Friday, February 19, 2010

Little White Lies

I promised there would be homemade pork buns. The occasion was a cocktail party in Brooklyn to celebrate and send off a good friend to Stockholm. All that was asked of me was to bring some sort of hors d’ouevre that I thought the guest of honor would enjoy. Knowing my Swedophile friend’s palate pretty well, I deemed the pillowy-white, slightly-sweet meat buns to be the most appropriate snack to bring to the party.

The day of the party came a little too quick and Monday morning found me in the kitchen with my laptop scouring the internet for the best recipe. One written by Japanese food blogger Makiko Itoh on seemed the most fitting and I immediately made a shopping list and went to work.

Not realizing that Chinese-style roasted pork (char siu) needs a lot of time to marinate, I made the not-so-proud decision to jump on a train to Chinatown to buy some prepared roast pork from a busy meat market on Grand Street. I asked for two pounds, received the usual pat on the back for being a white guy that speaks Chinese, and rushed back to my kitchen to begin making the dough.

The preparation went smoothly. Requiring quite a bit of flour and yeast, the dough was easy to work with and quick to rise. I chopped up the pork and tossed it in a wok with fresh ginger, scallions, and shiitake mushrooms. Adding flour and corn starch to the mixture seemed to meld the flavors together to make a cohesive, spicy filling for the buns. The process of stuffing the dough with the pork filling and pinching a seam to close each pastry was time-consuming but enjoyable in a Zen-like sort of way.

After I was finished I had rows and rows of little soft buns ready to be thrown into a pot to be steamed before being served to the guests. Nobody had to know that the pork concealed in each cloud-like pastry was not prepared in my kitchen. It was my secret.

Upon arrival, the buns became an interesting conversation piece. Curious guests poked at them, asked about what was inside, and ate them once they were properly steamed.

And then my moment of (un)truth arrived.

One of the guests politely inquired as to how the pork was prepared. And almost automatically, with false confidence, I explained how I started the night before, marinating the pork in honey and spice before slow-roasting the succulent meat for hours in my oven. Another pat on the back followed, though undeserved, and the party continued eating the buns with romantic visions of a home-cook carefully and patiently completing every step of the pork bun process by hand.

Why did I lie? Well, it’s complicated. Aside from more selfish reasons, my main reason for lying is the same reason parents lie about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s also the same reason little bits of information are fabricated by schoolteachers, politicians, and celebrities: people love a good story.

Had I told the guests I had cheated a bit in my preparation of the pork buns, they may have enjoyed them less. So I told them exactly what I thought they wanted to hear. I didn’t want to let them down.

As small and insignificant as this untruth may seem, this situation got me thinking. I’ve always thought of myself as a realist. I never planned to make my children believe that Santa Claus is an actual living person that delivers gifts via the living room fireplace. If I do carry on that Christmas tradition, I want them to know that Santa is just a fun story and that I am actually the one leaving them the gifts. I want my children to also question the motivations of highly-worshipped historical figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Rosa Parks.

But this pork bun lie has proved that maybe, when put in the position of a storyteller with open-eared and wide-eyed listeners aching for a good narrative, I may just give in to the urge to suspend reality in favor of a good story.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Baking Bread with Thoreau

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

During a recent reading of Thoreau’s Walden I couldn’t help but fantasize about living a more simplistic life. Waking up in the morning having nothing on my agenda but the daily necessities like eating and keeping warm seems like a very fulfilling lifestyle. While at Walden Pond Thoreau also spent a good deal of time reading, observing nature, and of course writing. His two-year experiment builds a case for a solitary, distraction-free happiness that in our present day of constant media-seeking seems unimaginable.

As romantic as it seems I won’t be moving myself to the mountains anytime soon. It’s way too cold for me and I can’t imagine giving up my addiction to the media and the constant drama-buzz it provides. Perhaps I’ll reconsider if and when Sarah Palin is elected President in 2012.

But I do think that Thoreau has some interesting daily rituals involving eating and cooking. Weather permitting, Thoreau baked bread daily over an outdoor fire. In his own words, “I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours that way.”

Though I opt to stay in the warm confines of my apartment in Brooklyn I wanted to incorporate this Zen-like practice of baking my own bread in the morning.

Never having baked bread before, I looked for a method that seemed simple and fool-proof. I first thumbed through Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and found his recipe for what he calls the “fastest yeast bread.” The recipe seemed simple enough but didn’t have the Waldenesque vibe I was looking for. Browsing on-line I found a recipe that could have been handed down by Thoreau himself.

Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan St. Bakery in Manhattan, created a method of baking bread that requires very little skill but a whole lot of what Thoreau would call “pleasant hours”. First you mix some flour (3 cups), salt (1¼ tsp.), water (1½ cups), and just a bit of yeast (¼ tsp.) in a bowl. After mixing for a minute, transfer the dough into a medium-sized bowl greased with some olive oil and then cover. Leave the dough in room temperature for at least twelve hours or even longer if you wish. When you see little bubbles at the top you can then remove the dough, fold it once or twice, and let it rest for about fifteen minutes inside the bowl. Once the dough is well-rested shape it into a ball and place it on a flour-covered cotton towel. You’ll need plenty of flour on your hands and work surface to handle the stubbornly sticky dough. Cover the ball with another towel and let it rise for another one or two hours. After the dough has risen to twice its original size it is ready to bake.

I used a 7-quart, cast-iron Dutch oven to bake my bread but you can also use a Pyrex or ceramic pot. Set the oven to 450-500°F and let the pot heat up for about thirty minutes without the dough. Bake the dough covered, seam side up, for 30 minutes and then uncovered for 15-30 minutes more. Depending on your own preference, judge for yourself when you think the bread is done.

After my first time following this recipe I ended up with some of the best bread I have ever tasted. The outside of the bread was hard and crackly while the inside was soft and chewy. The only real work required was the initial mixing of the ingredients and the final baking of the dough. Time takes care of the rest.

With the aromas of fresh-baked bread floating through my apartment I was inclined to be a little more philosophical and introspective. Writing some thoughts in my journal, I realized how a big part of my life was spent thinking about superficial matters. I felt I had invited the spirit of Thoreau into my home. He stayed for a while, but then I drove him off as soon as I left the kitchen to catch up on my latest obsession – the newest season of HBO’s Big Love.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Boxy is the New Sexy

While having drinks at Hearth in the East Village I overheard the bartender attempting to sell a boxed wine to a guy sitting at the bar. The customer looked skeptical and seemed to be on a date, perhaps worried that buying this wine-in-a-box would make him look like a cheapskate. The bartender, with box in hand, explained how the grapes are sourced from Argentina and sent to Canada where the wine is produced and packaged in lightweight Tetra-Pak boxes, allowing for a much lower shipping weight and less fuel emissions.

Her spiel was convincing, almost guilt-inducing, but the couple agreed with the wine and seemed to have a romantic evening with a deliciously fruity, carbon-reducing Malbec-in-a-box.

Curious, I visited a few different wine shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan and collected as many boxes of white wine that I could get my hands on (thank god they were cheap). I avoided the larger boxed wines and purchased only one-liter Tetra-Paks. Here are a few that I highly recommend:

My favorite wine of the bunch is a sleek and smoky Pinot Grigio from California labeled as “Bandit” and made by three winemakers who call themselves “The Three Thieves”. This wine was also the least expensive - only $8.99 at Bowery & Vine in Manhattan. The package is ridiculously boastful – these guys also call themselves “liberators of world class wine” – but the wine is surprisingly tasty. They source their grapes from various regions in California including Monterrey and Napa Counties.

These winemakers are also ultra web-savvy. Their website,, is designed to be a social network of people who come together to talk about their wines. They also keep a hip, gossipy blog called Wino of the Day where they can promote their wines but also keep up-to-date by talking about current pop and political icons such as Lady Gaga, Jenny Sanford, and the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore. Luckily they have a good wine to back up the hipness.

Another wine worth mentioning is a slightly-oaked Chardonnay made by the Boisset family in Languedoc- Roussillon and labeled The French Rabbit. Not quite as boastful, this wine markets itself as a more humble wine concerned with sustainable farming and reducing carbon. This wine, which can be found at Fermented Grapes in Brooklyn for $9.99, paired nicely with a meal of roasted chicken with herbs and vegetables.

Though these wines are not sexy like their curvaceous glass counterparts – even the way the wine pours from the spout lacks finesse – I found them to be just as delicious. This Valentine’s Day go green (or just go cheap) and take a chance on a boxed wine. If you're worried about looking cheap or unromantic, pour the wine into an attractive decanter and hide the Tetra-Pak from your date. Just be sure to recycle.