Saturday, February 17, 2007

The cat who came to dinner

Sabriel likes to be where the people are. Which often means he comes to the kitchen table when the Anthropologist and I are sitting at it. While he also enjoys walking around on top of the table or lying on top of something we're trying to read, his favorite is to take our seat when one of us gets up. Here he inspects a bowl of sweet and sour tofu and wonders if chopsticks would make good cat toys. (They roll when batted, so they do!)

In honor of the start of the year of the boar tomorrow, I thought I'd mention my pride in being able to make a good sweet and sour. I got the recipe from a cookbook my mom gave me a few years ago, Every Grain of Rice (which, apparently, is already out of print and goes for upwards of $55 on Amazon!). I do love a good sweet and sour pork or chicken or even tofu, and I've even found myself craving it from time to time. This recipe does not call for the meat (or tofu) to be coated in a thick, heavy batter, which I really like, and it makes the best, all-purpose sweet and sour sauce I've ever tasted outside of a good Chinese restaurant. (I make it all the time as a dip to accompany my fried shrimp and shiitake wontons.)

Sweet and sour pork was one of the first Chinese recipes I'd ever tried to make — wonton soup and scrambled eggs with ketchup and green onions being foods I'd made previous to that. It made me realize that Chinese cooking is not all that difficult and led me to other yummy, "homestyle" dishes such as long-life noodle soup, tomato beef chow mein, and pan-fried prawns in ketchup sauce.

I realize that, for a lot of people, it's much easier just to order take-out from a nearby Chinese restaurant — but, like with all home-cooking, I like being able to control what ingredients go into my meals, and I like having the satisfaction in knowing I can make something that most people wouldn't even bother to cook.

One of the families I work for is spending the day today with the grandparents to celebrate Chinese lunar new year, and then I'm watching the kids while the parents celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese new year, with Andrea Nguyen, who is cooking up a delicious-sounding meal. (What I wouldn't give to be there, too!) Perhaps tomorrow I'll go with the Anthropolgist to the Golden Buddha, a slightly fancier Chinese restaurant that I haven't been to a long time but which is absolutely delicious. Or I'll make my favorite sweet and sour, trying the sauce over fried fish this time for a little twist.

Sweet-and-Sour Pork
(adapted from Every Grain of Rice: A Taste of Our Chinese Childhood in America by Ellen Blonder and Annabel Low)

1/4 cup water
1/4 cider vinegar (although I often use red wine vinegar)
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water

oil for pan frying (peanut oil is recommended, but I use canola)
1 pound pork from the shoulder or boneless country-style ribs (or chicken breast or tofu — see Note), cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch squares
1/2 medium yellow onion, quartered and separated into layers
1/2 fresh pineapple, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks, or 1 cup canned chunks (or 1 fresh mango, peeled and cubed)

To make the sauce, combine the first four ingredients (through ketchup) in a small non-aluminum pan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the cornstarch mixture, bring to a boil, and cook over medium-low heat until the sauce is thick. Turn down heat to very low and keep warm.

Heat about an inch of oil in a deep skillet (I use cast iron). Dredge the pork (or whatever) in the cornstarch, then divide into three batches. Put the pieces from the first batch into the oil (if you try to put too many into the pan at once, the meat will be crowded and won't become crispy). Cook 4 to 5 minutes, until browned, turning to brown evenly. Cut through one piece to test for doneness; it should be white and opaque. Remove the meat and let drain on a cookie sheet lined wth paper towels. Repeat with the next two batches.

In another pan, heat a tablespoon of oil. Add the pepper and the onion and stir-fry until the onion is wilted and transparent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the meat and pineapple (or mango) and heat through for a couple minutes. Add the sauce and cook 1 minute longer.

Note: If you use tofu, be sure to drain it really well by pressing it between two plates and weighting it down, like with a heavy book or a large can, for several minutes. Water-logged tofu won't fry well.


Garrett said...

Oooh, sweet n sour pork sounds crazy tasty right now.

Karen said...

Gene, Anna, and I went to Chez Panisse and enjoyed the experience. A few tips:

To address your concern about the meat: when you make your reservations, you can say that Lauren wants the vegetarian menu. If I remember correctly, I was still able to choose between the regular and vegetarian menu items when I got there, but that way they'll have it for her if need be.

And don't worry about the veg options being sub-par. Anna and Gene liked my pasta better than their chicken, and I think it was a toss-up between my winter root veggie soup and their lobster bisque

This is very important -- or at least it was for our enjoyment -- for every bite of the main course, make sure that you get a little taste of each of the elements of the dish. For us, it became apparent that the strength of the cooking was in the combination of tastes. Taken by themselves, none of the elements was particularly delicious. This actually makes sense since Alice Waters is supposed to be all about using simple, pure, fresh ingredients.


Teresa said...

Garrett - I'm always craving sweet and sour pork.

Karen - Thanks for the tips!