Noodly

IMG_2560My family is split into two camps – the rice people, and the noodle people.

…in other words, everyone in my family adores noodles, except for me.

At Vietnamese restaurants, my sister, mother, and father would huddle over steaming bowls of pho while I ate lemongrass pork on broken rice. At Chinese restaurants, while everyone else had dandan mien or zhajiang mien, I opted for shaoya chashao fan. And while instant ramen was a staple food item in my household, I rarely deigned to touch it before high school.

The only cuisine where we met on common ground was Italian. (Though I am a huge risotto fanold habits die hard.)

As much as I have learned to love chow mien and lo mien and all the other miens, pasta holds a special place in my heart as one of the first western dishes I remember my parents making, and one of the first dishes that my dad “taught” me to make. (Basically, I stood there with a wooden spoon and stirred and felt important while my dad measured out and added all the ingredients.)

I’ve learned a lot in the way of cooking since those early years standing on a stool in front of the stove. And since I’ve known how to make rice for as long as I could remember, I figured it was time to tackle pasta.

So dear noodle camp, here’s my olive branch. Easy, freshly-made pasta that even the rice girl in me can wholeheartedly appreciate.

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Gnocchi

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My relationship with food has always involved a mildly unhealthy dose of obsession.

For example, from first grade to fourth grade, I had to eat three spoonfuls of tuna fish salad every day for lunch. I absolutely hated tuna fish salad by the end of lower school, and yet I continued to force myself to do it out of perverse reverence for the routine. (Seriously, why are kids so weird?) I could not eat tuna fish salad – or egg salad and chicken salad for that matter – for another four years afterward without feeling ill, and even the smell of mayonnaise-based salads repulsed me. To this day, I still have an aversion to plain mayonnaise.

Thankfully, I grew out of that strange childhood habit and grew to love egg salad and chicken salad (and tolerate tuna salad) again.

The obsession with one dish has continued in less disgusting forms – whenever I try a new Thai restaurant, I must order their pad thai, for a new Indian restaurant, it’s malai kofta. And for a new Italian restaurant, my first dish that I must try is gnocchi.

I tell myself that it’s because I want to have a common point by which I can compare different restaurants against each other. But let’s be honest, I can’t really remember every pad thai or gnocchi that I’ve ever had. And really, what self-respecting Thai restaurant doesn’t make a decent pad thai?

The day may come when I can’t stand to look at another plate of gnocchi or malai kofta (I can already sense that the end is near for pad thai), but for now, I content myself with knowing at least I’m not obsessed with pickles or Wonderbread or something carcinogenic.

This gnocchi recipe is an oldie but a goodie. I posted about it before, but what can I say, I’m still a sucker for good gnocchi.

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Tour of a Witch’s Garden

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The Mulford Farmhouse in East Hampton, NY, is described on multiple websites as “one of America’s most significant English colonial farmsteads.” Being a bit of an early colonial history aficionado, I eagerly searched online for what traits made this farmhouse so ‘significant’ – maybe it housed a legendary colonial figure, or stood on the site of some crucial battlefield – and found…not much.

Mulford Farmhouse, you tease. Of course we had to go check it out.

We ended up getting a tour from an enthusiastic woman, a self-confessed colonial re-enactor whose reenactments had crossed from her work life into her home life – she described how her husband had built a bed with straw bedding and rope slats, as well as a full-on 18th century fireplace in which she made a turkey that she brined, soaked in alcohol, stuffed, and cooked over the course of four days.

As an added bonus to our tour, we received a human rights lecture and other political statements, but the real highlight was our tour of Rachel’s Garden, an herb garden where familiar herbs took on significant and mystical meaning. They could reveal to you your true love, they could save you from smallpox, they could cure the common cold.

By the end of the tour, I almost believed what she had said, not only about the extraordinary healing powers of herbs, but also about the completeness of colonial life. She gushed about her four-day turkey as the most flavorful, most tender turkey she had ever had and recounted how fermented food had saved Civil War soldiers from disease. She wondered out loud whether our diet and lifestyle today was missing something, if we had lost something crucial along the way.

And while I don’t condone a return to the colonial way of life – after all, the Mulfords owned slaves and women were treated as witches, or worse, property – I do wonder about how different, and simpler life was back then when it seemed that good things would happen if you believed hard enough.

We now live in an age where we don’t even know where most of our food comes from (though that’s slowly changing) and yet we know the contradicting statements our politicians have made, we know about conflicts in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine a time when people had such an intimate relationship with food that they believed it held supernatural powers.

So maybe I still don’t know what makes Mulford Farmhouse so ‘significant,’ but I’m glad their attempt to attract more tourism enticed me to visit. We laugh at the superstition, the ignorance, of the colonial era, but would they not laugh at us for our ignorance about how to produce our own food, our own clothing, our complete dependence on others for our comfort – and survival?

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Same Words, New Story

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Recently, I dusted off and reread Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I had first tackled it in 2003, when I was a snarky sixth grader who prided myself on being precocious when really, I was just pretentious. At that time, I was a notorious speed reader, competing against other similarly smart-aleck kids to devour as many Redwall books as possible within a month, or finish Lord of the Rings within three days. I loved to read… but maybe not for the totally right reasons.

As you can guess, I completely forgot what Strange and Norrell was even about a few months after I had “read” it.

What I do remember is that when I first attempted it, I allowed myself to be caught up in the action without ever wondering why Clarke had written the book. And since most other books I read in early middle school were populated by heroes and had predictably happy endings, I naively assumed that Clarke’s book, because it was a fantasy novel, must end in a similar fashion.

The second time around, the feeling of the ending was different from what I remembered. I distinctly recall I had believed that the book had an unfinished but hopeful quality and would be followed by a sequel. But this time, I had tears in my eyes.

There are the big moments in your life, when you fully realize that you are taking a step that can never be retracted. Then there are the quieter moments of realization, when it becomes clear that somewhere along the way, you have irrevocably changed. I looked back and saw that though I will perhaps always be too trusting, I have also become more prone to question voices of authority.

I don’t think my interpretation of Strange and Norrell the first time was wrong – at the time, I needed the fantastical, magical escape from mundane middle school life, so that was the aspect of the book that resonated with me the most. But this time around, I was stunned at all the imagery associated with ‘choice’: multiple scenes involving an infinite number of shadowy pathways, forest roads with enchantments of temptation, and the appearance of new fairy roads as magic returned to Britain, offering new possibilities in careers and lifestyle that had not existed before.

It’s 2014 and I am still just a little (or a lot) pretentious and I still do love to read. My tastes in books have changed – they all seem to involve the words “globalism” or “imperialism” or some other -ism – but I hope that in the next 10 years, as I reread half-forgotten old favorites, I will still maintain a mind open enough to glean some new insight each time.

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Franconia, NH

IMG_2502A few days before I left Boston, my friend and I decided to spend our Sunday doing intense things (and no, I’m not talking about intensely lazy Sunday brunch). I woke up quite early (read: 5am), excited for my first big hiking adventure in years, then waited an hour until it was an ‘acceptable’ time to text my friend. I still managed to wake her up…oops.

We headed out to Franconia Notch State Park, otherwise known as the home of the “Old Man of the Mountain”; that is, before he lost his nose to a rockslide. We started at about 10:30am and began our ascent. 

At first, the trail was gentle and cool, passing along a playfully babbling brook that cascaded down a number of beautiful waterfalls. However, as the trail separated from the water, it became progressively more insane, until we were scrambling up rocks and basically everything touching our bodies was soaked in sweat. We dragged our soft city slicker bodies onward, swearing we would not stop until we reached the top. Then at some point, we passed above tree line and found ourselves on a sun-swept, boulder-studded mountain peak. Everything was suddenly open and bright, calming yet awe-inspiring, and of course, breathtakingly beautiful.

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The Ridge, Franconia Notch State Park, NH

There is something kind of magical about hiking and really just being outdoors – there’s the constant thrum that almost sounds like the hum of a refrigerator but yet is charged with life. There’s the hard heartbeats from the climb and the exhilaration (and maybe the high that comes from a little oxygen deprivation) from being 4,000 feet high. We stood up there and we felt like we had actually accomplished something (and all before lunchtime!).

I have to confess, my antidepressant of choice is food. But there is something to be said for the heady rush of wind and a view so clear we felt as if we could see to the shore, a hundred miles away.

So as much as I love scones and biscuits and all other baked goods, I’m resolving to eat a little healthier (woohoo salad recipe!). It’s one thing to enjoy making and eating food, it’s another to use it as an escape. And sugar highs may feel similar to a rush of endorphins, but neither actually really equate to happiness. Here’s to being healthier – in all senses of the word.

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Dreams Come True

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Jiro dreams of sushi. But I dream of something else.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love sushi and really all that Japanese cuisine has to offer, and it might be cuisine that I cook the most. (Or Italian – the number of risotto recipes I’ve racked up is a little alarming.)

But my true passion is baked goods. I once read that gluten has an opiate effect on people, that when you stop eating gluten, you can experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Well let me tell you, I went gluten free for six months and after two months, I simultaneously wanted to cry, hurt something, and stuff my face with bread. When I returned to gluten, I almost cried with happiness. It still gives me a headache (though I think this is more of a food coma effect from overeating every time I’m around sweets), but the tradeoff is (mostly) worth it.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of biscuits. I never really loved biscuits until I went to Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. (I already wrote about my experience before so I’ll spare you a longwinded repeat.) Immediately afterwards, I tried and failed to recreate them. Since then, I’ve been tormented by my failure, and I resolved to try again. Buoyed by my recent success with re-trying Shakshuka, as well as inundated with boredom on a Friday night (I have friends, I promise), I gave it my best shot.

Guys, I don’t know if I totally nailed it, but if I didn’t, I came pretty darn close. These biscuits are fluffy, with moist layers you could peel apart, and a shiny glazed and slightly crunchy exterior. Now I can finally lay my biscuit nightmare to rest, and move on to dreaming of other sweet things.

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Shakshuka Revisited

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Back when I was still a wee little college junior, I started this blog to help me reconcile with some big changes in my life. I had just returned from a life-changing summer in China, recently become single, and was living in a pseudo-apartment for the first time. One of my goals for junior year was to become a decent cook – it didn’t start out pretty, but I’d like to think my cooking skills have improved, even if my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

I once totally screwed up Shakshuka in a classic example of a beginner cook overeager to use fancy machines for cooking. I blended three beautiful tomatoes into pulp, then threw in some eggplant, and served the watery mess to my friends. (Sorry guys!) Well this summer, I’ve had nothing but time, which has, among other things, allowed me to take the analog approach to cooking. (That and my blender, the only electronic equipment I brought with me, broke en route to Boston, kind of forcing my hand.)

It’s also allowed me to reflect on what lies ahead as my friends and I move away from Boston and to different corners of the world (…but mostly New York and D.C.). I fulfilled my goal of learning to cook, but for a while now, I’ve been a little lost, consumed in filling out assignments and checking off tasks (with an unhealthy dose of life drama on the side).

I can’t go back and fix all the mistakes (perceived or real) that I made in the past and dwell on all the lost relationships I had, but I can work on moving beyond them. Cooking has become therapeutic, a challenge with each new dish, but also comfort in repeating the familiar. And so I don’t gain like 100 pounds, long bike rides and not-so-long jogs are also calming in their own way, as I focus on the rhythm of my breaths and the constant motion of my legs and clear my head.

And so I’ve revisited Shakshuka, that dish I made as a cocky fledgling cook that reminded me that I still had so much to learn about cooking. (1. Always read through the recipe carefully. 2. Always read through the recipe carefully. 3. Don’t make changes to recipes when you have no idea what you’re doing.) And I think I finally got the hang of it! Now it remains to be seen if I can get the hang of life goals…

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Captivated by Caraway

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Cooking for one person is no easy task. Lately, my pantry has been getting precariously full and some of my perishable items were beginning to edge dangerously close to expiration. I needed a sweet recipe that involved zero new ingredients.

I settled on a scone recipe (because you can never have too many scone recipes) which called for fruits — great, I have blueberries that I bought for no reason — and a tablespoon of caraway seeds, which I also had and honestly never expected to use. Before making goulash, I had never used or even heard of caraway seeds. The goulash had so many flavors, mainly paprika, that I wasn’t really sure what caraway seeds would add.

I don’t know if this is a testament to caraway seeds or to the fact that I have no life, but that first bite of scone was the best part of my day. The seeds added an earthy, sharp flavor and a spice-y aroma that I instantly fell for. So of course I had to do a little research on the origins of caraway seeds. According to NPR, caraway was Europe’s oldest condiment and became a staple in Northern European cuisine before being spread by the Romans to Southern Europe. However, it was shunted aside in favor of exotic spices and because it appeared mainly in homier dishes consumed by the lower-class, it never garnered the same appreciation as cinnamon or even dill and parsley, members of the same plant family as caraway.

Funny how history works — I’d say more people know the flavors of cinnamon and pepper than the that of caraway. Traditional North European dishes like sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread and some Scandanavian spirit called aquavit still use it, but it has disappeared from the mainstream diet, while pepper is part of basically all cuisines.

Caraway deserves a comeback in a big way. It is no longer the spice of your German grandma; it imparts a truly unique flavor and adds texture to baked goods. I look forward to future forays with caraway seeds…though I guess I’ll have to wait until I clear out a couple more items in pantry :p.

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Goulash

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One of my friends traveled to Hungary this summer, and since then, she’s constantly raved about goulash. She even brought back some adorable sachets of Hungarian paprika (since everyone knows I’m kind of obsessed with Hungary) and requested that I attempt to recreate the goulash she had in Hungary.

As I set out to make the dish, I realized while I have blindly followed recipes for dishes I’ve never tasted before, this was the first time that I was attempting to recreate another person’s memories. I searched “goulash recipes” and one of the first hits was Paula Deen’s goulash recipe, whose ingredients include soy sauce, Italian seasoning, and elbow macaroni – all of which I’m pretty sure are not featured in Hungarian cuisine, and all of which sounded eerily like American chop suey, a.k.a. the worst cafeteria food ever created. So I put the goulash project on the back burner and kind of hoped my friend would forget about it.

For weeks, nothing. And just as I sighed relief, she brought it up again, and I knew that I had to at least try.

Among all the so-called celebrity chefs, Paula Deen ranks pretty high on my “human joke” scale. The irony of getting diabetes after decades of decadent butter consumption (as well as her whole racism debacle) makes it difficult to take anything she does seriously. However, the Italian seasoning in recipe did give me an idea: I might not have ever experienced gulyás or pörkölt, but I had had excellent beef stews before, namely beef ragù. The recipe, a mix of familiar components and new flavors, began to take shape.

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Even buying the ingredients wasn’t easy – I rarely eat beef, so I basically went through the beef cuts and picked the one that looked the “meatiest” (I think it turned out to be chuck roast or something). Then I realized there’s marjoram leaves and there’s marjoram seeds – still have no idea what the difference is. After finally acquiring all the ingredients, I tackled the dish itself, and three hours and a few “experiments” later, I finally had something to put on the table.

I looked anxiously at my friend as she took her first bite – I thought it tasted good, but would it taste right? She nodded her head. “Tastes like Hungary.” Recreating another person’s memory is a funny thing – I strayed from the “authentic” recipes and even ended up taking some inspiration from an unexpected source, all to chase after my idea of what she had experienced when she ate goulash. At the end of the process, I was glad to have taken on the challenge, and I hope that one day, I will be able to travel to Hungary and create my own memories of gulyás and pörkölt and all the other flavors of Hungarian cuisine.

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Peach Treats: Mason Jar Edition

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So I’m pretty sure I’m way behind the trend on this one, so behind that Mason jar confections are probably out of the florally trendy garden party scene and have now moved into the pages of the Martha Stewart magazine and onto the tables of parties hosted by the middle-aged. Thank god children will be children and always want big cakes – making something similar to that which parents make for their kids – now that’s a generational jump I’m not ready to commit to just quite yet.

I have always wanted to make a Mason jar dessert – a dessert focused on portability and durability. For a while I entertained dreams of decorating grandeur, where I would become the master of fondants and beautiful cupcake frosting, but alas, I quickly realized that I just don’t care enough. It all looks the same in my stomach anyways, right? I have instead aimed for delicious flavors and interesting textures and subpar to decent presentation. But Mason jar desserts? They’re the perfect marriage (ew, marriage) of practicality and adorableness. Especially desserts, where each different, delectable layer is displayed enclosed in glass, the color of the fruit component elevated by the shine of the glass, like a more decadent and probably much-less-healthy parfait (at least the American version, granola and yogurt. Apparently, Europeans know how to do it right and make it a proper dessert).

It’s ironic on many levels that the person who inspired me to finally take on this project was my professor, who is in her mid-fifties and is an incredibly healthy person who teaches a class about consumption which technically touches on different aspects of consumption, from fashion to food, but really just teaches us that organic local non-GMO food is the way to go. I absolutely loved her class (I actually did all the readings!) and wished only for the billionth time that I’d gone with my gut and majored in History. Sadly, today was the last class, and as a parting gift, she brought in strawberry shortcakes in Mason jars. Even she commented on the fact that they’re no longer in style (then again, she does teach a class on consumption habits, so she’s sort of an expert in these matters). But whatever, they don’t need to be in the height of fashion to be absolutely delicious.

(Peach Treats Pt. 1 is also delicious! Check it out for another easily portable and equally delicious recipe.)

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