30 April 2009

Shandong Tour

Here is a brief, and I mean brief because Turner took over 400 pictures, showcase from last weekend's whirlwind tour around our province.

We went to the Weifang Kite Factory, which was pretty cool. I bought a dragonfly kite!

This is the whole group outside the kite factory. This was day one, you can only imagine what we looked like after an average of five hours a day on a bus.

The next day we went to Qufu, the hometown of Confucious. Turner and I had already been last year, but we went to a few new sights.

Like the Confucius Forest... the most natural green space I have ever seen in China.

Just look at all that green!

On Sunday, our last day, we went to the top of Tai Shan.

Turner carried a can of Tsingtao beer to the top and posed next to the sign that reads something like, "Confucius was here."

29 April 2009

Hot Curry Lovin'

Occasionally I will ponder, at 7 o'clock in the morning mind you, what I'm going to cook for dinner. If I happen to ask Turner then or at any other point before the evening, he will say that he doesn't know because he's not hungry. I think that since I cook the food and have to put something together, I tend to think about the preparations ahead of time. Turner is more likely to throw something together based on what's in the house or forgo cooking altogether and go get some street food.

This morning I was at a loss. I was tired of my repertory of recipes and di
dn't have the energy for completely unknown culinary territory, so I decided to do a variation on my regular curry recipe. Since I had a can of lentils and a can of tomatoes, I Googled "chicken lentil curry" and found some relevant recipes to used for inspiration. For dishes like stews, chilies, and curries, I tend to just toss things together instead of measuring precise amounts.

In a wok, I sauteed the basics to start: first the onion, then the garlic and ginger.

I added the boneless, skinless chicken that I had cut into small bits and the curry powder so that everything could get coated and the spices could toast to bring out their aromas and flavors. Then I squeezed the whole tomatoes from the can and added the juice along with two cups of chicken broth (from bouillon), a bay leaf, and three dried chilies.

Once this had simmered away for about 20 minutes, I added the rinsed lentils and let it all cook for about another 30 minutes. (I had to turn it off because Turner was late coming home from work.)

After Turner got home, had a shower, and made cocktails, I reheated the curry and then poured in almost one cup of yogurt. This adds a nice thickness/creaminess to the curry and can mellow out the heat of the chilies if it's overpowering. The curry gets ladled alongside white rice and steamed spinach. Oh, it was tasty. I'm already looking forward to eating the leftovers tomorrow. Like chili and stew, curry is usually better the second day.

28 April 2009

All the World's an Egg

So simple, yet so perfect in its infinite forms. Eggs have represented so much throughout history, as a luxury, as a staple, as a microcosmic image of the world around us. Life is contained within a single egg.

Over the weekend, Turner and I ate a lot of Chinese food. Much of it oily and salty. For all their cuisine's fame, the Chinese rarely serve food that actually tastes only of that food. There is a sauce for everything. A few times, we have had people over for dinner and served a simple steamed vegetable, like green beans, and they are amazed at how sweet they are. Usually, beans are stir-fried in oil and garlic and sauce. And hence taste like oil and garlic and sauce.

For our first meal back home, we wanted something familiar. I did not have much in the refrigerator but a bag of eggs, so I thought that omelets would be heaven. I bought some spinach and an onion, which were subsequently softened in some olive oil to use as filling along with some mozzarella cheese (the only kind we had on hand).

When people asks who cooks in our household, I always say that I do but Turner makes the coffee. He also makes a killer omelet. It's one of the dishes I always leave up to him.

He whisks two eggs and two tablespoons of water together, adds some salt and pepper, and pours it into a lightly oiled, preheated frying pan. This much I can muster. It's the actually "omeletting" that evades me. As far as I can tell, he scrapes the outside in to the center until it starts to set, then when it's almost done he adds the fillings and flips one side over the other.
We had fresh bread with jam and butter on the side. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of the finished product because I wolfed mine down in a couple minutes.

24 April 2009

Innocents Abroad

Turner and I are off on a whirlwind tour of Shandong Province, mostly to places we have already been but the school is paying this time. I will surely have plenty to blog about when we return, what with the requisite banquets and local "delicacies."

On another note, I made Chicken an Broccoli Pizzas with Garlic last night for dinner. They reminded me of Carmine's Restaurant in Buffalo. Miss B will know what I'm referring too.

22 April 2009

Portrait of a Chocolate Cake

It all started with Google. Doesn't everything these days seem to start with Google? Well, I was chatting with Turner, who was at work, when I realized that my image on Google Talk has been a penguin for too long. Out of the sparse options Google provides for your image, I chose the chocolate cake. Who wouldn't choose a chocolate cake when given the option of that or a frog?

My new clip art in place, I chatted away, always keeping that cake in the corner of my eye. Subconsciously it started telling me that I wanted chocolate cake. Have you ever gotten off your lazy butt and baked and frosted a chocolate cake because a piece of clip art told you to? Now I have.

I found this simple recipe on a fellow food blog for an Easy One-Layer Chocolate Cake. I was in no mood to mess around with layers or fillings. I just wanted cake!

It was as easy as ripping open a box of cake mix and adding the wet ingredients. Honestly, I don't know why anyone bakes with boxes anymore. The real deal is almost foul proof
, especially considering that the cake was baked in my toaster oven. So if you've never made a cake from scratch, try this one. Your skills will astound you and also your loved ones who are also fond of chocolate cake.

For the frosting, I followed the beat of my own drummer. I melted a few ounces of butter, a bar of Dove dark chocolate, and a bit of sugar. After it came off the heat, I sprinkled in some corn starch because it wasn't thickening like I wanted. What can I say, I'm impatient. That's why I can't sew. While the frosting didn't turn out like buttercream or ganache, it gave the cake an extra boost and a glistening topcoat. I must say, this cake has some serious sex appeal.

Immediately after I poured the frosting over the cake, I cut into it. My reasoning was that the late afternoon light would make for a great picture, and I wanted to eat it. So with a shot glass full of the leftover milk, my corner piece of cake posed for its portrait.

21 April 2009

To Market

After attending our university's annual sports meeting (really just a school-wide track and field event), Turner and I walked around the old campus area known as Yushan. We were looking for some barbecue and stumbled upon a bustling market area down one of the side streets. I want to share some pictures to show the variety and quality of the produce in China that you can find just about everywhere, though certain things, like watermelons and strawberries, have their seasons.


Green onions, baby leeks, any guesses?


Various grains for sale.


Lajiao and huajiao--the spices of life.

The sweetest beans you've ever seen.

Can you imagine seeing such a pile of grape tomatoes at your local grocery store?

Mangoes by the dozens!

The Chinese know how to do peanuts.

White Radishes


20 April 2009

A Leeky Day

April in Qingdao fulfills the stereotype of spring--rain and cold one day, hot and humid the next, windy after that. Yesterday evening, the heavens dropped a deluge on us. It poured. And roofs are supposed to keep everything under them dry, right? Well, at the top of our stairs, above the seventh floor landing is a hatch that opens onto the roof. For some reason, the tenants on the seventh floor decided to remove the hatch cover, providing ventilation and a very leaky hole. The water drizzled down onto our landing on the sixth floor and continued to make it's way downstairs until it eventually dried out on the third floor.

Today fared little better. It started off breezy and rainy, turned cold and windy, and finished the day off downright tempestuous. I almost had to yell in class so the students could hear me over the howling wind. Tomorrow promises to be sunny and warm. So there you go; spring in a nutshell.

The foul weather put me in the mood to try this macaroni and cheese recipe that I have been saving for awhile. It takes just the right day to justify cooking with two c
ups of milk and almost a pound of cheese. Well, today was the day.

The recipe for Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar and Leeks is from March's issue of Bon Appetit. I halved the amounts to fit in my little baking dish inside my little toaster oven. Luckily, I had almost a whole block of Vintage cheddar that is crumbly and pungent, like I think a "farmhouse" cheddar would be. It's the one decent cheese we buy regularly here in China, and it imported from Australia. Maybe someday the Chinese will come to appreciate good cheese, but I think it's far in the future. Leeks, however, they have in abundance.

Anyway, the recipe is fairly straightforward, using eggs as a thickener instead of a roux. The flour is stirred into the sweated leeks as the base for the cheese sauce, which then gets mixed in with a beaten egg and tossed with the pasta. Some Dijon mustard and hot sauce round out the dish, lifting it from the usual heaviness of a cheesy casserole. My own adaptation is to toss some panko breadcrumbs with olive oil, salt, oregano, and cayenne pepper and sprinkle this over the top. I love having the crunch on top of the soft goodness of the mac and cheese.

While the casserole baked, I made a quick rice pudding with our leftover rice from yesterday's leftover Chinese dinner. If you ever have any white rice sitting in the fridge (possibly because your husband doesn't want to waste anything, even 10 cents of cooked rice), then you should definitely learn a basic rice pudding recipe.

The one that works for me (and I love to eat) seems simpler than others I have come across. I merely mix up some dry soy milk powder with hot water. You can certainly use fresh soy milk, but we don't have that luxury in China. For about two cups of cooked rice, I start with two cups of milk and about half a cup of white sugar. Stir everything together over medium heat until it's gently simmering. Then you can add flavorings. I'm trying to use up my whole spices so I dump in a few cinnamon sticks, some star anise, and slivers of crystallized ginger. To westernize it, I add some ground nutmeg and vanilla. This all cooks until the rice is the consistency you like, usually very soft. You had to stir it occasionally to prevent it from burning to the bottom of your pot and you may have to add hot water every now and then if it thickens too quickly (which will depend on the type of rice you're using).

I prefer rice pudding to oatmeal actually, though I know it's not nearly as good for you. Sprinkle some cinnamon on top (and sweetened condensed milk if you're feeling decadent). It's great warm or cold, morning or night.

19 April 2009

In Search of Pain Perdu

Turner and I were going to run to McDonalds this morning for their 10RMB breakfast special (egg sandwich, hash brown, and a coffee), but we forgot that they stop serving it at 9am. By the time we had finished our morning cup of coffee, it was too late. Someday we'll do it, just have to wait for the right day. Also, today dawned cloudy and cool, providing even less incentive to get out of bed early enough for the breakfast run.

After my mid-morning run around our university, I decided to use our last wedge of bread and last egg to make french toast. This was not to be just any french toast though. Last year my mom mailed me a cooking magazine that had a recipe for Swiss-style French Toast. I think it was Swiss anyway. The country of origin doesn't matter too much. All you need to know is that this makes a regular Sunday breakfast into a sweet treat.

Cut into cubes any day-old French bread. Challah or brioche would work wonderfully for this; however, they require a few days prep time in themselves. I used the bread I bake every other day (the no-knead bread).

In a bowl, whisk together an egg (for two people, use more eggs for more bread/people), a few tablespoons of milk, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla, some cinnamon and nutmeg. (My measurements for many recipes are really just "a shake of this" and "squirt of that," but I try to make some things reproduceable.) Anyway, at this point you're basically making French toast. The only difference so far is cubing the bread instead of leaving it in slices. Soak the bread in the egg mixture for a bit, tossing to make sure every piece is soaked through.

Then heat a few pats of butter in a frying pan and toss in your eggy bread. Fry it in butter on all sides until it's golden brown. Essentially, you bring it to the stage where it looks like French toast ready to eat.

Now comes the special part. Add another tablespoon of butter to the pan and sprinkle a 3-4 tablespoons of white sugar over the cubes of bread. Toss everything together in the pan so the bread is coated with butter and sugar. Now you are caramelizing the outside of the bread, so cook it for a few more minutes until the sugar crystals have dissolved and the bread has a deep brown caramel coating.

This is best eaten warm, obviously, so the caramel doesn't stick to your teeth as much. Turner and I drizzled what we have left of our maple syrup over the top. Needless to say, this is nowhere near healthy as it has a few tablespoons of butter and plenty of sugar, but it is delicious. We had some apple slices alongside so maybe the doctor will forgive us our trepasses.

17 April 2009

Remains of the Pudding

Eggs, cream, milk. What to do, what to do... Given my recent successes with pudding, I decided to use up the rest of our heavy cream in a luscious vanilla pudding--the same one that I made for the party a couple weeks back. Sinfully simple, this pudding must be loaded with fat calories, but considering that I rarely eat dairy products, must also supply me with my required intake of calcium.

I used the recipe from March's Gourmet without all the fuss with candied pecans or bourbon.
Thankfully though, I do still have some Watkins Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract brought from the States. Along with nutmeg, vanilla is one of the ingredients that is impossible to find in any Asian grocery store. Their aromatic qualities would label them as medicine, as ginger, cinnamon, and cumin are all spices that Chinese laud for their homeopathic uses.

In addition to my puny bottle, I have a large bottle of vanilla extract given to us by our former colleagues and friends from last year--former colleagues, still friends. As you can see, I use both of them: the bourbon vanilla for when the vanilla flavor is prevalent, in puddings mostly; the other in things like cookies, where it plays a supporting role.

The pudding set in the fridge for a few hours before I grabbed a glass and a tiny spoon--because it is best enjoyed in small spoonfuls. Only once I had emptied the glass did I think of taking a picture. My apologies; you can only enjoy the remains of my pudding.

15 April 2009

A Chili Day in China

March's lion decided to rear its ferocious head in April. We woke up this morning to thunder and lightening, a cold wind, and steady drizzle. But, you know what they say, April showers bring... Why is spring so full of cliches? I think we try to wax poetic about all the new life budding, bursting, blossoming, and blooming around us. Today brought a nice dose of moisture to brighten up the brown landscape. It also brought cold weather reminiscent of February. Cold weather makes me think of two things--wool sweaters and chili.

I paid visits to both our little school store for vegetables (and got ripped off) and Jusco for less common items (like Tide detergent and cheese). I used to make chili and spaghetti sauce from cans of stewed/diced/chopped/etc. tomatoes. In the US, you can get them just about any way now except upside down. I've seen cans that even purport to have all the spices needed for chili or spaghetti sauce. While easy in a pinch and cost effective when tomato prices skyrocket in the winter, in China, these cans are a high-priced commodity, shipped in from capitalist countries overseas. With tomatoes available fairly reasonably year-round, I've taken to making sauces from a bag of fresh tomatoes. It's really just one extra step, cutting up tomatoes instead of cutting open a can, and saves you from chemicals, preservatives, and that can that's been sitting on the supermarket shelf for two years.

While the tomatoes simmer in their own liquid, I brown and season ground beef with salt and chili powder. Dump that into the tomatoes, then sautee chopped onions, carrots, and green pepper in some oil, followed by diced garlic once the onions have softened. Though not traditionally a chili vegetable, I think the carrot adds a nice non-acidic sweetness and lends some brightness and vitamins. If you like chili that is simply beef, or beef and beans, my recipe is not for you. It's chock full of chunks of vegetables and tomatoes.

Just before the vegetables are done in the frying pan, grind some fresh cumin seeds and toss those with the vegetables along with a good dose (I mean a couple tablespoons) of chili powder and some salt. It's best to warm the cumin and chili powder in a frying pan
to enhance their flavor and aromas before submerging the spices in the tomato sauce .

Now that everything is happily bubbling away in the tomato sauce, forget about the chili for awhile. When you remember, or catch a whiff of that fabulous goodness, give it a stir. Once it's been simmering for about 40 minutes, it's time to get out the secret ingredients. I learned this trick years ago from my Aunt Georgene actually. We had chili at her home and it was fantastic! Her secret, which I've adopted, is to add a tablespoon each of brown sugar and cocoa powder. It may sound strange, but it will take your chili to the next level or even out of this world, and also deepen the red of the tomatoes.

After an hour or so, add a can of beans (or two, depending on how much gas your significant other/family can handle), any kind you like, though I usually use red kidney beans or black beans. Let these cook in for about 20 minutes and you're done. Chili is so simple and soooo satisfying, especially on a blustery day.

Turner and I like to mix in grated cheese and cilantro and have tortillas alongside for dunking. My grandma used to make a classic Midwestern dish of chili mac, adding macaroni to the finished product and a good helping of cheese. I like chili just about any way but have yet to find someone who makes it better than me. I think my mom comes pretty close though.

12 April 2009

Blossoms and Buddies

Qingdao is abloom. This is the peak weekend for cherry and peach blossoms as soon the trees will be green instead of pink and white. At Zhongshan Park, Cherry Blossom Lane is bursting with white flowers, but my favorite trees were in Chengyang at our old school. We met up with some former students and wandered the grounds.
For lunch, we went to Jack and Qiu Qiu's apartment, which is very near the campus. We have been friends with them since our first months in China, back in 2007. Unfortunately, we do not see much of them anymore since we moved downtown to Qingdao. It was great to see them, made even better because Jack cooked lunch. He makes some of the best Chinese food we've had here. It's delicious, pleasing to look at and eat! He is a chef at a local hotel, but we have the honor of eating his food in his and Qiu Qiu's home. The food is always excellent.

A lot of Chinese cooking demands precise knife skills, which Jack deftly exemplifies in all his dishes. It's a pleasure to watch him cook. He also always has a smile on his face. For lunch we had a spicy cucumber salad, fried pork (which I love!), a dish with potatoes and peppers, stir fried eggplant, fruit salad, and pasta with meat sauce. This is the first time Jack served Western food, and I think it was a success. The sauce was fairly authentic except he included cinnamon sticks, which gave the sauce an extra aromatic jolt. I give him a lot of credit for even trying though, as many Chinese seem to be fascinated by Western cuisine.

We love seeing our friends and wish we could see each other more often.

10 April 2009

What You Can Buy for $25

One of the things that I will miss about China is the price of food. I went grocery shopping the other day and spent 150 RMB, or about $25.

Here's what I came home with: one whole chicken, pack of sliced pork chops, a bunch of spinach, two lemons, four kiwis, six potatoes, two packs of snow peas, aluminum foil, parchment paper, two-pack of sponges, soy sauce, can of tomatoes, brown sugar, and a large jar of CoffeeMate.

09 April 2009

Do Blonds Really Have More Fun?

While perusing the culinary blogosphere yesterday, I read about Use Real Butter's adaptation of Smitten Kitchen's Blondie recipe, taken from Mark Bittman's book How to Cook Everything (which I will certainly have to pick up when I am back in the States). The pictures and uncomplicatedness (did I just make up a word??) of the recipe made me eager to bake a batch. Plus, we were out of sweet stuff to eat. The only ingredient I was missing was an egg, so I hopped off like a spring bunny to the store and bought a bag of lovely brown eggs. I decided to add chopped milk chocolate, toasted walnuts, and some peanut butter, just to make them more sinfully delicious.

They bake for only 25 minutes and take half as much sugar and butter as cookies. In addition, I don't have to keep traipsing back to the kitchen to scoop and bake batch after batch of cookies. This is my new favorite!!

Out of the oven, they were warm and brown, so of course I couldn't resist cutting out the corner. The bite was chewy and toothsome with nuts and chocolate, and--get this--tasted like cookie dough! Like when you have a bowl of cookie dough and you can't resist scooping spoonfuls into your mouth but you have that guilty feeling because of the raw egg and depriving everyone of freshly baked cookies because you're eating all the dough... No more!

And, as if they couldn't get more salivating, they taste like Hello Dollies, those butter and sweetened condensed milk laden bar cookies that have like 8,000 calories per slice. I think the melted butter and brown sugar almost caramelize so they have a tang of butterscotch.

I'd have to agree that, in this case, blonds do have more fun, but I am sure that I will be back craving brownies in no time.

If I could eat dessert for dinner, I would. However, I bought a nice whole fryer chicken at the grocery store. This was the first time I saw a whole chicken that had some plump to her (though not like those Plump N Juicy chickens). As an extra bonus, she had already been decapitated, saving me that painful step. Most of the time, ducks and chickens are sold with their heads. I suppose so you can be sure you're getting a real fowl, since so many things in China are fake. I have to admit that I am not quite brave enough to take a cleaver to a chicken neck and Turner wasn't home to do the job.

Is a chicken butt joke really even necessary?

I did however take a cleaver to the breast bone to butterfly her because I didn't want to spend the extra time cooking her whole. Here comes the magic part ... I laid the two halves in a baking dish on top of a few slices of day old my homemade French bread. This served two purposes: one, preventing the chicken from sticking to the bottom of the pan; two, creating quasi-stuffing as it soaks all the juices and flavor from the roasting chicken. I also scattered the cloves from a head of garlic around the bird.

After about an hour in the oven, I threw some cherry tomatoes in to roast for about 20 more minutes. (This cooking time could have been shortened as the breast meat was a little dry.) The chicken came out golden with crispy skin and smelling divine.

Even though the chicken was tasty, the best part was the bread from underneath. One side was all crisp and brown and the other was soft. It was soaked with the chicken juices (a.k.a. fat) and the sage, thyme, oregano, and salt that I seasoned the chicken with.