Thursday, January 28, 2010

I Go Wok-ing, After Midnight

First of all, let me offer up my apologies to Miss Patsy, but I just couldn't help myself.

Those of you who have been paying attention these past few weeks know that I've been craving some good Asian food. Not just plain old Chinese take-out, but some good hot-from-the-wok dishes with lots of fresh veggies and exotic spices.

Last week, while I was talking to my sister Amy on the phone one afternoon, I heard somebody at my front door. I got up to check it out, and I found a take-out menu from the local Thai-Chinese place I see every time I go to the bank (it's like five or six doors down in the same strip mall). I got all kinds of excited, because even though I was craving the 'good' stuff, some take-out would still give me a much-needed fix.

I was still on the phone, so we were discussing the different menu items, and I ended up ordering like three or four different entrees, because seriously, who doesn't love the leftovers? The whole order came to like $30+, but I didn't mind. I figured that I could stretch it out for a few days and really get my money's worth.

Unfortunately, the food was bland as hell. I mean, I thought it was literally impossible for Thai food to be bland, but it was just plain crappy. Oh, the garlic chicken was decent, but it didn't blow my skirt up, and it's hard to mess up crab Rangoon, so that was ok, but I had some sort of pineapple rice dish that sounded so promising but fell so very short. I can't even remember what the other box had in it, it was that unremarkable.

Luckily, I still have my trusty bottle of hot Sriracha sauce, so that helped. But overall, it was quite the disappointment. I decided that if I wanted some decent Asian grub, I'd probably have to either head over to the west side and go to Chinatown, or just cook it myself. And y'all know how I feel about crossing I-15. It's like my own personal electronic dog fence.

After Christmas, I picked up a few Asian cookbooks that have stoked the fire a bit. Browsing through them, I've found several interesting recipes that I wanted to try, but then again, I still didn't even have a wok. While out shopping over the past couple of weeks, I picked up a few odds and ends here and there--spices, oils, and other common ingredients that kept popping up in the recipes that tickled my fancy. I think that I mentioned that I also bought a new Santoku knife the other day, all in preparation to unleash the fury in the kitchen.

But I still didn't have a wok. So on Wednesday, I didn't have anything to do, so I figured I'd finally break down and clear that last hurdle. Amy said that they have a good selection of woks at Cost Plus World Market, and I thought there was an outpost here in Henderson, but checking the internet, it appeared that I'd have to cross the line and go over to the west side. I figured I'd make a day of it--if they didn't have woks at Cost Plus, well, then I could go wander about in Chinatown and do some shopping there.

On a whim, before committing to an expedition to the far edge of my Vegas map, I decided to check out the local Target first. Wouldn't you know it--they had a nice 14" commercial steel wok on sale for $29.99. Sold! I came straight on back to the house, planning on spending the rest of the afternoon browsing recipes and making shopping lists. And you wonder why my four-year-old truck still doesn't even have 25,000 miles on it. Heh--trip to the west side avoided!

Now, there are some great recipes to try--I have three cookbooks and two of them are HUGE--but I figured that being a novice at this whole Asian thing, I better start off with something easy and familiar. I'd hate to fark up a recipe that had a laundry-list of offbeat and expensive ingredients and then get discouraged with the whole process, so I decided to keep it simple at first. My first two recipes would be basic--Cashew chicken (piece of cake) and spicy coconut mushrooms (I'd never heard of such a thing, but the recipe looked so damn good that I had to give it a try).

Fast forward to Thursday, and once I got up and got myself dressed, I headed towards the Whole Foods market over in The District. I went there for two reasons--first of all, Amy loves Whole Foods and raves about it all the time, and she said I can find almost any hard-to-find ingredient or spice there. Second of all, I read--and totally agreed with--their CEO's common-sense approach to health care reform, and decided that I'd support that outlook with my wallet. He'd definitely be getting my business. (Oh, and third, and no less important, Linda Lou said that they have an awesome selection of beer).

I'd never even set foot in a Whole Foods before, and when I walked in, it was like Disneyland for the wannabe chef. I wandered up and down the aisles like a kid in a toy store, just imagining all the fun I could have in my kitchen if money were no object. Eventually, I settled on the produce area and went ape-shiat buying up all kinds of organic veggies--green onions, ginger root, bell peppers, scallions, chives, hot chilies, Cremini mushrooms, etc. Then I hit the Asian aisle with a vengeance, picking up rice wine, black bean paste, coconut milk, sesame oil, and other such odds and ends. Not wanting to make another stop at Smith's or Wallyworld, I bit the bullet and overpaid for a couple of pounds of hippie chicken.

Even after all of my shopping was done, I still wandered for a bit, drooling over all the good stuff they had in there, not to mention the hot and cold food bars that were doing a brisk lunch business. Yeah, I was smitten. I love me some Whole Foods. I didn't even mind the fact that I'd spent fifty bucks and only had one shopping bag full of groceries...

As soon as I got home, I realized that I'd made a tactical error in my planning--I only have one wok! All these recipes require a wok, and if I want to make two things at the same time, well, I'm just shiat outta luck. I decided that the spicy coconut mushrooms will have to wait another day. Besides--I'd planned on making enough cashew chicken that there would be plenty of leftovers. I could reheat that in a regular old saucepan the next day and make the mushrooms in the wok. Problem solved!

Cashew chicken truly is a simple recipe, and it really doesn't require much prep work, either. I just sliced up my chicken and red pepper, and while doing that, I toasted a bunch of cashews in the dry wok. After a couple of minutes on the heat, I set them aside, tossed a bit of peanut oil into the hot wok, and added some minced garlic. I let that sizzle for about a minute, and then added the chicken and peppers.

One thing--I'd never used a Santoku knife before, and all I can say is Wow! I love it--nothing cuts through veggies faster and easier. Oh, and it went through the chicken like a chainsaw going through butter. If you don't have one, go out and get one. It's worth it.

Here's the prep area--while the chicken and peppers were cooking I sliced up some green onions and mixed a little rice wine with Hoisin sauce. Oh, and while this was all going on, I had a pot of rice cooking on the stove, too.

Once the chicken was mostly done, the sauce went in and cooked for a few more minutes until everything was evenly coated. At the last minute, I added the scallions and toasted cashews, along with a splash of sesame oil. A few quick stirs, and it was done.

And here is the finished product on a bed of rice!

It was damn good--better than I've ever had from any take-out joint, especially after adding a few splashes of low-sodium soy sauce at the end. I think that next time I'll cut the peppers in half, though. The recipe said to cut it into long strips, but it was a pain in the ass to eat it that way. Also, I hate the fact that I don't have a gas stove at this apartment, but the electric one works just fine as long as you crank up the heat and keep stirring--just like if it were on a gas range.

Anyhow, we'll call experiment number one a total success, and I have plenty of leftovers, too!

Tomorrow, I'll make the spicy coconut mushrooms and apologize to Johnny Cash, because I wok the line.


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