Food of love

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


I love to give home-made gifts when visiting friends and relatives over the Lunar New Year. Doing so is much more personal and thoughtful than proffering tins of Danish cookies and bottles of expensive cognac (although the alcohol is usually a very welcome gift, too). The ingredients used in these recipes are symbolic, said to bring wealth and fortune to the recipient.

XO sauce (pictured)

Feel free to vary the proportions of dried scallops and shrimp, as long as the combined weight of dried seafood is about 600 grams. You don't need to use the super-expensive, very large dried scallops, but they should be of reasonable quality; the small ones (1cm or less) can be tough and chewy. The shrimp should be as small as possible, though; if they're too large, they need to be chopped into tiny pieces, and if they're too hard, you'll need to steam them to soften them.

500 grams dried scallops

750ml canola or corn oil, plus more as needed

300 grams shallots, minced

12 large garlic cloves, minced

100 grams small dried shrimp

75 grams Yunnan ham, cut into tiny cubes

6-8 red bird's-eye chillies, seeds and stems removed and discarded, then minced

10-20 grams fine chilli flakes

Briefly rinse the scallops then put them in a large heat-proof bowl and steam over simmering water, stirring occasionally. You need to soften them so they're easy to shred; check by pressing on the scallops - they're ready when they start to break apart. Remove the bowl from the heat and break the scallops into thick shreds, removing and discarding any hard parts.

Heat about 200ml of oil in a wok, add the shallot and cook over a medium-low flame until it's soft and translucent. Add the garlic and scallops, and stir in more oil to thickly coat the ingredients. Increase the heat and stir constantly until the ingredients start to sizzle, then lower the heat and add the shrimp, Yunnan ham, bird's-eye chillies and 10 grams of chilli flakes. Stir frequently over low heat (less than a simmer), adding more oil as needed. After about 15 minutes, taste the mixture and add more chilli flakes if it's not spicy enough (err on the side of caution, though, because the XO sauce's flavour intensifies as it ages in the jars). Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is rich, dark and oily. Spoon the mixture into sterilised jars (fill them with boiling water, leave for a few minutes then pour out the water and let the jars air-dry). Press down on the mixture in the jars so the oil rises to the top. There should be enough oil to completely cover the solid ingredients; if needed, pour in a little fresh oil. Cover the jars with sterilised lids, then keep in a cool place for a few days, or refrigerate for longer storage.

Confit'd kumquats or kut

Although I've often candied fruit peel, I thought that confit'd whole fruits were out of my reach without a saccharometer. Then I found a recipe for confit'd clementines on a blog, Lucy's Kitchen Notebook, and have used it for kumquats, kut (which resemble small oranges and, like kumquats, can be eaten skin, seeds and all), apricots and strawberries.

The fruit is soaked in increasingly dense sugar solutions, which, through osmosis, sucks the liquid out of the fruit and replaces it with sugar syrup. Lucy's recipe calls for adding more sugar every other day. The whole process takes 14 days and I use this method when I have enough time. But kumquats and kut are smaller than clementines, so you can cut down on the resting time, which means the fruit confit will be ready in time for the Lunar New Year.

It's essential that the fruit is very fresh and that you pierce it many times all over with a sterilised needle, or the fruit shrivels, rather than staying plump.

1kg kumquats or kut

1,650 grams granulated sugar, divided

300 grams glucose or corn syrup

Cognac or brandy, as needed

Rinse the fruit, then remove and discard the stems. Hold a sewing needle over an open flame to sterilise it, let it cool then use it to pierce each kumquat (or kut) to the centre at least a dozen times all over. Put the fruit in a large pan, add one litre of water, bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Use a large slotted ladle to remove the fruit, leaving behind the water. Add the glucose or corn syrup and 750 grams of sugar to the pan, stir to dissolve then bring to a boil. Put the fruit back into the pan and let the syrup come to a boil again. Lower the flame, simmer gently for one minute then remove from the heat. Cool for about 30 minutes, then place a circle of parchment paper - cut to the diameter of the pan - directly over the ingredients. Place a clean plate on top (to help hold down the fruit so it stays submerged in the syrup) and leave for 24 hours.

Use a large slotted ladle to remove the fruit from the syrup. Add 150 grams of sugar to the pan, stir to dissolve and bring to a boil. Put the fruit back into the pan, bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer gently for one minute. Cool for 30 minutes, then place the parchment circle and plate on top and leave for another 24 hours. Repeat this process five times, each time leaving the fruit to infuse in the syrup for 24 hours.

On the eighth day, transfer the kumquats to sterilised jars, adding enough syrup to each jar so the fruit can 'swim'. Top off each jar with a little cognac or brandy, so the fruit is submerged. Cover the jars with sterilised lids. The fruit can be eaten immediately but it's better after ageing for a couple of weeks. The confit keeps for months in a cool, dark place.

Styling Nellie Ming Lee