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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sometimes I Cook

The one danger of shopping for food in Chinatown is that you can inadvertantly buy way too much stuff.

And seeing as though I'm not cooking as much as I should be lately, that's kinda stupid, not to mention wasteful. It reminds me of those people in the Central Valley who plant fruit trees in their yard and who, every year, let the fruit rot on the tree because they're too lazy to pick it. I'm starting to believe that I should be more brazen about walking onto someone's property to pick the tons of persimmons, pomegranates, olives, and oranges I see going to waste.

Actually, we did pilfer quite a bit of oranges and tangerines a few days ago, but these were off of trees leaning into Aunt Paula's yard. Now we have an excess of fruit that I'm not sure what to do with. Doh!

Back to Chinatown – I went there 2 days ago to buy a rabbit, or at least that was the premise. In my head, I was thinking to myself "oh, and if there are fresh ducks, maybe I'll pick one up. And what about going to King and King Sausage Co. for some bacon, sausage, and dry-cured duck legs? And, am I getting a freshly killed chicken today? Let's see."

Such are the dangers. Instead, I held back quite a bit and walked into some of the markets just to see what looked interesting. I first walked into a shop on Grant, close to Broadway. Ah, here are some wonton wrappers. I need some of these. Plus, why not buy some of these thick rice noodles. They're great for a quick beef chow fun dinner.

Next, I headed up Broadway, and since I was starving, walked into You's for some sticky rice buns and pork/chives filled dumplings.

Afterwards I stepped into another shop to look at veggies. Forgoing the turnips, I bought some water chestnuts, some limes (6 for $1) and some green onions. Ah ha! I know what I'm going to make for dinner now! How about Rabbit filled wontons with water chestnuts, ginger, and green onions? Yeah!

Finding the rabbit proved to be a little harder and costlier than I remember. Hing Lung didn't have any, so I went on a search to find a butcher that does. On the advice of shopkeeper in whose store I bought some chestnuts ($3 per pound), I headed up Clay to Powell Street.

Wow! For some reason I've always assumed Chinatown stopped around Stockton Street, but there's like a whole other world above Stockton. Anyway, I found a few new seafood and butcher shops that I didn't know about before.

After negotiating the language dilemma by making the rabbit ears sign above my head (see below), I found a good 2½ pound rabbit.

It wasn't cheap. It was $14.25, whereas I remember them being around $8 at Hing Lung. Still, I had my stomach settled on rabbit, so I bought the damn thing, and in the process learned the Chinese word for rabbit.

"Toe-Jai", heavy on the toe.

Those pink plastic bags were starting to get heavy now, so I grudgingly made the decision to walk back home; a good thing since the wind was picking up and the rain started coming down heavier.

However, I still needed to make one more stop on Grant street to find a tea house that I could sit and drink Chrysanthemum tea at. What I found instead was the Red Blossom Tea Company, who doesn't serve tea but will let you sample it.

The guy serving the tea samples was smart, because as soon as he passed me a cup, I was hooked. There was no way I was leaving that store without buying some of what he was serving, which in this case was the Dragon Pearl Jasmine tea. The Dragon Pearl tea is a white tea with the most amazing perfume aroma and flavor. It practically knocked me out! The tea itself comes wrapped in tiny balls that open up during the steeping process. A little hot water, and bam!

Alright, so back at home, I've decided the dinner menu will be:

Chestnut Garlic Sage Soup with Cream and Nutmeg

Poached Wontons filled with Braised Rabbit, Water Chestnuts, Green Onion and Ginger in a Braising Juice Reduction Sauce

Orange, Tangerine, and Lagrima Granita

I started first with the rabbit since I knew it could take an hour or longer to cook. Actually, to back up for just a minute – the rabbit was frozen, so I had to wait a day for it to thaw. OK, now once it was thawed, I cut it into pieces, starting with the saddles (or rear legs).

Cutting up the rabbit, it finally dawned on me why you see saddle of rabbit on so many menus. It's because there isn't a whole lot of meat on a rabbit to begin with, and the largest muscle on the rabbit, obviously, is it's hind legs. Thus, saddle of rabbit. Yeah, OK, I can be a little slow at times.

After the legs, I cut off the back and chopped it into 2 large pieces, and then proceeded to cut off the front legs. The rib cage and other parts I didn't use, I placed in a ziploc bag and put in the freezer for future use.

In my new dutch oven, I heated up some olive oil and then fried the rabbit pieces on medium high for roughly 5 minutes per side. While they were frying, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees. I also heated up 4 cups of lightly salted water in the microwave, juiced 1 lime and 1 tangerine, ground some pepper, cut up a piece of ginger into 4 2-inch batons, chopped two small shallots, and opened a bottle of cheap Zinfindel I had laying around.

Before the pieces had finished frying, I threw in the ginger and shallots to brown a little. After a minute or so, I deglazed the pan using about ¾ of a cup of wine. Next I threw in the citrus mixture and then added the hot water just enough to barely cover the rabbit pieces. Afterwards, on went the lid and into the oven, setting the timer for 1 hour.

While the rabbit was cooking, I scored the chestnuts with a sharp paring knife, making a small "X" on the flat side of the nut. When doing this, make sure you have a sharp knife, otherwise you'll have to put some elbow grease into it. Whatever you do, make sure you don't cut yourself.

After an hour at 400 degrees, the rabbit was sufficienty cooked and I removed the pieces from the braising liquid to cool. As you see, some of the "love" stuck to the sides of the pot, so using my silicon spatula, I took some of the hot liquid and "washed" the sides in order to save all of that flavor.

After the rabbit came out, I put the chestnuts (spread out on a baking sheet) into the oven and set the timer for 45 minutes. While they were cooking, I juiced approximately 4 oranges and 4 tangerines for the Granita. If you've never heard of a granita, don't worry. All it is is frozen fruit juice that is shaved. I don't really have a juicer, so what I do is place the pulp in the food processor and pulse for a few minutes. After that, I strain the juice through a wire mesh screen, using a silicone spatula to force as much liquid through as I can. And Bob's your uncle.

Next, I mix in about ½ a cup (or more, I can't remember, but then it's alcohol so who cares) of Lagrima to the juice. Lagrima is a super-sweet white Port that you can find at fine, discriminating wine shops in your city, town, or village. This one came from a discriminating BevMo.

After I infused the Port with the citrus juice, I poured it into a long and flat tupperware container and placed it into the freezer. Note: In hindsight, I should've done this way, way before the time I did because it takes at least 8 hours in my freezer to become solid.

When the chestnuts are ready, they also have to cool down a bit. While they were cooling, I proceeded to make the rabbit stuffing for the wontons. First comes removing the rabbit from the bones, and then roughly chopping the meat. Then I began peeling the water chestnuts with a paring knife. Fresh water chestnuts, once peeled, have to be kept in cold water until they are ready to use to prevent browning.

For this recipe, I used about 4, diced. I also used a thick 2-inch piece of ginger, diced. I briefly sauteed these 2 things, finished with the juice of 1 lime, before adding to the rabbit. I also chopped up about 1 cup of the green parts of the green onions and also added them to the rabbit mixture.

Before I go any further, can I just say that the Chinese are geniuses! Well, at least when it comes to certain things. For instance, these wonton wrappers are brilliant! Easy to use, inexpensive, and works like a charm when making "raviolis" or wontons or dumplings of any kind.

To make the wonton, take a wrapper and lay it on the cutting board. With a small bowl of water handy, dip your finger in the water and wet the outside edge of one half of the wrapper. Now, take about a tablespoon of the mixture and place it in the middle of the wrapper. Bring up the sides and press together, making sure the wonton is completely sealed. And that's it! Place on a baking sheet or somewhere out of the way.

Back to the chestnut soup:

Peel the chestnuts. This could take some time, making sure to remove all of the hull of the shell from the "meat". Take about 4 cups of chicken stock or broth (I used broth) and bring to a boil. Then add the chestnuts, 3 large cloves of chopped garlic, about 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar, and 8 sage leaves. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 20 minutes.

At the end of this period, using your food processor or blender, puree the soup a little at a time. Be careful, since, as you know, hot liquid has a tendency to expand, causing molten hot magma to shoot out of your blender and onto your soft and tenders. And if you don't believe me, ask to see my scars.

Speaking of scars, I was so relieved the other day to see Debbie with a big old ugly burn horizontally across her forearm as the result of reaching into the oven. I am so glad I'm not the only one!! Of course, both of us realize that you are suppose to pull out the oven rack before you reach in, but something in our lizard brains tends to overlook this logical point from time to time.

Anyway, once you've pureed the soup, return to the stovetop and simmer for a few more minutes. Correct the seasoning or add a little more water if the soup is too thick. When ready to serve, spoon into warm bowls, sprinkle with freshly grated nutmeg, and add a dollop or drizzle of heavy cream, along with a sage leaf or two for décor.

It should (or maybe might) look something like this:

Some self-criticism: The plating (or bowling?) is a little sloppy and for some reason I can't get the cream on top of the soup thing down yet. I also should've chopped the sage and lightly sprinkled it on top. Also, I know it's just a picture and pictures don't always do the subject justice, but is it just me or does that soup look a little "nutty", and yes you do know what I mean?


For this recipe, a pound and three quarters of chestnuts made enough soup for three to four people.

To make the entrée, heat a large pot of boiling, lightly salted water. While waiting for the water to come to a boil, turn up the heat on your braising liquid from the rabbit. Reduced to a cup or so, then off heat, add cold butter to thicken. In my case, this didn't work, so instead I took about 2 tablespoons of flour and shook it in a jar with a little bit of water. I then added this flour slurry to the pan sauce and it thickened it to the point I needed.

Now, boil the wontons in the rapidly boiling water in small batches. Using a slotted spoon, remove from the water and fill each plate. Make sure you shake off the water from the wontons before you place them on the plates. Now, spoon on your pan sauce and take your brand new microplane, rasp a lime, and sprinkle the lime shavings on top of your wontons.

Serve it, baby!

OK, again my plating is a little sloppy and Gordon Ramsay would have a shit-fit, but you get the gist of what I'm going for, right? Actually, I plated this in a hurry (several hours of cooking can, unfortunately, do that to you) and you can see where there is still water from the transferring of the wontons from the pot still on the plate. You can see where it has not mixed with the sauce. Shit!

Perhaps a good rule of thumb for the home cook is right before serving, take a moment, relax, and take several deep breaths. As I'm starting to learn, rushing through the plating/presentation, the most important stage of cooking, can take hours of cooking and turn it on it's head in a matter of minutes.

Oh well, live and learn. Although these 2 recipes were a first for me, you'll just have to take my word for it - they were good! And while I'm not completely happy with the plating, the end result was tasty and I'll probably attempt it again.

If you end up making extra wontons, they can be kept in a ziploc bag in the fridge for a day or two at the most, and probably frozen for a month or two.

Moving on to dessert:

Because I put the granita mixture in the freezer too late, we ended up having dessert for breakfast the next day. Ayyy!

However, this dessert is easy to prepare, whether after dinner or for breakfast. Simply take a fork and scrape it along the surface of the frozen fruit juice. Take the ice shavings and serve it in a glass, preferably one that you can fit a spoon into.

Top with some lime shavings and there you have it.

Well folks, it was fun showing you my special pre-New Year's dinner, such as it was. The next time I check in, hopefully I'll be talking about the traditional collard greens and black-eyed peas every decent ex-Southerner makes for New Year's Day (in fact, I better run out to the stores now before everyone sells out of black-eyed peas).

Until then, who's going to clean up?



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