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Originally published Friday, February 8, 2013 at 12:00 PM

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Nancy cooks up a batch of spicy XO sauce

Its salty, sea-scented funk brings depth and spice to everything it touches, says food writer Nancy Leson.

Seattle Times food writer

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Do you use XO in place of fish sauce? MORE

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I OFTEN SIGN email with an "xo" — or two. Perhaps I'm crossing the line with that warm affectation, tossing hugs and kisses to correspondents I may have never met, but love makes the world go 'round, right?

These days my world's in a spin over homemade XO sauce, my Chinese-condiment crush. Its salty, sea-scented funk brings depth and spice to everything it touches.

I spoon my XO into a pan and scramble it with eggs. And directly into my kisser, the way you might a hit of chocolate sauce. Packed into half-pint jars, homemade XO sauce is a precious gift. A little goes a long way.

In Seattle, chefs are taking XO to a new level. At Korean-accented Joule, I've gone rockets for roasted fennel soup with XO and clams. Ditto for spring asparagus laved with bacon-laced XO at Hawaii-inspired Ma'ono Chicken & Whiskey.

Chinese food fanatics know this pungent paste as a kick-it-up companion to fried rice or lo mein. It's a specialty at Wonton Noodle House, my go-to soup-noodle joint in Edmonds, where those who don't want to "perfume" their home may purchase superior house-made XO to-go — at half the price of supermarket imports.

Born in contemporary Hong Kong, the sauce takes its name from XO (extra old) cognac, though you won't find that luxury liquor among the ingredients. Nor will you find a definitive recipe, though most incorporate dried scallops, dried shrimp, garlic and chilies. Feel free to experiment. Add and omit. And do share the love.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle freelance photographer.

XO Sauce with X-tra Love

Makes about 2 ½ cups

½ cup dried scallops

1/3 cup dried shrimp

½ cup dried octopus (optional)

½ cup lean prosciutto (or country ham or Chinese sausage) roughly chopped

¼ cup fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 stalk lemon grass, tough leaves discarded, chopped

1 large shallot, halved

8 garlic cloves

½ cup dry sherry

3 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoons Chinese fermented bean paste (or miso)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

½ cup peanut oil

1 tablespoon dried chili flakes

1/3 cup dark sesame oil

1. Place dried scallops, shrimp and octopus in a medium bowl and cover by ½ inch with warm water. Soak till soft (about 1 hour), then drain, reserving the liquid.

In a food processor, combine the rehydrated seafood, prosciutto, ginger, lemon grass, shallot and garlic. Process to a coarse paste. Add sherry, brown sugar, bean paste and soy sauce. Pulse to combine.

2. Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add seafood mixture and chili flakes and cook, stirring occasionally, until caramelized (20 to 25 minutes). Add ½ cup reserved seafood liquid and cook until liquid evaporates. Stir in sesame oil. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate.

Cook's note: You'll find dried seafoods at most well-stocked Asian markets. I buy high-quality dried scallops at Pacific Herbs and dried octopus at H Mart.

— adapted from "Saveur" magazine

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