Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bright oils from Sichuan

One of the best secret weapons to have on hand in a Chinese kitchen are the deliciously fragrant mingyou, or "bright oils," of Sichuan. Once you start to use them, you'll wonder how you ever lived without them.

These are nothing more than encapsulations of flavors in simple cooking oils, and they're traditionally used mainly as finishing touches for appetizers, entrees, soups, what have you. 

I've become a huge fan of them because they seem to spark up just about everything they touch, adding fine layers of warm scent to dishes that need that bit of oomph, gently or unabashedly numbing the lips or titillating the tongue in fiery foods, and helping smooth out bridges between ingredients that don't want to mingle.

Chili pepper oil
For example, a few days ago I talked about Manchurian Chicken Salad, and as one reader suggested, Sichuan peppercorn oil would add a nice "kick" to it, and I agree. (In fact, that's just the sort of inventiveness that puts me in awe of the folks who read this blog.)  Sichuan peppercorn oil would be perfect for turning this mild northeastern dish into something that a Chengdu native would dive into with singular delight.  And chili oil does the same thing.

The problem is that storebought oils tend to be musty where they should be alive with flavor, drab when they should sing. Besides that, you have zero control over how good the oil is, the freshness of the spices, and how spicy or numbing it turns out to be.

Enter your new best friend: homemade mingyou.

Green and red peppercorns
These cost only pennies to make, and you can make them as individual as your palate is. Put them in pretty bottle and give them as gifts, too. These are simple to prepare, are ready by the time you fix the rest of your menu, and keep well for a few weeks as long as you store them in a cool dry place. I put mine in little squirt bottles, which makes using them even more fun. And don't limit yourself to these two recipes; ginger oil is great if fresh shreds are slowly fried in oil, and Green Onion Oil is a knockout!

If you plan to create the chili pepper oil, try to employ a variety of dried chilies, as each kind has a special contribution to make. I like a small handful of Thai chilies, a couple of habaneros or dundicuts to amp up the searing heat, a big old pasilla pepper for dark richness, and some coarsely and finely ground chilies, as these brown faster plus add a delectable smokiness to the oil. Anyway, try this recipe the way it is;  if it's too hot, just add more oil, and then next time add different kinds of chilies until you come up with the combination you really enjoy.

Hell in a bottle
As for the Sichuan peppercorns, I've recently come across a new candidate on my Chinese grocery shelves that is green. Called qing huajiao, or green Sichuan peppercorns, they offer a nice herbal flavor and have been terrific in stir-fries, like last week's Daqian Chicken. They would also be good in Sichuan style pickles (coming up soon) or braises, but I tried them as the flavoring for a mingyou, and they were seriously disappointing - very little flavor, although the oil was a lovely shade of green. No, when you are making peppercorn finishing oil, go with the ripe red ones, and you won't be disappointed.

And for a real taste of Sichuan, either combine the two oils or use half the chilies and half the peppercorns to 2 cups oil. This is called mala you (numbing spicy oil), and it's every bit as wonderful!

Chili pepper oil 
Lajiao you  辣椒油  
Makes 2 cups
My chili smorgasbord

2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
1 pasilla chili, torn into bits
3 habanero chilies
8 Thai chilies, broken in half
2 tablespoons coarsely ground chili peppers
1 tablespoon finely ground chili pepper
1. Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan or wok. Bring the oil and the peppers slowly to a simmer over medium heat, and then lower the heat until the oil just barely bubbles. Cook the chilies this way until they float and have turned black. 

2. Remove the pan from the heat and let the peppers sit in the oil until it is cool. Store the oil along with the chilies in a jar in a cool place. If you like, strain out a small portion of the oil into a plastic squeeze bottle and place it next to your stove so that you have instant access.

3. The oil is best if used within a couple of weeks. If it's longer than that, taste the oil first to ensure that it is fresh before you use it.

Numbing delight
Sichuan peppercorn oil 
Huajiao you  花椒油 
Makes 1 cup

1 cup peanut or vegetable oil
½  cup whole, red Sichuan peppercorns
1. Follow the directions for Chili Pepper Oil, using Sichuan peppercorns instead of the chilies.