Regardless of the reason, I feel the urge to eat lighter meals. I also feel the urge to dip into a different skill set of cooking, moving away from the New American cuisine and French-inspired foods of the cooler winter months. I used to be really into East Asian cuisine: Thai, Japanese, and a few different styles of Chinese.
It was many years ago that I first learned to appreciate the simple flavors used in these styles of cooking. It all began with a Thai restaurant – Lemongrass – that opened out by Lake Travis. I ate there several times a week, and eventually wasn't allowed to order dinner off the menu. The owner and chef, Ped (Bahn Pommavong), would make me elaborate meals, using his mad fusion skills. He was like the Herbie Hancock of Thai cuisine. He was a classically trained chef with a French background and was from Laos. This made for some interesting towers of food. He was doing things nine years ago that Uchi is doing now. This may account for my lackluster appreciation of Uchi's food. I felt that it was a rehash of some creativity I'd already seen; an expensive imitation.
Anyway, Ped spoiled my palate. Unfortunately, he decided to expand his business and opened up a second Lemongrass at Sixth and Nueces (the current home of Thai Tara). This dragged his business down and eventually led to the closing of both restaurants. The best thing about this was that my interest in the flavors, textures, and heat of Thai food had been piqued, and I was on the hunt to learn more about them. Then came Japanese food.
Actually, then came my Nipponophile period. I was hooked on anything and everything Japanese. I started studying Zen Bhuddism. Zatoichi and Kurosawa dvd's were strewn about. I cooked elaborate, multi-coursed meals that thoroughly annoyed and impressed my roommates. I cooked for them, and after a while they were like, "Dude. Really. What's with all these noodles and shit that tastes like seaweed?" Fuck it. I was on a roll. I carried a wooden miso bowl and chopsticks in my bag with me everyday. It was a bizarre period in my life.
I had all but forgotten the wondrous flavors of sesame and dashi and tamari over the past few years as I worked on Mother Sauces and foams and gelees. It was time to come home. Time to get back to those flavors that had made deep roots for my passion for cooking. Shaddley had invited Blackberry Shortcake and I to dinner down in North Buda. We seemed to all be on the same page about this meal and met at a centrally located South Austin grocery store that shall remain nameless.
This crew has been on the same high caloric kick over the winter months, and it was time to lighten it up a bit. In the maze-like aisles of this supermarket, wells of inspiration sprung up. There were some nice tatsoi greens and micro greens and baby bok choy lurking about in produce. The seafood case was stocked with fresh (never frozen) halibut. Wonton wrappers and bittersweet chocolate practically leapt into the cart as we passed. Scallops and eggplants and chicken - oh my! After a cleanup by the courtesy desk, it was off to Shaddley's kitchen.
To start, we had a nice, light, refreshing salad: daikon and carrot ribbons with scallions, tatsoi and micro greens tossed in a sesame-rice vinaigrette. Soaking the daikon and carrot ribbons in cold water makes them curl up and take on a more malleable consistency. This salad would also be nice with some soaked arame or wakame, if you're into that kind of thing. Paired with the Daedalus pinot gris, this was a crisp, and acidic starter; definitely not a belly filler.
After this wonderful salad, we moved on to the fish course. To celebrate the freshness of the newly in season halibut, we ate it raw. This course consisted of halibut sashimi and wild salmon and tangerine ceviche. Being a lover of raw meat, I found this course delectable. There is an amazing difference in the texture of a fish that has never been below 32º Fahrenheit. (I will be buying Shaddley and YogaMarketingBrownieGirl a whet stone or at the least a steel. Merry Christmas!) Everyone seemed to love the sashimi, and cutting it left a good bit of leftover fish scraps. In this economy, every little bit counts. Welcome to the new frugality.
I hadn't accounted for any soups in this meal, yet I didn't think about all the fish scraps either. I found some shochu in the fridge, and this combined with water, scallions, fish scraps, ginger and garlic would be the base for a spicy fish broth that would segue to the seafood courses. After being strained and hit with a glug of soy, this broth was served in bowls and garnished with scallions and thai peppers (two things that look rather similar when sliced incredibly thin). YogaMarketingBrownieGirl, who declared herself a "Vata" had a hard time sipping this spicy broth. Most vatas I know have no problem with spicy food. ¿Ay, vata? ¡Odelay!
The next seafood course featured an oldie but goodie from my Nipponophile days: Asian eggplant with red miso. This recipe is as simple as brewing green tea. Saute or stir fry a couple of eggplants sliced on a bias until soft, mix three tablespoons of red miso, two tablespoons each of water and sugar together, and combine. The result will amaze you in its simplicity. Sharing the stage with this miso treat were seared scallops with a watermelon gastrique. The scallops were perfect, evoking the following quote from Shaddley: "Those scallops are like little balls of mouth orgasms!" Nuff said.
Finally coming out of the blue depths of three back-to-back seafood courses, we moved on to the entree. Tangerine and miso glazed roast chicken with brown rice and steamed baby bok choy. The chicken was as moist and tender as my eyes were the first time I saw Old Yeller put down. The glaze was flavorful but didn't outshine the flavor of the yard bird. You can't go wrong with either brown rice or steamed baby bok choy. Really. You can't! I don't even know which wine we had with this course. We always drink so much wine, and unlike the other food bloggers I saw at the last happy hour–thanks parkside! you rule– I don't scribble notes in little books. Maybe I should? Then I'd be one of their ilk. I don't know how I feel about that. Until then I'll rely on catch-all parenthetical lists of wine to get my point across.
We rested a bit after the entree. We all needed a little break. Besides, the ginger-watermelon ice in the freezer needed a little bit more time before it was broken into. We killed another bottle of something, and ate the ice. I was tired. Nearing the realm of spent. I noticed people were looking at me weird. Then someone spoke up, "I thought you bought chocolate?" Shit. Busted. Didn't they know I was tired? Didn't they see the line of spent wine soldiers on the counter (Apolloni Pinot Grigio (Willamette Valley, OR), Carabella Pinot Gris (Willamette), Daedalus Pinot Gris (Willamette), Apolloni Pinot Noir (Willamette), W.H. Smith Pinot Noir, Maritime Vyd (Sonoma Coast), Kerpen 05 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese, Merkelbach 05 Urziger Wurzgarten Auslese)?!
I begrudgingly got up off the oh-so-comfortable couch and went back to the kitchen. I heated some oil. Made some ganache. I took the Nada Moo vegan-maple-pecan 'ice cream' out of the freezer. After cutting them in little thin strips, I fried the wonton wrappers. Fake ice cream, plus fried wontons, plus chocolate, equals crazy delicious. Everyone loved it even though it was made hesitantly on the fly. Nada Moo doesn't give me the nods like real ice cream. Dare I say that vegan ice cream may be an answer to one of my food issues? Not in public I won't.
I went back to the couch. Shit, I may have even closed my eyes. This meal was an excellent first step on the path to what has become a fruitful spring season of light eats. Shaddley, host extraordinaire, didn't even say "charcuterie" or "fromage" during the six hours of feasting that transpired. We still drank entirely too much wine, which in no way is a bad thing.
If there was lesson or moral to this story, it was certainly lost somewhere between sashimi and roast chicken. Maybe that is the moral of this story? Maybe adding an extra course of spicy fish broth so as not to waste some expensive seafood perfectly sums up the current state of the American citizen's recession-based mind. Maybe this new frugality will stay with us after the recession recedes. Maybe I'll find a way to straddle the line between excess and frugality that will fuel my passion to cook Bacchanalian feasts for minimal dollars per head. And maybe I'll be first the American President elected who was born outside of the States. Maybe.