You know those days where you’re exhausted and pushing yourself to stay awake and all you want is to go home and sleep? And then you finally get home after the longest day ever, you force yourself to eat dinner and then finally get into bed, get all comfy, and your brain starts to say “haha, fuck you!” and doesn’t let you go to sleep for hours while you lie there and stare at the ceiling? Well, that was yesterday.

I finally drifted off at some wee hour in the morning, and woke up at 6 shortly before my alarm. I was painfully still tired, so I thought, I’l reset my alarm for 7:30 and feel much better.
Only, I slept through three alarms and woke up at 8:45 and my bike lock refused to unlock so I had to run to work and the extra time in bed didn’t make me any less exhausted.

I’m so useless and brain dead this morning that after my first cup of tea, I went to get a refill. I already had a spoon in my cup, but forgot even though I was looking straight at my mug, and pulled out a new spoon from the drawer to mix in sugar and didn’t realize it until I was mixing the tea and started to wonder why it was so difficult and that it was because there was a spoon in my tea. And the a-yi started laughing at me.

In light of this, and the fact that I only didn’t accidentally send half an unfinished email because I had forgotten to fill in the subject line and Outlook kindly asked me what the hell I thought I was doing sending a work email with no subject, I decided to draw self portraits all morning because clearly if I do anything vaguely work related I will screw it up abominably. I’m surprised I still have the ability to type coherent words.

And of course, by self portraits I mean doodles of robots.

Taped this to my computer to motivate myself

Self explanatory

Need. MORE. Caffeine.

My homage to Juanita Weasel

A reminder for a friend

My alter egos, Starscream and Toaster

Well, you probably are.

If I can't nurse someone back to health, poking them and asking them to heal should work

It’s Wednesday. Another long day with an event after work…just another day and then there will be adventures in bacon-making. Yes. Robots and bacon. Be prepared.

There. Will. Be. BACON.

Homemade Granola Bars

One of my dear friend’s parents happened to be in town for a conference. They very generously took Sawyer and me out to dinner. I thought about it for a while–there is a plethora of good restaurants in Beijing. First time China-visit, they definitely needed to be introduced to Beijing duck. It’s an unwritten law. No tourist shall leave Beijing without tasting. But my usual place on Chunxiu seemed inadequate (or maybe I’ve just been there too often). The two best places for duck in Beijing? Quanjude, the most famous, where visiting dignitaries and the like go, or Duck de Chine, one of the pocket sized restaurants comprising 1949, Hidden Village. I’ve heard great things and Hidden Village is so picturesque, so I made reservations there for 7 and asked for two ducks to be prepared. Anticipation for the duck feast kept me excited (and hungry) all day.

We met my friend’s parents in front of Pacific Century Place and walked around back to 1949. I always forget to made my reservations under my Chinese name, it would have been so much easier for the hostess. We were seated quickly, and I had asked for two ducks to be prepared when I made reservations. We also ordered tofu skin rolls, spicy mushrooms, and duck fried rice.
The restaurant is beautiful and our guests really loved it. They had a very fancy fermented-rice-sauce ritual, ladling it out of pottery jars to the individuals, and artistically swirling and adding your choice of minced garlic, sesame and peanut paste. The duck was as good as any other, although a little stingy on the servings, and they didn’t include the fried duck bones or duck soup found at many other duck restaurants. The price definitely reflects the setting and ambiance more than anything else. Still, the dinner was great. For dessert we ordered dan ta, or Cantonese egg tarts, and these really fantastic bowls of mango, pumelo and sago pearls with coconut cream and mango juice. I probably won’t go back to Duck de Chine, since there are better bargains to be had for Beijing duck (RMB238 just for one duck!), but it was well worth one visit.

Oatmeal at the office every day for breakfast has been getting kind of boring, and I ran out of the Luna bars that I brought from home. We wanted portable and healthy (especially after that duck dinner) breakfasts, since eating a jianbing or guanbing from a Beijing street cart a) is definitely not healthy because its fried dough and fried egg and fried other things, and b) can’t be that sanitary either, what with the no hand washing, dirty money, dirty cart, unrefrigerated ingredients, etc. So we decided to make granola bars.

Sawyer liked the first attempt better, I liked the second. More experimentation to come!
Both attempts followed about the same recipe, although I wasn’t measuring at all the second time, and we added more fruit. The first was chewier, I may have overcooked the second batch.

Basic contents: 3 cups of oatmeal. 1/2 cup of brown sugar. 1/3 cup of pumpkin puree, 1/3 cup of apple sauce, 1/4 cup peanut butter, cinnamon, vanilla, 1/4 cup honey. 3/4 cup of chcolate chips or a few chocolate bars chopped into pieces. 1/3 cup dried cranberries. In the second batch we added peanuts, golden raisins, and chopped up dried mango.

I started with half a pumpkin, cut into small pieces and baked until fork-tender. Mixed with cinnamon, a little butter and brown sugar, I blended it up into a puree. This freezes well for future use (more granola bars, pumpkin pies, what have you). The apple sauce is easy enough; 1-2 apples chopped up, cooked with a little water, cinnamon, sugar and butter for 10-20 minutes, and blended. I took the extra as a snack for work.

Dried fruit and oats

First, mix the brown sugar, apple sauce, pumpkin puree, peanut butter, and vanilla together in a small pot, heat until melty and smooth. Mix the oats and cinnamon together. Throw in the chocolate and dried fruit, and pour the liquid over it, mixing well. It’s going to get sticky, but mix until all the oats are thoroughly coated.

Sticky granola batter

Not having any parchment paper, I lined a baking dish with buttered tin foil, and used a rubber spatula to press the mixture evenly down into it. Then baked at 180C for twenty five minutes.
Pulled it out of the oven and after a few minutes cooling, lifted the whole thing out of the dish by tin foil, and laid it on a cutting board to cut with a bread knife (a pizza cutter would have been just the thing here).

Breakfast all week!

Healthy and not too bad for a first try!

Shepherd’s Pie, Baked Stuffed Pumpkn

The past few weeks, Sawyer has been in and out of Beijing on business trips, which comes with the hazard of business-banquets and business-drinking copious amounts of baijiu. So I’ve been trying to make some more wholesome meals when he’s actually around.

I’ve been wanting to make stuffed squash but couldn’t find anything resembling the delicata squash I use at home. So I used pumpkin, and filled it with a mix of quinoa, vegetables and ground pork.

Start with a small sized pumpkin, cut in half (carefully) and clean out the insides with a spoon. I also cut a small sliver off of each side so they would stand without wobbling.
Lightly rub the insides with butter and sprinkle with brown sugar.
Boil one cup of quinoa in 2 cups water, stir until all water is absorbed and the little tail pops out.
Dice a small carrot (or half a large one), half a medium onion, a small bulb of fennel, and a handful of button mushrooms.
Mince two cloves of garlic finely Mix into half pound of ground pork with splash of cooking wine, pinch of sugar, splash of Maggi seasoning, salt and pepper, and fresh minced rosemary.
Soften the onions in olive oil over medium heat. After a few minutes add the carrots and the fennel. Remove from pan after five minutes, set aside, and soften the mushrooms. Add to the rest of the vegetables, then brown the pork, breaking up the meat evenly.
Mix thoroughly, and then spoon into the pumpkin cavity. Cover loosely with tin foil at bake at 200C for 40 minutes.

Quinoa and Sausage Stuffed Pumpkin

I’ve been craving the hearty filling comfort of shepherd’s pie for months, and finally decided to make it. At Sanyuanli I wasn’t quite sure what cut to ask for (usually we make it with the leftovers from a roast), as I didn’t want a whole leg, so the vendor simply lopped off about a foot long piece from the carcass hanging up.

I started out by roasting the lamb. I served a small slice along with the stuffed pumpkin but saved most of it for the pie.
The marinade: my mother makes an incredible roast lamb out of a sauce based on mayonnaise and yellow mustard. I had neither of these things (unwilling to shell out a large chunk of RMB for a imported condiments I won’t use again, and the mayonnaise in Asia is disgustingly sweetened), so I improvised. I needed mayonnaise. I turned to my trusty friends–the internet and Alton Brown– for inspiration.

Mayonnaise: Ingredients: one egg yolk, 1 Tbs. vinegar, 2 tsp. lemon juice, a pinch of sugar, salt, pepper, paprika and cumin (Alton’s recipe listed powdered mustard, which I didn’t have), one cup neutral oil (I used sunflower).
Whisk the egg yolk and half of the acid mixture.
Drop by drop, whisk the oil in very slowly, only adding more once the oil is incorporated. As you add more, you can slowly increase the pour to a slight stream. Once half the oil is in, ad the remainder of the acid mixture. Again, slowly whisk in the rest of the oil. Soon enough, creamy, tangy mayo! Simple (although a bit of a work out for your arm).

Homemade Mayonnaise

We had some old fashioned dijon mustard from making salad dressing. I mixed about half a cup of mayo with a quarter cup of mustard. I also finely, finely minced a half cup of fresh mint leaves. I mixed this in, as well as salt, pepper, and a dash of coriander and cumin.

Mustard-Mayo Marinade

I cut several cloves of garlic into small wedges, and pierced the lamb all over, inserting slips of garlic into the meat, then liberally slathered it all over with the marinade.

Insert garlic into lamb

Marinade all over

I let this sit for about 45 minutes before popping it into the oven at 180C for 40 minutes. Once the lamb hit 145F on a thermometer, I pulled it out to rest. I removed the drippings from the pan, keeping out the burnt bits and solids, and heated in a pan with a little butter. Once the butter began to bubble a bit, I whisked in two tablespoons of flour, coating it evenly, then slowly whisked in a cup of stock and some red wine, let it reduce to a nice gravy. The next day, I cut what remained after dinner into tiny bite sized pieces, discarding the chunks of fat.

Lamb roasts resting

I peeled and chopped 3 potatoes and a sweet potato, boiled them until very tender, and then mashed with two tablespoons of butter, minced rosemary and garlic, 1/3 cup of milk, salt and pepper. Diced a carrot and onion and 1/2 cup of button mushrooms, and softened this all in a pan, adding last a can of sweet corn kernels.

I lined a baking dish with the mashed potatoes.
Then mixed together the lamb and vegetables and filled the potato shell, and mixed it all up with gravy.
And carefully, bit by bit, made a top crust by spreading bits of mashed potato over the top.

Slowly building the upper crust

I shredded a bit of cheddar and colby jack cheese on top, then popped it in the oven at 180F for 40 minutes. Served with more gravy and a crusty, whole grain bread that Sawyer got from a German
bakery (and for dessert, cheesecake from that bakery too! Delicious!)

A little bit of cheese, a little bit of oven time, and OMNOMNOMS to follow

Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Chili

Everyday for the past week it’s been ten degrees on my way to work which is pretty much unacceptable, especially now that I’m biking and it is quite uncomfortable. Sawyer’s away on a business trip so of course instead of doing anything productive when I get home I just eat cheese and crackers and big pieces of chocolate cake in bed (hmm, and I wonder why working out hasn’t been doing anything for me yet).

I’m in hibernate mode. It’s too cold to go outside and have adventure, but I also can’t sleep away the rest of the winter, what I want to do is eat hearty, meaty, filling meals. I made chili when all my leftovers ran out this week.

1 package ground beef
1 package ground chicken
28 oz. stewed tomatoes
14 oz kidney beans, pinto beans
1 small onion, diced
Sweet potato/pumpkin, cubed.
Chicken stock
Chili powder. Salt. Pepper. A few dried red chilies and chili flakes. Paprika. All to taste.

Brown the meat in a pan, then drain and crumble.
Over high heat, combine everything in a big pot, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat. Let it stew for an hour or two. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and shredded cheese.

Sweet Potato Pumpkin Chili

I’m still on this whole trying-to-eat-better thing, not necessarily less (or well all the time, seeing as how I ate tortilla chips and cake for dinner once this week) but at least making sure my meals are full of nutrients and good things. So I added the pumpkin and sweet potato to give the chili a little nutritional kick. Plus I love sweet potato. Also, I had recalled briefly perusing a recipe for Chocolate-Pumpkin chili, so for fun I added about a teaspoon of cocoa powder.

Although it turned out pretty tasty in the end, I ran into some problems with the ingredients, since, after all, it’s China. I stopped by Jenny Lou after work to pick up cans of kidney and pinto beans, stewed tomato, and ground meat. Ground beef is expensive–it was 30 kuai for a small pack, but they didn’t have any ground chicken. I bought chicken breasts and ran them through my food processor. And after long deliberation over the different brands, I bought a can of pinto beans of Italian origin, something about Vesuvius on the label. When I got home and opened them up, they turned out not to be pinto beans in water at all, but in fact can of baked beans. China, why do you lie to me?

Not wanting to spend a week eating chili by myself, I brought the batch over to the boys’ new apartment (along with the smaller oven I wanted to trade for my old, larger oven). Effectively, they polished off the whole bit and I got my visitation with Hector and a week’s worth of amusement in the fact that in the course of their boys’ night out with some friends, Bambi took a dog to the face. As in, a friend up and lobbed the dog at him because he was lacking in dogs to the face. (Note, the dog is unhurt and non-traumatized, Bambi’s face bore the brunt of the damage). I…have…no words.

Pork Cheek Tacos and Midnight Chocolate Cake

After a busy week it was great to have a Friday off. I slept in, the AQI was fairly low and it was warmish (30, not too much wind) so I ran to Sanyuanli. I wanted to make a nice big dinner, and I’ve been craving chocolate cake, so that was on the menu as well. I planned for roast chicken, sweet potatoes and Brussel sprouts, with gravy and cranberry jelly on the side because I brought back a few cans that were on sale for a dollar (can you believe that canned cranberry jelly costs over five dollars here?). At Sanyuanli, there were three kinds of chicken. The black chickens that apparently don’t taste very good or have good flavor but are more expensive because they’re supposedly really good for your health if you make soup, normal chickens that cost RMB25 but are skinny little things that look like they died of starvation, and a big fat mother of a hen that costs RMB57. I went for the big guy (and walked all the way home carrying it). I also picked up some pig cheeks for later.

Once at home, I brined the chicken in a salt, sugar, crushed garlic clove and whole clove solution. Then I patted it dry, seasoned it on the outside with olive oil salt and pepper, slid wafer thin slices of lemon and garlic under the skin with a few bay leaves and pats of butter, and stuffed the cavity with celery, carrots, onion and more lemon. Popped it into the oven at 200C for an hour and forty minutes.

In the mean time, I steamed the sweet potatoes in the microwave, peeled and mashed them with a little butter and cinnamon. Cut the Brussel sprouts in half, and sauteed them with minced shallot and garlic and olive oil on low heat for ten minutes. And I started the base for a stock, with onion, celery carrot and potato, a splash of soy sauce, salt and pepper and the neck from the chicken. Once the chicken was done I carved it up (it wasn’t pretty…I’m not allowed to carve meat again), reserving the legs and the breast meat and some of the choice dark meat, and putting all the rest into the stock with the stuffing-vegetables.

To make gravy, I took the drippings from the roasting pan, poured through a strainer into a pan. On medium heat I added a generous splash of red wine and about a cup of stock. Reduced it for a few minutes, then whisked in a tablespoon of flour and let it thicken up, seasoning it with salt and pepper at the end.

It's like Thanksgiving again!

And then I made the cake, so it would bake while we ate.
2 3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking sod
1 cup boiling water
1 cup canola oil
2 tsp espresso powder
1 3/4 cup flour
4 large egg yolks, 2 whole eggs
1/4 cup buttermilk (I didn’t have any, so milk + 1/2 tsp white vinegar)
Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a cake pan with parchment paper and oil (or in my case, line a baking dish with tin foil and oil).
In a pot, combine sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add the cup of boiling water, and slowly bring up to a boil, then let rest (this helps get a really nice dark color).

Cocoa mixture slowly boiling

Stir in espresso powder, flour, eggs, yolk, vanilla, oil, and milk .hen pour into the pan, and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Once the cake is removed from the oven, simmer 1/3 cup cream and 1 Tbs butter, then remove from heat and add 1 cup of bittersweet chocolate. I wanted to add a hint of orange, but didn’t have any orange flavored liquor, so I improvised with a splash of fresh squeezed orange juice, orange zest, and a splash of whiskey. Stir until smooth, and then pour over the cake and let settle.

Rich, dark chocolate cake with orange chocolate ganache frosting

My last Saturday before the kindergarten class starts up again…I took full advantage by sleeping in and being lazy, and enjoying a cup of Vietnamese coffee before we went to the gym. After running 11km I started feeling sick. On the way home from the gym we stopped at a bike store and I got myself a shiny new bike for RMB300. I was afraid I might throw up if I rode it home, so Sawyer did. Turns out I had a low fever so I spent the rest of the evening on the couch watching movies and drinking tea, and we ate leftovers for dinner. And even feeling sick, I allowed myself a little bit of cake, because hell, if chocolate cake can’t make me feel better, nothing can.

Sunday: teaching and more teaching. Before my evening class, I prepared the pork cheeks to slow braise.

3 pork cheeks
Soy sauce, cooking wine
1 cup stock
Star Anise, crushed ginger and garlic
Salt, pepper, red chilies, cumin, coriander, paprika.

Pig Cheeks Marinating

Marinate the cheeks for a few hours, then remove from the liquid and pat dry. Sear them in a pan, a few moments on each side. The cheeks are pretty fatty so I didn’t bother with any cooking oil. Then, place them in a baking dish and cover with the marinating liquid (if not enough, add more stock, water and spices and until the meat is just submerged). Cover it all in a tent of tinfoil. Pop them into the oven at 160C, and I let them braise for 3 hours. Once they were done I shredded them with two forks.

Pig Cheeks with Chili, Sun-dried Tomato, Garlic, Star Anise, Cumin, and Paprika Braise

I caramelized an onion in the leftover pork fat in the pan, with a bit of butter melted in. And I charred a cup of sweet corn. Served with freshly made guacamole and salsa and sour cream on warmed corn tortillas. I think I’ll be sticking to flour tortillas from now on, though, even though the corn tortillas are supposed to be healthier they fall apart easily and it made for some messy eating.

Omnomnom Pig Cheek Taco

Spiced Chicken over Cherry Tomato Couscous

After a busy day of many little projects, I stopped off at Jenny Lou’s to pick up some bread and cheese and a few vegetables for dinner (Sawyer had cooked the last of our Sanyuanli purchases for dinner the night before). I wanted to try something a little different. And quick, since I was famished.

Unfortunately that “quick” desire kind of fell apart because I’m a clumsy oaf who managed to saw open my finger with a bread knife while I tried to open a bag. Upside, I discovered the bread knife was pretty sharp, and the cut isn’t too terrible. Downside, blood everywhere. And iodine stings. I patched myself up and very slowly and one-handedly diced up two smallish carrots, one small yellow onion, three cloves of garlic, one rib of celery and a bulb of fennel.

I heated olive oil in a pan and softened the onion first, for about seven minutes over medium heat, then I added the garlic, celery, carrots and fennel with a sprinkle of salt. While that was cooking I cut a bowl of cherry tomatoes in half, and tossed them in the pan, warming them through. Set a cup and a half of water with a spoonful of chicken bouillon powder to boil, then added a cup of couscous, removed it from heat and covered (I love how fast couscous cooks!) After about 5 minutes I removed the cover, fluffed it up with a fork, added one Tbs of butter, a liberal pour of olive oil, the vegetables, a pinch of cumin, paprika, salt and pepper, and tossed it thoroughly.

I set that aside and pulled out two chicken breasts I had thawed. Cut them in half for smaller, thinner pieces, and seasoned with salt, pepper, parprika, cumin, and the lightest sprinkle of chili powder, then sauteed them, about 7-8 minutes per side on medium low heat. Then I sliced them and served over the couscous.