Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Recipe tweaking: Asian Chicken Salad

I find I'm checking a lot of recipe books out of the library at the moment; my initial infatuation with novel preprepared junk food has worn off. (Tater Tots: good. Hot Pockets: despite what Dr. Evil says ("try a Hot Pocket, they're breathtaking"), not so good. Rice-A-Roni: varies, some good, awful. Hamburger Helper: suprisingly and embarrassingly good.)

Anyway, this recipe — from Mark Bittman's book, The Minimalist Cooks at Home — was a real stinker the first time. Mostly my fault: I misjudged the amount of water and my cheap bottle of soy sauce is probably a lot saltier than his. The second time around I cooked it my way and it turned out a lot better; it may yet be a keeper.

Here's how much it changed between his version and mine:

Asian Chicken Salad
4 2 servings

1 1/2 pounds 1 boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts
3 tbsp 4 tsp soy sauce
1 1/2 2 tbsp crunchy peanut butter or tahini
1 tsp roasted sesame oil
1 2 small garlic cloves (or 1 large), peeled and crushed
a few drops a good dash Tabasco
1/4 tsp sugar
1 tbsp rice or other mild vinegar (cider vinegar works well)
1 cucumber
1/2 cup minced cilantro leaves
1/2 cup rice
2 handfuls salad leaves (baby spinach works well)

Cut chicken meat into cubes, skewer, drizzle with 2 tbsp soy sauce. Grill or broil. Season chicken and pan-fry whole in a little oil.

Cook rice by absorption method with 1 cup water.

In a blender bowl, mix remaining soy sauce, peanut butter, sesame oil, garlic, Tabasco, sugar, vinegar. Add 4 tsp hot water 1 tsp at a time until smooth and creamy. (You will not need more than 3 tsp water.) (Don't bother with the blender: the dressing is too thick to pour easily from it, and it's one more thing to clean.)

Peel, deseed, and dice cucumber.

Dice chicken. Combine, garnish with cilantro with cucumber and dressing. Serve on rice and salad leaves.

Still basically the same, but a bit less fidgety. More of a hot meal than a salad. I upped the peanut butter because I like it; and who scoops half-tablespoons of peanut butter, anyway? Similarly, I upped the Tabasco because I liked the undertone of heat; and because a dash is easier to shake out than a few parsimonious drops.

It seems to me that, to make cooking fun, you need a smidgeon of confidence and a healthy disregard for what your recipe says. Once you know the basic mechanics and have some feel for what flavours work together, you can work by feel through a lot of the time.

That said, I've been feeling more like a beginner in my new American kitchen. A different cooker with different idiosyncrasies. Some ingredients are new; some are different; some have changed name; some are harder to find or more expensive than I'm used to. And American recipes all work by volume rather than weight.

It interests me, too, how recipes evolve through familiarity. A lot of my favourites get cooked more from memory than from their recipe card, and a lot of them have changed over time as substitutions and simplifications get made. Most annoyingly for Melinda, most of the changes remain in my memory rather than being committed back onto the recipe card: "oh yeah, it says 1 teaspoon chili powder, but that one's really strong so I use half a teaspoon".