my first characters

In the western world, most people probably started off learning the alphabet with ‘A’ or ‘a’ for apple. Should the preliminary curriculum all of a sudden change course by 180 degrees and start with ‘Z’, parents might storm down the schools and government. Consider you lucky, you people who only have to deal with 26 letters of the alphabet plus a few accents aigus, accents circonflexes, and oh that forsaken cédille which is so often butchered by anglophones who don’t deal with any of the above save for the accent tréma which appears only once a year on Christmas cards anyway.

You guys have it easy. E-A-S-Y, I say.

Having lived in Taiwan until the age of eight, I’ve had the pleasure of suffering through the memorization of two thousand traditional Chinese characters before immigrating to Canada to start third grade. Yes imagine, your six, seven year old writing characters in notebooks filled with four-square grids that span each page with six columns of ten endlessly at a rate of 4 notebooks per semester. Some call it discipline, maybe I do too.

Anyhow, I don’t want to bog you down with too much of the details, but strangely enough, at thirteen years later, I still remember the very first six characters I learned.

1. 小 small

2. 花 flower

3. 生 live

4. 出 exit

5. 來 arrive

6. 了has

How is this relevant? Well, if you know nothing about Chinese (and yes it is a language, a written one to be exact though completely meaningless when used to describe a dialect), here’s the thing:

it makes perfect nonsense.

For example, if you wanted to say “small flower”, you’d literally put one and two together to get 小花. In the same way, by putting two and three together you’d get 花生 which means peanuts. Simple?

My a$$.

Where 豆腐ck did peanuts come from? It’s supposed to be flower live! But now that’s just talking nonsense, what is flower live even supposed to mean? Maybe the Chinese language does make sense after all those 24 dynasties spanning 5000 years.

And now we have it, main show of the post 花生豆腐 (peanut tofu).

He who was

seated on the throne

said,

“I am making everything new!”

Then he said,

“Write this down,

for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5

peanut tofu 2

Peanut tofu is one of those things that are unimaginable, there’s no way around it, and I truly honestly do admire whoever came up with it. Its spin-offs, notably black sesame tofu and almond tofu which walks along a sweeter line are undeniably impressive, but nothing quite like the strange, earthy, savouriness you get from the peanut tofu. This is not the traditional recipe which uses a rice flour derived from an indigenous Taiwanese rice with a distinctive sweet aroma and custard-like texture once gelatinized. However, what this recipe does rely on as the thickener is agar powder, a colorless, flavourless seaweed that’s been dried and finely ground. This makes the tofu lighter in texture.

The author of the recipe recommends serving the tofu with freshly grated wasabi as well as aged soy paste. Fortunately, the latter is rather easy to come by nowadays in the age of Asian megastores such as T&T; try Wuan Chuang, which has a lovely balance of earthy sweetness and savouriness and can pretty much hold its own. However, obtaining fresh wasabi root is still a challenge. Personally I prefer it without wasabi – what can I say? I’m a purist.

Tweaked and translated from 我的日式食物櫃 – Liz

Ingredients for the Peanut Tofu, serves 12 as an appetizer:

800 ml unsweetened traditional soy milk (you can find this in Asian grocers, DO NOT use soy beverages such as So Good, Silk, or Soy Dream)

3 tbsp all natural peanut butter (made with just peanuts)

8 g agar powder

400 ml filtered water

1 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp sea salt

To make the peanut tofu, whisk the agar powder and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until dissolved. Put the peanut butter in a blender and blend with the agar mixture until smooth.

In a separate pot, whisk the soy milk until hot, but not boiled. Whisk in the soy sauce and salt. Pour the peanut agar mixture into the soy mixture and stir well.

Place the pot in an ice waterbath to cool the mixture down as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, brush the inside of a 13 x 9 in. dish with a neutral oil – preferably peanut, to stick with the theme – or simply line the bottom with parchment.

Once the mixture begins to thicken, whisk it vigourously until smooth and pour it into the prepared dish. Chill completely for at least 2 hours or until set.

Serve cold with soy paste and a steaming cup of genmaicha, enjoy!

 

salt and bovine cellulite

Rounding up 2014, because that seems like the only appropriate thing to do at this point, it seems that avocados and eggs haven’t exactly been my thing despite that donburi which may well be one of the highlights of the year. At least for me, 2014 has unfurled into a series of flirtations with NaCl and cellulite. While “put an egg on it” has more or less swept over the daily grub scene and transcended the bounds of the a.m., I’ve been frolicking around in salt – just recall that watermelon, that crumble, and that kabocha. That kabocha though…

As I write this I am also noticing that the two things that sum up the year for me are the two things that happen to be the unchallenged pillars of flavour. Coincidence?

Moving on to fat, the woes of this misunderstood substance, especially animal fat, which in my opinion, is perhaps what makes meat appealing. And when you mix fats, it’s possibly the best thing you can do to a dish. Mind you, I am one to buy beef ribs and despite the flashing red sale sign hovering over family packs of tenderloin. Tilapia fillets…did I even touch those? I think I prefer my fish AFAP (as fat as possible) so keep that skin on and hand me that belly trim. Also, um, smoked oyster oil makes the kale nearly arbitrary. Yes, kale, the little black lace dress of the edible dimension in recent years.

Now, to wrap things up, I’m really dishing up the nitty gritty essence of the year in this one plate of a single carrot. Buried in coarse flakes of kosher salt and baked until the natural sugars become concentrated into a candy intensity, the flesh becomes tender yet firm and meaty, then finished with searing beef fat in the cast iron (which is, by the way, so 2014), this is the most tedious, pretentious, and worthwhile dirt cheap bite I’ve made. And with this South Asian wind sweeping across North America, briny notes from plain yoghurt and lentils sort of made sense.

You shall present them

before the LORD,

and the priests shall

throw salt on them,

and they shall offer them up

as a burnt offering to the LORD

Ezekiel 43:24

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Ingredients for the salt baked carrots, serves 4

4 medium carrots, sized like those in bunches, scrubbed clean

3 cups coarse kosher or sea salt

3 tbsp rendered beef fat

To make the baked carrots, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, with the rack placed in the middle. Pour half of the salt into a baking dish. Nestle the carrots into the salt and pour the remaining salt on top of the carrots to cover.

Bake the carrots for 40-45 minutes or until tender when pierced by the tip of a knife.

Let stand for 10 minutes, before breaking off the salt cap and brushing off the excess salt.

Heat the beef fat in a cast iron skillet until hot. Add the carrots and sear on all sides until golden and lightly blistered.

Ingredients for the lentils and garnishes:

1 cup cooked lentils, drained

juice of one lemon

1/2 tsp honey, to taste

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

1 small garlic clove, crushed

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

4 tbsp quark orplain Balkan style yoghurt

small handful baby arugula

To make the briny lentils, combine all ingredients except for the yoghurt and arugula and let stand for at least 30 minutes, or preferably overnight in the fridge.

To serve, divide the lentils into four plates. Place a carrot on each plate, dot with yoghurt, and garnish with arugula.

Enjoy!

(I usually have this with steak, because then I’d naturally have a cast ironful of beef fat.)

 

nothing ordinary from ordinary

Life always does that. It sneaks up on you. You can make as many resolutions as you want. You can build up walls to keep things out. You can send your heart and effort in hopes of bringing in the finest of life’s treasures. But life is clever. It is brilliant, but it is clever. It has a mind of its own. Whether you choose to laugh freely along with its jokes, or be insulted and pout with your top lip against the tip of your nose, it tumbles, stumbles, and rumbles on.

There are things, just ordinary, small things that make frigid hands a little warmer, tight eyebrows a little looser, and the lazy afternoon sun a little cozier.

I am leaving you with a gift – 

peace of mind and heart.

And the peace I give

is a gift the world cannot give.

So don’t be troubled

or afraid.

John 14:27

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This hot cocoa doesn’t rely on cream to give it creaminess. Instead, it’s the oats that do most of the magic here to make a silky smooth, creamy, and rich hot chocolate that’s borderline unsweetened and intensely spiced. But, my favourite part is still, after at least a dozen of these, the thick froth cap.

Ingredients for the Savoury Spiced Hot Cocoa:

2 medjool dates, pitted

4 raw walnut halves

2 tbsp oats

2 tbsp Dutch processed cocoa, feel free to use raw

few drops vanilla extract (the real stuff please!)

pinch each of sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and chili (optional)

2 1/2 c filtered water

 

To make the hot cocoa, place all ingredients in the Vitamix. Blend on maximum until steaming and piping hot. Pour into your favourite roll-up-on-a-couch-with-a-book mug and sip away!

If you don’t have a Vitamix, I totally understand, I was there once too. Just combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer until the oats have been cooked out. Transfer the mixture to your blender and blend until smooth. Serve it up all the same.

Happy cold weather!

 

bad breath? suck it up.

Recently in my econ class my prof reminded me of the essence of each choice we make: there is always a trade-off. And each choice we make means that there’s something else we’ve given up. You’re reading this, hopefully to wring from it a few droplets of pleasure, and you’ve forgone the opportunity of finishing up the last bit of paperwork left on your desk.

That’s your choice, and you made it all by your rational self. But I’ll make an effort to convince you (that you’re using your time rather wisely) anyway.

No guarantees, but this post will probably most likely perhaps certainly change your weekday dinner cycle forever. Yes, I get it, there are lots of 5-ingredient broke-ass student dinners out there that are actually quite dexterous in composition and thought, but many of those involve processed products (i.e bottled sauces, pre-cooked produce, or compressed meats) which are at best perfunctory and exorbitant.

You don’t need five dozen different ingredients to make a 5-ingredient meal. That should make sense on more levels than one.

Oh wait, I lied, add to the 5 ingredients some 15 minutes and a good friend for decent conversation.

Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,

for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

Luke 6: 20-21

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Ingredients for the Scallion Dry Ramen, serves 2:

1/2 cup neutral flavoured oil, such as avocado or rice bran

bunch scallions, thinly sliced

packets fresh ramen or thin udon noodles

teaspoon fine sea salt

pinch ground white pepper

To make the scallion oil, heat the oil in a saucepan until hot and shimmery. A piece of scallion dropped in should bubble vigourously. Tip in all of the scallions at once and fry, stirring occasionally, until well browned and crisp. This will take about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and pepper.

Cook the noodles as directed on the package. Rinse under hot water and drain thoroughly. Toss the noodles with the fried scallion oil and serve immediately.

Enjoy!

stubborn as crust

“Ideas are like pizza dough, made to be tossed around.”

– Anna Quindlen

In addition, the longer they ferment in your lukewarm cranium, the more mature and profligate they become. Whenever an idea is conceived, it takes its time with unabated liberality right up until its eventual delivery. This bubonic pie sort of matter was one such illumination.

But then of course whenever your brain finds something worth latching on to, demons creep in and dissuade you, telling you the most realistic stories on failure and how you must be crazy to dare an attempt. “You don’t have this, you don’t have that,” he says, “ It’s not going to work.”

Well, how about this: Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. I don’t have a stone oven, nor do I have a pizza stone. But the pizza’s right there.

Let you in on a few tips on how to get your oven to attain that high temperature, which is what most things boil down to anyway:

1. Blast that box. Most recipes call for a relatively timid 500 degrees F. However, most restaurants serious about their pies have specialized ovens whose internal temperatures range from the not-so-humble end of 1000 F to upwards of 1200 F (537 ~649 C). At home, the closest you can get would be to preheat your oven to the maximum baking temperature (mine goes up to 525 F). Keep in mind, broiling won’t do – you’re concern is with crisping up the crust, not reducing all those delicious toppings to sad little carbon lumps.

2. Don’t skip the oil. Huge thanks goes to water’s property of being unable of going past 100 degrees Celsius, which is roughly equal to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Which means, simply cranking your oven to 525 degrees F will not cut it in terms of charring your pizza that’s only been dusted with flour. Yet, even bigger thanks goes to oil whose capacity to retain heat is at least twice as effective than water. Thus, the film of avocado oil (which is safe at higher cooking heats) will actually cause the moisture at the surface of the crust to quickly vaporize, and thereby dehydrate the surface. in short, minus the moisture, the dehydrated starches are now able to attain higher temperature, which results in gelatinization then caramelization. But that’s hardly relevant – the result is a light, crunchy exterior with a moist, springy interior.

But then again, all good things take practice – I’ve barely made it past my fourth pound of flour.

The kingdom of heaven is

like yeast that a woman took

and mixed into about

sixty pounds of flour

until it all

worked through the flour.

Matthew 13:33

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Adapted from Jim Lahey’s “My Pizza”

Ingredients for the pizza dough for four pizzas:

250 g all purpose flour

1 g active dry yeast

6 g fine sea salt

175 g water

To make the pizza dough, mix together all ingredients in a large bowl, cover with a lid or damp towel and leave to rise at room temperature for at least 18 hours. Once it has doubles in size, punch it down and divide it into two equal portions. If your dough is sticky, simply dust with more flour. Shape into 2 balls with your hands and cover loosely again with a damp cloth to let it rise while you prep the toppings and preheat the oven.

Ingredients for topping the pizza:

olive oil for the pans

1 cup fresh o frozen blueberries

120 g fresh ricotta cheese (ask for a taste before buying it at the deli or cheese shop – you want it to taste creamy and sweet with a bit of pale nuttiness, it should not taste watery)

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves

2 tbsp walnut oil

sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

To make the pizza, preheat the oven to its highest possible setting – anywhere from 500 to 550 degrees F will do, but of course, the higher the better. Drizzle olive oil liberally on two baking sheets.

Now, stretch out the dough, which should be very soft and well dusted with flour. The way I do it is I start off by pulling it into a flatter shape, then I put the dough on my knuckles to stretch them gently by moving my knuckles away from one another and rotating the dough. If this sounds too complicated, you can just leave it on the counter and pull it in every direction to flatten it. There’s only one rule: don’t use a rolling pin – it will smush out all the bubbles in the crust and leave it hard and flat.

Transfer the stretched dough onto the baking sheets and scatter the thyme and blueberries evenly on each. Dot with chunks or ricotta, drizzle on the walnut oil, and season well with sea salt and lots of black pepper.

Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until the crust is puffed, blistered, and the blueberries have melted.

Serve with an arugula salad (toss arugula with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil then season with a bit of salt and pepper).

Enjoy!

a monumental predicament

I say, they’re a fruit. Because the ones that taste like fruit are the best ones.

When you’re looking for a tomato, you’re not looking for a bright green one nor a very firm one. You’re looking for intense reds, (perhaps even oranges, and yellows) with a bit of give when gently squeezed  – both are signs for high sun exposure and full ripeness which imply higher sugar content and flavour compounds.

Essentially, we’re looking for all the qualities that make fruit delicious. If deep down we really believed that tomatoes are a vegetable, we would’ve probably select bred the red out of them back when cauliflower became white. By the way, most green tomatoes are actually just unripe red tomatoes. Same goes with bell peppers.

But don’t we “treat them like a vegetable” by roasting them, stewing them, putting them in salads, and/or pairing them with cheese? Last time I checked, we’ve been doing all of the above with apples and strawberries. Guess those two won’t count towards my morning fruit bowl anymore. Pity.

So if you’ve ever found raw tomatoes too raw or bland, you’re probably-very-likely-basically-99% missing the acid-sweet fruitiness and juiciness you’re so accustomed to tasting in red berries, grapes, and plums.  I’ve got a few tips for you:

1. Buy fully ripe local tomatoes. Like all fruit, intense color and aroma are signs of ripeness in tomatoes. Give them a little pinch between your fingers – they should feel soft, like they might burst from the tiniest bit more pressure. Sourcing locally guarantees less travelling, which means they are vine-ripened instead of being picked prematurely. Get to know the farmers and vendours, start by asking for their favourite type and a few samples!

2. Season in season. Two birds with one stone here, but first, buy in season. I can’t stress this enough, there’s a time for everything. For tomatoes, it’s July through October here in Ontario. Second, but equally important, season with sea salt and a bit of freshly ground black pepper. I’ve already clarified the perks of salting your fruit.

3. Make the cut. Pretty sure I don’t need to tell you to cut your beefsteak tomatoes, but cherry tomatoes deserve fair treatment also. Remember, you eat with your eyes first, and as soon as they see something red and round like a fruit they start searching for the nectar that’s presumably inside. Know that fact and manipulate it, so slice them tomatoes open and let their juice shine. (Also, salt and other seasonings tend to slide right off uncut tomatoes. That’s no rocket science.)

And let us not grow weary

in doing good,

for in due season

we will reap,

if we do not give up.

Galatians 6:9

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I have to admit, the first salad I ever became drawn to since being exposed to western culture was the caprese. Yet, I seldom attempt it simply because it’s so difficult to find truly delicious tomatoes that are bright and robust in flavour. Indeed, there is not a single perfect tomato, but as I was reading Andy and Michael’s Collards & Carbonara one morning with a lovely pairing of coffee that’s cooled significant from when I first poured it, I realized that I needed a variety to cover all the notes I wanted to hit in my caprese (for me those would be a mellow-sweet one, a bright-sweet one, and one that has a strong “tomato-y flavour”) . So don’t be discouraged by a couple of bland attempts! Go try out varieties that are grown close to you, ask for a taste, and choose the ones you loved most. Remember, if you liked it enough on its own, it can only get better from there!

Ingredients for the heirloom caprese, serves 4:

30 g fresh basil leaves

125 ml extra virgin olive oil

450 g local tomatoes (I used zebra cherry, lady finger, cerise orange, sweet olive, and lemon drop)

150 g fresh mozzarella, torn into 4 pieces

sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

To make the basil oil, pound the basil roughly with a mortar and pestle (or cup and muddler, whatever to thoroughly bruise the basil),  with a drizzle of the olive oil. If you want the oil to stay clear, don’t grind, just stick to pounding. Pour in the remaining oil and let it steep while you slice the tomatoes.

To get the best slice surface, observe your tomatoes. There is a wall of membrane down the center of the tomato that spans across the flatter, slightly pinched-in sides of the tomato. Make your slice perpendicular to that membrane to expose the juicy seed chambers.

To plate, put the mozzarella on four small plates, arrange the tomatoes on and around each. Drizzle with the steeped oil generously (leave out the basil), and season to taste.

Enjoy!