Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Scar Lover

We were in the weeds, a kitchen term meaning we'd fallen woefully behind.  All the Common Threads kids had. Their bus was leaving in 10 minutes, they hadn't finished making the spring roll filling and were closing in on panic.  It was then we sustained our first injury.  Rudy II in my group (there are two Rudys, Rudy I and Rudy II -- what are the odds?) had a grating incident. There was blood.

A bandaid on his finger and he was fine.  I mean, look at him.  Me?  I couldn't sleep that night, thinking we'd hurried the kids too much, I should have been watching Rudy II when I was helping Rudy I, we'd broken our no-injury pact, Rudy II would never come back and why should he, I was a rotten instructor and all good had gone from the world.  

There's a little neuroscience behind this.  Three a.m., when I tend to be awake and fretful, is when one of your really good neurotransmitters, the one that helps you cope -- serotonin? tryptophan? -- is down to the dregs.  If you can tough it out until daylight, your brain starts up production again and things tend to look a little better.

And so, come morning, they did.  The truth is, cuts and burns are badges of honor in the kitchen.  You know a real chef by his hands.  They don't feel human.  They're scarred over, petrified.  And injury can extend well beyond hands.  Gordon Ramsay has flambeed his testicles.  Semipros and home cooks get battle scars, too, though perhaps less spectacular ones.  I've got a burn on my left hand from a pan of sage-roasted squash with walnuts.  My wonderful friend Tony was so taken by Jamie Oliver's easy, chatty manner on the telly, he, too, began talking and chopping away and oops, had dinner preempted by a trip to the emergency room.  My Greek friend Dimitra shows off her injuries like they're jewelry. "This is from spanokopita," she says, pointing to a crescent-shaped burn on her wrist.  "Loukemades," she says, pointing to a constellation of tiny burns from spattered oil.  

Tony healed long ago, Dimitra, Rudy II and I are well on our way.  But there'll be more injuries as long as we want to cook, which I hope we always will.  We will not be defeated by dinner.  By our injuries so shall we be known, so shall we be forged. And our scars, as Harry Crews reminds us in his 1992 novel Scar Lover, make us beloved and beautiful.  

Just the same, keep a first aid kit handy and use a food processor rather than a box grater for the cabbage and carrots when you make:

 Thai Confetti with Basil and Mint

For the wok sauce:

4 tablespoons toasted sesame oil 
4 tablespoons light soy sauce
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice 
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon chopped fresh chili or 1 tablespoon Asian chili-garlic sauce

For the vegetable-tofu confetti:

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced thin
2 scallions, sliced thin
2 carrots, shredded
2 red peppers, julienned
1/2 cabbage, shredded (about 3 cups)
8 ounces firm tofu (1/2 package), drained well and diced
1/2 cup chopped or torn mint leaves, plus additional for garnish
1/2 cup chopped or torn basil leaves, plus additional for garnish
handful of chopped peanuts for garnish

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.  Stir to dissolve sugar.  Set aside.

In a wok or large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat.  Add garlic, mushrooms, scallions, carrots, peppers and cabbage.  Stir well to coat.  Add sauce and tofu.  Reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables are crisp-tender and sauce is absorbed, about 3 minutes.  Fold in chopped mint and basil.  

Serve topped with chopped peanuts and additional fresh herbs.

Serves 4.

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