One of the first cookbooks I bought for myself was Flavors by Donna Hay. I'd seen her on an episode of Martha Stewart Living. She explained to Martha that the book's concept is that, instead of organizing everything into chapters by course, it's divided into sections based on different flavors, such as salt, pepper, ginger, garlic, etc. Since then I've acquired at least 6 or 7 of Donna's other books and even went to a book signing she did at Sur La Table about a year ago to promote her latest book The Instant Cook. And yet, I rarely cook from them. I'm not really sure why. It's not like the recipes require lots of skill or steps or hard to find ingredients. In fact, I've really enjoyed the dishes I have made from them. I love getting them out every so often and looking through them. They are seriously the ultimate food porn. Gorgeous. Gorgeous. Beautiful. But for some reason I just almost never seem to cook from any of them.
I started thinking about Ms. Hay again about a month ago when I read an article in the LA Times about food writing from other countries, specifically England and Australia. As the article put it, "Hay's gift is making exquisite food look as easy as ready-made pie crust ... She also exhibits the usual Australian bent for Asian ingredients incorporated into the most Western-looking menu, such as in chicken baked with five-spice powder." The five spice powder got me intrigued. I've never used Chinese five-spice powder. What exactly IS this exotic, mystical sounding spice mix? I set out to do a little research.
According to Chinesefood.About.com, "athough the exact origins of five-spice powder are lost to history, there is some thought that the Chinese were attempting to produce a 'wonder powder' encompassing all of the five elements. All of the five flavors - sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty - are found in five-spice powder." Isn't that interesting? Apparently there are many variations of the combination of spices that make up the powder. Fennel seed, cloves, and ginger are pretty standard in most of the recipes with the other two slots typically being filled by star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, cassia, and /or nutmeg.
I headed to my local supermarket, hoping that they would have the powder and that I wouldn't have to trek all the way to Chinatown to find it. I was in luck. Back at home, I pulled out The Instant Cook and began browse through it. Although I came across a number of recipes that call for this special powder (they seem to LOVE five-spice down in Australia), I settled on this interesting pork stir-fry concoction.
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon chinese five-spice powder
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 lb. pork, sliced against the grain into 1/2 inch thick slices
2 more tablespoons vegetable oil
4 scallions, sliced
7 ounces of snow peas, shredded (I cut each snow pea into three pieces, lengthwise)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
hoisin sauce, to serve
Heat a frying pan over high heat. Add the oil, five-spice, ginger, and red pepper flakes and cook for 30 seconds. Add the pork and cook for 5 minutes or until the meat is well browned. Remove the pork from the pan and set aside.
Add the remaining oil and the rice to the pan and cook until the rice is hot. Add the green onions and the snow peas and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the cooked pork and the soy sauce.
Serve in bowls with the hoisin sauce on the side.
So the five-spice powder gives this dish such an interesting and kind of unexpected flavor. Wonderfully aromatic while it cooked, the warmth of the cinnamon, cloves, and fennel work especially well with the tender, juicy pork while the ginger brings a pungent fresh sort of sweetness. The snow peas are light and stay perfectly crisp and the hoisin sauce adds a very nice garliky, sweet finish. The whole meal feels really, very satisfying but at the same time has a lightness.
It takes practically no time at all to cook, in fact most of the time I spent on the meal was cutting the snow peas but in all honesty, you could skip that step and just cook them whole. You could also probably switch them out with green beans or asparagus.