The Gatekeeper (featuring Moo Shu Pork)
The sudden familiarity of the white platter piled high with well-marinated matchstick-sliced pork loin, scrambled eggs, and umami-blasting mushrooms was what took me down. The round plate of steamy paper-thin pancakes and the small bowl of sweet, dark burgundy hoisin sauce only sealed the deal. My eyes shut in a moment of euphoric ecstasy. Lowering my nose closer to the food I inhaled its essence, held it like a bong hit, and burst into tears.
We hadn’t been outside in a week other than half-block-long slippery skidding pees with the dog and one scary grocery restocking trip that convinced me I’d be homebound for life.
There’s always a weather event in Portland around the new year. I’ve been here 8 years now and I’ve learned this pattern. It’s snow or ice or wind or something really chaotic that lasts about a week. I know that this happens. I know it. But every year it feels more impactfully deteriorating to my mental health.
First, there were some flurries and I had that romantic, fluffy piles of snow, staying inside with hot cocoa fantasy. That night the temperature descended into the teens with a bitter wind that made it feel below zero. Responsible dog mom, I braved that cold wrapped in woolen sweaters, scarves, mittens, and a heavy parka. Amelia, cloaked in her bright red rain jacket, glowered up at me with her “Are we sure this is a good idea?” deep brown eyes.
A few blocks later I could no longer feel my fingers or my ears and mistook a tree in the wind for an attacker.
“NO!!!” I screamed at the maple, suddenly realizing it was a sapling through my squinted eyes in the windy sleet. Amelia kept her nose down and plodded miserably homeward.
Warming up inside I held tight to the dream of a cuddly snowstorm, but when we woke, every surface outside was iced thick as a hardbound thesaurus.
We had heard warnings and so we had supplies. I was a little relieved to be immobilized because I had just wrapped a month-long streak of brain-scrambling/body-shattering catering gigs. Swathed in flannel, I read a book and did a puzzle. In yoga pants and baggy t’s, I did YouTube pilates and realized the bedroom rug was overdue for a good vacuuming. I “spring” cleaned until I got bored. I pulled up bookmarked websites with “best ever” recipes and unsuccessfully or unsatisfactorily made brownies, cinnamon rolls, apple crisps, and ginger cookies… and ate them anyway.
Water lines exploded, hundred-year-old trees uprooted, many people lost power for days, but our home was spared. Catered parties were all canceled. I slumped on the couch. I looked for signs of change. I stared into my dog’s eyes. I painted my nails. I spent an unreasonable amount of money on seeds to plant in the spring. I tried to summarize my experience in a tragic haiku experiment that, you’re welcome, I’m never going to post.
And then one day Francis walked into the living room and said, “Let’s go to dinner. I think Shandong is open.”
He’s a more competent ice driver than I am. He’d been out earlier that day and confirmed the block of ice that had encased the city was melting… slowly, but surely.
“Yes, YES!!!” I screamed and catapulted up from the couch.
I showered and put on a clean but tragically and permanently stained sweatshirt and hard pants (loose jeans, but still much harder than anything I’d donned all week #jammylife).
“I’ll have the Moo Shu Pork,” I said to the waiter, my nose pointed up like a proud, over-confident, self-righteous little girl. It’s not something I order in Chinese restaurants these days because I think of it as kid’s food. It was my absolute favorite thing in the world when I was a little girl and someone inside me was suddenly in control.
When the plates appeared in front of me, it was the hands of a 7-year-old who reached out and deftly peeled the first pancake from the stack, laid it onto the plate, drizzled the hoisin in zig-zags down the side, scooped the moo shu filling on top, and wrapped it tightly into a cylinder. It was me as a 7-year-old who took over that meal, thinking about how safe I felt sitting around the thick wood block dining room table in my upper west side apartment, opening the white paper boxes of Chinese take-out, announcing each item as the flaps opened–Kung pao shrimp! Chicken and broccoli! Moo shu pork! And instructing any guests of my parents on how to wrap the moo shu correctly.
As thick tears fell into my food a few weeks ago, I time-traveled to a place of safety in my life. A place where any bad stuff that happened felt relatable. Controllable. Understandable.
Sure, I know how easy it is to reminisce about a simpler time—especially when you’re in your goddamn 50’s. But the ricochets through sort-of survivable events in recent years have shattered my internal compass.
Maybe the best way to ground yourself is to eat the food that reminds you of an easier time. And maybe the reason I got into cooking was to become a gatekeeper of time travel. It sure was nice to take a spin back to my childhood and eat a great meal, too.
Time Travel Moo Shu Pork
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons dry sherry
- 3 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 pound pork loin chops, cut into ¼ inch strips, then in half to form ¼ inch matchsticks
- 3 eggs, beaten
- Vegetable oil with a high smoke point – eg peanut or avocado oil (about 4 healthy glugs, I never measure for stir-frying)
- ½ pound mushrooms – shiitake or a mixture of shiitake and other mushrooms, sliced
- 2 cups napa cabbage, sliced
- 3 scallions sliced into inch-long pieces
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon dry sherry
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
- In a bowl, make the pork marinade by combining the baking soda, dry sherry, soy sauce, cornstarch, and sugar, and then add the sliced pork, stirring to cover the pork. Let it marinate while you get the other ingredients together.
- Since this comes together very quickly, you’ll want to have your mise en place together before you begin. Place the eggs in a large bowl close to the stove. Place the sliced mushrooms in another bowl, and the cabbage and scallions in another. Stir together the soy sauce, sesame oil, dry sherry, and garlic cloves in another small bowl close by.
- Heat about a teaspoon of oil in a wok until it’s just about smoking, swirling the oil around on the bottom of the wok to make sure the entire bottom of the wok is oiled (adding a little more if needed). Pour the beaten eggs into the wok and gently scramble for about 20-30 seconds, tossing gently with a wooden spatula. Slide the scrambled eggs back into the bowl they were in. Don’t worry if they’re very loose at this point because they will be cooked more in a few minutes.
- Swirl in another teaspoon of oil and let it get very hot. Stir fry the pork with the marinade for about 1 minute tossing with a spoon or tongs to make sure the pork is cooked (the pork will get cooked a bit more too so don’t stress over the doneness yet).
- Slide the cooked pork into the bowl with the scrambled eggs.
- Add another teaspoon of oil to the wok and stir-fry the mushrooms for about 2 minutes. Place the mushrooms into the bowl with the eggs and pork.
- Add another teaspoon of oil to the work and stir fry the cabbage and the scallions for about 30 seconds. They will cook quickly, which is great. To the cabbage, add the sauce mixture and stir for 15 seconds. Then add the eggs, pork, and mushrooms back into the wok and stir fry for another couple of minutes for all the flavors to blend.
- Serve with mandarin pancakes and hoisin sauce.
Makes 8 pancakes
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1/4 cup boiling water
- 1/4 cup room temperature water
- Sesame oil for painting on dough balls
- Put the flour in a bowl and stir in the boiling water with chopsticks or a spoon, followed quickly by the room-temperature water. Knead on a lightly floured board for a few minutes until the dough is no longer sticky. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for an hour.
- Roll the dough into a log about 8 inches long. Cut the log in half and then cut it into 8 equal pieces. Using your hands roll each piece into a ball.
- On a floured board take 2 balls and push them flat. Using a rolling pin, roll them out to 3 inch rounds. Using a pastry brush or your fingers, dab a bit of sesame oil (like 1/8 teaspoon) onto one of the flattened dough balls and then lay the other flat ball onto the first. Roll them together to form one 7-inch 2-in-one pancake. Continue with the remaining 6 pieces. It will seem like you’ve only prepped 4 pancakes, but just you wait…
- Heat a dry pan on the stove and place the first pancake in. Cook for one minute and then flip. Cook for another minute, let cook for 30 seconds and then peel the pancakes apart. Shazzam! 2 pancakes!
- Continue with the rest of the dough resulting in 8 pancakes total.
And here I am making this on KATU’s Afternoon Live (no time for pancakes in this episode!):