Wednesday, November 30, 2011

OMG a Recipe: Takeout Cravings Made at Home

Everyone has really specific food cravings. For some, it's a big juicy hamburger, all the fixin's, with a side of crispy fries. For others, maybe it's an ooey-gooey cheese pizza, straight from the oven. Thankfully in our modern delivery-friendly times, we can order almost anything to be sent straight to our door or zip past a drive-thru and receive instant gratification. My cravings are a little different -- I really love the spicy heat of savory beef over a cold pickled salad, or the creamy richness of a peanut sauce. Living in the Seattle area, it's actually not difficult to get any of this -- even in Duvall, where I live, we've got two Asian/Thai places and a few teriyaki places right in town. But what if you're not as lucky, or if this craving hits at an odd time and all the restaurants are closed? Wonder no longer, I'm going to lay some Wasabi Knowledge on you.

Spicy beef over cucumber salad - restaurant meal, quickly made at home - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It was a dark and stormy night... well, more like a weird weather day, where the sun would be shining, but the rain was pouring down. This kind of weather means Wasabi is as lazy as sin, I don't want to leave the house, even to pick up delicious takeout food, so it's MacGyver Meal Time, and I match food cravings to what we've got on-hand. We had just gotten our latest CSA box of magical mystery fruits and vegetables. Which at this time of year is kale, kale, kale... and oh yeah, more kale! But there's some other things that show up, like broccoli and at the time, a late harvest cucumber or two, with skin as tough as leather. We were also getting other late summer things like eggplant, which people either cheer with joy or look at it with quiet bewilderment, as it's not a vegetable people deal with regularly, given its seasonal particulars. But it's a good thing, and it went so well in a creamy peanut sauce.

Putting together all the favorite flavors to answer my food cravings - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I wanted a Korean-style BBQ, kind of similar to kalbi, with the spicy-sweet sauce. I had a steak defrosting in the fridge, and with it still slightly icy, it's easier to slice the beef super-thin. I marinated about a pound of thinly-sliced beef for about a half hour (or more, if you have the time) in a mixture of: 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon Sriracha or 1/2 teaspoon of chili flakes. You just mix everything together by hand until it's all coated. For the vegetables, use what you have -- I chopped up broccoli and kale with some thinly sliced onions. In a hot wok, add a little cooking oil, quickly stir-fry the beef until it's browned, then add in the vegetables to finish Use a little watered-down soy sauce to deglaze the wok and help make a sauce. Add more sugar if you like it on the sweet side. If I'm cooking more vegetables, I'll remove the mostly-cooked beef so it doesn't get rubbery, and give the vegetables more time to soften before adding the meat back in. In this case, the kale wilts fast and I like my broccoli with a little crunch, so it just needed minimal cooking time. This is usually how I do a fast beef stir fry at home; no real measuring or fussing with sauces, I just use what's in the fridge. If there's fresh ginger, garlic and/or scallions, I add it. Fish sauce is nice as well. If you have a container of spicy Korean kochujang sauce, which is like a spicy barbecue sauce, I'll add a little spoonful of that to finish, but again, if you don't have any of this stuff handy, the basics listed above will do fine.

The finished stir fry was served over some lightly pickled cucumbers. I partially skinned, sliced and seeded the somewhat tough cucumbers and let them sit in a light brine of a few spoonfuls of sugar and rice wine vinegar. It was more like a cucumber salad, as the vinegar didn't really have time to fully penetrate the slices, but it was fine. The crunchiness of the cold cucumber was nice with the spicy heat of the stir fry. It's a nice alternative to serving the beef over rice. Not that I didn't have rice -- I made a pot of steamed brown rice and saved it for one of my favorite at-home quick meals: spicy peanut sauce simmered with.. well, anything.

Pantry peanut sauce, at your service - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Keep plain peanut butter around. Unless you have an allergy, this should just be a rule for households. I rarely have peanut butter sandwiches, given our lack of bread around the house, but I swear we go through a giant jar of Adams u-stir-the-crap-outta-this-thing peanut butter every month. Either that, or we have Peanut Butter Elf Thieves silently attacking our cupboards. Or maybe it's just Indy -- she loves the stuff.

My go-to peanut sauce, which is generally pretty easy to make if you keep certain things handy in the pantry is this: 1 can of coconut milk (full-fat or low-fat, doesn't matter), 1/2 cup of plain/unsweetened well-stirred peanut butter, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon (or more) of Sriracha or a sprinkle of chili flakes. 1 teaspoon of chopped ginger if you have it. This is my pantry peanut sauce, when I have a Thai food craving and am too lazy to go out. I realize not everyone keeps coconut milk around, but it's a canned good, it'll keep for a while, so when you see it on sale, buy a couple and keep 'em on hand. You'll be thankful you did. Personally I really like the Trader Joe brand -- it just tastes more fragrant. It's somewhat Thai-inspired, just with less ingredients, but easy to make at home without buying the premade jarred stuff.

I usually brown and soften the vegetables I'm going to have with this sauce first -- in this case, it was eggplant and some onions. Oh yeah, and big surprise - KALE! When the pan is still hot, I put in the peanut butter, as the heat will help melt it down. It's still sticky as all get-out, so I start adding in the other liquid ingredients and sprinkle in garlic and Sriracha as I mix, getting everything incorporated. I add the coconut milk in last. It really brings everything together, will deglaze the pan and helps completely melt the peanut butter down.When it's all incorporated, I add in small cubes of extra firm tofu -- again, optional, but since this is a vegetarian dish, the added protein can't hurt. I could add it earlier, but mixing the sauce would just pulverize the tofu into mush, so I wait until the sauce is combined, so it can fully simmer in the mix of flavors.  I also throw in handfuls of unsalted peanuts for extra crunch. Not a requirement, but it's a nice textural thing. Take heaping spoonfuls of this stuff and pour it over rice and enjoy. Spicy, creamy, crunchy and stick-to-your-ribs good -- and it's fast. By the time the rice is done steaming, the sauce and vegetables are done.

Orange chicken, inspired by... mall food court! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Remember the weird, day-glo orange chicken that's offered in the super-Americanized Chinese food places that haunt most food courts? Of course you do. It's alarmingly orange and oddly addictive, if you've spent any amount of your teenage life mall-ratting and perusing tapes at Sam Goody. It's orange in description-only, as an orange off the tree would not recognize this sauce as being a second cousin, once-removed, from his uncle's cousin's side of the citrus family. I found myself thinking of this mall-food when we had a bit of leftover orange juice from a brunch at our house. I know it's for drinking, but I thought, let's make a sauce out of it! Good idea? Meh, it's not like I was drinking bleach.

Consider this one a work in progress: I put about a cup and a half's worth of orange juice in a small pot and let it simmer until reduced by about a third. I added some soy sauce and sesame oil, then a few dashes of rice wine vinegar. It was a lot of "bit of this, bit of that," pushing and pulling the flavors in this orange juice concoction. I was trying to avoid adding more sugar, as the juice has plenty on its own. There's just no way to get it to the syrupy-sweet flavor of the mall food version, nor should you want to. The final result was just a savory orange-flavored sauce, but kind of ho-hum, to be honest. It went into a stir fry of chicken, onions and... say it with me now: kale. Let no one say we don't eat our greens at the Wasabi household. The final dish wasn't alarmingly orange, which is probably a good thing. I just wanted to see if I could make a sauce from orange juice. I think if I do this again, I'm using fresh pineapple, letting it simmer with the orange juice and letting it break down during the reduction, since it's got quite a bit of liquid if you use fresh chunks. You can't beat its sweetness and while I'll have to balance out the double whammy of acidity with oranges and pineapple, I think it will give me a more zippy, bright-tasting sauce. Revisiting this UnRecipe will have to wait until we're saddled with a surplus of orange juice, as it's another thing we tend not to keep around the house. Maybe it's a weird thing to want to make -- bad Americanized Chinese food -- but we're all products/victims of our upbringing, and we've all put our time in a mall food court or three. I just try to find a way to make a slightly less scary version at home.

Asian-inspired dinner at Casa de Wasabi, on a sunny/stormy day - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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