It's new menu time at the restaurant, and in the preceding weeks we play around with new ingredients, coming up with fresh ideas. This starter was one of the first to come off the stoves and it sold out in rapid fashion. This virtually guarantees its inclusion on the spring menu.
Octopus is a perennial favorite, and even more so if it is grilled. In this case, baby octopus are rapidly blanched in boiling water, then marinated in a wickedly flavoursome mixture of chilli, sweet soy and garlic. The little cephalopod treats are then quickly char grilled so they end up juicy and tender.
The Sichuan eggplant I have been making in one form or another for many years. It is redolent with deeply mysterious flavours, and punctuated with a mellow sweetness. It is a fabulous recipe on its own, and can be used with all sorts of seafood and poultry dishes.
The ginger pickled cabbage is also a delight, but its place here is to cut through the richness of the octopus and eggplant with its gentle flavour and crunchy texture.
Now, this sure sounds like a lot of work - and trust me, it is. However, just like most restaurant dishes, all of the hard work can be done well in advance - up to a day or two. When it is time to serve up, things couldn't be simpler. From the arrival of the docket - to this dish hitting the table - I can have this entrée done in under 5 minutes.
Here is the how to.
1 kg (2 lb) fresh baby octopus
2 cloves garlic, or 2 Tbs garlic oil
60 ml (1/4 cup) kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce)
40 ml (2 Tbs) soy sauce
40 ml (2 Tbs) sweet chilli sauce
4 green onions (scallions), thinly sliced
1/2 bunch coriander, leaves picked
500 gm (1 lb) large black eggplant
500 ml (1 cup) vegetable oil
1 tsp ginger, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbs dark soy sauce
1 Tbs Shaoxing rice wine
1 Tbs yellow rock sugar, or white sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp sweet chilli sauce
Ginger pickled cabbage
250 ml (1 cup) caster sugar
1 litre (4 cups) water
250 ml (1 cup) white rice vinegar (or plain white vinegar)
1 Tbs salt
1 Chinese cabbage (wong buk)
1 tsp sesame oil
3 cm ginger, sliced
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds, optional
First the octopus needs to be cleaned. Cut the head off just below the "eyes" and set aside. Grab the tentacles and push the centre until the hard "beak" pops out. Make a cut in the outer section of the head and turn inside out, so the guts can be removed. Discard the yucky bits and wash the heads and tentacles well. This is very messy business, so do it near a sink - or better yet, get your fishmonger to do it for you.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil and plunge in the cleaned octopus. Count 20 seconds and immediately drain the octopus. Place under cold running water to stop the cooking. Drain away the excess moisture and combine the garlic, kecap manis, soy sauce, and sweet chilli sauce. Pour over the octopus and allow to marinate for at least 6 hours - overnight is better.
For the eggplant, slice off the green calyx at the top and discard. Cut the eggplant in half lengthways, then cut each half across into 1 cm slices. Heat the oil in a saucepan or wok and deep-fry the eggplant until they are deeply golden. You will need to do this in several batches. Drain the eggplant well. In another pot, heat 1 Tbs of the frying oil and add the garlic and ginger. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until they are lightly golden. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the eggplant and allow to come to the simmer. Add the drained eggplant and turn the heat to high. Stir until the eggplant absorbs the sauce and is a gooey black mush. Sounds bad - tastes great. Remove from the heat and set aside. The eggplant can be made up to 3 days in advance.
For the cabbage, cut the thick stem end off the Chinese cabbage, then slice in half lengthways. Slice each half across into thickish wedges. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and plunge the cabbage in for 30 seconds only. Drain and run under cold water. Add the remaining pickle ingredients to a saucepan and bring to the simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, then allow to cool. Pour over the cabbage and let the mixture marinate for at least 6 hours - overnight is better. This pickle keeps well for weeks.
To assemble, heat a char grill, BBQ or fry pan to a high heat. Drain the octopus and reserve the marinade. Cook the octopus for 1 minute on each side, then return to the marinade to rest for a few minutes.
Scatter a little of the drained pickled cabbage onto 4 plates. Place a large dollop of the Sichuan eggplant in the centre. Pile the octopus on top of the eggplant and drizzle any remaining marinade around. Scatter over the green onions and coriander.
Serves 4 as a starter. An ice-cold lager, or a spicy Gewürztraminer would be the best tipple for this dish.