Seasonal Cooking 16 May 2013 08:39 pm
Read the Recipe for kung pao fiddleheads
I would love to tell you how cooking with fiddleheads brings the qi of wood, the element of spring, into your food. I’d love to say how traditional Chinese medicine aligns spring with the cleansing powers of the body’s liver meridian, and that the early, bitter-tasting foods of the new season aid in the cleaning and rejuvenation of the body and spirit.
I can’t though because I don’t know very much about traditional Chinese medicine. But I do love to think how the new foods of spring are a symbol and catalyst for the renewal of body and soul. All winter we sustained ourselves with old food – root veggies from last year’s harvest, apples held in cold storage, August tomatoes sealed in vacuum jars — and now finally we’re eating again the young, newly sprouted, living food of the new year. How can you help but feel restored by that?
I was thinking about of all this when I asked Diana Kuan, author of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, for help adapting her recipe for kung pao chicken to use stir-fried fiddleheads. Fiddleheads are the young tops of an edible fern, and are among the earliest edible things to grow as the warming sun melts away the last of winter. I thought: if I’m to bring the qi of Spring into this dish, shouldn’t I alter the recipe somehow to maintain the balance if its qi?
I’m sure Diana would’ve thought I was a little nuts if I’d asked her that, so instead I asked her something simpler: how should I alter her recipe to account for the flavor of the ferns? What’s some good advice for composing the sauce for a stir-fry? Her answer was simple as well: as in all cooking, let flavor be your guide. “I usually start,” she said “by evening out the salty flavors (soy sauce) w/ something acidic (rice wine, rice vinegar, black vinegar), something spicy (Sichuan pepper), something sweet (sugar), or something with a deeper flavor like hoisin or oyster sauce. And then throw in extras like sesame oil, chili sauce, or dried chilis.“
My kung pao fiddleheads stuck fairly close to Diana’s original recipe with a couple of adjustments: I wanted a milder sauce that wouldn’t hide the delicate bitterness of the ferns, so I used Chinese wine instead of vinegar. And since I’d backed off the sourness of the vinegar, I used less sugar as well. I was very happy with the finished product. I think it turned out much better since I composed it using flavor, rather than philosophy, as my guide.