I love regional cooking. It conjures up the history and ambience of places in a mouthful. I love smelling the ocean in a fresh bowl of San Francisco clam chowder. Give me New York pizza by the slice to eat on the subway. And man, I hadn't lived until I had an Omaha steak in a truck stop diner. When I travel, I navigate with my taste buds and the rest of me follows - on a quest for tasting the best that region has to offer.
Sometimes I try to experience a region vicariously by replicating its cuisine in my home. One region in the U.S. where I've never been is the South, yet I have a major soft spot for Southern cuisine. As I've toyed with some of the foods of that region, I've lost authenticity to hybridization. I like to think of it as a melting-pot approach.
In developing a Southern-inspired dinner menu last winter, I realized there needed to be a vegetable. Damn. I struggle with making side vegetables interesting. It's especially hard when the vegetable has to live up to being paired with something as sinfully distracting as waffle-battered fried chicken.
I hit a blank. I'd have to come up with a kitschy name to trick people into trying the vegetable. I started using free association with "the South" as a starting point, and I ultimately ended up with the word "yokel."
I know that "yokel" sounds derogatory, but I decided to go with it, for its potential to be conjoined with another word that ends in "yo" - Tokyo! And there it was: Tokyokel Greens. It would be a Japanese-Southern fusion dish.
I started thinking of iconic Southern ingredients: greens, peanuts, hot sauce. I wanted the dish to be the polar opposite of the rest of the meal, which was admittedly going to be a coronary attack on a plate. It had to be cool, healthy and just a little astringent.
In borrowing from other cuisines for inspiration, I fell back on a Japanese spinach salad called goma-ae, traditionally made with sesame oil and sesame seeds. I decided to modify the salad by using peanuts and peanut oil to incorporate Southern elements while keeping some of the Asian flavors. I don't know where this recipe will take you - all I know is that it's going to be good.
- 4 bunches of fresh spinach, or greens of your choice
- 1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons Tabasco
- 1/2 cup chopped raw white onion
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
- 1/4 cup crushed peanuts, toasted
Rinse and chop ends off the spinach. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook spinach for 3-4 minutes, until wilted (you may need to do this in a few batches, or use two pots of water). Remove spinach and shock in a large bowl of ice water. Drain thoroughly - squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Set aside.
Heat a dry skillet over medium-high heat. Roast sesame seeds and peanuts about 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden. Set aside. In a large bowl, mix Tabasco, oils and vinegar together. Add spinach, seeds, peanuts and chopped onion. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Serves 4-6.