November 15, 2012

zhajiang mian, franny & zooey

Lately I've been addicted to two things: rooibos tea and noodles. OK, so noodles are kind of a lifelong thing, but the rooibos tea is a recent obsession. It's so good. If you haven't had it, I implore you to try it. I love everything about it, from the color, to the fragrance, to the fact that it's caffeine-free (translation for the non-old ladies out there: I can drink it anytime). Actually, my favorite thing about it is the fragrance. Definitely herbal jelly-esque.

I've been in somewhat of a book rut lately. Too much working, perhaps. So I picked up the smallest book I could find—the only thing I had time to read last week: J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey stories, which I had read some years past but couldn't remember very well. This time around, I couldn't help noticing just how negatively it all begins. How mocking it is of college preppies who are self-absorbed and trying to be all deep about life and everything. The part I did remember from last time was the fact that Franny orders a chicken sandwich because she doesn't have much of an appetite.
"'All I want's a chicken sandwich. And maybe a glass of milk. ... You order what you want and all, though. I mean, take snails and octopuses and things. Octopi. I'm really not at all hungry.'
Lane looked at her, then exhaled a thin, over expressive stream of smoke down at his plate. 'This is going to be a real little doll of a weekend,' he said. 'A chicken sandwich, for God's sake.'"
It's so true. I would totally order a chicken sandwich if I didn't really feel like eating anything. It's just so boring. I know a lot of people really love chicken to death, but I am most definitely not one of them.

But anyway, going back to my obsession with noodles. If Franny had ordered noodles instead of a chicken sandwich, I think the story would have turned out differently. But I guess not everyone likes noodles all that much, so maybe I'm all wrong about that. Anyway, I made noodles for dinner. And I have to say they were much, much tastier than a chicken sandwich, even though they ended up tasting differently from what I had envisioned.

I wasn't really sure what sauce to buy, you see. I don't have a Chinese supermarket right around the corner...but I do have a Korean one. So I ended up with a Korean sauce that I couldn't really read (I think it was this). It certainly didn't turn out like the Chinese version I'm used to (which is saltier, rather than sweet), and I forgot the cucumbers (rookie mistake), but I wouldn't be averse to trying this again in the future with a few tweaks! Consider the recipe below Version 1.0.

vegetarian zhajiang mian (fried sauce noodle)
1/2 onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 squares of baked tofu, cut into small cubes
2 tsp seasoned soybean paste
dash of soy sauce
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
About a bowl's worth of noodles, cooked, drained, and rinsed

drizzle of sesame oil
2 scallions, sliced

Saute the onion, garlic, and tofu over high heat for about 5 minutes.
Add the soybean paste, soy sauce, and cilantro and continue to cook over medium heat. Add water if it becomes too thick. Throw in the noodles and stir fry until the noodles have taken on the flavor of the sauce. Sprinkle with sesame oil and scallions and enjoy!

November 7, 2012

home is a mystery

"There is something false and perverse in my playing the observer, I who have lived here as long as anyone. Still these bright streets do not belong to me and I feel, not like someone who chose to move away, but as if I had been, as the expression goes, 'run out of town.' I can remember only one person to whom that disgrace actually happened and he was a dapper, fastidious little man who spoke in what we used to call a 'cultured' voice and spent the long, beautiful afternoons in the park beside the wading pond in which the children under five played. No doubt he too went to New York, the exile for those with evil thoughts."
—"Evenings at Home," Elizabeth Hardwick
I had forgotten all about this story until last night. The narrator goes back to her hometown but doesn't feel like she belongs there. Even though she technically moved away by choice, she doesn't feel like it was really a choice at all; she just never really belonged. I guess I can identify with that.

I feel like I will always be an observer here in New York. Look at that picture, for gosh sakes. This grand city will never feel like it's mine. The closest I can come to possessing it is when I'm annoyed at passersby. Or when I've lost power in the hurricane...or when I'm cursing the snow and wishing I was somewhere warmer. In other words, it only really feels like home when I'm complaining about it like an old lady complains about being stuck with her husband. I'm stuck with it, but it couldn't give a damn about me. And that's ok by me.

October 8, 2012

time well spent

Memory is a tricky beast. I want to treat it like a pet, letting it warm my lap and stroking its fur on a chilly winter's night. But it often morphs into an animal that refuses to be housebroken or tamed; I can't get it to behave any differently than what comes naturally.

Some memories appear again and again. In one, I'm sitting on the kitchen island in the house in Maryland, ripping a slice of cheap white bread into chunks, rolling them into balls before shoving them in my mouth. No guilt for throwing crusts away, nor for lazing around doing nothing.

In one of her poems, Edna St. Vincent Millay writes, "I am tired, so tired / of passing pleasant places!" I don't think I've come across a sentence that's quite so true to adult existence. So this is the great epiphany (cue quarterlife crisis)—that as adults, we spend so much time doing what we think we should do, and very little time doing what we actually want. That said, I'm going to go read a book now. Goodnight—or, as my dad wrote in an email last night, "Have a sweet dream!" (Note that it's not sweet dreams, plural. I like the idea that one sweet dream is all you need...don't you?)

September 20, 2012

Fuzzy thoughts & miso soup

But there are things you know objectively to be true and things you feel subjectively to be true; the things you understand somewhere in your head and the things you understand viscerally, intuitively, behind your heart. You can know that space might be unending, and you can understand that time is contingent, and you can write out the size of an atom in scientific notation. But when you try to access any kind of experience of this, you fail. You have reached the limit of your own comprehension, and you sit uncomfortably with the reality that there are truths that lie quite beyond your ability to fully believe them to be such.
A Partial History of Lost Causes, Jennifer duBois
Wowza. This woman can really write...but this is probably not a book I would ever revisit. Instead, I typed out some passages because I knew I would want to read those parts (and only those parts) again someday. Just so you know, there were quite a few. She's one of those Iowa Writer's Workshop graduates. So elite.

So, going back to that quote. I guess the reason I liked it so much was because I've often thought the same thing before. Some things are impossible to grasp, no matter how much you want to believe they're true. For instance, I was recently at the Griffith Observatory, and the museum guide said something about how looking up at the stars was actually like looking back in time, because the light had traveled so far to get into our line of sight. That's a concept I still have yet to grasp, even though a part of me has an inkling of what he meant.

Maybe food is so comforting because you don't often have to struggle to understand what you like and don't like. It's so basic; you just know. I like eggs. I don't like coconut. And color me crazy, but from the minute I thought to add an egg to my miso soup, I knew without a doubt that it would be good. (I was right.)

Miso & Egg Soup
2 cups water
1 tbsp mild miso
1 egg
salt or dashi granules (optional)
1 handful chopped scallions

Bring the water to nearly a boil. Ladle out a small bowl's worth and stir the miso into that portion until it's dissolved. Add back into the pot and turn down the heat to low. Crack in the egg and wait about a minute until the white is cooked, but the yolk still runny. Taste the soup and add some salt or dashi granules if you want it to be saltier. Ladle out the soup and egg, sprinkle the fresh scallions on top, and devour!

September 3, 2012

My fried rice burns at both ends

I know what you're thinking. Another blog post about fried rice? This girl needs to start keeping her fried rices to herself...

I can't help it—I adore fried rice. This will be the last time I blog about it for a long time, I promise. Plus, the other night, I discovered one addition that brought this time-honored dish to a whole new level of heartiness. Read the following quote for a hint.
"It is funny, but the happier I am the more I want you and long for you and Christ I long for you. I want to show you so many things...My warmed over fish chowder is smelling up the whole house, so I guess it is boiling and I'd better eat it."
—letter from Eugen, Edna St. Vincent Millay's husband

Pretty funny thing to write in a love letter, eh? Adds an edge of reality to the otherwise cheesyish words (I call them cheesy, but I'm sure any girl would secretly treasure being lavished with such flattering language!). 

Like fried rice, fish chowder sounds like a nice, hearty meal. So why not a fish fried rice?

You may know of a Chinese dish called anchovy fried rice. It gives off a stinky-yet-appealing smell, a la stinky tofu. I like my anchovy fried rice all right, but I never have anchovies in the house. I did, however, have some tilapia fillets in the freezer the other night, so I defrosted one in the microwave while the fried rice was sizzling away, and threw it in, which only added a few minutes of extra cooking time. Then, since I barely broke up the fillet, it remained in satisfyingly large pieces. Definitely one of my top fried rices ever, and I have made many a fried rice.

Plus, unlike the anchovy version, it won't stink up the whole house like Eugen's fish chowder (but I imagine that his wouldn't have smelled so bad, really...?).

August 22, 2012

Baboons and periwinkles

"When they were younger, she had loved angel food cake. But she had lost her taste for it years ago, although no one bothered to ask her. So she ate it every year, and every bite tasted of disapproval."
Tigers in Red Weather, Liza Klaussmann
I've never been a big fan of angel food cake. Something about it reminds me of cotton candy, which is superior to angel food cake only because it's fluorescent and melts in your mouth...not because of its taste. Given a choice between angel food cake and coconut cake, I'd choose angel food cake every time (but I would rather choose neither and order a chocolate chip muffin instead).

Anyway, this book was a pretty satisfying read. Just the right amount of creepy characters and messed up theories about life and love. The line in the Wallace Stevens poem that inspired its title is really great, too. I like it when the title of a book hints at more than just something literally taken from the plot (for example, David Copperfield is not exactly the most thought-provoking title, is it?).

Which got me thinking about what "red weather" even means. With a bit of wikipediaing, I learned that in weather folklore, a red sky signifies good things at night, and bad things in the morning. Not sure if that helps or confuses me more. Makes me remember how much I like poetry sometimes.

August 13, 2012

Dinner is sandwiched between lunch and breakfast.

Richie nodded and pushed the sandwich tower towards me. "Cheese and tomato, turkey, or ham. Take a few."
I took cheese and tomato. Richie poured strong tea into the thermos cap and tilted it at me; when I held up my water bottle, he downed the tea in one and poured himself another capful. Then he made himself comfortable with his back against the wall and got stuck in his sandwich.
Broken Harbor, Tana French

Two never's about sandwiches:
1. I've never called a sandwich a sammy; it always sounded too much like a human or dog's name.
2. I've never considered sandwiches dinnertime fare; they've always strictly been the stuff of breakfast, lunch, or snacks.

The first will most likely remain the case until I die. But lately, I've come to reconsider my stance on the second. A sandwich can make a lovely dinner if it's done right, no?

The sandwich pictured above was a lunch I had last week. It was supposed to be a pho in banh mi form, but it didn't taste like pho at all. Instead, it tasted like sweet BBQ'd beef with shredded pickled carrots and lettuce on a roll. Not my favorite, but it got me wondering about something: What would be a good entree to convert into a sandwich?

Pho is a little too ambitious to be successful, but how about meatloaf? I love a good meatloaf sandwich, especially one that includes just enough gravy to make the bread soft but not soggy. I also wouldn't mind trying a Cobb Salad sandwich sometime. Or a Nicoise salad sandwich...yum.

July 22, 2012

Stress is the best appetizer.

My father is in the habit of pouring liquid to the brim of his cup, much to my mother's annoyance (oh, the joys of matrimony!). He'll inevitably grin once he makes the trip successfully from the counter (or wherever he poured it) to its final destination without spilling a drop. I never understood why my father did this, and I couldn't imagine creating that kind of (albeit minor) stress for myself. Perhaps it makes that first sip all the more glorious for him. Or perhaps he's just too lazy to get up to refill his cup, so he tries to fill it up as much as possible. But over the years, I've come to the conclusion that he's simply the kind of person who thrives in — and even seeks out — a stressful environment.

Meanwhile, those 7±2 steps from the kitchen to the dining table would always drive my mother nearly to the brink of madness. My mother and I are alike in that way: We're both worrywarts who picture the worst-case scenarios in every situation, and end up taking precautions accordingly.

A repeat accomplice in my father's mischievous stress-inducing behavior is mung bean soup. I can't imagine a better partner on a hot summer afternoon than an icy bowl of this fare. It's a hearty dessert, and one of my favorite year-round standbys, consumed hot in the winter and iced in the summer. I have many a memory of my dad ladling out a full bowl for himself, and then slowly walking with the bowl in his hand to the table as my mother and I sat with our sensibly portioned bowls, biting our nails and not knowing whether we were rooting for him to succeed or fail. I'd reckon that he has about a 98 percent success rate to date.

Speaking of family memories and dessert, the following quote exemplifies one of many reasons to eat some cake...or any other dessert: stress eating. When you feel stressed out about something or other, it definitely helps to enjoy something rich and sweet like a slice of cake. Which brings me back to my original conjecture that my dad creates stressful situations like pouring liquid to the brim of the bowl or cup, simply because the beverage or soup tastes better after he's gone through some kind of minor struggle to enjoy it. Interesting thought, eh?
Luke was both alarmed and angered by the revelation of his family history. Luke knew Sara was worried about how he felt, along with feeling bad about losing her temper and yelling at Pearl. Luke wanted cake and knew that if he asked for a specifically small piece, he would get a larger one than if he had not specified the size. Luke could not stop himself from feeling alarm or anger. He could, however, and did, get dessert.
Blind Sight, Meg Howrey
Mung Bean Soup
1/2 cup green mung beans, rinsed and drained
6 cups water
Brown sugar, to taste

Put the beans and water in a covered pot over high heat. Once they reach a rolling boil, turn down the heat to low and cook until the beans are soft and mushy (or whatever texture you like them), about 45 minutes to an hour. Turn off heat.

Add the sugar while the soup is still hot. You can eat it hot like this in the winter (or in the comfort of an AC environment). Or, if it's a sweltering day, let cool and then transfer to the refrigerator. Or make popsicles out of the soup. It will get thicker in the fridge, so add water accordingly. Ladle out a bowl for yourself — whether filled to the brim or doled out at a safe serving size, it's sure to taste delicious all the same.

July 5, 2012

Paris in the Twenties; Noodles in Minutes

When she was well, I rarely asked her for help or advice, even in the raising of my children, though she was always kindly and willing. I tried to be both in return, but it was always an effort for me. I was terrified of getting too close to her weakness for fear it would become my own.

That night in the kitchen she cried on, and I brought her a plate so we could share the spaghetti. We did not embrace, did not promise to take care of each other forever and always. We were characters in a gritty, frayed, unsentimental movie for which the 1970s are celebrated.
—Elizabeth Benedict, "Paris in the Twenties"

Wonderful story. Sharing a hot plate of food really can act as a band-aid on any problematic relationship, such as the one between this mother and daughter. The daughter is afraid of becoming her mother, and her mother is afraid that her daughter will leave her, just like her husband. Since the family is having money problems, they resort to eating spaghetti for weeks on end. It certainly makes sense; spaghetti is definitely an economical comfort food. A pack of spaghetti is priced, at most, at $1.25, even in the absurdly priced supermarkets of New York. You can probably find a jar of tomato sauce for just around $2 to $3. Throw in a few cheap but aromatic additions (onions and garlic, maybe a few mushrooms) and you've got a meal for a small family, with very little effort.

Out of all the foods one could choose to stress eat when one is on the brink of disaster, I'd take a plate of spaghetti over a bag of potato chips any day. A hot plate of food is infinitely more satisfying. But then again, I'm the kind of girl who finds it hard to turn down a plate of noodles even when she's full. For me, the hierarchy goes: noodles* > rice > bread. *Noodles include most pastas except orzo (my least favorite carb of all time, probably).

But what's even more quick and simple than spaghetti? Somen noodles (skinny Japanese wheat noodles that come in small bundles). Just bring a pot of water to a boil. Unwrap a bundle of somen noodles and drop them in the water to cook for about 1 or 2 minutes. Drizzle some soy sauce and sesame oil in a bowl. Fish the somen out of the water, but leave the pot of water on the stove. Mix the somen into the sauce in the bowl.

Poach an egg, some broccoli, and a handful of corn in the noodle cooking water. Spoon them out of the water and on top of your seasoned somen noodles. Add some slivers of cucumber, if desired. There you have it: A quick, easy meal that's just as simple and delicious as spaghetti.

June 24, 2012

The Culinary Arts of Hollow Hearts

"You know your heart, Jack?"
"Bam bam." I show her my chest.
"No, but your feeling bit, where you're sad or scared or laughing or stuff?"
That's lower down, I think it's in my tummy.
"Well, he hasn't got one."
"A tummy?"
"A feeling bit," says Ma.
I'm looking at my tummy. "What does he have instead?"
She shrugs. "Just a gap."
Room, Emma Donoghue
A gap for a heart may not be a good thing in humans, but it's a great quality in a vegetable. One vegetable has a Chinese name (空心菜) that literally translates into "hollow heart vegetable," because its stalks are hollow. It's also sometimes called Chinese water spinach. This vegetable grows so quickly that the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually classifies it as a noxious weed. In this case, one person's noxious weed is another's gustatory treasure.

"Hollow heart vegetables" are one of my father's favorite foods. He has told me on multiple occasions (usually while munching away on said vegetable) that he would gladly eat them every day without getting sick of them.

In addition to never failing to bring a smile to my dad's face, this vegetable has another awesome quality: It can be converted into two different dishes. I'm invariably pleased when a food serves more than one purpose in the kitchen. For example, lemons can offer juice and zest. Eggs are not just one ingredient but two — whites and yolks — which are wonderful together, but even more wonderful because they can be separated to serve completely different purposes.

A bundle of hollow heart vegetables yields two dishes: first, a dish of the sauteed leaves, and second, a spicy dish made with the stalks. The stalks can also be added to fried rice.

To prepare this vegetable, pluck the leaves off the stems, put them into a bowl, and wash them thoroughly. Then rinse the stems and slice them; since they have "hollow hearts" they become tiny rings once sliced. After they're cooked, they exhibit a crunchy, not tough, texture.

The stems of the hollow heart vegetable can be transformed into a spicy concoction that's delicious on top of rice, served alongside their leafy counterparts.

Two-Part Recipe for Hollow Heart Vegetable
Part 1: The Leaves
1 bunch of hollow heart vegetables
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp sesame oil (or regular oil, if you don't have any)
salt & pepper

1. Pick the leaves off the stems using your hands. Wash and chop the stems, and set aside for part 2. Wash the leaves thoroughly in water and drain. Heat a skillet with the oil and garlic until the garlic is fragrant. Throw in the washed and drained leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste, and cook until the leaves have just wilted. Move on to part 2.

Part 2: The Stems
1 1/2 cups chopped stems
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha or other chili sauce
dash of salt
a few turns of black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp sesame oil

Saute all ingredients together over medium-high heat for about 3-5 minutes. The stems should still be crunchy and green; don't overcook them. Serve with the stir-fried leaves with a side of rice.

June 18, 2012

On Rothko and Jello

"She told him about her Dad and the eggs.
'I made my Dad scrambled eggs one morning, yeah? When I was staying at his place for a weekend. He sleeps late, you know. And I made him breakfast when he got up, you know — good little girl. And it was like, scrambled eggs on toast, and some bacon and a tomato. Stuff like that. And a pot of tea. Glass of orange juice. All posh. And he really liked it, and then he was trying to show off that he knew about art — he's always doing this — and he said, Rothko eggs. Points at the scrambled eggs. Rothko eggs. I didn't know what he was on about. They look like a Rothko painting, he said, all pleased with himself. And then I realized that he'd gotten Rothko mixed up with Pollock!'"
—"Rothko Eggs," by Keith Ridgway
I really liked this story. You can read it on Zoetrope.

The concept that one artist's style can be reminiscent of a certain type of food is really fascinating. If I were to try to associate a Rothko painting with any kind of food, I'd probably choose layered Jello. Someone even went so far as to create these Rothko-inspired cookies. Delightful!

June 5, 2012

Our last Transit of Venus

My mother said she used to stare directly into the sun when she was younger, because she didn't know any better. I think I did, too, until some kind soul advised me against it. Sounds like a dumb thing to do, but it's only natural to be drawn to that light in the sky, isn't it? I mean, some people actually stare at the sun for a living. And they are probably all really excited about tonight's Transit of Venus, which is the last one we'll ever live to witness — the next isn't until 2117.

Strange to imagine that babies born next week won't grow up to see even one, while most of us lived through two (the last one was in 2004). But they will still be lucky enough to read Shirley Hazzard's wonderful novel by the same name: The Transit of Venus.

“Once we were walking in Florence,” she recalls. “And there was a red coat in a shop window—I had already cast an eye on it. Francis stopped me and he said, ‘Just a moment! One of your heroines has a red coat, and I don’t think you’ve ever had one. I think we should go in and try that on.’” The coat was reminiscent of one Hazzard had imagined for Caroline Bell in a pivotal scene of The Transit of Venus. Steegmuller bought it for her.
--Shirley Hazzard's interview with Narrative

It's not hard to imagine that details of one's real life can pop up in one's fiction, but isn't fantastic to think that the reverse happens, too? It's like when you dream of something wonderful, and then you make it happen in real life. Sometimes it's simple — for example, you dream about a glorious ice cream sundae, and then you wake up and recreate it for breakfast. Easy peasy. Writing a novel like The Transit of Venus and then having your husband buy Caroline Bell's red coat for you on the streets of Florence? Well, that's a whole other level of accomplishment.

May 7, 2012

When life gives you canker sores...make grass jelly.

I'm finally reading A Game of Thrones, and it's proving to be a treat in more ways than one. Amid all the drama and action-packed lines, it's been fun to take note of what meals George R. R. Martin is cooking up for his characters. And, from the Game of Thrones food truck to the "unofficial" cookbook, to the official cookbook, I'm definitely not the only one who enjoys making this connection.

So far, I've noted that George R. R. Martin really enjoys feeding honey to his characters. Milk and honey, honeyed wine, and honeycombs are among the edibles mentioned:
"Wine no longer agrees with my digestion, I fear, but I can offer you a cup of iced milk, sweetened with honey. I find it most refreshing in this heat."
"They ate suckling pig that night, and pigeon pie, and turnips soaking in butter, and afterward the cook had promised honeycombs."
"Her supper was a simple meal of fruit and cheese and fry bread, with a jug of honeyed wine to wash it down."
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1), George R. R. Martin

A cup of iced milk sweetened with honey sounds pretty scrumptious, this coming from a lactose-intolerant girl, mind you. People in Taiwan know how to deal with humidity. Summers there are incredibly hot — all the more reason to eat shaved ice and bowls upon bowls of cold grass jelly and chilled mung bean soup

It isn't getting hot in New York just yet, but in the past week, I've come down with a sore throat in addition to several canker sores. In Chinese medicine — and I'm probably butchering this — they say that certain foods are "cold" while others are "hot" (or "yin" and "yang," respectively). An excess of either leads to problems in the body.

For instance, when you have canker sores/mouth ulcers, you're supposed to eat "cool" foods. Thankfully, grass jelly (仙草) and mung beans and two foods that fall into that category. I love it when good food just happens to serve as good therapy, too.

In case you're not familiar with grass jelly, it's like Jello's Asian brother (or sister), but black, unsweetened, and in a can. It has a mild, herbal taste that I find really appealing.

Preparation couldn't be easier. Just bust the can open, break it up into chunks with a spoon or knife, and mix it with some sugar. Or serve it Game of Thrones style, with honey. The other day, I mixed it with some sliced strawberries to arrive at a delicious red and black combination. Perhaps a suitable snack to eat while reading The Red and the Black? Oh, the possibilities.

April 24, 2012

Singapore Noodles for Sartre

Rice vermicelli noodles always remind me of Singapore-style noodles, a Hong-Kong-style dish and my mother's go-to dish to bring for potlucks. So when I came across a package of them in the market the other day, I thought I'd try making this dish on my own for the first time.

Interpretations of Singapore-style noodles can vary depending on the Chinese restaurant, but if you order it, you can usually expect to get a steaming plate of curry-flavored rice vermicelli studded with some chunks of eggs, onions, and shrimp.

I added cabbage to my version tonight, which was an excellent decision, if I do say so myself. Anyone else who has been privy to my cooking can attest to my love for cabbage, and it looks like Jean-Paul Sartre and I have that in common...
"But Sartre enjoyed eating. His favorite food was the rich Alsatian cuisine his mother had cooked in his childhood--cabbage, pork, and all kinds of sausages filled with fat. He hated vegetables and fruit. He loved cakes, chocolate, and sugar-drenched desserts. And he never touched lobsters, oysters, or any kind of shellfish."
Tete a Tete, Hazel Rowley
I share Sartre's love of cabbage, sausage, and sugary desserts. But unlike Sartre, I also love shellfish, fruit, and vegetables. Whether or not that means I love too many kinds of food for my own good is a conversation for another time...

Singapore Noodles, Sartre-Style
4 eggs, beaten
3/4 large yellow or white onion, sliced
1 cup cabbage, shredded
1 tomato, cut into wedges
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp curry powder (more or less)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
7 oz. rice vermicelli (cooked 1 min in boiling water, then drained and set aside)
1/2 cup suan cai (Chinese pickled vegetables) or kimchi, as topping/garnish

Scramble the eggs over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. When the eggs are almost set, remove them from the pan and set aside in a bowl. Return pan to heat and saute the onions, cabbage, tomato, and garlic over medium-high heat until the cabbage is softened. Return the eggs to the pan and add in the curry powder, soy sauce, and shrimp.

Once the shrimp begin to turn the slightest shade of pink, add in the rice vermicelli and saute until everything is well distributed and the shrimp are completely cooked. Taste and keep adjusting seasonings if necessary. Serve with a sprinkling of suan cai or kimchi on top (trust me, it's a delicious addition, and adds some nice crunch and tangy/sour contrast).

April 22, 2012

Anthologies and lazy day food

I recently bought the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, mainly because the first sentence contained breakfast food in it: "In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top." It was only later that I realized that this was the beginning of a story by Dagoberto Gilb, the author of The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna, a book I had read and disliked in college. I guess that's the fantastic thing about short story anthologies: You might discover new writers to follow, but you might also change your opinion of a writer, based on a taste of his or her other work.

Anthologies are ideal for readers who are too lazy to do research to find out about new writers they may or may not like. It's probably one of the fastest ways to discover new writers that otherwise might never have come across your radar. Sometimes this backfires, of course. I once read a short story by Kate Walbert in a collection, and liked it, only to be disappointed by the novel inspired by that same short story, The Gardens of Kyoto

But more often than not, you get lucky and discover writers who remind you of other writers you love.
"He wanted to work, to work well, to be a good hand, long before he was capable. By the time he became more or less capable of work, he had become capable also of laziness. Because he knew about work, he knew about laziness. Though he could not always resist the temptation to be lazy, he knew that laziness was what it was, and he was embarrassed by it even as he indulged in it."
—"Nothing Living Lives Alone," by Wendell Berry
This passage made me think of a mix of Hemingway and Steinbeck. The part I especially liked was the end of the passage: "...he was embarrassed by it even as he indulged in it." 

When it comes to farming, laziness might be something to feel embarrassed about, but I think that is definitely not the case in cooking. As long as the results are delicious, the method doesn't matter. There is no A for effort, only for tastiness. When you're feeling lazy (but not quite lazy enough to order delivery), one of the best options is fried rice. All you need is a bit of leftover rice, and a smattering of random ingredients. That, plus eggs and scallions are the three key ingredients. Then you can build off that foundation and add in whatever else you want: imitation crab and lettuce happened to be in my fridge tonight. 

Tip: Make sure you don't add the rice before the eggs have solidified; I've made the horrible mistake of throwing the rice in while the eggs were still runny. You end up with rice kernels that are coated in egg, rather than delicious chunks of fluffy scrambled eggs, which is what I much prefer.

Lazy Day Fried Rice
1-2 eggs, beaten
2 scallions, sliced
3/4 cup shredded cabbage
1/4 lb imitation crab
~1 cup leftover cooked rice (break up the clumps with your fingers or a fork)
salt (or soy sauce) and pepper, to taste

Scramble the eggs in a large saucepan until almost cooked. Add in the scallions, imitation crab, and whatever other ingredients you want, and stir fry for a bit. Add in the rice and break up any remaining clumps. Smash the rice and incorporate it with seasonings over high heat for a few minutes. Serve immediately (preferably with some Sriracha sauce!).

April 3, 2012

C-king Chewy Cookies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single day in possession of a crummy mood must be in want of a good cookie. Today, I wanted a gigantic cookie, the kind that's really chewy (almost to the point of doughy) in the middle.

The great thing about baking is that you know you're being productive in positive way that will make somebody happy (even if it's just you) — something that's unfortunately not true of a typical lackluster workday. It may be stupid, but baking these awesome cookies makes me feel like I at least accomplished something today.

The cookies ended up tasting quite similar to the brown sugar cookies from Magnolia Bakery, except theirs are tiny (meaning they have fewer soft, doughy parts and more edges). Make these cookies right now, and you shan't be disappointed. (Image below depicts a cookie split in half, to show a cross-section that betrays those deliciously chewy innards.)

Chewy Chocolate Chipless Cookies, aka Brown Sugar Cookies
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 325 °F. Fold the butter with the sugars and vanilla extract until smooth. Then incorporate the egg and egg yolk and mix well. Add in the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon and stir until combined.

Line a cookie sheet with foil and distribute the dough into 1/4 cup-size balls (for large cookies). You should be able to yield 12 to 16 large cookies. Make sure to leave a few inches between every two cookies, since they'll spread out quite a bit.

Bake for exactly 13 minutes and remove from the hot cookie sheet to let cool. Serve with ice cream if it's been an extra crummy day.

April 1, 2012

April Fools', pasta rules!

Ah, April...the first full month of spring. Unfortunately, things were somewhat cloudy here in New York, but no matter. Rain or shine, no one can deny that April is a captivating time of year. There's a reason that it serves as the time span of The Enchanted April, a novel about four strangers who rent a castle together for a month, seeking a romantic respite from everything they find unsatisfactory about their routine lives. What an odd notion, but also quite delightful to fantasize about.
It was very well cooked, but Mrs. Fisher had never cared for macaroni, especially not this long worm-shaped variety. She found it difficult to eat — slippery, wriggling off her fork, making her look, she felt, undignified when, having got it as she supposed into her mouth, ends of it yet hung out. Always, too, when she ate it she was reminded of Mr. Fisher.  He had during their married life behaved very much like macaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out.
The Enchanted April, Elizabeth Von Arnim
What a strange creature this Mrs. Fisher is...macaroni is one of the best pasta shapes, ever. When it comes to pasta, I'm pretty loyal to macaroni and spaghetti. Every now and then I opt for penne or rigatoni. As cute as they are, I've never cared for bow ties, and definitely would never willingly buy or cook orzo.

The appeal of pasta is that it's so easy for it to become a meal, as long as you add some kind of protein and some kind of vegetable. And when it comes to protein, how much simpler can you get than sardines out of a can? I'm a fan of canned sardines, and they're a great source of calcium since you're eating the tender bones of the fish. That said, they probably get a bad rap because some brands are definitely better than others. If you're going to buy cheap sardines, opt for one that's packed in tomato sauce, not flavorless oil or water. (Side note: The cheap sardines in tomato sauce, in the cylindrical cans, are incredibly delicious mixed with some skinny somen noodles and a dab of sesame oil...a kind of Asian twist on the following dish.) If money is no object, I would go with Bela Olhao every time, for its smoky flavor.

Quick Pasta With Peppers and Sardines
1/4 lb spaghetti, cooked al dente
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 tin smoked sardines, packed in olive oil
1 (or 2!) egg(s)

Drain some of the olive oil from the sardine can into a large saucepan, and discard the rest of the oil or save for other purposes. Saute the red bell pepper with the drained sardines, and add the egg(s); when the egg begins to solidify, toss in the pasta and serve immediately.

March 8, 2012

Oil is a butterless baker's best friend

Tonight, I had the pleasure of discovering that it is possible to bake cookies that are both chewy and delicious, even if you have nary an ounce of butter in the house.

I'll always remember an episode of Paula Deen where she confesses that she feels nervous whenever she has less than a pound of butter in the fridge. So funny. That's exactly how my sister and I feel about eggs — when the carton dwindles down to the last two or three, we get a little uneasy.

It's good to have a few go-to recipes when you're out of staples. Out of flour? You could whip up a flourless chocolate cake or some peanut butter cookies. Out of eggs? Make this eggless carrot cake. Out of butter, but craving cookies? I used to turn to these no-butter snickerdoodles, but as of now, I have another I-can't-believe-it's-not-butter favorite.

I love those snickerdoodles to death, but they're so crunchy that I always thought that it was simply impossible to achieve a truly chewy texture in cookies made with oil rather than butter.

As of one hour ago, I'm happy to report that I was wrong. Not only are these cookies chewy, but they're also delicious. I even added some fresh cracked black pepper and a dash of nutmeg to the recipe to spice things up, literally. They are just as good, if not better, than those giant ginger cookies I can't resist buying at the Union Square Greenmarket every weekend. Those babies may be huge, but they cost $3.00 apiece! Pretty steep, if you ask me. This recipe makes about 20 mid-sized cookies, and you can whip them up in about 30 minutes tops, from start to finish(ed-in-your-mouth). Not a bad use of time if you're a cookie monster like me. Recipe follows...but first, a bit of "cookie" (or if you prefer British speak, "biscuit") lit:
"Got any grub?"
Before I could answer she plunged her free hand into my pockets, first left, then right, and triumphantly retrieved the chocolate biscuits. "My favorites. Come on. Let's dump your coat and you can start in the kitchen. I hope you're not a whiner."
--The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey
Ooh, I'd be so mad at that girl for taking my chocolate biscuits. What kind of person does that?

Chewy No-Butter Ginger Cookies
2/3 c. canola oil (a little less is better)
1/2 c. brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/4 c. molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 dash nutmeg
a few turns of black pepper
1/3 cup granulated sugar, for rolling

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with tin foil. Mix all ingredients until well combined, and roll into 1.5 inch balls. Roll each ball in the sugar and place on the baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Flatten each cookie slightly with the palm of your hand. This recipe makes about 2 dozen cookies. Bake for 9 or 10 minutes, if you want them to be chewy. Remember, it's better to underbake than overbake.

March 7, 2012

Cheddar Bay & Tina Fey

You know what I love? The free goodies that restaurants sometimes provide to whet your appetite as you think about what to order. Sometimes you'll be lucky enough to get something that beats the pants off your average bread basket...and in my opinion, you can't get much better than the Cheddar Bay biscuits from Red Lobster. The brown bread at Cheesecake Factory and Marie Callender's cornbread come close.
"There is no one of-woman-born who does not like Red Lobster cheddar biscuits. Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar and a Socialist."
Bossypants, Tina Fey
True that, Tina. Sadly, I'm pretty sure no one takes me seriously when I tell them I wish to someday dine at The Red Lobster in Times Square. Perhaps most people over the age of 12 simply find it too mortifying to dine at an establishment with a gigantic revolving red lobster right above the entrance.

Alas, until I can finagle someone into accompanying me to an actual RL, I guess Bisquick's cheddar garlic biscuit mix will have to do. They really are quite successful at approximating the real deal; I used to make them in college all the time. Just add water! I think Tina Fey would approve.

March 5, 2012

Bookworms can be shallow, too.

Reading is generally accepted as an intellectual and productive way to pass one's time, but those of us who do quite a bit of reading know that this isn't always the case. It can certainly be a wonderfully self-indulgent, epicurean pursuit...for why else would we do it as often as we do? I exploited this misconception when I was younger, when my parents were always more than happy to let me spend hours reading on the couch — even if I was just catching up with Elizabeth and Jessica of Sweet Valley High. On trips to the library, my dad let me load the bag up with whatever I wanted, whether it was R.L. Stine or Charles Dickens. Who cared? As long as it was a book. 

Now, I appreciate creative, literary genius as much as the next English major, but I have to admit that I can be very shallow about books, at least before I get to know them. I like to judge them by their covers, the font, the thickness of their pages, and sometimes even how they smell. I also find myself drawn to such trivial details as how many times the author mentions a favorite food of mine. The following two excerpts are taken from books that were average reads. And yet, the fact that they mentioned eggs somehow helped raise them in my eyes by, oh, half a star on a rating scale of 1 to 5. What can I say? Taste in books is very subjective.
"There," he said, handing it to Philip, "You can eat my top if you like."
Philip would have liked an egg to himself, but he was not offered one, so took what he could.
--Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham

When they got into the flat, Dud said he was so hungry he could eat the rocking horse — he began, indeed, to gnaw on it — and then suddenly everyone was starving, and Iris and Joyce were making toast and frying eggs in the kitchen: extraordinary eggs, which no sooner broke and were in the pan than they were cooked, so that even when they were dishing them up and handing them out (Joyce still with her cat gloves on) the girls were calling everyone to come and look at the extraordinary eggs that cooked in an instant. The eggs, taken into the lounge and eaten with salt and dry toast, seemed delicious.
--Everything Will Be All Right, Tessa Hadley

January 29, 2012

4-Minute Microwave Nian Gao (Lunar New Year Cake)

"We all got into it, cracking walnut shells with our shoes, pulling the sweet white meat from inside while a crowd of our Chinese hosts eyed us with bemused perplexity. 'Americans,' I imagined them saying, afterward. 'The poor sons of bitches have everything in the world, but they've never tasted fresh walnuts.'"
—"Why China?," Jennifer Egan
I've never been to China, nor have I ever cracked open a walnut and eaten its meat standing up on the side of the street. Sounds pretty amazing. I wonder if Jennifer Egan has eaten walnuts in China, or if this scene came strictly out of her imagination.

Chinese New Year was last week, which awakened a craving — not for walnuts, but for New Year's cake, nian gao (年糕). It usually comes in a gigantic round wheel in shrink wrap, which can be sliced into fat chunks and then either dipped in egg and pan fried, or just reheated in the microwave. I wanted some, but not quite badly enough to make the trek to Chinatown — so I endeavored to make some in the comfort of my own kitchen.

Some avid Googling of nian gao led me to several recipes that seemed overly complicated, and most of them required 3 eggs (and, sadly, I only had one egg in the fridge tonight). Then it occurred to me that the texture and taste of a freshly steamed nian gao is very similar to freshly made mochi (sweet and incredibly sticky). Ding ding! I adapted my 5-minute microwave mochi recipe by adding some red bean paste — and I have to say, it satiated my craving for nian gao just fine. Not bad for just two ingredients + water + a microwave + 4 minutes.

4-Minute Red Bean New Year's Cake (年糕)
1/2 cup mochiko (sweet rice) flour
1/2 cup + 1 tsp water
1/3 cup sweetened red bean paste (coarse or fine)

Mix all ingredients well in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 4 minutes. Let cool and enjoy!

January 13, 2012

(Stephen) King Oyster Mushrooms

I parked in one of the slant spaces out front, went in, and ordered the Pronghorn Special, which turned out to be a double cheeseburger with barbecue sauce. It came with Mesquite Fries and a Rodeo Thickshake--your choice of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. A Pronghorn wasn't quite as good as a Fatburger, but it wasn't bad, and the fries were just the way I like them: crispy, salty, and a little overdone.
--11/22/63, Stephen King
That's the same way I like my fries! This book, in case you haven't heard, is about time travel. And according to Stephen King, down-home American classics like root beer and fries tasted infinitely better in the 1960s than they do today. 

Some things never change, though. Salt probably tasted exactly the same back then as it does now. I've been a little salt-obsessed lately. My co-worker loves salt so much that she keeps a cup of salt packets on her desk, and, well, lately I've been asking to borrow one too many of those little salt packets. Unfortunately, I think I've built up my salt tolerance to the point where I need more and more of it to taste a difference, much like an alcoholic needs more and more booze to feel a buzz.

Whoops, when did that happen? I've been trying to make up for the sins of the salt by cooking somewhat healthy ingredients. King oyster mushrooms are supposed to be one of the healthiest varieties of mushrooms...maybe even healthy enough to make up for the butter in the following recipe. I couldn't resist adding a touch of butter, and two forms of sodium: soy sauce and salt. Eating these mushrooms unseasoned would just be a shame.

Pan-Fried King Oyster Mushrooms
4 large king oyster mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp butter
1 small onion, minced
2 scallions, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp soy sauce
salt and pepper, to taste

Saute all ingredients together in a saucepan over high heat, until the mushrooms have absorbed the sauce.

January 3, 2012

wherefore art thou wittles sucky?

In the old days of 2011, I sometimes caught myself wistfully thinking that if only I had an e-reader, I could download all the classics that I normally never take with me anywhere. Now that I own this magical contraption, I'll probably still read paper books, but I am excited to use it for two types of books: old favorites and new books in hardcover that I'd be loathe to carry around. The cheapo in me has already downloaded a bunch of classics (both read and unread), and I'm looking forward to buying newer books that are, quite simply, tomes (Stephen King's new JFK book, for example).

Great Expectations is one of those books that I'd love to have with me all the time, so it was one of the first books I downloaded. Hip Pip hooray!
"You get me a file." He tilted me again. "And you get me wittles." He tilted me again. "You bring 'em both to me." He tilted me again. "Or I'll have your heart and liver out." He tilted me again.
--Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
One of the best parts about rereading classics is that you come across amusing bits of archaic language that you can later slip into your vocabulary to confound people every now and then. Wittles, apparently, are like vittles (Vs and Ws were often interchangeable in the old days), which are like victuals, otherwise known as grub. The file was not food (unlike the gumbo file my mom adds to her delicious gumbo), but rather, a metal file meant for shaving away at this prisoner's shackles.

Poor Pip scurries off to retrieve said items. For his "wittles" he selects "bread, some rind of cheese, about half a jar of mincemeat (which I tied up in my pocket-handkerchief with my last night's slice), some brandy from a stone bottle (which I decanted into a glass bottle I had secretly used for making that intoxicating fluid, Spanish-liquorice-water, up in my room: diluting the stone bottle from a jug in the kitchen cupboard), a meat bone with very little on it, and a beautiful round compact pork pie."

Whoa, there. I never noticed that part about Pip being an underage alcoholic up in his room. Poor kid. Still, other than the pork pie (which sounds acceptable), he could have done better. Hope that escaped convict didn't have very great expectations for his wittles...because they kind of sucked.