I took most of December off from food blogging for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that in general December is busy for everyone and the blogosphere grinds nearly to a halt, even the food news, which is after all my focus. But above both of those things I felt strongly that I needed to refocus. So I spent the month cooking recipes out of Mark Bittman’s deservedly famous tome How To Cook Everything, searching in part to clarify my food voice in a chorus of so many already great ones.
I also had the pleasure of receiving a signed copy of David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. Needless to say I spend several days pouring over the pictures and reading every single word, even the ones not written by him. The wonderful thing about David Chang’s book is that it truly reads like a memoir and there is a fuck you attitude, which he says several times in the book, matched with an undeniable elegance and a triple awareness of the shocking ridiculousness of his success. The book is decadent on every level, from the food porn shots, to the quality of the paper not to mention the recipes. But above all it is honest. He is honest in the book in telling us, the reader, to buy steamed buns, rice cakes and noodles, but includes recipes for the crazies who want to make them. He is honest about what he does and though he is obviously grateful for his success he seems a little baffled, in part because though Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar are now without a doubt successes, the initial ideas for both restaurants fell flat and only through David Chang’s strongest trait, adaptability, a whole lot of luck which included the talented staff and co-chefs that flowed his way, did they survive at all, literally. The final accolade on the worshiping of David Chang cake is his commitment to the use of local, ethical and sustainable ingredients which shows not only in where he purchases his products but also what he uses in his dishes, like the pig tail special I had the pleasure of eating on my birthday at the Noodle Bar.
What do these two things have in common? I’ve mentioned before that I was lucky to grow up with a single father who in the 70’s (along with a lot of other people at the time) picked up a wok and tried their hands at Chinese cooking. My father went all the way and got pretty good at several recipes. Thus I, an undeniably Caucasian woman in her latest of late thirties, has an affinity of both palate and kitchen to cook Asian cuisines. This has somehow always felt strange for me. I feel some misplaced guilt at appropriating a food culture that isn’t ‘mine.’ It wasn’t until my business partner said to me after I had done a batch of potstickers to middling success, “I find it strange that you cook all of this Asian food.” When I asked him why he went on to say, “I guess I just thought that you would cook more American foods,” and my reply of “but for me Asian food is part of American food and has been so for quite some time,” rang true to the cook, writer and self that is me.
Then I sat down and really thought about what I think about when I think of food, where I find myself in the aisles of food stores, or even what parts of town, what food blogs I enjoy reading most and where I love to eat, as well as where I put the most effort into cooking when I’m just trying to get something perfect for me. I have been working on my Pho recipe for three months straight now, I have made stocks of all kinds of bones, I have tried shank, regular soup bones, I have tried mixing pork and beef bones, I even added some lamb bones once in search of perfect balance, it was weird, don’t try it. I have tried several different incarnations of the spices that I dry toast and use. I have tried different noodles, different cuts of meat and still I search, enjoying every step, for the reason my Pho isn’t amazing. Don’t get me wrong it is damn good, but I haven’t knocked it out of the park yet.
However, the first time that I made Hot and Sour Soup it was shockingly good. And in all honesty the best Hot and Soup I have ever had and I love Hot and Sour Soup. I even love the MSG, cornstarch laden crap sold at really cheap Chinese take out places, in a different way of course, but there is love there none-the-less, a love that I am now finally proud of.
This recipe is from Mark Bittman and for those who do not yet own How To Cook Everything, and have an extra 35 dollars sitting around, stop reading, get up and go get it. I’ll be here when you get back. The book is organized to teach people how to riff of basic recipes and thus encourages improvisation, as well as the basic truth about food: it all tastes good when prepared well and there are no ‘wrong’ ideas as long as you stay within a certain area of reason. This recipe is what I have done to/with his recipe. His recipe calls for a ½ pound of tofu cut into ½ inch cubes. Given the issues surrounding tofu, genetic modification and heavy pesticides, as well as the fact that I was using pork meat and pork stock, I felt that the tofu was more protein than I needed and added instead bamboo shoots for body. For all you fantastic vegetarians out there, make this soup with a vegetable stock, put a whole pound of tofu and an extra ½ pound of bamboo shoots in the soup. For the rest of us:
I braised the pork ahead of time, this is enough for two batches of soup.
Braised Pork with Spicy Soy Sauce
1 fresh hot chili seed and minced
2 pound boneless pork shoulder trimmed and cut into bite sized chunks
1/4 cup soy sauce
¼ cup nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
¼ cup sugar
½ cup stock
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 cup thinly sliced onion
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. Then turn the heat down to a minimum and cook, covered, stirring every 10 minutes or so for about 45 minutes. Remove the lid, turn the heat up and boil until the liquid is reduced to less than a cup. You can do this ahead of time, you can even put this over rice and call it a day.
Hot and Sour Soup
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 pound of the braised pork
6 cups of chicken stock (I used both a turkey and a pork on separate occasions, it’s what I had)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
5 dried whole shiitake mushrooms soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes
5 Chinese wood ear mushrooms also soaked for 10 minutes (I used black trumpets because I like them)
¼ cup rice vinegar, more if you like it more sour
3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
½ cup chopped scallions
½ pound thinly sliced bamboo shoots
Whisk together the sesame oil, soy sauce and cornstarch and set aside. Combine the stock with the garlic and ginger in a large pot and bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. Drain the mushrooms, trim off any hard sports and cut into very thin slices, and add to the stock. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a steady bubble for 5 minutes.
Bring the stock back to a boil over a medium-high heat and add the meat, cook for another 3 minutes. Add the vinegar and pepper and reduce to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Add ¼ cup cold water to the cornstarch mixture and stir into the soup until it thickens, about 1 minute. While stirring, pour the eggs into the soup in a slow steady stream, the eggs will form thin ribbons that will float to the top of the soup. Remove from the heat and add more vinegar or pepper until you find the hot/sour point you like. Garnish with the cilantro, the scallions and serve.
Did I take a picture once, in all the batches I made this month, of course not, I am still me after all.
Oh, and the news item from Eatocracy that told of a recall by Rolf’s Patisserie on Christmas Eve that included some gingerbread bread houses that were sold by Whole Foods, that are possibly contaminated with Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria seemed the height of Holiday food irony.