I’m always looking for a single, simple ingredient that can doctor up a lackluster meal or a boring vegetable, and this is the best I’ve come across; a loose, peanut oil-based sauce of roasty red chili flakes, whole garlic cloves, salty fermented black beans, and fragrant fresh ginger. It’s more flavorful than fiery and although the taste is markedly Chinese, the sludge—studded with buttery-soft deep-fried garlic cloves—is great on nearly anything from meat to baked squash to plain white rice, to 420 indulgences like macaroni and cheese (with extra cheese), or nachos piled high with slivered green onions, pickled jalapenos, and Monterey Jack. Even chocolate ice cream. I have yet to find something edible this sauce doesn’t improve, and the three components—the loose solids, the whole cloves, and the oil—can also be used separately with different results. The flavored oil alone can be used for cooking, seasoning, grilling, or dressing. The infused garlic cloves spread easily with a knife, and just a small amount of the sludge is a great addition to a marinade. Once you get hooked you’ll never stop experimenting. Even better, if you scoop some into a jar, cut a 7" x 7" square from a brown paper shopping bag, wrap the lid and tie it with a piece of jute, you’ll have a handmade dinner party gift that’ll upstage any stupid bottle of wine.
¾ cup dried red chili flakes
½ cup Chinese fermented black beans*
20 large garlic cloves
One 3-4" piece of fresh ginger
2 ¾ cups peanut oil
½ cup plain sesame oil
Coarsely chop the black beans. Peel the garlic by placing one clove at a time under the concave side of a wooden spoon, and press just hard enough to crush the clove and loosen the skin for easy removal. Snip off the hard stem end. Peel, grate, and mince the ginger into two heaping tablespoons.
Combine all ingredients into a nonreactive 2 ½ quart saucepan. Clip a candy or deep-fry thermometer on the edge of the pan, into the mixture. Stir occasionally over medium-low heat, and bring to a temperature of 225º. Set the timer and simmer the sludge for 15 minutes, maintaining a consistent temperature between 225º and 250º. Remove from heat, allow to cool.
Spoon into glass jars or a plastic airtight container and store at room temperature.
*If you can’t find plain Chinese fermented black beans, a chunky black bean & garlic sauce (usually stocked in the Asian section of most big grocery stores) is an acceptable substitute.