Green!!

Nope, not green for spring, ‘cuz it’s not here yet.  (I’m angry about the global warming that is apparently affecting the continent of North America but giving the north of China the finger…)

Nor am I going belatedly green for St. Patty’s day, though I was forced to do so at work and host a slipshod party for the students, wherein me and my coworker gave away a bottle of Baileys to the person wearing the most green, and I showed a dubiously culturally relevant youku clip of river dancing monkeys.  Thank god none of my coworkers are actually Irish.  Or actually if any of them were we would’ve made them throw the party and I’m sure it would’ve been much truer to its roots (and much less sober of an affair.)

The green I’m going on about is in the form of (what else) food!  And drinks!  Nonalcoholic ones, for a change.  

I’m late to get on the green smoothie bandwagon, but I am now securely seated thereon.  I saw this idea on blog (http://www.flourishandfancy.com/2012/03/smoothie-love-take-one.html),  featured on another blog (http://www.aflatteringtale.com/) of a former classmate of mine.  This is why the blogosphere (god, what a wretched word) rocks: a blog you follow leads you to another blog which leads you to an awesome green smoothie.  Which you make as soon as you apprehend some spinach.

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If you’re skeptical of whizzing salad fixings into your smoothie, please don’t be.  If you’ve ever tried any type of bottled smoothies with names like “Green Goodness,” or “Green Machine,” than you’ll understand why it’s a genius concept.  

Though the pureed greens lend the drink vibrant green color, the taste of the fruit and fruit juices dominate.  I really couldn’t detect the flavor of spinach at all.  

I used a frozen banana, plain yogurt, honey, strawberry juice, orange juice, and a vibrant pile of spinach. Whirr away, and you’ve got a delicious, vibrant smoothie with fruit AND veggies, all in one!  I’m impossibly stoked about this.  So stoked, I’m using words like stoked.  

But, lest you think with this smoothie and the usage of “stoked,” I’ve used up all my reserves of California hippie-ness, think again!

Oh yeah, we’re talking more green, in the form of avocados!  

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I’m of the conviction few foods are more perfect than perfectly ripe avocados.  I mean, really.  All they need is to be sliced or diced and sprinkled with a whisper of fleur de sel.  Creamy, silky, mild, indulgent perFECtion.  

This one, however, was turned into my favorite breakfast ever: Avocado on Toast (must that be capitalized?  Whatevs, I’m going with it; it’s a proper name, yo.)

Avocado on Toast isn’t just that.  It’s a little misleading that way.  You could slice some avocado on toast and I’ve no doubt that would be divine.  But I find it’s even more divine if you lightly mash the avocado with a clove of garlic, a few jags of hot sauce, chopped cilantro or parsley (or both), a squeeze of lemon or lime, salt and pepper, and a squirt of mayonnaise, if that’s your thang.  I know avocado is lovely and creamy on its own, but sometimes mayo is the correct thing to do.  I like fat.  (In food, not on my body…what, the two are related?  Whaaa?)

Don’t over-mash the avocado–you want a chunky mixture, not a puree.  Smear it on some hot crunchy toast (nice sourdough, preferably) and hot damn, that is the most perfect breakfast I ever did see:

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Wait a sec.  Isn’t this essentially guacamole on toast?  A variation of it, maybe.  I wouldn’t be adverse to dipping tortilla chips in it.  But I like to add chopped jalapenos and canned green chiles into my guacamole.  And I like more lime juice.  And, I’d never put mayonnaise into guacamole.  Maybe I’d swirl it with sour cream on a taco (OK, actually I know I would do that.)  

So yeah, it’s close.  But it’s more of an avocado spread than guacamole.  Oh, also I’d put fresh ripe chopped tomatoes into guacamole as well.  I really go to town with guacamole, apparently.  I can appreciate simpler versions, but I like lots of zingy flavors of raw onion, spice, and fresh tomato.

I can also testify the avocado spread is excellent on a breakfast sandwich, with a fried egg and a slice of melted gouda cheese.  I’m sure it would embellish a slew of sandwiches in a similarly delicious way (turkey and swiss with ripe tomato, a veggie sandwich with tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, and bell peppers…K I’ll let you take it from there.)

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Not sure why there’s a psychedelic glow in this photo–maybe it’s all the positive energy coming from this healthy, green breakfast, man.  Just kidding.  

That said, if you make this for breakfast, or anytime, you will feel energized by the nutrients and flavors of this delectable smoothie and spread.  Go green!

 

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French Toast Flop

The concept was good: make sandwiches of sliced bread smeared with cream cheese/butter/almond syrup on one side, cherry jam on the other.  Arrange these sandwiches in a pool of beaten eggs, milk, and more almond syrup.  Add a dash of brandy.  Sprinkle crushed almonds and dried cherries throughout.

See?  Nice concept, right?  But the final product, while sweet and creamy and gooey (and thereby pretty highly edible, and even tasty) didn’t fulfill my French toast fantasy.  For starters, the best French toast uses fluffy white bread, or brioche.  I used your everyday wheat sandwich bread.  Also, since I baked it in the oven, the side facing up was crusty and brown, while the underside was a bit sodden.  I wonder if it would’ve been better if I’d diced the sandwich into cubes, then baked that.  Like a French toast bread pudding. The ratio of crusty to soggy bits would’ve been better.

Also, for the egg “custard” and the brown butter milk sauce I poured over the top, I used soy milk, because that’s all I had.  I’m not opposed to soy milk (obviously, since I voluntarily brought it into the house), but really, when you’re making French toast, you want real, full-fat dairy.  Just like you want fluffy, soft, eggy bread with no pesky wholesome quality.

I grew up eating French toast prepared on a griddle, and as I recall, those slices got browned and crusty on the outside, but retained a tender eggy interior.  I think because I used a sandwich method, and the toast was two slices deep, and stuffed with gooey cream cheese, it predisposed the end result toward sogginess.

So what lessons to garner from my French toast foibles?

The lessons are three-fold:

1.  Use brioche or fluffy French bread.

2.   One layer of bread is best, so the slices can be crusty/tender instead of soggy.

3.  Use real milk!  Unless you are dairy adverse or allergic, real milk will produce the French toast of your childhood.  Unless you were raised by hippies.  Then you might want to use soy.

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Feasting on the Fly

The other night I found myself in for a solitary evening at the apartment, wondering what I could fix for dinner.  Should I fix something Chinese, rich and savory with umami?  I had a cabinet full of sesame oil, miso, vinegar, and hot spices.  I’ve found myself making more use of these ingredients of late, perhaps because my new budget has me in the kitchen more, determined to make use of local (read: cheaper) supermarket fare.  I’ve made some delicious stir-fried cabbage and rice with diced sauteed kielbasa and pickled vegetables.  I throw in dashes of savory oils and spices as inspiration seizes me–a sprinkle of sesame seeds here, a dab of miso there.  The finished products are delicious and heady with hot and sour and spicy notes, accenting the crunch of the cabbage and the salty meat.

But tonight I didn’t want something so salty, so infused with Asian umami, glorious as it is.  I wanted pasta.  I wanted olive oil, and capers, and roasted little tomatoes.  And anchovies!  OK, so maybe I did want salt.

Off to Chaoyang Da Yue Chang I went, for my tomatoes and other essentials.

A city of malls and shabby apartment complexes, and sometimes lovely winter sunsets

Back at the apartment, I lobbed my tomatoes in half and roasted them with olive oil.  I rinsed spinach and left it draining in the colander.  I decided to get fancy and followed a method I saw for making garlic chips on Matt Armendariz’s blog, “Matt Bites.”  He has you boil the garlic in water, ostensibly to mellow and soften it, before slicing it thinly and frying it in a pan with olive oil.  I decided to go crazy and fry my capers as well.

I opened the can of Chinese anchovies I’d picked up, and gingerly removed a few from the tin.  They smelled like cat food, and I briefly reconsidered defiling my pasta with their stinky saltiness.  Then I thought, eh, what the heck, and tossed them to sizzle in the pan with more oil.

Anchovies--a fish not for the fainthearted...or nostriled

I broke these up and added my tomatoes, the fried capers, salt, pepper, spinach, and a bit of salty pasta water from the spaghetti I had boiled.  I added this all back into the spaghetti pot with the pasta and mixed vigorously to incorporate all the lovely gooey tomatoes and spinach in with the noodles.

On the side I tossed some extra spinach with toasted almonds, pumpkin seeds, dried cherries, and blue cheese.  I made up a vinaigrette with mustard, plum jam, white wine vinegar, and olive oil.

Naturally, while I was cooking I sipped a red grape cognac martini.  Just for class, of course.

100% red grape juice, well-chilled good cognac, and a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar do a delicious cocktail make

I piled my pasta onto my plate, topped with a few extra roasted tomatoes, sprinkled with the garlic chips, and mounded salad on the side.  I poured the dregs from a bottle of Chilean rose into a glass and sat down to a feast for one.  The pasta was delicious.  Freshly shaved parmesan cheese would have sent it over the top, but the roasted tomatoes, crunchy garlic chips, salty capers and anchovies made for a fresh and complex spaghetti.  The salad was the perfect accompaniment.  How can you go wrong with dark leafy greens, toasted nuts and blue cheese?  I’ll tell you: you can’t.

Since I was on a roll I decided to make Smitten Kitchen’s potato chip cookies.  I’ll spare you all the details, because you can go to her site to see those.

(http://smittenkitchen.com/2012/01/potato-chip-cookies/)

However, I will urge you to do so immediately, because these cookies were phenomenal.  I used regular old Lays and crushed them pretty coarsely.  I used almonds instead of pecans, and added chopped dark chocolate.  I dipped the finished cookies in dark chocolate, and sprinkled them with more chopped almonds and potato chips.

Perfection.  There were like potato chip sandies, which, if you think that sounds weird, just push your doubts aside and plough ahead.  They were so simple, because shortbread usually is.  The dough was easy to work with, roll into neat little balls and in sugar, before squishing them flat with a drinking glass.  I loved them.  Salty, sweet, crunchy, refined, crumbly, unexpected.

So if you don’t have anchovies, tomatoes, blue cheese, nuts, or potato chips knocking about your cupboards, I sincerely urge you to make a dash for those and get cooking!  With a martini in hand.

These are as good as they look. Trust me. Make 'em!

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Like a Holiday

The Chinese New Year dinner was a success, although Daniel was so busy translating and snapping pictures, he barely got to eat.

We asked questions about what it was like living in Beijing during the 1960s and 70s.  It was a bit surreal as the fireworks exploded outside the window and we feasted on fish and chicken wings and lotus root to hear stories of how Daniel’s parents used to eat leaves and roots to supplement their ration of dried beans.  As we sipped sparkling wine we listened as Daniel translated their words about how baijiu used to cost a few fen, and you could eat an entire restaurant feast for a couple quai.

They said people were happier back then, though.  We incredulously asked how they could be happy if they were starving.  Because of the translation it was a bit confusing to tell exactly what time they were referring to…maybe they meant the happier time came later, when the food rations increased and the periods of extreme deprivation had passed.    They said people aren’t as happy now, though.  Even though people have so much more, they aren’t as happy.

We were happy, though, despite the somber recollections.  Daniel’s dad bustled around to get beers out for everyone, and his mom brought out plate after plate of boiled dumplings filled with pork and greens.  We dunked them into garlicky vinegar, and clinked our glasses to the new year.  It felt like a holiday, spent with family, crowded around a table with funny awkward lulls and cozy chatter and contented eating.

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Changes in the Dragon’s Year

The year of the dragon is almost upon us.

We’re going to have dinner with Daniel’s parents, which should be interesting as they don’t speak English, and we don’t speak Chinese.  Daniel will enjoy being our translator, I’m sure.  He said we were in charge of cooking steaks.  I’m not sure why steaks should be on the menu, other than apparently they were what Brett served to Daniel the first time they hung out.  Daniel arrived bearing a bottle of wine, a custom he observed from Friends (a show he’s watched in its entirety about thirty times.  I’m not exaggerating.)

Apparently the steaks made an impression on him as a typical American dinner dish.  I’d assume this is the reason he wants us to prepare them for his parents.  Daniel always thinks about details.  He said his mother offered to cook them, but he said, “No.  You can cook dumplings.”  Apparently his mother’s cooking skills are not renowned.  However, neither are our steak skills.  Steaks and dumplings.  A strange pairing, but we’ll keep the wine flowing and I’m sure it’ll all go down fine.

The days leading up to the new year have been quiet.  Brett arrived home on Sunday night.  We celebrated our reunion and five-year anniversary (holy wow) with rose Moet.  A splurge, but the occasion justified it, I felt.  I love a nice cava or prosecco for everyday drinking, or even a cocktail party.  But I’ve been wanting to try this Moet for awhile.

It was delicious.  Dry, crisp, and…yeah, my sparkling wine descriptors are a bit limited.  And it was three nights ago.  Fruity?  No, I don’t think it was fruity.  It was fancy, OK?

Brett popping the bubbly

Keeping in the fancy vein, we had some Hilshire Farms summer sausage Brett brought back.  He got a little carried away and brought three big rolls of it.  Apparently he’s really into H.F. cured meats.  With it we had saltines and a Laughing Cow variety pack of cheeses.  Individually wrapped cubes of blue cheese, cheddar, and original processed cheese.  Yeah baby.  If I’d thought ahead I should have arranged a picnic to match the champagne, complete with pate, baguette, and good French cheese from Le Fromager du Pekin.  However,  Hilshire salami and Laughing Cow are delicious in their own right.

Winter hibernation has settled in in earnest.  I’m on holiday for Spring Festival, and I’m sick, again.  Also the past three days have been swathed in a thick and shrouding pollution.  The city is obscured in white.  Even if my throat wasn’t raspy and my nose not alternately dripping and clogged, I wouldn’t go out to breathe hard in that muck.  I can feel my muscles atrophy as I type, but it’s a question of exercising my heart while destroying my lungs.  I just don’t feel it’s worth it.

This was a few days ago, though I can hardly believe it...the pollution has blotted out all other memories of Beijing other than a grungy ghost city

B. and I are trying to decide what to do after this summer.  Should we return to Beijing, or no?  Factors like the current weather situation lead us toward no.  But there are other things as well…

We’d miss Daniel.  And I’d miss our little apartment, in which I’ve spent many a lovely lazy morning like this:

Beijing has become home, in a way.  I’ve had my first real job here, if you can call teaching English in China that.  I mean I’m employed by a major company and I earn my keep, more or less.

It’s a place of extremes.  I’ve had wonderful moments here, and adventures.  I’ve loved trying the cuisine.  My knowledge of and love for Chinese food has grown exponentially.  I know there’s so much food I’ll miss and crave when I leave.

And maybe we aren’t leaving yet.  Maybe we’ll stick around for a little while yet.  I certainly hoped to introduce a few friends and family members to my Beijing.  It would be a shame not to be able to.

But essentially, for me, Beijing is not a sustainable place.  I mean, it can’t sustain me, personally.  Maybe no place can…maybe…maybe I should start quoting Dylan or some other ballad about drifting souls and wanderers.

I certainly know some can and do live here for long periods of time, or lifetimes.  They weather the icy dreary winters, the bitter winds, the spring sandstorms, the summer humidity, the white fog pollution.  And perhaps their bodies and psyches aren’t too damages by it all.  The city certainly has other charms (dumplings, anyone?) to balance out the harshness of the weather and grime.

But other cities and landscapes beckon.  Maybe even clean American cities, where I’ll pursue the old American dream, before it crumbles…try to slice off a bit of that pie (apple, naturally) before it’s gone.

In the meantime, I’ll brave the cold and go into the city to meet friends and eat delicious food and soak up the crazy eastern charm of this old city.

 

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A Quiet (Caffeinated) Toast

2011 went out with a bang, or rather a blaze of pulsing lasers synchronized to pounding music in a warehouse in 798. Our group filtered out into the bitter new year’s night and packed Brett, huge suitcase and all, into a black cab and bade him goodbye.

We ate hot pot, largely due to the Chinese contingent’s clamoring. It seems western and eastern drunk food ideals differ vastly. Mike and I spoke wistfully about the virtues of diner food while we fished lotus root and wilted cabbage out of the burbling spicy liquid.

In the spirit of contrast, the first day of the year was quiet and lovely. I went into town and had the garish yellow tiger stripes in my hair dyed over with a modest light brown. I ate hummus topped with warm mushroom, and tabbouleh. I read Maxine Hong Kingston in Fish Eye, over a warm latte. To cap off the luxury, I saw a film…a rather overwrought murder mystery starring Elijah Wood. The dialogue was sometimes cringe-worthy, but the experience of the plush theater seats, my own popcorn box, a smuggled chocolate cowtail and a can of cream soda was so worth the 80 kuai ticket.

I’ll feel Brett’s absence in the next couple of weeks, but I like solitude. I’ll get some writing done and muse over the possibilities brimming in 2012.

Last year was a good one. A few highlights were:

-The move to the gritty burbs with Daniel. Occasionally I miss the convenience of Tuanjiehu but overall an excellent decision. I love our little cozy apartment, even with its aqua galley kitchen.
-The whirlwind two weeks in Tennessee with family and friends. Finally got to see the French Mansion!
-The Irish contingent descending on Beijing. Such fun rowdy and relaxed times–McDonalds ordered, the Great Wall scaled, roast duck carved and consumed. So much fun!
-My first Thanksgiving dinner in China. 2010 was spent in Thailand, so this year was the first time I hosted and pulled it off with the Chinese fam.
-All the mundane and lovely moments with the gang. Dancing, cooking, debating, laughing with Kurt, D., Valena, Ileana, Mike, Ashley, Josh, and many more.

In 2012, I can’t wait for:

-My spring festival vacation in a few weeks. We haven’t picked a location yet, but contenders are: Yunnan, the Philippines, and Sanya.
-My trip home this summer. It’s gonna be jam-packed full of beautiful people and places.
-The birth of my nephew in May!!!!!!!!!!!
-Rachelle’s wedding
-Chandler’s wedding
-Visiting California after a five-year absence (In-n-Out Burger, I’m dreamin’ of you!)
-Exploring Beijing in the rest of my time here, and scheming what’s next!

Here’s to 2012. I raise my Starbucks double tall latte to what’s coming.

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Chinese Thanksgiving, Twice

A week after the fact and finally the butter is chilling in the freezer for pie pastry.  I’m making pumpkin and pecan, the favorite pie (fraternal) twins of Thanksgiving.  Though really, in our clan Mom’s famous chocolate pie was the real winner.  Rich and creamy and deep dark chocolate on the bottom, unsweetened whipped cream on top, cradled in a buttery Nilla wafter crust and flecked with shaved chocolate, it was heaven with each creamy, cool, crust-crumbly forkful.

This year, though, I’m going traditional rather than familial.  The chocolate pie’s filling requires eggs to be whipped into fluffy oblivion, and I don’t have a hand mixer.

I’m using a recipe from Epicurious for Bourbon Pumpkin Pie, and for the pecan, I’m doctoring up a jarred filling…with more bourbon.  Yes.

At one of the import stores my eyes snagged on a jar I recognized.  At Gardners Market, the little sandwich shop I worked at during my university years, one of the many whimsical food items we carried was a large jar labeled “Pecan Pie In-a-Jar.”  This might seem superfluous, perhaps even more so because the ingredients in the jar were a straightforward blend of pecans, light and dark corn syrup, sugar, natural flavor, and salt.  Why would you need to buy a jar of these ingredients?

Why indeed.  Maybe you would if you lived in China, wherein a shopping list for Thanksgiving essentials necessitates treks across the city to all the various import stores.  Rather than going on another (probably fruitless, or rather, nutless) search for pecans, when I saw the jar, I felt a profound relief.  All my pie filling needs, provided in one cute and exorbitantly overpriced jar, with the bonus of nostalgic remembrance.  Done and done.

We tried to have Thanksgiving on Monday, and we mostly succeeded, except Daniel wasn’t there.  He couldn’t get back from the military base, and in the drawn out waiting for a word from him, I vacillated about what to do.  Should we cancel completely?  Should we extend our celebration even further from the sacred Thanksgiving Thursday we’d already missed (both Brett and I worked that day, till 9 p.m.)?  Or would Daniel show up at the eleventh hour?

A turkey was perhaps going to be ordered, if Daniel could come, if it wasn’t too late…

and then he finally wrote in that he couldn’t make it.

Fact: I don’t handle disappointment well.  When I got the news I halted my fluttery preparations for the evening and sank into despair.  Yes, we had other friends coming, but Daniel’s our family.  What’s the point of Thanksgiving without family?  (To the friends who made it: you’re dearly loved and valued, but when you live with a dear friend it makes them even more familial…you share all those mundane home moments.)

I rallied, or Brett rallied me, and I set about my corn pudding and my stuffing.  Then Josh called to inform us that, in the confusion of waiting for Daniel and calling the turkey shop to check about cooking times, the turkey had been ordered and was en route.

What?   But…Daniel isn’t coming!  Ah good grief.  Whatever.

So we had our Thanksgiving turkey in the end, four days late.  Without Daniel.

And now, tomorrow, since he’s home, we’re going to go for round two.  This time, we’ll be eating leftover turkey.  I’m going to make green bean casserole, and a repeat of the delicious corn pudding we had a few days ago.

We always had corn pudding at Thanksgivings in Tennessee.  I wasn’t really aware until recently that it’s a southern Thanksgiving tradition, though that makes sense–what with the south’s obsession with grits.

Corn pudding was never a must-have side for me at those family gatherings.  I’ll have to ask my mom or grandma what went into it, but this year I went for something different.

In perusing the internet, I looked over loads of recipes.  Some called for whipped egg whites, some for freshly shucked ears of corn, some called for not much more than canned creamed corn and butter and an egg or two.

The one that caught my eye was one on the Food Network site, using creamed corn, frozen corn kernels, cornmeal, and a healthy knob of butter and cream cheese, along with some shredded cheddar.  Buttery, cheesy corn pudding?  Yes please.  The one I was raised on never had cheese, but I knew the richness of the cream cheese and sharp tang of the cheddar would work beautifully with sunny yellow corn.

And it did.  It was rich, nicely browned, creamy, and cheesy.  In other words, divine.

It’s been a patched up and strung out holiday, but this year I’m thankful for my family here in China, as small and mismatched as it is, and I’m thankful I can spend tomorrow with them eating leftover turkey and (mostly) homemade pie.

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