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Sichuan peppercorns make suprising Asian noodles

Noodles, namely Thai and Japanese varieties, have tied together this blog’s most recent entries.

I can always count on noodles, pasta in other parlance. It’s the rare occasion when they don’t deliver. I almost take for granted how they convey whatever flavor profile I’m craving. Sometimes, after so many years of singling them out as my favorite food, noodles can still surprise me.

That revelation is all but guaranteed since my recent purchase of Sichuan peppercorns. Having only tried them in restaurant dishes, I couldn’t pass up the spice when I spied it in the bulk section at Ashland’s Shop ’n Kart. Without any idea how to use them, except in Asian-inspired food, I vowed to figure out a method.

Luckily, I recalled a tutorial that the Chicago Tribune published a few months ago. Writer James P. Dewan clarified the peppers’ culinary use and also offered a noodle dish developed with assistance from his friend, Zixin Lu.

Why construct a dish around Sichuan peppercorns? The seed husk of a shrub called “prickly ash” is prized in China for the unusual tingling sensation it produces on the tongue. The tingle, tied to a chemical in the seed called hydroxyl-alpha sanshool, defies classification as “spicy” to exist in a realm all its own.

Sounds strange? Indeed. Unpleasant. For some, perhaps. But I remain curious enough to take the peppercorn plunge.

One point of order: Sichuan peppercorns cannot be substituted for black peppercorns and vice versa. In the plant kingdom, the two are no more related, Dewan writes, than humans are to camels or ocelots.

So that major divide means the spices not only taste differently but should be handled differently, too. Toasting, grinding and distilling into oil are preferred techniques for Sichuan peppercorns.

Before grinding, place the peppercorns into a shallow bowl. Pick out any stems or seeds and discard them. The seeds won’t kill you; they just don’t add any flavor because it’s all in the husks.

Next, place a dry skillet over a medium flame and throw in the peppercorns. Toast them until they start to give off a musky scent, about 3 minutes. Shake the pan while they’re toasting so they don’t burn. A little smoke is OK; just don’t let them turn black.

Some recipes call for other spices to be toasted alongside the peppercorns. Cumin seeds are common, as are whole, dried chiles, the inclusion of which gives dishes some heat.

When everything’s toasted, use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind the peppercorns (or spice mix) to your desired degree of coarseness. At this point, you can use the powder as is or pass it through a fine mesh strainer to eliminate any gritty bits.

To decoct into oil, heat some neutral oil to nearly smoking in a saute pan or wok, then add a tablespoon of whole peppercorns. Fry them until they just start to turn dark, then pull them out and discard. The oil will now have that buzzy quality and can be used to saute or stir-fry, or cool it down and store it in a cool, dry place to use as a garnish on top of rice, noodles, vegetables or meat.

Sichuan-Style Noodles With Pork and Bok Choy

2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, divided

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar

1 tablespoon Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine), optional

1 piece (1 inch long) fresh ginger, peeled and minced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, plus more for garnish

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons Chinese chile sauce or black bean sauce

12 ounces Asian-style fresh noodles or other egg noodles

1/2 pound bok choy, chiffonade

1/4 cup neutral oil, such as peanut or canola

1/2 cup raw peanuts

1/2 pound ground pork or other meat

1/2 bunch cilantro, leaves only, chopped

2 scallions, trimmed and sliced

Spoon 1 tablespoon of the Sichuan peppercorns into a shallow bowl; remove any black seeds or stems. Toast peppercorns in a small, dry saute pan, shaking to toss, over medium heat until fragrant, for 3 to 4 minutes. They’ll produce a little smoke, which is fine, but take care not to let them burn. When cool, use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind them into a powder. Pass them through a fine mesh sieve — such as a tea strainer — and reserve for garnish.

To make sauce, in a bowl, combine the soy sauce, black vinegar, Shaoxing (if using), ginger, the 2 minced garlic cloves, sugar and chile or black bean sauce. Set aside.

Cook the noodles according to package directions. When nearly done, add the bok choy and blanch until wilted. Drain noodles and bok choy; reserve.

Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat. When hot, carefully add the peanuts and fry until cooked through, for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from oil and set aside.

Pour out most of the oil, leaving about 1 tablespoon in wok. Return wok to high heat and add remaining 1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns. When they start to darken (after about 1 minute), remove and discard, keeping oil in wok.

Add the ground pork to oil in wok; stir-fry until cooked through, for about 3 minutes.

Add noodles, bok choy and sauce to wok; stir-fry just to heat through, for about 1 minute.

To serve, divide noodles among 4 bowls; garnish with fried peanuts, the cilantro, more minced garlic, the scallions and ground Sichuan peppercorn powder. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

NOTE: After garnishing, heat a couple tablespoons oil to sizzling and drizzle over top, then serve immediately.

Tribune News Service photo