Entries from March 23rd, 2006

The Recipe Collection Meme

March 23rd, 2006 · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

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Rob from the endlessly fascinating Hungry in Hogtown tagged me for this meme. It’s really interesting to think of how differently we all cook and treat our sources of inspiration: How many of us cook after a wonderful meal at a restaurant, or watching a food show, or passing by a tempting bakery? How many of us spend evenings leafing through our magazines or cookbooks, searching for the recipe to inspire us? Do we scribble them down on pieces of paper, dog-ear the page, put a sticky on it?

And, of course, there is the combination of giddy relish at the sheer promise held within the glossy photos and enticing text, along with prickling guilt that you’ve acquired yet another batch of recipes to vie for your attention with the all the other ones you haven’t gotten to yet.

As I see the quality of cookbooks moving more and more into the coffee-table book realm, I am reminded of an article I read where the author questioned how many people actually cooked the recipes from cookbooks, and how many just kept them as pretty decorations and daydream material. I’m very pleased at the profusion of food blogs out there putting all these cookbooks to good use, and proving all those dazzling photographs are entirely possible to replicate at home!

Where do you obtain the recipes you prepare?

In my poorer student days I used to clip my recipes from the newspaper and from magazines like Bon Appetit.  My mom had a copy of the Better Homes and Garden cookbook that I stole when I went to college; the snickerdoodle recipe is fab! Nowadays, like many food bloggers I have Cookbook Acquisition Syndrome.  I try to tell myself that rather than it being a quantity vs. quality issue, I am getting quantities of quality books.  I do appreciate well-written, beautifully photographed, stylishly assembled cookbooks as works of art in their own right.

I also have about 2 D-ring binders full of recipes from pastry school that I refer to – the most valuable item I took away from class.  While they are on printer paper and have no sexy photos, they are excellent base recipes and cover pretty much the entire range of French pâtisserie.

How often do you cook a new recipe?

About once a week, usually on weekends.  Or else it’s a project spread out over a couple of weeknights. With pastry, and especially with new recipes, I prefer to take my time and enjoy all the details – the whirr of the KitchenAid as the ingredients reach just the right point of combination, the rolling of the dough to the perfect thickness, the peeling and careful sectioning of the fruit, the frosting of the cake to level-smoothness – yes, I treat baking like a Zen exercise!

Sometimes I will get home and just feel like whipping up a batch of cookies – fortunately I have about 100 on the to-try list!

Where do you store your favorite recipes?

The luckier cookbooks are on my bookshelves.  The unlucky ones are on the floor around the bookshelves where they stare at me in silent accusation of my inadequate storage facilities.  All my loose recipes and food magazines I have managed to corral into boxes. I tell my recipe collection that when I have moved into the kitchen of my dreams they will surely be organized and displayed in a manner that befits their importance!

How large is your recipe pile?  Is it organized?  How?

I do have a file on my computer where I list all the recipes I want to try in all the loose clippings and magazines I have – as you can imagine, the dessert category grew rather large before I started breaking it down into subcategories:)  I have a separate list of recipes I want to make from my cookbook collection – I tend to go mostly to my cookbook collection these days, so that one gets updated more often.

What is the oldest recipe in your to try pile?

I will make a guess and say it is a recipe for a coffee cake from a famous department store that I clipped out of the newspaper about 9 years ago.  I think I have recipes older than that; this is the first one that came to mind that I might still try.

Are you really ever going to make all those recipes in your to try pile?

Um, no:)  Haven’t we all realized that?

Do you follow a recipe exactly or modify as you go?

I will usually follow the recipe exactly the first time around, and modify it in the future to suit my tastes.

What is one new recipe that you’re scared to try?

This is an interesting question for me.  When I went to pastry school I made all sorts of things I would have never attempted at home, and under the chef’s supervision they usually turned out much better than I would have believed. (I think I did ruin the layers of the opera cake the first time I did it). 

But every time I try a new recipe, I still have that little frisson of uncertainty; that maybe the tart crust won’t come out as flaky as I want; that the cake layers might rise unevenly; that the mousse might not set right.  I look at recipes now and I can recognize the components and techniques I’ve learned before; I guess it’s not a fear that it will come out a flaming disaster (well, yes, maybe a little; don’t we all have that in the back of our minds?) but that it won’t come out as well as I am picturing it in my mind.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying I’m a perfectionist.

Tag at least one new food blogger for this meme ("new" as in only blogging a few months):

I’m tagging Tea of Tea and Cookies; if you haven’t read her hilarious and dead-on post on the addiction of food blogging you should!

Tag at least one food blogger you visit regularly but never interacted with:

I’m with Rob here; you mean I go to their page and don’t say anything?  That’s not me.

Tag at least one food blogger you constantly visit and leave comments:

I’ll say J at Kuidadore. Her blog is pretty much ne plus ultra for me: gorgeously stylish, well-written and literate, and I am so in envy of her cookbook collection!

Tag anyone else you want:

How about Brett at in praise of sardines, because anyone who’s ready to open a restaurant has got to have a lot of interesting recipes at home!

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Dessert Before Dinner: Hui Lau Shan

March 20th, 2006 · 9 Comments · Sweet Spots, Travel

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If you would like a refreshing break from walking around the streets of Hong Kong, there are few places more well known or more appealing than the Hui Lau Shan dessert restaurant chain.  Why don’t they have more of these types of places in the US instead of opening more Starbucks? (Actually, I just found out Hui Lau Shan has opened in California under the name Creations Desserts- take a look at the menu to see some of Hui Lau Shan’s typical offerings. I will have to check out the local branch soon!)

Imagine after a long day of shopping and sightseeing, you are dusty, tired, and all those shopping bags are getting way too heavy on your arms. Just then, you spot the distinctive red-and-gold exterior of one of these restaurants, the juice machines running merrily on the front counters, the servers calling out the dessert specials of the day. A bowl of fresh fruit over ice cream or a cold fruit sago drink sounds quite delicious right now…

Hui Lau Shan was opened over 50 years ago as an herbal tea shop, specializing in Chinese-style desserts featuring traditional remedies like tortoise jellies – apparently the original Hui Lau Shan store still has a 60-year old old tortoise on the premises.  Along the way they started offering fresh fruit drinks and desserts, and evolved into the hugely popular chain they are today.

The house signature dish consists of fresh fruit, like watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, and mangoes, sliced and arranged over a base of sweet ice cream.  The dish I had, which you can see on the red banner in the picture below, has a scoop of mango ice cream in a soup of thickened chilled  mango juice, with pieces of mango and sago(similar to tapioca pearls). Mango is a very popular dessert flavor in Hong Kong, as you can see from the Mango Mania section of the menu, and Hui Lau San does an excellent job with this tasty fruit.

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Hui Lau San’s tortoise jelly, or kwai ling go, is still on the menu! Kwai ling go is made from the bottom shell, or plastron, of a turtle, plus several Chinese herbs to make a black jello-like substance.  It is supposed to have many health benefits, including reducing fevers and improving the skin. I’m personally not that fond of it – it has a rather bitter taste – but combined with some ice cream and fruit, it might not be so bad. Other traditional Chinese health items also included on Hui Lau Shan’s menu are bird’s nest and harsmar, which has been euphemistically renamed "crystal snow" on the US menu – but which really just refers to snow frog fat!  Both items are reputed to improve the body’s functions and give you a glowing complexion – think of these as the Chinese version of those "nutrition boosts" those health cafes put in your smoothies!

The dessert break at Hui Lau San kept me going until we got to dinner in Causeway Bay as the neon lights started to come on in the city.  A necessary disclaimer: my facility in Chinese is far from fluent – while I know enough to ask for my favorite dishes or to get directions to the subway, I can’t navigate the quickly-scrawled, constantly-changing handwritten menus in restaurants.  So the burden fell to my wonderful parents, Hong Kong natives who took me to the local places I wouldn’t have found on my own and ordered the dishes I wouldn’t have known about.

Dinner that night was a perfect example – we went to a little restaurant on a small side street with no visible address or name (I believe the Chinese name translates roughly to "Home Cooking Restaurant") but was already filling up quickly at a quarter to six.

True to its name, Home Cooking Restaurant offers simple Cantonese fare like you might find from a home kitchen, well executed and at reasonable prices. One of our dishes was a version of sweet and sour fish, with a sea bass lightly fried and then covered in a tangy tomato sauce with pine nuts.

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We also had the "Grandma’s Chicken",  where pieces of chicken are marinated in a "secret sauce"(Grandma’s?) – the resulting dish is moist,tender, and savory – a bit like soy sauce chicken but without such heavy soy sauce overtones.
 

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We also had a classic Chinese home dish – steamed egg custard.  It is very similar to an omelet except it is cooked in a steamer instead of pan, giving it the tender, velvety texture of custard.  Bits of pork, mushrooms, scallions, and soy sauce are also mixed in, making a wonderfully filling comfort food.

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After a traditional dessert of red bean soup, we had plenty of time to stroll the streets thronging with nighttime crowds before we finally took a taxi back to the apartment, the glittering lights following us all the way home.

Next: Bakeries in Hong Kong!

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HK Dim Sum, How I've Missed You

March 16th, 2006 · 6 Comments · Travel

Living in San Francisco, most people would think there is easy access to great Chinese food. I won’t say there isn’t good Chinese food to be found, just that it is not as prevalent as one would assume given the large Chinese population. The thing about Hong Kong is that not only is there great Chinese food, but is it everywhere.  You can get an elaborate meal with abalone, bird’s nest, and other delicacies at a beautiful rooftop restaurant, or you can get a fantastic bowl of wonton noodle soup in a streetside shop.  My first meal of choice upon arriving in Hong Kong? Dim sum.

My favorite place for dim sum is Sheung Wan Ho Choi Seafood Restaurant on the Hong Kong Island. Like many establishments in space-deprived and ever-more-vertical Hong Kong, it is located on the upper floors of a nondescript building and has a rather unassuming storefront. Once you exit the elevator into the restaurant proper,though, you are faced with tanks upon tanks of fish, crabs, clams, and all sorts of sea creatures – a good sign of the freshness of the food to come.

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A beautiful example of har gow or shrimp dumplings, a classic dim sum item. The wrapper is translucent, hinting at the shrimp goodness inside, firm enough to hold together when picked up but delicate enough to tear easily under a bite. The shrimp were huge, plump, and juicy, cooked perfectly.  They were mixed with bits of crunchy bamboo shoots that combined with the shrimp juices to form a heavenly mouthful.

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This is another favorite of mine, lo bak gao, or turnip cakes.  The turnips in question are Chinese white radishes, which are grated and combined with rice flour, scallion, black mushrooms, Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, and other goodies (many dim sum items seem to be made by combining as many ingredients as possible in a tiny mysterious package that smells and taste outrageously good.  When growing up I would often ask my mother what a particular item was, to which she would respond, "It doesn’t matter, just eat it, it’s good."  She was right.) The mixture is steamed, chilled to form a firm cake and then fried. Cut into slices, they are greasy, hot, and richly flavored – perfect dim sum.

As another side note, lo bak also refers to carrot – the pointy orange kind. As I was not very fond of carrots as a child, I refused to eat lo bak gao for quite a long time – until I discovered my tragic misunderstanding.

Other dishes we had included siu mai, dumplings made of ground pork and shrimp in a wonton wrapper (more trivia: the characters for siu mai literally mean "cook" and "sell" – perhaps an allusion to the fact that these items are so popular they sell as quickly as they are cooked); fung jau, chicken feet in black bean sauce; lo mei gai, sticky rice with chicken and Chinese sausage wrapped in a lotus leaf; and a twist on the popular cha siu bao (barbecued pork bun) that I adore, cha siu so, where the barbecued pork is put inside a pocket of puff pastry and baked. When you bite into one you get flaky, buttery pastry and then salty, juicy cha siu – it’s like dinner and dessert in one bite!  I have never found any cha siu so done well in the Bay Area, so the reason I have no pictures of this wonderful creation is that I ate them as soon as they arrived on the table!

Dim sum is a beloved tradition in Hong Kong – while the most common image of dim sum is of cavernous restaurants overflowing with families and waitresses pushing carts, with everyone screaming at the top of their lungs, it can also be a more sedate afternoon affair, or a leisurely morning event.  In smaller, quieter restaurants like Ho Choi, you will see many elderly people sitting at the tables reading the newspaper, with perhaps one or two dishes in front of them, drinking tea and relaxing. They will sit there for much of the morning and no one will shoo them away.

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Dim sum is also available on the streets from vendors.  Usually these take the form of several siu mai or other dumpling types on a stick, to be happily bitten off as you continue wandering the city. Some of the street dim sum can be just as good as the restaurant kind – and it’s pretty hard to resist the smells as you walk by!

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I had arrived in Hong Kong at 6 in the morning, and by the time I finished with dim sum it was 10 – just in time for most malls to open (while many places are open early, most big malls do not open until later – important to know in the summer when reaching an air-conditioned place is critical). While my fits of consumerism come and go, it’s impossible not to feel the itch in Hong Kong. The newest mall in Hong Kong (they never seem to tire of building more shopping meccas, either), the APM Mall in Kowloon, does not close until 12 AM has some shops that are open 24 hours.

I managed to make rounds in about two malls before jet lag started kicking in and I needed a break. Fortunately, one of these was close by:

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Perhaps you can tell from the picture that I could not make it that long without some dessert! 

To be continued with a dissertation on desserts in Hong Kong…

Sheung Wan Ho Choi Seafood Restaurant

287-291 Des Voeux Road Central, Hong Kong

Tel: 2850 6722

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Back from Beyond the Looking Glass

March 14th, 2006 · 6 Comments · Travel

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Traveling to foreign countries is always like stepping through the looking glass for me: some things are similar in strange ways, while other things are completely different in stranger ways.  When you land in Hong Kong after a 14 hour flight from San Francisco, the sun’s in the wrong place in the sky, the cars are on the other side of the street, the subway system actually works, even the air feels different, moister and scented with the perfume of far-off places (when we were younger, my sisters and I would refer to it simply as "the Hong Kong smell").

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But if my dozen trips to Hong Kong during my life have not actually made me a resident, it has afforded me the pleasure of memories.  I breathe in the air and I remember how, in my parents’ apartment, you have a water heater switch for each bathroom to turn on the hot water; how all public announcements are made in both Chinese and English (and, these days, in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English); how I can tell my parents in the morning that I want to eat lobster that night and we’ll find a place because if there’s one thing Hong Kong isn’t lacking, it’s restaurants, especially seafood restaurants; how I can see Hong Kong harbor from my apartment window – one of my favorite sights in the world.

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This trip was a wonderful re-visiting of old memories and creation of new ones.  Of course, any visit to Hong Kong can’t help but have a heavy concentration on food (unless you’re such a shopaholic you can’t tear yourself away from the stores to eat – shame on you!), and this time I took especial care to document my culinary journeys.  In my next few entries I’ll try to cover the wide range of my gastronomic and non-gastronomic experiences – of course dessert will be included!

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You can also visit my photo albums on Flickr:

Hong Kong

Macau

Singapore

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Away Message

March 1st, 2006 · 3 Comments · Travel

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Just a little note to say I’m off to Hong Kong and Singapore for a bit of vacation.  I’ll be back in about a week with hopefully many pictures and stories to share – how could I not when going to two food paradises!

à bientôt!

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