If Yan Could Cook. . .

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Fish Congee and Tonkatsu

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A few months ago, I went to Toronto and Markham to do nothing but eat Chinese food for a couple days straight. JP led me from congee house to noodles to bakery to Northern Chinese to Dim Sum; we were still eating Milk Jam buns at three in the morning. For a pasty white boy, he sure knew his stuff. Over Christmas, I went home to Vancouver and glutted myself on Chinese and Japanese food. Living here has worn down my standards terribly – I was starting to say that fibrous, bitter, overgrown gai-lan and steak as gummy as taffy was acceptable, even good “Chinese broccoli with beef”.

Yesterday, peering mournfully into my fridge, I thought: must we travel so far?

For the congee, I minced three gloves of garlic and tons of fresh ginger (three inches of stalk), and placed them in a bowl with three bunches of chopped green onions. I cubed seven cod fillets and threw them in the bowl too, along with a splash of rice wine vinegar and soy sauce, and a larger dose of sesame oil.

For the congee itself I used one cup extra-glutenous white rice and about two or three cups regular jasmine white rice. Here’s a suggestion: don’t do that. Try 1/2 a cup of each. I’m going to be eating congee for the rest of the month. This is really the food to glue shut the mouths of your fifteen hungry children. I had to scoop out half, plain, and store it in the fridge. Water determines texture, and you can keep adding as long as you want. The short of it is use lots and lots of water, and add more as it disappears. Boil it for about two hours, until the rice disintegrates into paste, kind of like oatmeal.

Near the end of cooking, add the fish mixture and as much salt and white pepper as you deem necessary, and stir in; the fish will cook quickly in the hot congee.


People often eat this for breakfast. My parents use it to accompany leftovers, when someone is sick, or when neither of them has any idea what to cook. While I made it, I kept imagining my mother shrugging, and saying, “Bo jook,” which, translating tone and context, would mean: “I don’t know, why don’t we just make congee?”

Tonkatsu is a Japanese deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, usually served in a sandwich, in a big bowl of rice and egg, or alongside noodles in soup. Okay, I don’t actually know what it’s “usually” served with, those are just the only ways I’ve encountered it. I figured it would go well with congee. It was surprisingly easy to make; it worked just the way I thought it would, which almost never happens.

First, make an assembly line for flour, one beaten egg combined with a few tablespoons of soy sauce (or water), panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), and the pan you’re going to fry them in, as below:


Take a trimmed pork cutlet, dip it in the flour, and brush it off, so the entire thing is covered in as thin a layer as possible. Next, dip it in the egg mixture, again letting excess drip off. Finally, coat both sides in panko; here you can go nuts.


The last step is easier on a gas stove than electric, because it helps to have good control on the heat of the oil – or at least it’s less messy, and there’s fewer black bits in the pan when you’re finished. The oil (olive is fine, but a waste; canola is more appropriate) should be very hot and the cutlet should sizzle, but not be popping all over the place. You only need enough oil to cover one side, and then flip, rather than actually deep-frying. This was actually my cleanest, least panicky experience with breaded stuff – all told, it took less than fifteen minutes.


In addition to the congee, I served it with some steamed bok choy and oyster sauce to dip the choy in, because I often use cooking for people as an excuse to lecture them on their vegetable intake. When I brought the food out, JP remarked, “I know you’re going to make some comment about me having yellow fever – but you’re the one who made it.”

“I am yellow, friend,” I responded, “that’s the difference.”


Written by skimfu

January 10, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Asian, Fish, Pork

Salmon Dip, Roquefort Cream, and Other Banalities

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On a television show, one character arrived at another character’s apartment – they didn’t know each other well – and wheedled his way inside. “I have two Porterhouses and a six pack,” he said.

My initial reaction was to squeal. “That’s awesome!” I said.

My boyfriend, slightly miffed, brought up the fact that he’d been bringing me boxes of Chinese pastries regularly since we met. “Steak trumps pastry, come on,” I said. Later I conceded that while bringing raw steaks and beer to someone’s home is romantic, it’s also invasive – someone showing up to use my kitchen when I wasn’t ready for them would irritate me. Except, you know, there’d be steak.

“You think beer and steak are romantic, my dear, burly man,” he chided, gently.

Salmon Dip

I like this picture a lot, because it displays the grandeur with which I eat and hints at the squalor in which I live. The simultaneous presence of cockroaches and prosciutto is not uncommon in my home.

In the dip, in no particular order: garlic, spinach, artichoke hearts, canned salmon, sour cream, green onions, Havarti, Monterey Jack, white cheddar, lemon juice, black pepper. The garlic and spinach needed to be cooked and the cheese needed to melt, but essentially this was all just flung face-first into a pan. I’ll admit that sour cream, artichokes, and lemon juice resulted in a little too much tartness: the trick here would be to go absolutely wild on cheese. Spinach, artichokes, and enough cheese, and you could be grinding shoes into it (personally, I recommend crab, fish, or crushed nacho chips) and it would still be delicious. I ate it on Stone Wheat Thins and slices of cucumber, with a mango smoothie (frozen mangoes, ice, yogurt, juice) at hand, lazily paging through a textbook. Snow blew furiously past my window; I stayed at a distance where I could not tell if it was actually snowing or powder was just being stripped violently from the rooftops. Someone messaged me to ask if I wanted to go work out with them at a gym on the other side of town. I declined, mouth full of hot cheese, thinking, “Are you mad?”

My friends and I had a Christmas potluck during a week where I was completely strung-out from exam preparation and over-caffeination. My two addictions – academic praise and coffee – had left me looking and feeling like the junkie I was: haggard, jonesing. Dismayed at the idea that of actually cooking, I went with Roquefort cream gnocchi and the candied walnuts I had made before for a salad. As I predicted, people asked me all night if I made the potato gnocchi myself, and I had to say no (I suspect it wouldn’t be that difficult, but I don’t tend to break out the pastry bag during the school year). The dish was actually deceptively simple. The storebought (gah) gnocchi was just dipped in boiling water. The sauce was just a big hunk of blue cheese, crumbled and melted, along with micrograted white cheddar, and a full cup of 15% cream. Black pepper to taste; adding salt is for fanatics. The pasta and sauce were tossed together in a casserole dish, topped with a ridiculous layer of shredded parmigiano-reggiano, and then run under the broiler until coloured. I thought the flavour was too strong (it was a wicked blue cheese) for a group setting, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.

When someone asked me what I brought, I thought about it for a moment, and said, “Cheese.”
“What else?” he inquired.
“That’s pretty much all that’s in there,” I replied.

I confess I have essentially stopped cooking during the exam period, which has been going for weeks now. Today, for example, I woke up at 5:15 a.m. and had nothing but coffee until after nine p.m., when I fell, dizzily, into the snow. I am not saying that to be melodramatic and emo – I wrote a literary analysis paper in between. And I did not follow it up with cigarettes and pouring my papery, delicate-as-glass legs into hipster jeans, sitting dead-eyed and starving through a band and then writing darkly of sensory sensations on a very different kind of blog. Once the awfulness of the paper was behind me, I did what I always do: sat in a cheerful fort made of clementine oranges and potato chips.

I think the city needs to regulate bacon consumption. I would like, very much, to sit down in a diner and be refused service, on the grounds that I have exceeded my allotment for this month.

Written by skimfu

December 18, 2008 at 2:28 am

Posted in Fish, Pasta

Salmon-Potato Patties with Chipotle; Spinach-Tomato-Shallot Rice

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Nothing makes you feel more inadequate than grad school applications. Stretching your accomplishments, giving them false titles, jamming them into inappropriate categories, rooting through everything you have ever done and finding it pitifully brief. Endless pages of blank text fields. I’m applying in creative writing, so there is the added esteem-crushing task of selecting a portfolio. Reading my life’s work, all I want to do is throw up my hands and yell, “It’s all terrible!”

As an act of sanity retention, I spent a day cooking and going to kitchen surplus stores. One of them had a graveyard of used industrial appliances, arranged haphazardly as in an attic or garage. Excitedly dragging the person I was with behind me, I marveled over the surreal sight of salamanders and table fridges and deep-fryers and broilers and deli cases and monolithic silver microwaves and plate warmers and flat tops and grills all crammed together in one place. “I think I’ve had a nightmare like this,” I said.

The $10 nonstick pan I bought in first year, and the one I kept as a damages settlement after an ex-boyfriend moved out, were both starting to fall to pieces. Their paper-thin bottoms were as warped as though I used them to beat rocks, with coating flaking off the peaks.

I went home yesterday with the Calphalon Contemporary 10″ + 12″ set, as well as an anonymous stainless steel with a thick, intruder-knocking-out base. In celebration (and justification) I made dinner for my old roommates in the apartment where they still live, traveling across town with a pan and several Tupperware containers on my back.


This was the first meal I can really say I made up – where I went entirely on intuition with no sense of how it would turn out. The truth is that it was a little bit busy; it had that excessively-trendy restaurant feel to it, where they have crammed too many flavours into one dish. Reasonably concordant flavours, but too many. At the same time – it might have been the tastiest, most complex and exotic thing I’ve ever made.

At home, singing merrily with that new-consumer glow, I chopped up two bunches of green onions, two large vine tomatoes, and shallots (very fine), pureed some chipotle peppers in oil, and peeled and boiled three large white-flesh potatoes. At their place, I mixed the mashed potatoes with a can of boneless, skinless red sockeye, as well as the green onions and one egg. These were rolled into balls and flattened, then briefly baked (5-10 minutes, 350 degrees) in the oven, until the tops changed colour just slightly.

The shallots were cooked in butter, adding red wine (this smelled ridiculously good), spinach, and tomatoes in turn. The plates were layered as follows: white rice, shallot-spinach-tomato mix, two salmon-potato patties, a dollop of chipotle, and then crushed pecans and dried cranberries. I really don’t know what should have been omitted. The pecans and cranberries are the obvious choice, but I liked their surprising, occasional notes.

My hosts supplied brownies and apple pie. Afterward, I stopped in at another friend’s birthday, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only time in my life I have refused cake. Oof.

Written by skimfu

October 19, 2008 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Fish

Cooking for One, Baja Fish Tacos, Salmon Salad

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Today I went shopping at a food superstore – the kind that sells vegetables, barbeques, hard drives, and underwear side by side, that you can get lost in for hours. The man in front of me in line was buying six bottles of Sprite, two pineapples, and nothing else. I imagine his fridge contains nothing but a 4L bottle of vodka.

On the walk home I saw a squirrel eating a Mars bar, which was such an odd spectacle that I just stopped and watched. He didn’t seem to mind. Most of the wrapper and about a third of the bar was clutched in his small paws (claws? hands?) as he nibbled away at the edges. Are you built for eating something like that, dear squirrel? Can your system handle it? Is no ingredient a more potent poison than it is for us (delighting, as we do, in slow poisons)?

Recently I moved into an apartment with a kitchen at least a few blocks up on my road to the Dream Kitchen. There is a gas stove, a fridge that beams like a beauty pageant winner, and most importantly, space. All of the goodies and gadgets I have acquired over the years can all come out at once.

Cooking for myself in this place, though, has a curious sense of defeat to it. I used to live in a one-room studio. Now I have a dining room that seats eight. Last night, I made myself a fantastic steak dinner, with zucchini and eggplant and steak fried in butter. After I ate (sitting alone in the kitchen) I deglazed the pan and added some onions and garlic to make gravy for another day. I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the gravy (shepherd’s pie? straight up mashed potatoes? another steak?) and this little voice in my head said, “What’s the point? It’s just you. Go get some McDonalds.”

The forty minutes I spent in the grocery store were the highlight of my day. Playing a game of combinations in my head (I could puree all the leftover bruschetta ingredients but leave the tomatoes coarse, then toss it with some hot linguine and sausages! Let’s buy linguine and sausages!). The cooking is fun, sure, but then I reach the point of plating and I just slop the food onto the plate. It is just me – and a book, or my laptop and some shitty TV show.

A couple months ago I made Baja Fish Tacos for a small group of friends. They have these everywhere in California (at least in the Bay Area), as a staple fast food. The version I came up with was cubes of beer-battered cod in soft tortillas, with small chunks of cucumber and shredded lettuce, and a yogurt sauce (cilantro, lemon juice, jalapeño peppers, garlic, spices) served with two fruit salads. Conventionally there would be fruit salsa, but I am personally opposed to the concept. My friend Laura D’Alessandro took the pictures.

At my housewarming dinner I served salmon salad to seven. It was sort of haphazardly conceptualized, but it came out…well…spectacular. Sadly, no one had a camera. Each plate had a salad of mesclun greens, cold potatoes (boiled and just slightly crisped on the stovetop), raspberries, corn, and blanched asparagus, dressed in homemade maple vinaigrette. The salmon was baked under a layer of ginger, served on crustinis (three slices of baguette, each toasted with melted gouda on top). The ginger was removed and replaced with a heaping spoonful of bruschetta – minced olives, garlic, red onion, basil, and jalapeño, mixed with small-diced tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.

It was the stuff of dream weddings, and overpriced restaurants by the sea.

Why cook like this? For pleasure, certainly, but there is a comparable level of pleasure in eating Cheetos and ripe cherries, things you can buy and then pop in your mouth. One cooks like this to be loved. Eating your beautiful meal alone is like being a demented, jilted bride, wearing your wedding dress every day for years, wandering your one-bedroom apartment, thinking he’ll come back.

Written by skimfu

August 10, 2008 at 9:24 am

Posted in Fish, Salad, Vegetarian