Saturday, May 31, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Heat Stroke

The Tipsy Baker is so macha she can drink habanero salsa from a spoon at Mexican restaurants, entertaining bored dining companions as they await their fajitas. Children are particularly wowed by this party trick. Adults less so.

Which is a long way of saying that the Baker has a high tolerance for spicy food. 

Yesterday she made Fuchsia Dunlop's steamed chicken with chopped salted chilies, a dish so incendiary that she almost had to toss it into the garbage pail. Eating this chicken was physically painful. Sweat dripped down the Baker's face as she struggled to savor her solitary, masochistic lunch. 
"This is a marvelous dish, utterly simple to make but most seductive with its gentle heat and subtle flavors," Fuchsia Dunlop writes in her headnote to the recipe.

Hmm, thought the Baker. Something went wrong. Let us think. . . perhaps Dunlop used a milder chili variety to achieve that "gentle heat?" 

Yes, Sherlock, almost certainly she did. But what chili exactly? The Baker is a compulsive follower of directions and she went to several supermarkets -- five, actually -- to find the "very fresh red chiles" called for by Dunlop, finally settling on what she thought was a reasonable facsimile. "Very fresh red chiles" is maddeningly vague, leaving far too much room for interpretation. The Baker interpreted wrong.

She is now a little down on Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, and approaches her next Hunanese cooking effort with trepidation. 

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Deep Breaths

That's a sweet portrait of intergenerational harmony, Checka and Owen learning together how to make Fuchsia Dunlop's spicy steamed pork buns

It was actually one of the few tranquil moments in our evening. My children fight. They fight over everything, all the time, and it doesn't sound like cats and dogs. It sounds like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Apocalypto. As soon as I try to mediate, they both turn on me. If they turned on me and bonded over their shared enemy, it would be wonderful and I would happily throw myself on my sword. But they turn on me and still want to kill each other and then we're all shrieking.

It is incredibly depressing.
Okay. Food. Last night we made the aforementioned pork buns, which Dunlop describes tasting for the first time on a cool spring morning in a Changsha tea house. I thought these bao were terrific, but everyone else found them intolerably spicy and refused to eat them. So I guess they were a bust. 

Also a bust was the hand-torn vinegar cabbage. I should have read the headnote before I tried this austere dish, which Dunlop describes as typical fare of a "work-unit canteen" during the Mao era. "Despite it's modesty, it's rather nice," she writes. Rather nice? Work-unit canteen? Fuchsia! Demerits.

The final bust: apples trailing golden threads, which I tackled in a fit of irrational exuberance following last week's success with Cecilia Chiang's caramelized bananas. Alas, no golden threads trailed; instead, sugar clumped and crystallized. I followed the recipe precisely, and I think I know where Dunlop steered me wrong. More demerits.

However, she did teach me a crazy new way to cook moist, perfect rice. And her luscious Quick-Fried Lamb was popular with this tough Wednesday night crowd. Not a single rich, juicy scrap was left.

After I cleaned up the kitchen and kissed my mother goodbye, the children and I went upstairs to watch a few episodes of The Office. TV is brain-rotting junk. I should be reading Dickens aloud or playing Bach preludes or making them memorize the Bill of Rights. I know all this because I've just finished the fascinating and exceedingly cranky Susan Jacoby book.

But when the three of us get under the duvet and start laughing hysterically after a long, bitterly contentious evening, it feels like grace. I really don't care how we get there. 

To hell with Susan Jacoby. 

And thank-you, Steve Carell.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Smacked Cukes, Slivered Potatoes & Steamed Spareribs

Those, my friend, are deep-fried peanuts (you su hua ren). And they are as wickedly good as they look, salty, with a deep, reverberant crunch you never dreamed possible from a goober.

Last night was the first family meal from Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. I haven't had time to read every line, but I will say right off the bat that I am predisposed to revere this woman who, like me, is a pale Westerner obsessed with Chinese cooking. I'm extremely envious that she actually learned Chinese and went to China and wrote amazing books, but I will try not to hold it against her.

A rundown of our meal:

-Succulent steamed spare ribs with black beans and chiles. Too ugly to photograph, but these had the earthy, lipsmacking savor you only get from fermented black beans

-Smacked cucumbers. You really do smack the cucumbers (with flat edge of a knife, a rolling pin, a hammer) until they shatter and collapse, then you chop them into bite-size chunks and toss with a vinegar-chili dressing. Sadly, the best thing about this bland salad is its name. If you want something awesome and very similar, here's a link to the late Barbara Tropp's fabulous recipe for ma la cucumber fans.

-Finally: Potato slivers with vinegar. You sliver potatoes, blanch, then stir fry with peanut oil, chilies and clear rice vinegar. Unlike anything you'd ever get in a Chinese-American restaurant, and worth the price of the book. Imagine delicate shards of potato, a little tart, a little spicy, a little mysterious, utterly delicious. Discovering that the stodgy spud can be cut into skinny slivers and sauteed with vinegar is like learning that your dowdy best friend has a glamorous secret life.

This is why I have so many cookbooks.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Petaluma

A lesson learned last night: You can never buy too many steaks if you buy steaks as amazing as the ones my father bought. Rib steaks, beautifully marbled, two inches thick, tender as . . . how do professional food writers do it?

You couldn't quite cut these steaks with a fork, but they were tender as. . .

They were really, really tender.

Herewith, a drastically condensed version of events:

Tipsy Baker: "For an appetizer, I brought these Hunanese sweet-and-sour spareribs from Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. They were a specialty of Xiaoxiang Jiujia, a leading Changsha restaurant of the 1930s."

(I didn't actually say that, but Dunlop does.)

Justine: "These are delicious."

John: "Do you think I bought too much steak?"

Justine: "No."

Mark: "These are Chinese ribs. I prefer plain ribs."

Stella: "Play Doh is not for eating."

Michael: "I'll have some of that Zin."

John: "Do you really think I should cut all these steaks?"

Tipsy Baker: "Yes!"

Michael: "My father had gout. It was the rich man's disease, but he wasn't rich. We called him Fat Foot."

Justine: "Let's open another bottle of wine."

Isabel: "Can I have some more steak, please?"

Mark: "Christine Babcock ran a really fast mile."

Owen: "More steak!"

Tipsy Baker: "Say please."

Stella: "I spit it out." (She spits a pound of masticated corn into Michael's hand.)

Owen: "That's so funny."

Tipsy Baker: "I'm thinking of using Round-Up to keep back the weeds in my yard."

Justine: "You should try boiling water on the weeds."

John: "Don't be absurd! There's a water shortage."

Justine: "Who's absurd!"

Stella: "I want steak!"

Tipsy Baker: "I guess I'll have just a little more steak."

Michael: "I don't like cardamom cake, so pass me more steak."

John: "I feel bad because I always serve you the same thing. Do you think my menus are too boring?"

Everyone: "No!"

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: An Earnest Summation

I did not expect to love this book.

But I loved this book. Clearly, I'm a sucker for any cookbook that shows even an iota of personality or soul.

Cecilia Chiang's Seventh Daughter is the drama-packed memoir of an extraordinary woman from her pampered childhood in pre-communist China through the famine-stricken war years, revolution, flight to Japan, then a second blooming as a celebrity restaurateur in San Francisco. The story is the perfect backdrop to the clear, strong recipes for dishes ranging from the red bean cakes of Chiang's youth to the crowd-pleasers at her posh Mandarin restaurant, like Prawns a la Szechwan, a sweet-sour stir fry you can easily imagine 1960s Californians finding both exotic and accessible.

I made 32 recipes from the book.

Flat-out bad: 3
So-so: 7
Good: 13
Great: 8
Worth the price of the book: 1

This is a strong performance, and mirrors the ratios in my earnest summation of Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen. The "failures" probably have more to do with my own errors of execution and Western taste limitations (I'm thinking of the walnut soup and aforementioned red bean cakes) than slipshod recipe writing. I do think there were places where diagrams and more detailed directions would have been helpful, like in the recipe for scallion pancakes. But that's a small complaint. This is a wonderful volume, a treasure. I can't imagine parting with it.

I hope all my cookbooks don't turn out to be "treasures," or this will be an extremely boring blog.

In a few weeks the James Beard Foundation will give an award to an Asian cookbook, and I've cooked the hell out of two of the three finalists. If I had to choose between them right now, I would go with Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen both because there are so few books on Parsi cooking, and because the volume has a sly charm that the more formal Chiang -- mediated by co-author Lisa Weiss -- couldn't quite muster.

But I really had to think about it.

I would love to spend a few weeks cooking from another part of the world, maybe a place where every dish doesn't begin with minced ginger and a quarter pound of ground pork. But to complete my self-imposed assignment, in a few days I will start on Fucshia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: The Cooking of Hunan Province. Brace yourselves for smoked tofu, salted duck eggs, and Yueyang velveted fish. 

I certainly hope my children have.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Hen Party

You could cut the tension with a Chinese cleaver as the Tipsy Baker geared up for the Cecilia Chiang finale dinner last night. Fans gathered from distant lands, like Palo Alto and Clay Street, to partake of an elegant array of delicacies from Madame Chiang's excellent cookbook, The Seventh Daughter.

Among the fine dishes served:

-Tea-Smoked Game hens

-Sichuan spicy eggplant

-Green-onion oil-tossed noodles

"What an extraordinary dinner," said Checka (the Baker's mother). "You're amazing!"

"You really do like to cook, don't you," said Dita (the Baker's grandmother).

"I don't like the skin on the chicken," remarked Owen (the Baker's son).

"It's game hen," replied the Baker.

"They have a sort of carbony taste, but I like that," said Checka. "Mother, we'll have game hen sandwiches tomorrow!"

"Isn't this eggplant great?" said the Baker.

"It's too spicy for me," said Checka.

"Look at this dragon," said Owen.

The Baker prepared two Chinese desserts. Many people think they do not like Chinese desserts, but they are misguided, according to the Baker. And they definitely have not tasted glaceed fried bananas, a specialty of the cook in Chiang's aristocratic childhood home in Beijing.

These were, according to the Baker, a little tricky to pull off. But the end result was dramatic and delicious. With the nimble assistance of Checka, the Baker deep fried the bananas, swirled them in hot caramel, then plunged them into a bowl of ice water so that the caramel instantly hardened into a shell. There were some slight glitches, but these were a huge hit. Delighted guests bit into crisp, cool caramel and encountered meltingly soft, warm bananas.

"These are divine!" said Checka. "I should stop eating. I'm getting so full!"

"The caramel is very hard," said Dita.

"I love these!" cried the humble Baker.

If she works out some of the kinks, the Baker said she thought these bananas might qualify her for a job as a private cook in Beijing.

The last course was the Eight-Precious rice pudding. (See seven of the precious ingredients in the photograph at top; the eighth was canned red bean paste.) 

This was a weird and colorful dish, sticky and complex, the gooey glutinous rice studded with slightly bitter gingko nuts, dried fruit, and starchy lotus seeds. Over the whole pudding, the Baker poured a sweet syrup made from Chinese rock sugar.

"I'll take some home," said Checka.

"I'm not really that hungry later on," said Dita politely, after a tentative bite.

"Did you know cave men were the second stage of prehistoric life?" said Owen.

"I hope this has restored your faith in family dinners," said Checka.

"Yes," said the Baker. "Actually, it has."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Prolix about Pork Belly

Maybe some of the tension of recent meals can be attributed to the way we have been dining for the last seven months: cramped, sealed in by cloudy plastic tarps, surrounded by teetering stacks of cookbooks, jars of coriander, dishrags, dictionary stands.

Last night was not without discord. Tolstoy and his wife used to complain about each other in their diaries, knowing the other would subsequently read those entries. They had a miserable marriage. I do not intend to use them as a model for Tipsy Baker, so I will never write anything sensitive here that I have not already settled with Mark. Like the following.

When he walked in last night, the scent of primer still heavy in the air from the construction, Mark found me in a flour-covered apron gabbing with my sister and sloshing a gallon jug of peanut oil around, all six burners blazing. A dark cloud passed over his face. "It's Tuesday, and you're trying to change the world," he said glumly.

I wasn't trying to change the world, I was trying to throw a festive banquet showcasing the cuisine of Cecilia Chiang! But I understand his point of view. I do. And then the kids got crazy, the smoke alarms started shrieking, we couldn't find enough chairs, and suddenly it all seemed like a very stupid endeavour.

But it turned out to be kind of lively and fun.

The meal started with bowls of winter melon and ham soup, which was brothy and refreshing in the way of Chinese soups, although winter melon is an acquired taste. Not because of its flavor -- does it even have one? -- but because of its crispy, jicama-like texture, something Westerners don't expect in a soup.

Then we proceeded to Chiang's mother's Red Cooked Pork. "I've had dreams about this dish that have been so vivid that I thought I could actually smell the aroma of the meat," Chiang writes. "To this day, I think of my mother every time I cook this dish, and sometimes I think that's why I cook it so often."

Food and mothers. It's always food and mothers.

I wish I had a picture of this pork. First of all, it isn't red, but a coffee brown, and after long braising in soy sauce and wine, the pork belly is powerfully flavorful, each bite including a thick layer of tender fat, a thinner layer of meat, and some silky skin. It was so unctuous I could only eat a few pieces and thought I didn't like it. But I woke up this morning craving Red cooked pork.

I also prepared Sichuan dry-fried string beans which called for a crunchy preserved vegetable I've never used before (but shall again!) called zha cai. It added a terrific tart kick to the dish. Lovely, too, were the sauteed mixed mushrooms, which included the phallic King oyster mushroom, another ingredient I have never previously used. I think my scallion pancakes could have been better, though we ate every bland, oily crumb. I'm not sure I understand how scallion pancakes are supposed to taste.

I was planning to send everyone off with glaceed fried bananas, but prudently decided to save that oil spattering project for tonight, the Cecilia Chiang finale, when Checka comes over and Mark will be working.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: The Truth about Family Dinners

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

But mostly the worst. I'm talking about the hallowed institution of the American family dinner, which everyone from Mary Pipher to Alice Waters considers a cornerstone of our civilization. And here's the crazy thing: So do I, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Last night was a doozie. At one point, I couldn't keep track of who was shouting at whom. Mark, understandably upset by a $400 traffic ticket, was uncharacteristically saturnine. Owen raced around trying to sneak cherries, climb on his father, and irritate Isabel, who approached her meal with the haughty disdain of a duchess who has just spotted a fly in her vichysoisse.

To lighten things up, I attempted to photograph dinner table reality for Tipsy Baker, to record the faces contorted in tears and fury; the children eating with their fingers and ducking under their chairs; the rolled eyes, the expressions of indignation, the atrocious table manners. Then Mark roared that if I continued teasing in this vein he would SHUT the blog down!!!

Let it be known that the photograph above was taken with the permission of the subject.

Now to the food. We're closing in on the last few nights of Cecilia Chiang's Seventh Daughter and I've been cooking like a banshee. I made some fine dishes for our hellish dinner, starting with Prawns a la Szechwan, which, according to Chiang, was a bestseller at her late, great San Francisco restaurant, the Mandarin. This garish red melange features shrimp napped in a syrupy, slightly acidic sauce full of ketchup. I've made a version of this before and though tasty, it's not one of my favorites.

On the side, I served noodles, specifically zha ziang mian, which Chiang describes as a cousin of spaghetti bolognese. Because I couldn't find a way to photograph my zha ziang mian attractively, you will have to imagine a glorious pile of snowy white noodles topped with a supremely zesty, chestnut-colored pork sauce. There was also some undistinguished but healthy baby bok choy with garlic and ginger.

For dessert, I attempted the sweet walnut soup, a painstaking delicacy made from pureed nuts, red dates, sugar, and cream. Chiang prepared the soup for her father shortly before he died, and recommends serving it in demitasse cups. The recipe requires that you boil and peel the walnuts, which resemble tiny crenellated brown brains and cling stubbornly to their translucent skins. "Make sure you really love the people you make this soup for," Chiang warns.

I do dearly love the people for whom I made this soup, however difficult it can be. Sadly, they didn't like the sludgy brown soup. And, to be honest, neither did I.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Supermarket Infidelity & More Sandwiches

Oh, Sunset Super, you have gone gray at the temples, flabby at the thigh, and lost your youthful glow. And now I am in love with another. 

You want the name? It will hurt you so, but I must be honest after our beautiful years together. She is the Richmond New May Wah

She had beckoned to me before, and I flirted briefly. But only after you let me see your moldy noodles and wilted bok choy the other week did I consider opening my heart to another. I will miss your familiar fish counter and packaged slices of Smithfield ham, something my lissome new sweetheart sorely lacks. But she has yellow chives and purple perilla, dozens of Chinese wines, many bizarre mushrooms. Pork belly, Cornish game hens, smoked tofu, unbelievably fat burdock roots.

Also, she is clean. Well, cleanish. In any case, cleaner than you! Plus, across the street I can drop by the Eternal Springs sandwich window for a most excellent $3.25 banh mi.

I'm sorry. I didn't want to hurt you. If it offers any consolation, I will cherish the memories.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Perfect Picnic

I'm taking a short break from Cecilia Chiang and Chinese cooking because my captive eaters are disappearing for the next few days. Plus, it's too hot to turn on the stove.

Yesterday, Owen and I shared a late afternoon picnic at Crissy Field. Intrepid chowhound Justine -- an ardent and discerning scholar of sandwiches -- has long recommended Marina Submarine, and so that's where we went for our overstuffed, oozing and altogether magnificent sub. It was prepared by an inscrutable Asian man who is something of a local celebrity for making ravishing sandwiches out of Subway-quality ingredients. The storefront where he works his wordless magic could not be dowdier. 

Down at the beach, sand blew all over the sandwich, but we ate every mayonnaisey bite. Then for two hours Owen did not stop talking -- about whaling, beggars, volcanoes, curly hair (he's a fan), and how glimpses of the "sparkling" ocean make him "laugh inside." He is a young man of many theories. If there's anything sweeter on earth than a happy 7-year-old boy I don't know what it is.

I'll fire up the wok again in a day or so.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Potstickers, Mongolian Lamb & Coconut Tapioca

Checka came over last night because it was Wednesday, and she comes over every Wednesday to help us do something unusually crazy or labor intensive in the kitchen. This happy tradition began after she gave me a pasta attachment for my KitchenAid a few years ago, and though we still call it Pasta Night, we now make whatever we want.

Last night that was Potstickers from Cecilia Chiang's Seventh Daughter. Isabel is almost as good at wrapping jiao zi as she is at eating them; she's a slip of girl, but can put away 10,000 potstickers before I'm done mixing the dipping sauce. So she and Checka wrapped dumplings while I made Shandong Asparagus and Mongolian Lamb.

Mongolian Lamb! A revelation. Tender, sumptuous, intensely delicious. You don't expect lamb when you sit down to a Chinese meal, and so the gamey flavor is startling, but such a rich and welcome change from the usual pallid pork or poultry. It's also easy. As Madame Chiang puts it: "One of our Beijing cooks made this quick stir-fry for family dinners."

I'm definitely going to mention this to our cook.

Then there was dessert: Coconut Tapioca Pudding from the menu of San Francisco's Betelnut restaurant, where Chiang consulted. Not difficult, but you have to prepare a few different components and then assemble them neatly. (See photo above and be very impressed.) You scoop some sweet red beans into the bottom of a glass, add a tapioca made with coconut milk, then some custard sauce. Top with chopped mango. It is sensational, an extraordinary melding of textures and tastes, the earthy red beans smoothed out by the unctuous puddings, the custard sauce cutting the powerful coconutty sweetness of the tapioca, the bright mango injecting a shot of juicy freshness.

I took some other presentable photographs last night, but I'm going with the single bold statement. I realized that it takes about five extra minutes to stage a dish beautifully, and it's worth it. I cringe when I look at the sewer water lemonade below, but will leave it up there as a lesson to myself.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Passive Chicken, Aggressive Cabbage & Hot Lemonade

I remain bedeviled by the problem of food styling and photography. I've been visiting various celebrated food blogs and they all manage to include only gorgeous, luminous shots of their dishes while mine all look ridiculous. On the one hand, this blog is about writing in my own voice as opposed to the voice I use in other work. And so I don't want to get too hung up on stagecraft. On the other hand, I like pretty!

It helps when I move the food out of the kitchen, which currently receives no natural light and is wrapped in plastic and cluttered with pie plates and bags of poha that have nowhere to go until the construction project is done. Above is a glass of hot lemonade that I took into the construction site, which is flooded with natural light. I'm sure kids could make mean jokes about what the lemonade looks like, but we're past all that, no? I think the lighting, the coloring, the arty composition, all suggest I'm slowly starting to figure this out.

Actually, on closer scrutiny, that is yet another terrible photograph. Oh my God! It might be the worst yet.

Hot lemonade is my new Sidecar alternative. When I feel like a tangy drink at 6 p.m., this is what I will be imbibing for the next 87 nights. You make it by squeezing a lemon into a big glass, adding one tablespoon of maple syrup and hot water to fill. Refreshing, hydrating, not a Sidecar but not bad.

Onwards. I finished reading Cecilia Chiang's Seventh Daughter yesterday. Her story is so powerful that I wish it had been told in more detail. I am haunted by her account of going back to China in 1975 to visit her dying father, having last seen him in 1947 shortly before she fled the country. Once a dignified and wealthy man with countless servants and ya tous, he was now residing, Chiang writes, in a foul-smelling "windowless room, barely bigger than my walk-in closet at home. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out a small hibachi on the dirt floor, a wash basin and a bamboo cot set against a newspaper-lined wall, upon which lay my withered father.

"Slowly he turned his head toward me and whispered, 'Number Seven daughter.'"

Hard to transition to food after that.

I made Chiang's Velvet Chicken last night, which is one of the strangest preparations I've tackled. You slice chicken breast very, very thinly, then marinate in egg white for an hour. After this, you heat a pot of peanut oil to 180 degrees -- not very hot -- and gently deep fry the chicken, which remains pearly white. Drain and quickly finish in another pan with just some cornstarch, sugar, sesame oil and wine. A little bland. I'm still deciding what I think.

About the side dish, which was Hot-and-Sour Cabbage, I know exactly what I think: Heaven. One of those emphatically seasoned, unapologetically spicy/sweet/sour Sichuan dishes that makes me unbelievably happy.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: A Game Plan

I've just spent 40 minutes honing a strategy for cooking the maximum number of dishes from The Seventh Daughter over the next eight days. After my obsessive commitment to preparing even the strangest Parsi specialties from Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen, I owe it to Madame Chiang. 

I refer to her as Madame Chiang not because I'm affected, but because, according to her co-writer Lisa Weiss, that's what everyone calls her. At their first meeting Weiss was thrilled when Madame Chiang, "ever the gracious and intuitive hostess," said, "Please call me Cecilia." 

I don't find that the most endearing story ever.

Nonetheless, I like this book much more than I thought I would when I first glanced at its antiseptic photographs and rather tame roster of recipes. And when I can dig out from other reading obligations, I am going to power through to the end of Madame Chiang's life story, which is about to get exciting, what with the Japanese Army, Mao, and a rocky marriage looming on the horizon. 

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Wontons

I'm having trouble building momentum with Cecilia Chiang's The Seventh Daughter because, because, because. . .

Because my house is wrapped in plastic and half in shambles, I have a toothache, we're planning a trip to Alaska, people keep inviting us to dinner, and right now I want to watch The Office more than I want to make Eight-Precious Rice Pudding with lotus seeds and ginkgo nuts. 

Lazy wench.

Beijing wontons in rich broth was the main (only) event tonight. Isabel briskly proclaimed this the best recipe we've made from the book. Slippery, popular, nourishing, fun. I can't think of anything profound to say about wontons at the moment. Maybe if I had a nice big glass of claret . . . 

Not even tempted. 

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Sober Baker

Once a year I go through a period of sobriety. I think that moment has rolled around again.

There was no cooking last night, as we went to a huge, fantastically fun 40th birthday party with a lot of people we sort of know from the kids' school, but have never seen at night or without their children. Everyone did their best to dress like it was 1985. Very amusing. Open bar. I started with some demure white wine, then after about three glasses decided that vodka cranberry would be more refreshing. And since a live band was playing the music of my '80s youth, I was a dancing fool and needed lots of refreshing! 

Soon I was simply a fool. . . 

Okay. I fell down while dancing. Here's the worst part -- I got up and kept dancing. And I fell down again. Yes, I was wearing 4-inch cork heels and it was a slippery gym floor, but please.

Ninety days of cheerful sobriety this year, starting now. 

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Chicken Soup & Pork Belly

Yesterday was not such a fabulous day for many and dreary reasons, but there were a few highlights. Among them: Cecilia Chiang's minced chicken and sweet corn soup and her Sichuan twice-cooked pork belly

The soup was light and clean-tasting, yet completely satisfying, filled with bits of meat, corn, and fluffy egg white. I made her "special" broth using a chicken with the head on. Prefer not to dwell on that.

The pork belly was the best way I've found yet to cook that succulent part of the pig. You poach a hunk of belly, chill, then slice into strips like bacon and fry with some light seasonings (black bean sauce, garlic) and chopped leek. The only problem with this dish is that it needed more sauce, more seasonings. Otherwise: perfection.

Oh, and the third good thing that happened yesterday was seeing Iron Man. If you have a 7-year-old boy in your life -- or can borrow one to see it with you -- all the better. 

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Beggar's Chicken, Part IV

Ah, now that's a Beggar's Chicken!

Last night, I bribed Owen with a copy of Ralph Masiello's Dragon Drawing Book, and we went to Shanghai 1930 which is, as far as I can tell, the only restaurant in San Francisco that currently serves Beggar's Chicken. (Cecilia Chiang helped write their menu.) Our garrulous waiter told us the history of the dish: A Chinese beggar had no cooking vessel, so he wrapped his bird in lotus leaves and pond mud, then buried it in a fire pit. When it came out, everyone thought it was the best chicken they'd ever eaten.

What kind of silly beggar shares his chicken?

Owen cracked the crust which was made of bread dough because the health department will not allow Shanghai 1930 to use clay. Or so they say.

Then the chicken was deboned, doused in a sumptuous cocoa-brown sauce, and served to us in its lotus leaf wrapping. It looks like a mess, and Owen -- who had just downed a pint of Shirley Temple -- announced that it tasted strange, like tea, and immediately went back to drawing dragons.

Alas, I thought it was incredible. The stuffing was smoother than mine, and staggeringly rich and savory, including ginkgo nuts, ham, and plush Chinese dates. I made a disgraceful pig of myself.

Today I am turning over a new lotus leaf and never, ever making a pig of myself again.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Beggar's Chicken, Part III

Enough with the silliness for one moment. I just ate a small plate of cold Beggar's Chicken for lunch and it was. . . it was sublime. A word I use rarely. Each piece tender, suffused with flavor, needing not a grain of salt. You alternate a bite of mild, sweet chicken with a juicy black mushroom, then a sliver of ham, then a crunchy water chestnut, then another morsel of bird. I don't ordinarily love chicken, but this is spectacular. 

The Seventh Daughter: Beggar's Chicken, Part II

Are words really necessary?

So I dropped the Beggar's Chicken. So we didn't get to ceremoniously crack the clay crust with a hammer at the table. So I ended up with a greasy clay slurry all over my kitchen floor. Big deal. I'm over it.

Happy now thanksalot?

The chicken itself was luscious. Stella liked it. Or did we just tell her to pose like she did for a photo?
The stuffing -- full of Virginia ham and black mushrooms -- was terrific. Meat, moist and tender. Served Cecilia's garlic noodles as a side. Also a three-shreds salad (wimpy) and some salty star-anise peanuts.

For dessert: red bean cakes. "When I was a girl, vendors with steamers set over braziers on the back of their rickshaws used to ride through the alleys and streets of Beijing selling warm sweet bean cakes," Cecilia Chiang reminisces.

In the absence of vendors on rickshaws, you can make your own bean cakes according to Madame Chiang's recipe. Cook tiny Chinese beans, then soak them in a sugar syrup. Mix the syrup and beans with a pound of rice flour, pour into a buttered cake tin and steam over boiling water for an hour.

At this point the cake has the texture of an eraser and is the color of a bruise. You thinly slice, dip in sugar, and fry in peanut oil, which gives each piece a crisp, caramelized crust. In the photograph below, the bean cakes are the ragged things that look like burnt meat loaf. I wish I'd bothered to stage this shot with a little more panache because the cakes were, in fact, strangely addictive. But this was the end of a long, slightly tragic evening.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: Beggar's Chicken

We're coming to you live as we attempt to make jiao hua ji -- a.k.a. Beggar's Chicken -- one of the dishes for which Cecilia Chiang was most famous back when she owned The Mandarin, her swanky San Francisco restaurant. You stuff and marinate a chicken, wrap tightly in foil, then entomb in clay and bake for two-and-a-half hours.

Stay tuned. . .

The Seventh Daughter: Off to a So-So Start

Some good news, some bad news.

First the good: Cecilia Chiang's splendid recipe for Spinach with Sesame Seed Paste. You wilt spinach in boiling water, plunge it immediately into ice water, then wring it dry. Toss with a dressing of sesame paste, sesame oil, sugar and soy sauce. Awesome. Even my finicky children seemed to enjoy.

Now the bad: The Chongqing Spicy Dry-Shredded Beef. Inedible. I will trot out the time-honored clichee: It was like chewing on shoe leather. Mark poured himself a bowl of Cheerios, Isabel made a peanut-butter sandwich, and we threw the whole pan out. I am unsure whether to blame the recipe, or the flank steak I purchased at the increasingly out-of-favor Sunset Super.

Meanwhile, I'm thoroughly engrossed in Madame Chiang's life story. Even more than Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen, Chiang's Seventh Daughter doubles as a memoir. 

Some facts about Madame Chiang:

  • She grew up in Beijing in a house with 52 rooms. Rich!
  • She now lives in Belvedere, California. Still rich!
  • Her mother had bound feet which caused "excruciating" pain in her legs.
  • Her mother also had a child ya tou (literal translation: "slave") who massaged her aching legs.
  • A quote from Madame Chiang: "Looking back, I have to admit that as a girl, I felt a little jealous of the relationship my mother shared with her ya tou."

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The End of the Affair?

So, very excited, at lunch I drove across the Bridge to my old favorite grocery to acquire Chinese ingredients to make some dishes from Cecilia Chiang's The Seventh Daughter.

I took a photograph before I went in. Isn't she lovely?

Unfortunately, she was looking very shabby inside. All was not as I remembered. Either that, or my enthusiasm has been (properly) dampened by the (hideous) reports on (nonexistent) food safety standards in China. (Yes, I do know this is a Chinese-American market, but many of the products come from China, and I just have this feeling. . . ) I saw packets of fresh noodles already dotted with mold, dented cans of coconut milk, rusting jars of bamboo shoots. Charnel house atmosphere over at the butcher counter.

I did not let it deter me. I loaded up -- on pork belly, lotus seeds, gingko nuts, won ton skins, and so on -- but not with the giddy high spirits of yore. Sad.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Colossal Stupidity

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is not appropriate for an 11-year-old girl.

I learned this bonehead lesson the horrifying way.

Should stick to cooking. Tomorrow: Cecilia Chiang's The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: An Earnest Summation

As my loyal readers have figured out by now, I recently spent ten days cooking exclusively from Niloufer Ichaporia King's My Bombay Kitchen, which has been nominated for the James Beard Award for best Asian cookbook of 2007. Over that 10-day period, I prepared 42 recipes from the book, most good, a few magnificent, one absolutely vile. Here's how I would assess the dishes I made:

Flat-out bad: 1
So-so: 10
Good: 18
Great: 11
Worth the price of the book: 2

Having never assessed a cookbook this way before, I can't say if this is an outstanding score, or merely good. Amazingly, I made the best recipe in the book -- a heavenly cardamom cake -- the first night of this project. Justine, Isabel, and I sat at the dining room table and blissfully ate slice after slice, picked at crumbs, and looked at each other in wonder. I think I fell in love with the book right then, and expected more such experiences.

They didn't really come. I made some pretty terrific meals from My Bombay Kitchen, but none that could match the delirious high of the first night.

Does this matter? Is this a shortcoming of the book? Absolutely not, especially when you're talking about a volume that is as personal and soulful as this one. My Bombay Kitchen is about so much more than dazzling us with the recipes. Just as my cherished memory of eating cardamom cake with my sister and daughter is about so much more than cake.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: Post-Partum

I have about a gallon of muddy green Dhansak in my refrigerator that someone is going to have to eat.
I was intending to write a summation of My Bombay Kitchen today, but I've been too mopey and tired and confused, my thoughts as dark and disorganized as the contents of my pantry. If I had the energy, I would go take a picture of my pantry right now. You would all laugh and laugh. She's so clever, that Tipsy Baker!

My Bombay Kitchen: Finale Feast

"Dhansak is our emblematic Parsi dish," Niloufer Ichaporia King writes in My Bombay Kitchen. "The one we're named after by anyone who characterizes people by what they eat."

That would be people just like me. And so Dhansak seemed like the perfect way to end the Parsi fortnight.

King's Dhansak recipe covers three pages of My Bombay Kitchen and involves putting sixteen ingredients -- two kinds of legume, many vegetables, chilies, and some herbs -- in a giant pot and letting them boil away until they essentially collapse. After that, you run the murky potage through a food mill, and to the resulting puree add some onions you have fried with Dhana Jiru and Sambhar Masala. Then you cook the Dhansak for another hour while you scramble around trying to assemble the side dishes. (Sorry Mark -- this post will definitely be prolix.)

In my case the Dhansak banquet started with papads -- the spicy, paper thin Indian crackers -- which I tried to toast on a gas flame. This is the method King recommends if, to paraphrase, you don't want to become incredibly fat. "You will have to sacrifice one or two victims until you work out your papad choreography," King warns. I could not get the hang of flame-toasting and finally said, screw it, heated oil and started frying. Excellent decision! You buy packaged papads at Indian markets; I have no idea how one would make them from scratch.

What else. . .

Oh God, there was so much else. I made the delicate caramelized fried rice and sweet-and-sour onion kachumbar -- a wonderful relish full of tangy tamarind and rich brown jaggery -- that are the traditional accompaniments to Dhansak. I fried some spicy, crusty kebabs and mixed up a batch of banana raita. King's is an eccentric recipe for banana raita, instructing you  to add dry mustard powder to the yogurt "until you get that wasabi feeling in the back of your head."

Still wondering: Do I want that wasabi feeling in the back of my head?

To help us eat this gargantuan meal, Justine, Michael, and Stella kindly agreed to come over, providing thoughts, compliments, poison of delight, and photography assistance. I've offered my own assessments of many of the specific dishes, but I have not commented on the Dhansak itself.

It is painful to admit that the Dhansak was a huge disappointment. For all that chopping and food milling and boiling, it struck me as nothing more than an olive-drab, harshly-spiced lentil soup. I've read other recipes that include lamb, or chicken, so maybe it is not Dhansak I don't care for, but this recipe. It's such a symbolically sad way to end the mostly happy Parsi era by disliking the "emblematic" Parsi dish.

Friday, May 02, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: The Catastrophe

Do you see what is in that casserole? Do you notice the unpeeled heads of garlic? The unpeeled rounds of sweet potato? The unpeeled banana? All of it sprinkled generously with Dhana Jiru, Sambhar Masala and ground turmeric?

If your mouth is watering, there is something wrong with you.

This is Papri Claypot Stew (umbaryu) before it goes into the oven for an hour.

From a lifetime of slavish devotion to cookbooks, I have learned that one should always read a recipe carefully before beginning. This one I skimmed, and because it called for two spice mixes I made earlier this week, I decided it would be a good vehicle for using them up. Times are hard; I am frugal.

I am a freaking idiot.

Niloufer Ichaporia King specifies that this stew-- a Parsi version of a Hindu dish -- should be made with the papri, or hyacinth bean, which appears in farmers' markets towards the end of summer. It is early May, so I used string beans. It doesn't matter. I doubt that the "pungent and slightly bitter quality of papri" would have improved the final result. In fact, "pungent and slightly bitter" could only have made things worse.

How to describe. Limp, damp vegetables dusted with some vaguely harsh spice. Bananas that were impossible to distinguish from the eggplant, as both had charcoal-colored skins after baking. Dark gray, almost black, juices pooled in the bottom of the pot. It is too disspiriting to continue describing a dish that even I could not stomach.

Fortunately, I also made Firoza's khichri, another version of the great Indian legume and rice porridge. About Firoza's khichri, King is correct: "This is the ideal food. It makes happy people happier and comforts those who aren't."

It certainly comforted me. We also had a humble Cucumber-ginger salad, and for dessert, Khir (milk and rice pudding) which I somehow could not boil down to "the consistency of a thick pouring custard" even after an hour. Nonetheless, it was snowy white, sweet, and lovely.

Tonight: the last Parsi supper. I think the experience of Papri Claypot Stew will allow me to make this transition without too many tears.