So you know, I get stressed. When my mother stresses me out it involves a long drawn out lecture on being a woman on being a successful woman on being a successful asian woman. Who doesn’t want success? It’s more of a question of how do I obtain it and what does it mean to me. Some people spend the majority of their lives seeking this out. Hopefully that won’t be me (knocks on wood). I find solace in the kitchen. I’ve said it before but you know the other day it really hit. I was stressed out a bit and all I wanted to do was cook. I wasn’t hungry, but I got antsy and wanted to cook what? I didn’t know! But I just wanted to create something.
My mother cooked on a budget. She raised a family of 5 on a low and rigid fixed income, but somehow she managed to kick out some of the freshest and most flavorful meals that were full, fresh and balanced. An abundance of crisp greens, various pickled or preserved items, and fresh herbs. Her cooking brought to life so many of the senses; cold, hot, sweet, sour, salty, fishy, meaty, bitter. My mother had a knack for making simple cuts of meats, and vegetables taste so different and oh so flavorful throughout the years. I never remember being bored at the table. That is why lately, I’ve been so drawn to simplicity. Just another way of cooking, less aromatics, more technique and well simplicity. One of those “let the flavors come out by themselves” . Of course some coaxing from salt helps.
o A wonderful memory I have is of her homemade molasses. The smells would permeate the air of our apartment. The bubbling dark black liquid gave a rich burnt thick slighty bitter ember smell that was oh so soothing. She used this frequently in her braised meat dishes. She also inspired me to marry sweet and salty together. I like to add sugars, jams, fruits, sweet wines, fruit juices even sodas to some of my braises. I remember. I am learning to hone in on my memories past and present to create…
The other night I made a Persimmon and Carrot soup with potatoes and a slight kick of ginger and clove. Call it your variation of a ginger carrot soup. I ended up with a mixture that was about eighty percent as a puree. I tend to prefer that rustic texture. It was nice because the combination of the sweet carrots and sweet persimmons melded well together, all while bleeding out a rich and delightful orange.
Growing up, my mothers pantry was well stocked with fresh veggies, lovely exotic aromatics, dried goods, and lean meats. My mother didn’t have the luxury of shopping at a Whole Foods or any of those specialty grocery shops, she shopped at the local Asian market, where the fish smells swam all through the isles. Where it didn’t cost you an arm and a leg to feed a family. Where the meats weren’t all grassfed, and where the fish were fished, gutted and fried right in front of you. Tropical smells in the isles, bad packaging in the packaged food section. And well… it wasn’t the most sanitary looking place.
She may have lacked the means to a farm to table meal but what she didn’t lack was the use of spices, herbs, and other ingredients that would expand her daily dinners. What was braised pork loin with soy sauce and garlic, the next day was braised pork loin with ginger, marinated grilled pork over broken rice another day or her ever so popular fish sauce braised pork belly with whole hard boiled eggs. She used her wonderful homemade molasses for this.
I remember when we ate that specific pork belly dish, there was always that accompaniment of pickled bitter greens. Pretty similar to bok choy, I would consider it…slightly spicy. Maybe even similar to wasabi. But when pickled it was crisp and cold, tart and tangy. The eggs were my favorite part. After they were hard enough, I would help her peel them and plunge them into the rich pork broth bath. When finished, the eggs yielded this lovely brown coat that was so pretty when it was cut in half.
“Don’t eat too many eggs…they aren’t good for you” my mother would say. But it’s sooooo good! The soft fatty pork that fell apart, the sweet and the savory the broth that flavored the jasmine rice was like heaven to me. It was so pretty, the layers of the rich glutenous fat and pork, the egg that was multi layered with colors from the broth that was permeating into the whites. It was a thick heart clogging Vietnamese bacon! My mother banned this dish from the house because of health reasons. I still miss it.
It’s so amazing how much we can be influenced by our memories. Whenever I cook I always think of the people I care about. A lot of it is making them happy through food.
An artist once stated that, “for me the best feeling I have when im painting is when i dont know how its gonna end…for me its a feeling of a challenge and a risk and for the ability that I dont know what the end result is going to be…I get a lot of joy from that.” – Maya Hayuk
I get the same feeling when I cook.
I’ve been spending some time at the library, or bringing home various culinary books to read. The other day one inspired me to study more French technique and cuisine. I made something that night that came from the influence of another culture. With Vietnamese cuisine there is quite the French influence.
As the soup was bubbling and boiling I then gave my attention to the chicken thighs. One caste iron skillet later I had myself a nice chicken dinner. The chicken’s skin crisped and browned to perfection as it roasted atop a bed of green apples and onions. As flavors concentrated and deepened I finished the dish up with a braised milk sauce using the lovely brown remnants of the pan.
I had little to work with, but it WAS because I had little to work with what I had. Something beautiful and spontaneous When you have less you learn to work with more of your imagination. The persimmon soup was a bit French a bit Vietnamese a lil’ bit Italian. I topped the soup with a fresh sage leaf and a lovely drizzle of olive oil. I began to plate: Placing the chicken atop the asparagus I knew I had accomplished something! Just like the artist’s quote I got so much joy from the end result. I let the sauce reduce just slightly and whisked a little butter. A little drizzle over the chicken and a bit around the plate and there it was.
You know what’s so fun about it? It’s the feeling that your mind is racing creating at that moment, consistent imagination and a plate delicious food.