Thursday, January 29, 2009
Which they ate with a runcible spoon..."
The quince, despite the comical quality of its name, is not a fruit of Edward Lear's imagination. Unlike the runcible spoon, the quince is very real. It is, however, appropriately odd.
The quince, like the apple, is a member of the rose family, Rosaceae, but it is alone in its genus, Cydonia. It looks like the mutant offspring of an apple and a lemon, but smells like an intensely ripe pear: deep, sweet, and floral.
The quince's aroma is deceptive: should you bite into a ripe quince, you will be unpleasantly surprised. The texture is hard, the flavor tannic. The quince, like certain varieties of persimmon, can only be eaten raw after bletting, a process in which the fruit is effectively left to rot and ferment.
Cooked, however, the quince is an entirely different story. The quince is the membrillo in membrillo paste, the classic accompaniment to manchego cheese. Rich in pectin, the natural setting agent in fruit, it finds a home in jams and jellies. And poached in water with just a little sugar, the quince becomes a light dessert or an indulgent breakfast.
So consider the quince. You won't even need a runcible spoon.
Vanilla Almond Tea-Poached Quince
Vanilla beans are standard for poaching fruit, but vanilla-scented tea adds an extra twist of flavor.
(Serves one for several breakfasts or desserts. Quince will keep for a week, covered and refrigerated.)
Take two quince and peel them. Cut the flesh away from the core in pieces, and then cut the pieces into rough batons.
Put the quince batons in a small pot with a lid. Add two tablespoons of sugar, the juice of one lemon, and half a teaspoon of loose-leaf vanilla almond tea to the pot. (You can tie the loose leaves in cheesecloth for easy removal.) Pour in just enough water to cover the quince.
Put the lid on the pot, and simmer over low heat for two hours. After the two hours are up, remove the lid from the pot. Skim or strain off the tea leaves if you didn't tie them in cheesecloth and you object to having them in the finished dish. Reduce until the cooking liquid becomes thick and syrupy.
Poached quince may be served warm or cool, with whipped cream, ice-cream, or yogurt on top.
Note: Long exposure to heat will cause the tannins in quince to undergo a chemical reaction that turn the fruit pink or red, depending on the variety. The cooking time in this recipe isn't long enough for those results, but if you're curious and have time on your hands, you may want to try the recipe mentioned here.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Realize that you have no idea when Chinese New Year is. Consult Wikipedia. While you're at it, look up the page on Chinese New Year traditions. Note that the traditions listed appear to be both extensive and largely unfamiliar. Remember that your family's primary food-related tradition is paying other people to prepare it.
Scan the list of traditional foods for something manageable. Notice that dumplings (jiaozi) are on the list. Remember that dumplings are one of the few things your mother makes well, and that you even watched her make them when you were a child. Reason that dumplings bear a passing resemblance to ravioli. Decide that you will make dumplings for Chinese New Year. Rope two poor, unsuspecting friends into joining you for dinner.
Make a trip to the Asian grocery store for all the seasonings you don't own because you order takeout when you want Chinese food: sesame oil, soy sauce, Chinese brown vinegar. Marvel at how Chunking appears to have cornered the brown vinegar market on three continents.
Look for ready-made dumpling wrappers. Realise that it's Chinese New Year, and that the Asian grocery's supply of ready-made dumpling wrappers has already been depleted by Chinese families who did their grocery shopping earlier. Contemplate making your own dumpling wrappers; decide that masochism is not a positive trait. Buy wonton wrappers instead.
Scan the produce section for huei xiang (non-bulb fennel.) Come up empty-handed. Scan the produce section a second time, with the same results. Curse. Make a trip to your regular supermarket for green onions, ginger, and fennel bulbs with fronds instead.
Look for ground pork. Find that the only ground pork available at your regular supermarket is dubious, frozen, and industrially-produced. Briefly wonder if you could substitute ground beef. Grit your teeth. Make a trip to Whole Foods for fresh ground pork from free-ranging, hand-fed, lullabye-serenaded pigs instead.
Stagger home with all your shopping bags. Unpack everything, and set up your workspace.
Make the filling by combining the pork with the vegetables and adding sesame oil and soy sauce until it smells something like the way you remember it should. Discover that the filling is much more difficult to stir with a fork than with chopsticks.
Take out the ready-made wrappers. Pick up one wrapper and lay a forkful of filling in the center. Press the edges together. Curse when they won't seal. Remember that you need to wet the edges with water in order to make them stick. Get a small bowl of water. Wet the edges and try again. Breathe a sigh of relief when it works. Pick up another wrapper and repeat.
Observe that your dumplings look funny because dumpling wrappers are round, but wonton wrappers are square. Debate getting a water glass to cut rounds out of the squares. Remind yourself that masochism is not a positive trait. Carry on with the squares.
Turn the job of stuffing the dumplings over to your poor, unsuspecting friends when they arrive for dinner. Justify this by explaining that you need to put a pot of water on for boiling the dumplings.
Put a pot of water on to boil the dumplings. Drop the dumplings into the pot. Remember that your mother said something about bringing the water to a boil three times. Realise that you can't remember if that was before or after you actually put the dumplings in. Briefly contemplate calling your mother long-distance to find out. Remind yourself that masochism is not a positive trait. Proceed to cook the dumplings as you would ravioli. Observe that this method works.
Set the platter of cooked dumplings on the dinner table. Set out bowls of brown vinegar for dipping. Sit down to eat.
Note that the dumplings are surprisingly edible. Breathe a sigh of relief when your poor, unsuspecting friends agree. Briefly contemplate making this an annual event. Remind yourself that masochism is not a positive trait.
Next year, stick with your family’s traditions, and practise the art of ordering takeout.
Pork, Fennel, and Green Onion Dumplings
The fennel used in these dumplings is supposed to be the leafy, non-bulb variety, but it can be difficult to find. You can substitute the fronds from bulb fennel (strip them from the stalks, which are tough), or use fresh dill, which has a similar aroma.
(Recipe not for one. Round up two or three people to help you make and eat them.)
Make a trip to the Asian grocery store. You'll need sesame oil, soy sauce, Chinese brown vinegar, a package of ready-made dumpling skins, a pound of ground pork, a bunch of green onions, a chunk of fresh ginger, and either a bunch of fennel greens (see note above) or the fronds from two fennel bulbs, or a bunch of fresh dill.
Get out a big mixing bowl and dump in the ground pork. Finely mince the green onions and fennel greens/fennel fronds/fresh dill and add them to the bowl. Grate in the ginger.
Pour in two teaspoons of sesame oil and two teaspoons of soy sauce. Grab a fork or a pair of chopsticks, and stir the mixture until well-combined. (If it doesn't combine well, don't be afraid to stick your hands in.)
To test the filling for seasoning, either fry up a spoonful or drop a spoonful into boiling water. If it seems too bland, add a little more soy sauce. If it seems a little on the salty side, don't worry. The vinegar used as dipping sauce will help counteract the salt.
Once you've seasoned the filling to your taste, get ready to fill the dumplings. Set out a small bowl of water. Ready a few trays or plates to put the dumplings on. Set out your wrappers and the bowl of filling.
Pick up one wrapper and put a lump of filling on it. Dip a finger into the water and wet the edges of the wrapper. Fold over the wrapper and press the edges to seal. Repeat until you run out of filling.
To cook the dumplings, set a pot of unsalted water on to boil. Once it reaches a rolling boil, drop the dumplings in. Unless you're using a truly enormous pot, you'll need to do this in batches, about ten or fifteen at a time.
According to my mother, you'll need to bring the dumplings to a boil three times in order to cook them correctly. To do this, wait two or three minutes after you've dropped the dumplings in - the water should come back up to a rolling boil - and pour cold water into the pot. When it reaches a boil again, wait a few more minutes, and add more cold water. Do this one more time, then transfer the dumplings to a platter.
Serve immediately, with vinegar for dipping on the side.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Some of them are plain common sense: "Wear oven mitts even if the pan doesn't seem too hot to touch bare-handed." Some of them are famous: "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." And some of them aren't quite so pithy, but they're worth repeating anyway: "Don't go to a food bloggers' dinner if you actually intend to make any headway on your Fed Tax assignment later."
I learned that one on Thursday night. I completely failed to untangle the intricacies of adjusted gross income and section 61(a) of the Internal Revenue Code, and consequently followed very little of the professor's lecture the next day. Apparently, paying attention to the contents of your inbox may be hazardous to your academic resolve.
There are two items I occasionally daydream of seeing in my inbox: one, a message from Serious Eats telling me that I've won a cookbook from one of their "Cook The Book" threads, and two, a message from a publisher offering me a book deal that will allow me to avoid actually becoming a lawyer after law school.* The actual contents of my inbox are considerably less exciting: comment notifications, the occasional exchange from a blog event, and stray bits of spam that have escaped the filter.
And then came the unexpected a few weeks ago: an invitation to a Boston food bloggers' dinner from Chris Lyons, a public relations consultant representing several restaurants in Boston.
Which is how I find myself on Thursday night, not seated at my desk, tackling my Fed Tax assignment like a good law student, but at Sandrine's Bistro, seated at a table with Richard of A Passionate Foodie, Jacqueline of The Leather District Gourmet, Pam of Cave Cibum, Megan of MenuPages, and Chris Lyons herself. As you'd expect of a group of food bloggers, we discuss cooking and restaurants and the ins and outs of blogging. And we eat. Oh, how we eat.
Sandrine's serves a mixture of classic French bistro fare and dishes from Alsace, the region of France that borders Germany and Switzerland. We begin with tarte flambée, a specialty of Alsace. The flatbread is baked in the wood-burning oven behind the bar, and the crusts are incredibly thin, crisp, and flaky. The traditional version is rich with smoky bacon and sweet caramelized onions; a vegetarian version comes with mushrooms and Swiss cheese. I try to stop at one piece of each. I don't succeed.
We peruse the menu, consider our options, and make our selections. I opt for the house's terrine de foie gras as an appetizer, and choucroute garnie, the classic Alsatian preparation of sauerkraut with various cuts of meat, as an entree.
I've eaten terrine de foie gras before. In fact, I ate quite a lot of terrine de foie gras during my summers in the hotel kitchen, because it was served on the buffet and it was my job to neatly arrange all the tiny little slices on beds of fresh salad greens. Any broken slices (and there were always a few) couldn't be served, and they usually ended up supplementing my lunch. I figure I know what to expect. Terrine de foie gras is terrine de foie gras, isn't it?
To borrow an expression from Douglas Adams, I am almost, but not quite, entirely wrong.
The terrine de foie gras maison at Sandrine's comes in two generous, majestic wedges, perched on beds of lightly toasted brioche. It is accompanied by sparkling cubes of diced aspic, and a scoop of fruit compote. You cut a piece of terrine and toast, add a smear of compote, and top it with a cube or two of aspic. The result is a spectacular combination of flavors and textures: the creamy foie gras contrasts with the crunch of the toast, and its richness is enhanced by the sweetness of the fruit compote. It's all balanced out by the aspic, which has the slightest alcoholic bite.
Speaking of alcohol, we're drinking one of the most unusual white wines I've ever tried, a blend of the five types of grape grown in Alsace: pinot gris, pinot blanc, gewurztraminer, riesling, and muscat. It has the sweet, floral aroma I associate with muscat, but it tastes light and crisp, like pinot gris. When our server comes around to switch out our glasses for the entree, I'm almost tempted to hang on to mine. I behave myself, however, and the next wine, a red from the Côtes du Rhône, is poured without incident.
Our entrees arrive, and I realise that despite its deliciousness, I maybe should have skipped over the terrine de foie gras in favor of a light salad. The choucroute garnie is enormous, a deep platter of sauerkraut with an artful arrangement of bauernwurst, weisswuerst, wiener, grilled smoked pork loin, ham hock, and a hickory-smoked bacon-wrapped potato, with spicy brown mustard for dipping. (For photos, head over to The Leather District Gourmet.)
Choucroute garnie literally translates as "dressed sauerkraut," and after tasting the sauerkraut at Sandrine's, I finally understand why. It's sour without being unpleasantly vinegary, and actually has a proper cabbage-y flavor. It's good enough to eat on its own.
Not that the meat is bad, of course. The weisswurst (a sausage made with veal) is sweet and mild, and the bauernwurst (also known as farmer's sausage) has a faintly spicy quality. I'm not such a fan of the wiener, but that probably has more to do with the fact that I really only like hot dogs from New York City street vendors.
The "weird bits" are usually my favorite cuts, so it's probably no surprise that I thoroughly enjoy the ham hock, which has the rich, unctuous texture of slow-cooked, collagen-rich meat. I've met very little fresh pork loin I've truly enjoyed, but apparently smoked pork loin is (if you'll pardon the pun) a very different beast: a little like good ham, but sweeter and smokier. Finally, the bacon-wrapped potato is satisfyingly crisp and salty on the outside, and tender within.
I work my way around the plate, alternating bites of each meat item with sauerkraut, and before I know it, I've eaten almost the entire thing. This is not a smart move. In fact, this is really a rather stupid move, as I discover after our plates have been cleared. The pastry chef arrives with a platter of desserts for the table, and I'm not sure I can eat another bite.
The platter is a tour through the dessert menu: crème brûlée, the signature kugelhopf (a rich warm chocolate cake), a pear tart with meringue brûlée topping, lemon layer cake with lemon curd, apple cake with apple sorbet, and a chocolate-hazelnut napoleon with banana sorbet.
I do manage a bite of everything, but I'm clearly not going to do the desserts justice in my overstuffed state. Although the crème brûlée is excellent, and the chocolate-hazelnut napoleon has its appeal, I like the sorbets best. Of course, that might just be because they're going down more easily than anything else.
Coffee provides a welcome (and necessary) jolt of caffeine, and after a little more conversation, we call it a night. There are plans for more Boston food blogger events in the future, and I'm already planning not to repeat my mistakes. Next time, I will do my best to finish my Fed Tax assignment before I go out to eat.
*Respective chances: somewhat possible, incredibly unlikely. But it's nice to dream.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Lemon season is my consolation. The stalls at Haymarket are piled high with the yellow fruit, bright like beacons in the flat light. There are lemons to cut into wedges for tea with honey. Lemons to zest to add contrast to fish. And lemons to juice for lemon curd.
There is nothing like lemon curd to brighten a grey winter afternoon. Yellow lemons and yellow yolks, with sugar to sweeten, whisked together over heat until rich and luscious. Warmth and light, like absent sunshine. Like the memory of summer, captured in a bowl.
Spoon it onto scones. Spread it on toast. Or pour it into a crumbly shortbread shell, and bake until set.
A slice of lemon tart goes a long way towards curing January slump.
Squeeze three or four large lemons, and measure out a half-cup of the juice. Set aside.
Keep whisking. If you, like me, have never mastered correct whisking technique (from the wrist, not the shoulder), your arm will eventually start to cramp. Switch arms. Keep whisking.
When the change comes, it will happen quickly. The mixture will turn paler and start to thicken. Keep whisking until it gets really thick, like mayonnaise, and the whisk starts to leave noticeable marks.
Remove the bowl from heat. Turn off the stove.
Note: Any leftover curd goes well on toast or scones, assuming you don't eat it straight out of the bowl with a spoon.
I'm clearly not the first to figure out that lemons make winter more bearable, nor am I the first to write about it. One of my favorite poems is Eugenio Montale's "I Limoni," a poem that is beautifully evocative of both the light of summer and the grey of winter. The following is my translation, but you can find the original Italian here.
Listen to me. The poets laureate
move only amongst plants
with seldom used names: box-tree, privet, acanthus.
I, myself, love the ways that wend through grassy
ditches where in shallow pools,
half-dried, the children seize
the paths that follow the river banks,
descending through the tufts of cane
and winding past the nettles, amongst the lemon trees.
All the better if the din of the birds
is swallowed up by the azure:
clearer, the friendly murmuring
of branches in the almost-still air
and the sense of this fragrance
which does not know how to part from the earth
and rains upon the breast an uncertain sweetness.
Here the war of diverse passions
is by some miracle hushed,
here we poor souls receive our share of wealth,
the fragrance of the lemons.
You see, in these silences in which things
abandon themselves and seem close
to revealing their ultimate secrets,
sometimes one expects
to discover in them a mistake of Nature,
the standstill of the world, the ring that does not hold,
a thread to untangle that finally leads
to the heart of a truth.
The searching glance around,
the mind wonders accords divides
in the perfume that disperses
when the day is at its fading.
These are silences in which one sees
in each human shadow that drifts away
some disturbed Divinity.
But the illusion is lacking and here returns time
in the noisy cities where the azure shows itself
only in fragments, on high, through the rooftops.
The rain wearies the earth, and then
the wretched winter settles upon the houses,
the light fades – bitter, the soul.
When one day through a gate ajar
amongst the trees of a courtyard
are glimpsed the yellow hues of the lemons;
and the heart sheds its ice,
and in the breast blasts
the golden trumpets of sunshine.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Unlike me, Lucille chose not to spend her high school years at boarding school in the middle of nowhere, New England. She knows Hong Kong far more intimately than I do. If she claims that there's a restaurant in the International Finance Center that serves good soup dumplings, I'll just have to take her word for it.
The International Finance Center, despite its impressive name, is really just a high-end shopping mall. I follow Lucille up and down escalators, past stores selling expensive shoes and designer swimwear, until we pull to a stop outside a storefront with windows of patterned frosted glass. There's a small crowd of people milling about by the entrance.
Lucille eyes the crowd and immediately darts up to the reception desk. She comes back with a numbered slip in hand. "We'll have to wait, but it shouldn't be too long," she says.
I take the time to look around. The restaurant has the rather unwieldy name of Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao. It does make their specialties obvious, however: la mian are hand-pulled noodles, and xiao long bao are soup dumplings.
Xiao long bao, literally "small basket dumplings," are a specialty of Shanghai cuisine. They're also known as soup dumplings: not because they're served in soup, but because they contain soup, of a sort. Xiao long bao contain the standard dumpling filling of ground pork, but they also contain a spoonful of jellied broth. Once the dumplings are steamed, the cube melts, and the pork is bathed in the resulting liquid.
When done right, xiao long bao have skins so tender you have to be careful lifting them from the steamer basket; just a little force is enough to make them burst open in a flood of rich, savory soup. Lucille has promised me that this place, despite the unpromising location and unwieldy name, definitely does them right.
Half an hour passes, and Lucille is just starting to get antsy when our number comes up. A waiter shows us to a table in the middle of the dining room. Like all good Chinese restaurants, it's brightly-lit and noisy, and the tables are set closely enough together that you can see what your neighbors have ordered.
I'm all for ordering few steamers of xiao long bao and adding a plate of whatever it is that the table to our left is eating (some sort of seafood, I think), but Lucille has other ideas. She opens the menu and starts scanning it with fierce concentration."We should get the chicken salad. And the egg dish with scallops."
"Chicken salad? Egg dish? What kind of restaurant have you brought me to?"
"On the first page."
I open my menu warily. Not only does Lucille know Hong Kong much better than I do, she also reads more Chinese. Fortunately, the menu at Crystal Jade is written in both Chinese and English, and even has a color picture of each dish. A quick scan reveals that Lucille's "chicken salad" is a cold appetizer of liang pi (a kind of glass noodle) tossed with shredded chicken and cucumber in a peanut-sesame sauce. The "egg dish" is egg white cooked with conpoy (dried scallops), sauced with egg yolk.
After a brief discussion, Lucille flags down a waiter, and we put in an order of liang pi with shredded chicken, egg white with compoy, fried la mian with eel, and three steamers of xiao long bao. Lucille settles back in her chair and sighs in happy anticipation.
"How did you find this place?"
"My co-workers brought me here during the summer."
"I thought your friends told you about it."
"No, they came here for lunch all the time."
Our waiter arrives with the liang pi, and Lucille eagerly turns her attention to her chopsticks. The dish is a tangle of wide glass noodles in peanut-sesame sauce, topped with shredded chicken and julienned cucumber. The cucumber is cut into thread-fine shreds, which is a good sign: it takes impressive skill to turn out vegetables with that kind of delicacy using a traditional Chinese cleaver, the sort that is hefty enough to cut through large bones.
I reach for my chopsticks and pick up some of the salad. The glass noodles are firm without being too chewy, and they contrast nicely against the crunch of the cucumber and the softness of the chicken. The sauce is rich and thick, but avoids the gluey peanut-butter-on-the-roof-of-the-mouth sensation. If the salad is any indication, this is going to be an excellent meal.
Lucille and I make quick work of the liang pi, and our waiter clears away the plate to make room for the egg white with compoy and the fried la mian with eel.
Lucille grabs the serving spoon for the eggs, so I turn my attention to the fried la mian first. The hand-pulled noodles are deliciously chewy, and the soy sauce seasoning works nicely with the sweetness of the eel strips. The dish is salty and greasy in the best way, and I imagine that it might be the perfect dish for a quick lunch.
The egg white with compoy is unlike anything I've ever eaten before. The texture is reminiscent of scrambled eggs or silken tofu, but the flavor is very umami from the scallops, with an underlying richness from the egg yolk. I'm working my way through a second helping when the xiao long bao arrive.
Our waiter sets down a stack of steamer baskets and dishes of ginger. We add vinegar to the ginger from the little jug on the table, and ready our spoons and and chopsticks.
To prepare a soup dumpling for consumption, you begin by using your chopsticks to carefully (very carefully) lift a dumpling from the steamer basket, and place it on your spoon. You then nip off the top of the dumpling, and pour in a dribble of gingered vinegar.
From here, the methods are as varied as the ones people use to consume Oreos. You can sip the soup from the dumpling before eating it, or you can bite a hole in the dumpling skin to let the soup out, use your chopsticks to pick up the dumpling, and then drink the soup left in the spoon. As long as it gets the dumpling from the spoon to your mouth without spilling any of the soup, it's fair game.
Lucille has made good on her promise. The xiao long bao have lovely translucent skins, encasing a remarkably light meat filling with plenty of flavorful broth. The table lapses into silence as we settle into a rhythm: pick up dumpling, nip the top, add the vinegar, eat.
When the last dumpling is gone, Lucille signals to the waiter for the check. Most Chinese restaurants don't have much in the way of dessert options, and there's still a crowd outside the door, so we'll make our exit speedy. We settle the bill and leave the restaurant, making our way back through the mall.
"Did you like it?"
"Yes. The soup dumplings were perfect."
Lucille refrains from telling me "I told you so." I guess I'll have to let her play restaurant guide more often.