Fresh off the press! An illustration I made for The Original Magazine, published by students at my college, of Creative Nonfiction founder and editor, and Pittsburgher, Lee Gutkind. Watercolor and ink.
And that’s how you do a Chinese dinner. That just so happens to be on Christmas Eve.
Ah, how nice it feels to be back on Tumblr after a rather long—excuse me—hiatus. But never fear, I’ve been in the kitchen pretty much the moment I step out of the library or back in my Jersey house.
I won’t try to cover all the dishes on that glorious table that is way oversized for our colonial dining room, but I will comment on the most laborious of all of them, which seems to not even have made it to the dinner table, being an appetizer an all.
Spring rolls—the real stuff. No joke (I couldn’t see my fingers they were moving so fast to feed so many people).
Remember: the key to Chinese cooking is allowing the ingredients to do the talking. If they’re fresh, if they’re honest, and if they’re set up in the right relationships, they’ll shine. In this case, the most complex seasoning you’ll find on our table, which is generally cleared by the way, is salt + soy sauce + ginger (root) + garlic + vinegar + sugar + shitake mushrooms (for the salt water duck). No fancy-pants MSG or pepper or herbs, or God forbid salted chicken stock! Let the chicken do the talking, will ya?
chives (cut really really tiny), ground pork, salt, soy sauce, sugar, starch (to keep the pork tender), garlic (optional). A really, really good nose to make sure the filling has been seasoned just enough; ideally you’ll want to have gotten the meat just right before adding chives because they tend to be so overwhelmingly aromatic and delicious so as to distract your olfactory receptors from the task at hand.
salt. scrambled eggs, vermicelli noodles, and chives: all cut really, really tiny
Both: some flour mixed with warm water to make an edible gl-ue. premade spring roll wrappers, found in the refrigerated section of the asian supermarket. Don’t open the package until you’re ready to wrap! or else they’ll dry out before you can say yum!
To wrap: Do as the pictures show. Stifle the overachiever in you and keep each roll lean, no overstuffing! Secure each roll with the dough-y water and voila.
To cook: Be generous with the canola oil. We’re deep-frying here, people, so let’s not be shy. Heat up the oil on high or else your wrappers won’t brown like they should. Cook each batch of spring rolls for 10 minutes, fidgeting with them from time to time, which tends to satisfy my nerves and evenly heat the goods. Double win! Spread them on a paper towel to absorb the excess oil. Careful! They’ll be sizzling when just out, and you do NOT want that on your tongue.
To serve: Hot. But not first-degree hot. Hot and just cooled enough that they *cccrrrrrunch* (emphasis on the first two consonants) when you bite into them. Distribute to guests asap so they’ll swarm to the kitchen and keep you company as you finish up the other 100 or so—just kidding, don’t work so hard people, it’s a party!
Enjoy. It’s about the people. ;)
Pizza, at its easiest and freshest, besides the TJ pizza dough (garlic and herb! very fun to stretch out. let gravity do its job because you just can’t compete)
What you see is what you get:
Homemade pesto (walnuts instead of pine nuts, of which I had none)
A sampling of how I spend my time experimenting.
Just fresh ingredients, no bs. I’m never going back to sealed-bag spinach if I can help it. I’m referring to the kind that major labels have so proudly “Triple-washed!!” and packaged into colorful plastic bags that sit neatly row after row on the shelves of grocery stores. What happens when you cook and eat spinach leaves the size of your hand that were picked that same morning? You realize how far modern American eating has deteriorated. Baby spinach—ha. There’s a reason they call it baby: it’s small, naive, and yet to reach its full potential.
Top - bottom, L-R:
Rice cakes sauteed with string beans, walnuts, and chicken in Chinese vinegar and soy sauce.
Banana bread with walnuts and dark chocolate (go hard on the DC, trust me)
Lentil stew with chicken, potatoes and kale (and a bunch of spices like cumin)
TJ’s spinach and chive fettucine in homemade tomato sauce, spinach, eggs, and chicken. To make tomato sauce: literally just cook the tomatoes over medium heat for about 5-7 minutes, adding a little water for a more fluid consistency. Season with salt and herbs. No supermarket jar crap, and never preservatives. Try different tomatoes.
Chicken: really easy but so delicious, particularly if you add vegetables underneath. Focus on the dance party in your mouth. What I wrote very late one night in a bout of inspiration after watching Food, Inc the same week:
"This week, I had a very intimate—excuse me, am having—relationship with my food. I cooked a whole chicken on Sunday, and I am so grateful for it. Wow. By this Sunday, I will have eaten a whole chicken, roasted and stewed and souped, all by myself. That chicken has sustained me an entire 5 days so far, giving me nutrition, pleasant taste, comfort. Because of the mental association with my home it provides. Such an experience does not make me a vegetarian; it makes me a gratitarian—all the more thankful for what I have, what I can afford. Just, thank you for that so much. Thank you, chicken, for giving up your life—though you had no choice—so that I may have mine.
Never have I felt so close to my food. I mean, I cooked it. I just need to get one step closer to really understand.” I think I was suggesting that I start my own organic chicken farm.
People thinking deeply about what they want their lives to look like—and then making it happen. That’s where I want to be. Start in the head and move in with your body.
Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.
Sir Michael Marmot, The Lancet, 2005
Couldn’t have said it better—we need more of these kinds of thinkers in the world.
Istanbul, Turkey. Lovely city and full of prayers (blasting from loud speakers mounted on the spires of the ubiquitous mosques). To get that cup of Turkish coffee, we were treated with the notable “Turkish hospitality:” about five young men snatched us from the sidewalk by the arm and seated us in the outdoor cafe area, turning on the personal heaters multiple times. The coffee: Strong, and you do not want to drink the sediments at the bottom.
The cats are old wise men trapped in a coat of fur.
Turkish delight shop in the Egyptian Bazaar, though the small nuts in the shells are more like art.
Lamb stew in a clay pot. Which was smashed in order to access it. Not shown is the swarm of cats circling our table throughout the hour, ready to pounce from the neighboring table onto ours.
Cheong Fun - “long rice noodle”
A favorite of my family and native dish to the Guangzhou province in China. My mother usually makes them using store-bought rice noodle sheets, but those skins were never as plump and slightly-sticky as the ones serve during Dim Sum at Dynasty, our go-to Sunday brunch spot. Until I came home from college and took matters into my own hands. Needless to say the skins I made were still not as good as the restaurant ones. Our hypothesis: once the skins are twice-steamed, first to solidify the batter and second to cook the filling, they harden into a tougher sheet, losing the slightly-sticky character of the restaurant cheong fun. Alterations for the future include addition of glutinous rice flour to the main rice flour batter and steaming the noodles and filling simultaneously for as little time as possible. This will take some experimentation to get it just right.
But nonetheless, if you don’t care for the filling, you can eat the cheong fun with the sweet sauce after the first steaming session. Just roll them up like pipes and cut. We did taste one after the first steam: perfecto, delicious.
Thank you to my classy friend Tina who lives in Hoboken for taking me to town for Manhattan’s annual Restaurant Week. Delicious, enormous prawns with fried leek over Cannellini beans. Magnifico! The venue: Barolo, at 398 West Broadway. Why don’t I live in THE city??!! Because then I’d gain 10 pounds a week, Sue. And my wallet would become a black hole…