La Cucina Stagionale

Blog for A Posto Personal Chef Services LLC in Newport, Oregon

Archive for the tag “San Francisco”

Courageous Cooking

When Bruce & I lived in San Francisco, we would go to a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood on Sunday mornings for dim sum.  We had to go early as the place would fill up quickly with hungry diners waiting to eat those delightful little dishes.  We had our favorites, of course, and were always willing to try something new on occasion.  Once we moved to the Oregon coast, our weekly dim sum breakfast tradition became a memory as there are no restaurants that serve it here in the same way.  I always felt that making those dumplings myself would be too hard or too much trouble, so I didn’t bother with trying, or I should say I lacked the courage to try.  Whenever Bruce & I traveled anywhere on vacation, we would always look for a dim sum  restaurant to go to, but were so often disappointed by the lack of flavor and/or quality we were used to.

Late last year, I discovered a wonderful video class website called Craftsy.  They have all kinds of DIY classes you can take and cooking is one of them!  Top notch chefs teach the classes and you can view them again and again as often as you like as your access never expires.  One of the classes offered is an Asian dumpling class taught by Andrea Nguyen, a well know Asian food chef and author.  I bought the class and watched the videos and realized that dim sum is really no more difficult to make than ravioli which I have been making for over 30 years!  I was so excited that I immediately bought Andrea’s book Asian Dumplings to learn more.  I went to see Mai at Mai’s Asian Market here in Newport and bought all the ingredients I needed to make my first batch of dumplings.  Mai is a godsend here in our little town.  She has just about anything and everything you would need for any kind of Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern dish and I love her for that.

I started out by making Korean Mandu, a dumpling that is filled with tofu and kimchee and served with a tangy dipping sauce. The dough is a simple one of flour and water; however, I added rice flour to mine to make it extra chewy, used shrimp instead of tofu in the filling and they turned out delicious!  The shape of this dumpling is called ‘big hug’, but it also looks like an Italian tortelloni.

Korean_dumplings_cookedKorean_dumplings_raw

The next dumpling I made was Shanghai Soup dumplings, which are Bruce’s absolute favorite. They are filled with pork and a gelatinized soup that melts during steaming, so when you bite into it, you get a mouthful of soup along with the rest of the filling.  They are served with Chinese black vinegar and finely shredded fresh ginger.  The shape of this dumpling is called ‘closed satchel’ because it looks like a purse.

Shanghai dumplings_rawShanghai_dumplings_steamed

I was on a roll now.  I made shrimp dumplings next and upped the game by using wheat and tapioca starches instead of flour for the wrapper.  This dumpling is pure white and turns translucent when it is steamed.  I had always thought these dumplings were made with rice flour and making them could not be achieved at home, but I was wrong as they were so easy to make and delicious to eat!.  This type of shape is called the ‘pleated crescent’.

har_gow

My final dumpling was Japanese pot stickers or Gyoza.  Like Chinese pot stickers, they are fried, steamed and fried again to obtain a crispy bottom.  My mom made Gyoza when I was growing up with wonton wrappers, so I was familiar with making and eating them.  I made my own extra chewy dough with rice and wheat flours again. This shape is called the ‘pea pod’ and they were yummy!

Cooked Pot Stickers bottomPot Sticker up close

Since my exploration into Asian dumplings, I have made others too numerous to mention here.  All have been easy to make and all have been delicious.  The sky is the limit on the fillings just like ravioli or other stuffed Italian pastas.  I have realized through this exploration that the only thing that gets in my way is myself.  I left San Francisco for the Oregon coast in 1997 and have been pining for dim sum ever since.  Almost 17 years later, I discovered that I can make my own with as good or even better results as the beloved restaurant I used to frequent and I can have them whenever I want.  I thank Craftsy and Andrea Nguyen for showing me how easy it is to make my own Asian dumplings and I hope I have inspired you to go and make something you’ve been wanting to try, but just haven’t had the the courage to do so. Courage is all you need to master cooking any type of dish or cuisine.  Once you try it, you realize, like me, that it’s easy, fun and good to eat.  A presto!

For the Love of Food

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with food; good food.  I grew up in a house where my mother cooked from scratch, so I was exposed to whole foods at an early age.  My knowledge and experience grew exponentially when I moved to San Francisco in the early 80’s to go to college.  There I was exposed to a whole world (literally) of food options: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Russian, Polish, Italian, French, Ethiopian, Persian, Indian and that was just in my neighborhood! I quickly discovered flavor combinations I had never had or even thought were possible.  Salty fish sauce, spicy Thai basil, chiles that were so hot they made me cry, earthy cumin and coriander seed, tangy sumac and tamarind, and bitter greens such as dandelion and arugula made me realize that I could spend the rest of my life cooking different flavor combinations and never cook them all—what a wonderful challenge!

In those years since I lived in and moved away from San Francisco, I have been introduced to Turkish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Afghanistan, Lebanese, Moroccan, Mongolian, Tibetan and a myriad of other cuisines.  I have also learned that Italian food, my heritage cuisine, is not quite what my family or the rest America thinks it is.  My paternal grandfather emigrated from a small town east of Naples called Benevento.  It’s known for an anise liqueur called Strega which means witch in Italian.  Anyway, my grandfather came to America with recipes that he enjoyed in his hometown.  However, many ingredients were not available in his new home in northeast Pennsylvania, so he had to improvise.  The recipes that he gave to my mother who moved, shortly after she and my father were married, to San Bernardino, California were recreated with the ingredients my mother had available to her in her new home, which were not necessarily the same as what my grandfather used.  So to make a long story short, the Italian food I grew up with is vastly different from what my grandfather ate in his homeland, what he ate in Pennsylvania and what I ate during my travels throughout Italy.  It wasn’t necessarily better, it was just different.

I had the opportunity to study the food history of Italy while I was in culinary school.  We had a professor, Stefano Bentley, who taught us for an hour or two, once or twice per week, about the various regions—not even a tip of the iceberg of knowledge.  I found that class to be fascinating, so many factors influence a dish, besides season and availability of ingredients, such as religious beliefs, superstitions, taboos, traditions, changes in social class, etc.  I learned that there really is no such thing as standardized Italian food in Italy.  Here, yes, because we treat food as a product for profit instead of what it really is: nourishment for our minds, bodies and souls.  A famous chef perfectly stated what American restaurants are really about: ‘you take some food, fix it up, and then sell it for a profit.’  No server here in America would take away the cheese from you if you were trying to put it on a seafood dish, where they will do that in Italy because you don’t eat cheese with fish—period—end of subject.  There are some chefs here that are taking their food a bit more seriously and not allowing substitutions or a bazillion choices which we Americans love so much.

If I, as a chef, decide that white balsamic vinaigrette will perfectly compliment the fresh picked greens and ripe peach salad I am going to serve you in July, you can bet I will say no to ranch dressing on the side. I want the food I serve to my clients to taste like I meant it to taste.  Now that doesn’t mean that I am a food Nazi; I am more than happy to work with my clients to create food that fits their taste preferences and any dietary requirements they have whether I like it or not, but there are limits to everything. I once made a vegan tiramisu for a client for her birthday because she’s a vegan and wanted tiramisu for dessert.  Yes, it was terrible and no it really wasn’t tiramisu, but she was happy and that made me happy, but I most certainly would have said no to ranch dressing.  I would say no to ranch dressing for just about anything except maybe hot wings and celery sticks; it is pretty good with those two items.  Smile

So, back to my grandfather’s recipes which became my mother’s and then mine.  I decided that I really didn’t like her version of tomato sauce, so I made my own to suit my taste preferences.  I didn’t like her version of lasagne, so have made several variations of my own for the same reason.  I love the meatball, braciole and sausage recipes, so they are as is even today; I don’t mess with them.  Where it makes sense, I do my best to stay as true to the tradition and authenticity of all recipes be they Italian or any other culture, because that is how you learn about that culture—through its food.  Changing my mother’s recipes didn’t change the authenticity, because they were never authentic to begin with.

The same famous chef also stated that while there is no standardized Italian food, there is an standardized Italian expectation that the dish must be made with the best food that is available to you at the time you are making it, and I don’t think that expectation is solely Italian either.  It means if you can’t afford or don’t like ricotta cheese, find a different good quality cheese that you can afford and like to make your lasagne. Make your own tomato sauce and don’t buy one in a jar, because that stuff is what’s expensive.  Good tomato sauce can be inexpensively, quickly and easily made with a can of tomatoes crushed in your hands, some onion, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, salt and pepper.  It will not contain anything you can’t pronounce and will taste better than anything out of a jar.  Put some pride in what you are making as that is what you are ingesting into your body.  Food should never be considered a product or just something to take away the huger pangs; it is life!

Food touches all of our emotions, hopes, desires, dreams and nightmares.  It brings happy and unhappy memories; the smell reminds us of places we’ve been to and want to revisit.  It reminds us of parents, relatives, friends, favorite servers, favorite chefs, restaurants, bars, diners, drive-in’s and dives (just checking to see if you are still with me here).  Food that we love and hate makes us who we are.  I had a friend once who refused to eat capers because a jar of them fell on her head once when she was a child—OK.  I don’t like certain textures, like tapioca, and you can’t pay me enough to ever eat it—just don’t ask me to explain to you why I don’t like it.  I’m sure everyone has their likes and dislikes of various foods and when you really stop to think about it, unless you are eating something really heinous like fermented whale blubber (sorry, but that has to be heinous), the reason you probably don’t like it is more emotional than anything else.

My grandfather came to this country in 1917 with no money and only the clothes on his back. When he died, he had a wife, a house, six children and a vegetable garden.  He fed his family as well as he could every day.  Despite the fact that my father grew up poor, he loved good food and could recognize it easily. He clearly passed that love along to me, and I do my best to pass it to every person I cook for and now to you.  So go now and make something homemade from your pantry, garden if you are lucky enough to have one, or local coop.  Do it today or tomorrow and do it for the love of food.  Buon Appetito!

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