Sunday, April 15, 2012

Citrus chili oil that rocks

Homemade chili oil that has a good layer of ground ingredients lurking at the bottom of a jar is -- in my little universe, at least -- the sign of an excellent Chinese restaurant, one that pays attention to the little details and doesn't just scoop a sour sauce out of a generic can.

One such place in downtown Taipei was a Cantonese dive called Yangcheng Fandian, or literally Sheep City Restaurant. Why Sheep City? 

Well, Yangcheng is the name of a town in Guangdong up the Pearl River from Hong Kong and almost directly north of Macau. In other words, this is an area where good food is to be found.

Calling it a restaurant, though, was a bit of an overstatement, for this was just a hole in the wall with an array of blasting propane burners along the back wall, a sheet of corrugated plastic reaching out into the alley to protect diners on rainy days, and a bunch of folding tables and chairs. Located on a busy alley next to the post office and, more importantly, across the street from the many bookstores we adored, Yangcheng was a place we frequented very, very often. The food was dependable home-style fare, and they had a particular knack for using fresh ginger in just the right amounts. 

But what we really came for was their homemade chili oil and its slightly crunchy, slightly chewy goop that we would toss with abandon on every plate that hit our table. Even the rice was not out of bounds, and I would invariably end the meal by polishing off my bowl of rice with a huge glop of chili goop, wipe the chili-induced heat off my shiny face, and then walk down to the street, happily worrying any lingering bits out from between my teeth.

Dark & delicious
I have written about homemade chili oils before, but now I want to introduce you to something that I have been holding back just a little bit jealously. It is one of those recipes that I am proud to call my own, that has developed over the years into a personal favorite: Citrus Chili Oil with Black Beans.

The road to this recipe started with a desire to re-create this delicious sauce once we had returned to the States. I made some relatively good ones -- it's hard to go wrong with chili oil -- but they weren't yet perfect. And then I came across the late Barbara Tropp's second and final work, China Moon Cookbook, that includes favorites from her restaurant of the same name and which has many of her delicious Chinese-California fusion creations.

The recipe that struck me between the eyes was for her China Moon Chili-Orange Oil. This had all of the components I was seeking, plus a vibrant citrus note that took this condiment to stratospheric levels. In the 20 years since then, I have monkeyed around with it, adding more savory things, halving the oil (I am a sucker for the lovely goop at the bottom of the jar), and amping up the aromas with a whole bunch of ginger and garlic. 

Use the oil as you would any "bright oil," and savor the goop as a dipping sauce, to flavor marinades, and to perk up stir-fries. It goes with just about anything. And will prove highly addictive.

Citrus chili oil with black beans
 Juxiang douchi layou 橘香豆豉辣油
Cantonese with a twist
Makes about 1½ cups
Add dry aromatics to the oil

3 medium organic oranges
1 organic Meyer (or other) lemon 
7 or 8 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons fermented black beans (see Tips)
1 cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons finely minced ginger
½ cup coarsely ground chili pepper (see Tips)

1. Scrub the oranges and lemon; pat dry. Peel off the skins (colored parts only) with a potato peeler, and then dice the zest finely. (Use the flesh of the fruit for something else.)

2. Smack each garlic clove and peel it, but leave the peeled cloves more or less whole. Coarsely chop the fermented black beans; there is no need to rinse them. 

3. Pour both oils into a small skillet or saucepan and add all of the other ingredients to the cool oil. Heat this pan over medium until the oil starts to bubble, and then lower the heat and simmer the sauce for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook the sauce until the oil is a day-glo orange, the chili powder is dark brown, and the garlic cloves are soft. Remove from heat and cool. Store in a covered jar in a cool place, preferably in the fridge if you are not going to use it up within two weeks.


Stir the bottom as it cooks
Scrub the oranges and lemons well to remove any dust that might have worked its way into the pores; if they are commercial fruits, use hot water and a brush to clean off any wax. Dry the fruit well before zesting them, as water will explode in the hot oil.

Experiment with different types of dried chili powder, adding more if you love the heat. The chili powder can be very coarsely ground with the seeds still whole, or you can use a sifted variety that has the seeds removed. I like the varieties available at Korean grocery stores, since the turnover is fast and the offerings are both varied and of great quality.

Use the black beans that come in plastic bags or jars that don't have any sauce. They should be plump and dark, rather than shriveled and gray. You shouldn't rinse the beans here; just chop them roughly so that each bean is opened up and the flavor can ooze out.

Keeping the ginger cloves whole protects them from cooking too quickly and burning. This way they slowly poach in the oil and remain luscious. After cooking, smash the garlic with your spoon.

Starting the sauce off by adding the dry ingredients to the cool oil protects them from cooking too quickly. This slow simmer gives the aromatics a chance to release their oils and flavors before they brown, making the oil a gorgeous orange hue and the goop at the bottom a crunchy, chewy obsession.