Friday, January 17, 2014

I wonder if Roy Choi's dad ever washed his mouth out with soap



Her hard work deserves our respect, Roy.
I’ve now read about how Roy Choi became a low-rider, scrounged pizza crusts from trash cans on Hollywood Boulevard, and spent a week smoking crack in New York City. I’ve read about his gambling addiction, how he stole from his parents, endured crappy service at Campanile, drank, got in fights, almost died in fights, and was reborn one day while watching Emeril on TV. Where I left off he's about to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. He’s crazy as hell and L.A. Son is a crazy engrossing book. I recommend it.

I have qualms about the recipes, however. To start with, the selection is bizarre. I don’t want recipes for French onion soup, creme brulee, cobb salad, or pancakes from Roy Choi. Why would I? Why would anyone? He appears to have slotted innocuous mainstream recipes in there as a backdrop to stories from his past and most of them have no interesting twist or Choi touch to recommend them.

Then he goes and issues ridiculous instructions like calling for 1 1/2 eggs in those pancakes. He wants you halve an egg! In pancakes! The world is full of excellent pancake recipes that don’t require mixing an egg in a little bowl and throwing half of it away. I made the pancakes just to see what was up with that halved egg. Nothing was up. The pancakes were not special in any way. Do you know what fits of profanity this idiocy would elicit if I had the mouth of Roy Choi?

My father did wash my mouth out with soap when I was a kid. I said, "God damn you!" to my sister and was scraping flakes of soap out of my back teeth for the rest of the day.

Choi's pork and bean recipe -- an homage to the canned beans of his youth -- calls for pork belly and three tamarind pods. First of all, pork belly. You can’t just walk into any supermarket and buy it, you have to call around or find an Asian grocery. When you do get your hands on the pork belly, Choi's recipe doesn't do it any favors, rendering the cut gray and fatty. I would have preferred pork shoulder or no pork at all. To get the tamarind pods I had to make a special trip to a Latin market and that would have been fine with me if the tamarind pods had made the beans sing. They didn’t. The beans, like the pancakes, were totally undistinguished.

I made Choi’s chicken piccata because commenter Melvil Dewey, whose opinion I respect, mentioned that it was delicious, the sauce in particular. It was delicious, that sauce. But better than other chicken piccatas?  

What I want from Choi’s book are recipes for the kind of dishes he sells off his Kogi trucks, food that is alive and spicy and exciting, drawing from different traditions and recombining flavors to create something new and delicious.

Alongside the chicken piccata I served brussels sprouts with kimchi and they were terrific. You cook the sprouts quickly in oil then add minced kimchi and finish with butter, French-style. Sprouts + kimchi + butter = unexpected and really good.

I also made Choi’s kimchi and pork belly stuffed pupusas and they were a hit. That pork belly in its brick-red sauce of chili paste, pear, lime juice, and sesame oil had incredible flavor. I kept snacking on it as I was making the pupusas and realized I was far less interested in the food itself, than the flavor, if that makes sense. Such rich, strong, complex, amazing flavor.  

Ok, so I had a little trouble with the pupusa stuffing. Not easy and Choi's directions are vague. I think this is what you’re aiming for, but the only way I could get my pupusas to work was to pat out two thick tortillas, place some filling in the middle of one, top with the other, and try to seal. I would have much preferred Choi include pupusa-making diagrams in his book than the boilerplate recipe for a club sandwich. Or a caesar salad. Or pecan pie. 

I'll finish L.A. Son today and cook one last Roy Choi meal tonight. Owen is having a friend over and I'm "tackling" Choi's ramen with American cheese, followed by his donuts made from Pillsbury biscuit dough. I think I have the perfect audience for this finale.

21 comments:

  1. You are such an adventuress! I would never be energetic enough to tackle this food. But I have to say, I can't believe that you would need a recipe to make doughnuts from canned biscuits. My mother taught me how to do this when I was in elementary school. Hot grease, biscuit dough with a hole poked in it, a brown paper bag with powdered sugar. You will have to tell me what kind of exotic directions he gives. By the way, my parents never washed my mouth out with soap as my dad's medium was profanity, just like the Dad in A Christmas Story.

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    1. Biscuit dough donuts are new to me! I think he includes some roasted sesame seeds in his powdered sugar so that will be a little exotic.
      I bet my father had his mouth washed out with soap and was just carrying on a tradition. I should ask.

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  2. When I was an intern in a psych ward in San Francisco, one of the patients showed me how to make pupusas. You gather up a ball of dough, stick a finger in it to make a hole, fill the hollow {she used cheese} then mold the ball of dough around the top to close it. Then you gently press it flat between your two palms, gently slapping as your hands turn over and back.

    I tried to read that book and it was exactly like being in the company of someone with whom I had absolutely nothing in common.

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    1. I think the pupusa recipe called for too much filling in each pupusa. It kept squeezing out when I tried to do it the way your patient demonstrated. I love that you learned this from a psych patient.

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  3. I don't like the sound of Roy. I agree with Witloof that he sounds like someone with whom I have nothing in common. I'm not afraid of swearing, but it gets tedious after a while, and what motivates someone to go to New York and smoke crack? Stealing from his parents? Maybe he didn't need to share that. It sounds like writing this book was part of a Twelve Step program for him.

    And half an egg? That's ridiculous.

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    1. I can't disagree with you about Roy. I'm enjoying his story, but wouldn't want to meet him.

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    2. I find that such a weird thing to say! I heard him interviewed on fresh air and he was very interesting and engaging. But then again I like to meet people I have nothing in common with, variety is the spice of life and not just in recipes I cook!

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    3. I heard him on Fresh Air too, which is how I became interested in the book. While I find him smart and engaging on the page, he presents himself as an in-your-face player with a profane badass persona he works hard to maintain and I’ve lived long enough to know that we wouldn’t be friends.

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  4. I lot of editors and writers for recipe books do not check the recipes. I threw away 2 martha stewart cook books because the recipes were wrong or missing information! Too many mistakes in the recipes. No one is checking and no one is doing the homework. When you buy a cook book these days, you must have a working knowledge of the basics.Good luck and happy cooking.

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    1. Recipes are hard to write. I really appreciate a great, meticulous recipe writer like Dorie Greenspan or Deb Perelman.

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  5. I tend to want to skip these books where I'm supposed to be impressed by how cool the author is. I swear plenty, but I don't particularly want to be inundated by profanity when I read. I find David Chang and Tony Bourdain both irksome in this way. Yeah, I get it: you think you're a badass.

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    1. I know. Swearing is one shortcut to seeming cool. I mean, Roy Choi does actually seem like a badass, but it's not the profanity that makes me think so.

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  6. Thanks for the memories of having your mouth washed out with soap. At our house, usually just the threat of it was enough to keep us in line! Choi's 1/2 egg is suspicious. Any cook who doesn't know that you can add an extra half an egg to pancake batter without effecting it has not made enough pancakes. A long time ago you were looking for a banana bread recipe, the best one is Kona Inn Banana Bread from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Google it, you won't be disappointed.

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    1. I will try it. What was the Kona Inn? You often see the name in connection with banana bread.

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  7. Here's the Fannie Farmer banana bread recipe: http://recipecircus.com/recipes/nanamitchem/Bread-SweetLoaf/Kona_Inn_Banana_Bread.html
    I use melted butter (not shortening), pecans (not walnuts), and add a little fresh lemon juice.

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  8. I use a bantam egg for a half egg!

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    1. And I would guess that the frizzle pictured above would lay a small egg! I want some funny hens like that, but I am reluctant to get chickens that don't produce plenty of largish eggs. I worry that I'll let my pet proclivities outweigh my farmer proclivities.

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    2. She did lay tiny eggs and I used her eggs and the eggs of our other bantams for things like glazing bread, where you only need a little. But the little frizzle in the picture -- Fireworks -- disappeared a few months ago and our very last bantam, died in the most recent raccoon attack. I love bantams. I would get more.

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  9. Eating this right now. I hashed the sprouts instead of halving them. {This is not, I discovered, a mindless task if a mandoline is involved. But I'm only bleeding a little, so that's OK.}

    Verdict: delicious. Didn't bother with the shiso leaves and I still managed to inhale the entire bowlful. The butter was a lovely touch.

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    1. No, no shiso leaves here, either. I'm glad it worked out!

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