The other day I made pizza for dinner. It was nothing special. I would like to say that it was a fantastical affair filled with imagination and buckets of flour strewn across counter tops, mozzarella balls, tomatoes and cheese and salami sliced and diced and sizzling atop a delicious crust in the oven; but they were store bought. Frozen mounds of passable food that allowed me to cook without caring too much about either the state of the kitchen or the taste of the food produced. It was a relatively carefree evening. And it bothered me.
My wife asked me to cut up some vegetables for her to eat on the side, something a little healthier to snack on alongside of the super delicious feast being prepared in the oven. I opened the refrigerator door, made a note of what we had, then came up with a basic meal plan that involved cutting courgettes, carrots and peppers into sticks and putting them on a plate. Super basic and nothing to be proud of. But that idea went out the window as soon as I started cutting. My imagination took over.
The courgette and yellow pepper were batonnet cut and pan fried for three to four minutes. Once they started to brown, soy sauce was added, followed by salt and pepper to taste. And once in the bowl, a sprinkle of sesame seeds. A variation of this dish can be found in most local Chinese restaurants as a starter or side-dish; it is quick and simple and packed with flavour. When I brought it to my wife, she happily lapped it up.
Cut to last night. We had been planning to make a chicken curry for dinner, but a few of the crucial ingredients were missing and were sold out at our local supermarket. I knew that I wanted to cook something but did not know what, and... have you ever had one of those days where you are feeling creative yet cannot find inspiration? Yesterday was one of those days for me. Google was not helping. Nor was the shelf. The one in the kitchen with all the cookbooks. So I thought, why not add each ingredient step-by-step and see where it takes me? If every good recipe starts with an idea, then surely I was off to a great start. Using the above mentioned vegetable dish as a baseline, I set out to make something that could linger in the mouth like a flavour you have been trying to remember.
1 tbsp sunflower oil
350g boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1" strips
1 courgette, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 onion, diced
1 garlic clove, diced
1 tsp cinnamon/ginger/cumin
1/8 to 1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
Two handfuls of fresh spinach
1 cup couscous
Salt and Pepper to taste
Sprinkle of Sesame Seeds
Heat a large pan (or wok) over high heat for a minute or two. Add sunflower oil and heat until shimmering. Add onion and garlic and stir until starting to brown.
Stir in the cinnamon, ginger and cumin until well combined and fragrant. It is a super short amount of time, so be careful not to burn the spices.
Next add the chicken. Cook until the outside is seared and it is just starting to cook through, then add the celery and courgette. You will want to keep stirring to prevent anything sticking to the pan (but if that does happen, a splash of water helps). Cook until the veg starts to soften.
In a small bowl, combine soy sauce and oyster sauce, then pour into pan. Let simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add salt and pepper to taste.
A few small handfuls at a time, add the spinach and stir into the mixture. It should shrivel and wilt.
Prepare the couscous. Steam for 5 minutes. Add a dollop of butter and use a fork to fluff the couscous and break up any clumps.
Once served, sprinkle with sesame seeds for flavour.