Article

Hot Pot on a Winter Day

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When my dad was growing up in Southeast China, hot pot (he calls it 打邊爐) was a simple preparation only ever eaten during the winter. On rare occasions, a brazier was used to simmer a communal pot of food at the dinner table. He considered it a luxury to enjoy any source of heat in the house, and a meal that wasn’t cold by the time he was eating it.

We have air conditioning now. Well, not my dad. He still kicks it old school, and for that, he has a lower electricity bill. But we have air conditioning. Even though that means we can have hot pot any time of the year, I still think of it as a winter meal. The colder it is outside, the better it gets.

While there are regional variations (steamboat, shabu shabu, suki, fondue chinoise…), any ingredient you would want to cook in liquid is suitable for this kind of meal. Because of its simplicity, the ingredients must be of immaculate quality, fresh enough to eat raw (except you wouldn’t eat something like pork raw). The number of ingredients depends on the number of guests. For every guest eating at the table, I prepare about 1 lb (450 g) of food: an animal protein, one leafy green, and one other vegetarian ingredient. Modify amounts if needed, but avoid reducing variety.

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Hot Pot for Four

water, to fill the pot
a generous splash of mirin or any rice wine
1 knob ginger, quartered lengthwise
¼ lb (113 g) rib eye or any well marbled tender cut of beef, sliced thinly against the grain
¼ lb (113 g) duck breast, sliced thinly against the grain
¼ lb (113 g) salmon loin, ¼ in (1 cm) sliced against the grain
¼ lb (113 g) large prawns, shelled and deveined
¼ lb (113 g) watercress
¼ lb (113 g) flowering garlic chives, 3 in (7 cm) segments
¼ lb (113 g) pea shoots
¼ lb (113 g) chrysanthemum greens/crown daisy, thick stems removed
1 pack enoki mushrooms, separated into skinny clumps
4 shiitake mushroom caps
½ lb (225 g) block of tofu, ¾ in (2 cm) slices
¼ lb (113 g) wintermelon, ¾ in (2 cm) slices
1 lb (450 g) udon noodles, cooked
shacha sauce (沙茶醬)
soy sauce
sriracha
hot sauce
farm fresh raw eggs or pasteurized eggs
scallions, 3 in (7 cm) strips, ⅛ in (3 mm) wide
sesame oil
fresh raw garlic, minced, in warm peanut oil

portable tabletop burner
a wide and shallow pot, about 4 in (10 cm) tall, 11 in (28 cm) wide
large slotted spoon

Sometimes, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese groceries (maybe others, but I wouldn’t know) sell raw meats sliced super thin just for hot pot. Not thin like corrugated cardboard. I mean thin like sliced prosciutto. Chances are, if the place sells hot pot equipment, they probably sell this preparation of meat. If you can’t find it, you can always cut the meat against the grain as thinly as possible. Keeping the meat cold and using a very sharp knife helps.

While preparing the ingredients, set the pot on the stove with water, mirin, and ginger. Bring this to a boil and let it simmer for a few minutes. As the meal progresses, the water will develop into a brightly flavored broth. The mirin and ginger prevents the broth from becoming too gamey after cooking all that meat and fish. The ginger isn’t really for eating, but it should stay in the pot for the whole meal.

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Place the portable burner in the middle of the table within arm’s reach of each guest. Arrange the ingredients around and bring out the condiments. The meal begins when everyone is at the table and the simmering pot is placed on top of the burner. Each person can use heat-proof chopsticks to cook whatever they want in the pot to the desired doneness and dip the cooked ingredients in a mixture of any condiments in their own bowl. I’m particularly fond of shacha sauce with raw egg, soy sauce, garlic and scallions.

I recommend placing stuff like the tofu or wintermelon in the pot right at the beginning so they have time to cook and absorb the flavor of the broth throughout the whole meal. Due to the size of wintermelon, they’re only ever sold in 2-3 lb (1-1.5 kg) slices. Even though a small fraction of that is needed for this meal, I usually cook all of it anyway and leave the extra for later.

The animal proteins should be done after swishing around in the broth for a few seconds. Don’t worry if you lose sight of an ingredient, that’s what the slotted spoon is for. Keep a kettle of hot water at the ready to refill the pot when the water level drops more than 1.5 in (4 cm) from the top of the pot.

If there’s too much food, those ingredients can be cooked off at the end and saved as leftovers. Don’t save the garlic in oil. Once that’s done, have everyone enjoy the tofu and wintermelon while you strain off the broth in a fine mesh sieve, with cheesecloth, or even a paper towel in a colander. Return the liquid to the pot, bring it to a boil, and skim off any excess fat. Salt to taste and turn off the heat. Drop in the noodles and enjoy.

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Article

Mesophilic Heirloom Yogurt at Home

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I’m not a big yogurt eater. I’m just smitten with the idea that I can culture yogurt in a jar at room temperature. Something about the simplicity makes me feel like I’ve stumbled upon wisdom from ages past, a delicious secret that only grandmothers know.

A few years ago, I made several consecutive batches of Matsoni (Caspian Sea) yogurt. Despite my excitement, I just couldn’t keep up with eating all of it. Now, I have a husband who’s willing to gobble up a serving of yogurt each day. And then there’s lassi, an Indian yogurt drink I never thought to make at home until much later. I feel eager to try again.

This time, I ordered a milder tasting yogurt, viili, from Cultures for Health. Originally hailing from Finland, this strain of viili produces a custardy result. There is another variety by the same name that produces a yogurt of ropey consistency. I have yet to try the second kind, but if you’re looking for slick, gooey yogurt, ropey viili might just be the ticket.

There are other types of heirloom yogurt. Thermophilic cultures need to be incubated, but sets in about half the time. You can use raw milk, which requires gentle heating for pasteurization to keep the culture from contamination. Since you’re making this at home, you can control the quality of milk and even which animal the milk comes from.

Regardless of fermentation method, all heirloom cultures are reusable through saving a small portion from the previous batch to seed the following batch. If executed carefully about once a week, you could perpetually make yogurt this way for a very long time. Empowering!

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My order arrived with a dried yogurt starter I had to prepare before making my first batch. The box came with simple instructions and the website has an ample supply of additional documentation for those who are interested.

Mesophilic Heirloom Yogurt

¼ cup (60 ml) yogurt from a previous batch
1 qt (1 L) pasteurized whole milk

1 clean glass jar
a lid that isn’t airtight

Combine yogurt from a previous batch with fresh pasteurized milk and stir until the mixture is evenly combined. Put a non-airtight lid on top, like a towel or a plate. Find a place in your home with stable temperatures in the following range for fermenting mesophilic yogurt: 70-78°F (21-25°C).

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Leave the jar undisturbed for 12 hours and check to see if it set. If the temperature is on the cold side (or if you started with cold milk), it can take up to 20 hours. I usually start my yogurt the night before and check it the next day, or start it before I go to work and check it when I get back.

When the yogurt is done fermenting, gently tipping the jar will reveal a delicately firm mass that uniformly slides along the wall of the jar. If you wait too long, the solid white curds will start to separate from the liquid whey. You can still eat it and it’s better if you like a more sour flavor, but the next batch does best if the yogurt from this batch isn’t over fermented.

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Once you’re satisfied with the results, place the jar in the refrigerator to stop fermentation. You could have the yogurt with granola or fruit for breakfast. Add it to a smoothie or make frozen yogurt. Straining the plain yogurt thickens and concentrates the flavor, and makes a great dip when combined with herbs, oil, salt and pepper.

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Article

Roasted Sunchokes

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There are quite a few root vegetable options available if you’re interested in eating locally grown during the winter months in New York. Last time I was at Union Square Greenmarket, I picked up a bag of sunchokes. They’re sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes, but you’re really eating a tuber from the sunflower family.

I became addicted to the sweet, somewhat potatoey goodness of sunchokes after having them roasted for the first time about a year ago. You can even eat the skin, which is great. It’s like nature decided it’s okay to eat the wrapper. I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t want to peel such a weirdly shaped ingredient.

Don’t go crazy like I did, gorging on the stuff the day I discovered it. Or maybe do! It all depends on how your stomach handles it. It looks like a starchy ingredient, but it’s not. Actually, it’s mostly made of a carbohydrate called inulin, which doesn’t sit well with some folks if they have too much.

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Roasted Sunchokes

sunchokes, quartered lengthwise, about 1 inch (25 mm) thick
salt
pepper
olive oil

sheet pan

Toss the sunchokes evenly with salt, pepper, and olive oil. You can snip off a little chunk to taste and correct seasoning before you roast these. Spread them out on a sheet pan in one layer and put it in an oven preheated to 425°F (215°C). The sunchokes should be fork tender after 30 minutes, but you can leave them in longer if you want them to become more golden brown.

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Article

Trying to Pay it Forward at Logoff

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Earlier this season, I had the opportunity to work with college students at Logoff, a non-profit initiative dedicated to supporting conservation agriculture and humanitarian production systems.

The project itself was, for the most part, an experiment. Students were invited from around the nation to help create the guidelines for Logoff by trying to live by the credo “love people more than their stuff or their services” for six weeks. Located at a former monastery in Inwood, I worked with the Stewardship Team to prepare lunch and dinner during the weekdays. We sourced our food as responsibly as we could, preparing daily meals from scratch for about twenty people.

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When the team wasn’t preparing food, they held discussions about how their vision should inform their purchasing decisions. They talked about everything from sex trafficking to political policies to contaminated shellfish. The students were encouraged to get to know the people they made purchases from in order to understand their perspective and allow each supplier’s story to inform their decision making.

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One of the challenges the Stewardship Team faced was the sheer volume of information they were digging up everyday. What do you mean the free range organic chicken I’m eating comes from a factory farm where the animals spend most of their time in a crowded feedlot? So you’re saying the cotton in my bed sheets supports child slavery in Uzbekistan? Or the recycling process for my old cell phone ended up contaminating drinking water with lead in India?  On top of that, there’s little I can do about it? The deeper we dug, the more questions we had. With so many problems and no silver bullets in sight, the students pressed on.

Regardless of the scale of the issue, we couldn’t just beat ourselves up for not living the “perfectly sustainable life” nor could we allow ourselves to shame the people who weren’t making the same choices as us. We had to celebrate our successes, contemplate our challenges, and understand each other’s viewpoints. At the end of the program, we came away wiser, with a solemn yet more well informed understanding of what it meant for each of us to love people more than what they could sell us, and what it meant to love them more than the services they could render to us.

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So, what can we do at home to make a change? One thing I decided to do was learn about the origins of one of my favorite foods and make a single change in my lifestyle to support a more sustainable, or humanitarian option. For example: I absolutely love garlic. I can’t get enough of the stuff. Apparently, a lot of garlic we buy in the US is shipped from China or California. Living in New York, I thought about what I could do to lower the carbon footprint of this one ingredient I used. I got to know some farmers at Union Square Market who were growing garlic themselves and found out that I could grow it easily on my own. I already had a vegetable garden, so growing a patch of garlic wasn’t a problem, especially when it’s such a low maintenance plant. Maybe you live on a garlic farm in Russia. Maybe you don’t like growing stuff. The action steps you choose might look different from mine.

It seems like one person’s actions on their own are just a drop in the bucket, but a bucket full of water is a collection of many single drops. There are approximately 7 billion people living on the earth today. I believe that if everyone changed just one thing in order to support a better world, our future would look very different.

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Article

Core Kitchen Tools and Seasonings

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Cooking is a great thing. It puts you in control of all ingredients and nutritional content, it saves money because you’re not eating out, and it doesn’t take much investment to start either. As a bonus, it makes you look like a rock star if you can pull off a great meal.

My parents often bragged that Chinese cooks get everything done in the kitchen with fewer tools. I think it’s more accurate to say that Chinese cuisine has evolved to be preparable with a small number of tools. It’d be unfair to say that you couldn’t pull that off in any other home.

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Here’s a survival list of (non-pastry) kitchen tools I do nearly all of my home cooking with:

Colander and a big mixing bowl – For washing, draining, and mixing.
A sharp knife – Stainless steel is easy to maintain. Carbon steel makes me feel cool.
Cutting board – I dream about the Hi-Soft, but any sturdy board will do.
Microplane zester grater - I don’t need this. I love this.
Cast iron pan – For dry heat. Seasoned for the non-stick effect.
Stock pot – For moist heat. Bonus points if it can go into the oven with the lid.
Spatula, ladle, slotted spoon – Touch hot food with this.
A dry towel - Rule #42

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Here’s the part where I tell you the secret. It’s the rule of thumb that will help you with most of your flavoring quandaries. (If you have any, that is.) Many of the foods we eat are flavored with a balance of salt, fat, and acid. I call it the Pantry Triumvirate. Finding the right flavor can be simplified to a balance of these three things. Too salty? Give it a splash of vinegar. Is something overly acidic? Blend in some extra oil. Need to add more butter? That means you can increase the amount of salt, too. It’s the reason why why burgers go well with cheese (salt and fat) and a soda (acid), or why preserved lemons (acid) are used in a rich tagine (salt and fat).

Don’t feel limited by just three choices. Pick what works best for your own tastes. Use olive oil if your cooking is inspired by the Mediterranean or switch to lime juice if you like Southeast Asian cuisine. It sounds crazy, but you can even pick a type of salt based on the ingredients you use. In fact if you’re gonna splurge, splurge on these three things. It’s going in everything you eat so it’s gotta be good.

Staples in my own kitchen:

Hakata sea salt, fleur de sel
grapeseed oil, peanut oil, lard
various citrus fruits

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Actually, it’s the Pantry Triumvirate + 1: aromatics. That means cooking with something that smells nice. I always have fresh garlic and ground pepper on hand. Choose your aromatics according to the types you use most often.

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You don’t need a huge kitchen with a packed pantry to get into cooking. It’s just a matter of picking the smallest number of tools and seasonings that will get most of what you need done. If you’re looking to start cooking for the first time, a handful of tools, 3 seasonings and a couple of aromatics will fit into even the smallest New York City studio kitchen.