The traditions I’ve created with friends have been a really special part of my 20s. It’s something I never really did in high school or in college. But I love Annual Events. I love starting a story with “Every year, we do x, y, and z.” There is, for me, so much comfort in the renewable. I feel lucky to have friends who put forth the effort to sustain and energize these events every year.
In 2009, when Matt and I were first dating, we started a Valentine’s Day tradition with our good friends, Lyssa and Riley. We plan and then make dinner together- usually some kind of surf and turf menu. Sharing a meal is an art for which I gained much appreciation during my stay in China; making a meal and then sharing it is, I think, an even higher form of human expression. Why are kitchens just the best places to hang out?
This year, because of our work schedules, we weren’t able to meet on the 14th. We chose the first day of the Chinese New Year and by coincidence, had planned a meal of all Asian dishes. The timing was perfect, too, in that my students from China were on break from school, and their recent emails were making me feel very homesick for my adopted motherland. In their honor, I resolved to finally learn to make the eggplant dish I had so loved in Hangzhou, the one for which I sacrificed my waistline.
I cobbled together a recipe from reading around online. This dish is often made with fried eggplant, which is delicious and will also instantly make you fat. One popular alternative is just to braise it.
Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.
The other part of what turned out to be such an easy recipe that I was kicking myself for waiting two years to make it is the sweet bean sauce. Do not let “sweet bean sauce” gross you out. It tastes like magic. I searched around at my favorite Asian grocery store, United Noodles in south Minneapolis, and found three different sauces to try.
The one on the left is a plum and bean sauce, and the one on the right is a spicy bean sauce for eggplant dishes (or so says the label). For my first eggplant adventure, I made the middle sauce, simply called “sweet bean sauce.”
I freestyled the next part a little bit, but I was super happy with the results. I threw some minced garlic in two tablespoons of oil and fried it up. (Is there any better smell than that of frying garlic? No, no there is not.) Then, I mixed in about half of that can of sauce. I added some fresh ginger and probably two or three tablespoons of soy sauce, and then I let it simmer. When the eggplant was done, I just tossed it right into my sauce pan.
As amazing as it looks, you ask? Oh yes. Oooooh yes.
Serve it with rice and chopsticks. Even if you suck at chopsticks, you can pick this stuff up, no problem. It will make you feel very Chinese and awesome.
We made so much other stuff, too! Lyssa found an easy miso soup recipe that, when finished, tasted exactly like the soups served at this little soup shop on my street in China, the one where you grabbed your own ingredients from a display cooler. Even though we didn’t have tiny quail eggs, it was still delicious.
United Noodles has at least 8 kinds of fresh miso paste that I found. Miso crazy!
Shiitakes, spinach, and habañeros. You could substitute baby bok choy for the spinach, too.
Much of our time was spent on potstickers. If you’re ever looking for a fun little group kitchen activity, totally make these. You can get the wraps at pretty much any grocery store (I picked ours up at Rainbow). For the stuffing, we woked up some shredded carrots, cabbage, cilantro, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, and onion. These were vegetarian, but you could also add pork or maybe some scrambled egg pretty easily.
Once the filling is done, you start wrapping. Have a little dish of water on hand, because dabbing a few drops on the edges of the wrap is what holds it all together.
Riley calls these “baby foreheads.” I can see the resemblance.
Once your wraps are done, heat a little oil in a frying pan, and drop those bad boys in. Once their bottoms have browned and without burning your house down, pour in a half-cup of water and cover the whole thing, letting them steam. They’ll need about ten minutes. Side note: I highly recommend using chopsticks to place them in the pan and to take them out again to lessen the chance of oil burns.
Lyssa and Riley also made Szechuan green beans and buffalo satay. I wonder if any of my Chinese friends have tried buffalo before? I could be wrong, but I do not think there are any buffalo roaming around their plains. Anyway, we had such a feast! And all family-style, my favorite.
And oh, we weren’t done yet. After munching on our hot dishes, Matt taught Lyssa and Riley how to roll sushi.
Sashimi grade tuna. Because of the snow that day, I just went to Byerly’s, but the best place for sushi fish in the Twin Cities is Coastal Seafoods. There’s one in St. Paul and one in Minneapolis. Actually, the Minneapolis location is right across the street from United Noodles.
Look how intense Riley’s observation is! Matt is a great sensei. By the end of the night, student had become master.
Generall, we roll sushi with avocado, carrots, and cucumbers. Sometimes we throw in sprouts, too. And of course, the fish!
The Master at work.
Inside-out rolls are kind of Matt’s thing.
Ah, young Grasshopper.
We’re not fancy people, but let me assure you, the taste was spectacular. So fresh!
The culmination of Riley’s efforts. I’ll let you choose your own caption here.
For dessert, Lyssa made these chocolate-strawberry wantons that we baked before eating. They were sweet and tart and complimented well by a little coconut-lychee ice cream.
What a night! I’m not an especially intuitive cook, but lately, I am really digging kitchen life. Hours later, when we were done cooking and eating, we all just collapsed on the couch to watch the Grammys in happy food comas. Including this one.
I’d say the Year of the Snake is off to a pretty solid start.