Friday, July 1, 2011

Cold dishes for a hot summer

Now that you have all of that wonderful chili and Sichuan peppercorn oil that was described in my previous column, you probably are hunting around for some ideas on how to use them.  Here's a couple recipes that are tried and true...

First up is a terrific Sichuan-style cucumber appetizer.  Simple to toss together, this is something you'll want to keep in your repertoire and fridge for those days when even your appetite is lagging.  Cold cucumbers are best fresh, so make them a couple of hours before you want to serve them.  We also have a Beijing-style salad of little more than tiny haricots verts (thin string beans) studded with chopped garlic and napped with salt and sesame oil, but this is many times more wonderful to eat than it sounds.  Feel free to douse this in the chili oil for even more flavor.

Smells better than perfume to me
In the next post will be a refreshing seaweed salad that is as colorful as it is crunchy and delicious. Traditionally this is made with dried and reconstituted jellyfish - which I love, but which sometimes can be difficult to find and might be too weird for most people (tell me if I'm wrong!) - so I've substituted dried agar to add a different kind of texture to this appetizer. Consider serving this any time you need something particularly lively to start a meal. It comes together in minutes and will make a convert out of just about anyone who finds the idea of eating seaweed scary.

Finally, we're going to make a classic vegetarian offering from Sichuan that has an odd name, no matter how you look at it: Strange Flavor Bean Fish. The flavors aren't really that weird at all - very similar to Bang Bang Chicken's silky sauce, in fact - and there's no beans and there's no fish. Instead of the missing guests of honor, we have mung bean sprouts wrapped in bean curd skins (fupi). I guess if you look at it from a certain angle in low light and drink a whole lot of wine before passing judgment, yes, this does look and taste like fish. But otherwise, no. I think I'll put this down as another instance of that Chinese sense of humor I've mentioned before.

But be that as it may, this is a wonderful thing to serve in hot weather. Even dedicated carnivores should love it, as it's crunchy on the outside, juicy in the middle, and slathered in a great sauce that's decked out with a good helping of your tasty chili pepper and Sichuan peppercorn oils. 

Smacked cukes
Stay tuned...

Cold cucumber appetizer with chili oil 
Qiang huanggua  嗆黃瓜
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

1 pound Persian or Japanese cucumbers (about 4 or 5)
3 to 5 tablespoons Chili Pepper Oil plus some of the toasty bits at the bottom of the jar
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons tasty vinegar of any kind
1. Trim the ends off of the cucumbers and slice them in half lengthwise.  Turn the cucumbers cut side down on your work surface, and then smack them with the flat side of your cleaver to break them into long strips.  If the strips aren't as thin as you would like them, cut them up a bit.

2. Toss the cucumbers in a work bowl with the rest of the ingredients and then adjust the seasonings.  You can make this as hot or sweet or tart as you like.  Cover and refrigerate until serving time, which will give the sugar and salt the chance to dissolve.

Tiny heralds of summer
Cold haricots verts Beijing style 
Liangban sijidou  涼拌四季豆 
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

1 pound (or so) fresh haricots verts or thin string beans
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 tablespoons filtered water
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1. Wash and trim the haricots verts.  (Most Chinese folks I've served string beans to like both ends cut off, but leave on the pointy end if you like.)  Cut the beans in half, if necessary, so that they are approximately the same length.

2. Heat the peanut oil and salt together in a wok until it begins to smoke, and then add the beans and garlic.  Stir-fry for a few minutes until the garlic has scented the oil, and then add the water and quickly cover the wok so that the beans rapidly steam away the raw edge.  

Garlic makes anything taste good
3. Remove the cover and taste a bean to ensure that it is cooked through but still crisp before tossing in the sesame oil.  Scoot the beans up the side of the pan while you cook off any extra water over high heat.  Toss the beans in the wok one last time to sweep up any seasonings, and then pour everything into a work bowl.  The beans should still be bright green yet tender.

4. Let the beans come to room temperature, and then cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.  Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.  Arrange the beans on a cold plate and serve.

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