Monday, March 4, 2013

Ants Climbing Trees

Ah, I got your attention! Nope, I have not gone to new depths in 1/300 scenery and modeled some ants climbing up trees. Its just another Chinese recipe. You won't find Ants Climbing Trees (ACT, for short) at your typical Chinese restaurant. None the less, its a very good dish. Originally, my wife taught me how to cook it, but I have exceeded the Master!  My daughter loves it and I have gotten a thumb up from my mother-in-law.

It is a Szechuan dish using mung bean noodles, also known as bean thread noodles or Chinese vermicelli. These are very thin, almost transparent, dry noodles that are usually wrapped up into small bundles. They have no flavor to them, but soak up the flavors of whatever they are added to. They used to be dirt cheap at Asian grocery stores, but I've noticed a rather steep increase in price lately and a decrease in the amount of noodles that come in the package. Recently, I've seen them sold in the Asian section of Walmart, for a higher price, of course.

Nowadays, you can find this recipe on the internet, but closest who comes to the recipe I know is Emeril Lagasse's. Why is it called Ants Climbing Trees? Its because the meat will stick to the noodles, looking like ants on branches. Onto the ingredients...remember from the last food post, I don't really measure anything, particularly the spices, so, the numbers below are rough estimates.

• 1/2 pound of ground pork
• 3-4 packages of brean thread noodles [1]
• 3 green onions, well chopped
• 2 slices ginger root, minced
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tablespoon Szechuan bean paste [2]
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 teaspoon white pepper
• 1 can of chicken stock
• 2 Tablespoons of cooking oil

[1] This is an estimate, as I said the amount you get lately in packages is smaller than in the past. I use as many packs as it takes to make about 2 1/2 cups wet.

[2] Szechuan bean paste can be sweet or hot. Sweet doesn't seem to be all that sweet, and I have not found the hot to be overly hot. As an interesting substitute, I often use Korean fermented soy bean paste. It gives a nice little sharp bite to the dish!

Soak your noodles in a large bowl of cold water.  As they start to soften, use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut them into smaller lengths. Soaking them for about 1/2 hour should be sufficient.

In a wok or a deep frying pan, heat up oil until its sizzling. Add the garlic, ginger, and about half the green onions. Quickly fry them, but avoid burning them, no more than a minute, Then add your ground pork to brown. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to break up the meat into small crumbs. You don't want fats ants on your branches!

As the meat is browning, add the the bean paste, soy sauce, sugar, and white pepper, mixing it in well with the meat. You will have mixed well if the meat gets darkened by the bean paste and soy sauce.

Lower the heat. Remove the noodles from the water and add to the wok. Be sure to constantly toss the mean and noodle mixture. The liquid from the noodles will evaporate quickly and if you don't keep turning them, they will burn to the bottom of the pan or wok. 

After a few stirs of the meat and noodles, add the can of chicken stock small amounts at a time. It will initially look very soupy, but the stock will quickly soak into the noodles. Again, keep tossing the mixture, or the noodles will stick to the bottom of the pan. It should only take about 2 to 3 minutes for the soup to evaporate. While it still looks slightly watery, remove it from the heat. The stock will continue to absorb and evaporate. You don't want it too dry. 

Give it one more toss and then put into a bowl or deep-sided serving plate. Before serving, I take two forks and pry apart the noodles. They seem to have more starch in them than what they look in the beginning and you may end up with this big blob of meat and noodles, but they will separate out very easily using the two forks. Add the remaining green onions as a garnish. 

I hope you enjoy this dish. It may seem complicated, but it really isn't. As I said in note 2, I use Korean bean paste, which has a sharper flavor than Chinese bean paste. My family seems to like it that way. I am not sure what you can use as a substitute for any of the bean pastes. You can always order bean paste on line. You don't use a whole lot, but if you refrigerate it in an air-tight container, it should keep for a long time. I suippose you can freeze it, too. The Korean stuff comes in a big tub. We've used it for over a year and it has not spoiled in the frig.