If Yan Could Cook. . .

Dirty Little Things: Battered Zucchini and Carrot with Dipping Sauce, Pancetta-Wrapped Cheddar Jalapeno Shrimp

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Whenever I am struck by a vague sense of malaise, I try to refine it. I ask my body what it wants, if it is large or small. The feeling is strongest when I am leaving work, and the high, bright, manic note I sing all day, aided by a steady stream of free espresso, finally fades out. Once I am surrounded by strangers and not coworkers and superiors and customers, strangers driving cars in the same lane as my bike or sitting across from me on the metro, everyone lost in their own small private worlds, staring into nothing. There is no longer so clearly something I should be doing, something I have to be doing while I am on someone else’s clock. Nobody’s looking at me.

The option I always consider first is food: what food would fix this feeling? A candy bar? A slab of meat? A full grapefruit, crammed into my mouth one half at a time? Boiled vegetables over rice as bland, warm balm?

If the answers I get are only more emotions, I keep asking the same question: but what do you want? Yes, you feel like you didn’t get anything done today. Does that mean you want to do the laundry? Yes, you feel like your life is going nowhere. Do you want to block out some time to write, or hide under the blanket?

Often it is enough to identify the desire, without actually meeting it; it is enough to know that I want something so simple, something you could probably buy off the internet. Meandering, unfocused loneliness and grief is crippling, terrible. But if it is reduced to an articulated, tangible want – I want somebody to put their hand on my back – it seems so achievable, not a big deal at all.

I cook like this, too. For better and worse. When I eat something good in a restaurant, or that someone else has made, I refine the pleasure in my head: what, precisely, do you like about it? Which part? At its simplest incarnation, what is this thing you’re enjoying? How could you prune out everything else? How could you bring yourself closer to the core of the experience?

I dislike wading through all the sweet potatoes you get with vegetable tempura, when all I really want is the carrot and zucchini. And it’s not really the tempura I like, it’s biting through batter that has sopped up oil, all crispy and naughty, to get to the wholesome, tender-yet-firm heart of a vegetable. The way a sweet potato melts and mushes doesn’t do that.

So tonight I made up my usual batter of flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and pepper, sliced up a zucchini and two carrots and dipped them in this dry half of my batter, and then laid them out on some parchment. I read somewhere that this makes the batter adhere better, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. The batter is finished with a splash of lemon juice and a big pour of beer, mixing until it is the thickness of pancake batter. The slices were battered and fried in oil. For the dipping sauce I used about two parts soy sauce to one part rice wine vinegar to two parts simple syrup (sugar dissolved in boiling water). A small bowl of steamed white rice rounds out the setting.

I’ve made cheddar jalapeño shrimp quite a few times before, and it’s always a hit. If I make it for six people, everyone’s disappointed there isn’t more; if I make it for two people, both wind up feeling sick all evening. I used to use bacon and long skewers, but I found this was difficult and the shrimp overcooked before the bacon even started to crackle. This time I used pancetta and individual toothpicks, instead. First I butterfly the shrimp, slitting along the back (the bigger the shrimp, the easier this is), and then tuck a sliced strip of jalapeño pepper and an equally tiny amount of strong white cheddar inside. I put each shrimp onto one piece of pancetta, laid out like a piece of paper, and then just roll upward and stick a pick in it. Then into a hot (400-500 degrees C) oven for a while (15-20 minutes).

The thrill of these is very similar: it’s a two-stage taste that surprises you, every time. First is the delicious, classic, primally fatty mixture of shrimp and pancetta, then there is a small burst of heat and cheesy goodness, all contained in a tiny, perfect package.

I had a friend come help me eat these dirty little things and drink – after all, it doesn’t take a six pack of beer to make batter, but that’s no reason not to buy one!

(Nearing the end of the roll now.)


Written by skimfu

August 13, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Pork, Shrimp, Vegetarian

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