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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cook With Me: Why I Must (Never) Leave Chinese Food. And Old Shanghai.

New Years Day 2015, and lo and behold.... I've got food on my mind. Before the holidays ~ and their soft silky glow ~ leave us, may I ask you a personal question: have you fallen head over heels for a food? Group of foods? Is it "your heritage" food? What calls you? Do you celebrate with different foods than your birth family? 

Wait though, group of foods, that’s so not the phrase I’m looking for. Nope, that's not the ambiance at all. But don't let the lack of that detail prevent you from heading in to this exploration, we'll figure it out together, I promise.

Whenever I was missing my two sons, who had grown up and were happily going about doing their thing, I would go out for Chinese food. You guessed it. I admit it. And it got bad.

After umpteen fat and crispy eggrolls dipped in duck sauce and hot mustard, platters of Vietnamese cha gio cushioned by green leaf lettuce and bean sprouts, slippery bowls of hot and sour soup that sting your winter weary throat, egg  foo young – sitting quiet and simple on the plate waiting for your chopsticks, spicy peanut noodles, and deep cavernous bowls of pho topped with a sea of cilantro and basil and mint life-rafts, I came to the screaming decision that whatever it was about this plethora of plumpness (not mine...hey!) I had to control my addiction by doing the only sane thing. Abandon ship and go cold turkey (not with szechuan spices..or sticky rice, please, oh god, can't we have just a little!) without Chinese food. I beg your temporal and temporary collusion on calling all of this Chinese’s not, I know. I was literally beside myself with conviction. I would be steadfast. Wasn't it ok to want to recreate the tables of the past? That sounded suspiciously like backsliding and rationalizing, and so I did what any other person would do. I sternly took myself by the hand.  

I held fast. I broke a few dozen chopsticks over my knee. I threw away the "to go" packets of chinese mustard. I stomped and sobbed and lobbed bamboo steamer baskets into the woods. I would not succumb. I emptied jars of plum sauce into the compost pile, annointing them with salty tears. Rice noodles got sent up, and down the creek without a rice paddle. I burned all my fortunes. Well, now.. no. I couldn't bring myself to that, I am reasonable after all.

After I calmed down, I took a cold hard look at the enemy, Eggrolls Past, and how this came to me. To be me.

I rolled the camera back. Chinese food was as foreign a food as a food could be when I was growing up in Reading, Pa. There I was surrounded by Liver Pudding, Schnitz and Ep, Bot Boi, AP Cakes, and ...lots of Germanish dishes. Was Chinese around when you were growing up? It was a lot like A Christmas  Story - (click the link and travel to the Christmas Story Museum in Cleveland, Ohio -- who knew?) where Ralphie wants a Red Ryder BB Gun, and on Christmas Day they are forced to go out for Chinese as the hounds next door ran-sacked the turkey. We never had to do that with Nana standing duty by our turkey on Christmas.

But my adopted mom, Aileen, married a Jewish man the second time around, and while I am not sure of the exact pathway, it seems we developed a love for Chinese food after that. Chop Suey and Chicken Chow Mein. I can still see the neon sign for the restaurant in Mohnton, Pa. The Far East Peking House or something like that? I can't decipher the name but I can taste the crunchy noodles, and that's more important... wahhhhhh!  

Inevitably, then, the movie advances. Let me take you to a scene where my husband, Rich, is walking ahead of me, carrying our first born son, Erick, in a backpack. We are fighting the blustery wind, well, he is breaking the wind for me, (no, not like that) as we walk down a street in Chinatown, NYC. It was right before Christmas in 1987. We had flown across the country from Colorado, and a little snow was not about to stop us. Among all the splendors of NYC at Christmas, such as splendid horse and carriage rides around Central Park and the equally splendiferous shooting off of Nerf guns in FAO Schwarcz, at the tippy top of the list we wanted Erick (and later Jaryd) to taste the real authentic deal. We opened the door, and the lacquered ducks in the window swung in unison to the tune of ...

Erick was seated in a high chair, though at five months he was not ready for that. So my husband held him in his lap. Our dinner arrived, and the steam swirled around and under and gently embraced us with a perfume of exotic oneness. Erick’s face brightened as he tasted a small spoonful. His mouth fell open. "Wow this is wild. This is delicious. What is this?" 

It was the ever devilish, fried rice.  

Another scene crystallized through the mists of ...egg drop soup.

Back in the day in Colorado Springs we often visited Mekong restaurant on the south side of town, owned by Dang Truong and his family. They made us feel like we were home. They made us feel like family as Dang always welcomed us and during the Dinner of Seven Beef Dishes carried Erick around the restaurant and into the kitchen, his first restaurant kitchen calling him Super Boy. We were lucky enough to visit some old time friends in Colorado Springs and see Dang again in his new place Lemongrass Bistro. 

Owner, Dang Truong, with us at his new place, Lemongrass Bistro

Both my sons grew up amidst a backdrop of Chinese and myriad of Asian food ~ along with French and Italian and Mexican and Southern with a little Shoofly Pie and Sticky Buns thrown in for good measure. But am I sorry to say that Pennsylvania Dutch food didn't maintain it's place in my heart as it did when I was little? Sure. I wanted to have what I thought others always had, a family food. So why was I so fast to discard what was given so freely to me? Did it feel like it didn't really belong to me? I hope I was grateful. I felt grateful, especially to Nana. But maybe I never said a word. Maybe she understood as we sat at the table joined by eating our bowls of chicken corn soup? And what would she say about all this Chinese food?

If I had been enamored of say, always making pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day as Pa Dutch tradition demands, wouldn't I be denying the food and the people where I was living? I had changed.

After I left Pa. I celebrated and searched and shared a multitude of yummy ways of looking at the world. I didn't worry about what I had left. I quite possibly was consumed with I for I was young.

For me and for us, Chinese food came to mean family, and celebrations, and spending time together with our sons. We had moved away, and embraced a new life. The nights we got take out Chinese were a delicious "wok" of WE. And by we I mean all of us, everywhere. I believe eggrolls and dumplings helped us celebrate being as different and perhaps pilgramatic, as say Chinese food on Christmas. 

My sons grew up to celebrate, gulp, the same things -- the reasons they flew the coop were not the same as when we had, right? To test out their wings and find! In fact they return to the coop. And we to theirs. Gosh, were they living what we had, in fact, done? And taught them? How did this happen?

Colorado is where my oldest son, Erick, returned, and is the executive sushi chef at Sato in Edwards. Kayla, his girlfriend works there too, and has the most amazing and descriptive palate and aspires to new adventures of her own. Their world is chock a block and blazes full of snow storms, fish and rice  (not usually fried) and kombu.

My youngest son, Jaryd, is entrenched in the LA world at Dreamworks where he works on dragons and cavemen during the day. Ana, his girlfriend is studying urban planning and public health at UCLA and together they love sharing Nicaraguan, Brazilian, Ethiopian, and Houses where Dumplings number in the hundreds for choosing at will.

As I may have said, have I OVEREMPHASIZED THIS POINT? both of my sons are grown up now and off in the world doing their delightful thing, as I did. They may be gone, but I realized they are not far away. How I wish I could thank Nana, talk to her. Let her know that even as I moved away, I held her close and cherished all the times in her kitchen, what she showed me. What she told me about life through the stove, and the stirring.

And what would I be showing my sons if I stopped eating Chinese food? The very epitome of what we shared and cherished. What made me lift the ban on Bahn Mie or Pork Steamed Buns, was the same thing that led me to abolish it, celebration. Suddenly bowls of Pho that once seemed so full, and yet so empty, swirled and were swilled. This holiday season we had a wonderful wonderful time with both Jaryd and his girlfriend Ana and with Erick and his girlfriend Kayla as we made cha gio (and other things too) in the kitchen. Was it sharing this ritual with their special someone's that made things OK? Perhaps it was. It definitely was! Is there change afoot? In buckets!! Am I a Drama Mama? I am perhaps, but count me ready.

So, full circle back to the beginning. What makes you fall so foolishly for a group of foods?

Aha, Group, is definitely not the right word; but maybe, just maybe, Family, is.

Erick, Jaryd, and Kayla at La Belle Gasconne

Erick manning Sato's Sushi Bar, circa 2009. 

Fish As Far as the Eye Can Sea...

Shrimp Tales

Ana and Jaryd crafting summer rolls on Christmas Eve

Jaryd extolling the virtues of ...cha gio.

Christmas Eve with Ana and Jaryd

                                                      Christmas Eve with Ana and Jaryd

cha gio, vietnamese spring rolls

our family loves these spring rolls so much that when we moved from colorado springs, where we became addicted to them, we began to prepare them for our christmas eve repasts.

the fish sauce:
2 small garlic cloves, crushed
1 small fresh red chili pepper, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons honey or gosh and gasp, raw sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice (lime preferred)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup nuoc mam (vietnamese fish sauce)

the accompaniments:
1 shredded cucumber and 1 shredded carrot
1-2 cups bean sprouts
fresh mint, basil, and cilantro

the filling:
2 trimmed scallions
2 carrots, peeled and trimmed
4 garlic cloves
1 pound ground pork
1/2 pound raw shrimp, peeled
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon nuoc mam (fish sauce)
1 egg

assembling and frying:
1/2 cup sugar
30 rounds of rice paper, 6 1/2 inches in diameter

prepare the filling:
using the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel knife, process the lemon grass, carrots, garlic, and scallions until finely chopped.  add the raw shrimp, ground pork, black pepper, fish sauce, and the egg and process until well blended.

assemble the rolls:
fill a mixing bowl with warm water in which you’ve dissolved the 1/2 cup sugar. handle the rice paper with care as they can be brittle. sweetening the water helps the rolls turn a golden brown when fried.
one at a time immerse the sheet in the warm water and remove it to a clean countertop. continue in this fashion, dipping and laying out the moistened rice paper till you have about a dozen. place about a tablespoon of filling in the bottom third of the rice paper. fold up from the bottom, the rice paper can be quite sticky and stretchy, resilient even. fold over and cover up the filling, and shape into a log. then fold in the two sides and roll up burrito fashion being sure to completely enclose the filling. it is very important to roll them tight so they won’t break open during the frying. if one should tear, double roll it, by moistening another rice paper and enclosing the torn eggroll in that. continue until all the filling is used.

for the fish sauce:
in a medium bowl, combine the chile, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, lime juice and garlic. stir to blend. set the sauce aside.

for the accompaniments:
wash the lettuce and leave the herbs whole, placing on the same platter as the lettuces. refrigerate till ready to eat.

fry the rolls
if possible fry in 2 woks or deep pots. pour 3 to 4 inches of oil into each skillet and heat to 400 degrees. working in batches, add some of the rolls to each skillet, but do not crowd or let them touch, or they will stick together. fry for 5-6 minutes, turning often, until golden and crisp. remove the rolls with a bamboo skimmer and drain on paper towels. keep warm in a low oven while frying the remaining rolls.

serve with the fish sauce and suggested accompaniments.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Guest Author Post: Allison Snyder. Ah, the Writer’s Craft. It’s Like a Good Zabaglione. Part Deux.

I’ve recently completed a manuscript and proposal for a middle-grade fiction cat memoir. The working title is Laddie: A Story about Landing on Your Feet. Dorette graciously asked if I’d like to pass along some thoughts and experience about the writer’s craft. I am honored that she asked and surprised I accepted, since I have an aversion to getting up in front of people. Here are some upshots I’ve learned along the way so far. Happy reading and writing!

Hi! Welcome back to the writer’s craft. And you didn’t even need your code word!
So prior to completing the kids’ novel, I had done some writing for my church, had a couple of recipes and essays published in the local papers. I wrote for a dog magazine. None of it’s been paid writing, but good experience and exposure. I hope some money comes at some point. It may not. I’ll know when to keep plugging or let go. Regardless, I am not going to quit my day job.

Boy, the Cat. Boy, The Muse, Showing a Little Leg

Upshot #4 - Don’t quit your day job.

There’s a pretty wacky reason why I now have a complete manuscript and proposal: My best friend was crazy about my cat. He was a big, gorgeous male tabby that my husband and I had adopted as an adult cat from one of his clients. My friend spent a lot of time around the cat, me, and my daughter. Little by little, this cat started to take on a persona and history all his own – completely fabricated, of course, by me and my friend. But that’s one of the fun things about fiction-writing. You get to make things up! And no one’s going to judge you.

Our kitty became a lazy, handsome, inquisitive British viscount (Hugh Grant meets Curious George) who had been abandoned by his opera singing mother, Catarina Caterwaul. (I never could warm up to opera.) Hard to blame her since he was an adult cat who was still hanging around the estate. Here’s my elevator pitch: uppity British noble cat gets adopted by ordinary middle-class American family and discovers those things money and a title can never buy: love, family, and hope.

I then started to think more about the hope thing, about the language of pet adoption and how similar it is to the language of the gospel. Words and phrases like adopt, rescue, save, forever home, new name, new life began to pop into my brain. Wow, I thought, this is like our relationship with God. What if I could write something that would point kids to a healthy relationship with God, not based on fear or performance, but unconditional love? What if I could try to make it funny, make the cat sort of rude, entitled, good-looking, self-obsessed but rescued and loved, anyway. What if I could make him human, give him human abilities (like memoir-writing) and traits? That’s what we do with our pets anyway, so why not use that proclivity we all have to point kids to loving truth about how God feels about them? “He has drawn us with loving-kindness…He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness.”

Upshot #5 – Write about what you know.

We entertained ourselves so royally (pun, pun) at my cat’s expense, we decided to meet weekly at Starbucks to pen his memoir. Then my friend, having better things to do, like work a paid job as a banking executive and take care of her elderly mom, sort of bowed out. But I kept writing with her encouragement.

 In fact, had she not kept on expecting me – with a straight face – to continue with the project that had started as our little lark, I would not have finished the manuscript and proposal. I laughed at her when she said the book was a viable, good story. People like us don’t publish books, Lu Ann, I declared. She did not laugh back. So I quit laughing and put my head down and butt up. (I was raised on a farm, so that’s agri-speak for manual labor like weeding a garden.) Before she bailed on me though, we found a great professional editor who told us everything that was wrong about the book and a few key things that were right.

Upshot #6 – Cultivate friends who believe in you, even if they have to bail on you. And don’t be ashamed to buy good advice. That’s an editor.

Finally, writing is manual labor plus learned skill. Yes, you use your brain and your heart, but it’s just work. Trust me. Once you have your idea and notes, you’ve got to start. Don’t turn it into this grand, I-know-I- can-be-the-next-Faulkner thing. Stop that.

And if you wait for the muse to strike (whoever, whatever he or she is), you will find that, at best, he is a fickle friend. Think of the one who habitually cancels at the last minute. He will no longer be your friend after a while, will he? At worst, he will try to talk you into thinking your value is tied up with how much and how well he inspires you. So shut him up. The best way to do that is to write. Write well some days. Write nothing some days. Write lousy on others. Just write. And take notes on what pops into your head at odd moments, like when you’re swiffering the floor or taking a walk or when, say, a disagreement with a loved one becomes fodder for good dialogue.

Upshot #7 - Remind yourself often that writing is, like bowling, a learned skill. It’s something you do and maybe even get better at, the more you do it. You may never be a professional bowler or a best-selling author. Writing is not something that defines who you are. It is one component of the marvelous whole. And while you will inevitably do so more on some days than on others, enjoy it!

Zabaglione, Ready For It's Close-Up

PS: Zabaglione is a simple Italian dessert made of egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine. It is usually served warm, though it can be served cold, or as a sauce, or even frozen.

Allison Snyder was raised on a dairy farm in western New York where her fascination with reading, writing, and cats began in earnest and never left. She loves to write about pies and cakes, too. Her food and pet essays have appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, The Triangle Dog, and The News of Orange County. She is also an assistant chef and team-building coach at C’est Si Bon Cooking School in Chapel Hill, NC. A French major at North Carolina State University, Allison studied fiction writing there under the late Tim McLaurin. She makes her home in Orange County, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Guest Author Post: Allison Snyder. Ah, the Writer’s Craft. It’s Like a Good Zabaglione.

Bonjour! I am so excited to introduce you to Allison Snyder -- Author, and one of our extraordinary Kitchen Team members at C'est si Bon! In this Guest Post she warms you with her tale of how she became a writer, tickles your funny bone and shares the recipe for a delightful sweet - something for which Allison is well known. 

Allison Snyder, Team Building Coach, C’est Si Bon Cooking School

I’ve recently completed a manuscript and proposal for a middle-grade fiction cat memoir. The working title is Laddie: A Story about Landing on Your Feet. Dorette graciously asked if I’d like to pass along some thoughts and experience about the writer’s craft. I am honored that she asked and surprised I accepted, since I have an aversion to getting up in front of people. Here are seven things I’ve learned along the way so far. Happy reading and writing!

Ah, the writer’s craft. It’s like a good zabaglione.

Both sound wildly creative and mysterious, with overtones suggestive of real consumption.

I’ll be honest. That is what all writers hope for – consumption, readership - because all of us, writers or not, are relational beings. We are hard-wired to share ourselves with others. And sharing always involves risk, putting yourself out there, whether navigating the waters of friendship, marriage, dating, parenting, writing, publishing, cooking or baking a new recipe. Living is risky business. As my dad used to say, the alternative is so much worse. I think I’ll take the risk. How about you?

Mom & Dad outside the Officer’s Club; Waco, Texas

Me? I have always been a late bloomer. I had my daughter a few days shy of my 38th birthday. Depending on whether you believe Time (ca. 2002) or The Atlantic (ca. 2013), she was something of a miracle baby. Not that every day at home with her was a 100% barrel of laughs. Any human being out there – never mind mothers – knows that life never works that way. As writers, we are taught to avoid the never statement. This is one case where we should embrace it.

Like all first-time parents – especially those nearing geezer age for first-time parenthood like my husband and I were - we had to get over the shock-and-awe hurdle. Yes, no going back. Fortunately, we all get nine months to get used to that fact, right? In most ways it is like waiting for Christmas to come, a beautiful gift to look forward to. In other ways it is like getting a diagnosis of a chronic condition - I’m sorry, ma’am, you’ve got parenthood.

 But I really did like being a mom and being in the home. Part of that had to do with loving being at home with my mom when I was small. Maybe it was also because I’d been a corporate type and came to realize that while money is a lot of things, it really is not everything. But you have to unload half your income to really test that theory.

So I gave up clothes that had to be dry-cleaned in favor of poop-stain-resistant wash ‘n’ wear from the Target sale rack and Goodwill. I gave up expense account lunches in favor of spoon feeding strained peas to a little human who was a great eater. A different form of client services to be sure.

I came to appreciate – even adore - the heretofore-despised, climate-controlled predictability of walking in the mall. Hip, sketchy neighborhoods with bumpy, historic sidewalks are less than ideal for strollers, not to mention Mama’s peace of mind.

And speaking of predictability, I enjoyed the nap times. I enjoyed the ritual of every day after lunch, taking off the chunk-laden bib (speaking of which, when we relocated to Hillsborough when my daughter had just turned 10, a petrified, dirty bib revealed itself upon moving the washer. Aww…memories), chasing my chubby-legged little one around for a while to tire her out while enjoying her squeals. This along with the full tummy would cause her to nap for a good two to three hours.

It was during this time that I began to write.

Upshot #1 -Take for your writing time whatever predictable opening that presents itself.

Let’s face it. As far as books go, one person’s life-changer is another person’s appliance manual. That’s the nature of reading. In fact, many of you may have stopped reading this blog post, and that’s OK. And I will keep on telling myself that as I face the mounds of rejection that will surely come as I enter this new phase of finding an agent or publisher.

 Yet selling a book is surely a little bit like selling a house in a challenging market. For those of us who have ever undertaken this project, we know that we only need one realtor (literary agent) and one buyer (publisher) to close the deal.

Upshot #2 - Get over thinking every agent or publisher will love your writing. Do you love everything you read? No. The good news is you’re not looking for every agent or publisher, just one of each. So take heart.

You already know this, but it bears repeating: writing comes from reading. I come from a long line of compulsive readers on a vast array of subjects. From my dad, I get my love of Civil War generals and uppity news magazines. From my mom, my proclivity to be guiltily (not my mom – me) but inexorably drawn to The National Enquirer while standing in the checkout line at Walmart. Oh, I should be reading about Mother Theresa or at least William Tecumseh Sherman. Too bad they’re not in the Enquirer. I am a terrible person. At least I never buy it. Oh great, that means I steal it.

Upshot #3 – Keep reading for the joy of it and let it shape what you write.

And stay tuned to this blog. Check in soon for more upshots. Code word: zabaglione.

Read Part Deux of Ah, The Writer's Craft is Like a Good Zabaglione.

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