Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Taipei, days 9-11.

On Sunday we headed down to Alishan, or A-Li mountain, part of a mountain range about six hours southwest of Taipei (by car). There is a national park at the heart of the mountains, and we spent two nights at a hotel inside the park. You had to park in a public lot and take a shuttle bus into the park itself. I fell asleep in the car, and kept waking up to see more winding roads and endless green hillsides, until lunchtime, when we stopped at a roadside restaurant where everything was made simple of wood and bamboo and people were sitting around watching the World Series on a small tv. Outside the restaurant, sausages and slabs of what looked like pork belly were grilling on a barbecue; inside was quiet (except for the tv). The view was glorious, looking over hills and fields, with the mountains in the distance. Those fields were lined with rows and rows of tea-bushes, a neatly clipped, deep green. Like the vineyards of Italy, only with Camellia sinensis instead of grape vines. We would see these tea-fields all the way to our destination and back again.

We ordered lunch, slices of the grilled pork belly and crisp-skinned sausages, which are rich and chewy and addictive. There is sticky rice stuffed into hollow bamboo stems and steamed (I think), vegetables, and soup with bamboo shoots. It is all very simple, but very good, and everything else we eat for the next few days will have that same simplicity to it. I fell asleep again after lunch, and woke to find the world shrouded in mist. A shuttle bus took us to the hotel, all wood paneling and expansive views. Old and new blend together; the new entrance is flanked by gift shops selling local teas and crafts and leads to an elevator that sweeps you up to the front desk that is, strangely, on the fifth floor. Hot tea is brought to us in tiny paper cups as the concierge offers to wake us at 4 am the next morning so we can watch the sunrise. Alishan is famous for its sunrises, but I have no desire to crawl out of a warm bed at an ungodly hour to watch the sun rise over the mountains in the company of hundreds of noisy tourists.

Dinner is in the hotel restaurant, very pink, with dripping chandeliers and windows along one long wall. The food is good - cold tofu dabbed with the locally grown wasabi and a little soy sauce, braised game, and a lethally hot soup with bamboo shoots that burns my mother's face as she unsuspectingly bites into a bamboo shoot and is assaulted by a jet of boiling soup. Much commotion involving an earpiece-wearing restaurant manager, ice cubes, and burn cream ensue. (The triangular burn will disappear over the next few days). The next night's dinner is less dramatic, and not as interesting, culinarily speaking, but I am too busy thinking about the photographs I took earlier from the terrace on the hotel's sixth (and top) floor. The setting sun had turned bright orange; the sky was streaked pink behind the trees, and I climbed over the potted herbs placed around the terrace to get a better shot. I can still smell the lavender and rosemary on my skin.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Taipei day 6.

In Taipei my parents have a few select restaurants where they often go for dinner, either by themselves, or with friends or business acquaintances. They have become the kind of people who have a place to go where they are known by the management, who will arrange a private room or a special menu. Tonight we are at the basement restaurant of the Hotel Landis, where the chef once came up with a menu entirely free of garlic to accomodate one guest's allergies. For this dinner my mother had asked for something simple and not too heavy, going over menus with one of the managers and changing various dishes, vetoing shark's-fin soup in favor of something less fancy, requesting noodles (it is J.'s birthday dinner) for one course. Phone calls and faxes have been flying back and forth, and I am looking forward to the final result.

We arrive and are ushered into a large private room, the kind usually used for wedding banquets and business functions; our table for ten people looks small at the end of the room. (The neon "longevity peach" sign on the wall - this is a birthday celebration, after all - makes us all laugh). Uniformed staff members rush around with chairs and lidded cups of tea as we wait for the other guests. At last everyone is together, and we sit down to eat.

Small plates of cold dishes are laid out - drunken chicken, cold seaweed, a sort of shredded beef jerky, tomatoes marinated in a syrupy dried-plum juice, all sorts of things I can't remember and certainly can't describe. I try everything, and then return for more, but am distracted by the first course. The first course is a dish of endive leaves filled with tiny sweet peas and some sort of vegetarian meat. Gently cooked shrimp are sweet and tender. A softly braised...something I can't identify is dark and savory. I think it is a sea cucumber, but I am not sure. There are braised vegetable marrows, pale green. Then comes a piece of fish in a creamy, golden-orange sauce, with a hidden surprise of grated mountain potato crunching against the softness of the fish. It might be cod, but then again, it could be anything. More recognizable is a bowl of noodles in a dark broth with pigs' feet.

Dessert is a steamed bun filled with sweet bean paste, shaped like a peach. For long life - it is traditional for birthdays. An enormous blushing-pink peach-shaped bun is presented, then lifted away to reveal a pile of smaller peach-shaped buns, each of which is placed before us. There is a plate of fruit - grapes and star-fruit and something I don't know how to describe, and at last, a sweet soup flavored with rice wine and tiny seed-shaped...things, with a single ball of sticky-rice paste filled with black sesame paste. Everything is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like Taipei itself, old memories clashing and melding with the present, new and different.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Taipei, day 5.

For lunch we head out to Yangmingshan, the mountain that overlooks Taipei. My father's family has a burial plot somewhere on the mountain, a terraced piece of land that looks across misty green hills and the city in the distance. There are waving plumes of wild grasses and neatly clipped camellia bushes, and it is beautiful there. But today I am with my mother, and we have another destination, lunch at an intimate restaurant housed in a series of low buildings set amongst rocky gardens and winding paths. You need a reservation, and on weekends they are hard to come by. But today things are quiet, and we follow a headset-wearing, clipboard-wielding woman towards the main building, taking our shoes off at the entrance and walking along the tatami-floored room to a low table in the corner.

We sit at that low table, my mother and F. and her mother and I, an electric kettle in the corner boiling away for the tea that we drink throughout the meal. There is no menu, only a waiter - there are a few of them, all young and good-looking and tall in their jeans under long aprons - asking if anyone is vegetarian or has any allergies. I like this kind of eating, when the menu is chosen for me and all I have to do is eat. And it begins, a blur of beautiful plates, course after course, hot and cold and crisp and soft and sweet and savory. In all there are fifteen courses, including two different kinds of fruit vinegars drunk as palate cleansers, one pineapple, one mulberry, and tea and fruit and a little ice cream to end. There used to be only ten courses, the waiter tells us, but some people complained that it was not enough.

Everything was clean and refined and precisely flavored, even the carefully formed mounds of savory sticky rice that came near the end, just large enough for the taste to fill the senses but not weigh down the stomach. This is fortunate because four hours later, it is time for dinner. We go whizzing off into the night in my mother's little car - it is as different from the sedans and SUVs she drove in Seattle as her Taipei life is different from her Seattle one, and I find it just a little disconcerting - and wind up at a quiet little restaurant where we are the last of our party to arrive.

Again, the meal has already been ordered and I sit and sip my sour-plum tea as the food begins to arrive, red-braised pork and pale-green vegetables and tofu and some kind of fish, sweet and clear-tasting in its simplicity. Even the fatty pork tastes light, somehow. There are tureens of soup and little dishes of dried preserved tomatoes and bowls of plain noodles. Dish after dish, and I am full, yet not so stuffed I can't move, which reminds me again how Taiwanese cooking is different from Western cooking. Later my mother will tell me it was all health food, as was the meal we had eaten at lunch, and it does not surprise me, even though it did not taste like health food. (Of course I am not sure what health food is supposed to taste like, since I avoid it assiduously). It was all extremely good, and I look forward to more of it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Taipei days 3-4.

Yesterday we went to the basement supermarket in the Breeze Center, which, like every other high-end mall in this city has expensive shops upstairs and a supermarket downstairs. By supermarket, I mean SUPER market. Taiwanese supermarkets like this one make Whole Foods look like a 7-Eleven. Or a mini-mart in some dodgy neighborhood, the kind that has a metal grill over the front window which slides over the front door so it can be locked at night and the proprietor looks at you as if you were some shop-lifting young teenage punk trying to score a pack of cigarettes and a beer. Or something. This is something else, a dazzling array of foods of every kind, gleaming and sparkling beneath the bright lights. A bakery lined in honey-blond wood has tray after tray of pastries and breads of all kinds; cakes are arranged like jewels behind the glass counter. You take a plastic tray and a pair of tongs and go around helping yourself to croissants and hazelnut-topped swirls and mini-loaves of bread with nuts or olives or raisins or - how can you bear it? - plain bread.

To the left, dangerously, is a branch of Dean and DeLuca, all coolly black-and-white, advertising set lunches and exotic coffees. But we need groceries, so we sweep onwards, into the produce section. There are plastic-wrapped bunches of greens, all kinds of leafy things that I can't get back home, packets of bamboo shoots and finely shredded ginger and lily bulbs and goodness knows what else. The meat department has row after row of every cut imaginable, finely sliced pork and beef so richly marbled that it will practically melt in your mouth as you eat it. There are trays of whole fish, of fillets and heads and tails and collars and steaks and everything in between. Sashimi is arranged on real shiso leaves - no fake plastic decorations here - and piles of shredded daikon radish, to absorb moisture. The dairy aisle is filled with bottles of milk, plain and whole and lowfat and apple flavored and papaya flavored, and yogurt drinks of all kinds. And I haven't even made it through the cookies and candies and noodles and sachets of instant soups and bottles of sauces before I am whisked through the checkout line and on my way back to the car.

Today we make it to Ding Tai Fong, where I come at least once every trip. On a weekday, early, there is no line, and in no time at all, it seems, I am eating xiao lung bao from a bamboo steamer, dipping each bun into a saucer of dark vinegar and eating it cautiously from my spoon, with a few shreds of ginger. They are just as I remember them, the translucent skins revealing the blush of the ground pork filling, hot broth dripping out into the safety of the spoon with each bite. There are also steamed vegetarian jiao zi, and hot-and-sour soup, but it is the xiao lung bao that I have come for. When I am far away I dream of Ding Tai Fong the way a dog dreams in winter of the bones he buried in summer, waiting for the time to come again when he can once again run out and find them. I dream of eating xiao lung bao, and regret the three years that have passed since that last time and this one. And then I eat another one, and the regret fades away.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Taipei, day 2.

For lunch we head out to a vegetarian restaurant to meet a friend. For all its cosmopolitan sprawl Taipei is a small town, and as soon as we step inside the coolly modern restaurant my mother runs into people she knows. J. is already eating her lunch, an intriguing tangle of noodles and vegetables and probably some form of tofu. The menu lists noodle dishes and rice dishes and hot-pots of various...vegetarian things, and I am baffled. There are dishes with truffle oil and dishes that promise "Italian-style" noodles and set menus that begin with health drinks and end with dessert (which appears to be the sweet soup made with white wood ears - that ruffly, translucent fungus mushroom that was my bête noire as a child. F. arrives, and we order. I think I have ordered some kind of fried rice, but I am not sure.

I am not a vegetarian and never will be - I am too fervently an omnivore for that. But I have been slowly reducing the amount and frequency that I have been consuming meat, particularly red meat, and I am constantly amazed at how easy it is to eat well without it. My fried rice arrives, steaming invitingly, and it is delicious. Made with brown rice - or perhaps it is some kind of wild rice - it is a study, as all great dishes are, in contrasting tastes and textures, with the chewy, nutty rice and crisp-sweet slices of red and yellow peppers and the dark strips of shiitake mushrooms, along with soft shreds of tofu skins and green lettuce. It is intensely savory and incredibly filling, and if I weren't so full I would want more. This is vegetarian cooking at its best, hearty and refined at the same time.

Dinner time, and I move around the long expanse of my mother's kitchen for the first time. It is unlike the airy kitchen of my childhood, with its pale beige-painted cupboards and dark marble backsplashes, or my own narrow galley kitchen in my apartment, with its white counters and gray cabinets and early 80's appliances. The living, dining, and kitchen areas are one single, open space with the kitchen running along one wall, a single counter that extends into a pantry at the far end. There is a single gas burner next to a glass flat-top, and it is with a sense of excitement I ignite the gas burner, hearing that click-click-click-fwoosh for the first time since moving into my own home last year. It is a strange feeling; the oil and salt and pepper and soy sauce are the same; the pans are different, the utensils are different, the food is different.

Too tired to even consider watching three pans at once, I make each dish, one at a time, not even bothering to wash the pan in between. Pale green cabbage leaves are sautéed until limp, swirled with soy sauce; I have a moment of doubt when I wonder if I added too much. I squeeze the water from the reconstituted dried matsutake mushrooms, more intense and yet less fragrant than the fresh ones, stir-fry them with slices of pink marbled pork, more richly marbled with fat than anything I have at home. Then comes eggs scrambled with tiny white fish, each smaller than a bean sprout; they seem to wiggle in my fingers as I drain the water from their soft bodies. Everything is different; the apartment which I had not seen until my arrival a few nights ago, everything a reminder that my parents have a different life now, on a distant shore. The table is not the same (a long, minimalist slab of wood, so long it had to be hauled up the outside of the building, all sixteen floors, because it could not fit into the elevator), the dishes are not the same (the plates are smaller), the food is not the same. (Except for the cabbage, because, well, how different can soy-sauce-cooked cabbage be?). Only we are the same.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Taipei days. Day 1.

Generally when I am in Taipei, I try to eat mostly a) Taiwanese food or b) Japanese food. It is only the first day, and I have already succeeded in doing both.

At lunchtime we hopefully swing by Ding Tai Fong, the dumpling place where I go at least once every trip, but there is a fifteen-minute wait. It is not even 11:30 yet, and the place already packed. I will have to wait until another day for xiao lung bao, those steamed pork dumplings that burst with hot broth as you eat them, but never mind that. Something else is around the corner. We go to a small restaurant that has been around forever, it seems, with a chef sitting low to the ground behind a vat of boiling broth just inside the door. Noodles - yellow egg noodles and translucent bean-thread noodles - are piled next to baskets of vegetables and bowls of other ingredients. We order broiled fish and slices of pork and fried cuttle-fish balls (or perhaps they are made of squid) and battered squash and, of course, noodles.

The noodles come in a light broth, probably pork, and are topped with ground pork, savory and intense and incredibly garlicky - I feel like I am moving around in a haze of garlic for the rest of the day - and it reminds me that I am back in Taipei, more than the sights and sounds of the city, more than the fog of jet-lag. But even through the jet-lag the taste of everything is clear and true, the flavors sharp and pronounced, somehow different from anything I might find at home. It is reassuring and exhilarating all at once, strange and yet familiar, and I remember again why I come back now and again, for reasons aside from family. For food.

By dinnertime I am ready to curl up and fall asleep, but there is family to see and dinner to eat, and we are at a Japanese restaurant inside a sort of mall. (Here there are a lot of good restaurants in malls or department stores, and most of these malls and department stores have food courts and supermarkets and bakeries in the basement). I have not seen my cousins and my aunt for three years, but they have not changed. We are a generation apart, because my father is a generation younger than their late father, his oldest brother, and in some ways to them I am still five years old. (Again they tell me the story of how I valiantly ate my way through a banquet meal in order to attain a piece of candy, only to be vanquished by the final course, a sweet soup made with a translucent white mushroom that is all slippery texture but no taste).

Dinner is a blur of sushi and sashimi, but again it is different from what I might find at home. Even the wasabi is different, sweeter and less pungent. The shrimp comes with its head still on, the brains eaten raw along with the body; at home they deep-fry the heads until crisp. There are sesame-crusted scallops, slices of perfectly seared foie gras, noodles that are actually threads of what they call mountain potato. There are elaborate sushi rolls like sliced kaleidescopes of colors against white rice, black nori. Tender squares of steak are arranged in a perfect grid. And at last, that sweet soup of white...to put it bluntly, fungus, that vanquished me more than twenty years ago. But it holds no terrors for me now, although I finish it before I move onto a plate of starfruit and an orange neatly sliced and replaced in the green shell of its skin.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Eating in flight.

I always associate the first time I ate caviar with the first time I ever flew first-class. It was Christmas break and R. had invited me to London for a week, and as she was then a flight attendant she got free (or perhaps incredibly cheap, I forget which) seats. Immediately upon boarding we were offered juice, water, or champagne, and for dinner, caviar or shrimp cocktail to begin. I remember how the caviar gleamed black against the white plate, how it was served with finely chopped onion and hard-boiled egg and perhaps a smear of sour cream, on blandly crisp squares of melba toast. That was the last time I flew first-class, at least internationally, and my last pleasurable memory of airplane food.

Airplane food is the crowning indignity of the inconvenience and agony of air travel, beginning with the line to check in. Then there is the line to pass through security, as they make you take off your shoes and watches and belts, followed by the line to board the airplane, row by row. At last you reach the narrow seats with the nonexistent leg-room that makes you feel as though you were travelling upright in your own coffin, immobilized for the next three or four or ten interminable hours, relieved only by the silent battle with your neighbor for the armrest or getting up to wait in line, yet again, for the bathroom. And then you are forced to watch some terrible movie which you never had any intention of seeing on the ground. Yet all of this pales in comparison to the plastic-encased food which arrives, unevenly heated under its foil wrapper, all rubbery chicken and mushy rice, soggy noodles and metallic-tasting tomato sauce blanketed with tasteless cheese. (Umberto Eco wrote elegantly and eloquently on the subject of eating in flight, but unfortunately my copy of How to Travel with a Salmon is on the other side of the Pacific).

Through a series of events involving my mother, ankle surgery, many, many frequent-flyer miles, and several days' worth of phone calls to the airline, I found myself ensconced in a so-called first-class "suite," with work-stations and storage cubbies and a goose-neck reading-lamp and an armrest bristling with controls, the most important of which being the button that reclines the seat completely flat so you can pull the quilted blanket over your head and sleep for the entire flight. But how can you sleep when there is a small porcelain cup of warmed mixed nuts (seriously!) and those puffy dinner rolls that I have not seen in a restaurant since at least 1993 or after rosemary foccaccia and crusty pain au levain became ubiquitous on dinner tables, whichever came first.

The appetizer is a disappointment, a sad-looking scallop languishing under a tangle of roasted red peppers, next to a squishy sort of duck-and-wild-mushroom torte, which I cannot identify as such until I look at the menu. The veal medallions are tough and chewy, which was to be expected, but the mashed potatoes are excellent and the dark green chard is quite tasty. I feel sad until I remember that I did not pay anything for any of this, but I wonder if any of my fellow passengers paid for their seats (a first-class ticket from Seattle to Taipei, with a stop in Tokyo, comes dangerously close to the $10,000 mark) and, if so, what they thought of their meal. (And then I pull my eye-mask over my head and fall asleep). I regret the second roll, because I have no room for ice cream. But there is, after all, my return flight in two weeks.

(The above was mostly written in the First-Class lounge at Tokyo's Narita Airport, en route to Taipei. In the lounge I ate sushi that was at least as good, if not better, than any found in an American supermarket, and steamed pork dumplings that were slightly better than those found in Chinese restaurants around Seattle).

Friday, October 05, 2007

New acquisitions. thrift-store books.

A few weeks ago I found myself with an hour to kill while waiting for my mother, as she had an appointment in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. It was almost mid-afternoon - too late for lunch, too early for a snack. I don't know Ballard very well; one of my favorite restaurants, Volterra, is here, but otherwise I never come to this part of town. I could buy a drink and sit in the car reading like a bored chauffeur, or I could walk around and explore. I wandered through a little Norwegian deli/grocery, the last reminder that this neighborhood was once an immigrant community before they died out and the yuppies moved in, and into a small store that sold twee little greeting cards and local souvenirs. Then I discovered two things: a) Ballard has a lot of thrift stores, and b) thrift stores sell books, a fact that has somehow escaped me until now.

I drifted through three different thrift stores before I suddenly find myself in possession of three cookbooks that I could not resist because they cost about a dollar each, even though I find it highly unlikely I will ever try any fondue recipes from a cookbook published in 1969, or cook something from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks With Wine, and I most definitely will not be making anything from Turkey: The Bird For All Seasons, which was published in 1984. Judging from the author's inscription inside, this whimsically illustrated (with pen-and-ink cartoons of turkeys) book was only available at craft fairs and community fundraisers. Page after page of every dish imaginable, all featuring turkey - leftover roast turkey, fresh turkey that you separate into breasts and thighs and legs and cutlets, or pieces bought as you would buy chicken.

That first thrift-shop experience was a revelation. The books were even cheaper than used-bookstore books, 99 cents or $1.50, $1.99 at most, making it impossible to resist even a 1962 paperback copy of The Red Badge of Courage. (It's possible I have a problem). I found another thrift store on my way home from work; I had passed by almost every day for over a year, and it was not until yesterday that I went in. Neighborhood shoppers browsed amongst the clothes and assorted furnishings, flipped through what looked like hundreds of old records in their battered sleeves. But I struck gold in a cache of cookbooks, those Time-Life Foods of the World books that were published in the 70's. These books - everyone seems to have the full set thirty years ago - are filled with (by now somewhat dated) information about the regions they cover, with glorious photographs of regional dishes with that patina that vintage photographs seem to have. They cost between $2.50 (after some mysterious discount that I still don't understand) and 50 cents (again, after discount), and there were over a dozen of them. I had to go back the next day for more, because I couldn't carry them all.

I think I need a new bookcase.

postscript (for J.): I found a copy of A Year in Provence amongst the unsorted, randomly shelved books. I can't wait to read it, but I'm saving it for a trip later this month. I know I'll love it as I do the other Peter Mayle books.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eating out. Steelhead Diner. And other adventures.

My friend M. arrives just as it begins to rain. At the airport I hear her voice on the phone for the first time since she graduated college a year ahead of me, six years ago, and leap from the car to find her on the sidewalk outside the luggage concourse. It surprises me that even from a distance I recognize her immediately, that she looks the same. But then how many hours did we spend together all those years ago, listening to techno and Russian pop music, how many meals did we share in dining halls and cafés and various off-campus apartments, how many cups of tea or coffee or icy shots of vodka did we drink together? The people you know well are always the same, from across a hundred feet or six fleeting years.

M. has never been to Seattle before, and I want her to see all the things I love, beginning with the view of the city from the freeway as we drive towards her hotel. I have thought this out in advance - perhaps a stroll through the sculpture park, a visit to the newly expanded art museum, and a walk around the Pike Place Market before dinner. One out of three is not bad. The visit to the sculpture park is scrapped due to a) the rain and b) I am confused by the one-way streets and cannot get to the parking garage due to traffic. Our visit to the museum is curtailed by the need for a snack, more specifically a cabbage-and-onion piroshky from the tiny Russian bakery in the market (we were, after all, brought together by an interest in Russia - in my case due in part to someone I will refer to only as the White Russian). By the time we have eaten our piroshkys - warm, brioche-like dough wrapped around a filling of sautéed cabbage and onions and baked until golden - and walked to the museum, it is ten minutes to closing, leaving us just enough time to run into the museum for some little trinkets.

Our wanderings take us down to the water and the piers with their shops and fast-food stands. I haven't been here in years, and the last time I was at the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop I was probably about four feet tall. At the end of the day, most of the tourists have gone; it's just the two of us and a few stragglers. It is exciting to see my city through someone else's eyes, to watch them experience a place you have loved all your life. I am glad to see M. in my hometown, glad to find that the parts of us that we show to the world may have changed - at least I feel mine have - but that we are the same people to each other, and that I might have just seen her yesterday instead of before I was old enough to legally drink in this country. But night is falling, the stores are closing, and we head back up towards the market to the Steelhead Diner.

Inside is part old-fashioned-diner and part trendy-modern restaurant, with a menu to match. Our minds are made up quickly - two appetizers, and an entrée to share. There is a perfect crab cake, all fat lumps of crabmeat, heaped with a pile of crispy fried parsley, floating in a pool of sauce Louis. I have no idea what sauce Louis is, but it was creamy and smooth and slightly tangy. Then there is a slice of caviar pie, a base of cream cheese beaten with what seems like sour cream and mixed with hardboiled egg and onion, the white surface hidden beneath a bright rainbow of caviar, dark grey, orange, golden, red, surrounded with more bits of onion and egg and capers, ready to spread on the accompanying toast. Next comes perfectly battered fish and chips, with homemade tartar sauce fragrant with - what is it? - dill.

It seems impossible that we can eat more, but I have just enough room for a golden lemon cake that looks like a small castle, hidden beneath a swirl of intense lemon curd and a cap of soft whipped cream. I steal a bite of M's dark pound cake, a slice of poached pear heady with red wine. There is hot mint tea, and more conversation; I drink my tea and think of how Mary Cantwell wrote that when you ate alone, it left you free to concentrate on your food, and I think of how when you are with other people, your attention is divided between each bite of the food before you, and your companion. And a shared past.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cooking for others.

I came home last night after a brief post-work binge at Trader Joe's to find my mother and E. in the dining room, table spread with papers in every direction. (I have no idea what they are doing, and asking would only involve long, complicated answers that I would not understand). Are you going to cook for us? comes the question. Of course. From the bags littering the cold marble of my kitchen floor (at some point some former inhabitant laid the hallway, kitchen, and guest bathroom with marble tiles of a rather bilious pattern of red and gray streaked with cream) I gather packages of zucchinis and cucumbers and bright bell peppers and a couple of onions. There are frozen quiches and an enticing box of mushroom-filled pastries (intended for lunch at work), and stashed away in the fridge is some leftover braised beef (a not entirely successful concoction of short ribs and onions and tomatoes) and a bowl of rice. Surely I can conjure up something to feed us without having to resort to delivered pizza or lukewarm takeout. And then my mother tells me E. is a vegetarian. (Fortunately the helpfully lacto-ovo kind).

The zucchinis are washed and trimmed and quartered with a few swift strokes of my knife. How I love my new roasting pan, I think, as I toss the slim lengths of zucchini (why the British call them courgettes is something I will never understand, as well as why eggplants are called aubergines; given the mutual contempt between the British and the French it has always seemed odd to me) with olive oil and grains of coarse pink sea salt, the salt I spent a ridiculously long time searching for at Whole Foods at the behest of the aforementioned mother. The heavy pan will sear the vegetables perfectly; I can slide the pan into the oven and forget about it while I turn my attention to other dishes. The tricky part is cleaning the bell peppers, flinging seeds far and wide as I pull out the cores and strip away the white ribs, slicing the bright flesh, red and yellow and orange. Some olive oil goes into my favorite pan, a deep skillet with a rounded bottom and a glass lid. On another burner the braised beef heats gently as I slide the quiches and mushroom turnovers into the ridiculously large toaster oven D. gave me last year.

I throw the peppers into the hot oil, tossing them before sloshing in a little water and then covering the pan so they steam. I'm in the groove now, that golden moment where you know that everything's going to work out, that you've timed it all just right, that you've made something so many times before you don't even need to taste it to know you've done it right (but you taste anyway, for the pleasure of it). I add soy sauce to the peppers, give the roasting zucchini a stir. Sneak a few of the mushroom turnovers as a pre-dinner snack. An amuse-bouche, if you will. The zucchini is ready, the jade-skinned spears browned in spots. A bowl of rice goes in the microwave; I sprinkle some sugar over the peppers, and they will be soft and melting, the soy sauce and sugar and a little olive oil forming a salty-sweet glaze. The quiche is hot in its flaky crust, and the beef has just come to a simmer. The papers come off the dining-room table as plates are laid, napkins and chopsticks at each place. It's time to eat.