In Defense of Shortcuts

I can be a pretty big snob when it comes to taking shortcuts in the kitchen.

Or, more accurately, not taking them. My kitchen is stocked with ingredients, with component parts. No supermarket sauces, no store-bought stock, no cheats. (Sriracha, Smoque BBQ sauce and Hellmann’s mayo I exclude from this.) This isn’t thanks to some puritanical, pseudo-scientific health kick. It’s just that I’m a bit of a control freak, and rather thrifty — and meals taste better and cost less when you make them from scratch. I won’t even use the slow cooker, fearing lack of control over the seasoning. For better or worse, this is the true north that has, till now, guided my value system as a cook.

So imagine my shock when I discovered that not one but two of one of my mother’s most iconic recipes involve cheats so massive that they have their own gravitational pull. The first, a pillowy soft, aromatic and deeply savory sesame onion bread, made with dough from Safeway’s frozen section. The second, a pristinely simple, flaky fish filet… steamed in the microwave.

I love these recipes. People love them. Layered with thinly-sliced roast pork and a few springs of cilantro, the bread (zi ma da bing for the initiated) can’t fail to be one of the most delicious things you’ve ever put in your mouth. And the fish, well. I tend to prefer bolder, stewier, spicier treatments, but this is the one recipe people always seem to associate with my mother — the Proustian madeleine of a mythical cook.

Regarding these shortcuts, it’s a comfort knowing that the rules I follow can safely be broken — though it’s a wonder it took me so long to know it. I suppose even the laws that govern the universe have their curious exceptions.

Zi Ma Da Bing (Chinese Sesame Bread with Scallions)

– 1 package Bridgeford frozen dough
– 6-8 scallions, thinly sliced
– 12 tbsp vegetable shortening
– Sesame seeds (white or black or both)
– Salt
– Vegetable oil, for brushing
– 2 tsp honey dissolved in hot water, for brushing


Defrost Bridgeford dough. Grease two 12×17 cookie sheets.

Prepare a counter for some messiness. Cut one roll of dough in half, then dust both halves with flour. Roll out to a 12″ diameter, then spread 1 tbsp vegetable shortening over the surface, sprinkle with sliced scallions until evenly distributed and season well with salt.

Roll the seasoned dough into a cigar shape, then cut in half. Pinch off both ends to ensure no onions are showing, then lightly roll out to a flat disc, about 5 inches in diameter. Place on greased cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, until you have 12 rolls.

Brush each roll with honey water, then sprinkle with sesame seeds to coat. Set aside and allow to rise for 3-4 hours, until each roll is doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake for around 15 minutes, or until the tops of the rolls are dark golden brown. Let rest for five minutes, then dig in. Best enjoyed topped with thinly sliced roast beef or pork and cilantro or more scallions.

Steamed Sole with Ginger and Scallions

– 1 1-1.5 lb. sole fillet
– 1 oz ginger, cut into 1/4-inch thick segments
– 2 scallions, cut into 1 inch segments
– 2 scallions, thinly sliced on a bias
– 6 tbsp. Chinese cooking wine
– 4 tbsp. vegetable oil
– 3 tbsp. Lee Kum Kee Seasoned Soy Sauce for Seafood


Pat fillet dry with a paper towel, then set on a microwave-safe dish. Arrange ginger and scallion segments on top, then add cooking wine. Cover entire surface loosely with one sheet of plastic wrap, sealing along the edge where the plastic meets the dish.

Place in microwave and cook on high for about 5 minutes. Remove plastic and aromatic segments, and drain off cooking wine. Pat dry with paper towel if necessary. Arrange remaining sliced scallions on top of the fillet.

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Heat vegetable oil in a small pot on the stove until just smoking. Pour directly over fillet and scallions. Don’t be afraid – it will pop and steam.

Drizzle with soy sauce to taste, then serve with freshly steamed white rice.

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