Editor’s Note: Bringing a bit more West Coast flavor to the blog, please welcome L.A.-based food fanatic Katt Kasper to the ES family.
Alright. It’s finally Friday and all you want to do is make it to the end of this brutal workweek without going postal on one of your coworkers, or (dare you live the dream?), your boss. So there you are, trying to forget the week, eating that ‘special’ meal in your favorite restaurant and you think to yourself, “How did they make this sauce sooooo velvety and smooth? And what’s that back taste? White pepper and thyme in heavy cream and butter, or it that a traditional roux?” I mean, how do you solve this puzzle without enrolling at the Cordon Bleu or bribing the chef? I’ve got the secret. There’s this thing called (are you ready?), the INTERNET. And it’s all there, baby. Shopping lists, cooking techniques, recipe breakdowns, how-to cooking videos…it’s endless! And I’m not talking about easy things like tomato based spaghetti sauces, or a thousand different ways to cook the perfect hamburger. What I’m talking about is a dish that you know nothing about but has rocked your world and somebody already knows how to make it! So let’s try it.
I started writing this piece while I was out of town on business in Oakland, California and I was taken into the town of Alameda to eat at a Burmese restaurant called Burma Superstar. Now I like my food spicy and hot and I wasn’t disappointed when I ordered their “Fiery Chicken with Tofu” which was a wok tossed chicken breast cooked with tofu, string beans, red bell peppers, and basil in a five spice hot and sweet sauce. When I ordered it I said “Heavy on the fire!” and I received mixed looks of horror and concern from the wait staff. When my plate arrived it looked awesome, and the pungent chili vapors made my vision blurry and nose run even before I took my first bite. Man, was it good! Spicy, savory and (as I unfortunately found out the next morning), hotter going out than coming in. THIS was a dish that I needed to learn to make!
So first off, I took the easy route. I asked my server what the five spices were. A slacker maneuver but hey, it didn’t say five ‘secret’ spices. He told me that they were garlic, ginger, soy sauce and two different types of chili. (Are fresh garlic and ginger considered spices?) I guessed that the sweetness came from the addition of honey, so I at least had my ingredients. Now all I needed was to find out was what types of chilis are commonly used in Burmese cooking. I got back to my hotel and fired up my trusty laptop. Hmmmm, it seems that the chilies that were in my dish weren’t Burmese, but Szechuan peppers. You know the ones I’m talking about? They’re about two inches long, kind of a chocolate red color, and when you bite into them they taste like a roach that’s been fed habaneras all its life. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)
The other chili I guessed was actually a chili paste. I also found out from the internet that a lot of Asian dishes are prepared using peanut oil, but I’m sticking with canola mostly because my daughter is deathly allergic to peanut products. And in regards to the tofu, to tell you the truth, I’ve never been a big fan of tofu. I mean why add an ingredient that takes on the flavor of other ingredients like chicken or beef? Why not just add more chicken or beef? This is the great thing about this process. You’re not really ‘stealing’ a recipe if you alter any of its ingredients. And hey, you just might come up with a rockin’ dish of your own through mistakes and experimentation.
So now I have my ingredients: chicken, red bell peppers, Szechuan peppers, garlic cloves, fresh ginger, Soy sauce, honey, string beans, chili paste, fresh basil leaves, Canola oil, and scallions (I’m adding this just ‘cause I like ‘em!)
After I returned home, I went out and bought all the ingredients and made my version of the dish. The important thing here is to document the amounts of each spice and ingredient that you use so that you can add or subtract it in measured amounts. That way once you nail the flavor, you’ll always know the exact combinations in the future.
So I thought that I had a pretty slamin’version after I attempted it at home, and I invited a few friends over the next weekend for my “Fiery Szechuan Chicken Stir Fry”. Once everyone showed up I supplied the wine and hors d’oeuvres, and told them to wait in the living room while I created my new masterpiece. Then it came to me; instead of adding the chilies and chili paste at the END after all of the other ingredients were cooked, if I started by searing the Szechuan chilies and chili paste FIRST, I would give it a roasted, intense taste which would add to the overall flavor. Brilliant! So I fired up my wok, got it glowing red, added my oil and then dumped in the chilies. DO NOT, REPEAT, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT HOME! The ensuing explosion of eye searing smoke and quick release of air borne capsaicin caused my friends and family to flee my house as if I’d just lit a cigarette in a meth lab! It felt like someone was blow-torching the inside of my nostrils while they were shaving my eyeballs with a rusty razor. Believe me; you DON’T want to try this at home! If you want to experience the equivalent, invite over some friends, bring them into your living room, give them each a glass of wine, and then shoot them in the face with a can of pepper spray. My neighbors won’t come over to eat at my home any more because all they remember is the time that I had a dinner party, and they saw eight of my friends out on my front lawn crying, coughing and throwing up! Needless to say, my technique with this dish needs a little tweaking.
But I digress. Yes, I don’t have my ‘rockin’ version of this dish nailed yet, and yes, my experimentation during this dinner party has resulted in my being able to speak to a few of my friends only through their attorneys, but hey! Nobody’s going to forget THIS night anytime soon. And anyway, as good as this dish was when I ate it in Alameda, I’m sure it’s never received half the response that MY version has.