Anyone, even a child, who has made lemonade from scratch knows that combining sugar and lemon juice can produce a sweet-sour balance that is sublime, though at times the mixture may turn out to be either too sweet or too tart.
This summertime treat represents sweet and sour in a simple form. Yet the dynamic between sweet and sour also has fascinated great cooks and sophisticated diners over the centuries. Sweet and sour are, after all, considered two of the four primal tastes recognized by human taste buds. (The other two are salty and bitter.)
The basic sweet-sour mixture continues to be fascinating. Though found everywhere else all over the world, it has been used with especially notable effect in China and Italy. Here are examples from each culture.
Makes 4 servings.
1 pound butternut squash
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons wine vinegar
fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
Peel the butternut squash with a vegetable peeler. Cut the squash lengthwise or crosswise into thin slices. In a large skillet, saute the garlic in the olive oil until it is lightly colored. Add the squash slices and saute them until they are tender. Drain on paper towels.
Add the sugar and vinegar to the skillet, bring it to a boil and turn off the heat immediately.
Arrange the squash in layers in a high-sided glass bowl and add salt to taste. Pour in the vinegar-sugar sauce, turning the slices to coat them, and let the squash marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Garnish squash with mint and serve it at room temperature.
Note: This preparation can also be used for other vegetables including green beans, eggplant and cauliflower.
(Adapted from "The Best of Southern Italian Cooking," by J.C. Grasso.)
Sweet-and-sour red onions
Makes 3 to 4 servings as part of an appetizer platter
1 pound red onions
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons oil
1 large clove garlic, lightly smashed and peeled
1/4 teaspoon salt
Trim off the root ends of the onions and peel them. Cut each onion into 1 inch wide wedges and separate the layers. Combine dark soy, vinegar and sugar in a bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot; add the oil, swirl and heat for 30 seconds. Toss in the garlic and press it in the oil. Then scatter in the onions and stir rapidly in turning motions for about 30 to 40 seconds, until they are glistening with oil and have a slight translucent look. Sprinkle in the salt and stir briskly a few times. Splash in the sauce and, as it sizzles, stir the onions briskly a few times; then pour immediately into a dish.
Let them cool a few minutes, then cover and refrigerate until well chilled.
(From "The Key to Chinese Cooking," by Irene Kuo.)
One pork, two tastes
Makes 4 servings as a main course
1 pound boneless loin of pork
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1/4 teaspoon sugar, plus 4 tablespoons
1 egg white
cornstarch for dusting
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
5 tablespoons chicken or meat stock
4 cups oil
2 tablespoons roasted salt-pepper (see note)
Note: To make roasted salt-pepper, combine 3 tablespoons salt and 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns in a frying pan. Cook over extremely low heat for 5 minutes, shaking and stiring until peppers start to smoke faintly. Remove from heat, allow to cool and crush salt and pepper together.
Cut the pork crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices. Smash the meat lightly with the broad side of a cleaver to flatten the slices. Put them in a mixing bowl, add the light soy, 1 tablespoon of sherry and 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Toss well and marinate for 15 minutes.
Add the egg white, stir well, then coat each piece with the cornstarch. Shake off the excess and set the pieces aside, flat on a plate, while you make the sauce.
Heat a small saucepan over medium heat until hot; add the sesame oil and heat for 5 seconds. Add the minced coriander and stir rapidly for 15 seconds. Add the remaining tablespoon sherry, dark soy, vinegar, chicken stock and remaining sugar and bring to a boil, stirring. Cover and turn off the heat.
Place 2 tablespoons roasted salt-pepper in a small dish and set aside.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet until hot; add the oil and heat until a cube of bread foams instantly, about 375 degrees. Slip in the pork, piece by piece, and deep-fry all of them about 2 minutes, until they are brown and crisp, turning constantly. Drain and place them on a serving platter.
Meanwhile, reheat the sauce and pour it into a bowl. Serve the meat with sauce and the salt-pepper on the side.
Note: Cut into strips, the pork makes excellent finger food for a cocktail party; sprinkle a little roasted salt-pepper on top.
(From "The Key to Chinese Cooking.")