Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Uncarved Block

How to carve an ox

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee - zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm…

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox.

And now - now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and the spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

A good cook changes his knife once a year - because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month - because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone.

There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness in such spaces, then there's plenty of room - more than enough for the blade to play about in. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety until - flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.

I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away."

"Excellent!" said Lord Wen-hui. "I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!"

Translated by Burton Watson
(Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings, 1964)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tasting China...


Joey: [to Ross] Forget about Rachel. Go to China, eat Chinese food.
Chandler: Of course there, they'd just call it food.

Honestly, that cracks me up every time. Because it’s true! It’s funny, I remember how strange it seemed the first time I realized that what we ate growing up wasn’t just "food". There I was at lunchtime, with my squat little thermos packed with the trinity of rice, bbq pork and bok choy. I’d peel the straw free from my white and blue Vitasoy tetrapak and sip slowly, distracted by the exotic presence of my seatmate’s bologna and mustard sandwich, followed, tasting course style, by celery sticks and peanut butter, and a little cup of chocolate pudding.

Cue Joy Luck Club theme song.

Well, I’m all over those jealous pangs now (except that time last week with the boy blatantly flaunting his grilled cheese while I inhaled my lonely bran muffin like a starved animal – or maybe that was just greed?). I’m loving that even with years of laborious training (weekly Chinatown runs for soy chicken and pea shoots, short dim sum circuits on weekends, marathon eight-course, extended family meals every few months) under my belt - literally - I am constantly reminded of just how new and exciting going out for a Chinese meal can be.

Even more exciting is being invited out to a late night feast at one of your favorite restaurants. With the series of dishes on offer personally ordered, in advance, by your generous and very particular chef. Oh, and have all the tables reserved for your private party. Which is made up entirely of cooks, ravenous after a night of service. Did I mention the two cases of beer?

Yowza, it’s a celebration!

before mealbefore the meal begins...

Well, the gang’s pretty much all here…time for some serious chow.

winter melon soup bowl...shinyIMG_0323_2

First off, winter melon soup à la Fabergé, with lotus seeds, scallop and tender porky bits. Shiny...

IMG_0294_2garlic stem, fresh sea cucumber

The happy, and hefty, little number on the top: braised scallop and black moss on top of snow pea shoots. It looks intimidating, I know, but just think of it as a much tastier, upside-down version of those crazy KFC bowls. On the bottom, fresh sea cucumber and spicy garlic scapes.

cold teadungeness - after

Bee-ah. And Dungeness crab with ginger and green onion – after the dish had been ravaged by about ten pairs of chopsticks at the same time.

crispy turbot, gai landeep fried fanny bays

On the sea front, we scarfed back turbot, done two ways; the fins and bones were dusted and deep fried til super crunchy and the rest was gently cooked until the bite-sized pieces became silky little wafers. There’s some gai lan for greenage too. On the bottom, looking for all world like strangely boneless chicken wings, are the plumpest Fanny Bay oysters any of us had ever seen. They were deep fried, then braised in a black beany-type sauce. Great “crunch, squish” factor on that one!

cold chickenshrimp chips

Cold chicken, or drunken chicken, as it’s often called. How hungover grumpy does he look? We all took a break and had a Tostitos moment with the loud styrofoam crunch of the shrimp chips. Fun!

chef and domdusty, pete, tsingtao

mid meal 2mid meal 1

Not pictured, but worth mentioning, we cleaned up plates of baby bok choy, sizzle platters of pepper spiced beef, and tried a simple northern style dish, it was explained, of stir fried Chinese celery hearts and dried black olives. And fat juicy orange slices to finish. Gotta have the orange slices.

Noticeably absent as well: any chicken of the general tao or weird doughy ball-shaped variety; the florid grenadine hue of sickly sweet and sour sauce; forks. We were doing the real deal here!


Pardon me while I pat my belly, because this was a sweet coupla hours of lip-smacking, finger-sucking, multiple-plate-clearing goodness. We diligently plowed our way through solid familiar oldies, simple and perfect sides, and some stellar and (so I’ve been told) often forgotten classics.

After making a supreme mess of ourselves (and the tables – we knew we were in for a special treat because the lovely staff swapped the regular plastic tarps for real linens, ay ya) we swaddled ourselves in layers of sweaters and scarves before heading back out into the cold, crisp night.

As the saying goes, it ain’t food til you eat it.

And boy, is Chinese foo-, er, this fine, fine food ever tasty.

Taste of China
338 Spadina Avenue


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Little Black Book

I’ll bet you have one of these tucked away somewhere safe; in your bag, by the nightstand, or perhaps if it’s small (and you’re busy enough?) in your back pocket…

So, whatcha got? Deep thoughts, song lyrics, sordid details of steamy encounters annotated with a star rating system? Lucky. Me, I’ve got grocery lists and doodles of dishes I daydream about…oh, and ancient Chinese secrets. (More on that in a bit.)

I’ve been lucky (or crazy?) enough to have spent a little bit of time working in a kitchen, and almost every cook I’ve met so far has had one of these squirreled away close by, ready to bust out at any moment for quick reference and inspiration. Filled with notes, recipes and prep lists, often the poor things (the book, that is, but then again…) are sad looking creatures, a bit yellowed and dog-eared, perhaps with a few pages stuck together with miscellaneous food bits.

mmm, crunchy green curry…

So, um, what's all the fuss about? If you’re one of the brave (or again, crazy) working in a kitchen, I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Number of hours a day spent smelling like fryer oil and onions…ooh, lost count…is it after midnight already?

Amount of humiliation and friendly heckling tolerated in the name of producing a killer glaze/puff dough/(insert particular food nemesis here)…I’d say just a hair under the exact amount necessary to bring on a full hippy freak out.

The number of pounds shed (or gained, stupid pastry/cheese station) worrying that today’s gonna be
your special day where no amount of hustling seems to help, and you’re doomed to be in the weeds and therefore the focus of chef’s increasingly hairy eyeball…oh boy, I can’t even answer that without first scarfing back a chocolate tart.

Which leads us to: The value of a(n often secret) recipe, gleaned from the toil of your labours, honourably bestowed upon you by your mentors and peers as they saw fit, bequeathed, as it were, by the very grace of the kitchen gods…

I am a thief. I “borrowed” this recipe from a fellow cook and never gave it back. (Sorry, M!)

Ok, so that was a tad melodramatic, but seriously, we do love us a good notebook. Oh, the stories they tell.

I’ve gone through a few, but my trusty moleskin is by far my favourite. Not only does it have a super romantic history behind it - Matisse, Hemingway and the lovely, if fictional, character of Amelie are just a few of its patrons - but it comes with a pocket in the back! I love pockets, especially since I am the queen of collecting recipes/lists/bus transfers, in that order.

And they’re good for stashing away dessert menus too.

Just thought I’d share some of my more legible scribblings…otherwise known as the result of nagging my mom
for an entire month for those tasty and totally elusive Chinese soup recipes she so casually busts out now and again.

It’s a comical, if difficult, situation really. I’ve grown up slurping back secret tonics – “good for hair”… "to make skin smooth”… "for immortality”, you know – and until quite recently, haven’t been able to describe them with any justice. Somehow “the one that smells like sweet porky-ness, with the white bark bits and red raisin things” does not a delicious description make.

So I finally got the scoop and drew everything out, with really poor phonetic translations to boot. Thanks mom!

And that is what’s in my little black book. Now the
red one, on the other hand…

I heart Bitondo's

Nothing brightens up a slushy February evening like a brisk walk. Bonus points if the destination in mind serves up melted cheese by the pound, conveniently wrapped in deep fried pizza dough. And, um, other light, nutritious snacks.

D and I, after a long exhausting afternoon of Rock Band practice (alternating, cross training style, with short blindness-inducing bursts of Burnout Dominator - the best racing game ever) decide to refuel with a quick hunting/gathering mission to Bitondo's.

Being in a virtual band is hard work.

Off we go...doesn't the look of this place just make you happy, what with its promise of all things gooey and tomatoey, as pictured on the store window? (See that sandwich on the lit sign? In teeny tiny letters underneath, it says: actual sandwich size. Well, it doesn't really, but it should.)

We order a veal sandwich, a panzo and two meatball sandwiches (one extra spicy). We play the touch screen memory game thingy that one usually finds in old smelly bars and casinos. I fail the memory game thingy. I take this as a sign that my brain has had enough stimulation for the day and is looking for nothing more that a quick carb score. We watch the other happy members of the "I am eating at Bitondo's right now" club.

Would you believe me if I told you that these wee little paper bags weighed 15 pounds?

Laden with our precious packages, we head home. We took the scenic route.

Thought this looked kinda neat, and then I thought, "Does that say KILL on the wall? Hmm. Dark." Moving on, it's time to EAT!

How exciting. Just like my birthday. Or Christmas!

Can I just tell you how much I love the whole "crunch, squish" factor of a great meatball sandwich? Somehow the point where bun meets sauce (or "saw-wuss", rather) becomes, independent of those two ingredients, its very own, very important, source of happiness. Sigh. Did I mention that it comes with pickled hot peppers?

Very necessary to wash it all down with some dee-licious aranciata. But we're not done yet!

Happiness is a greasy warm paper bag.

This whopper of a panzo is honestly bigger than my head. And I have a pretty fat noggin!

Gratuitous goo shot.

By this point, we felt plenty full, so called off band practice til further notice.

Our cat agrees. Belly. Very. Full. Sleepy...

Bitondo's Pizzeria
11 Clinton Street, Toronto

(416) 533-4101