Pass the Doubanjiang: Excursions into Asian Cooking

IMG_0022During those times when the weather is not conducive to recreational motorcycling, my friend Ann and I will sometimes get together and cook things instead. Even in the dead of winter, our kitchen antics have never caused pneumonia or frostbite. Besides, we always have fun cooking together, even on those rare occasions when we set off the smoke alarm. The dishes we prepare are seldom complicated, but we do try to keep things interesting.

Sometimes we prepare dishes that one of us already knows well enough to teach to the other. Ann once taught me how to make spaetzle from scratch, for example. On another occasion I showed her my version of homemade tomato sauce from scratch, along with my homemade Italian meatballs. Sometimes we try new things together, like chicken gyros or tacos al pastor. All in all, the two of us have had more successes than failures and so our cooking endeavors continue. We now keep an ever-growing list of dishes we’d like to try preparing together. That’s probably why we have seldom collaborated on the same foods twice.

As of late, Ann and I have been on an Asian kick. While brainstorming our menu, we came up with too many dishes to prepare for a single meal, but rather than omit any dishes, we arranged two Asian menus, each to be prepared roughly two weeks apart.

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Round one consisted of a cucumber edamame salad with a ginger-soy vinaigrette dressing, chicken potstickers with two dipping sauces, and twice-cooked pork. Ann found the salad recipe on a blog site called Noble Pig. This was relatively easy to make and we both enjoyed the combination of flavors and textures very much. In fact, I took a container of leftover salad home with me that evening and made a light lunch of it the following day.

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Of the three dishes we made, our potstickers were the most labor-intensive and time-consuming. They were delicious, mind you, but took a bit of time and effort to prepare. We used two different types of store-bought wrappers and filled them all with the chicken mixture. The potstickers we made were a variation on this recipe, but if you search for potsticker recipes on Pinterest, you should find enough results to keep you busy for a lifetime. We steamed one batch and fried and steamed another. Personally, I like the fry/steam combination method better. The dumpling wrappers develop crispy edges but remain soft and chewy farther in. We made two dipping sauces. The one we liked was fairly traditional and pretty easy to make. The other was basically greasy heat—crushed chilis and garlic cooked in oil. As much as Ann and I both enjoy spicy food, we will not be repeating that sauce.

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Twice-cooked pork is my favorite Chinese dish but very few restaurants, to which I’ve been, seem to offer it. Marinated pork butt is cooked once, then thinly sliced and stir-fried with cabbage before adding a sweet and spicy sauce. I first experienced twice-cooked pork at a place, now long gone, in Racine, Wisconsin that featured the dish as part of their buffet (this was years before Chinese buffets had become a thing). The next time I had it was on an epic motorcycle trip that took me through Lincoln, Nebraska. I am always enchanted by the combination of sweetness, heat, and crunch. So when Ann and I first began tossing around menu ideas, I kept suggesting twice-cooked pork.

We prepared this dish using a recipe by Chinese chef and author Martin Yan, of whom I am a longtime fan. For a first try, we did alright and there was very little in the way of leftovers. I would like to try making twice-cooked pork again sometime, increasing the sweetness, spiciness, and thickness of the sauce until I get it just so.

IMG_0016We had begun this cooking endeavor with a simple tray of rice crackers, wasabi peas and such. We ended it with fortune cookies. Oddly enough, Ann and I drew the same fortune. I no longer recall what it said, but the sheer coincidence had rendered our entire bag of fortune cookies suspect. We pressed Ann’s son, Andy, into service. She offered him a cookie. He left it there, unopened. We stared at the unopened morsel as the tension increased. When we could stand it no longer, Ann snatched up the cookie and crushed it between her fingers. I think I stopped breathing while her eyes scanned the strip of paper within for a brief eternity. At last she spoke.

“It’s not the same.”

So, just a coincidence. It was as though a large, heavy stone had been lifted off my chest.

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Our second round of Asian cooking, two weeks later, was quite delicious, but much simpler. Sort of. The flagship dish this time was Japanese ramen — not the budget-priced instant stuff that can be found in almost any retail store, but the genuine article. We made a traditional miso broth, boiled a package of organic ramen noodles, and prepared a host of traditional and near-traditional toppings to go with it.

One traditional topping for ramen is braised pork belly. We certainly could have gone that route, but I talked Ann into making an oven-broiled Chinese char siu style pork tenderloin instead. As we are sometimes inclined to do, we combined elements from two different recipes and produced an awesome Asian-influenced pork tenderloin that went well with our ramen soup and all the other toppings, namely fried tofu, baby spinach, seaweed salad, soft-boiled egg (for Ann only—I am not an egg eater), and this marvelous spicy bean sprout salad, which could be eaten on its own or as a topping. Now you might conclude that ramen prepared and served in this fashion is a meal in itself. And you would be correct, but neither Ann nor I could stop there. Oh, no, of course not.

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After all the time and effort we had put into making potstickers back in round one, Ann suggested that for round two, we bring in prepared dumplings and focus on our homemade dipping sauces. I liked that idea and so picked up two varieties of Jang Foods frozen dumplings at my local Tony’s Finer Foods location. From nearly half a dozen options, I chose chicken and cabbage dumplings and shrimp, pork and leek dumplings. Each package came with a small packet of prepared dipping sauce, which we promptly discarded. Instead of using that stuff, Ann and I repeated the traditional dipping sauce that we had enjoyed so much during round one, plus we prepared a soy-chili sauce that was just different enough to be worthwhile. The dumplings themselves were very good and the convenience factor cannot be denied.

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Rounding out our round two menu was a tray of sushi, California rolls I believe, that Ann had picked up at her local grocer. We utilized our dipping sauces for these, too and I found them quite tasty.

In the space of two weeks, Ann and I used more Asian spices than either of us had used before. Take sesame oil, for example. Sesame oil is not so much a cooking oil as it is a seasoning and a potent one at that. I have always been wary of using more than a few drops, but we went through tablespoons of the stuff during both cooking sessions. I still wouldn’t get reckless with the stuff, though. We went through many cloves of garlic and quite a bit of fresh ginger, too.

There were also things I’d never used before but will gladly use again. Doubanjiang is a fermented broad bean (aka fava bean) paste that is used in a variety of Asian cuisine. It’s salty, spicy, and flavorful. Sambal oelek (or ulek) is a fresh chili paste of Indonesian origin. Made with crushed hot chilis, vinegar and salt, it gave an interesting kick to one of our dipping sauces. Shichimi togarashi is also called Japanese seven-spice and should NOT be confused with Chinese five-spice seasoning. The seven spices are typically Sancho or Sichuan peppercorns, red chili flakes, dried orange or tangerine peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, ginger, and Nori (roasted seaweed) flakes, all of which are ground or pounded and then mixed together. Yes, it is spicy. We used it in our miso broth, but shichimi togarashi can also be used as a table spice as well as in marinades, coatings, and dressings. Miso, which was new to me but not to Ann, is a fermented paste made from soybeans and rice or barley. There are a number of varieties including white miso, which is not white at all, and red miso, which is darker because it has been fermented longer.

Ann and I could easily have developed a round three menu, but we ran out of time. What with the holidays and all, we don’t even try to get together during the month of December. When we do meet again, in January, we will be preparing a special Italian meal.

As always, thanks for hanging with me. Or perhaps I should say watashitoisshoni okoshi itadaki arigatōgozaimasu.

 

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