Monday, August 11, 2008

Stir-fried pork

Friday’s bell pepper and celery stir-fry was so successful, I made a variant of it including pork and preserved mustard tuber for Sunday dinner.

The preserved mustard tuber is a pickle made from the knobby stem of a type of mustard green. The literal meaning of its name, zha cai or “pressed vegetable, is derived from the fact that the stems are pressed to remove some of the water.

Before I get on with the recipe, I must tell you about a two-part epiphany. Part one has to do with essentially creating this recipe, with ideas gleaned and combined from Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, “Revolutionary Chinese Cooking.” It was necessary for me to decide on my own the proportions of ingredients and the cooking sequence.

I hadn’t used our wok in ages. I washed it, heated it on the stove, and rubbed peanut oil onto it with a wad of paper towels. When it began to smoke, I just turned it off and let it cool. Now that it was seasoned, I turned my attention to the rest of the mise en place.

It is required when stir-frying to have everything completely prepared and at hand before you start cooking. Stir-frying happens very quickly. A delay to rummage through the fridge for something you forgot could cause a disaster in the wok. Better to leave out whatever it is you remembered.

Some Chinese recipes call for marinating meat ahead of time. My preference was to brine it for several hours. After rinsing and drying the pork, no salt was added to the recipe other than what derived from the various ingredients.

The mustard tuber comes in a smallish packet from the refrigerators at the market. At first taste it seemed reminiscent of kim chee, though much milder. I divided it in half and used the whole package in the dish. I guessed at the amount of salted chiles to use. 2 tablespoons ended up being just about correct.

Back to the epiphany. The use of the mustard and the chiles exposed us to a flavor combination unique to our experience. The result was deeply satisfying (a huge understatement). There was a lingering joy and comfort when I woke up this morning, which gave me a new insight into the complex relationship between flavors, kitchen labor, and creativity. That’s the best I can do to say it at the moment. Then came part two of the epiphany.

It hit me while reading further in Fuchsia’s book this morning while waiting for Peter to finish his workout. (My workout takes about 30 min. less than his).

I cannot say what I want to communicate in my own words. I quote Fuchsia.

“It’s the tiao wei, the mixing of flavours, that is the fundamental skill of the Sichuanese chef and the most fun to learn. What really distinguishes Sichuanese cookery is its mastery of the arts of flavour. Sichuanese chefs delight in combining a variety of basic tastes to create dazzling fu he wei (complex flavours). A well-orchestrated…banquet will titillate your palate in every conceivable way: it will awaken your tastebuds through the judicious use of chili oil, stimulate your tongue and lips with tingly Sichuan pepper, caress your palate with a spicy sweetness, electrify you with a tonic soup. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride. So many and varied are the fu he wei of the Sichuanese kitchen that one might twist the words of Samuel Johnson and say ‘If a man is tired of Sichuanese food, he is tired of life.’”

Reading those words today brought together my instinctive feelings about what I was able to do with food last night, with a culinary philosophy that resonates in my heart, mind and stomach in a whole new way.

Come along for the ride.

Stir-fried pork with bell peppers

12 oz. pork loin, brined and cut into ¼” slivers
½ medium onion, sliced into 1” pieces
1/2 red bell pepper, in bite size pieces
2 tbsp salted chiles, chopped (with seeds)
1 medium stalk celery, in bite size pieces
Pinch red pepper flakes
preserved mustard tuber
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tbsp peanut oil
1 package ramen noodles
sesame oil
scallions or Chinese chives
1 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in:
2 tbsp hot water flavored with a pinch of ramen flavoring

Just before starting to stir-fry, bring a pot of water to a boil for the ramen. When boiling, add the noodles and cook for 2 ½ minutes. Drain and toss with a drizzle of sesame oil and a couple of pinches from the ramen flavoring packet.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or a wok. When it begins to smoke, add the ginger and toss for 30 seconds. Add the pork, ½ of the mustard tuber, ½ of the salted chiles and ½ of the garlic and cook, tossing constantly, until all the pink color is gone. Remove and set aside.

Add a little more oil if necessary and stir-fry the bell pepper and celery until they begin to soften. Add red pepper flakes, mustard tuber, salted chiles, and the remaining garlic. Toss for 1 minute. Add pork, ramen noodles and cornstarch. Toss for 1 minute and remove wok from heat.

Serve in heated bowls.

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