Most areas of China employ these two ingredients in varying amounts, from dainty touches in the Yangtze River Delta to the fiery mounds that make foods in Sichuan and Guizhou so enticing.
And so, it’s more than helpful to know how to deal with these two lovely aromatics, everything from selecting to storing to prepping them.
These two ingredients are easy to work with once you get to know them. Here's how...
|Firm, fresh, & shiny|
The first thing you need to know about these is how to determine whether your chili pepper is hot or mild, sweet or grassy. Heat is determined by the variety, while sweetness depends upon ripeness. Larger peppers tend to be milder than smaller ones, but of course your mileage will vary.
Select chilies that are firm and shiny. Run your fingers all over them; softness indicates rot. Check the caps, which should be green and firmly attached to the fruit, as this is often where rot begins.
If the peppers are wrapped on a tray (as they often are in Chinese markets) and fondling is difficult, look at the cut ends of the stems: Shrinkage and darkening on the cut tells you that these have been sitting around for a while, so inspect them as carefully as you can.
|Cut around the core|
Store fresh peppers in the refrigerator, preferably in dry paper bag (to absorb moisture) wrapped in a plastic bag (to keep them from drying out). Wash them just before using and pat dry.
If you have sensitive skin, or if you are working with hotter peppers, wear gloves. I keep a box of surgical gloves in the kitchen for just such occasions, as well as for working with things like raw taro, which makes my skin itch.
Do not touch your face or any other sensitive area, as the juice will burn, and wash your hands carefully once you’ve finished prepping them, as these oils will cling to your skin or gloves.
|Shake out the seeds|
To seed a pepper, I’ve come to rely on this easy method: Slit the pepper down one side, slide the knife in between the flesh and the seeds, and then roll the knife around the core. You will end up with most of the seeds still attached to the core, and all you have to do is shake any wayward seeds out of the flesh. The pepper can then be sliced or chopped.
You can leave the seeds in the peppers if you like them that way, but I prefer the smoothness of a seedless sauce, as well as the lack of bitterness that the seeds often provide.
Fresh garlic is available year around, but the best ones to get (if you can find them) are the lavender ones that show up with the first harvest. These are juicy and tasty, so grab them.
|Cut off the stem ends|
Garlic imported from China has the rootlets removed, giving them smooth bases. Avoid this garlic if you can because of the high levels of pollution and heavy metals in the soil. Organic garlic is more expensive, of course, but it is generally fresher and much healthier.
Select heads that are firm all over. There should be no black areas in the papery coverings (that’s mildew) or green sprouts showing. Those sprouts tell you that the garlic has been on the shelf for a while, and the bulb’s energy has been transferred into reproduction and the individual cloves will begin to dry out. Refrigerate the garlic—like fresh chilies and ginger, for that matter—in dry paper bags wrapped with plastic bags.
|Whack the clove with a blade|
There are a couple of ways to peel garlic, but these are my favorites:
If you just want a couple of cloves, break them off of the bulb. If you want to prepare the whole head, cup it in your hand with the root side down and then smack the roots against a counter; this should break them off, or at least loosen them considerably. You now should have a bunch of individual garlic cloves in front of you.
If you are not using all of them immediately, I strongly urge you not to peel the extras, as they rot easier once naked and also will smell up your fridge.
|Remove any green sprouts|
To peel a clove (or cloves) without mashing it, first trim off the hard root end. Then, lay the flat side of a wide knife or cleaver over the clove(s) and press down on in with your hand until the clove cracks; you then can slip off the papery covering.
If you are planning to mince the garlic, then whack it with the side of your blade a la Martin Yan; this will leave you with a pulpy layer underneath that papery skin, and all you have to do is chop it a bit.
If you do find a green sprout in the center of a clove, remove it completely. Some people say that they taste bitter, but my main complaint is that they are tough and tasteless, so I jimmy them out with the tip of a knife and discard them. That particular clove will naturally be a tad less aromatic, but all in all still usable.
|Fast chopping moves|
Chop garlic by holding the handle of your knife with one hand and pressing down on the tip of the blade with the other. With this technique, the tip of the knife does not move, but rather acts as a stable point, allowing the blade to move freely in an arc over the food. You then can move your knife back and forth over the garlic (or any other ingredient) very rapidly. Use your blade to scrape up the garlic, and you're done.
By the way, use the search engine on this blog (in the right-hand column) to find many delicious ways to use these two delicious ingredients.