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.

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Salmon Rillettes (One Good Thwack)

The sun loses itself behind a scrim of melted butter-clouds.

I move a mason jar filled with wildflowers so they catch the caramelly light. They die so quickly. The hardwood glows amber-gold. The sun burns beauty into our shoulders and thighs. We try to make the most.

I’m embarrassed to find myself these days writing mostly about weather. It can’t be helped. Last week I wrote about not writing, of all things, about the feel of quiet. What I meant then was not that I have nothing to report from that quiet. I meant I’m troubled about what to possibly mean.

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On Shrimp Shells

I never order shrimp at restaurants. For the longest time my mom went around telling people I have a problem with the stuff.

And I let her. Because I do. I have a problem with shrimp. It’s not that they have juicy heads that gush brains, or eyes that stick out on stalks, or that they feed on detritus. It’s not that they’re cute, though they are. It’s that most people who cook shrimp don’t cook it right, probably because they are scared to death of demanding too much of the people they are feeding. The number one way to mishandle shrimp? Shell and devein them before cooking. The worst thing you can do to good shrimp is to do too much.

Any person who knows her food will tell you that the flavor in a shrimp is in his head and shell. So that stuff that mom’s throwing away, the supposedly nasty stuff we can’t eat, is precisely what makes shrimp taste like, well, shrimp. When I see what could have been a succulent, flavorful piece of meat split open in the back and curled up into a tight fetal ball, its proteins exposed to too much direct heat, I feel… wrathful.

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Mom’s Favorite Clams

I was thinking of doing something nice for my mom when I picked up a dozen Littleneck clams at Whole Foods.

I was thinking about New York City, about Little Italy, this clam house we both love there and always go back to. I find myself fending off the impulse to apologize for loving Little Italy. The thing is, my mother and I are perfectly content to be tourists when that’s exactly what we are. So this October, when we were seated on that patio again, and ordered, for the third time, oysters, white wine and baked clams, it was completely without irony.

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Oysters on the Half Shell Three Ways for Valentine’s Day

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Before we set to work preparing these guys, Alan was in our dining room shucking 20 blue point oysters with a flat edged screwdriver. His hands were cut and red and the floor and his sweater were littered impossibly with oyster shell shavings.

But then our apartment was filled with the smell of the sea, which he said he loved. From floor to ceiling the atmosphere was all salt water, sand, tide pool, sea anemone. Oysters. There is no smell like it in the world.

To me it smells like memory, like watching the gray backs of dolphins peep out from beneath the white caps at Zuma beach. I can’t think of a more romantic food in the world.

When buying oysters, ask your fish monger when they were harvested. If they have been out of the water for less than a week, you’re good to go. And as for the flat-edged screwdriver, it’s a great tool for shucking oysters if you don’t have a shucking knife. Just be sure to hold the oyster with a kitchen towel to protect your hands from small cuts.

The best way to eat oysters is plain. A squeeze of lemon juice and you’re golden. But for Valentine’s Day, these three oysters are a nice departure from the norm and a fancier take on a food I love.

– Angela M.

Oysters with Lemon Chive Cream and Caviar

– 6 blue point oysters
– 3 tsp sour cream
– 6 tsp American black caviar
– Chives cut into 1/2 inch pieces
– 1 lemon

Top each oyster with 1/2 tsp of sour cream and 1 tsp of American black caviar. Place 2 1/2 inch chive slices over the sour cream and caviar. Squeeze fresh lemon juice onto each.

Oysters with Summery Watermelon Relish

– 1/2 dozen blue point oysters, shucked
– 6 tbsp diced salted watermelon
– 1 tbsp julienned mint
– 1 tsp minced ginger
– 1 lemon
Place 1 tbsp diced salted watermelon onto each oyster, along with a small dab each of julienned mint and minced ginger. Finish it off with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Japanese Style Oysters

– 1/2 dozen blue point oysters
– 3 tbsp smelt roe
– 1 tbsp thinly sliced scallions
– 6 tsp ponzu sauce
– 1 lemon

Place 1/2 tbsp of smelt roe on each oyster along with a pinch of thinly sliced scallions. Top each with a tsp of ponzu sauce and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Hot Pondering

It’s time for the favorite food discussion. You know the one. If I had to eat only one thing for the rest of my life, it would be…

That one. My answer varies occasionally based on mood or time of day or the prevailing climatic conditions. But there are regulars that show up time and again. They are those foods of which I can say, “I really wouldn’t mind eating that and only that for the rest of my life.” There are maybe only two or three dishes I can think of in the world that might qualify. And one, only one, that really fits the bill.

And that food is hot pot. Huo guo. Shabu shabu. It’s known by many names, but here are the essentials: Vegetables, meat, seafood and noodles submerged in a pot of boiling hot liquid, and family and friends gathered around it, fondue-style. It’s a fend-for-yourself, don’t-be-squeamish, germ-sharing, and as my friend Alan observed, “democratic” way of eating.

It’s not my favorite because it is gourmet or particularly graceful. It may never get a Food & Wine cover. It’s my favorite because when I eat it, it reminds me of the way food should be eaten, and that is with great joy and with the people we love.

I have a Chinese mother and an American father. Sometimes this can be weird and treacherous and uncomfortable. Navigating a safe course between the two cultures has been one of the great efforts of my life. But in my experience, if anything can bring a family together around the table, it is this meal.

Let me be clear. Hot pot is wonderful and delicious. But for me it has always been about the people I enjoy it with.

I was very grateful to share a hot pot dinner with my friends while I was away in college this Chinese New Year. This is the third year in a row that I have spent this major holiday away from home. Finally I have been able to make a piece of home for myself, here. I hope you will try this very special meal and find that it makes you as happy as it makes me.

Xin nian quai le! A very happy New Year to you all.

– Angela M.

Chinese New Year Hot Pot

You can throw just about anything in hot pot. Here’s a list of common ingredients:

– Thinly sliced pork, mutton, beef, or chicken
– Fresh raw shrimp or prawns
– Mussels
– Clams
– White-fleshed fish
– Nappa cabbage
– Any variety of mushroom
– Tomatoes
– Spinach
– Tong hao
– Medium or Firm tofu
– Fried tofu
– Imitation krab
– Fish balls
– Handmade noodles

You can find these items at any Asian market. You’ll also need an electric pot. Fondue pots work just fine.