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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Calling All Cooks

...especially if you like to cook Asian cuisine. I need your help.

I love Asian cooking. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai--you name it. But when I cook with those spices renown for Asian cuisine, I seem to be missing a beat.

It seems to me that most Asian cooking uses sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and/or nutty. I'm not a big fan of nuts in my food, but I do love that hint of vinegar, sweetness and spiciness in stir fry dishes. 

But is there an easy ratio to remember how much to use of each? Am I missing a spice that should be used in most Asian dishes?

The other day I made a potluck stir fry with what was in my fridge: celery, cabbage, onion, squash, and snap peas. I made a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sweet chili sauce, and garlic, but it still didn't taste right to me. I felt it was missing something.

Any suggestions?


The leaves are starting to fall. The leaf drop is due more to the wretched heat we've suffered than the changing of the seasons. Although we did get a little rain yesterday, it barely wet a whistle.

Whenever the leaves start falling, I start feeling all wifely and want to cook. It must be some horrible ancient part of my brain, hardwired to revert to domesticity when the seasons change. I know it can't possibly be natural--at least not for me.

Are you a good cook? Any thoughts on Asian cuisine? My specialty is Mexican cooking...and takeout.


Stacy McKitrick said...

Sorry, I'm no help for you. I don't consider myself a good cook. I think people who LIKE to cook fall into that category. I specialize in fast and easy. Takeout works, but usually it's just out. Haha!

The leaves aren't falling here, but it was 50 degrees this morning. Felt like Fall! But even that doesn't get me in the mood to cook.

Maria Zannini said...

Stacy: Thinking of fall always makes me think of cooking. Just like winter has me drooling over seed catalogs.

No one starves at my house, but I lack the finesse of really good cooks. Alas, I didn't inherit that gene.

Brandy said...

We make stir fry a lot. I don't use vinegar with soy sauce since soy sauce is fermented. We do use garlic and black pepper. Hmm. No clue what may be missing. I tend clean big in the Fall and cook lots of heavier meals like chili and stews.

Courtney Johnson said...

Invest in some good five-spice for stir-frys. For my tastes, I've frequently found that I need to balance soy and rice vinegar with ginger and sesame oil. My go-to sauce for stir-fry is usually:

soy sauce
rice vinegar
brown sugar OR unrefined evaporated cane sugar OR honey
sesame oil (a few drops is usually all you need)
chile sauce or chile oil
fresh lime juice, if i have it

I read once that most cuisines use a mirepoix. French cuisine, of course, is carrots, celery, and onion. Spanish-based cuisine uses the "holy trinity." Asian cuisines use green onion, garlic, and ginger. There are variations, additions, etc., but it's a good place to start. :D

Gwen Gardner said...

I love all Asian food, but don't try cooking it a lot. As you said, it just doesn't taste the same. I finally got chicken curry down, but I don't use a recipe, just go by taste. I'd love to know the secret to Asian cooking, though.

Maria Zannini said...

Brandy: You make me wish for cooler temps! I always make big batches of chili and stew to freeze and eat later. It's so satisfying. ...and I make good chili. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Courtney: Thanks! I just bought some 5 Spice today and I'll try it on my next stir fry.

I hadn't thought of lime juice or flavored oils, so I'll keep them in mind too.

I knew there'd be people out there who could help me. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Gwen: Curry is another one of my loves. Greg doesn't like it as much as I do so I just make it on rare occasions.

Barbara Ann Wright said...

My specialty is also take out. I love to bake, though, so Fall always makes me want to make cookies or anything with pumpkin and cinnamon.

Mark K said...

I'm rubbish - I even burn water :(

Maria Zannini said...

Barbara: Alas, my baking is less stellar than my cooking. But I am a willing cookie taster. :) --just in case you need one.

Maria Zannini said...

Mark: LOL! Good one!

Kaz Augustin said...

A lot of Asian cookbooks aimed at Western cooks tend to lump things together. For example, you get peanut butter added to a satay marinade. Now, crunchy peanut butter can be a great substitute when you're low on time, but it's NEVER, EVER part of the marinade; it's the base of a separate sauce served with satay. A Mexican equivalent would be mixing fresh salsa with your enchilada before baking. That's just crazy!

I think, M, the biggest "sin" of yours that you listed is that you add the chilli sauce to the stir-fry. Don't do that. Chilli sauce is separate. Use a chilli oil, but not sauce.

Using Courtney's mirepoix mix: If you're going south-east Asian, add finely chopped lemongrass to the mirepoix. For Thai, add chopped Thai basil at the end and add crushed peppercorns to the mirepoix with the lemongrass. If you're going Korean, ditch the lemongrass and green onion, add leek and gochujang (or a mix of chilli paste and miso to your preference, if you can't get gochujang).

For Chinese, it gets a bit more complicated, as it depends on the region. It looks like you're going Cantonese-ish, so Courtney's mix (with sliced red onion or leek subsituting for the green onion in the mirepoix) is a good starter. Also, chopped fresh green onions on top as a generous garnish with most of these dishes/cuisines (not as part of the mirepoix) helps a lot with the taste.

If you're frying the meat first, remember to take it out before you fry the vegetables. Don't throw everything in and expect the dish to be perfect! The standard order is:

1) Oil in pan. Meat, that has usually been marinated in a bit of cornflour, Chinese wine/cooking sake/dry sherry, light soy sauce and only a few drops of sesame oil.
2) When meat is lightly cooked, remove.
3) A bit more oil. Mirepoix.
4) Vegetables.
5) Put back meat.
6) Add sauce (light soy sauce + stock + sesame oil + conflour + whatever you like -- oyster sauce, worcestershire if you're cooking beef)
7) Dish out, garnish with spring/green onions. Serve immediately.

Work up to five-spice powder. You can go wrong very quickly with five-spice because it's so pungent. Even the chefs at the Shangri-La in Singapore have screwed it on occasion, so take it easy.

I could go on, but hope this helps. :D

Anonymous said...

I'm not much help I'm afraid. I love cooking and will do Asian dishes with a recipe.

On the other hand, Kaz just made me terribly hungry!

Maria Zannini said...

Kaz: I was hoping you'd chime in!

I think after reading your comment, I'm beginning to see what I did wrong.

I'll definitely start with a flavored oil this time and layer the ingredients in steps. Thank you for the advice on the 5 Spices too. I've never used it so I'll be extra cautious now.

Most of my stir frys are vegetarian though sometimes I add shrimp.

Maria Zannini said...

Raelyn: I know! It made me hungry too. I'm thinking about trying another stir fry again tomorrow.

Kaz Augustin said...

Good luck and happy to have been of service! :)

Mike Keyton said...

kaz has spoken. I have nothing to say. An unusual experience :)

Shelley Munro said...

I'm more likely to cook Italian or Indian, but I've been doing a lot of stir fries lately. My suggestion would be to study several recipes or check out the Asian cooking shows on the Food Channel. There's probably a basic ratio they use and you haven't got it quite right.

My stir fries have been very basic with a little oil and lemon juice to flavor since I'm on a diet :)

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: When I decide to get into British cuisine, you'll be the first I'll ask.

Maria Zannini said...

Kaz: Someday I'll get you back to the States, even if it's a short visit.

Maria Zannini said...

Shelley: I like watching the cooking shows, but they go too fast for my poor brain.

Re: diets
Ugh. Don't remind me. I'm having to watch my calories now too.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I'm not a big fan of Asian cooking but I know what you mean about the cooking in the fall. I always do that too and since I'm not heading back to school next week, I'm going to really indulge this year.

Maria Zannini said...

Susan: I'm wondering if I'll cook more once hubby retires next year.