Falafel, Hummus, and Tzatziki

This weekend was crazy.
Beijing flooded.

We were at Summer League, playing fields near Happy Valley. The pollution index was over 300, it was humid and hot and sticky, I felt like shaking out of my skin. The smog blocked out our view of the building that looks like a caterpillar/cruise ship, and the Happy Valley roller coaster (yeah, great day to be running around, right?). A few sprinkles at first. Then, the entire sky darkened eerily, and the rains started. Poured. Actually kind of hurt when the raindrops hit you. Did we stop? Of course not. Played on through the torrential downpour, despite the fact that I had to constantly wipe the water out of my eyes to see. Even more eerie than the sky darkening, was the sudden pillar of light, although the rain didn’t abate at all, white mist sweeping in from the west. It looked a bit like the Rapture might be descending. Good thing I was in good company with bad people, and none of us were taken.

After falling a few times in the mud, the games finally ended, and a few of us hiked over to Baoyuan Jiaoziwu for a truckload of dumplings. We stayed as long as we could, but the rain showed no sign of abating, and at 4:30, we finally left to try to make our ways home (the waitstaff turned the lights off and gave many hints before we stirred). No cabs to be found, and a pedicab tried to charge me 80 kuai. Asshole.

Getting caught in the downpour completely killed all ambition I had to do anything or be productive for the rest of the weekend. I sat in bed and read, ate bread and cheese and fruit for the rest of my meals, and barely motivated myself to walk around outside on Sunday, when the skies turned gloriously blue, the AQI was only 29. Well, it was 93 degrees and I was sweating the moment I stepped out of the door.

We had had a party planned and I had soaked a giant batch of chickpeas to roast and spice for snacks. But since the party was cancelled due to rain, I had a big bowlful of chickpeas that I had to do something with. I didn’t feel like eating spiced baked chickpeas for days on end, so I decided to make falafel and hummus, which was adventurous because while I love hummus, particularly Joseph’s Garlic Lovers Hummus, it has never occurred to me to make it myself.

Maybe it’s because I rarely use measurements anymore and just eyeball amounts, and I also guesstimate to cut most recipes in half so I don’t end up eating the same thing for days on end, but the hummus turned out pretty terrible. The falafel and tzatziki was delicious, but the hummus…meh. I also decided to mix things up and add some zucchini to the falafel.

I simmered the soaked chickpeas for about an hour and a half, until soft.

For the falafel.
1 cup chickpeas
1/2 small onion
1 small zucchini
3 cloves of garlic
Lemon juice, cumin salt and pepper, red chili flakes
2 Tbs. Flour and 1/2 tsp baking powder.

First, blend everything but the last two ingredients up, once pulsed together, mix in the baking powder and flour. Maybe because I had already cut them into pieces, or I blended for too long, but the mix was much wetter and less coarse than it should have been. I ended up adding almost twice as much flour. It was still too sticky and wet to roll into balls as all the recipes I looked at suggested. Instead, I used two spoons to drop it into hot oil in my wok.

Heat is very important for my wet batter. The first batch was near perfect–the oil bubbled up as soon as it hit, and cooked the batter into the ball-esque shape. Fry for about 3 minutes, until golden, and carefully flip. I turned the heat lower to make sure it didn’t burn, and added a few more spoonfuls. With the heat too low, the batter doesn’t immediately crisp up, and begins to break up into the oil, and you’re left with flat shells of fried falafel. Heat too high, and the batter burns. But, I managed to get quite a few decent ones. Remove from the oil and let cool on a paper towel covered plate.

Falafel: golden crispy on the outside, soft, pillowy delicious on the inside. Tooped with mint-dill tzatziki

This is super simple and delicious (I’ve been missing out by not making Mediterranean before this!).
Take about a cup of Greek yogurt (or plain, unflavored, thick yogurt).
Chop up about half a cup of mint and dill.
Mince 2-3 cloves of garlic.
Peel, slice in half, and seed half a cucumber (or one small pickling cucumber), then grate.
Mix all this up in the yogurt with salt, pepper and a splash of lemon juice.

Tzatziki: Yogurt, cucumber, mint, dill, lemon juice.

Serve on top of warm falafel, or dip veggies into.

Hummus Disaster: I’ll revisit this recipe (I still have a container of cooked chickpeas) and post when it’s successful. Somehow, it came out dry, gritty, and tasting only of sesame paste. Abject failure.

Sweet Corn Chowder

It’s been a long week. My power went out again after the banks had already closed, my bike was stolen, and it is really difficult to get a cab these days. I made another batch of bacon jam over the weekend, because I was going to go to a picnic in Chaoyang Park and bring the bacon spread, cheese, and baguettes to share. Instead I got really lazy and stayed in bed and read books, ate the bacon jam and bread and cheese myself, and instead of cooking, for three days straight ate terrible dinners like an entire baguette with various toppings.

I’ve been meaning to get my life together, go grocery shopping after work, make healthy dinners with leftovers for lunch at work instead of buying crappy fried things, maybe actually start reviewing my Mandarin textbooks. But the heat is just killing me. I get home and flop down and wait for my AC to kick in. And, I agreed to take in a friend’s cat for two weeks. Maze is a pudgy, needy little ginger who likes plastic bags, clawed up a leather portfolio, and meows every time I’m not petting her. She likes to sit on my nightstand and bat my necklaces, but other than that, at least she doesn’t chew through any wires.

Anyway, I at least partially motivated myself to stop at the both Jenny Lou AND Wumart yesterday. Mostly because I needed to buy a second fan or die from overheating, and my ayi requested a larger ironing board (sidenote; have you ever tried to walk three blocks carrying a full sized ironing board in one arm and a large fan in the other? Hint: it’s not fun, don’t do it. People give you weird looks when you almost hit them because the sidewalk is really narrow). I’m less affronted these days when Chinese people assume I’m a useless girl, maybe because I’m used to it, but it barely even ruffled my feathers that the salesman asked if I need help assembling the fan (hmm, I don’t know, I guess I stick one pole into the pole with the larger hole..and use…a screwdriver to hold it together? And then I plug it in?). Anyway, since I was already there, I bought things that actually required cooking, mostly because I had finished all the bread in my house and eating bread for dinner three nights in a row is sad (no matter what you put on top of it).

I decided to make a summer corn chowder recipe that I now can’t remember where I found it. Probably Tastespotting. I didn’t feel like breaking out a big stock pot so I cut the recipe down and cooked everything in a frying pan. It turned out surprisingly delicious.

Bacon (three thick slices, diced)
1 medium yukon gold potato, diced
1 can of sweet corn (probably 1 1/2 cups?)
2 Tbs cream (roughly?)
1 Tbs butter
1 can of chicken stock (I haven’t had the energy to make chicken stock in months, so I’ve been cheating and using store bought)
3 bird chilies, seeded and sliced (or jalapeno, or whatever)
Salt and pepper

Fry the bacon until crispy, and remove from pan. Drain some of the oil. Put in 1 Tbs of butter. After it melts, throw in the diced potato. Season with salt and pepper and toss in the chili peppers. Then the corn (a little bit of liquid now works to deglaze the pan from the bacon). Pour in the stock, bring it to a boil, then let simmer for 5-10 minutes. Take about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the soup and puree it, then add it back to the pan with the cream. Let simmer again. Add more salt/pepper to taste. I removed the chilies before pureeing because I don’t like biting into unexpected spiciness, but the simmering lent a nice heat to it. Serve topped with the bacon cubes.

Sweet corn chowder topped with bacon

It was delicious. Light, but satisfying. It would work as a small side or a larger bowl for a full dinner with some crusty bread. Next time I might try to add in some shallot or sweet onion, and garlic.

Patriotic Cake Pops and Homemade Ravioli

Although I had work on July Fourth, and parties were planned for the weekend, I still felt like I had to do something to celebrate. And my coworkers had jokingly mentioned that I should bake a cake and bring it in to the office. My apartment was a bit too hot to bake a cake, but, I did have almost an entire cake’s wort of scraps from trimming the wedding cakes that I had stored in the freezer. I decided to make cake pops (added benefit of currying favor at the office, I also don’t eat a whole cake by myself)

I mixed about half a cake worth of almond cake, broken up into fine crumbs, with 1/2 cup of cream cheese, 2 Tbs butter, and a cup of powdered sugar. Stuck this batter in the freezer, and after decently chilled, rolled small balls. Then I repeated the process with chocolate cake crumbs.

I melted chocolate and tried to dip the balls into it, but the chocolate was too thick and the cake balls kept falling off the sticks. So I put the chocolate into a plastic bag and piped swirls individually. Then decorated with red and white sprinkles (I looked for blue sprinkles, but couldn’t find any at Jenny Lou’s). They were very patriotic and celebratory as I sat at my desk in my cubicle all day.

Almond cake pop with chocolate swirls

Saturday a friend of mine hosted a little dinner-making party, mostly to let people to cook for her, and I was happy to oblige as she owns a pasta maker. I brought a tub of pumpkin puree, the rest of my homemade ricotta, which I had stored frozen to no adverse effect, and some homemade pork sausage mix.

Because I hadn’t made pasta in so long I forgot the ratio, and we used a recipe from the Joy of Cooking for guidance. 1 1/2 cups of semolina flour and 2 cups of normal flour, plus salt, mixed up. Beat 5 eggs and slowly incorporate the flour, mixing until you get a smooth, not too sticky dough. It turned out a tad dry at the end so I dabbed my fingers in water as I mixed to get just the right texture. I let the dough rest for 15 minutes while I browned the sausage mix in a pan, and set up the roller.

Divide the dough into 4 pieces and work in batches. Roll the dough out, trim into even sided rectangle. Cut with a knife (or pizza roller) the long way to get two equal long rectangles. Place a dollop of ricotta, pumpkin, sausage, or any combined mix, every two inches, on one narrow rectangle. Cut dough the short way to get two equal squares around each dollop of filling. Dab water lightly along the edges of one square, and then place the empty square over and pinch the edges together. And you have ravioli! Bring a pot of salted water to boil, and then put these into the water until they float to the surface, about 5 minutes. You can serve as is, with olive/butter and fresh cracked pepper, or give a quick saute in other flavors, like butter, garlic, sage.

It was quite the international dinner. There was a big pot of spicy Singaporean soup, made with coconut milk, red chili oil, so many flavors, fish cakes, poured over bean sprouts, noodles, and hard boiled egg. We used the remaining bowl of ground pork sausage to fry with wide, chewy rice noodles. And there was pai huang gua a smashed/cut cucumber salad dressed with vinegar and garlic, and in our case, Crazy Jane garlic seasoning. And I discovered these amazing chili crackle snacks that were completely addictive. Deep fried red chilies with sesame seeds and other things that the oil leached out the worst of the capsicums, leaving only deliciousness behind.

Moments in Beijing

Beijing is one of those interesting places that has one foot in the future and one foot in the past, deftly (or not so deftly) straddling subsistence level living and crazy technological process. Imposing modern architecture, break-neck paced development, wrinkled little farmers with horse drawn carts selling cabbages. Wrapped up in work in the central business district, with a dense ex-pat population, there are times when I can almost forget that I live in China. And then, sometimes there are moments that remind me firmly of where I am.

I didn’t feel like biking, so I attempted to get a cab to work this morning, and as I walked along the sidewalk, I heard a weird grumbly noise. A door that is usually closed was ajar, showing a small open courtyard. A man wearing a little white cap was carving slices from what I assumed was a lamb carcass hanging from one of several meat hooks. That wasn’t really so surprising. What was surprising, was the small cow, legs tied together, ear twitching, but otherwise lying placidly on its side, legs lashed together. Was it really necessary to make it watch you butchering the lamb basically on top of it? It was a sad scene to start my day.

There is a Jamba Juice-esque smoothie shop near my office (that has blatantly ripped off their name and color scheme and menu) that we often frequent for mid afternoon pick-me-up smoothies. Today was one such day where a few of us decided to embark on a blended-ice-and-fruit quest.

We walked in and no one was there. No staff, that is. We checked behind the counter, no one at all. We decided to wait for a few minutes, perhaps they had all gone to the bathroom or something.

About seven minutes later, we heard some stirring noises, and from underneath the counter unfolded a young man, who had curled up out of sight inside the counter for a nice nap. He stretched, started at us sleepily, and very slowly proceeded to make our smoothies with the foggy precision of someone who is not fully awake.

In Which Robot Runs A Race, Rides a Horse, and Survives Inner Mongolia

So I was training for a marathon, got really sick, stopped running for two weeks, as my medication made me feel like vomiting every time I breathed, and then ended up running a half marathon in Inner Mongolia. It was…an interesting weekend.

My Inner Mongolia adventure begins at 4:30 Friday morning, reluctantly dragging myself out of bed, and somehow managing to get out of the house in a semi-coherent state, with all of my stuff, by 5. Despite rain and early hour, I luck out with a cab pulling up to drop someone off right in front of my gate as I reach the curb.

It’s a short, hour flight to Xilinhaote from Beijing. The flight attendants muse on the strange majority of laowai on the plane. 怎么多老外啊!I manage to get a nap in to escape loud conversation and the panicky feeling I get when I’m in a small, Chinese plane that hits a lot of turbulence. The foreigners are all herded on to buses and driven two hours through the countryside to the small town of Xiwuqi. The landscape fascinates me; so much construction, no one ever moving in, empty buildings springing up from the rolling grassland. At a higher elevation than Beijing, the clouds are gloriously puffy and hanging low in the sky. The sun is out, the air is clear, the sky is bright and never ending blue.

We are deposited at the Electricity Hotel. The organizers of the adventure, Nordic Ways, could use some tips on actually organizing things. The lobby is chaos and no one seems to know what’s going on. One of the many registration errors, I am informed that I have been signed up for the half marathon, instead of the full. I protest, and ask (twice, even waiting until the initial furor dies down) to switch back, but they refuse. I won’t have an official time or place in the race, which are things that I want, so I grumble a bit, but secretly I am quite relieved to be running the half. I’m only just now on the mend, and 26.2 miles is a lot of miles.

Eventually we eat some lunch (not really satisfying, standard second tier hotel buffet food) and I embark on an adventure to find my hotel, the Golden Leaf Hotel, about a 15 minute walk down the road. It is better than I expected overall, but I have low expectations. The beds are hard; the shower is almost directly over the toilet, with incredibly poor drainage, and there is a random, broken computer in the room; otherwise perfectly acceptable, and no smell of smoke.

Walking with a tall white boy, we make ou way through the city square, enjoying the clarity and higher definition that real life seems to have in such a clean environment, away from the smog of Beijing. Many of the locals take pictures of us or start chatting with us, asking why so many foreigners have converged on their little town, children running by and giggling at us. Beijing laowai are so commonplace, that unless you’re doing something really ridiculous people don’t look at you. I forget that there are huge swaths of China where that isn’t true, that white skin or black skin, blonde or red hair, are sights to be seen.

We eat another unsatisfactory buffet dinner, before I go to bed at an early hour.

4:30 AM Saturday morning. Race Day. I was going to get up early anyways, but my alarm is superseded by a series of explosions directly outside my window, where someone has set of a string of fireworks in the parking lot. I’m awake! I walk over to the Electricity Hotel, partly to eat some breakfast (fruit and water, to augment the Luna bars I ate when I woke up), but mostly because I’ve forgotten how to get to the City Square from my hotel, and there’s a map in the Electricity Hotel lobby.
After a short meal and hydration, I make my way to the square, filled with pre-race jitters. My half-assed training is beginning to worry me. I haven’t been in a running race since senior year of high school. I find others from my charity fundraising team, mingle with them, and finally we position ourselves on the starting line at 7:00.

And then it starts. I had meant to keep a slow pace, having been warned by more experienced marathoners that rabbiting off in the start, when you’re caught up in the excitement, is deadly for a strong finish. I try, I really do, but everyone is so slow. Jogging. I weave my way past most of the half-marathoners towards the front. Everything is good. I feel amazing. The sky is beautiful, clear and cloudless and brilliant blue. The hills are green and lush. The air is clean and I fill my lungs and feel healthier than any “clean” day in Beijing.

5K in, I feel the twinge in my knee. I haven’t felt it in months, not since I started training carefully. It’s not a good sign. I slow down infinitesimally, but keep at it. A steep hill. It takes a lot of effort to run the whole incline; I almost vomit, but order myself to stop gagging and get over it. I do, and keep going. The nausea passes but the pain in my knee doesn’t. My knee worsens. The track is uneven, an incline, rutted, and whichever way I try to hit jars my knee badly. By 7K the ache has spread to my ankle.

By 10K, my hip is now radiating pain. I slow down a bit more. Stop stretch, keep going. Drink some water, eat a banana. Keep going. They don’t have ice at the drink and “first aid” station. My knee twists and twinges. I go down into the grass, stretch, keep going. At 19K I am barely jogging. A shuffle, because when I slow down to a walk, the pain intensifies. A Chinese girl passes me at the water station. But I can’t go any faster. I’m nearly crying, and I’m definitely cursing under my breath. Every so often I land just so and a groan rips itself out of me. Or a vicious, louder-than-I-mean-to swear. Three more women pass me in the last 2K, and I barely continue. I can see the finish in the distance, but I can’t make my left leg work. Every step is agony. One more kilometer to go. It looks like an eternity. I’m afraid I’ve torn something in my knee. My right knee, having compensated this entire time, is now beginning to get twinges of pain as well. I’m afraid I might fall over, because walking is just as bad as running. I’m so close to the finish line and I honestly think I might stop know because it’s so unbearable.

A friend comes running up from behind and claps a hand on my shoulder, which gives me a little bit of a drive to make it. I can keep pace with him. I will keep pace with him if it kills me. Every step takes a muttered curse. I push myself across the finish line, where a girl dressed in a Mongolian tribal costume stands in my way, and insists on putting a heavy horse head shaped medal around me. I push her out of the way, stumble, and collapse, letting the tears fall, because I can no longer put any weight or bend any of the joints of my left leg without extreme pain.

Because it’s China and the organization left much to be desired, there was no first aid tent. Fellow runners who finish around me end up helping me to a chair a few yards past the finish line. Some go off in search of race officials to help, but that never comes. After fifteen or so minutes waiting and being stared at I decide to relocate from the finish line to somewhere slightly less conspicuous. I limp over to a tent where I sit with some other slightly injured runners and try to stretch out the pain and stop myself from crying. Some nice competitors go off on adventures and find me ibuprofen, bananas, Snickers, and water. Someone even finds a race administrator, who suggests he call an ambulance. I look at him like he’s a crazy person, and ask for an ice pack. But there is no first aid station, apparently, and no ice, just an ambulance, that will take who knows how long to get there. I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised by this glaring oversight, but I’m a little upset. Someone finally checks with a convenient store, who happens to have a few bottles of water that have frozen solid. I tuck them all along my leg and sit some more. Some very wonderful, nice person hands me a knee brace. All the locals have gathered to see the finish, and some stare at me in puzzlement, including an adorable trio of young boys who are dressed up like hipsters.

Eventually the ice melts, and all I want is a shower and a nap, so I drag myself up and limp over to the bus where we stashed our belongings before the race. I’ve pulled off my sneakers and walk barefoot on the clean, sun warmed pavement, something I’d never dream of doing in Beijing. The nine year old accidental hipsters with their big glasses bike after me as I shuffle away. “姐姐, 姐姐, big sister” they call out, and I stop, surprised, as they shove two more bottles of ice at me, dissolve into giggles, and bike off before I can pull out my camera. So adorable. If I had been able to move faster I might have stolen them.

I make my slow way home, trying to ignore the fact that I smell terrible, and that I’m half goosestepping and walking most awkwardly and people are staring. I’m almost afraid that if I bend my leg at all, I’ll collapse in pain and then be kidnapped and sold to one of the very many KTVs brothels that line the streets here. (I assume they are brothels. What else is there to do in Inner Mongolia all winter?).

But I arrive without incident to the Golden Leaf Hotel, for a shower that leaves much to be desired. I consider joining other runners for lunch, but instead slowly eat a Luna bar, crawl onto the board-hard bed, and fall asleep for many hours.

After my nap I try to get my life in some semblance of order and pack, then slowly drag my suitcase down the stairs, and wait for a bus to take me to the grasslands. It’s a half hour ride into the countryside, and we finally pull into the yurt camping area. We spill out onto the grasslands, and I find my yurt, which is less of a felt tent and more of a concrete bunker. Apparently, half of the yurts are actually tents, but mine is just a round concrete room with a window, painted to look like a yurt. There are two beds, a tea table with a water kettle, electricity, a small bathroom with toilet and shower (although I’m not brave enough to try the water of the shower). The air is a bit musty, but no more than the room at the Golden Leaf, and the beds are slightly less hard.

I find some people I befriended on the bus ride as I wander by a field of horses. We’ve got time to kill, and not much else to do, so they suggest going for a horse ride. Great idea, right?

We give the man some money and I hop on the horse, after telling him I know how to rdie a horse (I sort of do, but not really, I just don’t want the guide holding onto my horse, I’d like at least the illusion that I’m really riding). I get on the horse, which has no name, I’m informed, without problem. I get the horse to start walking, no problem. The guys I’m with get on their horses, the guide holding one of their reins, and they start walking behind me, no problem. Then the guide shouts the command at the horses that makes them start running. And then problem.

Until this moment I haven’t given a single thought to the fact that post race, I changed into flip-flops and a sarong. Not only are the stirrups uncomfortable and leaving bruises on my ankles, but, as I discover, while running, I bounce up and down on the horse in such a way that it is impossible for my skirt to stay down. Everyone in the vicinity is given a lovely look at my adorable underwear. I’m mortified. I fight to hold onto the horse with one hand and try to keep my skirt down with the other, which is impossible, so I pull the reins and make the horse slow down. He stops to snack on some grass, and I let him, with some relief, and pull myself together and get everything decent and decide that I’m ok if I let the horse walk slowly for the rest of the trail.

The guide, however, has another idea completely. He’s tickled pink by the whole situation, me yelling out “buhaoyisi” and “stop looking at me” and “nothing to see here” and “oh shit oh shit damnit why am I wearing a dress.” He lets me lull myself into a false sense of security, lazily ambling along the track, while he positions both his horse, and the horse of the American guy he’s leading, behind mine, then suddenly slaps my horse to set him running. The guide laughs his ass off as my horse takes off again. This happens 7-8 more times, and every time we pass another group of riders, so he can tell his buddies about the crazy laowai girl utterly failing at staying decent.

I decide to name the horse Flasher, and finally, after all the running, Flasher ends up at too far of a distance away from the guide to be slapped or hear the running command, and I am able to return to the campsite with some semblance of dignity at a very slow walk.

We leave the horse area, and immediately head to the restaurant to get a beer to nurse my pride. By this time, everyone else has arrived and seating themselves for the dinner. Some of the dishes are pretty good, but I’m never quite satisfied at these large-number banquets. Lamb, boiled lamb, fired tiny pices of lamb, salty Mongolian milk tea, mantou buns, boiled peanuts, tripe, etc. And, to my dismay, there is also a bottle of Mongolian baijiu, which was poured out for everyone (my insides shudder at the thought of that even now).

There is a Mongolian performance with dancers and singers and acrobats, and after dinner several of us find a quiet area on the outside of the big hall and watch thunder and lightning storm sweep across the grasslands miles away. It is gorgeous and powerful and amazing and slightly beyond my words to capture the experience. A bonfire is lit in a big traditional metal fire pit, and terrible music played, and people start dancing. The rainstorm eventually crosses over us and I hide inside until it passes. Someone tries to convince me to dance, so I sway unconvincingly and awkwardly around and glare at them because I can’t bend my leg, asshole, thanks for making me feel bad about myself and out of place. It rains more, and eventually having to be around a large group of mostly strangers and 90% of the few people I do know being good friends of the guy who broke my heart, who apparently is everywhere I look because every time I move to a different area there he fucking appears, is really stressful so I go back to my fake yurt and cry a little bit because my leg really hurts and for no other reason what so ever like I’m not really angry that I’m still bothered by him. And also there’s a giant spider I didn’t notice earlier in the window and spiders freak me out.

I am asleep by 11, but some unknown number calls twice at midnight, and no one replies when I answer. Then at 12:30, right as I had just gotten back to sleep, two girls from my fundraising team knock on my door, since apparently someone had taken over their yurt. They also wake me up at 4:30 in the morning, thinking I was on their 5 am early bus.

I stayed in bed grumpily until 7, when I couldn’t lie still any longer. I wander around the grasslands. It’s sunny and bright, but very windy, and the wind only get stronger and clouds darken the sky. Even in a sweatshirt I’m freezing, and there’s nothing happening inside, not even breakfast, so I return to my yurt and huddle for warmth and read. Eventually I go back outside when I see signs of life from other yurts, and eat a sad breakfast of cold youtiao, salty milk tea, cold hard boiled eggs, cold mantou, and some millet grain mixed in with cold rice porridge and sugar.

We can’t find any water for the longest time, and when we ask, they sell us bottles of something fizzy and chemical lemon tasting. I’m dehydrated and dying for a drink, and only after watching the waitresses pour some hot water for themselves from a filtered spigot, do we find drinking water. It was boiling hot, but better than nothing.

A bus is supposed to come pick the twenty or so of us who had stayed in the yurts and not taken the early bus back. It had been posted many times on posters at all the hotels the afternoon before to arrive at ten o’clock (we had photo evidence). After waiting 45 minutes outside freezing our asses off, someone calls one of the Nordic Ways coordinators. She says there is no bus coming at all. We call the other coordinator, who agrees that, yes, it was crazy, wasn’t it, that we have all been waiting there. No, you’re not supposed to try to relate, you’re supposed to fix it. Eventually, a bus arrives an hour later, and brings us back to town.

We arrive back at the Electricity Hotel and unload our luggage. Four hours to kill, and no plans, so I go to lunch with a few people at a recommended hotpot restaurant. Delicious, filling, and hands down, the best meal all weekend. Lamb, beef meatballs, thick chewy rice noodles “kuan fer,” tofu skins “doufupi” enoki mushrooms, cabbage, potato and sweet potato, and my favorite, small round pumpkin cakes that had been deep fried, to be dip in condensed milk.

Afterward finishing up the meal, the engineers/energy industry guys announce they are going to explore a power plant. Having nothing better to do, I decide to tag along. Because China.

We hire a cab to take us there. He drives us onto the plant, one of us gets out and chats to the gatekeeper for 30 seconds, showing a business card and explaining, he is a coal power specialist showing his American partner a Chinese plant. I guess I’m just a groupie along for the tour. It’s slightly ridiculous and surreal, walking right onto the half built power plant, no one stops us or questions us. And I clearly don’t look like I should be there, wearing flip flops and leggings, and the sarong from yesterday wrapped around me as a scarf, protecting my face from the sand being whipped up in the wind. We don’t have safety helmets or anything, but none of the many Chinese works says a thing as we poke around the coal burners and power lines, climb up steep stairs (slowly, in my case) and snap a few pictures. There were a few curious glances, and a couple catcall whistles as we left, but just…no reaction to our obvious trespass.

We cab back and I sit in the hotel and rest my lef until the bus to the airport arrives. We arrive an hour before the tiny 4 terminal airport will let anyone check in, so mot of the foreigners camp out on the floor, waiting. I peruse the small gift store for a snack, but don’t really feel like buying a box of sheep jerky or dried ants. I settle on a bottle of water and a pretty terrible ice cream, and finally we depart half an hour late to Nanyuan, the domestic/military airport to the south of Beijing.

It’s a tiny airport, similar to the one in Xilinhaote. None of the lines and back up of the Capital Airport. It’s a matter of walking out the the front door to get a cab almost instantly, and only a RMB50 ride back to the center of the city, split between two people. The south area of Beijing is so strange and different than the within third and second ring road. Completely local, there’s no development, no foreign companies, no foreigners, hardly any buildings over a few stories tall.

I arrive home and drag my suitcase painfully to the elevator (sitting still on the bus and plane made the pain worsen) and immediately call Gung Ho, ten minutes before close, to order an emergency pizza as there is no food in my fridge at all. It arrives and I stay up long enough to inhale half of it before collapsing in bed and ending my Mongolian adventure.

Cinnamon Ginger Flank Steak and Raspberry Shrub

I can be, on occasion, a complete and total carnivore. I love red meat. A good steak, grilled just past rare? One of my favorite meals. Unfortunately due to the quality or price of available meat here, I find that I don’t eat too much steak. It’s just not very economical. Ground beef, or small pieces cut into sauce, yes, but rarely an actual steak. So when I was at April Gourmet’s to pick up a loaf of bread and my eye caught a tray of red, gleaming flank steak, I didn’t even try to fight temptation.

I purchased a small piece, just enough for two servings for me, which cost RMB45. Flank steak is one of those cuts of meat where a long marinating process does a world of good for flavor and texture. But I was occupied by Firefly and I completely forgot about it. So after work Monday, I whipped up a very quick marinade. I pounded together a large clove of garlic and a thumb of ginger with my pestle and mortar. Then I added in a clove, ground cumin, ground cinnamon, a dash of sugar, salt and pepper, and a very light dusting of red chili powder. This forms into a thick paste. Rub this into every nook and cranny, and let sit 6 hours to overnight. Or, in my case, cheat and add a little acid to the mix. I poured in a few drops of Maggi seasoning, some soy sauce and Shaoxing cooking wine. Shake it all up in a plastic bag, and let sit in the fridge (put on the countertop 30 minutes before cooking, to let it come to room temp) for as much time as you can wait to eat dinner.

In the meantime, I cut up sweet potatoes and baked sweet potato fries, put on a pot of rice, and made a batch of raspberry and cherry shrub.

After the wedding cake weekend, I found myself with a box of leftover raspberries that weren’t particularly sweet, and a bowl of cherries that I had bought as a back up in case I didn’t find any strawberries. They were Chinese cherries, and not particularly sweet or red, either. I had recently come across a thekitchn.com article on preserving cherries and making berry shrubs. I thought I might give it a shot.

The night before, I mixed about a cup of cherries and a cup of vinegar (a mix of white and white wine vinegar) in one bowl, and a cup of raspberries and vinegar in a separate bowl (just white wine vinegar). I mashed them as best I could with the crappy fork I own (a potato masher would have been useful), then stuck the bowls in the fridge. Remember to cover your bowls, or your entire fridge will smell like vinegar, which isn’t the most appetizing scent first thing in the morning. Give it a stir every now and then. The raspberries mushed up perfectly and was a beautiful red ruby gem color. The cherries didn’t macerate as nicely, and the vinegar was more garnet.

Raspberry and Cherry macerating in vinegar

Stir up the vinegar fruit mix, and then strain into a pot. Discard the solid stuff.
Add an equal amount of sugar to the amount of liquid—it should be about a cup, maybe a little more. Bring it to a boil on low heat, and then let it boil for five or so minutes.

Raspberry Shrub

Cherry Shrub

I poured these into the empty vinegar bottle and an empty jam jar, and they are beautiful rose colored syrups. They smell quite tart and astringent from the vinegar, but the taste is milder than the smell. Mix with soda water or sparkling water, and it’s a very refreshing, none-too-sweet fruit soda. also probably adaptable for cocktails, but I haven’t come up with any yet.

Back to the steak. After letting it marinate for as long as I could humanely wait, I seared it in pan for about a minute per side, then popped into the oven at a broil for about 4 minutes per side. Then I let it sit for five minutes.

Having incredible restraint and letting the meat rest before devouring.

Slice against the grain. The thinner half was done medium, the thicker piece was perfectly pink. Juicy, flavorful, and freaking amazing.

Flank Steak Salad

The next day, with the second portion, I made a salad with lettuce, cherry tomato, dried cranberries, almonds, apple slices and cucumber, and balsamic vinegar pearls witha bit of agar-agar powder. Fill a tall water glass with oil, and stick it in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. Pour 25 grams of balsamic vinegar and 1 1/2 grams of agar agar powder into a saucepan, whisk away and bring to a boil. Let it cool down may 5, 10 minutes, then, either using a dropper or a plastic squeeze bottle, drop vinegar into the cold oil. It should set by the time it sinks to the bottom of the glass. Remove them from the oil and store in water, so as not to crowd the glass and make to oil too warm. I tossed everything with a vinaigrette of 1 Tbs lemon juice, a splash of white vinegar, shallot, olive oil, salt, soy sauce, pepper, and dried herbs.

Making Balsamic Vinegar Pearls. Very hard to photograph and make at the same time.

Sausage and Pepper Orrecchiete

After the wedding party, I took the bus home with some friends, entered my apartment, took a despairing look around, and went directly to my room, closed the door and pretended that my living room and kitchen didn’t exist. I stayed in bed late, finally getting dressed and walking straight out of the apartment with my eyes closed because the mess still didn’t exist, and only to go to the theatre in Sanlitun and watch an early matinee showing of the Hunger Games and eat popcorn and gummy bears and cherry coke for breakfast.

I lead an exciting, healthy lifestyle.

After the movie ended, I decided I probably couldn’t pretend that it didn’t exist anymore, and had to at least mop up the worst of the frosting spills. And I was perilously close to not having any clean bowls.

Much cleaning ensued, after which I wanted a light little supper. This is easy and quick enough to make on a weeknight, and I made a large enough batch for lunch for four days at work.

1/2 pound ground pork
1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted
Pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves minced garlic
Dash of Shaoxing cooking wine.
1 chopped pepper
1/1 onion, chopped
1 cup of sliced mushrooms

Mix in the pork with all the herbs and flavorings. Let it sit and soak in the wine while you boil water and chop the vegetables. Add pasta to water and in a pan, heat up some olive oil and saute the mushrooms. Add the onion and let cook until onions start to get translucent. Remove from pan, and add in the pork mixture, or crumbled sausage. Brown the meat, then add the vegetables back in, including the green pepper.

Drain the pasta, toss everything together with some more olive oil and a generous lashing of grated parmesan. I ate this along with some bread spread with ricotta, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper.

Then I went to Brussels bar to meet some friends for a Firefly themed evening, because I am just that awesome. And Captain Mal is just so darn pretty, and who would want to miss out watching a large projection of him?. It was a pretty cool evening. I’d never been to the bar before, but it’s a nice space with a bg projector screen where they played a few episodes. The owners had come up with a few Firefly themed menu items: fresh bao and stew (not really a departure from normal Chinese cooking, I think it was the mother of either the Chinese wife or waitress or ayi that had made the buns), “wife soup” that was really just ge da tang (which means Pimple Soup, because the dough bits look like pimples, but it’s deceptively tasty). And for drinks they offered Ice Planet (a lychee-liquor based ball of ice with other sweet additions), Shimmerwine (Prosecco with grenadine and other flavors), and Mudder’s Milk, milk with whiskey and a few other ingredients. Aside from the massive amounts of mosquitos attacking us, it was a great place to hang out, and when the electricity went out for twenty minutes, the bartender came round and gave everyone a free beer, an attitude I heartily appreciate, and because of it, I will most likely return.

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