This past Friday was Vietnamese (or Chinese) New Year. I’m ashamed to say I’d almost forgotten about it. When I was young, we would go to the temple in the mornings and end the evening with firecrackers that crackled across the sky. One year shortly after college, I arrived in Saigon on New Year’s Eve. We drove to the hotel through the celebratory honking of mopeds that crisscrossed through the streets.
This year, it was just my husband and me, states away from my family who were celebrating. It was cold in Ohio, the kind of cold that makes your stomach crinkle in on itself. I imagined the rice cakes filled with bean paste, pink and green-tinted coconut strips, crispy pork cushioned with a perfect layer of fat. I couldn’t replicate that feast, but wanted my own way to commemorate. One dish kept coming to me: dense, porridgy chao (or congee or jook), topped with a lightly caramelized egg and a sprinkle of scallions.
I’m always amazed at how such simple ingredients can produce flavors so complex. It’s not sophisticated food, and I don’t even think it’s particularly memorable in and of itself, but my bowl of chao was the reminder that I needed.
As I lifted the first, steaming spoonful to my mouth, I got an inkling of what the next year would bring. Warm and hearty food. More visits with my family. More stories that flow in and out of the kitchen, enveloping us in the familiar notes of our past. I’m declaring it the year of chao.
Caramelized egg technique (I used a combination of these two methods): Shoyu Eggs and Vietnamese caramel braise
I call these weekend eggs, because they require patience and a measure of laziness. You need the following:
- a late morning in which the snow has piled just enough to make the neighborhood diner seem worlds too far away,
- flannel pajamas you’ve had since high school, with or without a tiny tell-tale hole in the hip,
- and a cup of hot coffee or tea, prepared in advance and poured in your favorite wide-lipped mug.
These are fussy eggs, but worth it. The product is a decadent palmful of creamy, custardy goodness. And a palmful, along with a buttered English muffin, is really all you need.
Weekend Eggs serves 2
- 3 large eggs
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 pat butter (I use half a tablespoon, but only because I’m dieting. You can use a whole tablespoon and it will be delicious.)
- 1 cup baby spinach (optional)
- S & P to taste
Melt your butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. When it’s foamy, swirl it around the pan and bring the heat to the lowest setting. Beat the eggs with milk, salt, and pepper, then add to the pan. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally as you see solids forming. During the last couple minutes of cooking, throw in your spinach and let it wilt while mixing it in with the eggs.
*Fair warning: your skillet will need some soaking afterwards. These eggs tend to stick in mine.
Despite living much of my life on the coast of Florida, I didn’t eat many oysters growing up. We were clam people. But then, years later, I read A Moveable Feast. And MFK Fisher. And so many gourmands who insisted on the unfiltered, briny beauty of the oyster.
I can’t remember when I had my first oyster–maybe it was on a Gulf Coast pier somewhere after all–but I remember my favorite experience. One weekend, Dan and I decided to retreat from a blustery Ohio winter to the Carolina beaches. The water was still too cold to swim in, but we kept the doors to our balcony flung wide open, so we could nap in the salty ocean breeze. At night, we went to a tucked-away shack where we were served hushpuppies, seafood stew, and a basket of cornmeal-fried oysters. They were crispy and peppery on the outside, giving way to a melting kind of richness on the inside. Almost indecent in their richness. It wasn’t really the oysters themselves. They were just a part of this moment, a symbol of a languid lifestyle far from home.
This weekend, in the midst of another blustery Ohio winter, I fried some oysters. They sagged from their own weight and filled us with a taste of a memory.
serves 2 for a modest lunch
Half dozen shucked, largish oysters
Knob of butter
Tbs. olive oil
Heat butter and olive oil in a pan until foamy. Season flour with salt and pepper. Dredge oysters in flour mixture and drop into hot pan. Fry until golden brown on both sides, 2-3 minutes per side.
Serve on crusty bread with a creamy spread.