Friday, June 29, 2007

The Poussin Meets the Sichuan Peppercorn

Doesn’t the title of this post sound like some operatic tale? It’s just my way to introduce two different ingredients I’ve been meaning to try for awhile and recently got around to cooking with them.

First, I’ve been fascinated by Sichuan peppercorns since I read about them in the great China Moon Café Cookbook. The China Moon Café was a fantastic Asian-fusion restaurant on Post Street in the 1980-90s. I remember having a great meal at the counter as I watched mostly non-Asian chefs creating explosive fires from their hot woks. The cookbook is a very traditional approach to Chinese cooking, and gives very explicit details of cooking from scratch. Chef Barbara Tropp talked about the fragrance of Sichuan peppercorns and I wanted to use them ever since. Of course, I searched and searched and couldn’t find them. That’s probably because for a few years after I read about Sichuan peppercorns, they were banned by the USDA because it could contain citrus canker, which attacks citrus trees.

But now they’re legal (they have to be heat-treated) and I’ve seen them popping up at all the gourmet stores. I bought a container of these beautiful rust-colored peppercorns from Whole Foods. Sichuan peppercorns aren’t really from the pepper family but are the dried berries of a prickly ash tree. I know, sounds like some myth created to make them sound more exotic. But the berries do look a bit prickly, don’t they?

BTW, I use the current Chinese national Romanized spelling of Sichuan, instead of the old spelling Swechwan. They’re both pronounced the same way. (In Mandarin, it would sound something like SUH-chwan.)

With my Sichuan peppercorn in my pantry, I decided to make a traditional steamed chicken using salt and grounded Sichuan peppercorn to season the chicken before hand. For fun, I decided to cook with a fresh poussin. Poussin, or spring chicken, seems to be a favorite in some menus lately. It’s basically a Cornish game hen, which I used to always buy frozen and made a perfect dinner for the Single Guy Chef for obvious reasons. This time I bought a fresh poussin at Bristol Farms Market at the Westfield San Francisco Centre. The recipe below is a slight adaptation of a recipe by Tropp, but with fewer steps and smaller serving size for singles. I created a ginger-onion oil that I poured over the poussin afterwards, reminiscent of a chicken dish that’s popular in Hawaii whose Chinese name basically translates to mean “onion-oil chicken.” It’s served cool, but this version is served warm. Enjoy!

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