Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Food and Culture Programme #4: Southeast Asian Inspiration, but First a Proustian Experience

Having since taken a break from Drouard, we've recently moved to aspects of food and religion and last week finished André Gide's La porte étroite. Beginning with the tail-end of our class last Wednesday and into yesterday's session, we began our discussion on Marcel Proust's Combray, the first part of volume one (Du côté de chez Swann) of the even larger saga, À la recherche du temps perdu. I make particular note of this part of this French course I'm auditing, as we embarked on a brief "Proustian experience". Written in such a way that evokes the deep connections to food and memory, one of the closing scenes of the very first section of Combray is of the narrator's description of eating a madeleine, and the emotions and clarity such an experience evokes for him. To aid us in our own madeleine experience, Christine offered us linden tea (thé de tilleul) and two types of madeleines: the original madeleines de Commercy (Julia Child's version here) and madeleines au citron (Chef Joshua Alan's version here). Following our discussion, which included the immense symbolism in such an innocent-looking pastries, I switched gears from the French and headed around the world to Southeast Asia for my fourth food and culture residence hall programme.

Perhaps it's cliché to suggest, but it's tough to deny that at the very least students have heard about both ramen and rice. Indeed, it seems that for many these are not only staples within and among Southeast Asian communities, but of the undergraduate pantry. They're cheap, store for a long time and don't take long to cook. In the case of ramen, some have gone so far as to create college-friendly lists of noodle dishes in the form of breakfast fare to dessert treats, while others go so far as to claim it as part of college survival. In conjunction with two residence hall floors (both representing first-year males), I last night facilitated another programme that once again created the space to dialogue about favourite mealtime subjects of food and culture. To feed the group of 15-ish, I began with a whirlwind prep that included getting pots of water boiling, petite dicing three onions, quickly mincing cloves of garlic and dicing boneless skinless chicken breasts.

After sautéing a handful of onions in a few teaspoons of vegetable oil, I quickly seasoned the cubed chicken with ground black pepper and salt, and got those browning in the pan. Make sure the chicken has completely browned on all sides before transferring them to a pot to keep warm; and do be mindful to not undercook the chicken, i.e. make sure there's no pink flesh when you cut into a test piece! By this point, the smaller pot of water (see the second image above) should be boiling; add to this 2.5 c rinsed basmati rice and let it cook without the lid, making sure to stir about halfway through to make sure the rice cooks evenly. When little water remains and the rice has indeed fully cooked, take it off the heat and put a lid on it to prevent it from drying out.

As the chicken cooks, douse some thinly sliced round steak with a teriyaki marinade/sauce, and get your ramen noodles out of their packaging and into the pot of (now) boiling water (without the seasoning packets). In terms of buying ingredients, I portioned about one pack per individual that would be eating. Since the noodles don't take a long time to cook, you can reduce the heat and let them cook with the lid on. With the chicken transferred to a pot to keep warm (make sure they're in a pot, as you'll need it there in a bit), clean out your chicken pan and sauté some more of the onions and this time around, some of the garlic (about one clove for every two pieces of steak). The steak doesn't need to marinate for too long in this case because it's so thin, nor does it need to much time to cook. Cook both sides along with a bit of garlic powder until the meat has browned and (see the bit of pink at the bottom left corner in the photos above?) you no longer see any pink. Just like with the chicken, you don't want to undercook the steak, but you also don't want to overcook it. Transfer the cooked steak to a plate to rest, and continue this process until about 7-8 slices have been cooked.

Meanwhile, chop up half a head of cabbage and add this to the chicken (in the pot) and drizzle in some low sodium soy sauce. On med-lo heat, cook all of this together until the cabbage has wilted. You're aiming here to cook down the cabbage and not to cook the chicken too much longer.

When all the steak has cooked, slice one bunch of green onions (aka, scallions) at the bias (aka, diagonally) and add this to the pan with steak drippings and left over teriyaki sauce. Stir all of this together and deglaze the pan (to loosen up all the burned on bits) slightly with a few tablespoons of water; slice the steak and add this slightly cooked down mixture to the dish (don't scrape everything from the pan, but rather include whatever's loose enough to be added). To finish up the cooking prep, drain a can of bean sprouts and cook them slightly with some of the low sodium soy sauce. By the time the RAs had spoken to their residents about spring break housing procedures, both of the above dishes were ready to be served along with the cooked ramen and rice. As I was about to work on the dessert, I realised (or more so brought to my attention) these were hungry college guys and so I made a second batch of the chicken and steak dishes, and cooked the rest of the ramen. 3 lbs each chicken and thin-cut steak, 2 large bunches of green onions, and nearly a whole head of cabbage later--as well as 15 ramen packages--later, I was ready to move onto dessert.

Though we didn't quite have any Asian fruits, such as litchi or durian (and I'm quite alright with that latter one), to work with, I did aim for a dessert with a "tropical," refreshing flare that in itself was simple to do. Into a pot (because I didn't have a bowl), I combined a large can of pineapple and mandarin oranges (with their juices), three diced bananas and the juice of one lime. All stirred together, the residents topped off their own servings of vanilla ice cream. And with that, the food prep was over.. and somehow within the span of just under two hours. As for the research component of the programme, I unbelievably have just under a month now to feed that into my NAES paper. For all the photos from this program on one page, click here.

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