Our first family dinner project last week with the Mullis family and a dinner from Ethiopia was tremendous fun, and it sold out. So, a word to the wise, please make sure and reserve soon for our upcoming December 17 visit to China, via the Roach-Crafts family. Reservations close on Monday, December 15. Dinner is $25 a person, and reservations are held with a credit card number.
And now, the wonderful story of how a cookbook, bought off a book sale table in 1980, changed everything for Nancy, Greg, and their now-grown children:
Mrs. Chiang and THE COOKBOOK by Nancy Roach
“Around 1980, Greg and I lived in LA, where we both enjoyed trying real Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food (as opposed to what we’d found in suburban Detroit and Boston). One day, I was on a bike ride and stopped at a bookstore in Marina Del Rey. I looked at the SALE BOOKS table and saw a book called Mrs. Chiang’s Szechuan Cookbook. I bought it, not knowing that it would assume legendary status in our lives.
“The cookbook is infused with links to Mrs. Chiang’s life in China. The recipes aren’t just lists of ingredients and instructions. Every recipe mentions how the recipe is connected to her family, and many encourage naïve cooks to try new spices or new foods. Someday I want to try the “cold plate” recipe that her dad served at gatherings.
“In the beginning, I was nervous – kind of like the beginning of a relationship. I remember the first time I had to find Szechuan peppercorns … and then I had to find a mortar because they didn’t come ground up. Dinner was late that night. And her comments about dried peppers were a revelation. I was skeptical that touching the seeds would make my hands spicy, so I tested it. Big mistake. And we also learned that if you toss hot dried peppers into a wok, the resulting smoke will not only set off the smoke alarm but also make you cough your lungs out.
“Over the years, we tried many of the recipes in THE COOKBOOK, which is obvious from what it looks like. The book is cracked in multiple places, and it’s pretty obvious which recipes we like because the food stains are numerous.
“Our family feast favorites have landed on Oily Scallion Cakes for hors d’hoevres, followed by Dried Fried Beef and Spinach Salad. Personally, I would add Red Cooked Shrimp (a revelation) and the Cucumber Carrot Salad, but I’m not sure my family would agree. Oily Scallion Cakes are a group effort to make and clean up after … you make a very stiff dough, then make little jelly rolls of dough, peanut oil (or lard), scallions and salt. After that, you cut up the jelly roll and pat the section into pancakes which are then deep-fried and salted. We’ve made these in multiple settings, and everyone – even my wildly picky nephews – have loved them. Dry Fried Beef requires hours of low-temp cooking, which means you need to banish people from the kitchen so they don’t eat it before it’s done. The Spinach Salad is a mix of garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce … and we use versions of the dressing to marinate everything from veggies to meat to fish.
“And Mrs. Chiang has resulted in some interesting experiments. I experimented with a salted chicken (raw) that had to sit for 3 days at room temp, and then get smoked. Greg refused to try it … I tried it and lived … I liked it but have taken so much flak over the years that I refuse to make it again. We had friends and family here for Christmas a few years ago, and I decided to make a duck dish that involved brining (in the fridge this time), steaming, hanging and frying … I hung the duck in the bathtub and once again was mocked.
However, people devoured the duck. The Dry Fried Beans were a mistake in many ways … not sure why. The meatball soup has evolved to an easy favorite. And I used our summer CSA veggies in different versions of THE BOOK.
“Our family has been shaped by this cookbook. We’ve been in multiple oriental markets to find the more exotic ingredients, which exposed us to foods we’d never seen at the grocery store, and helped us feel more comfortable trying different grocery stores and different foods. Our son makes elaborate Indian dishes … he preps spices and herbs into small bowls which he lines and up tosses into the pot at the right time. He learned that from our experience with Mrs. Chiang. When we asked our daughter what she wanted for her special birthday feast at age 5, she said “oily scallion cakes.” And my husband, who grew up on meat and potatoes south of Boston, is happy to help with shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning for a Mrs. Chiang meal. I actually found a couple of used versions of her cookbook online and gave them to the kids for Christmas recently. Andy had tears in his eyes.
“Katie said ‘I’d rather eat than cook.’ HA!”
So, our meal will be:
Oily scallion cakes
Red cooked shrimp
Dry fried beef
Please join us on Wednesday December 17, and our guests of honor, the Roach-Crafts family.
We learn other things farmers are good for
Kathy sat at Nora’s kitchen bar, a busted pasta crimper in one hand, a useless allen wrench in the other, and an odd assortment of screws, tools, and electrical parts spread out on the counter in front of her.
Yes, the *&%# crimper only costs $12, but when you need it, you need it (plus which, where would you find one in Hood River on a Tuesday afternoon?) and the screw holding the stainless steel roller to the wooden handle had come loose, rendering the crimper completely useless. A long strip of agnolotti dough lay forlornly on the prep board in the kitchen. It was 4:00 pm.
The back door opened, and like he does every Tuesday at 4:00 pm, Paul Brown, one half of the farming team at Wildwood Farm, came through the door, arms piled high with wax boxes.
“Whatcha got going on there?” Paul asked Kathy, and before Kathy could say “butternut squash” (which was in one of the boxes) Paul had muscled Kathy off the stool, pawed through the tool box and the rag-tag screws and miscellany, and put the crimper back together again, better than new, which involved taking apart an old electrical switch. Apparently, farming requires quite a bit of MacGyvering.
Paul was gone in a flash, and Kathy went back to the agnolotti. But she kept thinking about Paul, and all our farmers, who bring skill, good will, good humor, and helping hands, to a very hard, job. Do we reward them enough? Nah. But we can say thanks. Thanks, Paul.