Cooking Off the Cuff: Kale Fried Rice - Western Flavors for a Chinese Classic

Western flavors for a Chinese classic.
09/11/2013 08:14 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Using Asian flavors in Western cooking is nothing new. Think of those old-fashioned French "curries" (such as poached chicken breast in cream sauce yellowed with curry powder and sweetened with a diced apple) or the soy sauce my mother used to add to so many meat dishes. I don't mock these things: I remember enjoying haute-cuisine curries in old-line New York French restaurants, and my mother's stews gained a savory dimension from that tablespoon or so of soy sauce. And, more recently, ingredients like lemongrass, ginger and a whole cupboard full of spices have become an accepted part of the cook's inventory.

What we don't do as much is adapt Asian techniques or dishes to Western flavors. (I'm reluctant to say that stir-frying, which we use all the time, was adopted from Chinese cooking: As it is used in American and European households, it is indistinguishable from sautᅢᄅing.) A few years ago, I figured out that the steam-and-fry way of cooking potsticker dumplings was a natural for Italianate stuffed pastas, yielding tender tops and crisp bottoms, but there are not that many other examples that come to mind: When we cook Asian, we cook Asian, or at least aim to.

But last weekend there was a container of plain cooked rice left over from the previous night's dinner. Seeing it, Jackie and I both felt like fried rice -- we often do: it's the perfect use for such leftovers -- but didn't much feel like anything Chinese. So I made fried rice as I do when I'm attempting a recognizably Chinese version but used no Asian flavors at all. It worked very well.

I cut a chunk of bacon into pinky-breadth bars and put them over low heat in a non-stick 12-inch skillet (I also added the remains of some braised pork belly, which added its own flavor but whose absence would not have spoiled the dish). When it had rendered some fat and had begun to brown, I added a medium onion, sliced; a clove of garlic, chopped; and a small, not too hot, poblano pepper, cut into strips. And salt, of course. Meanwhile, I washed and spin-dried a modest bunch of beautiful, inky-green Tuscan kale and cut it crosswise into quarter-inch strips. I ran a knife through the array of strips and cut them into lengths an inch or two long. I also beat three eggs with salt and pepper and loosely scrambled them in lard; I set them aside. (For Chinese fried rice, I use peanut oil and flavor the eggs with a couple of drops of sesame oil.)

When the onion was tender (that's the determining factor) I piled the kale into the skillet, salted it and added a couple of tablespoons of water to get it started; I raised the heat a little and turned and stirred the mixture every now and again with a heatproof rubber spatula. When the greens were fairly tender but still chewy (one of kale's virtues is its chewiness), I raised the heat a little more and boiled off whatever water/juices remained.

At this point I could have set everything aside and finished the dish later, but it was dinner time, so over medium-high heat I added two cups of pre-cooked rice, breaking it up with my hand as I transferred it from container to skillet. I stirred more or less continuously with my favorite sturdy flat-ended wooden spatula, checking for salt and pepper. When the rice was coated with fat and juices and was thoroughly heated through, I turned off the heat and folded in the previously cooked eggs, broken into bite-sized curds.

It looked like regular fried rice. It felt like it too, with that wonderful contrast between the rice mixture, the chunks of meat and the still-soft eggs, and with just the right amount of fat, in this case from the bacon. But -- apart from phantom flavors engendered by the dish's look and feel - it didn't taste Chinese at all. It had depth from the kale; bite from the poblano pepper; smoke from the bacon.

Still, I couldn't resist serving it in our Chinatown rice bowls -- which make it easy to pile our spoons with big mouthfuls: the only way to eat fried rice, whether Asian or not.

Kale Fried Rice: Western Flavors For A Chinese Classic