So… I’ve now finished reading How to Eat by Nigella Lawson, and I have a bit of a dilemma. I love Nigella Lawson’s style and her no-nonsense approach to cooking; and her advice and general tips, but… but the book itself has very few recipes I can use, mostly because so much of what’s in it requires either milk, buttermilk, cream, and/or alcohol, none of which my digestive system can bear (I do butter and cheese fine, and small quantities of milk in pastries that are well cooked, and that’s about my upper limit). Does she have any later books where the reliance on these ingredients isn’t as important? I got the impression that one of her later books (can’t remember which one?) drew a bit more from South and East Asian cooking? And Nigellissima is Italian food?
Ran a laundry; decided to make nước màu (caramel sauce) in my cast-iron enamelled pot (which was a welcome change from the bad saucepan I used the last time). The sauce is cooling as we speak; I’ll be hunting for a jam pot next. Have to say oven mitts are great for protection during the risky endeavour of heating up sugar…
Now I’m off to spread the laundry to dry. Ah, heady days…
(also bought a copy of Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, and am currently reading it with fascination. She’s a smart no-nonsense cook and a lot of her advice resonates with me even though our cooking reflexes aren’t exactly on the same spectrum due to different sources).
1.5L of water, half an onion, 1 knob of ginger, a good teaspoon of five-spice powder, a good tablespoon of instant chicken broth powder, a LOOOT of fish sauce (1 or 2 tablespoons), a 1-inch piece of kombu, 8 shrimp with their shells, and 3 nests of egg noodles. And a dash of sesame oil before serving.
Broth heaven. Yum yum.
The amazing Fran Wilde has interviewed me for her series “Cooking the Books”–interviews focused on food and SF writers (you can understand why I was deliriously happy to be picked as an interview subject 🙂 ). I wax lyrical about the power of food, lemongrass chicken in “Immersion”, and my recipe process here.
The weekend’s challenge: how to create a buffet for 25 guests in a day or less (I had intended to do some pre-shopping but ended up leaving work far too late on the Friday evening). Bonuses (or lack thereof): lack of the H during the morning (due to mysterious shopping activities aka getting my present), and a small Parisian kitchen.
I knew ahead of time that the choking point was going to be the oven: I had to cook 2×2 savory cakes and 60 chả giò, and I only had the one oven. On the day before the party (and rather late at that), however, I realised that I’d forgotten a very important item to be cooked in the oven: the dessert! There followed some slightly frantic twitter and FB queries for possible recipes. I got tons of good ideas, but a lot of them required advance preparation and/or lots of time and/or unfamiliar kitchen techniques; in the end, the H and I settled for waffles, which had the advantage of being a familiar recipe. (but I took lots of notes and fully intend to cook the suggestions–discovered lots of pastries I didn’t even know existed!)
I went to do some shopping in the morning, and came back with a full shopping cart; then I settled for the first of the savoury cakes (it started out as a chicken-and-tarragon cake, but I couldn’t find any tarragon, and ended up with chicken-ginger-mint cake. This is why you should never leave me in control of any recipe; I almost put soybean paste in the second cake but the H put his foot down). Then the oven basically worked overtime until 8pm or so (it turned out I’d drastically under-estimated the time it took for chả giò to cook–each batch of 15 rolls needed about 20 minutes near the heating element of the oven, which in turn meant quite a bit of attention from me…
I also had a lot of manual work to do (chopping carrots and putting spread on canapés), but a group of guests very kindly agreed to come ahead of time and help with that–we made such good time that we were basically ready ahead of the 6pm starting date.
The only surprise of the evening turned out to be our waffles: the H took the waffle recipe from the Larousse des Desserts , a venerable encyclopedia of French desserts which turned out to have quite a lot of embarrassing typos–specifically, when he popped the dough into the waffle-maker, it basically evaporated as it was cooking (you can imagine this didn’t really create satisfactory waffles). There followed about 1 hour of war councils between various guests to determine the best strategy to fix the dough; by the end, I think they’d tried adding everything to the dough, including but not limited to orange blossom water, corn starch, and 1.5kg of flour… In the end, we determined that the reason it wasn’t working out was the lack of a leavening agent in the dough (rather a grievous error for a recipe): basically, we’d been trying to make waffles with pancake dough… So they threw in baking soda, waited for a bit, and finally could start making decent making waffles.
I settled for making the chocolate sauce: turns out tablets of Nestlé’s full-bodied cooking chocolate works out marvels 🙂
In the end though it all worked out quite well, and (I think) the party was a success (as usual, mainly thanks to the guests for the company and the help). But I swear that’s the last time I trust a recipe from the Larousse…
So, the H comes home tonight and shows me the picture above. “Wanna take a guess on what this is?” he asks with a (suspiciously) broad smile. I take a look. “Ratatouille?” I hazard, knowing it can’t be that.
Apparently, this is what a La Défence restaurant sold as bò bún. It has, let’s see… carrots, rice (badly cooked, according to the H), shrimps and some other unidentified vegetables that the H assured me were all Western in origin. No bò (beef) or indeed bún (rice vermicelli) anywhere to be seen.
I am not really sure whether I want to laugh or to cry at this stage…
It’s not strictly equivalent, but… spraying stuff with oil, sticking it in the oven quite close to the heating element (about 2/3 of the way up) and turning it over at the halfway mark (when the upper surface has gone golden) is a pretty good and painless substitute for deep-frying .
 Deep frying has two drawbacks: the first is that it’s fairly messy with high risks of burns (yes, clumsy cook here), and the second is that I can only do it in batches of 4-5 objects in order not to crowd my wok. By contrast, I can stick 20 fried rolls into the oven at a time (more if you count the fact that I’m using both oven grids, one on the bottom to cook the inside, and the one on the top to do the final “frying” stage).
Also, spraying oil is way more healthy since there’s less of it around than with deep frying.
Didn’t post much this week because I’ve been fairly busy with RL stuff. Not least of which was that my writing laptop had the good taste to crash with the only copy of my Paris UF fantasy on its hard disk (I do have Dropbox; however, since the computer wouldn’t boot, it wouldn’t actually upload the file where I could recover). A tense night was spent poking at it to see if it would stop being grumpy; fortunately, my husband worked miracles yesterday night, while I was interviewing with Ben Love and Guillermo Velez for the First Million Words (really fun interview, btw, look for it in July–it’ll coincide with the release of the Obsidian and Blood omnibus). So now the laptop is… sort of working, I guess, and my fingers are crossed it doesn’t fail me again. And I have found my synopsis and my first chapter, so I’m ready to roll!
I obsessively proofread the upcoming “Immersion” in Clarkesworld; I think I’ve got everything, but probably I haven’t 🙂 Kind of worried how it’ll come across: I seem to have moved in a new phase where I attempt very ambitious and very personal things, and end up always worried I’ll get something wrong or get howled at by everyone (OK. Not that very different from the Impostor Syndrome. Just turned up to max, for no reason I can see).
Cooking wise, this was very much a week for not trying out anything new–bought some coconut milk to make a bánh chuối nướng in order to consume leftover bread; of course ended up with leftover coconut milk, so made cà ri tôm (sort of a merge of this recipe and this recipe with half the ingredients substituted for something else). Next week, however, I have some crab to use up, and I’m going to be more adventurous (might even open the VN cookbook and check out promising stuff, ever-so-slowly and with the help of my trusty dictionary 🙂 ).
Now I’m off to buy some running shoes and celebrate a birthday–and eat the last of the chả lụa Grandma brought back from Saigon (which is going to make me regret Vietnam all over again…).
So… I never thought I’d ever say this, but it’s the second time in less than a month that I find myself cooking in a kitchen that’s not my own, and I have to say you don’t realise how well-stocked your kitchen is until you run into one that’s… less well-stocked? I was cooking for VD , and the things I missed the most were, by order of decreasing importance:
-chopsticks. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m absolutely useless as a cook without a pair of chopsticks.
-kitchen knife. The difference between a good quality, balanced knife and a random ikea knife really is striking. Not in a good way. (also, still a fan of santoku over more Western-shaped knife; the thing just feels better in my hand. The household is sharply divided between my husband, who uses the paring knife and the traditional kitchen knife; and I, who just reach for the santoku for everything from dicing carrots to cubing meat).
-pots and pans. More minor, but gah, the absence of a wok with a lid is a major drawback for so many dishes. Especially broccoli.
So I guess I’ve learnt my lesson: take chopsticks with me next time I have to cook in a stranger’s kitchen 😀
 In case you’re wondering, the actual Villa Diodati workshop was great; I got tons of work done, edited “The Two Sisters in Exile” into submittable form, and made a head start on revising “Immersion”, aka the globalisation piece in space (with social networks! And Vietnamese! And lemongrass chicken!).
Best moment of the day: the H and I finish filling the washing machine. We’ve been using a lot of rice bowls lately, and we have trouble fitting them all in: like most washing machines in France, ours has a space at the bottom that’s specifically for plates, with little grooves holding them in place (which also prevent you from slipping in anything that’s not round and flat-ish); and a smaller space on top that’s used for glasses. Rice bowls don’t fit in at the bottom, and sort of fit in at the top (while taking the space of 1.5 glass, which is problematic). The H pulls back, looks at the washing machine, and says, “You know, I bet Asian washing machines are set up differently, because this was clearly not meant for rice bowls at all.” LOOOL
And today, we went and celebrated the Nebula nomination (yes, I know, fashionably late), and I used the opportunity to drag him to Chinatown Olympiades for the first time, one of the biggest Chinese restaurants in the XIIIe (which turned out to be kind of busy a Saturday at noon, lol). I introduced him to their dim sum menu (which is extensive compared to what you get in a lot of Paris Chinese restaurants), and we had a very pleasant meal altogether.
Afterwards, we joined the queue of people in the Asian food stores, and bought a 5kg bag of the 2012 crop of jasmine rice. *happy cook*