Community Kitchen: Comfort Food
Do you remember March 13? It was the last day of school before spring break and everyone was talking about their vacations, plans for spring break, etc. I got one picture of a beach, a margarita, and some toes from a friend one day, and the next day she was frantically booking tickets back from Mexico. Another friend was in Montreal, en route to Jamaica, when they heard that Jamaica had an outbreak. No flights so they rented a car and embarked on an epic cross-country trip. Other friends were trying to figure out how to get their kids home from university. We got hit with restaurant closures on March 17 – Happy St Patrick’s Day! – and although we didn’t have major travel plans to disrupt, our lives, and everyone’s lives, were changed. Doesn’t March 13 feel like another lifetime? Maybe it’s just me.
Sorry, depressing. How’s this? The “leader of the free world” doesn’t know the difference between the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize and called the Nobel the “Noble”. Because “Pulitzer” is too hard to spell so he went with the “easy” one. It’s a prize, who cares. And he also thought it might be a good idea to inject bleach into one’s lungs. With a doctor’s help, of course! Aaaaaaand nobody’s really surprised. Except maybe Dr. Birx, who had clearly not been briefed. She sure did look surprised. Does anyone believe that he was being sarcastic? Please. He can’t even recognize sarcasm, much less produce it. Here’s my question, and I know it has nothing to do with food, but I’m in isolation and so are you, so from me to you: Has the world ever seen a public figure as deranged, ignorant, sociopathic, incompetent, mean, selfish, (the pejoratives go on, you get the idea) and ALSO unintentionally hilarious as this guy? I don’t even need to say his name. I’ve been racking my brains for two days and can’t come up with one. Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Stalin – all terrifying. Mao – gaga by the end but still terrifying. Nothing really funny there. Hitler had his moments when he was in shrill and shrieky mode, but still, 100% terrifying. Now, to be fair, none of these murderous heffalumps had access to a social media platform that allowed them to exhibit their insanity on a daily basis, but there have been many eyewitness biographies and so far, nothing to compare. I suppose that’s distinction of a sort.
That didn’t help at all, did it? Sorry!
That’s why the theme of this month’s column is comfort food. This is food that is familiar, delicious in a non-challenging way, easy to prepare, and, especially, easy to eat. NOM!
I’m kicking it off with ma po tofu. I’ve tried a few iterations of this recipe and this is the simplest. We all love ma po tofu – it’s easy, savoury, spicy, and you can mix it with rice and just shovel it in. Use a fork to load your spoon, then tuck the spoon into your face. You barely need to chew, just make grunting noises of pleasure.
Ma Po Tofu
1 lb ground pork or chicken
1 t shoyu
1 t dark soy sauce
2 t sherry
1 t sesame oil
½ t sugar
This can marinate while you deal with the tofu and the sauce.
1 or 2 blocks of firm tofu (depends on your preferred tofu to meat ratio; I like lots of tofu)
Tofu on a plate, another plate upside down on top, bottle of wine or similarly heavy object as a weight, press until an astonishing amount of liquid comes out. Drain and cut into 1-inch cubes.
Prepare sauce. Mix together in a 2-cup measuring cup or similar receptacle:
2 T chili bean paste
2 T cornstarch
2 t shoyu
2 t sugar
1 c water
1 t dark shoyu
Chop 2 green onions and keep by the stove, along with the sauce mixture.
Heat a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat and drizzle in a small amount of oil. Stir fry your meat until crumbly. If it seems too chunky to your critical eye, toss it into a food processor and pulse a few times. Return to pan. Stir the sauce mixture to loosen up the cornstarch and add to the meat. Stir and cook over medium heat. When it’s thickened, add the tofu and green onions, stir gently until it’s amalgamated and heated through, and serve. With rice and some kind of greens, if you’re still eating vegetables at this point.
I recommend gai lan, stir fried/braised in a wok with some water, oil, garlic, a dash of sesame oil, and when tender and most of the water’s boiled off, drizzled with shoyu and oyster sauce, tossed around and served. Of course I chop mine up so I can eat the whole shebang with a spoon while I read or watch Westworld. Family meal? What’s a family meal? My teenagers get up at 1:00 and Justin leaves for work by 4:00. I make a big meal at 3:00 and people eat when they want. It’s utter anarchy and nobody knows what day it is.
Mom is releasing her recipe for oyako donburi, and let me tell you people, this recipe is priceless. I thought I could just wing it myself and the result was a wodge of foam mattress that didn’t remotely resemble Mom’s golden, melting, silky, savoury oyako donburi. Just don’t translate the name for the kids*. And let them eat it with a spoon.
(2 servings because Mom assumes your kids are also sleeping in)
2 boneless chicken thighs, sliced in thin strips
½ medium onion, sliced thinly
2 eggs, beaten slightly
2 green onion, sliced thinly
Optional veggies: 1 julienned carrot, handful baby spinach, sliced mushrooms (Mom specified shiitake mushrooms but I don’t like them. Your choice.)
½ cup dashi or chicken broth
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoons sake
2 tablespoons shoyu (Mom uses the low sodium version)
2 tablespoons sugar or less if you prefer
Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a small frying pan, add the chicken and onions and saute for about 2 minutes. Add the sauce mix, and, if using, carrots and mushrooms. Simmer for 2 minutes or until the chicken is cooked. Add the baby spinach, simmer just until wilted, less than a minute. Pour the beaten eggs over, sprinkle on the green onions, continue simmering until the eggs are set to your liking. Spoon over the bowls of cooked rice. Some people like this dish topped with a sprinkling of shichimi togarashi.
*oyako means “mother and child” because it’s chicken and egg – this freaked me out as a kid
So apparently my grandmother never made yakisoba! Huh. I remember eating it at Min’s, a casual Japanese restaurant that used to be on South Granville. Mom learned how to cook it at Shizuoka Kai and I learned to make it from packages. Mom’s is better, I must say. And noodles are absolutely comfort food. I have a prescription for feeling blue which involves angelhair pasta, tossed with butter, parmesan, black pepper and served with a softly poached egg on top. It makes your eyes roll up into your head when you eat it, it’s that good. Yakisoba also works in this respect. Especially if it’s been made by your mother.
Notes from Mom: The key seasoning is the sauce sold at Japanese and sometimes Korean food stores called Otafuku brand yakisoba sauce. Some people use tonkatsu sauce. (Lea: do you hear judgment here? “Some people”!) The key ingredient in these sauces is English Worcestershire Sauce, a condiment perfected in England by an English lord who brought the idea back from India. He liked the condiment so much he had Mr. Lea and Mr. Perrins (Lea: No, Mother did NOT name me after sauce. My name is Irish.) come up with a recipe which was then manufactured. It is made of tamarind, vinegar, anchovies, syrup, molasses and spices. Many countries adopted this sauce but of course adjusted the recipe to suit cultural tastes and Japan was no exception. They make the sauce less spicy, and add puree of apple and tomato to make a sweeter Worcestershire sauce. Bull Dog brand is very popular and available at Japanese food stores. I use either the western or Japanese version and adjust the other ingredients to suit my taste. The noodles used are the traditional Myojo or Maruchan noodles which are already steamed and oiled. Just rinse the noodles in very hot water to remove excess oil and drain. When I don’t have these special noodles, I have used instant ramen noodles. For these, drop them into boiling water, without the soup packet, stir until loosened, rinse in cold water, drain and cut into the right length. Do not cook until noodles are cooked through, they will end up too mushy. Stop just when they are not tough but still a bit firm in the middle. Try not to make a huge batch in one pan or the noodles will get soggy. You need a large pan and if cooking for a larger number, divide the ingredients and cook in two batches. In Japan, yakisoba is also made with seafood such as prawns or sliced squid. Sometimes sliced mushrooms or red peppers are added to the vegetable mix. You can create your own favourite combination.
Yakisoba (3 servings)
Yakisoba Sauce (unless you went to Fujiya and just bought some or, as in my case, your mom gave you some)
2 tablespoons shoyu
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoons sugar or honey
1 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoons grated ginger
Mix the ingredients together and keep in a jar in the fridge.
¾ pound thinly sliced pork like shabu shabu pork (or chicken thigh, boneless, skinless, cut in strips)
½ medium onion, sliced
1 carrot, julienned or coarsely grated
½ cup celery, thinly sliced (not always used but is used by the Shizuoka Kai group)
5 cabbage leaves, cut in 1 ½ inch cubes or coarsely sliced ¼-1/2 inch thick
Yakisoba sauce, from the store or home made, about 4-6 tablespoons or to taste
Garnish: thinly sliced green onions (2 is enough), nori flakes, slivered beni shoga**
Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium high heat in a wide frying pan or use a rimmed griddle. Or a big old wok. Add the pork or chicken and stir fry. Season lightly with black pepper. When cooked, remove from the pan. Heat another few teaspoons of oil, keep heat medium high or high, add the onions, celery, carrots and stir fry for 2 minutes, then add the cabbage. Continue stirring and cooking until the cabbage is almost cooked. Add the prepared noodles and the sauce, stir and toss gently together until the noodles soften and separate and are heated through. Using 2 spatulas or big tongs is helpful. Serve sprinkled with sliced green onions, nori flakes and slivered beni shoga.
*I think beni shoga is pickled ginger but can’t confirm because Mom is not picking up her phone
I didn’t forget a sweet! But we did have a discussion about sweets and whether a sweet implies entertaining and having guests over. Which we’re not allowed right now. But here’s a chocolate cake recipe that you can whip up quick and eat with your hands but not on the white couch. I don’t know what the rules are in your house. Some people eat stainy messy food wherever they feel like eating it.
Easy Chocolate Snacking Cake
Oven: 350F Grease a 8 x 8” pan, line with parchment if you’re feeling up to it
Into a large mixing bowl sift:
1 ½ c. flour
1 c. sugar
¼ c. cocoa (NOT Dutch process, the regular kind)
½ tsp salt
Make three indents or wells in the mixture. One big, one medium, and one small. I know you’re feeling like Goldilocks but isn’t this fun?
Into the big well goes ⅓ c. oil.
Into the medium well goes 1 T. white vinegar
Into the small well goes 1 tsp vanilla
Now pour 1 cup of cold water over the lot and give it a good mix, just until most of the lumps are smoothed out and there are no floury patches. Don’t beat, don’t overmix. Feel like going totally crazy and ensuring you won’t sleep tonight? Add ½ c. of chocolate chips. So much caffeine.
Pour into your pan and bake about 30 minutes or until it passes the toothpick test. Let cool completely before cutting as it’s a very moist cake and will tear if you do not treat it with respect.
Justin likes this, and every cake, with ice cream. I like it with a little whipped cream and sliced bananas or strawberries. You do what you want, we’ll never know.
Funny story: Justin was comparing Asian mom stories with a Chinese friend who was ordering takeout from Hapa but avoiding anything raw because his mom doesn’t like it. Justin’s mom doesn’t particularly care for raw fish and the friend’s mom doesn’t care for raw anything. She thinks white people make salad because they’re lazy. Classic! But I thought, that’s odd, surely there’s a Chinese salad. But all I can come up with is Sesame Cucumbers which I’m sure I’ve done in an earlier column….
We hope you are all staying safe and looking after yourselves and your loved ones. I generally don’t feel it’s for me to tell people what to do, but then realized that a recipe is just a series of commands. Do this, then do that. So here’s one more and just a gentle suggestion: if you can, wear a mask when you’re out. It may not be perfect, but it is, at the very least, a gesture that is reassuring to others. Because people out there are getting anxious…I have witnessed some borderline hysterical exchanges about space and I’m sure you all have too. A mask sends the signal that you’re serious. Also, it provides a feeling of righteous virtue which is pleasant, especially when someone yells at you about staying back, because you can then point at your mask and ask them why they aren’t wearing a mask? Sorry, I started being earnest and serious because I do care, but I can’t resist a little bad advice that makes me laugh.
Aaaaaand on those nights when you just cannot make one more meal, please support your small neighbourhood restaurants (like Hapa! just saying) and order takeout or delivery from them. They need our help to survive this storm.
Stay safe everyone!