Fesenjan, and Why I Started Kitchen Whimsies

IMG_2639When I started Kitchen Whimsies, I was living in a college dorm whose stained, old white stove with rickety, finicky burners sat atop an oven that was at least 20 degrees cooler than the supposed temperature. I had no idea how to cook, as evidenced by early attempts at shakshuka (which turned out more like overspiced soup with poached eggs) and fried tomatillos (mercifully no pictures survived).

In a dorm where (clean) counter space is often limited to nonexistent, one-bowl or one-pot recipes are lifesavers. There are, of course, the so-called “curries” made by mixing some curry powder with beans or lentils, or the one-bowl brownie mixes, but once in a while, a one-pot dish is actually outstanding.

Fesenjan, a Persian pomegranate walnut stew, requires no easily-perishable ingredients and can be made in one pot, and tastes like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. Though I’d made it at least four times while at college, I never posted it because it’s such a quick and easy recipe, I’d often make it in a rush for hungry friends. Though it’s a running joke that all the pictures on this blog are #iphoneonly, I still do put in a little time and effort (even if it doesn’t show :p). After teasing them with enticing aromas, I never had the heart to make my friends wait for me to take some admittedly subpar photos for the blog.

Since I now cook for smaller crowds (a.k.a. myself), I can finally take a half-decent photo of one of my favorite dishes. Fesenjan tastes delicious atop white rice, but I also realized that it has the consistency of pulled pork. Persian take on pulled pork sandwiches may have to appear in the future…

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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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Jook

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As a kid, one of the staples of my illness-ridden childhood was jook with yuk sung, or dried shredded pork. For all the haters out there, yuk sung may sound strange, but the salty, yet sweet taste and the chewy, almost fuzzy texture made it one of the best parts of being sick. (Too be fair, most of the other aspects – the sore throats, the congestion, and the general self-pity – were pretty negative experiences.)

Seeing as this is the second post I’m writing about things I like when I’m sick, we can deduce three unalienable facts:

1. I’m sick way too often.

2. My parents are wonderful people.

3. If this was Sparta, I would definitely have been discarded as a total weakling in some ditch on the side of the road.

Thank god for modern medicine.

Upon arrival freshman year at college, I quickly came to the scary realization that when I got sick, no one was going to take care of me. Growing up with a doctor as father and a protective mother, I had always had an immediate diagnosis – no, I was not dying, it was just a bad cold – and dishes lovingly left on the stove for me to eat whenever I felt well enough to wander down to the kitchen. No one was going to take time off from work to check up from me, no one would have extensive medical knowledge to talk me down from my hypochondria, no one would cook me delicious jook, the quintessential Chinese sick people food.

As one of my friends discovered this year, jook is actually pretty difficult to find in suburban Boston. In his sick delirium, the closest he could find was…chicken rice soup. While I did not experience this concoction firsthand, from what I understand, it was simply some chicken and rice in what might have been really watery chicken stock, or just water, with a few limp pieces of cabbage. Good try, America, but China’s got you beat on this one.

Yet another reason why my parents are just fantastic people: they taught me how to make jook. Once I heard my friend was sick, I was able to cobble together some frozen chicken breasts, rice, and ginger into simple yet satisfying jook. (Alas, I have yet to find yuk sung that can be easily accessed by public transportation. Oh, the woes of having no car.) Jook is one of those dishes that just makes you feel healthier after just one spoonful. I swear, it’s like the Chinese found a way to recreate the flavors of life force.

Humans have accomplished some pretty amazing feats – there’s the Battle of Thermopylae, which inspired one of the most memorable movie quotes of all time, then there’s penicillin and and polio vaccinations – and then there’s jook, simple peasant food ingeniously imbued with some kind of ability, be it placebo effect or some medically based phenomenon, to make people just feel better. And from my frequent forays into illness, I can promise you, just the promise of feeling healthy can itself be a powerful cure.

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Tomatillo Chicken Stew

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True life: I have the opposite of resting bitch face.

As my friends have noted over the years, I don’t really have an “angry” expression. My facial range runs from mildly displease to maniacally happy. Alas, my resting friendly face has led to many strange and uncomfortable encounters over the years.

Take today, for instance. I was buying some ingredients for dinner, when the cashier struck up a friendly conversation by asking if I was Chinese. I replied that I was, and he asked if I’d ever been to China. We then somehow got on the topic of Tiananmen Square, and in a rather contrived manner, he somehow made a pickup line out of Tiananmen:

Cashier: I’m so about the China life, but I’d totally get kicked out of China.

Me: Just don’t mess with the government and you’ll be fine.

Cashier: Oh I am so not about that life. (Seems to be his catchphrase.) I’d probably get thrown out for throwing a protest party in Tiananmen…speaking of parties, what’s your plans for this evening?

Me: Wait, what?

Seriously though, how can Tiananmen Square, site of one of the worst cases of government brutality against its own citizens, be used as a pickup line?

So I had to decline his invitation to hang out this evening. My excuse? “Oh sorry, I already have plans.” Plans to make a delicious tomatillo chicken stew, that is. This dish is infinitely more satisfying than conversing with a guy stricken with intense yellow fever. It’s comfort food, exactly what I needed after an exchange with yet another guy who saw me as no more than some tiny, smiley, Asian female.

Moral of the story: don’t use Tiananmen as a pickup line. And don’t say “ni hao” to me, flash the peace sign, and think I’ll find it endearing. It’s straight up offensive, and I’m definitely “not about that life.”

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Oyakodon

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When we were younger, my sister and I often had to, as my dad described it, “fend for ourselves” while my parents were at work. Back in those days, no one trusted me with anything stove-related, so my sister used to make us simple dinners. I affectionately remember these dishes as “spoon food,” saucy curries or simple scrambled eggs and tomatoes atop a bed of rice, perfect for eating with a spoon. Rather than mac n’cheese or pizza, spoon food was our family’s comfort food.

Oyakodon is the epitome of spoon food. I first experienced oyakodon at Porter Exchange, an enclave of Japanese restaurants underneath Lesley University. It was love at first sight, or rather, first bite. The meat was tender, the eggs half-cooked and runny, and there was an undertone of sweetness in the sauce, perfectly balancing the otherwise salty dish. It quickly became one of my favorite Japanese-style comfort foods.

In Japanese, oyakodon means “mother and child.” If you think about it literally, you’re eating the mother and her child, but the more socially acceptable spin is that the dish is a harmony between the chicken and the egg, an ode to the eternal question of which came first.

I also like to think that “mother and child” refers the tradition of a mother passing her culinary secrets onto her child. Some of my favorite dishes are the simple ones, like the roast chicken my mom used to make every year for my birthday, the sausage pasta sauce that my dad whips together on a busy weeknight, or the green curry my sister used to make. In my childhood, these dishes seemed like magic to me, and my parents the wizards who could control fire. Even now, these childhood comfort foods are special.

So as I head off into my last year of college, I (and basically every other young adult) am trying to figure out what I want to do, and who I want to be. It can be pretty scary stuff, but at least after all the jobhunting, the interviews, and hopefully settling into a new place in a new city, my oyakodon and all my other spoon foods will be there to warmly encourage me to face the next chapter of my life.

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A Picture’s Worth

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As the saying goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words.

However, no matter how artfully taken, pictures cannot capture the taste or the aroma of a dish. It can tantalizingly hint at deliciousness with wisps of rising steam, a smattering of fresh green herbs, and the glistening of rich sauces, but it is our imagination that fills in the rest.

Recently, Buzzfeed ran an article by Rachel Monroe, “Why Your Dinner Doesn’t Taste As Good As It Looked Online.” It’s actually thought-provoking and well-written, unlike all those lists with which Buzzfeed draws the majority of its readership. As I read it, I realized, so much of what makes a food blog great is not, in fact, the food. Many of my favorite blogs are my favorites because of the voice of the author, witty, with light and heartwarming anecdotes. But recently, many food blogs have started to sound the same.

Food photography has followed this trend towards indistinguishability. Everyone is striving to appear on Foodgawker (rejected every time, I’m not bitter) and Tastespotter and all those other aggregator sites, but in many cases, the quest for increased traffic has led to a sameness as photos converge to meet a certain standard. Monroe also points out that these aggregator websites also (hopefully subconsciously) favor Western cuisine, thus more soft-lit cupcakes and pastas are apt to appear, and get more favorites, than, say, aloo paneer kofta or Chinese tea eggs.

At the same time, I fervently wish I took better pictures. I love scrolling through pages and pages on Foodgawker and use it to find almost all the recipes that appear on this blog. I totally judge food by how pretty it looks in the picture.

Then I remember that the best (literally the best) chocolate cake I ever had was in a homey Israeli restaurant. The grandmother of the owner had been making it since her youth, and our waiter swore it was the best cake he’d ever eaten. However, the slice placed before us looked like another sad example of quantity over quality. The top was unevenly domed and there were no fancy garnishes. However, my sister and I gamely took a bite…and quickly finished the rest of the slice. The cake was moist, lightly spiced, and yet comfortable, like sleeping in your bed after a long semester away at college. The icing was not polished, smooth ganache or perfectly whipped buttercream. It was gritty and rich and the perfect balance to the soft, dense crumb of the cake. My sister and I reference that cake all the time. No chocolate cake since has even come close to being worthy of comparison.

I started this food blog because I wanted my friends to know that cooking in college can be delicious without being difficult. My photos are, in some cases, pretty terrible. I shoot everything on my iPhone with very little ornamentation, and I shoot my dishes right before I’m about to eat them. Maybe one day I’ll appear on Foodgawker, but I want to do so without having to change my voice so that I sound “smarter” and more relatable, without buying fancy lighting equipment and cooking dinner in the morning just for a good shot in the morning light. That’s not what I’m about.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. Well, so is the is the aroma of a freshly baked batch of muffins, and so is the first bite of a succulent pork tenderloin. Our five senses all capture something unique, and yet sometimes we rely so much on sight we forget about the others.

That being said, please excuse the heinous picture of these chicken wings. My family was all ravenous and I barely was able to snap this picture before everyone dug in. But I can vouch for these wings – they’re crispy, saucy, sweet, and spicy with just a kick of sour lime, and they’re easy to make. Also, they have Sriracha in them. And everyone (everyone) loves Sriracha.

My picture may not be worth any words of mention, but these wings really do deserve every single word of praise. Enjoy!

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Stress Eating

mmmm caramelized onions :)

Boston is finally beautiful. The sun is shining, the sky is clear and brilliant blue, the air is pleasantly cool, the flowers are blooming…

…and I’m stuck inside, studying like a demon.

Welcome to finals week, truly a week from hell. Tufts, you tease, you give us balmy 70 degree days, and then you give us three papers and five midterms all due in the next five days.

But I’m coping. Kind of. Enter productive procrastination, which is where I raid my pantry and fridge and throw together something delicious. The elaborateness of the dish usually directly correlates to stress level. To be fair, it was pretty therapeutic. I got to shred chicken with maybe a little too much enthusiasm, and blankly stir some chicken broth into the rice while my brain went on a much-needed vacation.

One hour later, I ended up with at least six servings of risotto. I might have gone just a little overboard, but at least I’m set for the next three days. Basically ready-made meals, combined with the sleep deprivation, could give me 18 more hours to finish everything I have to do before school ends. That’s a silver lining, right?

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Winter Fixes

Here’s an easy, delicious, and best of all, cheesy recipe for chicken parmesan.

I originally had this awesome little story for you about my obsession with apple cider, except, oh wait, I wrote it before the world “ended” on December 12, 2012, so the post just really didn’t make sense anymore. I’m a little bitter I forgot to publish it, so instead of writing a new post, I’m just going to say this chicken parmesan was really delicious back in December and I’m sure it’ll be just as good if you make it now. It’s also perfect because everything leafy and green is dead in New England, and I don’t know about you, but after eating my twentieth meal consisting of root vegetables, I may actually be starting to hate potatoes.

Another sad fact: that lettuce that you see underneath the chicken was one of our last harvests before the frost came and killed everything, even the spinach.

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