In the Economist, Dr. Richard Wrangham explains the anthropological reasons for why our common ancestors took to eating food charred by the early flames. Cooking food meant that the first humans could digest food more efficiently, absorb the nutrients faster, change, evolve, and eventually learn how to post annoying Facebook photos. That, of course, is human evolution in a nutshell or less. But when I read it, I thought, why do I cook? This same question came up this week. A visitor from a prestigious international cooking school asked me and my colleague if we cooked, and what kind of cooks were we: does cooking relax you or does it stress you out? Does it inspire you or do you only want to be on the other end of the process (eating)? I find cooking to be pretty relaxing, inspiring, creative juices flowing, but there are moments, particularly when surrounded by pots, pans, whirring machinery making sounds it shouldn't, menu planning, realizing guests are arriving at the door and the rice is still raw, oh so many crazy moments before a meal, that the thought comes to mind "why am I doing this?"
Last Sunday, I fed two groups of friends. The first group were fed brunch food: a spinach mushroom quiche, french toast, creamy scrambled eggs, and fruit. Nothing too crazy and outrageous, plus the prep took less than an hour. The second group were fed chinese birthday noodles, boiled dumplings, taro duck (purchased from a local restaurant), and a sichuan style boiled beef. The latter menu required more prep, more kitchen time, more research. What I didn't tell most of the visitors that day was that three of the dishes were totally new to me. First the spinach quiche. I took inspiration from David Lebovitz's blog and riffed off his Spinach pie recipe. I added the mushrooms since I had them, and a load of shredded manchego cheese in lieu of parmesan. While it came out a tad saltier than I had hoped, it matched well with the scrambled eggs which I've made a lot of times before (the addition of cream and mustard make this a standout - something I learned from a Wolfgang Puck recipe).
The second and third dishes also being tested for the first time were the birthday noodles and the sichuan beef. "Misua" is a southern chinese noodle made of egg. They look like rice vermicelli, and bundled in sheaves that you cook quickly over salted boiling water. It takes no more than a few minutes to get it al dente, so it has to be cooked right before serving. The rest of the dish however can take awhile - preparation starts by soaking dried squid overnight, rinsing it out the next day, and then chopping into slivers. Soak a cup of chinese mushrooms for half an hour to an hour, and chop into small pieces. Make a chicken stock out of one chicken, garlic cloves, a good size piece of ginger sliced into coins, coarse salt, peppercorns, and I added some cloves for flavor. The chicken stock was made by placing all the ingredients in a crockpot and simmered for a couple of hours, skimming the scum every so often. The chicken pieces I have put aside, but the stock I kept simmering while I put the rest of the dish together. Saute half a kilo of ground pork with onions and ginger, add the squid, a cup of chopped chinese sausages (these tend to be very fatty and slightly sweet), the mushrooms, and when the pork is browned, add the stock (about 2 cups), and let simmer for an hour. When guests are about to arrive, toss in the cooked noodles. Serve with chopped scallions (greens), fried garlic chips, fried shallots, garlic peanuts, and typically a red-dyed chicken egg (the dye-ing of the eggs is not something I've figured out yet, so needless to say the eggs I served were more a blush pink than red).
This dish is typically served on someone's birthday, so I wanted to share this with the friends coming over for dinner. I have fond memories of this dish while I was growing up, my mother preparing days in advance and making sure we had this to eat for breakfast on any of our birthdays. I called my mom a few days before to ask for general directions, but wasn't sure if it would taste the same. I was pleased with the results except for the not so red eggs, and I'm glad I can turn to the memory of making it for future events.
The beef dish has been something I've planned to make for months now. I had seen it on Appetite for China, and knew I had to tinker with it. I loved this dish in Sichuan restaurants, it would be served boiling and bubbling like something out of hell, all the chillis dancing away on the top of the meat, and after a few spoonfuls, everyone would be sweating away from the dish, gustatory masochism!
I knew all the ingredients were easily found, and I just had to round them up, prep, and prepare, and serve when the diners were there. Other than going to the butcher early in the morning to get a good chunk of meat (and sliced by the kindly butcher to my specifications), it didn't take too long to saute the individual parts - spices, then vegetables, then the chilli bean sauce with stock (shared the stock of the birthday noodles), which got an extra dose of chillis when I added something I found recently - a garlic chilli sauce - and let to simmer away till ready. The beef is doused with chinese rice wine ahead of time, then dusted with cornflour before cooking in the chilli stock. A quick swirl in the fiery stew, ladled out over the greens, and then served with the chilli sauce over it. The only part I didn't get to do was fire up a hot chilli oil to top the dish. By then my small kitchen was overrun with pots and ingredients and plates. One more item would have pushed it over the edge.
When I ponder on the question of why I cook, I figure it's not something I take for granted. I appreciate being fed by friends and family, I know it is a gift, a measure of their time and willingness to share themselves with me. I can only give back in kind. It's a better gift than anything I can buy, and I evolve.