To My Boys,
This seven course meal was in honor of your father’s mentor. And a wonderful person deserves a wonderful meal. When you take someone out to eat at a restaurant you cannot control the energy in which the food is gathered, prepared or served. When you cook the meal at home with love and good intentions in your heart-that in itself is a wonderful meal.
Your father being from Taiwan and his mentor’s family being from Hong Kong, we felt that it would be a good connection of cuisine to go between Cantonese and Taiwanese flavors. Therefore, this menu was intentionally dependent on flavors such as Sesame and Anise.
We tried to recreate some dishes that were playful but sincere-much like our guest. And we also tried to create some dishes that represented a celebration because we had not seen him in so long and he was finally coming as a guest to our home.
The biggest lesson I learned from this meal? Put your nice apron on. This isn’t a menu to be stored in the oven and served at later times. This is straight up, have a seat at the counter while you watch me put out the most amazing dishes and eat quick while it’s hot and delicious. And we’ll sit and chat over cookies later. You might also need a bandana with that apron because this goes fast with sips of oolong in between.
The meal began with Shrimp Toast, which is a dish you see many times on dim sum menus. When prepared right, it is better than French fries (HUGE deal). When not prepared right, it is soggy, greasy toast. Our family had mostly the latter because by the time it comes to our table at the restaurants it has started to weep in oil. But then when we made it at home? It became all you would eat for a meal.
The Mushroom Leek Broth is my own creation. I love mushrooms and if I were a hermit in the woods (who had extensive knowledge on what is poisonous) I’d survive on mushrooms. It’s a basic recipe but requires some interesting mushrooms that are purely a treat when simmered with the mild leeks.
Daikon is delicious and a prominent feature in salads both in my and your father’s cuisine. With the Daikon Carrot Salad I learned that Daikon needs to be fresh in order for it to remain peppery. If it sits in the dressing or even the refrigerator after it’s been cut or shredded, it begins to dry out. So it needs to be part of the show-“Watch me now as I ribbon this daikon and put it in a nice nest like shape onto your plate”. Applause.
The Rice Paper Cod was a wild card. Chinese meals like to serve fish as its own course and usually it’s an elaborate presentation of an entire fish. But we wanted to do something playful. So this was meant to be a fried dish where the paper became crispy on the outside but the fish remained juicy and flavorful on the inside. But what happened for this meal, I placed it in the oven and the paper became gel like. Which, thankfully, resembled the texture of a Taiwanese dish that is served with a pork meatball in the center. So it was not what was intended but it was delicious. Now, if you’d like the intended results then be prepared to put on a show of sputtering oil and sizzling rice paper. Serve hot and crispy right as they come out of the pan.
The Main Course, Tea Infused Lemon Chicken, was your father’s doing. He has been tinkering with tea smoked meats for some time but decided to do a tea brined chicken recipe for this meal. For this dish as well, we felt that the glaze needed to be applied periodically before it was actually served. You can’t just let it sit and then serve. It’s a preparation of love and attention. But once it’s served, it is so worth it.
The Guava Banana Cardamom Sorbet was meant to be a nod to the cut fruit put into bags you get on the side of the road throughout Asia. I needed to spice it up some with the Cardamom to help wake the palate up from the rich tastes in the previous dishes. The banana is what gave it the smoothness that it needed.
Dessert for this seven course meal, Chinese Egg Cake and Almond Shortbread, have been recipes of ongoing research for me. The egg cake is actually one of both me and your father’s favorites from Chinese bakeries (particularly one off of Argyle in Chicago) and even though it has few ingredients-it’s is an arduous process which I haven’t mastered. The Almond Shortbread was meant to be a cross of traditional shortbread and Chinese Almond cookies that you eat at various celebrations. And I made them with the moon cake mold to give them that celebratory feel. I got the taste right for the egg cake but am still working on the spongy texture. The cookies on the other hand-divine. Light and buttery with the sweetness of almonds. They were served with a small cup of a Hong Kong tea drink that combines tea, coffee, sweetened condensed milk and some cream. It is dessert, after all.
For the finale, the Fruit Plate with Lemon Anise Syrup, it was once again a reference to traditional Chinese meals where fruit is served at the end. But this can’t be any fruit that’s been hanging around on the counter. There are everyday fruits and then there are gift worthy fruits. Fruits that’s fall into the latter category are ones such as Korean Asian Pears (that are the size of softballs), Snow Peaches, Concord Grapes, Satsumas, Quinces, etc. For this finale the fruit were lightly covered in a lemon anise syrup to bring back a hint of the anise from the previous dishes in the menu and lemon to refresh the taste buds at the end of the meal. The fruit plate was chilled so that it was crisp and almost like ice.
Throughout the meal we had a lovely Oolong Tea that was continuously pouring into our cups. As an accompaniment to the meal and as a reminder to pause and reflect. There is an entire process to serving tea in a traditional meal. But all I manage at this point is to make sure that you first rinse the leaves in the pot with hot water and then dump that first pot. And then you begin drinking from the second fill of the pot and continue to use those leaves so that their taste continues to evolve with the meal. It’s beautiful really. Perhaps the meal is served to fill the space between the cups of tea. It’s just like that when you have wonderful company.