- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

With Asian restaurants in nearly every neighborhood, it’s easy to satisfy our cravings for the variety of flavors they deliver, but it seems as though the only way to get that variety is to call upon a restaurant. If Asian food is such a natural and welcome part of our lives, why do we resist cooking it for ourselves at home?

Easy answer. Most of us don’t have the energy to crack another frontier in the kitchen, and then there’s fear of new ingredients and new cooking techniques, buying solo-use equipment and, finally, the fear of deciphering recipes with endless lists of ingredients.

No wonder we stick to cooking in the comfort zone of American cuisine.

Author Barbara Witt has built the bridge that connects what we know with what we like. In her cookbook, “Pan-Asian Express: Quick Fixes for Asian Food Fans” (Bantam Books), she lays it out. “The dishes we crave,” she says, “are more memorable for their similarities than their differences. Best of all, you don’t need to learn the intricacies of all the cuisines of Asia to enjoy any one of them.”

Miss Witt demystifies Asian cooking by relaxing the bonds of authenticity and blurring national boundaries. Fusspots might call this culinary pollution, but many of us call it “fusion cuisine.”

According to Miss Witt, you can make your fall-back American favorite foods but give your diners Asian and Pacific Rim excitement by shifting flavor combinations and substituting a few key ingredients. Among examples are recipes for popcorn, burritos, frittata, quiche and even burgers, all with Asian overtones.

Here are some of the patterns and substitutions that contribute to the fusion tilt:

• Lime juice or zest substitutes for its lemon cousin.

• Peanut oil and a dribble of sesame oil take the place of olive and other cooking oils.

• Mild rice vinegar stands in for balsamic or wine vinegar.

• Teriyaki sauce replaces Worcestershire.

• Cilantro, mint and watercress contribute their distinctive flavors instead of basil, thyme and parsley.

• Chiles and wasabi supply heat instead of peppercorns and white horseradish.

• Pickled ginger gives you the pucker instead of a gherkin or kosher dill pickle.

• Hoisin and oyster sauces perform almost like ketchup and are great for such things as dipping chicken nuggets.

• Soy sauce intensifies food and adds interest instead of salt.

• Garlic and scallions underscore all flavors.

A whole meal doesn’t have to be Asian, Miss Witt points out. The goal is to reflect Asian flavors, not to duplicate a cuisine.

Salad dressing is an easy example. Let’s say you bring home Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai takeout for dinner. No way is your normal salad with Italian dressing going to complement. Instead, dress those very same American salad greens with a vinaigrette made of Asian components. Combine peanut and sesame oils with rice vinegar; customize with chopped garlic and ginger root, teriyaki sauce, sugar and salt; and you’ve crossed the international date line.

Next time you’re in the supermarket on a peanut butter run, toss some Asian-style ingredients into your shopping cart. If you have them on hand, you’ll be tempted to experiment. Also, make a date with yourself to browse an Asian market and buy some of the more unusual but necessary components of the Asian pantry. Use them in recipes or experiment and add them as accents to Western dishes.

Miss Witt suggests this starter list:

• Thai barbecue and chili sauce. Add it to meat marinades and dips or use it as a seasoning.

• Fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc nam). It works magic in combination with other ingredients and is as necessary to Thai and Vietnamese seasoning as salt is to American.

• Hoisin sauce. Thin with a little orange juice and a dash of red wine and use as a basting sauce for chicken or duck.

• Oyster sauce. This enigmatic Asian blend of complex flavors is delicious in vegetable or beef stir-fries or just over noodles.

• Pickled ginger. You’ve eaten the paper-thin shaved ginger with sushi and other Japanese foods. Buy a big jar and add a minced pinch of it to salad dressing and fruit salads.

• Plum sauce. This makes a wonderful dunk for chicken, lamb kebabs or grilled pork chops.

• Rice. Basmati, jasmine and short-grain rice are interesting and often cheaper in Asian groceries.

• Sesame oil. This is intense stuff used for flavoring, not cooking.

• Sesame seeds. Toast some to keep handy for sprinkling over salads or steamed fish in need of a little crackle and crunch. White seeds are common, but black ones are dramatic.

• Soy sauce. Use the many varieties in place of salt.

• Thai coconut milk. Call this an Asian cream sauce without the dairy. It’s wonderful added to chicken broth for soups or stirred into rice. This is not the sweetened variety used to make tropical drinks.

• Wasabi paste. A dot of this green horseradish will add a wallop you won’t forget. Mash it into mayonnaise for a spread to serve with crab cakes or a dip for cooked shrimp.

The best part of the trip to the Asian market is poking around the snack shelf in search of nibbles and munchies to serve with drinks. Look for hot roasted green peas. Check out the rice crackers; some are wrapped with crackly sea vegetables. Just be sure to save the labels of those you like so you can buy them again.

So far, the pleasure principle has been the key to getting your Asian fix. Here’s a reminder, however, that Asian food just happens to be good for you. It’s primarily dairy-free, and much of it is low in fat.

Most people on the planet eat these foods and enjoy their flavors. Now is a good time for you to see what you’ve been missing.

Far East vinaigrette

2 teaspoons peanut oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon teriyaki sauce

1 nickel-size piece of ginger root, crushed or minced

garlic clove, crushed

Pinch of sugar

Pinch of salt and pepper

Salad greens

Combine peanut oil, sesame oil, rice vinegar, teriyaki sauce, ginger root and garlic in a jar. Add sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Shake before tossing with salad greens. Makes 2 servings.

Asian coleslaw

This coleslaw recipe from “Pan-Asian Express” is a refreshing change from the mayonnaise-laden variety. Make it when you bring home Chinese takeout, especially barbecued spare ribs.

3 tablespoons grated onion

1 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon peanut or garlic oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons minced pickled ginger

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Salt

Sichuan pepper blend

Cayenne pepper

3 cups very thinly sliced green or Napa cabbage

Place onion, vinegar, garlic oil, soy sauce, sugar, ginger and sesame oil — and salt, Sichuan peppers and cayenne to taste — in a jar, and shake to combine. Toss over the cabbage. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Makes 4 servings.

Tangerine tuna

The marinade in this recip is, from “Miami Spice: The New Florida Cuisine” by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing).

4 tuna steaks (about 1 pounds total), cut -inch thick

cup soy sauce

cup tangerine juice

4 (-inch) strips tangerine zest

3 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons sesame oil, divided

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 scallions, trimmed and minced, green part reserved for garnish

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root

3 (1-inch-long) strips lemon zest

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Preheat a barbecue grill to very hot. Rinse fish steaks and pat dry.

Whisk together soy sauce, tangerine juice, tangerine zest, honey, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, garlic, scallions, ginger root and lemon zest in a shallow mixing bowl.

Place tuna steaks in a nonreactive baking dish and pour the marinade over. Marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for 30 to 60 minutes, turning the steaks once or twice. Drain tuna steaks and blot dry.

Brush with remaining 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Grill tuna for 1 minute per side, or until cooked to taste. Sprinkle tuna with minced scallion and sesame seeds and serve at once, garnished with reserved green part of scallions. Makes 4 servings.

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