While I was reading the current selection of the Cook the Books club, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop1 we spent a couple of days in Ashland, OR, to watch three plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. One of my stops during our visit was The Spice and Tea Exchange2, a favorite store, where I like to explore shelves of spices (spezie), custom blends, and teas. In the pepper section, a glass jar labeled Szechuan Pepper Berry introduced me to the spice of the book's title. Of course, I bought some.
Sichuan pepper, as you can see from the photo, does not look like (and is not even related to) the typical black or white peppercorns (grani di pepe) we buy and put in our pepper mill: they are the husks of a berry.
For my first experience using Sichuan pepper, I chose a recipe with mushrooms3 and purchased a selection of them plus New Zealand spinach4 (a vegetable I like a lot) at the Downtown Berkeley farmers' market. The dish was good and I got to experience the tingling of my lips that is the hallmark symptom of having eaten a Sichuan pepper-laced dish.
I then looked around for more ideas and was intrigued by recipes for Chinese chili oil (Chinese chili sauce), which is oil infused with chili and other spices. I made a mild version, using a California chile leftover from my recent experiment with mole poblano5 (shown in the top photo), rather than hot peppers (peperoncini piccanti) and put my Italian touch on it by using olive oil (olio d'oliva). I also kept it simple with just the Sichuan pepper as spice (plus sesame seeds, semi di sesamo). The oil is of a bright red color.
The recipe that mostly inspired me6 blends chili oil and a vinegar and soy sauce mix to make a vinaigrette: I left the two separate so I can apportion each depending on the vegetable I am dressing: for example, a bit more vinegar on farm-fresh butter lettuce, less on roasted asparagus (photo below).
- 1 dried California chile
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper (berries)
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml extra-virgin olive oil OR 2 tablespoons / 30 ml extra-virgin olive oil and 2 tablespoons / 30 ml avocado oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon / 15 ml balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml tamari
- 1 teaspoon blackstrap molasses
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
Remove stem and seeds from the chile and break it into pieces. Pick out any stems from the Sichuan pepper.
Toast both in a dry skillet until fragrant (shake the skillet often ensure nothing burns).
Place the chile and pepper in a mortar and grind until the chile is broken into tiny pieces and the pepper is reduced to a powder. Transfer to a small bowl.
Pour oil(s) in a small saucepan and heat until it reaches about 230 F / 110 C. Immediately pour the hot oil over the chile and pepper mixture: it will should sizzle. Let it cool for 5 minutes then add to it the sesame seeds, stir and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the vinegars, tamari, molasses and stir well. Set aside until ready to use.
Stir both components of the dressing before using and add each to taste, tossing to coat vegetables. Start with a small amount and add to taste, as the flavors involved are quite pronounced. I have dressed butter lettuce and roasted asparagus with it and liked the result a lot. In both cases, optionally sprinkle more sesame seed on top of the vegetables.
Store chili oil and vinegar/tamari (in small glass jars) in the refrigerator until needed. Take them out of the refrigerator to bring them back to room temperature before using.
I had heard praise for our club's selection and was therefore eager to read it: I cannot say it captured my attention with either writing style or content. Still, I am grateful to the book for making me try a new ingredient, a great spice that will keep its place in my cabinet and that I am looking forward to using in numerous other dishes.
1 The book's page on the author's website
2 The Spice and Tea Exchange in Ashland, OR
3 Sichuan Wild Mushroom Sauté with New Zealand Spinach
4 New Zealand spinach (not a true spinach, but similar in flavor and usage)
5 Recipe of Mole poblano
6 Sichuan-Style Asparagus and Tofu Salad Recipe
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
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FTC disclosure: I have received the linens free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.