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This guy has wok hay.

This guy has wok hay.

I interviewed for an administrative gig at OrSU last week. After chatting amicably with the team for two hours, I wandered over to Professor X’s office so we could walk home together. A small brown bag pierced the landscape of empty coffee cups and junk mail on his conference table. I picked it up, along with the coffee cups, and noticed it was heavy.

“What’s in the bag?” I asked while opening it. (Why do humans do stuff like that? It’s akin to reflexively smelling the air after someone announces a fart.)

“CC gave it to me at lunch today,” Professor X replied. “It’s his wife’s tofu from the party.”

Indeed it was the very same life-enhancing tofu from the Corvallis Chinese School’s lunar new year party. I spied a blue post-it note as well. My heart skipped a few times as I scanned the recipe.

“That’s it?” I muttered to myself, turning the post-it to make sure nothing was on the back.

A vague sense of doom rolled over me. I had judged myself and been found wanting. Suddenly, the interview really didn’t go that that well, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate the tofu recipe. I can in the most technical sense of the term, but it won’t be the same. Why? I don’t have wok hay.

Wok hay, “wok taste” or “breath of the wok” if the translator insists that everything Asian has to be all mystical and shit, is the result of cooking in a well-seasoned stainless steel vessel. In the same way a trusted cast-iron skillet develops its own essence over time and use, woks develop wok hay. My wok is non-stick. I should also probably get rid of it since the non-stick coating is visibly scratched. While old, it’s more likely to give us Alzheimer’s than impart a smokey je ne sais quois particular to our household.

My mood continued its descent as we made our way across Monroe. All the institutional acronyms that I couldn’t recall during the interview started bubbling up. I regretted not buying a good wok in Chinatown while we lived in Chicago. If I had when I first thought of it in 2009, we’d totally have some wok hay going on by now. As it stands, I could get an affordable one at Fred Meyer, but it would be a clean slate.

When we arrived home, Professor X found the blue post-it while storing the tofu in the fridge. “Hey! She included a recipe!”

I mustered a sigh in response.

“Oh shit,” he said from the kitchen. “That’s it?”

“Yup…that’s it,” I said.

“But where did all the other flavors come from,” he countered.

I pursed my lips and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh no! WOK TASTE!”

Guess we’ll just have to get cooking. I’ll report back on this matter when the new wok is seasoned.

Mrs. Chang’s Kick-Ass Tofu That I’ll Only Be Able to Recreate in a Few Years Because Wok Hay is Earned, Not Purchased

Get thee:
Tofu – I’m going to presume a 1 pound block of medium
Soy sauce – enough to turn it very lightly beige
Sugar – just a pinch from what I can tell
Minced garlic – I couldn’t find a single piece in the dish, so let’s assume a scant quantity
Oil – vegetable oil? maybe sesame…enough to cook the tofu in… 1-2 tbsp?

1) Cut tofu into bite-sized cubes.
2) Heat oil in your well-seasoned wok for a few minutes. Add tofu and saute for 2-3 minutes.
3) Add soy sauce and sugar, cover pan for another 2-3 minutes.
4) Add garlic and serve.
5) Try not to weep openly because it will take a long time to develop wok hay.

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I really don’t even know what to think about 2011. On a personal level, it reflected the abundance of our cozy life built for two. But once outside that bubble, the world was in chaos. Whether it was the family dispute that ended in a shooting two doors down, reading about yet another riot in yet another Middle Eastern country, or watching the clown car of the Republican debates unload, everything seemed to be in violent flux, which didn’t bode well for many things that relentlessly stayed the same. (Hi, economy.) Since Jeff and I aren’t yet prepared to expatriate and don’t quite see the point since these are global issues, we’re still in Chicago, keeping the wolves at bay. Here’s our top ten moments of laughter and forgetting from 2011, in a vague order.

10 – Pete’s pizza and brown liquor nights
Pizza usually pairs with beer. Pizza also pairs well with red wine. Since “The Beginning,” Jeff and I have been discovering new things. Sake, for example, is surprisingly good, although you do have to be careful with quantity. You may find yourself forsaken by God the next morning. We’ve also discovered that brown liquor (bourbon, whiskey, scotch) can be most excellent if you choose your toppings carefully. Spinach, sausage and garlic is our usual for brown liquor. Pete’s pizza and brown liquor night gets to start the Top Ten because of their sublimely thin crust and the fact that Jeff proposed on one of said nights. I kind of suspected that it would happen since he brought home a Laghavulin 18 year.

9 – Ai Sushi, Chicago, IL
Ai Sushi is pretty average as far as Chicago goes. From the decor to the menu, it could be any other sushi joint in this city. However, Ai features fugu (blowfish) once a year when it is in season in the winter. Fugu is nearly impossible to find because its poisonous layer between the skin and flesh presents preparation issues. Apparently, the sushi boys at Ai know what to do with it because we went and I didn’t die. Jeff also had an excellent port that he hasn’t seen since his waiter days in North Carolina. We probably won’t go back this winter because the actual experience of eating fugu didn’t quite live up to its danger factor. However, I can say I ate it.

8 – Jamaican Oxtail Stew with Coconut Rice
I found this little gem in the New York Times and blogged about it previously. It’s been a minute since we’ve made it, but now that Chicago is creeping toward below freezing, it’ll be back. Hopefully, it won’t ruin our appetites for anything else again.

7 – Pork Tinga
Maggie, of Maggie’s Creations Pâtisserie, randomly posted on the Book of Faces that she was making pork tinga. Curious, I made with the Google. As I read the recipe aloud to Jeff, he decided that we needed it, stat. Thankfully, pork tinga is a Mexican dish so we were able to find everything we needed without making a quest out of it. This too is excellent for sub-zero weather since it takes at least six hours to cook and turns into a bubbling cauldron of spicy pork danger. Serve with corn tortillas. Try not to burn yourself.

6 – Sunda
Sunda got #1 on last year’s list and, although we still love it, it’s been moved up because of the repetition. I can honestly say that we will never tire of this place. Since meat dishes are usually an afterthought for those gaijin who won’t eat seafood, I always feel a little bad for Jeff when we go out for sushi at other places. It’s not that he won’t eat it, he just can’t. Thankfully, the chefs at Sunda give as much love to the carnivore as they do the pescatarian. They’ve also started serving soup dumplings in 2011. We also found out that we can request our favorite waitress, Melissa (hey, girl! hey!) when making reservations. A new sake showed up on the menu as well. I think it’s called “Dewasansan” or “Green Ridge” in English. Most excellent.

5 – Jeff’s menschiladas
Again, a repetition from last year, but god damnit, they’re really good. For whatever cognitive reasons, we each had an epiphany about the leftovers on the same day this past fall. Thus, they’ve been renamed “ubermenschiladas.”

4 – Family Visit Thanksgiving
Since our wedding in late October was a very small, private affair, my parents visited us for Thanksgiving instead. Maybe it was because my dad was still unemployed. Maybe I was feeling some degree of guilt that they didn’t come to the wedding. Regardless, I went full out on the Thanksgiving feast. You can find a recount of it here. Let’s just say it was a day long nosh-fest that culminated with a gorgeous leg of lamb. Everyone was very sated and grateful.

3 – Timpano
I went home to Columbus in August for a combined celebration of my birthday and my mom’s. Timpano was the topic of much discussion because she wanted to make it for the wedding, but Jeff and I weren’t really having a wedding per se. It was more of a glorified elope. Since Mom had the timpano eye of the tiger, we all got together and made it during the visit. This has also been previously blogged. To sum up, it was incredible and a lot of fun with my family.

2 – La Mascotte Brasserie, Paris, France
In some ways, I almost, but not quite, wish that the food in France hadn’t been as amazing as we’d heard. La Mascotte Brasserie is a perfect example of the food depression we experienced after our return. We happened upon it on a stroll one day, smelling the ocean breeze before actually seeing the 10 ft table of impeccably fresh assorted raw seafood. Oysters, mussels, crabs, shrimps, cockles, scallops. Oh dear god. It was just too much beauty and there was even a little walk-up counter where you could just slurp down a few before going on your way. Jeff asked if I would like to go there. I played cool, stating “Well, I don’t know. Do you think it’ll be any good?” He stared at me like I asked if the sky was blue. We went the next day and I ate the fuck out of some raw bar. Jeff eventually had braised veal and beans, after a massive French fail on my part that nearly resulted in veal brains. Since then, there have been no oysters as lovely. I should test that theory at Publican, but I won’t go there out of principle due to some horrifically rude service after our last visit and the brief Yelp war that ensued. Ya, a Yelp war. How lame is that? Bloody social media.

1 – La Part des Anges, Paris, France
Grrr. I hate to reveal this place, just as much as I hate to reveal La Mascotte. Please reader, if you end up going to Paris and you do take my advice on these things, please don’t be a dick. I’d like to think that you’re all reasonable diners, but I don’t entirely know since this blog has many views, but few comments. Please don’t start with “Dressing on the side,” and “Can I get that without sauce?” and “This just isn’t what I was expecting.” Make your choices based on your preferences and basic allergies, if you have them, but don’t be a fussy bitch. Let the chef guide you through the experience. Actually, if that’s how you are at restaurants, don’t fucking go to either place. To take it one step further, don’t even go to France. Just don’t. Don’t spread your fucking whiny shit around the globe. Stay at home and eat saltines and ice chips. Ideally, you wouldn’t leave the house at all so the waitstaff anywhere wouldn’t have to deal with you, but that’s in my imaginary world. Oh! Also? Attempt to speak some basic French. It helps immensely.

I digress…

Where was I?

Notable Mentions – in no particular order

A) Chicken Marsala: Jeff makes a wicked chicken marsala. Damn. That dish gets him booty too.

B) DD’s Famous Vin Chaud: Jeff and I have been hot wine fans for quite a few winters now, but, again, Paris sort of ruined it for us. I couldn’t quite get the recipe down on my own or find one that didn’t involve five kinds of booze. C, a friend from the OSU days who now lives in Paris, mentioned that her fiancĂ© has an excellent version. Being the super sympa cat that he is, he kindly passed it along to us. Thanks DD and C! Our winter just got that much warmer. (No, I can’t give you the recipe. Sorry. Just know that it involves more time and more cinnamon than you think.)

C) Cheri Bibi, Paris, France: It was difficult to put this in the Notable Mention section because the food there was excellent. C and I had cocotte with eggs and foie gras, which was to die for. I had an exquisite piece of raw salmon with cucumber salad, all very Asian-inspired. C and DD had fish en papillote, which smelled fantastic. (Don’t eat the paper.) Jeff got a pork chop that he said was good, but it didn’t quite blow him away like La Part des Anges. My boy is a highly devoted one after all. So maybe that’s why it gets notable mention. Who knows. We had a lot of fun. (Addenda: C is less self-conscious about taking photos of her food and has a more discreet camera than mine. For visual aid, check out her blog – Une Americaine. She also recorded her own visit to La Mascotte, tower of oysters and all.)

D) Publican: To quote Joy Division, “Why is it something so good just can’t function no more?” Damn. It was so perfect for the short time we were together. Maybe I’m being overly stubborn and butthurt. The young woman who flamed me on Yelp probably has nothing to do with your restaurant. Regardless. Love…love will tear us apart…again.

With that, 2011 is done. I’m sure there are more that we’ll think of later tonight or in the next few days, but what’s done is done. 2012 is looking up to be less obstacle ridden. Let’s hope so.

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