Monday, March 30, 2009

Success! In Three Parts

After feeling ho-hum about two time-consuming homemade meals in a row, I'm happy to report that the last few days have left me feeling utterly vindicated, culinarily speaking.

The first success was one I can't take even a little of the credit for: That goes to my friend Lisa, who suggested that we go to Tamarind Tree, a fancy-ish-for-my-current-budget Vietnamese place behind the Viet Wah supermarket, for a long-overdue dinner date. We started with an appetizer described on the menu as "stuffed esgargot." In reality, it was more of a pork-snail paste (appetizing-sounding, no?) molded around a four-inch length of lemongrass and served with a ginger dipping sauce. Not my favorite (the texture of chopped-up snails is just too rubbery for my taste), but the salad that accompanied it--sticky-sweet just-seared Pacific sea scallops and greens tossed with pickled lemongrass, onions prepared two ways, and a light, tangy dressing--was fresh and light-tasting, almost summery (a serious bit of relief after two straight weeks of overhanging gray skies and rain rain rain.) And my entree was outstanding, even revelatory. The menu described my entree, somewhat parsimoniously, as "steamed rice batter topped with shrimp bits and green onions served with mixed herb fish sauce." What arrived on the table was nine little bowls filled with what looked like custard, and topped with what, in the dim light, you'd be forgiven for assuming were bacon bits. But the flavor was like biting into a coconut, and the texture had more in common with creme brulee than rice. And the bacon bits? Those were tiny flecks of crunchy, deep-fried shrimp, a perfect textural counterpart to the silky custard. With a generous spoonful of spicy fish sauce, it was one of the most exciting (and visually appealing) meals I'd had in months. Lisa's crepe (an eggy, lettuce-wrapped, meat-brimming affair) was pretty good, too.

Up next: My second attempt at creating this recipe, this time with all the correct ingredients! Although the addition of shredded galangal and fresh Kaffir lime leaves and the substitution of actual long beans for the "any old beans" in my previous rendition didn't seem to make that much difference to the taste of the final product (in fact, it may have been better last time because I froze the pork longer, making it easier to cut into paper-thin slices), I did make one major time-saving deviation from the recipe: Instead of mashing everything to a paste in my trusty marble mortar, I chucked it all into my mini-chopper, saving about ten minutes (and a measure of my sanity). Purists may claim that using a mortar and pestle preserves the aromas and volatile oils in the ground ingredients, but when you're dealing with materials as pungent as ground dried shrimp and as tough as whole Thai chiles, the food processor seems like the way to go, in terms of both taste and texture.

Finally, last night, I finished up two recipes that have been sitting in my "to-do" folder for quite a while: Bittman's Hainanese Chicken with Rice, and Gourmet's spicy glazed eggplant with Japanese seven-spice powder. (Culinary crossover, I know, but trust me). I was beyond skeptical about the chicken, which is poached in nothing more than water with a generous handful of garlic and ginger: How could something so simply prepared--no browning, no brining, just plunked into a pot--have any flavor? I'm happy to say that although the chicken, tasted alone, was pretty bland, the combination of warm chicken and rice (I mixed them together, rather than serving the chicken mounded on top of the rice as the recipe suggests), cool dipping sauce, and cold, fresh vegetables was both familiar and altogether new.

Hainanese Chicken with Rice (adapted from the Minimalist)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 whole (3- to 4-pound) chicken, trimmed of excess fat
Several cloves smashed garlic, plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic
Several slices fresh ginger, plus 1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons peanut oil, or 1/4 cup peanut oil and 2 tablespoons chicken fat
3 shallots, roughly chopped, or a small onion
2 cups long-grain rice
1/2 cup minced scallions
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced
2 tomatoes, sliced
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons sesame oil

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add chicken to pot along with smashed garlic and sliced ginger. Bird should be just submerged. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let bird remain in water for 45 minutes to an hour, covered, or until it is cooked through.

2. Remove chicken from pot, reserving and straining stock, and let bird cool to room temperature. Put two tablespoons peanut oil or chicken fat in a skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot or chicken fat is melterd, add remaining garlic, along with shallots; cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, until glossy. Add 4 cups reserved chicken stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover; cook for about 20 minutes, until rice has absorbed all liquid. Stir in salt and pepper to taste.

3. Make a dipping sauce of remaining oil, ginger, half the scallions and a large pinch of salt.

4. Shred or chop chicken, discarding skin. Put rice on a large platter and mound chicken on top of it; decorate platter with cucumbers, tomatoes, remaining scallions and cilantro. Sprinkle sesame oil over all and serve with dipping sauce.

Spicy Glazed Eggplant
Adapted from Gourmet
1 1/4 lb Asian eggplants (about 4), trimmed, halved lengthwise, and cut diagonally into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine) or rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon finely grated peeled ginger (use a Microplane)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Japanese seven-spice powder* (sometimes labeled “shichimi togarashi”), or to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives

Toss eggplant with 1 teaspoon salt and drain in a colander, stirring occasionally, 45 minutes.

Rinse eggplant under cold water and dry well, pressing out any excess moisture.

Stir together mirin, soy sauce, ginger, and seven-spice powder.

Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then sauté eggplant until browned, about 8 minutes. Stir in mirin mixture and cook, gently stirring and turning frequently, until sauce becomes a glaze and eggplant is browned and tender, about 1 minute.

Serve hot or at room temperature, sprinkled with chives.

* Or you can make your own, like I did; the recipe I used is available here.

1 comment:

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