Thursday, February 24, 2011

Secret Ingredient X XO Sauce

In my household, XO sauce has become a must-have. However time-strapped one may be, however bare and unshopped-for the fridge and cupboard, having a bottle of this glorious dried scallop-and-shrimp condiment -which keeps very well - on standby means dinner can be ready in two shakes of a dog's tail. I am assuming that by bare one nonetheless has pasta lying about.

Of course, it is far too scrumptious to only dip into as a last-minute insta-meal solution. It most certainly deserves to be the star of its very own cabaret, the express point of a dish.

All this hullabaloo is with specific reference to the homemade, not garden, variety.

Since this - golly, has it really been over 5 years since I wrote that?! - I've had plenty of opportunity (not to mention time) to come up with my own version of XO sauce, adding a little pinch of this and a smidgen of that, playing around with the proportions of ingredients, seasoning to my taste.

The secret ingredient? Bacon. Yup, that's right, bacon. Not so much to impose overt, dominant, bacon-y-ness, just enough to lend an enigmatic, can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it meaty savour, depth shall we say, a subtle suggestion of smoke. If you ever had a feeling that bacon makes the world go round, try this recipe and you may very well think of it as prima facie evidence of the case.

Sure, try making it without the bacon, the recipe below can be made bacon-free by straightforward omission. The XO sauce will still be yummy, but it will be a completely different animal. Just sayin'.

That out of the way, feel free to tweak - it is exactly the sort of recipe that calls for the cook to adjust to taste.

Photo from

My most recent batch was greatly facilitated by my new toy, an awesome Preethi mixer grinder, the sort of lean, mean, multi-tasking Indian machine that's affectionately known as a "mixie", without which an Asian cook - or any cook, really, who enjoys preparing Asian recipes - would be sadly bereft. Wet grinds, dry grinds, spice pastes blitzed to a textbook case consistency without the addition - horrors! - of water or oil to get the work done, name a task that your archetypal processor or blender can't wing (albeit these machines were designed for tackling other tasks/cuisines) and the Preethi will fill the gap, no sweat. Thank you, A, D, S and S for such a thoughtful housewarming gift! If you are keen and reside in Singapore, Preethi is available at Shermay's Cooking School (do call the school at +65 6479 8442 or 6479 8414 before making a trip down as the Preethi is exceedingly popular and I hear stock flies off the shelves).

While best known for its ability to produce a rempah with a texture that's the closest second there is to the hand-pounded McCoy, in the XO sauce recipe which follows, it is used to pulverise the dried shrimp into a fine floss.

X XO Sauce

Yields 5 cups

225 gm Dried scallops
200 gm Dried shrimp
200 gm Shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
10 Garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
150 gm Fresh red chillies, de-seeded and coarsely chopped
400 ml Peanut oil
100 gm Dark brown Muscovado sugar
100 gm Streaky bacon, finely minced

1.Soak the dried scallops in 2/3 cup of tepid water in a heat proof dish for 1 hour – almost all the water will be absorbed, and the dried scallops should be sufficiently softened such that they break apart when gently pressed. Steam until tender, which will take 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the size of the scallops). Remove dish from heat and let cool, reserving the juices. Finely shred the scallops. Set aside.
2.Rinse the dried shrimp under tepid tap water. Drain. Pat dry. Grind into a fine floss using a food processor (or use a mixie if you have one). Scrape out and set aside in a separate bowl.
3.Using the pulse function, grind the shallots until finely minced. Scrape out and set aside in a separate bowl.
4.Using the pulse function, grind the garlic and chillies together until finely minced. Scrape out and set aside in a separate bowl.
5.Heat the oil in a large heavy pan over medium high heat. Fry the shallots, dried shrimp and sugar until the sugar begins to caramelize, stirring constantly. Add the garlic and chilli mixture, bacon, dried scallops and their reserved steaming juices. Turn heat down to medium. Continue to fry for about 30 minutes, stirring constantly. The finished condiment should be highly aromatic and a deep russet hue.
6.Remove from the heat and let cool completely.

Storage: Store in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Or freeze for up to 2 months; thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.

PS: It might seem like a large quantity. But if you're going to make the effort, you may as well make it a big batch. That way, there's plenty to go around - for stashing away in the freezer for those proverbial bare cupboard moments, for giving away to friends and family, for elevating simple stir-frys, for majestically accompanying everything from congee to gyoza to drunken chicken. But my favourite use of it is hands-down with pasta (in the above picture, I had tossed handmade tagliatelle all'uovo with XO sauce, freshly picked crab meat, fried spring onions and garlic).