Monthly Archives: September 2010

Tea Eggs, Croquette Burgers, Lassie and Fish Fragrant Eggplant.

There are a few, some may call peculiar, activities that I tend to do whenever I travel outside the US.

One, I canvas convenience stores. 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, whichever has set up shop where I am. I love to see what oddities are commonplace. Tea eggs and cognac at the check-out counters in Taiwan, bento boxes, curry flavored shrimp chips, a plethora of pre-mixed cocktails in Tokyo, and the widest spectrum of fruit juices I’ve ever seen in Koh Samui.

Second, I look at a McDonald’s menu. Go ahead and scorn me. I know you’re thinking, “How can she call herself a food lover and even be in the same vicinity of a McDonald’s?”  Hey, I’m not going for the all organic-haute cuisine options coming out of the microwaves and fryers. The fascination lies in seeing what the super labs of McDonald’s have tested and found appealing to local tastes. Shrimp and potato croquettes instead of meat patties. Beef teriyaki burgers. Setting up shop in a rice loving country? Toss out the bun altogether and replace it with rice patties. When I was in Tuscany last summer, I was disappointed to find much of the food overly seasoned. But after sampling the uber-tested but super salty McDonald’s burgers I concluded that it must be the way Italians like their food (let the stone throwing commence… go ahead, I can take it).

Third, I visit the farmers’ markets. This is always a highlight for me. I love seeing what’s in season. How produce looks in different parts of the world. For instance, carrots in Taiwan and China are 3x the size they are here but the celery is 3x smaller. Beijing has the most amazing mushrooms, size and color wise, than anywhere else I’ve visited. But I was too terrified to venture into the meat section of the market for fear that I’d run into Lassie being portioned out to eagerly waiting chefs. If you don’t speak a lick of the language, or if most of the items are foreign to you, going to a local market alone can be overwhelming. Which brings me to my next activity.

Fourth, I sign up for a cooking class, many of which include market tours as part of their offering. Instructors will bring students to the local market, introduce local ingredients and processes like tofu and noodle making, which can be found at Beijing’s wet markets. So if you’re worried about being the only foreigner in a crowded Chinese market the size of two airport hangers (me at the Xinmin market in Beijing), joining a market tour might allow you to experience much of the same magic, but with a native speaker on your side who can make sense of the orderly chaos.

Taking cooking classes is relatively new to me. It started when I was in Beijing last March. I took classes at two schools, Black Sesame Kitchen and The Hutong.

Both schools are in the old Hutong area of Beijing.  If you’re traveling over there you have to visit, if not for the cooking schools then just to see what much of Beijing used to look like. Tiny houses and doorways open up to an elaborate labyrinth of interconnected courtyards. The streets are so small it’s a wonder cars are able to drive down them at all. On my visit, I found myself gawking at the maneuvering of two cars as they approached from opposite directions as if it were a circus act.

Black Sesame Kitchen was the better of the two schools. A local chef does the cooking demonstrations, while Candice (an American-born Chinese woman) translates, teaches and coordinates the class making communication a non-issue. The class begins with an introduction to the Chinese pantry, tasting and smelling key ingredients. Many of you may think that Chinese ingredients are familiar to you. After all, you buy them in the ethnic food aisle at your local grocery store… Ummm nope. That’s not the same thing. Sesame oil that was pressed at the local morning wet market is COMPLETELY different in smell and taste than the stuff that came off the processing plant over a year ago. Freshly roasted and pressed the resulting oil is smokey, nutty and rich. The smell isn’t muddled by aging oil and additives. It’s pure, tasting and smelling like real sesame seeds rather some kind of complex chemical composition. Anyone who has ever tasted great olive oil or fresh made peanut butter knows the kind of difference I’m talking about.

At Black Sesame Kitchen students receive a print out of the pantry basics both in English and Chinese with suggestions for the best brands of cooking wine, broad-bean paste and black vinegar (go out and buy Lao Chen cu from Shanxi province, it will change your life. Or at least your dumpling eating experiences).

The kitchen and prep area are small but not uncomfortably so. The kitchen has two wok and burner sets. After learning the pantry basics students are given ingredients, wooden cutting boards and cleavers. Everyone gets to work prepping ingredients for the first dish. One of the best parts? Lining up whole garlic cloves and smacking them with the cleavers (makes getting the papery skins off easier) it’s sort of like playing wack-a-mole but in a kitchen… and with a very large knife. Fun but definitely not a skill appreciated in the fine-dining kitchen world I find myself in now.

On the menu that day: Fish Fragrant Eggplant, Wok-Fried Bamboo Shoots, and Twice-Cooked Pork. All delicious, all relatively simple to make. Students prep and the chef tosses together examples of the dishes. Then the chef brings them to the communal tablewhere everyone samples the offerings. Next, each student picks a dish that they would like to learn hands-on. This is your chance to get behind the stove and put everything together. I chose to make Fish Fragrant Eggplant. It’s something I love to eat and unfortunately one that many American-Chinese restaurants love to screw up.

Traditionally the dish doesn’t have Szechuan peppercorns but I added them because I love that spicy numbing sensation that they bring to any dish. (When cooking with Szechuan peppercorns, the trick is to infuse flavor by adding them to your cooking oil, broth or water and removing them before adding the other ingredients.)

After all the cooking is done, everyone sits around the cleaned prep table tasting the different dishes and chatting. Remember, cooking schools are a great place to get restaurant ideas–from other students but especially from the staff. Some of the best food we had in Thailand was at a restaurant suggested by someone at the cooking school in Koh Samui. And if you want to do the market thing on your own, just ask the instructor which one they would suggest you visit.

So, those are my travel suggestions for the day. Next time you’re in an exotic location walk into a convenience store and take some time to look around. Buy the weirdest thing on the McDonald’s menu (or maybe just take a picture of it). Spend the morning at a local farmers’ market. And lastly, take a cooking class. There’s no better way to learn about the local food and take a little bit of that vacation magic home with you.

I love food… maybe I should become a cook

For all you foodies out there who have ever thought as you stared at your computer screen “I wonder what a day in a professional kitchen is like?” I have offered up myself as the guinea pig and am back to report on my findings…

I worked as a foreign policy and business news TV producer, a challenging and exciting job to be sure but ultimately not what I wanted to do. In my slow moments, I would try to imagine what my ultimate dream job would be. I asked myself all the typical questions: where could I see myself in 10 years? What could I do for 10-12 hours a day, sleep and wake up the next day eager to do it all over again? But most importantly, what do I love doing? And, could I do that as a career? The answer for me is eating and cooking.

Long story short I quit my TV job, agonized over what to do with my life for a few more months, interviewed a wide range of experts in the culinary world and finally strapped on a couple big ones and emailed the chef at my favorite restaurant telling him that I’d decided to change careers and was looking to stage (pronounced “stahge” I’m assuming it’s French for “really short internship” or maybe “kitchen bitch”) somewhere.

The restaurant I was looking to stage at is repeatedly ranked one of the top in the city, and is headed up by a well known chef. A real industry rock star. My husband and I have eaten at his restaurant a few times, but it’s not exactly the type of place you can frequent… unless you have massive amounts of cash.  The thing is, each time we ate there I thought to myself, “What perfect food. I could never cook at this level.” But when it came time to pick a restaurant to inquire at I figured go big or go home.

I met Chef on a Saturday for an interview, and the following Tuesday I was standing at the massive front door, knives under my arm and hands shaking. The fashionista in me was quietly sobbing. Instead of a clingy evening dress with a plunging neckline I was sporting elastic waist pants and a white kitchen jacket that buttons up to my chin. Big black oh-so-ugly non-slip shoes replaced my stiletto heels. My heart was racing and my brain crying out repeatedly “DON’T FUCK UP!”

Walk in and I’m handed a blue apron and white cap. Contrary to what you may think these caps don’t serve as hairnets or sweat catchers, in fact I’m convinced that these caps are the kitchen form of a dunce cap. Sous chefs and head chefs don’t wear them. Their sole purpose is to let the world know who are the chefs and who is still in the pit fighting desperately not to be the biggest kitchen idiot.

First task, peel and slice shallots. Easy enough? Not if your little hands won’t stop shaking like a crack head on 12 cups of coffee… and you thought it prudent to spend a couple hours the previous day sharpening your knives.  In case you don’t know, to peel a shallot you hold it in one hand and your paring knife in the other. Slice one end off and then most of the way through the other end, keeping just a bit of the last layer attached so that you can pull it off along with the papery skin. I’ve done this a million times before but never with a sous chef and rock star chef standing on either side of me. Shaky hands, sharp knife…  And we’re off to the first aid kit. Brilliant!

But this is a professional kitchen. People must cut themselves all the time right? Nope. My mishap provided delightful entertainment all day long for my newest colleagues. “Hey did you guys see her hand?” “Chef, when was the last time you cut yourself? 1982?” “Don’t worry, you can separate the stems from the heads of the morels, it’s a good job for you because it doesn’t involve a knife”.

Laugh it up boys. I’d love to see you try to decipher the stimulus package or predict whether or not the Fed will raise interest rates and if so, by how much. Hell, I’d be impressed if half the guys knew what the Fed was.

Take two. Thumb now safely wrapped in a double bandage, I’m back at my station peeling, chopping, watching and learning the finer points of making consommé and bordelaise. Sweat the shallots to bring out the sweetness. Reduce the wine to a third before adding the broth because once the broth is added you won’t be able to remove the alcohol flavor further. Egg whites were mixed with minced leeks, tomatoes, and carrots, lightly beaten and placed on top of a konbu infused stock and act to clarify a vegetarian consommé.

Check, check, check I’m feeling relieved because all of this is familiar to me. Reading the Joy of Cooking cover to cover at age 12 while all the more normal kids played outside is finally paying off.

Next peel and bundle asparagus. The trick is to peel the asparagus over the back of a saucepot. This allows you to peel more evenly. 15-16 asparagus to a bundle, tie it off with kitchen string. I actually quite enjoyed this chore as my little fingers allowed me to tie off each bundle with acceptable speed.

One thing I quickly learned was that everything you do in a kitchen should be done assembly line-style. Cut all the ends off the asparagus before moving on to peeling. Peel everything before you start bundling. Keep your station clean and everything within arms length. You’ll be standing at your station for hours, so you want to have a method to your madness. And try not to expend unnecessary energy reaching and moving around for things if you don’t have to… you’re gonna need that energy by the 11th hour of your shift.

On to my other tasks. Peel and dice sunchokes and apples for a puree; shuck a crate of peas; strip some thyme for the dessert chef; peel boiled eggs for a deviled egg canapé… No worries!

Ummm… but here’s the thing: quail eggs are not quite as easy to peel as a chicken or duck egg. In fact, I vowed right then and there that I will never eat another deviled quail egg again without empathizing with the poor soul whose job it was to peel those suckers. Don’t believe me? Go out and buy a dozen quail eggs. Boil and peel them. Then remove a sliver off both sides of the egg so that it lays flat when presented. Cut them in half and remove the yolk. Get back to me on how many perfect ones you end up with. I messed up 1 out of 24. If you can do better, I’ll buy you dinner.

As service rolls along I find my spot is right next to Chef, the task: put a thin film of lobster oil on top of a vichyssoise panna cotta, top that with a spoon of lobster salad and a brioche tuille. Second task: spoon the espelette (a mildly spicy pepper from the Basque region) butter sauce onto delicate little olive oil custards, finish with a sprinkling of chopped chives.

Plates coming off the stations all around me were delicate and perfect. Each of the cooks was managing to cook and plate multiple dishes with fine tuned precision. All the while I was focused intensely on making sure the chopped chives I was sprinkling on the custards was falling in an even manner, lest I be called out for failing on this, no doubt the smallest and simplest task of the night.

But at this level details matter. A few plates into service, Chef calls for one of the sous chefs to mince new chives. The ones he has are bruised and don’t fall the way that they should. Extreme? Maybe. But it’s that level of attention to details that makes dining at this restaurant so memorable.

Service goes off smoothly. No one ended up too far in the weeds. If there were mistakes I didn’t see them. By 12am I shake chef’s hand good night and thank him for the memorable experience. I ache all over. My delicate little body is not used to standing for 15hrs straight. One day on the job and I already feel 5 years older.

A few days later we agree to turn my one-day stint into a 3 month stage. And so I wash and iron my whites. Sharpen and pack my knives and repeatedly say to myself “Don’t fuck this up, don’t fuck this up!”

The Perfect Day

I wouldn’t describe myself as high maintenance… but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m easy either. I enjoy the finer things in life. I feel comfortable in high heels, pencil skirts and a crisp white blouse. I LOVE a man in a suit. Date night that includes a show at the Kennedy Center and dinner where the portions take up 2 inches on a 12 inch diameter plate make me smile.

But I recently spent the perfect day braless and barefoot with a man who wore a linen shirt and pants with (gasp) zip off legs, eating food out of boxes in plastic bags and LOVED every minute of it. But it didn’t hurt that we were in Koh Samui, Thailand.

The day started with a breakfast of mangosteens, longon (dragon eyes), and rambutans (if you don’t know what any of these are, look’em up. Then go to a country that grows them and eat them.  You’re welcome). After breakfast we hopped on our rented scooter (250 baht/7 dollars per day, rented from the hotel) to tour the island.

Thankfully this was our second day with the scooter because I have to admit the first time we took one of them out for a ride I was as nervous and tense as a virgin bride. Odd, because anyone who knew me 10 years ago in Taiwan will laugh at the ridiculousness of me being scared on a scooter. In Taiwan we tore around on those things like they were a second set of legs.

Oncoming traffic – no problem we’ll dodge each other. Two point turns at major intersections – only if there’s a cop watching you. Otherwise take that right turn with the rest of the cars. After partying all night at DNA or Music Church (when I say partying I don’t mean polishing off a light bottle of chardonnay), we’d hop on our scooters and meander home while the sun rose and the morning joggers and tai chi practitioners stared at the crazy foreigners (sorry mom and dad, I swear I’m responsible now)… Ah life is good when you’re young, invincible and traffic laws are mere suggestions.

So with that history you would think that getting back on a scooter would be no issue at all. Nope. Leaning into that first turn my stomach was in my throat and every muscle tense (jeez living in the good ol’ US of A has turned me into such a pussy).

But that was yesterday. This time I was feeling excited. We jumped on the scooter and drove along Koh Samui’s main road checking out the buffalo in the fields, heaps of coconuts, dodging the napping stray dogs on the side of the road and other motorists, which sometimes consisted of 3 or 4 people crammed on to one scooter. A favorite scooter past time for young men, some looked as young as 10 or 12, is driving while placing their foot on the back license plate of a friends scooter allowing them to tear around caravan style through the streets.  Fun fact: KohSamui has the highest traffic accident rate per capita in all of Thailand (very glad I read this on the flight going OUT).

The entire trip took us about 2 hours and through a grand total of six traffic lights. For travelers interested in doing Koh Samui on the cheap, you should consider staying on the west or north ends of the island. It is definitely less touristy and a hell-of-a-lot cheaper. I saw signs advertising rooms for 250 baht. Internet access was 12 baht a minute in Chaweng, 1 baht (30 cents) a minute in Ban Mae Nam (up north).

For lunch we stopped at Krok Mai, a roadside local spot with a charcoal grill up front where salt-crusted red snappers sat lazily roasting over smoke.

You know a place is going to be good when the only people you see are locals and they’re all staring at you like they’ve never seen a foreigner walk into their favorite lunch spot before.

We ordered roasted catfish with red chili dipping sauce, grilled pork, papaya salad, chicken with basil and chili, and fried chicken wings. They stuff the cavity of the catfish with lemongrass, ginger and turmeric then roast the fish whole over charcoal. It comes with a dipping sauce of red chilies, lime and herbs. Bright and flavorful, with a hint of smokiness. Slices of grilled pork were dipped in a sauce of green chilies, cilantro, shallots, fish sauce and lime. Fantastic finger food.

Chicken with basil and chili was simple but packed a surprising punch. We tried the same dish at a couple other spots but no one came close to the same bold flavor of Krok Mai’s version. The ground chicken was beautifully caramelized (not the case elsewhere) and the basil tossed in at the very last minute so there wasn’t even a hint of bitterness.

Chicken in Koh Samui was a pleasant surprise. Typically I find chicken on small islands unusually gamey. There’s little fat and it never seems like the chicken had enough to eat before being eaten. Not the case in Koh Samui. Fried chicken had that perfect crunch that you get when you manage to get the fat layer to crisp up along with the skin.

Back to the villa for a dip in the pool and a little down time… then on to the night market in Lamai. For those who have never been to a night market, get thee to a country that has them! Vendors throw up little stalls and sell all kinds of nick-nacks, clothes, shoes, etc (women’s underwear is a shockingly popular night market commodity in Taiwan). But the best part about night markets is always the food: chicken satay, pad thai, noodle soups, curries, pastries, grilled meats and fish.

We ate grilled corn, thai omelets, fried chicken, pad thai, and mango with sticky rice and coconut milk. Total cost including two beers and a bottle of water, 250 baht (about $9). We took our loot and headed for a spot on the beach. Thai pop music was playing over large speakers on the back of a pick-up truck next to a pop-up beach bar. All around us families, couples, and friends enjoyed similar treats.

The cooking process of the Thai omelet reminded me of dan bing in Taiwan, a savory fried flat bread with scallions topped with a fried egg and drizzled with chili sauce. The street vendor in Lamai scrambled eggs with a little seasoning sauce, also called Maggi sauce (Thailand’s version of soy sauce, similar in color and also soy based) and rice flour that had been mixed with a little water.  That mixture then went into a cast iron pan with 2 inches of hot oil. The flour and the egg mixture puffs up and becomes crispy around the edges.

Next come the chopped oysters and shrimp. The omelet is then flipped. Crisp bean sprouts are added just before the whole thing is folded up and put into a Styrofoam container. A little bag of thick chili sauce gets thrown in with every order so that the diner can apply the sweet, spicy sauce to their liking.

Mango with sticky rice and coconut milk was the biggest and best surprise of the night. My favorite food experiences are when you eat something that you’ve had a million times before, but somehow it manages to surprise and delight. Because this common Thai dessert is so simple if each ingredient isn’t perfect the result is ordinary at best. But when it’s served with sweet tree ripened mangoes, fresh coconut milk and perfectly executed sticky rice, with just a tad a salt to round out the sweetness of both the mango and coconut, you realize why every Thai restaurant in the US has it on their menu. They’re all hoping to recreate that childhood memory of eating this sweet and refreshing dessert while digging their toes in the sand, chasing friends and siblings around while their parents sit nearby sipping Chang beers and listening to the waves break over the beach.

We ended the night with a neck and shoulder massage in Chaweng. Sitting in big comfy chairs while a tiny but strong Thai woman worked out all the knots and aches. 200 baht ($7) will get you an hour of this bliss. Shoulders, neck, and scalp get the majority of the attention but they end it by drawing the tension out through the hands and feet. I think about the pain my whole body is in after a week of 10-11 hour shifts at the restaurant and immediately I begin to devise a plan to smuggle one of these tiny miracle workers into my carry-on. I am convinced that a nightly massage is not a nicety but a necessity.

Back to the villa where we lay on the bed and stared out on the ocean and the lights of the shrimp boats that dot the horizon. My hair is sticky and curly from the humidity and I smell of salt and sunscreen but I don’t care. There’s absolutely nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.

Life at this moment is absolutely perfect.