Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Category: Touring

Cooking Chinese in Queens

On Saturday, Allie and I went to Queens for a cooking lesson with her Chinese co-worker, and on the front-right flame in the kitchen was a timeworn cast iron wok.

Its parabolic walls curve up like an umbrella. They’re black and scarred, mossy with char build-up, and looking as if molded from the same rock as a cannonballs. You see an old wok, and you think: Here is a tool that cavemen used used to stew mastodon.

They very well may have. Woks are designed for efficiency. The parabolic walls vortex heat inward–directly onto the food. Vegetable oil goes into the hot wok. In a heartbeat the oil ripples, and Trudy shovels the oil along to higher parts of the wok’s walls. She drops in a dozen garlic cloves, they brown in five seconds, and the orange peppers are cooked through in 30.

By far, the most fascinating wok-action from Saturday was watching eggs go from liquid to fluffy in no more than 15 seconds. To start, Trudy beat the eggs with chopsticks. She poured them into the molten oil. The eggs appeared to be spongy and cooked in an instant, but Trudy rattled the spatula-shovel in the iron bowl in a circular motion, breaking the eggs’ cooked surface, showing the raw center, and introducing that raw yellow to hot oil and wok’s slick-hot upper walls.

A good wok can heat up past 1,000 degrees without breaking a sweat. At this temperature the eggs were done in a blink. Cooking the eggs was the first step to fried rice, which, in China, is a Tuesday night meal that takes all of three minutes to cook.

In the wok Trudy made fried rice, a shrimp platter, and brown garlic for bok choy. We also had dumplings, hand-rolled. Some were steamed, some were pan-fried, and I ate none of them, for the filling they encased had two kinds of shrimp. The table was filled with pork spare ribs, mochi (rice cakes filled with ice cream), savory rice cakes, and sweet olive juice. It was enough to inspire us to heat up our carbon steel wok tonight–practice for the day I graduate to cast iron.

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Strawberry Fields

On the plants were strawberries, and in my hand was a basket. At first, when I crouched in the straw-spread furrow and reached into the leaves, I turned up young strawberries, the sour kind. Lately, food producers have been tugging at our understanding of the berry. My concept of a berry is a tiny, tart fruit. I eat them by the handful. At most supermarkets, the juiced-up strawberries more resemble apples than berries. You eat these fatties in two or three bites. Like peaches, they’re hand fruit.

Strawberries were also on the ground. Friday night’s thunderstorm had scattered them, had pelted my windshield on the ride from New York, and had, I think, caused the farmers at Sussex County Strawberry Farm to spread their strawberry field with hay. When I called the farm from Allie’s, I got a stern message: strawberry-picking season would end today at 2pm. We got in the car.

The city’s concrete and glass receded in my mind as we drove west. On Saturdays, I try to rout the memory of work so that I can relax. But those busy thoughts are firmly entrenched from five days of digging. How can I send them flying? By, on Saturday, making my cubicle the open field, my clock the sun.

I was sweating five minutes into the picking. After seven, my knees ached. It felt good, though I can’t imagine how a catcher crouches for nine innings. Weaving among the rows, I skirted the pickable part of the field, hoping to find a row of perfect strawberries where nobody had searched for a few days. The sun was hot. As a parasol I had the clouds. Busy memories fled to the corners of my consciousness. Better still, many of the sun-warmed berries went into my basket, and the best ones went into my belly.