Papaya salad

Papaya salad is one of those much loved, Southeast Asian dishes that everyone seems to embrace, but no one ever actually makes at home. Why is that? The first reason is that when most people see papayas at the average grocery store, they are the yellow/orange, sweet variety, so they’re not the green, unripe ones that are used in Thai or Vietnamese papaya salad. I figured it couldn’t be that difficult, especially after I picked up the papaya shaver that seemed so nifty and useful in Thailand.

Well, I tried it on a green papaya that was just over two pounds, and… it took forever. It was one of those tasks that too so long that halfway through, I asked myself whether all this effort was really worth it. And that wasn’t even the end of it. It needed to be salted, then all the excess water squeezed out twice, before being refrigerated and finally served tomorrow. It’s no wonder that in Vietnam as I learned from my cookbook, papaya salad is considered a “special occasion salad” that is NOT an everyday starter.

No one is ever going to look at that salad and realize how much effort was put into that. And then it hit me as I was squeezing the excess liquid out… does anyone ever really look at anything homemade and genuinely appreciate it and realize how much time and energy went into it if they don’t cook themselves?

Granola

I never thought I’d be a granola person, nor did I think I’d ever make my own granola, but here I am, in April 2017, actually making my own granola. I’ve been enjoying the occasional homemade smoothie bowl at home, and granola always seemed like it would be a good addition for crunch. But when I bought a Nature Farms hemp granola box, I was so disappointed that I was driven to looking up granola recipes online to see how I could make this better. The ultimate granola recipe is crunchy, has a variety of nuts and seeds, and also has a dried fruit like cranberries or cherries in it. I used a certain base recipe I found online and added a number of additional ingredients, and it ended up totaling to about 16 different ingredients. It sounds a little crazy, but when I tasted it, it was seriously the best granola I’d ever had. The only issue is that I decreased the amount of oil, so there were less large crunchy bits, but the flavor was spot on. And given I used macadamia nuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds, it wasn’t a cheap granola, but sometimes you really have to pay for things to make them worthwhile.

Spices

I get really annoyed when uppity publications like Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, or even Food52 (which I love to death) start getting classist by making inane generalizations like “the more expensive your spices are, the better the quality you can expect.” No, guys. No, no, no, no, NO. This article even made the argument that when we get excited buying “cheaper” spices abroad, we’re actually also getting crappier quality. As someone who bought a considerable bag of some of the most fragrant dried bay leaves in Valencia in November and compared them to my sad, expensive (and empty) bottle of bay leaves from Whole Foods, I know this is a sad generalization to get us all to spend more, and in this case even worse, to be a bit xenophobic and question quality of product in other countries! This really is just not true, and I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who has purchased a number of spices abroad and compared them to the ones I have here.

If I buy a bottle of McCormick’s ground cardamom at Fairway and it cost me $3 less than the same brand and bottle at Whole Foods — no, it doesn’t mean that the bottle at Fairway was sitting on the shelf for longer. If I buy cinnamon or cloves in bulk at Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights for a dirt cheap cost (in an Indian / South Asian area where families and businesses are buying these in bulk constantly), it doesn’t mean my spices will be less fresh or fragrant than the ones I paid an arm and a leg for at a specialty spice shop like Kaluystan’s in Manhattan. Not everyone is cooking as a hobby and wants to spend $10 on a few pinches of a single spice; most of the people who are actually cooking (especially in Manhattan) are cooking for families that just need food on the table (and want that food to be good). More expensive does not always mean better quality. Sometimes it does, but in this case, it definitely does not.

 

 

Whirligig buns

I started my chocolate and pistachio whirligig buns on Friday by making the yeast dough, kneading it, and allowing it to rise twice, both times in the fridge to make sure I could freshly bake them on Sunday morning for our brunch at home with friends. They rose twice and puffed and browned in the oven; everything seemed like it was going swell. Then the strangest thing happened to them, though; my friend took a bite and asked if there was any alcohol in the buns. I said no and thought that was strange. I then took a bite of mine and realized that the alcoholic taste was really there; neither of us was imagining it. And then I got worried. What did I do wrong?

So me being the anal person I am, I went to look online and found out that oddly enough, the yeast may have turned “cannibalistic.” This basically means that if left in a place that is too warm (the heating in our apartment has been really high in the last few weeks!), if the yeast runs out of sugar in the dough to “eat,” the yeast will then start eating itself, producing the byproduct of an alcoholic taste in the bread. I was not happy about this; I had no idea that this could even happen!

And the day after, as homemade bread tends to be in this apartment the day after I make it, the bread has become a bit stale. This also is strange to me because I made bread many times at my parents’ home, and also at my Elmhurst apartment, and the bread never got this stale until about three days later. I’m not adding or subtracting anything from the bread that I used to use. I’ve never added any preservatives. This apartment just has so many odd quirks to it. I’m going to blame the apartment for this one.

“Yogurt”

Many articles have recently been written about whether it’s accurate to be labeling nut beverages “milk” — e.g. almond “milk,” cashew “milk,” walnut “milk.” Milk, in its technical definition, actually has to come from an animal, whether it’s a cow, sheep, or human being. Beverages that are thus derived from almonds or cashews therefore would not count as “milk.” Could the same then be said for yogurts that are made from nuts and get their probiotics externally?

Here is the definition for “yogurt” in the dictionary:

yo·gurt    —-> ˈyōɡərt/

noun
noun: yogurt; plural noun: yogurts; noun: yoghourt; plural noun: yoghourts; noun: yoghurt; plural noun: yoghurts
  1. a semisolid sourish food prepared from milk fermented by added bacteria, often sweetened and flavored.

If this is the case, then shouldn’t coconut “yogurt” and cashew “yogurt” be wrong in speech and therefore renamed? Speaking of which, I just bought coconut “yogurt” on sale at Fairway to find out that it tastes absolutely disgusting, and you should never waste money and buy it.

Banana pudding gone wrong

Tonight, I decided to finally put the Tahitian vanilla bean my friend got me to good use by adding it and its scraped seeds into a banana pudding with pistachio crumble recipe that has long been on my list of things to make. I had been saving these Tahitian vanilla beans for years now, properly storing them and deciding they would be best to use in a custard or pudding of some sort. This pudding shattered all my dreams; it came out mealy, completely unlike a custard, and really just tasted like pureed bananas with some vanilla flavoring added to it. Even the pistachio crumble turned out brown, with the taste of sugar and butter completely overshadowing the delicate pistachio flavor.

You win some, and then you lose some. I hope the next time I use one of these vanilla beans that I will win. This stuff ain’t cheap.

Bo ssam

I spent 6.5 hours slow roasting a pork shoulder in preparation for bo ssam, or Korean-style slow roasted pork shoulder, to be torn up and served with ssamjang (homemade Korean barbecue paste), ginger scallion sauce, rice, and lettuce. It actually wasn’t much work, as the oven does the cooking. The one thing that took the most time were the ginger scallion sauce since I had to finely mince a decent amount of scallions and ginger.

When I was growing up, up until I started eating dinner at my friends’ homes and out at restaurants with my friends’ families, I was exposed to an extremely limited amount of food. Sure, I had a lot of good food — my grandmother and aunt made some of the best (and most laborious) Cantonese dishes, my mom made delicious potstickers, stews, and Vietnamese dishes, and my dad exposed me to different types of meatloaf and biscuits — but they were all in the realm of Cantonese, Vietnamese, or generic American-household foods like spaghetti or mashed potatoes. I had no idea that Thai curry existed; I never knew people ate pasta with sauces that weren’t red. And I definitely would not have known that in many parts of the world and even within China, bread was actually the primary household staple, not rice.

But what I hope is that when we have children that I’ll continue to have the desire and love to experiment with recipes of cultures other than our own. So many people have found it comical that I know how to make Indian food, even making my own curry mixes. Other people laugh when they hear I am making Korean or Turkish dishes. But I think this is important for knowledge and to ensure our future children are exposed to a wide variety of cultures via these cultures’ foods. What better way to learn about and appreciate other cultures than eating their cuisine?

Taro root cake

When I look back on my childhood, some of my fondest memories are of watching my grandmother cook. Like most Asian grandmothers, she never had any written recipes and measured and did everything by touch, feel, smell, and taste. Her taro root cake, or yu tou gao/wul tow gou, was always one of my very favorite things. She never skimped on Chinese sausage, Chinese bacon, shiitake, mushrooms, dried scallops, and dried shrimp, and she always steamed them and would serve them as is. She never fried them the way most Chinese households do, though I do this now when I make it because… who can resist these slices lightly pan-fried?

Remembering how good this tasted growing up, it was always such a miserable experience to select it during dim sum at any Cantonese restaurant and see what they called taro cake; the restaurants always skimped on the filling ingredients. Without the lush (and expensive) filling ingredients, the cake was never going to be as good as I remembered, so long ago I stopped ordering it to make it myself. It was no wonder I met so many people who didn’t care for Chinese savory taro cake; they weren’t having it in its prime form. It’s a massive labor of love, requiring soaking the dried mushrooms, scallops, and shrimp; steaming the Chinese sausage and bacon, a God-awful amount of cutting and mincing, then another batch of steaming and frying, but the end result has never left me feeling like I wasted time and could have just bought it outside. Homemade taro cake is unrivaled. When I see the sad cakes in bakeries across Chinatown, I can tell they were stingy on the ingredients, so no amount of money would be worth paying for those.

Some traditions are worth saving, and taro cake will be mine every Chinese New Year.

Controlling food costs

I’m in a number of different Facebook groups, and some of the most active ones are through my college network. We have a Foodies for Wellesley Alums group that I read almost every other day, and I occasionally contribute when I have recipes to recommend or suggestions based on questions that other alums post. One of the questions this week that left me thinking quite a bit was from an alum who is part of a growing family of four, and because her husband will be quitting his job soon, she wants to try to limit their household grocery bill to $100/week. I thought about this and how hard that would be, especially if you want a diet filled with fresh produce, meat, and dairy.

I go to a number of different places to buy our groceries, whether it’s staples like spices and rice, or fresh produce, and what inevitably always drives up the bill are the costs of fresh produce in New York city, whether it’s fruit or vegetables. If I’m buying fish or any type of seafood, that will increase the bill significantly, as well. The only way I’d see achieving this for a family of four in New York would be if you almost exclusively ate canned or frozen produce and kept fish and meat purchases to a minimum.

Coho salmon

Wild coho salmon was on sale at Whole Foods this weekend, so I went to buy two pounds for dinner this week. Little did I know that coho has a much lower fat content than I am used to experiencing (my favorite, king salmon, is the fattiest of the fatty salmons, and also sadly the most expensive, especially when wild and fresh caught), which means that it will cook faster than other salmon types. I broiled the salmon fillets after marinating them in an Indian-yogurt spice mixture all day. After pulling them out of the oven and letting them rest, I realized I had overcooked the center fillets at just six minutes under the broiler. I was not happy. In a city where buying fresh fish is expensive, even on sale, it is deeply disappointing to know when you’ve messed up a really good piece of fish. Because then for the rest of the week, every single time you reheat that fish, it will become more and more overcooked.

At least the marinade was tasty.