For my newly-minted book club, I had the ambitious idea that not only would I read a food-related book a month, I would also try to post a recipe or two from said book. June’ s book was Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton; go here to see the book review and discussion. (I actually made the dish a couple weeks ago, but time has a habit of slipping away from me these days, hence the delay in posting.)
It wasn’t hard to choose a recipe out of this book- I went with Ants on a Tree (not to be confused with Ants on a Log, an entirely different animal) because the author constantly refers to it as his family’s favorite dish, and it’s the one thing his daughter has been willing to eat even through her pickiest phases of toddlerhood. It’s a Szechuan (or Szichuan, depending on your fancy) noodle dish consisting of seasoned ground pork (the “ants”) and bean thread noodles (the “tree”), and it would give me an excuse to use some of those Szechuan peppercorns I bought a while back at Penzey’s.
The nice thing about this recipe, and one reason I imagine it’s become a favorite at the author’s dinner table, is that it’s pretty easy to throw together. I’m sure after making it a few times and having the seasonings memorized, you could whip it together in a matter of 30 minutes or less. I love highly-seasoned food, so I did enjoy this dish; my only difference of opinion is that I found it a little too “decadent” (see my note below re: oil) to want to consume it on a regular basis. Also, I wouldn’t consider this a one-dish meal since it’s just meat and carbs with no veg, so I made a batch of my Chinese-style kale to eat alongside the noodles. We had leftovers, which I would venture to say tasted even better in my lunch the next day.
Making this dish led me to ponder having my own hungry monkey someday, and wondering what his or her unwaveringly favorite food would be. Until then, I’ll just have to live vicariously through the Amster-Burtons, and raise a forkful of noodles as a salute to Iris and her international palate.
8 oz. ground pork
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs hot bean paste (sometimes sold as spicy bean paste, or hot bean sauce)
1 tsp cornstarch
6-8 oz cellophane (bean thread) noodles
1-2 tbs peanut or other neutral oil (see notes)
2 scallions, white & light green parts only, thinly sliced (the darker tops can be sliced and used as a garnish)
1 red jalapeño or Fresno chili, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chicken stock (canned or from concentrated bouillon is fine)
1 tbs dark (mushroom) soy sauce
1/4 tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns (see notes)
Notes: You may try to see if you can get away with using less than the 2 tbs oil called for in the original recipe, as I found the end result to be a little on the greasy side (perhaps the pork I used had a higher fat content than what the author normally uses). Also, the Szechuan peppercorns are listed as “optional”, but if I was of a mind to leave them out, I’d just make a different dish instead; in fact, I would even suggest upping the amount to 1/2 tsp if you’re feeling gutsy.
Directions: Put some water on to boil. Meanwhile, combine regular soy sauce and cornstarch in a medium-sized bowl to dissolve the cornstarch. Add the sugar, hot bean paste and pork, stirring thoroughly to combine. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Place the noodles in a large bowl and when your water comes to a boil, pour over the noodles to cover. Soak for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain in a colander.
Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and jalapeño and cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently. Add the pork and stir-fry until no longer pink, breaking up any chunks, about 3 minutes. (You really want to break up the pork as small as possible, or the meat will all sit at the bottom of the dish, negating the whole “ants on a tree” thing.)
Add the noodles, chicken stock, dark soy sauce and Szechaun pepper. Cook, tossing the noodles with tongs or two wooden spoons, until the sauce is absorbed and the pork is well distributed throughout the noodles. Transfer to a large platter and serve immediately, garnishing with a few chopped scallions if desired.
I was in the library a few weeks ago checking out The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and on my way out, a little book on the New Arrivals shelf caught my eye. It was called Hungry Monkey, the story of food writer* and new father Matthew Amster-Burton and his quest to impart his eclectic food tastes to his daughter, Iris. The author documents his daughter’s eating habits from infancy to age four, following her through periods of omnivorosity, ultrapickiness, and everything in between.
You may think it unusual that a single gal with no kids would take an interest in such a book, but actually I have been intrigued by the subject ever since I worked in restaurants way back when. Parents would order tacos for their kids “No vegetables, just plain meat, that’s all they’ll eat”, and I would always secretly judge a little bit, thinking to myself, “Have you even TRIED to get them to eat a taco with vegetables? It’s just iceberg letttuce and tomato, for pete’s sake; it’s not like it’s broccoli!” I suspected, as did Amster-Burton, that kids’ pickiness could be in part due to the parents’ expectation that they would be picky (and thereby not exposing them to diverse foods), rather than something inherent. I reasoned that children in other cultures must eat whatever food is put in front of them, and that pickiness was somehow another outgrowth of spoiled American privelege.
After reading this book, I do have a new appreciation for what parents go through in this department, especially those who don’t have the luxuries that Amster-Burton has. Currently a stay-at-home dad, his budget and schedule allow him to tote Iris around his gentrified Seattle neighborhood (Capitol Hill), taking her for lunch at a kaiten-sushi joint or to one of the many specialty markets to grab supplies (lobster, anyone?) for that night’s dinner. But in spite of exposing Iris to all manner of foods, she still goes through a picky phase, rejecting foods that she had once downed with gusto. The conclusion that Amster-Burton comes to, through his own experiences and through talking to other parents, is that a certain amount of picky eating is probably unavoidable, and a phase the vast majority of kids experience to one degree or another. Unlike some of the “parenting experts” he quotes, though, he takes a fairly laissez-faire approach to the whole situation, trusting that his child will not die of a food allergy or suffer malnutrition from not eating enough vegetables.
It was quite entertaining to read about Iris’s encounters with “unusual” foods (at one dinner, presented with a whole fish, Iris proves to be a more intrepid eater than her parents!), and to experience second-hand the little joys and upsets the author lives through as he tries to share his favorite foods with his daughter. The book is hysterical in parts, and Amster-Burton has a talent for relaying funny Iris stories in a way that transcends a show-offy “look how cute my kid is” tone. His wittiness and hip sensibility (he was a rock critic before being a food writer) will appeal to the many thirtysomethings, just starting families, who ate sushi and pad thai in college as often as pizza and subs.
As funny as the book is, it’s not just about superficial anecdotes. Underlying the whole story is the sense of joy that the author has at sharing each new food with Iris- the glee when she gobbles something up readily, and the pangs of disappointment when a favorite food is eschewed. Amster-Burton brings Iris into his “food world”, taking her shopping, letting her select menus, and spending many hours in the kitchen with her. As a dad into sports might play catch with his child to share his love of baseball, Amster-Burton shares his love of food with Iris by making her an active participant in the daily food rituals of the household. And I think that regardless of where Iris ends up on the picky scale as she grows up, she will look back and cherish that one-on-one time spent with her dad.
*Matthew Amster-Burton can currently be found writing about food on his blog, Roots and Grubs.
- Both the author and myself had some pre-conceived notions about picky eaters. Did the book change any views you may have had, or (for those of you who are parents) reinforce what you already knew to be true from experience?
- The author confesses that he was, in fact, a very picky eater as a child, but turned out to be an avid food-lover. Most of you reading this are probably adventurous eaters; is this something that you came to on your own, or did your parents nudge you in that direction? Do you think being a “food lover” is innate or learned?
- The author describes being forced to try sushi as a kid and almost throwing up, but trying it again in college and loving it. He credits this to the fact that the second time he tried it, he expected to like it. Do you agree? Can you think of a food that you probably liked because you expected to like it, or anything you didn’t like in spite of thinking you would?
- Not every family can spend the time and money the author does to introduce his daughter to so many foods. What can working parents or parents with less means do to bring cooking and diverse foods into their children’s lives? Or do you feel this is even important?
- Food obviously plays a huge role in the Amster-Burton household. What role does food have in your household? Do you feel that kids need to know “where food comes from” and participate in food preparation, or is it enough just to make sure they’re eating reasonably healthy foods?