Monday, April 1, 2013

Sichuan Stir-Fried Pork in Garlic Sauce from Cook's Illustrated Magazine

Sichuan Province, Land of Plenty
         In one of their masterpieces of science and cooking combined, Cook’s Illustrated chose to take on one of my favorite Chinese Restaurant dishes: Sichuan Stir-Fried Pork in Garlic Sauce.  Sichuan cooking is immediately associated with hot and spicy flavors. The odd thing is that these flavors are relatively new. And initially at least, they were only popular among the poorer segments of Sichuan society.  There was so much else available. Sichuan Province is known as a land of plenty. While landlocked and therefore without seafood, it has an abundance of pigs, poultry, beef cattle, freshwater fish and crayfish.  And it’s been known for its masterful cuisine for hundreds of years.  The first Sichuan restaurant opened in what is now called Hangzhou, its capital city, over 800 years ago. 
Chili Peppers
are relatively new to China
         It may be quite a surprise to Americans to know that the hot pepper, so associated with Sichuan Restaurants in this country, was introduced into China from South America around the end of the 17th century. Once it came to Sichuan, it became a favored food flavoring. Because they are such good companions to rice, every family in the province eats dishes like today’s Stir-Fried Pork with Garlic Sauce. 

Kung Pao Chicken...stay away from it
if you don't want to put on the pounds
This recipe is ideal for a time-pressured weeknight dinner.  It takes about 25 minutes to prep and 18 to cook. Aside from its speed and sensational tastes, there are all kinds of good reasons for making Chinese food at home. There are also an equal number of reasons to stay away from Chinese restaurants and their takeout menus. Chinese restaurant food is notoriously high in sodium and fat.  To give you one example, a dish like Kung Pao Chicken, a Sichuan standard, for example, is loaded with about 40 percent more sodium and more than half the calories an average adult needs for an entire day. The dish with vegetables has 1,300 calories, 3,200 milligrams of sodium and 11 grams of saturated fat. And that’s before the rice. The Cook’s Illustrated version of Stir-Fried Pork with its big bold, silky sauce comes in at 564 calories, 1200 mg. of sodium, 4.1 grams of saturated fat. You’ll still have to add 200 calories for the rice but you get the picture.
         The Cook’s Illustrated Science that I spoke of earlier, involved finding the right cut of pork that would stand up to the wok without drying out or getting stringy.  As per usual, the test kitchen went to town tasting various cuts of pork before landing on boneless, country-style ribs which last time I looked were about as inexpensive as any meat ever gets.  And to keep them tender, the rest of the scientific equation was all dependent on their pH. The higher the pH the more tender the meat.  I am no chemist nor do I have any real desire to do Cook’s Illustrated’s research but I can tell you that the pork gets put into a baking soda and water solution which met their standard for juicy, supple tenderness.  I will take the science no further.  All I will say is the resultant dish is a winner.  It has the sweet, the sour, the salty taste of true Sichuan Cooking.  The one thing I would have to add is that it is not nearly as hot.  Now we love heat and there is some in the dish. But true heat lovers should up the Sriracha or chili garlic paste.  People with young children probably should not.   The original recipe called for Chinese Black Vinegar and Asian Broad Bean Chili Paste. Now I live in an area where you can find virtually anything Asian you want –except I couldn’t find either to save my life. Fortunately, the Cook’s Illustrated recipe came with this advice:   "If Chinese black vinegar is unavailable, substitute 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar and 2 teaspoons of rice vinegar. If Asian broad-bean chili paste is unavailable, substitute 2 tablespoons of Asian chili-garlic paste or Sriracha sauce. Serve with steamed white rice." Here it is:

Recipe for Sichuan Stir-Fried Pork in Garlic Sauce from Cook’s Illustrated.
Prep Time 25 mins. Cooking Time 18 mins. Serves 4.

For the Sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons black vinegar, Chinese
OR 2 teaspoons Balsamic Vinegar and 2 teaspoons Rice Vinegar
1-tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or 1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons ketchup
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch

For the Pork
12 ounces country-style boneless pork ribs, trimmed
1-teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup cold water
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or 2 teaspoons dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch

For the Stir-Fry
4 minced garlic cloves
2 scallions, white part minced, green parts sliced thin
2 tablespoons Asian Broad Bean Chili Paste
OR 2 tablespoons Sriracha or Asian Chili Garlic Sauce
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 ounces shiitake mushrooms or 6 ounces portabella mushrooms, stemmed and sliced thing
2 celery ribs, cut on bias into ¼ inch slices

1. Whisk all sauce ingredients together in bowl. Set aside.

2. Cut pork into 2” lengths. Combine pork with baking soda and water in bowl. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.

3. Rinse pork in cold water. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels. Whisk rice wine and cornstarch in bowl. Add pork and toss to coat.

4. For the stir-fry, combine garlic, scallion whites, and chili paste in bowl.

5. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in large non-stick pan over high heat until just smoking. Add mushrooms and cook stirring frequently until tender, 4 minutes. Add celery and cook for additional 2 to 4 minutes until tender. Transfer vegetables to separate bowl.

6. Add remaining 3 tbsp. oil to pan and place over medium low heat. Add garlic scallion mixture and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds. Transfer 1 tbsp. garlic scallion oil to small bowl and set aside. Add pork to skillet and cook until no longer pink, 3 to 5 minutes. 

7. Whisk sauce to recombine and add to skillet. Increase heat to high and cook stirring constantly until thickened and pork cooked thru, 1 to 2 minutes. Return vegetables to skillet and combine. Transfer to platter, sprinkle with scallion greens and reserved garlic scallion oil and serve.