Spicy Bacon-Sardine Fried Rice, Fargo, and Snirt

Spicy, smoky, perfectly fishy, and filled with so much vegetable matter that it’s more green than white, this plate epitomizes the kind of pantry-cooking I do when I’m alone for lunch or lost in thought. I reach first for the thing I want the most—the buttery canned sardines that no one else in the house likes, for instance—and then absent-mindedly round it out with whatever’s in the fridge. Sometimes I’ll start by pulling out my small cast-iron pan to slowly toast a handful of whole walnuts in lots of butter, with smashed garlic and rosemary—another strange and totally personal beginning that usually gets poured over pasta or boiled green beans or cooked squash … anything to sop up the nutty browned butter.
The fried rice above is courtesy of our weekend trip to Fargo and my subsequent run to the Asian market there, where I stocked up on EVERYTHING: greens and ginger and taro, four kinds of rice (jasmine, sticky, round, and basmati), noodles (sweet potato, mung bean, rice, bihon—cornstarch stick, and dok), condiments galore (toban djan—chili bean paste, kochujang, daengjang, mirin, rice vinegar, sesame oil, kimchi, etc., etc.) and the sweets we like around here, Strawberry Pocky and ginger candy.

My project for the last few years has been Midwestern food, all the time, but my secret feedings, especially my solo lunches, usually have an Asian heart. I spent a really fertile year cooking in a Chinese restaurant in New York, and it’s part of my cooking history—secondary to the food I grew up with, of course, but nonetheless always there. (These days, immersed in this place, I tend to Midwesternize my Asian food—with bacon, or butter, or whatever is lying around.)

I am thankful that the A & A Market in Fargo carries baby bok choy, chinese chives, gai lan, banana flowers, and the like. I wish I could get that produce truck to make a drop-off at my house on the way over.

Although the drive to Fargo is oddly scenic. When I was a kid, I thought it was the most boring trek in the world, but this time I was enthralled by the snow drifts on the fields, which looked like the surface of the moon. I went to take a snapshot of it with my phone, which happened to be set to video, and we happened to be listening to the Buzzcocks (because the 5-year-old demands it, believe it or not) and I left it on and ended up with this bizarre video. Playing it back, my teenage self finds me, and I am once again driving to Fargo, straight to the West Acres Mall, where I’m hoping to God to find Guess jeans. Focus on the running foot of “snirt”—the name that forecasters here have given to the plow line of “snow-and-dirt”—which looks almost animated, as if lifted from a 1980’s music video. Maybe I’m making way too much of this, but something about the bold drums against the flying landscape evokes this weird, soaring, adolescent sense that the moment is huge, and the future even bigger … or maybe it’s just the dramatic effect of the prairie on yet another passing-by roadside customer.


Bacon-Sardine Fried Rice

Contrary to popular opinion, fried rice usually doesn’t contain soy sauce. It should have a little sesame oil, however. Fry it in a heavy pan, either a wok or a cast-iron skillet.

3 slices bacon, cut into strips

3 cloves garlic, sliced (or 1 tablespoon minced ginger, if you’d rather)

1 cup leftover white rice

handful of chopped garlic chives

handful of baby bok choy, washed well and chopped

1/2 chile, chopped, or a few shakes of red pepper flakes

handful Thai basil or regular basil (or cilantro), chopped

sesame seeds

2 fat canned sardines, backbones removed, roughly chopped

sesame oil

Heat the wok, and add the bacon. Cook, stirring constantly, until lightly crisp at the edges. (Remove excess fat if there’s a lot of it; I used fairly lean bacon so I just left it all in the pan.)

Add the garlic and stir to coat in the fat. Add the rice, and cook, smashing it to break it up, until the rice is hot. Add the garlic chives, chopped green vegetable, and chile or chili flakes. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables wilt. Season to taste now with salt and pepper, plus pinch of sugar if you like.

Add the herbs, sesame seeds, sardines, and a thin pour of sesame oil, stir to combine, and pour out onto a plate. Serves one, generously.

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