Thursday, March 27, 2008

California Dreaming

This past month I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco for a weekend to visit two good friends I haven't seen in a long time. While seeing them was wonderful, I have a confession to make.

I don't like the Bay Area.

I know, shocking! When people find out that I don't like the Bay Area, they're usually prone to gasps of horror or incredulity. It's apparently not in vogue to dislike the Bay Area. In my case, however, this dislike might possibly be explained by the fact that I grew up in Southern California. The things I love about California - warm sunny days, palm trees, long sandy beaches - don't exist in San Francisco. When I'm in the Bay Area, more often than not its cold and foggy and thanks to all the insane hills in the city I HATE driving there (for the record, I drive a stick). I end up annoyed, and more than a little bit confused as to why so many people love this particular place when LA is only 5 warmer and sunnier hours south.

However, from the start this trip was different because I was actually excited about visiting the Bay Area. My excitement stemmed from two main reasons, foremost among them being the opportunity to see two of my favorite people after a very long separation. The second reason though, had everything to do with my relatively newfound obsession with food.

I've always liked food. Thanks largely to the influences of my mother and my good friend Jessica, I've liked cooking since high school. This like has occasionally verged on love, but I don't know that I've ever been obsessed with food. Not like now.

As though this blog were not proof enough of my newfound passion for all things food, let me take a moment and share with you a few random facts from my recent life.
-- In the past year I have read 5 food-focused memoirs and The United States of Arugula; The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution.
-- In the pile of books yet to be read next to my bed, I currently have 3 more books that revolve around food.
-- I have subscriptions to Cook's Country, Cook's Illustrated, Bon Appetite, and Fine Cooking.
-- My cookbook collection never fails to raise my mother's ire. Also guaranteed to raise her ire: seeing the various kitchen toys she has bought for me at Christmases and birthdays collecting dust in my pantry. They get used... just not enough, in her opinion, to justify their presence in my cooking life.

Partly due to my newfound obsession with food, I was seriously excited about my trip to San Francisco. And I can now honestly say that where food is concerned, the Bay Area does not disappoint. (Although sadly, dinner at the Chez Panisse Cafe was in fact a bit of a disappointment, but maybe that's a story best kept for another time.)

My real food fun began on Saturday morning when I hit the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. It was like food nirvana. I couldn't believe the selection of fresh, locally grown produce to be had for pennies! Not to mention cheeses, olive oils, beans, pastries, and imported Italian tuna packed in olive oil (not to be found in Salt Lake, which in my opinion, is a true crime). Two hours after arriving at the market I walked out with a much lighter wallet and a very very heavy, newly purchased shopping bag to hold all of my treasures.

Where does a girl go to refuel after a busy morning shopping for produce? In my case, Taylor's Refresher for a hamburger, mint-n-chip shake, and downright delicious sweet potato fries. I'm a sucker for sweet potato fries.

Sunday morning, Jessica (of "high school best friend" fame) and I be-bopped around Chinatown and its environs. While wandering we got to watch a local youth group perform a lion dance for some important looking Chinese gentlemen. Even I, with my relatively broad understanding of Chinese culture, have no idea what it was about. But it definitely made for a more interesting morning. I couldn't wait to eat lunch and will admit to initially being a little bit skeptical of the spot we picked, a place in Chinatown called House of Nanking. It always worries me when I go to a Chinese restaurant and no one eating there is Chinese. It doesn't tend to inspire a lot of confidence in the authenticity of their food. As it turns out, their food was definitely a bit on the new-agey/fusion side of Chinese cooking, but it was delicious. I loved everything we ordered and I can't even take credit for that because we just told the waiter what kinds of things we like and he did the ordering for us.

While in town, we paid a visit to City Lights Bookstore where I promptly forgot my New Year's resolution to not purchase any new books until I finish the rather large pile of unread books sitting next to my bed (and on my desk, and on my bookcases). I choose a couple of books on China, because as I told myself, I really should get a little more educated on Chinese history before traveling there in August (any excuse that works, right?). I did however steer clear of the Anarchy and Muckracking sections.

In the end, it was a wonderful weekend and I haven't even taken time to go into the best part of the trip. Although the food was fantastic (to include yummy corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day), the defining moments of the trip were the ones I spent reconnecting with two old friends. It's been five years since I last traveled to the Bay Area and it was so nice to spend hours with them talking about food and life and family and friends and kids and politics.

I've now been back in Salt Lake for almost 2 weeks and I can't wait to go back again. To the Bay Area, no less! It's true. I've been doing a lot of California dreaming these past 2 weeks, but for the first time in my life, I'm dreaming of cold, foggy San Francisco, not warm sunny LA.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guo Nian Kuai Le - Part 3 (The Final 2008 Installment)

Chinese cooks in the know may feel somewhat inclined to mock me for posting a recipe for steamed fish. This method of preparing fish is so common in China that any Chinese cook with even a modicum of culinary ability can pull it off. However, given the fact that I have only recently begun to develop/increase my Chinese cooking skills, it seemed prudent to go to someone who has already mastered this technique. Enter Edi. Edi is my good friend and former roommate in Boston. She grew up in Hong Kong. She makes lots of yummy Chinese food... one reason among many to love living with her. I loved it when she would go to Chinatown and buy fresh fish and vegetables because it usually meant that I could enjoy a little of whatever simple, tasty, meal she whipped up. She made this kind of fish often, and although its been a favorite of mine since I lived in Taiwan, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I have never even attempted to prepare fish this way myself.

However, I recognize that it is silly to pay someone else to make something for you when it's ridiculously easy to make yourself. As an added bonus where this fish is concerned, it's the kind of dish that elicits "ohhs" and "ahhs" when presented to your fellow diners. I should be honest and note that it's also the kind of dish that might elicit a few "ughs" from the slightly squeamish or from those less enamored of seafood. Those types don't particularly relish seeing a whole fish plopped down on the table in front of them, but in my opinion, that just makes for more entertaining dining.

Because fish is a quintessential New Year's dish I wanted to be able to share this method with all of you, which left me little choice but to finally tackle it myself (many thanks to Edi for furthering my education by sharing her tricks of the trade). I've always understood that fish is served at Chinese New Year because the character for fish in Chinese sounds the same as the character for "surplus". I'll spare you a lengthy explanation on how characters work and why tones are important, etc etc... just know that my above explanation simplifies things somewhat. Anyway, because the two characters sound the same, eating fish during the New Year's celebrations is believed to mean that the coming year will bring surplus into one's life. I like fish, so I don't really need a reason to eat it. But if eating it means I might have a more prosperous year, I'm certainly willing to oblige.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I didn't like any seafood until I lived in Taiwan. Since living in Taiwan, I am a full-blown, died in the wool convert/believer/advocate. There is something about the way Chinese cooks prepare fish that helped me to see the light. Mostly I think they flavor the fish so adeptly that you can't help but love it. I'm hoping that over the coming year I'll be able to convince other seafood skeptics to give it one more try. In the meantime, for those of you who have already been converted, I hope you enjoy this super simple, yet amazingly delicious preparation as much as I do.

Whole Steamed Fish with Ginger and Green Onions
As noted above, some people don't exactly relish the idea of digging into a whole fish. If you are preparing this dish for people who might fall into that group, you can certainly use something less alarming, like fish fillets.

Whole Fresh Fish:
This one, admittedly major, ingredient is the key to this dish. I can't stress this enough. As Edi said, "The most important thing is to get/catch a died-not-long-ago fish." If you have a Chinese supermarket near you, I suggest going there. The fishmonger can tell you which of their fish is the freshest. The fish I prepared was a black tilapia, but you can use any fish. Just make sure it is A) fresh, and B) one you like. Also, have the market clean/degut the fish and remove the scales.

Fresh ginger - good size chunk, maybe about 2" long
3 green onions
Cooking oil
Soy sauce
Salt and Pepper (preferably Chinese white pepper, if you can find it)

Peel the ginger and julienne into small, short strips. Cut green onions into 1" chunks and then slice (I quartered the green onion chunks so that I had long, thin strips.)

Put the fish on a glass plate. Sprinkle salt and pepper in the cavity and on the outside of the fish. Place about 1/3 of the green onions and ginger on the inside of the fish and another 1/3 on top.

Boil water in a large pan. Place a rack of some kind in the pan (see photo above... I used a wok stand). You don't want the water to touch your plate, so make sure your plate is elevated high enough. Once the water is boiling, place the plate on the rack and cover.

Steam fish for 15-20 minutes. The fish is ready when the meat at the thickest section of the fish flakes easily and a fork or chopstick goes straight through.

Take the plate out and drain off any water that has accumulated on the plate. Heat 2 T. oil in a pan. Once hot add the remaining ginger and green onions and fry briefly until fragrant.

Pour oil mixture on top of the cooked fish. Pour some soy sauce on top of the fish as well. I didn't measure the soy sauce... just gave it a couple good shakes. Serve, with great applause, to your amazed guests.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Guo Nian Kuai Le - Part 2

It's more than a little bit embarrassing to call this post "Guo Nian Kuai Le" when it is so long overdue. But nonetheless, Chinese New Year was the inspiration for today's recipe, so I'm sticking with the theme. I promised in my last post to provide my readers, however few they may be, with a noodle and fish recipe to help celebrate the Chinese New Year. As both of those dishes are easy enough to make, I thought it would be a simple matter to get them both onto the blog before the end of February. I was wrong. I made the noodles about 3 weeks ago, but didn't feel like my recipe had enough flavor to recommend it to others (see how seriously I take my recipe-crafting responsibilities). That meant I had to go back and tweak it a little. Sadly though, having just eaten my fill of stir-fried noodles, I wasn't in the mood to make them again right away. Thanks to my gourmand friend Carri who agreed to be my guinea pig, I perfected both the fish and noodle recipe on the same night last week. However, I don't want to overwhelm you with too many choices, so today you'll have to settle for only the noodle recipe. Next time around I'll bless your lives with one of the simplest, yet yummiest ways, to prepare fish (so stay tuned).

About noodles, they are eaten during Chinese New Year because their length symbolizes long life. For this reason, you never want to do anything to make them shorter. Which means usually you end up slurping them up in one long string... remember, we are eating these with chopsticks so you can't wind them around your fork. Anyway, it makes for fun and entertaining dining.

Noodles are one of my favorite things to eat when I am in Taiwan or China. I love all the different ways they can be prepared: beef noodle soup, zha jiang mian, dan dan mian, etc. I also love Japanese noodle soups, which thankfully, are easy to find in China. However, all of those noodle dishes are hard to find in the States, which is one of the reasons I started this blog... so I could learn how to prepare the food I miss the most. It's therefore somewhat anti-climatic (for me at least) to be presenting you with a noodle recipe that is something of a no-brainer, and not at all exotic. Good ole Chow Mien. However, chow mien is one of those dishes that manages to be both authentic and appetizing to the average American. Plus, as an added bonus, its a cinch to make. Therefore, before moving into more esoteric directions, I thought I would start with something appealingly familiar to most of my readers. Enjoy.

Chao Mian, aka Chow Mien
(Adapted from Martin Yan's Chinese Cooking for Dummies)

Noodles - really any kind will work, but I used a Chinese kind
1 lg. boneless skinless chicken breast
2 T. oyster sauce
1 lg. carrot, julienned (I like julienned pieces about 2" long)
1 1/2 c. bean sprouts, rinsed

1/2 c. chicken broth
6 T. soy sauce
1 t. plus 1 T. sesame oil
1 T. Chinese rice cooking wine
1/2 t. sugar

Cook noodles in boiling, salted water until almost done. They'll cook a little more when you add them to the stir-fry so you don't want them to be totally cooked. Drain and set aside.

Cut chicken breast into small dice. Mix with oyster sauce in a small bowl. Let sit for 10 minutes.

Sauce: Whisk together in a small bowl the chicken broth, soy sauce, 1 t. sesame oil, rice wine, and sugar.

Heat 1 T. sesame oil in a saute pan over medium high heat. Once hot, add chicken and cook until the chicken is done, approximately 8 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside. Add carrots, bean sprouts, and sauce to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are almost cooked through, maybe 8 minutes. Then add the chicken and noodles to the pan. Mix well and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Serve.