Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mea Culpa

I humbly apologize to all two of my readers for the delay in posting yet another toothsome missive. You may blame Slothfullia and Procrastinatorix, Twin Deities and local hearth gods for the delay. Perhaps someday they shall let me out of their clutches, but, I fear, no time soon, as I have much obeisance to make at their altars in the form of endless nail-picking and idiotic website browsing.* I must now return to a fascinating treatise I am writing on Willa Cather's "O Pioneers!" and the early 20th century Midwestern farm novel as a genre of American literature. No, I do not know what this has to do with Gastronomy, either.

*At least a good majority of last night's websites were culinary-related. I prepared a raw cacao-banana ice cream from a recipe on Dr. (not bad...the old granola-head cranks out a pretty good one now and then.) and am planning to do a bunch of holiday baking for friends and family in the area.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Brief, Bad Poems Inspired By The Encounter Of A Potent Symbol Of the Past


Sitting on the ground
Empty forty of O.E.
Hurling in remembrance


Forty of O.E.
Almost empty but not quite
I should take a sip
Reed scroungers unite
It's punk rock, yo.


Oldee English booze
Hope you had fun with that now
And did not pass out
Like me that one time
passed out singing.

Why did you not drink
Those last ten ounces, Bill?
Then again, I sympathize
O.E. is some swill.
I understand the backwash
is likely to appall.
Still, respect The Forty, poser
Next time drink it all.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Slow Roasted Tomatoes, A Dish That Everyone Else Probably Knows About But I Just Discovered

Slow-roasted roma tomatoes, realllllly slow roasted for seven hours or so in a low gentle oven till the skins are shriveled and the flesh is dark blood red, are GLORIOUS. The most effortless dish I have ever made, and easily one of the most vibrantly flavorful.

I've always enjoyed making tomato sauce, that most friendly and useful of basics, but have struggled with the production of a truly tomatoey rendition. This is probably because the State of the Tomato in this country is in tatters. But I've just found out that the slow-roasting of even a crappy bunch of tomatoes brings out that elusive punch of tomato flavor that my sauces usually fail to attain*, even with the addition of red wine, sugar, tomato paste, or other enrichments. Of course, it makes the preparation of a tomato sauce an all-day affair, technically, as you've got the oven going for a good 7 to 9 hours depending on oven temp. But it is WORTH IT to have morsels of tart-sweet goodness you can eat like YUMMY CANDY, or simply food-process or finely chop and saute for a quick sauce to toss with pasta. And you didn't have to go to the irritatingly snobby gourmet foods store to buy THEIR fire-roasted tomatoes for eight dollars a jar or something because two pounds of crappy-ish roma tomatoes only cost you two bucks.

I am supposed to be working on a paper on farmers' reactions to the Country Life movement for Ag History and reading a fascinating treatise on antebellum crop production for same. And I

I think I'll go make myself another bowl of pasta.

Slow-roasted tomatoes

A lot of roma tomatoes, sliced in half from top to bottom
Extra-virgin olive oil
Dried basil

Arrange sliced tomatoes on baking sheets. Drizzle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried spices. Roast for about 6 hours in a 275 oven, 7 or 8 in a 250 oven. (Obviously the lower the temperature the longer it'll take.) Tomatoes are "done" when they're darker red and shriveling--these can go for a long time, so if they're not done to your liking, simply roast them longer. Eat as is or chop, mix into fresh-cooked pasta with cheese, or whatever dish you would like to possess a dynamite tomato flavor.

*in my view, at least; like most cooks, I'm my own toughest critic.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Far From My Vegan Days

I stood in a refrigerated room at Kinnealey Quality Meats, trying my best to appear like a tough chef and refrain from shivering. It was the end of an hour-long tour, and I was chilled to the bone. Still, things were much better than I expected. My experience with commercial meat purveyors had been limited to a traumatic reading of The Jungle, so I was anticipating serious blood and gore. Instead, Kinnealey’s was a clean and, dare I say it, appetizing environment. There were no sides of beef hanging oozing onto the floor (most meat is now butchered into smaller cuts at the slaughterhouse to save on shipping fees). The storage rooms smelled of sanitizer; the only carnal aroma in the entire facility was in the dry aging room. Maybe things would have been different if I visited an actual slaughterhouse, but Kinnealey’s completely contradicted the many accounts I'd read of the food industry’s unsavory side.

We returned to school with fresh meat, waiting for our knives. Our instructor gracefully dismembered a whole lamb, making it look as easy as slicing bread. When it was our turn to clean the lamb and cut it into cubes for stewing, we learned that it wasn’t so simple. With such an expensive product, one wrong cut could be a catastrophe. I nervously sliced into the lamb’s silverskin, wincing as if I were cutting myself. The process was awkward and stressful, but my confidence grew with each cut. It didn’t hurt that I was working with a partner, and I let her take a go at some of the more difficult parts. I left the class eager to cut more meat.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Stocks and Soups

I survived my first week of cooking school. To be honest, this wasn’t that much of an accomplishment, since Monday was orientation and Thursday Rosh Hashanah. Still, I was truly exhausted by the weekend’s arrival, though more from preparing a large holiday meal than from the toils of school.

Most school days are organized into two parts. In the morning, we attend a lecture and demonstration on what we will be making in the afternoon’s session, where the twelve students break into two teams and cook. Each team is lead by a sous chef, a distinction which is assigned to a new student each day.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s classes were dedicated to stocks and soups respectively. The class on stocks was more about getting acquainted with the kitchen, and no insights into the secrets of stock-making were offered that you wouldn’t find in any cookbook. Still, the experience of making stocks in class was wildly different from home cooking. Organization is imperative, as we were cooking many dishes simultaneously, and the quantities of food involved were much larger than you would need in the typical home kitchen. My team didn’t read our recipes as closely as we should have, so there was some confusion while cooking, and we forgot to sweat our fish stock’s mirepoix before adding the liquid. I was reminded of a passage from A Debt to Pleasure, where at the end of a recipe for an Irish Stew of layered potatoes, onions and lambs, the reader is instructed to sprinkle each tier with salt and herbs. The narrator explains that, “You will of course not be able to do that if you have been following this recipe without reading it through in advance. Let that be a lesson to you.” Fortunately, our omission had no discernable effect on the final product.

I wish I could say I was more organized on Wednesday, when I acted as my group’s sous chef. I tried to learn the recipes for consommé, French onion soup, and butternut squash soup before the class, but despite my efforts, I added flavorings for the squash soup at the beginning of cooking rather than after cooking, as the recipe suggested. Again, the mistake resulted in negligible consequences, but I was disappointed that I was unable to keep three simple recipes in my head. I’m sure this will become easier with practice.

Probably the most exciting dish we’ve prepared thus far is consommé. Consommé is made by combining a mixture of whipped egg whites, tomatoes, mirpoix and ground beef with chicken and veal stock. The egg whites bind together and form a raft at the top of the broth, bringing with them all the soup’s cloudy impurities (this method is also used to clarify wines). The acid from the tomatoes also helps to create a clearer stock. I hear that the addition of egg shells makes the consommé darker and more flavorful, but this practice seems to have gone out of fashion. Our consommé’s raft took a long time to form, and I became quite nervous that I had done something wrong. But, sure enough, the mixture finally did come together at the top of the pot, resulting in a perfectly clear liquid.

The real fun of consommé is the garnishes. Chef John explained that there are over 300 types of consommés, each distinguished by its own topping. The 2003 edition of Larousse Gastronomique only lists fourteen types of consommé; the Escoffier Cook Book lists 88; and La Répetoire de la Cuisine lists 189, so I’m not sure exactly how Chef John arrived at 300. Still, we can all agree that there are more individually named consommés than the average consommé enthusiast will ever sample. I read through a bunch of them, and the one that seemed the most appealing to me was consommé profiterole, which is garnished with small foie-gras stuffed pastries. Unfortunately, we won’t cover pastry until the end of October, so for now I’ll have to practice my knife skills and enjoy consommé brunoise, topped with vegetables cut into a 1/8 inch cube.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

First Day of School

I eagerly arrived at Boston University’s cooking school yesterday, armed with my chef’s jacket, thermometer, timer, and new Global knife. After much agony and research, I finally decided I wanted to buy MAC knife. Unfortunately, my decision took a nontrivial amount of time, so the day before school started, I still was without knife. Alex and I went to Tags, Crate and Barrel, and Bed Bath and Beyond, but none of the stores sold MACs. Time was running out, and the Patriots’ opening game had already started, so I settled for a Global, my second choice.

My relationship with the new knife is off to a rocky start. While cleaning it for the first time, I cut two of my fingers. Maybe the knife knows that I settled, and was seeking its revenge. I resent the injury the knife inflicted. You cut me, Global; you cut me deep. I hope that we will be able to work out our issues over the semester. If not, I can always register for a MAC when I get married next year.

I am officially a student at Boston University’s culinary school. The opening day was dedicated to the administrative minutiae of all first days of school. We were introduced to the primary instructors, went over the syllabus, took a tour of the kitchen, and roasted bones for the beef and veal stock that we will complete tomorrow. While much of the material covered today was quite dry, the course of study promises to be thrilling. More often than not, classes will be taught by guest instructors, including Masaharu Morimoto, Jasper White, Jacques Pepin, Helen Chen (Joyce’s daughter), and an array of chefs from Boston’s best restaurants. The two primary instructors, John Vyhnanek and Jean Jacques Paimblanc, were quite impressive themselves, both with distinct teaching styles. I am eager for today’s class, when I will start cooking, and hopefully have more to report.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Last Week of Freedom

This is my last week until cooking school begins. I realize I have been somewhat lax in my blogging, and it hasn’t escaped my notice that it has been a month since my last post. I hope this will all change once school starts, when I will undoubtedly be boiling over with amusing stories. Unfortunately, when you have many stories to write, you usually have no time to write them.

This isn’t to say that my vacation from posting is due to an absence of inspiration. I have spent a good deal of the last month in the kitchen, enjoying the August harvest’s bounty. I made a delicious coconut rum cake, which was probably the most beautiful cake I’ve ever baked. My hand still bears a scar from a tiny mishap opening the coconut, but the cake was definitely worth this minor disfigurement. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of the cake, but it looked exactly like the photograph in Gourmet.

I also made a horrible grilled tuna with tapenade butter. While the seasoning and cooking were successful, the fish was Trader Joe’s deep-frozen tuna for the palateless cheapskate, which was probably the worst tuna I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. I was quite optimistic about the tuna, because of many delicious meals from Whole Foods’ deep frozen sushi-grade tuna, but the Trader Joe’s version hardly seemed like the same species of fish. It was stringy and flavorless, and for the first time in my life, I understood James Beard’s oft quoted remark that, “Tuna is a fish that I think is better canned than fresh.”

I will try to be better about the blog, and hope I will have the stamina to chronicle my adventures at cooking school. Until then, I plan to enjoy my last week of freedom with a great deal of sloth, as well, I’m sure, as my usual share of gluttony.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sushi with Zach

When I first met Alex, I was obsessed with baking bread. With the ambitious goal of perfecting the baguette, I would make a loaf a day, experimenting with different recipes and techniques. Alex disapproved of my hobby, arguing that it was useless to spend so much time making a product that could be readily bought at local bakeries. Although these objections were usually made through a mouth stuffed with baguette, they did possess a certain degree of logic. These days I rarely make bread. Alex has long forgotten his disapproval, and wistfully recalls the early days of our relationship, when he thought he would enjoy homemade bread for the rest of his life.

Much to his disappointment, Alex’s cost-benefit cooking calculus has stuck with me, so when my brother Zach called to extol the glories of homemade sushi, I wasn’t convinced. The photographs of his sushi were beautiful, to be sure, and his enthusiasm was hard to resist, but I couldn’t help but question whether it was worth the effort when I could get delicious sushi delivered to my home in less than 30 minutes. So, when Zach suggested that we make sushi during my recent visit to Cleveland, I figured it was a great opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.

And, making sushi with Zach was a bit of a fuss. The project required trips to no fewer than three markets. We had to cook and season the rice, mix up the spicy mayonnaise, make the wasabi paste, cut the fish and vegetables, and finally assemble the rolls. Also, the tuna, salmon, crab and escolar were not cheap, so we probably didn’t save any money by making the sushi ourselves (this is only a consideration for future sushi-making, as Zach bore the entire tab for his freeloading sister). Our resulting sushi was impressive and quite delicious, but was it really worth the effort?

For me, the answer is yes. The problem with Alex’s cost-benefit cooking calculus is that it doesn’t take into account that preparing things like sushi and bread is a lot of fun. Going to all the stores with Zach and my adorable niece was a blast, and making the rolls was much more satisfying than ordering delivery. My one successful roll filled me with pride, and left me eager to make sushi again if for no other reason than to banish from memory my other awkward efforts.

Most of Zach’s sushi doesn’t require a recipe; you simply cut fish, avocado, cucumber, and whatever else your heart desires into strips, and then assemble the rolls using a traditional sushi mat (he recommends cutting a paper bag into a square and covering it with aluminum foil and saran wrap as an alternative). Place the fish in the center of a piece of nori, and then place enough sushi rice to cover the nori in the center and work it into an even layer. Be sure to keep a container of water and rice vinegar nearby, and regularly coat your hands and knife to prevent the rice from sticking.

Zach’s Sushi Rice:


1 cup, Nishiki rice
1 ¼ cups water
2 tbs rice vinegar


Place rice in a strainer and thoroughly wash until water runs clearly through the rice. Bring rice and water to a boil in a medium-sized pot. Once boiling, cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Remove rice from heat and let stand for another 10 minutes. (Do not remove lid!)

Place rice in a non-metallic bowl. Fold in vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Do not overwork the rice. Traditionally, a sushi chef will have one of his assistants fan the sushi for 15 minutes at this point. Zach fans it himself with a paper plate for a few minutes; I would probably make Alex do this. Cover the rice with the paper plate until you make the rolls.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What Four Sticks of Butter, Four Cups of Sugar, a Bottle of Guinness and About Three Pounds of Chocolate Can Do

Make an evilly good cake, that's what, one that sits in the fridge among the lowly healthful string cheese and lettuce secure in its own delectableness. I just had to put an extra pound or so of it down into the garbage, as its siren song was all too tempting and I have still plenty of poundage to lose and muscle to build. (And even now I am half envisioning digging it out of the trash. A little vegetable scrap, chicken skin and coffee grinds wouldn't dim Its chocolaty goodness would it? Hahahah! KIDDING! Sort of.) The Guinness adds intensity, moistness and depth to the cake, and although it is certainly possible that the FOUR STICKS OF BUTTER have something to do with the luscious tenderness of the crumb, I contend it is due to the Guinness, that venerable Irish booze.

Chocolate Stout Cake with Chocolate Ganache

Best made the day before you want to eat it.

2 cups Guinness Stout
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups good quality unsweetened cocoa powder
4 cups all purpose flour
4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups sour cream


Preheat oven to 350°F.
Butter three 8-inch round cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Line with parchment paper and butter the paper. (Commentary: I used two 9-inch cake pans, buttering the bottoms but leaving out the parchment paper. Mistake--one of the cakes broke apart out of the pan due to the stickiness of its bottom. I think parchment paper is yet another waste of the nation's trees, but in the future I'll at least flour the pans well. Alas, fair cake, I hardly knew ye!)

Bring stout and butter to a simmer in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add the cocoa powder and whisk till mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.
Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a large bowl to blend.
Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sour cream, then add the stout-cocoa mixture and beat just to combine. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed till combined.

Divide batter equally among prepared pans and put them in the center rack of the oven. Bake for 35 minutes. (More Commentary: If using 9-inch pans as I did, and filling them near to full to boot, you'll need to bake for 50-55 minutes. Make sure cakes are totally baked through.

Transfer cakes to rack and cool 10 minutes; unmold cakes from pan and cool completely.

Then you slather 'em in this:


2 cups whipping cream
1 pound bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped

Bring cream to simmer in heavy medium or large saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chopped chocolate, whisk till melted and smooth. Refrigerate until icing is spreadable, about 2 hours.

Supposedly makes 12 servings unless you are like me and sneak large chunks of it at random and inopportune times, like before breakfast and at one in the morning.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Where are all the sweet summer tomatoes? They certainly aren’t at my local Shaw’s or Whole Foods, which sell the same bland, tasteless tomatoes that they do in the winter. They also aren’t at my local gourmet store, Formaggio Kitchen, which also offered a pathetic selection of mushy industrial “heirloom” tomatoes. It is possible that they are at the Davis Square weekly farmers’ market, which I didn’t visit today because of the rain. Still, that wouldn’t have helped me yesterday, when I went to the store hoping to make the pasta caprese from last month’s Cook’s Illustrated and test their theory that the secret to the dish is freezing cubes of fresh mozzarella before cooking (this seems to be the secret of most of their dishes involving cheese).

Instead, I decided to improvise a salmon ceviche. I used farm-raised Atlantic salmon, which is surprisingly delicious and socially responsible to boot. The texture of salmon was quite luxurious, similar to sushi but without the heavy oily flavor that sometimes can be unpleasant. The dish was a great success, and I forgot about my tomato problems until after lunch, when I finished all the ceviche and am left wondering what to make for tomorrow’s dinner.

Salmon Ceviche:


1 lb Fresh farm-raised Atlantic salmon, cut into ½ inch cubes
1 English Cucumber, peeled, de-seeded and cubed
1 avocado, cubed
2 shallots, minced
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
1 orange, supremed
½ cup cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 large lemon
Juice of 1 lime
Tabasco Sauce, a dash


Combine Ingredients. Allow to marinate for at least 1 hour. The dish will improve over time.

Juicy Juice

I have had little truly notable cuisine lately. A chunk of of tough and spongy New York Strip here, a lusciously crisp and oily funnel cake there. I am spending a chunk of the summer outside of Washington, D.C with my fiance.

DC is a city about whose gastronomic prospects I am sort of vague. I have gleaned one or two impressions, but I suspect that in these food-trend-heavy times they are probably outdated. I envision the typical DC eatery as an obscurely located, richly-appointed, dark wood-paneled, ostentatious pastoral English countryside painting-filled, boys' clubhouse (No Girls Allowed!) where "Beltway insiders" like Henry Kissinger and other such corpulent grubs plot policy over double martinis and steaks. As far as I know this is still quite the thing; however, there is also a pretty good collection of ethnic restaurants, especially in the outlying suburbs, where there are plenty of Chinese and Vietnamese folks. In the city there seems to be an ever-increasing melange of New American/organic/locally-sourced/hip n'trendy places in town.

Well, I guess. I don't really know. I am not going to any of them at the moment. No longer dining on arugula, I am instead sending its tender little leaves to a grisly death. Vampirically I drink of its life-giving fluids, flushing the pulpy evidence of my crime down the disposal. So far numerous plump and ripened vegetables have died at my hands, their bodies crushed to withered fragments in the growling jaws of a Breville Elite Juice Fountain Plus. Yes, I have taken up Juicing!

It's a lot of fun, really, although I see why a lot of people can't be bothered with it. Why buy all those fabulous, lovely vegetables and fruits only to shove them into a juicer instead of cooking them up in numerous delectable ways? Most of the juicing books and websited I've looked at give delicious sounding recipes for fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies, but when said produce is 5.99 a pound (organic, natch) you feel sort of like an ass shoving the sun-ripened raspberries and local blueberries in a juicer instead of just PUTTING THEM IN YOUR MOUTH AND EATING THEM, FOR GOD'S SAKE. WHAT A CONCEPT.

Why am I doing it, then? Well, it IS a great way to quickly get in a pound's worth of produce into yourself when you're in a rush. If The Government says we have to have our "five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day," juicing is a GOOD way to do it (although you are missing out on the fiber there, so you have to get a bunch of that in or else you'll get constipated and your arteries will get clogged up and a miserable death will surely ensue.)

When last in China I was much inspired by a yoga-teaching, meditation-retreat taking, fabulously well-muscled and toned friend of my fiance's who, while we were shoveling in our daily glut of oily, fatty pork, would regale us with the wonders of juice fasting, in which you drink nothing but the stuff, made from kale, lettuce or other such rabbity roughage, for anywhere from a few days to a few months. "Juice detoxing releases more than just internal toxins from the body," he would say sagely, contemplating a piece of Sichuan-style smoked bacon. "You'd be surprised at the emotional issues that come up."

Eager to witness the dark night of our souls, Fiance and I were keen to try it. That was two months ago. So far we have bought the juicer and a book of juicing recipes. I have juiced various and sundry combinations of beets, carrots, celery, lettuce, tomatoes, apples, peppers of various colors, cucumbers and spinach. The taste? Wonderful--if you like raw produce, of course. Lettuce juice tastes of lovely green lettuce. No problem. Likewise with beets and tomatoes. It gets problematic when you try to juice things like kale, collards or dandelion greens, all of which have a certain amount of bitterness and are rarely eaten raw, but are extremely nutrient-dense and very good for you. Naturally, it's these leafy greens that you're supposed to do the juice detoxing with, not the yummy tasting stuff.

Despite visions of Self-Actualized Enlightened Juice Fasted Rachel dancing in my head I'm still resisting this whole NOT EATING part. I could do it for a weekend with company, three days tops, but longer than that and I would probably expire. Yes, on the fourth day you would find me writhing on the floor, a pale celery green, antioxidant-rich fluids oozing from every orifice. But three days of kale juice? Would be an interesting experiment to try this month, just to see whether any toxins come out of any orifices. Or maybe to see if I can divine the shape of the universe or something. Until then, I'll continue pulverizing hapless tomatoes--homemade 'V8' is amazing.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Enjoying Ethiopian

Many of my friends get this glazed look in their eyes whenever Ethiopian food is mentioned. “I love Ethiopian food,” they say in a dreamy voice as they recall past culinary ecstasy. You can see their mouths begin to salivate, and then you can see them take a cold, hard swallow when I declare my firm opinion that Ethiopian food is stupid. It’s not that I don’t want to like Ethiopian food. I find the idea of writing of an entire country’s cuisine to be unpalatable, especially when its food receives such high acclaim. But, after many meals of rubbery ijnera bread and boring stews containing overcooked sulfuric eggs, I resigned myself to the idea that Ethiopian food was not for me. That is, until yesterday night, when I had a delightful meal at Addis Red Sea, a new Ethiopian restaurant in Cambridge.

Daunted by the unfamiliar menu, I opted for a combination platter of Doro Wot (chicken stewed in red pepper sauce) and the three vegetarian dishes that the waitress recommended. The Doro Wot was delicious, with tender lemony chicken and a spicy sauce. One of the vegetable dishes was a preparation of collard greens that would rival that from the finest southern kitchen. Their spicy lentils were lovely, and had a completely different flavor from the chicken. But, probably the most impressive was the injera, which was light and flavorful, a perfect vessel to enjoy all the sauces.

I am thrilled that I no longer need to snub Ethiopian food. Usually, I hate being wrong, but in this case I am glad to retract everything negative I’ve said about Ethiopian cuisine (including an unfortunate joke I once made questioning whether they had food in Ethiopia). I plan to rush back to Addis Red Sea and happily eat a humble pie of this delicious cuisine.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Reality Check

Just when I was getting carried away idealizing Chinese food, this story ripped off my rose-tinted glasses.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chinese Cooking

Some of my favorite dishes from China are unavailable in the States. It is true that Chinese dining options in this country have dramatically improved from the days where all you could find were bland Cantonese-American brown sauce dishes. Within ten minutes of my house are restaurants from Taiwan, Shandong, and Nanjing (although the Nanjing restaurant is ironically called the Qingdao Garden). Still, some of China’s most ubiquitous dishes are absent from American menus.

The lack of some dishes is understandable. Take lamb kabobs (羊肉串儿), for example. While lamb kabobs are available at virtually every street corner in Beijing, they are a Muslim food that isn’t found in Han Chinese restaurants. Few Chinese Muslims make it to America, and those who do rarely open restaurants. However, other dishes, like tiger salad of cucumber and pepper (老虎菜), steamed bread (馒头), or candied fruit kabobs (糖葫芦) are shamefully neglected by restaurants in America, leaving the people who crave them only one option: cooking them at home, which is exactly what Rachel I did the other night.

Finding recipes for the kabobs and salad turned out to be a bit of a challenge. After extensive Internet searching, I was about to give up and just wing it, when on a whim I looked at the webpage for Betty’s Kitchen, a Chinese cooking magazine owned by the media group I worked for while in China. I was amazed to find complete recipes for both the lamb kabobs and cucumber salad, and happily copied down the ingredients. Rachel and I then rushed over to the Super 88, Boston’s Chinese grocery store, optimistic that we would be able to produce the dishes we were craving.

In retrospect, we were a bit naïve to think that we would be able to find the foreign spices listed in the recipes. The grocery store clerk gave me a blank stare when I asked for barbeque powder (烧烤粉) and spicy sedan chair powder (辣轿粉). After a lengthy discussion in Chinese, he directed us to the Western barbeque spice section, and then mocked us when we were unable to find what we wanted. We finally decided to muster up our dignity, forget the recipes, and just improvise the dishes.

The kabobs turned out to be delicious, tasting quite like the Beijing street food, except that we were using a tastier cut of lamb. The tiger salad was reminiscent of what we ate in China, except we were short on peppers. We decided to call it little cat salad (小猫菜), and it truly did this name proud. The night was a great success, and left me eager to cook more Chinese food.

Monday, July 2, 2007

A Familiar Face

While watching old episodes online of Betty’s Kitchen, a Chinese cooking show, I saw the following commercial, which I've captured in a screenshot:

It turns out every episode ends with an commercial for the Betty's Kitchen magazine, which includes a shot from when I appeared on the show in January, 2004. I’m a star!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Organic Nectars Raw Cacao Powder

is THE SHIT. Makes regular cocoa seem like factory sawdust. Rich, vibrant chocolate taste, not sweet, but not at all bitter. Excellent morning meal: a few scoops of cacao powder, one banana, enough chocolate soy or hempmilk to cover. Blend. Like a thin silky chocolate pudding, but fueling and nutritious.

Will be baking bread and dessert this week for Fiance's family reunion (that is if I can stop reading Perez Goddamn Hilton long enough to bang out a paper on 19th century fried chicken recipes and an 18th century cookbook anaysis) and am pondering what sort of loaves to produce. I usually do a part whole wheat kalamata-rosemary as one, but I'm sort of bored of that. I'm not sure of the other. Ideas, o masses of fans who read this blog? Perhaps dame Beranbaum can assist. I'm also making a cherry-apple crisp. Baking. Nothing better.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


As expected Jenny's posts should be not only fun to read (xiao wo niu! hao chi!) but a much-needed contrast to anything I would post about my eating habits in the past week or so. Last Friday I had all four of my wisdom teeth taken out and have been gumming/sipping/drooling a melange of smoothies, soups, puddings, and rice. There was one night in which I served Brian and myself mushed black-eyed peas and minced collard greens with a side of roasted yam--I'd been reading on deep Southern African-American slave foodways and was missing the homelike stuff--but other than that I've not had much interest in eating nor desire to control what it is I do eat. (Chocolate-peanut butter Truffle Pigs, anyone? No? How about an entire box of flaxseed fiber crackers?)

I have languished in bed, swallowing pills, icing swollen cheeks, oozing fluids, and contending with a sinus infection in the right side of my face that has totally redefined my conception of that malady. Let's just say that the only feasting this week was done by the colonies of bacteria which dined gleefully upon the blood leached into in my sinuses from my gaping gum-holes, then multiplying and dividing into horrid incarnations of their former sweet and innocent wittle selves. Fever and foul snottage ensued.


Jenny, laissez le bon temps rouler.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Paris, Part 1

I returned from France last week five pounds heaver. The weight came from my soul, which is still is still soaring . . . drunkenly. The trip was amazing, filled with countless extravagant meals and fabulous wines. I have struggled on how to blog about the trip, fearing that a litany of all the noteworthy feasts would be tedious. No one wants to read another rhapsody about how great French food is. I’ve read countless florid descriptions of a the satisfying crunch of a croissant’s light, buttery layers or rants about why the cheap table wine at a Parisian bistro is better than much of the swill we get in the States. I certainly don’t want to resort to the cliché about how it is impossible to get a bad meal in France, despite the fact that my experience on this trip supported this theory. Still, I want to record all the great things I ate, if only to quiet my family and friends who keep asking when I’m going to post about France. So, I figured I would start with a post about my first dinner in Paris, and see how things continue from there.

My first dinner in Paris was at Le Duc, a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant that my brother recommended. The meal commenced with a heaping plate of bigorneaux (small snails).

Sometimes bigorneaux can be rubbery and bland, but these were tender and sweet. I dove right in, prying the sweet flesh from the shells and popping them into my mouth as if they were candy. Alex watched with loving admiration as I gorged myself, although I must admit that an onlooker unfamiliar with his expressions would have mistaken his look for horror. When he said, “Jenny, how can you eat that?” he really meant, “Behold what an exotic, adventurous fiancée I have.”

The next course should have been Le Duc’s famous raw fish platter, which is not on the menu, but is ordered by everyone in the know, according to my brother and sister-in-law. Alex and I were hesitant to try it, questioning the wisdom of ordering something that fails to test the chef’s ability to cook. We were also jetlagged and weren’t sure exactly what the raw fish platter was called in French. In whispers, we guessed that it might be called the plateau fruits de la mer, and even tried to look it up in the Michelin review of the restaurant, but in the end we were too shy. Alex chose the trio of smoked fish and I ordered the oysters plate from the menu. The smoked fish was uninspired. I was happy with the oysters, which were plump and not too briny, until the neighboring table was presented with a raw fish platter heaping with oysters, clams, shrimp, langoustines, escargots, and lobster. Futterneid is the German word for the devastating resentment that occurs when someone orders better food than you. Sure, the oysters were delicious, but futterneid diminished their sweetness. I jealously looked on until the table noticed my staring. There was a glint of triumph in their eyes when I went back to my meal; they knew they were dining better than I.

The next course was a sole meuniere, which was a little buttery for my taste. Likewise, Alex’s sea bass was swimming in butter. To me, fresh fish should taste of the sea, not of the land. While the dishes weren’t my favorite, I appreciated their Frenchness. Later in the trip, I would receive a pamphlet about entitled, “Butter: Healthy or Not?” The conclusion was a resounding yes.

For dessert, we had a rum cake that was much more about the rum than the cake. The waiter brought out a modest portion of pound-cake, and then poured about a cup of rum over the top. If that weren’t enough, he left the bottle on the table in case we were still feeling sober. That wasn’t the case, and after happily eating the dessert we stumbled back to the hotel to sleep off the meal. The trip was off to a good start.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bread and Whine

As of late I have been contemplating a good many things related to what I put down my gullet.

Since I finished the Culinary Arts Program, I've done a successful two week course of Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet, which against my better instincts I liked (while making my own modifications to the suggested eating plan as I refuse to eat things like ham, cottage cheese and aspartame), went to China and willingly let it all go to hell, consuming platefuls of that nation's venerable and porcine delicacies with abandon, came back to the States, felt like crap. I laid around for three days recovering from jet lag and researching juicers, detox diets, and raw foods diets, got sick of that, and went to my sister's college graduation and ate Cheetos, Doritos, pretzels, popcorn and a Klondike Bar in an environment where whole grains and greens seemed...irrelevant, to say the least. I am now trying to gear myself up to embark on something distinctly Unfun: an Elimination Diet.

Grrroooooaaaan. Whine. Moan. Writhe.

Earlier this year on the recommendation of my primary care doctor I got food allergy testing done. For a couple of years now--since the stressful Beijing office job--I've had some weird upper respiratory, digestive and tongue symptoms. I was treated in Beijing with acupuncture, which actually worked quite well (although slowly) on the digestive symptoms, heart palps and tight cough I'd get after eating (bizarre, yes). However, the weird scalloped tongue and the funny, scrapey-burny feeling on it WOULD NOT go away and still hasn't. This last is a curious sort of symptom, I know. Traditional Chinese medicine would locate the problem in the vicinity of the spleen, liver and other digestive organs.* Anyway, back in the states I got food allergy tested and was found to be reactive to tomatoes, eggs, oranges, is the horrid part: BAKER'S YEAST and BREWER'S YEAST.


Well, okay. There's no real evidence, as of yet, that I must give up ALL of these foods entirely. I'm going to eliminate all of them for a time, or at least do my damndest to, and see if there's a significant change in the way I feel. I have no major problem with the tomatoes or the eggs or the oranges (although for god's sake, no tomatoes? In summer? Injustice!)

It is the baker's and brewer's yeasts that are the hard part. It's not just that the blessed wee organisms are responsible for the chemical reactions that create, oh, EVERYTHING GOOD (bread, cakes, rolls, condiments,vinegars, crackers, pickles, etc. Oh, AND ALCOHOL. HUZZAH.) but that yeasts in some form are in most processed foods, making them extremely difficult to escape. I fear the degree of vigilance it will require to properly execute this elimination diet. Actually, at the moment I'm less fearing the vigilance than the length--I am seeing the rather flighty nutritionist tomorrow to start the thing, and I don't know how long she will recommend me to do it. What if it's months? I have three weddings and my fiance's family reunion to attend in the next three months, plus a good many get-togethers with friends of the regular sort. Of course all these things can be enjoyed without the manna of bread and the balm of sweet, sweet Kentucky bourbon (or Malbec or Champagne). IN THEORY.

Well, on the bright side, I won't be consuming any processed food at all, practically. I won't be imbibing extra calories in the form of alcohol, calories which potentially take up happy residence in my rather-too-fleshy arms and midsection. However, I am one of those people who has to have some sort of recourse, some sort of compensation, for undertaking anything gastronomically limited (no, the experience and potential results are not their own reward. It's hardly as if I'm some kind of mature, reasonable adult). Hence I have settled upon a Solution to stave off the inevitable pangs of dullness and boredom I will feel while everyone else is having bacchanal blowouts and chowing down on cinnamon rolls and I'm having lemon water, salmon and steamed vegetables that I have had to make myself because god forbid I go to a restaurant where Unknown Yeasts might lurk.

Well, the picture says it all, people. At least it's not something much worse.

*and curiously, what is apparently my spleen channel (along my inner shins) is insanely painful to massage. Uh...whodathunkit?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Zhongwen zenme shuo "sixteen kinds of pork products with an emphasis on pork belly parts cooked eight different ways"?

Oh god, am I toxic right now.

China good. Bacon gooooooooooooood.


Can't write. Jet lag. Braiinnnnnnnnns. (Pig) brainnnnnnnnns, massssster.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

But then again... of tomorrow I'll be in China for two weeks on vacation with my fiance and some friends, and that exalted land is not exactly known for crunchy healthy whole-grain goodness. Indeed, since ancient times white rice has been favored over brown (peasant food, that, and a good indication you can't afford to have the nasty outer fibrous layer polished off down at the mill, you poor hapless soul you). I'll have to contend with the devilish charms of fat frosty jugs of Yanjing beer, steaming piles of jiaozi (dumplings), silken noodles and fragrant rice upon which savory sauces can be ladled.

So we will see.
We will see, we will see, we will see.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Arthur Agatston, damn your South Beach Dieted, low glycemic-indexed soul to hell.

Jenny's succulent-sounding wanderings through New York's monuments to culinary pleasure will be a striking contrast, I suppose, with my own latest adventures in eating. Since the end of the gastronomic glutfest that was the Culinary Arts Program, I've been On A Diet. Yes, on the South Beach Diet. Oh, how I cringe!

Not having vats of olive oil, one pound blocks of sweet butter and enough full-fat cream to feed the starving Russian masses of yore in one's refrigerator is at first bracing and refreshing to the active culinary mind. "Let us (lettuce?) see, what can I make with...three cups of salad greens, 3 ounces of boneless skinless chicken breast, and two teaspoons of olive oil (a typical list of ingredients in a South Beach Diet meal)?" The conclusion: not anything especially interesting from a gastronomic standpoint. For the past two weeks my eager, quivering hands have shoveled so much roughage into my drooling maw in the form of dark leafy greens and a cornucopia of vegetables that I went to the bathroom nine times in 36 hours. PEOPLE, THAT'S WHAT THEY CALL REGULAR. Instead of boeuf en daube, homemade ice cream, and hanger steak I'm eating low-fat tofu, red cabbage and broccoli for lunch, whole bell peppers for "dessert," and egg whites with multiple squashes stir fried in for breakfast. Starches? None, at least not in the first two weeks of this diet. No brown rice, white rice, pasta, bread, sugar, or anything of that sort. You are allowed to eat lower fat cheese, so I've been snacking on string cheese and raw almonds on occasion when hunger strikes me.

It is relentlessly healthy.

And, at least at this moment, I (gulp) really like it.


How am I supposed to become a great gourmand and food writer if I'm not sampling everything the world's tables have to offer? I can't go on assignment to Greece or Bulgaria or Tanzania and NOT try the doubtless non-South Beach Diet (or any diet)-approved delights that await. In the interests of quality gastronomic literature, my stomach must be allowed to sample all the fish eyeballs, fatty pork, wine, chorizo, chocolate cake, and fried chicken (ad infinitum) it desires, right?

Well, maybe not. As much as I'd like to be Jeffrey Steingarten, Jeffrey Steingarten doesn't have to squeeze himself into a wedding dress in a year (to the best of my knowledge). Hence, in the interests of a somewhat more slender waistline, my penchant for consuming bags of popcorn and four servings of rice in one sitting (as I am wont to do when drunk off my ass) is going to have to cool it for a time. (And ditto to the getting drunk off my ass.)

Instead I'm going to try to relish a somewhat different style of eating. Nothing overly drastic (I am NOT staying on SBD). Although, as I wrote above, I have to admit that two weeks of no heavy starchy carbohydrates, no sugar other than a scant teaspoon of honey here and there, and boatloads of fresh vegetables (all together with a bunch of kung-fu) has made me feel different, and better, and it's a feeling I want to keep.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Four Seasons

I woke up one morning during my Passover Cleveland trip to find my father scowling at The New York Times. “Jenny, you need to see this,” he said in a serious voice. I prepared myself a cup of espresso to ready myself for the story, which judging by his expression, was not going to be good. After a fortifying sip, I walked over and looked at the paper. Before I could finish the first sentence, my father broke the depressing news. Frank Bruni had just taken away the Four Season’s third star. While the decline of any historic American restaurant is saddening, I had a more immediate reason to be disappointed about the review: we had reservations to dine there for Alex’s mother’s birthday.

When we met Alex’s parents in New York, our discussion quickly wandered to the Bruni review. Alex’s father quickly dismissed the article. “I wouldn’t worry,” he said. “I don’t think The New York Times’ restaurant reviews are any more reliable than its political coverage.” Nick’s confidence and enthusiastic stories about past meals at the Four Seasons quickly restored my optimism. An epicurean like Nick would never pick an unreliable location for his wife’s 60th birthday.

Still recovering from the previous night’s debauchery, I hadn’t eaten much during the day and was ravenous by dinnertime. This is a rarity when with Nick, who insists on a marathon of wine-filled feasts for both lunch and dinner when traveling. When I walked into the restaurant, I was immediately struck by the room’s décor. Brass and silver chain curtains rippled lazily in the window like a gentle breeze on a still pond. On the way to the main room, I admired the Picasso curtain and Miro tapestries. The famous pool sat proudly in the middle of the room, surrounded by mini cherry-blossom trees. Even a McDonald’s meal would have seemed like haute cuisine in such a tranquil, sophisticated environment.

People say that the Four Seasons isn’t really about the food; it is about the décor and the experience of dining with New York’s elite. While it is true that the food was not the most innovative I’ve ever had, it was definitely no disappointment. Blue fin tuna ravioli with sea urchin was a whimsical start to the meal. Thinly sliced sashimi replaced the usual pasta shell, and the unctuous sea urchin filling was delicious. A buttery bison filet with foie gras and a generous perigord truffle sauce followed. The meal’s highlight was the roasted duck, which was carved tableside. With the perfectly crisp skin of a Peking roast duck and rich succulent meat, the dish was a knockout.

I could barely make room for the marvelous dessert of strawberry and rhubarb shortbread completed the meal, let alone the three complimentary soufflés that appeared at our table when my brother expressed regret about forgetting to order his in advance. Walking out past the beautiful people and impressive art, I appreciated the ethereal experience of dining at the Four Seasons. Of course, it is easy to enjoy a dreamlike meal when you don’t have to look at the bill, the one downside of an otherwise delightful meal.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

City Living

Alex and I often fantasize about moving into the city. Both of us grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, and are used to suburban living. We love our quiet, tree-lined street where we can open the windows at night and grill on our patio. We are so comfortable in our cozy little neighborhood that we rarely venture downtown. However, when we do make it into the city and see all the fabulous restaurants we are missing, we are filled with acute urban envy. I have this image of dining after work at a stylish restaurant across the street from our brownstone apartment. Alex is wearing a tie that has been loosened in a James Bondesque manner, and I am wearing a fashionable outfit with fabulous shoes. The restaurant owners know us, and present us with complementary glasses of champagne right as we are seated at a candle-lit table with crisp white linens. The food is spectacular - the type of cuisine we normally enjoy on special occasions. Except this is no special occasion: this is our everyday urban life.

I just returned home from a weekend in New York City, and my grass-is-always-greener syndrome is worse than ever. The weekend began with a party at the Harvard Club for Alex’s mother’s sixtieth birthday. While the food was delicious, my never-ending glass of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is what really distinguished the evening. No matter how much I drank, invisible waiters kept refilling the glass. Alex’s mother always says that you won’t end up with too bad of a hangover if you only drink natural wines. I didn’t test her theory’s wisdom that evening, however. Instead, my parents and I went out to a bar after the party, where I drank a huge glass of sambuca. I think it was that final glass that left me with an epic hangover, the likes I haven’t experienced since a wedding last spring.

I really do regret that final glass of sambuca, because the next day the true dining really began. Alex and I met his parents for lunch at Mario Batali’s pizza restaurant, Otto. I was skeptical about the restaurant after a disappointing meal at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, which made me question the abilities of TV celebrity chefs. But, when the appetizer of artichokes marinated in lemon and mint came out, it was clear that this meal was going to be a great success.

For everyone else, that is.

I was still recovering from the sambuca, and couldn’t even bring myself to taste the artichoke, even though it looked amazing. The appetizer was followed by some pizza with a seriously thin crust - the likes of which I have never seen in America. I was able to force down a few slices, and felt anguished that I could not properly enjoy the meal.

If I lived in the city, of course, my failure to enjoy this meal wouldn’t have been so devastating. But not being able to enjoy a meal I know I will not soon be able to replicate filled me with the type of depression that would usually drive me to the bottle. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option at the time. The meal was not an entire loss. I rallied for a delicious tangerine sorbetto dessert. And, while I didn’t enjoy Otto to its fullest, the meal’s restorative powers prepared me for an amazing dinner at the Four Seasons, which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pai Huanggua

I stood in the middle of my kitchen, smashing cucumbers with my knife as I would a poisonous insect that I needed to be sure was dead. Cucumber guts sprayed onto my apron and the floor. A satisfying thwapping rhythm rang through the kitchen. My friends watched with what I would like to think was admiration, but more likely was horror. The dish? Pai huanggua, or Chinese smashed cucumbers with garlic and vinegar.

Pai huanggua was one of the favorite appetizers of the Beijing expat set. The Chinese concept of a salad is fruits or vegetables drowning in sweet mayonnaise. Since Chinese restaurant food is quite oily, especially for a western palate, foreigners often ordered from a small selection of cold appetizers that were more similar to the Western salad ideal. Pai huanggua is the king of all these dishes. Cucumbers are smashed with a knife, marinated in garlic, vinegar, chili paste, and sesame oil, and then topped with a healthy sprinkling of msg.

At least that’s how I made them. Unfortunately, my pai huanggua did not taste like the dish I loved in Beijing. First, I used Chinese black rice vinegar, and I think the dish is traditionally made with white vinegar. I didn’t use msg. And, I’ve never seen a recipe for pai huanggua, so it is altogether possible that there are other mysterious ingredients that I neglected.

While my dish wasn’t exactly pai huanggua, it still was delicious. It was more of a Chinese-inspired refrigerator pickle, which I would definitely make again.

Chinese Refrigerator Pickle

1 English cucumber, smashed and sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
Chinese black rice vinegar
Sesame oil
Chili Paste
White Rice Vinegar

Mix the ingredients with enough vinegar and sesame oil to coat the cucumbers (I used a 3:1 ratio of vinegar to sesame oil). Add chili paste and salt to taste. Add more salt than you think you should – the flavor will disappear during refrigeration.

Refrigerate the cucumbers for about one hour. Strain the cucumbers, and redress with a little black rice vinegar, white rice vinegar, and sesame oil. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Buon Compleanno, Mio Fratello

Today is my brother’s 30th birthday. Josh has only cooked for me once. He made a spaghetti with arrabbiata sauce that I will remember forever. He had just returned from studying abroad in Florence, where he lived with a hateful Italian couple. Before he moved in, a friend told him that his host parents were fascists. My brother was young and naïve, and thought his friend was speaking figuratively. He didn’t realize that in Italy the word takes on literal meaning, and that his host parents were actual fascists. The couple was mean and ungenerous. They locked every room in the house except for his bedroom. There was even a lock on the refrigerator door. It was far from the nurturing cultural experience that he envisioned.

I, on the other hand, have fond memories of the couple, who cooked my family dinner when we visited Josh. The meal was unremarkable until after dessert, when they served a digestif of homebrewed limoncello. I usually avoid Italian liquors. Grappa’s gasoline flavor brings tears to my eyes. It is a drink so vile that the only way to sell it to trick consumers by putting it in artistic bottles. Likewise, limoncello usually is a highly undesirable beverage. Its neon yellow hue frightens me, and it breaks Alex’s rule of avoiding all flammable beverages. This limoncello, however, was delicious. The sweet lemon flavor balanced out the harsh alcohol. I left the meal happy and tipsy. Josh’s host parents may have been fascists, but they sure could make booze.

I believe that Josh’s arrabbiata recipe also came from his host mother. Arrabbiata is a spicy red sauce, literally called ‘angry’ sauce because of the inclusion of chilies. It is probably telling my two recollections of Josh’s host parents’ cooking are angry pasta and hard liquor. Regardless of the recipe’s source, Josh’s arrabbiata sauce was amazing. I don’t remember the precise recipe, but it definitely involved tomatoes, carrots, garlic, onions, red pepper and basil (olives and red wine also might have been included). The sweetness of the tomatoes and carrots combined with the pepper’s spiciness to create a deep flavor. I was impressed by my brother’s sophistication, and couldn’t wait to study abroad like he did.

I doubt Josh will ever cook for me again. I suspect that he was one of those bachelors who only excels at cooking one impressive dish. Now he is engaged, and his fiancée runs the kitchen. She is an accomplished cook, and is preparing a birthday feast for him as I write this. Happy birthday, Josh.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

An Unfortunate Meal

Finding great Chinese food in Boston is no easy task. A few restaurants prepare dishes reminiscent of what I ate in China, but so far I have found none that can compete with even the most modest Beijing eatery. However, when my friend showed me a promising Boston Globe review of New Shanghai, an inexpensive restaurant in Chinatown, I forgot all about my many past disappointments and rushed to sample the dumplings that “burst with broth when you bite into their meaty center.”

Just the mention of Shanghai xiaolongbao (literally buns in a little basket) is enough to make me salivate. The secret to the dumplings is a gelatinous stuffing that melts into a broth when cooked, filling your mouth with a broth so luxurious that it rivals the finest consume. In China, xiaolongbao would often cause such rapture that I would forget my surroundings. I would close my eyes to focus fully on savoring the delicious dumplings, and then be shocked to find myself in a street-side shack rather than in an elegant restaurant.

While New Shanghai had an authentic Chinese restaurant’s shabby décor, the xiaolongbao were a mere shadow of what the dish can be. Sometimes, modest Chinese food reminds me of the great things I ate in China. While objectively these dishes leave much to be desired, the memories of what they could be are enough to leave me satisfied and happy. New Shanghai’s xiaolongbao, on the other hand, left me depressed and hungry.

The one good thing about the restaurant is that the fortune cookies were some of the most amusing I’ve encountered:

You are important enough to ask and you are blessed enough to receive back. (my fortune)

You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.

There are only 3 colors, 10 digits, and 7 notes; its [sic] what we do with them that’s important.

You are the crispy noodle in the vegetarian salad of life.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Three days with Jacques Pepin

and I'm walking around muttering to myself under my breath in a French accent, hopelessly attempting to recapture snippets of the surreal, fascinating, stream-of-consciousness chatter that comes out of the mouth of that remarkable man.

We've spent the last three days roasting chickens, scarfing duck, trimming asparagus, washing salad greens, snacking on pates and bread and cheese, mincing a million herbs, drinking wine, baking chocolate tarts, candying grapefruit peel, and generally throwing ourselves into the line of fire with Chef Pepin and his business partner/co-conspirator Jean Claude, serving 80 or so guests at a highly popular BU event called Chez Jacques.

The only bad thing about the last three days, the emotional climate of which has varied from uneasy calm to mind-numbing terror, is that I've been battling a loathesome viral throat infection or cold or something horrid like that, making the tasting of Chef Pepin's excellent food sort of difficult. I'm heading off to a wedding in New Orleans tomorrow morning, and I really am supposed to be sleeping this very minute--I have a feeling the twelve varieties of blue cheese I just sampled at my recent cheese class are hindering that process. I did have to jot down a brief note to myself on the blog, though, one that I'll hopefully return to in a few days:

Roast chicken+boiled potatoes+Boston lettuce salad+potato-leek soup+asparagus=totally sublime and deceptively simple.

And: after last night in the kitchen, OH MY GOD BUT I CAN'T WAIT TO GET BACK TO THE BOOKS.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Fool Me Once...

What is going on with Boston’s fishmongers? Maybe I should have learned my lesson after the incident at Alive and Kicking Lobsters, where I waited thirty minutes for the shopkeeper to return before giving up and buying a trout from Whole Foods. In the post about the incident, I explained that the trout made me sick; however, I neglected to mention that the dish was absolutely disgusting, and that my preparation was probably to blame. I thought that if I showed a picture of the trout's preparation, I would lose all credibility as a cook.

The problem is that I have a fear of cooking fish. I understand how to cook meat and vegetables, but I have almost no experience with seafood. While I have read many fish recipes, I don’t have the expertise to tell when a fish is done. I end up being very timid with the fish, which never results in successful cooking. Once, when making red snapper, I was too shy to examine the fish and neglected to realize that it hadn't been scaled. It was inedible. Another time, I was too afraid to filet my grilled trout, and instead cut the fish in half. The results were not pretty, as you can see in the picture above.

Still, I want to tackle my fish phobia (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Today was bright and sunny -- perfect fish weather -- so I gathered my courage and headed over to The Fishmonger in Huron Village, hoping that I would achieve better results with fresher ingredients. Even if the fish didn’t taste good, I figured that the chances of poisoning myself would be lower at a specialty shop. However, when I arrived at the store, no one was there. A sign hanging in the window read, “Gone Fishing.”

I looked at the store’s hours, which said that the shop was supposed to be open. Is this normal behavior for fishmongers, or is this a Boston thing? Maybe I am just really unlucky. They say fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I guess I should have called The Fishmonger ahead to confirm that they would be open. In the end, this mishap might be a good thing. I’m going to grill veal chops tonight, which almost definitely will be both nonpoisonous and delicious.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Frying Fun

Costco can be a dangerous place for the indulgent. I have a tendency to leave the mega-store with sucker purchases such as a massage chair (which I never use), an ice cream maker (which I love, but never use), and a heated blanket (which I use, but fear will give me cancer or burn my house down). Yesterday, I outdid myself. In addition to two dozen bottles of wine and beer that I am hiding in my secret chametz closet until after Passover, I also bought two xbox games, paper products to last a year, and best of all, a deep fryer.

Alex and I have been coveting a deep fryer ever since we read a New York Times article by Mark Bitman extolling the virtues of the cooking method. Not only is fried food delicious, he argued, but it can be deceptively healthful when the food is fried at the right temperature. In fact, properly deep fried food is a great diet food. At least that is what I believe.

We decided to break in the fryer with french fries, the dish that epitomizes the glory of frying. First, we cut russet potatoes into small rectangles and soaked them in ice water for half an hour to remove the excess starch. While we were waiting, we filled up the fryer with peanut oil, and quickly realized that the two bottles of oil we had just bought only filled about an inch of the frying basin. We sped to the grocery store to buy some more peanut oil, and then while we were out picked up our friend. An hour later, we were back on track and ready to fry.

After drying the potatoes, we fried them until they were golden brown, then let them rest for ten minutes, and then fried them for another minute. The results were adequate, although they were far from the Platonic fries I had envisioned. Possibly the oil wasn’t hot enough. Or maybe we fried too many potatoes at once. Another theory is that the fries sat in water for too long. Or maybe we didn’t dry them enough. Still the fries were quite delicious, and will definitely be a fun dish to master.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Pissy Puffs o' Pastry

Today we had yet another pastry class--we've had at least four so far this semester. Pastry is a complex and venerable branch of cookery, so of course it deserves a chunk of any culinary student's time. However, I have to confess I am not so hot on some of it. Well, okay, a lot of it. Pastry, what Anthony Bourdain calls "all that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy delicate stuff," is very exacting to prepare. Not TOTALLY anal, mind you--it seems to me, in my limited experience, that there's some room for improvisation and fluidity IF you understand the principles and chemistry behind these illustrious and celebrated combinations of eggs, sugar, milk and flour. But not to the degree that one finds in other types of cooking. Pate brisee, pate a choux, pastry cream, custards, St. Honore cream, 1-2-3 dough (or is it 1-2-3 batter?), tortes, tart dough, pie all sort of blurs for me into, well, chef Tony up there said it best. Sweet, sticky, messy, goopy...stuff. Most of it, to be sure, is straight outta the classical French patisserie.

I do love a good butter cake and a fruit crisp or ten, but I could honestly care less about turning out a perfect looking tart shell or piece of puff pastry. (Although I DO see how the ability to whip up cream puffs and eclairs from scratch, as I now can, is a social skill to be wielded like a sharp weapon when necessary. It seems to impress.)

At any rate, I do want to learn pie crust and a classic chocolate cake on which I can spread ganache, the easiest and most divine expression of bittersweet chocolate I know. Maybe we'll learn a cake tomorrow.

So. Working in a kitchen with ten other people and new instructors every day, tackling new recipes calling for at times unfamiliar techniques means that confusion and miscommunication can spring up like mold spores on a piece of cheese. Today was one of those days when nothing seems to go right and your brain synapses refuse to fire off properly.

My intrepid teammate Heidi and I made raspberry creme brulee, vanilla ice cream, the base for a ginger ice cream which we'll churn up tomorrow, and a frozen Grand Marnier souffle. The process of making these confections was sort of irritating, compounded by the less-than-stellar organizational abilities of the visiting chef. I've decided that I loathe souffles and won't waste my time on them in my own kitchen. Nasty, silly, eggy, puffy, prissy little bitches. If I'm going to whip something in the Kitchen Aid for thirty minutes and cook it over the stove for twenty I'd prefer the end product not to be mostly air and eggs that collapses if you look at it wrong or the oven was a tenth of a degree too hot. This particular Grand Marnier souffle was a whipped and frozen, not baked, souffle, so we didn't have to rush it into an oven and a water bath, but no matter. No thanks.

Happily ice creams were made next. Lemon, mint, ginger, chili-lime, and Grand Marnier ice creams will be gobbled up tomorrow, all almost guaranteed to be delicious by virtue of fresh eggs, nice cream, sugar, and intense but simple flavorings. As for raspberry creme brulee, well...meh. I do love puddingy things and caramel, and this is both and has raspberries to boot, but...yawnnn.

I should emphasize that I understand that all of these techniques and basic recipes are absolutely necessary to master if you're an aspiring professional baker or pastry chef, and my program is designed to introduce students to the world of professional cooking, of which baking is a part. But when it comes to the sweet stuff, ultimately what I'm interested in is gaining a solid understanding of the principles behind some very basic desserts that I can make for the people I love. That's just me--I'm not in it for a potential profession. There is something about a frosted butter cake (NOT genoise, don't get me started on that loathesome spongy substance) or a juicy pie that embodies love and care itself. A croquembouche? It's pretty, sure, and impressive looking. But does it have soul?

Probably it does for some. But this American girl'll take a little old loaf of banana bread any old day.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A wee little duck and some other stuff

Yesterday afternoon at school we cooked with the benevolent and bearded Chris Douglass of Icarus and Ashmont Grill. I was confronted with what continues to be something of a bete noire: the animal carcass that has to be broken down into useable parts. In February we had one butchering class, but all we'd done was observe the breaking down of a lamb into lamb chops and legs and tentatively hack at a couple of chickens. In general I've not had enough practice to feel confident carving up a beast. Happily I am not the squeamish short, so it's not about the blood and guts and tendons. My fingers aren't overly practiced at feeling along a backbone, cutting around a collarbone or wishbone, the exact point between two joints through which a knife can cleanly slice. This will come in time, I guess. Happily yesterday's butchery involved only a wee little duck, easy enough to break down into leg and breast parts. I managed not to slash up too much of the meat while separating it from the central ribcage. It helps that at least 45 percent of a duck seems to be fat, so you don't have to be too delicate.

With the duck was served a compote of rhubarb and strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar, sugar and black pepper. This little topping would be divine with ice cream or in a tart shell (perhaps adding a little more sugar). I have to admit I prefer Beijing or Hong Kong-style roast duck to a Western style preparation, but this was pretty good, although I ought to have salted the duck a lot more and cooked it for five minutes less. I continuously forget that when I'm cooking for school I have to surmount my fears of oversalting and dump on four times as much salt as I'd put normally, what my instructors insist on calling "a little." (Just like "a little" butter is a quarter of a pound.)

Carving up the duck into leg and breast parts and cooking them separately is a good strategy for duck, as it saves you from having to siphon off the Hoover Dam's worth of fat that renders out of the thing if you roast it whole. The last time I roasted whole duck it took three hours for the thing to stop dripping sludge and the guests were served at the sophisticated hour of 11PM. Once you have obtained your bone-in duck leg and boneless breast, season the duck legs and throw them in a 425 F oven for 20 minutes, or a little more, for medium rare. The breast--leave at least some skin on so the fat renders out and crisps the skin--can be seared in a heavy saute pan on both sides for 8-10 minutes.

Then we made a dried porcini mushroom-encrusted halibut with watercress garnish and--oh joy!--mashed turnips, which I have decided are far far better than mashed potatoes any day.

We also made a delightful salad of escarole--a new green for me, and one I'll remember--with ricotta salata (aged Ricotta cheese), shaved sunchokes, Marcona almonds and a lemon vinaigrette. Raw sunchokes have a much milder, blander flavor than I'd thought. Then again I have only encountered that odd little bulbous nubbin in one other dish: The Thomas Keller Sunchoke Soup. THAT dish we made with old Tommy K (as he is known in some kitchens) himself for a big shebang. I feel I almost ruined the whole event, but that is a tale for another time.

Sunday, April 1, 2007


So Charlotte the spider hailed Wilbur the pig in Charlotte's Web. And so I salute you, oh Lordly and All-Knowing Internets!

I'm Rachel, the co-poster here at Gastronofiles. I moved to Boston last July from China, where I edited the Beijing section of a large (ish) expatriate entertainment magazine. (Incidentally I took over that job from the lovely Jenny, but I'll let her tell you about that if she so chooses.) While in Beijing I wrote and edited hundreds of 200-500 word articles on the following two themes: Yes Expatriates, A Western Lifestyle IS Possible in China! And, Let Me Interpret This Weird Chinese Custom For You!
You know, the meaty, hard-hitting stuff.

But were it not for that illustrious occupation I don't think I'd be here. I also wouldn't have racked up hundreds of dollars worth of acupuncture and therapy bills, but so it goes.

Today I'm a culinary student in Boston University's Certificate of Culinary Arts Program. I'm also getting a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy from Metropolitan College, a division of BU. I'm hoping to do a Master's thesis on food centered creative-nonfiction, perhaps with a focus on Chinese food. The Culinary Arts Program is a 14 week long intensive cooking course in which you're taught by culinary bigwigs to the nth degree. In the past couple of months I've been lucky enough to work with Boston-based chefs like Michael Leviton, Longteine de Monteiro, Jorg Amsler, Raymond Ost, and Kevin Crawley. To my neverending amazement, I've cooked with Sara Moulton and Thomas Keller and will spend three days in April with Jacques Pepin. I do not particularly know what I am doing.

I'm intending my posts to chronicle my culinary endeavors in the CAP and beyond. When I'm not cooking or thinking about it, I am putting off exercise and reading celebrity gossi--er, Proust.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Why Is This Day Different From All Other Days?

On all other days I go grocery shopping and add food to my kitchen. Why on this day do I discard all my grains?

This morning I cleaned my kitchen for Passover, removing everything that is forbidden during the holiday: flour, rice, beans, oats, corn, and legumes. Technically, I don’t have to do this until the day before Passover – Sunday this year – but Alex and I are going to Cleveland tonight and won’t return home until mid-holiday. The more religious are militant about this task, vacuuming dusting their houses from top to bottom in search of stray particles of grain. For the observant, spring cleaning is not merely a commandment from Martha Stewart; it’s a directive from God.

I am fairly lax about Passover. I don’t worry about crumbs or think too deeply about the hypocrisy of removing my flour and rice, but keeping my canned crab and frozen shrimp. Instead, I think of matzah ball soup, geflite fish, charoset, matzah brei, and all the other Passover delicacies I am about to enjoy. My mouth starts to water when I envision my mother’s bagelas, or Passover rolls. I think of sweet Manishevitz fruit wine that I wouldn’t touch any other day of the year, but on Seder night rivals the finest Bordeaux.

The reason Passover food is so delightful is that you only get it once a year. However, as much as I love Pesadic food, I am glad that the holiday is still a few days away, and will definitely enjoy my bread and pasta at Shabbat dinner tonight.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Something I Ate

I decided steamed lobster would be the perfect meal for gastronofiles’ inaugural post. Lobster is delicious, celebratory, and very New England -- qualities that I hope this blog will possess. Although I have been living in Boston for two years, I have only once cooked lobster at home. My family is horrified by this fact. “You must have lobster for dinner all the time,” my brother once told me over the phone. When I confessed the truth, he wasn’t convinced. “At least you go to all the great lobster shacks,” he persisted. When I told him that I occasionally dine at Jasper White’s Summer Shack, a large lobster chain, there was a long, uncomfortable pause. Finally, he said, “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

I do feel guilty for not taking advantage of Boston’s lobster bounty, so I decided to do my family right by this meal. I drove all the way to Central Square’s Alive and Kicking Lobster, a small, rundown shack surrounded by lobster traps. The last time I went, the owner gave me a long lecture about how to tell the difference between male and female lobstahs, showing me several examples before finally settling on two feisty females. I asked him about making lobster soup, hoping to bait him into saying lobstah chowdah in his thick Boston accent, but he evaded my trap and simply said that the shells would make a great bisque.

This time, the door was locked when I arrived at Alive and Kicking. The lights were on, and a sign inside the shop provided a phone number to the house next door, where the owners could be reached. Another customer was waiting in the parking lot. I asked if he had tried calling the number, but said he hadn’t bothered. I thought it was strange, but sure enough, no one picked up when I called. The man did not look surprised. “This might be awhile,” he told me. “I’m going down the street for a beer.”

I waited in the parking lot for about half an hour before finally giving up on the Alive and Kicking and heading to Whole Foods, which, of course, does not sell lobster. Instead I bought a whole trout, fingerling potatoes, and artichokes, which I could dip in butter in the manner reminiscent of lobster. The meal was delicious, and I was full and happy for about two hours until my stomach started to cramp. At first I ignored the discomfort, but it grew worse and worse until I was doubled over in pain. Then I was sick. Really sick. So sick that I spent the night on the couch for the first time in the five years Alex and I have been together, not wanting to wake him with my frequent bathroom trips. I don’t know if it was the trout or the artichoke or something else I ate, but this meal caused true misery. At four in the morning, lying on my bathroom floor in a fetal position, I thought to myself that Gastronofiles was off to a wonderful start.