My apologies for the blurry, dark photo. It was late, and I was hungry.
When I was about two years old, my best friend in the whole world was Jon. He was six months younger but a whole head taller than me, and while I was very quiet and shy, he could wail loud enough for the both of us (or so my mom says). Where I would scamper, he would lumber. One of the only things we seemed to agree upon was that pigeons were meant for chasing (we're city kids), but despite our differences, we were practically inseparable: JonJon and SaSa. Then his family moved down the Peninsula, and our paths wouldn't again cross until much later.
In college, my Jon was my buddy Kevin. Again, he was the outgoing one, and quiet little me always seemed to be tagging along to his parties. His social sphere was only slightly smaller than the campus population, whereas I tended to stick to a very small circle of friends. So it was a strange twist of fate when I found out that Kevin and Jon were close friends, having met through the university's crew team.
Fast forward about 15 years to last weekend when we hosted Jon, Kevin, and their awesome wives for a little dinner party conceived through my Momofuku cookbook. We enjoyed an upscale ssam dinner (Korean barbecue served as make-your-own lettuce wraps) with kalbi-style New York strip and grilled pork belly and an insalata caprese-inspired cherry tomato salad that I was dying to try. Rather than nesting the tomatoes on soft discs of mozzarella, Chang substitutes silken tofu and replaces zesty strips of basil with equally pungent Japanese shiso.
The resulting dish was fantastic, even heading into Winter (I can only imagine what it's like when the tomatoes are at their peak of flavor in late Summer). And in one of my pensive moments (because — if you haven't already noticed — I am a quiet person) I realized it's a terrific metaphor for these friendships: seemingly mismatched ingredients intersecting in a harmonious medley. For the recipe, read on.
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.
It's amazing the difference between what you learn at college versus what you learn and retain during those four years. I went to (some) classes, took exams, and came out the other end with a degree, but can I solve the limit of a function when x approaches a constant or recall the dates and significance of the Han Dynasty? Sorry. I do remember all of the places I could use my student ID to buy meals on campus and who played point guard my freshman year (Anwar McQueen). And the first time I had niu rou mian was when Dave and I first started dating, and he took me to Taste of Taipei in the Durant Food Court for one of his favorite dishes. Our palates (and stomachs) demonstrated incredible tolerance back then.
Of course, if we went there today, we'd wonder what we were thinking. But for a couple of college kids who were accustomed to eating instant ramen, Jack-in-the-Box tacos, and sorority-house salad bars, it was heavenly. Later, we discovered the nuanced styles and varieties of niu rou mian at Queen House in Mountain View (fiery chili) and Spices in the Richmond District (numbing peppercorn) who both put Taste of Taipei to shame. But all had a few key ingredients: star anise, ginger, onions, soy sauce, and loads of tender beef. Mine has all of the above plus a bunch of tomatoes which really deepens the flavor of the broth. Not a bad evolution considering it all began at a dirty hole in the wall near Telegraph Avenue. For the recipe, read on.
Another straight-from-Food Network find is this mac and cheese recipe, courtesy of Barefoot Contessa. I pretty much love anything Ina Garten concocts, but there are certain classics -- such as roasted chickens, salad dressings, soups, and baked pastas -- where you really can't go wrong with her recipes. This mac and cheese recipe is one such example. Aside from burning your roux, I don't think there is a single thing you can do to ruin this dish, and there are so many iterations: throw in some chicken, cooked broccoli or spinach, Spam (yes, I love the stuff), bacon, or anything else you have lying around your fridge, and you have a complete meal. Here, I prepared it as a side dish to sauteed pork chops, so I kept it simple with just a topping of tomatoes and bread crumbs.