Kungpao Chicken, Spinach and Glass Noodle Salad, Fried Rice

So somehow it’s already April and no longer winter and the weather has been turning beautiful. It rained for the first time since I’ve been here, a slow, seeping sort of drizzle, and after that it would appear that our courtyard is actually quite pretty. Forsythia have been blossoming for a while already, but I only noticed this week the sudden sweep of colors on the trees, soft pink cherry blossoms yielding their petals to the softest breeze, budding magnolias and these thick waxy white blossoms as well.

Tomorrow is Tomb Sweeping Day, so everyone who works in an office has the day off, and had to make it up on Saturday. The holiday hasn’t affected my schedule besides Frisbee practice changing from Saturday to Sunday, so I was able to make the Saturday cooking class. Yesterday I had a long day festooned with sick little children and awkward Frenchmen pretending to be British to qualify for better English teaching jobs. The kids were mostly cute, but rambunctious, and again with the very different standard of hygiene and jamming fingers up noses. It was a long day-my first lesson was at 9 and I didn’t get home until 5:30.

We went to a restaurant on Chaoyangmen Nan street for dinner. The food was excellent, although I won’t go there regularly because they have the stupid short tables and chairs that only a small child could feel comfortable in-and I’m saying this as a short person. The boys were folded up like spiders trying to eat. We had dumplings in a spicy soup, wide flat noodles with braised meat (tasty but quite salty), spinach and egg, vegetable stir fry, and meatballs, which Bambi liked but I thought were too mushy and slightly undercooked to enjoy. The waitress was adorable and had a huge thing for Bambi. Poor girl.

I was still wary of bike riding this morning so I caught a cab, and the driver informed me that it was far too early to go to the very touristy area where I was headed, and I had to explain that I wasn’t a tourist, I was in fact living in Beijing and on my way to work. He seemed amazed that they teach Chinese in America.

After a bit of a nap in the afternoon (my scheduled student canceled, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time than sleep), I went to the vegetable market. Someone had a black squirrel with tufty ears in a cage and it was going berserk, flinging itself against the sides and running all around. As cute as I think most pets are, I am always so depressed by seeing animals in cages. I haven’t decided if it’s more depressing when they’re actively fighting to get out or when they’ve given up hope and get all lethargic.

Made my usual purchases at the market, and also picked up some pickled mustard root, 榨菜(zhacai),used in Sichuan cooking, and some raw peanuts and cashews. Decided to go all out and practice some of the recipes I learned at the Kitchen for dinner: fried rice, spinach and glass noodle salad and kung pao chicken.

I started out mincing enough garlic, leek and ginger for all three dishes. Then started the rice in a cooker. The fried rice is pretty simple: cut a carrot and a cucumber into matchstick size pieces, rotate 90 degrees and dice finely. Heat a decent amount of oil in a wok, scramble two eggs, add the veggies, then the rice, salt and pepper, and optional, a few dashes of Magi and light soy. Mix well.

For the spinach salad and kungpao chicken, I first cooked the nuts. Peanuts are used in both of these, but I prefer cashews with my chicken. Pour oil in a wok. Add the nuts to the cold oil, then bring the temperature up slowly until the peanut skin begins to crack, or the cashews are almost brown. Do not cook them thoroughly-they will continue to cook outside the pot and once you add them to a hot dish.

Briefly blanch the spinach just to wilt the leaves. Soak glass noodles -also known as mung bean vermicelli or bean thread, not rice thread- in boiling water for five minutes, strain. Cut the noodles into bite size pieces, thoroughly drain the spinach leaves and tear them up. Add generous spoonfuls of peanuts. Ginger leek and garlic, light soy sauce, a dash of vinegar, salt and pepper, some hot chili oil. Toss, and serve cold.

After beating water and cornstarch and salt into the cubed chicken, I lightly deep fried it to cook it through, then removed from heat. About three tablespoons of oil in the wok, added a bunch of Sichuan peppercorns, let them infuse, then remove. Tossed a handful of dried red chilies into the hot oil, let that cook off the heat, since it immediately got all smoky and filled the kitchen with capsicum fumes that had me watery eyed and coughing. Diced green pepper, the rest of the ginger leek and garlic soon went into the pot, followed by the chicken, and then slowly stir in the sauce: light and dark soy, sugar, chicken stock, pepper, cornstarch to thicken it up a bit. Lastly, the cashews (or peanuts), give a quick toss, and serve.

It all came out very well. I was worried about how spicy I had made the chicken but it was good, if a bit salty. Definitely dishes to keep in my repertoire and pretty simple/fast to throw together at least one. I think I’m going to try mapo tofu and Sichuan wok fried green beans sometime this week once I figure out the next night I’ll be around home for dinner.

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