Sesame oil (Recipe: squash and chicken soup)
Sometimes you feel like a nut.
Sometimes you don't.
Sometimes you feel like a seed, which is just a nut without its hard shell.
Sometimes you feel like a seed that's been crushed and smooshed and toasted and pressed until the oil inside it dribbles out.
That's when you know how sesame oil feels.
There are two types of sesame oil: light (made by pressing raw seeds), and dark (made from hulled sesame seeds that have been toasted prior to pressing). Available in the Asian food aisle in most supermarkets, this dark (toasted) sesame oil is the one to use, as the flavor of the other is, well, nonexistent.
Sesame oil isn't often used as a cooking oil, though it does have a high smoke point of 450°F (compared to extra-virgin olive oil). This oil can take the heat, but its intense nuttiness and somewhat musky flavor makes it better suited to use as a seasoning towards the middle or end of cooking, in dishes like sesame-orange chicken, cold Chinese noodles or sesame noodles, swordfish with amandine lemongrass sauce, sesame edamame salad and firecracker shrimp.
I'm partial to the Maruhon brand, which I can find at several local Asian markets for less than $3.00 per bottle. Kadoya is another good brand. A little goes a long way, and, once opened, a bottle will keep at room temperature for up to a year.
Squash and chicken soup
A dish from the pantry, with the last of the winter's stash of butternut squash. You can substitute ground pork for the chicken, for a more authentically Chinese soup. Serves 3-4.
1/4 lb ground dark meat chicken
1/4 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined, and minced
1 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp vegetable oil
2-3 chicken bouillon cubes OR 4 cups homemade or low-sodium chicken stock
1 butternut squash
Salt, sugar, black pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
Marinate chicken and shrimp together, with cornstarch, sesame oil, salt, sugar and vegetable oil in a small bowl. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil; add bouillon cubes and stir to dissolve, OR bring chicken stock to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-high.
Peel the squash and cut into 1-1/2 inch cubes. Add squash to the broth, and cook until tender. Form the chicken-shrimp mixture into small meatballs, and add them to the stock (a more rustic method is to stir the unmolded mixture directly into the soup). Cook 5 minutes more; season to taste with salt, sugar and lots of pepper. Serve hot.