I got a nasty scare Friday night.
I called my parents as I do almost every evening, and my dad told me that my mother’s heart was palpitating. My mom has had minor heart palpitations ever since she was 13, but it’s been getting worse since she’s gotten older and hit menopause. The palpitations last for hours, and has been happening more frequently. This one was particularly bad. I could hear the gravity in my dad’s voice.
After I hung up, I felt like I was crippled. I couldn’t do anything but worry about my mother. I tried to pray, but all I could do was plead to God to make my mom feel better.
I walked to the grocery store to pick up some stray items I would be needing for the Foodbuzz 24×24 event the next day. Ironically, on my grocery list were four different kind of booze. Now would be just about the perfect time to drink and chill out. I was tempted to flick open one of the Blue Moon bottles, but I didn’t have a bottle opener. Booze will have to wait.
Four hours later, I called again. Her heart still hadn’t stopped. I fretted some more. I prayed. And prayed.
A total of six hours of heart palpitations and prayers later, my dad called to tell me she was now okay. I slowly released the breath I had been holding. Thank you, Lord. Thank you so much.
I suddenly remembered Roberto, a teenager I interviewed during my summer internship at the L.A. Times. He had to deal with this kind of ordeal daily. His mother has had AIDs for 22 years and travels in and out the hospital, sometimes months at a time.
When I met him, I was impressed by his maturity and intelligence. He was a quiet but intelligent young man, eager to help others and a pillar of support for his mother. However, I could feel a big weight on his shoulders. There was something about the way he carried himself that reveals that this is a person who has had to deal with a lot of worries and thoughts about illness and death.
Roberto has every reason to groan and get bitter at life. His older brother, whom he has never met, died as an infant because of AIDs. His father isn’t much in the picture. His mother is always in pain, either immobilized on the sofa or literally tied to the hospital bed.
Mostly though, we talked about the kids he took care of at summer camp. He loved taking care of these kids. In fact, he plans to return to camp as a counselor. He said he loved helping others, and that he loved little kids.
There was something else he said that stuck with me. He said, “Yes, [my mom’s AIDs] sucks and it worries me. But I can’t live my life constantly thinking about this. I just focus on what is good in my life, and the things I can do to make my life and other people’s lives better.”
The interview impressed upon me the fact that anyone can play a positive, contributive role in society. You don’t have to be a powerful politician or a rich CEO or a buff fireman to make a meaningful life. The world will always have people who need help, and thankfully, it also always have people who can help. And sometimes, that help doesn’t even require too much effort.
The next day on Saturday, the day I was supposed to do the Foodbuzz 24 x 24 event, I was still feeling a bit heavy at heart. Some feelings just aren’t that easy to shake off.
Ordinarily, I would have liked to just spend the day by myself. But because of Foodbuzz, I had a busy day. And because of Foodbuzz and three of my dearest friends, I now type this with a much lightened heart and a genuine smile on my face.
The idea that I proposed to Foodbuzz was an early celebration of Labor Day by combining two popular worker-friendly treats: booze and pocket pies.
As mentioned, I don’t even own a beer bottle opener. I’m clearly not a drinker. But I love to cook and eat, so why not make hand pies with booze in them?
That sounded brilliant, until it came to actual menu and recipe planning. Hm. I have never cooked with booze before. Shaoxing wine doesn’t count. I needed to do some research: Why cook with booze? What booze goes with what food? How to cook with booze?
Unfortunately, I still don’t have Internet service at home. I called my buddy Mimi to do some research for me, and here’s what she sent me:
“Since the dawn of man, booze has been a catalyst for festivity, medical intervention, and religious observance. Man and booze may even go back as far as 12,000 years. But it has also served an important, if less discussed role in culinary pursuits.
A splash of alcohol has long been known to enhance the smell of fruit salad. The use of stout, such as Guinness, adds a malty undertone to beef dishes. Famous sauces like the 19th century Béarnaise sauce would be incomplete without wine. For utilitarian purposes, an alcohol-based sauce could cover the taste of spoiled food.”
Always the history buff, that Mimi. It is interesting stuff, isn’t it? (but of course, I wasn’t going to serve spoiled food)
A bit more last-minute research thrown in during classes, and this is what I found out:
- Cooking with booze isn’t about the booze; it’s about the flavor it imparts to the dish.
- In fact, when you cook with booze, the alcohol evaporates.
- Alcohol boils faster than water at 78 degrees Celsius, as opposed to 100 degrees Celsius.
- Alcohol doesn’t evaporate completely, especially if the dish has a lot of water in it, because the combination of water and alcohol makes it harder for alcohol to escape.
- Many types of booze leaves behind flavor or even create new flavors due to chemical bonds with the food.
- Alcohol has compounds that tenderizes meat—great for marinates!
- Compared to wine, beer has less alcohol and a lighter flavor, but is spicier and more complex.
- A bit of sugar or honey really balances out the flavors of beer.
I came up with five pie ideas:
1) Shrimp Salsa with Vodka
5) Banana Foster with Barcadi Rum
Joining me for this booze and pie extravaganza were my friends Daina, Alexis and Mimi. We all piled into Mimi’s kitchen, and go to work in between sips of beer, Pina Colada and taste-testings.
We started out by making the savory fillings first.
I had braised my napa cabbage and shitake mushrooms the night before, but because I didn’t have a bottle opener, I had to finish cooking them at Mimi’s kitchen:
What they are is a pot of shredded napa cabbage, shitake mushrooms, onions, shaved carrots, brown sugar, onions, garlic and ginger, sautéed in a bit of oil until wilted and soft, then finished off nice and slow with almost a full bottle of Blue Moon ale.
While that dish was braising away, we got to work with the Guinness pie.
Since I was the mastermind of this project, I took on the “boss” role. Translation: I bossed my friends around, and they indulged me. Daina, meanwhile, took on the role of cameraman. In fact, most of the pictures here are taken by her. I think they’re great, especially considering that the lighting of the room was dark and it was her first time ever holding a DSLR! Awesome job, Daina!
The meat/tofu/Guiness filling was complete improvisation. I’m really not a fan of planned cooking, especially with ingredients that are novel to me like Guinness. I took a sip of the dark stout and kind of just had to wing it.
In this skillet is shitake mushrooms, onions and garlic that was first sauteed briefly before adding cubes of extra firm tofu and ground pork.
And then I glugged in some Guinness.
As the liquid simmered away and the flavors concentrated, I still felt like there was something missing, so I called to Alexis to contribute her culinary wisdom.
Alexis is a taste guru. This girl has an acute sense of taste and really knows good (or bad) food when she tastes one.
Alexis took one taste and proclaimed that the dish was lacking salt. A few grinds of salt later, we decided it still lacked something. We added lemon juice. We added soy sauce. We added black pepper. Still lacking…something.
And then, in a flash of brilliance, we pinned the problem down. Butter. It needed butter!
Praise the Lord for Mimi’s fantastic butter pantry. She’s got Kerrygold, one of the best butters ever!
And then, just for the hell of it, I also added chunks of unsweetened chocolate.
Chocolate and butter. How could the dish not be wonderful?
And it was. It was perfect. Absolutely delicious.
After finishing making the savory fillings, we got around to making the dough. The trickiest part of the pie-making process.
We used a combination of lard and butter—lard for flakiness, butter for flavor and fragrance.
Daina and I got down and dirty with our hands, since we didn’t have a pastry cutter. Using our thumbs and fingers, we rubbed the chilled lard and butter into the flour.
Until it turned all crumbly, then we added chilled vodka by tablespoons to form a cohesive dough.
Yes, vodka in pie crust— for tenderness. I learned that from America’s Test Kitchen.
After that we rolled the dough up into a big plump ball and then put it into the fridge to cool for a bit.
Again, no specific recipe; we decided to just kind of taste and test. After all, apple pie filling is pretty damn basic, and we had a kick-ass rosemary liquor to give it that final pow-wow(!).
Start with butter and dark brown sugar:
Once it starts bubbling, I dumped in the apples:
Sprinkled cinnamon, nutmeg, drop of vanilla extract, pinch of salt. And finally, a squeeze of lemon and a handful of dried cranberries.
At the very last, I added the rosemary-lemon liquor. As it boiled and simmered, the fragrance was just intoxicating. And it tasted freaking fantastic.
I called Alexis again for her final judgment on the taste.
“This is soooo good,” she wisely proclaimed.
Of course it was. It had a shitload of high-quality butter and a secret ingredient of rosemary-lemon liquor in it! Mimi even wanted to run down to CVS and get ice cream to go along with this crack apple filling.
We then got to work with the banana foster…
…by cooking bananas in butter, dark brown sugar, vanilla extract and cinnamon.
With a shot of rum.
I wanted to light the thing up with a matchstick, you know, sort of like a flambé, but Mimi basically said, “Hell to the no!” Hmph. So much for listening to the boss.
Then came the hardest part of it all: assembling the hand pies!
It was a first for all of us. I’ve made pies and tarts before, but never mini ones. They were much trickier because you couldn’t just plop it onto a pie pan; you had to make sure the thickness was just right to support itself without overwhelming the filling.
Here’s what I learned:
- Lightly dust both the rolling pin and the dough with flour before rolling.
- Roll out the dough very slightly oval in shape.
- Spoon the filling onto the edges, but leave about half an inch of space between.
- Make sure the filling is cooled before spooning onto the crust.
- Make sure the filling isn’t runny.
- You can crimp with the edges of a fork, but dip the fork in flour first and work fast so that the fork doesn’t tear the dough.
- Don’t be lazy. Use an egg wash, because it is so much prettier.
We made three batches of dough, enough for about 3 hand pies per filling, which makes 15 hand pies. Neither of us were skilled pie-makers so our hand pies weren’t perfect. Some turned out lovely…
…others, not so much.
But hey, at least they tasted super good!
We all dived into them as soon as they finished cooking in the oven. That above is the Ground Meat & Tofu with Guinness & Chocolate hand pie.
Fantasfickinglicious! The crust was slightly thicker than desired, but damn that was some freaking delicious crust.
It was tender, buttery and incredibly light and flaky—not at all heavy or gummy at all.
The outer edges was the best part! The beauty of hand pies is that you can just grab with your fingers and chomp down.
Also, they make convenient goodie bags. Daina had to leave a bit earlier for work, so we packed some for her in a lunch bag.
Mimi’s favorite was the meat pies. I think Daina and Alexis’ favorite was the apple ones:
Mine was the Vodka Shrimp pies:
I took all the leftover filling with me, including three other pies.
It really was a wonderful afternoon, and I want to thank Mimi, Daina and Alexis for brightening up my day. For four glorious hours, we joked, ate, cooked, messed up, and ate the mess-ups.
When I got home, I gave my parents a call, and my mom picked up. She was feeling much better, she said. And then she thanked me for praying for her.
I guess even though I’m all across the country in the west coast, helpless to do anything but worry and pray (beg) to God, that itself was a service to my mother, because 1) prayer works wonders and 2) she knows just how much I love her.
Despite all the crap and the disasters in this world, I think there are opportunities to help and be helped in whatever way, by whoever persons. This awesome Saturday, I was helped by my three lovely friends and tons of booze in yummy hand pies.
PIE Crust with Lard and Vodka: I used almost exactly this recipe; just didn’t really measure and substituted the shortening for more lard.
1) Shrimp Salsa with Vodka: To be posted. It’s so good, it deserves a separate post.
2) Braised Napa Cabbage & Shitake with Ale
- cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 inch knob of fresh ginger, minced
- 1/2 big onion, diced
- 1 cup shitake mushrooms, chopped
- about 1.5 lbs shredded napa cabbage
- 1 large carrot, julienned or shaved thinly
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- about 1 cup mild ale
- black pepper
Sautee garlic, ginger, onion and mushrooms with oil in hot pan. Add cabbage and carrot, cook until the cabbage is wilted. Add sugar, then pour in ale. Simmer until ale is cooked down. Add more as needed. Season with black pepper and salt.
3) Ground Meat & Tofu with Guinness & Chocolate
- olive oil
- cloves of garlic, minced
- 1/2 big onion, diced
- 1 cup shitake mushrooms (or any other kind of mushrooms), chopped
- 1 container extra firm tofu, drained and cubed
- 1 lb ground meat, preferably beef or pork
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 cup Guinness
- splash of soy sauce
- squeeze of lime or lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 slab of unsweetened chocolate
- salt and black pepper
- chili powder (optional)
Sautee garlic, onion and mushrooms in oil in skillet. Add tofu. Meanwhile, brown ground meat in another skillet, then add to the mixture with brown sugar. Deglaze with Guinness.
Taste and test with the remaining ingredients. That’s all I can say. Don’t need measurements!
4) Apple with Homemade Rosemary Liquor: To be posted.
5) Banana Foster with Rum
- 5 bananas, sliced
- chunk of butter, as much as you want!
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- drop of vanilla extract
- sprinkle of cinnamon
- pinch of salt.
- 1/3 cup rum
Bring butter and brown sugar to a slight boil in skillet. Throw in bananas. Add vanilla and cinnamon and a pinch of salt. If you dare, flambe with rum. If not, just glug it in, cook it down until the whole thing caramelizes and smells freaking wonderful.
Final tip: When in doubt, dump in butter.