President Obama’s Love Letter for All

My last love letter was written in 1999, and I don’t remember it to have any perspective or meaningful gestures; the letter was rather a wasteland of cringing words (here’s where you roll your eyes at me). After reading an NPR article on Obama’s love letter to his ex-girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, I was struck by his tenacity to survive living in New York, and his perseverance to pursue his goals when he felt left alone. President Obama’s words reminded me, and hopefully you after you read it, that life should be filled with ups and downs; struggles are omnipresent, and we have the choice to conquer them.

I have been a chef in New York City for over a decade. My struggle with finance often exhaust my mental capacity of be creative and positive. I often wonder if these struggles are self-inflicted or attached to my jobs. For many years, my first two (weekly) paychecks helped me pay my rent, and the next two paychecks were divided among student loans, utilities, NYC Metro Card, and obligatory dining expenses (chefs don’t cook at home) and cereal and milk (as much home-cooking as it gets). If I could write a love letter to a girlfriend from afar, I’d write,

“one week I have to bring home as many slices of stale bread for the weekend, and the next I have to hope C-town has a massive sales on dairy and cereal. But I have saved enough to get a us a bottle of red, or white, when you visit”.

Photo Credit: Eric Medsker
Source: HarperCollins Publisher

I also have struggled with self-image for many years. My insecurity comes from measuring my own success with others, and my own expectation for myself when I set out to be in restaurant business 10 years ago. Most of my friends have already, if not in the process of, settled down. Their ability to be responsible for another (or multiple) human being often become a measurement for my own success. President Obama wrote,

“I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups, my American friends consuming their life in the comfortable mainstream, the foreign friends in the international business world. Caught without a class, a structure, or a tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions, classes, make them mine, me theirs. Taken separately, they’re unacceptable and untenable”.

If I need to rephrase that for an imaginary girlfriend, I’d write,

“I wish our sunday breakfast could be us competing for the last cup of coffee and fighting over just whose turn is it to walk the dog (of course I’d lose). Caught without a clear future of the current restaurant, and having to constantly live from paycheck to paycheck, the only way to ease my anxiety is to be as open minded and compassionate, and grateful, as I could possibly be. Without understanding and compassion, my food and career will suffer.”

I have made two trips back to my country, Taiwan, recently. I suddenly found myself lost in a place where I thought was home. I wasn’t caught up with its pop culture, and I had trouble having small-talks since I could hardly finish a sentence in Mandarin without reserving back to English. President Obama wrote,

“ I can’t speak the language well anymore. I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and score because I’m American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”

Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with the prejudice when I went back to Taiwan. If I really needed to express my loneliness that came with the trip, I’d write,

“ It sucks I didn’t know where to get a well made martini without paying the price of a tourist. I mean…I am a Taiwanese! I just happen to speak some English, and it’s not even remotely good. I met up with couple childhood friends, and I miss them dearly already because I don’t do well when it comes to farewells.”

President Obama’s love letter drew a rare smile out of me. I admire his courage to keep living while almost everything was, or still, working against him. Although President Obama never intended to have his love letters made public (or do you think he was already making a move to the White House at the very young age?), I am glad to have read some beautifully written passages that help me reflect on my mind and maturity. I’d only hope to be fraction as articulate and tenacious as President Obama as I march onward to make Weekday Herbivore viable.

MIND OF A CHEF: GRAINS AND RICE, AND SEEDS

Riding on a train through southern Taiwan, the main source of rice and whole grains.

Grains and rice are principal food for more than half of the population on this planet. Grains and rice have been a source of energy and documented in many traditions for thousands of years. Whole grains and rice are also prized for their multiple health benefit to humans. More importantly, whole grains have great textures if cooked right. I promise to bring you the pleasure of eating and cooking grains if you could follow few simple guidelines.

  • Wash or rinse your grains and rice: unless you are making porridge or congee, or toasting grains with fat initially, washing your grains gets rid of the excess of starch on the surface to avoid clumping and turning the final product into a mush. Wash grains with cold water until the water becomes clear. Having grains in contact with water also softens the surface and allows better liquid absorption in cooking.
  • Ratio: the ratio of water to hearty grains, such as barley, wheat berries, or farro, is 4 to 1, in volume (soaking grains overnight could reduce the ratio to as little as 2:1). Brown rice has the ratio of 2.5 to 1, in volume. Long grain white rice has the ratio of 1.75 to 1, in volume. Short grain white rice has the ratio of 1.25 to 1, in volume as well.

Note: these ratios could also vary by few tablespoons of liquid depending on your choice of pot; you’d like to choose a pot where raw grains only takes up one-third of the space of the pot.

  • Cook them nice and slow: besides proper ratio of liquid to grains, which is discussed above, the single most important cooking technique involved is your patience. You must bring your water to a boil and maintain a steady simmer, and trust the process. If the cooking procedures are rushed, your grains will be undercooked, or overcooked as you try to rectify mistakes by adding more liquid. If you have a rice cooker, the robot will do the work for you. However, I find cooking grains over my stove top to be rather satisfying. Not only have I truly understood how grains absorb the liquid, but I have also noticed the subtleties in texture if I were to change the recipes.
  • Keep the lid on, for 10 more minutes: steam generated by heat is crucial to the final stage of grain cookery. When liquid is completely absorbed by the grains, steam coming out of each kernel will further cook the grains and help you achieve the right consistency. Rushing to lift the lid and let out the steam often lead to slightly undercooked grains.

Wash or rinse your grains or rice, choose the right pot and ratio, cook the grains or rice nice and slow, and keep the lid on for 10 more minutes at the final stage, you will have a bowl, or many bowls for that matter, of pleasantly cooked grains that are toothsome and delicious. Let’s talk about recipes, shall we?


Black Forbidden Rice (photo credit: Weekday Herbivore)

Black Forbidden Rice
Serves: 3 average American adults, or 1 big eater

Ingredients:
1 cup Black Forbidden Rice
4 cup cold water
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions:
1. Rinse black forbidden rice with cold water until it becomes clear or               slightly purple
2. Season the rice with salt, and add water to cover. Bring the pot to a boil     and turn down to simmer.
3. Wait.
4. Leave the lid on for 10 minutes once water has been fully absorbed (you     may lift the lid couple times during the cooking process to check the           level of water. Be quick with this step)


Short Grain Brown Rice (photo credit: Weekday Herbivore)

Short Grain Brown Rice
Serves: 2 average American adults, or 1 big eater

Ingredients:
1 cup short grain brown rice
2 and ½ cup cold water
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions:
1. Rinse brown rice with cold water until it becomes clear (water is
    generally clear when washing brown rice, but do it anyway and trust the     process).
2. Season the rice with salt, and add water to cover. Bring the pot to a boil     and turn down to simmer.
3. Wait.
4. Leave the lid on for 10 minutes once water has been fully absorbed (you     may lift the lid couple times during the cooking process to check the           level of water. Be quick with this step)


Farro (photo credit: pbs.org)

Farro (Emmer Wheat)
Serves: 2 average American adults, or 1 big eater

Ingredients:
1 cup farro (commonly known as emmer wheat as well)
4 cups cold water
1 teaspoon salt

Instructions:
1. Rinse farro with cold water until it becomes clear (water is generally          clear when rinsing farro, but do it anyway and trust the process).
2. Season the grains with salt, and add water to cover. Bring the pot to a         boil and turn down to simmer.
3. Wait.
4. Leave the lid on for 10 minutes once water has been fully absorbed (you     may lift the lid couple times during the cooking process to check the           level of water. Be quick with this step)

Feeling motivated? Bonus Recipe…

Red Quinoa…

and it’s neither a cereal nor a grain! Red Quinoa is a seed, but cooks like grains, and is a relative to spinach, beets, and chard.


Red quinoa (photo credit: Weekday Herbivore)

Red Quinoa
Serves: 2 average American adults, or 1 big eater

Ingredients:
1 cup red quinoa
3 cups cold water
½ teaspoon salt

Instructions:
1. No need to rinse quinoa with water. Cover red quinoa in a pot with water     and season with salt.
2. Bring the pot to a boil and turn down to simmer.
3. Wait.
4. Leave the lid on for 10 minutes once water has been fully absorbed (you     may lift the lid couple times during the cooking process to check the           level of water. Be quick with this step)


Mix of Black Forbidden Rice, Turmeric Jasmine Rice, Short Grain Brown Rice, and Red Quinoa (photo credit: Weekday Herbivore)

Last but not least, once you have mastered cooking grains, rice, and seeds, you may take the liberty and mix the final products together. Not only will you end up with a bowl of beautifully cooked whole grains, but you will also get to experience the nuance in texture. Good luck!

 

MIND OF A CHEF: THE THING ABOUT PROTEINS

Proteins are made of a chain of 20 amino acids, and there are nine essential amino acids that we, humans, cannot synthesize; therefore, we must eat food to fulfill those needs.

I am here to tell you that you could absolutely get all your amino acids (note that I didn’t use “proteins” here) from eating plants. I am here to solve the myth of “incomplete proteins” that plants are often mislabeled or misunderstood. “Incomplete Proteins” simply means that the ingredient may be low or lack in one of the nine essential amino acids (eg. lentils are low in methionine, Brazil nuts are low in lysine). In order to obtain all the essential amino acids for our body, we need to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to pool enough amino acids to form proteins. Classic pairing such as beans and rice, corn and beans, and legumes and nuts provide the necessary amino acids intake. As a chef, I love pairings. Pairing food gives me the opportunity to explore flavors and texture; broccoli (my constant obsession) is sweeter if cooked with garlic or chili. Lentil is more savory if paired with walnut. Finally, rice is sweeter if eaten with savory beans.


My walk through a rice paddy field in Taiwan

Here’s a recipe of Italian beans and rice that could get you started on completing-your-proteins from eating through the veggie aisles.

1 large carrots, cut into bite size chunks
1 medium onions, diced to your preference
5 cloves garlic, sliced thin or minced
3 tablespoons of canola/vegetable oil
1 can of great northern white beans or cannellini beans (canned beans has   its benefit in its unique texture), or you may soak some beans overnight     and cook them fresh the next day
½ cup of edamame (optional)
2 sprigs of thyme leaves
1 teaspoons of salt, or more to adjust seasoning
½ teaspoons of ground black pepper, or more to adjust seasoning
pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
1 cup of your favorite rice, cooked (my choices are a mix of short grain         brown rice, jasmine rice, and wild black rice)

  1. Set a pot on medium high heat and add oil, once the oil starts to shimmer, add your carrots, onions, and garlic. Season with salt and black pepper. Cook the onions and garlic until fragrant and soft. Carrots will be stewed and softened in the next step.
  2. Add thyme to the pot and cook until fragrant, and then add enough water to just cover the carrots. Cover the pot, bring it to a boil, and turn the heat to medium low. Simmer the carrots until soft, but not mushy. Bite size carrots will take less than 10 minutes to soften.
  3. Add the can of white beans and leave the pot to simmer for another 2 minutes to thoroughly heat the beans.
  4. Turn off the heat and add edamame. Cover the pot with a lid for 2 more minutes to heat up the edamame with its residual heat.
  5. Serve your Italian beans with your favorite side of rice. Add freshly chopped parsley and mint, and a squeeze of lemon to brighten up the dish, or a pinch of cayenne pepper will wake up your palate and help you enjoy a pint of IPA.


Rustic Italian beans and rice

Last but not least, why eat multiple plants when you could get all the amino acids from a piece of meat? Animal proteins have higher ratios of amino acids that contain sulfur, which is converted to sulfuric acid when digested by humans. In order to balance out the acidic condition, our bodies work harder to keep us alive, alert, and sexually active, as I am told.

MIND OF A CHEF: CHLOROPHYLL

(Can you spot the difference?)

Implementing plant-based diet to my personal life was an economical decision that pairs with my curiosity for its benefit to triathlon training. Becoming a plant-based chef is a lifelong resolution in learning how to cook the most misunderstood category of food – plants and vegetables.

Most of the professional kitchen is set up to have vegetable cooks (entremetier) working under the meat/fish cooks, who are usually senior to all the staff. Proteins are more expensive; therefore, only experienced chefs are allowed to cook them. After working in numerous world class kitchens, I start to question the tradition of the chain of command; does a senior cook have to be cooking a piece of meat or fish? Or, can a restaurant succeed if proteins are used as garnishes only?

I remember a cook once told me that vegetables are more forgiving; therefore, vegetable cookery is the training ground to build fundamentals. Very true to the latter part, but to its “more forgiving” nature than animal proteins, I say bullshit…based on my own frustration in keeping vegetables’ integrity and flavors when I put them on flames.

(some very overcooked broccoli)

No bull, green vegetables are incredibly hard to handle. Green vegetables are of their color because of chlorophyll, molecules that absorb sunlight and undergo photosynthetic system to become sugar. When green vegetables are heated, gases trapped between cells expand and escape; therefore, we see chloroplast, the green pigment, more clearly. However, prolonged cooking and acidity are the main culprit to the loss of the green pigment. Green vegetables are susceptible to dull colors from its exposure to acidity during cooking. When green vegetables are heated, their cell membranes around chloroplast are damaged; natural acidity leaks out and replaces magnesium ions with hydrogen, a change that turns colorful green pigment to grayish-green or yellow (stop there…getting too scientific). The moral lesson here is that most of the green vegetables should be cooked quickly and swiftly, but long enough to help pocket of gases collapse inside the cells and make the green color more apparent, and appealing to the diners.

(I like my broccoli blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds…no more, no less, and saute the cooked broccoli on high heat for 30 seconds more with chopped garlic and black pepper – my credential to a great uncle-hood)

To how long should you be cooking green vegetables…somewhere between 3 to 5 minutes, or even less, depending on your preference for their texture, in an appropriate size of pot and a more alkaline condition, with temperature at boiling point (that might just be another conversation).

Ratio by Michael Ruhman

I have finally picked up Ratio, a cookbook written by Michael Ruhman, and read it from front to end for the first time since I made the purchase nearly 5 years ago (part of my unproductive splurge with my ever mounting credit card bill). The book provides basic ratios for common recipes and demonstrate the convenience of knowing these formulas.

I have always been a conservative cook, meaning that I like the tedium of practicing and learning the fundamental of cooking before I unleash my creative juice and innovate dishes. Ratio was an enjoyable read; I reviewed basic recipes I had often practiced and gained knowledge on food or techniques that I rarely use. Ratio is a great book for either a professional or home cook.

I have been a professional chef for eight years, and I have spent majority of my time learning and perfecting (and never perfecting) stock and sauce production. I am humbled and fascinated by some of the basics taught in “Ratio”. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Sweat vegetables before adding water enhances the depth of vegetable stock (why have I not ever thought of it…and I do that for all the animal stock!)
  • Only add aromatics/aromats in the last hour of stock making in order to maximize the yield (aromatics soak up a lot of liquid from prolonged cooking)
  •  The stock should be kept at between 180F~190F (82.2C~87.8C) during the
    making process, which is below simmering. Therefore…don’t simmer your
    stock. (I am in shock…aren’t we all taught to simmer our stock at one point or another? But what is a simmering temperature…has anyone ever asked that?)
  • Leeks and its relatives give body to the stock (Something not so noticeable…but worth of exploring. I am guessing the structure comes from the slime in between the layers of leaves)

Have a great weekend chefs!

Reggie