproof and ﬁts inside a roasting tin) and place over a tray to catch any drips. Place in fridge and leave pork uncovered overnight, during which time the skin will dry out.
The next day, bring pork to room temperature and preheat oven to 150C. Transfer pork and wire rack to a roasting tin. Rub skin with the sesame oil, then scatter salt over. Roast for 1 1/2 hours to two hours or until tender. Increase oven to 220C and continue roasting for 15 minutes. This will turn the skin into crackling. Remove pork from oven and rest, uncovered, in a warm place for 15 minutes. To serve, cut into one-centimetre thick slices.
Serve as part of a banquet for 4XO sauce
This is an oily, powerful-tasting, intensely textured, garlicky chilli paste. The small, dried red chillies are optional but I like the extra heat and the smoky, dark quality they add. Take care when blistering them – they turn black very quickly and must be removed at once. If they blacken too much, simply discard them and start again. I serve a small bowl of XO sauce alongside meals; it also makes a good dipping sauce for boiled dumplings.
55g dried shrimps 250ml shao hsing wine or dry sherry 80g dried scallops 11 large red chillies, roughly chopped 7 garlic cloves, roughly chopped 2 large red shallots, roughly chopped 375ml peanut oil 3 dried small red chillies 55g smoked bacon, rind removed, ﬁnely diced 3 tsp light soy sauce 1 tsp brown sugar
Place dried shrimps in small bowl and cover with half the wine or sherry. Place dried scallops in a medium-size bowl and cover with remaining wine or sherry. Liquid must cover the shrimps and scallops completely. Cover with cling wrap and leave in refrigerator overnight.
Drain shrimps and reserve liquid. Drain scallops and reserve liquid. Mix shrimps and scallops together, and process until ﬁnely shredded. Remove and set aside. Place large red chillies, garlic and shallots in food processor and process until ﬁnely chopped. Remove and set aside.
Heat peanut oil in a hot wok until the surface seems to shimmer slightly. Add dried chillies and cook for 30 seconds each side to blister and slightly blacken. Remove chillies with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Reserve oil in wok. Reduce heat to medium, carefully add chilli, garlic and shallot mixture and bacon to oil. Simmer, stirring regularly, for three minutes to cook out the ﬂavours. Next add shrimp and scallop mixture and cook for six minutes, stirring regularly – the oil should leach out at this stage. Add reserved soaking liquid from the shrimps and scallops. Stir gently for three minutes to cook out the wine, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add soy sauce, sugar and the blistered dried chillies and cook for two minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Makes 3 cups
Note: The XO sauce can be used straight away or cooled and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month (the ﬂavours will intensify over this time). If serving as a condiment, be sure to remove required amount from refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.
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