Saturday, September 25, 2010

Project Food Blog Challenge #2: The Classics

Sichuan Pepper: It makes your lips tingle
Can you smell what the wok is cooking!? Yeah, that's right!

Choosing a cuisine for this challenge was, well, a challenge! We've immersed ourselves in a lot of ethnic cuisines over the years we've kept our blog. Mexican food, thanks to Rick Bayless's excellent Authentic Mexican cookbook and the ready supply of ingredients in San Francisco's Mission district, is now an easy part of our repertoire. Vegan Soul Food, thanks to Bryant Terry, was a surprising hit. But Indian food left us scrubbing turmeric stains out of our aprons. Having cooked so broadly, we weren't sure what direction to take...

Strange Flavor Peanuts
Then we hit on Sichuanese food. Fuschia Dunlop's excellent Land of Plenty has been constantly
intriguing since we started cooking from it last year, but I flipped to the back the other day and discovered an appendix listing the 23 flavors and 56 techniques of Sichuan cooking! We had only used a few of them. On top of that, our vegetable sides were usually bok choy, bok choy, or (wait for it...) bok choy. Honestly, we were bewildered by the variety of produce labeled in Chinese. Plainly we had much to learn! Read about the recipes we chose after the jump and check out an awesome, music video recipe!


Opo, or Silk Gourd
With that, Tiffany and I pored through Land of Plenty looking for something new. I was fascinated
by the idea of "dry braising", in which meat simmered in liquid until the liquid evaporates and only intensely-flavored oil is left. In Tai Bai Chicken, chunks of chicken thigh are "dry braised" in chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Tiffany had always been fascinated by the piles of gourds of all sizes, so we grabbed an opo (or, silk gourd, a deceptively boring-looking melon-squash thing) to stir-fry with garlic, then braise in a splash of chicken stock until soupy and slippery. And to whet the appetite, we found "strange-flavor peanuts": peanuts coated in a crackly-sweet glaze flavored with vinegar, salt, chili, and numbing sichuan peppercorns. A delicious, and completely new flavor!

Have a good Mise en Place before you begin
This project would require us to use some unfamiliar techniques and ingredients, and though Dunlop's style is clear and detailed, there were still some questions. I never really thought of gourds as anything but decorations for the thanksgiving table, so I wasn't sure what to expect from the opo. And when we went shopping down at the Manila Oriental Market, there were not one but ten different kinds of pickled chiles. There was also Shaoxing wine, a musty rice wine that is supposed to "dispel rankness" but smells kind of, well, rank. Also dark soy sauce, richer and more savory than the usual. Check out some of the other ingredients!

Braised Silk Gourd

On a technical level, I was worried about braising with our electric wok, which just turns on and off. But because we have an electric stove with flat burners, we can't use the classic round bottomed wok, so I figured I would do the chicken in a flat pan on the stove top for better control the heat. The dry braising was a fascinating technique, different from the usual French technique, which would pull the chicken out and then reduce the sauce. It just seemed wrong, but as you can see in the video, everything came together well. The dry braising technique allows you to do something else for twenty minutes, which frees you up to work on a more demanding dish, while still getting great flavor!

Tai Bai Chicken
 As you can see in the video, everything turned out great! The chicken was tender and rich, with a pleasantly hot and numbing flavor that warms from the inside. The silk gourd was a salty, slippery, cooling flavor that delightfully offset the spicy meat. Going outside of our comfort zone was well worth the effort. We were certainly happy with the Chinese dishes we made before, but now we've discovered a new classic for our repertoire - one that now we can't live without!


KELLY said...

Good work. You have my vote!

Sounding My Barbaric Gulp!

Lick My Spoon said...

I like your mise en place pyramid, and your dished look wonderful. Best of luck going forward, you've got our vote!

Lick My Spoon

Reeni said...

The chicken sounds crazy good! And I like how you described both of them and how they play off of each other. Good luck - I voted for you!

Dan Clapson said...

Clever post! Braised gourd is definitely unique! 1 vote for you :)