You know how, every so often, something comes into your life and you think: "truly, honestly, how did I ever live without this thing before?" One of those things just may be spiced Chinese-style chile oil. It certainly is for me (...written as I notice a smear of it on the side of my hand, left from sticking my finger in the jar this morning). This chile oil doesn't pack a wallop of heat. Rather, it's a pool of savory, aromatic je ne sais quoi (how do you say that in Chinese?) to be spooned and drizzled over everything (except those things that you don't want to drizzle with savory je ne sais quoi).
The obsession/devotion/eternal love was sparked in advance of a dumpling party I threw last fall, during which it was stirred with lobster, Chinese chives and cilantro for shumai, and with black vinegar as a dipping sauce (Bon Appetit's Sichuan chili oil served as general inspiration). Right out of the pot, it gets the job done. After three days in the fridge, it's even more enticing. After a week and a half: wow.
Use it to sauté hearty greens, to fry eggs, to sauté zucchini ribbons or roasted spaghetti squash, or actual spaghetti, made aglio e (chile) olio style. Drizzle it over soft-scrambled eggs, roasted carrots or cabbage, labneh or lentils. Stir it with white miso, rice vinegar, orange juice and grated ginger for a knockout vinaigrette, or with minced cilantro and lime as a topping for roasted fish.
Spiced Chile Oil
Makes a 16-ounce jar of chile oil
4 large (or 6 small) unpeeled garlic cloves
12 ounces grapeseed or canola oil (I use Spectrum organic grapeseed)
A 2-inch knob of ginger, sliced into coins
1 tablespoon star anise
1 tablespoon pink or black peppercorns (or a mix)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2-3 small bay leaves
½ cup chile flakes (any basic crushed red pepper will do)
Give the garlic cloves a gentle smash with the side of a knife to crack them a bit. You want some of that garlic juice to be able to seep out, but the skins to stay semi-intact so that the garlic doesn't burn. In a small pot, combine the oil, garlic, ginger, anise, peppercorns, fennel seeds, coriander and bay. Crank the heat to medium, bring to a simmer, and let it gently bubble away for 30-45 minutes (if you have the time, give it a full 45). Check the oil every so often: you want to see the garlic and ginger begin to look toasty, but not burnt. If it gets too brown, turn it down.
After 30-45 mins, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it steep for at least an hour. Invite someone over for tea / so they can say: "whoa, what smells so good?" Post-steep, turn the heat to medium-high and bring the oil to a boil. Put the chile flakes in the bottom of a 16-ounce jar. When the oil is piping hot, pour it through a strainer and over the chile flakes; they should fizz and swirl. Place the top on the jar, put it in the fridge, and give it at least three days before you break out your drizzling spoon.
*Note: Adding a good pinch of salt to the chile flakes helps pump up the flavor, but I usually leave it out (and just season as I use it)
And hey, while we're at it...
Makes approximately 24 dumplings
2 1½-pound lobsters
¼ cup minced Chinese chives
¼ cup minced scallions (white and light green parts only)
½ cup cilantro leaves, minced
1½ tablespoons spiced Chinese-style chile oil (see above!)
1½ tablespoons high-quality soy sauce
30 round dumpling wrappers (preferably Shanghai-style, for steamed dumplings)
Make the filling: Place lobsters in the freezer for an hour to slow them down, or kill them with a swift knife to the head. Bring a large pot of water to a simmer then remove from the heat. Remove the claws and tails from the lobsters and place in the pot of hot water. Let the tail poach for 2 minutes then remove; let the claws poach for 3-4 minutes.
Using lobster crackers, kitchen shears, fingers, etc., remove the meat from the claws and the tails. Chop the meat into small pieces and place in a mixing bowl. Add the chives, scallions, cilantro, chile oil and soy sauce, and stir well to combine.
Make the dumplings: Place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of a dumpling wrapper. Dip your finger in water and run it around the perimeter of the wrapper (to help the wrapper adhere to itself). Making a series of pleats, fold the wrapper up and around the filling, leaving a small opening at the top (or try what this guy does).
Line a bamboo steamer with parchment paper, brush the paper with a thin layer of oil, and set the dumplings on top. In a wide pan over medium-high heat, bring an inch of water to a boil, and then place the steamer in the pan. Cook until the dumpling skins are glossy and cooked through, about 7 minutes.
Serve with more soy sauce and chile oil for drizzling (though the dumplings are so flavorful and juicy, they may not be needed!).