My mother wasn’t much of a cook, but she always had what are traditionally considered staples on hand: white rice, bouillon cubes, brown sugar, flour, white vinegar, plain old cooking oil. When I look in my kitchen cupboard, my kitchen staples look a little different.
Yes, I have rice, but it’s basmati rice, which I love for its taste and firmness. I also routinely stock instant couscous, polenta, quinoa and millet. After all, rice can get kind of boring. Quinoa and millet cook in the same amount of time and taste a lot more interesting. Couscous and polenta cook in the microwave in even less time – although with polenta, you have to stir frequently unless you want a lot of lumps.
I also stock several different types of flour for when I get the urge to bake bread. They keep indefinitely in the freezer. I have white vinegar – and balsamic, champagne and Chinese rice wine vinegars. Oil? I have my basic cooking oil, as well as both cheap and expensive olive oils, and sesame oil.
Because I’m often in a rush and don’t plan my meals, I have a trio of seasoning staples that I find I cannot live without. One is the aforementioned sesame oil. The others are fish sauce and Sriracha chili sauce. Strangely enough, up until about a year ago, I didn’t stock any of these.
But then I started experimenting with Asian food, or rather my version of Asian food. I quickly discovered that fish sauce and chili sauce were indispensable for obtaining those complex flavors, and that a light sprinkling of sesame oil adds a nutty flavor accent to many dishes. I use these three staples almost daily, and that’s no exaggeration.
Fish sauce (nam pla), for the uninitiated, is exactly that: a liquid extract of fermented fish. It smells terrible, that’s for sure. But add some to a soup, and it immediately gives it the perfect dimensionality and depth you didn’t even know it needed.
Thai chili sauce can be found in local markets under the Sriracha label. It is a mouth-watering (in both senses of the word) blend of chili peppers, garlic and vinegar. These days, I put it in everything: scrambled eggs, soup, meat dishes, etc. This is not to be confused with sweet chili sauce, which is good as a barbecue sauce or a dipping sauce.
Here are a trio of dishes that use my favorite staples, all of which can easily be found in local markets. The first is a Vietnamese-style soup that appears weekly on my dinner table. The beauty of this dish is that it will swallow up any leftover vegetables or meat you have lying around. The second is a delicious-but-messy roast chicken from one of Lou Jabe Temple’s “Heaven Lee” mystery novels. And the last is a Thai beef salad from Martin Yan’s new cookbook, which you can find in the Grass Valley Library. My husband thinks this is one of the best things I make, but it’s definitely not for the timid of palate. Although it calls for flank steak, I have used leftover steaks of all types and even tri-tip.
Liz Kellar, a resident of Union Hill, has cooked at brew pubs, four star bed-and-breakfast inns and university dining halls. She has catered intimate dinners for 20 and barbecues for 2,000. You can write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
Vietnamese Noodle Soup
Fresh refrigerated Chinese noodles, one packet per diner
Cooked chicken, beef or sausage (sliced) or shrimp
One red bell pepper or other vegetable to taste, diced
Cilantro and fresh basil or even mint to taste, minced
This recipe is very free-form. Open the packets of noodles and place in microwave-safe bowl, reserving the seasoning packets. Cover with water and heat five to six minutes, until hot. Add more water, if needed, or pour some out if there is too much. Add the seasoning packets and the meat of your choice. I often combine several different meats. I also like to use individually frozen small shrimp. They don’t need to be defrosted; they will cook in the broth.
Add whatever vegetables you want, sliced or diced. Add minced basil and cilantro and a dash of fish sauce. Add chili sauce to taste. Heat another three minutes or until shrimp are cooked through and ingredients are hot. Add a dash of sesame oil and squeeze some lime juice to taste.
Hot Hacked Chicken
(From “Bread On Arrival”)
1 large whole chicken
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/2 cup Thai sweet chili sauce
1 cup sherry
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
1/4 cup Sriracha chili sauce
1/4 cup minced fresh ginger
Rinse chicken and pat dry. Put in shallow baking dish and roast 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Combine all other ingredients (except cilantro) in a bowl. Take chicken out of oven and baste with sauce. Spoon about1/4 cup of sauce into cavity of chicken. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
Baste again and continue roasting for another 20 minutes, basting often. Boil remaining sauce five minutes until slightly reduced and serve with chicken. Hack chicken into quarters and garnish with cilantro.
Thai Beef Salad
(From Martin Yan’s “Asian Favorites”)
1 pound beef flank steak
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon rice
1/2 cup sliced shallots
1/2 cup each minced mint and cilantro
1/3 cup lime juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
11/2 tablespoon minced fresh lemongrass
11/2 teaspoon crushed dried red chili pepper
11/2 teaspoon sugar
Season beef with salt and pepper. Place in oiled pan over high heat and cook, turning once, until medium rare to medium, three to four minutes per side. Cover with foil and let stand 15 minutes. Slice thinly across the grain. Place rice in small pan and cook, shaking pan frequently, until light brown. Remove from pan and grind in a spice grinder. In a bowl, combine rice, shallots, mint, cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, green onion, lemongrass, chili and sugar. Mix well. Arrange greens on a platter. Just before serving, toss meat with dressing and arrange on top of greens.
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