You can’t actually reduce a cuisine’s whole character to one particular ingredient, but if you were to do so, Sichuan cuisine would be defined by the presence of the Sichuan Peppercorn (not related to our peppercorn). This spice isn’t necessarily hot – but it does change the feeling of your mouth the way “hot” food does. The peppercorns give a tingly or numbing sensation, and some people (I’m one of them) start to taste all the food eaten after the peppercorns as very sour (but the effect wears off quickly, don’t be alarmed). Sichuan cuisine usually pairs the peppercorns with hot chilis.
I have not gone hog wild with either my Sichuan peppercorns or my hot chilis in these dishes. I will have extra ground peppercorn and a super spicy chile paste on hand if you want me to doctor your dish to a higher spice level.
Reheating: All of the main dishes will be most easily reheated in a microwave – if you don’t have one of those, a covered saucepan can work, just be sure to add a touch of liquid and to keep the rice or noodles from burning.
Sichuan Beef with Celery. How often is celery a main ingredient in your cooking? The original version of this recipe is by Fuschia Dunlop and was popularly shared on blogs as a “what to do with celery” tip. I’ve changed it around a little but the main gist is lots of celery, beef, and rice and you’ll appreciate grocery store* celery like you may never have before. Prepared mild, if you were going to add extra Sichuan pepper to any of the menu items, I would recommend this one.
[*Farmers’ market celery is a whole different thing – or, technically, the same thing but the local celery I get sure has a lot more punch than what’s in the supermarket.]
Gong Bao Chicken – Also known as Kung Pao Chicken, it’s an actual Sichuan dish, not just something that American fast food restaurants invented. It’s chicken stir fried with peanuts. I happen to like this served over spaghetti noodles lightly dressed with tamari. Spaghetti is really not authentic, but it’s an option – choose noodles or rice.
Mapo Tofu – Spicy tofu in a bright red, silky sauce. If we were being truly traditional this would not be a vegetarian dish, but here it is vegetarian (vegan, in fact). This dish is the spiciest of the main dishes.
Peas stir fried with Chilis & Sichuan pepper, served on a bed of lightly dressed rice noodles. The fresh pea harvest in Vermont in January is lackluster, but high quality frozen peas work here as a close-ish second.
Braised Greens with Preserved Vegetable: Preserved vegetable is not the pungent kimchee type vegetable, but rather a salty condiment that doesn’t taste all that unfamiliar to American tastebuds. With better marketing, I’m sure it could catch on. It’s called a vegetable, but it’s basically a salt lick – what’s not to love?
Miso Soup is not a Sichuan speciality, but boy it tastes good in winter, so it’s here.
Since my last Asian-y dessert was not a hit (soy custard with ginger syrup – its virtues were subtle, I admit that) I’m not being terribly authentic in this go around:
Honey Nougat with Salted Peanuts – Not remotely Sichuan-related, or even Chinese, the tie-in here is the peanuts.
Chocolate-Ginger Biscotti – – Not remotely Sichuan-related, or even Chinese, the tie-in here is the ginger.