Kung Pao in the Time of COVID

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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As a hedge against renewed COVID angst and the current wave of Kafkaesque national politics, I’m cleaving to this course again for a little while, just until the omicron spike subsides. (Some say the graph is shaped like an ice pick but I can’t help seeing it as an inverted hypodermic needle.)

Because I ran out of Ben & Jerry’s but I did have chicken and crunchy peanuts on hand, Kung Pao will have to do for today’s comfort food.

In addition to those two ingredients, I added red bell peppers and scallions along with dried chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and yibin yacai (preserved mustard greens) for the aromatic flavor burst component, and sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, Zhenjiang vinegar, and Guizhou fermented black bean chili sauce to keep it together.

And apropos of keeping it together, I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible that between the red bell peppers and the green scallions, I was subconsciously trying to keep Christmas around a little longer.
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

Egg Drop Soup

And speaking of holiday leftovers….

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I usually use chicken broth when I make egg drop soup.

But the idea here was to use up all the leftover turkey with deference to glorified frugality beyond the ritual turkey salad sandwiches, turkey hash, turkey mole, turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, turkey pot pie (see last post) and an occasional treat for the cats, so the broth that went into this dish was made from leftover roasted turkey bones.

If only I had a leftover turkey egg to use in this…. 🙃

Lunch in a New York Minute

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A post? Now? No time!

Supposed to be making treats for the holidays. Might not even be enough time to get it all done.

But…hungry right now. Need something faster than delivery. Fresh mushrooms in the fridge, rice noodles in the pantry, fresh ginger, garlic, scallions, onions, always a jar of “master sauce” on hand. Boil noodz, chop veg, stir fry, plate.

Time for artsy photo? Nope. Barely in focus.

Time for clever writing? Nope. Not even full sentences.

Lunch served. Back to holiday prep!

East Harbor Seafood Palace

It’s been a minute. Dim sum from East Harbor Seafood Palace, 714 65th St in Sunset Park, Brooklyn – all equally delicious. Last photo was taken mid-stream, just after as many empty plates had been cleared.

It is said that a picture is worth 1,000 words, so now I don’t have to write (and you don’t have to read) 10,000 words! 😉

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Xin Fa Bakery Dan Tat

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Chinese Egg Custard Tarts (蛋挞, dan tat among other English spellings) are on display in just about every bakery case in NYC Chinatowns and can be spotted riding on dim sum trolleys threading their way through restaurants at lunchtime. They found their way to China and Hong Kong decades ago via English custard tarts and Portuguese pastéis de nata and are available these days in a wide variety of styles: basic (Guangzhou/English-inspired bright yellow surface), brûléed (Macao/Portuguese influence), egg white only, green tea, coconut, even strawberry, almond, papaya…and the list of creative variations goes on. Some time ago, there was a bakery on Mott Street that sold them to the exclusion of any other baked goods and boasted dozens of flavors; alas, they’ve since closed. New Flushing Bakery offers a rotating assortment including Strawberry Milk Custard, Lemon Egg Custard, Mango Egg Custard with tapioca balls, and Purple Potato Custard. Best I can tell, dan tat are a universal favorite.

Recently, my Number One Spy urged me to go to Xin Fa Bakery (aka Lily Bloom) at 5617 8th Ave in Sunset Park to try their signature egg tart. If memory serves, she likened the line that trailed out the door onto the sidewalk to the queue for a cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery during its heyday, but she’s never wrong so I ventured out to Brooklyn’s Chinatown. (Actually, there are more than one Brooklyn Chinatown, but that’s a story for another day.)

These exceptional pastries are in a league of their own, heavy for their size and completely unlike any I have ever tasted – and judging from the expectant phalanx waiting at the door as well as a legion of stellar online reviews, most folks agree.

Fresh out of the oven and so hot it nearly pizza-burned the roof of my mouth. But it would have been worth every blister: it was fairly bursting with creamy custard, dense, sweet, eggy, and jiggly.

The crust is layered but not crispy; its yielding texture complements the rich custard perfectly.

They offer other baked goods here – the sign for Japanese Castella cake caught my eye – but I was monomaniacal in my mission. No worries – I fully intend to return.

There is a downside though, and it’s not the ultimately manageable line outside. These little gems have ruined me for any other dan tat I might encounter. So if we ever do dim sum together and the dan tat hail from that restaurant’s kitchen, go right ahead and grab them as soon as they hit the table – they’re all yours.

Mott Street Eatery 98 Food Court – Part One

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I made it to the soft opening of Mott Street Eatery 98 Food Court at 98 Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown on November 11; the Grand Opening was on the 12th. Only two of the twelve stalls were set up, Domo Sushi, which featured nigiri, maki and such along with an omakase option, and 89 Eatery, the sprawling anchor, teeming with hungry patrons when I visited.

Between my spookomaki and the kuromame for the nattophobic posts, I’ve been eating a lot of Japanese food lately, so today’s choice would be Chinese without further deliberation.

I’ll cut to the chase: everything I tasted was truly outstanding – and considering I had just enjoyed great dim sum for lunch in Sunset Park less than a week ago (post coming soon), that’s saying a lot.

They offer 35 kinds of dim sum…

…25 varieties of soups and congee with you tiao (Chinese crullers) and additional meats available to accompany them…

…and 16 items in the BBQ section along with mix ‘n’ match selections.

Where to begin? I chose three of my favorites from among the impressive array of dim sum, all of which were remarkable:

Chaozhou Dumplings (aka fun guo), fresh from the steamer, featuring peanuts and bursting with crunchy vegetables. Top notch.

The inner workings.

XO Sauce Pork Rice Roll. This was made as a special order with a wait of just a few minutes, and it was also excellent. I’ve often seen XO sauce touted on a menu but not readily apparent in the dish; in this case there was no question. And as you can see, plenty of pork.

The inner workings.

Bean Curd Sheet with Pork. Definitely a fan.

The inner workings.

Of course, I’ll come back for the congee and BBQ – and for the eleven other stalls as they get going. This is definitely my idea of fun.

Stay tuned for Part Two – lots more to come!
And most important, I’ll say it again: Here is another delicious opportunity for all of us to do the right thing – now, more than ever, please SUPPORT CHINATOWN!

Product Name: Strange-Taste Horsebean

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That’s what it read on the back of the package. Horsebean is simply another name for broad beans or fava beans, in this case dried for nibbling purposes. Now, if you decide to go ahead and do some independent research on the Google, be sure you search for the single word “horsebean”, not the phrase “horse bean” lest you tumble down a rabbit hole that, trust me, you truly do not want to explore. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I spotted these in a Chinese market snack aisle, my happy place of late, it would seem. They’re coated with a crunchy shell, at once spicy, salty, and sweet – the triumvirate of addictive noshing. Another caveat: I was surprised to discover a few of these that seemed almost as hard as pebbles, so chomp gingerly.

There was precious little English on the package except for the following on the back:

“Diehua brand strange-taste horsebeans are produced since 1897. The product has a special taste, fragrant and sweet and crisp, numb and sore, salty and fresh, comfortable and tasty and refreshing, it likes mulberry tree’s fruit color and lusterris Moise….”

[Luscious, maybe? They’re certainly not lustrous. Can’t figure out Moise. Starts out okay, kinda falls apart by the end….]

Followed by one final instruction: “Eating Method: eat right after open it.”

Mission accomplished. Yum.

But I need to make it abundantly clear for those of you who don’t know me that I am not mocking the language in the legend. Whoever wrote it has far more English than I will ever have of any Chinese dialect, and as such they also have my respect. I once had a friend who said that if she could be granted any wish, it would be to be able speak every language of the world fluently. I still admire her for that. It’s not about showing off, it’s about openhearted communication. That’s the first step in connecting with anyone.

And when all is said and done, that’s why writers write.

Tiger Sugar Rice Balls

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These days, Tiger Sugar and their wildly popular brown sugar boba milk drink along with ancillary products like ice cream pops, milk egg rolls, and even popcorn are a common sight in Chinatowns (and elsewhere!) along with a multitude of wannabe competitors. Two of their more intriguing creations include their innovative take on classic filled rice balls, in this case Black Sugar Salted Egg Custard and Black Sugar Sesame.

Filled rice balls have been around forever, long before there was a Tiger Sugar, and are readily available in the freezer case at Asian markets. Tiger Sugar’s interpretation capitalizes on their signature flavor: since the outer enclosing layer is made from glutinous rice, it’s a little chewy like boba and tastes like their famous drink, but less intense.

There are ten 1¼-inch spheres to a package; all you need to do is boil them for a few minutes (they expand a bit), drain them, and as the instructions direct, “put them into iced fresh milk or sweet soup”. When you see the phrase “fresh milk” in Chinatown, it simply refers to standard whole milk; “sweet soup” comprises any of the many varieties of Cantonese tong sui: sweet, warm dessert soups.

Black Sugar Salted Egg Custard Rice Ball. You might recognize the distinct flavor profile of salted egg yolk from visits to your favorite dim sum parlor or Chinese bakery – so many buns and balls filled with creamy salted egg! Unlike a moon cake, you won’t find a whole egg yolk in there; this filling is made from palm oil, powdered sugar, bean paste, milk powder, egg yolk powder and then, finally, salted egg yolk powder – but it’s rather tasty nonetheless.

Black Sugar Sesame Rice Ball. The filling is sweet and unquestionably black sesame, its texture is a little crunchy and gritty in a good way. Again, most enjoyable.

IMO, they’re both good with a bit of milk poured over, but not tossed into a whole glass of fresh milk. Also IMO, they don’t play well with ice cream – trust me, I tried. But I keep looking for more ideas because I really do like them; I’m convinced there’s an ultimate way to use these in addition to sweet soup. Any thoughts?

Chinese-Italian Inspiration

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Other than as a source for ideas, I’m not one to slavishly follow others’ recipes; my preference is to innovate rather than replicate. (Not to mention that in doing so, no one can complain that I didn’t “get it right”. 😉) I was once asked where I find inspiration for my own concoctions, so apropos of that question, here’s a recent story:

I had been chatting with a charming woman who maintains a patch in a local victory garden. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she was half Chinese and half Italian. (Imagine being a kid growing up with two sets of holiday traditions – so jealous!) She offered me some Chinese long beans that she had grown which I eagerly accepted. I was pondering how to prepare them: I could adhere to some classic time-honored long bean technique but I felt inspired to do something more with them, perhaps to create a dish that might reflect the dual heritage of the person who had cultivated them.

So this was my process. Looking at the shape of the Chinese beans, long, thin, and cylindrical, it was a cinch to come up with an element from Italian cuisine that would match: a member of the spaghetti family was the obvious choice. For this application I chose bucatini (aka perciatelli) since when fully cooked it would be nearly as thick as a long bean.

Now for some vegetables: I decided that Chinese dried mushrooms (aka shiitake) and fresh Italian cremini would harmonize nicely so they became a significant component along with chopped onion and red bell pepper in the base because those are cross cultural, and garlic, of course. Lots of garlic. For a bit of protein, ground pork went into the mix since pork is common to both regions.

And a sauce to bring it all together: Was there one that made use of some ingredients associated with both cuisines? Sichuan Yu Xiang sauce would be perfect. (Yu Xiang means “fish-flavored” but don’t be misled by the phrase – it neither contains nor tastes like fish; rather this delicious blend refers to a combination of ingredients, a little sweet and sour, a little spicy and salty, often used in preparing fish.) It comprises an assortment of classic Chinese condiments including doubanjiang (chili bean paste), Zhenjiang black vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine and soy sauce plus, the way I make it, some tomato based sauce, so that’s a loose nod to Italy.

IMHO, the dish totally worked.

That’s the cool thing about inspiration – you never know where it’s going to happen, but it always happens when you least expect it.
Only one question remains: Do you eat this with chopsticks or a fork?

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2021

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A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated this year on September 21. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.

Since 2021 is the Year of the Ox, known for his patience and resolution, I was determined to purchase (and eat my way through – no matter how long it might take me 😉) an assortment of these delicacies in order to compare them and ultimately share them, virtually, with you. For a deep dive into the holiday and these delicious treats, please check out my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified page detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

Note: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary. The Mid-Autumn Festival, however, will be with us forever – as long as there are autumns to celebrate!