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Chinese outtake

(article, Carrie Floyd)


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Recently I decided to bring dinner to a new friend who was in the middle of moving her family of five across town. Colleen had started the moving process with the best of intentions: Not only was she going to pack, but she was actually going to sift through her family's belongings and get rid of things (an endeavor I always find easier to start than to finish).

A couple of weeks later, however, when I saw Colleen at our sons' baseball game, she was looking less serene. The moving date was fast approaching, her husband was traveling a lot for his job, and things were starting to get thrown into boxes. 

That woman needs a break, I thought.

I resolved to surprise her by dropping off dinner. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a home-cooked meal when grappling with moments of upheaval? But I didn't know her well enough to know what her family liked to eat, so I enlisted my son's help in discovering his teammate's favorite foods. 

I don't know why I was surprised by the answer: "Cookies and mac-and-cheese." For a brief moment I considered indulging, then decided to get a second opinion. (After all, my own kids don't especially like homemade mac-and-cheese, and showing up with a box of Annie's seemed a bit too familiar.) 

[%image "promo-image" width=400 float=left caption="Better than takeout."]

At the next practice, I told the cookie-eater's father that I'd like to bring dinner over next week. 

"Anything in particular you like to eat?" I asked.

He thought for a moment, then said, "We all like Chinese." 

I blanched, then smiled, trying to cover up my dismay. He might as well have said "Mauritanian food." 

I feel pretty skilled at cooking a whole host of foods, but Chinese is not one of them. Any Chinese food I cook is wet and sloppy, as far from authentic as you can get; it's worthy of my table, but not anything I'm inclined to share. Chinese food is something I most often order in, or out, at a Chinese restaurant. The thought of cooking it — a variety of dishes, food the whole family would like — was daunting.

I considered going back to the original menu of cookies and mac-and-cheese, but then the challenge of cooking Chinese food began to fester. 

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Strange-Flavored Eggplant, an easy recipe from Barbara Tropp and Sandra Bruce's [%bookLink code=0894807544 "China Moon Cookbook"], had always met with success. So I decided to start with that. A recipe for Chinese ribs, mentioned in one of Megan Holden's book reviews, was one I had filed away to try later. What better time than now? Broccoli, rice — I’m on a roll now — and for dessert, oranges and almond cookies. 
 
As I cooked, wonderful smells filled the house: ginger, almonds, peanut oil. After braising the ribs for almost four hours, I pulled a bit of meat from the bone. I was not disappointed. But the cookies I made with my daughter presented a new problem: How to keep everyone from eating them?

I called Colleen and told her I’d be dropping off dinner. She, in turn, invited us to stay — for dinner. Two thoughts crossed my mind. The first: “OK!” The second? “That could be humiliating.” I imagined sitting at their table, watching them push food around their plates, faking “yum.”

In the end, it wasn’t humiliating. It was fun. And we all laughed about the request for Chinese food, which turned out to have been a bit of miscommunication. I had said I’d “bring dinner.” Our host, chagrined, had envisioned takeout: “I would never have said Chinese food if I thought you were cooking!” 

p(bio). Carrie Floyd is Culinate's food editor.


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