Just south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn bounded by Church Avenue to the north, Coney Island Avenue to the west, Beverly Road to the south and the Q line subway track to the east is an oasis of Victorian residences. Known as Prospect Park South the area was built around the turn of the 20th century for discriminating New Yorkers looking for a suburban lifestyle. Our friends Lauren and Maureen fell in love with one of these houses when they were hunting for a home about a decade ago. It was a huge rambling grey house in need of repair with an overgrown garden in the back. Although they knew there was incredible potential for the house, it wasn’t until they started clearing the garden that they discovered the real treasure: raspberry brambles.
Two weeks ago I went to a Dongbei (or Northeastern China) restaurant in Flushing for lunch with a group of Chinese food enthusiasts. I glanced through the menu, but like many seasoned Chinese diners I asked the owner if they had any special seasonal dishes from the kitchen. As it turned out they had young tender garlic scapes, which are the stalks of garlic blossom, and she suggested we ordered them stir-fried with pork slices. I was thrilled to know they’re still available during this late in the season.
Arriving in America in the 1970’s I was introduced to a few American Chinese restaurants that still served chop suey and chow mein. I remembered that one particular item on the menu aroused my curiosity. It was Moo Goo Gai Pan. Expecting a dish with mushrooms and chicken I ordered it. Imagine my horror when the dish arrived displaying a rainbow array of vegetables with pork slices. There was no Moo Goo. There was no Gai Pan.
Last Thursday there was a two-inch red headline in the World Journal (世界日報) profiling me and my culinary endeavors. I was very excited by this coverage. Through the Culinary Historian of New York I was invited this past March to participate in a panel discussion on “Chinese Food in America Today.” During the event I met a reporter from World Journal, the largest Chinese language newspaper in North America. A few weeks later this reporter emailed and wanted to write a profile about my cooking experience. So she interviewed me and a photographer took pictures of me during one of my cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education.
In Ba Jin’s (巴金) epic Chinese literary trilogy: Family, Spring and Autumn (家,春,秋), the author describes the life of a Chinese aristocratic family during the final years of the feudalistic Qing dynasty. It was a tumultuous time in which the family members had to negotiate changing political landscape as dynastic rule disintegrated, as well as the family’s own struggle between generations over changing values and aspirations. Ba Jin was a great observer and narrator of a China struggling within and without while falling into chaos at the beginning of the twentieth century. Among all the confusions and upheaval, there is one single constant and that is the communal family meal.
It was in high school when my two passions of science and food intersected in a physics lab. I was a student at the Chinese High School in Singapore, and the assignment was to take fresh duck eggs and immerse them in salt water. Through osmosis the brine would seep into the eggs and we’d measure the salt content over time. Although the science was fun, what I remember most was the delicious eggs that I took home to cook!
There is something slightly disconcerting about planning a dinner intended entirely to highlight different kinds of exotic meat such as wild boar, veal, pork, quail, rabbit sausages, lamb sausages and oysters. Separately they each would make a winning dish, but how would you put them all in one dinner without overwhelming the diners. Should there be a specific style of cuisine? What kind of supplementary ingredients would be suitable? This was the challenge Christo at Chez What? faced when offered a bounty of these meats from Marx Foods to sample. His solution was to invite a few bloggers to get together and cook.
Like many home cooks I love to collect all kinds of cooking utensils, appliances, cookware and tableware. I own a strawberry huller, fish poacher, taco frying tongs and artichoke plates. Then after using them once or twice they’re usually banished deep in a drawer or at the back of a kitchen cabinet, where they’re undiscovered for years. But there is one curious looking specialty clay pot, with a steam spout in the middle, that I use regularly for making the most delicious chicken soup. It is a Yunnan (雲南) steam clay pot (汽鍋).
We’ve just entered the year of the tiger and according to the five elements of Chinese geomancy it is the metal tiger year, which is also known as the white tiger year. Consequently for most people it is to be a turbulent period with unpredictable outcomes and uncertain prospects. But if you were born in the year of the sheep, horse, dog, tiger, ox or dragon, you’re in luck because your birth sign counteracts the negativity. You’ll have more good fortune and opportunities for success in your career this year. Since I was born in the year of the horse I’m due for some good fortune or career success. But as a practical man that I am I just wish for a successful New Year’s dinner.
During the winter months for the last two years I started noticing fresh frozen abalones for sale in New York City’s Chinatown. A few fishmongers display mounds of these large solidly frozen mollusks. I was curious where these abalones come from. Unfortunately most of the shopkeepers were not able to enlighten me. However one person suggested Australia, which is plausible since abalone farming has become very successful there. This success has made abalone a sustainable ingredient. So this year when I was planning our Chinese New Year family celebration I did not hesitate to include some of these beautiful abalones for the Hakka dish DaPenCai.