My sous chef came up to me this afternoon with instructions: "There are a couple of heads of Napa cabbage in the walk-in. Make family meal. You know, something Asian-y." He cracked a smile, and I smiled back and started thinking.
Family meal, for the uninitiated, is a communal meal that's shared with the entire restaurant staff. We don't do it as often as some places, but every now and then it's nice to make a big batch of one-pot-something that satisfies a home-cooking craving and can feed a bunch of super-hungry troublemakers.
It's kind of running joke-slash-forgone conclusion that when I'm charged with family meal, it's going to involve a lot of ginger, eggplant, my wok and some rice. Y'know, "Asian-y". I think it started when I brought my wok to work since I don't have a gas burner at home, and my chef trusted me with the stir fries since I ate a lot of it as a kid. I find it a nice way to get in touch with my Taiwanese roots, or attempt to, at least. Who knows; my grandmother would probably spit out what I churn out for my coworkers.
Taiwanese food is incredibly simple, which I think can make it harder to get right. I crave the meals my mom used to make, and it's a goal of mine to master some of my favorite dishes of hers. Dinner at my house as a kid was 8 or 10 plates of various vegetables, meats and tofu, each dish with only a few ingredients. Everything was sparingly but effectively seasoned with one or two aromatics (usually ginger and/or garlic) and maybe some white pepper. Simplicity was key.
My immediate thought for the Napa cabbage was a cabbage soup, because a) I love soup and can eat it anytime, b) soup is a good family meal and c) I wracked my brain for Taiwanese cabbage usage and a lot of soup was coming up. I consulted my coworkers for further ideas, which turned into discussion about kimchee, borscht, cabbage rolls and coleslaw (chicken salad sandwiches in particular). I've had one too many sandwiches recently, however. I was also starting to feel a cough coming on, and my mom used to make me a chicken ginger soup whenever I got sick. A version of that soup was sounding really awesome to me.
One of my coworkers asked what I was putting in my soup, and after listing the very short list of ingredients, he sounded incredibly skeptical. He asked, "What are you using for your base?" I replied, "What do you mean? There is no base. It's Chinese peasant food. It's really simple." I could feel the skepticism swelling, and he said, "Okay, well, just win me over and I'll believe you."
The pressure was on. I gathered my ingredients--a couple of lunch portions of chicken thighs, some scallion ends, a few good bulbs of ginger. As I started to put together the soup, my coworkers randomly came over and warily observed the contents of the pot. I think I was more skeptical of their approval than they were actually skeptical of my soup creation, but I'm convinced there was some eyebrow-raising involved. I imagine my coworkers thought of it like a perfectly-planned heist: It's so simple... it has to be too simple.
(Yes, I have an overactive imagination.)
In the end, it all came together beautifully, and though a couple of my coworkers indulged with Sriracha bottle at the ready, it was exactly what I wanted it to be: Subtle, clean, aromatic and so, so wonderful for a chilly night. I made a pot of rice to go with it. We were all sweating soup as we finished our bowls, and it gave me a boost to get back to work and close up for the night.
Tonight's family meal, demolished by hungry restaurant staff
Of all the family meals I've made, this one reminded me the most of real home cooking. Might be the closest to Taiwanese I've done yet.
Chicken, Ginger and Napa Cabbage Soup
- 1 whole chicken, broken down (breasts, thighs, wings, back). For a quicker version, use deboned chicken parts
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 2 big bulbs of ginger, julienned (can't have enough ginger, in my opinion)
- 1 bunch of scallions, chopped
- water to cover
- 1 large head Napa cabbage, chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves, chopped
- salt to taste
In a large pot, heat the oil until nearly smoking. Season chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper and add to the pot skin-side down. Cook the chicken until nicely browned on all sides, and add the ginger and scallions and briefly saute. Add enough water to cover the chicken, and simmer on low heat for an hour or so, less for deboned chicken.
Turn off the heat. Remove the chicken pieces onto a plate and let them cool for a few minutes. Remove the meat from the bones, take the skin off the meat, and shred or chop the meat. Return the meat to the soup. Add the cabbage to the pot and simmer for a few minutes until the cabbage is soft and wilted. Add the cilantro just before serving.
It plates nicely in a bowl over some white rice. A whole chicken recipe will make about 8-10 servings, depending on your appetite.
For a food blog, I realize I don't do a lot of recipes and such, with step-by-step instructions and porno-rific photos that seem to come out of some country kitchen in Tuscany. I tried it a couple of times when I first started this blog, but my thought is most people aren't coming here for recipes. It seems to be all about the process these days, which is accurately reflective of my current interaction with food. Just an observation.