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Eddie Huang: That’s My Spaceship

I’ve decided to combine these food blog posts with why I love NY. The city inspires me every single week. So why not start documenting that, right?

Last week’s moment of inspiration came from a free reading at Greenlight bookstore. Eddie Huang, the proprietor of BaoHouse, was in conversation with Sam Sifton, The New York Times national editor, who was once their main restaurant critic.

Huang wrote Fresh Off the Boat, a memoir about his family and finding his way in New York. After going to law school, working at a firm, and trying stand-up comedy, he opened BaoHouse, a small (but loud?) sandwich shop that serves Taiwanese street food. (He did this all before he turned 30.)

One key moment came when an audience member asked about Sam Sifton’s negative review of Xiao Ye, a restaurant of Huang’s that ultimately went out of business. Huang said, “Very rare are people that real with you” and Sifton talked about being bummed because he had bought into all that Huang was and represented.

“[It's] really too bad,” Sifton originally wrote in his review, “Because if Mr. Huang spent even a third of the time cooking that he does writing funny blog posts and wry Twitter updates, posting hip-hop videos and responding to Internet friends, rivals, critics and customers, Xiao Ye might be one of the more interesting restaurants to open in New York City in the last few months.”

Huang has a voice. You have got to give him that. As Sifton alluded to, his original way of speaking no doubt helps his notoriety. I find that his language actually contains his interests. He regularly sprinkles in references to hip-hop, basketball, political and philosophical thinkers. When asked about the unconventional sound track at BaoHouse (He prefers rap and once cut the shift of an employee who switched the music to Taylor Swift), he said, “I play what I play in my house, because you are eating in my house.”

I think part of Eddie’s (yes, now I’ve switched to first name!) draw is that he seems to be putting his all into what he says. He’s open with many moments others (especially immigrants?) would keep private. For instance, at the bookstore, he shared that the first message he received from his dad after reading the memoir was a text that said, “I’m sorry.” Eddie’s dad read about the hardships his children had to go through in the U.S. that they had never told him about. He was sorry that he ever brought them to America!

People have made much of Eddie’s use of social media to build his brand, but a moment like that reminds me of Brene Braun’s vulnerability TED talk. The guy knows how to connect. He may have bravado, but he also has heart. I mean, there he was sitting and laughing with the critic who skewered him (Xiao Ye got zero stars!) in The New York Times!! He shares his failures, triumphs, and his opinions. He re-printed the letter of reprimand his mom wrote him after his poor review onto his blog! What’s so inspiring is how boldly and clearly Eddie communicates who he is to the world. It’s like he is finding –or, rather, creating the language that works for his experience.

The word part I loved most was this: when asked about spending less time at BaoHouse now that he has so many other ventures, Eddie basically said, ‘Oh no, no, no — BaoHouse is my homebase. I would never abandon it.’ But, that’s not actually what he said. His words were, “That’s my spaceship.” Like, BaoHouse is his spaceship.

Perfect, right? In a spaceship, you leave from home, but launch anywhere, even into unknown galaxies. Could be the perfect image for the immigrant experience.


Tricks of the Trade — More Downton

Just a quick note to point out a few intriguing culinary moments in last night’s Downton Abbey episode.

First, deep breath. Yes, it’s true. The key to Mr. Bates’ freedom may be in making pastry! Aaaah! That’s right, we learned that Vera had been making a pie the night of her death. Her friend, Mrs. Bartlett, came in that evening and noticed Vera scrubbing pastry from under her nails.

The poison that killed Vera was IN the pastry — and Bates was long gone by then. He tells Anna as much when she visits him in prison. Vera had been making dinner (including the pie) AFTER Bates was already on the train back to Downton.

Also, how savvy was (“Are you really that tall?”) Alfred?! He purposely put the hollandaise sauce back on the stovetop, then stood by once a horrified Daisy realized her sauce had curdled. He tells her that Ivy can handle it and, quite rightly, instructs her on reconstituting the sauce by whisking in one egg, “dribble it in,” to be exact. Go, Alfred! That’s a total trick of the trade.

Speaking of other tricks, a few months ago, I saw a talk with Amanda Hesser and Jonathan Waxman. I brought Chef Waxman’s tip into my kitchen. He advised salting food from on high. He said the salt is better distributed when the hand sprinkling it is positioned way up above the pot. I’ll keep an eye out for these chef tips. I just love ‘em.

Poor Ethel, now of the Crawley house, could use a few of these tips. She dropped her hot dish when taking it out of the oven! Either her towel was too thin or too wet. Your tea towel must be completely dry, or you too will drop hot food. Trust me!

So, what was in that tea if not honey? And, why, why start with a kidney souffle!?! If you think about it, her choice in menu is consistent with what we knew of her personality at Downtown. Dreaming big, but with disastrous ends. There is a middle path, dear Ethel. How about a simple sponge cake instead of souffle? Or maybe a slow-cooked roast that you just stick in the oven where timing is not so important? She says that by employing her, Mrs. Crawley is giving her a return to a wholesome world. I hope she finds her way. After all, the kitchen is exactly the place where one rebuilds from scratch.


Agrodolce…and more culinary tools

So, you know how I was mentioning how having the right tools is so important? I wanted to add something I picked up from Chef Skye Gyngell. (This is an Australian-born U.K. chef I’ve never met, whose restaurant I’ve never been to – but who I admire so much!) Just to give you a sense — thanking her mother in one of her cookbooks, Skye wrote the following, “her mind is like a magic box full of amazing thoughts and dreams”.

A magic box!!

When Skye talks about her culinary toolbox, it’s full of ingredients she likes to have on hand — staples like slow-roasted tomatoes, infused oils (garlic, chile, lemon, for instance), braised lentils, and toasted nuts. But, she also writes about a concept as a tool that she puts in her food. It’s called agrodolce.

She writes, “The principle of agrodolce is essentially about achieving balance and harmony from contrasting tastes — salty (or savory) and sweet pulling against each other, yet complementing each other completely. It belongs in the toolbox because it is a concept that I love and one I find myself using time and time again.”

Gives one pause, right? I’m going to start following Skye’s lead on this, thinking about the organizing principles behind the dishes I love to eat or make.

To give you just one quick example of agrodolce, Skye loves sweet potato dishes. In one of her recipes for a sweet potato puree, she adds maple syrup, tamari, and a red chile. Then she instructs the reader to fiddle around until you taste that balance of flavors. She writes, “Like a set of old-fashioned scales, the ideal balance lies in the middle, yet it takes very little (in the way of sweet or salty) to tilt it out of kilter in either direction. When it is well-achieved, agrodolce creates a strong, clear, harmonious flavor that is deeply satisfying…”

Try it and let me know what you think!


Why I Love Downton Abbey

You think I love Downton Abbey because of the drama. That I’m rooting for Anna and Bates. Or maybe because Michelle Dockery was quoted as saying the show is like a soap written by a poet. And you know I love poetry! (Amazing one at the inauguration, by the way).

Ha!

I love Downton because the kitchen reminds me of Ballymaloe! (well, that and the swirling musical score. Just like The West Wing — swirling music helps the viewer gracefully move from one episode to the next. That’s my thesis.)

Poor Daisy. She is at the bottom of the social hierarchy and works so hard. Why can’t she even sit with the downstairs staff? Why?!

On the first episode of Downton, the kitchen staff makes kedgeree, a rice dish that has smoked fish, hardboiled eggs, and curry powder in it. We made this at Ballymaloe. I hated it! It’s supposed to be part of this Anglo-Indian cuisine … during colonial rule of India, the British brought the dish back to the UK as a breakfast-y/brunchy item. Blaaaah! Smoked fish with rice and egg? It wasn’t my cup of tea (get it?, Anglo-Indian cuisine semi-pun!).

Also, did anyone spot the lovely Christmas pudding that the Dowager Countess delightfully digs her spoon into during the Christmas episode. I have a recipe for that as well!

I am anxious to make some of the food prepared for Edith’s wedding. Alfred didn’t get it — but that calvados-glazed duckling looked pretty good to me. Other Edith wedding food: truffled eggs on toast, oysters a la russe, lobster rissoles with mousseline sauce, and an asparagus salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette.

What a feast. As Cousin Violet says, “If the poor don’t want it, you can bring it over to me.”


What I Learned From Working in the Food Industry

So, in 2012 I worked in the food industry. As a cook. In a vegan kitchen. Before that I worked as a pastry assistant. In a bakery. I woke up early all year long. Was on my feet all year long.

Here’s some of what I learned.

1. “Organization is the key to success.” This is actually a quote from my mother. But, it also is the only way to be efficient in a kitchen. It is impossible to be safe and clean and timely and work with others if you are not organized.

I wrote a little bit about organization (aka PREPPING = SANITY) for the home cook in this article about how to throw a dinner party. If you want more specifics, I think following the thread to Ronna Welsh’s Purple Kale Kitchenworks can definitely show you just how organized you can get.

2. Is waste really waste? Much like I mentioned in an early Ballymaloe post, professional cooking teaches you to be more resourceful. Just like how we candied our citrus fruit peels after juicing them for lemonade, in a kitchen you do try and use every bit. Where I worked, I loved how we used our organic produce leftovers and turned them into the delicious vegetable stock that was the basis for our soups. What we couldn’t re-eat, we composted. What does this mean to you? Darina advised us to look in our trash. Her point was that if you are starting a restaurant, you can see what foods, ingredients, packaging are being thrown out. Therefore, you can clearly see what is being under-utilized, what is not successfully executed, or even just track down who is throwing out so much! And, probably the experience of looking through the trash — with all its smells and textures — will make an unforgettable impression on you!

Also, I feel like potential waste equals potential fun. Unless an ingredient has seriously gone off, why not experiment with it? For instance, when I was at the bakery, we had a ton of stone fruit that was starting to go bad. My pastry chef cooked them up (I prepped them) and made a lovely peachy-plummy jammy topping that then got swirled into ice cream and delighted everyone. Super success! As I have mentioned before, mistakes in the kitchen are often worth eating.

3. Tools. Having the right tools is key. I don’t mean you need to go out and buy some fancy gadget to cook an egg or mince garlic. I just mean, have those knives sharpened always. Use those tea towels and wet rags. (Remember to put a wet rag or paper towel under your cutting board so it doesn’t move around). Use cast iron skillets whenever possible. Use appropriate size containers. It does matter. A difficult task can be made so easy by a small change to a better tool.

4. What are the ingredients trying to tell you? I have been reading and speaking to people in the food world lately, who say things like that. In general, I love how working with food helps you delight in the details of what is in front of you. It reminds me of what Georgia O’Keefe said of flowers. “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.”

Bu-ut, there is something that strikes me as also rather precious in letting your food be your guide in that way. It means you have to be in conditions where you can spend time paying attention and getting to know your food like that. It seems more like an ideal, then what someone rushing home from work to get food on the table could muster. Oddly, having lived in both cities, I feel like that cooking at home in super awareness mode was much easier in Berkeley than in New York! In New York, rather than channeling Georgia O’Keefe, I mostly find myself on deadline with the ol’ Project Runway Tim Gunn line blaring in my mind — “Make it work!”.

Still, on my best days I do think mindfulness is the best way to cook (and eat). It goes along with the idea of not wasting. You simply cannot throw something in the trash if you realize it is a treasure in its own right.

One small example: the ancient prunes that I used for my Hunger Games stew (I made a stew that I thought was what Katniss loved in the book and had some friends over to try it. You know, the lamb with dried plums one…) Anyway, I made that months ago and then one day, found a bunch of leftover prunes I had bought but not used for the occasion. They were totally hard and seemingly unedible. But, instead of tossing them, I soaked them in water (which plumped them up) and stored them in a glass jar in the fridge.

Fast forward to today, where – yes, I ate them for breakfast on my oatmeal! I threw them in a pan with a little honey and water. After the mixture bubbled, I poured it over my oatmeal. My version of stewed prunes and a testament to not wasting.


Cravings

What book was I reading that said if you looked at any large quantity of your writing, you would see a few particular words that appeared again and again, words that you unconsciously gravitated towards? Those were your dears, your family, your jargon, but most of all, they were your own — that was the thing.

I see the same thing happening with food. If you look at menus, or say I look at my Thanksgiving menu, what I see are my favorite flavors emerging: fennel bulb – check!; maple syrup- check!; and anything sour – check plus!! (hey, I do eat whole, raw lemons).

But the question is why do you gravitate towards what you do – whether it’s words or foods? I recently went to a concert performed by a Julliard-trained musician – and when asked about why he liked a certain piece, he responded back with a question — why do you like your friends? There’s something that connects you — often times you can name it, certain characteristics that you both share or ones that you admire, but there’s also an element of mystery.

And you know how much I love mysteries.

When I first came into interview for a reporter job at Minnesota Public Radio, I knew I would like my editor because we both liked tea. He let me smell a steaming cup of a rather atrocious (sorry Euan!) brew. It was so smoky; it caught me off guard. I think he said he first got that particular tea as a gift, but instantly loved it and sought it out. Only much later did he uncover that this tea was actually the same brew his ancestors in Scotland drank. It was like flavor fondness had mysteriously passed through the generations.

With a few dear friends announcing their pregnancies, I’ve also thought about food cravings that pregnant women have. It must have something to do with what their bodies need, but perhaps the particular request that the flavor or nutrient comes in, is individual. On TV, these cravings are usually pickles and ice cream. For my mom, it was lime pickle – which we make in Goa (still waiting for that recipe, Auntie Imelde!). This has nothing to do with cucumbers, but rather, preserving cut-up limes in spices until they are soft and orange and sharp-tasting while retaining some citrus notes. Kind of like how that kumquat compote works, but in this case, the distant branch of the citrus family values sharpness over sweetness and patience (some lime pickles take months!) over same-day speed. Just thinking about lime pickle is making me crave it — it has such a profound zing!

And then there’s the “acquired taste” – like the one for bitter melon, that we grew up eating and that we grew in our yard. I have an Indonesian friend that says he craves bitter melon – a notion that had me almost drop my knives in the kitchen we work in. For my sister and I, eating bitter melon was a bitter pill to swallow, for sure. Even though my mom stuffed it with spicy shrimp, even though it looked gnarly (that was a pun), it still tasted so bitter!!! But, my friend has a great point; sometimes the unbearable flavor is also the most memorable. Strong emotions, either way, make an impact, right? I think he too, at first disliked it — but now misses it.

Some people suggest that the tartness of bitter melon adds “depth” to all kinds of dishes – hot, sweet, or sour. Maybe. I’ll see what my friend cooks up for me and report back.

Until then, what flavors do you crave?


Thanksgiving Duck

Yes, I hosted a Thanksgiving dinner. Of course I’ll share my menu. No, I don’t like turkeys – alive, dead, cooked, no matter. I decided instead to make duck. I’d never done a whole duck before and thought it would be way fun. Nearly everything on my menu was a new recipe for me to try. I know most people go traditional, but what were those pilgrims doing if not trying to persevere in a new frontier, right?

I bought a whole duck at the farmer’s market – and used this as a guide. In homage to citrus (and my home state of Florida) I also stuffed a few oranges in the duck. Hello, Sunshine State.

On the cranberry sauce front, I went with a chow recipe that included orange zest as well as small diced fennel and toasted walnuts. It ended up being my favorite dish of the evening.

Here’s the whole menu:

Roast duck – in honey -orange-molasses glaze

Fennel walnut cranberry sauce

Radicchio, sliced apple, fennel, and celery salad (thought it would add a crispness that would pair nicely with the richness of duck. Got the idea from the duck & radicchio salad served at a favorite Minneapolis spot, the 112 Eatery. )

Mashed Potatoes and Parsnips (I also roasted a few potatoes and parsnips in the duck fat.)

Kabocha squash with maple syrup (kind of nod to those who like their sweet potatoes)

Melted leeks (a personal favorite from Ballymaloe – leeks cut into 1/3-inch rounds and cooked in a little butter, salt, pepper in a casserole dish with a tight lid. Surprisingly, the heart of this dish is a mild and true sweetness. )

Popovers (shout – out to Minnesota! They’re a crowd-pleaser… just something about height and hollowness, I guess.)

Sausage-stuffed mushrooms (See, I did have stuffing.)

Pumpkin pie (w/bit of cashew butter + normal butter crust)

Maple syrup pie (w/leaf lard crust)

Brandied pears & caramel ice cream

I was a bit disappointed with my store-bought caramel ice cream – probably because I was spoiled for over a year living near Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco. Will there ever be an ice cream as satisfying as their version of salted caramel? As I wrote that sentence, two ideas came to mind. One was that since leaving SF, the best ice cream I’ve tried has been Van Leeuwen’s sour cherry & currant — and, since I have leftover molasses from making my duck glaze, I wonder if I might try making a molasses-inspired ice cream….Hmmm….

Be honest, are you wondering about the leaf lard? I saw it for sale at the Brooklyn Larder, and felt I had to, just had to, give it a try. Leaf lard is a type of lard that comes from the fat around a pig’s kidneys. It is purportedly a baking treasure – and helps to create flaky pie crusts. I did a mix of leaf lard and butter for the crust. I don’t think I reached the pinnacle of pie crust perfect, but it was up there. The whole maple syrup pie was an experiment and another nod, this time to a friend at my Thanksgiving dinner who is Canadian. I cooked down Grade B maple syrup (which you/I can buy in bulk) and added a steady stream of cream, then added that to beaten eggs, and after pouring it into my crust, topped it with freshly ground nutmeg.

Sure, my menu was about feasting and flavor — and not getting too far from the dishes people expect when they have this particular meal. However, it was also about Thanksgiving — cherishing friends, places, and innovation. Hope you had a wonderful holiday!


Kumquat Compote: Little Gem of a Recipe

It’s been almost a whole year since I came back from Ballymaloe, which had me thinking about do-overs. One recipe that I totally fumbled over during my practical final was what Darina called “a little gem of a recipe”. It’s kumquat compote– and I admit it; I overcooked it. Too many pots on the stove demanding my attention, and my little (neglected) compote became thick and hard. Too bad, because it’s actually a super-simple recipe. All you need is water, sugar, and kumquats.

When I was able to get my hands a grocery bag full of kumquats, of course I had to give it another go. You remove the seeds and then slice the kumquats – usually into about four or five thin rounds. You put them in a pot with water and sugar and cook them gently.

I had mine with homemade yogurt (yum!) – but it also goes well with goat cheese or even as a side that will brighten up a pork or ham dish. Don’t be misled by this yin yang-like photo. Just a spoonful of compote goes a long way. It’s packed with flavor — sweet, but with just the right amount of citrus-y kick.

A gem indeed.


Purple Bread and Starters: The Baker’s Magic

I have been meaning to share this with you for so long now. Last month I attended the most amazing bread workshop at Hot Bread Kitchen. I was over the moon for days after going to this event.

In San Francisco I had a soft spot for La Cocina. Well, Hot Bread Kitchen is a similar concept – helping immigrant women become entrepreneurs using their cooking traditions. However, at Hot Bread Kitchen, the focus is on bread. The event, Women Bake Bread!, gathered together women bakers from around New York City. My first workshop was on sourdough with … Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread! In fact, she generously gave all her workshopgoers some of her sourdough starter. Aaaaah! That’s right – I have some of Amy’s starter in my kitchen right now. I’m still feeding it water and flour.

Amy called starters “the baker’s magic.” She said, “Chefs have really cool sauces and essences that they put in their food; bakers have starters.” Starters are leaveners for bread, but they also impact taste. If your starter doesn’t have a good taste (is too vinegary, for instance), you won’t end up with a nice-tasting bread.

Amy gave us a starter glossary handout and said that at her bakery there are about nine different starters in tubs all around. She has a ton of a certain kind of starter, poolish ( a mix of flour, water, and a little yeast), that works well in a lot of breads. The poolish undergoes 18 hours of fermentation. The way she explains it is that with a starter, you can have 18 hours of fermentation (and the character that brings to your bread) without taking 18 hours to make the dough. Amy was a huge promoter of starters as a little extra effort that makes a big difference. She said starters extend the shelf life of bread, improve its browning quality, and add truly great flavor. In fact, Amy said every bread at her bakery is made with a starter and that when she makes breads she keeps the amount of yeast she uses at a minimum and instead gets much of the flavor of her bread from the starter.

At the workshop, Amy used King Arthur‘s Special bread flour. The bread flour has a higher protein content (12.7%-12.8% protein) than regular ol’ all-purpose flour. According to Amy, that percentage allows you to get a nice gluten structure when you knead it. She said if you used all-purpose flour (usually 11.7% protein), the bread would be fine, but wouldn’t have as much volume. And, says Amy, it would spread more and be lower in your oven, and not be as elastic. If you used a flour with a much higher protein content, like high gluten (over 13%), the dough would be chewier, something more akin to a bagel.

Amy let us munch on fresh-from-the-oven bread sticks that she made. She called it ” a casual snack” because they aren’t the perfectly proportioned twists she sells at the bakery. She sprinkled her dough with a seed mixture whose highest concentration was sesame seeds, followed by poppy seeds, a little dill seed and some salt. The result was a savory satisfying taste — crispy in certain spots and chewy in other spots – in other words, a totally delicious treat.

The day continued with other amazing baking instructors. We made our own baguettes and bagels and participants saw demos of fougasse, pizza, flat breads, chapattis, and tortillas. One highlight for me was when Amy gave us samples of walnut bread (one of my favorites!).

When I eat walnut bread, I look for that purple-y gray color. I love it in the inexplicable way I love those outdated tan M&Ms. Amy’s walnut bread wasn’t very purple-colored at all; she added toasted walnuts after the dough had rested about twenty minutes, when it had some structure. When I make mine, I actually want the purple color so I will add my walnuts in earlier and watch for the change. Until then, I have my eye set on trying one of Amy’s famed breads tomorrow — her signature semolina with golden raisins and fennel. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Foraging at Queens County Farm Museum

Oh man, feeling fortunate to hang out with friends in New York. We visited a true farm in the city! It’s Queens County Farm Museum. We saw the animals (cows, chickens, geese), then met up with Wildman Steve Brill for a foraging tour.

Here’s some of what we picked up (and ate)…

the common violet (blue, white, or hybrid) — you can eat the leaves and flowers, great in salad…

some wild greens, including chickweed, which tastes like raw corn,

and shepard’s purse (see the heart shapes… perhaps at some point resembling shepards’ purses?) Wikipedia tells me shepard’s purse is used Sichuan cooking, stir-fried as part of wonton filling.

Also, burdock (whose leaves we fed to some of the farms’ goats!), garlic mustard (tastes like it sounds), lamb’s quarters (like a more potent spinach), and this pineappleweed — which smells like pineapple and is used like chamomile for tea. According to Brill the tea can help relieve nervous tension, upset stomach, and insomnia due to stress.

My favorites were the wood sorrel (leaves that pack this delicious puckery citrus flavor, also known as shamrocks!) and the petals from this red bud tree…

They’re beautifully colored (imagine sprucing up a salad with fuschia!), but edible too. They taste like fresh peas. If you live in the northeast, you probably see them on your block. Just sayin’.