Wok Hai

Wok Hai (or Wok Hay) is a Cantonese expression that means, roughly, “breath of the wok.” “Hay” is “Chi” in Mandarin, so it’s as much “energy” or “spirit” as “breath,” but the idea is the same: the food has a particular flavor that can only come from quick cooking in a wok. It’s something I’ve known about for a long time, and it’s one of the qualities that has eluded my Chinese cooking for even longer. No matter how good, it never tasted authentic. Until now. See, our gas range in Brooklyn was OK, but not great. And the execrable piece of shit of a hotplate that came with this house, well, let’s never speak of it again. But the new stove–the gleaming, stainless beast that it is–was the missing ingredient. All of the circular cast-iron grates lift out, allowing a wok to sit down low and get very close indeed to the burner. And when the burner in question is 22,000 BTUs, that wok gets obscenely hot. The thin steel becomes a highly conductive membrane bathed in fire, so your food is cooking right in the flames. It’s bad-ass, and it makes the best Chinese food possible.

Keep reading Wok Hai…

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We’re still sick. It’s not too bad, really–just a cold. But the timing is not so good. I had big plans for this week, big plans. Now my plans consist mostly of making an increasingly impossible to-do list for next week. On the plus side, though, I get to drink rum whenever my throat hurts–day or night–so there’s that.

I did manage to rally this afternoon and get some chicken stock going with frozen thighs, adding fennel, ginger, garlic, and carrots to the mix. Later, I strained it into a smaller pot, and added shredded lime leaves, galangal, nam pla, the meat from the chicken thighs, and a dab of green curry paste, then let it simmer for a short while. The herbs on top were just-picked chervil, scallion, and bolting cilantro (I love the way the leaves get all lacy when they bolt) and some minced fennel fronds. This was pretty authentic tasting and all the way delicious. I added a ton of our homemade pink hot sauce from last summer.

Best of all, since there was pie crust in the freezer (I always make a double order) I busted out a quick strawberry-rhubarb tart for dessert, sweetening it only with maple syrup and honey. We ate damn near all of it, for medicinal purposes. The rest is for breakfast.

I’d Gladly Pay You Tuesday

A pretty standard burger, though with minced homemade prosciutto and fresh herbs added in. On top, a sautéed mixture of maitake mushrooms and mustard greens. I didn’t make the bun, or the ketchup. I’m sick, so that’s all you get for today, you slavering jackals.

Haste Makes Taste

Since writing about pappa al pomodoro a while back, I’ve been keen on it as an excellent way to eat up otherwise obdurate heels of homemade bread. It’s also well-suited to a brainlessly quick and easy lunch, and highly tweakable. In the case of yesterday’s lunch, it benefited from the homemade prosciutto and smoked chicken stock, two items which I venture to say come awfully close to being essentials.

So I sizzled minced ham, garlic, onion, and some herbs for a minute, deglazing with random red wine, then adding tomato purée and stock. While it simmered, I cubed and browned the bread along with salt, smoked paprika, pepper, and some rosemary from the big plant that I just moved outside into the herb garden along with all of its overwintered peers. Once brown and fragrant, I ladled soup into bowls and then added a healthy mound of croutons. It was a nice variant; apart from the smoky porkitude, the croutonic progress from crisp to soup-sodden was an enjoyable one to follow.

Not so different from the traditional way, though, at least not enough to deserve its own post. Where it got fun was in the using of the small amount of leftover tomato soup. Yesterday we went to a birthday party, and it ran late, so by the time we got home there was precious little time to get dinner made. And C had bought some country-style pork ribs, and had her heart set on my braising thereof. Enter the pressure cooker (that will SO be the title of my martial arts film debut). I browned the ribs, (dusted in flour, salt, and 5-spice) then added our very own carrots, the rest of the tomato soup, more smoked chicken stock, and minced onion before capping it and letting it his for 30 minutes. While it did, I pulled leftover quinoa and some whole-wheat couscous out of the fridge, combined them, added broccoli, scallion, ginger, and smoked stock, simmering it all together until the broccoli was tender. Then I mixed in rice vinegar, fish sauce, and a bit of sesame oil to finish. Served the former on the latter. Freaking fantastic. Rachael Ray can kiss my catchphrase-free ass.

Salad Soup

Man, this time of year is fat with optimism. It’s on the leaner side with food, though the greens are coming along handsomely, and we’re lousy with wild foragables right now, so a good supplement can be found in my first-ever hunk of homemade prosciutto. It’s ready, because it’s only half a ham, and mostly skinless, so it dried quite quickly. It’s also bone-in, meaning it’s going to be tricky to slice it well into paper-thin slices, so I’m just sort of hacking it to different thicknesses depending on whether I want a sandwich or a soffrito. Last night I made a whopping big pot of stock from all of the smoked chicken carcasses, which is also important to know about later on.

Last night, it was for the very first of our asparagus. Turgid and purple (it’s called Purple Passion™) it’s bursting forth with wild abandon from the bed on the North side of the garden. I cut eight spears, and in a day or two there should be as many more. Then it’ll be a free-for-all for a while until I finally leave them alone in June. I wrapped them in ham and gave them a quick sear on two sides before squeezing half a lemon into the pan, adding a ladle of smoked chicken stock, and covering it for a minute or two to let them steam.

Next up, the nine-millionth iteration of noodle soup. Smoked chicken broth, saifun, the remnants of the asparagus sauce (frugality ftw) and a heaping mound of thinnings from the red kale and spinach in the garden, seasoned with some soy sauce, made for a light yet hearty bowl of dinner. I got a bunch of things planted today, too, after finishing my article; they’re late, but we’ll be rolling in brassicas come June.

Natural Light

The best part about surprise parties is getting the surprisee good and pissed off prior to the fête to ensure maximum hilarity when they realize they’ve been had. Such was the case this evening, when a team of experts conspired to make Debi good and cranky prior to being ambushed by her closest friends in our dining room. And there was food, surprisingly. I didn’t take pictures of any of the main dinner things, partly because potluck buffet-style dinners are not so photogenic and partly because I like to enjoy life rather more than I like to photograph it so that strangers may vicariously get off on it. Once the party gets going, I put down the camera. Sue me; I’m over 30. I also return phone calls rather than texting a misspelled sentence fragment. I’m a dinosaur. Moo.

I do have pictures of the first and last things we ate–the alpha and omega, if you will. To begin, as my Facebook chums already know, I made bread and rolls, originally planning to use the rolls for a first course kind of thing. But I changed my mind, since the rolls were too good to share (being ideal for family-pleasing lunchtime fare in coming days) and were also not overly conducive to crostinization, which was my intent. So I sliced up the big boule, grilling the slices in the bare iron skillet and then schmearing them with some ramp aioli I whipped up this afternoon, followed by a slice of the cured duck breast. I topped them all with a bit of chervil, which added a nice bright note above the luscious, complex fats.

Dinner was smoked chickens, plus curried lentils and raita, rice, a radicchio salad I made just like the other night, John’s leek and potato soup served in little cups with a dollop of ramp pesto, roasted roots from Phillipe, John’s roasted ramps and asparagus, and Liz and Duncan’s quinoa salad with fiddleheads. Brilliant food all around. There was wine, too, but I’d have to go downstairs and rummage through the recycling to give you all of the info right now. If you’re good, I’ll make some notes tomorrow and get back to you with them.

We had a nice local cheese assortment, then moved on to dessert: flourless chocolate cake from the local bakery, and a chocolate custard fruit tart I made. It’s important to remember here that I know how to make approximately three desserts, and that this one combines two of them; it’s basically my chocolate ice cream recipe (only not spun through the machine) on top of my Grandmother’s pie crust (which is as good as anything anybody has ever made) and then covered with non-local, out-of-season fruit since we’re in the Dark Times for fruit around here. Even the apples and pears are tired and pulpy, like they fell down the stairs. I made a quick glaze from apricot jam and local currant brandy to give the whole thing a luscious sheen. I added a bit of espresso to the mousse for extra chocolate-enhancement. Isn’t this picture sexy?

It’s Sweet, And Yet Sour– At The Same Time!

Improvising dinner is a funny thing; sometimes–like two posts ago–it fails utterly in the absence of attentive preparation. Usually it works fine, especially when it treads familiar, well-worn paths of technique and ingredients. And sometimes it exceeds wildest imaginings, making for a perfect plate of food. Happily, last night was such an instance.

I did the usual pre-dinner survey, pulling various containers and vegetables out of the fridge, and took stock. (I actually took stock out of the fridge, so it’s funny ’cause there’s a double meaning). There was half a butternut squash that surely needed eating, a quarter onion, a bunch of scallions from the garden, and a big bowl of radicchio and curly endive I had picked the day before. And some very nice thinly-sliced Berkshire pork loin from the freezer. I stood there for a minute, prepping the squash, and figured out what I wanted to do.

I diced the squash and cooked it with minced onion and whole wheat couscous until all was tender and fluffy, adding olive oil and scallion at the end. I chopped the radicchio and endive finely, tossing it with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. And I browned onion and carrot in hot oil for a minute, then added the pork for a minute, then poured in stock, honey, rice vinegar, juice from half a blood orange, soy sauce, and a drop of sesame oil, letting it reduce to coat all the goodness. And that was it. Everything played exceedingly well together, and this was one of those meals that fit perfectly into the mood and weather of the day, summarizing and embodying the happiness of a sunny afternoon spent outside with the family in the yard and garden.

A Post-Structural Critique Of Cultural Hegemony

I was out of town for a few days, visiting Providence and Boston. Most interesting culinarily was a trip to a Burmese restaurant in Brighton (or Allston, maybe) right near where the greatest Vietnamese restaurant in Boston used to be back in the 80′s. Viet Huong (in Allston) had about 4 tables, seated 8-9 people at very most, and had a lovely old couple who did everything: she cooked, he served. It was freaking genius. I miss it; it was easily my first food-geek experience. I’ll write a bit more about the Burmese food in a bit after I try something here at home.

The other night we had a mutated version of the chicken thigh escabeche I made a few posts ago, so tonight I cooked those bones with carrot, onion, garlic, ginger, a dried shiitake, and a scallion to make a fragrant stock. I pressure-cooked mung beans in the stock with a piece of bacon skin, removing it and puréeing the cooked beans with more stock when soft. I whisked in some miso, and let it sit while I crisped up little lardons of the latest batch of miso bacon. The result was very much what I had hoped for: an Asian-flavored take on split pea soup that was dense, creamy, earthy, and with smoky pork to set it all off. I sprinkled the top with scallions and togarashi.

On the side, we had king oyster mushrooms sautéed with garlic and deglazed with soy, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. I wilted some kale in the mushroom pan and deglazed again with a bit of the stock. Each made for a compelling and savory companion to the soup, and the combination made for good rainy spring evening fare.

I Ate Fried Food Again

Today was sort of stressful. I actually had a pretty sharp idea for dinner, and was excited to make it. But by the time I was in the kitchen trying to get it going, I was tired, and grouchy, and the kid was making an unholy mess with flour and water and a bunch of other things, and I messed up my idea, which was yam and nettle dumplings stuffed with braised pork.

What we actually had, as a result of poor attention to detail, was a truly half-assed save that nonetheless managed to taste OK and used up some of the leftover french fry oil from the other day. The dumplings started off well enough, with steamed Japanese yam puréed with just-picked and blanched nettles from the edge of the yard. The result was a gorgeous, velvety, deep green. But then, distracted by Milo, I cracked in a whole egg instead of just the yolk, and that’s where it all went to hell. Some flour, leftover brown rice, some more flour–there’s no way to bring this kind of soggy mess back to a stiffness without steaming a whole other yam. And there was neither a whole other yam nor the time to deal with something else. So I dumped the pork in, too (minced loin seasoned with garlic chives, sesame oil, ramps, soy sauce, and rice vinegar) and made the whole gloppy mess into little cakes that I dredged in panko and then fried until crispy and brown.

The pile of greens is more garlic mustard that I sautéed quickly in oil with garlic and lemon. It’s so good this way, like bitter spinach. And it’s free. I’ve decided that we’re not buying any greens from now on; between the wild stuff in our yard and the domestic ones coming up fast out in the garden, there’s no need any more. It’s already more than we can eat. I spooned some of the ramp aioli on the plates along with some tahini-miso sauce that we had mixed up earlier for something else, and sprinkled some of the tasty little cabbage flowers around with togarashi for gratuitous internet appeal.

One upside to this fiasco was that an extra fritter will make a pretty good lunch for someone at school tomorrow:

Mussels From Brussels

Well, not really. Prince Edward Island, actually. But I was channeling our Belgian brethren, inspired by the bag of fat, juicy bivalves in the fridge and the memories of all the moules frites I used to enjoy at my favorite spot in République back when I got paid to go to Paris every fall. Sigh. Keeping it simple, I steamed them in beer with our very own carrots, beet greens, garlic mustard, and ramps. I made a ramp aioli with olive oil and yuzu juice, and to dip in said green goodness, a big-ass bowl of twice-fried Yukon Gold batons.

And, as the observant among you can discern, a foamy glass of Cooperstown’s own Ommegang Rare Vos (Sly Fox). The good people there are so good at making traditional Belgian ales that Duvel, the Belgian beer giant, bought them a few years back. So I get to enjoy the fragrant complexity of something very like the real thing without breaking the 100 mile rule. Win/win.

Those yellow flowers with the mussels are from last fall’s bolted Asian cabbage. They taste like broccoli. Also, ramp aioli for fry dipping? Fuck yeah.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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