Lamb dinner at Michelle's

Lamb dinner at Michelle's

I’ve not been home for the last 7 Christmases. As a result, the holiday season has meant less about spending time with my real family and more about the friends that I’ve spent time with during this cheery season. This year in particular, friends have been opening up their petite New York apartments left and right to this foreign transplant, debunking the urban myth that New Yorkers do not cook and use their ovens to store magazines.

At Michelle’s, I enjoyed a delightful 6 hour dinner with 4 other women. We poured over Michelle’s wedding pictures between bites of cured meats and cheese and a bottle of chardonnay left over from her vineyard wedding. I stole the recipe for her spicy spaghetti vongole and ate an impossible amount of roasted lamb chops crusted with garlic, rosemary and thyme, bloodily rare and perfectly matched with a jammy malbec. To end the night, champagne and berries with sinfully rich Devonshire cream and promises to do girls’ night in more often.

A Christmas feast

A Christmas feast

At Andrea’s, her husband Dimitar was at once host, sommelier, server and dish washer while the women noshed non-stop on food ranging from home made to blatantly store bought. Andrea’s food showcased her Eastern European heritage, making cheese pastries, a vat of Russian salad, roast pork loin and sour cabbage. Jiyoung brought over at least 50 fried dumplings that were gone in a flash while we toasted Father Christmas on hot spiced wine and Cafe Zaiya’s very light and spongy Buche de Noel complete with a meringue Santa perched on the log. Presents open, and stomachs fed, we then proceeded to play with Dani, the Pantchevs’ baby boy, who was well behaved and all smiles everytime a camera was pointed in his direction. The boy could be a model!

Vietnamese roll - a good specimen!

Vietnamese roll - a good specimen!

Yanru’s post-Christmas affair had a South-east Asian flair as she served Vietnamese spring rolls; Pad Thai; and a Singapore rojak with Asian pear substituting for turnip and ham ching beng for fried crullers. This was a most hands on dinner, with Ruoying and I in charge of spring roll wrapping duty, resulting in rolls of varying lengths and fullness, and Yanru saving the leftover mint by boiling aromatic mint tea to go with a selection of cakes and tarts.

cookies on a windowsill

cookies on a windowsill

The holiday is not just about eating, but also about gift giving. Home made presents are in vogue this season so I joined Katherine and her friend for an afternoon of cookie making. A studio with a bit oven and a single cookie tray is not the ideal location for mass cookie production, but with some creative adjustments, Katherine made it work. As we shaped and burned dough, drizzled Pollockesque swirls of chocolate on coconut and oatmeal cookies and went trigger happy in bright red sprinkles, the room was suffused with a deep buttery scent. This must be the scent of Christmas.

Chicken Malabar? couscous, salad, yuenling, coke and wine

Chicken Malabar? couscous, salad, yuengling, coke and wine

My first meals in 2009 are also worth mentioning. Instead of being cooped up in the city, this year’s first few days were spent on snowy Stratton, VT with friends, some old, some newly acquainted. While the skiing was on occasion painful to say the least, the food was always good (barring the sorry plate of chicken tenders at the ski lodge). Katherine planned quite an international spread, as we cheered in the new year on Mediterranean chicken. The two Bens, in a valiant attempt to cook, manipulated pounds of spaghetti in a pot that could be larger and almost (but not quite) scorched turkey bolognese made by Papa Nesbeda carted all the way from New Jersey. We then went pescatarian on salmon on Jan 2nd, and attempted to wrap the biggest and ugliest Mexican taco on our final dinner. Snacks were on hand at all hours, tubs of Phish food and Chubby Hubbies passed around, and a 24 egg plate of scrambled eggs by Prescott devoured. A table filled with food, a room full of friends and laughter. A blessed New Year indeed.

Alan and Jocelyn, congratulations once again on your marriage and thank you so much for inviting me to your beautiful wedding! Here I am holding up to my end of the bargain, with a post on your yummy multi-tiered wedding cake. Sure, its kosher and dairy free, but it wasn’t as bad as Alan had warned me about. The sponge cake was nice and fluffy with a light tinge of lemon flavor, and cool-whip frosting ain’t bad either. Besides the wedding cake, I also ate both desserts, licking clean the plate of warm and gooey molten chocolate and cherry cake, as well as the apple and cinammon crumble. Truly a sweet wedding!

It must be Ying’s impending departure that’s sparking a state of nostalgia and broodiness. Last night we ate at Cha-an, where I wrote my second food blog entry the Friday after I returned to New York with my trusty camera. The attendees were the same, Yanru, Ying and I, and the topics of discussion were probably similar too, that of work and of men. The sesame creme brulee was as good as ever, creamy with a slight smoky flavor, and just sweet enough. The 3 course dessert set did not disappoint either, except for perhaps overly icy chestnut icecream that had the unappealing consistency of frozen milk. The warm chocolate pudding/cake was wonderful, and so was the red bean choux pastry, and the green tea macaron, albeit a little tough to chew was redeemed by the bitter-sweet green tea cream. We left the tea house and hugged good bye in a torrent of sudden snow that quickly turned into icy rain. I’m going to miss these dinners without Ying terribly.

Today I met up with friends from college and had dim sum again at Jing Fong, where the food was reliably cheap but more salty than usual. A girl was visiting from Chicago and I asked her about changes in Hyde Park. It was sad to find out that the Hyde Park Co-op, where I’ve bought way overpriced and not too fresh groceries during my time had/was closing, to be replaced by a chain called Treasure Island. There goes another neighborhood institution.

And tonight, feeling even more antisocial than not, I begged off dinner with Yanru and her friends and wandered alone in Chinatown, blissfully vacant at 8pm. I found Teochew food at New Chao Chow Restaurant just off Canal Street. The soy-braised duck called out to me and I ordered that in a bowl of hor fun (rice noodles) and ordered a side of stewed pork innards. The noodles were only ok, the duck was pale brown and not deep chocolate like what I’m used to, and the soup resembled salty water. But they had 5 types of chili sauces on the table, including the traditional condiment for duck rice, a murky red chili sauce that’s grainy with the inclusion of chopped dried shrimp and umami packed. And thankfully the innards – including pork intestine, ear and stomach – were braised well and much more flavorful, in a rich sweet and salty black soy-based braising liquid. The innards were also clean tasting, and all the textures were there, crunchy ears and chewy stomach, with some sweet pickled vegetables to clear the taste in between bites. I ate and remembered the sunday brunch tradition shared long ago with my parents, when we’d frequent a kway chap stall in the CBD area, below a multi-storey carpark adjoining a now-forgotten Ministry building. Ruoyi and I were not innard shy and would eat everything with gusto, while Ruoying would go for the braised egg and tofu. Regretfuly, that happened way back, before Chicago, before my mum became vegetarian, before we became too busy/ too far away to have lunch together on Sundays.

After dinner, I ended up at Quickly and bought a cup of milk tea (with egg pudding and tapioca balls) despite the chilly weather, and reminisced about high school, my pals in choir, Marina Square and the quickly shop in that poorly designed and unattractive shopping mall we once hung out in between carolling sessions at the Ritz and the Raffles. Too bad there’s not a single branch left in Singapore.

I’m not quite sure whether the food invoked the memories, or if the memories induced me to seek out the foods. It could be circular, but should nostalgia strike again, I’m comforted to know that I can find it all in the city. 

Cha-An

230 E9th St (Between 3rd & 2nd Aves) 

Jing Fong

18 Elizabeth St (between Canal & Bayard Streets)

New Chao Chow Restaurant

111 Mott St (between Canal & Hester Streets)

Quickly Restaurant 

237 Grand St (Near Bowery St)

jfOur dim sum lunch at Jing Fong last weekend ended up being the victim of its own success. When Lily and I first started casually asking people to hang out on Chinese New Year’s weekend in Chinatown, we did not expect a 26 people turnout. And on a day that was purported to be frigid (but turned out not to be thankfully), we were fully expecting no-shows. But contrary to belief, everyone showed up and more, including Rosie and her beau who drove in from Queens and ended up leaving without eating, no thanks to my third rate organizational skills resulting in the lack of available seating. I am so sorry, jiejie.

Coordinating 20+ people in a popular restaurant that does not take reservations is a logistical nightmare I do not plan to repeat soon, but it resolved itself miraculously with help from Lily’s dad. Thank God for well-connected parents! If not for him, we would have been condemned to a 2 hour long wait instead the 45 mins that we dealt with quite stoically. Once past the ordeal of seating everyone and their significant others, we got to ordering and eating. The waiting sure did wonders to one’s appetite. Some friends new to the dim sum deal were mostly game at letting their Asian counterparts order pretty much everything that caught our eye. TPS even managed to get the people on her table to try red braised chicken feet, which c-ry pronounced tasty, particularly when paired with boiled beef tripe. My table wasn’t quite that adventurous, but I still managed to steer Angel, Dodd & Sara towards slimy looking steamed rice rolls studded with funky mini shrimp, some very good shrimp dumplings with chives in a shimmering translucent skin and deep fried taro balls that were very popular. The one unqualified hit on all three tables were the mini rolls of “ma lai gou”(马拉糕) or the steamed yellow cakes that were fluffy and custardy at once.  

After demystifying the rituals of dim sum, we of course engaged in a game of “guess how dirt cheap your meal was” while eating some tangerines (representing good luck, or 吉利)that I supplied in recognition of my southeast asian chinese roots. Looks of disbelief ensued when my friends realized they’ve just eaten royally in one of the most recognized Chinese restaurant in the city for less than a salad from a midtown deli. This is one Chinatown trip I’ll remember for a while.

hot potTo me, Chinese New Year is not complete without a big family meal involving hot pot. While my real family is thousands of miles away in Asia, I was privileged enough to be invited to Chez Robert’s to share a meal with friends, close (ww, gerrie, ceci, robert) and new (Felix, Elaine, Hannah, Oliver, Bryan, Michelle). And while hot pot isn’t anything new to me, certain aspects were pretty novel. It was the first time I’ve seen 11 people fit comfortably in a NY one-bedroom, huddling over 2 huge pots overflowing with food; the first time I’ve eaten geese intestines (white in color with a crunchy, tendon-like texture, instead of being leathery like pig’s intestines) and one of the few times I’ve witnessed urbanite friends bust out their cooking chops (boy, can this guy cook). We ate steadily for 3+ hours, chipping away at the mountains of fish-balls, bowls of clams, dumplings both home-made and store-bought, and thinly sliced beef in Styrofoam platters that Robert gleefully ripped open every time we finished a plate.nian gao

We finished the meal with homemade chinese desserts, including a red bean glutinous rice cake (nian-gao – 年糕, Nian taking on dual meanings of being both sticky -粘, and year – 年) uber-auspiciously flecked in gold (Robert, my mum wants the recipe) and cold white fungus with lotus seeds and red dates soup, its gelatinous quality apparently good for the skin.

As we were about to leave with our aching and distended stomachs, Robert jokingly issued an invite for the next dinner party, with a sweatpants dresscode for ultimate comfort and extendibility. I for one will definitely be there!