Monthly Archives: July 2011

Chef’s Day Off

I’m afraid that I have a Chinese Tiger Mother living in my head. I strive for perfection. I love lists, schedules, benchmarks and goals. There is very little time for detours or “smelling the roses”. That’s for people with safety nets and back up plans. I have one plan… be wildly successful at everything.

With that in mind, let’s look back at the last year and a half… I jumped off a solid career track to pursue a passion for food. Miraculously, I found myself in one of the top kitchens in the city, worked my butt off, learned a huge amount… and then finally admitted to myself that becoming a chef wasn’t my long term goal and left. No surprise then that on my bad days the Tiger Mama in me lashes out, questioning my life choices and asking what I’ve gained from the decision to detour off the more obvious path. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a solid answer quite yet. But this past Sunday I came pretty damn close.

A year and a half ago I sat down to the most nerve-wracking interview of my life with Eric Ziebold (Gasp! I’ve finally given you his real name. I feel like the creators of Sex & the City revealing Mr. Big’s real name for the first time) at CityZen in Washington D.C., but on Sunday I was standing beside Eric (a.k.a. “Chef“) and his fiancé Celia, in the kitchen at my in-laws house sipping wine and making dinner. So, the answer to that question is that over the last year and a half I’ve gained confidence and some pretty wicked friendships.

Had I stayed on the safer career path I might be managing an Asian policy program, or getting ready to graduate with an MBA. But I’d also still be going to restaurants and staring at the cooks in the open kitchen and wondering what could have been. So, I’m glad that I traded the locked and loaded cocktail party drivel of my “very important DC job” for the culinary knowledge and friendships that I’ve since gained. Because honestly, in 30-40 years job titles will be a mere footnote in the story of your life. But a friend who will come over, on his one day off in months, with plates of fried chicken, grilled shrimp, freshly baked focaccia and sangria laden with liquor-soaked blueberries—I think we can all agree—is a rare and wonderful treasure.

Dinner is served

Dill potato salad. Green beans with garlic and toasted almonds. Glazed baby carrots. Guacamole

Fried Chicken 

Grilled focaccia. Shrimp and cherry tomatoes tossed with a yuzu vinaigrette and purple basil

From right: Eric, Celia, Chad & Ben 

Sangria with cherry and apricot brandy macerated fruit

Fish-Fragrant Eggplant: Yuxiang Qiezi

Fish-fragrant eggplant is arguably one of the most popular vegetable dishes on many Chinese restaurant menus. Unfortunately, it is frequently violated by excess sugar, soy sauce and corn starch. This recipe, adapted from the Beijing cooking school Black Sesame Kitchen, is beautifully balanced. The black vinegar adds a touch of acidity that lifts the whole dish. Try infusing the oil with a few Szechuan peppercorns prior to cooking, their tongue tingling properties are sure to add a bit of mystery and fun to your dinner.

 


Ingredients:

2 Chinese or Japanese eggplants
Rice flour (about 1/2 cup)
Vegetable or peanut oil for frying
2 tablespoons broad-bean paste*
2 teaspoons ginger, minced
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 leek (white part only), minced
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cornstarch (dissolved in 1 teaspoon of water)
1 teaspoon black vinegar

  • Cut the eggplants into 1 inch diagonal pieces (turn the eggplant slightly after each diagonal slice so you end up with diamond shaped pieces). Toss the eggplants with the rice flour, lightly coating each piece.
  • Heat the oil in a wok or deep frying pan. Heat for about 5 minutes (you want to see white smoke drifting off the sides of the pan)
  • Add eggplant to oil, deep-fry for 3-4 minutes until golden. Remove eggplant with spider or similar straining device. Drain the oil from pan (feel free to use a second pan or wok if you want)
  • Return two tablespoons of oil to the pan. Add broad bean paste, cook for 30 seconds. Add minced ginger, garlic and leek. Cook for another 30 seconds. Add water, sugar, soy sauce and salt. Stir.
  • Return cooked eggplants to the pan, toss gently in the sauce for a few minutes. Stir in the cornstarch mixture to thicken. Add black vinegar.
  • Remove from heat and serve immediately
Cook’s Notes*When purchasing douban jiang, broad-bean paste, look for ones from Pixian. This is a county in Szechuan where the best brand comes from

*If you want to add Szechuan peppercorns and/or dried chili peppers roast them in the oil before adding the broad bean paste. Just remember to remove them once they turn brown and before adding any other ingredients.

*When cooking with a wok you want to have all your prep completed and on hand before you begin the cooking process so that you can work quickly and efficiently. Actual cooking time should be minimal.


Feast Your Eyes: Roasted Quail

There are so many spectacular dishes at Minh’s, the unassuming Vietnamese restaurant in Clarendon, VA but I am particularly fond of the roasted quail. The bird is lacquered in a sweet glaze and accompanied by a peppery lemon dipping sauce. Whenever I’m sucking the succulent meat off the little bones I find myself transported to a roadside grill in Southeast Asia — and that, is a very good thing.

I can’t deny that another reason why I love this quail so much is because when I hold the tiny legs and wings in my hand I feel like a hungry giant instead of the petite Asian girl that I am.

TCKs: Sibling #3 Requests Mochi with Butter and Sugar

Staring out of the car window at the rolling green knolls, tall aluminum silos and herds of happily grazing animals on my way from Milwaukee to Green Lake, I seriously debated pulling up to one of the picturesque farms and asking if they’d be willing to let me milk one of their fat cows. And when I saw a woman walking to her mailbox with a lamb by her side I knew Wisconsin would be the place to live out my fetch-a-pail-of-milk-with-a-bonnet-on-my-head fantasy.

Damn, that would’ve made a good blog entry.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t drag myself out of bed for a 5am milking after lying around on my friend’s dock, swimming in the lake and stuffing my face with fried cheese curds. Luckily for me my toast-and-milk-loving brother saved my lazy ass with the following text. “Holy shit, I just remembered my comfort food… mochi with butter and sugar… that shit is bananas.” (Yes, that’s really how my 28 year-old brother talks).

If you’ve never had mochi before, a brief explanation might be in order. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made by pounding glutinous rice till it forms one sticky mass. After this, it is divided and shaped into squares or little mounds, and eaten savory or sweet.

As kids we used to join our neighbors for mochitsuki, mochi pounding, a ritual that is part of the Japanese New Year celebration. It was riveting to watch the process. Two volunteers, one pounding the rice with a heavy wooden mallet, the other quickly folding and flipping the hot mass lying inside a mortar between mallet strikes. As you can imagine, timing is everything. I was always relieved by the absence of accidents. But my two brothers, who had been so excited for the possibility of seeing a hand caught under the mallet, were continuously disappointed by the lack of gore. Once the mochi was ready we’d line up for a serving of that warm, slightly sweet, stretchy goodness.

Personally, I love mochi nice and Asian, with seaweed and soy sauce. But—in genuine TCK confused fashion—my younger brother prefers his with a pat of butter and sprinkling of sugar.

I could use this space to talk about the long painstaking process behind mochi. I could tell you how to soak and steam the mochi rice. Pound, shape and dust the pieces with rice flour. But why risk pancaking a finger with a wooden hammer when there are perfectly made rice cakes sold in stores? Look for mochi at your local Asian grocery store (I purchased mine at Hana the Japanese grocery store on U St. in Northwest Washington, DC) and simply follow the cooking directions on the back of the packaging. I simply throw them in the toaster till the exterior is shatteringly crisp and the inside is warm and gooey. Mochi is good no matter what you decide to top it with. Soy sauce, seaweed, red beans, white miso, sesame paste… or even butter and sugar.

Feast Your Eyes: A Nibble of Americana

I love July 4th. What’s not to love about fireworks, barbeque, sun, water… and independence? This year I traveled to the small town of Green Lake, Wisconsin to spend the holiday with friends. I may be a city girl but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to enjoy a campfire pancake breakfast, fried cheese curds dipped in ranch and pizza sauce, sugar dusted funnel cake, butter dipped sweet corn, or smoky bratwursts with sauerkraut and spicy homemade relish.

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing occasional wordless or word-lite posts. Browsing through my photos from the holiday weekend I believe that this is the perfect beginning to the series. Ladies and gentlemen… Feast Your Eyes

 

Shrimp & Pork Fried Rice

I knew I’d get at least one request for fried rice when I emailed my siblings asking about their favorite childhood dishes. Sure enough, the following reply came from my older brother, “I would say a proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice is a staple comfort food for me. It’s simple but always takes me back to childhood food”.

Disclaimer: I am a HUGE snob when it comes to fried rice, as is my older brother, which is why I understood when he prefaced his choice with the word “proper”. But what is proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice? For starters, Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice. I’m not looking to veer off into touchy foreign policy issues here. It’s not an invitation to begin debating Japanese history textbook revisionism or who really owns the Senkaku islands…  This is just a simple statement; good Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice.

I am willing however, to argue over what goes inside said fried rice. Perhaps it’s best to start with what should NOT be included. There shouldn’t be any chunks of softened pineapple dominating the dish with its sweetness. No bean sprouts poking out like tadpoles from a mound of rice. And no bright green broccoli florets with their promise of nutrition. As for the protein component this is not the time to start defrosting those questionable items in the back on the freezer. The rice shouldn’t be yellow from curry powder, or red from ketchup. And it should definitely not be brown from thickened soy sauce.

For me the best fried rice is flavored with both shrimp and pork; the rice is still white rather than stained brown from soy sauce, and the vegetables are uniformly cut and cooked.

The first really great fried rice I remember eating with my older brother was at the Seagull Hotel in Shanghai when he was six and I was four. We had just travelled with our parents, two-year-old brother and one-month old baby sister by ship, from Japan to China (that’s right, I said SHIP). At the hotel my brother and I would alternate between ordering the fried rice and fried noodles. I’m sure we ordered other dishes as well, but none stuck in my memory like those two big starchy plates of food.

Nowadays our massive family has a system for ordering when we go out for Chinese food (imagine the mayhem without one). Two or three of us will scan the menu and call off suggestions for the others to reject or accept, while another sibling furiously scribbles the orders on a scrap of paper. Fried rice with its salty nuggets of ham, just-cooked pink shrimp, and delicately scrabbled eggs always gets a round of head-nods and an enthusiastic “definitely” from the whole family. I’m hoping that the version below gets the same unanimous stamp of approval.

Ingredients:
Neutral oil for cooking
½ cup diced onion
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup diced carrots
1/3 cup diced celery 
5 shiitake caps, diced
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1/3 cup cooked peas
¾ cup diced ham or Canadian bacon
10 small or 5 large (cut into 3rds) peeled and deveined shrimp
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups cooked white rice *cook’s note I*
1 tsp. chicken bouillon *cook’s note II*
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ cup sliced scallion
2 tsp. sesame oil

*As with all Chinese food timing and speed are the keys to success. Make sure you have everything prepped and ready to go before you turn on the stove.

 
  • Heat a wok or large skillet and 1 Tbsp. of oil over med-high heat. Once wisps of smoke begin to appear add the diced onion. Cook for 1 min. Add the garlic, ginger and ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 1 minute more.
  • Add the diced carrots. Cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the celery and diced shiitake caps. Add 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Cook for 1 min. Add the peas, stirring through. Remove and set aside.
  • In the now empty wok/skillet heat 2 tsp. of oil. Add the diced Canadian bacon or ham (I prefer Canadian bacon for its fat content). Fry quickly over high heat until lightly brown and fat begins to render. Remove. Turn the heat down to medium-high and add the shrimp to the pork fat. Add ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 2 minutes, or until shrimp are pink and no longer translucent. Remove shrimp, leaving any remaining fat behind.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and add the lightly beaten eggs to the center of the hot wok/skillet. Cook as you would scrambled eggs for 15 seconds, add the rice to the pan. Mix well with the partially cooked eggs. Sprinkle in 1 tsp. chicken bouillon, ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. ground white pepper. Continue stir-frying for 1 minute.
  • Add the cooked vegetables, pork and shrimp. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring well to evenly distribute all the ingredients. Add the scallions and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
  • Remove from heat and serve.

Cook’s note I: To get the best results the rice needs to be cold. Freshly steamed rice is too sticky to fry properly. Use leftover rice or cook it early in the day and let it cool for a while in the refrigerator.

Cook’s note II: In an effort to develop a recipe as close to the version my older brother remembers from his childhood I’ve used chicken bouillon. I doubt it comes as a surprise to anyone that this is an ingredient frequently used for seasoning in Chinese food. It received a bad rap for a while due to its MSG content, but these days it’s pretty easy to find a MSG-free version.