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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Tomato and Sausage Risotto

IMG_1555Lately, I’ve found myself having to think extensively about what my biggest weakness is. (Seriously though, job interviewers, don’t you want to hear about how great I am in a less roundabout way?) After running through procrastination and all those conventional flaws, I began to realize that giving my all on everything, something I’d always viewed as a positive, might actually be my biggest weakness.

The first risotto dish I ever made wasn’t that great (read: it was actually pretty terrible). I became obsessed with getting every grain of rice translucent and coated in oil, which is basically impossible. Some grains of rice toasted and we ended up eating what felt like risotto mixed with corn flakes, like some misguided contemporary take on the breakfast for dinner theme.

Part of the beauty of risotto is that with simple ingredients, patience, and not too much effort, you can create a rich and delicious dish. The details aren’t important – at the end, all the separate components have melded together, giving risotto its creamy texture and complex flavors.

I used to psych myself out by breaking down tasks into such little pieces to the point that I myself was on the verge of a breakdown. Part of me continues to cling on to the details because they just seem so important, but lately, I’ve been learning to not become entangled in every little nuance and instead keep moving forward, one risotto recipe at a time.

(P.S. This is my fourth risotto recipe! For more risotto recipes, check out asparagus risotto verde, chicken risotto with caramelized onions, and mushroom risotto.)

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The Rain Room

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This weekend, my friends and I woke up at 5:45am and stood in line until 11am to see the Rain Room, a room full of rain. Was it worth it?

Well, it’s complicated.

My immediate reaction is skepticism. We stood in the blistering heat, I ended up with blisters on my feet, and for the last twenty minutes of our wait (which, while blissfully air conditioned, were also the most painful minutes), we watched small children running through the exhibit as if it was a sprinkler at Central Park. As someone behind us said, “if they can bring their kids, I should be able to bring my dog.” The line moved agonizingly slow, as only ten people are allowed in the exhibit at one time. We spent less than twenty minutes in the exhibit itself.

Apollo, as represented by one real ballerina and three amateurs

That being said, the Rain Room really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We experienced being in a rain shower, yet not getting rained on. It allowed us to appreciate the serene beauty of rain without the annoyances of muddy puddles and soaked clothes. We also got some awesome silhouette pictures, courtesy of a bright white floodlight, the only source of light in the otherwise black room. (Though we were so busy posing that we only really enjoyed the quietude in the last few minutes.)

To see the Rain Room, you basically have to have a membership, since the museum lets members into line first. I happen to have a membership, but I felt a pang of pity walking past all those tourists who’d come from other states and countries to see the Rain Room, only to be stuck waiting for five hours or more. Nothing is worth standing in line for that long, and definitely not a 10ft by 10ft square of artificial rain.

It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, in that I will never do it again. But it was pretty cool to experience it once, and as my friend said, somewhat dubiously, “well, only 200 people get to see it per day.”

P.S. If you want to wait for a reasonable amount of time for something that is, in my opinion, more worth the wait, do try out this tomato sauce recipe. It elevates the pedestrian marinara to never-before-attained gourmet heights; it’s rich and delicious, the perfect way to use up all those cherry tomatoes.

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Simplicity

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Recently, my great-aunt and great-uncle spent three days with us. The first two days, the torrential downpour kept us trapped inside, so I spent a lot of time at the mercy of my great-aunt, listening to her discuss the finer points of ancient Chinese literature. I have the speaking ability of a young Chinese child, so needless to say, I really had no idea what she was talking about.

At some point, I drifted off, daydreaming about childhood days at my great-aunt’s house, eating kumquats and reading on the roof in the blazing California sun. About my great-uncle before his stroke, about his old record player and Chinese historical movies.

My great-aunt and great-uncle have been in America for twenty years. They can barely speak any English. When I was a kid, I used to look down on them because they seemed so out of place. They could only speak comfortably in Chinatown and the only interactions they had with their neighbors were smiles and waves. I never realized how unfair it was to condescend on them when they never judged me for not speaking what should have been my native language.

My great-aunt and great-uncle lived through the Cultural Revolution in China. My great-aunt fled the Communists for years before finally being sent to a hard labor camp and very nearly losing her life. They have lived hard and complicated lives that I once dismissed because they didn’t speak English. Lately, I have started to treasure the memories that I have with them, each as beautiful as the rainbows in the spray of my great-aunt’s garden hose as she watered her plants in the summer.

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So many tasty ferns…

The final day of their visit was blessedly sunny. We visited Longwood Gardens, another childhood haunt that I had not been to since middle school. It was nostalgic to see the children’s garden, renovated but still vaguely familiar, and the waterlilies, their leaves smaller than I remembered. My great-aunt was happy, and my great-uncle was happy to see her happy.

Life rarely gives second chances, but I felt that I had been given some kind of chance to connect with two people who I had pushed away in my youth. My great-aunt pointed out all the edible ferns, much to my mom’s and my amusement. She also expressed her awe of the size of the grounds. Through her eyes, ordinary plants suddenly became a delicious delicacy, and the grounds that I had taken for granted became impressive in their vastness.

This dish is dedicated to them. It’s simple and light but delicious, qualities I know they would enjoy.

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Bragging Rights

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The other night, I went to Will, a self-described “modern French inspired BYOB” located in a hot Philly restaurant area. The dishes were small and pricey, but the flavors were spot on. If you have the chance to go, I’d totally recommend the Rhode Island Skate, which was moist yet flaky, served with an assortment of light green sauces that all complimented the fish wonderfully.

The restaurant also has its culinary influences proudly on display. Alinea, Bouchon, and The Fat Duck cookbooks are all present, and since I just got a copy of the Bouchon cookbook last week (thank you Ebay for making my guilty pleasures so affordable), I could instantly spot Thomas Keller’s presence on Will’s menu. For one, the chocolate bouchons served for dessert. Also, the Parisian gnocchi, which Keller outlines in Bouchon. 

(By the way, the chocolate bouchons are also totally worth trying. They’re like mini chocolate cakes, but denser and chewier and all-around more decadent.)

But back to the gnocchi. I actually made Parisian gnocchi, the same Parisian gnocchi that appeared on a menu at a high-end restaurant. (I’m still in shock.) And surprisingly, it was not that difficult to make.

Before you chalk it up to my amazing cooking talents, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I actually used to be a terrible cook. No lie, my family used to dread what weird dish I would concoct. There were some fantastic failures, like the time I tried to make pan-fried plantains, but instead I used bananas, and I ended up with some spicy, mushy bananas that were all but inedible. Or that time I tried to make carbonara and ended up with burned scrambled egg pasta instead. Oh god, the list goes on and on.

When I started this blog, I was enrolling in self-taught Cooking 101. And now, eight months later, I can actually pull off a reasonably edible version of Keller’s gnocchi à la parisienne. My family can enjoy my meals, instead of forcing down cringe-worthy (and probably barf-worthy) weird culinary experiments.

And cooking for myself hasn’t taken the fun out of eating good food. I may understand more of the “secrets,” but that makes me respect all these chefs so much more. I mean, just check out the Wikipedia page for molecular gastronomy. These people might actually be insane. They’re using syringes and liquid nitrogen and transglutaminase and all these other chemical compounds I can’t even pronounce. They’re turning fat into powder, using an ice cream machine in ways never before imagined.

I’m clearly just an amateur, and I’m definitely nowhere near as good as Will’s talented cook staff, but I have to admit, it still felt pretttty cool to see that they admired the same cooking masters that I admired.

(And let’s be real, it felt pretty awesome to brag that I could actually pull off a fancy restaurant-worthy recipe.)

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