Saturday, June 26, 2010

Strawberry fields (forever).

My alarm went off at 6am. Somehow I stumbled out of bed and into the shower and got dressed, eyes still closed, and drove up to J.'s house. We got in her car and headed north, up to the Skagit Valley, stopping for coffee and donuts along the way (salted caramel for me, apple fritter for her). We got lost, thanks to my inability to follow directions. We made wrong turns and were sniffed at by suspicious dogs and finally I saw the unmistakable silver-thatched head of our leader across the road, near a beautiful farmhouse set amongst rolling fields. Strawberry fields.

There were maybe 60 of us, men and women and children and babies. We listened to our hosts talk about strawberry varieties and what it takes to run a family farm, generations in the making. Then we gathered our empty half-flats and trooped across the road to an untouched strawberry field. These are Shuksans, deep red to the core and pure in flavor; they are everything a strawberry should be. I am kneeling in the dirt, lifting up the dusty leaves in search of ripe berries hiding beneath. The ripest berries fall into my hand, gently. Every few minutes I eat another one. Quality control. I look over at my friends with their baby, I., who is enthusiastically diving into his first strawberry, his lips and even his nose stained bright red.

Little kids are running around, leaping over the strawberry plants, helping their parents fill their flats, popping the occasional ripe berry into their eager mouths. I hear the occasional shout of "Mommy! I gotta go potty!" and laugh to myself. I remember being a kid and coming up here to go strawberry or raspberry picking. I remember the heat, the sun beating down, and am grateful that today is cool and gray. We take our heaping half-flats back across the road, and gather to eat strawberry shortcake. The kids are all eagerly waiting for their share, a giant biscuit piled high with fresh strawberries (simply macerated with a little sugar, I think) and whipped cream. Jon solemnly asks each child if they are sure they can handle all that shortcake; each child eagerly nods yes.

Finally, I get my own serving of strawberry shortcake. I feel like a little kid again, tasting some forbidden fruit. That combination of strawberries and whipped cream, it always feels special, and every time I have it again I feel that same shock of excitement all over again.

Full and happy, we drive home, stopping at the Rexville Grocery for an egg scramble to counteract all the sugar bouncing around in our systems. It was a good day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The first dish. eggs scrambled with tomatoes.

Eggs scrambled with tomatoes is a classic Taiwanese home-cooked dish. I don't actually remember what the first dish I ever made was - steamed rice? Brownies from a mix? - but surely this is one of the first things I learned to cook on the stove. Sometimes I burned the scallions, undercooked the tomatoes so the whole dish was too watery, stirred the scrambling eggs so enthusiastically that everything broke apart into clumps, added too much salt or too little, both cardinal sins. Sometimes the scallions were too raw or the tomatoes too mushy. We would sit down to dinner, me folding my legs under me in the window seat, and my parents would (kindly, gently) point out what I had done wrong, and how I could do it better. Sometimes, though, they would be just right.

A while back, some coworkers and I had an intense, trilingual debate over the proper way to cook scrambled eggs and tomatoes. There is no single, canonical recipe. Some people scramble the eggs first, remove them onto a plate, then cook the tomatoes and scallions separately. I don't understand this, because then the tomatoes and eggs don't stick together at all. Other people add ketchup, or wait until the end to add the scallions (sliced into two-inch logs) so they remain crisp and fresh. I also don't understand this, because I don't like raw scallions unless they are very thinly sliced. My own method has evolved over some twenty years, and now I can do it without thinking.

I use Roma tomatoes, and slice them into chunks about 3/4 inch square, two tomatoes for three eggs. I slice a couple of scallions thinly on the bias, beat the eggs with a fork (if I were being properly Chinese, I'd use chopsticks for this), and heat a little oil in a frying pan. In go the scallions, and when they start sizzling, I add the tomatoes. I let the tomatoes cook until they soften, release their juices, then cook them a little longer until the juices are almost gone. Season with salt and pepper, pour in the beaten eggs. Fold the eggs over on themselves as they set, turn golden around the edges. Once in a while, I manage to get everything to hold together into a soft frittata; usually it falls apart in irregular wedges. It doesn't matter. It's always delicious.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Four ingredients.

It was an impromptu potluck, with only one direction: you could only put four ingredients in your dish. (Not counting water, salt, pepper, or oil/butter). I agonized for hours. I consulted cookbooks. And then I took a deep breath, and made something of my own, or rather, two things: a cool salad of thinly sliced cantaloupe, mint, burrata, and roasted hazelnuts, tossed together haphazardly at the last moment, and another salad of Persian cucumbers in a soy, sesame oil, and vinegar dressing. The former was a sudden inspiration, the latter is something that I have been making since childhood, and I can do it in my sleep. Sometimes we add crushed garlic, or hot peppers, but I was restrained by my four ingredients.

Others rose to the challenge. There were toasts topped with marmalade, Gouda, and prosciutto. Carrots with butter and cumin and borage blossoms, as beautiful to look at as it was good to eat. A simple salad with fresh lettuces, translucent, ruby-rimmed slices of tiny radishes, radish sprouts, and a light vinaigrette. Spicy stir-fried cabbage with bacon. Barbecue-smoked ribs rubbed with brown sugar and chili powder and cumin. Everything was delicious; everything came together into a meal, something more than a hodgepodge of ingredients carelessly thrown together.

The truth is that the limitation of having only four ingredients is no limitation at all, but rather a new kind of freedom. It forces you to think about what you don't need, and concentrate on what you do. This is home cooking, the kind you do every night; short on ingredients and time to put it all together (with the exception of the ribs, which take a couple of hours on the barbecue, I think), and long on flavor. I didn't really need to think about it - mint goes well with cantaloupe, burrata tastes good with everything, and hazelnuts add a nice crunch. Those quick pickles are easy to put together, take no effort at all, and everyone loves them. At the end of the day, I don't want a million flavors and ingredients and garnishes battling it out on my palate, much as I prefer the clear melodies of Bach to Beethoven's symphonies. I want to taste my food, enjoy it, savor every last bite.

I ate five of the ribs. Everyone made fun of me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lazy Saturday.

After a breakfast of tea and a toasted croissant and the leftover landjäger from last night (which still reminds me of a fancy Slim Jim) I head down to Melrose Market. I buy chocolate mint and chives from Marigold & Mint (no flowers; I bought peonies and lupines and sweetpeas and a single, perfect rose a few days ago). I buy burrata and a baguette and a few odds-and-ends of cheese from Calf & Kid. I get some Duroc bacon from Rain Shadow Meats. I love the Melrose Market; I will love it even more when Homegrown opens and I can get sandwiches here.

I walk home thinking about the things I've bought, but also thinking about a dinner tonight. J. and B. are celebrating the completion of their respective books, and are throwing an impromptu potluck. There is one thing - we have to bring a dish that contains four ingredients, no more. No garnish. We are sad that M. can't be there, because he is the kind of cook who garnishes his garnishes. I had initially thought of making a pea-and-bacon salad in endive boats, or corn-and-pine-nuts (also in endive boats). But that would involve going to the supermarket in search of endives.

I make myself lunch, bacon and eggs and a hunk of baguette, and ideas turn themselves over in my head like stones caught in the waves at the beach. I think about a salad of thinly sliced melon and slivers of mint, roughly torn chunks of burrata, a sprinkling of sea salt (salt and pepper and oil do not count as one of our four ingredients), perhaps some toasted hazelnuts for crunch. Just in case, I make a back-up dish - quick pickles of Persian cucumbers, sliced into slim wedges and marinated in a soy-sesame vinaigrette. Usually I use soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, but as there is a slim possibility of a gluten-intolerant guest I make it with wheat-free tamari and Chardonnay vinegar. It tastes just as good this way, and I won't have to worry about making anyone sick. In the end, she doesn't make it to the party, but everyone else digs in with gusto.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Lark.

There are many new restaurants now, places I've been wanting to try. But first I head back to Lark. In the city where I grew up and where there are still restaurants who remember my parents but not me, Lark is the one place that is completely mine. I ate there several times with my parents, but after they moved to Taipei and I moved to the neighborhood, I started going alone, striking up conversations with one of the owners and all of the servers. I became a regular. One of these conversations led to the Whole Beast dinner one spring evening two years ago. That dinner led to more adventures beyond anything I could have imagined. My life as it is now began that night.

J. is late, stuck in traffic. The dining room is empty and quiet; white linens, dark wood, wineglasses gleam in the sunlight that streams through the front windows. I'm in one of the booths that run along the south wall of the restaurant, and as I wait for my friend I hear M. recite the specials. I hear the words "crispy trotter cakes" and my ears perk right up. J. arrives, and we order the crispy trotter cakes, along with several other dishes. We have a simple green salad, a plate of burrata with pine nuts, basil, fava beans, and the best croutons ever. I love burrata.

We have landjäger, a kind of cured sausage served with two kinds of mustards, and the main event, the crispy trotter cakes. The cakes have the perfect crunchy crust, all meltingly tender pork inside, with a luxurious foie gras sauce sprinkled with porcini mushrooms. I almost asked for more bread to mop up the sauce, but I am distracted by the rösti potatoes. I am glad J. is here with me. I would probably die if I tried to eat both trotter cakes by myself, and I only ever get burrata or rösti potatoes when I come here with other people. By now the dining room is full, and I am glad. The last year or two has been hard for the restaurant industry, and while new places seem to open every week so many other places have been struggling.

But for now, all the tables are occupied, and we are eating dessert. J. has Meyer lemon ice cream, and I have a rhubarb-rosé 'consommé' with coconut sorbet with pistachios and mint. It sounds improbable but turns out to be light and refreshing, and I love it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Let them eat cake.

The other night I was thinking about that offhand comment, made by a friend on Twitter, taken out of context, about how anyone can cook. Out of context, it sounded a little like "let them eat cake!" I know there is more to the story, but leaving that behind, I kept thinking more and more about why I cook. How I learned to cook. How I push myself, as R. put it, to "raise my game." I thought about standing on a chair, age 3, carefully washing a bowl of mushrooms, rubbing away every speck of dirt until each mushroom was a gleaming white. I thought about that miserable year, after college, when I felt lost, jobless, living at home and making dinner for my parents and I every night. How I kept up the cooking even after I started working, making quick stops at QFC on the way home or calling my dad and asking if he wouldn't mind picking up a few things.

I have always cooked. Tunnel-of-fudge cakes from a mix. A horrifying late-60's casserole involving chicken thighs, canned mushroom soup, Lipton's Onion Soup mix, and orange juice over rice. Lasagne. I moved away from special-occasion dishes that took hours and dirtied every surface of the kitchen - I was and still am an extremely messy cook - and into simple, everyday dishes like teriyaki chicken wings, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, and fried rice. While I am still terrible at things involving beaten egg whites and my cheesecakes rise and fall and crack like Krakatoa during a volcano eruption, cooking is something I do all the time. If not every night, then almost every other night. For the most part.

The hard part, as R. commented a few nights ago on an earlier post, is waste. As a single girl, I am always halving or quartering recipes so I don't wind up with more than three or four meals' worth of any one dish. More than wasting food, I hate boredom. I hate eating the same thing over and over again. This is especially hard with soups and stews, rich things like curries and borscht that I crave for days and then can no longer bear the thought of by the time I struggle my way through the last spoonfuls. A few weeks back I made myself an Indian-spiced curry with two medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes and half an onion, and it lasted just long enough (three servings) to leave me wanting more, which is the ideal.

I have the luxury of time. I get off work early enough to head to the farmer's market on weekdays for vegetables and meats and a frothy, creamy cup of horchata from the taco stand that appeared all the markets this year. I can have an early dinner and spend the evening baking cheesecake for my coworker's birthday. I can walk to the new butcher down the hill for a slab of pork belly and buy tiny white turnips at the flower shop nearby to braise with said pork belly and everything will be ready by 6:30. And I love that I have all of this.

Another day I'll dig deeper into the archives . I don't quite remember what I ate when I had a different schedule and came home at 6 or 7. Maybe I ate later, stayed up later, woke up later. I still ate the same things I do now, I think. My life is different now. Food, as it has always been, is the only constant.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dinner for one.

I timed myself as I was cooking dinner tonight, starting with washing two cups of rice and putting it in the rice cooker. This is always the first step; it takes 45 minutes for the rice to cook, and it will taste better if you let it rest for an additional 10 minutes before you scoop it out. It was always my job to make the rice before dinner when I was growing up, after piano practice, before chopping vegetables and setting the table. I hated how cold my hands got unless I turned the water to lukewarm while rinsing the rice. Did you know that in Chinese, the word for uncooked rice (mi - 米) is not the same as the word for cooked rice (fan - 飯)? This has always confused me.

Once the rice is out of the way, the rest of my prep is easy. I have a few Shanghai bok choy left - unlike regular bok choy (large or baby), it has brighter green stems and leaves, instead of nearly white stems and dark green leaves - and I slice off the bottoms, detaching the thicker outer leaves and keeping the heart intact. I roll cut some Chinese eggplants - or maybe these are the Japanese ones, I can't remember - into smallish chunks so they'll cook faster. L. is the only one who has ever noticed that I roll-cut my vegetables, creating irregularly-shaped pieces that are, nonetheless, about the same size. Twenty-some years of cooking under the eagle eye of my mother means unbreakable habits.

Quickly, I slice some shiitake mushrooms to stir-fry with the bok choy, and finely mince several cloves of garlic for the eggplant. I check my timer. Half an hour has gone by. I clean up the kitchen - a little - and pull out blocks of cream cheese for the cheesecake I have to make later, so they can come to room temperature while I eat dinner. I know from experience that if I start the actual cooking when the rice is nearly done, then I can eat by the time the rice has rested long enough. I take a break, and come back to find 5 minutes left for the rice cooker.

To cut down on the number of pans I have to wash, I generally use one pan for two dishes, and don't bother washing the pan in between. This works for me because, to keep a balance of flavors in my meal, I usually cook one dish with soy sauce, and one without. Obviously, you cook the dish without soy sauce first, to avoid contaminating the second one. In no time at all, the bok choy with shiitake mushrooms is done. The eggplant takes a little longer; I add water to the pan to steam it soft, then stir-fry it until the soy sauce begins to caramelize around the edges of the eggplant. Finally, it's done. I check my timer. 54 minutes, 03 seconds. Time to eat.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Roast chicken and other thoughts.

It started out on Twitter, the way so many things do these day. One famous food writer declared that roasting a chicken took no time at all, and anyone could do it, even on a weeknight. Another food writer declared that if she could cook three meals a day, plus baking in the afternoon, with a toddler, then other people could, too. It was one of those off-hand comments that hit a nerve. This second writer is someone I admire, love, respect, someone I consider a friend. And on the one side: anyone can learn to cook. And on the other side: first, they need the desire to learn, and the willingness to make mistakes. That is the hard part.

The beautiful part of Twitter, for me, is the tight-knit community of food-loving people that I have found in both my own city and across the globe. The bitter part of it is that what makes us so close can also, temporarily, blind us to what is outside: people who don't share that same passion. Who don't have certain luxuries that I, for one, take for granted: a childhood with parents who loved food and took me everywhere from roadside stands in Taipei to the Russian Tea Room in New York City, money to buy food and experiment with ingredients that may be expensive and/or hard to find, time to shop and cook, and the kitchen skills and confidence that allow me to turn out a meal for one person (when I am alone) in about half an hour, or three people (when my parents are in town) in about an hour.

I have a repertoire of dishes I can make with my eyes closed. I have a well-stocked (if not well-organized - where the hell did I put that bottle of Worcestershire?) pantry. If I lack a true professional chef's speed and skill - I am sure my friends who have actual training would wince if they saw me cook - I do know what I am doing, most of the time. I have a schedule that means I am home by 4pm. I am always thinking ahead - what can I prep tonight so I don't have to do it tomorrow? What leftovers can be stretched and reassembled into something different so I don't get bored? I do this because I love to eat, and because I care enough to take the time to think about what I eat, at least 90% of the time. (Except for nights like tonight, when I had one salami sandwich and one smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwich for dinner). I'll bake a cake because I see a recipe I want to try, just for the hell of it, and I am not usually intimidated by a mile-long list of ingredients or three pages of instructions, although I save complicated things for the weekend.

The conversation about mothers-who-work and mothers-who-stay-home and mothers-who-work-from-home is one that I am completely unqualified to participate in. I am single and childless. I am not responsible for the care and feeding of anyone besides myself, except for, occasionally, my parents (they spend about six weeks of the year in Seattle, with me). Laurie Colwin wrote movingly and clearly about her feelings about being a working mother who nevertheless was determined to make sure that her family ate well, nearly 20 years ago, and she put it better than anyone. (See the chapters "Real Food for Tots" and "Four Easy Pieces;" hell, see ALL the chapters in More Home Cooking, a collection of brilliant food essays collected just before her sudden death in 1992).

In college I would buy poussins at the slightly larger, fancier Wegman's supermarket over in Pittsford (a short drive from the University of Rochester, where I was a student). I'd spatchcock them with a pair of kitchen shears and roast them, seasoned simply with salt and pepper, in my toaster oven until the skin was golden and crispy and the meat was juicy. I'd make soup with the bones and have chicken noodle soup (with spinach and scallions and Chinese wheat noodles), sorry, poussin noodle soup, the next night. Why doesn't anyone talk about roasting poussins or Cornish game hens on a weeknight? Splitting the birds down the back and flattening them (the complicated way of saying "spatchcocking") enables you to cook them quickly, making them perfect for when you are short of time. It's roast chicken, with a little bit of fiddly work with a pair of scissors but minus the feeling of being in Spain when dinner isn't ready until 9pm. Unless you want to feel like you've gone to Spain.