Culmination of the Quest (Part One)

Culmination of the Quest (Part One)

Honolulu. 1980. As the plane landed, I felt the first symptoms of a cold. Nooooo, not right now, not at the start of a tropical vacation! I had plans to meet up with a local friend for dinner, when all I really wanted to do was curl up in my hotel room and die. He took me to a Chinese restaurant and ordered us a huge bowl of hot and sour soup. I had not, yet, built up the tolerance to spicy peppers that I have, today, and I was convinced he was trying to kill me. Twenty-four hours later, I realized he’d saved my vacation; my cold was cured.

That’s not normal. The normal progression of a cold is a steady, predictable building from scratchy throat and stuffy nose to full blown misery lasting 3-7 days, and in my case, usually climaxing with the double-whammy of bronchitis and a ten-day course of antibiotics. That’s normal. This was about six hours of misery knocked flat on it’s backside by a bowl of hot and sour soup. I felt terrific, the next day.

In hindsight, the soup itself had been quite tasty. Sure, my tastebuds were traumatized and blistered, but the flavor was more complex than my initial “burns the lips off a chicken” reaction. I set out on a quest to find the perfect hot and sour soup on the mainland. I came close, at a little restaurant in Canton, OH. But by then, I was living in Oklahoma. I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, and I think the place closed, years ago. Nothing, since then, has even come close.

My main complaint is that all restaurant hot and sour soup seems to have been “dumbed down for the tourists.” I get it; I go to Thai restaurants and order “4.5” on a spicy scale of 1-5. That’s my coded message to the cook: “I’m serious about loving hot and spicy things, but I’m not native Thai, please don’t kill me.” People talk a good fight, but when push comes to shove, a few drops of Tabasco Sauce pack too much heat for most people. I’ve tried ghost pepper, and I draw the line far, far down the Scoville Scale. Past a certain point, it’s just a contest to see who’s the dumbest masochist on the planet. Raw Serrano heat is my happy place – somewhere high above jalapeño, but well below Carolina Reaper. Restaurant hot and sour is more mild than a third of a jalapeño, with the ribs and seeds removed. But that’s not the biggest problem with it; the biggest problem is the cornstarch. Restaurant hot and sour soup is thick.

So it’s been nearly 40 years, and I’m about ready to give up the quest. In one last act of desperation, I started searching for things like “hot and sour soup that’s not full of cornstarch” and “hot and sour soup that’s actually HOT” and “ffs can’t anyone make a decent hot and sour” and “is hot and sour actually SUPPOSED to be like this?” at which point I found, “The Food Lab: This is How Hot and Sour Soup Should Taste,” by J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT. When I read the following passages, I knew I had to give this a try before giving up for good:

Here’s the fact: Most restaurant hot and sour soup stinks. …

In certain Chinese traditions, hot and sour soup is thickened with blood from either a chicken or a pig. Not only is blood not easy to come by in the US, it’s also not high on most folks’ lists of “things I love to eat,” including mine. Instead, hot and sour soup in the U.S. is more often than not thickened with cornstarch.

Some writers and eaters—probably those that have been scarred by years of eating the steam-table glop—insist on using no thickener at all. I personally like to use just a hair—enough to add some body to the soup and help the solid elements stay suspended, but not so much that it becomes mouth-coatingly slick.

J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT gets me.

First, I went to Hong Kong Market. It’s my new favorite grocery store, but it’s not walking distance like my local Kroger’s and I’d never been there before. Armed with a shopping list the length of my arm, full of things I couldn’t properly pronounce and had never heard of, I started wandering the aisles, just to get my bearings. I quickly found the chicken feet.

You can’t be squeamish if you’re going to cook chicken feet. They look a little too much like a cross between lizard and four-fingered, elegant, old-lady human hands. The recipe also calls for “chicken carcass.” Isn’t that just…whole chicken? Apparently not. One thing you can easily find at the Asian market that you won’t likely find in a U.S. grocery chain is random chicken parts, hacked to bits for stock. I was relieved, because I wasn’t looking forward to this part of the instructions:

Hack your chicken carcasses to bits before making stock. Not only will it make you feel like a medieval viking-style badass, but it’ll also make your broth come together much faster. The more finely you chop the bones, the more surface area they have, and the more channels for proteins, minerals, and other goodies to get extracted into the broth.

Not that I don’t relish the idea of being a medieval viking-style badass, whatever that is, but I have been voted “Most Likely to Hack Her Own Hand Off with a Meat Cleaver.” I have sliced and stabbed myself and even needed stitches, that’s how poor my knife skills are. I’m sure my fingers in there would add a certain “richness” to the broth.

I also found a lovely pork tenderloin, lean and on sale. Jinhua ham? Nope. That was the one substitution I ended up resorting to, using the prosciutto, as recommended in the recipe.

In other news, I know, now, where to find duck tongues, pork arseholes, chicken “testides,” and tripe. I really need a recipe for duck tongues; those look interesting. I think chickens’ “testides” are bigger than their brains.

During my search for the ham, I ran into two very cheerful, helpful, and determined staff members who were easily enlisted in my quest. Laura was particularly kind and at least as doggedly determined to succeed in my grocery scavenger hunt as I was. Together, and with help from another customer, we located day lilies next to the black fungus. So many types of black fungus. We found extra firm tofu, hidden amongst the silken, soft, medium, and firm varieties. With fifty different types of sesame oil, we didn’t find toasted sesame oil. When I got home, armed with sesame seeds for toasting, I found out that the sesame oil I already had at home was toasted!

After the gingerbread fiasco, I was ready for a win. I decided to make the broth today, and finish the soup on Saturday. I blanched the chicken carcass and feet, then put them into my slow-cooker, along with the prosciutto, ginger, onion, scallions, and smashed garlic.  I threw about two handfuls of dried red chili peppers in there for good measure.

After simmering all those ingredients for hours, the whole house smells heavenly! I’ve strained and put aside the broth, in the refrigerator, for Saturday’s lunch, and will write later this weekend to let you know if the quest has truly been completed, or if I’ve just found a tasty, but very different, soup to enjoy. Either way, I have no doubt it will be delicious.

Next Time, I Buy a Pre-Fab House!

Next Time, I Buy a Pre-Fab House!

Gingerbread House, that is. Walking through H.E.B. this afternoon on a quest for pasteurized egg whites with which to make royal icing “cement” for my gingerbread house, my heart sank. There, at the front of the store – for $14 and change – a giant wall of boxed “make your own” gingerbread house kits. I should have thrown in the towel, then and there, and bought one of those kits. But I’m stubborn. If you’re feeling stubborn, bored, or just craving frustration this holiday season, you can give it a go – here is the recipe and template I used: Gingerbread House Recipe (Recipe & Template)

Apparently, there are a lot of us out here who are determined to make our own gingerbread houses, villages, office complexes, whatever, from scratch. Some businesses even use it as a team-building activity! Just look at these lovely gingerbread houses and scenes from the Dallas/Fort Worth Marriott Hotel & Golf Club at Champions Circle:

I remember doing this, at work, years ago – a chef provided all the walls and roof slabs, we had only to glue them together with royal icing and decorate them. This gave me a false sense of how easy it was. The first time I tried it on my own, it turned out okay, but I mixed up the walls and the roof slabs and had skylights instead of windows. That may be where I went right, last time. The walls are smaller and lighter, less likely to fall in on the interior. But it looked more modern than the traditional gingerbread chalet – it had more of a Frank Lloyd Wright thing going on.

And just try finding meringue powder, this time of year! Even Amazon won’t ship till after Christmas. Someone suggested I try Hobby Lobby, and that’s when I discovered you can just use egg whites, instead. I could have just used egg whites from the half-dozen eggs in my refrigerator, because we all know that royal icing is inedible, and nobody eats the house till it’s gone bad, anyway. The salmonella risk was infinitesimal. But no, at 2:30 this afternoon, I was still determined to do it “right,” and “right” meant food safety and pasteurized egg whites. My next-door neighbor, Kroger’s, didn’t have them. H.E.B., thank goodness, did. I was so determined, at that point, I’d have driven to San Antonio for the damned things.

I’m not sure why I still felt determined to do this at all, let alone “right.” Already, I’d stayed up till midnight re-cutting and baking a second set of walls. Uneaten gingerbread is one thing; inedible is something else, entirely. The first set was more like a thin, toasted, ginger cracker that had lost what little flavor it started with, while languishing in the oven. In hindsight, those tasteless ginger crackers might have been lighter, stronger, and better for construction. But it was also strangely lopsided. Fortunately, I’d made a double batch of gingerbread dough. Hours later, I had two large slabs for the roof, and these lovely, windowed walls:

The second batch (above) turned out edible, but in the end, unsuitable for construction. Those deep furrows give the walls character, I think; they’re the result of rolling out the dough between sheets of parchment paper. But they also represent weak points. You can either have a strong house that even the wolf at the door won’t eat, or a yummy house that might keep the wolf too full and too busy to eat you. Only professional chefs and super talented people should attempt to make a gingerbread house from scratch, unless they have a large amount of liquor on hand and a wicked sense of humor. Mine ended up looking like a small cathedral that had burned down, with fire-retardant foam still clinging to the walls. Don’t believe me?

The only thing that turned out right was the stained glass windows and they could have been better. What I mean is that they could have tasted better, after the whole roof caved in and took the rest of the structure with it. If ever I do this again (and that’s unlikely), I might try creating stained glass designs with colored sugar instead of hard candies. Like I said, no one’s going to eat them, anyway. I would have liked to put a flashlight or LED candle inside, turn down the lights, and watch it the soft, colorful glow through those windows.

At least the non-structurally sound gingerbread was tasty enough to repurpose as “dessert” over the next week or so. Paired with tea or milk, it’s a bit of a consolation prize.

After throwing in the towel and laughing off my stubborn, but blessedly brief, urge to start all over again, I consoled myself with lamb pan-seared with olive oil, crushed garlic cloves, parsley, rosemary, and sea salt; wilted arugula and spinach; and crisp, cold tomatoes. I can cook, I just don’t have much of a future as a baker. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite memes: “Women belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. Everyone belongs in the kitchen; kitchen has FOOD.”

Stay tuned: The next culinary “experiment” is in the works, and already smells more promising than the gingerbread house.