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.