I get a kick out of television and movie families’ holiday food traditions. National Lampoon’s Griswold family sips egg nog from souvenir Wally World cups. The fictional Constanzas have a sobering (also sober) meal of meatloaf for their Festivus feast; the TV writer who based the holiday Seinfeld episode on his own family’s actual Festivus tradition would have had a Pepperidge Farm cake topped with m&ms for dessert. Paula Deen’s studmuffin sons and Food Network stars Bobby and Jamie presumably get down on their hands and knees and thank God for their metabolisms.
And my family took its cue from TV’s Iron Chef when it came up with a new holiday tradition, the Malay Family Cooking Challenge.*
My siblings and I have moved around a lot since college, and they have significant others with awesome foodie families too, so it’s not every year that all five Malays (and our plus-ones) are home for the holidays in Fredericksburg, Va to do this. In probably 7 years, this was our fourth cooking challenge.
Here’s how it works: we pick a theme ingredient and devote a day to cooking different meals and courses with it. The inaugural year was bananas, then we moved on to chocolate, lemon, and this Christmas, peppers. I liked bananas and peppers the most, as I felt the dishes were the most creative and best tasting, though I know my sister reveled in the sophisticated bitters of the lemon dishes, and my mom talks about the chocolate year — a certain mole poblano sauce** in particular — with nostalgia.
There really aren’t rules. I feel like recipes were frowned upon at first, but we’ve loosened up. I have always consulted recipes, for one, with varying degrees of improvisation. There’s still risk — not all recipes work. Knowing this, half of the participants this year tested their dishes in advance, and the other half of us took a chance as usual. The theme ingredient is often a defining characteristic of the dish but not always. I don’t care for lemon in savory dishes, for example, so two years ago, I prepared appetizers where lemon was hinted at, and in the rest of the dishes, it was more like… shouted. Much to my relief, my dad chose to make an adult beverage involving lemonade, so my tastebuds relaxed. And by far the funniest dish that has come of the Malay Family Cooking Challenge was my dad’s entree the banana year, a spicy Cajun shrimp casserole with mayonnaise to bind it from an Emeril Lagasse recipe — with sliced bananas.
I think the challenge started with the idea of being a competition, but it didn’t last. I remember pulling my mom aside the first year and nervously telling her I didn’t want us to judge each others’ entries, and she agreed. So did everyone else. Food is subjective. The dishes were too different that first year — how could my mom’s grilled glazed kebobs of salmon and banana compare to my “Curious George” peanut butter, banana, and chocolate cake? And it’s one thing to be competitive in party games my family revels in, like Guggenheim, Scrabble, and charades, where decisions are quickly made and a fairly arbitrary skill set is involved, and another to be competitive in cooking, often a huge a commitment of time and effort. After every last pot and pan is washed and dried, we still have to live with each other. And as far as families go, we’re already a little… bananas.
Christmas 2009 will be hard to top. Everyone is such a good chef — on this day if not year-round. There were eight of us this year, as I have a plus-one (and he can cook!), and I thought every dish was restaurant quality. I way overate, with no remorse. My brother and his wife hosted at their beautiful new home, and they were the most gracious hosts. (They hosted Thanksgiving, too, and we all had the pleasure of visiting them in San Diego before this and being treated to guacamole made with lemons and avocados growing in their back yard.) Everyone stayed the night at their place, and in the morning, I found myself getting into leftovers for breakfast.
Since my dish is the only one I made, it’s the only one I’ll talk about. I knew I wanted to use Sichuan peppercorns. I have a funny memory from traveling in China’s Sichuan region of sampling from a huge jug of fermented rice wine, most likely, with a dead snake coiled at its base. Regional superstition has it that wines fermented with certain animals are good for fertility. After I sipped, my mouth felt numb and lemony. I asked the other brave samplers if they felt it too, and they did not. I pondered how my parents would react if they got a call from China, “Mr. and Mrs. Malay, we have very grave news — your daughter is dying of snake poison. However, she is very fertile!”
I finally summoned the courage to ask our guide what was going on, and she laughed and reassured me it wasn’t the snake at all — just a harmless little Sichuan peppercorn in one of our spectacular meat dishes. Still, the harmless little peppercorn was illegal in the US until 2005, and the only time I’ve experienced its sensation since China was in a beef dish from New York’s popular Grand Sichuan restaurants (one here too).
For my Malay Family Cooking Challenge entree, I went to the internet and found a spicy wok-fried chicken recipe on Diana Kuan’s blog Appetite for China. Kalustyan’s on Lexington Ave between 28th and 29th sells the peppercorns. I simply used a pound and a half of a flap cut of beef instead of chicken and eyeballed my measurements (because, well, I always do). Commenters had praised the recipe, with good reason. It brought me right back to China, the best eating of my life. It is a very intuitive dish, too — as soon as the batter coating the beef turned golden and I wanted to pull it out of the wok, the meat was cooked perfectly, barely pink in the middle but incredibly soft. It was definitely my best yet, and I felt that way about the entire day of eating.
That said, the menu.
Fresno pepper stuffed shrimp
Tied with habanero and Fresno strings
Duo of soups
Red and yellow pepper soups in shared bowl
Trio of salsas
Salsa fresca, roasted corn and chipotle, avocado
Stuffed roasted bell peppers
Saffron risotto, Italian sausage, cheese, and spices
Breaded and fried, with cheese blend
Thai green curry
Pork and jasmine rice
Wok-fried Sichuan beef
Cayenne and dark chocolate brownie sundae
“Christmas bell” pepper ice cream and chocolate-covered pink peppercorns
* Technically, this was preceded by a short-lived Malay Family Engineering Challenge. If this were an engineering blog, I’d tell you all about it!
** Mole (mole-ay) sauce is a thick Mexican sauce that can be a lot of things, but for all intents and purposes to Americans, it’s an enchilada sauce made of chili peppers, spices, nuts, Mexican chocolate, etc., and I think it has a black-beany quality to it though it shouldn’t contain any.