Cooking is all about balance. This is obvious when it come to flavors—balancing spicy and sweet, salt and savory—but it also applies to one's overall approach. One's time in the kitchen should be a marriage of preparation and adaptation, and though different dishes may lean more heavily on one particular trait, no dish will benefit from an unwillingness to prepare or adapt. This is true of ingredients, technique, and tradition. There are days, take Thanksgiving for example, when my time spent cooking is almost entirely preparation. Extensive shopping lists are written, plans are made for how everything will be cooked, and the overall idea of the dish will be governed by the occasion's traditions. The ingredients of a Thanksgiving dinner are somewhat set, so while I may need to alter a few based on what's available, the ultimate goal isn't to change anything, but to execute well what's already known.
But there are other times when adaptation plays the lead role, especially when I don't know a lot about the context of a cuisine. After all, adaptation isn't only about specific ingredients or techniques, it's also includes working with what I know. If I don't know precise traditions or recipes, then I instead must rely on intuition and a general understanding of flavors. In other words, if I'm dumb about something and I don't have the time to undumb myself, well then I have to adapt, working around my dumbness.
And there is no food I enjoy more and understand less than the great food of Asia. Yeah, Asia. What part? Well, ummm, the, you know, Asian part? The biggest continent on Earth, full of myriad unique and fascinating traditions, and I'm too dense not to just lump them all together. Seeing as how there's an entire section of the bookstore for people like me, it appears I'm not alone.
So what should you do if you're like me and you simply don't know much about the type of food you want to cook? The answer is simple: Adapt and then keep cooking. The worst thing you could do would be to stop. Reverence for traditional "authentic" food is a great thing, but it should never be so intimidating that you don't try. It's highly unlikely that you will immediately be able to cook within traditional lines, and so don't think you have to. Traditions are as good as the food they produce is delicious, and if aiming too narrowly at them doesn't allow you to enjoy yourself in the kitchen, aim instead in the general direction of simply tasty. By doing this you'll gain confidence, experience, and further pique curiosity; all things that will be beneficial for when you eventually do aim at authenticity.
Think of it like learning to skateboard. If on day one you set out to grind a ten stair handrail, well then day one will be a huge failure, very painful, and will likely lead to there being no day two. But, if instead you allow yourself to be bit clumsy, to abandon grace and just sort of scoot around as best you can, well then there's a good chance you'll have fun and keep at it. Then maybe one day you will hit that handrail. Or maybe not. Either way, you're having a good time.
This recipe is my cruise around on a longboard approach to some sort of non-regional Asian tofu dish. I think it's as tasty as I hope it's not offensive.
- One block of firm tofu
- Half a medium white or yellow onion, ends trimmed, sliced lengthwise
- Some sort of hot pepper (thai, serano, jalapeno) diced in whatever amount you prefer (I recommend the "tomorrow's regret today" level of spice)
- 120g sliced mushrooms (I used shitake)
- 4 dried shitake mushrooms
- 3 heads garlic, grated on a microplane
- 2 inch chunk of ginger, peeled and microplaned
- 100g sake
- 50g white sugar
- 50g fish sauce
- 30g fresh lime juice
- 200g hot water
- Sambal to taste
- Green onion cut on the bias for garnish
- Thai basil, mint, and/or cilantro sliced thin with a sharp knife at the last minute, also for garnish
- I bet toasted unsalted peanuts would be good on this, I didn't do it, but I'm pretty sure
- 1 cup rice, whatever kind you like (I went with Calrose this time)
Ingredients for pickled cucumbers:
- 250g cucumber sliced thin
- 5g salt
- 15g sugar
The first thing I do when I'm not sure what I'm doing is to make everything even more complicated. Like packing for a trip when I don't know what weather to expect, I just sort of grab everything knowing I'll probably only need about half of it. I know it's ultimately wrong, but it's where I start. I form a meal by chipping away rather than adding to. The above are the Asian style bottles I have in my pantry and fridge. I got them all out and made preliminary version of this dish. It tasted fine but didn't have any real direction, because, well, I didn't have any real direction. In the next versions (I made this thing 4 times) I picked 3 ingredients to focus on: sugar, lime, fish sauce. Sweet, sour, depth. In doing so, I actually ended up using the bulk of these initial ingredients, except when most were relegated to supporting roles I was able to have a clearer vision of where everything belonged. Simplicity, it turns out, is a crucial part of complexity's foundation.
The first thing you should do is make the quick pickled cucumbers. They aren't necessary but they are delicious, and this technique is a great one to have in your arsenal. Add them to sandwiches, burgers, most anytime there's rice involved. I stole this recipe straight from the rightfully ubiquitous Momofuku cookbook. I'm sure Dave Chang stole it from someone else, or maybe not. He's smart enough to have invented it and smart enough to have stolen it. The idea is simple: use salt to pull the moisture out of the cucumber, use sugar to balance out the salt. Mix the two white things evenly all over the sliced green thing and then give it some time to hang out. You can add rice vinegar here if you want. You don't have to.
Next step: cut up your tofu and brine it. I got this idea from Michael Natkin's fantastic blog, herbivoracious.com, which I, as a person who reads almost no vegetarian blogs, can confidently say is the best vegetarian blog on the internet. If you're a person who doesn't eat meat and you don't know about Herbivoracious, then you're messing things up even worse. If you do happen to eat meat and you're skeptical, quit aspiring to be a parody of a dumbass in Dodge Ram ad and eat some plants. On that note, I'm using tofu for this dish because tofu tastes good and I really like the texture. Though it's been successfully marketed as a modern meat substitute, it's good to remember that tofu is actually a 2000 year old food product invented by history's most ambitious wall builders. Is it vegetarian? Yep. But so is bread. So is beer. I say it's time omnivores stopped letting the herbivores hog all the tofu. (Speaking of hog, cook your tofu in bacon fat. Delicious.) Tofu is better when it's fresh, so find a place in your area that makes it and buy it from them. Or make if yourself.
Back to brining. The reason I'm brining this is because Michael Natkin said it helps make the tofu brown better. He said he did side by side tests. I believe him. Also, it can't hurt to season it before cooking (which, obviously, brining accomplishes). I used a 4% brine, meaning I weighed out some water, multiplied that number by .04, then dissolved that much salt into it.
Next is to make mushroom water, which could also be seen as lazy man's mushroom stock. But I don't need any more reminders that I'm lazy, so I like to think of it less as diminished stock and more as augmented water. To make mushroom water, all you do is grind up some dried shitake mushrooms and soak them in 200g of boiling hot water. Let it sit until you need it, then pour it through a fine mesh strainer. The point? It adds more flavor than water alone and backs up the fresh shitakes that are sautéed later. Also, dried shitakes have a bunch of glutamates in them which add "umami" or savoriness to a dish. Other things loaded with savory boosting glutamates: aged things (the fish sauce in this dish), tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and...MSG! Yep, glutamate is what the G stands for in MSG. And guess what, MSG is totally fine for you. Let food scientist, Harold McGee explain:
Good. Glad we resolved that.
You're welcome to make a full mushroom stock or add a chicken stock instead. It'll taste great but keep in mind that everyone will think you're showing off and I'll likely resent you for it. So, you know. Follow your heart there.
Next step is to sauté the onions in a hot pan over medium heat in a good amount of neutral oil. After they start to turn translucent (you can let them get a little brown if you want) add the chili(s), mushrooms, and a good pinch of salt. Stir occasionally until the mushrooms loose their water and brown a bit. About ten minutes. Add the garlic and ginger, stir for a minute, then add the sake and reduce that until it's almost gone. Take the pan off heat and reserve the ingredients for later.
Drain the tofu and pat it dry with paper towel (it's still going to be pretty wet, that's fine), then brown it on both sides over medium high to high heat in a hot pan with a generous amount of oil. Make sure you give the pan plenty of time to heat up before you add the oil. Tofu will stick like crazy to an inadequately heated pan. Or just use non-stick. That works too. Drain the tofu on paper towels and then....
...hickory smoke it.
This is obviously optional, but I just got this new toy and I've been using it for most everything (smoked margaritas are amazing). The smoke in the final dish is subtle, adding a great savory note without overpowering any of the other flavors.
Did you know food service professionals get a 20% discount at Williams Sonoma? Did you know that pretty much only chefs buy Polyscience smoking guns? I'm going to leave you with that information and you can do what you want with it.
Let's talk sugar. I think you should caramelize it. We've all had caramel for dessert and we all know how delicious it is, but a dessert topping is only one of the endless variations on caramelized sugar. Caramel making is two parts: 1) Brown the sugar 2. Add a liquid. Classically this liquid is butter (which melts into a liquid so don't give me any guff here) and cream, but you can add really any liquid you want. I've worked a restaurant where a carmel was made with balsamic vinegar and another where it was the base of a barbecue sauce. Caramelizing sugar intimidated me for a really long time, but it's actually super easy and a great technique to know. Basically do what Gordon Ramsay does in this video, then instead of adding butter, take the pan off the heat and add the combined lime juice, fish sauce, and mushroom water. It's not a bad idea to make sure this liquid is warm when you add it else the caramelized sugar will seize up. If that happens, don't worry, it'll dissolve again with a little bit of heat and some stirring. Oh, and when you first add the liquid the whole thing will bubble up rather furiously. Don't worry about this either. Let it do it's thing, it'll calm down shortly. But do be careful. Caramelized sugar is extremely hot and extremely sticky, which combined makes for a really terrible burn.
Finish the sauce with some sambal to taste, drizzle in a little soy sauce if you're so inclined, and let it reduce until it starts to thicken. If you're not used to cooking with fish sauce you're probably going to think you did something wrong because your kitchen now smells like dirty socks. Nope, that's just the fish sauce. It's the liquid of fish fermented for a year, it's gonna be a bit funky. But trust me, the flavor is amazing and soon enough you won't mind the aroma one bit.
Add the reserved mushroom and onions and the tofu, let all that get friendly for a minute or two, and then you're done. Spoon over some rice, slice up your garnishes, and enjoy.
There you have it. A dish that even the great General Asian would be proud to eat.