Sunday, November 7, 2010

Diva of the Cucina: Diana Kennedy

It's difficult to think of a greater honor than watching culinary idols enjoy my food. But that's what happened last week at our house. There they were, women I've adored for ages, all standing around, noshing on Chinese food and talking to the center of attraction, Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy. 

DK was in town on a book tour for her new and fabulous survey of the food in just one gorgeous area of southern Mexico, and the result -- Oaxaca al Gusto -- is breathtaking, beguiling the reader with not only mouth-watering foods but lovely photos that include many by the author herself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. There's a story behind the party, one that needs telling, because how in the world did I find myself with great cooking mavens crowded in my kitchen?

Frankie, Alice, Linda & DK
This all began about two months ago when I was interviewing DK for my upcoming book, Culinary Goddesses. As we chatted away, we started talking about one of my favorite DK books, Nothing Fancy, which is a selection of some of her favorite, non-Mexican recipes.

Now, I've built up quite a bit of a name for myself among my friends over the years for the elderflower champagne I make every year. And I told DK that, which surprised her. "You're the only person I've ever met who's actually made my champagne," she told me.

So I said, "When was the last time you had some?" To which she answered, "Ages." And that led to an invitation to our house for a glass of bubbly, and then I thought, well why not invite some other foodies? And all I had to do was drop DK's name to get a bevy of lovely ladies (and one gent) to stop by.

Eleanor, Jerry, Alice, Linda, 
me, Tom, Dona, 
DK, Flo, & Betsy

I am nothing if not enthusiastic. So I went ahead and wrote or called to some of the people I've adored from afar, as well as some friends of friends who turned out to be every bit as charming as the famous names.

The roster? Flo Braker, Alice Medrich, Sunset's food editor for decades Jerry Di Vecchio, former Sunset food writer (and new cookbook author) Linda Lau Anusasananan, Dona Tomas restaurant's Dona Savitsky and Thomas Schnatz, chef Jessica Boncutter, My Mexico Tours's Betsy McNair, food publicist Eleanor Bertino, designer Ani Albers, and baking expert Frankie Whitman. A couple greats sent their regrets at the last minute - including Carol Field, Marlena Spieler, and Bruce Aidells -- but that only lowered my terror a few notches.

What to prepare for people who've eaten just about everything the world has to offer? That was the question that plagued me for days and days. 

Ani & Jessica
And then I realized that they had probably never had real Chinese food, the stuff that I came to love when I lived in Taiwan and that for some strange reason hasn't made it to our shores. Ah happiness at last. Now I know the general location that the food is to come from - China - but where in China? 

I mean, Sichuan alone is as big as France, so what to do, what to do. How do I show the incredibly huge variety of cuisines that China has to offer? And how do I balance everything so that there's a nod to all the different ways of cooking as well as ingredients and locations? Crunch has to be followed by the pillowy soft, the piquant and the subtle contrasting with the rich, meats balanced with vegetables, ribbons of starch winding through the dishes, and savory bouncing up against the sweet. 

One thing I knew for sure was that there had to be tamales... Chinese tamales, that is. It was a bit of a joke in honor of Sra. Kennedy, but I hoped a welcome one. The savory ones would be in the style of my father-in-law's Hakka relatives, and the sweet ones would be filled with date paste and pine nuts as they're done in Jiangsu. 

Fortunately for my own sanity and that of my long-suffering husband, I quickly understood that there was no way this could be done as a sit-down dinner; everything had to be out there as a buffet. And so I divided it into a battery of cold foods to start that would allow people to graze and chat, and when everybody's appetites were more or less piqued, out would come the hot dishes. And this was the result:


Assorted candied nuts & pickles – various provinces
Drunken chicken in red wine lees – Fujian
Preserved eggs with aged garlic vinegar –
nouvelle Shaanxi
Smoked quail eggs – Jiangsu
Braised beef shin & heart – Beijing Muslim
Fried scallion bread – Shandong
Chinese savory tamales – Hakka
Magistrate’s chicken – Guangdong
Wuxi ribs with stir-fried spinach – Jiangsu
Fried prawns with candied walnuts – Hong Kong
Boneless pork hock braised in red soy cheese
with flash-fried pea sprouts – Shanghai
Dongpo pork – Jiangsu
Steamed lotus buns - Beijing
Snap peas with XO sauce – Hong Kong

Assorted cookies – Shanghai
Date walnut chews – Beijing
Sweet jujube & pine nut tamales – Jiangsu

Elderflower champagne à la Kennedy

Once I had the menu nailed down, I still had three weeks to go, and the planning required an attention  to detail that I associate more with little things like D-Day than with a luncheon. It went something like this: 

Shop for the ingredients for one of the entrees, such as Dongpo Pork. Make three batches of the pork (see the recipe in the next blog entry) and figure out which one's not only the best, but find out ways to make it better without devouring the results, and freeze the results so that I'm no longer tempted to sample. Multiply this by every single item on the menu.

Clean the garden, trim plants, sweep driveway, wash the pets, clean the house to a fare-thee-well, buy new dinnerware, repaint the downstairs, buy new pots and pans, get new glassware, find something presentable to wear. Somewhere along the way I realized that the stove was giving out and the landlord wasn't going to be buying a new one in time, so I got a magnetic invection burner (Tatung brand from Taiwan - highly recommended) to help me avoid a nervous breakdown. Oh, did I mention that I was on a strict diet?

But do you want to know what made all of this worthwhile? The great DK spent most of the afternoon talking with me as I cooked, and she ended up liking everything, including my walnut shrimp!

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