I have long been a fan of Chef Edward Lee. Ever since the Enthusiastic Kitchen Elf and I watched his season of Mind of a Chef back in 2016. And ever since I bought his cookbook Smoke and Pickles. Lee is a compelling story-teller with a likable narrative voice. He's funny, self-deprecating, and so, so talented. He's also quite the wordsmith. He was an English major in college, after all.
Debra from Eliot's Eats is our Cook the Books hostess for this round (April-May 2019); you can read her invitation here. Though I didn't read it for the fourth time in less than a year, I did go back through some of my favorite parts.
On the Page
Although a few regionally inspired recipes are located in each chapter, this is not cookbook per se. It is, as Lee writes, "the story of American foods. It is a recollection of people and places that help paint an image of where we came from and where we're heading. ...The story of American food is one of transformation. Any international cuisine changes once it lands on the shores of America" (pg. 5).
I also enjoyed his note that the recipes are not accompanied by photographs. And that is by design. "When we don't know what the end result is supposed to look like," Lee asserts, "the imagination is allowed to roam free and we come up with our own conclusions" (pg. 8).
I marveled at Lee's inquisitive nature as it ferried him to unfamiliar areas that make up the American culinary melting pot. He also is transparent and vulnerable, sharing how Seattle will be forever linked in his mind with his father's death and how the similarities of the immigrant communities mirror his own family's story. Buttermilk Graffiti is an innovative, compelling, and evocative view of what makes up our country through the foods with which we nourish ourselves.
Just a Few Nibbles
From Lowell, Massachusetts...and one of the best Cambodian dinners of Lee's life... "There is no brigade; no regimented line of chefs with clearly defined duties. There is only Sam. He thunders back and forth in front of his wok and starts calling for ingredients, and his dutiful assistants bring him things: holy basil, bamboo shoots, preportioned pork in Ziploc bags. He works alone and furiously. Flames spit up to the ceiling, His voice grows steadily louder, until he is barking orders. This dance, for all its chaos, now seems choreographed. Dishes come together at a rapid pace. A dented pot that looks like it came from my grandmother's cupboard magically produces a soup of layered textures and colors; it is delivered to the dining room in large melamine bowls. The wok never cools down" (pg. 37).
From Dearborn, Michigan...when he decides to fast for Ramadan. "I realize that once I took myself out of the role of the observer and became a participant, I didn't have the desire to write. I didn't interview people; I just talked. I met many kinds of people but never thought to ask their names or interview them about their jobs. For a brief few days, I didn't need explanations or testimonies. I just floated among others from a culture I would never truly understand, but I felt I got a little closer to understanding the food. I could taste the devotion, which is everywhere in the culture: the prayers, the fasting, the rituals. I've been eating hummus and tahini and falafel all my life, but for the first time, I understood why these foods feel so deeply enriching. After a day's fast, the flavors and fats cling to your bones like medicine and heal you from the inside out" (pp. 77-78).
From Montgomery, Alabama... "Sarah and I are eating a pot of pig's feet and drinking beer. The walls of the restaurant are lined with garish neon signs, and K-pop plays on the radio. Everyone here is speaking Korean. The sushi chef politely refused to answer my questions. For all intents and purposed, we could be Americans in Seoul, but we are in Montgomery, Alabama. And that is the story of me: this idea of an American identity draped around an immigrant population deep in the South. ...We are huddled in the safety of our shared language, pretending to be expatriates in a foreign land" (pg. 147).
And from the best Jewish deli in America...in Indianapolis..."[The chopped liver sandwich] is the perfect temperature of chilled but not cold. The tiny speckles of fat are unctuous, and the liver tastes fresh and luxurious. I don't need teeth to enjoy this sandwich; it literally melts in my mouth. The smoked tongue is the opposite; it is toothsome and briny, the smoke just a whisper, and the texture of the fatty tongue, sliced thin and layered two inches high, is pure decadence. The cabbage rolls are sweet, and their texture is as tender a a child's tears. ...I ask Brian what makes the food taste so good. 'We make everything from scratch. We do it the old way, everything cut by hand" (pg. 275).
On the Plate
A little while ago, my friend Wendy started reading this book and told me that the first recipe made her think of me: Green Tea Beignets. Yep. She's right. That was one of the ones I flagged to make, though I didn't follow Lee's recipe. My Enthusiastic Kitchen Elf makes some killer beignets. So, I just adapted his version, albeit with some complaints from D. He has raised this objection before about powdered green tea.
'Mom, matcha is overused, especially in this house.'
'It belongs in a tea cup and maybe in mochi, but not in a cake and definitely not in my beignet recipe.'
So, we compromised and he made a batch of beignets. I got to add matcha to one half only!
A few notes about matcha green tea. Matcha is "powdered tea." Unlike drinking other tea when you infuse the tea leaves in water and, then, strain out the leaves, with matcha, you are drinking the finely powdered leaves whisked into hot water. So, spring for the best quality of matcha that you can. There's culinary grade and ceremonial grade. I use ceremonial grade if I'm whisking and drinking; I use culinary grade for baking and cooking.
- 1 table active dry yeast
- 3 T granulated sugar, divided
- 1 C warm water
- 3 C flour
- 1/2 t vanilla salt
- 2 eggs
- 2 t pure lemon extract
- 2 t matcha, divided
- pinch of ground ginger
- canola oil for frying + 2 T for dough
- powdered sugar for serving
In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 T sugar and warm water. Sprinkle yeast on the top and let stand until bubbly and frothy, approximately 5 minutes.
In another mixing bowl, stir together 2 T sugar, flour, ginger, and vanilla salt.
After the yeast has bloomed, whisk in eggs, lemon extract, and 2 T oil. As you whisk, incorporate the dry ingredients until the dough comes together in a ball. At this point, I divided the dough and folded 1 t matcha into one ball only. Place dough in an oiled container, cover, and let rise for 2 hours or until doubled in size.
When you're read to cook, fill a skillet with at least an inch of canola oil covering the bottom of the pan. Heat oil over medium-high heat until it sizzles when you add a drop of water. Pull off bite-sized pieces - or use two tablespoons to pull off the pieces - and drop them into the hot oil.
Cook on each side for 2 to 3 minutes. Once nicely browned, remove from the oil and place on a paper towel-lined platter or wire rack.
Dust the beignets generously with powdered sugar and the remaining matcha. Serve immediately.
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I am also linking this up to #FoodieReads.
Here's what everyone else read in April 2019: here.