As they say, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Though I’m not sure it’s the perfect analogy, I must say I did feel a rush of culinary freedom when I found out I was going to have a weekend in the kitchen without my husband around. Of course, of course, I miss him terribly. However, the thought of being able to cook any combination of fish, vegetables, or ethnic food I can dream up is nearly intoxicating.
I took RJ’s absence as an opportunity to tackle a second book in my cookbook challenge, and I picked one I knew he wouldn’t enjoy – Spices of Life: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Great Health by Nina Simonds. While many of the books in my cookbook collection were gifts, and even more were bookstore (or Costco) purchases, this one has more of a story. I currently work at an art museum and design programming to attract new members and donors. Last spring, I invited Nina Simonds to speak at the museum for a lecture and luncheon event. I used her appearance as an excuse to purchase her most recent cookbook, Spices of Life — for research of course!
She brought with her baskets and baskets of spices — assorted seed pods, gigantic rolled cinnamon sticks, peppercorns of all colors. The guests at the museum loved being able to handle each of these, and breathe in the varied aromas, both familiar and exotic. While some of us are more adventurous than others when it comes to spices and strange flavors, few of us can describe the plant that produces sesame seeds, or have handled all of the different components of a garam masala. It was a true treat to have Nina, such a well-traveled food writer and cook, share these things with us.
Nina’s approach to cooking emphasizes the use of healthful ingredients and she describes throughout the book the restorative powers of specific herbs, vegetables and spices. The concept is a great one — incorporate these health-giving (not to mention delicious!) ingredients into your cooking on a regular basis, and improve your body’s form and function. Nina’s other website actually supplies a great list of spices and produce items along with their nutrients and perceived healthful properties, though the book is far more comprehensive.
I quickly realized that working with this book was going to take a bit of pantry makeover. Ingredients such as rice wine vinegar, mirin, and oyster sauce are not part of my everyday mise en place, but I am always happy to expand! The first recipe I tried was Kung Pao Chicken, served alongside her Asparagus with Cardamom Butter. The prep work for the chicken was pretty intensive, but I attribute that primarily to my unfamiliarity with the ingredients. When I get to the point of ‘a splash here’, ‘a handful of that’, ‘a dash of this’, I think that I can minimize my time spent and the amount of measuring cups and tablespoons I dirty up! I also think there’s a more efficient method for making the marinade and sauce mixtures, since they are quite similar at the base.
I really liked the comforting Asian flavors of the chicken dish – the salty soy sauce, spicy ginger, and nutty sesame oil mingled together nicely – but the texture was the most fun. Between the tender bites of chicken, the light snap of the water chestnuts, and the firm crunch of the peanuts, this recipe provided really exciting variety and no two bites were the same. I also thought it was great that the whole scallion was used (I hate ditching the green tops), especially since the onion provided a nice contrast, both visually and flavor-wise, to the rich brown sauce. This recipe is definitely worth a try!
As for the asparagus… I am glad to know that by including the cardamom my digestive system is better off and my ‘spasms’ may now be under control, but the flavor just wasn’t for me. Give me lemon juice, parmesan cheese, or balsamic vinegar any day — the cardamom was just too out there. I am sure I could get used to it, of course, but I think that unless I need to quell a bout of belching, I will stick to what I love.
Kung Pao Chicken, slightly adapted from Nina Simonds’ Spices of Life
12 ounces skinless chicken breast
2 Tbs. light soy sauce
2 Tbs. Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp. roasted sesame oil
2 tsp. cornstarch
3/4 cup peeled water chestnuts
2 Tbs. oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3/4 c. unsalted peanuts, dry roasted
1 spring onion (scallion), finely chopped white parts, green parts chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1/4 to 1 teaspoon red chili flakes (to taste)
Sauce (mixed together):
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. rice wine
1 tsp. roasted sesame oil
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock
Cut the chicken into 1 inch cubes. Mix together the marinade ingredients, and place the cubes in a bowl; toss lightly. Marinate in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Blanch the water chestnuts in a pan of boiling water, then refresh in cold water. Drain, pat dry, and cut into thick slices.
Heat a wok over high heat, add 1 tablespoon of the oil, and heat until very hot. Stir-fry half the chicken pieces, turning constantly, until the meat is cooked. Remove with a wire sieve or slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Repeat with 1 tablespoon of oil and the remaining chicken. Wipe out the pan.
Reheat the wok over high heat, add the remaining oil, and heat until very hot. Stir-fry the spring onion white parts, ginger, garlic, and the chili flakes for 10 seconds, or until fragrant. Add the sliced water chestnuts and stir-fry for 15 seconds, or until heated through. Pour in the mixed-together sauce ingredients and scallion greens and simmer until thickened. Add the cooked chicken and the peanuts. Toss lightly to coat with the sauce and serve over rice.