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Woke up and went to the George Washington Masonic Memorial: à la Japonaise we sat on the steps overlooking Old Town Alexandria and waited for the sun to rise. But not quite ready to start in on the fish and pickles, we drank coffee and shared a pear-walnut scone. A young Korean man drove up and looked surprised to find us there. But he waited with us as the sky washed salmon-pink at the low horizon, and then, quickly a sliver of light pressed up into a yellow-orange fire.
Sushi Taro’s osechi ryouri (new year’s food) is on the menu once again for the next few days. I eat these treats thinking of Japan, my teacher, and my resolution to find a way to bring Japanese culture and sake into my life more often this year. As Suzuki Roshi reminds us, the perfect time is now and now and now…
New Year’s Day 2006 in Japan
Alexandria summer: Heat, mosquitoes in the backyard, ugly new construction on our block, passive-aggressive boss, heat, ennui, heat—
spray my calves with poison to keep the bugs off and step out into life I helped along: bowls and bowls of homegrown cherry tomatoes, a few Green Zebras, and a single Brandywine that made it to ripe through the gauntlet of thirsty squirrels. Bonus: our first heirloom Stone Mountain watermelon, a few more on the vines. Summer is sweet, feels cooler in the soul.
But many avoid death now as the greatest of evils but then welcome it as rest from things in life. The wise neither declines life nor fears not living; for life does not offend him nor does he believe that not being alive is bad. Just as food is not chosen only for the larger portion but for the more pleasant, so the wise enjoy the time that is not longer but happier.
—Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus” (trans. Sanderson Beck)
Saturday, May 21st, my Epicurean heart beats in the May sunshine. All the birds and iPods tweet, “We are alive!”
We enjoy our weekly visit to the Del Ray Farmers’ Market. Of course, we see Tom the yogurt and cheese guy, the lady with the apple cider doughnuts, and the salteña lady. After missing the Lee Brothers’ seafood truck last Saturday, we are very happy to see them again. Over the past few weeks we’ve bought and enjoyed (twice) their hyper-fresh, sweet, and delicious perch filets and once served sake with their oysters. Today we bought already dressed softshell Maryland crabs. For lunch I patted a few with just a dusting of Old Bay and cornmeal and pan fried them. I also shelled fresh peas, a brief steam, a bit of butter. Carlos had to be off on a work errand, so I was alone for my meal. I meditated, chewing happily on two of the great and most simple delicacies of this lovely planet.
Lee Brothers will reserve some softshells for you if you order the week ahead so they can plan to bring the just-molted ones to market. Look for the truck with a hanging scale and the handwritten whiteboard, “Perch, Catfish, Croaker, Oysters, Softshells.”
Despite the name of the place, forget Hong Kong, think Chengdu and Chongqing. For the past two years, Carlos and I have been eating deeply at home from Fuschia Dunlop’s cookbook, Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan. The long, hot, numb buzz of Sichuan pepper and the hearty and deep flavors of Sichuan food moves me deeply: a long overdue visit to Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church was rewarded by a deeply delicious meal.
After a marriage-testing four passes on Route 7 across Seven Corners intersection, we finally called and let them guide us in: “We’re across from Sears.” We sit, I’m all blog-bling with my notebook and my dented and scratched Fuji FinePix. I open to the notes I copied from Tyler Cowen’s blog and Washingtonian.com. I ask the waitress to recommend something from the specials board.
The board is tantalizingly handwritten in Chinese characters. Being a major kanji dork, I try to read the writing anyway, thinking I might see something Japanese-ish, but I get only “[unintelligible] fish” or “[something-something] tofu.” I give up. She asks if we like spicy food, we say yes, and she tells us to order the “Stuffed Pepper Chicken.” So we do.
But first we have some slippery bean-starch noodles with sauce of fermented black beans, green onion, sichuan pepper, and sesame seeds. Then some boiled pork dumplings with a chili oil sauce. I’m already grinning and moaning.
A more authoritative person appears at our tableside (perhaps the owner?) and asks, “May I ask who told you about us?” When I say, “Tyler Cowen’s blog,” she laughs and gestures to the far corner of the room, “Yesterday, he was here with a big table of guests. Just returned from a foreign country and came to eat here right away.” OMG, I’m a Tyler Cowen groupie. Just missed him.
Crispy fried chicken pieces with garlic and ginger chunks, whole sichuan peppers, hot red peppers, green onions, and peanuts—like the best kung pao chicken ever, but then they add fried medium hot red peppers stuffed with whole sesame seeds and a sesame paste (the pepper and stuffing is crispy and nutty and hot). The earthy sesame nuttiness against the chicken and hot-and-numbing spices is incredible (praise the Zanthoxylum simulans). They sprinkle cilantro over the whole thing; my cilantro-impaired husband will decline the garnish next time. I thought it superfluous myself, but tasty.
I asked the waitress to show me the characters for “Stuffed Pepper Chicken” and as I wrote them down she leaned over me, cooing, “Oh, you can do Chinese.” Not exactly. The Chinese characters [口口香脆鸡] have literal meanings of something like “mouth mouth fragrant [tsuki radical and the kanji for "dangerous"] chicken” (kou kou xiang cui ji). I don’t know how they combine into units of meaning. I look later in my Japanese kanji dictionary for the full “dangerous” hanzi. No dice. I find the character only in Fuschia Dunlop’s cookbook as cui [脆], “a certain quality of crispiness, a texture that offers resistance to the teeth, but finally yields, cleanly, with a pleasant snappy feeling.” That is the texture of the fried chicken, yes, but the name of the dish doesn’t seem to mention those outrageous stuffed peppers. The Tasting Table D.C. has a post about the Stuffed Pepper Chicken, see the mention of the “Cantonese” peppers.
Menu name: “Stir-fried Shanghai Greens and Black Mushrooms” (bok choy, shiitakes, ginger, garlic slivers). The greens were perfectly cooked and this mild standard paired well against the fried chicken.
Anyone know what “mouth mouth” (kou kou) means?
Apparently my next stop is Sichuan Pavillion in Rockville…
Just ’cause are my favorite kind of gifts. My mother sent me Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, not for any particular reason, but because she suspected it could be a cookbook I didn’t already own. I skimmed the book on the bus to work this morning and—remembering two homegrown cucumbers given to me by my next-door neighbor—I decided to make the recipe for stir-fried cucumber and pork with golden garlic. The cookbook features many stories from ex-pat Chinese who speak of trying to recreate “real” Chinese food in Peru, the United States, Burma, Jamaica. Some of the stories ramble a bit and could have used tightening up. And one particular story concludes with an attempt at a kind of metaphysical food writing that can fall very flat. Writing about how a simple eggplant stir-fry is delicious made either with or without ground pork, she states:
I no longer ponder how the magic works—how one meatball’s worth of pork or that tiny pinch of minced ginger can even be detected in the final dish. That is part of the mystery of a well-constructed stir-fry. It is built on layers of flavor and texture, and every ingredient, no matter how seemingly insignificant in quantity, contributes to the alchemy.
Besides the fact that this could describe almost any cooking anywhere in the world (layers of flavor and texture), I’m not sure magic and alchemy explain being able to taste ground pork in an eggplant stir-fry. It seems more like, well, logic and chemistry to me. I do love good food porn, but I like it well written. I’ll give her a pass on the poetics: the photos of Chinese women holding up woks and bowls full of Chinese food are very sweet and make me hungry.
The technical information is very clear and well-written. For example, she spends 16 pages on buying, seasoning, and caring for a wok. I was extremely surprised and smugly gratified to find a page with a photo of a carbon-steel wok that had been used for two years (and was therefore properly seasoned) that looked exactly like my well-used black beauty that I bought 17 years ago. Yes, ol’ Grace had me there. So, having convinced me with her good tips and ego stroking, I decided to get to work right away trying out the recipes.
For the pork and cucumber stir-fry, I had the cucumbers and I bought some Niman Ranch pork. I was already starting with delicious ingredients; it would be up to me to not screw them up. In this recipe you mince a large amount a garlic and pre-fry it to infuse the oil. The garlic cooks only until “light golden” and then is strained from the oil and reserved. The pork gets a marinade of soy, sugar, salt, and corn starch. Like most stir-fry recipes, you must prep everything in advance and then go for it because after you fry off the garlic, the rest of the recipe takes about 4 minutes: fry up slivers of ginger, brown pork in wok, but do not cook through, add cukes, toss, splash in some soy sauce, mix in reserved garlic, serve. I added hot chili flakes because my Bolivian husband gets nervous if his food lacks capsaicin.
Good stuff, thanks mom.