Archive for February, 2011

Shopping for mysteries

We moved to Japan when our first child was five months old, in 1989, and it was there, of necessity, I learned to shop for mysteries. Bill was fresh out of graduate school, and I at a seam in my PR career, and we were both of a mind that if someone offers you an opportunity to live in Japan, you take it. We rented our house in Boston, bundled up our baby boy, a car seat and a couple of suitcases full of inappropriate clothes, and flew to Osaka. Pronounced O‘ sä kä by the locals, with a long, round Oh. I did not think to pack cookbooks.

Osaka is the other big city in Japan, with about 2.5 million people, and at the time we lived there it was the second most expensive city in the world. We actually lived in Wakaeiwata, in Higashi-Osaka, which is on the train line and very urban but with small town attributes, such as the lady at the Fuji shop knowing that your Japanese friends dressed you up in kimono because she’s been through your pix. We were the only foreigners many of our neighbors had ever seen, and our son’s blue eyes another first. Our street, which had no name because it didn’t need one, because if you were there you should know, looked like this:

It would be an understatement to say that I was disoriented at first. Bill left for work the day after we arrived (he’s a product designer, and was working for a Japanese bicycle brake manufacturer) and I stared bewildered at the street below from my third floor balcony window. Do not imagine this view from the vantage of a sleek highrise building full of people with excellent haircuts. Likewise not a serene, Zen-like tearoom. Our apartment was indeed empty–which is to say devoid of furniture–and it did have tatami mats in two rooms, but sleek and serene it was not. We’re talking a 500 sq.ft. unit in a cinderblock building, with a waist-high refrigerator and next-door neighbors who nightly vented out into the hall the oily black smoke of burnt fish. Also, I couldn’t read.

We might have starved if it hadn’t been for the Child Who Must Be Fed.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but this was 1989 BI–before the Internet–so in the absence of anyone nearby with whom I shared a language, I was clueless in the realms of shopping and preparing food. Looking for a chicken, I could only find tiny packages of chicken breast strips–not the breast itself but the little sidecars, maybe three of them, priced at a small fortune; and forget beef. The fish were whole, unfamiliar and daunting. The shelves held packages whose contents I couldn’t guess at and whose instructions I couldn’t decipher. I was leaning at the time for parenting guidance on Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five, and in her hilarious British wisdom, Penelope said, “above all, get your child used to eating cheese.” There was no cheese to be had in my new neighborhood. Recommended baby foods were rice, seaweed and teeny tiny fish.

And so I embarked on a shopping methodology I practice to this day: picking up at least one item I do not understand, taking it home and figuring it out. Shopping for mysteries is not a reliable approach to feeding a baby, but it adds adventure, widens one’s horizons and is often amusing. The complete story of how I learned to cook in Japan is material for another post, possibly several. It’s enough for now to introduce the concept and recommend that you rush right out and try it for yourself. At Tung Cheng Grocery, for example, on Chestnut Street in Reading. That’s where I found the gouda-colored slab of sweet rice that turned out so well for Chinese New Year. This week, I found these lovely greens. I still don’t know what they’re called, but braised with garlic and ginger, they’re amazing.

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A 6-pound pile of boneless, skinless chicken breasts between us, my friend Abdel could barely express his joy over the recent success of the revolution in Egypt. “You see how they behave, with such dignity and restraint,” he said. “These are my people.”

I’ve been buying my chicken from Abdel ever since Lorna told me about his Alsafa Halal Meat-Grocery-Restaurant on Lancaster Avenue in Reading. Also, I had just learned that my primary source for organic chicken was an avid Tea Party supporter. It’s wonderful that concern for healthy eating reaches across the political spectrum, but I wasn’t keen to give my money to folks protesting immigration reform by yelling “Send them home.”

The United States was founded by immigrants from Western Europe, some of whom wasted no time putting down the next wave of immigrants. Our own iconic Benjamin Franklin, said this in 1727 to the Pennsylvania assembly in support of a law requiring all Palatines (German immigrants from the Palatine region of Germany) to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown.

Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours?  Why should Pennsylvania founded by Englishmen suffer to become a colony of foreigners who shortly will be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them.

Reading itself, like most cities, has been home to successive waves of immigrants–people who came here with little more than a desire to work hard and raise children whose lives might be better than their own. Today our predominantly Hispanic city includes people from more than 30 nations.

I celebrate their contributions: the world-class Vietnamese restaurant Hong Thanh; El Puente Mexican store, with fresh tortillas every day and tamales on Friday; Mezcal’s restaurant on 6th Street where I can’t resist the Chiripas seafood fajita; Johanny Cepada’s welcoming Mi Casa Su Casa; Aladdin Mediterranean Restaurant in West Reading; AASHIYANA, the yummy Indian place that uses all CAPS; and Alsafa Halal Meat-Grocery-Restaurant. Abdel sells fresh poultry, lamb and beef, Middle Eastern spices, canned goods and specialty foods, and a satisfying array of meals. Fool, in case you’re wondering, involves fava beans, lemon juice and garlic.

Halal means lawful in Arabic, and the term is used to designate food that’s consistent with Islamic law. Halal meat is slaughtered using a special technique designed to minimize the animal’s suffering and quickly drain blood from the body. The butcher makes a swift, deep incision in the animal’s neck, cutting the jugular veins and carotid artieris of both sides but leaving the spinal cord intact. Forbidden foods include pork, carnivorous animals such as birds of prey, improperly slaughtered animals, and alcoholic drinks and other intoxicants.

The other day, when I stopped in at Alsafa with a dozen roses to celebrate the liberation of his country, I asked Abdel a question that had been bothering me since the revolution began–how did all those people in Tahrir Square get fed? “Supporters delivered carloads of bread, meat and water to the square, while others worked at stalls, like at a market, preparing sandwiches,” Abdel explained. The food was paid for by wealthy Egyptians supportive of the revolution, so people could come up to a stall, day or night, for a free sandwich and a bottle of water. Facilities? “The big mosques around Tahrir Square have dozens of bathrooms, because we must be clean for prayers.”

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A Super opportunity

While 111 million viewers were stuffing their faces in front of the TV last Sunday, an intrepid band of volunteers was serving up Super Bowl fare to the 113 residents of Opportunity House, a homeless shelter in Reading PA.

Forget healthy, if only for a day. If it’s OK with Michelle Obama, who had cheeseburgers, deep-dish pizza, sausages and buffalo wings at the White House, it’s OK with me. Super Bowl dinner at Opportunity House included homemade chili with grated cheese, cornbread, hot dogs, French fries and brownies. “We design the menu to suit the occasion,” said organizer Bernice Hines, noting that other meals typically include a salad and vegetables.

The shelter at Opportunity House opened in November 1984 to provide a hot meal and a warm, safe place for the homeless to sleep during the winter–the community’s response to two recent deaths. These days, the shelter is “a hot and a cot” plus additional services such as childcare and rental assistance to help people get back on their feet. They rely entirely on volunteer groups to prepare and serve dinner every evening and lunches on weekends. Bernice is chair of the Community Outreach committee of the Berks County Democrats, which provides a dozen such meals each year.

It’s a drop in the bucket. In 2008, an estimated 35% of Reading residents–and half of its children–lived in poverty. A family of four is counted as poor if they have a combined annual income of $22,128. But this is far below what is needed for a decent living, because the Census Bureau still uses an outdated formula of three times the cost of a “thrifty food basket”—a model based on spending patterns in 1955 when the cost of food represented one-third of the average family’s budget.

Today, the average family spends only about one-tenth of its income on food, since housing, childcare, and health care costs have all risen disproportionately during the last 55 years. More accurate measures are currently in development, but even measured by the current standard, at least 27,000 people in Reading do not have enough income to make ends meet, and the true number is probably much higher.

I was hungry once. I lost my purse in an airport, and in the three and a half hours it took me to reinstate myself as a legitimate human being, get my ticket replaced and find my bag, I felt pangs of hunger I did not have the means to address. I found myself staring at a child’s soft pretzel, longing (and I don’t even like soft pretzels) to snatch it out of his sticky little hand. I thought about stealing, and conjured up a number of devious scenarios designed to get food into my mouth. And all the while I knew that this was, for me, merely an inconvenience. Itadakimasu, indeed.

Not so for the poor. Here’s an excerpt from David K. Shipler’s moving profile, The Working Poor, Invisible in America:

Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause. A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing.

On Sunday, ten of us arrived at 5pm to begin preparing the food–food that had been donated by other volunteers. (Meanwhile, my husband was turning our livingroom into a man cave, with tailgating chairs and chips and beer.) Bernice hauled in cases of canned tomatoes and bags of onions and peppers, while I brought a laundry basket full of hot dog buns purchased by a friend earlier in the week and delivered to my front porch.

Donning our spiffy BerksDem aprons, we chopped and sautéd 10 lbs. onions and 10 lbs. green peppers, grilled 120 hot dogs and 20 lbs. ground beef, opened the more than 40 cans of tomatoes, mixed up 10 large pans of cornbread, and put four massive trays of frozen French fries into the oven. Peeled off the foil on 12 trays of brownies, mercifully baked elsewhere.

At 7pm sharp, we opened the gate between the kitchen and the main room where the residents were already deep into the game. Green Bay was ahead, which didn’t seem to be breaking anyone’s heart even though we share the same sandwich-shaped state with the Pittsburgh Steelers. We had a ton of food, enough to offer seconds and thirds to whomever wanted more. And they did.

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In the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Rabbit is a quiet respite after the year of the tiger and/or it brings happiness and good fortune and/or it is a congenial time in which diplomacy takes a front seat. In my zodiac, the only thing that’s certain is that the festival known as Chinese New Year–like everything else in my zodiac–is an opportunity for a feast. Not a huge deal, and certainly not authentic, but a little seat-of-the-pants feast. Life is too short not to celebrate as often as possible.

I’m not Chinese, so I did some research and by research I mean I called Lorna. “I’ll make dumplings,” she said. “They’re moon-shaped.” Lorna is Korean-born and knows her way around a dumpling, not to mention bulgogi, pho, tea-smoked salmon and a million other tasty things from everywhere. Since the wonton wrappers were square, she cut them with a round cookie-cutter to achieve the half-moon shape, stuffing them with beef, turkey and seasoned spinach and serving them with a soy-based sauce enriched with ginger and swimming with scallion rounds. This we decided was our appetizer.

I had gone to the Asian market on Chestnut with no particular feast food in mind, just the certainty that, like pornography, I would know it when I saw it. This did not turn out to be the case, as the usual fare was not in evidence and the rest I didn’t understand. I passed on fancy, expensive boxes of sweet things, coming away with one Asian pear, a package of red spirit money, and a round, heavy slab the color of smoked gouda that the proprietor said was sweet rice.

“I crisp it in the oven,” she offered, making no sense.

For the rest I went to Sam’s Club. I’m not proud of this, for righteous shopping is local, but I am not wholly righteous and their lamb chops are affordable. The key is to get in and out as quickly as possible before being overpowered by the scent of tires, the cholesterol samples and the urge to buy 300 plastic cups and a tent. I bought two packages of Frenched lamb chops (cost >$45), a double pack of haricot vert–Sam’s Club inexplicably being the only place in Reading I can find them–and several cases of Pellegrino for our inventory. Pellegrino is my champagne.

There were three of us at home and five coming. I set the table with red, shiny things–Liberace candles, gold stars, red napkins and on each plate a red joss paper–and began to experiment with the so-called sweet rice. I tried microwaving a thin slice, which gave it the bubbly, rubbery consistency I associate with foam insulation, but that was just a detour to the oven. What to do there, exactly? I sliced off a few more wedges and baked them on a cookie sheet until something happened.
They were better than insulation and crisp at the point but still unattractively gummy at the wider end. They were also taking more time than I had for an unsure thing, so I cut the remainder into uniformly thin, 1/8th inch slices, put them in the oven at 375 and turned my attention elsewhere.

There were an awful lot of green beans, too many to treat them all the same. We would get bored. I blanched them until the color was bright, draining them in a colander and letting them cool naturally rather than arresting the process with cold water. Half I tossed in a thin paste of white miso mixed with equal proportions of tahini and fish stock (from an envelope, please). The other half, tossed in sesame oil and Sriracha, was the hands-down favorite. No, I didn’t stress about making the beans at the last minute. I learned in Japan that room temperature food is quite wonderful, and that it’s fine to prepare things in your own sweet time.

What to do for the third note? We would have dumplings as an app, then lamb chops, green beans and _______. Not rice. Something clean, refreshing and if it’s not to much to ask, moon-like.

Answer: a white salad made with Asian pear, Honeycrisp apple, jicama and red onion, dressed with fresh ginger juice, lime juice and red pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the rice thingies had achieved a state of interesting crispiness, so out they came.

Last up, the lamb chops, but not before everyone was feasting on dumplings. Serving temp does matter with lamb, as it’s no fun when the fat congeals. I spread the four racks out on a roasting pan, popped them in at 450 and waited until the room filled with smoke, which in my house, with my oven, is about eight minutes. Slice, arrange artfully on a platter while Lorna keeps it from falling on the floor, and we’re ready.

We toasted the Chinese New Year much like the one that rolled around at the end of January–with the clinking of glasses, the celebration of friendship and a call for good health and prosperity. We ate every last one of the rice crispies, and burned our joss papers in the fireplace, symbolizing the clearing of debts. Would that the debt business were so easy, but nothing has to get in the way of a celebration.

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