One fine day I decided to make lo mein. I'd never made it before but I'd liked it just fine from our local Chinese take out. The place I liked best closed up, right after a rash of murders of delivery men , killed for the cash in their pockets and the lo-mein in their white take out bags
I'd tried other places, but nothing seemed very good. So, I was off Chinese food for a couple years.
Then the yen for lo-mein hit and I figured, what the hell how hard can it be. You'll recognize that as Famous Last Words, right along with "here, hold my beer!" and "hey honey, do you know where I left the bear trap?"
Undaunted, I went to google, typed in "lo mein recipe" and found this:
12 ounces angel hair pasta
16 ounces mixed vegetables (sugar snap pea variety is what I used)
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
And of course, it helped that the recipe was called "super easy lo mein" cause I'd never made it before and anything super easy sounded like a good place to start.
So I ordered hoisin sauce for my next Fresh Direct delivery and right after Mr. Direct drove away, I commenced to cooking. I was really rather pleased with myself trying something new and particularly something new that included … hoisin sauce? (I tasted it first, rather timidly but it turned out to be pretty good.)
Of course, I made a lot. I like to make extra so I don't have to cook when I crawl through the door at night after a long day of crushing hopes and dreams and generally making writers miserable.
(Wait, that's really just a perk of the job, I don't get to do it all day. Some minutes I have to eat cupcakes and make sure the Query Blacklist is au courant. But I digress)
And when the lo mein was ready I got out my shark bowl and chopsticks and dove in.
And holy fucking moly it was the WORST thing I'd tasted since I don't know when. Maybe since I ate soap on a dare in nursery school.
It was flat, bland and such a disappointment. If the sea weren't already in danger of being too salty from shark tears***, I would have wept.
Plus now I was HUNGRY! I made a chicken sandwich, and reminded myself there was ice cream if the day got worse and retired to kvetch about this mishap on Twitter:
And sure enough a couple people did.
And were kind enough to send recipes.
Here's one of them:
2 tablespoons (2 turns around the pan in a slow drizzle) vegetable or wok oil
1 cup (2 handfuls) snow peas, halved on a diagonal
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into match stick size pieces
1/2 pound assorted mushrooms (shiitake, straw, enoki, or oyster), coarsely chopped, if necessary
4 scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
2 cups (about 4 handfuls) fresh bean spouts
2 inches fresh ginger root, minced or grated with hand grater
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound lo mein noodles or thin spaghetti, cooked to al dente and drained well
1/2 cup aged tamari soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, several drops
I stare at this recipe for a couple minutes, and the light goes on over my head.
This new recipe has only one crucial difference.
Can you spot it?
It's oil. Oil gives most recipes their flavor AND brings out the flavor in other ingrediants. The first recipe doesn't have any. I hadn't noticed cause I'd never made lo mein before and I wasn't thinking "hey, what does this recipe need that it doesn't have."
So, I sautéed some shallots and some mushrooms in some olive oil cause I didn't have toasted sesame oil (but I sure ordered it quick from my honey pie Fresh Direct) added the Terrible Lo Mein and presto redemption. There's nothing olive oil, shallots and mushrooms won't improve.
Well, except ice cream. And coffee… ok, there's a lot of things it won't improve but lo mein is one thing it surely does.
Now, I can hear you asking "hey SharkForBrains, this is, as usual!, all about you. When do we get to ME. Specifically when do we get to how this dinner disaster is going to help me with my novel."
Ok, here it is.
When you're writing your first novel (or maybe novelS) you're making lo mein for the first time. You've READ novels, and loved them (I hope!) but you haven't actually written the 95,000 words that make a novel yet. So you do. And you read it and you know…it's not quite right. But not quite right isn't the same as knowing what's wrong.
This is where a good crit group comes in. A second set of eyes, much like my second recipe, can often help you spot what you don't know is MISSING. It's easy to point out errors on the page, but it's MUCH harder to point out what ISN'T there.
And if you don't have a good crit group, this is where reading the top authors in your category can be really helpful. Read them with a writer's eye. Try to see what they have that you don't. It's not as simple as analyzing a list of ingredients but the principal is the same. Find what isn't there in your book. Once you know, you can add it, or as I will be doing this weekend, starting over on a whole new lo mein adventure.