Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cooking Chinese food

It's been so long since I've posted! I guess med school as gotten the best of my blog. But nothing like a fresh new entry to start the new year, so here goes!

I have a shameful confession to make: I don't really know how to make Chinese food, and sometimes I even mess up fried rice. When I go back to China and tell my Chinese family that I live on my own and cook for myself, they are first impressed. After all, tales of university students who can't take care of themselves are commonplace on that side of the pond. But when they delve deeper the following conversation often ensues:

Chinese relative: You live on your own! Do you know how to cook Chinese food (literally translated as "stir-fry vegetables")?
Helen: Not really, but I'm good at cooking Western food.
CR: Oh. So you make hamburgers and toast.
H: ....

Chinese misconceptions of Western cuisine aside, it is unfortunate that I don't know the basics of cooking Chinese food, especially since, well, I love eating it. In my defense, learning how to cook good Chinese food in America is not easy given the scarcity of both available ingredients and a family member who makes it on a daily basis (ahem, MOM). And lastly, Chinese cookbooks (that is, cookbooks from China) are notoriously not user friendly. There is no glossy picture of an Asian Barefoot Contessa holding your hand and walking you through each step of a dish. Instead, recipes are more like: fry pork, add vegetables, and season to taste. The end (I'm exaggerating, but only a little).

But now that we're done with excuses, I've been making my foray into the Chinese cooking world. Sadly, this adventure makes me feel like a beginner cook all over again, with each barely-edible meal taking hours and countless dirty dishes. And of course, I am glued to recipes because I have no idea how to use many of the ingredients. Whereas for most Western cuisines and even some Indian dishes, I have a sense of the general workflow of a dish and how ingredients behave, that's less true for the typical Chinese dish. Why are there so many different soy sauces? When do I add the Shaoxing wine? WTF is Shaoxing wine? And of course, stir-frying happens at such a high temperature that there is less room for mistakes and as a result I have gotten to know my fire alarm reset button quite well.

Still, it's been a fun process. I have gotten to explore the non-junk food sections of the Great Wall Chinese grocery store in Northern Virginia (on which Tyler Cowen has dedicated an entire book chapter). And it's been satisfying to cook up familiar and comforting foods. As I've written about before, following recipes is one thing, but knowing how to cook is a different matter altogether. So for now, I can tell my Chinese relatives that I can "stir-fry vegetables," and I can't wait until I can say I know how to cook Chinese food!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Chicken in a pot

You have probably noticed that I don't write a lot about meat here. Sure, I use chicken stock like I use salt, but buying and cooking actual pieces of meat ventures into a totally unfamiliar territory. Part of this is philosophical: it was an ambiguous combination of the cruelty of the animal industry and the effects of eating meat on our health and the environment. The New York Times Ethicist column on eating meat presented some points on why it's ethical eat meat, but the winning argument, while incredibly compelling, was also rather unrealistic for many people financially and in terms of scale for our country.

In any case, some personal health reasons made it pretty much necessary for me to increase my meat intake. To be honest, I still don't like the idea of eating industrialized animal products but I definitely don't have the means to buy only humanely and sustainably-raised animals.

All that aside, it's actually been kind of fun to learn more about meat. I thought I would start by learning some really simple, staple recipes. Roast chicken seemed like a good idea until I remembered pretty much every dry, tasteless roast chicken I've had. So instead, I settled for a chicken in a pot recipe that would produce a more tender chicken.

You start by sauteing some vegetables and searing the chicken in a dutch oven:

Once it's browned on both sides, you throw it into the oven, and forget about it.

1 hour later.... voila!

Winner winner, chicken dinner:

This recipe produced possibly the tastiest chicken I've ever had. It's incredibly juicy and flavorful, with none of the dry texture that can happen, especially in the breast. Keep a careful eye on the temperature (the CDN instant read thermometer is a good, cheap one) to prevent overcooking, and I hope this dish changes your life just as it had changed mine.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On learning to cook

This post is inspired by Tamar Adler's piece on cooking with leftovers, which encourages people to step outside of the cookbook and make delicious meals out of leftovers. The Amateur Gourmet does a really good job documenting this process as well. It's not as sexy as the first meal you make from all those fresh and delicious farmers market ingredients, but is definitely important to keep in mind when you have all but one stalk of a bunch of celery left in the crisper or half a can of anchovies.

Being able to come up with a meal using what's available is something I aspire to and is part of my definition of what makes a cook. I'm starting to get there, which means I saute whatever vegetables I have in the fridge and call it a stir fry or jazz up old soups and curries by adding a fresh ingredient or two. But I often get stuck in a rut by using ingredients the same way every time and don't do much with leftovers aside from taking them for a spin in the microwave.

What Tamar Adler describes in her article is the important process of putting ingredients in categories. What do I mean by that? It's important to understand that certain ingredients play similar roles in making a dish and may be used interchangeably. For example, garlic, ginger, scallions, leeks, and onions are all potent aromatics. They provide the flavor base for a dish and are often used in small-ish quantities at the beginning of the cooking process. So if you have any of those things lying around, you might use them in the same way. Similarly, all green vegetables such as spinach, chard, and kale have similar flavor profiles and can often be interchanged in a recipe. This way, when you look at a ingredient (say spinach), it's not just in the context of that one dish (a salad), you can also make it like you made that really delicious chard soup, or kale chip, or beet green pasta! And it's  knowing what roles ingredients play helps build a dish without a recipe.

Experimentation with ingredients and new recipes are opportunities to reformat and expand these categories. When you use ginger instead of onions as the aromatic, you learn how it changes the flavor profile of the dish. And then there are exciting recipes that teach you new ways to use familiar ingredients. The aromatics I mentioned don't always have to be used in the same way. Instead, leeks can be braised, garlic can be pureed into a soup, and onions can be the main ingredient of a hearty meal!

So, as important as it is to learn how to handle new ingredients and master techniques from recipes, there's definitely room to go off-book in day to day cooking. I know I definitely tend to make a big deal out of everything I cook, so this article was a good way to remember that cooking can be much more free-form than those perfectly styled and manicured recipes suggest.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Istanbul street food - sandwich edition

After living in the US for so long, it's easy to forget how prominent street food is in other cultures. With the exception of the occasional food truck and street fair in DC, it's rare to see open-air food hawkers. Living state-side, I miss the presence of chai-wallahs on the streets of India pouring tin cups of milky sweet tea and the roasted sweet potatoes that instantly warms one up in the bitter Beijing winter. And now, I find myself thinking of Turkish street foods with similar longing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Kale pesto

Slowly, but surely, my kale-to-chard intake ratio is increasing. One day last week, I devoured an entire bunch of the dino variety in kale chip form and found myself with crispy green shards scattered on the couch, my hand coated in olive oil, craving for more. And for Mother's Day, I made the kale and mushroom risotto. 

If you find yourself with an abundance of kale, lucky you! There are so many ways to have fun with the vegetable. Recently, I've been whipping up batches of kale pesto, which is more than enough to convince me that basil is not the only pesto-worthy vegetable. The pale-green sauce is substantial from the kale, creamy and tangy from the goat cheese, and has just enough of a zip from the garlic and shallots to make the whole thing pop. I've been putting it over pasta and using it as a dip for bread and crackers. I'm sure it would also make a great base layer for a fancy crostini. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012


My mom and I arrived in Istanbul yesterday. Taking the time difference into account, our traveling took 24 hours and contained 5 full meals (1 at Dulles, 3 on the plane, and 1 in Frankfurt). I guess that's the good thing about traveling east, you sleep less and eat more.

Immediately upon arrival, we left our hotel in the Old City, scuttled past multiple century-old structures, and took the train over the Golden Horn to find something to eat. We found a place called Saray Muhallebiçileri (102 Istikal Cad. Beyoğlu), an old school patisserie/kepap shop for dinner. I think the lentil soup and the kebaps were pre, but it seemed like the desserts were the main attraction. Mom and I shared a künefe, which was apparently the specialty of this particular shop.

The dessert was fried thin vermicelli noodles surrounding a lump of soft cheese and soaked in honey syrup (I think), and it was incredible. It was the right combination of slightly stretchy cheese and crispy noodles softened by the sweet, buttery syrup. If we weren't already absolutely exhausted by our travels and the sleep deprivation, I'm sure we would have ordered another one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The vegetables of my labor, part 2

When I first moved to DC, I wrote about a pick-your-own farm in Upper Marlboro, MD that lets people work in the fields for vegetables. It was back-breaking work -- carrying 50-pound bins of squash from one end of the field to the other in the blazing July sun was no walk in the park. But the vegetables were always worth it. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to work there last summer with all the med school-related things going on. But now that I do have all this free time on my hands, I've found a way to work for vegetables once more, and right in the city, too!

There's a stand at the Dupont Circle farmers market called Next Step Produce, which has absolutely phenomenal vegetables. And now, I work there on Sundays in exchange for some of the best produce I have ever eaten. (Frankly, calling it work is totally overstated because it's an absolute joy to be outside on Sunday morning and talk about vegetables) Here's one bag of stuff I carried home after one Sunday:

Clockwise from the left: Swiss chard, bag of mushrooms, leeks, Kabu turnip greens, sunchokes, turnips, spinach, sweet potatoes, erba stella, and oat groats.

I took a page out of Tamar Adler's book about during vegetable prep over the weekend and found that it made cooking during the week a lot easier. I wash, dry, and ziploc my greens once I get back from the market so I can grab whatever combination of greens for salads or sautes on the spot without having to go through the trouble of washing anything. But unlike Tamar, I don't cook everything at once because it's nice to eat freshly-made stuff at least once before resorting to leftovers, right?


So over the past few months, my already-sufficient vegetable intake has skyrocketed. And because the greens often cook down quite a bit and are so tasty, it was easy to eat a lot of it. In the very beginning, I found myself simply sauteing the vegetables in garlic, olive oil, and salt. This was a really great way to cook unfamiliar vegetables because it gave me a sense of their taste, texture, and how they behaved in the cooking process on their own.

But despite how good they were, after a few weeks, if I had to eat another plate of simply sauteed veggies with rice I was going to hit myself over the head with my skillet. So recently I've been experimenting with many greens-intensive recipes, and it's been mostly successful! There are more vegetables coming, so stay tuned.