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Potent spice heralds Year of the Tiger

There’s no better occasion than Lunar New Year to break out my bottle of Sichuan peppercorns.

The misnomer may be intended to ingratiate this seasoning to the uninitiated. Completely unrelated to actual peppercorns, this spice rather is the reddish-pink seed husk of the prickly ash shrub, which numbs the lips upon impact

Sichuan cuisine’s reputation as synonymous with spicy is enough to ward off every member of my household, excepting myself. But in truth, the tingling sensation produced by Sichuan peppercorns is even more unfamiliar to the Western palate. It exists purely in a realm of its own.

So my peppercorns have been sitting unused in my spice cabinet for the past year, awaiting the moment when I can cook a dish only to suit myself, a precious rarity. I have been craving the Sichuan noodles referenced in this blog’s previous post since last summer. It’s possible, though, for this chicken recipe to feed my family absent the peppercorns and also — if cooked in a separate pan — myself.

There’s perhaps no Sichuan dish as famous, acknowledges Tribune News Service writer Gretchen McKay, as “ma po.” Traditionally made with tofu and ground pork, this version substitutes ground chicken. I’m inclined to add back the tofu, for its cooling properties, at the very end of this recipe.

Tribune News Service photo

Almost Ma Po Chicken

3 tablespoons good vegetable oil (I used sesame)

1 1/2 pounds ground chicken

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon dark sesame oil

1 teaspoon red chile flakes, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns

1 pound green beans, trimmed

Butterhead, green leaf or romaine lettuce, washed, dried and separated into leaves

Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Chopped pistachios, for garnish

In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the chicken, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until it's browned and crisp in places, for 5 to 10 minutes.

While chicken cooks, mash the black beans with a fork in a small bowl. Add the ketchup, vinegar, cornstarch, sesame oil, chile flakes and Sichuan peppercorns. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and mash until a thick paste forms.

Add mixture to browned chicken, stirring until coated and fragrant, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water and the green beans; stir. Bring to a boil, reduce heat so mixture bubbles steadily and cover.

Cook, stirring once or twice, until sauce thickens and beans are as tender as you like, for 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To serve, spoon chicken mixture into lettuce leaves. Top with the chopped cilantro and chopped pistachios.

Makes 6 servings.

— Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from "Dinner for Everyone" by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, $40).