Surprise! Gummy Bear and Scotch Diet, Commence!

I made a pretty delicious salad for dinner. Too bad I didn’t really get to eat any of it.
Colorful with lots of good things, plus, since beets remarkably look like a bloody heart when you’re cutting it up, it’s kind of a thematic meal for heart break. I don’t event like salad that much, even a great salad, in my mind, is really only meant to be an accompaniment for something better. But there are people in this world who eat salad as meals and so I found myself home after a long day of work making a salad. We’ll go ahead and call it Broken Heart Beet Salad.

First, prep your beets. Two mid-sized beets baked for about 45 minutes to an hour at 350, until easily pierced by a fork. While they’re cooking, slice up two tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, and a block of tofu. Fry the tofu in oil with a little bit of salt, pepper, and Maggi seasoning. I used egg-tofu, which is soft and custardy and tastes very eggy, but normal firm tofu will also work. Supreme one orange, cutting it into little chunks. Shell half a cup of pistachios. Make a dressing–dijon mustard based, with truffle oil, olive oil, lemon juice and honey. Cut the skins off the beets and cut them into small pieces. Mix all this good stuff up with the dressing and mixed greens, then crumble plenty of feta on top.

Serve, preferably with a nice baguette and oil, and a crisp glass of white wine. Best case scenario, you will be able to finish this lovely meal. Or, in the case of a broken robot, you can take two bites, and then find out that your boyfriend doesn’t love you anymore, cry, chug your glass of wine, run outside still in your suit and heels and forget useful things like toothbrushes and glasses or a case for your contacts, and hail a cab while running through your contact list because quite suddenly you realize you are jobless, homeless, and boyfriendless and have no idea where you’re going.

That was...unexpected

On the positive side, my cab driver was a lovely little man who spent the entire ride telling me to not cry and singing me Chinese break up songs that I’m pretty sure he was just making up on the spot and somehow making me sing a Chinese song with him, only the only Chinese song I know is 朋友 or “Friend” so I ended up for like five minutes singing with a face full of snot and leaky red eyes about drinking with good friends. My life is preposterous at times.

What the hell are feelings and WHY AM I HAVING THEM?

I ended up at Bambi and Ginny’s new apartment where Bambi refused to give me whiskey and tried to make me eat Gung Ho pizza but I’ve reached that point where food tastes like sawdust and even if I’m hungry I can’t make myself eat anything so I’m on the chocolate, gummy bear and scotch diet for the foreseeable future. If you read this for cooking inspiration, food posts to be on hiatus until I find a place to live and a kitchen to cook in and the motivation to eat anything, but stay tuned for broken and sad robots pictures if those amuse you.

Damnit that patch is riveted on.

Grilled Thai Chicken, Sweet Chili Sauce, and Chocolate Orange Bars

After calling and asking and pestering every Chinese person in my vicinity, I finally managed to track down someone to buy a propane tank from for the grill. Unfortunately, it happened to a legitimate company in Shunyi (Villa Lifestyles) that caters to expats, so a 5kg tank cost RMB270. Ouch. On the plus side, they delivered it, and Shunyi is super far away. I can call them for refills for RMB100, but I have the feeling I can find someone closer and cheaper, now that I have an actual tank.

We found wood chips at April gourmet, so hopefully I’ll be smoking the bacon. Unfortunately, the wuye or apartment maintenance manager, came around while Sawyer was grilling last night and he may have been complaining that grills aren’t allowed. He might also have been saying that we’re not allowed to leave it outside. Or he might have demanded that we grill inside instead of outside. My Chinese is really bad right now I should work on that. But we were scolded in very highly Beijing accented Mandarin, so it remains to be seen if we can actually use the grill again, now that we’ve gone and found and bought the propane.

But it was at least a partial success. I had chicken thighs on hand, and decided to go for a Thai-inspired flavor on the marinade, if only in part to use up some of that “fish” sauce I made.

Southern Thai style marinade
1 tsp black pepper corns
3 cloves garlic
1 thumb ginger
1 Tbs turmeric
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 Tbs oyster sauce
4 Tbs brown sugar

I mashed the pepper, garlic and ginger into a paste in a mortar and pestle, then mixed with the sugar, turmeric, fish and oyster sauce. Then I slathered the legs and let them continue to defrost in the fridge for 4 hours.

Chicken legs in turmeric-garlic marinade

We also tossed on some cut up sweet potato and onions tossed in olive oil in a foil packet for veggies, and served with sticky rice and sweet chili sauce. The vegetables came out great. The chicken thighs…well, I probably should have skinned them, or maybe set the heat lower? Because they flared up and burned. The skins were completely charred. Still tasty, however, and the chili sauce really saved them. And as far as the sticky rice goes? Well, it’s probably the last time I’ll try to make it. Every time since the first, I have been unable to make a good batch. I blame the fact that I never made rice without a rice cooker until a year ago, still always use a rice cooker, and using a pot to cook rice still scares me. So cooking sticky rice in a strainer basket above a pot of boiling water? Seems like it should be simple, but I destroy it every time. Undercooked, over cooked, half undercooked half mushy because it was too close to the water…I give up.

Anyways, the chili dipping sauce was really the best part of dinner, in my opinion. I stumbled across several recipes while looking for marinade ideas, and decided I needed a jar in the frige always.

Sweet Chili Sauce
4 cloves garlic
1 thumb ginger
5 dried red chilies
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup water
2 Tbs cooking wine
3 Tbs fish sauce
2 Tbs corn starch dissolved in 3-4 Tbs cool water.

Dried chilies, garlic and ginger all mashed up

I mashed the ginger, garlic and chilies into a paste with mortar and pestle, then added it to everything but the corn starch in a small pot. I brought this to a boil, then reduced the temp to low, added the corn starch, mixed well and let it simmer and thicken. After five or so minutes, let it cool; serve or keep in a jar in the fridge.

Sweet Chili Sauce. (Darker than usual because my "fish" sauce is soy sauce based)

Because I’ve got a partial sweet tooth and a hollow leg, I also threw together a batch of Orange Chocolate Bars. Someone posted them on one of the forums in Epicurious (yes, I admit, I read cooking forums). I was so intrigued by the idea that I went out and bought chocolate chips and made them immediately.

First, the crust.

1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup powdered sugar
Grated orange zest.
MIx baking powder with flour, blend in butter, then add powdered sugar and zest. Press into the bottom of a pan to make even crust. Bake for 7 minutes at 350F.

Remove crust from oven, pour 1 cup of semi sweet chocolate chips and let them melt. As they melt, use a rubber spatula to spread it evenly.

For the topping:
3 eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 Tbs Orange juice (I added some lemon as well, because the orange I had wasn’t very sweet)
Grated Orange zest
3 Tbs flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

Mix this thoroughly, then carefully pour over the chocolate. Pop it back into the oven at 350F for 20 minutes. It will hopefully brown lightly.
Let it cool, and cut into even squares. I think they’re best after cooling in the fridge for at least an hour, then the chocolate layer cools and isn’t as squishy and messy. But absolutely addictive, and not incredibly sweet.

Like more delicious orange milanos. Seriously tasty.

Sweet Potato Pork Hash, Buffalo Wings

Those pork buns were delicious and all, but after the second or third one I began to realize that I am no longer the indestructible eating robot I once was, and that, wow, pork belly is REALLY fatty. The buns were very rich and filling and neither of us could eat more than a few. But I made so much! I have a big bag of buns in the freezer that I’ll have to figure out how to use up, and way too much pork belly in the fridge.

After a little bit of thought, I trimmed off all the fat, and shredded the remaining portion of lean meat into little pieces. I cubed 2 sweet potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes and after softening a minced onion in the wok in live oil, tossed in the sweet potato. Let that cook down for about twenty minutes on medium low. Then I added about a half a cup of stock to steam and thoroughly cook the sweet potato cubes, which were taking forever to soften. Once the stock had boiled off, I added the pork belly, salt and pepper, and let it get nice and crispy.

Plated, served with sauteed spinach and a poached egg over makes an excellent brunch.

Bambi and Allie came over for movies and nibbles. I didn’t feel like making a big meal, but I went all out buying fruit for smoothies. I also threw together some buffalo wings and sweet potato fries for movie snacking.

Buffalo wings are something that I always crave but never think of as something to make at home. Turns out they’re remarkably simple. I was going to make them according to Alton Brown’s recipe of first steaming and then baking, but that requires at least an hour in the fridge for the steamed wings to dry off, so I deep fried them instead.

Brought a wok-ful of sunflower seed oil up to heat, then in batches of four-five at a time, slid the rised and patted completely dry wings into the oil, where they bubbled up. After five to seven minutes, I used tongs to flip them over, and three-five minutes after that, strained them out into a baking dish kept in the oven at 200F to stay warm. Once all the wings were fried and crispy, I melted about 4 Tbs. of butter with Frank’s Red Hot sauce (found in April Gourmet’s) two minced cloves of garlic, and a dash of honey. Next time I might try Sriracha and honey, if I can find it. Tossed the wings in the sauce and served with celery and blue cheese.

Buffalo Chicken Wings

The sweet potato fries were really easy except they stuck to the tin foil on the baking sheet and tore. I sliced one sweet potato into sticks, tossed with olive oil, honey, cinnamon, salt and pepper and a light dash of chili, laid them out on a baking sheet and baked at 450F for 20 minutes, turning over halfway through. Next time, will have to make sure to thoroughly oil the tin foil to prevent stickiness (maybe add less honey/sugar to prevent caramelizing?) and experiment with different seasonings.

Braised Pork Belly Steam Buns

So everyone on the internet knows these as Momofuku Pork Buns but screw it Chang, I had these as a child in hole in the wall restaurants in Chinatown and from street vendors in Taiwan years before I ever heard about you existing. So I always think of these as Taiwanese burgers, the way my mom referred to them for years.

But I did sort of follow David Chang’s recipe so whatever.

Before I even started making the buns, I needed to render lard. I could have bought a can of shortening from Jenny Lou’s but the only one I saw was a giant tub that I would never finish off and was quite expensive. Also, I’m not the biggest fan of all those hydrogenated oils and preservatives and what not. For a fraction of the cost I bought kidney fat from a pork stall at Sanyuanli to make leaf lard, which is apparently the best type of rendered lard for pastry. It cost me all of two dollars for about a pound.

I cut it into small chunks and put it in a pot with half a cup of water, then turned on the heat to medium low. It didn’t smell nearly as bad as people made it out to sound, but maybe it’s just because I’m in Beijing and inured to the lesser foul smells. It did look particularly grey and unappetizing.

After about an hour the lard started to pop and hiss as the last of the water evaporated out, and the cracklings started to rise to top. According to my research, this is when I was supposed to start stirring much more frequently. I was too terrified of fat exploding in my face, so I hid around the corner, used a pot lid as a shield, covered my arms and hand with pot mitts, and stirred from as far back as I could. One the cracklings sank, I strained the solids out and carefully poured the liquid lard into a jar to chill overnight.

Steam Buns on their second of three risings

The next day, put together the buns. My first try was horrible–not sure what I did wrong, because I followed the measurements exactly, but the dough was stiff, dry, crumbly, refused to rise, and after several hours of waiting and trying to roll them out, I eventually threw the whole bunch out and started over. This time it worked out well, although I didn’t finish until almost midnight.

1 1/2 cups warm water + 1 1/2 Tbs instant dry yeast + 1 Tbs sugar. Mix this in a bowl and let sit for 10-15 minutes.
4 1/2 cups flour + 5 Tbs sugar + 3 Tbs milk powder + 1/2 tsp baking powder + 1/2 tsp baking soda + 1/2 cup lard.
Mix all the dry ingredients together, then work the lard into the flour. Then, slowly pour the yeast mix into the bowl. Mix it all up into a dough, adjusting water and flour for stickiness. Once it forms a smooth not-too-tacky ball, set it in an oiled bowl with a dry towel on top, and let rise for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Cut the dough in half, and then each half into 5 equal parts. Cut each part into 5 ping-pong sized parts and roll into balls. Cover with plastic and let rise half an hour. Then flatten and roll into an oval shape. Fold over a greased chopstick and then place onto a square of parchment paper (or greased tin foil, if you’re being all MacGuyver-like). Let rise another 25 minutes, then steam 10 minutes.

Once steamed, consume or let them cool, stick them in plastic bags and freeze them for later nomming, after freezing a quick steam will revitalize them.

Ugly but tasty

I soaked pork belly in a brine of salt and sugar overnight. Then, skin/fat side up in a baking dish, I covered them with a mixture of sugar, soy sauce chicken stock, water, Magi and pepper. Covered the dish with tin foil and into the oven for 2+ hours at 300F or about 150C. Remove the foil, turn the oven up to 450F or 220C, and leave in for another 20 minutes. Beware grease flareups. Allow the pork to cool, then slice.

Slow braised, melts-in-your-mouth pork belly

Sandwich the pork with some slices of cucumber that have been quick brined overnight in salt and sugar. Pork belly heaven.

Pork Belly, Salt-Sugar Brined Cucumbers and Steam Bun Sandwich

Bacon Experiment

For a moment Thursday I almost lost my mind and tried to organize a dinner party for Saturday. I had all these recipes in my head I wanted to try and no captive audience to force to eat. Then I came to my senses.

I battled the snow (read: minor flurries) to get to three supermarkets and Sanyuanli, because this was bacon-making day. Wumart did not carry the sodium nitrite salt, nor did Jingkelong, the French Butcher or the German butcher shop. The guy at April Gourmet knew what I was talking about, but informed me that no one carries it because it’s terrible for your health, and gave me a weird look for trying to find it. I asked around at Sanyuanli, even the butcher stalls that had pork sausages hanging up, but no one seemed to know exactly what it was I was trying to describe, and recommended that I buy salt from the grocery store. Thanks, really helpful.

Undeterred, I bought a large slab of pork belly and brought it home. I was a little horrified to find three nipples on it, and had to slice that end off. Online sources said to leave it on but..ehhh…a little too creepy looking.

I rinsed the slab of belly and dried it thoroughly. I left the skin on, although I’m going to trim it off after the curing process is finished.

Brown Sugar-Honey Dry Rub

I mixed a dry rub of 1 cup salt, a very generous amount of black pepper, and about 1/4 of brown sugar and honey (one recipe I read recommended it over maple syrup). The honey made the whole thing very sticky and the brown sugar made it crumbly and clumpy. It did not “slather” very well over the meat, as the recipes I was reading seemed to suggest it would. I rubbed it into every nook and cranny, and as the salt began drawing water out of the pork, it actually got a little easier. The rub did not like to adhere to the skin side at all. Then I struggled to get it into a ziplock bag with minimal spillage. I’ll let you guess how well that was accomplished.

Pork Belly covered in dry rub

Put every last bit of dry rub into the bag onto the pork, squeezed all the air out and then zipped it up. Laid it flat on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Every day turn the slab over, and also, especially after the first 24 hours, drain the liquid that has seeped out of the pork belly and add more dry rub.

Proto-Bacon in the bag

After the first day already the pork was stiffer and denser, which made pulling it out and putting it back into the ziplock bag much easier. This time I made the rub with brown sugar and white sugar instead of honey, which was too messy, and it stuck to the pork much better. I made sure to get all the crannies and bits before replacing it in the fridge.

Steak Sandwich

Sandwich. Such a simple thing. just a piece of meat wedged between two slices of bread. I’m a huge fan. I, of course, love a PB&J or honey peanut butter banana or a classic grilled cheese or mozzarella panini, but today, today I am craving the lunch-meat variety, so we’re talking about that. Very simple heaven, when done right. Good bread, just the right amount of spread, cheese, crisp veggies and filling.

Besides a week or two when I ate a lot of PB&J for lunch/snacks at work because I hadn’t been paid, I haven’t made a good sandwich in a while. It’s much easier to buy a decent but expensive sandwich (ok, relatively, for what it would cost to make it at home, and what local food costs here). To make a sandwich you need to buy sandwich bread, which all too often in China tastes far too sweet. And cheese–expensive. And deli meat–expensive, and odd looking and I haven’t brought myself to buy any yet. And of course, the spread. Grossly sweet ‘Kewpie’ mayo or expensive and unhealthy giant tubs of imported stuff.

Ah, but I made that mayonnaise from scratch and it’s excellent and I need to use it all up in the next two days..what better vehicle than sandwich?

So I thought and thought. I could make a BLT–but the bacon here is expensive and bad. So I’m embarking on a journey to find curing salt (also known as pink salt, Prague Powder #2 and a host of other names) and attempting to dry cure my own delicious pork belly, but more on that later. I went to Jenny Lou’s after work and stared at their deli counter and was not inspired by any of the rounds of pressed and preserved meats. I glanced over at the meat counter, and they had a beef top round for 5.5 kuai/100g. Mmm..inspiration. Steak sandwich. I do very much enjoy a good steak sandwich from the leftover grilling sessions at home. A 2 inch-think piece cost me 29 kuai, and I picked up a baguette and some vegetables as well.

I marinated it in dark and light soy, black pepper, Maggi seasoning, cooking wine, and a tiny splash of balsamic vinegar for an hour or so. Then, heated a pan with vegetable oil on medium, put the steak in, and turned the heat to low. After about 8 minutes I came back, and flipped it over. it had developed a nice crisp sear. I gave it another 8-10 minutes, then removed from heat and let it rest. In the meantime, I julienned half a carrot and cucumber–copying my mother, who garnishes sandwiches like this ever since returning from a business trip to Belgium–very finely. I cut a section of baguette in half and slathered both sides with mayo. Cut the steak into bite size portion and laid them out on the bread, topped with Monterey Jack cheese (I would have preferred provologne, but beggars can’t be choosers) and the matchstick veggies.

This was enough for three sandwiches, or lunch and dinner, and was enough to quench my sandwich craving.

In other news, I’ve been trying to find a propane tank for the grill that Sawyer bought last year and never uses. I had no idea the word for propane tank, and was trying to describe it to many Chinese people. It went something like this, in Mandarin. “Can you help me? I’m looking for this thing. You know, the thing that you use for cooking. It fuels your stove. Like gas, for a car, but not for a car for a grill. A barrel. A barrel of gas.” Since oil and gas are pretty much the same word, many people told me to go to the grocery store to buy cooking oil. Other people told me to go to a gas station–they couldn’t get past my comparison to fuel for a car. Finally, when the ayi came to Sawyer’s I asked, showing a picture of a propane tank and gesturing wildly at the grill and the connection hose. I had been saying meiqi tong, which would literally mean barrel/bucket of propane. My bad, it’s meiqi guan which literally translates to propane can. Because it’s so freaking difficult to understand what I mean when I point to a grill, the missing tank, and ask about “meiqi.”

The a-yi didn’t know, but promised to ask around. So I suppose I must adventure to Wal-mart or Carrefour or something. Why is nothing simple here?

Poached Eggs and Aioli, Chicken and Orange Barley.

I really like a good book that makes me hungry. Sawyer recently read the Hunger Games, as it is coming out soon, so I reread it. I did like the first book, was less impressed as the series went on, but despite it being geared towards teenagers and having some flaws, it was an entertaining read. And it was definitely conducive to snacking.

This dinner was lightly inspired by the meal the main character eats when talking to her stylist for the first time. Something about pearl-like grains, oranges and chicken in a cream sauce. Since this was a meal I made on a weeknight from whatever was kicking around in my fridge, I didn’t have any milk so steered clear of a creamy base, focusing more on the citrus, and adding some vegetables I had.

I heated up olive oil in a pot with minced garlic and then added 1 cup of pearl barley. After two-three minutes of stirring this around, I poured in 2 1/2 cups of chicken stock and water, and brought it to a boil, before reducing the heat and letting it simmer, covered, for 45 minutes.

In the mean time, I grated the zest of an orange, juiced half of it and cut the other half into small segment. Mixed the juice and zest with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Set the orange pieces aside in a small bowl with a generous handful of golden raisins. I sauteed asparagus with a little olive oil and black pepper, then cut it into inch long pieces.

I cut up two chicken breasts into bite size pieces and marinated it in cooking wine and Maggi seasoning, then sauteed the pieces. One the barley was tender, I mixed in the fruit, chicken and asparagus along with the oil and juice mix, and set this all aside. I felt like just the barley mix might be a little boring for a whole meal, so I did a literary stretch to keep on my book-inspired theme, since the Hunger Games hero is a poacher, why not make poached eggs?

I kept some of the asparagus whole, and laid them on plate. Mixed two tablespoons of homemade mayonnaise with salt, pepper, 1/2 tsp of paprika, and a clove of garlic mashed into a paste. Once it was thoroughly mixed, I turned a ziplock bag into a pastry bag and squeezed out lines of aioli onto the asparagus.

Bed of asparagus and paprika-garlic mayonnaise

Then I poached two eggs. It’s taken me a while to perfect this seemingly simple task. Bring a small pot of water with a splash of white vinegar to simmer–once bubbles start appearing, turn the heat on low. Crack one egg into a small bowl. Give the pot a stir with a spoon, get the water swirling around, then slowly slide the egg from the bowl into the middle of the pot. The swirling water will keep the egg white from spreading around too much. It only takes 3-4 minutes to cook the whites. Use a slotted spoon to remove the egg, then place it gently on top of the asparagus, and sprinkle on a little fresh ground pepper.

Plate the chicken and barley, and voila! A pretty easy, very impressive dinner.

Hunger Games Inspired Barley Chicken and Poached Egg