Never trust a good hair day (featuring Hot and Sour Soup)
“If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
I strolled toward the upper west side luxury building way too cocky- that much I admit. Sure, I was nervous about the interview, but I had convinced myself beyond the shadow of a doubt that I already had the job. Their private assistant had seemed so charmed and delighted with every response I had given her via phone or email, I figured this face to face meeting was just a formality.
The doorman winked and tipped his hat as he opened the door and pointed me to the reception area. I leaned over the marble counter to give my name to the front desk man and he called their apartment to announce that a “beautiful woman” was waiting downstairs. I tossed my hair back and laughed. “Oh, thank you”, I whispered, thinking ‘even the doorman can tell I am having a great day’. My stroll had changed to a swagger as I entered the elevator and smiled at the attendant. “Good day, Madame.” I blushed for no reason and probably batted my eyelashes. The elevator opened to the penthouse of the building. I lifted the heavy brass knocker to their apartment and a few seconds later the large wooden door was opened by a gorgeous young blonde in yoga pants and a sky blue wifebeater t-shirt.
Suddenly off kilter, I neurotically reached for my belt loops to make sure my hips weren’t overpowering my waistband. She turned to lead me down the hall and I yanked my pants up just a bit; this was no time for a muffin top. We walked through the first living room – a large blush-colored area with a floral motif and antique furniture, and sat in the second – a palatial cool grey room with white trim and modern décor. She gestured for me to sit down on a couch so large it would dwarf Shaquille O’Neil. I sunk in to the soft white suede cushions using every bit of strength I had to keep my posture straight and my presence strong.
“So tell me what it is you’re looking for?” I began. I thought I’d take the first step, but she frowned at my aggression.
“Well, what is it you do?”
And this question right here is the problem.
Because I do everything.
From seafood to veggies; from French to Indian; I bake pies and profiteroles; burgers and bourguignon; samosas and spring rolls; enchiladas and gumbo. There are few things I don’t do- and I’m always expanding my repertoire.
And I think that that’s the right answer every time, but it’s not even close.
“Well, I cook everything”, I responded, intent on dazzling.
I tried to back my words up with names of dishes but my sudden panic had dissolved the words from my vocabulary. I had intended on bringing my master menu, which I had sent to their assistant, but somehow my hairbrush was all I could see when I peered into my bag.
“I have worked for over twenty years as a private chef and caterer and know that the most important tool in my kit is flexibility.” This is something I always say because it’s absolutely true. No two clients are the same. They all want different things, whether they be dietary restrictions, food styles, meals cooked and served to them every night, or meals cooked at one sitting for them to reheat later. Deciphering their desire is the key to my ability to please, which takes some investigating but more importantly, intuition and a little E.S.P.
I came home deflated. Shannon could tell I needed some time alone and backed off. I did what I always do when I’m feeling down- I worked it out in the kitchen. I was slicing and measuring and and tasting when I suddenly thought to myself: THIS is what I’m good at. THIS is my specialty. Making food that makes you feel better. Comfort food that is fresh and homemade, often with a little surprising kick. Not comfort food that makes you feel so fat and tired that you’re ashamed of yourself. Food that makes you feel BETTER about everything.
I have a sneaking suspicion that even my more focused pitch wouldn’t have landed me the job. Sometimes there’s just no vibe. It was important for me to experience the wake-up call though. Sometimes your ego needs a little deflation so you can shed that noise and get back to who you really are.
So, today I am a little under the weather. It’s awful snowy/ sleety outside too. I needed something to make myself feel better and I thought I’d share it with you. (It doesn’t contain any turkey leftovers either!) This is the Cook’s Illustrated Hot and Sour Soup with the addition of some baby bok choy. I absolutely love this soup because it is easy, cheap, and really hits the spot on a cold night after a hard day.
Hot and Sour Soup
SERVES 6 TO 8 AS AN APPETIZER
- 7 ounces extra-firm tofu, drained
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch, plus an additional 1 1/2 teaspoons
- 1 boneless, center-cut, pork loin chop (1/2 inch thick, about 6 ounces), trimmed of fat and cut into 1 inch by 1/8-inch matchsticks
- 3 tablespoons cold water, plus 1 additional teaspoon
- 1 large egg
- 6 cups low sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup bamboo shoots (from one 5-ounce can), sliced lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick strips
- 4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced 1/4 inch thick (about 1 cup)
- 5 tablespoons black Chinese vinegar or 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar plus 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon chili oil (or more if you’d like it hotter)
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 3 medium scallions, sliced thin
- 2 baby bok choy, sliced thin
1. Place tofu in pie plate and set heavy plate on top. Weight with 2 heavy cans; let stand at least 15 minutes (tofu should release about 1/2 cup liquid). Whisk 1 tablespoon soy sauce, sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon cornstarch in medium bowl; toss pork with marinade and set aside for at least 10 minutes (but no more than 30 minutes).
2. Combine 3 tablespoons cornstarch with 3 tablespoons water in small bowl and mix thoroughly; set aside, leaving spoon in bowl. Mix remaining 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with remaining 1 teaspoon water in small bowl; add egg and beat with fork until combined. Set aside.
3. Bring broth to boil in large saucepan set over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; add bamboo shoots and mushrooms and simmer until mushrooms are just tender, about 5 minutes. While broth simmers, dice tofu into 1/2-inch cubes. Add tofu and pork, including marinade, to soup, stirring to separate any pieces of pork that stick together. Continue to simmer until pork is no longer pink, about 2 minutes.
4. Stir cornstarch mixture to recombine. Add to soup and increase heat to medium-high; cook, stirring occasionally, until soup thickens and turns translucent, about 1 minute. Stir in vinegar, chili oil, pepper, and remaining 3 tablespoons soy sauce; turn off heat.
5. Without stirring soup, use soupspoon to slowly drizzle very thin streams of egg mixture into pot in circular motion. Let soup sit 1 minute, then return saucepan to medium-high heat. Bring soup to gentle boil, then immediately remove from heat. Gently stir soup once to evenly distribute egg; ladle into bowls and top with scallions and bok choy.