I am a character tailor for Pixar. Work can rewarding, but you have to see the reward in a few years most of the time. Cooking has become my artistic outlet and the reward can be quite instant. I love cooking for my family and my lucky friends. There is always a story behind every meal.
For those of you who don’t know what bitter melon is, it is a green, long oval shaped, and kind of wrinkly looking Chinese vegetable. When I was a little kid, my mom would make bitter melon stir-fry with fermented black beans, sometimes with beef or pork. The sight of it just made me feel gross. “Ew…it is bitter”, I thought. Why do grown ups like bitter melons? Why not candy? I would cry, nag, fight and do anything for candy!
It was the fighter in me, which constantly caused battles between my sister and I. First it was the battle for candy, then it was the battle for chicken wings, then it was ice-cream. Sometimes my Mom would get pulledinto these silly conflicts. “Mom, how come her bowl of ice-cream is bigger? That’s not fair!”, I cried. It was my very first lesson that life is not fair. Later I moved on to more important battles: school, college, careers, relationships, etc. But no matter if I won or lost I would always go back to my Mom’s place; her food would comfort me.
In the Chinese culture, we have a feast on every occasion, including birthdays, child births, weddings, and funerals. I used to wonder, how could people eat after funerals? Then I experienced the comforting power food could give me. When I was 23, I was going through a bad break-up with some guy. To cheer me up, my mom made me some soup, a piece of fish, and bitter melons with fermented black beans. It came full circle. Here it is! Bitter melons again. I haven’t had bitter melons for a very long time. While chewing it, something strange happened. It tasted different. It was bitter, but I liked it in a strange way. Did the taste of the bitter melon change? I don’t think so. I think I changed. I had become a grown-up who liked bitter melon. Now I was the one who made the kids feel puzzled and asked “Why do grown-ups like bitter melon?”
I’m always curious if other people have the “last bite” behaviour like the way I do. For me, I like to save the best for last. When I have breakfast, I strategically eat everything else first but a little bit of scramble egg, a tiny piece of sausage, and toast, pile them up, and savour the last bite in my mouth. For me, the last bite, is like a happy ending of a movie. It gives you such a satisfactory feeling (might be chessy sometimes). It feels great, but at the same time, it is sad that the movie is over. But you can always look forward to the next movie. But what if there is no next movie to go to? There is no next meal you can look forward to?The question of the ultimate last bite comes into my mind. One time the New Yorker Magazine talked about a coffee table book, “My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals/Portraits, Interviews, and Recipes. It is a bit morbid. But I found the idea interesting. I asked around to see what my friends would eat as their last meal. M said, “a piece of grilled fish, a good plate of pasta, and a salad”. I was thinking, you can eat what you want to be the last meal everyday. You must be a happy man! C said, “olives, cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber, feta cheese, but they have to be all separated, and put into small plates”. C asked me back, what I wanted my last meal to be. It is a very difficult choice. I said, “Hm….I like foie gras…lobster…rib eye steak..truffle…I think I’m going to have a 9 course wine pairing French dinner. Then I can have a bite of everything I like.” C said, “That was cheating! That will be 9 meals combined in one!!!”If the last bite is important to me, what would I want to have if it is the ultimate last bite? What kind of flavour do I want to take with me when I leave this world? In the movie, “Ratatouille”, my favourite moment was when a jaded food critic, Ego, had ratatouille cooked by Remy, a little rat who was a chef, the magical taste of the dish took him back to his old distanced memory of his mom. When he was a young kid, got all beaten up, how his mom’s simple dishes such as ratatouille could comfort him. Whenever I get sick, I don’t crave for foie gras, or a big piece of fancy steak with whatever red wine reduction. I want some simple food my mom made for me when I was a little kid. I guess when I leave this world, I want to have that “Ego moment” in “Ratatouille”. I want to take that warm fuzzy feeling with me through the taste in my mouth. I have decided for my ultimate last bite, I want to have congee, and steam ground pork with Chinese mushroom with soy sauce and scallion, just like the way my mom would make it!
Hopefully, I will be able to decide on my ultimate last bite when the time comes. I guess that only can happen if I can decide the way I am going to leave this world. However, if I can choose the way I leave this world, I want to die like Julia Child. She passed away in her sleep in her 90s. She is my hero. I missed the way she used to say, “stir in 2 table spoons of butter before you serve”!
When I first met R, we were running buddies. After running, we would go to a nearby noodle place called Citrus Club for a quick meal. I ordered chicken noodle soup, and he ordered some sort of tofu coconut noodle soup. One time, I wanted to throw in a meat dish to share. Then he revealed that he is a vegetarian. But he eats seafood and fish occasionally. I was thinking, I would never date you. I don’t date vegetarians. I eat them. I eat them with passion. Cows, sheep….they are my food. I’m a true omnivore. For me, dating a vegetarian is like crossing species.
Never say never. When you say to yourself you’ll never do this, never do that, at the end, you’ll end up finding yourself doing something exactly you thought you would never ever do. Recently I said to him, “Just don’t get any worse. One day if you become a vegan, we are done!” I was always proud of myself that I could cook anything. Then I realized, I had a challenge. I never knew how to cook vegetarian food. To me, vegetables were always something on the side of the plate, saute green beans, broiled brussels sprouts, potato gratin, etc. They are like B movie stars, and all of a sudden, I had to put all these B movie stars in a big movie? How do I do that?
After a few mildly disaster vegetarian meals I made, I figured out a couple tricks. Besides getting high quality seasonal vegetables, (because you can never make a bad tomato to taste good) you also need these:
1. Make it look pretty and colourful. Stack them up. Give it some fancy name like, “Roasted Vegetable Napoleon”
2. The sauce! Without any sauce, it looks like a bunch of side dishes get piled up on the dish. Sauce can help to give them the presence.
3. Cream, cheese, and Mushrooms (porcini, morel, either fresh or dried) can do some magic
This is my first successful vegetarian meal I made for R. He asked me if I one day I will become a vegetarian. Heck no! I am a true meatatarian.
Cream of Celery Root Soup (serves 2)
1 celery root, about 1 pound, peeled, and roughly cut into 1 inch cubes
2 medium leeks, white part only, chopped, about 1 cup
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp dill weed
2 tbsp of butter
3 cups of water
1 cup of milk
3 tbsp of heavy cream
1. Saute leeks with butter using medium heat, add paprika, dill weed, or around 8 – 10 minutes without browning it. Add celery root and water. Simmer for 20 – 30 minutes until celery root is very soft, can be pierced with a fork.
2. Use a food processor to puree celery root and leeks in batches. Drizzle poaching liquid into the food processor slowing for thinning. Pour soup into a food mill to get rid of the solid chucks.
3. Return soup back to pot, simmer, and thin with milk. Stir in 3 tbsp of cream before you serve.
Mashed Purple Potatoes with Porcini Mushroom Sauce and Baked Orange Cauliflower with Capers (serves 2)
Porcini Mushroom Sauce:
1 ounce dried Porcini Mushroom
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp cognac
1/4 cup of heavy cream
truffle oil (optional)
Mashed Purple Potatoes:
6 small purple potatoes
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tsp of butter
3/4 cup milk
3 tbsp heavy cream
Baked Orange Cauliflower with Capers:
1.5 cup of orange cauliflower florets
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp capers, rinsed, finely chopped
Porcini Mushroom sauce:
1. Soak Porcini mushrooms into 1 cup of water for around 20 minutes, until soft. Use a sieve to drain the soaking liquid into a bowl. Filter out the dirt of the soaking liquid using a coffee filter.
2. Saute shallots using medium heat, for 8-10 minutes, caramelizing it without browning it. Pour mushrooms and thyme in the saute pan with the shallots. Saute for another 2 minutes. Add 2 tbsp of cognac, simmer for 2 minutes. Add mushroom soaking liquid and cream, simmer for around 10 – 12 minutes, until the sauce is reduced that it can coat lightly on the back of the spatula. Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle truffle oil before you serve (optional)
Mashed Purple Potatoes:
1. Poach purple potatoes in water for around 20 – 30 minutes, until they are very soft and can be pierced with a fork. Drain poaching liquid, and let potatoes in pot for around 5 minutes to let the liquid in the potatoes evapourate. Peel the skin. Roughly dice potatoes into cubes
2. Mash garlic with a little bit of salt with knife or spoon. Saute garlic with 1 tsp of butter in medium heat for 2-3 minutes, without burning it. Add milk. Simmer for roughly 20 minutes until it is reduced to 1/4 of a cup.
3. Pour milk and garlic liquid into potatoes. Use a potato masher or a fork to mash them. Cover with tin foil to keep warm.
Baked Orange Cauliflower with Capers:
1. Preheat oven at 375%
2. Steam cauliflower florets for 20 minutes, until they are soft
3. Coat cauliflower with capers, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake for 10 minutes on the middle rack of the oven. Put the cauliflower on the top of the rack. Broil it for 5 minutes until slightly brown.
I did the mushroom sauce first, then mashed purple potatoes, then the baked cauliflower. The mashed purple potatoes can be reheated when I put the cauliflower in the oven. Then reheat the mushroom sauce right before the cauliflower and potatoes are out of the oven.
Molten Chocolate Cake
I ran out of idea and used a random recipe from epicurious.com. It worked great.