Cream-coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels,
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles…
What follows is a sample of sweet and savoury thoughts that routinely run through my mind: dream-worthy bites made possible by the professionals, as well as foods, drinks, and food-related miscellany that make my life delicious. It is a throwback to the days when chain emails, Facebook note autobiographies, and magazine quizzes were as in vogue as they likely will ever be, with a tasty twist.
Any chance to rhapsodize about food and drink,
I will RELISH:
Chinese, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern. My parents gave me the gift of a childhood redolent of Chinese comfort foods: Shanghai cài fàn (cooked until the qīng cài leaves have wilted, the là cháng sausage fat has rendered, and the rice at the base of the pot has formed a golden crust of guō bā, “pan adherents” well-worth the effort of scraping), Peking kǎo yā (roast duck with paper-thin skin that dissolves on your tongue), and Sichuan gàn biān sì jì dòu (dry-fried green beans spiced with chilies and peppercorns). While I dabble in recreating these dishes, my tastes tend toward the Mediterranean and the Middle East more than ever. I embrace the Italian culinary sensibility: focus each dish on a few seasonal ingredients, like spring peas and pancetta in risi e bisi, or basil leaves tucked between fresh tomato and mozzarella slices in insalata caprese. And whether I eat in or out, I turn to meze, featuring fat balls of falafel, tureens of tzatziki and hummus, and, when I can afford them, gold bars of fried halloumi garnished with mint.
METHOD OF COOKING:
Roasting. I am a baker by nature, after all. I love to olive oil up my produce and give them some lovin’ in the oven: roots, shoots, crucifers, and fruits ranging from tomatoes to strawberries.
Carrot cake with zesty citrus-chèvre glaze, made by me. Red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, made by anyone who avoids the sin known as overbaking.
Chocolate chip cookies from Tate’s Bake Shop in Southampton, NY. Usually, I am an ardent member of Team Chewy (soft oatmeal raisin cookies are my jam), but these crispy cookies from Tate’s melt in your mouth like no other.
Hard: Gouda. Semi-Hard: Comté. Semi-Soft: Jarlsberg. Soft: Cambozola. But really, just about anything you can slice onto a water cracker or smear on a round of baguette. I grew up on cheese, albeit of the everyman’s American and cheddar varieties. Cheese was responsible for my rolls, which rivalled those of a sumo wrestler.
A tie between riso e cioccolato fondente from Giolitti in Rome and pistacchio from Gelateria La Carraia in Florence. Future trips and further taste tests may be required to break the tie.
Baked Alaska from Oleana in Cambridge. It inspired my pairing of pavlova with ice cream. And it motivated my baking of Baked Alaska brownie bites, delicious and safe for vegan and gluten-sensitive foodies, but still nowhere near as transcendent as that beautiful Baked Alaska, a mountain of meringue with burnished peaks, encasing coconut ice cream and macaroon, all encircled by a moat of passion fruit caramel.
Masala chai, purchased for a few rupees from street vendors in India. From Telangana to Rajasthan, the vessel is identical: a flimsy plastic cup barely bigger than a thimble. This size is ideal, since the tea is so hot and so sweet that I sip rather than swig it, until my fingertips are blistered and I am down to the last luscious drop. Earl Grey tea from Twinings, Gingerbread tea from Teavana, and Mexican hot chocolate made by my college freshman-year proctor also make the shortlist.
Pimm’s Cup. One of the best parts of London pub culture was the prevalence of pitchers of Pimm’s. White Russians, cava, and cider are also standbys. And I wouldn’t say no to a bottle of Ogden’s Old Firewhiskey.
A #tbt in tribute to quite possibly the best birthday ice cream cake that I have ever made, fittingly for one of the coolest kids on the block.
For my fondness for farro, I have Harvard University Dining Services, of all entities, to thank. HUDS is also the reason the words “Scheherazade casserole” send shivers down my spine and into my stomach, but that is a story for another post.
Toasted and tossed with roasted root vegetables, farro made a meal divine by HUDS standards. I felt like a cruel joke was being played on me whenever it would appear on the weekly menu, only to be absent from the actual offerings, replaced by some subpar substitute. Beef fajita fettucine, anyone?
Since leaving the world of HUDS behind, I have let my love of farro run wild. I have tried it drowned it in garden vegetable soup, cooked in coconut water and topped with toasted coconut, and stirred into salads. All so simple, all incredibly satisfying.
My favourite farro preparation has been this farro marinara bowl. Fat pearls of farro simmered in silky tomato broth remain toothsome enough to give girth to the bowl. Their velvety mouthfeel and nutty undertones meld with the verdancy of the basil and spinach into a hearty bowl that I tuck (myself) into without hesitation.
And, to intersperse your farro bowl-feeding spree with something cooler, here is a smoothie bowl that incorporates cashew milk and spinach, but that smacks of strawberry alone. I grew up on skim milk, sousing bran flakes with it, and swigging it by the cupful at breakfast. Cashew milk, however, lends a luscious creaminess to the smoothie that skim milk cannot, making each spoonful feel luxurious.
Like many second-generation Chinese immigrants, I developed an appreciation for resourcefulness in the kitchen from an early age. For as long as I can remember, my parents have preserved used oil in a cool corner of the pantry, which they reused once, twice, several times over. Bread bought in bulk supplied weeks of school-lunch sandwiches. Cheap cuts of meat, once sauced, spiced, and stir-fried with fresh vegetables, produced dishes rich in flavour that kept our family well-fed. Following family dinners, my parents scooped any leftovers into Tupperware containers, ready to be nuked back to life for lunch the next day, unless, in the case of the choicest dishes, deviant fingers got to them first. Flavour, more than frugality, drove these habits. I never understood why so many North Americans limit themselves to chalky chicken breasts, plain pork chops, and flaccid fish fillets when, for a fraction of the price, they could play around with and savour hearty hog maw, crunchy pig ears, and fine-boned whole fish, eyes and all. To this day, I save vegetable scraps – carrot tops, onion peels, celery leaves, cauliflower nubbins – to make stock, and my freezer houses enough leftovers to feed a family of five for a week.
Another major benefit of an economical approach to food is that it invites inventiveness. Before blitzing canned chickpeas into a batch of hummus, I always add some of the reserved bean brine to help thin the mixture. Given the utility of the bean brine, it now seems silly to me that I never thought to reserve and to repurpose the rest of the brine. Never, that is, until a post-pavlova craving for more meringue and a lack of eggs in the fridge set me on a quest for an eggless meringue recipe and directed me to an article on aquafaba. “Bean water,” it turned out, could function as the foaming agent in a meringue. Intrigued, I saved canned chickpea liquid the next time I made hummus. Sure enough, armed with a hand mixer, a bag of sugar, and a vial of vinegar, I beat the bean brine into a fluffy cloud of meringue.
The rest unfolded organically. Half of a can of coconut cream, initially purchased to make curry, went into making a chai-spiced ice cream. Black bean brownies, leftover from a recent movie night, served as the bases for the Baked Alaska bites, ensconced in a snowfall of ice cream and freshly whipped meringue. I left the Baked Alaskas under the broiler just long enough to gild the tips. The result was serendipitously vegan and gluten-free, making this recipe safe for the growing number of people who fall somewhere on the spectrum of real to imagined food sensitivities. More importantly, it was delicious. And now I am spilling the beans on how to make these Baked Alaska brownie bites that wildly taste nothing like beans, just wildly good.
I was the oddball kid who grew to favour pseudo-healthy food for breakfast. I began with an oversized appetite for Eggo toaster waffles drenched in melted margarine, Nesquik cereal nuggets that doubled as chocolate milk-makers, and my mom’s doctored up Betty Crocker butter pecan cakes. But gradually, I developed an affinity for fibre-filled flax and bran flakes, steel cut oats simmered in cinnamon-infused milk, Greek yogurt with a rotation of seedy and nutty accoutrements, and, above all, carrot cake.
Sure, carrot cake hardly comes close to health food status. And it rarely makes an appearance at the breakfast table. But in my sugar-spun fantasy world, I would eat carrot cake for breakfast at least once weekly, if not more, without fear of turning orange. Moist (I have no qualms about using the word), gently spiced, springy slices of carrot cake, frosted white and ribboned with coconut, and studded with walnuts and fleshy fruit gems.
I became reacquainted with the charm of carrot cake three years ago while visiting New York. One August morning, I rose before the sun, loosened my belt and donned my Toms, and began a pilgrimage through the foodie Mecca aptly nicknamed “The Big Apple.” My hundred-some-block journey by foot took me down thoroughfares less touched by tourists, exposing me to the kaleidoscope of a city that New York is: ever-moving, ever-evolving, ever-multicoloured. For every surly man skulking in the alleyway, lighting up a cigar (or was it a joint?), there is an ebullient woman with unabashedly ruby lips swaying her hips and singing aloud to her music. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
Much the same could be said of Billy’s Bakery, where, in a city often condemned for being cold and impersonal, warm pastries and equally warm conversation awaited me. The cashier, who introduced himself as “Vlad,” poured me cup of milk (soon to be followed by a second with the “neighbourhood discount”) and sliced me a slab of carrot cake that one crossword, two Sudoku puzzles, and two cups of milk could not even help me to finish. The cake was enough to make me really mean it when I told Vlad to have a nice day. And it was enough to leave me perpetually dreaming about carrot cake for three years, inspiring cake and smoothie recipes all the while.
To commemorate my first month as a “real-world” D.C. resident, enclosed below is an excerpt of a blog post about my first D.C. summer, three years ago and pre-real world.
Here are some highlights of and reflections on my nine-week stay in this thriving city, in numerical form:
First Time in Washington, D.C., A Summer of Many Firsts
I had visited the capital cities of my ancestral motherland and my homeland, but never that of my birthplace, Washington D.C. Ten minutes into my stay in D.C., I got my first glimpse of American national monuments, perhaps a peek of the Capitol Building in the distance, I sensed the gravity of this place, felt a private thrill at the prospect of living, working, and existing in such an importance place for the next nine weeks.
I had good reason to be excited. D.C. is to Beijing and Ottawa as NYC is to Shanghai and Toronto. The former is the latter’s less vivacious and less schizophrenic, but more civilized and equally important brother. In the summertime, D.C. is especially vibrant. You can feel the energy of the city and its inhabitants wherever you go that feels less in-your-face than that of NYC.
Nine weeks in D.C. would provide me with the opportunities to accomplish many “firsts.” It started off with the first of taking Amtrak for the first time. With regards to work, I started my first paid summer internship in an office, conducted the first of many international Skype interviews and team meetings, managed my first course website, not to mention fist-pumped in an office setting for the first time while watching Spain dominate Euro 2012.Outside of work, I got my first exclusive tours of the Washington Post and the Library of Congress, earned fleeting first-name recognition from an eminent pollster, became starstruck by news anchors at my first live taping of PBS News Hour, all courtesy of the IOP’s SIW Program.
Moreover, I volunteered at my first voter phone bank, cooked my first ever risotto from scratch, celebrated a national birthday in that nation’s capital for the first time, watched my first spoken word exhibition at the Jerusalem Fund, set foot for the first time in the Smithsonian Museums, held my first exotic insect, and heard lions roar and witnessed zebras fighting up-close for the first time.
On a more personal note, I accomplished some more momentous firsts, all related to writing. I finished my first Model UN study guide, started my first blog, created my first and only bucket list, and finished my first full-length novel. The rare freedom of summer has allowed me to ride the natural ebb and flow of my inspiration, which comes to my in bursts, rather than in a constant stream. I have continued writing and will never stop as long as I live. My passion for writing is as much a part of me as my flesh and blood, my characters as much my children as my brainchildren, their storylines my lifelines. I have flirted with the idea of giving up meat before, tried to cut myself off from Facebook, all things that I renounced for a spell, albeit with difficulty. But I could never, ever give up on writing and storytelling, and this summer has reinforced that to me.