Comfort Food

It’s cold. It’s been cold. It’s going to remain cold. I’m definitely the hibernate/stuff-your-face-while-you-wait-out-winter kind of person. I’m a big believer in comfort food. During the holiday I snacked a lot on my homemade ricotta cheese, but I had several tubs of the stuff. I decided to make lasagna rolls to use some of it up. I didn’t feel like making a whole dish of lasagna for just the two of us when we had so much other stuff in the fridge, so this seemed like a better idea.

6 sheets of lasagna
Ricotta Cheese
3/4 cup ground pork mixed with salt, pepper, cooking wine, garlic, and fennel, and browned, or crumbled sweet Italian sausage
Tomato Sauce
Grated Parmesan Cheese

Boil each sheet of lasagna and set aside. I brushed mine with a little olive oil just to keep them from sticking to anything. Then spread ricotta cheese over the length on each sheet, and covered with a layer of the ground pork, and rolled it all up, using a bit of ricotta to seal it. Line up the rolls in a baking dish, and covered it with tomato sauce, sprinkled cheese over it, and baked for forty minutes at 200C.

I made meatballs and spaghetti as well. I had a lot of ground meat in the freezer to use up, and I wanted to try and make them a little bit healthier, so I made them with half chicken and half pork (curse China for not having ground turkey available except for exorbitant prices)

1 pound ground chicken
1 pound ground beef
3/4 cup panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated parmesan
Soy sauce, cooking wine, Maggi seasoning, salt, pepper, minced basil
4 shallots, minced (because I didn’t have any onions)
3 eggs

Mix all of the ingredients together. Form into small balls, line up in a baking dish, and bake at 200C for 20 minutes, turning over with a pair of tongs halfway through. I finished them off in a pot with tomato sauce and served over spaghetti.

The best thing about it being cold is that you can justify drinking a cup (or two) of steamy hot chocolate. I didn’t feel like shelling out an overpriced amount of kuai on a container of subpar cocoa mix at Jenny Lou’s, and Sawyer had ever so kindly made room in his luggage to bring me back two boxes of dutch-processed cocoa powder, so I whipped up a small batch of my own using Alton Brown’s recipe. I don’t have anything big enough to keep 5 cups of mix in, so I made rough estimates on the amounts.

Hot Chocolate
1 small glass Ikea bowl of powdered sugar
1 small glass Ikea bowl of powdered milk
2/3 small glass Ikea bowl of dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 tiny Ikea glass bowl (about 2 tsp.) of corn starch
A pinch of salt
A pinch of cinnamon
A smaller pinch of chili powder, for a bit of a kick

Whisk together until thoroughly mixed. I took a jar with me to work today, because after a week of vacation, the office feels like a refrigerator. I’ve already had two cups just to stave off hypothermia. So much for being healthy.

And on a side note, being healthy is killing me. All this waking up at 6 am, dragging my butt over to the gym is terrible. All of my movable parts are angry at me and I’ve got a blister on the bottom of my heel and I’m about to pass out on my desk from sheer exhaustion (okay maybe I shouldn’t have stayed up ’til 1 AM reading another James Clavell novel). All I want is a slice of chocolate cake and to hide in bed and never get up until it’s at least 65 degrees outside.

That Time Chinese New Year Attacked Bambi

Oh vacation. After a week of supreme laziness, I will truly miss being able to not set an alarm clock. I slept in every day, gone running a few times, cooked a lot, watched a lot of movies and read a few books. Fantastic.

Although this week has been defined by our staying inside and being hermits, we did get out a few times. Monday, some friends made a reservation for Atmosphere, where the prices match their elevation. Enjoyed a couple very lovely cocktails though, notably a lemongrass infused gin gimlet and a Moscow mule. The view of the city, clear of pollution, was spectacular, especially as we could see fireworks set off all over.

Sawyer came back from the states with what I can only assume is a six month supply of quinoa. We made two meals with it this week.

Quinoa with Sausage and Bell Pepper
1 cup of quinoa
2 cups of chicken stock
1/2 cup ground pork (or crumbled Italian sausage)
Fennel seeds, Italian herbs, salt, fresh ground pepper,
Splash of cooking wine
2 cloves minced garlic
1 small green pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, minced
1 large shallot, minced

I brought the stock to boil, then added the quinoa, covered and let it absorb all the wate,r about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I mixed the cooking wine, herbs and spices into the ground pork and browned it in a saute pan. Once cooked, I added the celery and shallot, and once that was softened, the green pepper. once the quinoa was cooked, I tossed that together, with a little olive oil, lemon juice, butter and honey as a dressing. On the side, we had halved raw radishes smeared with my homemade ricotta and a little sea salt and fresh ground pepper on top.

The other recipe I liked more.
Quinoa and Chicken Salad
1 cup quinoa, cooked
2 chicken breasts, cut into cubes
1 cup arugula
2 sweet potatoes, cubed
1/2 a pumelo, peeled and broken into fragments

I marinated the chicken with salt, pepper, a dash of cooking wine and some Maggi seasoning, then cooked in a saute pan with just a small bit of oil. Boiled the cubes of sweet potato until a fork pierced it easily. Tossed the chicken, quinoa, pumelo and arugula altogether with a dressing Sawyer made of dijon mustard, live oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and honey.

Delicious AND Healthy

In the middle of the week, we motivated enough to stir outside and check out one of the many temple fairs, known as miao hui that go on during chunjie. We found a temple that I didn’t even know existed right on my way to work. Dongyue temple, smaller than most, which I’m glad, because it was plenty crowded, and Ditan Park, our second choice, would probably have been overwhelming. We bought some overpriced lamb chuanr which would have tasted fine if the middle still weren’t frozen (pre-emptive immodium? perhaps). Sawyer tried his luck at the pellet-rifle balloon popping game (I abstained, didn’t want to make him look bad. Last time I played that game, the only ones who matched my score were a Marine and an Army officer. Whoopsie.) It was quite festive and bright with performances, music, dancing. Also, freezing. While beautifully sunny and not windy, it was still frigid out there.

Dongyue Temple Fair entrance

Sawyer tries his luck shooting balloons

Friday night we met up with Ginny, Bambi and Dina for dinner. We had called Xian Lao Man in advance to find out if they were open. Someone answered the phone, so Sawyer assumed that meant they were open for business. We got to the branch in Gulou, the lights were on, people were inside, and the door was open, but when we went inside we were shooed away and told they were closed.

We walked down Gulou and eventually down Nanluo Guxiang in search of a restaurant that was actually open. Halfway down Nanluoguxiang, suddenly everyone started scattering backwards and this big guy started setting off the largest, loudest fireworks right in the middle of the street. We must have been 30, 40 yards away but somehow some shrapnel managed to hit Bambi right in the face, cutting his lip rather badly. Bleeding and quite livid, he almost started a fight, yelling at the guy for being an idiot. On one hand, it is the culture here, this is their holiday, the holiday where people set off explosives in the middle of the street and no one cares. On the other hand, it was stupid of the guy to set off such a large explosive in a crowded area such as Nanluo which is always packed with people, even during the holidays, and to be a dick about it. We managed to pull Bambi away from starting a brawl, and found a nice Yunan restaurant on an alley north of Gulou. Dinner was pleasant and extremely tasty, notably braised chicken with mint and a dish of assorted braised mushrooms. We ate quite a bit before heading to a friend’s house to play that silly dance-in-front-of-a-screen game that’s quite scary because it knows exactly what you’re doing and we are living in the future and the Singularity is approaching.

Year of the Dragon

Happy Spring Festival!

I went to Sanyuanli on Friday and discovered they would be closed over the week until Thursday for the holiday. So I bought as much as I could carry and that I thought might fit in the fridge, because that’s clearly the proper reaction, before heading to a lesson at the Westin.

Sawyer finally came home Saturday evening so I planned a nice little dinner.
First I made my own ricotta cheese. I tried and failed to do this several months back, but this time I used a thermometer and it succeeded wildly. Now it seems I might have too much delicious ricotta! (Is that even possible?) Technically it’s not proper ricotta, more of a cottage or farmer’s cheese, since real ricotta is made from the sweet whey of hard cheeses. But it’s soft, spreadable, and tastes much the same.

Ricotta, after draining and chilling for several hours

Homemade Ricotta: 2 1/2 cups cream, 3 1/2 cups whole milk. 3 Tbs of lemon juice and 1 Tbs white vinegar. Lemon gives it a nice lemony flavor and the white vinegar makes sure the acidity level is enough. Slowly bring the milk and cream, plus a pinch of sea salt, to 190F, stirring to keep the bottom from scorching. Once it reaches 190F, remove the milk from heat, pour in the lemon juice and vinegar, give it one stir and let it sit for 5 minutes. Prepare a colander with a double lining of cheesecloth over a large bowl to catch the whey. Pour the curdled milk into the strainer and let it drain for about 2 hours. I let it drain overnight in the fridge, which makes it a little more firm. I’ve been snacking on it, spread on slices of baguette, drizzled with honey for breakfast, and sea salt and pepper for snacks.

Saturday afternoon after another class I went to April Gourmet and Wumart to pick up a few more things. Man was it packed! Everyone scrambling to get their last minute purchases before all their relatives come into town.

First I made dessert. Sanyuanli had some big bins of strawberries come in, and I couldn’t resist buying some. I decided to make lemon-ricotta stuffed strawberries. I took a cupful of ricotta, blended it with powdered sugar and the zest of a whole lemon, creaming it with a spoon until it was soft and pliable. Used a paring knife to hollow out the strawberries, and then piped them full of ricotta using a ziplock bag as a pastry bag. It was a little messy, as the bag kept springing leaks, but I got it done and even managed to make them look pretty.

Hollowing out a bowlful of strawberries

Lemon Ricotta Stuffed Strawberries

At Sanyuanli I found some vibrant and pretty Romanesco broccoli. I cut it into small florets, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and minced garlic, and roasted it at 425F for 25 minutes. I made a very simple couscous–one cup couscous, one cup chicken broth, salt and pepper. Couscous is so easy to make: bring the stock to boil, add the couscous, stir, remove it from heat and cover, and five minutes later fluff it with a fork and add whatever spices. I served it with the pan seared chicken legs I made with spaetzle last week.

Bright and fun-looking Romanesco Broccoli

While I was waiting for Sawyer to arrive from the airport, I amused myself by making donuts, since I can’t remember the last time I even had a donut (Korea, maybe?). I found an interesting looking recipe for baked sweet potato donuts and tweaked it a bit, which I figured would be at least less-unhealthy than your average deep fried dough.

*1 cup mashed sweet potato (bake or microwave beforehand)
*5 small eggs
*1/2 cup sugar
*1/2 cup brown sugar
*3 Tbs melted butter
*1/4 tsp salt
*1/2 tsp cinnamon
*1/2 cup milk
*1/4 tsp vanilla
* 2 1/4 tsp yeast
*3 1/2 cups flour

I warmed the milk carefully to about 100F, and sprinkled the yeast over, letting it fizzle and foam while I mixed the mashed potato, eggs, vanilla, sugar, melted butter, cinnamon. After five minutes when the yeast was done, I mixed it in. Then I mixed in the flour bit by bit. After a bit of a knead, I let it rest for two hours. Then I rolled the dough out lightly on a floured cutting board, to about half inch thickness. I don’t have any cookie or biscuit cutters, so I improvised and used the bottom part of my juicer to cut out circles, and poked a hole through with my finger. I let them rise again on baking sheets, before popping in the oven at 400 for 20 minutes until risen and golden brown. Hot out of the oven I dusted them with cinnamon sugar. Warmed them gently in the oven the next morning for breakfast with Vietnamese coffee. They were a little more cake-like than I was craving, but Sawyer liked them, as did my student’s family, who invited us for dumpling making and dinner in honor of Chinese New Year.

Sweet Potato Donuts on Their Second Rise Before Baking

Donuts Fresh Out of the Oven

Beef and Barley Soup

In keeping with my soup kick, I next made Beef and Barley soup.
After the early morning flood disaster, I made it through my class, and then took a trip to Sanyuanli. I was so tired took a nap at 4, but I ended up waking up at 11. So much for fixing my jetlag. I decided to at least try and be productive. First I made a big pot of stock, since I had to settle for using chicken bouillon cubes when I made the chicken and black bean soup. After that was done, I started on a hearty and healthy beef and barley soup.

Ingredients: Three large shallots, minced. One carrot, diced. One large rib of celery, diced. 3 cloves of garlic, crushed. ¾ cup of pearl barley. 1 pound of beef in ½ inch cubes. Vegetable oil, salt, pepper, a few sprigs of rosemary, 5 cups of stock and 1 cup water.

Ingredients for Beef and Barley Soup

Everything all chopped up

Heat the oil in a soup pot on high, add the cubes of meat with salt and pepper (mine had been marinating in a little bit of soy sauce for 20 minutes) and brown, then remove from the pan and set aside. Add a little more oil into the pot, then add the shallot, celery and carrot. Let the vegetables soften briefly, throw in a few bay leaves. Then I added in the barley, letting the kernels (grains? Bits?) toast for half a minute before ladling in stock. Stir in the meat and broth and water, bring to a boil, then allow to simmer for about an hour, when the barley is nice and edible-soft.
This was delicious. I ate a bowl at 4 in the morning then went back to sleep for a few more hours.

Delicious Soup!

Chicken and Black Bean Chili Soup

Last week was just terrible, blustery and viciously cold in Beijing, as well as viciously polluted. While it’s cleared up for the holiday, the AQI hit over 500 several times, and was well over 300 on average. Feeling like absolute rubbish, I went on a little bit of a soup kick.
First, I made Chicken and Black Bean Chili Soup.

This proved to be simple enough to make on a weeknight, if you have 20 minutes to chop things and 30 minutes to simmer the soup, and if you use canned ingredients as opposed to soaking and cooking dried beans.

In a small pot I brought water to a boil and added in about ¾ cup of brown rice to cook. Then in a large stockpot I softened minced onion in olive oil, and added 5 crushed cloves of garlic, with a pinch of salt. Chicken that had been cut into bite size pieces and tenderized with a little corn starch was browned, then I added in a can of black beans, 2 cups of water with a cube of chicken bouillon and the rice along with the water it was cooking in. I also added a tsp. of chili powder, ½ tsp. of cinnamon and paprika, a few bay leaves and a few dried red chilies. Once I brought this to a boil, lowered the heat, and added in 2 cans of stewed tomato, and simmered for half an hour. At the end I added a can of sweet corn kernels, and served hot with shredded Colby Jack cheese and a squeeze of lime. It turned out better than I expected, flavorful, tomatoey, the melty cheese was perfect and there was a nice kick from the chili, and pretty healthy all things considered.

Chicken and Black Bean Chili Soup

Happy 2012

Oh ni hao baby, ni hao! Happy New Year to you all. I took a little hiatus while back in the States, it being a crazy and hectic enough time as it was without having to write about it. It was beautiful to be home, I had some amazing meals, met my newborn baby niece, saw as many people as humanly possible, and managed to get my business visa with no hassle. It was a very productive two weeks and I didn’t cook once, unless you count helping Sawyer make a salad one night.

I’m back in Beijing and terribly jet lagged (11 pm you say? I just took a four hour nap? I just started making a pot of chicken stock because I can’t go back to sleep?) and already ridiculous things are happening. I was fast asleep last night when I was abruptly awoken at 3 AM by the urgent ringing of the doorbell. All out of sorts and groggy, I reluctantly stumbled to the door, in my pajamas, hair mussed up, not even bothering with the lights. En route, I discovered, with my feet, the presence of an inch-deep flood of icy water. Making sounds of distress, I answered the door–that had been ringing insistently this entire time. Several Chinese men wearing security jackets–I assume they are the security and maintenance crew of the complex, stood peering through my doorway. I opened the door and backed up, allowing them room to come in, but they hesitated and asked for permission to enter. I think that the befuddled expression on my face and the flood should have been permission enough.

They were all frantic and shouting and got straight to work lifting up furniture, rolling up the carpet. I could only find one dinky little mop and some hand towels so then I had 8 very frenetic Chinese men mopping up with hand towels and one enterprising guard found a large piece of cardboard with which he was sweeping the water into the bathroom (which later posed a difficulty when I really had to pee but the bathroom was dirty and gross and covered in dirty ice water). The whole episode took about half an hour and then just as abruptly they were all gone, leaving with the sage advice not to put the carpet back down until the floor was completely dry.

Oh China. And of course I couldn’t go back to sleep after that so I ate soup and watched Amelie. Once it got to be a reasonable hour, I ventured out to get to my kindergarten class, and discovered evidence of the entire hallway and entrance way having been flooded, and sandbags all over. Apparently a pipe or something burst the floor above.