Kitchen Chemistry: More Bang for your Buck

Adam is back today with a colorful (and economical) favorite...

There are many dimensions to a good recipe, one of the LEAST important of which is CO$T. Complexity and quality of food is often achieved by using more numerous or higher priced ingredients- but there is a point of diminishing returns. I have yet to encounter Kobe beef wrapped caviar, or saffron-stuffed sea bass shallow-fried in truffle oil. These dishes would be decadent to an uncomfortable extreme, overwhelming the palate as well as the pocketbook. Money can only take a cook so far. In fact, the most talented chefs are restrained, subtle, frugal, and inventive- more likely to emphasize a single quality ingredient rather than bombard the diner with several. In this spirit, I present my Hoisin-Black Bean BBQ Chicken & Asian Slaw.

Before we get to the recipe, let's break this down. Fresh ingredients are almost always more expensive than dried/canned/frozen ingredients. Careful appropriation of both fresh/high quality/expensive AND preserved/generic/cheap ingredients is the only way to achieve great flavor on a modest budget (and our budget is certainly modest). To get mathematical, an inexpensive dish should be 80%-95% "cheap" by mass/volume. To use a sports analogy, there are Utility Players (texture, volume, structure, starch, & fiber) and All-Stars (flavor, seasoning, garnish, fat & perhaps protein). In preparing this dish, I deliberately selected a few unusual and expensive ingredients as flavor highlights (like fresh basil & ginger and Thousand Year fermented black beans), but the other ingredients were comically cheap (Top-Ramen, need I say more?), helping to bring the whole package into a reasonable price range.

The Asian Slaw is a simple mixture of chopped purple cabbage, diced radish, diced sweet onion, and crumbled Top-Ramen. It was seasoned with the Oriental Top-Ramen packet, rice wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Grilled pineapple rings and grilled sweet onion were added as flavor accents. All of these ingredients fall into the preserved/generic/cheap category.

Frozen dark meat chicken was barbecued in my Hoisin-Black Bean Sauce. To make this sauce, sauté minced ginger (4 oz), black bean garlic sauce (4 oz), chopped sweet onion (6 oz) and sambal (1-2 oz) in minimal vegetable oil. Deglaze with generic mirin, add a generic hoisin sauce (24-32 oz) and seasoned rice wine vinegar (6-8 oz), then simmer for 20 minutes. Strain this mixture and cool. Add the zest and juice of 3 limes and 1/2 of an orange. Add salt, pepper, and chili paste to taste. You'll have plenty leftover after you've sauced your chicken. This sauce can be (and was) used a condiment, marinade, or glaze. It's a fantastic addition to grilled fruits, vegetables, or caramelized onions.

Fresh basil and sliced orange were served as bright garnishes (and palate cleansers). 

Elizabeth's contribution to the meal was a sake cocktail: cheap sake from Ranch 99, a bottle of seltzer, a can of limeade, and canned pineapple rings, curled orange peel slivers, and maraschino cherries skewered on a chopstick. We got a whole pitcher for far less than a couple drinks would've cost us at a bar (plus I didn't have to tip the waitress).

The plating style integrates all ingredients, resulting in a three-dimensional landscape of food. This is a typical example of my culinary style: a stratified taste adventure for less than $5 per plate (economies of scale apply).

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