Thursday, April 10, 2008

Some Food Photos

I am always taking food photos, even if I don't have a post in mind, just to have a photo "just in case." I liked these so much I couldn't wait to for an excuse to use them.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Five Things (Well a Lot More Than Five) That You Probably Don't Know About Me Plus My Egg Cream Recipe

Sylvie of the wonderful Soul Fusion Kitchen (which I will add to my blog roll next time I update) tagged me for my very first MEME -- Five Things About Me.

So here's some things about me that might help explain me, Blog Appetit or both. Since I tend to digress and over explain, I suspect it will end up being 500 things about me.

1. I'm an ex-New Yorker with a not-so-secret weakness for black and white cookies, pastrami sandwiches, subways (and public transit systems of any kind), ethnic enclaves and egg creams (see below). I like the Chrysler Building more than the Empire State, like to ride the Staten Island Ferry, and enjoy wandering around the Upper East Side and the Lower West Side. The Strand bookstore ("18 miles of books") is my idea of heaven as is Kitchen Arts and Letters. My two current favorite museums (besides the Metropolitan) are the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the NYC Transit Museum (in Brooklyn). I nominate Brooklyn for my second favorite borough (county -- New York has 5) and not just because I was born there! My last "name brand" meal in NYC was at the Spice Market in the meat-packing district, which was wonderful, but I still miss the $1.80 duck lo mein (and big enough to share) I used to get at Wo Hop's when I went to New York University a gizillion years ago. My tourist tip is to buy the day or multi day pass for the transit system. Good on buses and subways, it saves you money and aggravation.

2. While I always wanted to be a writer of some sort, my secret desire was to write the books for Broadway musicals. The book is the "story" part, not the music or lyrics. I have no musical talent, so I guess my ambition was at least partly realistic. At other points in my life I wanted to be a university professor (of history, big surprise there), a marketing vice president, a newspaper publisher and an urban affairs and planning newspaper columnist. I have been a reporter, editor, copyeditor, public relations specialist, marketing communicator, and a few other things. The closest thing I came to writing plays was in second grade. I wrote a stirring one act play on the industrialization of shoe manufacturing in New England. (I think it was second grade, but that seems more like fourth grade sophistication to me). No copies survive. My fantasy jobs now musical book writer (who knows, Broadway musicals could make a comeback), magazine editor and talk show host.

3. I tried to learn tap dancing as an adult. It was not pretty, but it has made me a better critic of tap performances on screen and stage. I prefer Fred Astaire over Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers over Ann Miller, and still mourn the untimely passing of Gregory Hines. When Fred passed away I put on my tap shoes and lugged out my portable dance floor (which doubled as a carpet protector under my desk chair.) When I was dating my now husband, I took it as a favorable sign that Fred and Mr. Blog Appetit shared the same birthday (May 10). I guess it is no surprise to you that I'm an old-movie fiend, that Turner Classic Movies is my favorite cable channel and my top old movie faves (for now, they change regularly) are Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe and Reckless with Jean Harlow and with Rosalind Russell, another screen fave. From screwball comedies to musicals to film noirs, I pretty much like anything that is decently written, well acted and gives a good sense of the time and place.

4. Besides New York, I've also lived in Baltimore, MD, Irvington, NJ (just outside Newark), Palo Alto, CA, San Francisco, CA and now Oakland, CA. My husband grew up in Chicago so I pick up the midwest perspective from him. I still like my pizza with a nicely blistered thin crust, which I eat by picking up the slice and folding it over. Eating deep dish Chicago pizza with a knife and fork just isn't the same.

5. The most recent best thing I ever ate was a roast mutton soup in Xi An, China. It cost about $2. The night before I had a meal that was almost as good in Shanghai. It cost $125.

The Perfect (At Least to Me) Egg Cream

There are still a few soda fountains and candy shops that make this around NYC. The last time I had one it was in the East Village and it was served in a paper cup, which made me feel that you can' t go home again. Think of an egg cream as kind of like the Frapuccino of Old New York.

Large, clear glass
Good chocolate syrup (the traditional is Foxes U-Bet, but I'm not a stickler on this, it should just have a good chocolate taste), more or less to your taste. I like my chocolate strong!
Milk (whole, non-fat, I don't care)
Seltzer Water (sometimes called soda water, but not club soda if you can avoid it -- club soda adds salt which affects the purity of this holy drink. No sparkling mineral waters, either. Use the plain type without any flavorings.)
A long, metal spoon

Add an appropriate to you slug of chocolate syrup to the bottom of a tall class. Pour in about an inch or so of cold milk. Top with seltzer (be careful, it will foam and threaten to go over the top, so pour slowly and add more when the foam subsides if needed.)

Use the long spoon to carefully stir. This will result in a milk chocolate colored drink topped with white foam. Some people prefer to stir twice, once after adding the milk and again after the seltzer is added. This results in an all-brown drink which would leave me aghast, but it is your choice. Some people claim pouring the seltzer down the back side of the bowl of the spoon will reduce the foaming. Since I like the visual of the foam and I'm picky enough about the process to begin with I'll let you decide if you'd like to include this in your egg cream choregraphy. Also I assume you've realized there is no egg and no cream in the drink. Stories abound about why.

Serve with a straw. And maybe a black and white cookie.

Variations: Make it a Reform Egg Cream Instead of an Orthodox one by subbing out other syrups. A vanilla egg cream tastes like a marshmallow. One of the best I ever had back in my New York days was at David's Pot Bellied Stove on Christopher Street. They made it for me with mocha (coffee mixed into chocolate syrup). I think they are gone now, but McNulty's is still there across the street. That's the place I first got into teas, but I digress.

As part of the rules of this MEME I'm supposed to tag five others. I will do so later. Watch this space.

Thanks again, Sylvie!

Bonus Info: My sons used to be very proud of me because I could drive a stick shift.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

A Cooking Lesson in China (and a Ma Po Tofu Recipe)

One of the many highlights of my recent trip to China was a cooking lesson that was arranged for the small group I was traveling with. It was held at the Shanghai National Vocational School, which trains local residents for work in commercial kitchens.

We had spent the morning exploring some of Shanghai’s many markets – some quaint and outdoor (such as the Antiquities Market), others in modern multi-level buildings featuring fabrics (and custom tailoring), knock-off purses and strands upon strands of the most amazing fresh water pearls.

We were hungry not just for lunch (which we would end up having to make for ourselves) but for a connection to a China that wasn’t just created or preserved for tourists. The National Vocational School would prove ideal on both accounts.

Our visit there began with being ushered into a conference room and being outfitted with chef’s jackets and paper toques. We found out that we were just as much of a sight to the school’s staff and students as they were to us. Curious students and staff kept peeking in and taking photos of us. We later found out that we were the first English-speaking group that had ever arranged a class such as this.

This was not a slick, demonstration kitchen. This was a real, working commercial kitchen with what I swear was fire-breathing woks. We would each be making three dishes that day – Ma Po Tofu (or spicy tofu with ground pork), Sweet and Sour Pork (which I thought was something they thought we’d like) and Beijing Dumplings (kind of like a boiled pot sticker.) Most of the prep work was already done for us. Ms. Chen, the school administrator, and Chef Jing would demonstrate a dish with our translator, FunFun, interpreting, explaining, questioning and trying to figure out quantities for us. (That's FunFun on the left with Ms. Chen.)

Then it was our turn. We each bellied up to an enormous wok set over a ring of fire. The woks were so hot that minced garlic left unattended would be burnt black and acrid in seconds. I asked for a potholder and was handed a folded up, thin dish towel. The floor was slick with grease. This was not cooking for the timid.

We plunged in. Soon the clanging of our thick metal scoop-shaped ladles was ringing through the kitchen, adding to the roar of the industrial strength exhaust fans. As we swished oil, plopped in ingredients and stir-fried in our woks, the school’s staff would hover over us, adding a little more of this or gesturing for us to add that, right now. If we didn’t move fast enough, an impatient Chef Jing would take over and with a few deft moves finish a dish. Ms. Chen would come around and look at our finished dishes, nod approvingly and loving ladle on a more than a little oil on top, making each glisten and me wonder exactly how much weight I would be gaining this trip. (That's Chef Jing in the vocational school kitchen.)

After we had finished making each dish, we would troop into the dining room where we would pick up our chopsticks and consume what we had just produced. I couldn’t get enough of it all, and I don’t mean just the food.

There were no recipe handouts. I tried to take notes and get an idea of quantities (exactly how much was one ladle full of oil), but knew I’d have to make these dishes at home to be able to really describe to others how to create them. But that’s okay; there is no way I could ever perfectly reproduce that day. I’m missing some crucial ingredients – Chef Jing’s practiced moves, Ms. Chen’s ladlefuls of oil, and FunFun’s valiant attempts to explain it all.

(I will be posting the other recipes we made that day as I adapt them. To view them as well as other posts on Blog Appetit Goes to China, please click here.)

Ma Po Tofu (Pockmarked or Old Grandmother’s Spicy Tofu)
Serves 1-2 or 3-4 as part of a multi-dish meal

I like my Ma Po on the spicy side, so feel free to use a bit less of the “hot” stuff. The dish has a wonderful play between spicy and the sweet and sour. Other versions I’ve seen leave out the sugar, the vinegar or both. They may be Shanghai adaptations to the classic Sichuan recipe. (Shanghai cuisine is said to be sweeter than elsewhere in China.)

8 ounces medium or regular tofu, rinsed, cut into ½” cubes (see notes)
1/3 cup of vegetable oil such as peanut, canola, grapeseed or corn (able to withstand high heat cooking) or enough to coat the wok evenly.
6 ounces chopped or minced pork or dark-meat chicken (see notes)
1 tablespoon each fresh minced ginger, chopped garlic and chopped green onion (scallion), plus additional chopped green onion for garnish (optional)
1 tablespoon of chili bean paste (At home I used the kind with fermented black soy beans, but any kind will work), or more or less to taste. (see notes)
½ cup of water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of (unseasoned) rice vinegar (I used Chinese black rice vinegar, you can use plain rice vinegar or cider vinegar if that is not available.)
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 teaspoon of cornstarch stirred into 1 teaspoon of water
½ teaspoon ground brown Sichuan pepper

Heat a few inches of water in a wok and bring to boil. Slip in the tofu cubes and boil for about a minute or until the cubes have become to soften and look creamier in texture. They should still retain their shape, however.

Remove and drain tofu. Pour water out of wok. Dry well and heat. When the wok is hot, add oil to coat, swirling pan around to make sure it is well covered. Add ginger, garlic and green onion, stir frying until light brown and the aromas are released. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add the minced meat and stir fry for about one minute. Add the chili bean paste, stir fry for a few seconds, then add the water and the bean curd cubes. Bring to a boil and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, being careful not to break the tofu cubes. Add the salt, sugar, vinegar and soy sauce. Stir to combine then add in the cornstarch mixture, stirring carefully to mix thoroughly without breaking up the tofu until the sauce has thickened. Remove to serving dish. Sprinkle with ground Sichuan pepper and garnish with chopped green onions.

The recipe at the school used ground pork. I’ve replaced it here with minced, boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I minced the chicken with a cleaver. You could certainly grind it in a food processor or buy ground chicken or turkey, just be sure you are not using white meat poultry. You could also use ground pork. One recipe I have from China uses minced beef. I imagine a vegetarian ground meat substitute might also work.

If you can’t find medium or regular tofu, use firm (not extra firm) and boil it a little more until it is soft and creamy looking.

If chili bean paste is not available, you could use 1 tablespoon of fermented black beans (which look dried and are sold in a plastic bag and are not in a sauce) and 1 teaspoon or so of crushed red hot chili pepper flakes.

(The photo above shows the dish made during the cooking lesson. My version is a little less soupy.)