When you think of Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m sure you think of one thing: Asian food. Obviously. So, I knew I had to have a kick-off dinner celebrating the official beginning of the Danny/Gwyneth Project, and I knew I also had to cook Asian food.
(Actually, since I was cooking for 10 people, I just wanted to make the cheapest recipes in the book, and Gwyneth’s Asian recipes happened to have the cheapest, easiest ingredients. So: We’re making Asian food!)
The menu was: Best Stir-Fried Chicken with Fried Rice with Kale & Scallions, plus a Mizuna, Tomato & Avocado Salad with Miso Dressing. That’s right, I knocked out FOUR recipes. We’ll be done with this project in no time!
Warning: Long post ahead. We’ve got a lot to cover! Click ahead for more, obviously.
I walked to Fred Meyer, which had most of the ingredients I would need, since all the recipes were fairly basic. The only three items I couldn’t find were ginger root, white miso paste, and something called “mizuna,” which Wikipedia informed me was a Japanese lettuce. However, Gwyneth says it’s “totally okay” to substitute Boston or butter lettuce for the mizuna. It could just be my paranoia, but the speed with which she reassures me it’s okay to substitute made it seem almost passive-aggressive. “No, it’s okay, this is just as good as mizuna. Honestly!” I imagined Gwyneth saying as she choked down my inferior Boston lettuce salad.
So, this was it. The first trial. Do I give up and grab some Boston lettuce, or do I search the city for mizuna? Well, I can’t give up on the rules this early, so I decided to do both, because the last thing I wanted was to end up with no mizuna OR back-up lettuce. So I bought four heads of Boston lettuce, just in case. I then located a Japanese grocery store relatively near my house (Anzen Hiroshi, for the curious – have fun trying to guess where, specifically, I live!), and Yelp reviews celebrated the size and authenticity of the inventory, so I felt confident that I would, at the very least, find ginger root and miso.
And oh boy, is Anzen Hiroshi just the best. If you’re in Portland, and you’re looking for Japanese groceries (granted, it’s a very specific series of “ifs”), GO THERE. The front half of the store is packed to the ceiling with Japanese items. Like, they have a WALL OF CHOPSTICKS. And another WALL OF RICE-COOKERS. And then around the back is a huge selection of Japanese groceries, most of which are labeled completely in Japanese. I walked around, shell-shocked, for nearly half an hour. Finally, I located the ginger root, and then I saw it: Mizuna. Well, that was easy.
Which brings me to something I’ve realized: This project is going to be much easier to complete in Portland than most other places. I know I probably won’t have to travel far to locate Veganaise in this town, so I’m not even worried. But if I were at my parents’ house in Wisconsin? I don’t think Veganaise or mizuna have ever even come close to that state. I’m dreading the holiday season several months from now, when I need to complete recipes and I’m in the middle of small-town Wisconsin, searching hopelessly for duck bacon. I may have to kill a duck myself.
Anyway, I also found the white miso, which, it turns out, is relatively cheap, but only comes in a massive tub. So now I have at least a pound of white miso paste in my fridge. Thanks, Gwyneth.
Back home, I decided to pre-make the Miso Dressing, to save some time later. The recipe was pretty simple, too: Diced Vidalia onion, garlic, white miso, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, mirin, vegetable oil, salt, and pepper. Toss it all in a blender, and puree that shit. And that, my friends, is officially my first completed Gwyneth Paltrow recipe. If they’re all that easy, this is going to be much better than I anticipated.
Miso Dressing, pre-blend.
The finished product.
Next up, I got my brown rice cooking for the fried rice, while I set to work chopping a whole bunch of vegetables, with some much-welcome help from roommate Danny B. Turns out cubing chicken breasts for 10 people is much more work than anticipated, especially with a hungry dog anxiously licking his chops directly below the counter.
Bark Antony waits for his chance.
I steamed some kale, and heated up some oil, garlic, ginger, and scallions in a large wok. The chicken was doused in cornstarch and thrown into the oil for a light fry. Meanwhile, I started and finished my fried rice in about 5 minutes, which just required cooking the rice, steamed kale, scallions, and garlic in oil for a few minutes, and then tossing with some soy sauce. By this point, I was becoming pretty impressed with dear Gwyneth. What do you know, these recipes are simple! It was at this point that I also remembered the advice she gives at the beginning of the book: Drink when you cook. I immediately rectified the situation with a glass of wine. I must obey Gwyneth’s every order.
Once the chicken had cooked through, I filled the wok almost to the brim with rice wine vinegar, and dumped a massive pile of brown sugar in. Gwyneth assured me it would take 3 minutes for the sauce to boil down to a sticky, dark-brown, creamy mess. I reassured my hungry friends that dinner would be ready in no time. This proved to be a lie, as it took almost 20 minutes – with the heat on high, no less! – for the sauce to thicken.
And then my phone buzzed with a news alert from CNN. “You guys, they just killed Osama bin Laden,” I told my friends. So, the night became something different and unexpected. We high-fived (because we’re AMERICANS, and death to evil foreigners is the best) and watched Obama’s speech, and made the required, “We’ll always remember where we were,” jokes. If I had to be upstaged by something, I suppose this was a pretty exciting event. USA!
But, as Gwyneth well knows, there’s always more to do when you’re a working mother! (Which, for the sake of this project, I must pretend to be.) Finally, the sauce boiled down, and, once I dressed the mizuna, avocado, and tomato salad with my miso dressing, dinner was ready.
To the sweet tunes of Coldplay’s greatest hits (obviously), we gathered around the table for a prayer, led by my cousin Kevin, who thanked God for killing Osama bin Laden, and for giving us this Gwyneth-inspired meal. We had much to be thankful for. And then, nervously, I tasted my food.
“Best Chicken Stir-Fry,” bubbling away forever.
“Fried Rice With Kale,” easy as can be.
Let’s get the bad out of the way: There was something stuck to the bottom of our wok, which ended up lending an awful, burnt taste to the chicken. So, that was disappointing, although I don’t think we should blame me for that, and I DEFINITELY don’t think we should blame Gwyneth. Still, even without the burnt taste, I wasn’t a huge fan of the chicken. It was just kind of bland and simple. Easy, yes. Exciting? No.
The fried rice with kale was actually pretty good, and definitely went well with the chicken (credit again to Gwyneth: she suggested pairing the dishes). But the real star of the meal was the salad. First of all, no one knew what the hell mizuna was, so I got to act knowledgeable as I said repeatedly, “Japanese lettuce, basically.” But the dressing was fucking fantastic. It was light, fairly sweet, and not overpowered by the miso. Plus it went really, really well with the mizuna, avocado, and tomatoes. Gwyneth says about the dressing that, if she’s not watching Moses, he’ll stick his entire fist in a bowl of the dressing and lick it off (claaaassic Moses). Which is gross, and made me initially worry for Moses’s decision-making abilities, but now I TOTALLY GET IT. Thankfully, I’ve got all the ingredients on hand now, and this is easy enough to whip up in a couple seconds.
Overall, the first meal was a big success. Not only did Gwyneth surprise and inspire us with some decent dishes and one really impressive recipe, but we also killed Osama bin Laden! Definitely a night to remember. Unfortunately, everything gets more expensive from here on out. Sorry, friends, but I won’t be inviting 10 of you over for all of Gwyneth’s meals.
The beginning of something beautiful.