Aug 27, 2011

Le Gourmet

Our new dorm apartment comes with a little kitchen and induction cooker. This is great for me nearly broke from New York. I've often heard cooking your own meal is a fraction of the money you fork out eating out - even in eat out-friendly Taiwan, food is getting pricier and restaurant operators more stingy with gravy and pickles.
I drew up a 2-year home-cooked meal plan. Then I doubted if cooking myself is actually cheaper because you have to buy kitchen utensils. They don't just lie there waiting to be used like back at home. Then comes the ingredients. If you're cooking is winter melon soup, it doesn't just consists of winter melon. There are a million other things - pork ribs, red dates, wolfberries....All of them adds up to an unfriendly amount by the checkout counter.
I decided to test the waters first with a simple green bean and barley. It's a very common dessert in Taiwan costing about 30 NTD per bowl. It's as simple as boiling both ingredients until they're tender - totally no fuss. After I happily went to shower and studied a little, the benign handful of green beans and barley had expanded twenty thousand times to occupy the entire cooking pot. The 1L of water is completely gone, and the concoction resembles a porridge texture. That night and 2 days after, we ate slightly burnt green bean and partially-cooked barley. The dessert managed to convince my roommates they won't eat anything I cook in future, which is just fine by me as I'll have the lion's share.

This is NOT what I ended up with.

Defiant, I tried bitter gourd soup with pork ribs during the weekend. I went to a supermarket for the ingredients to avoid being questioned by nosey market hawkers about my intentions of buying the least popular vegetable. Hiding my face with a newspaper at checkout, I drove home in lightning speed so as not to bump into anyone on the way. We live in a small community, so news spread quickly. Once the green bean and barley failure spreads, everyone will make a ridicule out of my cooking. I definitely won't let it happen, lest the occupants of the apartment wait for me on cooking days with a fire extinguisher.
Choosing a HUGE pot this time, I added plenty of water and made sure my poultry are blanched before putting them into boiling water. This is to prevent surface fat of the game from dissolving too quickly in your soup producing a cloudy, foul aftertaste. Professionally, I cut up the melon, making sure I made a lot of noise so my flatmates heard.
I checked on the pot 3 times every minute, making sure it has enough water and suffusing it with love and care so it will turn out winning a le cordon bleu. Soon the entire apartment was filled with the aroma of red dates and refreshing scent of cooked bitter gourd. I went two floors above and below to trace the smell and it is still there! Great! I'm getting best chef on graduation! No fire extinguishers waiting for me!
I went to another apartment to borrow some salt. Not that I have none, I just wanted to make sure people know I'm cooking, and a great success at doing it. I sprinkled the precious chemical in and scooped up a teaspoon to taste. After all the scents it tasted bland to my disappointment.
Now it's time to consult the parents. I spent an hour listening to Mum and Dad's 50 year experience. You should cook it under low heat, you should double boil it, you should buy a slow-cooker instead. I didn't argue that I'm broke from New York and a slow-cooker will drive me into debt. I took their suggestions into the 2-Year Home Cooking Plan (2YHCP). They also suggested I buy my fresh greens from a local market, since supermarkets tend to process and transport cheap goods from faraway places. The problem is, going to a market means exposing myself to all kinds of ridicule. Oh dear.
After securing a mask and thick-rimmed sunglasses, I wondered into a market today. Surrounded by millions of vegetables which names I don't know, and ten thousand parts of pork and beef, I vainly pretend I know my ingredients by heart.
"How much is the radish?" I asked, trying not to provoke any suspicion.
"What are you using it for?"
"Soup." Sounding cool, like 007 James Bond.
"We have local radish and Japanese radish. This costs 20 per 600gm and the other 25."
In 2 seconds I have to make a decision that will drastically alter my soup. Local or Japanese? Local or Japanese? I guess the more expensive radish will taste better. But then the naturalist inside me kicked in. An imported radish emits more carbon. And Japanese food tastes totally bland. So I'm going for the local.
Then comes the pork section.
"Eerm...I'm cooking soup."
The aunty peeked suspiciously. "What soup?"
What does she mean by so? I want something that will give me flavor in my soup. Is she even qualified to sell pork?
Sensing my inexperience amidst my guise, she sneered. "I'll give you the ribs. It has some meat that will taste really nice after you cook it long enough." Then started hacking up some unidentified part of a pig carcass. As I turned to leave, adjusting my sunglasses, I overheard her laughing with her colleagues. Guess they were conjuring images of an exploding kitchen and someone helplessly cooking a radish.
Back home, I Googled and Wikipedia-ed ways to cook radish soup. I managed to secure two leftover carrots from my senior who's spending the following month in Taipei. With pitch precision this time, I measured every cut and angle and dropped everything in with exemplary tenderness. Conceiving a theory that too-frequent lid-opening spoils the taste, I make myself go to the gym to channel the obsession onto dumbbells and treadmills.
Then I realize if I put too little water in the pot. My two other deep sleeper flatmates are asleep. If the pot boils dry and burst into an inferno they'd be roasted alive. I ran home half-expecting to see parched ground surrounded by firefighters. The building is still intact. Thank God.
Uncovering the lid, I was greeted by semi-translucent radishes and brilliant red carrots floating on an appetizing creamy broth. When two of my flatmates came to "tax" me, I knew I regained my status as top chef.

I added some noodles to fill in carbs for dinner.

After slurping the soup till its last drop, enjoying the savory success, I upped 2YHCP to include a Christmas pudding this winter. Who says guys can't cook?


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