From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fundamental Cooking Techniques

I am considering attending the local Asian Cuisine class at the community college down the street from my house, where I could learn “fundamental cooking techniques” and flavor profiles of half dozen Asian cuisines. This three-week class is divided into two or three day sections, each devoted to exploring a single cuisine in Asia. The first region of study is to be China, a country whose food has impacted numerous cuisines in the Far East.

Having grown up in a Chinese American household, I know that my experiences in this course would be shaped by my past exposure to Chinese food. The years of rice, stir-fries, and medicinal soups my mother prepared and numerous visits to Chinatown for foods my parents craved from her native Hong Kong had created in me, a palate more Chinese than that of the typical American.

Looking at menus that the class is to prepare and serve to fellow students, I almost feel like an expert. While some students may delight at the exoticism of some dishes, I smile in recognition at names on the menu such as General Tsao’s Chicken. This is a popular five-dollar lunch special at Americanized Chinese fast food joints. It has bestowed its sweet and spicy charm on all students and staff and locals who don’t crave a more authentic dish. Hailing from Northern China, a dish of braised lamb has also made it to the menu, reminding all that China is a large country, its food quite diverse.

Another lesson is to prepare a steamed fish, a dish I enjoyed quite often at home. My mother had made it many times, steamed whole with scallions and ginger and a light drizzle of oil and soy sauce. I am no stranger to it. In my mother’s version, the fish was simple and delicious. In this college class, every serving consists of two fillets of fish, each rolled into little cylinders after they were stuffed with shredded vegetables. The cylinders are to stand in a pool of soy sauce marinade before the entire dish goes into a steamer. The steamed fish is then served this way, marinade and all.

Puzzled by this, I asked my potential chef-professor why we were to prepare fish in a manner I found utterly un-Chinese. As it turns out, fish steamed whole just never leaves our kitchen as it did not sell to the less adventuresome clientele--the other students, staff and locals alike. Like every kitchen on campus, menus are selected for several reasons. These can include popularity, cost, and availability of ingredients. It made me wonder if authenticity always takes second place to other factors.

The pace of the kitchen, however, will not give me a chance to ponder for long. Classmates are instructed to come up to their peers with jars of condiments and handfuls of vegetables to verify that they had correctly identified the ingredients in their dishes. Groups may bicker about when fish should be placed in the steamer. Such dialogue often reminds me that I was as much a novice in cooking Chinese cuisine as were my peers. I could count on one hand the number of times I had prepared Chinese dishes myself.

Over the course of these Asian classes, my meager experience in a Chinese kitchen may soon become apparent. While I had seen my mother use her small wok, it was hardly like the enormous and powerful woks used in some of the restaurants I have worked in, or owned. Each had its own roaring 135,000 BTU burner that easily put stove-top burners to shame. Should a student forget to bring that bowl of Napa cabbage to the wok with the rest of the vegetables, he or she might as well leave them out of the dish. Garlic and ginger sizzling in the wok would char before anyone came back to the cooking station, cabbage in hand. Working with a commercial wok and a commercial burner under it is a true test of preparation and skill, to say nothing of speed.

The use of the Chinese oven is even more of a novelty. Anyone who has wandered through Chinatown has seen the lacquered meats hanging on display at butcher shops. (yum…) They are a camera-worthy sight for tourists. Through conversations with the professor, I learned that the deliciously glazed meats actually cook in a hanging position in Chinese ovens. They are displayed that same way in the shop windows. I had always assumed they hung that way for aesthetic reasons along with ease of customer viewing.

The Chinese oven stands vertically, a stainless steel rectangular box. The first time I saw it, it reminded me of a magician’s box used in a disappearing act. Hopefully, by the time I work up my own barbeque spareribs, the oven and I will better acquainted. First, I will pierce the marinated spareribs with hooks and attach them to bars just below the oven ceiling. Then I will fill the oven’s bottom drawer with water to create a bath of evaporation. This will keep the meat moist. Every thirty minutes, I will then brush a sweet and savory syrup onto the ribs. Removed two hours later, they will gleam with their characteristic mouth-watering glaze.

Before I end up attending this class, I am sure that, I will find myself at the school library thumbing through Chinese cookbooks. Book after book will have varied styles of dishes and regional specialties I have never heard of before.

As I look through one book’s familiar pages, I am sure I will find a picture of fish fillets, rolled and stuffed, sitting in a steamer basket. The recipe: Rolled Fish with Oysters, just to stare at. There, in clear color will be proof on the page. This, despite what I believe, that Chinese cooks do not fillet and roll their fish.

The time I have spent lately dreaming about attending this Asian Cuisine class has served to ignite my hunger to learn more about Chinese cuisine. There is a lot more to food than I had realized, even in a cuisine I professed to know something about, after having spent years working with it.

The next question I should ponder is which region or regions of China roll their fish filets? Following that could be, what other Chinese cookbooks have recipes for rolled fish? I am sure many other questions will follow, including how many different fillings do Chinese cookbooks provide for the rolled fish filets? I look forward to learning answers to these and the many other questions I do and will wonder about.

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cooked in Dragon Fire

“Hey, umm… do you know what this is missing?”

This, after having just slaved over a kitchen and triumphantly plated and served 4 servings of stir fried chicken, which everyone got to build themselves.

“You forgot the water chestnuts and the green beans. All the things I wanted got left out.”

I walked to the pantry in disbelief, and sure as I was standing there, I saw the can of La Choy water chestnuts, smiling right back at me (figuratively, of course) right next to the rice. The worst part of forgetting to include the water chestnuts was that I had to move the can aside to get to the rice, yet I still managed to forget them.

As a general rule, I am not a huge fan of La Choy products. They have many different products available for purchase, including vegetables, sauces and seasonings. My first thought, when trying one of their sauces, was “Who in heaven’s name are they trying to target as their primary audience / diner?

Turns out that the company has been around for years, and they seem to know what they are doing, given that failure is usually followed by closure, or redistribution of wealth, or reassessment.

Having just surpassed the benchmark of three-quarters of a century making Chinese food, one wonders if the two founders of La Choy, neither of whom were Chinese, imagined their future in this light Did they dream their company would make a large variety of Chinese products? Did they think other American manufacturers might also make and sell Chinese foods? Did they think Americans would consume large amounts of their Chinese foods in and outside of their homes? Did they dream they would become one part of a huge company? It probably was inconceivable imagining their company a component of one of the largest of food companies in the world.

Originally, Wally Smith and Ilhan New were friends. They became founders of the La Choy food products company. How they selected the name may never be known. Why they got together might not either, but that has some logic. Smith was an American grocer who knew what his customers wanted. Simply put, he wanted to sell them bean sprouts because his Detroit shoppers wanted to buy them. No one really knows why or how he saw this market need, but he did, and the rest is history.

Ilhan New was Smith’s Korean college friend. Before and during 1920, they thought about, then founded the La Choy company. Bean sprouts were not, if you will excuse the pun, new to New. He knew how to grow them, cook them, and eat them. This friendship became the cornerstone of this Chinese food company’s beginnings. It was a cornerstone that took root in middle America.

The company they began may even have started Chinese cooking in American homes. Until they did, non-Asians rarely cooked Chinese food themselves. There is probably a grain of truth (rice, we hope) to this. Certainly, there were very few Chinese restaurants in middle America at that time, probably even fewer places to purchase Chinese ingredients. And in short supply were folks who knew what Chinese food was all about or how to make it.

What did these two food pioneer friends envision? Certainly not that their bean sprout business would be a component of a thirty-five brand conglomerate whose unit manufactures dozens of food items. Surely not that they would have sister branches called Chun King, Marie Callender, Mama Rosa, Hebrew National, Swiss Miss, and many other ethnic and non-ethnically-related companies. Yes, La Choy and all these companies are now part of the Con Agra Food conglomerate.

La Choy began simply by growing and selling bean sprouts fresh. Next they put them up in glass jars. Some time later bean sprouts were put up in metal cans. Where in middle American was this done? In Detroit, Michigan, the city where Smith had a grocery store.

To educate the consumer and sell their products, these two founders of La Choy gave out booklets to tell folks how to use their products. The first of these that we located is dated 1925. It is called La Choy Book of Chinese Recipes. The cover has a Chinese-looking lady on the outside and recipes on the inside. These recipes were for foods such as Chow Mein and Waldorf Salad. One recipe was for Creole Sauce. Did Smith and New think them Chinese? Did their customers?

Another early La Choy booklet located was dated 1929. Its cover also said La Choy Chinese Recipes, however, above its title and in smaller type were the words: 'Art and Secrets of Chinese Cookery.' The lady on its cover was not Chinese. Behind her was an almost ghost-like man, probably Chinese, but in western-chef’s whites and hat. He looked as if he wanted to lend a helping hand. Many, and not all of the recipes in this booklet were the same as in earlier one.

Keep in mind that these two friends began raising and selling bean sprouts. Several recipes used them. One was for Sprouts au Gratin. That recipe had dairy products in it, and potatoes, onions, green peppers, and of course, some bean sprouts. It was made in the French 'au gratin' style. Other recipes in this give-away/hand-out were for Water Chestnut Souffle, and Stewed Sprouts with Tomato. And there were others like that.

Some time after that, all La Choy multiple-page recipe booklets were titled: The Art and Secrets of Chinese Cookery. One edition, dated 1942, had a lovely little blond girl putting a very western pie down on a table. Maybe this was typical cooking in Detroit, where their company was headquartered. In the 1920's and 1930's their recipe booklets had fourteen, then sixteen, and eighteen pages; we found one with twenty-six-pages from 1942.

By 1949, the La Choy company had moved to Archbold, Ohio and had become part of the Beatrice Foods company. At that time, the covers of their booklets had no people on them. Between the covers were recipes for canned Tuna Fish Chop Suey, Singapore Slaw, and Sub Gum Chop Suey and many others found in their earlier booklets. By 1954, their booklets grew to thirty pages, and the contents included older recipes and others for Tuna Salad, Hamburger Chop Suey, and Lobster Cantonese.

Sometime before 1962, a Chinese lady again graced the cover of an Art and Science of Chinese Cooking booklet. At least we assume the face hiding behind the fan of a woman wearing a Chinese-like top was indeed Chinese. That 1962 edition included recipes from older booklets and others such as Bridge Party Chop Suey, and Joy Choy Pie. The pie was topped with whipped cream and pecans. Chinese you ask? Well, it did have a crust made from chow mein noodles.

By 1975, booklets from this company were physically larger and had a greater variety of recipes. Some, those already mentioned, others were newer including items such as No Bake Walnut Balls, Noodle Raison Cookies, Peach Noodle Kuchen, and Frankfurter Chow Mein. Still, many of the recipes were neither Asian nor Chinese. Another change was that the booklet had a new name and was titled: The Wonderful World of Oriental Cookery. New also was that it no longer was a give-away; it was for sale at seventy-five cents.

Before and since, La Choy has handed out many recipe booklets and single-page flyer-type items. One was called La-Choyable Holiday Recipes. Another. The La Choy Collection of Favorite Oriental Recipes. By this point, La Choy products had moved from Beatrice Foods to become one of many Hunt-Wesson food brands. When part of Hunt-Wesson, they tried a new direction for amusing book titles. One such was called: La Choy, Not Your Average Junk Food.

In the meantime, some recipe titles may shed light on the topic. There was Chinese Fruit Salad made with bean sprouts, soy sauce, and mayonnaise in a 1937 booklet. Three years later, there was a Bean Sprout Meat Loaf recipe. In 1958, there was a recipe for Chinese Tuna Rice Salad and another for Oyster Chow Mein.

This company that two University of Michigan friends started moved and changed ownership becoming a division of Beatrice Foods in 1942. A few years later, it was taken over by Hunt Wesson; and both times La Choy grew and made more food products. Today, as a division of Con Agra, and they make more than fifty different foods, canned and frozen, that bear the La Choy name. And, since 1990, their bigger plant is now located in Omaha, Nebraska.

Now, La Choy produces a lot more than just bean sprouts. Their sister companies are larger and different, too. They include: Armour, Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Decker, Egg Beaters, Fleishman’s, Gulden’s, Healthy Choice, Inland Valley, Knott’s Berry Farm, Libby’s, Meridian, Orville Redenbacher’s, Peter Pan. Reddi Whip, Slim Jim, Texas Signature Foods, Van Camp’s, and Wolfgang Puck’s.

Some current La Choy products include Chicken Chow Mein, Pepper Oriental, Egg Rolls, Chop Suey Vegetables, Sweet & Sour Sauce, Shrimp Chow Mein, Chop Suey Vegetables, Water Chestnuts, Bamboo Shoots, Won Ton Soup, and Chinese Hot Mustard. And they make a soy sauce, with nary a soy bean in it. They are achieving one goal of the original founders, La Choy now offers a more complete line of Asian foods to both home cooks and food service operators.

The Misters New and Smith developed some long-term visions of what to do and how to go about it. They may not have dreamed of going from Detroit to Omaha, nor of becoming part of a conglomerate, but their idea of making lots of Chinese food for home and industry really paid off and took off. Their booklets educated consumers about what to do with their food products.

But their booklets did not tell other things about their company. For example, they did not advise that their soy sauce had no soy, or that their teriyaki sauce was not Chinese. They did not tell that their bean sprouts were grown hydroponically in just six days. They did not tell that in 1950 the company asked for and was granted permission to have government people continuously inspect their plant and products long before such inspections were required by law.

Clearly these two non-Chinese chaps, Smith and New, were ahead of their time making and touting Chinese foods.

Their ideas and products impacted and still have an impact on American thoughts and consumption of Chinese food. Their recipes, while not all Chinese, are representative of Chinese food’s early use and later growth and change in the United States. Their booklets and company handouts look at what people used to make with Chinese ingredients, in the United States, at least.

So while the intention may be there to use their water chestnuts in a stir fry, and while that same intention may not result in selection of La Choy’s particular product, chances are good that most who purchase canned or jarred products for Chinese food are purchasing a La Choy product. And it doesn’t stop there.

(Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, created a muppet character of the La Choy Dragon that was featured in a series of commercials featuring the La Choy products.)

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tong's Thai

Thai food has become a new favorite of mine. Our new, favorite hang out has become Tong’s Thai. Their cuisine is an authentic offering of Chinese and Thai, with sushi thrown in the mix as well.

Tong’s Thai Restaurant is a quaint little place just outside the Alamo Heights area on Austin Highway. I had heard about it many times from friends, but, despite having driven past it many times, none of us ever ventured in. Finally, just a couple of months ago, we decided to break down and give it a try.

Tong’s Thai offers cozy seating inside, with a warm and inviting atmosphere. It is clean and neat, with plenty of staff there to attend to everyone’s needs. They also offer patio dining, with a Buddha statue overlooking a koi pond.

The lunch special has always been fairly priced, with a good sized portion, and, if you don’t mind sitting at the sushi bar, there is always room to eat. Dinner portions are very generous, and it makes sense that the entire family can eat well. Everyone seems to like it. So much so that we, as a family, ended up visiting Tong’s Thai two days in a row. After having suggested it to Uncle David and Aunt Maryann on multiple occasions, they decided to go give it a try. We decided, with little convincing, to join them.

The greatest irony for me was that I knew that we would be going there the very next day to celebrate Mother’s Day.

But, hey, one cannot have too much of a good thing, right?

So off we went, and I vowed to try another dish that I had yet to taste.

Tom Kha Kai, Tong’s Thai style it was, for me. Something more traditional (Broccoli Beef, Lemon Chicken, with HUGE portions of chicken and Egg Drop Soup for everyone else.)

Their soup is served in a flaming hot pot with large, tender pieces of chicken breast, lemongrass, straw mushrooms, onions, kaffir lime and Thai chili paste, swimming in creamy coconut base. The presentation was fun for the kids, and I could not believe how big the serving was. I was starving, and I didn’t come close to finishing it.

I have discussed this type of soup before, having enjoyed it on the cruise ship a few weeks ago. There were, however, some marked differences that made this experience a little different. Onions, for one. None on the cruise ship, but plenty at Tong’s Thai. Saturday’s soup was also sweeter in flavor, perhaps due to their use of sweet coconut milk. Like Uncle David, I believe that sweet food should be primarily for desserts. While it was not an unpleasant taste, I was definitely put off a bit by the flavor.

Sunday was Mother’s Day, and I had made reservations for our family to lunch there much earlier in the week. Dana, one of my good friends from high school, was in town for the weekend, and I wanted to be able to get together and hang out with her before she had to go back home. Luckily, she liked Thai food, so it seemed to be a good choice.

Tong’s Thai was crowded, but not overly so, even though it was midway through the day. Mother’s Day is typically the second busiest day in the restaurant industry, second only to Valentine’s Day. (I do believe, however, that had I not had made reservations, we would have had to wait for a table.)

Kim ordered her regular sushi, and the girls went back to the broccoli beef and egg drop soup. Dana ordered their Pad Thai, which I have enjoyed before, and I told our server to surprise me. Roast chicken it was. Their special of the day was a roasted chicken with papaya sauce, served with a crispy salad and rice. Honestly? Not all that special. It was tasty, but unremarkable in flavor. It seemed to have missed the boat as far as “Off-the-menu” specials go. I kind of wished that I had ordered the whole sea bass that we were seeing being served to neighboring tables.

Overall, Tong’s Thai continued its trend of positive experiences, and as there are many items on their menu that I have to try for the first time, it is only fair that they get props for this last visit.

Thankfully, the company was wonderful, and all the girls got along fabulously. I do hope to be able to get together with Dana again, and when we do, maybe a different venue for our meal.

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Wok, You Wok!!

A few weeks ago, (way back in March, to be specific,) I submitted my personal information to the Food Network Channel in hopes of gaining a screening opportunity for a television show. In my excitement to send in the necessary information, I filled out their on line application with all of my required contact info, and I gave them a brief history of my experience in the restaurant industry. I then sent it off, said a little prayer, then promptly forgot about it.

Last week I received a phone call from New York, and not recognizing the number, I answered with just a bit of trepidation. The lady on the other end of the line identified herself as the Screening Director for the Food Network Channel, and she said that she was calling potential personalities for possible inclusion in a cooking show. After gathering my wits about me, because I happened to be at work at the time, I asked what show she was hoping to screen me for.

You’ll never guess her response.

Give Up?

Turns out I had submitted my personal information to the “Worst Cooks in America” casting site.


"Twelve of the most hopeless cooks in the country will compete in a high-stakes elimination series in Worst Cooks in America. At stake for the last two standing is the chance to cook for a panel of esteemed culinary critics and win the grand prize of $25,000. This six-episode series will put the "recruits" through a culinary boot camp led by two acclaimed chefs: Anne Burrell, host of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, and Beau MacMillan, executive chef at elements in Phoenix. "

And they wanted to screen me for it. (Kinda makes me wonder just how “bad” the cooks really are on this show.) I watched the first season of the show, and I had a clear favorite that I would have liked to see succeed. She ended up finishing second, which to me was a bit strange, but I was proud of the fact that I could find talent in a pool of cooks “so bad, it’s good.”

I wondered for a while if I would be successful on the show, as I don’t believe that I qualify as one of the “worst” cooks in America. Absolutely, there are many who are better. Definitely, there are many who are not. But one of the worst? Ehh… not sure.

I was going to have to do a home video, since I could not make the casting call in Atlanta with only 1 week’s notice. But the next question that came up was whether or not I could dumb down my abilities to qualify to be on the show or if they would have seen right through me.   The home video needs to be postmarked no later than May 7th.  I still have time to make up my mind.  Right?

My goals are definitely (hopefully) have a cooking platform to broadcast on. When I say “platform” I am not referring to one of those guys who demonstrates this miracle chopper at the state fair. I am also not talking about someone who demonstrates a $2000 set of pots and pans. I want to be the next Martin Yan. Absolutely not known as one of the worst cooks in America. (There are reputations to uphold in this family!!)

So, I guess when the next casting call for The Next Food Network Star comes up, or Hell’s Kitchen, or Chopped, or… (the list continues) I will have to send my information in to them. (Sadly, I missed out on a chance to catch the open screening for Hell’s Kitchen that happened in Dallas this past February.)

Who wouldn’t like to say that they had the opportunity to rub elbows with a star? After all, if Guy Fieri, who has a “slammin’” personality and an over-the-top screen presence can win his own show, who is to say I can’t? (Never mind the fact that I helped him open/run one of his restaurants in Santa Rosa…)

Surprise, surprise, surprise. Maybe, soon, I will catch that lucky break. Don’t get me wrong. I love what I am doing now. But I REALLY LOVE food. Let’s hope you see me on the tube, soon.

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…

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