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every dish has a story

Crisp-Skin Herb Roasted ChickenMay 19, 2011

Nothing's simpler, easier, or more perfect than a dinner of a whole chicken, roasted in your oven. So they say.

I have to say, it took me years to figure out how to roast a chicken. I followed every no-fail recipe out there — from Martha to Ina to Alton to Jacques — and they all failed me, time and time again. I followed their instructions on temperature, trussing, stuffing, basting, and roasting time, and yet I always ended up with a sad little chicken with an assortment of over- and underdone parts. Profanity, flying objects, sulking, hair-pulling (my own, thankfully), and oaths to never again touch a frickin' chicken usually ensued. That is, until I discovered butterflying.

I'm not sure what possessed me to try this one Cook's Illustrated recipe (oh yeah, must have been the word "crisp-skin"), but by the time it found its way to my counter, I was definitely questioning my abilities as a cook. So I sighed resignedly, just knowing that defeat rested on the other side of my oven door. And then the shock of my life (OK, perhaps the third greatest behind my husband's marriage proposal and finding out I was being joined by my first and only sibling when I was 12): it was P-E-R-F-E-C-T.

Aside from needing to hack the backbone out of the poor bird and break its little birdie breastbone, it was quite simple, provided I gave myself enough time for the brining and the roasting. It's also much easier to break down into parts for serving when it's flattened out like an open book. So now I pass my no-fail roast chicken recipe on to you, in the hope that it can save you from a patchy scalp and mouthful of soap. For the recipe, read on.

Yosenabe Hot PotMay 15, 2011

I'm catching up on a few weeks' worth of cooking, and realized I had some leftover pics from our week of hot pot (for which I've only managed to do one post so far). We tackled mala hot pot and a milder chanko nabe miso-aji, so next up was yosenabe, a Japanese seafood stew. I returned to one of my happy places, 99 Ranch, to pick up some spitting clams, shrimp, fish, and scallops, and there I realized that I'm still just a stranger in a strange land. My conversation with the guy behind the fish counter went something like this:

Me: Hi, I would like four large prawns.

Him: Four?

Me: Yes, please.

Him: FOUR?

Me: Yes, four.

Him: That's all?

Me: Yes, please.

Him: [laughs] Ok... [picks out exactly four prawns, hands them to me in a bag] Anything else?

Me: Yes, please. May I have six scallops?

Him: SIX??

You get the picture. Clearly, cooking for two is not a common occurrence at the Asian market. At Mollie Stone's, no one thinks twice when someone asks for one chicken thigh, skinned and deboned, or a ribeye steak, trimmed of excess fat. Here, among half of my people, I am met by giggles. But along the way I have learned that I'd get nowhere if I didn't ask a few silly questions or come across as the oddball. A few weeks ago, I attended a class on fruit-tree pruning in which I asked if watering my lemon tree once a week was enough. The room (including the instructor) broke out in uproarious laughter. Apparently, the answer is "No — at the bare minimum you should water it twice a week." Well, now I know, my lemons are far better off than before, and everyone gets a good chuckle. Back to the yosenabe, I'm not sure what I learned, per se, but I certainly wouldn't have ended up with this fantastic dinner had I not sucked it up and played the part of court jester. For the recipe, read on.

Oysters with MignonetteMay 14, 2011

When dining out at fancier joints, I always have a dilemma: should I be socially proper and order a dainty half dozen oysters or give in to the devil on my shoulder and go for the full dozen? I know what I want to do, but I also know that 12 meaty mollusks on top of a full entree means an uncomfortably full belly by the end of the meal. So I tend to heed the angel and request the smaller serving (and then spend the rest of the night wishing I hadn't been so good).

So when my dad and I dreamed up an elegant Mother's Day brunch of oysters on the half shell, one eyebrow raised mischievously. Wouldn't this be the perfect opportunity to test the limits of my bivalve consumption? I called Hog Island and greedily ordered 3 dozen Sweetwaters, Kusshis, and Hood Canals to pick up at their Ferry Building booth on Sunday morning. As it turned out, they gave us several more than 3 dozen which delighted me. We also grabbed an Acme rustic loaf and three kinds of cheese from Cowgirl Creamery for grilled cheese sandwiches to go with the potato leek soup I made the night before.

Now, the plan, of course, was that the rest of us would shuck the oysters so that Mom could put her feet up and relax on this most matriarchal of days. The plan, of course, was soon foiled when it became apparent that she was far more capable with an oyster knife (I, bleeding, called it quits after shucking fewer than a dozen). But this is nothing new — by now, she's used to stepping in when the rest of us prove to be inept. However, I provided homemade mignonette which I felt made up for my shortcomings.

So slurp we did, and in the end I ate at least a dozen. But I'm happy to continue to test those limits. For the recipe, read on.

Shrimp and Cheesy Grits With Poached Eggs and Glazed BaconMay 13, 2011

I'm not too familiar with how to make grits; in fact, before today my only instructions came from My Cousin Vinny. Despite being a California kid, I have eaten grits several times. These days, they aren't too hard to find on brunch menus even out here on the West Coast, but even as a child I managed to get my hands on a few bowls, though I had to travel far.

The first time I tried grits was on the backside of a racetrack. In a past life, I was obsessed with horses, and when I was thirteen, my dad arranged every little horse-loving girl's dream vacation. On the way to a business trip in Washington, D.C., we stopped in Kentucky where we got a private tour of Claiborne Farms (where racehorses like Secretariat, Ferdinand, and Easy Goer were retired) and the granddaddy of all racetracks, Churchill Downs. Of course, it was late July, so racing season was over, and the Kentucky Derby was a distant memory. But that afforded us the opportunity to get a real behind-the-scenes look at daily operations.

We arrived at 6am, and our guide led us behind those famous twin-spired grandstands and out to the dining hall where we rubbed shoulders with jockeys and trainers while they fueled up after the morning workouts. The menu was short — there may have been only one option, for all I know. But that first bite of hominy goodness was like unwrapping the first gift on Christmas morning. The biggest surprise: they weren't at all gritty. Just buttery, creamy, and the perfect accompaniment to my fried eggs and bacon.

As it turns out, San Francisco grocery stores aren't too familiar with grits, either, because they only seem to carry the quick-cooking kind. According to My Cousin Vinny, "No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits." But I'm a California kid, and given my lack of experience, this may have been a fortunate turn of events. And in the end, we cleaned our plates! For the recipe, read on.

Poached EggsMay 12, 2011

I often believe that I can take a recipe or technique and make it better. In this case, Alton Brown: you have me beat. His are hands down the best instructions for poached eggs that I have come across, so rather than recreate the wheel, I share it with you in its pure and original form:

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Sichuan "Mala" Hot PotApr 26, 2011

I'm a Buddhist, so in theory, I shouldn't believe in fate. In conversational vernacular, karma has come to mean "what comes around, goes around," as though there's some Jedi force out there that causes bad things to happen to people who do bad things. This is not to say that I don't believe in The Force — on the contrary, we have our very own Sith apprentice here at home — it just doesn't apply in this circumstance. But I digress.

By definition, karma is simply the sanskrit word for "action." It's probably true that bad actions eventually cause unfavorable results for the people who enact them, but really what this concept gets at is the fact that consequences exist, and we humans therefore control the outcomes of our karma, whether good or bad. That being said, there are times when events seem to conspire to ensure certain outcomes. Here's a case study:

During my last trip to LA, my best friend and I shared a dish of spicy beef tendon at 15 Cats Cafe in Alhambra. It was a cold dish, dressed in a delicious sauce of numbing sichuan peppercorn that I love. She proceeded to tell me that in Sichuan, they are famous for hot pot broth made with plenty of sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers/oil, and that she regularly prepares this mala (meaning "numbing" and "spicy") hot pot at home. Enlightening! I was intrigued, and flagged that idea as one to try when I got back home. Not a week later, another friend described a Mongolian hot pot restaurant in the East Bay that has become her family's weekend dinner tradition. They, too, serve that spicy, tingly soup for dipping and cooking your delectables. But we rarely make it out to the other side of the Bay, so again it was an idea earmarked for later use. My acupuncturist and I love to talk about food together, and one day she mentioned that she and her husband often prepare hot pot at home in San Mateo, especially when the weather gets cold. That reminded me of the restaurant about which my friend had recently informed me. "Oh, Little Sheep!" she exclaimed. "I love that place...they have one in downtown San Mateo!" These three encounters were too serendipitous to ignore. That same weekend, we trekked down to San Mateo and endured the hour-long wait for our own meal of mala hot pot, and it was like meeting my food soul mate (admittedly, I have many, but this is definitely in the top five).

So was it fate guiding me towards yet another amazing meal? Buddhism would say this is a series of karma with the final one being our decision to hop in the car for our foodie field trip. I could believe either — in the end, the outcome was a very happy one! For the recipe, read on.

Clams "Provençal"Apr 22, 2011

When my brother was 7, he ODed on clams. One afternoon, my mom had trudged up to the Clement Street seafood market for a large bucket of bivalves to feed the four of us, and since his dinner time was several hours before the rest of us, she cooked up a batch for him when she returned home. It was a healthy portion (for an adult, let alone a 7-year-old), but ten minutes after sitting down to eat, he walked into the kitchen holding his bowl to announce that those clams were really good, and could he have some more? So another batch went into the sauté pan and out to the dining room. Ten minutes later, there he was again, clutching his empty bowl and asking for more. Fast forward another 30 minutes, and all the clams were gone. As was his enthusiasm for them. To my knowledge, he hasn't eaten a clam since.

To this day, every time I find fat little Manila clams at the store, I hoard them with the ludicrous notion that I need to eat them before the spirit of my 7-year-old brother comes into the kitchen and scarfs them down. 99 Ranch always seems to have great, lively clams — they spit and spray as I pluck them out of their water bath — so last week while I was there picking up some pork belly for my Momofuku-style pork buns redo, I bought about 2.5 pounds for dinner that night. I simmered them in a smoky, Provençal-style broth and served them with crusty bread and potato leek soup, and we definitely didn't need to worry about running out. For the recipe, read on.

Hawaiian BreakfastApr 16, 2011

When I was a kid, we would go to Hawaii just about every summer because for us fogged-in San Franciscans, it was our opportunity to get consistent (warm) sunshine for more than one day. Most of the time, we stayed in condos because they were more economical, and I looked forward to breakfast because it meant one thing: Apple Jacks. Or Corn Pops. Or Cocoa Puffs, for that matter. I was never allowed sugary cereal at home, and vacations (or trips to Grandma and Grandpa's house) were the only chance I had to infuse my diet with more sugar than you'd find in the nearby cane fields. These days, the only time I eat that stuff is for dessert (and I do admit picking up a box at the grocery store from time to time just for that purpose), but I still have fond memories of the excitement I experienced waking up that first morning in Hawaii thanks to the Capt'n Crunch awaiting me in the kitchen.

It probably wasn't until I was about 10 that I discovered the other Hawaiian breakfast. You know, the kind that real Hawaiians invented and eat. Really, Hawaiian breakfast foods are quite diverse because of the richness of cultures that infuse the islands. In some households, kimchi may be a constant condiment. In others, a piece of raw or cooked fish is a fixture. Other folks can't do without some Portuguese sausage. In my heart, Hawaiian breakfast will always mean rice, fried eggs, and Spam.

My family has never had an aversion to Spam. Sure, we buy the low sodium variety (which is still off-the-charts high in salt...that's why it's so GOOD!!). But I guess having parents who are from the generation born around World War II means that we have never been afraid to eat mystery meat out of a can. I remember eating Spam, rice, and vegetables for dinner which usually meant finding Spam and mustard sandwiches packed in my lunch bag the next day. These days, we eat Spam in our kimchi jjigae or kimchi bokkeumbap (thank goodness I found a partner who shares my love for this delicacy). But the simplicity of a few slices of Spam alongside a scoop of rice and a couple of runny-yolk eggs is heavenly. I'm not providing a recipe, for as long as you can cook rice and open a pull-top can, you can have a hearty breakfast like this one in 10 minutes.

Earl Grey Macarons with Honey Buttercream FillingApr 09, 2011

Inspired by the visit from my sister-in-law, I set out to make a batch of macarons all by my lonesome. Flying solo didn't seem like such a scary thing until I was actually in the midst of whipping the egg whites, and then all of the insecurities began bubbling to the surface like the air in the froth I was creating. Is this bubbly enough to begin adding sugar? Is it glossy enough? Are these peaks stiff, or should I beat it just a minute longer? Well, my friends, I'm sorry to say that these were by no means perfect. They were more the consistency of meringue than chewy macarons which tells me I needed to press more air out of the batter and possibly add a little more almond meal. But they were tasty, so expect v2 to follow soon! For the recipe, read on.

MacaronsApr 07, 2011

Relationships often have early omens that signal whether they are meant to last. When I met my husband in college, it was clear that our mutual love for Star Wars (I know, I know -- nerd alert!), amusement parks, late night runs to Jack in the Box, and practice of couch potatoism were harbingers of a long life together. But oddly enough, what sealed the deal was meeting his parents. It happened at an elegant Chinese banquet restaurant over the largest meal you have ever seen. His dad took charge ordering for the four of us, and soon four 5-course meals appeared followed by five or six additional heaping platters. We had so much food, the waiters couldn't fit it all on our table. We had so much food, boxing it up in doggie bags seemed like a futile effort. We had so much food, his mom got violently ill later that night. I knew I was in love with him, but I guess I kind of sort of fell in love with them, too.

Then I met his sister, and all of the pieces fell into place. She shares my love of baking (though she shares their dad's scientific curiosity and patience, whereas I am impatient and want it to work the first time), and within the last few years took up the task of creating the perfect macaron. Mind you, she has been a full time grad student living on her own in NYC, so where she finds the time I have no idea. But her creations are lovely, and while she was visiting this past week, she taught me her fine art.

Macarons are highly temperamental, and every macaron maker has their own advice on ingredients and temperature, but everyone will agree that it's all about the technique. From the consistency of the meringue to the airiness of the batter, the only way you can expect a result anywhere resembling a macaron is to master proper folding and piping. But one taste, and I knew that this, too, was a relationship worth pursuing! For a recipe and photos of our creations, read on.

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