At one of my recent jobs as a software engineer, here in tech-heavy suburban Boston, I had a few coworkers – let’s call them Fans of the Spicy (FOTS). One of these jovial nutters had a half-dozen small bottles of hot sauce on his desk, which he’d bring to lunch every day, to jazz up his food. (It was not clear to me that it mattered what food he was eating – he’d add hot sauce.) One of these sauces was actually named Hazmat. I assume that he wasn’t allowed to take it through tunnels and over bridges, etc. – not that that necessarily would have stopped him – but I never asked, and I never tried it.
Another of the FOTS is a huge spicy food fan. The sort of guy that you’d see at Hell Night at the East Coast Grill, and not even on a dare or anything, just on a humbug. For lunch, whenever someone was leaving the company, or after a major project wrapped up, we used to head up I-95 a few exits to a small Szechuan place called Sichuan Garden. This is one of those places where you’re at a significant advantage if someone in your group already speaks Mandarin (or particularly the Sichuanese dialect). Not only will it make ordering easier, as you can just ask them to order for the entire group and just sit blissfully off to the side, but they can also say, with no unclarity, that you want the spicy food dialed up to temperatures that are usually only discussed by astrophysicists. Needless to say, one of our QA engineers (a third FOTS) had immigrated from China, and she was able to get them to prep the food niiice and fiery.
Today’s first dish is Dry-Fried Szechuan Chicken, courtesy of Serious Eats. I have tried this crispy, peanut-laden recipe several times, and the nice thing about it is that, by varying the amounts of chiles, Szechuan peppercorns, and doubanjiang (spicy chili bean paste), you can pretty much dial the heat to whatever level you wish. Some of the ingredients are probably hard to find in the United States if you’re not at an Asian specialty market, but fairly straightforward to find there. Here, also, “dark soy sauce” generally means Black Soy Sauce – the molasses-laced version that is used so frequently in Chinese cooking.
As with stir-frying most meats, you want to make sure that the meat does not cover the entire bottom of the pan; otherwise, you will find your chicken boiling in the liquid it releases, instead of getting a nice crispy dry fry. Keeping the chicken to only part of the pan ensures that that liquid will come out, then boil off quickly. Thus, you’ll want to make a recipe that is reasonably proportionate to the size of your wok.
Some possible alterations: I find it preferable to grind the peppercorns; eating whole peppercorns is a little too jarring a texture and taste for my preference. The version we ordered at Sichuan Garden also had a significant number of unsalted peanuts, and large-diced onions. Toss them in at the final step, as you’re sauteeing the celery and scallions. Serve with white rice.
On the other end of the flavor spectrum, there was this delicious eggplant dish. I know, I know – the word “eggplant” makes some people squirm. But this is good stuff; I recommend giving it a try. It’s a sweet, ginger and garlic based dish that leaves the eggplant fork-soft and running with tasty sauce. You can even double the proportions on the sauce and toss in 1/2 lb. of finely-ground and sauteed chicken before ladling it over the eggplant, just prior to serving. This dish is a gentle but delicious and complex sweet-tasting complement to the fiery dry-fried chicken! Note: at the restaurant, the eggplants are served in halves, rather than in smaller slices, which allows people to scoop up however much they prefer! Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that they simmer it a bit longer than this recipe recommends.
Any other Szechuan dishes that you enjoy, or tips and tricks for Szechuan cooking?
Dish 1: Dry-Fried Szechuan Chicken
Dish 2: Szechuan Fried Eggplant