Sunday Book Review: The Last Chinese Chef

This post is part of a recurring series I started to share some of my favorite food reads, which range from food-centric novels to memoirs… even cookbooks! Perhaps through this series, you’ll discover a new book or see one you’ve been meaning to check out. By the same token, I’m always on the hunt for my next great food read. If you have any recommendations, please email me!

Contrary to what you saw on my Instagram last week, I really do love to read, as do the other members of my book club. (It’s a great tote though, isn’t it? I can’t wait to bring it to book club today!) In fact, these freezing temperatures have left me no choice but to stay under the covers as long as possible on the weekends and dream slash read about comforting soul food. Comfort food for most people around here might include dishes like mac & cheese, chicken noodle soup, and pot pie. It does for me too, especially as to that last one. But it also means the food I grew up with and that my mom would feed me when I was sick, like rice porridge and savory steamed egg custard (chawanmushi).

I’ve discussed my Japanese heritage on the blog before (here), but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that my dad is Taiwanese by way of mainland China. Growing up, I spent every Saturday attending Japanese school and every summer in Tokyo, so I’m woefully less in touch with my father’s heritage… except as to the food. I have very strong opinions about the best soup dumplings and bubble tea in NYC and will defend my favorite dim sum place to the ground. Even so, I am still very much a novice when it comes to the different and incredibly rich regional cuisines of China (and Taiwan), but I am an eager learner. As is my stomach. We are ready to hit the books! To that end, my studies will include this promising cookbook all about DUMPLINGS that my dad got me for Christmas last year.

I also recently finished reading The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. It is a novel about a widowed American food critic and her interactions with an up & coming half-American, half-Chinese chef as he competes for a spot on the national team in the cultural Olympics (preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but that’s a peripheral detail).

It is a fascinating look into the storied history of Chinese cuisine, including the interplay between food and the arts. Who knew that food spontaneously inspired legendary Chinese writers and poets to compose works while they ate? The storyline about the food critic and her investigation into her late husband’s affair in China is not very compelling and a little unimaginative as a plot device to get her to China, but the book does an excellent job of explaining the different values and properties of ideal Chinese cuisine as they differ from Western cuisine. The breakdown of the art of an imperial banquet alone makes The Last Chinese Chef a worthwhile read. I don’t think I’ve ever so clearly understood that flavor can be irrelevant when the only purpose of a dish is texture; the delivery of the perfect crunch or pop. I gained a newfound appreciation for the incredibly complex processes that led to seemingly simple food, like the wok-fried shrimp whose many ingredients were untraceable by the end because they all served to enhance the natural shrimp flavor. Food that deceives, food that heals (what I wouldn’t do for that velvety, ginger chicken), food that challenges – all are featured. And the common thread (which was a main theme in the book), is community and gathering around food.

As a child, I always wondered why when my family went to Chinese restaurants, we would order a few dishes to share while the other groups around us were ordering dishes to eat individually. The Last Chinese Chef and my Chinese background show us why.

Favorite Food Memories of 2013

Happy New Year! I am going to try to avoid revealing just how much of a sentimental sap I am by holding back on clichéd mutterings about how I can’t believe another year has gone by and how I can’t wait for what this year has in store blah blah blah. But it really has been a good year people. Despite overhauling my diet (lactose intolerant reformed cheese lover here), I still managed to eat more than my fair share of delicious food in 2013, and I have no intention of doing any differently now that 2014 is upon us.

It was really hard to choose my favorite food memories from this past year (right this way for 2012 and 2010 memories), even after I weeded out everything I already profiled on this here blog — definitive proof that I feasted like a queen. Runners-up included crispy, juicy, perfectly salted fried chicken in Williamsburg and soul-warming hot pot in Flushing. I do want to share these meals with you but additional “research” is necessary before I can. Gotta make sure the food is just as good the second (and third) time(s) around, right?

True to form, my 2013 picks are all from the warmer months. It’s as if these last few below-freezing days have me doubting whether I’ll ever feel warm again. For now, I’ll have to reassure myself by looking at these pictures…

Verjus Salad

The grainy quality of my iPhone photo does not do this Verjus salad justice. Spinach and raw sliced mushrooms don’t seem all that special, until you realize that the breadcrumb-like substance on top is shaved foie gras. Yep, only in Paris… The foie gras is so ethereal in that form, it melts immediately after contact with the tongue and only leaves behind a hint of its richness and a desperate need for another bite. It’s a simultaneously dangerous and divine combination.

On the complete opposite side of the flavor spectrum were the street tacos awaiting me at the end of my two-hour, 3-subway pilgrimage to Far Rockaway in August. Besides being uplifted by firsthand confirmation that Hurricane Sandy did not get the best of our NYC shores, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the fish tacos I had more than lived up to the hype surrounding them. Nothing subtle about these babies. Rockaway Taco is all about in-your-face flavor. Light, non-greasy batter, crunchy radishes, bright lime, and meaty and fresh fish in a warm corn tortilla. If you are a taco freak or read this NY Times article a few months ago, you know that a taco is at its prime the less time elapses from fryer to diner. Talk about instant gratification. My friend Tania and I had our tacos and sweet plantains handed right over to us and wasted no time getting them into our bellies. Well, there was of course a brief pause to snap this picture.

Rockaway Taco Fish Tacos

Looking forward to finding more food in 2014 that makes me as giddy as I am in this picture with a mouth full of my ever-so-flavorful & tender pit-smoked beef AND pork belly sandwich (yes, that’s one sandwich, not two separate sandwiches) at the DUMBO outpost of Smorgasburg this past June. I wish I could remember who made the sandwich, but I was too focused on eating it apparently. Shucks, guess I have to go hunt it down again this summer…

Me at DUMBO Smorgasburg

December Reflections + Winter Bucket List

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday weekend and is mostly recovered from all of the decadence. While I’m happy to report that both of my turkeys came out incredibly moist and no one left the table hungry, I must admit that I had a rocky few days personally. Among other things, my family lost its beloved dog after his months-long battle with diabetes. He was a wonderfully silly little guy, and we will miss him dearly. There were several moments last week where I was almost overwhelmed by the cascade of negative events. Why is it that when it rains, it pours? But (and apologies in advance for the hokeyness) in the spirit of the holiday where we pause to give thanks for our blessings, I realized that I really do have so very many reasons to be thankful. It seems hardest to remember them in the face of daunting challenges, but that’s probably precisely when it’s most important to do so, right? A dear friend recently told me that he reminds himself why he is thankful every night before going to bed. I’m not sure that I will follow suit exactly, but it’s an admirable habit that highlights why I shouldn’t save up my gratitude 364 days of the year just to bestow it on Thanksgiving.

I also suspect that the mounting cold and these increasingly short days are partial contributors to my more subdued energy as of late. I am someone who feeds off of sunlight, so these blustery days that require serious bundling and otherwise drive everyone indoors are just not cutting it. I have resolved, however, not to let the weather deter me from making the most of the season. To that end, I created a winter bucket list, much like the one I made over the summer, just with fewer mandates to go to the beach (though I am sure that come February, I will be in serious need of a tropical getaway). Yes, yes, I know I fulfill any and all Type-A stereotypes by being a lover of lists (and crossing things off of them…), but that’s a discussion for another day. A few of the winter bucket list items include venturing outdoors to go skiing or visiting museums – a friend just told me about this exhibition at the Drawing Center that will display drawings by Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame and which I will definitely be checking out. Really though, I find that this time of year is best spent puttering around the kitchen, so the majority of my bucket list is one food project or another. I really love the process and challenge of breaking down and conquering what seems to be an impossible recipe, the kind that might make some people drive themselves to the store and just buy whatever it is. On Black Friday, I treated myself to this limited-edition periodical, which I knew I had to have when I saw that it contains at least five food projects already on my list, like preserved lemons and marshmallows. I can’t wait to share the results of my experiments with you in the months to come!

Countdown to Thanksgiving: T-Minus 24 Hours

Happy Thanksgiving Eve everyone!

I am taking the day off today to devote my full attention to tomorrow’s big feast – the most anticipated meal of the year (no pressure). In case you are still scrambling for ideas, check out my previous Thanksgiving posts for some inspiration!

Cider-Brined Turkey

A Very Beery Friendsgiving

Double the Thanksgiving: Part I

Double the Thanksgiving: Part II

Depending on what time your family traditionally sits down to eat, you may still have plenty of time to brine a turkey to maximize its flavor and juiciness. And even if you don’t, as long as you continuously baste and are liberal with gravy application, you’ll be just fine. So don’t sweat it.

This year, I’m particularly grateful for my incredibly supportive friends and family. Thank you for always lending a patient ear and willingly acting as my culinary guinea pigs.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. May your hearts and stomachs be full, but don’t forget to leave room for dessert! xoxo

Friendsgiving 2013

Countdown to Thanksgiving: Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream Sandwiches

Thanksgiving dessert, in my experience, is hard to plan. By the time dessert rolls around, everyone is stuffed and groaning about how they couldn’t possibly eat any more. But then the pies and other treats come out, and suddenly everyone has strong opinions about what should be on that table. It’s a lot of pressure to make that last sweet bite worthwhile.

So in planning my annual Friendsgiving dinner, I wanted to do something special to end the meal. The final idea came about in multiple steps. I decided very early on back in September that I wanted to make pumpkin ice cream, but having recently found out (or rather confirmed) that I am lactose intolerant, I thought I would try my hand at a coconut milk-based ice cream. My sister suggested doing a vanilla-flavored dessert to go with the pumpkin ice cream, as a sort of reverse pumpkin pie à la mode. But the idea of doing a panna cotta or a cheesecake didn’t quite click — not enough contrast in textures. Then my friend Tania had the brilliant ice cream sandwich brainchild, and it all just fell into place from there. Who isn’t immediately hit with a wave of nostalgia with an ice cream sandwich in her hand?

Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream Sandwiches

(Many thanks to my sister for the gorgeous photo.) I have been recipe-testing the ice cream for no less than a month. Because I had to adapt regular pumpkin ice cream recipes to substitute coconut milk for milk and cream, I wasn’t sure what hiccups I would encounter. Four batches of pumpkin coconut milk ice cream later, my poor ice cream machine is tired, and my freezer is low on space. Making ice cream is no joke. But practice makes perfect, or at the very least, familiar. And I’m very happy to be able to pass on my findings to you.

As a preliminary matter, making pumpkin purée from scratch is absolutely not worth the trouble. Don’t do it. The canned stuff (by Libby’s) is great, if not better, and will save you from exerting the hour+ effort required to peel the sucker.

Making Pumpkin Purée

I decided to sandwich the pumpkin ice cream between plain cookies because I liked my sister’s original idea of the vanilla pairing and because I wanted the ice cream’s flavors to shine rather than be outshone by something as aggressive as say, a gingerbread cookie. I used King Arthur’s gluten-free cookie mix, but feel free to use store-bought or home-made. Sugar cookies would work nicely here, too.

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Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream Sandwiches (ice cream recipe adapted from David Lebovitz)

Serves approx. 7

What You’ll Need:

  • 2 and 1/2 c coconut milk
  • 1/3 c + 2 T granulated sugar
  • 1/2 t ground ginger
  • 1/2 t ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 t freshly-ground nutmeg
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 t kosher salt
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 c packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 t vanilla extract
  • 3/4 c fresh or canned pumpkin purée
  • optional: 2 t rum
  • 14 round cookies (about half a batch)

Putting It All Together:

In a medium saucepan, mix the coconut milk, granulated sugar, ginger, ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick, nutmeg, and salt. Warm the mixture until hot and the edges begin to bubble and foam.

Whisk the egg yolks in a separate bowl and gradually whisk in about half of the warm spiced coconut milk mixture, stirring constantly. Scrape the warmed yolks back into the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heat-proof spatula, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read between 160 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream Base 1

Immediately pour the mixture through a mesh strainer into a bowl nested in an ice bath (some ice and a little water in a slightly bigger bowl). Mix in the brown sugar, stir until cool, and then chill in the fridge (preferably overnight).

Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream Base 2

After chilling, whisk in the vanilla, the rum if using (which I did of course), and the pumpkin purée.

Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream Base 3

Press the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream

If you put the ice cream in the freezer after running it through the ice cream maker, be sure to take it out 10-15 minutes before assembling the ice cream sandwiches so it can soften up a bit.

Lay out half of the cookies, bottom side up, on a half sheet tray lined with parchment paper. Make sure your freezer has space for the tray to lay flat! Center a generous scoop of pumpkin ice cream onto each cookie. (I use a 2 3/4 oz. capacity scoop). Press a cookie, bottom side down, onto each scoop of ice cream. (Hint: If you pick up the ice cream sandwich and press evenly down on the cookies with both hands, the cookies will be less likely to break.) Place the tray in the freezer until the ice cream has re-hardened. Then cover the whole tray in plastic wrap if serving all of the sandwiches at once in the near future, or wrap each ice cream sandwich individually in plastic wrap.

Assembling Pumpkin Coconut Milk Ice Cream Sandwiches

* * * * *

You might be skeptical that these ice cream sandwiches are entirely lactose-free, especially if you don’t love coconut milk. But I promise you that the pumpkin pie spices completely mask any coconut flavor. If anything, I actually think that the coconut milk subtly enhances the spices. You won’t miss anything here. I had just one of these babies left over the day after Friendsgiving (the rest were happily gobbled up by my non-dietarily restricted friends), and I enjoyed it just as much as the one I had just 24 hours before.