Monday, February 9, 2015

"Real Food"

For all that I'm a decent home cook, I'm not really a foodie--I don't own a sous vide machine--but the only way I can get things like bagels and General Tso's Chicken without paying and arm and a leg is frequently to make them myself.  A truly buttery brioche is not to be found; a quality risotto is even further out of the question--unless I am the one standing at the stove, stirring a giant pot of rice.  And my biggest, biggest pet peeve of all:  when you order take-away from one of the faux-Chinese places (faux-Chinese, but real Indonesian, inasmuch as Dutch-ified Indonesian take-away can be considered "real") they always send you home with nasi, a stir-fried rice pocked with little bits of egg and ham and peas, rather than properly cooked rice.  

In our house, nine meals out of ten are cooked according to the following rubric:  Does it contain meat and two veg?  Will it make good leftovers?  If the answer to both questions is "yes", then it goes on our meal plan.  But every now and then, along comes an image, a fleeting impression, a smell, perhaps--and I find myself craving dishes that I never really appreciated before I moved here.  It's not about the taste, or the quality of the food, or the nutritional value.  It's about the emotions that are connected to food--and the fond memories of old friends whom I haven't seen for a long time, and am unlikely to ever see again.  It's about that curious nostalgia for things so terrible for your health you swore you'd never eat them when you found out what their nutrition label looked like, yet they taste so good every now and then--every once in a while--you can admit that you really liked it.

Thus it is with General Tso's Chicken.  I honestly can't remember ever eating this when I lived in Philly, but seeing the trailer for the documentary did a dam good job of tickling the memories of the food trucks at UPenn, taking Karel for Real Chinese food, dim sum with Rebecca, and long heart-to-hearts with Mordecai (though I can't remember that we ever actually got Chinese food).  So making this wasn't so much about feeding my family something nutritious and delicious as it was about a selfish endeavor to recreate something of my past, to spread the joy that I felt around to Karel and the kidlet.  And it did just that.  Karel wolfed down his portion with a big smile on his face--and then promptly told me to make more--and I got to have a meal with properly-cooked rice and things that weren't drowned in sauce, for once.

Recipes for GTC abound on YouTube and the Internet, all of them claiming to be more real than the next one, but basically what it is is pieces of chicken, floured and then deep-fried to get that crispy crust, which then soaks up the sauce.  I didn't dare make mine too spicy--kidlet has going through a quasi-picky stage, where somedays he'll eat everything and some days he'll eat nothing, and every day it's something different, so I didn't want to risk him being scared off by the bite of a chili pepper.

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