Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mahi-mahi with Stir-Fried Vegetables in Kung Pao Sauce

I recently acquired some Sichuan peppers, one of the pillar ingredients used in Sichuan cuisine and also one of the main ingredients in the famous kung pao sauce. With its unique aroma and tongue-numbing feature, I knew I had to try it out on a dish. But there was no way I was making kung pao chicken. Too easy and too familiar. So, last week, while I was at the grocery store, the fish counter had mahi-mahi (its Hawaiian name; also known as dolphin fish) for sale and since I loved its robust flavor and texture, I thought that it would be a good fit for a spicy dish with Sichuan peppers.

But first, a little background on these unique peppers. Although the name implies it, Sichuan peppers are not related in any way to black/white peppercorns or chili peppers. It is actually harvested as the outer husk of a tiny berry-like fruit and not an actual pepper. In Mandarin, it is called huājiāo (literally, "flower pepper") and of course, originates from the Sichuan province in China. It is one of the main ingredients used in Chinese five-spice powder and also Japanese shichimi togarashi or seven-spice mix. If you take a single Sichuan pepper and put it on your tongue, you will immediately feel a numbing and tingling sensation caused by a chemical found in the pepper. It is a rather strange feeling and would eventually dissipate in time.

To make the kung pao sauce, you'll need:
3 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
3 teaspoons Chinkiang black vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon corn starch (made into a slurry)
1 tablespoon chicken stock
1 large shallot (small dice)
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1/2 teaspoon ginger (minced)
1/4 teaspoon Sichuan peppers (about 7-10)

Start by toasting the Sichuan peppers over hot oil until fragrant, careful not to burn them. Remove and set the peppers aside, leaving the oil in the pan. Next, fry the shallot and ginger until soft and fragrant and then add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Add the two soy sauces plus the vinegar. Mix well and add the chicken stock, sugar and sesame oil. Let the sauce simmer in the pan while you prepare the corn starch slurry by adding water to the corn starch and dissolving it in about a tablespoon of water. Add about half of the slurry to the sauce to thicken it. Add more if needed. Now, remember the Sichuan pepper that you set aside earlier? Using a spoon or the side of your knife, crush them as much as possible and add half of it to the sauce.

Now for the vegetables. For an authentic Chinese stir-fry, you can use baby bok choy, snow peas, carrots and baby corn. I would blanch (par cook using boiling water) the snow peas and carrots first. Just add all of the above into the sauce and cook for a few minutes so that every component combines well with the sauce. As for the fish, season the top with salt, pepper and the remaining crushed Sichuan pepper and sauté until cooked. Garnish with scallions and serve.

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