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

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.


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?


(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.


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.

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!