Chef Andrea Reusing shares her secrets to incorporating a hint of Asia in familiar foods.
The first thing Andrea Reusing did when I sat down at a table in Lantern, her restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was pop an orange kumquat into my mouth. The fruit had a bitter, sour bite that immediately gave way to a deep, citrusy sweetness. "They're crazy, right?" she said, reaching for a handful.
If there's one thing Reusing understands, it's the power of a remarkable ingredient. Known for her ability to infuse traditional American cooking with a few carefully selected Asian flavors, she'll take that quintessential Southern favorite, barbecued pork shoulder, and slow-cook it with coconut milk. The result is pulled pork that's familiar yet slightly exotic. Or she'll give asparagus a deep, salty essence by tossing it with melted butter and soy sauce—a combination featured in her first cookbook,Cooking in the Moment, out this month.
Reusing, however, is both a relatively recent Southerner and an accidental Asian chef. She moved to North Carolina from New York City in 1995, drawn by love (her husband is Mac McCaughan, an indie rocker who leads the band Superchunk). New to town and needing to make some money, Reusing started catering, drawing on experience she'd gained cooking her way through college.
When she eventually opened Lantern, Reusing decided to feature the Asian flavors she'd discovered in San Francisco and New York City's Chinatown. She figured that, like her, other people were hungry for the tastes found in big cities. But she also discovered that broadening the kitchen's larder to include Asian ingredients was a surprisingly easy way to add vitality to American dishes.
"Some of these flavors were familiar to Southerners," she says. Soy sauce has an appeal similar to that of salty ham, and Japanese panko bread crumbs are like the crispy coating of fried chicken.
Reusing has found that for cooking at home, a pantry stocked with a few good Asian staples makes it easier to transform a standard weekday meal than, say, struggling to cook an unfamiliar vegetable or learning a new, labor-intensive technique. "You might have sweet potatoes all the time, but if you roast them with honey and mirin, a sweet Japanese wine, there's now an unexpected element," she says. "You can add just one ingredient to a dish and create something brand-new."
And that's true for the recipes here: A spoonful of miso adds savory richness to a warm beef salad, while fish sauce highlights the shrimp in a stew. These are the types of dishes Reusing turns to on busy evenings, when she's making dinner for her two small children. "If I have 25 minutes and just a few ingredients, I'm going to be able to feed my family," she says. "They won't think it's Chinese or Japanese—just good food."