Testing new foods – the guinea pig reports
As a consequence for a job well done cooking our Thanksgiving dinners, Evan was promoted to Food and Beverage Director at Linden Centre recently, and he is doing a terrific job. Two days ago, as I was climbing the steep steps of Chongsheng Temple in Dali, my phone rings. I answer, a bit out of breath at this high altitude. It’s Evan. “Sibylla, can you be my lab rat for lunch and dinner tomorrow?”, he asks. “Sure,” I laugh, “what’s up?” “I want to try out a few new dishes on you,” he says, “I’d like to revamp the menu a bit.”
Of course I am game. Who would not enjoy being cooked for, and to sample brand new dishes?
Evan sets out to the market, promising to be back at 10 at which time I will join him in the kitchen, helping with the slicing and dicing but above all, documenting everything with my camera. As he gets back, a colorful rainbow of vegetables is spread on the kitchen worktop – Orange carrots, green celery, purple onions. White beans are soaking in water, and duck legs, marinated in honey the day before, rest in a bowl. “What’s for lunch?“, I ask.
“Grits and Grillades, and a salad“, he says. Mmmmh, a salad! My mouth already waters. In Shanghai, I love to eat a big salad every day, but since my arrival in Yunnan, my life has become salad-free. But what is Grits and Grillades? “It’s a dish from my home town, New Orleans,“ Evan explains. “Corn meal, cooked, with a vegetable sauce and meat stewed for hours. A typical Sunday Brunch dish where I come from!“
My only association with corn meal is polenta, and I think the word has more of a ring than „grits“. But then I am not from New Orleans, and Southern home cooking I am not familar with at all.
Over the next hour, we chop capsicum, celery, and onions – the “Holy Trinity“ of food, as Evan tells me it is called in New Orleans, and garlic, which they call “The Pope“. I get it: Garlic is most important! The garlic we have here in Xizhou is small and purple, unlike the white, large segmented bulbs I know from Europe. Garlic is planted everywhere around Linden Centre. In the late fall, I watched the farmers sow the garlic in long rows. Now it is ready for harvesting, and I see enormous quantities of it in the market every morning.
Evan makes a “roux“ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roux) that he uses to thicken the vegetable mix that will go on top of our polenta / grits. The grits are slowly cooking in a separate pot, looking golden yellow and appetizing. My mouth starts to water again – haven’t I only just finished breakfast?
I wash the arugula, fresh from the fields. A lot of Xizhou soil washes out, and I take care to rinse it three times. Where is a salad spinner, I wonder. Evan shows me a unique method: Two baskets held together, and shake! Shake! Shake! It works like a charm – the arugula is dry.
Evan is a gentleman – he has chopped the onions for both the vegetable sauce and the salad, so now his eyes are red and watery, not mine. Thanks, Evan!
Several strips of pork tenderloin have been „sealed“ in hot oil and now go into the vegetable sauce to simmer for another hour, at least. My stomach is growling in view of all these delicacies.
Evan has created a salad dressing from all local ingredients. When I tasted it the first time, I suggested Evan add some honey, and a small amount of cherry tomato puree. So today, this dressing is perfect! Unfortunately, if I told you the secret ingredients, I would have to kill you So let’s leave them a secret!
The salad is almost ready. Evan is now working on toppings: Mushrooms sliced, boiled eggs quartered, some fried Yunnan Cheese that will add the final touches, its creamy white slices appetizingly browned in a frying pan.
“Quick, let’s eat while the cheese and the eggs are still warm,“ he says, and we carry our plates into the bar. MCK joins us – he is the only other foreigner on staff here today. Chinese people traditionally do not like to eat “raw vegetables“. The local dressing tastes wonderful. Already I am thinking, can I get the ingredients for this dressing in Shanghai or Berlin, once I am back?
MCK and I devour our big salads. “Delicious“, he says and reaches for more. I am happy, and full. And here comes Evan with three plates, the “grits and grillades“-part of the meal. Can I eat all this, I wonder. I take a spoonful and am hooked. There is a taste explosion! The vegetable, the spices, the herbs, the soft and tender meat, the creamy yellow grits, and the colors!! I can’t stop until I have finished even the last tiniest morsel on my plate.
“And what now – a nap?“ I say.
“Don’t forget – cassoulet with duck leg for dinner. Don’t snack!“ Evan warns me. I groan.