Hand to Mouth

misadventures in eating

Archive for October 2006

Comfort food v. TERRIFYING TV — FIGHT.

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Today was a the Day Of A Thousand Costume Changes That Ended In Sprained Ankles (Damn The Patriarchy And Their Decorative Torture Devices Known As “High Heels”) and Fencing Exams That Ended In Pulled Muscles That Compounded With The Aforementioned Sprained Ankles To Equal AGONY. So of course as soon as I got home I decided to comfort myself with the standby favorite of many: spaghetti and meatballs.

The thing to note about my adventures in the kitchen are that they frequently involve acrobatics in the kitchen since I clean as I cook.

The foremost thing I took away from my mother’s near-surgical ward clean kitchen was that if I didn’t leave it in the same condition after I was through with it, there’d be hair-snatching and shrieking later. People whose mother’s let them rise plates and crocks and pots and leave them forgotten, food hardening like cement on ceramic, in the dishwasher have seen my awed, jealous expression before — I learned to wash everything by hand while waiting for something else to cook. Like a perfect chemical reaction, the ideal conclusion of any time spent in the kitchen was to produce both a meal and utterly spotless counters.

I didn’t learn that this was not the way normal human beings operated until I was forced share a kitchen with four other girls my junior year of college — and after I lived with four other girls my junior year of college I realized that if that was normal, I wanted nothing to do with it.

So cooking is always kind of an aerobic exercise, rushing between pans and pots and the sink — which is normally fine and dandy but with my grievous injury from earlier today there was a wholebunch of tomfoolery and falling down, getting arrabiata sauce all over everything: in short, awesome.

In the end, of course, it’s important to remember that I persevered, and a mere 40 minutes later, I was eating nearly-made-from-scratch spaghetti and meatballs.

Grievous Injury Spaghetti and Meatballs.

Ingredients

• 1/4 lb. ground beef *
• 1 c. bread crumbs
• 1 large egg
• 2 small or 1 large jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed and diced — or half a regular sweet pepper, diced.
• 1/4 a small yellow onion, diced.
• 2 large cloves of garlic, diced very fine.
• 1/2 a package of cremini mushrooms, cleaned. One half of those diced, the other just sliced thinly.
• 1 26 oz. can of crushed tomatoes — or — 1 bottle of prepared arrabiata sauce. **
• 4 tablespoons olive oil — or — enough to coat evenly the bottom of a large saucepan.
• 1 teaspoon dried basil or a small bunch of fresh basil.
• Salt and pepper to taste.
• Pasta — your choice what kind.

* The leanness of beef used is your choice, though honestly, a little fat makes the beef taste richer, to me.
** I always opt to canned or bottled spaghetti sauce when I’m feeling impatient (or extremely tired); there are some really amazing sauces in stores today — chief among them an arrabiata sauce, which I basically ate constantly when I was in Italy over the summer. On a scale of Ina Gartner to Sandra Lee — I put this around Dave Lieberman, so it’s still a pass. Thumbs up, fellow lazies!

Directions

(1) Coat bottom of a wide saucepan with the olive oil and bring the heat up to just below the smoke point — it should look shiny, but give off no smoke.

(2) Mix in a large bowl the 1/4 lb. beef, 1 egg, bread crumbs, diced peppers, the finely diced cremini mushrooms half the onions, and half the garlic — mix thoroughly with your hands. Form into meatballs of whichever size you like, as long as they are all roughly the same size, and put them into the saucepan spaced apart from one another.

(3) Let them brown thoroughly on one side and then turn to brown other sides with either (a) tongs (b) chopsticks, or (c) two spoons. Most other cooking utensils will lead to smushing and disfigurement of your meatballs. (Also: isn’t the pepper and cremini mushrooms shining out red and green and white pretty?)

(4) After the meatballs have all browned completely, add the onion and remaining cremini mushrooms, after they sweated a moment, add the garlic. Cook carefully, I kind of destroyed at least one of my precious, precious meatballs because I was stirring too rambunctiously.

(5) Pour in your crushed tomatoes or your premade sauce and add a cup of water and your basil, salt, and pepper — leave it on low heat to simmer slowly.

(6) Cook your pasta — choosing pasta is easy for me, since unless I am making something specific like “baked ziti,” I am always picking “whatever was on sale when I was at the market” — making sure you salted your water after it comes to a rolling boil.

(7) By the time your pasta is al dente, your sauce will be done, too. Drain your pasta well and serve in a large, family-style platter, making a nest for all the meatballs and sauce in the center. Serve with grated parmesan or romano cheese. Ravage away!

The meatballs in this recipe are super easy and a fail safe — I make them on autopilot. If you don’t manage to cut yourself as a result of or as your grievous injury, than you’re well on your way to be the dinner rockstar! Here’s the best part, even if you’re scaring the living freaking crap out of yourself like, oh my GOD while watching Most Haunted Live, it’s delicious! It’s actually one of the few things that is keeping me from screaming and running around my empty-ass apartment in the freaking forest where even if ghosts came to eat my soul nobody would come to save me!

Oh, Jesus preserve me, I think I have to go bake something else to ward off my crippling fear.

Happy eating.

Written by lshen

October 31, 2006 at 1:29 am

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I’m fairly convinced that Ina Gartner knows every gay man in the Hamptons.

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I’m not even kidding — all of them are decorators or painters or big flaming homos. The Barefoot Contessa is without question my favorite show on the Food Network. She’s elegant and deconstructive with the food — not in a creative sense, but she seems to make even pastries seem unintimidating, which is saying a lot for somebody who has been making banana bread since the sixth grade and still sucks at it.

I’m kind of unbearably addicted to the Food Network, which would be fine except that I hate half the chefs on it and most of their recipes — the only people I really like that still have shows on the channel are Michael Chiarello and Ina Gartner, the occasional episode of Everyday Italian.

I hate to be a member of the crowd but I can’t help but hate Rachael Ray. In the old days, her recipes were the sort of easy, quick whip-ups that cooks with a passing familiarity with the grocery store would see and enjoy for their convenience — these days, she’s really worn out the 30 minute meal cache and she’s making food I can’t help but call “utterly disgusting.” If I see that woman mash one more container of low-fat sour cream into her mashed potatoes, I’ll scream, I really will.

I’d talk about Sandra Lee, but honestly, this woman over at Armchair Cook covers her pretty well.

Written by lshen

October 28, 2006 at 4:45 pm

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It’s always the worst in us that brings out the worst to put in us.

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It’s a gray, disgusting day in North Carolina, the sort of afternoon and evening and day that makes you think of London or Seattle at its very worst — Vancouver when it’s particularly hateful of the meelee of movie crews and TV shows that film there. The rain was a steady drizzle and the leaves underfoot were all mashed into a gray puss that oozed gray runoff whenever your shoe passed it — actually, it reminded me uncomfortably of some of my first attempts to cook.

Friday’s should, by all accounts, be my best days: no classes, just the j-o-b. Instead, I fell into my bed last night at midnight and slept straight through three alarms to wake up finally at 10:30 a.m. — half an hour late for work because I’m just that kind of rockstar.

Everything started to go downhill there.

I ended up eating day-old salad and fat free Ranch dressing (which you all know has a weird consistency and taste that bears no actual resemblance to Ranch dressing) and a “baked potato” left over from a faculty luncheon. And then my coworkers gave me a bag of Granny Smith apples and a bag of cookies since apparently I am the least overweight person in the office and therefore doomed to take it with me. Explaining to my coworkers that I am on a fast track to diabetes did nothing to move their frozen hearts.

Came home, slept for another 5 deplorable hours, woke up to stumble round heat up a can of Progresso canned New England Clam Chowder and ate mac and cheese made from a box. I tried to make cheese sauce to lessen the shame but I couldn’t get my cheese to melt — guys, it was that kind of day: I couldn’t get my cheese to melt. How does one even mess that up?

It got me thinking that the times we need good food the most are the times we’re least likely to get it: when we’re busy, when we’re ill, when we’re sad or when it is raining like bejeezus outside and you’re afraid you’re about to lose a couple of extremities to cold.

So it’s always good to have a few recipes on hand that are easy and delightful in crappy circumstances — not just for yourself, but for when your roommate comes up like the living dead, when your significant other collapses in your front door, when your friend can’t talk for the coughing.

Chinese chicken soup

1 large handful of dried shitake mushrooms (available at all Asian grocery stores) that have been soaked in hot water.
1 knot of ginger.
1 roasting hen, defrosted.
salt to taste.

(1) Remove most of the fat from beneath the skin of the chicken, don’t be overly meticulous about it; a little fat will only enhance the flavor of the soup.
(2) Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the entire hen completely and set it on high heat — bring it to a boil before turning it down to a simmer.
(3) Chop and add a few generous thick slices of ginger to the bottom of the pot — in Chinese cooking, ginger is used to remove xin qi, a word with no direct translation but could be called the “fishiness” of raw meat. It also adds a really lovely heat in the background of any dish and mellows out certain harsh flavors.
(4) Let the soup simmer, skimming off any foam that gathers on top until the meat is tender and falling from the bone — this process may take several hours, but I do not recommend using a slow-cooker.
(5) Add the shitake mushrooms and lower the heat to warm. The soup should no longer be simmering, but heating through on a warm setting on your stovetop.
(6) Salt to taste. Serve hot.

My mother used to make this soup for me when I was feeling six kinds of shitty, and I still remember her bringing me tiny, beautiful bowls of it: with a few pieces of chicken and a single brown shitake for color. It’s a long, slow cooking process that coaxes the natural flavors out of the chicken, and despite my violent allergy to liberal bullshit about organic always equaling better, I definitely encourage everybody to use free range or farm-raised chicken if possible. For the same reason farm-raised and heirloom turkeys and chickens have more flavorful dark meat, this soup will fare better if you do it with good chicken.

Written by lshen

October 28, 2006 at 2:25 am

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火锅—or, shabu shabu—and how it changed my life.

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My family hails from the Southern half of China, rich with marshy land and monsoon seasons, but close enough to the Yangtze — China’s default dividing line — to anticipate frosty, drizzling winters. Think North Carolina with a more-stubborn cold: no snow, but all freezing rain. It’s the kind of winter that fuels Hemingway jokes about chickens crossing the road to die. Alone. In the rain.

And one of the more primary delights of these cold months is the sheer, blissful indulgence of huo guo. Chinese huo guo is probably more commonly known in the U.S. by its Japanese name, shabu shabu — or, “swish swish” in Japanese, indicating how you cook your food — and has its incarnations in all Asian cultures. America even has its fondue, although it’s not a very good comparison. As far as I understand the art of fondue, nothing should be raw when it meets the hot cheese.

For the same reason people are universally fascinated by things like sukiyakiand bulgoki, the prospect of cooking for themselves and delighting in eating it — literally — hot off the grill, I have always adored huo go: You eat it hot out of the pot.

The star in a huo guo dinner is always the pot, once a stainless steel or copper pot not unlike a bundt pan, balanced atop a conical mount under which embers flecked sparks out, and a chimney rising out from the circular opening of the bundt pan pot to puff deeply, like a small smokestack.

This is all apocryphal to me, since I’ve never actually seen one in action, and if I had to learn how to start a fire and keep embers going to fasciliate my eating, I’d probably have withered away to a size 6 — which The Devil Wears Prada tells me is the new size 14 — by now. These days, we have savvy, electronic versions, with dials and fiddly buttons and things to moderate temperature — or you can be ghetto fabulous like my parents and I and just buy a really swanky red fondue pot.

When I was younger, I always begged and begged to eat huo guo, a request that was more often than not met with rolled eyes and disappointment — it’s kind of an ordeal to prepare. Like fondue and unlike sukiyaki and bulgoki, preparing the base for huo guo can be a time consuming minefield of potential errors: too fishy? too salty? too bland? did you just boil water in this? More traditionally, beef or chicken or fish stock were used, flavored with rounds of ginger to give it heat and then the whole pot brought to a rolling boil. The ingredients — what you actually ate — were elaborately arranged around the bubbling pot: slices of milky-white tofu, crumbling at the edges, verdant bunches of spinach, watercress leaves, paper-thin slices of chicken, of beef, of lamb, fish and shrimp pastes, fashioned into balls and other shapes, sliced for easy cooking. There are white mushrooms for quick cooking, and deep-fried tofu, the oil and oxidation process blowing them up like puff pastries, giving them an entirely new texture. Shrimp, fish, chicken gizzards and bean sprouts, any and potentially everything can go into the huo gup — it’s all simply a matter of preference and taste. Ideally, it’d all be sliced elegantly, into even-sized shapes and arranged prettily in small platters around the pot, and then all the Asians around it would make noises about somebody else getting the party started, being courteous to a starving point.

The twist in my family was always making it hot. My father, despite his ulcer and despite doctor’s warnings is in a hopeless and somewhat abusive love affair with spice, adores it, likes it best when it numbs his entire tongue and nose, makes him sneeze and gulp water; my father would be right at home eating roasted jalapeno peppers, Indian curries made for and by the natives. And as a child, I could not abide by this, my entire white toast, cold milk existence recoiled in horror at the thought of eating anything with more than two shakes of black pepper — and then my father embraced Szechuan huo guo.

Although a lot of webpages about food use terrifying phrases like “pot full of boiling hot oil,” Szechuan or more specifically, Chongqing huo guo is more a combination of spices in the cooking stock than the presence of a deep fryer. It’s a noxious-looking combination of herbs and whole spices: cloves, still in the dark, skeletal flowers, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, red chili oil (I’ve made this from scratch before; for those brave enough to try: do not under any circumstances breath in the rising smoke unless you have a convenient eyewash nearby) and other mysterious flavorings and herbs. This once upon a time must have been a tedious process, too, but these days, your local Asian grocery store will have prepared packets of this near-nuclear combo, freeze-dried — word of warning, use a quarter package for a small pot, a third for a larger, and half if you have a wild streak. My family’s first attempt we unwisely dumped the whole thing in and I still haven’t completely gotten feeling back in my tongue.

That said, it was equal parts temptation and pure gluttony that changed me — ever so slowly — from a girl who balked at green peppers to barely blinking at the green salsa at Burritoville’s salsa bar, a substance so toxic I bet it could eat through the ugly formica tables. I owe it all to huo guo, and my father’s affection for its Chongqing incarnation.

hot pot!And so now I’m unfazed when my parents bring up a terrifyingly red and bubbling pot, witches brew or not, it can only lead to awesome, and I grab my chopsticks and pluck up slices of mushroom, delicate pieces of tofu, spooning up fish balls and pieces of chicken and beef, dropping leafy greens into the pot — barely able to wait until I can scoop them up again and burn yet more taste buds off of my tongue.

Huo guo is always a group affair, as you never go through the somewhat intricate process of preparing for such a feast for the pleasure of your own company, and usually comes part and parcel with a lot of boozy laughter and shouting, that sense of a slightly crowded, overwarm room, and the slow, seeping satisfaction of eating slowly and over the course of a long period of time.

My favorite memory of huo guo is from the seven months I spent in China for study abroad, shacked up in Beijing near the Exhibition Center in the northwest corner of the city, 40-some minutes away by subway to the Forbidden Palace, an hour or more from the Central Business District. My friends and I, on one of the most bitterly-cold days of Beijing’s punishing winter, were trying to make our way back to our dorms, and less than ten blocks away, buffeted by winds and so freezing we were near-stupid with it, I saw a restaurant and called it quits, saying, “Dinner! Dinner! We’ll do dinner first!” And when we burst in out of the cold we saw that maybe a small nation of Chinese had thought to do the same; but being American and blue-eyed — which two of my friends were — has street cred in China, still, and we got a table in a far corner near a heater and approximately six hundred smokers, and we started in on our Beijing style huo guo. Beijing’s version is called suan yang rou and composed of 90 percent mutton, which forced me to call an immediate veto and had me packing our table with more traditional, Southern Chinese elements…which got me a dirty look from the waitress. Then came the booze, cheap, golden-yellow TsingDao we got green bottle by green bottle, and by the time we finally stumbled out of that restaurant, hours later, we could barely feel the cold nipping at our fingertips and toes, through our jeans and boots and thermal underwear, and we took off laughing across the street and then the square, and I kept laughing even as the blizzard started, swirling around us like a dervish.

Written by lshen

October 22, 2006 at 10:32 pm

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Good Idea, Bad Idea

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Despite the fact that it’s kind of depressing that I still think of my own life in frames of references governed by old Animaniacs conventions, I always end up making those God damned Good Idea Bad Idea lists in my head. Like, “going out with food editor for lunch: Good Idea” and “letting it psych me out so that now I’m trapped in a crippling, perfectionists’s conundrum: Bad Idea” and other such assorted near-dissociative psychotic break-inducing lists. Whatever; my life is a train wreck anyway: going out to an Irish Pub with a bunch of whores who don’t agree that Me + Joe Flanigan = true love forever (he’s the only man in the world who could get out of a car, and beat the living shit out of his girlfriend’s vehicle with a baseball bat yelling, “Didn’t take you long, did it, bitch!?” and have me responding with, “Oh my God, that’s so hot.”) and then out to drinks tomorrow with somebody who refers to himself as “the office jackal.” Clearly my life has taken a turn for the worst with no hope of recovery.

Written by lshen

October 20, 2006 at 2:14 pm

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Almost as effective as a barometer.

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April and I found this today at the local Target SuperStore and she made a noise of such horrified realization that I had to take a photograph of it; I got used to bringing my digital everywhere in Beijing but I fell out of the habit until very recently. I’m glad I managed to catch this. It says a lot that I monitor the changing of the seasons not necessarily by the temperatures (global warming) but rather by the advent of store decorations, candy and Halloween costumes on sale (globalization). It’s a weirdly existential thought to have, walking down the aisle of a grocery store, and passing a dispaly of maple flavored spread, to think, “Huh, it must be fall.”

Written by lshen

October 15, 2006 at 11:20 pm

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The point is, in the end, Al’s Fries was located and I was vindicated.

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I hit the fair today with Aggie, April, Ellen, and Nikki, and a body couldn’t ask for better co-conspirators, since they threw themselves into the spirit — read: lard — of the fair with a gusto that brought tears to my eyes, a little bit.

fried twinkies(Photo by Ellen) “What are you going to eat?” was the predominant question of the evening, since nobody over the age of 17 goes to the fair for the rides. My general answer was “Anything I can wrap my mouth around,” which served the dual purpose of sounding filthy and being totally, completely honest. The fair is a carnival of edible delights: deep-fried twinkies, deep-fried Oreos (way better than deep-fried Twinkies, for the uninitiated), deep-fried pickles, deep-fried chicken, deep-fried green tomatoes. This isn’t even including all the sandwiches and steaks available for your enjoyment; the polish sausages snapping and carmelizing brown and sweet-savory on the griddle, the fried loops of onions, the candy apples and frozen bananas dipped in chocolate. pie! (Photo by Ellen.) The discovery of the afternoon, though, was the frozen key-lime pie dipped in chocolate and then served up on a stick. April exclaimed upon seeing the sign that she’d had them in Key West (mile zero, ladies and gentleman, rampant with wild chickens) and that they were absolutely divine, and our wordless moans of love once we took the first bite really backed up her claim. corn dogs! And then there were corn dogs and roasted corn, the consumption of aforementioned deep-fried Oreos. Oh, and then there’re the turkey legs roughly the size and shape of a human skull. To make your way through all of these magical treats is to invite yourself into the Red Cross Center to get your stomach pumped, but we did our best.

Of course, the money shot is this one:

doubtful

I’ve always wondered why, when at my most downtrodden and miserable, I crave Southern food. Not nouveau south cuisine, either, no smart re-imaginings of shrimp and grits or clever reinterpretations of fried okra. I want fried chicken, double-breaded and buttermilk dredged. I want collards stewed for hours with ham hocks. It’s food I grew up with, to some extent, but it’s the pure weight of it in my stomach, I think, that makes it so comforting.

The same goes with fair food: It’s utterly terrible for you, and I didn’t see one person the entire night who was bothering to resist. We come to the fair because we yearn for the macabre food creations that make us horrified and intrigued at the same time — read: deep-fried Twinkies, I mean, why? — and because we want the fried green tomatoes, the monstrous heaps of grease and fat and ketchup from my mad dive toward Al’s Fries, located in its place ever as it was, across from where the Red Cross building used to be. We come because we want funnel cake — because we want it drowning in powdered sugar.

As a kid, my parents were terrible killjoys and refused to take me to the N.C. State Fair — this was by turns an economic decision and one based on truly astonishing laziness. Sitting on their asses on the couch for free > taking adorable only daughter to a wonderland of fried foods for the low low price of $3 a corndog. At the time, I felt wronged in a way unparalleled since Ramses accidentally destroyed Syria and it fostered in me a deep desire to go to the fair as frequently as possible, one that has melted out of sheer contrariness into a real appreciation of what the state fair is: a showcase of the agricultural history of North Carolina.

3000 pies, easy.North Carolina has always been a state of farmers, and between the rolling hills of our peidmont and the flat of our beaches, the leewards and rain shadows of our mountains, are flat expanses of farmland that used to be lush with tobacco, with cotton fields. These days, with smoking on the drop and vegetarianism on the rise, those same fields are being snapped up by conglomerates. Instead of the green, nearly puffy leaves of tobacco lining the roads going eastward toward the ocean, you see rows of soybeans. tiny vegetables! Change is inevitable and not necessarily bad, either, but it’s nice in October to find your way to the fairgrounds and see the largest pumpkin or the smallest peppers, to be reminded of where the state has come from, and maybe to feel a little regret at what we might be — largely, anyway — leaving behind in our mad rush to catch the new economy. (To that end, the entire fair was run on biodiesel this year, a fact proudly proclaimed by the enormous banner that was hanging in the midway.)

camwhoringBut stepping out of nostalgia — the best thing about the fair is that it’s a zero-calorie zone. By which I mean: it’s completely impossible to come to the fair and worry about getting fat; the entire point is to consume as many items as possible that have met with a deep fat fryer. If they’re working with something that’s non-hydrogenated, they’re just not trying hard enough. I mean, clearly, we weren’t worried about it.

Written by lshen

October 15, 2006 at 3:52 am

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