Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Sunday, December 4, 2011
I love Pat Tanumihardja's The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. The recipes are enticing and the interviews with the grandmothers are very moving. For someone like me who never had the chance to get to know her grandmothers very well, it's fun to get a dose of grandmotherly love via these dishes.
Furthermore, the book is beautiful. The combination of the photographs and graphic design is really breathtaking. There is also a great guide to ingredients used in Asian cooking, and this knowledge, combined with what you can learn by reading The Asian Grocery Store Demystified, should get you through any shopping trip or provisioning adventure. You should also check out this visual guide to Asian fruits and vegetables. I can't recommend this book as a gift (or present for yourself) highly enough. It satisfies on all levels.
As soon as I saw the recipe in Patricia's book for Steamed Tangerine Meatballs I was instantly intrigued. I had to try it! The recipe is quick and simple, and the addition of tangerine peel to the meatballs gives them a wonderful flavor. (You can read about my previous personal history with meatballs here.)
Making the Meatballs
I looked in the local Asian and specialty markets for dried tangerine peel but there was none to be found, even though I know I've bought some in the past. Since I couldn't find any dried tangerine peel I bought a fresh tangerine, peeled it, took a knife to the back (inside side) of the peel and made sure I got as much of the pith (soft white part) off the peel as I could. I twisted the fresh peel over the ground meat to catch as much of the oil that was expressed when I twisted it as possible. Then I popped the peel into the toaster oven for a few minutes. It didn't have the same great concentrated flavor and slightly bitter bite that you get with dried tangerine peel, but it was still good.
I chopped the ginger and scallions and added the cornstarch, sugar, salt, and black pepper to the ground beef. I made a double batch since there were six of us for dinner. I rolled the ground meat into balls and then steamed them. They were delicious on their own but I decided to make a dipping sauce to accompany them. I threw together a sauce made of tamari, ginger, garlic, scallions, honey, sherry, and black pepper, and I also added some tangerine juice and pulp from the innards of the tangerine that I had peeled. (My friends who had dinner with me said I should write down the recipe but I was playing Scrabble with them while I was making the sauce, so I was just going by taste and not paying attention, but I will make the sauce again sometime soon, record the amounts, and post it on this blog.)
The meatballs were delicious and I served them with rice and a chopped cucumber salad that my friend made. Six of us devoured the entire batch. I can't wait to make these again and to delve deeper into more of the recipes in Patricia's book.
Steamed Meatballs with Tangerine Peel
(Niu Rou Yuan)
Denver-based nutritionist Mary Lee Chin and her mother Bow yee Lee Chin have always made their own dried tangerine peel, a common ingredient in Chinese dishes. Just save the skins after peeling a tangerine (or orange, mandarin, or tangelo), place them in a covered basket to dry for a week and then store in an airtight container. The peels can also be dried out in a very slow oven or in a dehydrator. Mary says it’s important to scrape the pith (the white inner part of the peel) before drying to remove the bitterness.
Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
2 green onions, greenparts only, finely chopped
1 1/2-inch-square piece dried tangerine peel, soaked in water until soft pith removed, and very finely chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (1 tablespoon)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound lean ground beef (preferably sirloin)
In a large bowl, mix together the green onions, tangerine peel, ginger, cornstarch, salt, sugar, and pepper. Add the ground beef and mix gently with your hands. Set aside for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Set up your steamer. Fill the steamer pan half full with water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium until you are ready to steam.
Shape the beef mixture into about 16 one-inch balls. Arrange the meatballs in a single layer on a greased pie plate (or rimmed platter) that will fit inside a steamer without touching the sides. The size of your steamer will determine how many meatballs you can steam at a time.
Return the water in the steamer to a rolling boil. Place the plate of meatballs in the steamer basket or rack. Cover and steam the balls over high heat for 7 to 8 minutes, or until they are firm to the touch and cooked through.
Turn off the heat and wait for the steam to subside before lifting the lid. Lift it away from you to prevent scalding yourself and to keep condensation from dripping onto the meatballs. Carefully remove the meatballs and set aside to cool. Repeat as many times as necessary.
When the meatballs are cool enough to handle, transfer to a serving platter and serve.
Pat's Notes: Tangerine peel is used to flavor meat and poultry dishes. Large pieces are added to braised dishes, but the peel is usually ground or minced for stir-fries. Dried tangerine peel can be found in plastic packages where seasonings are shelved.
I absolutely adored spaghetti (which we rarely had at home) but I never quite warmed to the meatballs. I would eat the starch and ignore the protein (even though I had been trained by my mom to do the exact opposite. I could hear her voice in my head: "Eat the protein first! Only when you're done with the protein may you have some starch!") I really didn't care for the meatballs, though, and never got into enjoying them until years later when I tasted my first Swedish meatball.
Encountering Swedish meatballs for the first time was one of those "Where have you been all my life?" moments. The combination of creamy sauce and savory meat flavor was an instant winner in my book. I still, however, eschewed the classic Italian meatball.
The only Chinese food I ever had growing up was the awful boil-in-bag frozen stuff my mom loved to serve because it was so easy to prepare. LaChoy may have intended to make "Chinese Food... Swing American!", but the dinners we had were sad, gray affairs, featuring lifeless boiled bean sprouts as the main attraction. Nothing had any texture, color, or flavor. (And coming from someone who grew up on Irish cuisine, trust me, that is quite a damning statement!) Blech! I thought I hated Chinese food.
When I was a senior in high school one of my friends invited me to go out to dinner with her family at a local Chinese restaurant. I had never been to a Chinese restaurant before. I couldn't believe the tastes and smells. I found out that I really liked Chinese food that had actually been made from fresh ingredients and cooked in woks rather than boiled in bags. I had what is now my #1 comfort food - Hot and Sour Soup - for the first time that night, thus beginning a very satisfying lifelong affair.
Still, I didn't encounter Peking Ravioli until I moved to Boston right after graduating from college. I love Peking Ravioli but the quality of the dough that surrounds the delicious nugget of meat varies vastly. Sometimes you can get Peking Ravioli with a thin, delicate layer of dough encasing the savory morsel of meat. Other times, the ravioli are covered with twice as much dough as there is filling.
When I am faced with a dumpling that is too doughy for my taste, I use my chopsticks to perform a meatballectomy and I carefully extract the savory meat from the doughy shell. After having done this a few times in restaurants I decided to try to make Peking Ravioli meatballs at home. I experimented with different combinations of ground beef, scallions, garlic, and ginger, and sometimes I would add five spice powder. Usually I'd cook the meatballs in a little bit of beef broth and then serve them over rice using the broth as the sauce. It's delicious!
As soon as I saw the recipe in Patricia's book for Steamed Tangerine Meatballs I was instantly intrigued. I had to try it! The recipe is quick and simple, and the addition of tangerine peel to the meatballs gives them a wonderful flavor. To read my account of making - and tasting! - the meatballs, see this previous post.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
UMass/Boston has a reputation as a wonderful place for international students to study business. I taught Professional Writing at the College of Management for several semesters, and I tried to focus the in-class writing exercises on topics and formats one might use in a business setting, such as memos, emails, and reports. I knew that a lot of my students were very homesick, however, so one day when we had to go over how to write a letter, I decided to read them an essay by my friend Monica Bhide about what it was like for her when she was a student far away from home and far from all the people she loved and all the foods that might comfort her.
I read the class a section from her contemporary Indian cookbook Modern Spice. In it, she spoke about being so lonely when she arrived at graduate school in Lynchburg, Virginia that she cried and prayed to Lord Krishna. She missed familiar foods, so she borrowed some rice and cardamom from a neighbor and began to make her mother’s rice pudding. The aroma filled the apartment with the smells of home. The scent of the cardamom enticed a neighboring Indian Engineering student and drew him, as if by magic, to her apartment.
Dear reader, she (eventually) married him.
All the students in the class – men as well as women – gasped with surprise and then sighed with pleasure at the fairytale ending of this story. (For another retelling of this story, read Monica’s article on cardamom from Saveur magazine.)
As I read this essay to my students, I could feel an odd combination of emotions stirring in the room: sadness and longing combined with the comfort of being in a place where these feelings were not only recognized but shared with others. I could sense some eyes tearing up, including my own.
The students set about responding to Monica’s essay by writing letters to her. Nineteen out of the twenty students in the class were non-native speakers from other countries. There were students from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Thailand, Nepal, The Republic of Congo, Japan, Taiwan, China, Bangladesh, Korea, Lebanon, and Ghana. There was only one student, a young woman, who was raised in America. I realized that I had placed her in a difficult position: clearly everyone else could relate to what it was like for Monica to be homesick, but what would the native-born student have to say about this story?
As the students composed their letters to Monica, I thought about my own family’s immigrant past. My great-grandfather grew up in Limerick, Ireland, where his father was an estate manager at Croom House, one of the Great Houses of Ireland, and one of the only ones that was still in Catholic hands at the time. There was limited opportunity in Limerick, and my great-grandfather wanted to work and own his own land. He knew he needed to leave home in order to create the life he imagined. First he went to England. He was unable to find work there, I assume because he was an Irish Catholic. He announced to the family that he was planning to go to America. Lady Lyons, the mistress of Croom House, wrote my great-grandfather a letter of recommendation naming all of his gardening and farming skills, and she also wrote a letter to him, imploring him not to go to America. It was the height of the Civil War and, she noted, “Young Irish men are cannon fodder.” He came anyway. He encountered a lot of NINA signs (No Irish Need Apply) and he eventually settled in Vineland, NJ, where he grew tomatoes for a living. His two sons went on to become surgeons – a great leap for first generation immigrants.
I recognize the same ambition and drive in my students. Many have extraordinary job responsibilities in addition to caring for their families. The students who take the once-a-week night classes are so busy that it is sometimes hard for them to find time to do their homework, but they manage it somehow. It was very clear to me that most of them were operating on a huge sleep deficit.
When it was time for the students to read their essays to the class, everyone was completely engaged. Students spoke of being overwhelmed by the price of food. One young woman said, “In Taiwan, the food is affordable, delicious, and you can get it anywhere. Here, the food is expensive, it doesn’t taste good, and it’s hard to find.” Others commented on the fact that the food here just doesn’t taste right because the ingredients aren’t as fresh or as good as they are in their own countries, especially those from warmer climates with year-round growing seasons. “At home, our food is never more than a day from the field, and sometimes only a few hours,” one student observed. “I miss my tropical life,” mused another wistfully.
Learning to cook was an issue for many. “When I came here,” said a student from Bangladesh, “I didn’t even know how to cook rice! Now I can make enough food for a party for fifteen people!” Several students described having to learn to cook for themselves, and those who live by themselves talked about how odd it felt to eat alone. A student from Lebanon described smelling the aroma from a dish prepared by her cousin and recognizing it as one that her grandmother used to make. She said that the scent reduced her to tears instantly.
When the time came for the American-born student to read her letter, she too described the feeling of homesickness and what it felt like to long for a specific food: “I had always heard that the food in Italy was fantastic, but when I got there, I missed my Nana’s noodles in gravy!” She spoke about the importance of tradition and taking time to cook and eat with family. Everyone in the class nodded in agreement.
One student’s letter to Monica began, “You got a homesick. I got a homesick too.” His grammar wasn’t perfect, but the sentiment was heartfelt and exact. Recognizing and sharing a feeling of loneliness and isolation brought our class together, and it really made me wish that we had access to a kitchen, so that we could share our culinary love letters to home at one big table.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
My Shirley Temple Bender
By Roz Cummins
“Hey, boys, do you want Shirley Temples?” my friend Elizabeth asks her son William, who is dining, on this late August evening, with his best friend and neighbor Johnny. They are seven and about to enter third grade.
“What’s a Shirley Temple?” Johnny asks.
“It’s a cocktail,” William replies, shrugging slightly in a this-is-no-big-deal-we-drink-cocktails-every-night seven-year-old’s version of studied nonchalance. Johnny nods as if now everything makes sense. “Can I have one too?” I hear myself ask. It’s been a while since I’ve had a Shirley Temple.
This is one of the last of the summer evenings of bare feet and no homework and going to bed when you feel like it. The boys seem blissfully unaware of their impending doom, but Elizabeth and I have the grown-up habit of spoiling the present with preoccupying thoughts about the future and the beginning of school and work and autumn and the rest of our lives. Maybe that’s why she offered them a treat. She is the coolest mom around.
She indulges me as well. “On the rocks?” she asks me archly. “Straight up,” I reply, “and make it a double.” Elizabeth and I are famous among our friends for our nearly tee-totaling ways so it’s fun to use grown-up drink-talk, since we never do. “I don’t know,” she says with mock concern, “don’t forget – it’s a cocktail! Oh, but you’re staying the night, right? So you don’t have to drive. Well okay then, a double Shirley Temple for the lady at the kitchen table.” She even puts two cherries in my drink.
I bring the glass to my lips and enjoy the bubbles and fizz and the ginger smell. The golden liquid is marbled with crimson spirals of unfurling grenadine. The childhood pleasure of drinking Shirley Temples and the glamour of taking part in the grown-ups’ cocktail hour rituals does a fleeting memory dance across my mind. My friend Sally, the consummate New Yorker, always whispers “Shirley Temples at the Rainbow Room” in my ear whenever we air-kiss good-bye, suggesting that it’s a jaunt, a secret friend-tryst, that we must plan to go on sometime soon, sometime when we’re both back home in New York. It is, however, always somewhere off in the future. It is never on our immediate list of things to do.
I drink Elizabeth’s Shirley Temple and it’s delicious – refreshing, flavorful, quite fantastic, really. “You make a mean Shirley Temple, barkeep.” I tell her.
“Thanks,” she says. “It’s all about the grenadine. You can’t skimp on it. It’s the basic building block of a successful Shirley Temple.”
“Well, I’ll certainly keep that in mind,” I say and then I empty my glass.
Later, after William has been in bed for a while and Elizabeth and I are sitting around the kitchen table talking, he suddenly cries out “I’m not cozy!” He sounds sort of panicky, as if he is even more horrified by the notion that he has only just now made this discovery than by the lack of coziness itself.
The next day I head back to Cambridge, leaving behind hills and valleys and boys about to begin school, and the friend who will make me a Shirley Temple and put two cherries in my glass. I’m headed back to a pile of unfinished articles that are in the research stage. Right now I’m working on a piece about Turkey red damask.
When September begins a few days later, the pace of life suddenly quickens. Harvard Square fills with returning students. From my office I can hear young women squealing with excitement when they first catch sight of one another after a summer apart.
I spend most of my time researching the history of red dye. I go to libraries and museums and I track down accounts of dyeing secrets being smuggled out of Turkey and Venice and into different kingdoms in Europe, each country hoping to establish its own red-dye industry and capture a bigger share of the market. Eventually a German chemist revolutionizes the dyeing process by developing artificial dyes that produce uniform results rather than the unreliable red made from madder root, and suddenly knowledge of the old materials and techniques becomes worthless. Just like that. No more espionage, no more spying, no more international intrigue.
The editors want me to write captions for some of the beautiful examples of Turkey red damask that they’ve found and they send me photos to look over. In addition to blankets and tablecloths, they have suggestions for what to do with scraps of Turkey red, such as making a tea cozy or a Christmas stocking out of the remnants of a flea market find.
It’s a beautiful Tuesday morning, almost strangely so. The air is sweet and cool and the sky – an intense blue – seems to be taunting those heading to work or school. As I approach my car I discover that it has a flat tire and I’m secretly grateful for a reason to linger on my porch rather than scurry indoors to sit at a computer. I still have work to do, though, so I get out my cell phone and begin my round of work calls after placing a call for help with Triple A. First I call one of the editors in New York about the Turkey red article. I get his voice mail and leave a message: “We have to talk about the tea cozies. Call me!” After hanging up I think of something else I have to add and then am unable to get through. I get nothing but busy signals, which seems odd. Eventually I get a message that all the lines to New York City are tied up.
I call the friend with whom I am supposed to have lunch. “I don’t think I can make it today,” I tell her, “my car has a flat tire and there’s going to be a few hours wait to get it fixed.” “Well, that’s not a problem because it’s pretty crazy around here,” she replies.
This is how our conversations always begin, so I say, “What’s happening?” expecting her to tell me that a colleague has gone berserk or that a server is down but instead she tells me that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. And then another. And then the Pentagon.
I feel myself sink to my knees. I grab the iron railing as I sit down on the stone stairs to the porch. “You didn’t know? You haven’t heard?” she asks me. “No,” I say, barely able to get the word out. “Well, I hope everyone in your family is okay. I’ve got to go. We’re closing for the rest of the day. Let’s talk later.”
I know instantly that someone I know will have been killed. I think of friends and family members working in or around the towers and I start to keen. I feel like an animal, like a wolf or a coyote. A yelp starts deep inside my chest and makes its way through my throat to the surface and I gulp for air. I feel like I’m trying to swallow a slippery liquid. I can’t catch my breath. Finally I am able to inhale and I stand up and go inside.
I start my round of phone calls to friends. It takes many attempts to get through, but the friends that I am able to reach tell me that they and their husbands are safe, have walked away from it, have made it all the way uptown or to New Jersey.
“It’s amazing,” one friend tells me, “I thought that there would be lines everywhere, people lining up to take money out of the bank or buy food, but the only lines I’ve seen have been people lining up to give blood.” I burst into tears when she tells me this.
I turn on the TV and see the footage of one plane and then the next hitting the towers, and then the towers themselves falling down. I am riveted to the screen, barely breathing because I am so tense. There is still a fourth plane missing, they say. All other planes that have been in the air have been instructed to land. There is just that one still-missing plane.
I walk to a friend’s house. Her face is red from crying. We sit on the couch, side by side, staring at the TV. Eventually we turn it off and I walk home. I know my body is moving as I make my way down the sidewalk, but I feel empty and strange. I make my way home on autopilot and remember nothing about the trip.
As evening falls I resume my TV vigil. I feel as though I cannot leave the couch. I cannot stop watching TV. I have no appetite but eventually I am thirsty. There is nothing to drink in the house except for the ginger ale, grenadine, and Maraschino cherries I recently bought, inspired by Elizabeth’s Shirley Temple. All night I sit in the blue light of the television drinking glass after glass of sweetness and innocence until they are all gone.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This essay is dedicated to my high school and college friends who died in 9/11 and to the families they left behind, and to all those who perished and those who lost loved ones.