When you live in a tiny house and have the compulsion to invite large groups of people over for dinner, what you are going to serve is often the least of your worries. First, you need to decide what to do with the parkas and gigantic boots – this being winter, and this being Montreal. Then, you have to figure out where everyone is going to stand, and eventually sit, and how you are going to navigate this crowd as you move from stove to fridge to sink to table.
Not only is our house on the small side, it is also pretty unusual. In fact, we live in that house, as in: I wonder who lives in that house? I had always dreamed of living in a weird house. When I was a kid, there was house a few streets down from ours that looked exactly like a giant golf ball. I thought it was totally awesome and fantasized about the exotic lives of the family who inhabited it. For some reason, I imagined that they all slept on chaise lounges and drank their beverages from martini glasses. Basically, I thought they were the Jetsons, and to paraphrase Liz Lemon, I wanted to go to there.
Though our house is about as far from futuristic as you can get, it remains one of those houses that stands out because it is completely unlike anything else in the neighborhood. First-time visitors often fear they have somehow missed it, because you can’t see it unless you are standing directly in front of it. Ours is a typical Montreal street lined with three-story row houses and no front yards to speak of. We live in a two-story farmhouse-ish cottage set back on the lot with an abundance of front yard inhabited by a dozen or so local cats (bullyied into submission by the king of cats, a thuggish stray we christened Tony Soprano). In the summer, it’s a veritable jungle. In the winter, a snowy wonderland. As the the locals say, c’est la campagne en plein ville: the country in the city.
The house itself has what our real estate agent described as beaucoup de cachet, which is loosely translatable as old skool style. It has a kitchen Quebecoise, which basically means that the whole main floor (all 500 square feet of it) is kitchen. I fell in love with this house the minute I walked into it, and though most kitchens are warm and welcoming places to congregate, the addition of a gas fireplace gives this one a little something special. The house itself – though rife with the kinds of problems that houses built in the 1890s are likely to have – is also a bit magical, but that is a story for another time. What matters here is that to maintain your sanity while making dinner for a dozen people, all of whom have settled themselves into various groups around said kitchen, you have to be extremely creative and strategic.
Which brings me to the potluck showdown…
A couple of nights ago, for our night before New Year’s Eve celebration, we invited a few friends over for a Chinese potluck dinner. Since Chinese food is best eaten at the very moment it is declared done, we tried something new, having our guests approach the stove in pairs, participating in a sort of potluck showdown while the rest of us sipped cocktails and enjoyed the performance.
First up on the left burner was Michelle, pastry-chef extraordinaire and one half of the team behind the fantastic An Endless Banquet (AEB). On the right burner, me. She had prepared a tray of homemade pork dumplings which she dropped into boiling water for exactly 8 minutes and served with a spicy sauce flavoured with black vinegar and soy. They were true perfection. I paid homage to the once-great but now-in-decline Montreal restaurant, Niukee, with a wok full of hot and sour potatoes. They were pretty damn good, though I need to summon more courage when adding the Szechuan (or Sichuan) peppercorns, as there is a direct link between the number of peppercorns added and the degree to which the simple act of eating dinner becomes a transcendent experience.
According to my favorite husband and wife cookbook writing team, the Duguid-Alfords, whose books – Mango and Curry Leaves and Beyond the Great Wall, to name just two – make essential kitchen companions, Szechuan peppercorns are actually the berries of a tree known as the prickly ash. In response to their astonishing tongue-numbing qualities, I have taken to calling these delightful red pods anaesthetic berries, and though an acquired taste, they can be used in all manner of dishes. When Niukee was at its peak, it was one of the giddiest, most mind-blowing dining experiences in town due in large part to the plethora of peppers in most of its dishes. The first night I ate there, I could not stop giggling so surprising was the sensation. When the owner, a famed opera singer, sold the restaurant and returned to China, she took the magic with her.
I am happy to report, however, that a transcendent experience was had again when our second team hit the stove with woks ablazing. Within seconds, we were caught in the throes of a violent mass coughing fit, as an outrageous amount of the aforementioned peppercorns – along with a truly disturbing number of red chilies – were tossed into the sizzling oil. I would have to declare two winners in round two, as the magical heat and caramelized stickiness of the Kung Pao chicken was astutely complimented by the sweet crunch and freshness of the perfectly-cooked Szechuan green beans.
Team three proved they were no slouches, adding delicious sweet soy prawns, which were eaten both peeled and unpeeled, and a mountain of eggplant fritters to our plates. I was a bit worried that another round of hot oil would fill the kitchen, and thus, the entire house, with smoke, but our man at the wok was a total pro. We topped it all off with some amazing Greek Christmas cookies, lovingly prepared by someone’s mom, and a fruitcake that made me realize why people actually like the stuff.
Simple. Elegant. Well done.
The hot and sour potatoes are extremely easy to make, but a little time consuming. Buy some of those potatoes with the yellow flesh and the translucent skin. I usually do one per person. Using whatever sharp implement you happen to have handy, slice the potatoes into discs that are about 4-5 mm in thickness. Then, cut each disc into matchsticks and drop the whole lot into a big bowl of cold water. I would do this at least a few hours before you want to cook them.
When it comes time to cook, put your wok over relatively high heat and add some vegetable oil. Throw in as much garlic, fresh and dried chili peppers, and Szechuan peppercorns as you can stand and stir them around as they become fragrant. Then toss in the potatoes.
Stir them around so they become coated in the oil, and then sprinkle them with a good-sized pinch of salt and a few big glugs of vinegar. Place a lid over top and let them steam a bit. Leave the lid on for about 6-8 minutes, but stir them every now and then so they do not stick or burn.
The key to making this dish is tasting it frequently. The potatoes should stay crunchy, but lose their starchiness. They should be sour, so add vinegar to taste, and require quite a bit more salt than you would think. If you feel that they need a little kick, splash on some soy sauce to taste.