Sunday, December 25, 2011

New Year's Hot Pot: Party Food for Homebodies


(A slightly different version of this piece was published last year in Salon.com.)

If life were fair or logical at all, I should have been the queen of party girls. I grew up in the Hollywood Hills (yes, those Hollywood Hills), only a stone’s throw from the legendary party district where Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, and Frank Zappa started their careers. On weekends, our neighbors (never the ones my parents hung out with) held epic blowouts with valet parking and hired DJs playing the coolest new music for their glamorous friends. In recent years, my parents have taken to complaining about the noise from paparazzi helicopters hovering over Britney Spears’(embarrassingly close) house.

And I spent almost every evening of my teen years among the stars... sitting in my room. Doing algebra. Or writing essays about Julius Caesar. Or plowing through some other wholesome and useful activity that would allegedly make me into a better person. Even New Year’s Eve – the one holiday where staying up late, wearing lots of makeup, and actually leaving the house are practically legal requirements – was spent at home with Mom and Dad.

But New Year’s Eve was different. The rest of the year, Mom and Dad kept me (and to a lesser extent, my younger sisters) on a tight leash out of concerns for our safety and well-being. But on New Year’s Eve, we stayed home because of Dad’s tale of the loneliest night of his life.

Dad’s annual recollection of the loneliest night of his life was, and sometimes still is, the cornerstone of my family’s New Year’s Eve celebration. It also reminded us why we always spent the most festive night of the year barricaded in the family room in sweats and slippers.

Dad’s recitation could only occur if a few necessary conditions were met. First, the TV had to be tuned to the annual bacchanal in Times Square, preferably with Dick Clark chirping happy platitudes in the background. Second, Dad never volunteered the story. Just as a child obligatorily initiates the ritual retelling of the Passover story, it was up to us kids to jump-start the narrative that made our New Year’s Eve different from all others.

“Daddy! Daddy!” we’d yell as the soon-to-drop Times Square glitter ball filled the TV screen, “Tell us about the loneliest night of your life!”

Then he’d smile. And slowly begin his tale:

“The loneliest night of my life – It was New Year’s Eve, 1957. I’d come down to New York with a couple other interns from Temple. I didn’t know a soul in New York City.

“The other guys all had dates for New Year’s Eve. They offered to set me up with someone, but I didn’t have the money to treat a gal to dinner.

“So they all went off, wining and dining, And I was all by myself.

“I wandered around the city and ended up in Times Square. All those people, drunk and laughing. And I never felt so lonely in my whole life. Alone in the crowd.”

Then he’d sit back. And there would be a pregnant and solemn silence. For about half a second.

“Ooh, poor Daddy! You’re not lonely now, are you?”

“Yeah, you’ve got US!”

“Tchih!” Mom would mutter, rooting through the cupboards for champagne glasses.

And this was why, Dad would explain, we always spent New Year’s Eve at home: holidays meant nothing without loved ones nearby, no matter how much hype and glitter you threw at them. Ergo, nothing could be more meaningful than observing the passage of another year in the place we loved best, in the company those closest to us. Even if this meant our holiday was almost indistinguishable from every other night of the year.

The key word here is “almost.” The differences between New Year’s Eve and ordinary nights at our place were few, but significant. First, we kids were allowed to stay up until midnight, with no lectures about the virtues of going to bed early. Second, there was almost always caviar (and champagne for Mom and Dad), to be consumed as close to midnight as possible. The very idea of feasting on exotic delicacies at that forbidden hour seemed to me almost as decadent and glamorous as going out to celebrate.

And finally, we’d always have something special for dinner before our late-night festivities. It was never anything near as elaborate as our Christmas or Thanksgiving feasts – but always something out of the ordinary.

Very often, this something special was a Chinese hot pot, a brash, blinged-out version of Japanese shabu-shabu, traditionally served in the winter.

Technically, the hot pot is just soup, but its execution makes it special: it starts as a big pot of plain simmering broth in the center of the dining table (it’s kept hot over a heating unit), into which diners toss thinly sliced meat, vegetables, and seafood. Diners remove these goodies as they cook and eat them with rice and dipping sauces – typically, jarred Chinese hot sauces or simple mixes of soy sauce and sesame oil.

As the meal progresses and more ingredients are added and taken from the pot, the broth grows richer and more and more flavorful – and becomes a luscious and soothing final course when everything else has been eaten.

Another thing makes Chinese hot pot special, too: it can’t be made, nor eaten, by just one person. Nor is it a good choice for a first-date or business meal: getting all those morsels of meat and vegetables in and out of the pot and into one’s mouth entails lots of vulgar reaching across the table and occasionally, seagull-like theft from other diners. And no matter how careful you are, broth and sauce will end up dripped all over the table.

This means the only people with whom one can judiciously share a hot pot are those who you know will put up with you no matter what – which makes it scarily appropriate for an intimate celebration of family solidarity, observed at home in sweats and slippers.

CHINESE HOT POT

This dish is so simple and open-ended it doesn’t really require a recipe, just a few guidelines.

The Broth: Allow about 2 cups of broth (Mom uses canned chicken broth) per person. By tradition, the broth is heated to boiling and kept hot in a special hot pot with a chimney, as seen above.

Hot coals are traditionally tucked into the base of the pot to heat the broth. But the few times my family actually used this thing, we used canned Sterno (the same stuff used to warm chafing dishes and fondue pots). In recent years, we’ve switched to a less-evocative but more-powerful tabletop induction unit and an ordinary soup pot to hold the broth.

The Rice: Prepare about 1 cup cooked (1/2 cup raw) plain white rice per person.

The Good Stuff: Standard hot pot ingredients include thinly sliced beef (such as flank steak cut against the grain), thinly sliced chicken (dark meat is preferred over white by Chinese convention, and is cheaper too), cubes of tofu, fresh, shelled oysters, shelled and de-veined shrimp...pretty much any protein in bite-size pieces that cooks quickly in boiling broth. Asian markets often have packages of pre-sliced meat and chicken specifically for hot pot; these will cut your prep time even further if you have access to them. Allow about 1/3- ½ pound of mixed meats per diner. (This can vary, of course, depending on the appetites of the individuals you’re serving.)

Good vegetables to include in a hot pot are dark leafy things that cook quickly: spinach, or even better, water spinach or garland chrysanthemum leaves (available in Asian markets and every bit as fragrant and wonderful as their name suggests—and a perfect foil for rich broth and meats). Allow several big handfuls of these per diner, bearing in mind that these vegetables will wilt and shrink when cooked, so you’ll probably need more than you think.

The Sauces and Setup: Put the hot pot full of heated broth in the middle of your kitchen table. Don’t bother using your best tablecloth, or any tablecloth at all, for that matter. Turn on whatever heating unit you choose to use, and try to keep the broth at an active simmer. Set out a bowl, a pair of chopsticks or a fork, and a soup spoon for each diner.

If you can find them, also provide each diner with a hot pot basket (a small wire basket on a long handle, as seen in the photo above): the baskets are used to recover cooked ingredients from the pot. If you can’t find these baskets, have a couple of serving spoons available for diners to use.

Next, set out the rice and raw hot pot ingredients, as well as small dishes of Asian hot sauce (such as sriracha sauce or sambal oelek) and soy sauce mixed with a few drops of sesame oil. Then make sure you have lots of napkins.

To serve: Place some of the meats and/or seafood into the hot broth, then some of the vegetables. Instruct diners to hold their freaking horses and try to behave themselves until the meats are cooked (this should take no more than five minutes). Then allow them to extract whatever they want from the pot (Hey! No pushing! There’s plenty to go around!), to be eaten with rice and dipping sauces.

Replenish the broth with meat and vegetables as needed. When you’re out of meat and vegetables (or when everyone is too full to eat any more) spoon the broth into bowls to enjoy as a final course. By this time, it will have absorbed the savor of meat, vegetables, and good conversation, and will be a perfect cap to a New Year’s feast.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Plumber Makes Pasta for Poets


(A slightly different version of this piece appeared in my Open Salon blog.)

I was raised to believe that it was the height of rudeness to read at the dinner table. It was not only inconsiderate to other diners, but would cause the unfortunate book brought to the table to be covered with gravy or grease stains. Both of these were unforgivable sins.

Then I discovered the lovely, subversive institution known as the college-town bookstore. Not the big, school-sponsored one on campus, with its endless supply of computer equipment, shrink-wrapped textbooks, and tchotchkes bearing the school’s mascot. Nor the smaller, parasitic bookstore just off campus, where the same textbooks, barely used, can be bought and sold for half price the following semester. The best and most interesting bookstore in any college town is always a funky place selling secondhand books and distinguished by the presence of (a) the owner’s cat, (b) beat-up second-hand furniture of suspect provenance, and/or (c) organic coffee and really thick vegetarian soups.

These stores tend to have a countercultural bent and thus allow one to violate a lot of the rules observed by Nice People. Like the dictum against dawdling too long in a retail establishment without buying anything. And the rule against reading at the table during meals.

In my current hometown of Gainesville, Florida (home of the Florida Gators – if you’re not a Gator, you’re Gator bait!) Books, Inc. fills this crucial role in the cultural ecosystem. It fills a sprawling old house near the university, is furnished with the obligatory frayed armchairs and beat-up side tables from who-knows-where, and boasts a tiny vegetarian eatery (The Book Lover’s Café) that serves sturdy earthenware mugs of soup and organic coffee to a loyal population of students, aging hippies, writing groups, and Dungeons and Dragons players. No cat, though – the place has enough interesting characters on hand that it doesn’t need one.

I’m not a hippie type. Nor am I a vegetarian. But the first time I stepped into Books, Inc., something about the scruffy, casual vibe of the place just felt good and right. And over the past few years, it has come to epitomize the best of Gainesville for me.

The cashier’s desk – a retail establishment’s place of honor – features not bestsellers and bookmarks, but an ever-changing jumble of works by local and regional writers – everything from paperbacks by nationally known locals to collections by critically acclaimed poets to self-published zines and charity cookbooks, along with books about local flora, fauna, and history. (This brings up another thing I love about this place:  While a lot of big-box outlets around here try to cop a “local” vibe by painting “GO GATORS!” in the front window and hanging a few posters of Tim Tebow, the commitment to local culture at Books, Inc. is deep and genuine – and miraculously, expressed without a hint UF orange and blue). Local writers who manage to get published also know that Books, Inc. is the place to host book-signing parties.

The store’s biggest fans, however, are the scores of would-be creative luminaries who are also nurtured and fed (both intellectually and literally) at its dozen or so mismatched tables. One of my two writing groups – the one whose members compensate for their chronic flakiness with peerless conversational skills and brilliantly incisive critiques (on the rare occasions they actually get around to reading each others' submissions) has held its weekly meetings there for the past two years, and is only one of several writing groups that regularly jockey for table space in the busy store. And all of us ate and drank, wholesomely and well, while tapping at our laptops or flipping through our manuscripts or even yet-to-be purchased volumes from the store’s shelves.

 My husband had his first-ever photography exhibition in their tiny art gallery – and every  time I came in during the time the exhibit was up,  Anne, the owner, made a point of coming up to me and telling me excitedly about how some customer or another had loved his photos. When we hosted an opening night reception in the little gallery, she mixed up a huge bowl of punch, put out hummus and chips and cookies to supplement our supply of wine and cheese, helped us set everything up, and waited along with us, as eager for Glenn’s success as we were.

At the end of the month-long exhibition, Anne told us that Glenn’s exhibition had been their most profitable in years.  He eagerly agreed to do another show in the following year. Now we were both established members of Books, Inc.’s creative community, and I envisioned Books, Inc. becoming for us what Shakespeare and Company was to Gertrude Stein and Hemingway.

Then last month, Glenn got a call from Anne.  His next show was cancelled:  She and her husband were retiring and closing the store in early 2012.

There had been a big “For Sale” sign outside Books, Inc. since forever, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.  But business inside the store seemed to go on as usual, so it was easy to not to think the unthinkable. On a couple of occasions, members of my writing group speculated about it, but we did our best to stay in a state of denial.  Surely, they couldn’t be serious about selling the place.  Maybe just the property was being sold, and the store was only renting it. Books, Inc. is so well established in the community, someone would come forward to buy it – wouldn’t they?

My writing group, to my annoyance, has recently moved our meetings to a thoroughly mediocre restaurant down the street at the request of a member who declared he didn’t like eating “rabbit food.” (This member quit soon after for unrelated reasons.) But I’m going to petition to move our next few meetings back to Books, Inc., for old times’ sake.

Some of my fondest memories of life in Gainesville will always be those writing-group meetings there – evenings of wandering conversations that typically veer from vampires to Watergate to space travel to food, Florida history, and gun control, and then back again, all fueled by tempeh Reuben sandwiches, creamy-but-cream-free soups, and a mysterious house-made fresh ginger brew that none of us have been able to replicate. On a typical evening, Lina would struggle to get her laptop connected to the store’s touch-and-go wireless network, Wes would meander about during breaks, looking for books on European history, and I would drink in the place’s signature scent of coffee, cumin, and old paper while eavesdropping on other groups of readers, writers, and diners, all having conversations just as pointless and random as ours. And yes,we read and ate and wrote and talked all at the same time. Who ever knew that quietly breaking a few rules of etiquette could be so much fun?

I need to cement as many of these memories into my brain as I can, and soon – because in a few months, that’s all I’ll have left of one of my favorite places.

**********************************************************************************
One item on the Book Lover’s Café  menu that I haven’t yet gotten around to ordering was called “Our Plumber’s Pasta.”  It seemed to be a typical college-town hippy-ish mixture of pasta, vegetables, and almonds in a sort-of-Asian-style sauce. But only after buying the Book Lovers’ Café cookbook as a souvenir recently (it was, of course, right on the cashier’s table, along with all the other local works) did I realize how true my characterization was:  the base of the dish, and the source of flavoring in the original formulation of the recipe, was a notorious student standby: instant ramen noodles and flavoring packets! But the truly novel and creative part of the recipe is that it requires no cooking whatsoever – instead, the “instant” noodles soak overnight in a soy-and-vinegar-based marinade until tender. (And according to the cookbook, the popular dish was indeed the invention of the original chef’s plumber.) Of course, I had to try my own version of it.

The book didn’t say who this plumber was. But I picture him as a bright, free-thinking UF dropout who decided he’d rather do real work with his hands than spend his life pushing paper around. More than any of the other, more conventionally wholesome dishes on the café’s menu, with their locally sourced organic ingredients, this plumber’s creation speaks loudly and clearly to a distinct sense of place: Where else could such a dish have evolved and flourished except in a community dominated by starving students and aspiring artists with dreams of far-away places and bigger things?

OUR PLUMBER’S PASTA

(Adapted from The Book Lover’s Café Cookbook, by Ian Schliefer)

Notes: The original recipe called for balsamic vinegar, but I substituted Chinese sweetened black vinegar, which has similar tangy, caramel notes and is a LOT cheaper.

For the pasta and vegetables:
3 (3.5 ounce) packages instant ramen package (according to the original recipe, all the ingredients in “Oriental”- flavored ramen are vegetarian, but check the ingredient list if this is a concern. If not, any basic flavor will work.)
1 large green bell pepper, diced
½ medium red onion, diced
½ cup red cabbage, diced
1/3 cup sliced or slivered almonds

For the marinade:
¼ cup canola oil
¾ sweetened black vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 seasoning packet from an instant ramen
I teaspoon finely grated garlic (about 1 medium clove)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup water

Combine the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl; set aside.

Break up the cakes of ramen noodles into small pieces (about ½ inch across), and put them in a large bowl. Toss thoroughly with vegetables and marinade. (Discard remaining two flavoring packets or reserve for another use.)

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rest, overnight, in the refrigerator. (Instant ramen noodles are already cooked; soaking them in the marinade will rehydrate them into their more familiar “cooked” form.)  Serve cold or at room temperature.




Thursday, December 8, 2011

Eating Butterflies: Festive Treats for Ordinary Days


It used to crack me up how people on TV and in magazines portrayed “four-course banquets” as the very height of festivity and luxury. I was just a boring little kid who never got to go anywhere interesting, and I’d been to more TEN-course banquets than I could count. And as Dad constantly reminded me and my sisters, we were even more fortunate than other people and their trivial roast-beef feasts, for our banquets featured the classic dishes of ancient China, and the culinary traditions of China are even older and more sophisticated and refined than those of France and Italy: Did you know, he liked to tell us, that the Chinese invented pasta, and it only got to Italy because of Marco Polo?

Banquet season for our family was whenever Grandma Lee came to visit us in Los Angeles. She was an expert and prodigious networker decades before the term was even invented, and her week-long visits involved nightly ten-course feasts, each serving seemingly hundreds of friends, relatives, and business associates in the Chinese-American community whom she just had to see. I have no idea who paid for or planned these events, but I was sure Dad was right about the proper place of Chinese cuisine in the culinary pantheon -- the food was luscious: whole, steamed fish topped with scallions and ginger, burnished marinated and roasted chicken or squab surrounded by a ring of crunchy shrimp chips that looked like disks of candy-colored Styrofoam, and tender morsels of quickly stir-fried steak in a peppery sauce, along with seven other, equally appetizing courses. It made the inevitable series of  lengthy Cantonese speeches before each meal (which even my parents said were boring and formulaic) worth it.

Only one course was inevitably disappointing at these celebratory events: dessert. No matter what exotic luxuries had come before, dessert almost always seemed to be an afterthought in Cantonese banquets. There were usually orange slices and maybe some almond or fortune cookies, and very occasionally, some vaguely sweet soup that, like a postprandial bowl of Raisin Bran, really didn’t seem sweet  or decadent enough to count as dessert. The only time when Grandma’s banquets didn’t end  anticlimactically was when the extended family met in San Francisco. This was because younger members of the local clan usually procured a rum-drenched, cream-puff-topped layer cake from Little Italy to end our otherwise authentically Chinese meals. 

Those cakes made me wish I were Italian.

“Chinese food is healthy,” Dad said when I asked him why we didn’t have good desserts like other cultures. “We’ve known for a long time that people aren’t supposed to eat a lot of sweets. Americans are just figuring that out now!”

I learned later that Western-style dessert didn’t exist as its own course in Chinese tradition, and that the few sweets that did exist were more likely to be served as snacks than with meals. (Some of these traditional snacks, such as those mildly sweet soups, got co-opted into playing the dessert role at the banquets I had attended.)  I also learned, contrary to Dad's lectures, that there do exist sweet and shamelessly unhealthful Chinese treats worth pursuing.

One of these was an occasional treat we’d use to get from Chinatown bakeries, called a butterfly cookie. It only bore the vaguest resemblance to a butterfly, and wasn’t really a cookie – rather, it was a twisted, crunchy deep-fried confection drenched in thick, sticky sugar syrup. It was also larger than a normal cookie – about six inches long, the perfect size for getting a grade schooler’s hands completely sticky. Consistent with Chinese tradition, we never had these at the end of meals, but only as snacks – the usual routine was to buy about half a dozen of them after a weekend dim sum lunch in Chinatown, take them home in the standard-for-Chinatown pink cardboard box tied with red string, and munch on them while watching badly dubbed 1950s-era Japanese monster movies on some local independent TV station. Butterfly cookies weren’t officially special-occasion food, but like ice cream cones, they made ordinary days feel a little bit special.

The recipes for homemade butterfly cookies I’ve found differ in a couple of respects from the ones I remember seeing in Chinatown. For one, they’re much smaller (they’re generally made with fried wonton skins, which are only about 4 inches square), and almost always call for a simpler finish of powdered sugar rather than syrup. 

But for me, that sticky syrup is what made the butterfly cookies of my childhood so much fun to eat – both for the decadent sweetness it contributes, and the distinctive stickiness. The great thing about eating a properly made butterfly is that while it’s crispy and brittle, it generates very few crumbs when you break off a piece or bite into it. This is because the syrup coating will form long, almost tensile strings that will keep the shattered crunchy shards securely attached to the rest of the pastry, so none will be lost or wasted. The only mess will be from gobs of syrup on your fingers, but you can alleviate this problem by holding the butterfly with the wax-paper square on which it is typically sold.

Most likely, modern home cooks adapted the powdered sugar route because it’s easier and (arguably) prettier. But the end result will be a lot messier to eat (crumbs and powdered sugar everywhere!) and nowhere near as much fun.

When preparing this post and formulating my recipe, my South-African-born husband mentioned that butterfly cookies drenched in syrup were the standard end-of-meal treat in Chinese restaurants when he was growing up. (He remembers them being called “bow ties” rather than butterflies, but he was definitely referring to the same confection.)

So it turns out that somewhere in the world, there are Chinese restaurants that end meals with memorable sweets. As always, there is wisdom to be gleaned from the customs of others.

CHINESE BUTTERFLY COOKIES

24 wonton skins
Canola or other neutrally flavored oil for deep frying
2 cups sugar
½ cup water
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Shape the butterflies. Stack two wonton skins on top of each other (keep the remaining skins covered to keep them soft and pliable) and cut the stack in half lengthwise. Each half of the stack will form a single pastry.
Cut a 2 ½-inch long slit down the center of each stack.

Pick up one of the stacks. Fold one end of the stack towards you, push it through the front side of the slit, then pull it up through the back side of the slit. This will form two twists along the sides of the cookie.
 Repeat the cutting and folding until all the butterflies are formed. Keep the already-shaped butterflies covered with a towel to keep the wonton skins soft.

Meanwhile, heat about 2 inches of oil over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. When it is hot, drop in a test butterfly: if the oil is at the right temperature, the butterfly will immediately rise to the top and start puffing up.

When the oil is the right temperature, add as many pastries as will fit easily without touching (there should be some room around them) and fry, turning once or twice, until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.


Make the syrup: Combine the water, lemon juice, and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. (The lemon juice doesn't add much flavor; it prevents the syrup from getting crystalized.) Cook until the syrup thickens. Test the syrup by placing a small drop of it into a bowl of ice water: the syrup is ready when the drop forms a pliable, sticky ball that can be pressed flat between your fingers. When the syrup is ready, plunge the bottom of the pot into a large bowl of cold water to stop the cooking.


Dip the pastries: Using tongs, take each butterfly and dip it into the syrup, ensuring that it is completely covered. Place the dipped pastries on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper or baking parchment (do NOT put them on paper towels or they'll stick).

The butterflies can be eaten immediately, or stored in an airtight container, with layers of pastries separated by waxed paper. 

This post is part of the monthly #LetsLunch series -- this month's theme is festive sides from your family heritage. Okay, I heard it wrong and just did a random festive dish. My bad.

Here are the fine bloggers also doing lunch today: The list will be updated throughout the day as more terrific posts come in, so stay tuned!

A Cook and Her Books 
on festive  black-eyed peas and greens -- lucky food for Southerners! 

Patrick G. Lee 
(no relation, but he sounds like a fun guy!) on baby pecan pis.

HapaMama 
on fruitcake and generosity, two essential components of Christmas.


Spicebox Travels 
on Trinidadan pastelles  - Caribbean Christmas tamales -- and an easy way to make them.

 Free Range Cookies
on crunchy, crunchy salads -- made of baked veggie chips! 

A Tiger in the Kitchen 
on a Singaporean potato-and-sausage casserole, traditional at Christmas. UPDATE: This post also contains the complete, updated list of this month's #LetsLunch participants -- check it out!





Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An (Almost) All-American Thanksgiving (or, What to Eat the Morning After)



(This post originally appeared on my Open Salon blog last year. A slightly different version was published on Salon.com.)

Ungrateful whining is an American child’s birthright. But if you grow up in an immigrant family, you have a whole battery of things to whine about that other kids don’t.

For one, your parents and their friends will insist on infesting every event with dorky, embarrassing stuff from the old country. Back in my whiny years, all my cool friends from school got to have buttery mashed potatoes and flaky little Parker House rolls at their Thanksgiving tables. And I was stuck with... plain boiled rice.

“MOOOM! Why do we have to have RICE? I want potatoes!”

“Rice is good.” Mom would say. “And Dad wants rice.”

End of discussion. (This was another thing Chinese-American kids get to whine about: We never get to have the last word. Ever.)

Thanksgiving, according to my grade-school teachers, was the most American of holidays, a time to celebrate our common heritage by bonding around indigenous American foodstuffs. So I decided it was up to me, as a patriotic native-born American, to protect the sanctity of the holiday from creeping Sinofication.

“You know what Auntie Pat puts in her turkey?” Mom said one night a week before Thanksgiving, “Naw mai and lop cheung.”

Dad’s eyebrows raised from behind the Wall Street Journal. “Mmm, “ he said.

“MOOOM! NO!” my sisters and I yelled in unison. Not that there was anything wrong with naw mai (sticky rice) and lop cheung (dried Chinese sausage), but these weren’t Thanksgiving food. They were everyday boring food. The kind of stuff we ate while relatives interrogated us about our grades and asked us why Mom didn’t have any sons (as if we could possibly formulate an intelligent answer to this question).

Year after year, we successfully fought off rice-stuffed turkeys and stir-fried side dishes. We also managed to increase, ever so gradually, the proportion of toasted marshmallows on top of our absolutely mandatory sweet potato casserole. And as my sisters and I assumed more and more responsibility and control in the kitchen, our Thanksgiving spreads became less Norman Rockwell and more Martha Stewart: pumpkin flans and souffles are more our thing than pumpkin pies.

These days, we count our victory over immigrant dorkitude nearly complete. But the purity of our red-blooded Yuppie American Thanksgiving feast lasts only until the dishes are cleared. That’s when our Martha Stewart idyll ends, and Mom’s annual turkey jook production begins. (Jook is often described, unappetizingly, as rice porridge or gruel, but it deserves to be re-branded as a savory and soothing cream of rice soup.)

While the dishes are still in the sink, Mom puts the turkey carcass (denuded of stuffing and any pieces of meat large enough to save for sandwiches) in a slow cooker and covers it with water. She tosses in a cut-up carrot and a stalk or two of celery. (Neither of these are traditional Chinese soup ingredients, but that’s how she rolls.) Then she turns the cooker on and lets it do its thing while we do the dishes and attempt to foist foil-wrapped packets of leftovers onto our guests.

The cooker stays on all night, and early on Black Friday morning, Mom removes and dumps the carcass, and adds several handfuls of leftover rice from the night before. (Yes, we still have plain boiled rice every Thanksgiving. Since almost no one touches it except Dad, we can always count on leftovers for jook-making.) Within an hour, the rice will have dissolved, turning the rich turkey broth into a silky ivory cream – just in time for a comforting, very traditional Chinese breakfast for late risers.

In the end, that pointless bowl of Thanksgiving rice always manages to redeem itself. And we always end up with a real Chinese dish for Thanksgiving – albeit one with an All-American backbone. And none of us have ever complained about it.

As always, Mom and Dad get the last word.

***

Jook is traditionally served at breakfast or as a late-night snack. It can be made with fish, meat, or poultry broth, and usually contains pieces of the corresponding meat. (I’ve heard of jook based on plain water, but this would be unthinkable in my family.)

True confession time: I’ve never hosted a full-on Thanksgiving dinner, so I’ve have never had unfettered access to a turkey carcass. (Yes, I know – I’ve missed a crucial milestone of American womanhood and should probably just go and join the Taliban right now.) But I have made jook many times, and it’s dead easy. The recipe below produces a more modest portion than Mom’s – a good starter size for newbies and doubters. It calls for raw rice, since I assume most non-Chinese don’t typically have cold cooked rice lying around. But you can use a larger portion of cooked rice and cook the soup for a shorter amount of time.



TURKEY (OR CHICKEN) JOOK (CREAMY RICE SOUP)

4 cups turkey or chicken broth

2 ¼-inch thick slices of fresh ginger

1/3 cup raw white rice, rinsed (or 1 cup cooked white rice rice)

salt and white pepper to taste

1 cup cooked turkey or chicken, shredded into bite-size pieces

For garnishes:

2 scallions, thinly sliced

sesame oil

chile oil

1. Bring the broth and ginger to a boil in a heavy saucepan.

2. Add the rice. Cook at medium heat, stirring regularly, until the rice has fully cooked and broken down (about an hour). The mixture should have the consistency of a thick bean soup (it won’t be completely smooth; little nubs of rice will still be evident). If it’s too thick for your taste, add more broth. If it’s too thin, raise the heat and cook until the mixture has thickened to your desired consistency.

3. Add the shredded chicken or turkey and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Cook until the meat is heated through.

4. Garnish with sliced scallions. Serve with sesame oil, chile oil, and extra white pepper for diners to add at will.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Tiger Mom’s Daughter Makes Popcorn



I’ve had this brilliant idea bouncing around for a while: flavored popcorn. But not just plain old cheese-flavored popcorn or kettle corn – truly epic, sweet, salty, tangy, and spicy popcorn with crazy Indian flavors that would subvert the whole notion of what popcorn is supposed to taste like.

And it would be a cinch to make, too. I knew exactly what flavors I wanted and how to get them (basically, I’d use the spice combination in Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for Indian snack mix, which I’ve used successfully before in other experiments). I knew how to get the flavors and the popcorn together – I’d cook the spices along with the popcorn, a technique I had learned from a spiced popcorn recipe in City Cuisine, a cookbook featuring dishes from a wonderfully original (and sadly defunct) Los Angeles restaurant.

How could I go wrong?

Let me count the ways.

First, I haven’t laid eyes on that cookbook for years. If I still have it, it’s somewhere in storage at my parents’ place, three time zones away. I haven’t made the spiced popcorn recipe from that book in years, and the exact details of the technique involved were fuzzy. I’d have to wing it, but I’m good at winging it. Usually.

I assembled and mixed my spices, per Jaffrey’s recipe: salt, sugar, cinnamon, turmeric, black mustard seeds, cayenne (I like to use a LOT), cloves, black pepper, and the secret ingredient, amchoor, or dried green mango powder.



Then I heated up some oil in a big pot to pop the corn. When it was sufficiently hot, I dumped in the popcorn kernels, let a few of them pop, then dumped in the spices. I could heat the happy thumps of popping kernels hitting the bottom of the pot’s lid, and smell the spices. And something burning.

I lifted the lid about an inch. Several kernels of corn shot across the kitchen through a puff of smoke and skidded under the refrigerator. If you make popcorn on the stove you can expect a bit of steam when you crack open the lid but this wasn’t steam. It was the whole darned project going up in smoke.

I realized immediately what had happened. The City Cuisine recipe (if I recalled correctly) involved only dried spices and salt. My recipe involved sugar and amchoor, which was essentially powdered dried fruit. Dumped into a pan with a layer of hot oil on the bottom, it cooked into a jam-like gunk, then scorched.

Duh. What did I think would happen? Here, I can hear my parents’ Pavlovian response to such mishaps by their offspring. “The problem was, you weren’t thinking!”

Well, I was thinking now. Failure is a memorable teacher, if nothing else. And one lesson I’ve absorbed from a Chinese-American childhood (other than to never put sugar in your tea at a dim sum place) is that adversity is good for you. Spending hours upon hours doing stuff you hate (Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, anyone?) makes you a better person – and really good at doing stuff you hate, a regrettably important skill for adults.

Fortunately, this training also made me better at doing stuff I like, especially when it goes bad – like now. Thankfully, I had plenty of all the ingredients I needed, and the burnt gunk on the bottom of the pan washed off fairly easily. Time for take two. This time, I’d keep the amchoor and sugar separate from the other spices and add them only at the end, after the popcorn had finished popping.

The oil was heated and the kernels were just starting to thump against the inside of the lid. I lifted it quickly and dumped in the spices, leaving the amchoor and sugar off to the side. I shook the pan to distribute the spices as the kernels popped, thinking of how pretty the finished popcorn would look – sunny yellow from the turmeric and flecked with bits of spice.

The popping slowed, then stopped. I lifted the lid: a few sunny yellow buds of popcorn, but the rest were flecked with black. The spices had burned again.

A lesser warrior would have given up. But not me. I wasn’t raised to be a quitter. Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill you will make you grow stronger, and being stronger is always a good thing. This was a teachable moment, and I was going to learn from it, dammit!

Take three. It was obvious that cooking the spices with the popcorn was a no-go. (Was that really how they did it in the City Cuisine recipe? Now I was beginning to doubt my memory, which is normally pretty good.) Just dumping the spices onto the popcorn after it was popped wouldn’t work either; I’d tried that before and the spices never stuck to the popcorn – they just sank uselessly to the bottom of whatever container the popcorn was in. So I opted for the method Madhur Jaffrey used to incorporate the spices into her snack mix: I heated the mustard seeds in oil until they popped, removed the hot oil from the heat, and stirred in all the spices except the amchoor, salt, and sugar. Then I poured the mixture over the popcorn and stirred. Once everything was combined, I sprinkled on the amchoor, salt, and sugar and stirred again.

Close, but still not perfect. It was certainly edible, but not quite what I wanted. Some pieces of popcorn were covered with gobs of the spicy mix, while others were nearly white. Also, the mix was almost too saturated with flavor –as if there was too much spice for the amount of popcorn used. I knew exactly what I needed to do: slightly increase both the amount of popcorn and the amount of oil used to heat the spices. The problem with this batch was that the oil-and-spice mixture was thick and pasty, not the melted-butter consistency that would even cover the popcorn. These two adjustments would both improve the flavor balance and the distribution of spices over the popped kernels.

Now I was feeling both like a very proud cub of a good Tiger Mom and like a particularly masochistic minion of Christopher Kimball. The end was in sight. But my kitchen was a hot mess (literally) and it was getting close to dinnertime. The (hopefully) final denouement of my project would have to wait.

Flash forward about 20 hours. This whole experiment was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day. I assembled my spices (again), measured out a slightly larger quantity of popcorn, and popped it as usual -- again. Then I dumped it into a big bowl, wiped out the pot, and added the oil and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds had all popped, I added the spices, just as before. This time, there was enough oil to dissolve, or at least, evenly disperse them. I poured the now- bright-orange liquid over the popcorn and stirred vigorously until the popcorn was the sunny, nearly uniform yellow I had hoped for. Then I poured over the amchoor/salt/sugar mixture and stirred again.

I tasted it. Success! About freaking time, too. Sweet, salty, spicy, tangy, and despite the seemingly copious amount of oil involved, not discernibly greasy. A perfect snack for Bollywood movie nights and beyond. Forget the Tiger Cub – now I felt like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: my 10,000 hours of popcorn-making practice (well, that’s what it felt like) had finally resulted in transcendence. It felt amazing and made me wonder why I didn’t do experiments like this more often.

Then I realized it was close to dinnertime again and it was time to wash and put away all that stuff in the sink before getting started on yet another group of recipes. And I was now running low on black peppercorns, one of my husband’s favorite flavorings, too. And cooking oil. Oops. Maybe that’s why.

But no regrets. The ride was totally worth it.

BOLLYWOOD POPCORN

(inspired by recipes from Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cookingand City Cuisine,by Mary Milliken and Susan Feniger)

This recipe actually is really easy to make, believe it or not. It would make a fun and different cocktail nibble for a holiday open house. Amchoor (which contributes a tangy, fruity note) and black mustard seeds are available at Indian markets.

¾” piece cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste—this amount makes the mix quite spicy!)
1-1/4 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 teaspoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons amchoor (dried green mango powder)
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
½ tablespoon black mustard seeds
4 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola (or more if you need it to pop your corn)

1. In a spice grinder or mortar, grind the cinnamon stick, cloves, and peppercorns until they are powdery. Combine with the turmeric and cayenne in a small cup and set aside.

2. In a separate cup, combine the sugar, salt, and amchoor; set aside.

3. Pop the corn. If you don’t have a popcorn popper, you can do it the old-school way, on the stovetop: put 2 tablespoons of canola or other neutral oil in a large, heavy pot with a lid and drop in a test kernel. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat until the kernel pops. Then add the remaining kernels. Keep the pot covered, but shake it around occasionally to distribute the kernels evenly. When the popping stops, remove the pot from the heat and pour the popped corn into a large bowl.

4. Wipe out the pot (if you’ve used one) or use a small, heavy skillet to make the seasoned oil. Put the 4 tablespoons of oil into the pot or skillet and bring the heat to medium. Add the mustard seeds and cook until all the seeds have popped. Remove the skillet or pot from the heat and stir in the ground spices.

5. Pour the spice mixture over the popped corn and stir vigorously with a large spoon (or even your hands) until the popcorn is evenly coated. Sprinkle on the salt/sugar/amchoor mixture and stir again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Pleasures of PBS (and a Defense of Monkey Gland Steak)



Not having cable is liberating. It gives me a perfect excuse not to keep up with the Kardashians or any of the other irritating presences hogging up the cultural universe: Sorry, I didn’t see that – I don’t have cable!

Another good thing about not having cable is that when I do feel like zonking out in front of the TV, I am forced to watch PBS, the only over-the-air station in my area that has decent reception and isn’t constantly running pawn-shop ads. It’s kind of like not keeping junk food in the house: if you feel like snacking, you have no choice but to go for the carrot sticks.

But after many hours of virtuous sloth (spacing out in front of a Ken Burns documentary somehow feels righteous and wholesome), I realized with delight that PBS isn’t all carrot sticks. Sometimes, like ripe mangoes or perfect strawberries, it’s so enchanting you forget it’s good for you. Seriously, any American who doesn’t love Big Bird or get into geeking out with the History Detectives really does’t deserve to be alive.

Even more fun than Big Bird’s adventures or the origins of that thing that may or may not have belonged to Benedict Arnold are PBS’s cooking shows. Unlike the glitz-filled drivel on the Food Network, the cooks who have shows on PBS – Ming Tsai, Jacques Pepin, and Lidia Bastianich, among others – actually know how to cook and are passionately curious about the history, origins, and uses of their ingredients. Watching those guys (and girls) at work can give you both a raging appetite and a genuinely improved knowledge of some crucial technique or regional cuisine: Did you know you can avoid getting shell bits in your eggs by cracking the shells against a flat surface such as a counter rather than against the rim of a bowl? Merci, chef Pepin. Try getting useful stuff like THAT from a gaggle of feuding sorority girls on Cupcake Wars.

Best of all for me and my husband Glenn, several of these shows happen to come on just before we normally eat dinner – perfect eye candy to relax to while stirring up a sauce or waiting for something to come out of the oven.

Like every other human institution, however, PBS sometimes screws up. Some of their B-string cooking shows look as though they were lifted from some public-access channel in the middle of nowhere. And even the true culinary stars in their lineup occasionally get things wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, Todd English’s travel and cooking show came on just before dinner and to Glenn’s delight, was to feature the foods of South Africa, where he was born and raised. And Glenn and I couldn’t wait to see the traditional foods he grew up with showcased by a master chef: What would English taste and cook as he explored Glenn’s homeland? The sweet, twisted fritters called koeksisters? Sosaties, skewers of curry-drenched lamb cooked over an open flame? The traditional meat-filled grill called a braai?

The final answer was...none of the above. Todd English’s vision of South African cuisine and Glenn’s couldn’t have been more different. The Zulu goat sacrifice and resulting goat stew that English watched being made were authentically African, but not part of Glenn’s experience as a non-African from Johannesburg. And English’s segment on safari cooking featured a butternut squash and mascarpone cheese casserole -- something Glenn never recalled having on any safari that he’d ever been on.

To be fair, it would have been impossible for English to do justice to the culinary traditions of a country as culturally complex as South Africa in a half-hour show. But the contributions of South Africa’s centuries-old Indian and European populations to its cooking – which include a full battery of eclectic dishes not found anywhere else – seemed conspicuous by their absence.

Why? Maybe English tried some of traditional Euro-Indo-South African dishes and didn’t like them. Or maybe his producers thought scenes filmed in the bush would look better on TV than those filmed in a typical middle-class urban kitchen. Or perhaps typical urban South African fare is neither exotic nor fancy enough to suit the vibe of his show.

However, I have another, less obvious theory. Some of these typical dishes – tasty as they are – have weird names that American audiences might find off-putting. And English and his team probably realized this wouldn’t go over very well during PBS pledge week: Stay tuned! After a few words from our general manager about our latest matching challenge from Gatorland Chevrolet, we’ll return to Todd English as he shows you how to make a traditional South African favorite – Monkey Gland Steak!

If this is the case, maybe I see why English and his handlers made the choices they did. Still, somebody has to explain the wonders of Monkey Gland Steak to the wider world – and it might as well be me. Fear not, this dish is, and always has been, completely monkey- and gland-free.

************

It’s unclear how Monkey Gland Steak – beef topped with a tangy sauce enlivened with chutney, onions, and tomatoes – got its name. One legend has it that the dish was invented as a joke by a group of French-trained chefs at a snooty Johannesburg restaurant: Bitter that their wealthy but unschooled Afrikaaner and rural English clientele failed to appreciate the subtlety of their classic French sauces, they threw together the dumbest, most un-French mixture of bottled condiments possible and gave it the most ridiculous name they could think of. To their surprise (and perhaps, disappointment), the philistines loved it. Another story claims that an English chef created this dish early in the last century, and it became a favorite of a prominent doctor known for grafting tissues from monkey testicles into human testicles to restore virility. The chef later moved to South Africa and brought the recipe with him – and it soon became a local favorite.

In South African, the sauce is either cooked along with the meat or offered as an optional topping for steaks (it appears on menus at steakhouses alongside Béarnaise sauce and other classic steak accompaniments). To my taste, the brash, tangy flavors of Monkey Gland sauce (it’s a bit like a South African analogue to barbecue sauce) seem wrong for a delicate filet mignon or other special-treat cut. Rather, it seems better suited for the preparation Glenn remembers from his youth: baked slowly with a cheaper, sturdier cut of beef for a hearty family dinner – it’s great served with mashed potatoes.

MONKEY GLAND STEAK

(Adapted from South African Gourmet Food and Wine: Traditional South African Food and Moreby Myrna Rosen and Leslie Loon)

4 rump, strip, or sirloin steaks
4 tablespoons prepared mustard (or more if needed)
2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound sliced or roughly chopped fresh mushrooms
½ cup tomato ketchup
½ cup Major Grey chutney (or other sweet mango chutney)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon (or more) hot sauce, or to taste (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread mustard thinly on both sides of each steak. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, and brown the steaks briefly on both sides. Remove the browned steaks from the skillet (you may need to brown them in two batches) and place in a heatproof baking dish.

2. Add the chopped onion and the mushrooms to the hot skillet and cook until wilted and slightly browned.

3. Meanwhile, combine the ketchup, chutney, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce and add to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until the sauce comes to a boil.

4. Pour the sauce over the steaks in the baking dish. Cover the dish with foil and bake at 375 degrees until the steaks are tender, about 40 minutes

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Half-Fast Cooking: Wok-Free Chinese



It's not fast food. It's not slow food. It's...half-fast food! Part of an occasional, sloth-driven series.

I admit it. I'm a total snob when it comes to Chinese food.

Growing up in proud Chinese-American family, I used to be both puzzled and annoyed by the weird ideas non-Chinese had about Chinese food. Some of these strange ideas continue to baffle and annoy me to this day: Why do non-Chinese eat Chinese take-out directly out of the box, instead of transferring it to a plate first, like we did? Why do they think it’s appropriate to pour soy sauce over everything on their plates? Why do they obsess about MSG in Chinese food but not worry a jot about the copious amounts of the stuff in Big Macs and Doritos? And what’s the deal with those crunchy noodles that come in a can? What, exactly, are they for?

More recently, I’ve noticed a more insidious and potentially harmful misconception that could wrongly turn good people away from Chinese food: the myth of the quick ‘n’ easy stir-fry. Every serious home cook has probably heard this: Stir-fries are great everyday dishes because they’re so easy! They have tons of nutritious veggies! And they cook in only seconds!

I’ve learned the hard way, however, that making a stir-fry when you’re tired and busy is almost always a bad idea, unless you REALLY know what you’re doing. (Which I don’t.)

Yes, stir-fries cook up quickly. But there’s a huge difference between “quick” and “easy.” Cooking a proper stir-fry is a lot like pulling off a successful assassination: the act itself may require only seconds, but you need serious planning, preparation, and skills to make it work.

In a proper stir–fry, everything must be cut perfectly: the shape of a cut must not only be compatible with the ingredient you’re cutting, but the other stuff in the dish as well. Every piece of a given ingredient must be exactly the same size, otherwise it won’t all cook through evenly. (Fuschia Dunlop's  Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China has a terrific description of the theory and practice of of classic Chinese knife techniques.)Then, everything must be cooked in the proper order: things that require more cooking go in first, those that require the least go in last. Get the timing wrong and you’ll end up with a noxious mélange of overcooked and half-raw ingredients. And because stir-fries cook so quickly, there is very little room for fudging in this area.

Also, the wok used for frying must be the right temperature: hot. As in REALLY hot, for most preparations. If the oil in the wok doesn’t sputter violently, spewing incendiary droplets onto your face and arms as you throw in your ingredients, it’s not hot enough. If it doesn’t send up a noisy, fragrant cloud of smoke that makes you think “great, now I’m going to have to shampoo every carpet in the house tomorrow,” then it’s not hot enough. In Cantonese, there is a special term for the distinct aroma of a properly executed stir-fry: wok hei, sometimes translated as “breathe of the wok.” It’s the elusive smell of sear just before it becomes char – hot and smoky and flame-kissed, like the edges of a good grilled steak. It’s special and short lived; it dissipates almost as soon as a platter of hot stir-fry hits the table.

I love setting stuff on fire as much as the next person, but I can’t even try to make a proper stir-fry at my place: my downstairs smoke alarm is – wait for it – directly above the stove. Call it the curse of college-town housing: the unspoken assumption around here is that anyone who cooks anything more ambitious than Top Ramen will probably burn the place down.

Thankfully, there are other options when I get a jones for real Chinese home cooking but don’t want to invoke the wrath of the local fire department. Thinking of real Chinese food always makes me think of home and family, and a homey, dead-simple dish Mom makes frequently – particularly for quick weekend lunches – is a tasty and quick preparation of noodles tossed with oyster sauce and hot oil flavored with garlic and ginger. Growing up, I’d never seen it served anywhere except chez Mom and Dad – if it did show up on restaurant menus, we never bothered ordering it. It was one of those low-key staples I always took for granted, But now, living far from my family in a place where people think brown-rice sushi is an obligatory item on “Chinese” menus, I find it irresistible. Best of all, it takes all of 15 almost completely brainless minutes to make – tops.

WORLD’S EASIEST OYSTER SAUCE NOODLES

Chinese oyster sauce doesn’t look or smell anything like you’d expect from something made from oysters—it’s a dark, salty condiment, about the consistency and color of bottled steak sauce, that can be found easily in glass bottles in Asian markets. (It’s the dominant seasoning in that Chinese-American favorite, beef with broccoli.) Oyster sauce is not especially fishy, but since it’s intensely salty, a little goes a long way. it keeps for several months in the refrigerator.

7 ounces dried wheat noodles (in a pinch, I’ve used spaghetti)
4 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 medium clove of garlic, peeled
a 1-inch square piece of peeled fresh ginger
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
Optional add-ins: thinly sliced scallions, bite-size pieces of cooked meat and/or vegetables, Chinese chile oil

1. Put a large pot of water to boil for the noodles.

2. While the water is heating, heat the peanut or canola oil in a pot large enough to hold the noodles, and finely chop the garlic and ginger.

3. Add the garlic and ginger to the heated oil and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes or until they wilt and start to release their aromas. Stir in the sesame oil and remove from heat.

4. Add the noodles to the boiling water and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.

5. Using tongs, transfer the noodles to the pot with the seasoned oil and toss thoroughly. Add oyster sauce and toss again until all is well combined.

5. Mix in any add-ins you wish and serve immediately.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eating (Really) High on the Hog




The expression “high on the hog” is said to originate from the general belief that the choicest cuts of pork came from high on the animal’s anatomy – the back and upper legs. Thus, these cuts were more expensive, and those lucky enough afford them were said to be living (or eating) “high on the hog.”

Ironically, the highest topological point on the hog, the pinnacle of piggy anatomy, is one of the cheapest and least prestigious cuts. It has been quietly prepared and relished for centuries by African-Americans, Chinese, and others whose cultural mores or pocketbooks eschewed waste of any kind. For these reasons, it has also been embraced by ethics-driven omnivores and recession-strapped foodies.

And for good reason: done right, it can be downright decadent.

Yup – pigs’ ears can be awesome.

I used to be a skeptic, too. While I grew up seeing pigs’ ears in Chinese butcher shops (they look exactly the way you think they would, only bigger), I never had much desire to try them – they were always pink, pointy, and floppy, and it was impossible to look at them and not imagine poor Porky Pig going “Ow! M-m-m-my ear!” In an Asian deli several years ago, I saw small packages of Taiwanese-style stewed, sliced pigs’ ears – meant to be served as appetizers or bar snacks – and I made a mental note to try them sometime. But that sometime never came.

Then I saw them on a non-Chinese menu for the first time, at the unapologetically carnivore-centric Los Angeles restaurant Animal: “crispy pigs’ ears, lime, chile, fried egg.”

“How weird,” my sister said. “I wonder what THAT’S like?”

Our server must have overheard her question, because when he passed our table a short time later he stopped to show us a plate he was delivering to another table: a pretty pile of crunchy browned shreds, smelling vaguely of fresh cracklings, topped with a sunny-side up fried egg. It reminded me of bacon and eggs, but with an obscenely generous proportion of bacon.

“By the way, these are the pigs’ ears,” our server said. Then, leaning closer: “Trust me—they’re very good.”

They were.

Flash forward about two years, to the present day: I had moved from the Los Angeles area to Middle Of Nowhere, Florida – a sleepy rural college town distinguished from the surrounding sleepy rural towns by the presence of a humongous research hospital and an equally humongous football stadium. But one nice thing about being in the middle of nowhere is that old rural folkways are still observed – it’s easier to find old-school cooking paraphernalia such as canning jars here than in Los Angeles, for instance.

The same goes for food. Unfashionable cuts of meat that would never grace the shelves of Whole Foods – turkey necks, pigs’ feet, chitlins – are easy to find, and dirt cheap to boot. Last week at my favorite grocery store, I saw that they had pigs’ ears – good-sized trays of them – for about two bucks each.

It was time for an experiment.

After a quick bit of internet research, I had a plan. The pigs’ ears, as I suspected, wouldn’t be difficult to prepare, but they’d require a bit of cooking – cartilage-filled cuts of meat always do. Following the basic guidelines of a recipe (and entertaining related essay) by Chichi Wang, I simmered the ears in water and aromatics until they were soft. Then I drained and cooled them, sliced them into thin strips, and dredged them in flour and cornstarch before deep-frying them until they were browned and crispy.

To finish them off, I shamelessly plagiarized Animal’s preparation by tossing the crispy strips with salt, cayenne, and a squirt of lime, then topping the whole thing with fried eggs, one per diner. My only original contribution to the recipe was inspired by the presence of that big pot of hot oil left after the ears were fried: not wanting it to go to waste, I threw in a handful of cilantro leaves, which brightened and crisped to make a pretty garnish.

For those still grossed out by the whole notion of eating pigs’ ears (vegetarians are excused from the sermon), please consider this wise observation from M.F.K. Fisher:

“Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If was are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed.”

Amen. Now let’s pig out.

*******************************
CRISPY, SPICY PIGS’ EARS

Adapted from Chichi Wang, with additional inspiration from Animal restaurant, Los Angeles

1 pound pigs’ ears
1 carrot, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 stick celery, chopped coarsely
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
¼ cup cornstarch
¼ cup flour
12 cilantro leaves, washed and dried
½ lime
½ teaspoon cayenne powder (more if desired)
salt as needed
canola (or other neutral cooking oil) for deep-frying
4 fresh eggs, fried to your taste.

1. Place the pigs’ ears in a pot of boiling water. Boil for three minutes to remove any impurities, then drain and set aside.

2. Arrange the carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns, and pigs’ ears in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Add about a tablespoon of salt. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and allow the ears to cook, uncovered, until tender enough to pierce easily with a fork, about 2 hours.

3. Remove the pigs’ ears from the water, drain them, and allow them to cool. (Save the broth—it’ll make a great soup base.)

4. When the pigs’ ears are cool and dry, cut them into ¼ inch strips.

5. In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine the cornstarch and flour. Meanwhile, put about 2 inches of canola oil into a deep pot and heat to 350 degrees.

6. Toss the sliced pigs’ ears in the flour-cornstarch mixture. When the oil is hot, add the floured slices to the hot oil in batches, shaking off extra flour first.

7. Cook the strips until they are crisp and browned. Remove and drain on paper towels. Keep finished strips in a warm oven until all are done.

8. When all the strips are cooked, toss the cilantro leaves into the hot oil. They will sizzle and crisp up within 15 seconds or so. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain them on a plate lined with paper towels.

9. To complete the dish, toss the pigs’ ear strips with cayenne and add salt to taste. Squirt with lime juice (exact amount is up to you) and toss again. Divide the mixture among four plates, and top each with a fried egg and some of the cilantro leaves.






Sunday, July 17, 2011

Half-Fast Cooking: Brunch for the Lazy



It’s not fast food. It’s not slow food. It’s... half-fast food! The first in an occasional, sloth-driven series.

Back when I worked in the pastry kitchen of a swank beach resort, I dreaded Sunday brunch. The resort’s brunch was a $75-per-person affair (this was the price six years ago) featuring a dizzying spread of dishes and bottomless servings of domestic sparkling wine. There were carving stations, seafood stations, and separate omelet and pancake stations, along with a stir-fry station and a humongous salad bar. Big silver chafing dishes held constantly replenished supplies of eggs Benedict, sausages, bacon, and assorted potato dishes. Across the dining room were tables holding a towering assortment of breads along with half a dozen imported cheeses, butter rolled into pretty little balls, and cream cheese and smoked fish to go with the bagels. Piles of croissants and filled danishes covered a nearby table. Then there was the kids’ table, a rug rat paradise of macaroni and cheese, tiny peanut-butter sandwiches, chicken fingers, miniature chocolate chip cookies, and plastic Sponge Bob plates instead of the resort’s standard white stoneware.

Finally, dominating one end of the dining room’s back wall was the dessert station, fully loaded with dozens of different types of petit fours, cookies, cakes, and tarts, along with a sundae bar and a make-to-order crepe station. This where I stood guard on most of my Sundays, wearing a ridiculous paper toque, a starched white jacket, and the fakest grin this side of a Meet the Press interview.

The truth was I didn’t dread everything about Sunday brunch. It was the only time of the week when I got to meet the people who ate the things my colleagues and I had spent the rest of the week making. Watching them coo over a cake I had decorated an hour before – then come back for seconds – was exhilarating. Nobody ever got that excited about my lectures back when I taught linguistics.

Sundays also provided unparalleled people-watching opportunities. I came to think of crepe station duty as an exercise in anthropological field work, and the natives – hedge-fund managers, B-list celebrities (David Hasselhoff and Ron Jeremy were regulars), along with their kids, mistresses, and various hangers-on– were fascinating. They showed up in everything from Chanel to flip-flops and board shorts, but the dominant look was one of ruined decadence. The preponderance of multiple gold chains nestled in thickets of graying chest hair and sequined halter tops revealing obvious boob jobs (at 10 a.m., no less) was a sight to behold, as foreign to my sensibilities as loin cloths and animal worship. And every Sunday brought another opportunity to study this exotic tribe: There must be a deep, culturally rooted reason they choose to look like that – if I observe them for a while more, maybe I’ll figure out what it is!

So technically, I didn’t dread Sunday brunch. What I really dreaded was the Saturday before, when my colleagues and I had to make all those hundreds of cakes, petit fours, and crepe fillings– while simultaneously preparing restaurant and banquet desserts, snacks, room service orders, catered beach picnics, and breakfast pastries for the hundreds of guests and day visitors expected on any given weekend. Forget the Keebler elves. On Saturdays, we looked more like a Special Forces team about to rush a fortified Al-Qaida safe house as we worked elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen or sprinted madly from one of the resort’s food outlets to another, putting out one fire after another while frantically baking, assembling, cutting, and plating stuff for Sunday’s debauchery.

It made me resent the lucky slobs who got to eat brunch.

Now, thank goodness, I’m one of them again—at least in theory. I no longer have to clock in on Sundays, but still I don’t eat or cook brunch much anymore. Even though I’m an unapologetic morning person (blame my bird-watching hobby – birds get up with the sun, and so do we dorks who watch them), there’s no way I’m going to start a weekend morning making several dozen dishes This would mean missing one of my weekend bird-watching walks, which would be unthinkable.

Just as a thought experiment, I wondered if I could have both my birds and my brunch too. I’d get up super-early as usual, head out and look for early fall migrants (yup, they’re starting to come back already), then get home about 9 in time to shower, change, and throw something festive and brunch-worthy together by 10. Is this even possible?

Hell, yes!

I normally lean towards the savory offerings at brunch, but since I love to mess with expectations – especially my own – I played with the idea of taking something that’s normally savory and turning it into something sweet. Rich and spicy Mexican breakfasts and brunches –huevos Rancheros, breakfast burritos, eggs scrambled with chiles or braised meats and served with stacks of tortillas – have always been special favorites of mine. So I turned a staple of the Mexican savory repertoire – the flour tortilla – into a crispy wrapping for a gooey, sweet, yet wholesome morning treat, filled with creamy warm bananas, peanut butter, and just enough chocolate to make it company-worthy.

My little invention is tasty and elegant enough to qualify as treat food, but its starring virtue is that it takes all of five minutes to make. So in less than an hour, even an inexperienced cook can make a batch of these, stick some good sausages in the oven, put on a pot of coffee, and call up a friend to ask him or her to pick up a fruit tray at Publix on the way over. An experienced cook will be able to handle the fruit solo and maybe cook up some bacon for extra decadence. If you work things right, you may even have time to enter all your morning’s birding numbers into eBird before your guests arrive.

I was going to dub my invention a sweet breakfast quesadilla, but my husband pointed out – rightly –that “quesadilla” implies the presence of cheese. So I’m going to follow his suggestion and call it a “chocadilla.” Yes, this makes it sound more like a kind of reptile than a brunch dish—but for some, this may even add to its appeal.

CHOCADILLA

For each serving:

1 large flour tortilla, at room temperature

2 tablespoons peanut butter

1/3 large banana, sliced thinly

2 tablespoons chocolate chips

Canola or other unflavored oil for frying

powdered sugar for garnish

melted chocolate for garnish (optional)

1. Spread the peanut butter over half of the tortilla, leaving a 1-inch margin around the edges.

2. Top the peanut butter with banana slices, then sprinkle the chocolate chips on top. Fold the uncovered half of the tortilla over the filling to cover completely. Press down on the folded tortilla to eliminate any air pockets.

3. Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet (at least as wide as the tortillas you’re using) over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the folded chocadilla. As it cooks, press down on the edges of the tortilla to keep them sealed. When the bottom is golden brown, turn it over and cook until the second side is also golden brown. (If your skillet is large enough, you can fry two at a time.

4. Drain cooked chocadillas on paper towels, then keep them warm in an oven set on low heat, on a metal rack placed on a sheet pan.

5. Garnish with powdered sugar ( and melted chocolate, if desired). Serve immediately.

Variations: Instead of peanut butter and chocolate, substitute a chocolate-hazelnut spread such as Nutella. You can also add a scant handful of miniature marshmallows or chopped-up regular ones.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I Want My Country Back! All-American Tacos for July 4



In grade school, I learned to be a patriotic American. At the front of every classroom was an American flag, and every morning for nine years (the school went from first through ninth grades), my classmates and I stood facing it, right hands over our hearts, and solemnly recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

One morning in third grade, our regular teacher was out sick. So the principal took over, as was the policy at our tiny school. As usual, we droned our dutiful way through the pledge. Then the principal spoke.

“Who here can tell me what ‘allegiance’ means?”

Whoa. This was WAY too early for a pop quiz.

“No one?”

We shook our heads.

“Here’s an easier one, then. Do you know what ‘pledge’ means? Okay, good, I see lots of hands. David?”

“It means a promise?” David said, sounding as terrified as the rest of us felt.

“That’s right, David. A pledge is a promise. A public promise. Now I have another question for you: None of you knew what ‘allegiance’ meant. But you all made a pledge – a promise – of allegiance. How could you make a promise if you don’t know what you’re promising?”

Our principal was one intense dude. But he was no Commie. Our deafening silence after his question was followed by a long discourse on the definition of ‘allegiance,’ the wisdom and courage of the founding fathers, and our responsibility, as citizens and future leaders of the greatest country on Earth, to understand and participate in the civic life of our community.

Grade school is where many kids first learn about the world outside home and family, and the America I learned about in grade school – and that I saw reflected in the values and lives of my classmates and teachers – was a wondrous place. From a vast land filled with nothing (okay, there were the Indians, who we treated pretty badly –we learned about that in seventh grade), we created a country so wonderful that people from all over the world want to live here. Like most of our grandparents and great-grandparents. And all of us, no matter what our backgrounds, could grow up to be anything we wanted! Our boundaries were only limited by how hard we were willing to work.

Nothing in the lives of my classmates contradicted any of this. We learned about horrific things that people had done to each other – like the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in the U.S.—but all those things, our teachers said, happened a long, long time ago and would never happen again, because now people knew better. A majority of my classmates were Jewish and had parents or grandparents who had witnessed the Holocaust – and they all had happy, affluent lives now in nice parts of Los Angeles. The few black kids at the school were the children of doctors, engineers, and judges. And even though I could count the number of other Asian kids there besides me and my sisters on the fingers of one hand, I never felt any less a part of the school community because of it. Life was fair.

Life was good, even. Nowhere did it feel better than on the festive days when our classes had potlucks. Sometimes these happened in conjunction with a particular class – such as a social studies class on immigration, in which each of us was supposed to bring in something representing the country our ancestors came from. But sometimes they took place to celebrate a transition in the year, such as the last day before winter break or summer vacation.

Of course, we kids did little or none of the preparation ourselves (although I took to making my own cookies around eighth grade or so). It was up to our mothers (and back then, it was ALWAYS the mothers) to bring hot dishes covered with foil to the classroom right before lunch. Through these moms, I learned that quiche Lorraine was from France (and truly rocked), and that the Japanese ate octopus, which tasted mild and bouncy. I also discovered latkes and matzos and enchiladas. Oddly, the enchiladas were usually brought by the same moms who brought the matzos and latkes, which taught me another lesson: you don’t have to be born into a culture to celebrate it.

I absorbed the values and ideals of this perfect America through my brain and my stomach. I learned that it’s not only okay to have friends and food from far-flung corners of the world at the same meal, but darned wonderful. I learned from hundreds of teachable moments at that school – like the principal’s Pledge of Allegiance lesson – that it’s right and responsible to question authority, but it’s best to do it politely. In each of these illuminating (and sometimes gluttonous) moments, I felt as though I truly understood what it felt like to be American.

The ugly, hard truth about the American Dream – that hype and luck can get you further than hard work, and the word “patriotism” is all too often co-opted by those who hate most of their compatriots – was not theirs to teach us. These things, like calculus and James Joyce’s novels, were for a later part of our educational journey. The day when we’d have to tackle them would come soon enough.

At times I still hold on to that early vision I had of America—a safe and fair place when people with roots and backgrounds from all over treated each other with respect and dignity. A place where people asked tough questions gently and use reason instead of personal invective to solve problems and work out differences. Right now, the real America seems to be moving further away from this ideal than at any time I could remember.

But I like to think the America I grew up with is somehow real, and maybe we can get there someday. It’ll no doubt be quite different from what I envisioned as a child, but I do know this: the food will rock your world..

*********************

As the child and grandchild of immigrants, I always like to throw something “ethnic” into my Independence Day feasts, to honor those who’ve come from far away to reinvent their lives here. Whatever that something is, throwing it on the grill is obligatory.

This year, I’d like to re-create a famous (or infamous) Los Angeles specialty of recent vintage: the Korean taco, first made famous by the Kogi taco truck mini-empire. The tacos – grilled meat in a Korean-style sweet and garlicky marinade, served up on warm corn tortillas and topped with kimchee (Korean pickled cabbage) – are said to have been invented and independently re-invented hundreds of times by hungry Angelenos years before Kogi hit the scene, however. Tacos, after all, are nothing more than a tasty and convenient way of conveying small bits of meat into one’s mouth, and tortillas are easier to find than paper plates in parts of Los Angeles. Perhaps Korean tacos were invented by Mexican-American cooks working in L.A.’s many Korean restaurants. Or by Mexican workers sampling leftovers from Korean colleagues’ lunches. In any case, people were quietly eating them long before they became trendy.

Much as I enjoy kimchee, I enjoy the all-American custom of crunchy greenery on top of tacos even better, so I’ve replaced the kimchee with a fresh cabbage slaw for extra textural contrast. I’ve also added an Asian-tinged guacamole, just because I love guacamole.

I’ve borrowed another Korean-American tradition too: grilling the meat outdoors, picnic-style, rather than inside on a tabletop brazier. When Mark Bittman proposed a Korean-style outdoors barbeque in a recent column, several readers gently informed him that this very thing had been done for years by Korean-American church groups and hungry families.

Before anyone gets on my case for being a treasonous bastard – Paul Revere NEVER would have put kimchee on his tacos! Why do you hate America so much?? – consider this: could the Korean taco possibly have been invented anywhere BUT in the U.S.A.?

ALL-AMERICAN KOREAN TACOS

For the meat: (adapted from Quick and Easy Korean Cooking (Gourmet Cook Book Club Selection) by Cecelia Hae-Jin Lee (no relation!))

Marinade:

½ medium onion, minced

½ bulb (about 5 large cloves) garlic, minced

¼ cup soy sauce

¼ cup sugar

½ cup pineapple juice

2 teaspoons Korean red pepper lakes

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 ½ pounds flank steak or skirt steak (don’t screw up like I did this time and try to economize by using round steak—it’s edible but not as tender as it could be)

For the cabbage slaw:

2 cups finely shredded cabbage

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon (or more to taste) Korean red pepper flakes

1 clove garlic, minced

4 tablespoons rice vinegar

For the Asian guacamole:

1 small avocado

2 tablespoons finely minced onion

juice of ¼ lime

½ teaspoon sesame oil

salt to taste

For serving:

1 dozen corn tortillas

chopped fresh cilantro

1. Combine the meat marinade ingredients in a large baking pan, add the meat, spooning marinade over the top. Cover and refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally.

2. Remove the meat from the marinade, letting the excess marinade drip off. Broil or grill until done to your taste.

3. Allow the meat to rest for about 15 minutes after it has finished cooking, then cut it into thin slices. Cut the slices into bite-size pieces, cover and set aside in a warm place.

4. At least half an hour before serving, combine the cabbage slaw ingredients. If any liquid accumulates after the cabbage has sat for a while, carefully drain it off. Cover and set aside.

5. Mash the avocado with the remaining guacamole ingredients. Press a sheet of plastic wrap snugly over the surface of the guacamole to prevent browning, then set it aside.

6. Wrap the tortillas in foil and heat in a 300 degree oven for about 10 minutes.

7. Bring the tortillas, meat, cabbage slaw, cilantro, and guacamole to the table and invite diners to make their own tacos. Happy Independence Day!