August 2, 2021 | Artists Cooking
Writer and Foodlover
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I find there is something incomparably relaxing in lining up ingredients needed for a dish, chopping, prepping, mixing, sautéing. The creative part of cooking, for me, is in combining the right dishes for a meal, repurposing leftovers – or simply reading recipes and imagining how the flavors might taste, thinking about how substituting one ingredient for another would change the dish.
I love reading recipes and have a pretty substantial collection of cookbooks. The bookcases in my living room hold about a third of my collection and I have more books on my bedside table and on my kindle. I also watch a lot of cooking shows and look at recipes online. The New York Times recipe app is one of my favorites.
Despite my love of cookbooks, or perhaps because of it, I would be hard-pressed to point to one which has specifically shaped my cooking style. I’ve learned from all of them.
The big treat in my house was going out for Chinese food (read Cantonese) once a week. My parents gave me a piece of saucy beef to suck on when I was just a few months old. My body was sustained by soy formula and soy sauce well before I ever ate solid food.
I love dishes from all the regions of China, but Cantonese remains my comfort food. Growing up in Chicago, I never attempted Chinese dishes at home – why would I when I could find a decent, if not great, Chinese restaurant every few blocks?
Let’s be frank – here in Tampa Bay, we have many wonderful Asian restaurants – Korean, Vietnamese, Thai – but there is a paucity of good Chinese restaurants. During the pandemic, with my cravings for Cantonese food at a fever pitch, I learned how to cook it at home. Here is one of the simplest (and one of my favorite) recipes from Maggie Zhu who has a terrific website called Omnivore’s Cookbook.
I have loved almost every recipe I’ve tried off her site from Eggplant with Garlic Sauce to General Tso’s Chicken. You will need to invest in a few specific ingredients in order to achieve the authentic taste of the recipes but luckily, there are many very good Asian markets in Pinellas County. MD Oriental Market in Pinellas Park is the largest but even smaller markets like Cho Lon Oriental Market on 34th St. N. in St. Pete stock the essentials. And once you have the essentials, you will use them again and again.
Top of my list for comfort food is Soy Sauce Fried Rice, a classic and indulgent treat, which always brings the flavors of Chicago’s Chinatown into my kitchen. The secret ingredients are a mixture of dark and light soy sauces and, surprisingly, butter – though if you have chicken fat or lard, you can definitely use that instead. I once made this with duck fat, and it was unbelievably tasty! (But so rich!)
Right before I swirl in the soy sauce mixture, I often add thinly sliced panfried mushrooms or cooked meat and always add bean sprouts because, seriously, what is fried rice without bean sprouts?