Sunday, February 12, 2006

Divine Inspiration

There's nothing like a couple of feet of newly fallen snow to spur a bit of kitchen creativity.

As Margy and I, fresh from a bout of shoveling, trekked around our hood to admire the winter wonderland, I threw out some dinner ideas. My strategizing began with a week-old head of napa cabbage that needed to be eaten. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for an Asian peanut dressing, which I'd been wanting to attempt. Margy dug that idea. But what would be the main course?

This being a serious blizzard, dinner was limited to what we had in the house. As I remembered putting a ball of ground pork in the freezer, left over from our New Year's dumplings, I recalled a Chinese dish of pork and tofu that we'd had someplace. Noting the fresh tofu currently in the fridge, I told Margy what I was thinking. "That sounds okay," she said just a little flatly, but I figured that if I played my cards right she'd be pleasantly surprised. Plus there wasn't much else on hand that would go well with cabbage in peanut dressing.

I've made it a point recently to experiment with stir-fry sauces, since for years I haven't been happy with overly salty soy-based sauces that were unsubtle and almost too flavorful. I find it helps to streamline the ingredients and use a bit of sugar to balance out the salt. Tonight I hit the jackpot with a sauce of fermented black beans with a shot of chicken stock, hoisin sauce, sugar, and sake. It was just sweet enough, plenty spicy from some fresh chilies, and made nice and heady by the splash of booze and tangy black beans. The firm bits of pork were a good textural contrast to the softer pieces of tofu.

For the salad dressing I used an old Cook's Illustrated recipe as a point of departure, nicking their ingredients list (peanut butter, peanut oil, honey, soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili pepper, ginger, and garlic) but playing around with the amounts. I'm sure they had made 4,000 different peanut dressings to come up with the perfect formula, but one look at it and I knew I was after lots more peanuts.

Every winter, Margy and I talk about learning to make gnocchi. Maybe if we get hit with one more big storm...

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