by Mark Bittman, author of the New York Times column "The Minimalist."
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Occasionally, I stumble over a culinary combination so obvious that I don't know whether to marvel over the bad luck that has kept it from me until now or the good luck that finally brought it my way. This was certainly the case with the Chinese dipping sauce of oil, scallions, ginger, and salt, that I had in a couple of Cantonese restaurants last week. The first time it was served with chicken that had been steamed, then lightly dressed with soy and sesame oil. The second time it was brought to the table at my host's request, so that he could demonstrate its usefulness.

To make this sauce, you do nothing more than mince ginger and combine it with chopped scallions, oil, and plenty of salt. The process is a tiny bit faster and easier if you puree the ginger and oil in a blender, then pulse in the scallion, but this makes the sauce creamy, almost muddy, and it's much more attractive when hand-chopped, the solids sitting in the oil. In either case, my recipe makes one-half cup, but you might consider doubling it because the sauce will keep for days (probably weeks, though I haven't tried that yet).

This is a powerful sauce, one that will markedly change the character of anything to which you add it. When we stirred it into soup, for example, the soup was brought to life. A bowl of noodles with meat sauce was transformed almost as radically. But in some ways, like salsa or pesto, this sauce is best reserved for the simplest, mildest dishes, ones that have little flavor of their own. That's why I've stuck with steamed chicken breasts in the basic recipe; only steamed white fish would showcase the sauce more.

I like to steam the breasts on the bone, which takes about five minutes longer than boneless breasts, because they remain moister and a little more flavorful that way, but of course you can use boneless breasts. I also like to leave the skin on, which insulates the meat from drying out; again, you can use breasts that have had the skin removed. If you don't have a steamer, you can readily jerry-rig one: Put a rack into a pan and add water to a level just shy of the bottom of the rack. The chicken can go directly on the rack or on a plate on the rack. Cover the pan while cooking.

Although the sauce is made with a neutral oil - grapeseed or canola are the best choices, although safflower, corn, or light olive oil are all acceptable - one aspect of the oil makes it the most important ingredient here, and that aspect is freshness. These days, it seems most cooks go through olive oil quickly, but other oils more slowly, and those oils - unless they're stored in the refrigerator - are often rancid. (I know this because I stick my nose into bottles of oil when I see them in friends' cupboards.) Smell the oil you plan to use before making this sauce; if it seems off, start a new bottle, and store it in the refrigerator unless you plan to use it up within a couple of weeks.

Serves 4

Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken breast halves, bone-in or out
  • 1 tablespoon peeled and minced ginger
  • 1/2 cup neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed
  • 1/4 cup trimmed scallions, white and green parts combined, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons good soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil

Instructions

1. Steam the chicken over simmering water for six to ten minutes for boneless breasts, ten to fifteen for bone-in. The chicken is done when white and firm to the touch; cut into a piece if you want to be certain.

2. Meanwhile, stir together the ginger, oil, scallions, and salt in a bowl. The mixture should be quite strong; you can add more ginger, scallions, or salt if you like.

3. When the chicken is done, drizzle it with the soy sauce and sesame oil and serve. Pass the scallion-ginger sauce at the table or divide it into four small bowls for dipping.