Yesterday afternoon while I was driving home from campus (as safely as possible since I forgot my license–that’s the problem with using a bike as my main mode of transportation, I leave things in my bike bag all the time), I rolled to a stop at a major intersection. A four lane divided road, a cheap suburbany “Mexican” restaurant to the left, a decent amount of traffic–I could have been anywhere in the Atlanta suburbs. But then, in front of me, up a hill framed by a crystal blue sky dotted by white wispy clouds, a tractor mowing hay rolled past. A tractor! It’s the little things that keep me going here–the sky and the tractors and the mountains. The rest of it, no offense Roanoke, I could do without.

Whenever I need to get away from the suburbanness that is Roanoke, I hop in my car, drive towards a mountain (which is easy to do since I live in a valley), drive up the side of said mountain, find a trail, tromp around a bit, and wallow in the crisp, windy autumness that is southwestern Virginia in September. Sometimes, however, I can’t get away. So that’s when the kitchen comes in handy. Well, the kitchen and the local loot from the farmer’s market. I grab my computer, find a random, “exotic” (I hate that word) recipe, and cook up a storm. Everything is ok then–the town melts away, the stress of grad school dissipates, the fact that I have no money is just a faint memory–and I can face the day, one dish at a time.

This past week I mentally (and palatably) flew away to the Szechuan province of China. Well, I tried to, at least. I’ve been itching to eat some authentic Szechuan cuisine for awhile. There’s just something so appetizing to me about the szechuan peppercorns.  Maybe I’m weird, but sweating my way through a meal sounds great! Plus they add this great citrusy, sweet undertone to the dishes.  Just as a random tidbit, szechuan peppers are not actually peppers or peppercorns, but a member of the Zanthoxylum genus. It’s not exactly a hot or spicy ingredient, rather it numbs your mouth, which then allows the peppers to zing in and heat things up.

The recipe I used for the eggplant was good, but I think you ought to up the amount of szechuan peppercorns. I definitely wasn’t getting enough numbness, and next time I’m going to add some fresh or dried peppers to make things more interesting. But the eggplant was extremely satisfying and everyone in the grad student lounge was lusting after it, so I guess that’s a good sign for an Americanized dish. If anyone has tips about cooking authentic szechuan food, I’d love them! It’s definitely a cuisine I’d love to more about and one of these days, when I’m super rich and famous (ha.), I’ll be able to eat my way through China and try some dishes first hand. Until then, I’ll just be happy with a state-of-the-art (for a house) kitchen and my overflowing pantry.

Szechuan Eggplant

from OregonLive.com

1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns (I would recommend using more, to taste)
3 tbsp tamari/Bragg’s Amino Acids
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar
2 tsp raw sugar
1 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot powder
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb eggplant, cut into 1 inch square pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 green onions, finely chopped
1/4 c finely chopped peanuts
1 teaspoon chili oil
Rice or quinoa for serving (I used red quinoa)

Heat a wok over medium heat. Add the Szechuan peppercorns and cook, stirring constantly, until the peppercorns are aromatic, about 2 minutes. Watch carefully and be sure not to burn them. Transfer the peppercorns to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and process until coarsely ground; set aside.

In a small glass measuring cup combine the tamari, rice wine, vinegar, sugar and cornstarch. Stir until sugar and cornstarch are dissolved; set aside.

Heat the wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil, and when it’s hot and begins to shimmer, add the eggplant and stir-fry until the pieces are golden brown and tender, 4 minutes. Add the garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds more. Stir the sauce in the measuring cup once more and add it to the wok. Stir-fry until the sauce is thickened and bubbly, 1 minute.

Remove wok from heat, add the ground Szechuan peppercorns and toss to combine with the eggplant and sauce. Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with green onions, peanuts and chili oil, and serve with hot rice/quinoa.

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