Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The cookbook dinner. Lark.

I arrived back in Seattle on Sunday night, blurred with sleep and the disorienting feeling you get when you have traveled across an ocean and many time zones, as if someone had dragged you backwards through the time-space continuum by your hair. There were packages and piles of mail waiting for me, but nothing in the kitchen except cereal and vacuum-packed shelf-stable soy milk. It would have to do. Besides, there was something to look forward to the next night. Dinner at Lark. Weeks ago I had read about Cooks & Books on someone's blog, a series of events bringing restaurants and recently published cookbooks together. I would miss Marcella Hazan's dinner (for Amarcord) at the Château St. Michelle winery, but I would arrive home just in time for the David Tanis (for A Platter of Figs) dinner at Lark. It was fate. I had to go.

David Tanis is the part-time head chef at Chez Panisse. He spends half the year in Paris, and the other half of the year in Berkeley, switching off with the other head chef (whose name I forget, but who also lives in France when not in Berkeley). I had read an article about his new cookbook in the New York Times Magazine, and was intrigued. The price of dinner included a five-course meal, a copy of the book, and the chance to meet Tanis (and other new people, as with the Whole Beast dinner, seated as you are at communal tables). This thought sustained me through a long, jet-lag fogged day at work, the walk home, and off the couch again just before dinnertime. I found myself telling everyone I met as I walked in the door that I was nearly comatose, and not to mind if I fell asleep in the soup.

At my table I was delighted to see a couple I had met at the Whole Beast dinner last April (and whose blog has guided me through several excellent culinary adventures in the months since). We had not been able to converse much then, seated at the opposite ends of the table; this was a good chance to catch up. More people joined us; it was time to begin, with a glass of sparkling wine and platters of salumi with olives, crostini with fresh ricotta and cherry tomatoes, slices of a jellied chicken terrine adorned with tiny quail eggs. (Tonight's meal is composed of recipes from the book). David talks to the room, telling us that, despite being the head chef at one of the most reknowned restaurants in the world, that what he really cares about is home cooking, and his book is about home cooking, for the home cook. (I wonder how I can get on his guest list for the dinners he hosts when he is Paris, but I am too shy to ask).

Our first course is a fried egg and red garlic soup, the egg floating in a clear broth with some greens and, apparently, slices of garlic. I discover the latter when I bite into a piece, and the sharp shock of it goes to my head like the first shot of espresso I ever drank, gulped down in some bar on the side of the autostrada in my first hour in Italy when I was fourteen years old. The jetlag disappears. Suddenly I am excited to be home, excited to be reconnecting with people I met months ago and meeting new people. Among my dining companions tonight are a man and a woman who own a café and a bar, respectively, and another couple who, as I find later, live in my old neighborhood and know the owners of Lark because their children are friends. We are of all ages and occupations and yet what we all have in common is a love for food. This is why I come to these dinners.

The second course is wild salmon with Vietnamese cucumbers and jasmine-scented rice, and it reminds me of Hanoi, a clean and modern interpretation of that beautiful old colonial city. It is followed by a third course, duck breast with poached quince, served over black kale, with a duck liver toast on the side. I hand my toast to E., because that unfortunate incident with the foie gras in Luang Prabang has not yet left me and I feel that I am still not quite up to duck liver. The duck breast is good, though now room temperature instead of being hot or at least warm. Considering the dining room is completely full and each dish has to be ready and served more or less at the same time, this does not surprise me. It is lovely all the same.

Before the last course, I work up the nerve to take my copy of the book over to David for an autograph, which he readily gives. (Earlier, one of my dining companions insisted that I should have my picture taken with him, which he kindly allows). I come back triumphant, and eat the last course in a happy daze. A white slice of chêvre is sweetened with acacia honey and served with roasted nuts and homemade crackers. They are all delicious. I resolve to eat cheese and honey with nuts more often, which probably won't happen unless I have them here. Dinner is at an end, and little waxed-paper envelopes in which Lark hands out their checks appear all over the room. I pay my bill, and say my goodnights. Best cure for jetlag ever! I tell everyone. It is cold outside after the heat and humidity of Laos and Vietnam, the slightly cooler and yet still rather warm days in Taipei and Shanghai, but I am glad to be home at last.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Laos, days 1-2.

We flew into Vientiane after a few hours spent in the Hanoi airport, curiously small for an international airport, with a restaurant upstairs serving sandwiches and burgers and bowls of steaming pho to travelers on their way to or from exotic destinations. By the time we reach Laos it is late afternoon, still light enough to see the endless stretches of rice paddies and clumps of trees criss-crossed with roads and rivers stretched away beneath us as the plane nears our destination. A van and driver are waiting, my mother's name on a placard as arranged, and shortly we find ourselves at a beautiful colonial-era hotel, shaded with palms and decorated in dark woods against white walls. We have an uninteresting dinner in the nearly empty dining room, take a walk around the grounds of the hotel. It is hot and humid, even after night falls, and I worry about the rest of the trip.

The next day we hire a car and driver to explore the city and points beyond. We find ourselves at a park filled with Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, huge, beyond life-size figures of various deities and animals in a grassy expanse dominated by a giant reclining figure of Buddha. We head to lunch at an open pavilion of a restaurant overlooking a courtyard at the rear. It is nearly empty; we are the only foreigners there. We order barbecued duck and beef tongue and some green vegetables, and sticky rice that comes in a lidded woven bamboo basket. It is all unfamiliar and a little strange, and I hope I will come to understand more about Lao cuisine over the next several days.

But first there is dinner, and we find ourselves at a tiny little French restaurant a short drive from the hotel. A genial Frenchman greets us from behind the bar and takes us up a steep staircase to another narrow dining room, decorated in dark woods and local fabrics (and red roses in little vases). We order, cream of celery soup and duck breast for me, duck confit salad and brains for my father, eggplant layered with goat cheese and fish for my mother. The cooking is simple and refined, much better than the dinner at our hotel the night before, certainly equal to most meals I have eaten in French restaurants back in the United States. We finish our meal with a chocolate créme brûlée and a shockingly rich chocolate mouse (more like a pot de crême), and walk down to the river before heading back. A sort of carnival is happening along the river, with stalls of trinkets and clothes and snacks and music, a river of people, local and tourists alike.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Taipei, days 2-3.

I woke up very late, nearly lunchtime, to find my mom rushing out the door and a leftover zhong zhi waiting for me. Zhong zhi are triangular bundles of glutinous sticky rice filled with all sorts of ingredients, wrapped in giant bamboo leaves and then steamed. They are the perfect quick meal, because you can buy them frozen and zap them in the microwave. In Taiwan, they can be bought from street vendors, piping hot and ready to eat. There are many variations - in Hong Kong they are filled with salted egg yolks; Shanghainese-style ones are filled with red-braised pork belly, and the rice has been seasoned with soy sauce; Taiwanese-style ones have peanuts. There are sweet ones filled with red bean paste and lotus seeds, but my favorite ones are filled with pork belly. This one has pork belly and peanuts; speckles of black rice are mixed in amongst the usual sticky rice, giving it a more interesting texture and flavor than the plain kind. Because glutinous rice is so filling, one zhong zhi is enough for a simple meal. It is one of those childhood dishes, comforting as a warm blanket on a cold morning.

The next morning brings another childhood memory with it, a breakfast of fried crullers sandwiched between two layers of sesame-encrusted biscuit, with a styrofoam container of hot fresh soy milk on the side. When I was a child I would drink my hot soy milk sweetened; now I drink it savory. It is spiked with pickled radishes and finely sliced scallions, and slightly curdled, salty and almost sharp from the pickles. The crullers are long sticks of fried dough, crisp and golden outside, airy inside. You can eat them as is, or wrap them in sesame biscuits, flaky rectangles of dough sprinkled liberally with white sesame seeds (they make wonderful sandwiches when stuffed with slices of cold beef). They are a standard breakfast, these biscuit-wrapped fried crullers and hot soy milk, as common as pancakes and bacon on a weekend morning, found anywhere from roadside stands with their low tables and stools to hotel restaurants.

For dinner, we have jiao zhi, boiled dumplings filled with pork and cabbage. (At least I think it is pork and vegetables, given that I can't read the package). They are the ultimate fast dinner, easy to keep on hand in the freezer, easy to boil up in a moment, served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and a slosh of sesame oil. (You could add minced garlic, hot sauce, dark Chinkiang vinegar, or finely sliced scallions, but we have none of these on hand). I have made these by the dozens in our kitchen (instructed by an old friend of my parents who is from Beijing); I have eaten them on street corners, purchased for $3NT each, ten dumplings making a fine dinner for what was then about $1. Now they cost $5NT each, only the slightest increase over a decade. A simple dinner, the night before we leave for Laos; the fridge is cleared of leftovers, our suitcases are packed. And it's time for our vacation to begin.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Taipei, day 1.

I slept nearly the entire flight from Seattle to Taipei, despite a seat that did not recline very far, a seat-mate who tried (unsuccessfully) to climb over me on her way to the bathroom (apparently the foot-rest proved to be an impassable barrier), the lack of an eye-mask, and flight attendants who kept asking me if I wanted food. I woke up in time to watch a movie and eat a breakfast of indifferent congee before we arrived at some brutally early hour, to be met by my uncle's driver who whisked me to my parents' apartment, where they were still asleep but came groggily downstairs to greet me before going back to bed. Left alone I discovered a) a stash of instant coffee and b) the wireless internet signal now extends to the downstairs, and my father helpfully left one of his laptops down here. Finally, my parents got up, and the morning passed before I realized I was hungry, and it was time for lunch.

Just about every visit to Taipei begins with lunch at Ding Tai Fong. On weekends there is always a long line to get in, with a mix of locals and Japanese or Hong Kong tourists. Sometimes there are tour groups led by flag-waving guides, trooping in for xiao lung bao and other kinds of steamed buns. Headset-wearing, uniform-clad waitresses scurry about, promising a wait of 15 minutes. They always tell you fifteen minutes, to give you hope. And then they dash it by saying, ten or fifteen minutes more, so it stretches to half an hour, or forty minutes. This pisses my mom off, who tells the waitress in no uncertain terms that their "fifteen minutes" is total bullshit. (Which she says in polite terms). At last, we are seated, and our order taken. A tray of cold dishes comes around, and we choose a small plate of marinated cucumbers and another of dried tofu with some kind of pickled vegetables I cannot identify.

Soon, a bamboo steamer tray of vegetable buns comes along, which we dip into saucers of finely julienned ginger and vinegar. Some kind of leafy green (I never see these in the States, so I don't know what they're called) sautéed with garlic arrives, as does another steamer tray of xiao lung bao. These are my favorite, tiny round buns of pork that burst with pork broth as you eat them (which is why you are supposed to hold them over a spoon as you eat them, to catch the soup). I could eat a whole tray, but console myself with five or six while my parents are otherwise occupied. A bowl of beef soup noodles arrives, thin white noodles in a clear broth with slices of beef and scallions. My first meal of the trip.

Several hours later I am hauled out of bed, where I had been dozing comfortably, to go out to dinner. Those hours of fractured sleep on the plane notwithstanding, I feel like I have been dragged backwards through the time-space continuum by my hair, and am nearly comatose. A late dinner at a hot-pot restaurant is the last thing I want. But my cousins are here, and I see them rarely - one I saw briefly last year, the other some years ago - so here I am. We are all late. My mother is in charge of ordering, and a succession of things arrive: a tiny appetizer of tofu and some unidentifiable green (there will be many unidentifiable things on this trip), and then tray after tray of vegetables, tofu, seafood, and meat is brought to the table and lowered into a pot of boiling broth.

Each item is taken from the broth as it cooks, and then dipped into one of two sauces (one spicy, the other tangy and full of scallions) before eating. There are shrimps and scallops and crab legs, meatballs and fishballs and mushrooms. Slices of fatty pork - almost like bacon - and well-marbled beef. I feel my appetite returning, and eat a little of everything, until all the platters have been emptied of their contents, all the plates are bare. The waitress stirs cooked rice into the remaining broth - flavored with all the ingredients that have been dipped into its boiling depths - and makes congee, which is ladled into bowls and passed around. My parents talk about how, back when they were young, people cooked noodles at the end of a hot-pot meal, but in the past few years, the fashion has turned to congee. I wonder why, but I am too tired to come up with anything logical. It's time to go home, and sleep.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Adventures abroad.

I will be traveling around Asia for the next three weeks. Posting will be spotty, if not nonexistent, until I return. See you all soon!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dinner for two. Quinn's Pub.

All week long I have been thinking about my upcoming trip - three weeks in Taiwan, Laos, and Vietnam. I have been worrying about a lot of things - work left undone, my apartment all a mess, what will I pack, and how am I going to choose which books to bring - but most of all, I have been thinking about what my last dinner will be before I leave. I think it will have to be a cheeseburger at Quinn's Pub. I will be going for more than three weeks without Western food, or at least trying to (although being former French colonies, the French food will probably be quite good in Laos and Vietnam), and in my book that is a long time to go without a cheeseburger. By the time I leave work it is still a bit early for dinner, but I grab C. and we head off in the rain. Only a few tables are occupied when we get there, and I only give the menu a cursory glance because I have been thinking about their cheeseburger all day.

Unfortunately, our server throws a spanner into the works by coming to the table and describing the evening's specials: a beet salad, and braised pork cheeks. Uh-oh. I love braised pork cheeks. I always order them (or beef cheeks) whenever they appear on the menu. But I had been thinking about the cheeseburger all day, if not all week. If I order one, I will regret that I didn't order the other. It will haunt me for the three weeks of my vacation, until I come back. C. rescues me from this dilemma: we will order the pork cheeks and the cheeseburger, and split the two. Perfect. I am glad I came here with someone, instead of alone, because it would have been impossible to choose.

Soon, our food arrives, and we are occupied with dividing things and passing plates back and forth. The pork cheeks are served with mushrooms and sliced Brussels sprouts on a pool of pumpkin puree, with a scattering of roasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top. The meat is tender but firm, rich and savory against the sweetness of pumpkin. I mop up a bit of the sauce with every bite of meat, and it is so good I could lick the bowl clean. Only after every scrap of the pork cheeks has been eaten, do I turn my attention to the cheeseburger. Still pink and juicy in the middle, layered with bacon and cheese in a soft pretzel bun, it is everything I had imagined, the perfect send-off before I head home to finish packing and get ready for my vacation. I eat a few fries - they have wonderful French fries here - and think about all the things I will be eating in the next few weeks. I'm ready for bowls of steaming noodles, of xiao lung bao and zhong zhi and hot pot and all manner of strange and wonderful things.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pasta two ways. sausages and market vegetables.

Last Friday at the market I came home laden with all kinds of greens, chard and kale and beet and escarole. There were shallots and carrots and onions and two fat beefsteak tomatoes. What on earth was I going to do with them all? The kale we ate that night, sautéed with shallots and finely sliced guanciale and tossed with orecchiette and a handful of grana padano cheese. I reflected that pasta was the perfect lazy cook's one-dish dinner, stuffed with vegetables and a little meat and some cheese. It has everything you need. If you are feeding other people, you might add a salad and a loaf of garlic bread, something chocolate and gooey for dessert. (Or you could go all the way and make it a first course, after a series of cold appetizers, before seafood and meat main dishes, the way A. often does). If you are alone, or with someone else who doesn't mind the lack of garlic bread and salad, then it becomes dinner, followed by brownies or Girl Scout cookies from the freezer.

Last night I made pasta with escarole and sausage for C., who had requested it. It was one of those dishes I threw together on the spur of the moment and has since become a staple, with various refinements and variations. It is never quite the same each time. The escarole was sliced and gently sautéed in a little olive oil, and then braised in chicken stock. I finely chopped some onion and thickly sliced some cremini mushrooms, and sautéed them in more olive oil. Out came the vegetables, in went spicy Italian sausage, enough for two meals. Half of the cooked sausage went into the fridge, for another experiment, and the rest was left to simmer with the escarole, mushrooms, and onions, while the pasta finished boiling away on another burner. When the timer rang, I scooped the rigatoni into the meat and vegetables, and tossed it all together, with a handful of grated cheese and a sprinkling of salt. It was very good, but my mind was already on what I would make with the rest of the sausage, the second half of the onion.

Today I went about my work with one idea fixed firmly in my mind: a ragu of spicy sausage and sautéed onions and those two fat beefsteak tomatoes that I had inadvertently left at work the other day. I came home hungry and determined; it took no time at all to sauté the chopped onions in olive oil, until they were translucent, while I diced the fresh tomatoes and dropped them in with the onions. Soon, the tomatoes had cooked down into a slushy sauce. I stirred in the cold leftover sausage, left it all to simmer, and went back to packing for my trip. The apartment filled with the scent of tomatoes and sausage and fried onions. I went up to the gym to pedal away furiously (well, ok, not very furiously) on the stationary bicycle while watching the Food Network, and came back down ready for my dinner. I boiled penne and brought the sauce back to a simmer, poured the drained, cooked pasta into the meaty ragu. With a handful of grated cheese on top, it was perfect.