July 3, 2019

Dear friends,
I have an old, slim, tattered Szechuan cookbook from 1982 that I burned the back cover from when I set it on an electric burner eons ago. The paperback, “Szechwan & Northern Cooking: From Hot to Cold,” was written by Rhonda Yee. It has survived four moves and a Marie Kondo-style cleansing.

Every few years the book gets buried in the basement or pushed to the back of a bookshelf and I forget about it. A few years later I find it, consider tossing out the poor, charred little thing, but instead hang onto it. On the rare occasions I crack open the book, I’m glad I did. The sauce recipes are extraordinary.

When I found the book on my shelf last weekend, it was the culinary equivalent of a letter from my youth. I remember making recipes from the book in the early days of my career as a food writer. I paged through the book, encountering my penciled-in annotations from the past.

The most exciting moment is when I found my favorite recipe for kung pao chicken, which I thought I had lost. Tony is a kung pao fanatic, but I keep telling him the pallid versions he gets in restaurants can’t compare to the one I would make if only I could find my recipe. I will wow him with this superior version this week.

But I had a sirloin steak, not chicken, in the fridge last weekend, so I improvised with the ingredients on hand and a couple of Yee’s sauces. I’ll tell you straight up that her salad dressing recipe, reprinted below, should be made by the gallon and kept in your refrigerator at all times. It is luscious. I’m going to use the leftovers all week on roasted vegetables.

I marinated the steak, grilled it and sliced it. I tossed it with romaine lettuce, sliced scallions and Yee’s lip-licking dressing. Rice sticks and peanuts provided the crunch.

Filament-like rice sticks can be found in Asian stores and some supermarkets. They are usually coiled into nests. For this recipe, the strands are teased apart and dropped into very hot oil, which puffs them dramatically. With the weather we’ve been having, I wouldn’t blame you if you used packaged chow mein noodles instead. The salad will still taste great.

CRUNCHY SZECHUAN BEEF SALAD

Marinade:
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. hoisin sauce
1 tbsp. black bean garlic sauce
1 tsp. sugar

Dressing:
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tbsp. sesame oil
2 tbsp. rice vinegar
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. hoisin sauce
1 tsp. Szechuan chili oil

Salad:
1 lb. top sirloin or flatiron steak, trimmed of fat and gristle
1 oz. very thin rice sticks or 2 cups chow mein noodles
Oil for frying (if using rice sticks)
Salt
4 to 6 cups chopped romain lettuce
4 scallions, sliced
1/2 cup coarsely crushed dry-roasted peanuts

Combine marinade ingredients in a custard cup. Slather on both sides of steak. Place on a plate, cover and marinate in refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours.

Combine dressing ingredients in a lidded jar and shake well. Set aside.

If using rice sticks, separate the strands over a bowl to catch the pieces. The filaments should be separated and broken into pieces but not crushed. Heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a heavy, wide skillet. The oil should be very hot. Test it by dropping a strand of rice stick into the oil. It should immediately puff up. Scatter a handful at a time in the oil, turning over with tongs as soon as they puff, and removing from the oil as soon as the other side has puffed. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.

Remove steak from marinade and grill over hot coals to desired degree of doneness. Let rest off the heat for 10 minutes, then slice across the grain into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Cut the strips into 1 1/2-inch lengths.

Just before serving, place chopped romaine in a very large bowl. Add scallions and all but 2 tablespoons of the peanuts. Toss with half the dressing. Add the beef strips and toss again, adding more dressing if necessary. Add all but a handful of the rice sticks or chow mein noodles and salt to taste; toss. Mound on a platter. Drizzle with a bit more dressing. Garnish with remaining peanuts and rice sticks. Makes 4 large servings.

Note: Refrigerate the delicious leftover dressing and drizzle over cooked vegetables or salads.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
A crustless tomato quiche; roast carrots, bell peppers and zucchini; a crunchy Szechuan beef salad.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Thai chicken curry with chopped peanuts at Basil Asian Bistro in Wooster; half of a ham and cheese sub from Subway; edamame, a California roll, Tony’s Mussels and a Bud Light at Sushi Katsu in Akron; sugar-free coffee frozen yogurt at Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt; marinated grilled chicken and beef, grilled kefta, kibbee, tabbouli and baba ganoush from Falls Mediterranean Market & Grill in Cuyahoga Falls; small popcorn, no butter at Regal Cinema; samosa, corn salad, bahn mi and watermelon at the Project Learn picnic in Akron.

THE MAILBAG
From Maria M.:
I have quite a bit of zucchini from last year’s garden that I partially blanched and froze last year. They are in slices and half slices. How do you recommend using them? I know I can drop them frozen into soup such as minestrone but this is definitely not soup weather! I’m always uncertain as to whether or not I should thaw the zucchini before using it in a recipe or leave it frozen. Any recipe suggestions would be helpful and appreciated.

Dear Maria:
Zucchini is one of the few vegetables I would never freeze. Because of its high water content, it becomes beyond mushy when thawed. A lot of people do freeze zucchini, though. Unless you use it in soup or stew, you should thaw the zucchini and drain it well before using. You might even want to squeeze it dry.

Many people who freeze zucchini shred it first for use in baked goods such as zucchini bread. Since you didn’t do that, I would forget about baked goods and instead sneak it into meatloaf, spaghetti sauce and smoothies. You could try stir frying it, but be prepared for some splatters when the moisture in the zucchini meets the hot fat.

This year, pick them small — 6 inches or less — and eat ‘em up.

From Mary:
Jane, your couscous salad was delicious! We had fresh salmon I baked and the salad with it was just so good. Thanks for the recipe. It was awesome.

Dear Mary:
I love when I hear that one of my recipes was made and enjoyed. Thanks for writing.

From Linda C.:
This vegan loves your couscous salad recipe. I love roasting veggies. The large pearl couscous is a great texture change. I’m experimenting with different grains. We love farro and freekeh. Tef was a wonderful change as a breakfast grain, too.

Thanks for your continued flavor combinations and great food advice.

Dear Linda:
Tef, eh? That is one I haven’t tried. Thanks for the suggestion.

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