New Year, Xīn nǐ (New You)

Chinese new year is coming up and it is absolutely inspiring my dinner choices lately! 2021 is the year of the Ox. But this is more a commentary of the vibrant flavors of Chinese/Asian cuisine than it is about the popular draft animal. (Though I am partial to oxtail!) When people (usually Americans) think of Asian cuisine, they typically only see on the surface a handful of simple notes. Soy sauce, rice, tofu… But when you really dive deeper into the cuisine, you’ll discover a whole exciting array of flavors, spices, ingredients, and textures!

According to ancient folklore, there was a monster named Nian who emerged from the sea every Lunar New Year and would hunt people and livestock. The villagers would hide in the mountains until the monster disappeared. One year, an old man appeared claiming that he could rid them all of this horrible monster. Everyone escaped, but the old man stayed behind to make good on his word. The monster came and found no one but the old man locked up tight in a house with all the lights on. The old man had pasted all the windows shut with vibrant red paper. The monster flew into a rage and made way for the front door. At the same time, loud blasts could be heard outside. The front door burst open and out came the old man, clothed in red laughing loudly. The monster was so frightened, it fled and never returned to that village. That’s why it’s customary to wear red and set off fireworks for Chinese New Year!

I digress. Early on in my marriage, I used Chinese Five-Spice in a recipe for snack mix (similar to Chex Mix) for my husband and me to take in our lunches. It didn’t go over well. Our western palates weren’t accustomed to the combination of spices in Five-Spice. We were not accustomed to the combination of the savory spices used in combination with spices typically reserved for sweet-baking in our culture. This could have been the reason we were so unsure about the snack mix, but the thing that really caused me to reopen my mind (and my senses) to Five-Spice, was that I don’t like to rule ingredients out. It just took me a few more years to steel myself to trying it again.

When I watch cooking competition shows, I sometimes wonder about the judges’ personal tastes. Whether they don’t care for certain ingredients. I generally don’t ever know the answer because 1) they always have ridiculous poker faces -lookin’ at you, Joe Bastianich!- and 2) I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard a judge say that they don’t inherently like a particular ingredient. They base everything on flavor and not necessarily personal taste. There’s a pun in there somewhere… I want to know what food is (and isn’t) supposed to taste like. I want to be able to cook without limits. Even if it means suspending personal taste in the quest for culinary achievement.

I recently had another opportunity to cook for a precious family in the church. When someone is recovering from a car accident, you want to give them protein and carbs to help them recover. Not only that, you want to give them a comforting, while still exciting, meal. I went for both with a recipe from Williams-Sonoma for Asian-Style “Barbecue” Ribs. I’m sorry to say the recipe is unavailable online, but fear not! I’m dropping my ever-so-slight variation later…

The number one thing that helped me to enjoy these ribs was the fact that I’ve recently become absolutely enamored with Pho. Not just homemade, but also locally made. The star anise in the Pho seemed similarly off-putting initially, but when combined with all of the other ingredients… and yet magic happened when all were combined to bring something we couldn’t put down. This is the draw of the Asian-style ribs. The seasoning, being both in marinade and sauce was pervasive so there wasn’t really any escape; but somehow when amalgamated with the other ingredients that were a little more relatable, the ribs came out exciting and another dish I didn’t want to put down.

10 cloves garlic, peeled and trimmed
1/3c tightly packed cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
2T olive oil
1T dark brown sugar
2T & 1/2c soy sauce
2T Chinese Five-Spice, divided
2T kosher salt
4lb baby-back ribs, in slabs
1/4c bacon fat (or more olive oil)
1c diced onion
1/2c tomato paste
1c chopped tomatoes
3/4c rice wine vinegar
1T dry mustard
1T ground ginger
1/3c honey
1/3c molasses

1) Make the marinade: Combine the garlic, the 1/3c cilantro leaves, 2T olive oil (more if needed), the brown sugar, the 2T soy sauce, 1T of Five-Spice, and the kosher salt in a small food processer. Blend until smooth (add more olive oil as needed to make a smooth purée). Place the slab of ribs in a covered casserole (it’s ok to cut to size) and smother the ribs on both sides with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate 5-24hr.
2) Make the Barbecue Sauce: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the bacon fat and sautée the onion until soft (about 10min). Transfer the fat and onion to a small food processer and purée until smooth. Return the onion purée to the saucepan. Add in tomato paste, tomatoes, vinegar, mustard, ginger, the 1/2c soy sauce, honey, molasses, and the remaining 1T Five-Spice. Stir until well combined and heat over low until (stirring frequently) for 15min to allow all of the flavors to marry. Set aside or store in an air-tight container overnight until ready to use.
3) When the ribs are marinated, pull the casserole out of the fridge and allow to stand for 30min at room temp. Preheat the oven to 375°F and bake for 45min. (While the ribs are baking, bring your barbecue sauce to warm if it’s been stored chilled). Remove the casserole from the oven and carefully and baste the ribs with the barbecue sauce. Flip the ribs and re-sauce. Replace the casserole lid and return to the oven for for 15min. Remove from the oven and test for doneness. If the ribs aren’t cooked through, flip once more, and return to oven for 10-15min more.
4) When the ribs are done cooking, slice into individual segments and serve with more sauce. Garnish with chopped cilantro, and a light sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

(Bon App has a fewer-ingredient, but similar version here.) I finished the dish with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds and rough-torn cilantro. I paired the ribs with vegetable-broth-cooked brown rice and oven-charred lemon broccolini. What are some flavors you’ve reversed course on?

Currently Reading: Food Network Magazine, March 2017

Scripture of the Day: “Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. There had never been such spices as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” -2 Chronicles 9:9


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