I’ve been slacking on the posting, so here’s a nice plump one, with a recipe.
Seven Stars Pepper
The best kind of restaurant for a baby is a Chinese restaurant. Chinese food has all kinds of great textures for a kid to experiment with, and the restaurants are as kid-friendly as you can get. Our regular spot is Seven Stars Pepper, a Sichuanese restaurant at 12th and Jackson, in the heart of Little Saigon. (Seattle’s Chinatown is now as Vietnamese as it is Chinese, so it’s technically known as the International District, or the ID.)
Seattle isn’t known for its Chinese restaurants. In fact, the situation is essentially one of extended crisis, like the Middle East. If I could do something, possibly a special dance, to entice half a million Chinese people to immigrate to Seattle, I would do it. But Seven Stars is an oasis. Like every Chinese restaurant in America, they’re willing to make barely edible goo-soaked fried bits if you ask for it, but they also make spicy and superb dishes. One of my favorites is the house special chow mein. I know that if you’re a foodie it’s embarrassing to go into a Chinese restaurant and order chow mein, but this one is made with chewy hand-shaved noodles and various meats and vegetables, plus shrimp.
There’s a special pancake, one of those thick, many-layered numbers, and this chicken dish called Chong Gin Hot Chicken, which features deep-fried cubes of chicken with an improbable amount of dried red chile and Sichuan pepper. It’s not nearly as spicy as it looks.
Iris’s favorite, hands down, is Ants on a Tree. This is one of those poetic Chinese names like Lion’s Head meatballs. It’s a dish of spicy cellophane noodles stir-fried with ground pork. The noodles are the tree, and the pork is the ants. It’s cooked dry, so the sauce has evaporated, and the pork really does cling to the noodles as you lift them off your plate. It’s simply a great dish, and like all great noodle dishes, it lends itself to that snacking rhythm that ensures you’ll eat far more than you need for pure nourishment. We rarely bring any home.
The other key ingredient at Seven Stars Pepper is Ming, the voluble hostess who picks up Iris and whisks her around the restaurant whenever necessary. This is way better than getting VIP status at Rover’s.
We don’t get to Seven Stars as often as I’d like, so I needed to figure out how to make Ants on a Tree at home. Luckily, I had Noodle.
Terry Durack was one of Australia’s top restaurant critics, and like many successful Australians, he moved to London and started giving London’s restaurants the same treatment. (He works for the Independent.)
Durack is a straightforward and unsentimental writer. He’s written two books of essays (Yum and Hunger), which are not in print in the US (but available from Amazon.co.uk), and one recipe book, Noodle, which is. Durack has also been known to sport a booshy mustache.
Noodle is continent-wide survey of Asian noodles, covering China, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, and so on. It has a handy identification guide in the front with full-page photos of the various noodles in their uncooked state, so you can ID them in the store. It also has loads of terrific recipes, so my quest for Ants on a Tree (which Noodle calls “Ants Climbing Trees”) began and ended here.
The peppercorn question
Seven Stars Pepper’s Ants on a Tree includes ground Sichuan peppercorns. The Noodle recipe doesn’t. You can tell when you’re eating Sichuan peppercorns because your tongue starts to go numb in a pleasurable way. Like other strong seasonings such as rosemary, nutmeg, and cumin, it’s easy to go overboard with Sichuan peppercorns and make dinner taste like you’re sucking on a pine tree. If you eat a bunch of ground Sichuan pepper and then take a drink of water, it’s kind of like drinking orange juice after you brush your teeth. I went a little crazy with the peppercorns last night. It’s supposed to be hint, not a hammer, at least in this dish. There are some dishes, like the Spicy Auzhou Chicken at Grand Sichuan International in New York, where the whole point is to occasionally bite down on a whole peppercorn and have your jaw temporarily disappear.
To make ground Sichuan pepper, toast a handful of peppercorns in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, shaking frequently. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a powder, then sift the powder through a medium-mesh sieve.
Until recently, if you wanted Sichuan peppercorns you had to participate in a shady transaction. They were banned in the US from 1968 until 2005, although the ban wasn’t enforced until 2002. The culprit was a citrus canker, a bacterium that could theoretically devastate Florida and California. (Sichuan peppercorns are the flowers of a citrus tree.) If you’re the kind of person who likes scary medical textbook photos, check this out.
It turns out that you can cook the germs out of Sichuan peppercorns (in polite parlance, “heat-treating”), and this makes them legal for import. So now you can buy them from reputable spice vendors like Penzeys. At the height of the ban, though, countless lives were ruined as Chinese cooks were slapped with huge mandatory minimum sentences, all because of a substance no more dangerous than cabbage. Oh, wait, I’m thinking of pot. Actually, it was never illegal to buy or use Sichuan peppercorns, just to import them.
In today’s Seattle P-I, coincidentally, there’s a Q&A about this exact issue. Restaurant critic Rebekah Denn writes:
We’ve had a few people inquire about our review of “hole-in-the-wall haven” Fu Man Dumpling House (14314 Greenwood Ave. N.), where we roundly praised several items but then dinged the kitchen for having a ma po tofu that throws in various extra ingredients and lacks any flavor of Szechuan peppercorns. Whoa, said readers, aren’t they just being law-abiding citizens? Aren’t those peppercorns banned from the U.S.?
I would never imply that an entire ethnic group consists of scofflaws, but it’s not like any dumpling houses stopped using Sichuan peppercorns while they were banned. When Sichuan peppercorns are outlawed, etc.
A spice grinder rant
I blithely mentioned that you should grind your peppercorns in a spice grinder. But why is it so hard to get a good one? I’ve had two. First was a Krups coffee grinder, about $20. It ground well but was incredibly hard to clean. You had to get a wet paper towel into the crevices without cutting your finger on the blade. So I ditched the Krups for a Kitchenaid model which is larger and has a removable bowl that you can rinse clean. But it leaks. Spices get all over the place, including the housing of the grinder, which is just as hard to wipe clean as the interior of the Krups ever was. The Kitchenaid was $30.
Hey, manufacturers, it’s aught-six already. Would it be possible to make a grinder that doesn’t leak and is possible to clean? If coffee machines sucked this much, there would be riots. Is there another brand of spice grinder I should know about?
Still with me? Good. It’s time for the recipe.
ANTS ON A TREE
Serves about 3
Adapted from Noodle
8 ounces ground pork
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon hot bean paste
1 teaspoon cornstarch
7 to 8 ounces cellophane noodles
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 red jalapeño or Fresno chile, seeded and minced
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/4 tsp ground Sichuan pepper (optional)
In a medium bowl, combine pork with light soy sauce, sugar, hot bean paste, and cornstarch. Refrigerate 20 minutes.
Place noodles in a large bowl and pour boiling water over to cover. Soak 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and drain in a colander.
Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet or a wok over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and jalapeño and cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently. Add the pork and stir-fry until no longer pink, breaking up any chunks, about 3 minutes.
Add the noodles, chicken stock, dark soy sauce, and Sichuan pepper. Cook, tossing the noodles with two wooden spoons, until the sauce is absorbed and pork is well distributed throughout the noodles. Transfer to a large platter and serve immediately.
Notes on ingredients:
Ground pork: To really get the ants to climb the tree, you need finely ground pork. You can take regular ground pork and pulse it a few times in the food processor, but I’m too lazy to bother; it doesn’t affect the flavor.
Hot bean paste: This is the stuff Chen was always reaching for on Iron Chef. Available at Asian groceries and some supermarkets, it’s sometimes called hot bean sauce, or spicy bean paste, or similar.
Cellophane noodles: Also called bean threads. Look for mung bean starch in the ingredients. Around here, they’re sold in a 7.75-ounce package
Dark soy sauce: Also called Superior Soy Sauce or Soy Superior Sauce. I usually buy Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Soy Sauce, which is also the same thing.