Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dumpling sweatshop

The easiest way for one person to get a lot of dumplings made quickly is, of course, to have a party and have your guests make dumplings for you. It's amazing how quickly 300 dumplings can be made, even with amateur dumpling makers.

It's the Year of the Pig, which meant porky dumplings were even more appropriate than usual. One of the co-hosts is Chinese-American, but since I was in charge of the food, I hijacked the dumplings for the Korean New Year tradition of dumpling and rice cake soup. It's everyday food, the kind of thing my mom made for dinner when she was tired or busy, but it's so satisfying and obviously lucky, since Koreans eat it every year on New Year's without fail.

The broth was made by simmering a 3-lb. piece of brisket for about 2 hours, being sure to skim off the brown foam as it started to boil. Then seasoned with a little soy sauce (not too much, as it would turn it brown) and salt. I then let the brisket cool, shredded it, and mixed it with chopped garlic, scallions, a little soy sauce, and a little sesame seed oil. With little diamonds of pan-fried eggs and crumpled up seaweed, the beef was set aside to be added for last-minute garnish and flavor.

I prepped two kinds of dumpling filling: a vegetarian, tofu-and-kimchi filling, and a truly porky filling adulterated only by minced garlic, minced ginger, chopped scallions, soy sauce, and sesame seed oil. Koreans traditionally like to put strained, crumbled tofu in their meat dumplings, but I've decided that until I start making my own dumpling skins, the thick, doughy kind that I love the best, I'll go with the more Chinese, meaty style for store-bought wonton skins.

The rice cakes just came from the big Korean grocery store on 32nd Street--I've never known anyone who made her own--but they fascinated more than a few guests, including one who insisted on seeing the bag and noting where they were bought.

So the upshot: 4.5 lbs. of ground pork + 2 lbs. of firm tofu + 3 lbs. of brisket + 300 dumpling skins + 50 guests = mighty fine eating.

And for dessert, since it was the Year of the Red Pig, I made a red velvet pig-shaped cake!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

My Friday ma po tofu lunch

Oh God, I'm going to make ma po tofu every week. If I had known the hardest part would be buying the ingredients in Chinatown, I would have done it years ago. I couldn't stop eating, it was so good, until I remembered I would get to eat it again for lunch tomorrow.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Mi lindo Peru

Koreans hate eating alone. Food is a social activity, which is as it should be, but what it means is that it's very rare to see a woman eating alone, even in a fast-food outlet. There's a Korean saying, better not to eat at all than to eat alone.

Obviously, I don't agree. But eating alone in a fine restaurant, in a restaurant with white tablecloths and murmuring couples and celebrating parties, is still hard. Last November, I ended up in Lima, Peru, alone for the night before my flight back to New York. My hostal ended up being across the street from the famed "Astrid y Gaston," a restaurant I had been reading about on It's celebrated for using traditional Peruvian ingredients in inventive ways, and I was dying to try it. But I had never eaten alone at a good restaurant before. Was this the right first time? The fact that my hostal was so close was clearly a sign from God, if I believed in God.

I tried calling to make a reservation, got a busy signal, and promptly gave up. But then I ended up at a bookstore looking at Peruvian cookbooks, and found one by a Gaston. When I asked the nice young clerk if it was the same Gaston of "Astrid y Gaston," he started flipping through the pictures, sighing and smiling: "Que delicioso!" Another sign! I invoked M.F.K. Fisher, the patron saint of all women eating alone, gritted my teeth, and marched towards the restaurant. It wasn't open for lunch, and it looked so closed up, I almost gave up again, but the security guard looked friendly and I blathered at him in broken Spanish until he let me into their office. The two young women there and I had such a hard time understanding each other, but there was a lot of smiling and finally a dawning of understanding on my part that yes, there were no tables available, but they could make me a solo reservation in the lounge.

So now I had a reservation, other people who would expect me to show up, but as I got dressed later that day, I still considered just eating at the cafe down the street. I had just gotten off of a 4-day trek on the Inca Trail, had no nice clothes, and the only shoes I had other than my mud-covered boots were my mud-covered Converse sneakers. The moment I walked into the restaurant, I wanted to hide. It was beautifully lit, modern, one of the chicest restaurants in Peru if not South America. I was led to a low table in the lounge, where I tried to tuck my feet into themselves. Just being in the lounge, tucked away from the open dining room, I felt sort of unwanted and hidden away. The waiter quickly brought out some snacks--olives, a spongy, feta-like cheese, and delicious garlic and oil dip--and I was so grateful to have something to do. I recognized a couple from the trail, and they recognized me, but they didn't take pity on me and ask me to join them. I kept eating.

And then, Hans, the angel head bartender, noticed me. "What are you doing, sitting there alone? Come sit at the bar!" I almost tripped over myself rushing the two feet to the bar. He told me about the different pisco cocktails, helped me pick my menu, and basically made me feel incredibly welcome. I chose a potito sour, a yeasty almost beer-like cocktail, then a tiradito to start, like ceviche with with long strips of fish rather than cubes.

Then a blue corn ravioli filled with parmesan scallops in a light, slightly astringent broth.

And of course, dessert, rice pudding fried into little donuts with an intensely flavored passionfruit sorbet. Hans really approved of this choice.

The whole meal was concluded with the most beautiful petit fours: tiny alfajores, which are cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche (caramel), and candied aguaymanto, which are tiny husked tomato-like fruits.

The other bartenders didn't speak English as well as Hans, but they smiled at me constantly, happy to see me so happy. Hans would talk a bit between drinks he was mixing, offer me tastes of different cocktails, and explain what I was eating. What I loved about this meal was that all of them seemed to respect my deep desire to have good food, even if alone. They were friendly because they were happy for me, but they didn't see eating alone as something to be embarrassed about, to cover up with a lot of chatter. I was still eating alone, and amazingly, I was happy doing so.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lucky me!

I loved my first Le Creuset dutch oven like people love their first car. But after only one and a half years, after beautifully braising short ribs and simmering soups, I found tiny hairline cracks in the bottom of the pot. I had been so careful not to shock it with sudden changes in temperature. I was so upset, I could barely sleep. I wanted to call Le Creuset right away, but their customer service line was closed for the evening.

When I called Le Creuset the next morning, their customer service was as gracious as promised by their lifetime guarantee. They offered to replace it, but said it would take 2-4 weeks. I considered living with my flawed baby, since it was the middle of January and I was obsessed with braising. But the nice lady said if the cracks actually resulted in chipped enamel, it could end up in my food. Sigh. So I told her that I needed a new 4.5 quart round oven in red, knowing they couldn't guarantee a replacement in the same color, and sent it off.

Last night, I came home to a big box from Le Creuset. Guess what I got in return? A beautiful, red, FIVE-AND-A-HALF QUART round oven!!!! I'd been agonizing all year about whether I bought the wrong size, wishing I'd gone up one more size, especially with all the insane sales everywhere. Living alone, it'd been hard to justify spending more on such a huge pot. But now, I have a lovely, bigger pot for only $12 in shipping! I hope I don't sound too callous, but I love my new baby even more than my old one.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Eggs go with almost anything

I love Paula Wolfert. I don't want to sound like a stalker, but I've been writing and rewriting a letter for over a year begging her to take me with her on her travels. (One day, I will send it.) I love the adventure of her life, that her recipes always seem to come with some story about going to a tiny village in the mountains and finding a Georgian peasant woman who instructs her on how to make bread using the village oven. But I love even more how homey all her food feels. It's not so much that all her recipes are simple, though many are. It's more that even the elaborate ones use simple techniques that women have used for centuries, rather than some new technology for foaming carrots. I can't be overly nostalgic about this world of women spending all day, everyday cooking dinner, but it's somehow reassuring to me to know some things don't have to change. There's so little about my life that my grandmother would recognize, but she would know why it's so important to me to cook with care and love.

I've been cooking from my two Paula Wolfert cookbooks and her website all winter. This past Friday, I had to use up half a can of chickpeas, and a friend was coming over for a last-minute dinner, so I made "Chickpeas and Swiss Chard in the Style Tunisian Sahel (Morshan)". I couldn't believe how good this was. It's so simple, I didn't expect it to taste anything other than simple and clean, but it had this amazingly deep and earthy spiciness. I'm Korean, I know all about spicy, except when I eat dishes like this and I realize I don't. I would love to write a book on how the New World pepper traveled the globe changing diets in unimaginable ways.

Saturdays and Sundays are my days to try out more elaborate recipes, and I was excited to try the "Tunisian Poached Fish with Olives, Preserved Lemons and Capers" in "Slow Mediterranean Cooking." "Slow," unsurprisingly, has a lot of recipes that involve many, many steps. I almost always end up with all four burners going, and I should find that annoying, but I don't. The amount I need to concentrate, to understand a description of a technique or an ingredient I've never even seen, reminds me of when I was little and practiced Bach on the piano. It's the deepest kind of relaxation, where the task at hand crowds out all other thoughts from my brain.

Here's a shortish paraphrase:

1.75 lbs fresh halibut steak
salt and pepper
1 t. ground cumin
1 small hot fresh pepper
4-6 baby onions, preferably red
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, grated
2 medium tomatoes, halved, seeded, and grated
1 head of garlic, cloves separated
1 T. tomato paste
1 t. le tabil or ground coriander seeds
1 cup brine-cured green olives, rinsed and drained
flour, for dusting
4 cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 preserved lemon peel, rinsed, drained and cut into thin julienne
1 T. chopped celery leaves

1. Rinse the fish, pat dry with paper towels. Season each piece with salt, pepper, and cumin and cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
2. Steam the hot pepper and baby onions until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Stem, seed, and coarsely chop the pepper. Peel the onions.
3. In a deep-sided medium skillet, heat 2 T. of the olive oil. Add grated red onion and cook over medium heat until softened. Add tomatoes and cook until excess moisture evaporates. Add garlic, tomato paste, tabil or ground coriander, olives, hot pepper, baby onions and 1 cup water. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. The sauce should be thin, light, and very hot.
4. Heat the remaining 1 T. oil in a large nonstick skillet. Dust the fish with flour and fry until skin is crusty. Pour hot sauce over the fish. Add the cherry tomatoes, capers, preserved lemon and simmer over low heat for 1 minute. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes. Garnish with chopped celery leaves.

I modified a fair amount. No baby red onions, so I used pearl onions. Tomatoes aren't in season, so Pomi chopped tomatoes had to do. I hate celery, so no garnish. And the farmers' market where I got my fish told me to use fluke for halibut, which made me happy since Atlantic halibut isn't sustainable. But it all worked!

Of course, I had to figure out how to make this properly without having to end up eating it everyday for a week. Fish is always a particular challenge, since I don't mind eating pork roast 3 days after it's made, but fish definitely doesn't keep. The original recipe is meant to feed 4 to 5. The fish guy at the market had fluke fillets and whole flukes. Fillets always seem so sissy to me, but what was I going to do with a whole 1.5 lb. fish for myself? I ended up hacking off about half a pound and then freezing the rest. But with the rest of the recipe, I left the quantities pretty much the same. I've found through painful, dried-up experience that you can't really halve oil in the pan and liquids in general, unless you use a smaller pan than the recipe calls for, and I am of the school that one should have pans that are too big than too small.

The dish was a triumph. The fish was as tender as Paula promised, though the sauce not as thin as promised. Nevermind, it was delicious. I ate my big half-pound portion so quickly, I forgot to take a picture.

And with all the leftover sauce, I had two very good breakfasts. I was thinking about huevos rancheros and fried eggs cooked in salsa, how much I love a good fried egg, and how I often eat olives and tomatoes for breakfast, and it was the most natural thing to heat up the leftover sauce in a pan and fry an egg in the middle of it. Eggs really go with almost anything, especially when there's bacon, too.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

About this blog

Being single, living alone, and loving food, I sometimes feel like the world is conspiring against me. Groceries are sold in value-packs. I only have one pair of hands to carry groceries home. No one is buying me a Le Creuset dutch oven or a Cuisinart food processor off my wedding registry. It's hard to justify opening a bottle of wine just for myself, though I do it anyway. And sometimes, you just can’t get around buying one really big fish.

Eating out has its own challenges. I’m slowing getting over the awkwardness of eating alone in sit-down restaurants, with the help of M.F.K. Fisher, but even in hole-in-the-wall places, eating alone means I’m facing only one kind of curry, instead of three or four.

Of course, I love cooking for other people. I’m the daughter of a woman who equates feeding with love, and there’s nothing like having friends around my dinner table tucking into food I’ve chopped, browned, and simmered all day. I have people over for dinner almost once a week, whether it’s my best friend for a clean-out-the-pantry meal or my supper club of gourmands.

But most of the time, I can't just feed other people to deal with my leftovers, or my other challenges eating and living alone. This is how I'm figuring it out, how I'm learning to adapt recipes and be frugal, without compromising quality or variety.

And no matter how much I complain about not being able to buy 6 kinds of cheese in one go, there are things I love about eating alone. No one is vegetarian in my house. No one is telling me he doesn’t eat anchovies or olives. I can try some elaborate new recipe without worrying that I’ll make anyone sick other than myself. I can eat in my underwear, which is often necessary when the oven’s been on for hours.

It makes me happy.