Sunday, December 27, 2009

Baking bread. focaccia.

I'm not sure when it started, a year ago, perhaps, but I began baking bread like someone possessed after reading about the phenomenon of no-knead bread. You mixed together flour, water, salt, and a tiny bit of yeast, left it to rise slowly, overnight, then baked it in a preheated cast-iron pot (or any covered casserole - Pyrex worked exceptionally well). It looked more or less like one of those crusty artisanal loaves that came in brown paper bags and tasted like heaven, especially when eaten warm, spread with sweet butter, perhaps a little jam. I tried variations, adding whole-wheat flour, which gave the bread a somewhat loofah-like texture, and walnuts, which stained my irregularly rounded loaf with purple streaks. Eventually, I got bored, and returned to buying my bread at the market.

A longing for fresh bread brought me back to the table, so to speak, and with it a couple of new books on bread baking. A chance mention of a quest for the focaccia on Twitter the other day gave me a new mission. It took no time at all to measure out ingredients, dump them all in the stand mixer, then walk away. From the next room I could hear a steady thwack-thwack-thwack; when the dough began to come together smoothly the sound became a rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk. I tried kneading it with hands slick with olive oil; the dough still stuck wherever I touched it. I washed my hands, leaving them dripping with water, and tried again; this time the dough behaved as I lifted and folded it over again. Eventually I had a large ball of smooth, almost silky, soft dough. It was springy and cool beneath my fingers, and I put it away in the fridge with some regret. Morning would come soon enough.

In the morning I divided the dough into thirds, or rather, I took off a third of the dough and spread it in a Pyrex pie plate. The recipe suggests that you could use about 8 oz of dough in an 8-inch pan or 12 oz of dough in a 9-inch pan; what I had was a 9.5-inch pie plate. Good enough. I stretched the dough out with my fingertips, and left it to rise while I went out for a movie. By the time I got back, three hours later, the dough had become puffier, filling the pan, smoothing out the dimples my fingertips had left in the soft, white dough. I added more olive oil, sprinkled on sea salts flavored with Niçoise olives and rosemary and lavender. Slid it all into the screaming-hot (500˚) oven, resisted the urge to cross myself and pray.

As so often happens (my oven runs a little hot), the bread was done before the timer buzzed. Oh well. It was a bit too salty; I had been overly generous with the seasoning salt. Oh well. Here was good, fresh, hot bread - soft and fluffy, with an airy, light crumb, just enough chew to the crust, slicked with olive oil and fragrant with the herb salts. I ate one wedge, then another, then another; before I knew it, the entire loaf was gone. (In my defense, I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, nor lunch). I sat with my empty plate next to me, and reflected that homemade bread is always better than anything you can find in the store, or at least as good as anything you can buy, by virtue of its freshness, its warmth, the knowledge that you made it yourself.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pork and cabbage.

I was thinking aloud in the car, driving home from a party the other night, wondering what to do with extra ingredients rattling around in the fridge. I should have known that M. would know what to do with a pound of ground pork and a head of Napa cabbage. I had been thinking meatballs, ants-on-a-log, or noodles stir-fried with the pork and cabbage and perhaps some scallions, the day before when I wandered through the aisles of the supermarket. M. had another idea, a layered concoction of cabbage and sausage, baked in a covered dish, something from the Irish food writer Tamasin Day-Lewis. He sent me a link to the recipe, found on another blog. Called "Stuffed Cabbage in the Troo Style," it seemed promising, and I filed it away in my mind.

A few days passed. I ate leftovers as the Napa cabbage reproached me from the refrigerator shelves, like the skull of Hamlet's father. The pound of ground pork gleamed beneath tightly-stretched plastic wrap. I went back to the recipe, noted that there were two versions: the original, and the modified version. The recipe called for sausage; I had none, only plain ground pork. Modified, it called for fresh herbs; it was cold and gray out and I was too lazy to go to the tiny herb garden in my building's courtyard. (Efforts to grow herbs on my windowsill have all failed). I would turn to my Chinese upbringing, using the seasonings of my childhood and treating the dish like a giant dumpling filling.

The ground pork (Kurobota, from Uwajimaya) went into a bowl with a bunch of scallions (chopped finely), a couple glugs of soy sauce, grated ginger, some rice wine, freshly ground black pepper, 5-spice powder, and a dash of sesame oil. The cabbage was sliced up and tossed with Kosher salt, then left to drain in a colander, to draw out some of the moisture before cooking. (The original recipe calls for blanching the cabbage first, but it seemed unnecessary to me, and the blog writer agreed). I layered it in a small 1 3/4 quart Le Creuset pot, pressing firmly down on the layers of cabbage and seasoned pork (actually, it was kind of fun) to fit it all in. The tight-fitting, heavy lid made baking (parchment, I assume) paper superfluous, and the rich Kurobota pork eliminated the need for any extra butter.

After an hour in the oven, I could smell the seasoned pork and cabbage cooking slowly away. The shredded cabbage had melted into the pork, the entire thing shrinking slightly away from the edges of the pot. It looked like a huge meatball oozing with its own juices. I sliced off a big wedge and eased it onto a bed of rice, adding some of the sauce; it was soft and lush, comforting, savory, like a plate of dumpling filling without any dough wrappers getting in the way. I finished my serving, then another; wished I had someone to share it with. I'll make it again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Conundrum.

I have been baking chocolate chip cookies since I was old enough to read the back of the Nestlé Chocolate Chip package, or at least old enough to don a pair of oven mitts and gingerly pull a hot tray of cookies out of the oven. As time passed I got better at measuring ingredients, beating butter with sugar until light and fluffy, forming neat balls of dough (ok, they were irregular blobs) with two spoons. Much later I switched to dark chocolate chips; later still, I started using bars of bittersweet chocolate, hacked into little chunks by hand. I learned that this was most easily accomplished with a serrated bread knife; I learned that you wanted the butter to be warmer than fridge-cold but not room-temperature-soft, that I liked a higher proportion of brown sugar to white.

My favorite chocolate chip cookie is the one I make all the time, now, from Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe. I make it with bittersweet chocolate chunks and measure the dough with an ice-cream scoop, and they come out (if I've scooped correctly and left enough space between the mounds of dough) nearly perfectly round. They are thin and chewy, caramelized around the edges, still soft in the very center. I bake them often, or sometimes just make a batch of dough to divide up and freeze, so I can have a few warm, freshly baked cookies whenever I want. They don't often last long. I am always seeing new recipes to try, recipes that call for browned butter or disks of chocolate or chilling the dough for 24 hours in the fridge, recipes that promise the perfect ratio of crisp-chewy-soft. Somehow I always come back to the same one, though, my thin, chewy golden cookie.

Then I have friends who spend days, weeks, perfecting their own recipes. They play with the balance of sugars, of leavenings, of flours. Baking times and mixing methods. They take time to note every subtle change, every difference, marked in terms of two tablespoons more or less of one thing or another. L. brings us two examples, one that resembles the kind I make myself, all crisp-chewiness and caramelized sugar, and one that is more perfect-looking, thicker and more evenly baked, round and smooth, the magazine-cover cookie. I prefer the other one. "But it's ugly!" my friend wails. "I don't care!" I yelp back. Ah, this is the crux of the matter. Ugly is good. Ugly says handmade, with love. It is childhood, small hands scooping dough with a pair of teaspoons, dropping bits on the floor and on the counter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Rachel Dinner.

R. has a list of food she hates - beef tendon, pâté, tongue, and stinky cheese of any kind. Her friends decided to throw a dinner in her honor, with all those items on the menu. Isn't it wonderful to be loved? A menu evolved - red-braised Taiwanese beef noodle soup with soft tendon, beef-tongue tacos, and a blue-cheese cheesecake. There was fresh guacamole and sesame scallion bread, to provide backup in case R. couldn't actually manage to eat any of the food we had so lovingly prepared. I brought a frozen peanut-butter-and-bacon pie, because another friend, L., hates peanut butter the way vampires hate the sun. (The Bela Lugosi kind of vampire, not the Edward Cullen kind, although R. does sparkle, with her love of glittery things).

The party slowly pulls itself together as people arrive bearing food. R. clutches a box of Cheez-Its - her contribution, along with several bottles of wine - and perches nervously on a stool. L. arrives and unwraps two kinds of pâté and a beautifully packed cheese that has a piercing smell not unlike ammonia. I should probably admit that I grew up with a healthy fear of smelly cheese, with a deep loathing for blue cheese in particular. It was not until recently that I managed to appreciate, or perhaps I should say gained the ability to choke down, anything stronger than the semi-soft Port-Salut that my father always bought to eat with a hearty country loaf of bread, for breakfast, or perhaps a sharp, aged Cheddar. Even now, blue cheese is not something I leap for with anything resembling eagerness, but rather accept as something that insists on invading my frisée salad.

I try the chicken liver pâté, addictive when spread on those crunchy, golden, olive-oil slicked toasts. Then some of the coarser, more country-style pâté from the Swinery, before I venture towards the cheese (the lovely wooden container says "Le Grain d'Orge, Affiné au Calvados," whatever that means). The taste of the cheese is softer and mellower than you might expect from the biting stench, always a pleasant surprise. I have some of M.'s red-braised pig's ears, cooked slowly until soft - none of that cartilage crunch here - and almost gelatinous, sweet and delicately spiced. We eat taquitos, crisp tortilla rolls filled with beef tongue and garnished with all sorts of delicious things (neatly arranged in plastic boxes labeled with masking tape and a Sharpie; M. is either OCD or graduated from culinary school, or both).

The taquitos (christened "tongquitos" by our lovely hostess' equally lovely husband) are my favorite of the night, but then L. brings out her beef noodle soup. Red-braised, my favorite kind; it has a deeper, more complex flavor than the kind I throw together on a weekday afternoon, warm and spicy without being hot. It is like the beef noodle soup of my childhood, but better. Homemade is always better. Finally it is time for my nemesis, a blue cheese cheesecake. A cloud of pungency hangs over the cake pan, like the fog of stinky tofu in the streets of Jiu-Fen. Like the cheese we had earlier, it doesn't taste as strongly as it smells, which personally I find a fortunate occurrence.

Lastly, there is my frozen peanut-butter-and-bacon pie, rich and creamy, salty-and sweet, with the crunch of peanuts and the chewiness of caramelized bacon. I love it, but I wouldn't necessarily make it with bacon next time; it could stand alone, or perhaps with some bananas sliced in, a drizzle of chocolate on top. Next time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Taipei Diary. El Toro.

My parents have been talking about El Toro for a while now, a small Spanish restaurant in Taipei whose chef/owner is a Spaniard who married a Taiwanese woman and moved here. It seems silly to come to Taipei and eat Spanish food, but then good food is good food, no matter what. I have eaten amazing French and Italian food all over Asia, including a perfect spaghetti al pomodoro at an Italian/Lao-run ecolodge in Laos last fall. I had high hopes for El Toro. I heard my dad discussing "black rice with squid" on the phone.

We head to the restaurant, the three of us plus two of my dad's colleagues visiting from the States. It's a small place, hidden away on a back alley, with a room at street level that looks into the glass-fronted kitchen, and a slightly more spacious room downstairs, which is where we sit. My dad brings his own wine, an unopened bottle and a partly drunk bottle already decanted. The chef comes down to talk to my parents about the menu, and throws around suggestions. We settle on the aforementioned black rice, blood sausage, red prawns with rice, roast leg of suckling pig, and pigeon served two ways.

First up, though, is a little snack: a little chunk of chorizo served up in a spoon and a martini gelée, complete with green olive. The chorizo is pretty tasty, but I have never had a martini, so I have no idea what to make of the gelée. Then the blood sausage shows up, and I forget about everything else. This is not your traditional blood sausage, the kind I ate in a tapas bar in Santiago de Compostela on a chilly January day some four years ago. This blood sausage is light, airy, almost soufflé-like, fried crispy on one side to give it some heft. I eat two pieces. I have never met a blood sausage I didn't like, but this one is transcendent.

Next is the red prawn, a huge, bright red shrimp resting on a bed of rice like a loose risotto. I suck out the brains, which are soft and sweet, and eat the body, which perfectly cooked, and scrape up every bite of rice, which is awfully tasty. The black rice arrives, crusty on the bottom like a good paella, the squid firm to the bite without being chewy. It is delicious. Then the pigeon two ways comes to the table, the breast seared and served almost rare, the legs and thighs and wings cooked until it almost falls off the bones, in a dark, savory sauce, with purple potatoes on the side. The rare meat is shockingly flavorful, tender and smooth; the roasted meat is more intense.

Last to arrive is the roast suckling pig, the rear leg section (including the tail) of a very small pig - it couldn't have weighed more than 20 lbs, whole. The skin cracks apart in translucent sheets like a porcine praline, more fragile than the thicker skin of an older pig. The meat is incredibly juicy, the best I've ever tasted. There is some sauce on the side, more pure pork juices, but it doesn't really need anything. It is the best damn suckling pig I have ever eaten, and I try to eat suckling pig as often as I can. Which is not very often, unfortunately. Maybe I should come back to Taipei more often, as my mother's godfather tells me. Once a year is not really enough.

We finish with a few bites of dessert, a light lemon mousse anchored with a nutty crust, a pouf of whipped cream on top. I notice a shard of chocolate that fell off the top, and when I bite into it I am met with the shock of pepper, I think, and something that tastes like those sour-sweet-salty dried plums I ate as a child. Then I have a bite of chocolate cake, still warm, with nuts and dried currants, perhaps, and the softly tart perfume of lime.

I'll be back, yes. I hope.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Taipei Diary. Do It True.

For dinner we head to an old restaurant, Do It True, which has been around since about 1945. It serves Northern-style (Beijing) Chinese cuisine and has pictures of the owners with George Bush (the elder) on the walls. We are having dinner with my mother's godparents, and they have been coming here for some forty years. I always try to see them when I'm here, as they are like my own grandparents. My maternal grandmother died over twenty years ago (my paternal grandparents being dead 13 and 25 years before I was even born); I only met her a few times as a small child and never really got to know her. I have been lucky for a few of my mother's old friends who have stood in her place.

We order, quickly, tons of food, too much food. There are whole-wheat shao bing, round sesame-encrusted biscuits, served hot, which you stuff with sliced braised pork butt (I think it's the butt) or boiled beef shank, like sandwiches. There is a spicy cold salad (spicy like horseradish spicy, not pepper spicy) of celery sticks and another of shredded cabbage and tofu and other unidentifiable things. We have fried pork dumplings that are like potstickers, if potstickers were the size of fat cigars, and sticky dark rounds of sliced red-braised intestines, salty-sweet. A plate of thin pancakes is passed around, to be filled with a chunk of fluffy plain omelet and stir-fried veggies, with a smear of plum sauce and a log of scallion. There is soup with little meatballs and translucent, jade-edged slices of cucumber, a plate of cold hacked chicken, the skin glazed with soy sauce, the meat falling-apart tender.

Soon, all of us are full, declining any dessert save for a plate of sliced yuzu (in other seasons it might be oranges, or apples, or pears). The food is good, but eating with my mother's godparents always makes me a little nervous, because she and her godmother always argue about something. It is hard to watch, but I understand; they're getting older, nearing or just past 90. They are alone in Taipei, their children scattered across the globe. In thirty years I will have the same worries, the same guilt and frustration and sense of duty and love intermingled. It is bittersweet to be with them, but for now, we are together, at the table.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Taipei Diary. Road trip, day 2.

We have an early buffet breakfast (not-very-bitter bittermelon! green beans! Various kinds of pickled vegetables, none of which I can identify! Oh yes, and waffles and congee, plus soy milk) and then wander around some nearby greenhouses and garden nurseries. The town we are staying in - I never did figure out what the place was called - is a patchwork quilt of nurseries and fields growing flowers and plants that get shipped all over the island, to flower markets and florists shops and nurseries. We go to half a dozen or more nurseries, picking up a couple of (small) trees along the way, which have to be arranged somehow in the (very small) backseat of my mother's (very small) car.

By now, I want to go home. I don't like the humidity. My pants are sticking to my butt. Every step feels like I am wading through mud. I am tired of heaving myself out of the backseat (can you tell I am not used to sitting in the back of a two-door coupe) with the grace of a hippopotamus being reluctantly pulled from the swamp. I want to throw myself on the ground and kick and scream like a four-year-old, but I am twenty-five years too old for that. I understand, finally, somewhere around the seventh greenhouse, that my parents are taking me around Taiwan, not just to torture me or spend more time with me, but to show me where they are from, in the time we have left. I feel ashamed that I am not treasuring this experience more, but it is humid and my camera weighs heavy around my neck and I am out of sorts.

We head to a restaurant called "Grandma's Private Cuisine," or something like that. It is big and bustling, catering to the (mostly local - I have seen maybe two Caucasian faces this entire weekend; most visitors seem to come from Taichung, relatively close by, instead of Taipei, all the way up north) tourists. They come by bus or car, or park at a big central lot and rent those two-or-four person bicycle carts that have cute little roofs for shelter as you pedal around the fields. We have rice - which comes with little chunks of sweet potato - and red-braised pig's feet, a sort of omelette with scallions and bits of dried preserved radish, fresh and hot and nicely browned. There is soup with dried pickled cauliflower and daikon radish, and a slightly oily sautéed eggplant. I feel less cranky, but mostly because we are leaving after lunch.

Like the rest of the meals we've had, the cooking is simple and straightforward, fresh and quickly served, perhaps a little oily for our tastes, but overall excellent. Time to pile back in the car, and head home.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Taipei Diary. Road trip.

At some ungodly hour on a weekend morning I am unearthed from my bed to pile in the car with an overnight bag and a bag of bottled water to sleep straight through a three-hour drive, waking in the parking lot of the B&B where we are to spend the night. We check in and then head to the town of Lukang, about forty minutes away. Lukang was an important shipping town, a harbor city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the sea receded the town became farther and farther inland, and therefore ceased to exist as a port city. Still, a core of old brick buildings remains, a maze of narrow alleyways and a few substantial temples at the heart of a modern city (although a small one).

Everywhere there are stalls selling snacks and souvenirs, ice cream and iced tea and a guy making wax molds of people's hands (my mom tells me I should get one of my hand - giving someone the finger). We keep going, and the snack stands give way to something more substantial - grilled sausages and then narrow sidewalk restaurants with live seafood and open kitchens, and dining rooms behind glass doors in the rear. We keep going, past stalls with all kinds of cakes and more snacks, the "cow-tongue" cakes (shaped like flat ovals), people calling to us to come try, come buy, sit and have lunch.

We have lunch at one of these restaurants, classic Taiwanese street food: scrambled eggs with oysters, doused in a thick, sweetish brown sauce. There are soft noodles with scallions and a clear soup with clams, and deep fried shrimp with a crackly thin shell. I swig a Vitamin C soda in the sweltering (to me) humidity and dream of cold Seattle fall days. We walk back towards one of the temple, one of the oldest in the area, and come back out again to buy a deep-fried rice cake, sliced into smaller cubes and doused in a sticky-sweet sauce much like the one on the scrambled-eggs-and-oysters from lunch. We continue wandering through the narrow, tourist-packed alleyways, my parents taking turns dispensing history as we go.

Eventually we run out of old alleyways and temples to explore, and pile back into the car to find some dinner. We wind up at a larger version of the lunchtime sidewalk restaurant, still with the open kitchen (and fishtanks) out front, glassed-in dining room in back. We order more noodles and fish soup and fish steamed with soy sauce, ginger, and scallions, and a whole steamed crab (smaller, sweeter, and fattier than the Dungeoness crabs I am used to), and some vegetable side dishes. It is all very simple and fresh, the best kind of seafood cooking.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Taipei diary. Din Tai Fong.

It isn't a trip to Taipei without a meal at Din Tai Fong. Now they are a chain, with four restaurants in Taipei and several foreign outposts, but I've only ever eaten at the one near my uncle's Taipei apartment (another frequent dining place is Du Xiao Yue, just down the street, where we go for noodles with a savory minced pork gravy in broth; the sign says that it has been there since 1895). I wait all year - sometimes a few years, depending how much time passes between trips back to Taipei - for the chance to eat xiao lung bao.

Usually there is a long wait, the sidewalk outside choked with Japanese and Hong Kong tourists, led by umbrella-wielding tour guides. But today we are late, and my aunt has already snagged a table. We order xiao lung bao (of course!), pork-and-chive wontons, shrimp-and-pork wontons in a soy sauce instead of broth, sautéed spinach, and hot-and-sour soup, as well as a cold appetizer that seems to be composed of slivers of seaweed (the thick, slippery kind), dried pressed tofu, and bean-thread noodles. It is all slippery texture, a challenge for my chopsticks, but we always order it.

If I am particularly lucky and just come here with my mom, I get away with eating more than my fair share of xiao lung bao - they come ten to a basket - but tonight there are three of us. The service is incredibly fast, and before I finish the first cup of tea the bamboo steamer tray of xiao lung bao is set before me. The dumplings are loose and baggy, the skins almost translucent. For fear of tearing the fragile skin and losing the precious soup I peel it gently off the paper lining of the steamer tray. A dip in a saucer of black vineger, meanwhile gathering a few strands of ginger, then land the dumpling safely in my spoon. Gently I bite a hole in the wrapper, letting the rich soup spill out into my spoon, burning my tongue. I always burn my tongue on the first dumpling.

They are as good as ever, fine dumpling skin, neat pleats, round ball of sweet, tender pork, steaming broth, chased with the dark bite and sharp heat of vinegar and ginger. I eat four. Our wontons arrive, fat with chunks of shrimp, lightly slicked with soy sauce. The hot-and-sour soup is neither hot (in the spicy sense) nor sour, but I don't care. I got what I came for, xiao lung bao, enough of a taste to leave me wanting more. Much more.

Monday, October 5, 2009

How Twitter changed everything.

I am not by nature a hugger. No one in my family is. There has always been warmth, and love, but no hugs. I was fine with that, but then I joined Twitter, and was swept up into a whirl of people who greet complete strangers (although we are not complete strangers, having Tweeted back and forth for weeks or perhaps days) with a sweeping, bosomy embrace, usually accompanied by the tantalizing perfume of baked goods or barbecued chicken wings. Twitter stripped away the last of my shyness, enabling me to show up to parties knowing only one other person there, enabling me to strike up conversations with everyone and anyone, talking and drinking and eating until my voice dwindled away into a hoarse whisper.

It became clear to me, some time ago, that the circle - or rather many overlapping circles - of people in Seattle who love food is incredibly connected on all levels. We are a small town, and it seems it is no accident that a high population of computer geeks overlaps rather significantly with a high population of people who love food. There are lots of local food blogs, and everyone comments on everyone else's blog. People meet at restaurants and at farmer's markets and food blogger conferences. Twitter takes this all to another level entirely. Only connect, said E.M. Forster in the epigraph to Howards End, a century ago. The extent to which people carry that idea in their hearts would blow his mind, as it has done mine.

There are a lot of people - people who aren't on Twitter - who criticize or make fun of it. Some of it is true - no one cares what I ate for lunch. On the other hand, people do care. They want to know what you had for breakfast/lunch/dinner, what you cooked/ordered at the latest diner/pizzeria/tapas bar, which market purveyor has the best bacon/cheese/tomatoes/peaches/fresh raw milk/still has eggs. They are eager to tell you - you need only to ask - where to have a meal in a strange city or what to do with a pig's head. Someone once referred to Twitter as "one giant circle jerk." There is a certain amount of public masturbation going on, to be sure, but then I consider how much better - or if not better, then certainly different - my life is now.

The trick, as with all things, is to take the absolute best thing about something, and run with it. The absolute best thing about Twitter is that someone will mention an idea, then someone will answer to it, and the next thing you know a haze of booze is hanging over your living room and sixteen people are sitting around eating several different desserts that are all basically booze in solid form. Or a week later what was supposed to be just you and one of your new friends making bacon rice krispie treats turns into eight people at your dining table consuming bacon-and-chanterelle soup, bacon-dressed salad, bacon-and-corn salad, bacon cupcakes, and yes, bacon rice krispie treats, and later falling asleep on the sofa surrounded by stuffed animals while watching My Neighbor Totoro. You head out for an impromptu pizza dinner at the new place everyone is raving about and wind up watching Top Chef at the home of a (no longer) complete stranger with one of the stars of the aforementioned Top Chef sitting at your knee. Yes, Seattle is a small town, and never has it been more clear to me than in the past few months.

The absolute best thing about Twitter is that you will ask a question and five people will answer in about sixty seconds, that you will discover a wonderful group of people, the kind of people who greet and take their farewells with a round of hugs, hugs all around.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Taipei Diary. Sunday with the cousins.

We have lunch with my father's family, his two widowed sisters-in-law, and six of my cousins. There are a couple of husbands and sons in the mix, and lately any meal with them usually involves a hotel restaurant with a private room and a very large table. I am the youngest; the oldest cousin is in her early fifties. The next generation of three cousins spans a gap of eight years - another cousin lives in Hong Kong, the only girl - but here they are brothers, the way cousins who grow up together become as close as siblings. It is a precious kind of relationship, one I miss by living an ocean away.

The food moves by in a blur, and what I remember is a selection of sliced meats - kidneys, intestines, gizzards, steamed chicken. There is a whole, giant steamed fish with scallions and ginger and soy sauce, probably rice wine, pure and simple, the classic combination I will have again and again on this trip. Platters of small steamed crabs are passed around, rich and fatty. There are wide, flat, rice noodles stir-fried with beef, scallions, and bean sprouts, rich but not oily like those found in American Chinese restaurants, and a smooth, light spinach soup swirled with a creamy chicken puree. There is more, but this is all can I remember.

For dinner we meet up with my mother's family, my uncle and his two sons, who I grew up with when they lived with us through the rocky pre-teen and teenage years. They are like my brothers. We go someplace simple, a narrow shoebox of a restaurant with three or four floors connected by a steep staircase or a tiny elevator. We start with a soup thick with fat bean-thread (more like bean-rope; I've never seen these thick ones before) noodles. There are cold oysters in some vinegary marinade, a little sweet, a little tart, and quickly boiled shrimp. We each get one whole steamed fish (like the miniature version of the one we had at lunch), one whole fried fish (I like the fried one better; who wouldn't?). Then there is steamed crab (not quite as tasty as the one from lunch), and deep-fried fish balls.

The food is served and eaten quickly, the conversation interrupted by the crunch of shrimp peels and crackle of crab shells. Soon we are finished, saying our good-byes outside in the rain. It might be another year before we are together again.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Taipei Diary, day 2.

Calvin Trillin once spoke disparagingly of the so-called "Continental Cuisine" so popular in the middle of the last century, describing the style as La Maison de la Casa House, a mishmash of generic European cuisine served with much fanfare and little imagination. I missed that kind of cooking by at least a couple of generations (except for on cruise ships of the 1980's), but after I ate an excellently prepared but unexciting meal at a nice-ish restaurant in Taipei I found Trillin's words coming back to me again.

We found ourselves sitting at the sushi counter of a restaurant that is either Japanese or Chinese. Perhaps it is both, but I can't tell. We order the set menu - personally, I like set menus, because my Chinese is terrible and I don't like making choices, but sometimes it can backfire - and sit back. There is a Western-style salad, with crunchy lettuces, slices of apple, and sweet kernels of corn. The Chinese like to put corn on everything, including pizza. This makes me sad, but the salad is tasty, so I suck it up. Next comes a fat blob of uni on a totally unnecessary bed of grated mountain potato. The icky mountain potato (seriously - it is simultaneously crunchy AND oozy, and that is just wrong) is resting on a thin slice of lime, which goes well with the sweet uni.

Then we have sashimi, with sweet spot shrimp, fatty salmon, oily, sharp mackerel, and mild tuna. It is excellent, at least as good as anything I can get in Seattle. Later my mom tells us that the sashimi was all presliced, and the "sushi" chefs behind the counter were merely arranging the presliced fish on platters before sending it out. This is wrong, but it was still all very tasty. There is steamed fish, simply cooked with scallions and ginger and soy sauce, and a small bowl of noodles in an oily shallot-spiked broth. We end with fried crab, hot with peppers, and yellow-skinned chicken, hacked into pieces, Chinese-style. To finish, there is fruit, and the dreaded red bean soup.

It is one of those meals that begin with a Western-style salad, continue on with a Japanese-ish starter course (why did it have to be mountain potato? WHY!?) and sashimi, and then a succession of standard Chinese dishes. You see it all the time, in this sort of restaurant - clean, modern-looking, decently priced, with a wide variety of set menus to choose from, each more elaborate and expensive than the last. Each restaurant interchangeable with the next; they could be in a hotel, or at a busy intersection of some main street. The Eastern version of "Continental" cuisine, Trillin's Cuisine La Maison de la Casa House.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Matsutake dreams.

The other day I ran to Uwajimaya and bought some matsutake mushrooms. It is still earlyish in the season, and they cost $50 a pound (a few ounces is all you need), but I am about to go on vacation for three weeks. Who knows if I'll be able to find any good matsutakes when I return. I rush home with my precious mushrooms and dig out the pot of golden chicken broth I made the other day, from the roasted carcass of a chicken I had carefully deboned under the expert guidance of a chef-friend. There was plenty of fat in the broth, which would make the rice taste good, so I heated it all up, washed the rice, then added broth instead of water, arranging the slices of matsutake mushrooms on top.

The rice was perfect, pale gold and confetti-ed with the matsutakes, which infused the rice with their perfume. I had some mushrooms and broth left, which I froze for future meals, but I thought that would be it for the year. Then I head to Lark for one last quick meal before leaving for Taipei, and one of the evening's specials is lobster agnolotti with matsutake mushrooms. It is fate. I sit at the bar, in my red lipstick and little black dress (I am on my way to a birthday party, and the staff at Lark, unused to seeing me wearing anything more formal than jeans and a t-shirt all say, "hey! You look nice tonight!") and have some bread and butter and chat with the servers while other diners trickle into the dining room behind me.

The agnolotti arrive, fat chunks of lobster meat wrapped in pasta dough, served in a pool of clear broth. Finely shaved slices of matsutake mushrooms curl around the agnolotti, the raw mushrooms absorbing the hot broth and infusing it with their piney fragrance. There is something minimalist about it, just lobster meat, noodles, mushrooms, a sprinkling of chives. Perhaps butter. As I eat my dinner the raw mushrooms become cooked, like the beef in a hot bowl of pho, but they are so delicious I finish them all before they have the chance to overcook, before my soup even becomes cold. I want to order another bowl, but it is time to leave.

I run next door to Licorous to find my friends, and then we head over to Tavern Law down the street for the party. The birthday girl is all glammed up in a vintage dress and the biggest hair I have ever seen west of the Mississippi, and there are hugs and kisses and camera flashes all around for the next few hours. I have a bourbon sour, foamy with egg white and heady with bourbon, and take sips of countless others. A pastry chef friend arrives with boxes of the most amazing buttery, caramelized cookies, like a cross between a palmier and a croissant, only better, and his homemade version of a sno-ball, or whatever those marshmallow-y balls with chocolate centers are called. I have one of each. More birthday well-wishers arrive, people I have only met briefly, or only know on Twitter. It's good to see them.

I walk back to my car in my heels, wrapped in a light trench coat against the cool air. Fall is here. Tomorrow, or is it the day after, I'll be in Taipei. I'll take the memory of those matsutake mushrooms, and conversations with new friends, with me.

Monday, September 7, 2009

San Francisco, day 3. Nopa.

When my mom planned this short jaunt down to San Francisco, two of the three nights were already spoken for, but the last night would just be us, and she left it up to me to decide where to go. N. threw around a couple of places she liked, but Nopa was the one that caught my attention. Then R. mentioned that she, too, had gone there and enjoyed it. I called them up and amazingly - apparently they are quite popular and hard to book, impossible to get into without a reservation - they had an open table for the next night. Labor Day night. Definitely a good sign. There is nothing that makes me happier than getting a reservation for a supposedly difficult-to-reserve restaurant.

The cab has trouble finding the restaurant, with its nearly blank wall facing Divisadero and almost invisible sign. But we get there, slip into the tiny waiting area, stand near the high communal table while our table is readied. It is a generous, open space, a long bar running back towards the open kitchen, with a big rotisserie full of chickens - everyone seems to be ordering either the roast chicken or the burger, and I almost regret not ordering either - lots of dark, polished wood and bright murals. We are led upstairs to a balcony table, with a perfect bird's-eye-view of all the action down below, the bartenders pouring drinks, the chefs plating dishes, the booths and tables full of happy diners.

We order soft goat cheese with a beet salad, which comes tangled with frisée and a heaping pile of freshly made crostini, the post-millennial answer to the Melba toasts of the last century. Next come crisp-skinned fresh sardines with roasted cherry tomatoes and oily - in the best possible way - croutons. Our main courses arrive, a roasted pork chop with peaches and escarole, and duck legs with beans, figs, and some dark leafy green that is probably kale. The pork is delicious, rosily brined and just cooked through, marbled with fat around the edges. The duck legs are tender, slipping from the bone. Everything is thoughtfully put together, the flavors clear and balanced. It is the best kind of cooking, simple, with only the barest flourish of caramelized cherry tomatoes that need nothing except heat to bring out their sweetness or figs as sweet as candy.

I shouldn't order dessert; we're full. But who knows when I will be back again, to try the burger or the roast chicken or all the things I didn't have? We ask our server, who suggests the warm cookies with 'milk,' fresh chocolate chocolate chunk cookies hot from the oven, with a cool glass of almond milk on the side. They are like molten lava cakes in cookie form. We take some of the cookies home, for breakfast; I drink the last of the milk, and plot how soon I can return. Oh, very soon, I hope.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

San Francisco, day 2. Kuleto's.

We spend the day at Golden Gate Park, wandering through the de Young and the Academy of Sciences, now facing each other across an intricately plotted quadrangle of trees, statues, benches, fountains. For some reason I remember them being elsewhere in the park, which could be true. What I do know - the evidence is staring me in the face - that both museums underwent protracted and extensive redesigns, by the great architecture firms Herzog and de Meuron (de Young) and Renzo Piano (Academy of Sciences). The former is now sheathed in a skin of weathered mesh, with an angular tower whose viewing platform offers sweeping vistas (in the morning, everything was swathed in fog) in all directions; the latter is all light and air topped with an undulating "living roof" that contains some 1.7 million native plants (I checked the website for that number).

Lunch is a forgettable (though pretty decent) meal snatched in a crowded museum cafeteria, so I am eager for dinner. We head to Kuleto's, near Union Square, meeting up with some of my mom's friends, two of whom we'd seen the night before. Another friend I've never met before joins us, bringing with her the director of a local museum, who I had met during his time in Seattle. We order a few appetizers - pork pâté, coarse and hearty, scallops with mushrooms on potato slices, a Caesar salad, and calamari - and nibble on breadsticks and warm foccaccia. C. and I agree to share our mains - duck breast for me, linguine with clams for her.

Here I should admit the single reason I chose the duck breast is because it is accompanied by a Frog Hollow peach. I have been hearing about these damn peaches ALL SUMMER, so it seems, and here is my chance to taste one. A taste is all I get, because there is only half of one, which I have to share with C., and my mom, but a taste is enough. The peach is soaked in grappa and roasted, and it is the sweetest, juiciest, most fragrant, flavorful morsel of peach I have ever eaten. I want to weep from the pleasure of it, and then I want to leap up and demand that our server bring me another one. A few bites of the white polenta - rich and creamy - and the sliced duck - perfectly cooked - and then the excellent linguine with clams, makes me abandon that idea. But that one bite of grappa-roasted peach is the best thing I eat all night.

We order a few desserts, affogato of housemade vanilla gelato doused in espresso, tiramisu, and a warm almond cake with peaches. They are all good, but none of them overcome the memory of that one Frog Hollow peach. Summer is over; I will have to wait another year for more. They will be worth it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

San Francisco, day 1. Lalime's.

We arrive in San Francisco in the afternoon, making our way to the hotel with just enough time to settle in before taking the BART up to Berkeley for dinner. The train is crowded with football fans, getting off a few stops before ours in a flood of purple sweatshirts and caps that say "CAL" in swirly writing. Then we are at our destination, and C. is waiting for us. C. teaches Chinese at Berkeley and used to make beautiful pottery; now arthritis makes it hard to throw pots and build sculptures. We drive to our destination - a restaurant called Lalime's - and wait for the rest of our party. In all, there are eight women, including my mother and myself.

We agree to share appetizers and main courses - none of the others are big eaters - and chatter away, catching up as people do when they live in different cities and different countries and only meet once in a while. Our appetizers arrive - Caesar salad and another mixed salad, pizza with housemade sausage, mussels in a delicious, tomato-y broth, which we mop up with bread. It is simple, good food; the menu prides itself on locally, seasonally sourced ingredients. I wonder if Alice Waters knew how Chez Panisse would change the world, or at least the American culinary landscape, if we could have the kind of food we have now without her. Then our main courses arrive, and I can only think about food.

We pass plates around, Chinese-style, sea bass and an eggplant dish, slightly less successful than the lobster pasta, in a light tomato sauce. The best dishes are the smoked Duroc pork chop and the New York strip steak, the meat wonderfully marbled and rich-tasting, perhaps cooked a little more than I would choose (others at the table are not fans of rare, or even medium-rare meat), but still excellently done. Actually, it is just the right amount of food, and while usually I think sharing dishes muddles the mind and confuses the palate, I am grateful for the chance to try as much as possible at a restaurant I may never visit again.

There is just room for dessert; we order four, and my favorites are the strawberry mousse cake (Why does no one ever serve strawberry mousse? It is delightful), and the Berliner, a custard-filled doughnut served with a chocolate cup filled with coffee mousse on the side. I eat more than my fair share, hoping no one notices. But they are too polite to comment, even if they see me sneaking a few last spoonfuls of cream. I wish I could come back, soon.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The bar crawl. Tavern Law/Licorous/Café Presse.

I never really got into drinking cocktails. There were daiquiris in Mexico on a school trip and piña coladas in college, but I grew up with a father who drank beer and red wine, and I did, too. Well, not beer, which I thought was disgusting. Later I studied Russian with people who would get together and knock back shots of icy-cold vodka and eat bowls of pelmeni (meat dumplings) with sour cream. Much later, living alone and reading Bukowski in the bathtub I learned to drink single-malt scotch, or chilled rosé on hot summer evenings before the sun went down and with it, the temperature.

Mixed drinks were something else, a foreign country. That changed when I discovered the pleasures of Campari with ginger ale, and the one time when I was early to dinner at Poppy and the bartender handed me something with the coolly floral sweetness of St. Germain and Framboise. It was time to do more than just dip a toe into mixed drinks. I heard about slick new cocktail lounges popping up around Seattle - or maybe they'd always been there, I just hadn't noticed - but never actually went to any. Then I heard about Tavern Law. The owners had a bar in Belltown, but I don't ever go to Belltown. But Tavern Law would be in that crucial triangle between work and home, and boy was I gonna head there the minute it opened.

N. was just as eager as I was to check it out, so the second night it was open I just about ran down the hill, grabbing one of the few remaining tables for the three of us. We excitedly flipped through the menu, scanning the glamorously named drinks (each description labeled with a provenance and year of creation). We each chose a drink and bounced a little in our seats with anticipation. At least I did. This is not my usual kind of place - I think it's a little, maybe a lot, too cool for me - but it's fun, all dark wood and leather-covered books. Soon, the bar is packed, people waiting by the door, craning their necks to get a glance at the action.

I start with a Morning Glory Fizz. With a hint of anise (it contains absinthe), weighted with scotch and lightened with a creamy froth of egg whites, it is pure pleasure in a glass. We pass our drinks around, counter-clockwise; I try some of the Earl Grey Fizz, a sip of The Gun Club. All are excellent. We order a second round: mine is the Dead Before Sunrise, sweet with maraschino cherry, but not too much so; the first sip develops into a beautiful complexity. I try the North Sea Smash, clean and grapefruit-y, and something else that seems to be mostly mint. We order food, fried oysters, a perfect foie gras terrine (with a tart Angostura bitter gelée on top), hot Padrón chiles grilled, with a smear of tangy cheese, a small block of pork belly on caraway-scented sauerkraut.

When we leave, after a few hours of drinking and nibbling at snacks, I still want something more. N. and I head down to Licorous, where her friend has just gotten off shift (he is a bartender) and is eating his dinner. He hands me a taste of his food - a spoonful of tomato soup, with the surprise crunch of diced cucumber, a lamb riblet, sticky and rich and sweet. I order a creamy foie gras bon bon with crunchy bread crumbs outside, the sweetness of peaches within, and a pretzel dot, a perfect little sandwich of what is most likely housemade sausage on a tiny pretzel ball. I want something sweet, but by now Lark is closed, so we head over to Café Presse. We chat with the bartender while N. has a nightcap and I savor a perfect, ripe peach, sliced and doused with cream.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Mangalitsa x4, part 2 (plus a soup).


The third night I slice the remainder of the pork into chunks and braise them in soy sauce and rice wine, with several translucent shards of ginger and logs of scallions for good measure. I add fried tofu puffs, which absorb the sauces as they cook. It is good, better than good, rich and fatty, salty and sweet, with the intense pork flavor which holds its own against the aromatics and sauces of Chinese cooking. I still like the stir-fried pork the best, if I had to pick just one, but each preparation has its own virtues, I think.

The fourth night I still have a few scraps of pork left, along with a few chunks of the braised pork (my mother ate all the tofu; she always does). I chop the pork into little bits, slice squares of dried seasoned tofu into a fine dice, reduce the yard-long (or so it seems) beans into a giant pile of dark jade beads. The pork is sautéed briefly until it browns and renders out its fat, then scraped into a bowl and set aside. Then I stir-fry (as much as you can stir-fry on an electric coil stove with one tilting burner - of course the largest one is the one that tilts) the tofu and long beans, adding water and soy sauce and covering it all so the beans will cook through. When the beans are tender I stir-fry them a bit more, adding in the pork bits, checking for seasoning.

Meanwhile I've made soup from those precious Mangalitsa bones, soaked in cold water, roasted in a 400˙ oven until darkly browned around the edges, simmered for hours until the remaining meat clinging to the bones became meltingly soft. I added a slice or two of ginger, a translucent limb of daikon radish cleaved into rough circles and half-circles. This is one of my favorite soups, with its pure, sweet, clean flavors, made more intense by the flavor of Mangalitsa pork. My mom likes this a lot, picking the tender meat from the bones, drinking every last drop of the broth.

From a little over two pounds of meat and a little under two pounds of bones I have eaten very well (with, of course, the help of various vegetables and aromatics and the omnipresent soy sauce and rice wine) of a wide variety of dishes. A little pork goes a long way; a little is all I need, to be fed, to be satisfied, to feel happy.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mangalitsa x4, part 1.

My father and I headed down to the farmer's market the other day, where we bought a couple of pounds of Mangalitsa pork jowls. (We also got some soup bones). The jowl is not from purebred Mangalitsa, but from an F1 mixed-breed (half Mangalitsa, half Berkshire, I think). It is not as fatty as the purebred pig, but has a lot of the flavor, and the deep-red meat. I leave the bones to soak in cold water while I contemplate the massive hunk of meat in front of me. Hmm. What should I do with it all?

For the first meal, I sliced some of the pork into thin slices about as long and a little wider than a finger. I marinated the pork with a little soy sauce and a splash of rice wine, then sliced some scallions into bias-cut strips. The pork and scallions were stir-fried together until browned and just cooked through, and were very well received at the dinner table. (That is, my father and I ate every last bite). The jowl meat had a good chew to it, and was full of flavor, the Mangalitsa holding its own against the salty-sweet scallion-infused soy sauce.

The second night I sliced off a good hunk of the pork and boiled it in ginger-infused water spiked with rice wine and served it, sliced, with garlicky soy sauce on the side for dipping. Again, the meat was chewy, but in a good way, and full of flavor, the way beef onglet is incredibly tasty, perhaps more so because you have to fight it a little with every bite. You had to use your teeth with the meat, striped and streaked with tasty fat, the flavor emphasized with the sweet sting of garlic, the nuanced saltiness of soy sauce. I began dreaming of borrowing someone's meat-slicer and using the Mangalitsa pork for Chinese hot pot when winter comes and it is cold outside, and nothing sounds better than a steaming hot pot. be continued.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dinners with my father.

Growing up, I rarely spent time alone with my father, aside from whenever he picked me up from school events and one trip to the East Coast when I was eleven; we flew out to Boston together and he dropped me off at the home of a family friend to spend the week while he was at a conference. It was more likely that my mother and I would be together at home during his rare business trips out of town, or when we left for Taiwan during the summer for a few weeks before he was able to join us. First we were three, then five during the years my cousins lived with us.

When I was in college and my mother began traveling more it was more likely that it would just be my father and I, whenever I was home on break. The tight Venn diagram of our three lives creaked and stretched apart. Slowly we, that is, my father and I, learned how to eat together without my mother. It happened more frequently when my parents moved back to Taiwan six years ago, and their visits back to Seattle overlapped but did not match exactly. There would be days when I lived on soups and vegetables and tofu dishes (mother), and days when I would bring out the meaty repertoire that my father and I have developed.

We usually start with a roast chicken. Sometimes I brine it with herbs and other aromatics; other times I simply salt it and leave it in the fridge overnight. Then there is often steak, bought at the supermarket or from a fancy butcher, thick-cut and well marbled. Frequently we buy a rack of lamb and rub it with rosemary, salt, pepper, a splash of lemon juice (I have set the lamb or steak on fire many, many times) before roasting or broiling it until the fat crisps and turns golden. We go out for sushi or pizza or both, broil salmon steaks or collars in an herby crust. Vegetables become a pale afterthought. Mom's not here; tofu disappears into the far reaches of memory. It's just my father and I, for now.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


One of our rituals, my father's and mine, is to head down to Nishino when he is here. We time our meal early and sit at the sushi bar; he orders a beer or cold saké and shares a little with me. We order slowly, two at a time: Amaebi, hamachi. Escolar, bonito. Uni, and toro. Our non-sushi items arrive: Little smelts in a piercing vinaigrette, grilled hamachi collars, rich and fatty. And one last pair of nigiri: Spanish mackerel, and unagi. The fish is fresh and clean; with the immediacy of eating at a sushi bar I notice for the first time that the rice is slightly warm, and barely holds itself together as you convey each piece of sushi from the plate to your waiting mouth. We pay cash - my mom often looks at the credit card bills after one of my father's trips and exclaims in horror - and drive home in the evening light, full, happy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wednesday Lark.

It was a bit of a shock to realize more than two months had passed since I had dinner at Lark. I'd been busy. Warm weather meant more cooking at home; two theater subscriptions meant more nights out (and less money to spend on food). Still, I missed the warmth of that open dining room with its banquettes on one side, booths on the other, floating curtains drifting down the middle of the room. I changed into slightly less disreputable clothes and ran down the hill for my dinner. K. was busy with two customers - they appeared to be arranging some special occasion, tasting champagnes and discussing table arrangements - so it was J., the chef and one of the owners, who seated me.

It is a warm day, so I order the chilled tomato soup and the steak tartare, and to round out my meal I add one of the specials of the day, soft-shelled crab. Far too hot outside for pasta with truffle-butter; I'll leave that for the fall, or winter. I eavesdrop on the table nearby; they are planning a wedding. Lucky them, to have their wedding dinner here. I turn back to my bread, and the raisin-nut-bread is a bit too squishy and sweet, so I turn my attention to the clean white crusty loaf, spread with butter. The soup arrives, pure tomato, cold, clear, almost floral, with a ribbon of some crisp cookie-cracker, salty-sweet. As always there is just enough, not quite enough, a taste that leaves you wanting more.

Next is the soft-shell crab, which spills its juices into a bed of candy-sweet corn with every stab of my fork, the sweet corn spiked with bacon. It is so good I eat every last kernel of corn, every bit of lardon (and honestly I thought there was a little too much bacon), and every scrap of crab shell, finally wiping the plate with my last piece of bread. Then comes the steak tartare, a tiny quail yolk floating on top of the steak, waiting to be stirred in, spread on fragile onion crackers, with a little curly frisée in one corner. There is not much to say about steak tartare, except it fills some yearning quite nicely.

Finally I order dessert, an ice-cream sandwich as a nod to the summer heat. Two chocolate-chunk cookies sandwich a slab of mint chocolate chunk ice cream, with a little cup of chocolate soda on the side. I love the cookies, but I love the chocolate soda more. I wish I had a tall glass of it, cold and sweaty in my hand. But better to have just a little, enough to leave me wanting more.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Don't be shy.

It was a constant refrain of my childhood. Stand up straight. Comb your hair. Don't be shy. Still, I remained someone who slouched in my chair and wore my hair in a messy ponytail scrunched up at the back of my head. Most of all, I remained shy, blushing when strangers spoke to me, hiding behind potted plants at parties, dry-heaving in the bathroom before class presentations. I elected to study electronic music so I wouldn't have to be in the choir and stagecraft so I wouldn't have to take drama. I was the girl who never raised her hand, who hid behind a curtain of hair, wearing all black, trying to be invisible. I still hate the sound of my own voice, saying my own name aloud.

The year I turned twenty-five changed everything. My parents and I went to Italy; despite my stammers and protestations I was the one dispatched for directions, to order sandwiches and buy mineral water. (Don't be shy, they said, again and again). Somehow I managed to find hotels and navigate menus. Several months later I found myself in Portugal, conversing in French (which, by the way, I don't speak) with a beautiful kind woman at a crossroads and chatting (in Portuguese, which I understand even less than French) with an old man on the flight home, who had recognized me from the flight to Lisbon two weeks before. I came home and starting going to restaurants alone, talking to people at the next table, talking to the servers who went out of their way to make me feel at home.

A lot more changed in the next few years when I started dining at Lark, alone. One night I told K., one of the owners, about the time Thierry Rautereau served us lamb testicles; she suggested that I try their Whole Beast dinner in the spring. I was nervous about dining with strangers - none of my friends wanted to come along - but there was no need; I sat with nine other people, and they were all warm and friendly, sharing wine and stories. I talked all night, until my voice was nearly gone, and it left me wanting more. Months later I was back, for a cookbook dinner for David Tanis (A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes), and this time it was easier, both because I was seated next to a couple I had met at the earlier dinner, and because I was becoming more at ease with the idea of talking to strangers.

When you have a love for something - in my case, food - you find it opens all kinds of doors. I began shopping at farmer's markets, talking to people who were producing all the wonderful things spread before me. People will make time for you, if they sense you are truly interested in what they have to offer. They will welcome you, into their restaurants and homes and lives. They will answer your questions, and encourage you to do things like learn how to butcher a pig or make rillettes or chocolate coconut curry ice cream and apple crisp and suggest that you buy something called a refractometer (in this case, a device that measures the amount of sugar in fruit). Wonderful things can happen. Don't be shy.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

We All Scream for Ice Cream (experimentation edition).

A week or two ago I mentioned on Twitter a chocolate bar I had liked, made by Theo Chocolate under their Phinney 3400 label. It combines milk chocolate, coconut milk, and curry powder, three ingredients (well, the latter two are spectacular together, as any fan of Southeast Asian food will know) that you wouldn't expect to see together. It is warm and spicy and not too sweet, and instantly addictive. Another person Tweeted back at me, demanding a recipe. It's a chocolate bar, I answered, but...ooh! It could work as an ice cream. I agreed to try something, then forget about it. There were other ice creams I wanted to try first, and this would involve making up something as I went along, which often ends badly.

Then T. invited me to a barbecue. T. is a Food Person. The barbecue would involve lots of Food People, none of whom I had met before, and I worried for an entire day about what the hell I could possibly bring. Ice cream would be easy, I thought, but I wondered aloud (that is, on Twitter) about whether I should really experiment on people I never met before. However, the response (on Twitter) was loud and immediate. (BRING. IT. ON). This meant spending a full five minutes in the Asian food section of my supermarket shaking cans of coconut milk and trying to find the least sloshy one, wondering if my curry powder was still edible or if I should buy a new jar, and frantically flipping through the amazing David Lebovitz's seminal ice cream bible, The Perfect Scoop, looking for recipes that I could cannibalize into what I wanted.*

I toasted coconut and steeped it in hot cream, straining it all through a mesh sieve. The result was fragrant, but I thought it would be overwhelmed by the chocolate, and substituted the rest of the cream with the coconut milk. This mixture was heated with cocoa powder until just hot enough to melt a pile of chopped bittersweet chocolate (next time will go with all 56% instead of mix of 56% and 71%, which is all I had on hand), then set aside while I made the custard. I threw in a few peppercorns, some hot red pepper flakes; thinking of R., I toss in a bay leaf. I add curry powder to the chocolate-coconut mixture, and taste. When the custard is done I stir it into the chocolate-coconut-curry, which mellows the flavors, rounds it out into something smooth and warm with just a bit of spice to it. It tastes like the chocolate bar I remember.

In the morning I taste it again, when it has frozen properly, and the flavors have really come together. I feel relieved, but I worry there won't be enough, because I kept...tasting...and the end volume of ice cream was somewhat less than I expected. So I make another ice cream, a sherbet really, from David Lebovitz's website, a chocolate sherbet. Only I will do something different - infuse the hot milk-and-chocolate mixture with lime zest, and use vodka instead of Kahlua so as not to confuse the flavors. It turns into a dark, intense (71% chocolate) vat of chocolate with just a hint of cool lime, something unexpected. It is exactly what I hoped for.

*Ultimately, what worked was David Lebovitz's Chocolate Ice Cream, with thick coconut milk (look for something that does *not* include water in its list of ingredients) replacing most of the heavy cream, then adding curry powder to taste. Next time I will skip the steeping toasted coconut flakes in cream, and just use coconut milk instead of cream, and see if that is just as good. Simpler is usually better.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Things I learned from Encyclopedia Brown.

I was probably in third grade when my mother bought me a copy of Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! by Donald J. Sobol. I had read the earlier books (boy genius solves mysteries, for 25¢ a day, plus expenses) and was totally hooked, but this one was different. All the mysteries had to do with food (starting with a missing birthday cake and a loaf of garlic bread). To celebrate the successful conclusion of each mystery (for when did Encyclopedia ever fail to catch the culprit?), Encyclopedia and his friends would get together and throw a party, cooking up a feast to match the case. There was a Mexican fiesta (stolen piñata), spaghetti with meatballs to commemorate Christopher Columbus Day (a kidnapped and brutally murdered duck named...Christopher Columbus Day) and french fries (a purloined potato autographed by Yankees pitchers). Best of all, there were recipes and helpful hints after every chapter.

By this time, of course, I had been Chief Vegetable Washer in my mother's kitchen (since the age of three). I had numerous pans of Tunnel of Fudge cakes and Duncan Hines brownies under my belt. But Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! taught me so much more. Practical things, common-sense things like how to use potholders, asking grownups for help, turning the handle of a pan away from the edge of the stove so you couldn't knock it over. It taught me words like dice, chop, mince. I learned to first slice a thin piece off a round vegetable so it wouldn't roll around when I tried to cut it, to curl my fingers under so I wouldn't stab myself, that a sharp knife was easier and safer to work with than a dull one.

Above all, I learned to chop an onion, and every time I reach for one now (some twenty years later) I think about Encyclopedia Brown and his friends, and what I learned from them. I learned that cooking was fun, that cooking with your friends could be fun, and some years later my middle school slumber parties would involve more than just takeout pizza and soda (although those still made occasional appearances). We would have crêpe parties that covered the kitchen in a light veil of flour (honestly, that still happens whenever I bake today) and make lasagnes that left dribbles of béchamel all over the stove (my poor mother sighed whenever she looked at the state of the kitchen the next morning. We got better at cleaning up after ourselves. Eventually). This continued on in college, and dorm life, when my Hong-Kong-born roomates and I would make fried rice and teriyaki chicken wings, steam bok choy and bake cookies. Cooking continued to be fun, alone, or even more, with friends. It still is.

In middle school I discovered Gourmet Magazine, and Laurie Colwin, who remains one of my greatest influences. Later came the gently acerbic guidance of Elizabeth David, and then Jeffrey Steingarten, who made me laugh until I cried, and Anthony Bourdain, and countless others, too many to name. That is a story for another time. But it all started with Encyclopedia Brown, and the proper way to chop an onion.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Eating on the run. Marination Mobile.

I don't know much about tacos, or taco trucks, but I love Korean food. It brings back childhood memories of grilling marinated beef short ribs over tabletop grills, bowls of spicy kimchee and tangy marinated bean sprouts and potato salad (man, I loved that potato salad), rice sprinkled with sesame seeds. I was addicted to the sweet-salty taste of marinated beef, intensely caramelized at the charred edges of every bite; I even loved the smoky smell that clung to your hair, your skin, your clothes, hours after you had eaten your fill and headed home. That you could find all this tasty goodness wrapped in a tortilla seemed to good to be true.

Back in the Spring I had read about a Korean-Hawaiian taco truck that was about to set up shop in Seattle. Even better, they would be stopping in my neighborhood two or three nights a week, just about halfway between work and home (a dangerous location). I could hardly wait. Weeks went by. I tracked their progress on Twitter. Soon, they promised. Soon. Finally, someone else Tweeted pictures from some super-secret pre-opening party, with photos of ginger-miso chicken and spicy shredded pork tacos in paper boats. The anticipation was unbearable. Two days went by. I left work, ran some errands, had an iced tea and read The Soul of a Chef, and waited for the taco truck to open for business.

I could see various people getting ready from across the street, climbing in and out and walking around a shiny new silver truck (not a cool bubble Airstream like Skillet Street Food, or a Modernist pig on wheels like the Maximus/Minimus truck, which sells barbecue sandwiches). I gave up on pretending to read and walked over. I could see cooks moving around inside and smell delicious things, but they weren't quite ready. The opening hour was moved back half an hour. I was devastated. I walked around the block to Molly Moon and consoled myself with a small scoop of raspberry-mint sorbet (tasty, except I wish they had strained out the seeds) and killed another half an hour. Then I headed back to find a television crew interviewing one of the owners, and a line beginning to form. Any minute now! they tell me, and I stand there hoping that I will not wind up on tv.

Meanwhile the awnings go up, the counters flip down, and a side panel is raised to reveal an ice-tray filled with cold drinks. The menu is simple, the prices are reasonable, if not downright cheap, and I quickly make up my mind: three tacos, one beef, one chicken, one pork. I am the very first customer to place an order, the very first customer on Capitol Hill (the first day of business was the day before, in Fremont, and there were lines down the block), and sooner than I thought possible a paper boat is handed over, filled with tacos heaped with coleslaw, with sliced peppers and lime wedges on the side. I hold my precious cargo with both hands and run home, like a three-year-old with a butterfly caught in cupped hands. While waiting at stoplights I picked out a few bites of beef, which only left me wanting more. Before I knew it I was home and scarfing down my tacos.

They are perfect. The miso-ginger chicken is good, but it is not as interesting as the spicy pork shoulder (although apparently it is not spicy enough for most people, people who were not raised in the same hot-food-free environment as I was). Best of all is the kalbi beef, which is exactly like the barbecued beef I remember. All are wrapped in warm corn tortillas, with a smear of some creamy orange sauce, and a pile of crunchy fresh cabbage and carrots (I think, but I am too busy eating to really pay attention). I can't wait until next week, so I can try the other things on the menu.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Weekend Baking.

On Saturday I woke in a panic. I had a potluck dinner that night, and I had no idea what to make. I had promised dessert, and now I had to deliver. Frantically I turned to Italian Too Easy, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, the owners of the River Café in London. I found a chocolate-almond cake that seemed simple enough, but I would substitute hazelnuts for the almonds. The recipe was clear and straightforward, although I still wonder why they specify "organic eggs." Of course they are preferable to ordinary ones, but what if you did not make it out to the farm where the corgis bark madly from the kennels or over to the farmer's market to buy eggs from the stand that carries all those delicious-looking jams?

Butter and chocolate melted in a bowl over simmer water, hazelnuts were chucked into the food processor - we are like *this* now, my food processor and I, although the bowl is made of a lighter plastic than I would like - and pulsed until finely ground. Actually I get distracted by Twitter and the hazelnuts are a bit sticky, but they will be fine once scraped into the cake batter. Eggs - yes, organic - are cracked, some left whole, others divided, the yolks and whole eggs stirred into the cooled, melted chocolate-butter mixture, the whites whipped until they hold firm peaks. I hold my breath as I fold the chocolate-hazelnut mixture into the egg whites - I don't have a good history with egg whites - and pray as I slide the pan into the oven. Miraculously, the cake rises, slips out easily from the pan after it cools. I place it on a gold cardboard round and stick the cake into a pink cardboard box, tie it all with string, and walk downtown to A.'s apartment with my cake and a pint of homemade salted caramel ice cream.

The cake is a success, the ice cream more so, because for some reason homemade ice cream trumps all else, even cakes made with organic eggs. But then it is Sunday and I have another project before me: chocolate cookies with lime zest and cocoa nibs. K. emailed me the recipe, and whenever she emails me a recipe it is an indication that she would like me to make it for her. As soon as possible. I have good cocoa powder, Droste, and limes, two small instead of the one large that the recipe calls for, and cocoa nibs provided by K. The dough fills the kitchen with its fragrance as I stir it together and when I take a taste I am blown away by how good it is. Soon I am eating a small dab of cookie dough with every scoop I place on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet.

I eat a cookie straight from the baking sheet, as soon as it is cool enough to touch. It is soft and warm and intensely chocolatey, with the subtle zing of lime zest and the slightly astringent crunch of cocoa nibs. It is the best cookie I have ever eaten. I eat three in rapid succession, all still warm from the oven, and later, once they have all cooled and I am packing them up for K., I eat another one. You know. Just to make the numbers even. There is more dough in the freezer, waiting for another day.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The potluck group.

Last month J. invited me to a potluck dinner at her house, one of the rare ones I have attended instead of my parents. I was late - my car was trying to convince me it had a flat tire, which it did not - and all evening the guests (all in their sixties or older) talked about grandchildren and teeth, and how in their day, once you emigrated to the West, ten, twenty, thirty years would pass before you went home again. Not like my generation, who fly back and forth across the Pacific ocean for every vacation. But when they asked me to join the next party, I agreed. The food is always good, and the conversation is always entertaining, even when they start talking about teeth. I volunteered to make dessert, and then forgot about it until the morning of the dinner when I woke in a panic. (More on that later).

I make a ridiculously easy chocolate-hazelnut cake, then pace around my apartment trying to decide if I could just bring the cake, or if it needed something else. A drift of whipped cream, barely sweetened. Should I buy some fruit, bring some chocolate-covered honey pecans? Then I remember, there is a pint of salted caramel ice cream in the freezer. This is an older crowd, uninterested in sweets, conscious of their dessert intake. It would be enough. I slide my cake on a gold-foil-covered cardboard round, dust it with cocoa powder, carefully place it in a pink paperboard box. It looks impressively professional, so much so no one believes I made it myself. I find a ball of twine in a drawer, tie up my box for easy carrying, and head downtown to A.'s home. People stare. I worry that someone will mug me for the cake.

A. is, as usual, bustling around when I arrive. There are peonies on the table, along with plates and cutlery. Pots are in the oven, on the stove, wine is waiting to be opened. This is, in theory, a potluck, but A. has contributed four dishes, instead of the usual one or two. (I am a "kid," so I can get away with just one. Husbands without their wives are also allowed to bring just one). I show off my beautiful cake ("I don't believe you made that yourself!") and revel in the fact that a dusting of cocoa powder or powdered sugar makes anything instantly more professional-looking. As does a gold cardboard round and a pink paperboard box. (I should have placed a doily under the cake, but you can't remember everything).

Other guests trickle in, and we get ready to eat, transferring dishes from boxes and pots and bowls into narrow, rectangular platters that fit better on the buffet table. There is so much food I can't even sample everything on my first try, so I take several tastes of things and sit down to try them all before heading back for more. There is beef curry made with Malaysian curry powder, more intense than what I am used to, not sweet like Japanese curry. A dish of fine-cut tofu noodles, slivered ham, vegetables, cool and refreshing, like a Chinese macaroni salad. There is another cool salad of translucent wide noodles tossed with more vegetables, strands of omelet, bound together with a slightly spicy dressing fragrant with sesame paste. There is smoked salmon, and homemade pita bread, rolls of tofu skin filled with ground pork, braised with Napa cabbage. I come back for the hard-boiled eggs cooked with caramelized shallots and soy sauce and finely minced pork belly, a touch of five-spice powder, and am so seduced by the savory gravy of pork belly and shallots, I go back for thirds (as if I haven't eaten enough fatty pork this week).

We eat and eat, getting up for seconds, thirds, fourths. The conversation flows back and forth, three or four conversations at a table of twelve, my mind confused by multiple threads, two languages. Y. tells a story about J., when she worried over whether or not to marry her (second) younger husband. He doesn't even have any gray hair yet! she lamented. Don't worry, riposted Y., if he marries you, he WILL. (Twenty-odd years on, he does). Then it is time for dessert. There is a Chinese dessert of cubed almond-flavored jelly with canned fruit, the fruit juices forming a slightly sweet soup, instantly cooling and maddeningly addictive. And there is my dense hazelnut-and-chocolate cake, with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream melting on top. It is dark and intensely chocolatey, a perfect foil for the darkly caramelized ice cream I made a few weeks ago.

After dessert, several of the guests get up and start dancing, at one point pushing the table back to make more room. It was a sight I never thought I'd see, my mother's sixty-plus friends twirling around, hips swiveling, arms swinging, doing their interpretation of the Electric Slide.
Small pleasures.

After the three-day marathon of cooking with Mangalitsa last weekend I was left with a long, angled plank of bone, with some meat still attached. I seasoned it with a generous sprinkling of salt and roasted it at high heat until the meat had browned around the edges, the fat rendered crisp. Then I put it into my largest pot, covered it with water, and left it to simmer slowly until I had a pale gold broth. Then I put it into the fridge and forgot about it, to the extent that you can forget about a giant red Le Creuset pot that takes up most of the bottom shelf of your fridge and practically yells "HEY THERE!" every time you open the door.

Days passed. I made lasagne with some extra mushrooms and spicy sausage and tomato sauce and béchamel, I made fried rice with some leftover Mangalitsa belly found lurking in the middle shelf of the fridge, I went out to dinner with a friend. Before I knew it Friday had come around and at midnight I was in bed with a copy of Takashi's Noodles, drooling over the pictures. I didn't have the patience - or the ingredients - to whip up any of the recipes, but I fell asleep with visions of udon noodles in my head.

Eight hours later, I woke to brilliant sunshine peeking around the edges of my so-called blackout shades. Blackout shades, my ass. Still, that means more time to enjoy the day, and that pot of Mangalitsa broth is calling my name. I scoop the fat floating on the top of the broth out before bringing it to a simmer, add a couple slices of ginger, boil a pot of water for the noodles. Rooting around in the fridge I find that all the scallions are gone (went into the fried rice, I think) but there is a bundle of spinach wilting away. Perfect. I grab the spinach and an egg and turn my attention to the boiling water, into which I throw a small handful of noodles. (Who am I kidding? I weigh my noodles, to ensure I get the right portion size, or in this case, half-portion).

In the last four minutes I add the egg into the boiling noodles to poach, then in the last two minutes I add the spinach, which gratifyingly shrinks in the pan and turns a deep jade. I drain the noodles, spinach, and egg in a mesh strainer (I have three, and use them for everything from sifting dry ingredients for baking to draining noodles and anything boiled or straining custards, and still I wish I had more. Like rubber spatulas, you can never have too many) and dump them in a bowl. In goes a generous ladle of broth, a sprinkle of salt.

It is a small pleasure, or perhaps even a great one, to sit down to a bowl of hot noodles, the faintly metallic bite of spinach, the soft tenderness of poached egg (I should have poached it less, as it is a bit firmer than it should have been - fine for eggs Benedict, overdone for soup noodles), the slippery noodles just on the right side of chewy, all against the light, savory broth. The strong flavor of Mangalitsa pork is mellowed in a soup, rounded out by the warmth of ginger, but it is still there.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kitchen adventures: Mangalitsa three ways.

It started when K. found a giant slab of Mangalitsa pork in the chest freezer. Since I am generally acknowledged (God help me) as the expert in these matters (long story) it became my job, nay, my solemn duty to work up a dinner party featuring this fearsome slab of meat (fourteen pounds, frozen). I managed to put it off for a while, but finally a date was fixed, and there was no escape. For days I tried to bounce ideas off other people, only to be met with "You're the expert. You decide." I knew I could use a couple pounds of the meat to make rillettes, but what the hell was I going to do with the rest of it?

The rillettes took me most of Saturday afternoon. I had done this before, and it was simple work to chop up the pork and let it simmer away with herbs and onions in a mixture of lard and wine. I could leave it on low heat and walk away. When the meat was tender, beginning to fall apart, I drained it and gently pulsed it in the food processor until it came together like a rough pâté, but stopped before it turned into mush. I seasoned it generously - a little too generously, it turned out - with salt and pepper and packed into a long terrine, scooping leftovers into small tubs and jars, covering each container with a thin layer of melted fat.

Sunday was occupied with lasagne, but after I came home from a dinner of fried chicken I carved up the remainder of the pork, seasoning thick slabs of meat with kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper and torn sprigs of thyme. It rested overnight, and the next morning I put the pork into a pot that was just big enough to fit the pieces in one layer, then poured in apple cider. I brought it all to a boil, then turned it down low, and then thought about what to do with the last few pounds of meat. I know! I thought. I'll make potstickers! At this point I completely lost my mind (I was probably delirious from all the cooking I had been doing), and thought it was perfectly reasonable to grind my own meat and roll out my own potsticker dough.

Not having a meat grinder, I momentarily contemplated chopping the meat by hand. A few feeble attempts convinced me to reach for the food processor. The main concern with chopping meat in the food processor, as with many things, seems to be chopping it without turning it all into mush. But by now I had become one with the "pulse" button, and by dividing the pork into a few smaller batches I had enough control over the process to make it come out, if not perfect, at least acceptable. It was a bit more irregular than meat put through the grinder, but it was good enough for me. I threw a few scallions and a bunch of bok choy that had been wilting in my fridge and chopped those up, too, and grated a fat knob of ginger. The vegetables and grated ginger went into the bowl of ground pork with a sprinkle of salt, a few sloshes of soy sauce, a few grinds of black pepper. I should have used white, but never mind. Then in with the hands, thoroughly blending all the ingredients together.

The hardest part was making the potsticker wrappers. The dough was soft and sticky and seemed to attach itself to everything - my hands, the wooden board I was using as a work surface, the filling, the plate I used to arrange the finished dumplings - and by the time I made it to A. and B.'s house I had about two dozen recognizable dumpling (ugly, but recognizable) and a lumpy, amorphous mass of filling and dough. The latter I sliced into roughly dumpling-sized blobs and fried in a thin film of lard (achieved by searing the rim of fat running down each hunk of braised pork until some of the fat melted away), and amazingly enough, they held together. The pork was incredibly good, the strong flavor of Mangalitsa pork balanced by the soy sauce and ginger, a touch of scallion, the slight crunch of fresh bok choy. I have to work on my wrapping skills, but the filling was perfect.

While all that messing around with sticky dumpling dough was happening the rest of the pork had been braising away quietly in thyme-scented apple cider. I took it out when I thought it was tender enough and reduced the braising liquid into a brothy sauce, then packed everything in a wide assortment of jars and boxes. Later, just before dinner, I held the fat side of the meat against a hot pan until the surface browned and some of the fat melted into the pan (which I used to fry the potstickers - no waste here). R. sliced it all, arranged it in a deep dish, and let it sit in the warming oven. Before serving, we poured the warmed sauce over the meat, and everyone dug in. It was good, the meat rich and intense, sweet with apples, scented with thyme, the fat surprisingly light to taste.

I am still not sure what part of the pig I was working with - I suspect it came from the shoulder, but honestly, I have no idea. In any case, it was delicious.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lasagne x 3.

E. does not like to cook. She is a beloved patron of a bakery near her home which provides her with blue cheese macaroni and cheese and Southwestern-inspired casseroles, and cakes and tortes and tarts dense with chocolate or fluffy with coconut or layered with marzipan or filled with custard and fresh berries. But she does not cook, so once a year she asks me to make her my signature lasagnes, one layered with wild mushrooms and béchamel, another with spicy Italian sausage in tomato sauce and ricotta swirled with fresh basil. (I could make them in my sleep).

The mushroom lasagne is one I regret introducing to a wide audience, because it is a pain in the ass to make. There is just so much chopping. (The first time I made this I had to finely chop two pounds of mushrooms by hand, and by the time I was done I was ready to kill myself. The second time I made this I borrowed someone's food processor). So when K. caught wind of my plans and asked me to make her another mushroom lasagne I thought, oh shit. But I cook out of love, out of a need to give pleasure that is both my strength and my weakness, and so I say yes.

Actually, chopping the zucchini is a pain in the ass, too. The recipe specifies a 1/4-inch dice, and how you are supposed to dice a practically cylindrical object is beyond me. What I come up with is mostly 1/4-inch triangles with the occasional accidental cube. I soak dried mushrooms (a medley of wild mushrooms, when I had meant to get porcinis...whoops) in boiling water, drain and chop them. The mushroom liquid is reduced into a dark syrup, while I quarter two pounds of mushrooms (creminis, white buttons, Portabellos) and pulse them in my food processor. The pulse button and I become quite intimate over the weekend.

Doubling a recipe isn't just as easy as making a single batch. It's twice as hard. It isn't two pounds of mushrooms, but rather, four. Instead of cooking the mushrooms in three batches, there are six. There is a battalion of bowls and pots marching up and down my kitchen, shreds of onion skins and sprigs of thyme on my floor, and a light dusting of flour all over everything, including me. But I press on, and very soon I have the first mushroom lasagne in the oven while I put together the spicy sausage one. This recipe comes from Cook's Illustrated and is meant to be whipped up in no time at all on a weeknight, so it comes together very quickly.

Sooner than I thought possible I have two steaming, bubbling pans of lasagne ready to take to E.'s house. I drive over carefully with my precious cargo, and am greeted joyfully at the door. E.'s house is warm and cozy, and she offers me a drink and a snack. But I have another dinner party tomorrow, and I must prepare.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tuesday happiness.

A few days ago I found myself with two fat stems of rhubarb and no idea what to do with them. Fortunately, another food blog saved me with a recipe for poached rhubarb; it would be terrific, she wrote, over rice pudding or cottage cheese or yogurt. Best of all, it called for rosé, which I conveniently had in my fridge. M. and I had opened it for movie night last week, and had left it unfinished. I would fiddle with the proportions - more wine, less water, a touch more sugar - and chop the rhubarb more finely, and whoops, inadvertently cook it too long. Oh well. The rhubarb was sweet and tart, soft and melting, infused with the sparkle of rosé and the warmth of cinnamon and vanilla. The recipe had called for half a vanilla bean, but all I had was some vanilla sugar lurking in the back of a cupboard; when I poured the sugar into a cup a few shards of vanilla bean fell out, which was just what I needed.

The rhubarb made a divine breakfast with a scoop of whole-milk yogurt, two mornings in a row, with or without a sprinkle of raw sugar to smooth out the tartness of plain yogurt. I wanted more, but it was all gone. Then I took the reduced syrup, still heady with rosé and spices, poured it over ice with fizzy water. It was sweet, but complex enough to make up for the sweetness. I turned to some lemons rolling around in the vegetable compartment. Voilá! Rhubarb-rosé lemonade! I drank some over ice last night, then with fizzy club soda tonight. It was cool and refreshing, and I am itching to buy more rhubarb, more rosé, more lemons, and start all over again.

Earlier in the afternoon I left work and headed to the park. I wanted a hot dog, but the hot-dog vendor was nowhere to be seen. Alas. I went instead to Molly Moon, which was reasonably empty - no lines! - and smelled of freshly made waffle cones. I think heaven would smell like freshly made waffle cones. I ordered a scoop of balsamic strawberry, and walked back across to the park to find a bench, licking my ice cream as I walked. The balsamic is thick and syrupy, and drips on my hand as I make my way past the playfield, along the fountain to an empty bench. The sun is shining, it's a beautiful day, made even more so by the ice cream in my hand. And stomach.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Weekend markets.

I went to the U-District market yesterday; I needed sausage, and vegetables for Mother's day dinner. I got some spicy Italian sausage from H., and tangled bundles of asparagus for D., as well as purple-skinned potatoes (and a bag of Yukon Golds). I bought bags of salad greens and bouquets of spinach and bok choy, some leafy chard tied into a fat log. Then I bought flowers, a dozen purple irises, a dozen red-and-yellow tulips, a bunch of lilac stems. The irises and tulips made a madly colorful arrangement on my dining room table, and the lilacs sent out a heavenly fragrance in the living room and next to my bed. I ate leftovers for dinner and thought about how to spend my Sunday.

Today brought the opening day of the Broadway farmer's market, a bit less than a mile away. It was mostly flat; I could manage the walk, so long as I didn't buy any more potatoes. The sun was out, the perfect day, and the market was full of people with their dogs. The stalls where I buy potatoes and meat and vegetables at other markets have spots here; excellent. But all I need today are some scallions, three dollars for two fat bunches, and some lunch. I stop at a stand for a cheeseburger made with local organic grass-fed beef, on a hunk of organic baguette from the place where I often buy bread. It takes a little while, since everything is cooked to order, but it is a nice day to stand around and watch the people walk by.

I take my cheeseburger to the nearby park and sit next to the fountain to eat, as small children go running up and down through the water, splashing me as they go. I suppose it is my own fault for intruding on their impromptu water-park. After my lunch I head home, passing more children splashing away, people with their dogs, a white guy doing t'ai ch'i very seriously. I want ice cream. Amazingly, there is no line outside Molly Moon, and in practically no time at all I am walking home with a waffle cone of maple walnut ice cream, which is absolutely fantastic.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday night. Palace Kitchen.

I have been thinking about cheeseburgers for a while now, debating over and over in my head whether I should make them, or go out to eat. Should I try the Hunt Club, tucked in the Sorrento Hotel, just down the street? Head over to Quinns, which I have not visited since last fall? Firmly fixed in the back of my mind was Palace Kitchen. I wish I ate there more often, but the neighborhood is hard to find parking, and I have never gone there alone. But it is Friday, and C. and I are out and about, and I persuade her to head over there. There is no street parking, with all the construction going on, not to mention the fact that it is Friday night, and there is a long line of people outside the Cinerama theater, waiting to see the new Star Trek movie. Finally we find the last spot in a pay lot and walk into the restaurant, where there is just one table for two in the main room.

I don't really need the menu - I have been thinking about cheeseburgers for weeks, and it would totally disrupt my plans should I order anything else now - so we order our food, and drinks, sangria for C. and a Red Pearl for me. Some bread arrives with our drinks, with a little dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The bread comes from Dahlia Bakery, a few blocks away; all but one of Tom Douglas' restaurants are within a three block radius of the flagship that contains the bakery, Serious pie., and the Dahlia Lounge. Across the street is the Palace Ballroom, where you can have a wedding or some other grand event. But right now I am only thinking about food, and my drink, which is a glass of Prosecco with a deep red pearl of Negroni syrup at its heart.

Our burgers arrive, medium-rare and juicy, with some Beecher's cheddar on top of the patty and a soft bun enclosing it. I ignore the lettuce, the slices of onion, the green tomatoes. The fries are skinny and crisp, and there are little pots of ketchup and some sort of garlicky mayonnaise. It, like my cocktail, is just what I needed after a long week at work. But then it is time for dessert, a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream for C., a banana cream pie for me. The pie is a small individual one, all buttery, flaky pastry, containing slices of banana, chocolate ganache, custard, and whipped cream. Mostly it seems to be whipped cream. I feel as though I have never been so full, or so happy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Soup and bread.

Some odds-and-ends have been knocking around in my fridge for several days now. Three broccoli stems, their leafy florets long gone. Four or five leeks, some fat, others spindly, their leaves yellowing and wrinkled at the ends. Half an onion, peeled and wrapped in plastic. One red potato. One Yukon Gold potato. A pot of chicken broth from last week's roast chicken. (I ate the wings and drumsticks, then the thighs and other bits of dark meat, then some of the breast, then froze the rest of the breast for...something else). Time for potage aux legumes. Also known as clean-out-the-vegetable-drawer soup. But first I have to get the bread going.

The bread dough has been rising away since last night; when I stick a spatula in the dough it pulls away in stringy threads. After some folding and stretching and sprinkling with flour, it forms a round ball, which I dust with more flour and dump into a bowl. On to the soup. I chop the onion and leeks, and peel and slice the broccoli stems and potatoes. The broth simmers away; I take out the bones, ladle out about a quart of broth to freeze for later. The chopped leeks and onions are caramelizing in a little butter, and when they are ready I slide them into the broth with the potatoes and broccoli. I scrape the bread dough into a preheated Pyrex pot, and it hisses as it settles into the hot pot. It goes into the oven, and the soup continues to simmer away. In an effort to turn over a new leaf, I start cleaning up the kitchen now, instead of...tomorrow night. Hunger overtakes me, and I break for a handful of almonds, a few potato chips.

While the bread finishes baking I puree the soup in my food processor. It takes no time at all, and soon I have a thick, creamy soup, which I eat while watching The Enchanted April, a movie I have not seen for many years but is as lovely as I remember it. The bread is not quite ready as I eat my soup, but finally it has cooled enough for me to slice open (really it should cool for a couple of hours, but I don't have that kind of time). This time I used a two-quart covered Pyrex dish, much smaller than what is recommended, so the dough filled the entire pot, pushing against the lid, taking on the perfect round shape of the dish. The bread had a fluffy, slightly moist crumb; still warm, it didn't even need the butter, but I ate it with butter anyway. It was delicious.