Lunar New Year Sweet Rice Dumplings

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The Lunar New Year, or Tet as my peeps call it, brings with it many favorite dishes. Fatty pork and sugar dominate the holiday table, harking back to a time when ingredients fat and sweet were much more difficult to obtain, precious to use, and delightfully rare to enjoy.

While I can now buy a 10-pound bag of sugar and an equal amount of meat for less money than a couple of movie tickets, the most traditional new year’s dishes are still special for one resource that does remain valuable: time.

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Saul’s Seltzer Saga — Save The Deli

sauls seltzerIf you’re reading David Sax’s recent book, Save the Deli, or follow his blog or moan, as many do, about the general state of the Jewish delicatessen, then you know that it’s a pivotal time in this most hallowed bastion of comfort food.

For years, locavores and vegetarians, calorie-counting suburbanites and couscous-loving Sephardim and even heeb-hopping hipsters have been bringing their own favorite dishes to the Jewish table. You might not know this upon stepping into a deli, where piles of salty, fatty meat and schmaltz in the chopped liver and never-ending free pickles every day of the year define good eating. It’s supposed to be a carefree zone where all the generations and sects can enjoy some chicken soup in relative peace.

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“How did they ever manage this?”

Joshua writes:

My dad just got back from Beijing. At one restaurant, they brought out a live fish in a bucket for inspection, and upon his OK returned 10 minutes later with this. The elongated cheese-it looking things all over the fish were some kind of fried dough and the fish meat, maybe, he couldn’t tell, but it was very good. He’s trying to figure out what this dish is. Have you ever seen anything like it?

Hi Joshua,

That’s a classic dish that’s supposed to resemble a pine cone (whole fish) or chrysanthemum blossoms (smaller filleted pieces). It’s usually just translated as “deep-fried fish in pine cone/chrysanthemum shape.” It maximizes crunch while making it very easy to eat with chopsticks. There’s also something to be said for the dramatic presentation.

I can’t tell from the photo, but classically, it’s a flaky white-fleshed fish. Grouper is a favorite, an expensive delicacy in Asia. In English, the fish needs to be “round” — so no flounder or halibut.

The two fillets are removed from the back bone, and the flesh is cross-hatched down to the skin (much like mangoes that have that porcupine-like cube-spiked halves). The fish fillets are battered (egg, chicken stock, water caltrop starch), dusted generously with more caltrop starch and then deep-fried. The skin turns inside out as each “petal” fries up. The head and spine are fried, and then the whole fish is reassembled, albeit the fillets are backward, with the skin-side down.

To complement the crispy fried texture, the sauce is usually a sweet-and-sour one based on tomato ketchup, sugar, vinegar, lime and maybe preserved plums or dried haw fruit. It’s simmered separately and then drizzled over the fish just before serving.

In China and Vietnam, you’ll also see this cross-hatch pattern on squid, especially for wedding or new year banquets. Pain in the ass to do every single little piece, but the dishes always look stunning.

Thy


Homegrown: The 21st Century Family Farm

Just a mile from the skyscrapers of downtown Pasadena lies a tiny plot of land that has become the heart of an urban homesteading movement. The raised beds of the Dervaes family farm cover 1/10 of an acre. Imagine the area from a football field’s goal line to the very first 10-yard mark, or if you’re an average suburban homeowner, scan your backyard. Now, imagine harvesting 3 tons of organic food from this short span of soil every year.

Robert McFall’s documentary, Homegrown, is an intimate family portrait that reveals both the visionary inspiration and the resolute dedication required to grow one’s own food. For Jules and his adult children, Justin, Anais, and Jordanne, the Dervaes farm began as an experiment to see how much of their own food they could grow. A natural extension of the father’s experience during the back-to-the-land heyday of the 60s and 70s, their gardens soon led to living off-the-grid. They catch rainwater and recycle grey water, keep animals for manure and collect oil from nearby restaurants to produce their own biofuel. They order hand-cranked appliances from Amish catalogs. They put up their own green beans and illuminate their home with a self-reliant mix of olive oil lamps, biodiesel lamps, homemade candles, daylighting and the occasional fluorescent bulb.

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Taking Time in the Kitchen: Down to the Brown

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Everyday cooking means taking lots of shortcuts. For the most flavor with the shortest amount of time in the kitchen, especially when you’ve splurged or gone out of your way to buy good ingredients, it’s a delicate balance between paying attention to the details and just trying to get dinner on the table.

We’ve all done it — cooked tomatoes with their peels and seeds, served pureed soup unstrained, fried the potatoes just once, not twice. It’s healthier, right?

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