SICHUAN DRESSING & BOUQUET OF FIRE
THIS IS WHAT I CALL, STUFFED ARTICHOKE”
I’ve never understood salad.
And by “salad”, I mean it in the most traditional sense of plant-based lifeforms being tossed in vinegar-based dressings. I’ve never understood the idea of it, or the taste of it. It seems that all salads are ever “dressed” with, are the nonstop BS campaign and PR efforts, the pretence of hippie-wholeness and “feel-good” sentiments designed to talk us into laying down our appetites and picking up that cucumber. Excluding vegetarianism which is a whole other subject, the only peace I find in salad, is if we could all just admit to the blunt and clear motives of why anybody eats it.
We only eat salad because we have to. Period.
We eat salad because we don’t want to be fat. We eat salad because we don’t want to die prematurely. We eat salad because what, you think you have a choice? Underneath whatever self-hypnosis, there’s only strictly medical purposes. And I think that if everyone could just quit dancing around it and just say that. People would actually eat more salad, because truth, is the most powerful persuasion.
However, after moving back to Asia, that view is slightly, or at least in the progress of, changing.
During my trips to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Bali, I’ve found their vegetable-dominated diet not only tolerable, but fascinatingly delicious. Even in Beijing where meats and proteins are overrunning a country fastly threatened with over-nutrition, there’re little cold “appetizers” of vegetables on lots of restaurant menus that don’t make me feel like a goat. And in the next week, I thought I’d cover a couple of my favourites.
In China, the answer to the idea of “salad” is simple and universal. Whatever it is, raw or blanched, is tossed in a “mother dressing” made with 4 main ingredients – toasted sesame oil, grated garlic, salt and sugar. This general tactic is applied to almost all vegetations that roam this earth, from leafy greens, crunchy radishes, to funguses like wood ear and whatnots.
And then… then there’s the sichuan version of it. A courageous dosage of sichuan chili flakes and ground sichuan peppercorn is added to the mother-dressing and instantly snaps the subject out of the vegetables-I-eat-for-life-sake category, into a lip-swollen addiction that I would crave over a slab of meat, and it’s application is limitless. From blanched green beans to spring bamboo shoots, it will turn any boring and unattractive vegetables into munch foods worthy of a good beer. But my new-found madness is this, artichokes.
After you trim, cook and shock the artichoke in ice-water, you drain off all the excess water then you stuff it with this mouth-watering, nutty, but most above all, addictive-on-top-of-suicidal mixture of garlic, chili, ground peppercorns and sesame oil. This’s what I call stuffed artichoke. This’s what I call “edible arrangement”. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I call, bouquet of fire! Why? Because people, you should eat your vegetables.
The dressing doesn’t have to be limited to blanched vegetables. Raw leafy vegetables such as spinach or an Asian vegetable called tong-hao are easy and fast alternatives.
It’s fairly certain to say that almost all the “salad” dishes in China is boosted with a good helping of MSG. First, I don’t have any beef with MSG. I don’t see what’s wrong with it. But today is not the day I feel like convincing anybody. So to give it the same boost “naturally”, I do it by evaporating/condensing a few tbsp of homemade chicken stock. Another thing is, one tbsp of chili flakes is designed for spicy food-addicts, so dial it back according to your limit for heat. The recipe will make enough to dress 2 medium~large artichoke, or 3 small artichokes, or 3~4 cups of green beans or other vegetables. Double the recipe if you just want to be safe. The blanched vegetables, after mixing with the dressing, will only get better as they sit in the fridge.
Sichuan vegetable dressing:
- 1 tbsp of chili flakes, preferably from sichuan or Korea
- 1/2 tsp of ground red sichuan peppercorn
- 1 tbsp of olive oil
- 3 tbsp of chicken stock
- 5 cloves of garlic, grated
- 1 tsp of sea salt, plus more to adjust
- 1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp of sugar
- 4 tbsp of toasted sesame oil
Add the chili flakes, ground sichuan peppercorn and olive oil in a small pot and set over medium heat. Let the mixture sizzle for 1 min while stirring with a spoon, until fragrant and that the chili flakes have turned slightly darker in color but not burned. Add the chicken stock (will splatter slightly), then cook until the stock has almost all evaporated. Turn off the heat. Add the grated garlic, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and sugar. Stir to mix evenly, then add the toasted sesame oil. Stir again, re-season with sea salt if need be, then set aside until needed.
To prepare vegetables such as green beans and spring bamboo shoots: Bring a large pot of water with a generous pinch of salt to boil (as if you’re cooking pasta). Prepare a large bowl of ice-water on the side. Cut off the tough roots and peel the fibrous shells off the bamboo shoots then remove the outer fibrous layers with a fruit-peeler. Cook in the boiling water for a few min until a small knife can be easily inserted into the flesh (cooking-time largely depends on the thickness of the shoots). Transfer the bamboo shoots into the ice-water until chilled completely. Cut into thin slices and toss with the dressing.
Keep the green beans whole. Cook in the boiling water until cooked through, just a couple min. Transfer to the ice-water to chill completely. Dry any excess water with a clean kitchen towel, then trim off the touch ends (if any) and cut into segments ,then toss with the dressing.
To prepare the artichoke/bouquet of fire: Bring a large pot of water to boil.
Have 2 lemons cut in half, ready on the side. Break off a few tough, meatless “petals” around the artichokes, cut off the dried ends on the stem, then with a fruit peeler, peel the tough skin off the stem. With each artichoke right after peeling, immediately rub the exposed flesh directly with the lemon wedges. This is much more effective in preventing the flesh from turning brown, than soaking in a bowl of lemon water. Then cut off the tip of the artichoke-head, and again, rub the opening immediately with the lemon. Squeeze the all the lemon juice into the pot and toss the squeezed lemon in as well. Add the artichokes, turn the heat down to simmer, then cover the pot and cook for 30~40 min. Lots of recipes say they need 40~45 min to get tender, but mine only took around 25~30 min. There’s nothing worse than overcook-artichoke so I’d say check at 25 min. To check, see if a small knife can be easily inserted into the flesh.
Transfer the cooked artichoke into a large bowl of ice-water. Gently open up the petals so the ice-water can seep and cool the interior of the artichoke as well. Once chilled, place the artichokes downward on a clean towel for a couple min to dry excess water, then gently without breaking the artichoke apart, use a small spoon to scoop out the fuzzy core from the artichoke heart. Hold the artichoke upward, then spoon and distribute the dressing in the heart, and among the folds and spaces in between the petals (doesn’t have to drive yourself crazy, the oil will seep down even if the solids can’t). This can be served immediately or you can prepare it a few hours ahead. Whatever you do, napkins stationed on the side are highly recommended.