pasta


Well, there’s really no easy way to put this. So I might as well just come right out and say it.

I don’t know how to cook Chinese food.

Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous coming from a Hong Kong native who ate pretty much nothing else but Chinese food for her entire childhood. Naturally, you would think that Chinese cooking would come as second nature to me. But alas, nothing could be further from the truth. (Chinese eating, however, is another matter altogether and on that front, I believe I do my culture proud.)

I remember the first time I asked my mom to teach me how to cook something Chinese, way back in the day when I considered popping frozen mini-pizzas into the microwave as cooking. I honestly don’t even remember what she was making at the time. You see, what stuck in my memory are exchanges like the following:

Me: Mom, how much soy sauce did you just add in?
Mom: Oh you know, just enough.
Me: … um, how many teaspoons is that?
Mom: Oh I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. There’s no need to measure.

Let me tell you, when you’re new to cooking, nothing is more frustrating than figuring out what to write down in your notebook (aka future recipe treasure trove from whence magical dishes shall be recreated!) when all your mother will tell you is that you need to “add just enough soy sauce.” Right then and there, I became convinced that Chinese cooking was some crazy voodoo magic, possibly involving incense sticks and incantations but definitely not involving actual measurements. So instead, I turned to cuisines with actual recipes(!) published in actual cookbooks(!) and began learning to cook from there, all the while quietly avoiding the topic of Chinese cooking and hoping no one will notice.

That is, until my favorite cookbook-writing duo came out with a book focused on Chinese cuisine, specifically the cuisines of the minority populations of China. As wary as I was about Chinese cooking, I can never resist one of their cookbooks, so our cookbook collection got another book bigger. Thanks to this new addition, I’m slowly learning to overcome my fear of Chinese cooking. And these days, you can even find me guilty of foregoing measurements in favor of instinct. Because if ever there’s a cuisine flexible enough for creative/lazy measurements, it seems it would be ours.

You know what they say: Like mother, like daughter.

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Many apologies for the severe lack of posts, but weirdly enough, I’ve been traveling an extraordinary amount lately. I find this turn of events quite strange because on the job description of a grad student, travel is usually at the bottom of the list (unless you’re in anthropology and work for someone Indiana Jones-esque, of course). I left in early October for two weeks in Hong Kong (3 days of conference, then 1.5 weeks of touristy fun with Nathan interrupted by 1 day of laying in bed with stomach flu – bleh!). Then, while still recovering from jetlag, I had to spend a weekend at Asilomar for my graduate program’s retreat. Now, I’m off again to Boston for another meeting next week. Whew!

It seems that while I was gone, summer has officially left us and we’re well into the rainy season here in SF. As much as I will miss the bounty of heirloom tomatoes, I’m excited for the arrival of winter squashes, which have already started appearing in our CSA box. I have grand plans to go totally soup-crazy soon enough, but until I have time to fill the freezer with tub after tub of chicken/vegetable stock, I have to think of other fun things to do with squashes.

So how about a simple butternut squash lasagna, to start?

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Since our bacon-curing adventure gave us a beautiful chunk of homemade bacon, Nathan and I have started brainstorming all the different ways we can use it. As I mentioned before, our bacon turned out quite salty, so we can’t really eat slices of it for breakfast. But fear not, because as our friend Brian likes to say, everything tastes better with bacon!

For our first attempt, we wanted to use the bacon in a dish that still allowed it to be the star and not dress it up too much. The first thing out of my mouth was ‘pasta carbonara,’ one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes. This is another one of those pasta dishes that take as long to prepare as it does to cook the pasta, so that fulfilled our second goal: not having to wait too long before eating.

My carbonara usually involves a few more ingredients but this time, I opted for the simplest recipe possible for the sake of the bacon. Mario Batali comes to the rescue! His recipe talks about separating the egg yolk and egg white, so that you gently nestle the yolk on top after tossing the pasta with the egg whites. As much as I’m a big fan of seeing whole egg yolks on top of dishes, I actually prefer tossing the pasta with all of the eggs instead because it creates a creamier and clingier sauce.

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There are two benefits to getting a sourdough starter going. One: you have a working starter and can bake yummy breads when you like. Two: you can stop talking about the starter all the time. OK, so I cannot guarantee that I won’t post about making bread with the starter again, but hopefully, you’ve seen the last of foamy, frothy starter pictures. And I know at least one of you is happy to hear that!

I’ve been looking around for a good mac and cheese recipe for a while and have even attempted a few. So far, I would say that this recipe, adapted from one by the always-trusty Ina Garten, is the best I’ve tried and will probably be the basis of all my future mac and cheese endeavors. It’s got an excellent bechamel sauce, a decent sauce-to-pasta ratio, and a really crunchy breadcrumb topping.

Of course, since mac and cheese is so conducive to variations, I have no intention of making the exact same recipe twice. This time around, I omitted the bacon in the original recipe for the sake of eating less meat, but next time around, I might not be as disciplined. A couple handfuls of peppery arugula would be excellent here too, as would green peas, wild mushrooms, corn, etc etc. The list just goes on.

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Linguine with Arugula and Black Pepper

You know what? I used to be addicted to those super-quick pasta packages you find at the supermarket – you know, the Kraft mac-n-cheeses and the Pasta Ronis in assorted flavors. When I was in college, my roommates and I had a little hot plate in our dorm room, to which we would resort when the food at the dining hall was especially terrible that day. When all you have is a single hot plate and a little saucepan (and a whole night of homework ahead of you), those instant pasta things came in pretty handy. When I graduated from college, I would still turn to those pasta packages when I didn’t have time to really cook. When I moved to Berkeley and decided to eat healthier and more organic, I started buying Annie’s mac-n-cheese instead.

Today, I’m proud to say I’ve been Kraft-free (and Pasta-Roni-free and Annie-free) for about 2 years. How did I kick the habit? By discovering some awesome pasta dishes that literally take as little time to prepare as those pasta packages but taste ten times better. My favorite one to turn to is still this linguine dish I learned from the lovely Giada De Laurentiis, back when I still watched Food Network. Cheesy, buttery, and peppery (both from the black pepper and arugula), pasta doesn’t get simpler or tastier than this.

With a grand total of six ingredients (three of which you should have already lying around your kitchen) and a preparation time clocking in at 10-15 min, you too can kick your instant pasta habit. The first step, of course, is to admit you have a problem in the first place.

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bucati.jpg

Coming back home from vacation is always both a bit sad (that vacation’s over) and a bit happy (to be back home). I always look forward to being able to cook in my kitchen again. Not that I don’t enjoy eating out or anything, but cooking is so relaxing that it’s hard for me to go without it for a long time. Are those the words of an addict?

Of course, the first few nights back usually mean staring into an empty fridge and a freezer with frozen chicken pieces (courtesy of Brian during his move). Luckily for us, we had our veggie box pick-up pretty soon after we got back. A quick stop to Trader Joe’s to grab some dried pasta and we were able to improvise a decent dinner. By the way, Trader Joe’s started carrying a new kind of pasta – Bucati!! For some odd reason, I really like hollow pastas.

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gnocchi

One of my favorite cooking sites is 101 Cookbooks. I’ve only tried about 5 or 6 of Heidi’s recipes so far but they have all proven to be delicious. Not only that, but the recipes are also super-accurate, which wins big points in my book.

The gnocchi recipe on 101 has been on my list for a while. Lucky for me, our veggie subscription recently started raining potatoes on us, so it was prime time to try it out. While these turned out great, I think next time, it would probably be better to buy starchier potatoes from the store instead of using the creamy varieties we get from the farm box.

We tossed the cooked gnocchi in some pesto we made a few days ago and topped with a bit of grated pecorino – yum! Too bad the pesto turned brown so it didn’t make for a very appetizing photo – thus, no cooked gnocchi photo for us. I figure they probably wouldn’t want to be remembered as being coated in a brownish sauce anyway.

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