Post by Matt, Information Services staff
Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Matt and I work in Information Services at KPL. Like many people in 2020, I found myself at home looking for distractions from the outside world. Food (as it always seems to be) was the answer. Through cooking and meal planning, I was able to learn new skills, try different things and save some money. This wasn’t always a smooth process. There were plenty of mistakes, failures and surprises, but the routine of preparing and enjoying home-cooked meals on a regular basis was a new and challenging experience for me, a long-time student and take-out enthusiast.
Through the 12 Cookbooks series, I am carrying that experience into 2021 with more structure and some necessary deadlines. Every month I’ll choose a book, pick 2 or 3 recipes to make at home and share my experiences here on the blog. However, I only select books and recipes that meet these requirements:
- They contain foods I enjoy. So no cream of mushroom soup, for example — sorry shroom lovers.
- They contain ingredients that are reasonably priced and accessible in Waterloo Region. If I can’t find it or can’t afford it, I can’t really cook with it. Besides, I’m doing all of this in my spare time so let’s avoid too much work.
- They are vegetarian or vegetarian friendly. My partner is a vegetarian and regularly likes to eat food. If I’m going to spend time cooking a meal, it’s going to be meatless or have an easy substitute. I wholly recommend cooking this way; it’s healthy and often cheaper!
- They scale well for two people. I won’t be making anything huge unless it keeps well for multiple meals. It’s just the two of us after all.
With these needs covered, we’re ready to start talking about Cookbook #1.
Double Awesome Chinese Food: Irresistible and Totally Achievable Recipes from Our Chinese-American Kitchen by Margaret, Irene & Andrew Li (Roost Books, 240 pages, 2019)
I grew up in a small town where the closest thing to international cuisine was pizza. As a result, my chances to try Chinese food were rare and exciting. Since then I’ve had plenty of take-out, but I’ve never had the opportunity to cook something myself. Now that I’m embarking on this cooking journey, I wanted to begin by challenging myself with something a little unfamiliar, with new ingredients, flavours and kitchen skills to play with. It’s also Chinese New Year on February 12!
I chose Double Awesome Chinese Food because it had simple recipes, lots of pictures, and easy to find ingredients. It’s also accurately described as Chinese-American cooking, a fusion I hoped would help me ease into this challenge.
The first recipe I tried was a breakfast sandwich appropriately called “The Double Awesome.” Made out of a fried egg, cheddar cheese and pesto, all wrapped up in a scallion pancake – what’s not to love? I also already had most of the ingredients on hand. Obviously, this isn’t the most traditional Chinese dish, but it’s perhaps the most representative of the authors’ Boston restaurant and food truck menu style.
By making this recipe I did get to try my hand at making homemade scallion pancakes, a more traditional staple. I made dough, chopped the scallions (aka green onions), folded the ingredients together, and rolled them out with a rolling pin. My biggest error was not chopping the scallions finely enough, as the larger pieces kept bursting out of the dough. This made the whole process a lot messier. As you can see below, they turned out just fine and tasted delicious:
The next challenge was creating a full meal. I settled on “Sweet Potato, Feta, and Brown Butter Dumplings” with a side of “Summer Noodle Salad with Ginger Garlic Dressing.” This was a multi-day undertaking. I made a simple dough ahead of time and shopped for unfamiliar ingredients like black vinegar and soba noodles. Finally the weekend arrived and I was ready to start cooking! I began by roasting the sweet potato for the dumplings, which the book claimed to take 45 minutes but was closer to 90 minutes thanks to my feeble oven. While the potatoes were doing their stuff, I prepped the other vegetables, made the dressing for the salad and used an immersion blender to whip together a “Soy Aioli” to complement the dumplings.
Fun fact: an aioli is a type of sauce that undergoes a process called emulsification. To emulsify something, you slowly mix oil with other water-based liquids until they mix and create a smooth sauce. If you’ve ever eaten mayonnaise, then you’ve had an emulsified product.
Once the potatoes were softened, I moved on to boiling the noodles, roasting tomatoes and corn, and sauteing butter, garlic, onions and sage together until they smelled incredible. This fragrant, buttery mixture was thrown in a bowl with the sweet potato and feta to make my dumpling filling. Then it was finally time to make some dumplings.
I won’t say I dreaded this step, but I was certainly nervous. I’d never made dumplings before. Thankfully, Double Awesome had a whole section on dumplings with step-by-step instructions and photos. The recipe I chose made 24 dumplings, so I had plenty of chances to practice my technique. By the end I was making attractive, functional dumplings! A few minutes later, they were fried on the bottom, steamed on the top and ready to eat along with the completed noodle salad.
The meal was delicious. The dumplings were crisp, chewy, full of flavour and absolutely incredible with the soy aioli. The salad was light and overflowing with textured vegetables and a sharp, tangy dressing. My partner and I savoured every bite.
This moment was absolutely worth the seven hours I spent prepping, washing dishes and cooking each element of this meal. While seven hours is a long time, the food lasted my partner and I for three more meals. I also had Netflix on in the background while cooking, so it still felt like a lazy, lounge-in weekend. If you have other members of your household who are willing to be vegetable-choppers or dumpling-makers, you could easily cut this time in half.
Overall, I recommend Double Awesome Chinese Food. It has easy-to-follow recipes that taste delicious and it introduced me to simple elements and techniques of Chinese cooking that I had never tried before. And I didn’t stop there! I also made “Dan Dan Noodles with Crispy Pork Belly and Brussels Sprouts” and “Roasted Miso Maple Potatoes” before I returned the book to KPL. They were also amazing.
If you’re looking for more cookbooks focused on making Chinese food while you wait for me to begrudgingly put this back on the shelf, start with these recommendations, also available from the library:
- The Chinese Takeout Cookbook by Diana Kuan
- Chinese Heritage Cooking from my American Kitchen by Shirley Chung
- The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook by Helen You with Max Falkowitz
- Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop
- Chinese Soul Food by Hsiao-Ching Chou
Or, if you have children in Grades 4 to 8, sign up for our Tween Books & Bites series of virtual programming – where we feature a book and a recipe with a video on how to make it! Follow the links below to register: