Ali’s Annual Wok Throwdown

Several years ago I had the kids over for a theme dinner…the wok was hot and I had prepped a variety of meats, vegetables, spices and sauces with the idea that everyone could step up to the stove and create something.  It was a huge success, and daughter-in-law Ali decided that it would be a perfect annual birthday dinner for her.  Her dad has an amazing kitchen and offered to start hosting….Ali’s Annual Wok Throwdown!!

My version of General Tso's Chicken

My version of General Tso’s Chicken

We’ve had at least three of these events now, the most recent being a couple weeks ago, and the whole family was free to attend.  We’ve gotten braver over the years…now we’re trying dishes like tempura squid, General Tso’s Chicken, outrageous tofu and veggies etc.  I decided to try a sesame glazed red snapper.

I found some fresh snapper at Central Market, and even though it was fairly clean it took awhile to get the remaining pin bones out and make sure the skin side was free of scales.  My hope was to get the skin crispy enough to eat.  I cut the fish into three inch squares and dropped them into  a big zip lock bag into which I added a little sesame oil and some fresh minced ginger and garlic.  The smell is sublime.

Dwyne is the host with the most.

Dwayne is the host with the most.

Ali’s dad Dwayne and his wife Dalen are perfect party hosts.  The event always kicks off with a shot of something…(Hot Damn!!) and this year’s choice was Fireball whiskey.  Wow.  Keep that tray away from me after the first couple.  Dangerous!

After the welcome shot the call goes out “Two hot woks, no waiting!”.  At some point everyone takes a turn at the stove and a variety of concoctions start filling up pie plates that are strategically placed around the kitchen.  There’s rice, noodles, chopsticks, condiments, lemons, lime, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame seed oil, chile sauce, fermented black beans, chicken, beef, shrimp, squid, tofu, lemon grass, mushrooms, scallions, bean sprouts,

A variety of ingredients waiting to wok!

A variety of ingredients waiting to wok!

cilantro, pickled Serrano peppers, fresh jalapenos, snap peas, green beans, chile pods and more all being transformed into fragrant, steaming delicious mounds of Asian goodness.  Nothing tastes bad, but some things stand out as spectacular.  Sam’s flank steak was a winner, my Tso’s chicken, while time consuming, was a winner.  (The chicken gets dredged in a thick mix of cornstarch, egg and soy sauce before hitting the deep fryer one piece at a time.)  So yummy, though, when it gets hit with a sesame sauce flavored with orange zest.

Fresh snapper.

Fresh snapper.

Then, it was time for my red snapper.  I heated a clean wok and got some oil almost to the point of smoking, then placed the fish around the wok.  I let it sit, not stirring, because I wanted the skin to crisp, and it worked, although a few of the skin pieces stuck to the wok.  I didn’t flip the fish, but rather spooned the hot oil over the flesh of the fish until it was cooked from the top down.  There was a sesame chicken sauce lying around, so I thickened it slightly and just poured it over the fish and garnished with scallions.  It was very delicious, I must say, and even though we were all stuffed everyone had a taste.

The fryer gets as much action as the wok.

The fryer gets as much action as the wok.

We all end up with chopsticks in our pockets, and simply cruise around tasting different things.  In fact, I was so busy tasting that there’s not a photo of my finished red snapper dish.  Imagine, if you will, a steaming plate of fluffy, perfectly cooked fish glazed with a light sesame soy drizzle.  Mmmmmm.

Hey, try a wok throwdown of your own.  The whole family gets involved, everyone gets to cook, and you really can’t screw it up!  Ciao for now.  CG


Italian Beef Birthday Surprise

Michelle is the perfect bartender for Monday Night at Donn's Depot.

Michelle is the perfect bartender for Monday Night at Donn’s Depot.

For 18 years I’ve had what musicians call a “residency” gig, a weekly show that happens at the same place and builds up a loyal following over time. Mine is every Monday night from 9 to 1 at the old Yamaha grand piano at a place called Donn’s Depot in Austin, Texas. It’s built out of a real depot and a handful of railroad cars, including a red caboose that serves as the coolest ladies room on the planet with it’s shag carpeting and private stalls.

The Monday bartender is our great friend Michelle, who has childhood ties to Chicago, and a great affinity for the food that comes from there. She knows her deep dish pizza and her Italian Beef sandwiches. Being the generous soul that she is, for my birthday she had a full Italian Beef sandwich kit sent from Portillo’s in Chicago via a website called “Tastes of Chicago” that was created by our favorite pizza place, Lou Malnati’s.

Portillo's Italian Beef Kit

Portillo’s Italian Beef Kit

A big box arrived on the front porch…I’m glad I noticed it as I was pulling out of the driveway. It said on the side “Somebody must really like you!” and “Refrigerate as soon as possible”. Wow. Inside the box I found 2 pounds of thinly sliced beef, 8 bake at home rolls, 2 quarts of gravy, a bag of sweet roasted peppers and a jar of spicy Hot Giardiniera, the pickly peppers and carrots that “tie the room together”.

Of course we had to invite Michelle and her family (new baby Revé and our grandson Brody had a fine time on their first meeting) over to share the Chicago bounty. We baked the rolls, heated the gravy, soaked the beef in the gravy and built our incredible sandwiches with the beef, a strip of sweet pepper and a pile of spicy Giardiniera. Michelle’s generosity had turned into one of the finest lunches we’ve ever had at the MoonHouse. She’s figured out a way to replicate these using local items, but we all agreed that the kit from Portillo’s was the real deal.

My sandwich in Chicago.  Mmmmmmm good.

My sandwich in Chicago. Mmmmmmm good.

Oddly enough, I had a Jerry Jeff concert scheduled in St. Paul the next weekend, and ended up flying through Chicago’s Midway Airport and discovered the Gold Coast Hot Dog and Italian Beef Stand down the hall from our gate. I sampled the Italian Beef, loved it, but preferred the ones we made at home. More soul, I think.

Ciao for now. Check out Tastes of Chicago! CG