Conquering Unfamiliar Territory

Posted by in The Coffee Shop

I was a guest in a lovely home, my hosts were some of my best friends, but what does a foodie do when he tries to cook in a kitchen that is, well, ill-equipped?

The answer: you drink wine! (and improvise)
Whenever I visit friends, I like to thank my hosts by cooking them a nice dinner. It’s my way of giving them something special and unique, and frankly, it gives me great pleasure to do it.

I had decided to make homemade dumplings¬†as an appetizer before my spicy beef stir-fry. I grabbed a kitchen knife from the promising, large knife block on the counter. I went through three more knives – the ham slicer, the bread knife and the paring knife before discovering that the meat cleaver was the only one that didn’t totally mutilate the food. I minced and chopped as best I could on the tiny, warped plastic cutting board that slid all over the countertop. After assembling the two dozen or so dumplings, I popped them into the fridge and began work on the main course. After almost severing a digit (not an easy feat with a dull cleaver), I put a kitchen towel under the cutting board to steady it. Finally, all my prep work was done: flank steak was sliced and marinating, onions, ginger, garlic all julienned and/or minced. I rewarded myself with a glass of wine.

Now, “adaptable” is my middle name. I’ve “boiled” potatoes in an oven, scrambled eggs in a microwave, but nothing would prepare me for trying to make a Chinese dinner with only two Revere Ware sauce pots!

I didn’t expect to find Restoration Hardware in my friends’ kitchen, but I had hoped to find some suitable substitute for a wok – a skillet, even a roasting pan. Nothing. I took a big gulp of wine when I realized I had to settle for the largest vessel available, a 3-quart covered saucepan, to do most of the work. When it came time to steam the dumplings, I had no steamer insert. No matter. I grabbed the colander, set it atop the saucepan, and found a large plate that covered the colander. I lined the colander with nappa leaves and steamed the first batch of dumplings while I made the sauce. Boy, the wine was really helping calm my nerves. Rice was cooking on the back burner, in the smaller saucepan I had used earlier to make a simple chicken and pork stock for the stir-fry. My problem was that since the 3-qt saucepan was the largest pot, I needed to use that for the stir-fry. And it was being used for the dumplings!

I had no choice but to wait for the dumplings to cook (opening the second bottle of wine while waiting), then rinse out the pan and cook the stir-fry. But first, I blanched some nappa (the rest of the head I’d bought for the dumplings) in the stock to act as a refreshing foil for the spicy beef. I removed that to the big pasta bowl I’d found, arranging it around the edge. I rinsed the pot again (more wine), then moved on to the beef. Everyone hungrily waited while I attempted to sear the beef. Since I had so little surface area in the bottom of the sauce pan, I cooked the meat in batches, but it still didn’t sear quite right. The pot was smoking hot, but the temperature plummeted as soon as the beef hit it. The light in the hood had burned out, so I couldn’t see what was going on in the pot. Sigh. Refreshed by another sip of wine, I managed to pull it all together. I created quite a yummy sauce out of oyster sauce, sesame oil, dried chiles, and the stock, thickened with cornstarch. Baby corn added a little color and texture, and I garnished with green onion tops. Success at last! Celebration and revelry ensued. Let’s have a glass of wine, shall we?

What should have taken me an hour ended up taking two. But it was worth it. My friends either really liked the meal, or were just so starved and/or tipsy they ate it all up, oohing and ahhing along the way. The challenge was fun, and I realized that one can persevere when faced with obstacles like these. And of course, a little wine can’t hurt.