Tag Archives: TCKs

And Finally, For the Youngest Stirling—Spaghetti Bolognese.

Jennifer, Jenny or Jen Ju (as in the popular Taiwanese bubble tea) is the baby in our little army. Ask Jenny where she was born, and she will excitedly tell you the true story of how she popped out on the foyer of my family’s Taiwanese apartment. She may be 12, but in my mind she’s still a tiny three-year-old sneaking into my room at 6 a.m., dragging her favorite book and hoping for story-time.

Adventurous and curious about food, Jenny is the kid that chefs and food lovers wish for. Jenny always claims the seat next to me when we go out for dinner, not because I’m such pleasant company, but because—as she once explained—I always order the most interesting food.  My husband is convinced that she is actually mine. I swear she’s not.

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Sibling #5 Craves Childhood Crack: Sweet Potato Fries with Garlic and Thai Basil

Michelle, or Shel as everyone calls her, is a stunner. She’s the only one that got our Canadian father’s fair skin and hazel eyes. Unlike some of us Shel actually attended public school in Taiwan, which meant that her superior Chinese qualified her to be the tone correctional officer in our house. It might not seem like such a big deal to use the second tone instead of the third, but when incorrect usage can change a sentence from “I caught a cold” (wo-3rd gan-3rd mao-4th) to “I fucked a cat” (wo-3rd gan-4th mao-1st) you begin to see the benefits of having someone to double-check that you are raising, dipping and dropping your voice in all the right places.

In Taiwan a favorite activity for all of us siblings after a long day of school, work and what-have-you was to head down to the local night market for some entertainment. We spent hours trying to catch tiny turtles or goldfish with a quickly disintegrating “net” of tissue paper, popping colorful water balloons with darts— and of course enjoying the tasty street food. Sweet potato fries, dusted in a secret blend of spices were ridiculously addictive and Shel’s (if not everyone’s) favorite. The “secret blend” was likely a mix of 40% spices and 60% MSG, but whatever the ingredients were it was 100% epicurean crack.

These particular night market fry-stalls were set up with a dizzying array of par-cooked items neatly arranged in front. And a large oil-filled wok sizzling behind, waiting. We would grab a little plastic basket from where it was stacked on the side and begin to peruse the options— squid, chicken, fish cakes, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables— anxiously snapping our metal serving tongs together while we made up our minds. Some nights we’d buy a mix bag, adding a little calamari (cut into strips rather than rings), chicken, or maybe green beans. But we never skipped the sweet potatoes.

Replicating this dish is a challenge in part because I can’t be 100% sure what was in the secret spice blend, but mainly because I don’t want to use MSG. However, with high quality spices (buy them as fresh as you can; I get mine from The Spice & Tea Exchange in Georgetown), sweet potatoes, garlic and Thai basil this snack is pretty spectacular—even without the controversial flavor enhancer.

Ingredients:
3 sweet potatoes (I use the Japanese or Korean variety)
Vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic
10 Thai basil leaves
1 tsp. fried shallots * see Cook’s Note
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt

  • Cut the sweet potatoes into ½ inch thick fries.
  • The trick to really great fries—crisp with a fluffy center—is to blanch them in 300°– 325° oil till just cooked through but not golden. If you’re using a deep pan rather than an actual fryer, stir occasionally to prevent the sugary fries from sinking to the bottom and browning.
  • Remove with a spider (or your preferred straining device) onto paper towels. Thoroughly drain and set aside until you’re ready for the final step.
  • For the seasoning, place 1 tsp. of fried shallots into a spice blender. Pulse to a fine powder. In a small bowl mix together the shallot (don’t stress getting every last bit out of the tiny blender), garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper & salt.
  • Bring the oil back up, this time to 350°– 375°. Add the par-cooked fries taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Stir gently to ensure even cooking. 30 seconds before the fries are completely ready crush the garlic cloves, leaving the skins on, and toss them into the oil. Just before removing the garlic and fries throw in the basil. (Step back, this will cause the oil to splatter violently)
  • Drain everything on paper towels. Remove the papery skins and mince the garlic. Dust generously with the spice blend, adding extra salt if needed. Toss and enjoy immediately.

Cooks Note: Fried shallots are common in Chinese cooking and are readily available at your local Asian grocery store. If you have and/or prefer to use shallot powder instead that would work too.

The Palettes of TCKs: Sibling #4 Requests Chicken Wings

Sibling number four is my very beautiful sister Janai. In addition to the usual identity crises associated with TCKs Janai has had the added complication of having a foreign name. In Chinese her name (pronounced jen-ai or ren-ai) means “true love” but unfortunately, in Japanese ja-nai means “am not” or “is not”. Thus Janai spent many years of her life reluctantly being called by her second name, Clare. Guess what my darling husband jokingly said to her when they met in Taiwan? “Clare? That’s a fat girl’s name.” Thank you John Hughes and The Breakfast Club!

However the shy girl grew up into a sassy lady who often renders men speechless when she extends a manicured hand and introduces herself, often repeating her exotic name several times for the bumbling gentlemen that can’t seem to get it right.

Janai sent me the following response to my comfort food inquiry, “Remember how we used to bake all those chicken wings?? Made our own marinade with soy sauce, mustard, ketchup, and any spice we could find? That’s what I crave…basic yet delicious…it’s what I remember as ‘home’.”

Ah, I remember those chicken wings well. They were the frequent stars of our dinner table because wings were cheap and the sauce was composed of just about every spice in the cupboard, and every condiment in the refrigerator door.

We’ve been making chicken wings in my family for years, but my relationship with them wasn’t always amicable. In Japan we would cook the wings in a skillet on the stove since we only had a very small oven (most Asian kitchens aren’t outfitted with large ovens; toaster ovens are usually used for baking at home instead). Just about everything in our kitchen was stainless steel and our cooking utensils were metal, which was great for cleaning. But when the pilot light in the stove shorted (and it did, ALL THE TIME), you got a free lesson in electrostatics. Question: What happens when you happen to touch the stove with metal tongs while your other hand is resting on the metal counter? Answer: The electrical currents have a play date in your body! To this day my body tenses in preparation for a jolt whenever I smell soy sauce and sugar caramelizing.

But we left that house, and eventually Japan. Somewhere along the way we found ourselves in a bigger kitchen, and we transferred the wings from the skillet to the oven. Nowadays I bake the wings first with just a little salt, pepper, lime juice and oil, (you could add other spices like Chinese five spice or chili powder) and then glaze the wings with the sauce right before I throw them under the broiler. With this method the meat is nicely seasoned and the sweet-salty sauce gets deliciously charred and sticky under the intense broiler heat.

Hopefully your kitchen is in compliance with safety codes, so making these simple Asian wings won’t leave you permanently traumatized.

Ingredients:
1 lb. chicken wings
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ tsp. lime juice
1 Tbs. neutral oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, minced
1 half medium sized onion, diced
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 Tbs. ketchup
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. Sriracha

  • Mix the first 5 ingredients together in a bowl. Set aside to allow the chicken to marinate and temper (come up to room temperature)
  • Preheat the oven to 400°. When oven reaches desired temperature place the chicken wings on a sheet pan and into the oven for 10 minutes
  • While the wings are baking sweat the onions, garlic and ginger in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  • Combine the soy sauce, water, ketchup, mustard, sugar and Sriracha together in a bowl. Mix well.
  • Once the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes) add the liquid mixture to the saucepan. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Strain. Pour the strained liquid into a large bowl.
  • Add the semi cooked chicken wings to the sauce and toss to coat. Return the chicken wings to the sheet pan and place them under the broiler (turned to high) for a couple of minutes. Remove and flip the wings. Return to the broiler and sear the other side of the wings (1-2 minutes).
  • Remove when you have the color and caramelization you want.

Can be served as is….

Or with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro…

Cilantro and extra Sriracha…

Or with a dusting of shiso furikake—shiso, the popular Japanese herb (also called beefsteak plant), flavored rice seasoning… salty, tart and slightly floral.

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.

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.

Why I Love to Cook

I can’t remember the first time exactly. Rather than one instance, the memory is more likely a combination of several—a quiet house, the mellow morning sun glowing from behind Japanese paper doors, the clean woodsy smell of the soft bamboo mat flooring. As a child I would silently slip out of my warm bed, taking care not to wake any of my sleeping siblings. Tiptoeing down the narrow hallway, I’d make my way towards the kitchen. The light clanking of metal and the tic, tic, tic of the stove pilot light would tell me that my dad was putting the kettle on for his morning cup of coffee.

With ten children, my family can be accurately described as shockingly large. Our house was always filled with friends, visitors, sleepovers, and play dates. Naturally two things were in short supply and in constant demand—a peaceful room and the undivided attention of our parents. Maybe that’s why cooking became so important to me; it was a moment in which my dad or mom focused on me. Was I holding the knife safely? Cutting the vegetables the right size? Rinsing the rice correctly? The kitchen before everyone else rose for the day became my place to find parental attention and complete calm.

It was here that I learned to make my very first dish: scrambled eggs, a dish with the ability to be utterly pedestrian, or worthy of a place on the menu of a 5-star restaurant.

As a kid I remember the horror of showing up to my friends’ breakfast table, and seeing a pile of something that vaguely resembled food. A rubbery, overcooked grayish green mass where bits of whites and yolks could still be differentiated in the pile. A papery burnt film shuddering atop an oozing undercooked section. I recall being mystified as to how someone could both burn and undercook eggs at the same time.

Maybe it’s the adoration of a little girl towards her father, but I still believe my father’s scrambled eggs were perfection. He moved slowly, methodically through the steps. He would crack the eggs into a large bowl. Then slide the bowl over, allowing me to whip the eggs. He preferred to use a fork, but sometimes the volume of eggs would be too much for my little wrist and he would hand me a whisk. He showed me how the addition of a little milk would make the eggs creamy and fluffy, and the importance of salting them before cooking so that they didn’t taste of salt but rather fresh, rich eggs. A careful constant stirring over medium heat resulted in the fluffiest, most savory plate of eggs this little girl had ever tasted.

We would probably only have thirty minutes in that quiet kitchen—me intensely stirring the eggs, while my dad sipped his coffee and buttered slices of whole wheat toast to accompany them. By the time everything was ready, the house would be coming alive with the sounds of people eager for breakfast.

Last week at the 5-star restaurant where I now work, I learned how to make the ultimate upscale version of my childhood breakfast food. A few professional secrets elevate this simple dish—extra egg yolks are added to enrich the flavor, crème fraiche replaces milk and the eggs are cooked slowly in a saucepot, stirred constantly with a small whisk and finished with a round spatula. Of course, cooking them in truffle butter and garnishing with a generous shaving of white truffles from Italy doesn’t hurt. When it comes to the table the pungent earthy aroma of the truffles envelopes you and for a few blissful moments you are lost in the luscious, savory, buttery eggs. Simplicity elevated.

However, for me no amount of truffles, caviar, or smoked salmon will ever elevate anyone’s scrambled eggs over my dad’s. The simple joy of spending time with him, cooking in our tiny Japanese kitchen while the rest of the house slept. Quiet moments like this didn’t occur very often, making the times that they did all the more memorable.

If I close my eyes I can still feel the warm morning sun coming in the small window above the kitchen sink. A little girl is standing at the stove, dad close by—wisps of steam disappearing off the top of his mug, filling the room with the robust and faintly sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee. For her, this is the best moment of her day and the most perfect plate of food she will ever eat.

When I tell people that I have started a new career in the food world the common reaction is a head tilt and an inquisitive “why?” Why? Simple—it makes me smile. Sometimes the quiet, simple moments in life resonate the loudest and the longest.