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.