Awhile back, I made an excellent platter of mac and cheese, using the methods that Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot outline in their book Ideas in Food. Basically, the “methods” boil down to two very simple things: using evaporated milk instead of a roux for the base of the cheese sauce, and soaking the dried elbows for an hour before cooking them. Variations abound (you could incorporate mushrooms—or, better, lardons or bacon—into the sauce or bread crumb crust), but the base is simple enough that you can pull it off in half an hour, if you have presoaked the pasta. So. There is no excuse for not fattening up for winter.
The can of milk imparts a carmelized richness to the dish with no added effort, and soaking the macaroni for an hour does something to the pasta that makes it that much more toothsome: al dente, sure, but also pleasantly pliant under teeth. And both are extremely easy to incorporate into mac-and-cheese recipes.
But swapping out the milk for the roux makes me wonder what else can be put together in this fashion. I used to make a lot of creamed tuna by combining a roux with garlic, onion, and the contents of a Chicken of the Sea can; maybe a smaller can of condensed milk would work there too. Or, maybe potato gratin could be that much easier.
Seeking to refine his palate for numbing spice, Jake is reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir about eating in China and writing cookbooks of Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisine. Dunlop’s prose is taut and her enthusiasm for Chinese cookery is matched with an infectiously peppy desire to explain its curiosities, so the book’s both enjoyable and illuminating. Really. There are aspects of Chinese eating culture that you might not have know existed.
Like, for instance, the Chinese connoisseurship of food texture: things that we Westerners might think of as disgusting—like pig’s brain, duck intestine, and reconstituted dried sea cucumber—are celebrated by Chinese gourmands in a vocabulary that is striking for its richness. Dunlop presents some of it by way of her own grappling with coming to savor things that, as she relates in an anecdote, horrified her parents.
One of these terms that stuck out to us is the Taiwanese use of the letter “Q” to describe the “bouncy aspect of that sea cucumber texture.” And especially bouncy-rubbery things? You might describe them as “QQ.” Dunlop doesn’t know the etymology of this, as she says, “unusual and inexplicable borrowing from the roman alphabet,” so Jake dug around on the internet. Unsurprisingly Language Log has said something about it. And then there’s this, in Gastronomica.
Appreciating texture in food. The next time we order beef tripe skewers from a food cart in Flushing (which can prove decidedly chewy), we’ll keep it in mind.