Monday, December 31, 2012

UnRecipe: Ride the Snake, 2013

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Well, it's not Chinese New Year's yet, but I'm still ready to party like it's 1999 with some favorite Szechuan style dishes and turn the heat up on this upcoming 2013 Year of the Snake! I'm okay with leaving the Year of the Dragon behind -- it was "my year" and I'm more than happy to pass along the mantle to the Mister and many other Year of the Snake-people. So let's get this year started off right with some dishes to spice up our lives!

Getting my Szechwan-on with tasty food from Spiced - Photo by Wasabi Prime
As the clock struck midnight on Dec 31st, I did indulge in a moment to contemplate the Year that Was, which was a tricksy-Hobbit of a 2012. They say when it's your zodiac year, the universe sure knows how to let you know you're special, given that this year brought me a garage door caved-in by a wayward industrial lawn mower, an ice storm that pretty much froze us solid for a few days, and it topped off the year with our attic being infested by rats/squirrels/whatever the hell continues to claw the walls between 12 midnight and 3am. But I ain't mad. It was also full of very good things as well -- design and illustration projects with very cool food and wine clients, illustrating a children's book (Yo, Bucky!), and most importantly, plenty of awesome times with incredible friends and family. Mayan Apocalypse, you ain't gonna rain hellfire on my parade, no sir -- at the end of any year, I feel so very blessed to be surrounded by such good, kind people. Even the folks I've never met in person, but we talk over Twitter and Facebook -- thank you! I'm constantly reminded how small the world is, and that is a good thing, because it just brings us closer.

Okay, okay, enough maudlin Auld Lang Syne! Get to the good stuff, which is eating amazing food that you don't even have to cook! The best meals are the ones you don't have to cook -- no dishes, no fuss, just pure enjoyment. And and I'm not talking fancy, fussy, expensive restaurants! A couple of my favorite places that I've enjoyed through 2012 and will continue to enjoy in the new year are Spiced in Bellevue and Spicy Talk in Redmond. Szechuan food is so popular in this area and there are a lot of great places, these are just two of many that happen to be along my regular errand routes. I crave the spicy stir fried lamb at Spiced -- intense spices, almost a mix of Mediterranean and Indian, that works well with the heavier lamb taste, and so tender. Their green onion pancakes are wonderful as well. I tend to get my orders to go, so I haven't explored many of their soups, nor their impressive chilled/pickled options, but that's on my list of to-do's in the new year. When I hit Spicy Talk, I'm pretty much a slave to three dishes: their fish in spicy gravy (melt in your mouth good), dan dan mein (hand shaved noodles in a peanut soup/broth), and their crispy-amazing chong qing chicken. The chicken is popular at most Szechuan style places -- basically spicy fried chicken -- but I like the little dry-fried bite-sized pieces mixed with green beans at Spicy Talk.

Trying to recreate spicy chicken goodness at home - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I've tried to recreate the spicy chong qing chicken dish at home, but to mixed results -- I do a pan-fry of small chicken bits coated in cornstarch, which tends to give a more crispy shell. I don't skimp on the Szechuan peppercorns, but quick pan-sear doesn't have that great dry-fry mouth feel that restaurants know how to do when food is quickly immersed in hot fry oil. So anymore now, if I crave this dish, I happily go out or put in a to-go order if I know I'm passing by Spicy Talk on the way home.

I can make my own version of dan dan noodles at home, but it's not as good as the hand-shaven noodles in that marvelous peanut soup/stew broth at Spicy Talk. Again, another reason to just call in an order and Treat Yo Self to something that someone else has made. But that leads me to something to consider for this brand-spankin' new year: shopping with reckless abandon at the local Asian grocer and test driving some new new ingredients.

Inspired by restaurant food, but don't be afraid to shop like crazy at the Asian grocer - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I've said this before -- I live out in Duvall-BFE, we don't have an Asian grocery store, so I stock up periodically at one giant store over in Bellevue, The Asian Food Center, which probably has the most generic name in the world, but hey, you don't doubt what they're selling. I like going to Uwajimaya, but around the holidays their parking lot is extra crazy, heavy on the murderball-sauce, so I tend to avoid it during prime visiting hours. For most supply runs, I've been hitting up the Asian Food Center. My basics include the biggest package of Szechuan peppercorns I can find, bulk pre-ground white pepper (because I use it for everything and it's usually cheaper at the Asian markets), various chili sauces, preserved greens, fermented black bean paste, and the largest bottles of rice wine vinegar, black vinegar and sesame oil I can manage.

Crazy "Everything" Noodles - Photos by Wasabi Prime
If you've never cooked with any of those items, give them a try -- don't be afraid to experiment with unusual vinegars or if a jar says "fermented." When you're doing even the most basic of stir fry dishes, they really enhance the flavor and make the dish feel more robust in flavor. They also make me giddy in the kitchen because after a big Asian market spree, I go crazy with the wok, throwing everything together for crazy "everything" noodle dishes, trying different combinations of chili and/or black bean pastes, fermented vegetables and vinegars.

Most times, having a wide range of ingredients to play with is an encouraging way to go through extra vegetables you've got languishing in the fridge. Right now I'm living Kale City, but it goes great in a stir fry with other vegetables, some chicken and black bean paste. I was using a lot of fermented black beans over the late summer months when Japanese eggplant was in season, because I love nothing more than spicy eggplant in an earthy, chili-heavy sauce. 

Veggies, noodles, throw it all together and see what happens - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Not a typical New Year's post full of resolutions, too much champagne, fussy feasts and funny hats, this post is all about indulging in favorite flavors, restaurants and also throwing a bit of caution to the wind, buying ingredients you wouldn't normally pick up from the shelves, but ones you won't regret trying. So consider all these things as as we enter a new year -- Ride the Snake in 2013!

Don't fear the Fermented - black bean paste is your friend - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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