the fritter experiment

Ever since our last trip to Portland I’ve been dreaming about the corn fritters we ate at the Whiskey Soda Lounge. I was determined that when corn came into season up here I would try making them myself. Of course, now I don’t quite remember what was in them, but nothing ventured nothing gained. I bought a few ears of fabulously sweet corn from Steve at Dunbar Gardens last week and we grilled them with a little ancho chile salt one night for dinner. We also put a couple of poblano peppers on the grill, and the next night I skinned them and tossed them in a food processor with the leftover grilled corn kernels. I saved out some of the corn and added it in after processing, for texture. Then I mixed in about a third of a cup of flour, one egg, and a handful of chopped fresh cilantro. I plopped spoonfuls of this into a hot skillet and cooked them until golden.

The result was absolutely nothing like the fritters at WSL (which I’m quite sure were deep-fried and possibly full of dried shrimp and minced Thai chile), but it was very tasty nonetheless, much like a Southwest-y version of the “corn oysters” my parents used to make when I was a kid. We ate the fritters as a side dish with a Thai beef-eggplant stirfry, then I refried the leftovers for breakfast with fried eggs and habanero sauce. Now that was good.

Corn’s still in season, what variation shall I try next?

nam pla prik

bird chiles

Some friends recently gifted us with a bag of fresh Thai bird chiles. They’re amazingly hot! We can only manage about two in a stir-fry (and even that gives everyone in the kitchen a sneezing fit), so it didn’t look like we’d make it through the bag before they started to spoil, which would have been a terrible shame. One afternoon when I was spending some time in the kitchen I threw together a batch of nam pla prik to use some of them up.

nam pla prik

Easiest recipe in the world, as long as you wear rubber gloves. Take about half a cup of stemmed bird chiles and finely chop them. Scrape them, seeds and all, into a clean jar. Pour fish sauce over to cover. Keep in the fridge indefinitely, adding more chiles or fish sauce as necessary to keep the sauce going. Use as a condiment for anything that needs a little extra salt or spice.

I just ate a lot of this dribbled over steamed broccoli with a squeeze of lime. More than a little heat, especially if you get the seeds, but so very good.

Hunanese salted chiles (and a very good tofu recipe)

red chiles

red chiles

I haven’t had much experience with curing, souring or fermenting things at home – I tried making preserved lemons once but it didn’t work particularly well – and it’s something I’ve been wanting to learn more about. Hunanese salted chiles, a key ingredient in the cookbook I’ve been working through, sounded like a good way to ease into things – sort of a lazy girl’s kim chee. It’s nothing but chiles and salt, does not need special attention or preserving techniques, and is very good to eat. It ages for two weeks in a cool place – I just stuck the jar on a pantry shelf in my basement, which stays near 55° all winter – then keeps indefinitely in the fridge. Although I can tell our jar of chiles isn’t going to have the opportunity to stick around very long.

salted chiles

It really is a simple recipe. The hardest part by far was actually getting hold of a pound of ripe red chiles in the middle of winter. We had to wait until we made a trip to the produce section of Uwajimaya in Seattle, where they had an excellent selection of what they called “red jalapeños” but most stores just refer to as Fresno chiles. They’re not an extremely spicy pepper but they’re very sweet and fruity, and all these flavors really came out in the preserving process. The final product is actually quite spicy, but also sweet and surprisingly silky in the mouth. I think they’re wonderful – hot, sour, salty and sweet, all in one condiment. This will become a pantry staple for us.

chiles and salt

Hunanese chopped salted chiles

from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 1 lb fresh red chiles
  • 1/4 cup salt

Cut off the stem and tip of each chile and coarsely chop them, including the seeds.

Combine the chopped chiles in a bowl with 3 ½ tbsp of the salt, mix well, place in a very clean glass jar and top with the remaining salt. Seal and put in a cool place for a couple of weeks before using, then refrigerate once opened. Will keep for months.

chiles two ways

What to do with the chiles once they’re done? As far as I can tell, anything that you would use either fresh chiles or chile paste for. I used them in place of fresh red chiles when I made red-braised tofu a couple of weeks ago, I threw a spoonful into a bowl of dan dan noodles, and last night I made a Hunanese dish of pork and tofu that really showcased the chiles.

I’ve made this recipe twice so far. The first time I didn’t have the salted chiles so I doubled the chile bean paste (as Dunlop suggests), and I used fresh shiitakes instead of dried. This time I did use dried mushrooms, and was frankly amazed at the flavor they gave to the sauce. I’ll need to keep dried shiitakes on hand from now on. And while the recipe was good with just the chile bean paste, it was worlds better with the salted chiles – more depth, sweetness, heat and just generally tastier. I nearly licked out the wok.

homestyle bean curd with pork

Homestyle Bean Curd

adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 2 dried shiitakes
  • 1 block tofu, cut into slices or cubes (whatever type of tofu you like – I only use silken these days)
  • 1 boneless pork loin chop, cut into thin slices
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing wine or sherry
  • 1 Tbsp chile bean paste
  • 1 Tbsp chopped salted chiles
  • 1 Tbsp chopped garlic
  • 1 cup stock
  • 1/4 tsp soy sauce
  • spoonful of cornstarch mixed with two spoonfuls of cold water
  • 3 scallions
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • peanut oil or lard

Soak the mushrooms in hot water 30 minutes. Drain, remove the stems, and thinly slice.

Mix  the sliced pork with Shaoxing wine in a bowl. Set aside.

If you want the tofu to be a bit firmer, fry the slices until golden in a bit of peanut oil or lard. Set aside. I sometimes skip this step if I’m in the mood for soft-textured tofu.

Heat a bit of oil in a wok until very hot. Stir-fry the pork until the pieces separate, add the chile paste and salted chiles and stir well, then the garlic and mushrooms. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer.

Add the tofu and soy and bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook until it begins to thicken, then add the scallions and sesame oil. Serve with plenty of rice to soak up the sauce.

silken tofu


red chiles

salted chiles

cumin beef

spices and aromatics

Another recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, and this one is really a keeper. We were introduced to cumin lamb and beef at our old favorite (and much missed) Chinese restaurant Szechuan Bistro, and ordered it nearly every time we went there, but never tried to make it ourselves. Since the Greenwood arsonist burned the place down, we haven’t been able to get it anywhere locally. Now, well…I may not be able to reproduce their spicy green beans with tofu as yet, but at least I can have cumin beef. Any time I want!


Part of why this was so successful was the beef. The recipe suggested sirloin, so I hunted out a package from the freezer, from our half-cow from Skagit Angus. All of the beef we’ve gotten from them has been spectacular, but this was particularly excellent – chewy but very very tender, with a full beef flavor and a nice amount of fat marbled throughout. One of the best tasting pieces of meat I’ve ever had. Dumping a lot of cumin and hot chiles on it didn’t hurt it at all, though.

We served this on Japanese-style white rice, with a lot of stir-fried kale on the side to cut the richness of the meat. I also used some of the leftover beef to make a sandwich with roasted peppers, which I can also recommend highly. God,  I’m making myself hungry.

Cumin Beef

adapted from the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop


  • 1 Tbsp Chinese rice wine
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp salt


  • 1 pound sirloin, cut into thin slices
  • 2 tsp fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 hot green chiles, seeded and chopped
  • 2 tsp dried chile flakes
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 scallions, finely sliced
  • sesame oil

Combine the beef in a bowl with the marinade ingredients and mix well.

Original recipe instruction: heat 2 cups of peanut oil in a wok to 275°. Add the beef and stir gently. As soon as the pieces have separated, removed them from othe oil and drain well. Set aside. Pour out all but a few spoonfuls of the oil.

What I did: put a wok over high heat and add 1/4 cup of peanut oil. Add the beef in batches, stirfrying briefly until it begins to color and the pieces separate. Remove from the wok and set aside. Add a spoonful or two of fresh oil to the pan.

Then: Bring the wok back up to high heat and add the ginger, garlic, chiles, chile flakes and cumin. Fry briefly until fragrant, then add all the beef back in and stir well. When it’s cooked as much as you want (I left my beef a little rare), add the scallions, pour in a bit of sesame oil and serve with rice.

Tai Bai chicken

Tai Bai chicken

We’ve been in the mood for Chinese food a lot lately, but were wanting some new ideas. Opening some Chinese cookbooks at random led me to a chicken recipe in Land of Plenty that I’d never noticed before. It’s called Tai Bai, apparently in honor of the poet Li Bai. It’s easy to put together and involves very little chopping, which is a real selling point some nights. It has no garlic or ginger – the primary flavors are chiles, both dried and pickled, plus Sichuan pepper. It’s moderately fiery, so I wouldn’t recommend this one if you don’t have much spice tolerance. We think it’s delicious.

hot peppers

pickled peppers

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hot yogurt

soup and curry

Most yogurt soups I’ve seen have been summer concoctions, raw and chilled. But I really liked this yogurt-spinach soup, spiced with green chile and ginger, thickened with chickpea flour and served hot. It was bright, tart, fresh, and very warming. We found it in Meena Pathak’s book Flavors of India, where she explains that this is what her mother made for her to eat every day after school in the winter, and it really is comfort food, especially if you have fried potatoes or warm flatbreads (or even better, samosas) to dip in it. When we made it, we served it as a side dish with an aromatic chicken-tomato curry and a side of spiced okra, and it made a beautifully balanced meal. It’s a great way of getting some extra greens on the table, and very quick to make.

This was a pretty spicy soup, mostly because I like to microplane hot chiles to get a smooth texture – but that means all the seeds and membranes go in. If you want it milder, you could deseed the chile and mince it finely, but I don’t think I would leave it out altogether.

Yogurt Spinach Soup

Adapted from Flavors of India: Authentic Indian Recipes by Meena Pathak. Serves two as a starter or side dish.

  • 1 heaping Tablespoon chickpea flour
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 3 oz fresh spinach, washed and shredded
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 piece fresh ginger, minced or microplaned
  • 1 hot green chile, minced or microplaned
  • pinch of sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp cilantro, chopped

Combine the chickpea flour and the 2 Tbsp water in a small bowl and set aside.

In a saucepan, combine the yogurt, ginger, chiles, sugar, salt, and 1 cup water. Stir in the chickpea flour mixture and place the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently, until the liquid thickens slightly. Add the spinach, stir until wilted, then serve. Garnish each bowl with fresh cilantro.



This is a favorite meal of ours for those nights when we don’t have a lot of time, we hardly have any fresh vegetables in the house, and we want something with a lot of flavor and a definite comfort factor. Kheema is like the Indian equivalent of chile con carne, or sloppy Joe mix, or spaghetti sauce. There are many different versions – probably as many as there are cooks who make it – and it can be tweaked to accommodate whatever you have in your pantry, as long as you have 1. ground meat 2. chile peppers (fresh or dried) 3. canned tomato and 4. spices. Onions and garlic are helpful, but not absolutely required.

My favorite kheema recipe for when we have no fresh chiles in the house is from Madhur Jaffrey’s first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. It’s warm with onion and whole sweet spices as well as dried red chiles, and tastes wonderful. But our current favorite kheema is from the Parsi cookbook My Bombay Kitchen. It uses whole slit green chiles as well as cayenne pepper, so it has a complex spiciness, and it can be made as thick or soupy as you like, depending on how you’re serving it. We usually ladle it over white rice, but the last time we made it I griddled some fresh chapati and we spooned the kheema into the breads with yogurt and chutney. It could also be eaten straight out of a bowl, maybe with tortilla chips. Why not? Not to mention the possibilities of using it for stuffing samosas, or topping pizza.


And for breakfast, I can recommend making a sort of huevos rancheros with leftover kheema and runny fried eggs over sourdough toast or chapati or tortillas. Oh, yeah.

A note about the recipe: there are a few odd ingredients here, but please don’t be scared off by them. We keep curry leaves in our freezer, but the kheema will be perfectly fine without them. And don’t worry about the dhana jiru or the sambar masala – we happen to have both of those, because Jon loves to make spice blends at home, but you can either leave them out, or do what I do, which is to look up the blend, see what the major flavors are, and just add a few of the more important-sounding ones. I’ve indicated a few possible options in the recipe.

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dan dan mian, two ways

dan dan noodles

It’s always a bit odd to make a new recipe, taste it, then realize that you don’t know whether it turned out or not, since you have no idea of what it’s supposed to taste like. When we made dan dan noodles for the first time, it may or may not have been a success.

dan dan noodles

What I do know is that the noodles were flavorful, the sauce had an interesting sweet/spicy/salty tang, and the Sichuan pepper gave it so much ma that I couldn’t feel my mouth for half an hour afterwards. So perhaps it was a success. We decided to try it again another time.

preserved vegetable

That was our first time using Tianjin preserved vegetable, a fermented cabbage product that we had just recently found at a little Chinese market in Seattle’s International District. According to Fuchsia Dunlop, mistress of all things Sichuan, it’s not quite a perfect stand-in for traditional Sichuanese fermented vegetable, but it comes close. The flavor of it was sweet, a little funky and really, really, really salty. We keep trying to decide if we want to replace it when we use up the jar, or just use cabbage and lots of salt instead.

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homemade chili oil

hot chiles

chili oil

Homemade chili oil is one of the those things where once you’ve made it, you wonder what on earth was stopping you making it. It’s so easy, and so good. All you need is a saucepan and a decent thermometer, and you can adjust the flavorings however you like.

ground red chili

We used to make flavored oils more often, but would make too much at once and have them go rancid when we couldn’t use them up in time. We’ve learned our lesson now, I think – small amounts only. It’s not like it’s hard to make more.

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setting fire to shrimp


I don’t know if we make this dish mainly because it’s tasty, or because it’s so much fun to set fire to a panful of shrimp. Probably both.

shrimp fra diavolo

Shrimp fra diavolo (“Brother Devil”) is a traditional dish, the main idea being a spicy tomato sauce with shrimp, saucing long skinny pasta. The version we make comes from an old issue of Cook’s Illustrated. It adds an extra step or two to the typical recipe, but it’s well worth the effort. If you’ve never flambéed before, give it a try – it’s gratifyingly easy. Just make sure there’s nothing flammable right above your stove burners. You can skip the flambéing step, but the shrimp won’t have as deep and rich a flavor.


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