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.