Monday, February 9, 2015

UnRecipe: What Up Shorty - Asian Cooking Shortcuts

Cutting corners on making traditional Asian cuisine?!!! All the Tiger Moms out there want to beat me with a bamboo cane for daring to suggest such a thing. They already lament my not being a doctor, or marrying a doctor, or not having six overachieving children who are on their way to becoming a doctor. Hell, I don't even hold chopsticks right. But whatever, my Wasabi Mom doesn't care, she loves her little underachiever no matter what. If anything, Mom would appreciate this post, because it's not about specific recipes, more about ways to make-do and cook with what you have, Asian-style. 

My version of Dan Dan Mein, using (gasp) spaghetti noodles - Photo by Wasabi Prime

There's a definite mystique over Asian cuisine. The ingredients seem exotic and often require your shopping in a market that makes you stick out like a sore thumb, not even sure where to begin on your grocery list of I-Don't-Know-What-This-Stuff-Is. There's something to be said for making a traditional dish according to a good recipe. I think for most meals, you should make something according to standard practice, and then do your swaps when you know what you're dealing with. That's fair, right?

To "velvet" pork -- shortcuts are good, but always keep learning techniques! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
For instance, it's good to understand traditional techniques, like to "velvet" cook meat, popular in a lot of Chinese cuisine. It's mostly about coating thin cuts of meat, usually pork or chicken, in a cornstarch, egg, and vinegar slurry, and par-cooking it in water or oil to ensure a nice outside texture, but still-tender inside. You can see more details about the method on Serious Eats -- this article was what I used when I decided to try velveting some cuts of pork

I made an at-home version of Kung Pao pork, using the velveting method of cooking, just to make sure it stayed super tender and juicy. I didn't fuss too much over the sauce and traditional ingredients -- this was an exercise in method practice. Even though the sauce was thrown together in a very shortcut/MacGyver way, I was mostly interested in seeing how the texture of the meat was, and I was pleased with the results -- cooked through but remaining soft, tender and flavorful. Tasty food AND learning!

Traditional cooking methods with shortcut ingredients - Photos by Wasabi Prime

My favorite shortcut ingredients to always have on hand include: a jar of kimchee (popular enough to where you can usually find it at any grocery store), packages of dry "wrinkly" noodles (even the 99-cent/college special Top Ramen will work, just toss the seasoning packet), miso paste (also popular enough to be in most grocery stores), and balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar? That's not very Asian. No, but many recipes ask for Chinese black vinegar, which isn't always easy to find. I've swapped black vinegar with balsamic vinegar many times; it's similar in its aged, syrupy-intense flavor.  

I don't adhere to the Rules of Recipedom. I'm the kitchen equivalent of that no-nonsense, 1980s rebel cop cliche who breaks rules, takes no prisoners and doesn't give a damn. Except nowhere near that cool and badass. My rebellion comes in form of things like, using whole wheat spaghetti noodles in Dan Dan Mein. Gasp -- the Horror. Sure, fresh Chinese noodles is preferred. I've had different versions of the Szechuan spicy peanut noodle dish where the noodles are more firm or soft and freshly-shaved. For myself, I prefer a toothy noodle, and I always wind up with leftovers that get reheated, so heartier whole wheat thin spaghetti noodles are the trick. I use traditional ingredients like canned preserved mustard greens, sesame paste (tahini or plain unsweetened peanut butter works too), and the must-have Szechuan peppercorns. That stuff you'll probably have to get at an Asian market, but with the popularity of such ingredients, you can often buy them online.

Ever used chao nian gao? Me neither -- let's go for it! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Sometimes a shortcut to creating a seemingly exotic dish is relying on one unusual ingredient. You should still peruse ethnic markets of all kinds. If something has a vague familiarity to where you can imagine yourself using this ingredient, buy it. I've bought tamarind syrup at Turkish deli/markets and used that in Thai food, to make my own homemade pad thai -- why not? I was at the Asian grocer, in the noodle section and found a bag of what looked like mini, opaque white tongue depressors. They're called chao nian gao -- Shanghai rice cakes. I've had a version of these chewy rice cakes at Korean restaurants, except those are in cylinder shapes, but the texture is similar. I didn't know what I'd do with them, but I bought 'em. The Interwebs is incredibly helpful -- a search result on chao nian gao came up with this recipe from Saveur magazine. It just confirms what you already assume -- it's like a noodle, so use it in any noodle-style stir fry you want. I read several articles about the preparation of the dry cakes, which just mean soaking them, like other dry rice noodles. The thrown-together sweet/spicy sauce and random vegetables available made for a proper fridge cleanup, but these unusual rice cakes made the meal feel fresh and new.

DIY spicy ramen - Photo by Wasabi Prime
With the ramen craze in full swing, it's hard not to want to make it at home. I don't have two days to fuss over the perfect broth. I'm guessing you don't either. So I cheat with my quick spicy ramen broth: brine from a bottle of kimchee, chicken or beef broth, soy sauce, a couple of hefty spoonfuls of miso paste. It's mostly broth with miso paste, but the kimchee brine gives it color and flavor -- add as much or as little as you like, and taste as you go. If I have ground pork, I'll brown that first in the pot, remove the pork, and deglaze with broth before getting the soy sauce/miso/kimchee brine mixed in. I push and pull the flavors of the broth as it simmers -- Sriracha for extra heat, a little splash of rice wine vinegar for acidity, sometimes sugar to balance out the savory. Be a mad scientist, it's totally OK. When it's time to assemble the bowl of ramen, I've boiled eggs and cooked the noodles in a separate pot and set those aside. The kimchee itself makes for a good topping, and the fried ground pork makes it extra hearty. You can add whatever you like -- wilted greens, different meats, whatever you have on hand. I've done a tofu version, too. Not traditional, but plenty delicious -- and fast.

Don't disappoint me, Cookie Wisdom! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Even if all this feels daunting, you can always make fried rice. Which is something that I daresay is impossible to get wrong. You can use any cold, stale rice - white, brown, short or long grain. For meats I've used leftover teriyaki, holiday ham, linguisa, and of course Spam; it's all chopped down small, so that it fries up nice and crispy, so who cares what you're using. Plenty of people cringe at the thought of using frozen peas in fried rice, but to add a bit of color, I have no shame in throwing peas in at the last second, just to defrost and warm. Canned pineapple has become my new fried rice staple -- it reminds us of a favorite crab fried rice at a Thai place we love, so the pineapple is our thing and I LOVE it. As for the flavoring, it's generally a balance of sweet/savory/sour, so making a cup's worth of sauce with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar (or just plain vinegar with some sugar), and water, as a good base. Add Sriracha or chili paste for heat. Fish sauce for umami, although Worcestershire sauce, because of the anchovies, also works as a substitute. Add garlic and fresh ginger for more intense flavor. Powdered ginger is fine in a pinch, if you don't have fresh root -- I do it, so I can't judge. Fried rice is the least fussy of Asian cuisine; it's honestly just a way to get rid of leftovers, so there is no ultimate traditional recipe, it's just using whatever you have and made to your taste.

So I'm giving you my official blessing to embrace shortcuts. Don't totally forgo learning traditional techniques and reading recipes to understand how a dish is put together. But don't let obscure ingredients dissuade you from trying to make something new; a few swap-outs won't ruin a dish, as long as you know what you're doing.

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