Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quality time with Queenie: Lorna Yee.

Today we're spending time with the inimitable Lorna Yee, cookbook author and food writer. I first met Lorna through eGullet, where I spent quite a bit of time drooling over her incredible pastry creations. Since those early days, she's co-written a cookbook (The Newlywed Kitchen) and works as a food writer for Seattle Magazine. (She also has a fantastic blog, entitled The Cookbook Chronicles.) Lorna's passion for food is unmatched, except perhaps by that of her husband, Henry. But even Henry can't match her prize-winning pie.

Without further ado, here's Lorna!

How and from whom did you learn to cook?

I learned to cook Chinese food and bake from watching my mom--an incredible woman who was making her own butter puff pastry back in the 80s, without the aid of step-by-step food blogs, or the Food Network. From a young age, I watched my mom prepare elaborate Cantonese meals at home. She would save up her vacation time and take three days off work before family birthdays, just so she could shop and prepare more than ten, banquet-style dishes for our extended family.

Though my mom cooked fantastic meals for us every night, she gradually cut back on the baking. (Hard to keep up with three kids and a full-time job!) I've always loved sweets, and missed having her scrumptious coffee cakes and muffins around the kitchen. When I was about 10 years old, I took her dog-eared copy of The Five Roses Cookbook and asked if I could start baking from it. My mom kept a watchful eye over me the first few times. But even then, I had already picked up on many of the techniques she unknowingly demonstrated on evenings when I'd stand on a stool and watch her fold egg whites with a delicate flick of the wrist. I remember making a personal goal of trying a new recipe out of that cookbook every week, and I did. That's how I made my first cheese soufflé, coffee chiffon cake, and peanut butter cookies.

Do you consider yourself a baker, a cook, or a hybrid? Why?

I consider myself both a home cook and a baker. I've always had a particular fondness for baking, and the cooking bug bit a little later on--I would say perhaps around 13 or 14, after taking Home Ec. classes at school. Around this time, we also started getting Food Network up in Canada, which meant more exposure to cuisines outside of the Cantonese food we ate at home. I was motivated to learn how to cook so I could taste the food of other countries, though I was often overly ambitious. There was a particular episode of Emeril Live that featured Mario Batali making these incredible goat cheese and radicchio ravioli that I craved for days after seeing that show. I had never made pasta before, and growing up in a Chinese household, we didn't have a pasta maker. I figured I could make my own pasta and roll the dough out with a rolling pin. Four hours later, I was exhausted, covered in flour, but I had done it--a perfectly respectable bowl of ravioli, filled with tangy, creamy goat cheese, the richness counteracted by the bitter bite of radicchio.

If you could prepare any meal in the world, what would the menu be, and who would you invite to join you?

"If I could prepare any meal in the world" is an interesting question, because I'd have to consider whether I would want to cook something I'd have the most fun preparing, or what I consider my best dish--considering there are guests in attendance. I think I would create a menu featuring one signature dish from each region of China. I have never experienced a meal like that. I guess if you think about it, Cantonese dim sum could work as what we think of as "pre-dinner bites"--all those tiny parcels of steamed and fried items! Taro puffs filled with savory minced duck, or chive and shrimp dumplings would be ideal finger food. The bolder, more fiery dishes of Szechuan, like red oil poached fish with preserved mustard greens, and a hearty dish of claypot braised lamb from Lanzhou would work nicely as a main. Hand-pulled noodles with a garlicky pork sauce from northern China would be ideal as your starch component, and I'd end the meal with wafer-thin, crispy fried Shanghainese red bean pancakes.

Is there something you love to eat that you never make at home?

I adore sashimi and many other Japanese dishes, but I never prepare it at home because I don't think the quality of the fish I can get from even a reputable seafood shop is as good as that served in the best Japanese restaurants in town. There is too much I don't know about the art of cutting the fish, or preparing the sushi rice correctly. That's a meal best left to a master Japanese sushi chef with years of experience.

Pick your poison.

I love barman Andrew Bohrer's smoked Old-Fashioned at Mistral Kitchen, and he makes a great whiskey sour, too. Although the first cocktail that really blew me away was The Last Word, revived right here in Seattle by Murray Stenson of Zig Zag. I also love single malt scotches, and big reds.

Describe the best meal you've ever eaten. Where were you? Who prepared it? And what made it so special?

As a food writer at Seattle Magazine, I'm incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to eat extremely well in this city. The greatest dining experience I've ever had, though, was at Alinea in Chicago just this past summer. I was with my husband, and we were celebrating our first wedding anniversary. We sprung for the tour menu and consumed twenty-five courses over the span of a good four hours, at least! Part of what made the meal so memorable was that up until that point, I'd partaken in a few molecular gastronomy meals at well-regarded restaurants, and had been incredibly disappointed. Alinea re-opened my eyes: The meal was entertainment, it was art, but most importantly, the vast majority of what we ate just tasted good.

What's for dinner tonight chez toi?

I just returned home (in Seattle) from a ten-day visit up in Vancouver, BC to see my family. After so many days of eating extravagantly, I am happy to get back in the kitchen and cook something a little lighter for dinner tonight. I'm just grilling some leeks with romesco sauce, and throwing together an easy pasta salad with cherry tomatoes, feta, and arugula. Both recipes are in the cookbook I co-authored, The Newlywed Kitchen. For dessert--I'm going to be honest and tell you I'm just taking a couple balls of homemade oatmeal cookie dough out of the freezer, and baking them off. I frequently make a batch of cookie dough, roll the dough into golfball-sized spheres, space them out on a lined sheet tray, and freeze them. Once frozen, you can put the dough balls into a Ziploc bag and they'll keep for several weeks in the freezer. Whenever you want cookies, just space out the dough on a tray, and bake in a preheated oven. I believe that one should never be more than 350 degrees and 12-13 minutes away from fresh, hot cookies!

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