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Pao Wow

by James O. Fraioli
Pao Wow

By James O. Fraioli / Photo by Tucker + Hossler Photography

With the holidays over and the new year making its presence felt, let’s revisit the Brussels sprout. If you’re like me, we saw those cabbage-like buds braised, baked, roasted, and grilled as they graced our holiday table repeatedly. But now that we’re two months into 2024, I feel it’s time we set the seasonal dishes aside so we can transform this bountiful crop into something original. This scintillating dish, with a colorful history, is from The Tropicale Restaurant Cookbook, which I had the pleasure of assembling with Palm Springs-based chef Tony Di Lembo. Try it and you’ll quickly discover the lively recipe is filled with elevated flavor, perfect for your next get-together at home or on the boat.

The Kung Pao Brussels Sprout story begins in the heart of China’s Sichuan Province, in the provincial capital of Chengdu. This isn’t any ordinary town. It smirks at its reputation for serving strong, pungent, and super spicy foods. Here, everything is laden with dried chilies, handfuls of them, tossed in white-hot woks, so spicy it takes your breath away. A particular spice, the Sichuan peppercorn, is medicinally used in many Chinese potions, but often finds itself in Chengdu’s cuisine. The peppercorn is not spicy hot (there are other chilies for that), but instead has a lemony overtone and creates a tingly numbness in your mouth. Commonly prepared with chicken pieces, shrimp, or even frog’s legs, the star of this Kung Pao is the Brussels sprout, tossed with just a few eye-watering chilies and served with a bowl of steamed rice. This is a vegan salute to classic Sichuan cuisine with a delicious twist that you can enjoy whether you’re in Chengdu or right here in the Pacific Northwest.

Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts with Glazed Peppers & Peanut Ginger Pan Sauce

Serves 6

2 pounds Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed, stems sliced off
5 tablespoons sesame oil, divided
Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
⅓ cup salted peanuts
2 leeks, white part only, sliced ¼-inch
1 small red bell pepper, diced ½-inch
1 small green bell pepper, diced ½-inch
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced
2 dried chile de arból, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon sambal oelek
½ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
4 scallions, sliced ¼-inch on bias, to garnish
Steamed rice, optional

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Toss the Brussels sprouts with 3 tablespoons of the sesame oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven, on a baking sheet, turning once, until just soft and lightly brown, about 20 minutes. Do not overcook. When finished, combine the sprouts with the cooked vegetables in the next step.

While the Brussels sprouts are roasting, warm the vegetable oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts and cook for 1 minute. Add the leeks and peppers and sauté until softened and beginning to color. Adjust the heat to not burn the vegetables. Remove from the heat and add the roasted Brussels sprouts to the skillet. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water and set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and chiles, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the sambal and cook for 2 minutes.

Add the soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil and stir in the cornstarch slurry. Simmer until the sauce thickens, about 2 additional minutes. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 2 minutes. To serve, heat the skillet with the Brussels sprouts, leeks, and peppers over high heat. Add the sauce and toss until hot. Adjust seasoning with additional soy sauce. Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with the scallions. If you like, serve it with a bowl of steamed rice.

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