Archive for May 17th, 2020

Living in Interesting Times: Some Time to Experiment

Living out of my garden, pantry, and freezer hasn’t exactly been a hardship and is how I usually live this time of year anyway, and I’ve had a little extra time to think about how to use some of my pantry ingredients in a more interesting way. I have been doing a lot of Sichuan cooking lately, but to go with a lovely steak raised in my area, I did not want the strong flavors of Sichuan. However, I have become very intrigued, almost obsessed, with good Chinese oyster sauce made from real oysters. There’s nothing quite like it, and a dab of it goes in most of my Chinese cooking for an indefinable umami that wafts through the other ingredients. There’s no actual oyster flavor when used in small amounts, just a subtle richness that you can’t quite put your finger on.

While thinking about where oyster sauce could fit into western cooking, I found myself thinking about another combination that I first encountered in Hawaii many years ago: soy sauce and butter. They go amazingly well together and don’t taste Asian, just good.

Another taste that I thought might translate to a western treatment of asparagus is wok hei, the indefinable “breath” that hovers over food cooked quickly in a really hot wok.

So here it is, a hot wok dish that goes well next to a western steak. I started with a large bunch of purple asparagus, almost two pounds, and the asparagus itself was very large, with some spears close to an inch in diameter. I snapped off the tough ends, then snapped the remainder into pieces about an inch and a half long. There were some slender spears, and I kept them separate. My cooking “juice” was 1/3 cup of white wine with about two teaspoons of oyster sauce and a tablespoon of good white wine vinegar added. I had two tablespoons of butter ready, and good naturally fermented soy sauce next to the stove. My calculated time was seven minutes, because of the thickness of the spears. For normal spears of asparagus, five would be more like it.

First my carbon steel wok was heated to blazing heat on my most powerful burner. I poured in a good glug of avocado oil; I didn’t measure, but I would guess it was about 3 tablespoons. Then the thick spear sections went in with a huge hiss and sputter. I cooked them for four minutes, sprinkling in soy sauce. Then the thin spear pieces were added, the fluid stirred in, and boiled furiously for two minutes.  At this point the liquid should be evaporated down to a glaze, if you didn’t falter with the heat. Turn off the heat, toss in the butter, and it goes to the plate. The centers of the spears will still be a bit crisp, but chewable, while the outside is seared. Yum. The soy and oyster sauce are pretty salty, so taste before you add salt at the table.

The same treatment could be used for a lot of other vegetables, varying the cooking time as needed. I’ve noticed that the intense heat of a wok does good things for kale, so I plan to try that next.

The steak was from a local rancher. Those folks are having a hard time with restaurants closed and meat processors losing capacity, so please, patronize the hell  out of your local meat growers if you are lucky enough to have them.