Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Cooking. the holy trinity.

Now that my mother is here I come home after work and open the fridge to see what she has brought home from the grocery store. I stand there in the chilly, fluorescent-bulb-lit draft and wonder about how to compose the various ingredients into something resembling a meal; there has to be a vegetable, a tofu dish, and meat or fish. There are clear plastic bags of tofu and bunches of leafy green vegetables and a profusion of mysterious dried ingredients that I can't identify. And there is a package of skate wings in the meat compartment, slabs of pale fish shot through with thick bones that fan out like bird's wings in their blue styrofoam tray. I'm not sure what to do with the fish, but there is a knob of fresh ginger, a bunch of scallions, and thank heavens, some white wine in one of the cupboards. The holy trinity.

In cooking, everything starts with three things. Fried rice only needs rice, eggs, and scallions; a basic batter is only flour, eggs, and milk. I marinate chicken wings with scallions, garlic, and soy sauce in gallon-size plastic zip-top bags; pork is braised in wine and soy sauce and rock sugar that melds into a syrupy sauce. And fish is steamed with slivers of scallion, slices of ginger, and a slosh of white wine. (Same goes for shrimp, stir-fried in a wok until just cooked through). This is one of my earliest memories, some white fish - bass, perhaps - laid flat in a Pyrex pie plate, covered with the scallions and ginger and white wine, the entire dish wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and then microwaved. I can remember how the plastic wrap would balloon out from the steam and then collapse against the fish, pulled taut from the vacumn created by the heat; I remember how my mother taught me to peel away the plastic so the steam would escape away from me and not burn my hand. It was my mother who taught me how to cook, who gave me my repertoire of dishes seasoned with different holy trinities.

I like this part of cooking, slicing the scallions at an angle, so they fall in pale and dark green wisps. Then the ginger, which I am too lazy to peel; each slice is so thin it is almost invisible in my hand. I scatter some of the aromatics across the bottom of a glass dish, lay the fish across the top, and pile on the remainder of the scallions and ginger, before sprinkling on salt and pepper and pouring white wine over everything. Pull off a piece of plastic wrap, stretch it tightly over the pan, stick it in the microwave that I didn't even know worked. (The night he arrived, my father stood in the kitchen with his hands on his hips, and told me that I had better figure out how the microwave worked because it was impossible to exist without it). The minutes tick by, and the fish emerges white and fragrant and shrink-wrapped like the fish of my childhood. All these weeks my parents are in town I find myself cooking the sorts of things I remember when I was young, things I watched my mother make, that I am now making for her. It is a strange feeling.

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