Monday, November 2, 2015

Exquisite leftovers the Chinese way

I once met a young woman who told me quite proudly that she never ate leftovers. And judging from the good things that cover tables after people get up at restaurants, that sentiment is held by way too many people. For those folks, leftovers must be viewed as grim reminders in the fridge of dinners that didn't quite get finished, either because you ordered a bit too enthusiastically or the food wasn't that great. Or maybe it's just too much hassle to carry a box of food back to the car.

When it comes to me, though, I love leftovers. Unless the ingredients were off in some unsalvageable way -- too old, too tough, or just too weird -- I relish the opportunity to spiff them up and turn them into something even better. Next week I'm planning on showing you a traditional Sichuan cold dish that turns yesterday's roast or poached bird into pure gold, one so good that I always buy extra just to make this dish.

Peanuts plus more crunchy stuff

Just about any other food can be resurrected as a delectable new take. For example, today we are using some beef tendons I picked up at a Chinese deli. They're already fully cooked and sliced, but they were a bit blah, as the counter had just tossed them with a bit of chile oil and called it a day. 

Passing by the Chinese market on my way home, I found the last of the year's great sweet peppers, cucumbers, and chiles waiting for me, so into the basket they went. A bunch of green onions and some fresh garlic made the cut, too. And then it was full speed home.

I loooove sweet peppers
What I have assembled isn't really a recipe, but rather an improvisation, one that you can play with to ensure that it suits your palate and the leftovers and the season. Think of each of these parts as basic elements that can be swapped around.

So, in a totally new approach to these Chinese recipes, we're going to have this recipe set out as building blocks. Now go forth and play!

Crunchy Monday salad
From just about anywhere in China or Chinatown
Serves as many as you want

Sliced braised tendons in chili oil
Whatever you have of in the way of cooked meat, poultry, shrimp, firm bean curd, etc.

However much you want of... 
sweet red peppers
super fresh cilantro
green onions
chile peppers
Chinese or Western celery
crunchy lettuce
carrot shreds
julienned napa or round cabbage
blanched mung bean sprouts

Whatever makes you smile of...
chili oil, preferably with the goop
sweet soy sauce, or good soy sauce plus sugar to taste
toasted sesame oil
black vinegar
toasted sesame paste or peanut butter

Whatever you have handy here...
crushed fried peanuts or toasted peanuts
toasted sesame seeds
fried soybeans

A fresh chile perked up the flavors, too
1. First, remove any bones from the meat or poultry, as well as the sauce (unless it's really good) and anything that looks wilted. For example, in my box of tendons were some sad-looking green onions that got tossed. Now, shred the protein into thin strips. Keep note of the size of these shreds, as everything else is going to be cut into just about the same size as that. (For example, I cut up the sliced tendons into thin matchsticks.)

2. Clean your vegetables, remove any seeds, stems, or tough bits and then cut them into thin strips. Toss these in a work bowl to loosen them up, and then add the protein and toss again. (Today I cut up a sweet red pepper, 2 small cucumbers, a couple of green onions, a clove of garlic that was minced, half a bunch of cilantro chopped in half, and a finely chopped fresh chile.)

Adding my homemade sweet soy sauce
3. Sprinkle on whatever seasonings you like. Sesame paste and nut butters might need to get microwaved a bit to loosen them up, but otherwise you can just mix and add as you go. Toss well and taste, then adjust the seasonings. (Today's mixture called for my homemade chili oil and goop, sweet soy sauce, a tablespoon or so of toasted sesame oil, and just enough black vinegar to perk up the flavors.)

4. Sprinkle the salad with more crunchy stuff, like peanuts, so that you get a Cracker Jack-like reward in every bite. (I went for around 4 tablespoons fried peanuts and 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, just because they were handy.) Eat while the veggies are still super crunchy. You won't have leftovers.

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