Sunday Supper: Cold-Dressed Wood Ear 涼拌木耳 by Lisa Cheng Smith
Cold-Dressed Wood Ear is a staple on my supper table. It's crunchy, bright, fruity, and fresh, but made mostly from preserved ingredients, perfect for a wintertime pick me up.
This recipe is a type of dish known as liangban 涼拌 (translating literally to "cold mixed" or "cold dressed"), often categorized as salad in Western parlance. Of these, smashed cucumber salad is probably the most well known here in the States, but any manner of proteins and vegetables can be prepared this way, like tofu skin, eggplant, bitter melon, bean sprouts, and my personal favorite, kohlrabi.
These types of cold-dressed dishes are enjoyed year round by my family, whether as a simple and joyful way to savor fresh seasonal ingredients in spring and summer or healthy and bright complements to a steaming bowl of noodle soup in the colder months. We usually have a number of cold dressed dishes hanging out in the fridge, taking them out to accompany a simple stir fry or braise for an easy weeknight family meal. It's much easier to fill the Chinese table if you're presenting both leftovers and new dishes, on a constant rotation: a cold dish freshly prepared or leftover from the day before, a braise, a quick stir fried vegetable, and fried or steamed rice. I usually make more than one meal's worth of this salad, as I know it can be refreshed and served again a day later.
I've been trying to be conscious of eating seasonally, reducing our demands for produce trucked in from many miles away. This wood ear salad is a winter favorite for me because it primarily uses preserved ingredients. The wood ear is dried and keeps well for many months, the red pepper condiment is salted and lacto-fermented, and the pantry ingredients are all shelf stable or keep in the fridge. The only "fresh" ingredients I call for are the cilantro or green onion. Those could be skipped, but they are also not difficult to cultivate in hothouses, eliminating the need to truck them in from long distances.
Try this as a side with sesame oil chicken soup, red oil wontons, or a meal of boiled frozen dumplings. Even though the dish is whipped up from shelf stable ingredients, it tastes as fresh as a summer's day, a point of brightness in the coziest of seasons.
Quick tip on the red pickled peppers. These are a staple ingredient that originated in Hunan called Duo Jiao 剁椒. They are made by coarsely chopping red peppers, packing them in salt, and lacto-fermenting them in their brine. You can buy these in the Chinese market; for more info on this ingredient, view this ultra informative post on the Woks of Life, including reference photos of my favorite brand Tan Tan Xiang. Alternatively, thinly slice Fresno chilis for the same effect in color and brightness, but expect to add more salt and vinegar.
Cold-Dressed Wood Ear 涼拌木耳 by Lisa Cheng SmithServes 8 or serve over two meals for a group of 4
- 2 oz. dried wood ear mushrooms (about 2 cups)
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 3 Tbsp. Dong He White Sesame Oil
- 3 Tbsp. (or more) unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 cup (packed) coarsely chopped cilantro (or finely chopped scallion greens)
- ¾ tsp. kosher salt, plus more
- 3 Tbsp. (or to taste) of salted chopped chilis (Duo Jiao 剁椒) or 2-3 thinly sliced Fresno chilis
- 1/2 to 1 tsp sugar (or to taste
- To rehydrate: Bring a large saucepan of water to boil. Once boiling, place dried mushrooms in and let cook for a minute or so. This jumpstarts the rehydrating process and removes any impurities. Drain. Add to a bowl, cover with a good amount of water and let soak, adding more hot water if needed, until floppy but still sturdy, 1-1/2 to 3 hours.
- Drain mushrooms, wrap in a clean dish towel, and squeeze out any excess liquid. Remove any woody parts from mushrooms and tear into smaller pieces if large. Wipe out bowl and place mushrooms back into bowl. Add salted chopped chilis or sliced Fresno chilis and mix.
- Whisk garlic, oil, vinegar, 1/2 tsp. sugar and 3/4 tsp. salt in a small bowl. Drizzle dressing over mushroom mixture and toss to coat. Let sit 10 minutes, then toss again. Taste and season with more salt, sugar, and/or vinegar if needed. Let sit at room temperature at least 1 hour for the flavors to commingle.
- Just before serving, add the cilantro or scallion greens and toss to combine. If serving only half the salad, garnish only what you serving, as it is much better freshly mixed.