Sauce with a side of meat, not the other way around. I think this is how I would most often order my food given the option. This is not to diminish my appreciation for all types of meat–I love them all– but I’m speaking from years of observing my own eating habits. My meat-eating-but-professes-he-could-easily-turn-vegetarian husband likes to point out to me occasionally that I’m a big (red) meat eater despite the fact that typical fare at home consists of vegetables, salads and meatless pasta/rice dishes. It’s okay. He’s seeing the forest and not the trees.
When I finally get a craving for a meaty stew, he sees the full, 5-quart pot on the stove. Though we’re only two in the house, I never quite learned how to scale down the dishes my mother prepared when she cooked for five. What my husband rarely notices is that I’m happy to eat a small piece of chicken, pork or the rarely-purchased beef. What I hungrily devour is all the sauce that the meat has simmered in and has flavored so generously. Served atop a mountain of steaming rice, I’m a happy camper.
One of the sauces that I’ve always enjoyed but have never tried at home is black bean sauce. A fixture on Chinese restaurant menus, black bean sauce is made with fermented black beans. A little goes a long way but what you get is a punched up dish with salty, pungent and bold flavors. Clams with Black Bean sauce is one of my mother’s menu favorites. Unfortunately, what you may get from your local Chinese restaurant covers the quality spectrum. Sadly, my husband and I haven’t properly enjoyed Chinese food for years since there simply isn’t a worthy one to visit near our home. I’m not a connoisseur of the cuisine but I do know that the main ingredients are rarely sugar and corn starch.
This dish was my first attempt and I was quite happy with the results. Instead of using clams or spare ribs (common protein components for this dish), I had a large piece of broiled seabass from the previous evening’s dinner. I couldn’t let that go to waste and it turned out to be a wonderful addition to the vegetables and the sauce. Normally, black bean sauce is infused with the flavors of clams or spare ribs (more complexity) but since I added a pre-cooked protein to the mix, my version was slightly lighter, fresher tasting. I like both version since it’s the black bean flavor that I’m after. I also used only half of the 1 cup of sauce that was suggested in the recipe below but it was still enough to fully flavor my bok choy, green peppers and seabass.
It’s a pity that you can’t actually see much of the sauce in my pictures. I had such low expectations about being able to share this experiment with you that I did not plan on taking pictures at all. After my first taste however, I hurriedly set my bowl on my dining table and snapped a couple of shots. These were the only two that made the cut. I wish you could taste the garlic and ginger that mingled with the salty black beans. I’ll be making this again and again.
(Update: I couldn’t help it but I shot the sauce again with just steamed bok choy this time.)
Seabass with Black Bean Sauce
Note: Recipe for sauce was adapted from Food & Wine here but I consulted these other recipes to achieve as authentic a dish as possible. The important components were present in the Food & Wine recipe: Shaoxing rice wine, fresh ginger, fresh scallions and soy sauce. The only ingredient it used that I did not see in the others was oyster sauce which I would guess was a substitution for thick soy sauce (kecap manis). While I had both, I opted to use this vegetarian oyster sauce since it’s been sitting on my shelf a bit longer. If you have a highly recommended recipe, please do share!
For the black bean sauce:
- 1 cup stock (vegetable or chicken)
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 2 teaspoons corn starch
- 1 teaspoon sugar (I used a bit less)
For the other ingredients:
- 2 tablespoons fremented black beans, rinsed and drained (I would even use an extra teaspoon next time)
- 10-12 baby bok choy
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 scallion, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced (I used a bit more)
- Oil for sautéing
- 1 piece seabass (mine was drizzled w/ kecap manis and broiled)
Whisk all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
I prepped my bok choy by cutting cross-wise into thirds and rinsed. I didn’t let them drain completely and cooked them in their own steam very briefly (until they turned bright green), about 1-2 minutes, in a sauté pan. Remove from the pan and set aside. Dry the pan and use for the sauce.
Heat 1-2 tablespoons of oil in the same pan. Add the garlic, scallion, ginger and black beans and stir-fry over high heat until fragrant. This will take no longer than a minute. Add the bell pepper and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. (If you choose not to pre-cook your bok choy, you can add them at this point and cook them until they’re wilted.) I added the sauce first (Half of the sauce was sufficient here but I wouldn’t hesitate to use the entire cup next time). Whisk the sauce mix briefly before adding to the pan. The sauce will thicken quickly; stir a bit to cover the bell peppers. Lower the heat and add your bok choy if you pre-cooked like I did. I added my cold piece of seabass at this point and covered the pan and cooked for a couple of minutes.
Serve with plain rice.