99 Ranch Market, Adelaide Winery, Asia, Beef rendang, Claiborne & Churchill Winery, Elliott Carter, Heidi Lesemann, Joan Huang, Los Angeles International New Music Festival, Malaysia, Rohana Turner, Tropical Spice Garden in Penang, William Kraft
You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough. Mae West
If I had to define patriotism, it would be the tastes of your childhood. If I sample a mixture of brown sugar and butter, I can go all Proust on myself and remember my mother’s cookies. And if I had to define maturity, it would be the evolution of taste acquired over time and exposure to many different cuisines.
Which is another way to say that I didn’t grow up on the Malay specialty of beef rendang!
Fortunately Jan and I can share our love of food with friends William Kraft and Joan Huang on a regular basis. Joan is from Shanghai, which is intimidating to me as a California born home cook. Her Chinese meals in particular are off the charts, but she masters everything she cooks, usually from her own garden. Her husband Bill is literally a musical legend, pure and simple, and makes the best martini possible so I’m always cocktail aware when we get together. And our friend Heidi Lesemann goes all the way back to organizing my wife’s bachelorette party, even further if truth be known. My mom and dad made her dinner once, which is now quite a long time ago! Casting your parties is always something to consider, and for Malaysian tastes you need to be assured you’re working with open minds and open palates.
All my posts on everything Malaysian are quite popular and I’m grateful for your readership. Once home in Pasadena, I’d been patiently planning a Malaysian party to put to good use some of the ideas Jan and I had experienced by touring and attending a cooking class at the extraordinary Tropical Spice Garden in Batu Ferringhi on Penang Island. Their garden features 500 species of flaura spread out over 8 acres. If you’re thirsty or need a nibble, there’s a cafe that overlooks the Straits of Malacca. My visit reminded me of my high school Jesuit history class that taught me the Old World prediction “Whoever controls the Straits of Malacca puts his hands on the throat of Venice!”
Pepper and spice and everything nice won’t ever be the same again after you visit the Tropical Spice Garden. Before your cooking class begins you’ll receive a tremendous tour of the gardens that will help you understand the British East India Company and the extractive colonial era in compelling ways.
If you’re looking for the history of cuisine, your search is over.
I highly recommend cooking classes when you have the opportunity to travel. We’ve taken them in Thailand, Laos, here at the Tropical Spice Garden in Malaysia and in Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, Colombia and Austria we’ve been inside homes learning from friends and family. Because their patriotism – the tastes of another’s childhood – is best experienced by the outsider with an open heart and an eager palate.
So last week, when we were making beef rendang inspired by our Tropical Spice Garden cooking class for friends William Kraft, Joan Huang and Heidi Lesemann, I dreamt that I was making, pure and simple, a Malaysian version of my mother’s pot roast. Same idea. However very different ingredients!
Cooking classes also allow you to meet people who have self identified shared similar interests. We’ve always enjoyed the groups we’ve met and the era of social media makes future contact all that more straightforward.
Our yummy cooking class lunch included chicken rendang (cooks more quickly than beef), rice, greens and a coconut pandanus green dessert.
The Tropical Spice Garden facilities are fantastic, the AC is on (as it is a bit steamy in the tropics) and Malaysians will help you experience smiling and open minded Muslims. The food in Georgetown reflects the cultures contained on Penang Island. India, Nonya Straits Chinese, Muslim, all with a British accent to their spoken English to this day. There’s always a political element to food, truth be known, and eating is one thing that can bring us all together.
And let’s now fast forward to Pasadena, California and last week!
As some of my readers might already know, my friends Bill Kraft and Joan Huang have experienced a rough couple of months. At 92 Bill fell, broke his neck, was in and out of rehab, fell a few more times but now, knock on wood, has recovered to a truly remarkable degree. As far as I’m concerned all that credit goes to the Angel he’s married to, Joan Huang. It’s always a thrill to share time with Bill, and going on 93 come September 6, he still remembers all the greats he’s known, Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Lou Harrison, Alberto Ginastera being some notables on a very long list, as well as a life filled with making music in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And, as always, our most recent lunch contained another first time story for Jan and me. This one was about rehearsals and performances at the Metropolitan Opera with Fritz Reiner for Salome and Elektra by Richard Strauss.
The famous chef Eric Ripert, of Le Bernadin in New York and of the legendary Tour d’Argent in Paris, inspired me when he said that the most ridiculous question you can ask of a chef is what would you like to eat for your last meal on earth. Ripert’s response is a definition of applying wisdom to reality.
According to Ripert, never ever think that way! His answer is to be always considering the next meal, that the experience of food, of sharing time together, demands an approach that always, always, always looks forward to new experience, new tastes, new conversations.
Jan and I had an ulterior motive in inviting Bill and Joan to our house for lunch. Yes he had fallen earlier in the year, but he fell the night before they were to come to our house for dinner to celebrate the marriage of our harpist Alison Bjorkedal and her new husband, Phil Yao. Bill had introduced Alison to Jan and me, and the rest as they say is history. Alison’s contribution to our projects and recordings have played a role in multiple Grammy nominations, concerti on tour to Vietnam, commissions and brilliant concerts all marked by reliably superb performances. She is the textbook definition of excellence (and she makes an extraordinary chili for a post concert party). One of those Grammy nominations was for Bill’s Encounters XI with Ricardo Gallardo of the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble in Mexico City (and Bill introduced us to Ricardo).
So call it fate, but Jan and I wanted to see Bill walk up to our house through our garden to celebrate his recovery! Which he did vigorously, I might add.
We hadn’t made a rendang since returning from a lot of travels, including Malaysia, and wanted to also catch up with our mutual friend Heidi Lesemann as well. In talking about what to prepare, it solved itself that Bill, Joan and Heidi would all enjoy the spice world of Malaysia. New music people aren’t by nature skittish about extending their palate!
But to make an authentic Malaysian beef rendang, you need a lot of special ingredients. What to do?
Fortunately we live in the San Gabriel Valley, which has markets galore stocked with East and Southeast Asian ingredients, and we had bought one key ingredient of toasted coconut paste in Penang (though we can find that as well here) based on the urging of our cooking teacher Rohana Turner at the Tropical Spice Garden. A trip to the 99 Ranch Market in San Gabriel was all we needed for one stop shopping to return our taste memories all the way back to Penang Island and our Tropical Spice Garden experience.
I’ve many friends asking me to write a cookbook about entertaining, and gear the book and my thoughts towards how to entertain in the non-profit arts world. Nice idea, maybe it will happen, but for now I’ll limit myself to these blog posts!
My Golden Rule: cook everything in advance! You have to recognize the difference between home cooking and restaurant cooking. Both have strengths and weaknesses.
I grew up in a professional kitchen and this first Golden Rule is to either have a room temp or cold meal for summer, or gravitate towards entrees that only need you to turn on the stove to reheat in cooler weather. What you don’t want to do is take on complicated kitchen tasks, let’s say an involved egg white based Salzburger Nockerl (which I can do for Jan, but won’t do for company as there is some kitchen risk involved). Most fish, at least for me, is not good for company unless a simple baking time is involved or fast fast fast pan sear.
My Golden Rule allows you time to be with your friends. What you don’t want to do is disappear into the kitchen, never to seen from again by your guests!
So here you go for my rendang recipe: I used both a Thai mortar and pestle and a French Cuisinart to make the paste. 2 inches of ginger, galangal and turmeric, 6 to 8 Japanese dried bird chiles (removing seeds up to your heat level), yes smash an entire nutmeg in your mortar and pestle along with 5-6 candlenuts (substitute macadamia) and 6 cloves and 4 garlic cloves, and an Anaheim type chili. I couldn’t find fresh turmeric so I used about 1.5 teaspoon of yellow curry powder (or you can use ground turmeric). Pound what you want in a mortar and pestle. After I smashed things I let Cuisinart, our nouveau French guillotine, blend the paste for about 3 minutes. We have a kaffir lime tree and lemongrass growing in our garden and my cinnamon sticks are from Mexico. Use the amounts you see here, that’s how my mom taught me to cook. Rub into your beef straight in the pan with your hands.
Make a tamarind juice for about a cup of liquid, which will join the coconut milk. Pour boiling water over the wet tamarind pulp to taste, push through a strainer to get the luscious pulp (you’ll be amazed how big the yield of pulp is). Now add 1 cup of the tamarind juice and a can of thick coconut milk (you will get better results with the thick Sri Lankan import from Trader Joe’s, less fat is less tasty) to the skillet. The Thai Arroy brand of thick coconut milk is also superb (“Arroy” means delicious in Thai). Don’t use coconut cream, the thick milk will get you the result you’re after (the creams are for desserts primarily).
OK, home chefs – we did this the day before the party and then just heated and served. With the exception of a dried coconut paste we brought back from Malaysia at Rohana’s urging, which we added right before our guests arrived for a final touch (you can see the bag of of this paste in the center of my ingredient photo, between the wet tamarind and candlenut packages). If you don’t have this it’s OK – try using extra coconut sugar from Trader Joe’s.
For a side dish I sautéed split cherry tomatoes in a little olive oil, shallot and ginger, salt and pepper. Yummy at room temperature, so also this can be made ahead, and an hour before friends arrive is plenty of time. Same thing with making rice.
Keeping to the Golden Rule of what to make for a party, our soup was a cold spicy carrot soup with coconut milk, chicken stock and golden curry. Sauté an onion, a few celery stalks, a pound of carrots, garlic to taste, 3 tablespoons of ginger, 5 cups of chicken stock. Scant amounts of Thai dried chilies, ground coriander and turmeric (or use golden curry) to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon to be safe). I added kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, a dash of fish sauce, juice of one lime, a little rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons of almond butter and a can of coconut milk. Whirr in a blender until thick and creamy. Made weeks ahead of time and store it in the freezer.
Cocktails are always a good idea to begin a party. If you search my blogs from August 2015 you’ll enjoy a gin party celebration post we had with the singers for an all Elliott Carter concert, and you might want to check that post out. I love a good gin and tonic and am sad when I have a bad one (which for me is made by anybody who just pours away into a tumbler a large amount of gin and tonic hoping for a good result. That suggests alcoholism, or at least bad bar technique).
But people need to nibble something with a cocktail!
We had cashews, walnuts and hazelnuts in the back of our refrigerator and didn’t quite know what to do to them. Try pounding spices in your mortar and pestle (cumin and coriander seeds, maybe some fennel seeds, some dried chilies for kick), we added some kaffir lime leaves as well, then mix your spiced nuts with egg whites to toss. If you need a suggested amount of spices use a teaspoon of each. Spread out on a baking sheet and bake around 350 checking every 5 minutes. They will harden after coming out of the oven and so be vigilant – they will burn quickly so be a little cautious until you are confident (and remember, they will harden up after coming out of the oven). Another task done a few days ahead with no pressure around the baking.
And now to our cocktail, the Beethoven 5th Symphony of mixed drinks, the gin and tonic. I reference Beethoven’s iconic opening because, like the gin and tonic, it’s played to death. If done well, it is still overexposed. So I use caution, I personally have only a couple a year so that the gin and tonic for me is an event and not a commonplace drink.
This works for me: get your biggest wine glass and stuff it with 6 to 9 ice cubes. The ice helps the tonic keep bubbling. Measure one part gin to two parts tonic. Feel free to be creative with garnish, but do use a huge lemon peel (no lime, as gin has lemon in it but never lime). For this party I used crushed kaffir lime leaves and a galangal wedge (you’ll have plenty left over from the rendang paste) along with the lemon wedge. You can truly experiment with garnish but I’d never use more than three. Study your gin (for example, if you’re using Hendricks, which has rose and cucumber in the mix, there’s a good suggestion for garnish right there, maybe an eye drop amount of rose water and a long strip of cucumber and lemon wedge). Peppercorns in a gin and tonic are mind altering, as are fresh juniper berries, of course. Kumquat anyone? You get the picture I’m sure.
And now let me go where no celebrity chef or food TV personality, who receive what I call chronic puppy love in this era, will ever fear to tread.
Weight gain is a serious issue. As I watch the celebrity food world overtake arts coverage (it’s true, stop rubbing your eyes) I have extreme curiosity as to the mountain of cholesterol building up in the bacon and sausage obsessed foodies enjoying their heyday.
My rendang meal is in fact caloric. So how to reconcile great taste with smart eating and drinking habits? After all, a career in the performing arts demands a physical discipline that is absolutely athletic. Not to mention the need for maintaining good health!
I enjoy a rich meal like this rendang party, but I urge you to have it for a very long, lazy, luscious lunch! Start at noon. On a Saturday or Sunday. Spread out the courses. Begin with a strong cocktail by all means. Don’t skimp on taste, ever. But have a reasonable portion (and if the food is as rich as this beef rendang, less is more). Add different wines for each course. We had a Claiborne and Churchill Gewürztraminer for the spicy carrot soup and an Adelaide Zinfandel for the beef rendang. You’ll be amazed at how your guests will bliss out over not hurrying their meal or looking at the clock to get home to start the next work day!
By having this rich rendang meal at noon, rather than after 7 PM, I put on just a half a pound the next day, which came off easily with a three mile walk (another tip – make sure you don’t keep eating full frontal experiences every day).
So I encourage you to think about long lazy lunches for entertaining!
And about dessert, this culinary finish line becomes even more interesting for a long lazy lunch. One of my most popular blogs is about the greatest coffee on earth, from Cong Cà Phê in Hanoi, Vietnam. When sweetened with condensed milk, this rich brew changes your life. It certainly makes jet-lag taste great. However, I’d never serve this for a dinner party, as no one would get to sleep (which does makes it a great idea for New Year’s Eve)!
But for lunch, it’s perfect to go with simple but scrumptious butter cookies!
A shared meal with fellow life travelers should be thought of as a journey distilled to tastes and sensations, smells and aromas, memories of family, friends, and far away distant dreams. When I watch Joan Huang cook something from her Shanghai memory bank, I am utterly amazed at everything going into her wok. When Jan brews coffee from Vietnam, I travel all the way back to Southeast Asia. When I use my parents’ cast iron skillet, I can see my entire life in that pan.
Marathons aren’t only run at the Olympics. We all run one ourselves. It’s called life. And finding time to slow down and share a meal with friends is one of the great rewards of the marathon we live everyday. I’m beginning to realize that living into your 90s is a good thing, as Bill Kraft proves with his recovery from a horrible few months. After all, we’re already planning that next lunch together, that’s for sure.
Heaven on Earth is cooking for friends.
Best, best, best,