I’m a little bit crazed for food from someone else’s world. I think growing up in the 70’s, with my white-bread and cream soup upbringing where everything was bland, flavorless and boring caused my tastebuds to automatically seek out foods that sing, soar and dance in my mouth. These days, I can’t get enough of the varied flavors and spices of foods from around the world.
We did a few turns to what was considered ethnic then; there was a favorite mexican restaurant we went to, although authentic wasn’t really it’s way, and we often ventured into a Chinese place to partake of a few dishes that seemed appealing at the time but the real stretching into more daring and exotic fare began when I was in college. My roommates and I began frequenting an Ethiopian restaurant in Minneapolis, delighting in the spongy injera, the potent blend of spices and the rich heady flavors of tea and coffee found there. We would drag ourselves home, stuffed and reeling and before the food even settled we would plot our next return. Ethnic restaurants were popping up more and more during that time, and a friend and I once made a huge list of them, promising to scratch one off every week in an effort to explore all these mysterious cuisines around us. We did all right by that list, and I tasted some pretty exciting foods. Exciting for the ’90’s, that is.
The one place for me that I could return to again and again is the Village Wok on the University campus. It’s as close to an authentic Chinese restaurant as one can get in the confines of Minnesota’s borders, evidenced by the sheer number of Chinese college students who frequent the closely packed tables and chairs. They gather in large numbers, with huge amounts of food on the table in front of them; dishes I couldn’t recognize or explain and they tuck in with abandon. The smells here are mind-boggling and the plates of food fragrant and searing hot. There isn’t a single thing about this place that speaks of success beyond the food. It’s dinghy, the tables are rickety and the steps down to the basement bathroom are scary. All of that is irrelevant when the server drops a plate of food in front of you.
As hard as I try, I am unable to create that flavor at home, although it isn’t for lack of effort; I make stir fries quite often as it’s a really good way for me to get Griffin to eat a big plate of vegetables without any fuss but I’ve always had to lower my expectations of that Village Wok kind of flavor as I raise the first bite to my mouth. It comes close; it’s delicious and it takes care of the craving. That’s what I strive for in the kitchen.
The origin of this recipe is vague but no matter; it’s been reincarnated so many time that the original is mostly lost. It’s an excuse away from the everyday, although by no means anywhere near authentic; just a tiny slip of flavor that can tend to a craving for the genuine that I’ve neither time nor energy to seek out. The work of chopping and slicing is therapeutic, bowls all around me brimming with fresh vegetables, the rice cooker humming on the counter, blues music keeping me moving. It serves multiple purposes too; even with the vegetable content it’s one of Griffin’s favorite meals, and the look on his face when he knows I’m pulling this together is worth every knife stroke, every specific moment of timing that a good stir-fry requires. It can’t be soggy or overcooked- the best thing is the crunch- and for this go-round, it crunched and sang like I hoped it would. Watching him devour his large portion and sit back with such a satisfied look on his face was another part of the process to satisfaction and it wasn’t just about taking the edge off my craving.
Chicken Asparagus Stir Fry
1 T. toasted sesame oil
1 bunch fresh asparagus, tough ends trimmed, cut into 1″ pieces- tips separate
1 # chicken tenders or boneless breasts, cut into 1″ pieces
2 scallions, trimmed and cut to 1/2″
1 shallot, sliced
1 red pepper, cored seeded and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 c. snow peas, strings removed and cut in half
2 T. minced fresh ginger
1/4 c. oyster sauce
2 T. garlic chili sauce
1/2 c. shelled salted pistachios, coarsely chopped
Heat oil in large skillet or wok over high heat. Add shallot, asparagus and red pepper, stir fry for about 4 minutes, then add snow peas and stir fry 2 minutes. Remove to bowl, cover and keep warm. Swirl a scant 1/2 t. more of oil in pan and add chicken, allow to cook until browned on one side, then flip over and cook until you can’t see any pink. Add sauces and ginger, stir to combine. Add vegetables and stir to coat. Cook about 5 -8 minutes longer or until chicken is no longer pink. Serve over rice, if desired.
The oyster sauce can be swapped with black bean sauce, as I did in this particular preparation. I’ve found that even a short amount of time marinating the chicken in the sauce can add a lot of flavor.
Obviously a stir fry is open to endless interpretation. Add more chili garlic sauce for extra heat; swap out the vegetables or the meat or remove the meat altogether and add some seared tofu. Change out the sauce or the crunchy nut garnish. The pistachios are amazing with this- who knew??