Tortellini Soup and Beef Empanadas

Having been here for almost 2 1/2 years now, I find myself pretty immune to most of the things that used to amuse me when I first arrived. Birds trained to pick up loose change? Seen it. Infant children dangling/precariously perched on highly dangerous motorized contraptions like it’s no big thing? Yeah, it’s no big thing. And then I see something that reminds me to be amused, like a little delivery scooter with a big metal locker mounted on the back, that someone has drawn on in permanent black marker “FEDEX.” Super legit, delivery guy, super legit. Except, you didn’t the bubble letters correctly, and there’s no arrow between the E and the X. So now, I don’t trust you to deliver my packages.

Confession time, guys. I don’t really know that much about cooking. Like, yes, I know how to cook things. I am really good at following directions, i.e., finding a recipe and doing exactly what it says because I think I really want to consume the end product. I’m pretty decent at throwing some ingredients together in a way that I’ve done for years to create my own dishes, or fiddling with recipes to give it my own take. But I’m not an expert by any means–I generally need to have someone else’s idea to base my creations on, and I’m really bad at creating multi course meals that actually complement each other. And let’s not even start to contemplate pairing food with wine. That shit is for people who have time and money to waste. Know how I chose a bottle of wine? I go to the liquor section of Jenny Lou, think, “ANYTHING BUT CHARDONNAY” and pick the cheapest bottle that’s not originally from China. So far it’s worked out all right.

But yeah, so the dinners I serve can be interesting, like maybe I’ll decide to make Thai chicken and Italian meatballs and Indian curry and you’ll jut have to shut up and eat it and enjoy it because I made it all from scratch.

So I’ve been eyeing some recipes for an Italian tortellini-sausage soup and empanadas, and neither are really a dinner by themselves, so I decided to make both dishes when company came over. And they just had to deal with two types of deliciousness.

The tortellini soup was simple, fairly adaptable, tasty, and a great week night supper because it took all of about fifteen minutes–less if you start out with store bought sausage.

I seasoned ground pork belly with a generous pour of white wine and cooking wine, salt, pepper, toasted fennel, minced garlic, sugar, garlic powder, and some dried mixed herbs. Mixed this all together, formed rough patties and cooked them thoroughly in some oil. Set aside.

In a big pot, heat olive oil. I tossed in about 1/2 cup of chopped onions that I had in the freezer (great time saver!), and after those softened, added in some minced garlic. Gave that about 2-3 minutes, and tossed in a bay leaf and a pinch of crushed red peppers. I chose to add a can of white beans and about half a can of diced tomatoes, and about 4 cups of stock or stock and water mixed. And then I added in the sausage, and brought the stock up to boil, before pouring in a package of pre-made porcini tortellini. This is where you could add in some kale or spinach, but I couldn’t  find any at the market. It only takes a few minutes for the tortellini to cook, and then you can season to taste with salt and pepper and serve. It’s got a bit of heat from the red pepper, and is sort of reminiscent of minestrone. Mmm.

Bowl of Good Things: tortellini, beans, sausage, tomato. And room for many more good things.

Bowl of Good Things: tortellini, beans, sausage, tomato. And room for many more good things.

I let this simmer on the pot while I went to work on the empanadas. I started the dough before the soup, because it needs to chill an hour.

Dough: 4 1/2 cups flour ( I used half whole wheat half all purpose), a pinch of salt, and a cup of butter, cold and cubed. 2/3 cup ice water, 2 eggs, and 2 Tbs white vinegar. Blend the butter and flour and salt until it sort of resembled sand. Beat the eggs, beat in water and vinegar, then mix into the dough. Knead until it forms a smooth, not too sticky dough. Cover with plastic wrap and stick in the fridge.

I bought a sack of frozen not-great-quality steaks from Metro last month to have back up protein in the fridge. I took two of the more gristly ones, defrosted, and cut off all the good meaty bits into small pieces, which I marinated in a mix of cooking wine, salt and Maggi sauce while making the soup. Then I diced one green pepper, and about a 1/2 cup of cheese (a mix of Mozzarella and Colby Jack). I sauteed the rest of my ziplock of frozen diced onion in olive oil, (a little ore than half a cup?) and added in the beef. Add any seasonings your heart desires at this point.

Once thoroughly cooked and a bit cooled, I mixed this with the green pepper and cheese, and put this bowl to the side. Take out the dough from the fridge. Prepare a well floured flat surface and roll out the dough in fist sized sections. I used a small bowl about 4 inches diameter to cut out circles of dough. One batch of dough makes about 24 dough circles. Beat an egg with 2 Tbs water for an egg wash.

Fill each dough circle with a heaping spoonful of the pepper-beef-cheese mixture, dab a finger in the egg wash and run it along the edge of the dough, fold the circle in half, and crimp the edges. I have no idea to make the pretty crimps that I’ve seen on actual empanadas, so I just sort of pinched and folded the edges over on mine. At this point, I took most of them and laid them on parchment lined cutting board, not touching each other, and popped in the freezer. Once frozen solid, they can be placed in a bag without fear that they’ll stick together.

Beef, pepper, onion and cheese, melty goodness wrapped up in a flaky, golden pastry crust.

Beef, pepper, onion and cheese, melty goodness wrapped up in a flaky, golden pastry crust.

The last six I brushed with the egg wash, laid on lightly oiled tin foil and baked at 350F for 25 minutes. They come out golden, perfectly flaky, with melty cheese goodness, and seriously, can you beat the mix of peppers, onions and meat? Not really. But the fillings you could stick in these suckers are pretty endless. It’s takes a lot of work to make them, so definitely not a weeknight project, but having a bag of these in my freezer ready to bake is kind of awesome. Plus, I had two dough circles left when i ran out of filling, so I filled them with chopped up frozen bananas and the chocolate mixture that I had left from making the Bailey’s cupcakes. They are also in my freezer waiting an appropriate time to be baked and consumed.

Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli

I miss my pasta maker. It’s not something I used too often, but it’s comforting to have it in the back of the cupboard. Every so often I’d dust it off and make some fresh pasta. I should have been using it constantly.

Fresh pasta isn’t very challenging, you knead some dough, you let it rest, you roll it out and cut it. The pasta machine makes all that just go much faster, and there’s less agony over evenly rolling out the dough with a rolling pin. I don’t even care about long pasta, because really it’s just a vehicle for whatever sauce I’m putting on it. But seriously, I just need to have more homemade ravioli in my life.

I decided to make butternut squash ravioli without the machine. Simple enough, it just takes time. I had some baked squash that I pureed with a little bit of melted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper, and a tub of homemade ricotta cheese.

I rolled out the dough as thin and evenly as I could, and then used a cookie cutter to cut out shapes. A dab of puree and cheese, and then sealed by running a wet finger around the edge of the skin and pressing, much like dumplings, only no crinkling. Half, I froze, laying them in a single layer on a plate, then putting in a bag once hardened so they don’t stick together. The rest I gave a quick boil–lifting out of the water with a slotted spoon as soon as they started to rise, and then tossing in a bit of butter and olive oil with sauteed garlic shrimp.

These little hearts are filled to bursting with homemade ricotta and pureed squash

These little hearts are filled to bursting with homemade ricotta and pureed squash

Ravioli tossed in garlic butter and a bit of white wine with shrimp.

Ravioli tossed in garlic butter and a bit of white wine with shrimp.

I used a heart shaped cookie cutter, which lead to super cute finished product (you could use beet juice in the pasta to make red hearts and it’d be a cute Valentine’s or other special dinner) and it’s kind of impressive to serve homemade ravioli (kind of wish I had a frilly edged cutter to make it more professional looking). The ricotta gets warm and melty, and this would pair well with a  white-wine sauce or bechamel, or lightly tossed in brown butter with sage, or with sauteed vegetables.

Pasta Dough: 3 1/2 cups of flour, or some mix of all-purpose and semolina, and a 1/4 tsp of salt.  5 eggs. mix the flour into the eggs until the dough forms. You can color the pasta by adding vegetable-boiled water from beets or spinach, and flavor the pasta with herbs or veg as well. You want a smooth, not too sticky dough, ad flour if sticky, some dabs of water if it’s too dry. Freeze whatever you don’t use for later use. Let it rest for about 15-20 minutes after kneading, then roll it out and cut shapes or noodles.

Soy Sauce Braised Pork over Udon Noodles

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Omnom. Shredded braised pork, hard boiled egg, and noodles tossed in the braising liquid.

I was up late one night last week, off on one of my semi-nocturnal very stupid insomnia sleep patterns,  and decided I was incredibly hungry…so instead of pulling out a pack of ramen like any other twenty something, I decided to braise pork (only like, an hour long process) and serve over noodles with hard boiled eggs. I have to admit, sometimes, I really like being me.

The best part is that aside from the time, it’s an incredibly simple process. There is no real recipe, which is good because I was starting this as midnight, and probably would have screwed up anything more challenging.

I seared the pork on all sides, then put it in a baking dish with some chopped onions, and covered it with a mixture of chicken stock, water, soy sauce, vinegar, oyster sauce, a little bit of anise and sugar and pepper, and put it in the oven on low for a while. You can add whatever the hell you want to the braising liquid, just keep a low temperature and an hour or two, then apply some forks to shred it, boil a pack of udon noodles for a few minutes, add some egg, and VOILA crazy good 2 AM snack. Or just plain crazy 2 AM snack. Whatever. I like it.

Bailey’s Chocolate Cupcakes

I hope everyone had a lovely Saint Patrick’s Day that didn’t involve too much unfortunately green beverages.

As it was a Sunday after a very full weekend, I didn’t do too much to celebrate. Friday night we brought out of town visitors to Crescent Moon (go there for decent, moderately priced Xinjiang food and excellent dark Xinjiang beer), then to KTV, and Saturday we went for the Yangtui experience. So much food. We initally ordered two roast lamb legs, a whole mess of chicken wing chuanr and side dishes and nan bread. Then the boys decided, before the second leg was nearly finished, that they had to order a third one. So much delicious meat consumed with toasted bread and lots of beer. And I brought cupcakes for dessert, of course.

Everyone should have tupperware full of these cupcakes in their purse

Everyone should have tupperware full of these cupcakes in their purse

To be specific, I brought four-way-Bailey’s Irish Cream-cupcakes. There was Bailey’s in the batter, Bailey’s in the chocolate ganache filling, Bailey’s in the buttercream frosting, and Bailey’s in the chocolate fudge syrup poured on top.

This made 12 small cupcakes. The cake batter was light and fluffy, and a bit difficult to cut neat divots out for the ganache filling. It’s not an intense chocolate cake, but it ends up being a good vehicle for the very rich flavors of the frosting and filling.

It took me about an hour and a half, including baking time and chilling time. 

Cupcake Base:
1/2 cup Bailey’s or other Irish Cream
1 egg, well beaten, on the smaller side
1/2 tsp of vanilla
1 cup  flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
A pinch of salt
6 Tbs butter, softened
1/4 cup coffee
 Preheat oven to 180C. Give silicon muffin liners a quick hit of non-stick spray.
Beat the Bailey’s, egg and vanilla together, then set aside
Whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.
Add butter and liquid mixture; beat with an electric mixer on low speed until dry ingredients are moistened (make sure you have a tall bowl and that the butter is adequately soft, or there will be flour everywhere).  Lastly, mix in the coffee.
I used an ice cream scoop to divide the batter into 12 cupcakes, and baked for about 25 minutes, then let cool completely (After 5 minutes on a rack, I popped them into the fridge.
Chocolate Ganache:
1/3 cup of cream
1 cup chocolate (I used a mix of dark 70% cocoa baking chocolate and a milk chocolate bar)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Bailey’s.
Mix the cream and chocolate in a small saucepan. Heat on low, stirring constantly. Once the chocolate begins to melt, I took it on and off the heat, stirring the whole time, to avoid overcooking and making it seize up. Add the butter in small bits and the Bailey’s. Stir it well, then chill the fridge for about 20 minutes–it should be cool and thick, but not hardened. I pulled it out of the fridge at that point.
Bailey’s Buttercream frosting
1/2 cup of butter, softened, 1 1/2 cups of powder sugar, 1 tsp of vanilla extract and a generous splash of Bailey. Beat witha  hand mixer until fluffy. Scoop into a pastry bag.
Bailey’s Chocolate Syrup
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup dark chocolate
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup coffee
1/2 cup Bailey’s.
Combine everything in a saucepan, whisk over low heat until mixed together, bring it to a boil for a minute, then remove from heat.
Cut out a cone from the top of each cupcake with a sharp knife. I trimmed the points off the cones, filled the empty divot with the ganache, and then replaced the top of the cupcake. The cake is crumbly and delicate, so I placed them in paper cupcake liners to hold their shape better. Then I piped the frosting on top, and drizzled the syrup on top of the frosting. For a really fun presentation, you could pour the syrup into empty nips-bottles of Baileys, upend them and stick them into the cupcakes (the ganache will keep it from pouring out until you lift the bottle), but my cupcakes were too small to support such weight. You could also dust with a  little cocoa powder.
These are really pretty, and really not that difficult or time consuming to make for a small party (making more than dozen would take longer). And, after they disappeared, my friends decided that I should quit my job and open a bakery. I’ll take that compliment, even if I don’t quit quite yet!

Chinese New Year: Dumplings for Days

So Chunjie, Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, happened, and that really only means two things: fireworks and dumplings.

Actually, this year the week long vacation was no where as deadly warzone as I had faced in the two years past. I mean, yes, there were tons of fireworks compared to any American celebration of anything, and the first night (the big fireworks event) definitely had its dangerous ground-zero moments, so many firework remnants in front of my building required an army of street sweepers and their brooms as well as a god damn bulldozer to sweep it all up, apparently there were only 45% as many fireworks as last year. And we all remember how Bambi got hit in the face last year, and I’ve been informed of someone who actually saw a man get his head blown off by fireworks in prior years.

Anyways, so the first night we decided to watch the fireworks in relative safety, and got on a double decker Ring-Road bus, sitting right up at the front up to so we could have a tour of the city and all the explosions. This worked well until at about 11:00 we found ourselves deposited on a remote corner of southwest Beijing. After some walking and dodging and shivering, we found the last night bus that would take us to Dongzhimen, where we walked quickly towards Sanlitun. The intersection of Chunxiu  Road and Dongzhimen was insane, things blowing up left and right, burning embers floating down to the ground very close to our heads, just utter madness. We made our way to Nali Patio and watched from the roof. It was really quite spectacular, if very cold.

So that took care of the fireworks, and aside from occasionally perching in my window seat to watch pretty explosions across the street, and occasionally freaking out because I’d be biking in the middle of the day when someone set one off very near me, I sort of was surfeited on them.

On to the dumplings. This is my mom’s recipe for wontons. My mom is famous for wontons, at least in my family. I’ve been helping her assemble them since I was four years old. The white side of my family loves them, and nearly every big family dinner we have, she’s asked to make them for appetizers. They’ve made waves at team dinners, international food nights, fundraising parties, etc. Pretty much, they’re amazing and you should make them immediately.

At home we always used store bought skins because my mom had shit to do like work and take care of three children so who has time to make dough from scratch and then roll out perfect circles? Store bought skins are paper thin, uniform size and shape, and very convenient. You can buy them frozen or sometimes in the refrigerated produce area in some grocery stores, and store them in the freezer until you need them.

But, I’m a twenty five year old with no infants and four friends to command in the dumpling making process, so while I bought two packs of skins, we also made a batch of dough which two of my ‘kitchen assistants’ kneaded and rolled out. It’s basically flour and water, the same recipe as noodles.

In the mean time, the rest of us worked on the filling. We made two different kinds. I usually use ground pork, but these can be made with any sort of ground meat.

A) 1 Lb ground pork and finely minced raw shrimp.

B) 1 Lb ground pork, diced green peppers.

To each of these bowls we added shredded cabbage, minced garlic and ginger, 2 Tbs cooking wine, 1 Tbs soy sauce, 1 Tbs fish sauce and oyster sauce, 2 tsp sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Mix this up well, then microwave a teaspoon of it, and taste it, and re-season if necessary.

Then comes the arduous part. Take a small spoonful of filling and deposit in the middle of the square skin (keep the open pack of store bought skins under a damp paper towel otherwise they will dry and crack). Fold into a triangle, and fold in the corners, making a tri-corn hat or ingot shape. It helps to dip your finger in water  and trace along the inner edges of the skin, otherwise they won’t seal together.

With the homemade dough, the wrappers will be much thicker, and a bit smaller. Roll them out evenly to a circle shape. Dough in the middle. For the inexperienced dumpling makers, they made half moons and ingot shapes. I sealed mine in crescent creases, folding in twice on each side from the center, but that takes a lot of practice to accomplish (if you order Peking Ravioli or Potstickers from your local junky Chinese takeout, think of that shape, only smaller and better because I am an awesome dumpling assembling robot).

We started the dumping venture rather late, and I had agreed to attend a HeyRobics! class with the girls, so I left the rest of the dumpling assembly reluctantly in the large hands of the boys, and went to get my exercise on. Well, what can I say. Swedish jazzercise is not my cup of tea. I mean, I can sort of see the appeal and it is a cardio workout, but dancing and jumping around with a bunch of people makes me want to snark and snap. I very much prefer getting into shape by punching people. After an hour or so of that, and taking care of some cats, we returned, and I gave the boys instructions via phone so that dumplings would be cooking even before I got home.

We cooked ours two ways. Boiled and fried. The homemade dough does very very both boiled and fried, but the store bought skins are better fried, unless served in soup. You can also freeze the dumplings now, before cooking them, they store very well and can be boiled or steamed or panfried later.

One large pot of water, brought to a boil, on the other burner, a wok full of 3-4 inches of neutral oil. Bring it to about 350F, and fry dumplings in batches (do not overload the wok). Let them get all nice and golden on one side, and then flip to the other side and let them get all golden, then remove with long chopsticks or slotted spoon, and place in a paper towel lined colander to drain. Cut one open just to make sure it’s fully cooked through, but the process should take about 5-6 minutes. Watch the heat carefully to make sure the skins don’t overcook or burn, but you do want them golden and crispy. The homemade dough wil take longer than store bought since it’s thicker.

Bambi compares me to Kamaji the Boiler man, only a dumpling making machine instead of bathhouse water

Bambi compares me to Kamaji the Boiler man, only a dumpling making machine instead of bathhouse water

Fried Jiaozi, draining in a paper towel lined colander

Fried Jiaozi, draining in a paper towel lined colander

 

Or, bring the water to a boil, add a batch of dumplings, let the water come to a boil again, add a rice bowl full of water, let it come to a boil again, and the dumplings should be done (again, I recommend cutting one open just to be sure, because a lot of this depends on the thickness and size of the wrapper and filling).

Serve with sweet chili sauce or soy sauce, vinegar, ginger and garlic and hot oil.

In total we made about 180 dumplings, and between the five of us, ate almost all of them.


Beijing Tried to Kill Me (so I made brined pork tenderloin with risotto)

The past week or two, the weather has really turned, and spring has infiltrated Beijing. It’s warm enough so that I don’t have to wear log underwear anymore, and can trade in my winter coat for a lighter jacket, and lamb leg and other outdoor meals and activities are becoming viable again. This winter wasn’t as bad as my first one in Beijing, but there were some bitterly cold days, and a lot more snow. January was filled with terrible weather in Beijing, enough off-the-chart pollution days to make international headlines. The city beyond twenty feet seemed to be swallowed up, and I wore my face mask everywhere. Eventually the smog turned into, amazingly, actual fog, and the temperature plummeted. Beijing, it seemed, was not content to passive aggressively try to get me with cancer causing particles. Instead, Beijing started to set traps.

The fog started spitting and coating everything with moisture despite there not being any real precipitation, and then it got really cold again in the night, and by morning pretty much all the surfaces were covered in black ice. I didn’t notice it at all on the street, but when I rode up onto the sidewalk to park my bike, I immediately wiped out and hit the sidewalk and my bike landed on top of me. Ow bruises. Of course my first though was for my laptop in the bike basket, but it survived unscathed. Aside from one sideways glance at my very audible swearing, no one looked at me twice with any concern. People in Beijing are kind of jerks. But, not thirty seconds after I hit the ground, a delivery cart started skidding and crashed into the already parked bikes, and when I hobbled up to the office it turned out at least one other coworker had done exactly the same thing, so I felt much better about my life.

Certainly not a good start to my day, which I spent most of crankily sending out emails that will probably be ignored even though they’re important. The day wasn’t a complete waste, however. A friend and I have a cooking-and-watching-Dr. Who session every few weeks, and we made a very nice little repast. I started by setting pork tenderloin to brine overnight the day before.

Brine: Mix brown sugar, salt, pepper, star anise, fennel, coriander, all spice, bay leaves, garlic powder, and whisk it into a half cup or white wine or hard cider. Add this to enough water to completely submerge pork tenderloin in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

We rinsed it off, patted it dry, and browned in a bit of oil in a pan (about 10 minutes, 3ish minutes per side). Placed into a lined baking dish at 200C in the oven for about 15, 20 minutes, until the juices run clear. While baking, we cooked chopped apples in some melted butter and brown sugar until just soft.

Pork Tenderloin with Stewed Apples and Spinach Risotto

Pork Tenderloin with Stewed Apples and Spinach Risotto

To serve with this, we made mushroom and spinach  risotto. I follow a pretty basic risotto recipe: half a chopped onion, about a cup of arborio rice, maybe 6 cups of stock and water, a mix of goat cheese and parmesan cheese, and change up the vegetable additions. Soften the diced onion with some minced garlic in olive oil, then add the rice, once the grains are nearly translucent, start stirring in the stock and water, about half a cup at a time, only adding more once most of it has been soaked up. I add mushrooms at the beginning with the onion, and the spinach in the last few minutes of cooking. Once the rice is tender, stir in the cheese. As long as you have someone willing to stir the rice every few moments, it’s not challenging to make.

Farro Salad

So let’s see. I haven’t done anything of note in a while, just pretty much drowned in work. This whole being an adult and gainfully employed robot is really overrated. I have sort of been attempting to eat more healthy things sort of, well I mean, I plan all these beautiful, well balanced meals and then I go home and eat a loaf of bread with butter, a half a pak of Tim Tams and make some pies, so not really that healthy. But I did discover this really good grain salad that I’ve made several times now and still haven’t gotten tired of it.

Over Christmas one of my aunts served up farro as a side dish, which I had never eaten before, and really enjoyed. I bought a small bag at Trader Joe’s and brought it back with me, and waited until I found a good recipe to try it on. This, this recipe I would recommend for everyone. It’s delicious. It would also work with brown rice, barley, probably quinoa, pretty much any sort of grain. It took me a while to find frozen edamame (soy beans, oddly enough, considering how much soy product is used in this country) but I finally found a giant bag in the freezer section at a Metro (similar to Carrefour) after a month of searching.

* Half a cup of dry farro, brought to a boil with one cup of stock/water, simmered for ten minutes then drained.
* 1 small green apple, diced
* 3/4 cup edamame seeds, defrosted in the microwave
*dried cranberries
*1/4 cup chopped almonds.

Dressing: I mixed a spoonful of miso paste, a spoonful of smooth peanut butter, honey,  minced ginger, a few drops of sesame oil, canola oil, balsamic vinegar, and a little bit of maggi seasoning together. Toss all the salad ingredients together, sprinkle with a few toasted sesame seeds.

Farro Salad

Farro Salad

As an extra little something, I cubed tofu, marinated it in a version of the dressing with soy sauce and rice wine added, fried it, and then added the marinade with some water, which thickened very quickly into a sauce, and tossed this into the salad as well. For dinner I eat this slightly warm, and the next day chilled for lunch, and it is delicious both days. I can see it being a really good summer lunch, light and cold but filling and healthy. And, it all comes together in pretty much as much time as it takes to cut things up and cook tofu, so its a great meal to throw together after a long Monday.

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