Saturday, January 01, 2005

Cooking on the ship of fools

It was an interesting New Year’s Eve in the kitchen. I meandered southward to join The Fireman (The Deacon’s brother), his wife The Cruise Director and house guest The Pessimist for a cooking session before the main New Year’s Eve gathering got under way.

Incidental note: by rights, my title should be The Pessimist but since I’m blogging this, someone else gets the title. No, I don’t understand it either.

The Pessimist got her secret blog identity because of her skepticism about the pork buns. We were using a recipe out of a King Arthur flour cookbook (very authentic, I know) for steamed Chinese pork buns. The idea was to christen The Fireman’s and Cruise Director’s new bamboo steamer. My contributions were the Shao Xing rice wine, peanut oil and chopped ginger, along with mixing duties for the ground pork filling. The Pessimist got stuck with bun assembly, which involved flattening marble-sized dollops of the dough and adding a bit of the filling, then closing them up. The dough was extremely sticky and the pork filling tended to ooze out of the buns. Things did not look auspicious as The Fireman ignited the stove, got a wokful of boiling water going and set the bamboo steamer on top. Still, after all that labor, we agreed that we had to give it a try.

The second course was a stir-fry, so I got busy chopping as the buns steamed. I’d brought napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, chicken tenderloin and bamboo shoots; baby corn was contributed by the host kitchen. Actually, I had help on this, as The Pessimist was willing to be a sous-chef. As I agonized about whether the last laggard shiitake mushroom had hydrated enough, I got elbowed aside by the hosts, who realized that the unattended wok had by now boiled nearly dry and was grilling the bamboo steamer.

It was a sad picture. The bottom of the steamer was burned and the buns had a tenacious grip on the bamboo. The Fireman pried the buns off with a spatula and they were plated in a sorry-looking heap. Hope glimmered as The Fireman disposed of those buns so badly burnt that they couldn’t be detached from the steamer without ripping them open, but pronounced them edible. The rest of us cautiously sampled the buns. Amazingly, the overly sticky dough had fluffed out and was now light and airy. The filling was nicely cooked. They had actually worked out all right, though the steamer was in need of some rehab after its baptism of fire. The Cruise Director got out some hoisin sauce and pronounced the combination of bun and sauce excellent.

That culinary misadventure out of the way, it was back to the stir-fry. I took over the vacated wok and put together what was essentially a random stir-fry. The thing that threw me off was that I had more food to work with than normal. I had trouble finding free surface area to cook the chicken with all those veggies in the way. It cooked slowly until I got annoyed enough to turn the temperature up sharply; from there, things went fine. The liquid to cornstarch ratio was out of balance, so there I was at the table, complaining about the sauce while everyone else was telling me how wonderful it tasted. The sauce never thickened, but pouring a stir-fry with a liquid sauce over udon works.

So, our culinary ship of fools managed to work out ok, in spite of ourselves. When The Lurker arrived later, with a Great Big Sea DVD and a big tin of his mother's krumkaker, we were all pretty silly. But the krumkaker deserve their very own post.

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