Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Chinese-y Feast For Friends

The birthday of a close friend is always a call for celebration. The cop out method usually includes a trip to the local dive bar, the honorary birthday girl drinking for free all night, and then passing out on a nearby buddy's couch. But the more effortful method? This route requires careful, weeks- or months-long attention to trends obsessed over by Special Friend, especially when said friend is a pastry chef at a pretty well-known establishment and whose culinary interests must be taken, how should I say this...seriously?

With these critical considerations, I set out to make a plan. Special Friend had been talking for WEEKS about her desire (and attempts) to replicate the American Chinese food favorites of her childhood in her studio's galley kitchen. One night I was part of the experiment; the goal was Chinese Beef and Broccoli. The results were gloopy and goppy. We did it! American Chinese! I'll admit, not my favorite, but definitely hers. I knew what I had to do to make her birthday the Best. 

My research began (and quickly stopped) at Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice. Almost every recipe in this volume publication looked enticing and begged me to get cracking in the kitchen. While I recognized that the recipes were written for a Western audience (as directions, ingredients, and resources were adeptly explained), despite her name's dead giveaway, I was shocked to read that Dunlop is not from the far East but Oxford, England. No matter. I got to work. Our birthday celebration for Special Friend's 8 closest, specially chosen guests was comprised of 6 of Dunlop's dishes. 

I've printed the recipe of the crowd favorite below, which is a slight adaptation of one of Dunlop's to better suit what I had on hand after my own galley kitchen residency of six consecutive hours on Easter Sunday. If you can't find what you need at your local market, you can seek out the Asian grocery, where all of these ingredients should be in ample supply.

2 large eggplants, cut into 3" long rectangles
1 1/2 c canola or sunflower oil + 2 T more oil
1 T minced garlic
1 T minced ginger
1 1/2 T chili bean paste
1 T Shaoxing Chinese (or other) cooking wine
2/3 c chicken or veg stock 
1 t tamari
1/2 t dark soy sauce
1/2 t sugar
1/4 t corn starch mixed with 2 T water
2 T sliced green parts of scallions

Place eggplant pieces in a colander over the sink. Liberally salt all pieces and allow to sit and drain 30 minutes. Then rinse the eggplant pieces well, wring them out by hand and dry them well with paper towels. Over medium-high flame, heat oil in a cast iron pan or other medium saucepan or saute pan with at least 2" high sides. If you are like me and you do not know when your oil is ready for deep frying, you will know it is by bubbles starting to come up from the bottom of the pan, and because when you place your first piece of vegetable in the oil, it sizzles immediately. Working in batches (I did 3), deep fry eggplant rectangles about 5 minutes, turning occasionally if necessary, until golden brown on the outside. Drain done pieces on plates lined with paper towels.

In a large cast iron or saute pan, heat 2 T oil over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and saute until fragrant. Add chili bean paste and then the wine, stock, tamari, soy sauce, and sugar. When all is simmering, add the eggplant pieces and cook until all but about 2 T of the liquid has cooked off, 3-5 minutes. Add cornstarch with water to the simmering saute as this will help the sauce thicken. Remove from heat. When ready to serve, top with sliced scallion greens. 

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