Friday night’s dinner, at least as intended, was to consist of a vegetarian black bean dish of Laura’s choosing and a nice quiet evening at home. Unfortunately, as the lid was lifted from the beans, which had percolated quite happily in the slow-cooker all day, the aroma which greeted us was more akin to despair than deliciousness. Having been the first to realize the situation, Laura looked at me with an expression that said, “Please feed me something else…” while I looked back with an equally fervent expression that said, “Please let me feed you something else…” Thus armed with a common resolution to feed the beans to the starlings, we sallied forth in search of other comestibles.
As is the case in all grand dances between two hungry people, after the question of “when” to eat is determined, the next and most difficult question is “where” to eat. As an omnipotent weapon against such inscrutable questions, I’ve taken up the firm view that we should eat everywhere once, in order of proximity to wherever we happen to be. And so we made our way down the street, blatantly ignoring the Menard’s snack bar that completely failed to tempt us. (When life has promised you black beans, hot dogs on rollers are far from a fair substitute.) The first untried establishment that met our eyes was a Korean restaurant that was just entering the 7th month of its ‘Grant Opening’. When we arrived, the establishment was utterly deserted, in exactly that terrifying way that a restaurant that is about to be closed by the health department is deserted. Not to be cowed by potential botulism, however, we pressed onward. The menu was diverse and largely inscrutable and the grill built into the table made us ponder if we would indeed find ourselves cooking our own dinner.
After an extended period of considering the options, Laura chose a beef dish of some sort while I settled on the ‘Spicy Seafood Medley’. As the words, “#41, please” passed my lips, the image of a panoply of fishy denizens of the sea floated passed through my giddy, and hungry, mind. I imagined delicate little shrimps, lovingly cradled from the ocean floor to their imminent deaths in my jaws. Perhaps some fish, so lithe and silvery brought to the surface sole-ly for my enjoyment. Maybe even, if I’m lucky, the luxuriant succulence of some unlucky crab whose exoskeleton gave up its contents just for me. The seconds ticked by. My anticipation grew. I chatted amicably with Laura about her day but inwardly the seconds plodded like they were mired in a tub of treacle because I knew that somewhere, not far away, my dinner was bubbling merrily away.
I should aside here for a moment to point out that as food goes, I am not a prudish man. In my mind, if others have survived it then surely I can as well. And in all honesty, part of my reaction is merely for the sake of drama, but part of me was a bit surprised when my medley turned out to be comprised primarily of tentacles of various shapes and sizes. On the whole, the meal was tasty, but unnerving. In many cases, the source of the tentacles was so small that rather than an appendage, a bite consisted of the entire animal. The variety of shapes, sizes and random seafood parts was more than I would have considered possible. It was as if the sea bottom had been dredged and anything of appropriate size simply flash frozen and shipped to Indiana. In all, I counted several random tentacles, a few small squid(?), a pair of lonely and tiny shrimp and the distributor cap from a ‘72 pinto. On first sitting, the whole presentation was edible and even exciting to begin, but as the meal wore on, my enthusiasm waned to the point where I was untempted to eat the leftovers that were brought home. Luckily, Laura’s meal was much more tame. I tried as much as possible to keep the exact nature of my meal hidden from her more discerning culinary eye.
Finally, after having fortified ourselves internally we made our way from the restaurant to the Korean market next door. Truth be told, the market was at least half of my motivation for wanting to choose this particular establishment for dinner in the first place. As we strolled in, I noted with some chagrin that the market shared several attributes with the restaurant. Most of the written text was inscrutable. The staff had limited fluency in English. And, like its neighbor, we were the only two people in the place not of obvious Asian descent. Being a raging xenophile, this was as near as possible to my image of heaven. After a short perusal, we found many amusing items from candies of completely unknown composition, a variety of flavored soy-milks for my lactose-annoyed girlfriend and even the frozen version of the deep-sea dredgings I enjoyed in my dinner.
After the joy of finding food and cultural nirvana wore off, we both slowly started to realize that there was a chorus of cooking sounds emanating from one section of the market. A quick inspection revealed that the two were not only adjacent, but in fact attached. The kitchen for the restaurant hid itself quite nicely behind a temporary wooden wall constructed around a section of the market. I found this refreshing and convenient. I was even able to identify most of the seasonings and ingredients on the market shelves which comprised my meal from just minutes before. All this brings me back to some of my own recent culinary adventures at home and the reason for seeking out an Asian market in the first place.
From time immemorial, I’ve had a desire to “adopt-a-culture” for a period of time. The optimum length of time has yet to be determined but the point is simple: to live like a person of a different culture for a year, a month, a decade, whatever. So if I chose to be Russian, I’d eat like a Russian, drink like a Russian, learn to speak and write Russian, everything one needed to get the full experience of the culture. I realize, of course, that this is an arduous task, most especially the linguistic aspects of it, but it’s just the sort of obsessive-compulsive thing that I’m likely to undertake. So at the end of November I betook myself unto the kitchenware store, bought a wok and a stir-fry cookbook and sat down to the task of cooking every single recipe in the book to the exclusion of all else. For the most part, this has worked out fairly well, though I did have a brief breach of protocol with some quesadillas just before Christmas.
I’ve always said that the secret to cooking is not memorizing recipes, but rather mastering the ingredients. If you cook mushrooms like you would onions, you’re likely to not have much left, just as an example. So the stir-fry cookbook has introduced me to an amazing variety of new ingredients and methods that I would have found utterly perplexing the month before. During certain stages my refrigerator was an explosion of colors that put my previous mushrooms-olives-peppers-and-onions decor to an absolute shame. Even more interesting to me than the ingredients is the vast difference in preparation technique. Most of my previous cooking background is more Italian or simple “Middle-American” cooking. Throw some stuff into a pot (in the right order) and let it simmer for 4 hours. In the world of stir-fry, most things are done in 4 minutes. Cook it for 30 seconds longer and you would find it inedible. The technique also finds me in dire need of an apron, or a set of clothing specifically devoted to the explosive nature of this type of cooking.
All in all, I’d consider the experiment a vast success. With the exception of the tofu and mushrooms I made most recently, I’ve considered all the results on par with many of my old standards. My freezer, once full of red beans and rice and spaghetti sauce, now blooms with the remnants of a half-dozen new favorite dishes. I will enumerate the results in detail in some later post, but for now, rest assured the Slaven household (and the Zimmerman who sometimes comes to visit) eat well and diversely. (Though without the use of tentacles.)