Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Thighs Have It

I've mentioned before (I think it was in this post) that I'm always interested in learning about inspiration. My own, other people's, and most importantly, culinary inspiration. Where do people get their ideas? A cookbook, a family recipe, a photo, a memory--even if it's off the top of your head, every recipe has some sort of catalyst to fuel it's fire (so to speak). I'm inspired by all sorts of strange things, from fun color combinations in fashion magazines (more on that later in the week) to what I smell walking through the city (some scents less appetizing than others) and more often than not, childhood memories.

A few weekends ago I trekked down to another of my favorite food shopping destinations, Asia Market Corporation, in hopes of recreating some of my own childhood memories from a (slightly) more adult perspective. This is a great shop with almost ludicrously cheap and hard to find ingredients. They recently expanded, but that doesn't make it any easier to find them at 71 and 1/2 Mulberry Street (that's right, it's a fractional address, aren't you just dying to see it now?) in Chinatown.

While perusing the aisles I came across a section for marinades and spices, and was suddenly thrust into my childhood. It was the late eighties, and I was standing in the only ridiculously long line in the food court at Columbia Mall. This was (at the time) one of the smaller malls in my area, and was one of the furthest from us. But, it had one thing the other malls didn't: a teeny tiny Asian fusion place in the food court that served killer chicken wings. They weren't teriyaki wings, or buffalo wings, but something altogether new. They were smoky and spicy without being hot,and we could eat them by the bagful. And evidently, so could the rest of the D.C. metropolitan area, because like clockwork, by 2 pm on Sunday, they were all gone. Why they even bothered to stay open after that was a mystery, since I never once saw anyone order the noodles or vegetables that sat untouched in a melancholy steam cloud.

After years of driving all that way in our pajamas on lazy Sunday mornings, the shop mysteriously closed. Children and their parents everywhere were devastated, and for months some of us couldn't find any reason to frequent that particular mall. But for my family, the tiny shop's closing inspired us to recreate those memories at home (minus the 45 minute wait). My mother and I scoured the aisles of our local grocery stores in search of the marinade or spice mixture that might give us that indescribable feeling once again. We eventually struck pay dirt and bought so many of the seasoning packets at once that we had one in our pantry at all times (for years). But, as food trends came and went, the supermarket eventually stopped carrying the seasonings and after some griping, we forgot all about how much we loved the wings, and how at one time, even the snowiest of winter storms couldn't have kept us from them.

So it is that almost twenty years later I find myself inhaling deeply, eyes closed tight, in the middle of the shop (creeping the hell out of the staff) and coming out of my reverie vowing to recreate my fond wing memories. Surely, I decide, one of these 52 seasoning packets before me will hold the key. Although they are cheep, I don't really have the time, money or gross amounts of chicken meat to test them all. So, I buy the best looking four (a.k.a. the cheapest four) and set off to make my mother proud.

Four packets later, I am inspired. Was I successful? Absolutely not! Apparently, I chose the wrong four packets. But I did learn a new trick from the back of packet #4: After spicing your chicken, steam it for 30 minutes. Steam it? Wait, really? I've never thought of steaming chicken, but since the other option was wrapping it in a layer of plastic and a layer of foil (both included in the packet) and baking for 2 hours, I gave the steaming a try--and it won't be for the last time. It was juicy and fast, and created an unexpected spicy crust over the skin (I used chicken thighs instead of wings this time).

So although there is no recipe in today's blog, I do encourage everyone to try steaming their chicken. You don't even need to use any fat (oil or butter), just coat your chicken in the spices of your liking, let it sit for 20 minutes to absorb, and then steam for about 25-30 minutes (that's for thighs, other cuts will be less). I used a metal steamer in a wok, but a bamboo steamer or heat safe plate in a large pan will do just fine. As for me, it's back to the drawing board. After all, I've got 48 seasoning packets to go :)



Jonah said...

Your story reminded me of a restaurant in Chinatown I used to go to with my family when I was a kid. I remember the place had the best scallion pancakes and cold noodles with sesame sauce. Two standards for any Chinese place, but they seemed to do it better than anywhere else. We went there a lot, that is until we moved to Long Island and became suburban and boring. About two years ago I was walking around the city with my dad and we decided to try and find the place for old times sake. We managed to find it eventually, it looked EXACTLY the same. The menu however had changed completely, it was now food from a totally different region of the country. I am still on the search for that perfect scallion pancake.

Laura said...

You should try New Green Bo. It has the best scallion pancakes and by far the best pork fried rice in chinatown.