Sweet, sour sassy
Two opposite flavors result in delectable dishes across ethnic and culinary divides
SWEET AND SOUR. Platters of perfectly sauced Chinese pork, or maybe delicately battered shrimp with chunks of peppers and pineapple drizzled with a luscious red glaze. Your first thoughts when the "sweet and sour" taste combination is mentioned, right?
Those were also my first thoughts until I began to consider how very many of my favorite recipes used the simple blend of sour and sweet ingredients to create a magical flavor combination.
And it is magic! Sheer alchemy. Stir a sweetener and some water into freshly squeezed lemon juice and you've transformed it into lovely, refreshing lemonade. Shred cabbage and carrots, stir in vinegar and a bit of sugar, and you've turned that humble cabbage into a not-so-humble coleslaw that's much more appealing than plain old raw cabbage.
SOUR AND SWEET dishes abound in the islands because just about every ethnic group that lives and cooks here has foods that incorporate a balance of sweetness and tartness. Your Portuguese grandmother's pickled onions or vinha d'alhos, marinated vegetables served "a la Grecque," Hawaiian mango chutneys, duckling a l'orange, German hot potato salads and red cabbage with apples, namasu and prune mui. Sweet and sour, all.
Sprinkle firm, slightly sour baking apples with lemon juice and cinnamon-sugar, dot with butter, pop into a crust, bake, and it's as American as apple pie -- or as "local" as Zippy's Apple Napples. Blend key lime juice with sweetened condensed milk, pour into a graham cracker crust and that's your basic sweet-and-sour key lime pie, a perfect way to end an island feast.
These dishes not only transcend international boundaries, they cross over into every menu category: beverages, desserts, fish, jams and jellies, meats, poultry, preserves, salads, sauces, soups and vegetables. All these foods can be inexpensive and nutritious without tasting cheap or bland. Without throwing calories to the wind or pouring on the salt, you can perk up everyday foods by using sweet-and-sour sorcery.
All this is making me hungry, so I'm off to cook something sweet, sour and definitely sassy now.
ONE OF THE FIRST recipes I remember my Portuguese mother-in-law making was a simmered dish of small (about 2-inch) sparerib segments, the kind used in Hawaii to make Korean kalbi. The pungent cider vinegar sauce always smelled heavenly, and I later adapted the dish to use sparerib-sized, boneless pieces of meat to make it easier to eat. No little bones to fish out of the sauce, and considerably less fat to skim off.
This is one of those dishes where you taste the sauce often to make sure that it's "not too sweet, not too sour." The recipe feeds 6 to 8 hungry people, served over rice (the pork, not the people), and if any is left, it's even better reheated the next day.
3 pounds boneless pork butt, cut into 1-inch pieces and trimmed of excess fat
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 medium carrots, sliced diagonally
1/2 small daikon (turnip), sliced
2 teaspoons garlic salt
1 cup water
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup brown sugar
On cutting board, sprinkle pork pieces with soy sauce, then flour, and mix well.
Heat oil in a large pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add pork in small batches to brown. Drain fat. Add carrots, daikon, garlic salt, water, vinegar and sugar. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, until pork and carrots are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Taste and add more vinegar or brown sugar if needed. Serve pork and sauce over rice. Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including rice): 600 calories, 35 g total fat, 9 g saturated fat, 145 mg cholesterol, 950 mg sodium, 36 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 31 g sugar, 31 g protein.
MY MAINLAND friends complain that their zucchini plants not only take over their gardens, they're intent upon taking over the world. Because my gardening area is microscopic, it boasts only a few herbs, and because only the rosemary seems destined for world domination, an overstock of zucchini is not a problem.
I've paid high market prices for pocked, zebra-striped, pea-soup colored summer squash that friends would have been ashamed to feed to the wild critters that invaded their yards. But recently, some small, firm, unblemished, bright green zucchini have turned up in produce bins at Safeway and Foodland, and sale prices have prompted me to resurrect this old recipe.
I adapted this "zucchini salad" from "The Spice Islands Cook Book" more than 30 years ago and though it now bears little resemblance to the original, the idea was theirs. It's especially handy when you need a make-ahead potluck or buffet dish, or it makes regular-sized salads for about six people.
2 pounds zucchini, stem ends removed, in 1/2-inch diagonal slices
6 pimento-stuffed green olives, thinly sliced
12 leaves red-edged leaf lettuce
2 teaspoons garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dry onion soup mix
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup white wine vinegar (tarragon, if available)
1/3 cup olive or salad oil
Place zucchini slices in boiling water. Cook, uncovered, 2 minutes, then rinse with cold water. Drain and cool. Place in large, nonmetallic bowl.
Whisk marinade ingredients together until well-blended. Pour over zucchini. Cover and marinate in refrigerator overnight. Adjust seasonings (you may need more vinegar, to taste) and marinate longer for stronger flavor. The salad keeps well in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.
When ready to serve, line a platter or individual salad plates with salad greens. Add zucchini and some marinade; top with olive slices. Serves 6.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 220 calories, 19 g total fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, greater than 1,250 mg sodium, 12 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 4 g protein.
E. SHAN CORREA / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
A jar of Maui onions makes crunchy pickles, paired with bell peppers and spicy chilies.
ANOTHER member of my husband's family, his uncle, Michael Jarneski, taught me to make Portuguese pickled onions the Hawaiian way. Again, the ingredients were not measured to the ounce, but the formula always resulted in onions and colorful peppers that were crisp and tangy-sweet, probably because Uncle Mike liked to use Maui onions for his pickles.
Pickled Maui Onions and Peppers
3 large Maui onions
2 medium green bell peppers
2 to 3 Hawaiian chili peppers
2 cups water
2 cups white vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon Hawaiian salt
Peel onions, cut in half crosswise, then cut each half into 8 sections. Remove stems and seeds from green peppers, and cut into 1-inch pieces. Cut chilies in half and remove seeds -- don't wipe your eyes, as these peppers are fierce! Layer vegetables, alternating onions and peppers, in clean glass jars with tight-fitting lids.
Mix water and vinegar in a bowl; add sugar and salt, stirring until dissolved.
Pour liquid over vegetables, adding enough water and vinegar, in equal parts, to fill jars. Cover jars and allow vegetables to cure at room temperature for 2 days, turning jars over now and then so the top vegetables are coated.
When pickles taste just the way you like them, eat or refrigerate them. Makes about 2-1/2 quarts.
Nutritional information unavailable.
PERK IT UP
Use sweet/sour magic to create a flavor burst:
» Many boxed organic soups are healthful, but bland, and some are overly sweet. Remedy this easily by stirring in freshly ground pepper and balsamic vinegar to taste.
» Balsamic vinegar is itself a sweet/sour blend, so if meat sauces need perking up, a splash can add flavor without extra salt.
» Make baked beans a standout by using drained and rinsed sauerkraut to balance any brown sugar in the recipe. Bake as usual. People will wonder what secret ingredient makes the flavor and texture of your beans so special. They'll never guess!
» Fresh vegetables benefit from a pinch of sugar in their cooking water. A sprinkling of good cider or wine vinegar over the drained vegetables balances the sweetness.
» Mushrooms sautéed in butter pick up flavor with just a few drops of vinegar stirred in before serving.
Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.