Chili paste with garlic (Recipe: spicy chicken balls)
With the new year comes wisdom, and, at last, I have an answer to the question of the ages:
What's your favorite pantry item?
Oh. You were expecting another question. Something along the lines of what is the meaning of life? Why is the Earth round? Why did the chicken cross the road?
Here in The Perfect Pantry, I'm often asked about my favorite pantry item. So here it is, my favorite, the one thing I'd choose if I had to choose just one thing.
Chili paste with garlic.
Even as I write this, I'm mentally checking the pantry shelf. I know I have at least three jars -- a kind of chili paste security blanket -- plus the open jar in the refrigerator. Whew. Enough.
Now, I know you're thinking that salt, or sugar, or flour would be more likely choices for a favorite ingredient. Perhaps, but with one teaspoonful of chili paste, I can elevate any soup or stir-fry to something pleasantly warm, or downright incendiary. Who needs salt when you can have heat?
Chili paste with garlic contains mashed chile peppers, salt, soybean oil and garlic. It looks similar to sambal oelek, which is also mashed chile peppers, occasionally with salt, lime or vinegar added. The soybean oil in the chili paste with garlic gives it a bit thicker consistency than a sauce. Store it, unopened, at room temperature; refrigerate after opening, for up to one year. When you first open the jar, stir it well to redistribute the oil that has settled on the top.
I've written before about Lydia's Spicy Trinity (named after the famous Cajun trinity of onion, celery and bell pepper), which is my all-purpose seasoning combination for all manner of stir-fry dishes:
3 parts Kikkoman reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 parts oyster-flavored sauce
1 part chili paste with garlic (I am partial to the Lan Chi brand, available in Asian markets or online)
I love marinating half a dozen chicken breasts in a quarter of a cup of Spicy Trinity diluted with a bit of water, with a handful of sliced scallions added. Seal all ingredients in a ziploc bag, massaging occasionally, for four hours or overnight, and cook on the grill or under a broiler. Slice, and serve atop a bowl of noodles. Or, try chili paste with garlic in deviled eggs, mussels, spicy eggplant or Chinese hot pot.
The number of condiments -- Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian -- that are called some variation of chili/garlic/sauce/paste is mind-boggling. The key difference seems to be the presence or absence of vinegar. Chili paste with garlic has no vinegar, so any similar sauce or paste or sambal (or even harissa or red pepper flakes) can stand in for it, though the taste and texture will never be exactly the same.
Spicy chicken balls
An easy and unusual appetizer. Makes 24-30; can be doubled.
1 lb ground chicken
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (make in the food processor from a couple of slices of good country white bread)
2 scallions, diced
1-1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 cup chopped parsley or cilantro
1-1/2 tsp chili paste with garlic
1/2 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
Peanut oil, for frying
Mix chicken and bread crumbs in a bowl. Add scallions, coriander, parsley, chili paste and soy sauce, and mix well. Using damp hands, form mixture into evenly shaped bite-size balls.
EITHER heat oil in a frying pan and fry until browned all over, or place directly on a baking sheet and bake at 400°F until cooked through (10-15 minutes). If you skip the frying, the chicken balls will not be as crusty on the outside, but will have slightly less fat. Good either way. Serve with toothpicks, or wrapped in lettuce leaves.