Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tingly Lips...


I'm excited about cooking from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, since I've always wanted to understand Chinese cuisine, and I'm hoping this will be the way I finally "get it".

The book is pretty well laid out, and a good portion of the book is taken up with a discussion of
technique, ingredients, customs and what-not. It's all interesting stuff, and Chinese cuisine
definitely differs tremendously from "western" food in many ways, so reading the background
material has been quite valuable for me.

The first recipe I made from the book was actually a "pre-recipe", and was the "chili oil" described in the "pantry" section, since the first dish I planned to cook was a rendition of dan-dan noodles, which requires chili oil.

Chili oil is a common condiment in Sichuan cuisine, and it couldn't be easier to make.
What you do is, you take 1/2 cup of red pepper flakes (I ran a bunch of whole chilis through my mini food processor to make the flakes), put them in a quart mason jar and add a couple of pieces of star anise.

Then you heat 2 cups of peanut (or canola oil) with a crushed piece of ginger (the recipe said until "smoking hot", but I just went to about 375-400degs, since I didn't want to burn the house down).
Once it's heated, you take it off the heat for about 10-15 minutes to cool to around 225-250 deg, and then (carefully!) pour it into the mason jar. Then you just let the oil sit for about a day or two, and there you go, homemade chili oil.




As I said above, my first dish from the book was a rendition of dan-dan noodles. Dan-Dan noodles are a famous streetfood from China, and like many "famous foods" from a particular area (like, say, North Carolina BBQ), there are as many versions as there are people. In Dunlop's book, there are 2 versions of dan-dan, and in our house we've enjoyed a different version, the recipe for which came from Cook's illustrated.

The Cook's version (which has been Americanized a bit) is interesting, b/c it shares so little
with the recipes in Dunlop's book (which have some common ingredients between them).
The Cook's version is something like this (I'm going from memory, since I lost the recipe long ago, and I just cook from memory on this one anyway):

Cook's Illustrated:

1/2 lb ground pork
2 tbsp sherry or shaoxing wine
fresh ground pepper
1 tbsp oil
4 garlic cloves minced
1 inch piece ginger, minced
1/2 - 1 tsp red chili flakes
3 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
4 tbsp creamy peanut butter
1 - 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
8 oz linguine or asian noodles
Bean sprouts
sliced scallions (white and green parts)
Combine the port with the sherry, 1 tbsp soy sauce and ground pepper, and set aside to marinate for 15 min.
Bring a pot of water to boil, and boil noodles according to package directions. They need to be "done", not just "al dente".
Meanwhile, combine oyster sauce, vinegar, remaining soy sauce, and the peanut butter in a bowl, and stir until smooth. Stir in chicken broth and stir until smooth. Set aside.
Heat a pan over high heat until hot, add oil, and stir fry pork until browned. Add garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes and fry for 30 secs or until fragrant. Add sauce, and turn heat down to low, and simmer until thickened to desired consistency.
Serve over noodles, garnished with bean sprouts and scallions

Land of Plenty:
8 oz dried chinese noodles
sauce:
1 tbsp peanut oil
4 tbsp Sichuanese ya cai or Tianjin preserved vegetable, diced small
3 scallions, green parts only, finely sliced
1 1/2 tbsp light soy
1/2 tbsp dark soy
2 tbsp chili oil (to taste)
1 1/2 tsp black chinese vinegar
1/2 - 1 tsp ground roasted sichuan peppercorns
topping:
a little oil
4 oz ground pork (I actually used turkey, b/c it was on sale)
1 tsp shaoxing rice wine or sherry
2 tsp light soy
salt to taste

Heat the 1 tbsp of oil, and stir-fry preserved veg for about 30 secs, until fragrant. Set aside.
Stir-fry ground pork, and as meat separates, add wine and soy sauce. Continue to cook until well browned, but not too dry.
Combine the fried vegetable and the rest of the sauce ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Cook the noodles according to the package, and add to the sauce. Sprinkle with the meat mixture, and then stir well to combine. Serve.


As you can see from the two recipes, there are slight similarities, but the (what I'm assuming is) "more authentic" version is much simpler, and lighter. It also had some ingredients that I'd never had before, like the "ya cai" (preserved mustard tuber) and some of the other sauce ingredients. The ya cai was actually pretty good, even though it looked kind of alien.
Note: whoops! This is NOT ya cai (which is actually mustard greens that have been preserved. This is sichuanese preserved vegetable, which is not the same thing. My bad. Please continue reading, and don't think less of me for the mistake).

It tasted sort of like a garlicky, chilified pickle, which I guess is what it is. The sauce also had black chinese vinegar in it, which is somewhat sweet, and not very high in acid. The other ingredient that I'd never had before was dark soy sauce, which is thicker than the light soy, and more intense.

So how'd the Dunlop version taste? They were good. Different from the Cook's version, primarily because the Cook's version has the peanut butter in it, which gives it a "saucy" texture. The LoP version is a simpler affair, and without the peanut butter to soften the flavors, it's a different experience. When the book first mentioned Sichuan peppercorns, the author made a point of saying that the peppercorns aren't really hot, but that impart a pleasant tingling sensation to the lips of the person eating. I can definitely vouch for that, b/c when I was done eating my noodles, my lips were a-tingling! (I was also sweating, that chili oil definitely is hot)
Here's a pic of the finished product:

So, I've gotten my feet wet on this cookbook, and I like it. It's got some weaknesses (for example, there's not a lot of detail on how to prepare certain ingredients, like the preserved vegetable(ya cai)), but overall, the subject matter is interesting enough to overcome that.

The next dish I'm cooking will be the salt-fried pork, which will be my first experience cooking
pork-belly, so I'm looking forward to this!

Stay tuned.

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