Damn. I let myself down at Sichuan Village in Chantilly, VA. I finally showed my whiteness.
Wonderful, food-loving Ben took me to his favorite Sichuan-style Chinese restaurant in Virginia. He took good care of us, ordering five dishes for three people and earning a respectful (or perhaps incredulous) stare from the nice server lady. By the way, don't bother going without someone who can order off the Chinese menu, else you will be eating those beloved Chinese-American classics, chicken fried rice and lo mein. Vomit.
The first to arrive was a cold appetizer of sliced tendon, tripe, and stomach in a Sichuan chili sauce with spring onions, and peanuts. The sauce is the reason I dream about Sichuanese food. Made with dried and roasted chilis, not ground but crushed into small pieces that retain their texture, the heat and flavor of the chilis leached into the oil, coloring it red. And red is my favorite color. We were meant to be, don’t you see? Toasted, flavorful, moderately hot, with a dry crunch, the oil was painfully addictive. I could – and did – eat it with a spoon. Oh yeah, and the tendon, tripe, yeah whatever. They were good, but they were not confused. The sauce was the star of the show.
Then came the dry fried green beans, a la Shanghai Gate (perhaps even more delicious). There was also fried fish and steamed tofu, and a giant, bone-in pork shoulder with a thick fatty skin and meat so melted and tender that Ben cut it up with a spoon. A spoon, people! The rather imposing pork shoulder was surrounded by baby bok choy, reconstituted dried mushrooms, and curiously, squares of ham in a thick sauce. Forget the ham. Forget the sauce. You can most certainly forget the cabbagey bits when staring at sweet, fatty, cotton ball-soft pork that pulls away from the bone with no pressure from the chopsticks. Make sure to fight for the skin. I would have, if I had assurance I wouldn’t explode from eating too much.
I was so happy. So happy! We were all doing so well, happy, eating, talking… and naturally, this was around this time that it happened, that I failed. One of the chief reasons I forced Ben to take me to this place was the promise of blood tofu – congealed pork blood steamed and cut into squares. Try not to read too much into my dying to try this particular delicacy. Just let it go.
I was expecting something tinny, metallic and derr, blood-like. It wasn’t. The blood tofu was very mild. It hardly had any taste at all, with a consistency of hard tofu - creamy and silky, but drier. It was good. The blood tofu swam around with bamboo shoots and wiggly chunks of pork intestines.
The pork inside bits? Not so much. Without going into too much detail, they tasted just like the substance it is their job to convey. Yep, they had a certain tint of poo. And here’s the thing. You can’t really bite through a chunk of pork intestine. You kinda have to take the whole piece given into your mouth and pray that it stays there as you work on it, with pained focus and rigid concentration. I know that not everything I ate after the poo conveyor tasted the same, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t looking for that flavor in every subsequent bite. That's an acquired taste if I ever experienced one.
I totally failed. I thought myself all kinds of badass. I was psyched about the blood tofu, the tendon and stomach frankly rocked (and rocked hard). The poo conveyor, however? It almost did me in. My whiteness got the best of me. I deduct ten badass points from myself. Sigh.
14005 Lee Jackson Highway
Chantilly VA 20151
(703) 631- 5888
Saturday, December 29, 2007
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Some stereotypes are true. Russians really do know their vodka. Swedish vodka is fit only for degreasing engines, French vodka plays in the minor leagues, at best, but the Russians… Russians are the studs of the vodka world. They do it right.
There are a two key factors which determine the quality or smoothness of vodka. 1) The purity and quality of the water. Water in Russian is voda. Vodka - voda... get it? Except they drink way more vodka than water over there.
2) The amount and quality of wheat or rye. Contrary to popular belief, it’s only the Polish that make vodka from potatoes - the Russians always use grain.
Russians are very particular about how they drink their vodka, following a strict ritual that distinguishes their vodka drinking from all the other sissy vodka practices on the planet (why on earth would anyone dilute their vodka with fruit juice? Unless they are drinking Swedish vodka, that is).
So here’s what you do if you want to drink like a Russian. This procedure is not for the faint of heart, I warn you.
To drink like a Russian:
- Take a shot glass (real Russians fill a normal glass half way up but I don’t expect that level of devoted alcoholism out of normal people) and fill it to the brim with vodka which you just took out of the freezer.
- Pick up the shot glass with one hand, a dill pickle with the other.
- Toast to the health of your friends (hopefully, you are not doing this all by your alcoholic lonesome).*
- Exhale strongly to get all the air out of your lungs. Quickly take the shot and bite the pickle, neither stalling nor breathing between the swallow and the bite. [Getting rid of all the air prevents the burn of the vodka as it comes back up.]
*Update - my father has requested a correction to the above point, lest one of you actually attempt to stuff a pickle into your mouth without breathing, choke, and then sue me for all I am worth (which is really not all that much, although I do have some nice earrings). You are supposed to exhale once more after swallowing the shot and then bite the pickle. I guess I do it (and many other things) without thinking.
- Rinse and repeat until the desired doneness. Err, drunken-ness.
Up until recently, I thought that Grey Goose was the cat’s pajamas (whatever that means). That is until my father brought back a bottle of Marusya** from his last trip to Moscow. The vodka, in its elegant, narrow-necked 500 mL bottle, is not currently exported from Russia and not terribly easy to come by while there. This stuff, people… This stuff left me speechless. It’s so good that the makers recommend drinking it at room temperature, which is unheard of for vodka.
With Marusya, all the rules and rituals go out the window. You really don’t need to chill it to take the edge off – there is no edge. It is smooth and velvety. You don’t need a pickle chaser to take the burn off – the vodka goes down without a hitch. There is no kick back, no diesel-like fumes punching up into the nasal passages after the swallow. There is no taste, no after taste, no trace of engine cleaner. It’s like buttah. It made for a memorable Thanksgiving and I hope it does the same for this coming New Year’s eve.
I cannot wait until this stuff is sold in the U.S. Or at least until they get a freakin website. Until then, I have to rely on my Dad’s frequent business trips to Moscow for my supply of Marusya. Man, that stuff is good.
* Russians toast with “Za vashe zdorovye,” to your health. Not to be confused with “Na zdorovje”, which is a Polish toast. We take this very seriously, in case you couldn’t tell.
** Marusya, a pet name for Maria, is a very Russian name for a very Russian woman.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
The raw materials:
Carp – the cheapest fish on this earth, full of teeny bones and a fatty skin (occasionally referred to as “crap”)
Beets and carrots, for color and sweetness
Clean, dry onion skins (no one ever accused Jewish cuisine of being wasteful)*
Pepper, salt, and sugar
About five hours, five helpers, a couple of bottles of wine and a ton of patience.
That’s all it takes to prepare my grandmother’s gefilte fish (from here on out referred to as gefilt-oy fish, so named for the obscene amount of time and labor that goes into its preparation).
Do not be fooled by the short and basic ingredient list – this is not a trivial recipe. It is probably the least trivial cooking event I have ever been a party to. And a party it was, by the way – one that started with wine and ended with vodka. We had to celebrate the fish, did we not?
I wish I had concentration enough to snap a photo of the final, plated fish, but by that time all I wanted to do was crawl into bed. I can tell you that my grandmother’s gefilt-oy fish is very sweet, smooth, and light. I loved making the fish with my entire family and closest friends around me, crowding around my Mom’s kitchen island. I loved looking at the fish, drinking to the fish’s well-being, eating the fish, so on and so forth, but will I ever make it myself? NFW. Email me if you need me to decipher that acronym.
The following recipe is more of a guideline than a hard-set protocol. I am writing it up less to encourage anyone to undertake this lengthy (read: pain in the ass) procedure but to give you an idea of just how much of a pain in the ass it actually is. Unless you have your whole family crowded around you. Then it's fun.
My grandmother's gefilt-oy fish
For 3-4 kg of carp (whole fish):
1) Boil the carp heads, tails, and fins (excluding the gills!) for 30 minutes to make a fish stock. Strain the stock and keep hot.
2) While the stock is boiling happily away in a giant pot on the stove, slice the fish vertically into “steak” pieces. Make an incision (pardon the medical terminology) along the spine of the fish on both sides. Slide the knife under the skin and cut out the knob of fish flesh between the ribs (are they actually ribs? Pardon my cursory knowledge of fish anatomy) and the spine, being careful to keep the skin attached.
Keep the bones! They are key players in the many many subsequent steps.
3) Grind the fish flesh, onions, and two pieces of white bread soaked in water in a meat grinder. Mix in two raw eggs, a tablespoon of canola oil, black pepper, salt, sugar, and some cold water to a grandmother-sanctioned consistency. What that consistency is, I cannot say.
4) Adjust seasoning. And by this my grandmother meant taste the RAW fish and egg mixture, all the while assuring your family that you are not going to die of carp/crap poisoning because we eat sushi right? It’s the same thing, right? (Umm, no. Actually it’s not the same thing, not at all. Last time I checked, toro didn’t cost 99c per pound.)
5) Stuff the ground fish back into the fish skin. This step is totally key and I totally failed. I was not able to make a single piece that met my grandmother’s stringent requirements. I either put in too much filling or too little, either too far in or too far to the side. It wasn’t pretty. Oy.
6) Layer thinly sliced raw, peeled beets, sliced onions, and clean onion skins on the bottom of a heavy pot. Layer fish pieces on top, adding vegetables/onion skin between each fish piece and between each layer to prevent the fish from sticking. Drizzle each layer with canola oil.
This cauldron-esque pot made the trip from Moscow with my grandmother. Apparently, my inability to pack lightly has a genetic component.
7) Pour hot fish stock down the side of the pot (so as not to break up or otherwise disturb the already tormented fish) until the top layer of fish is almost covered, but not quite. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower heat and cook covered for 1 hour and uncovered for 2 hours, shaking the [hot, boiling, heavy, scary] pot occasionally to prevent the fish pieces from sticking to each other. [Please don’t sue me for damages if you, I am assuming drunkenly, decide to try this for yourself.] Every once in a while spoon some cooking liquid over the top layer of fish to prevent it from drying out.
8) Carefully transfer the cooked fish to a platter and pour some of the strained cooking liquid over the pieces to give them a gloss.** Cool completely in refrigerator before eating.
* Oddest ingredient prize? That belongs to the onion skins. The skins are largely responsible for the yellow/orange hue of the final gefilte fish product.
** The fish stock, after boiling with the vegetables and gefilt-OY fish, is rich and gelatinous. My grandmother recommends boiling potatoes in leftover stock. I imagine it would also make an amazing base for some form of soup.
Monday, December 17, 2007
WooHoo! Another issue of the Fletcher Ledger is up, with an article from yours truly. I was hoping to have the above sad image of desolation included in the article, but alas, that was not to be. It will make sense in context, I promise. The death and disease in the shot above is to this very day parked on my windowsill. Why I haven't yet tossed it, I can't say. I may still be in mourning.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Long blogging absence, even longer graduate school career that Just. Won't. Die. In other words, I have yet another committee meeting tomorrow which has slowed my blogging activities to a crawl. BUT seeing as how I am here to entertain, and since I am a comment whore, I thought I would pass on this excerpt from an email from a dear friend. I think you will quickly see why he and I get along.
In response to my previous post about Christopher Kimball's low opinion of Rachael Ray:
"I haven't really watched Rachel Ray. I think I saw a portion of one show. She has this nice round bottom, but not much going on in the chest area. The two halves don't match. That has nothing to do with her cooking ability... just an observation. I think I have seen her more on Dunkin Donuts commercials lately...which I found odd because I thought she supported some healthy eating initiative."
Sunday, December 02, 2007
“Thank you for calling WGBH. May I please have your first and last name?”
Boston’s WGBH was one of the first pubic radio and TV stations launched in 1951. It was the home of Julia Child’s French Chef. It is now the home of Christopher Kimball and America’s Test Kitchen. WGBH puts on periodic pledge drives, asking for viewer support and contributions. Pledges can be made online, of course, but it seems that a lot of people are really either uncomfortable with computers or they simply prefer the minimal personal interaction that speaking with a phone operator affords.
This is where I came in. This past weekend I volunteered to take a four-hour shift as a phone pledge-collector. It was a slow day. A really slow day. In those four hours I received four phone calls. Two of those were nutjobs and two were very nice (and very ready to spend – one caller pledged $250, the other, $125).
One of the main reasons that I signed on for the job - besides the good karma vibes of course - was the likelihood of encountering Christopher Kimball, a badass in his own right. He really does wear a bow tie all the time, and not ironically. He is also likely the only man who can pull it off. He is wickedly funny. He hates Rachel Ray with a burning passion (and has little respect for the rest of the Food Network).
I was very happy to have the opportunity to sit behind Mr. Kimball’s back as he asked for donations on live television (you just may see me on PBS if you live in the Boston area – I am the nervous-looking blond girl trying to avoid the camera). I had the chance to speak with him and really wanted to, but totally chickened out. I was also completely pinned behind my desk - I had no idea that 40 people could be stuffed into 5 square feet of floor space, give or take. I did find out that America’s Test Kitchen sends recipes out to home cooks for testing, to get an idea of how real people cook and you can sign up to be a test cook on their website, somewhere.
Turns out, there are some very stupid real people. Apparently, one chicken recipe came back with a poor review. In the comments section of the review, the test cook had written something along the lines of, “ I didn’t have chicken, so I used shrimp. It really wasn’t good.” Wow. I really hope he didn’t cook the shrimp 5 minutes on each side as you would with chicken.
P.S. Should I ever actually graduate, I will absolutely look up how to be a test cook. I am a real person. More often than not, a stupid real person, but still... I can do it.