Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bring On 2009

Every year, when the holidays roll around, I inevitably hear people talk about how the holidays are too crazy. Too much going on. People taking too much on themselves. That with all the hustle and bustle we lose sight of the true meaning of the holiday season.

I'm here to admit that I am one of those people who overloads their schedule with projects and parties and people. But I LOVE it. To me, thats what makes the holidays so fantastic... for one whole month I lose myself thinking about other people, thinking about how I can show my love for friends and family and co-workers. By the end of the month I'm completely exhausted and ready for the new year to roll on in. But by the time the next December rolls around, I get excited all over again, thinking about all the fun stuff I'm going to make and do for the people in my life.

This year, December felt even more chaotic than usual, and it has been a true relief to spend the weekend putting all of my Christmas stuff away, cleaning my closet (and kitchen and bathroom and quilt room), catching up on the many neglected emails in my inbox, etc. etc.

I've decided to use today's post to provide all and sundry with a quick recap of my life this past month... Maybe it will inspire you to forgive my sporadic posting.

With my siblings at Thanksgiving. I cooked a turkey, corn bread stuffing (made the corn bread from scratch, yeah baby), roasted sweet potato cheesecake, and cranberry sauce. Yum!

The Saturday after Thanksgiving my sisters and I decided to do a Top Chef cook-off. I ended up making dessert. This is my attempt at Richard's Banana Scallops (season 4). For the record, this is a winner. So good. But I decided not to make the banana guacamole that went with it. That was a little too strange, even for me.

The first week of December, Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake has a huge fundraiser called the Festival of Trees. Individuals and companies donate decorated trees (or wreaths or gingerbread houses) to the festival. Before the festival officially opens to the public, people can purchase a ticket for the bidding night. I went with my sisters and my aunt that night because this year my mom's close college friends decorated and dedicated a tree to her. I had planned to bid on her tree, but with a starting bid of $675 it was a little out of my price range. I bid on a wreath instead and won! Very exciting.

This shot is also from Festival of Trees. I took this for JB. A gingerbread airplane and hangar! Awesome! If they had only had a NASCAR gingerbread house the night would have been complete.

I was in San Diego from the 12-14th for a friend's wedding. Highlights include an amazing Italian meal at a great restaurant in La Jolla, the wedding (of course), driving the Pacific Coast Highway from Laguna Beach to San Clemente, Trader Joes, Balboa Park, and best of all, a long, leisurely walk on the beach. Sometimes I really do miss southern California.

This is me, looking a little windblown, on Torrey Pines State Beach.

Balboa Park

Every year at Christmas I make homemade granola for my co-workers. I made the above batch with dried cherries and blueberries I picked up at Trader Joes.

Then I make little gift bags out of fabric for the granola. Above is the finished product. Cute, eh! It gives me such a thrill to make this every year. It's really easy, and everyone loves it.

This is my cute mom on the train on our way to see Neil Diamond on the 19th. I would have taken a picture at the concert but I ended up having to sneak my camera in, and as we were in the handicapped section, there were lots of ushers around and well, I didn't want to get in trouble. If you haven't yet had an opportunity to see Neil Diamond in concert, I highly recommend it. He sang all my favorite songs. During Sweet Caroline I closed my eyes for a moment and pretended I was back at Fenway Park. If only....

This photo is from 2 nights ago. My sisters and I were playing Sorry (obviously). Notice all the little green men, sitting in the Start bubble. Yeah, those are my guys. Then observe how my opponents have all of their little guys on the board. We had already gone through the cards 1 1/2 times, and I hadn't moved any guys out of start. None. It was thoroughly depressing.

Fast forward to another time and a half through the cards. Triumph was mine! Ahhh, winning is sweet.

Earlier today, trying out my pizzelle maker for the first time. I've wanted one of these for years, and then one of my good friends surprised me with it for Christmas. She is probably the only person on the planet I have ever confessed wanting this to, so it was a total and complete surprise. I was giddy the day she gave it to me. After making my first batch this afternoon, I OD'ed on pizzelles. They are so addictive. Can't wait to share them with the folks at work tomorrow, although come to think of it, most of our staff will still be out on vacation.

And finally, the recipe you've been waiting for... OK, you probably haven't been waiting for this, but this is the recipe that has caused me months of torment. I tried it again on Saturday and I now have both sisters' stamp of approval, so even though I think it could still be perfected, I figure its good enough to post.

烧饼 (Shao Bing)

These little babies are called shao bing. They're a Chinese flat bread. My favorite way to eat these is to grind peanuts and sugar together and then stuff that into the shao bing right when they come out of the oven. The hot bread melts the peanut/sugar mixture just a bit and it is so tasty. If that's not your thing, you can also whip up a basic stir-fry and stuff the stir fry into the bread instead of eating it over rice. Hopefully soon I'll have a stir-fry recipe on the blog specifically for shao bing. In the meantime, try the peanuts. I think you'll love it as much as I, and my sisters, do.

1/2 c. vegetable oil
2/3 c. All-Purpose Flour

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the flour is nut-brown and very fragrant. Remove from heat and let cool while you make the shao bing dough.

4 1/2 c. self-rising flour
1 1/2 t. salt
3 T. sugar
3/4 c. very hot tap water
1 c. very cold tap water

Sesame Seeds
Spray bottle with tap water (or you can use a pastry brush and a bowl of water)

Combine dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. With the mixer running on low speed, add the hot water and the cold water in quick succession. Knead in the machine until smooth and elastic, approximately 4 minutes. Place dough on a lightly floured surface, knead briefly, form into a ball, and let rest under a kitchen towel for 10 minutes.

Divide the dough into 20 pieces. Let rest for 5 minutes on a floured surface under a kitchen towel.

This is where it gets a little tricky....
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Take a piece of dough and roll it into a 6-by-3 inch rectangle. With a pastry brush, brush a generous amount of the roux over the dough. Fold the dough into thirds, rotate the dough packet by 90 degrees, and roll it out a second time to make a 6-by-3 rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds again and roll it out briefly to make it about 2-by-4 inches. Spritz or brush the top of the dough with water. Fill a bowl with sesame seeds. Press the top-side (the side with the water) of the dough into the sesame seeds then place sesame seed side down on a baking sheet. Repeat with all the remaining pieces of dough.

Bake for 12 minutes, then take out the tray and flip the breads over. Bake for another 12 minutes.

Peanuts and Sugar Mixture:

2/3 c. roasted, unsalted peanuts (I buy mine at Trader Joes)
1/4 c. sugar

Place in a mini food processor/chopper. Mix until finely ground. Store in an airtight container.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Hey kids. I'm back baby, back! I know, I know - you thought you had seen the last of me. You thought, That's it. She gave up on the blog. She got bored, distracted, busy. No more Chinese food a la Shannon.

And then you stopped by the blog today and got yourself a little holiday surprise: me. Here. Blogging. It's a Christmas miracle, almost too good to believe. But hey, it's the holiday season and I wanted to do what I could to spread a little cheer.

I can't take full credit for this post however. I have to give a quick shout out to Erin and Amri for gently (at least in Erin's case) nudging me back in the direction of the blog. Many many thanks ladies for the extra, and highly needed, dose of motivation.

I feel like I can't let my two month absence pass without an explanation of some kind. This is what happened - I got a bad case of extreme stubbornness. This happens to me sometimes, but this year has been worse then most. Earlier this year, I avoided my quilt room for 6 months because I didn't want to work on this one nightmare quilt I had started, but I refused to start another quilt until I had finished that one.

In the blog's case, I had one specific recipe in mind for my next post. It's one of my favorite things and I was so excited about sharing it with all of you. Unfortunately however, the recipe is, well, complicated. And a tad tricky. I made it twice (this was months ago) but felt the recipe still needed a bit of work before it would be blog worthy. I posted instead about my trip to China and shared another recipe I had ready to go. Then I was done, and I needed to figure out the recipe I was now dreading. I couldn't face the thought of going through the whole process again, making a few changes, and then (perish the thought) having to possibly make it again! So rather than do the rational thing, and just make something else, I stalled. And stalled. And stalled some more.

This past week, due to an unexpected case of the flu, I hit upon another recipe I wanted to try: egg drop soup. Growing up, whenever I got the flu, my mom would feed me the following easy to digest items: soft-boiled eggs, white rice, chicken broth. As I was laying in bed feeling miserable on Wednesday night, I got to thinking about how none of the above sounded appetizing. However, if I combined two of them as an egg drop soup, I might have something. The perfect sick girl's food; something with enough flavor to actually be appealing, but still easy enough on the system to not cause alarm. If you, like me, manage to catch a case of the flu this winter, give this baby a try. I'm quite pleased with it. So much so that I'm almost looking forward to my next bout of the flu so I can test its efficacy as healing food.

Egg Drop Soup
Adapted from this recipe.

3 cups low-sodium chicken stock, plus 2 tablespoons
1" chunk grated fresh ginger
1 T. soy sauce
1 T. corn starch
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 green onions, chopped
7 oz. soft tofu, diced (optional)
Salt and white pepper, to taste

In a small bowl, make a slurry by combining the cornstarch and 2 T. of the chicken stock. Stir until dissolved.

Combine the remaining chicken stock, grated ginger, and soy sauce in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Slowly pour in the cornstarch mixture while stirring the stock. Stir until thickened. Reduce heat to a simmer. Pour in the eggs slowly while stirring the soup in the same direction. The egg will spread and feather. Turn off the heat and add the green onions. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Lasting Influence

I've moved a lot in the adult-portion of my life.

View of the Puli valley.

In the 14 1/2 years since I graduated from high school, I've lived in the following places:
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Valencia, California
  • Farmington, Maine
  • Taiwan: Puli, Caotun, Taichung
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Shanghai, China
  • Washington, DC area: Vienna and Arlington, Virginia
The list itself really isn't too long. But it becomes significantly longer if you add in the number of times I've moved between those place... Currently the count stands at 15 moves in those 14 1/2 years. Because of all those moves, I've come to know, quite well, the many different challenges inherent in settling into a new place.

Regardless of how many times I go through that process it never gets any easier. The only advantage I have found is that at least now I know better what to expect. It takes time to find your niche in a new place - to feel like you have found the people and the space where you fit. It is often hard and emotionally draining to work your way through that process with enough patience to avoid becoming depressed and frustrated on a regular basis.

With Pele, my missionary trainer and one of my all-time favorite people.

One of the lessons I've learned repeatedly, as I've weathered this process so many times over the years, is that people play an instrumental role in easing your way down the road. Never was this more true than on my mission. Any move is going to have its own unique difficulties, but few, in my experience, compare to the challenge of moving to a foreign country, with a foreign language and foreign customs. Add to that, a complete and total loss of independence and you are in for a sometimes difficult transitionary period.

With my fellow missionaries, on the roof of our apartment building, celebrating my birthday.

When I look back on my first few months in Taiwan, there are a few people who come to mind as playing a major role in helping me to adjust and acclimate to my new life there. Within that group, my thoughts always return with particular fondness to Huang Laoshi (Teacher Huang).

Pele and Huang Laoshi

During my first few months in Taiwan, Huang Laoshi's home felt like a refuge to me. Huang Laoshi had an illness that made it difficult for her to leave her home. For that reason, she could no longer work or attend church meetings. My companion and I tried to visit her about once every week or two in order to make sure that she was doing OK and to provide some companionship. Two things made Huang Laoshi's home such a haven for me: she spoke very good English, and she was a very nurturing individual. Also, she expressed her love, care and concern for others the same way I tend to - with food.

Huang Laoshi was an amazing cook and she loved having the missionaries over for dinner. She was the first person I met on my mission who invited me into her kitchen and taught me to make a dish or two. My notes on how to make soy milk came from her. She also taught me how to make passion fruit juice, sweet and sour pork, as well as my favorite Taiwanese dish: stir-fired chicken with soybeans and carrots. I've been making this dish since I returned from Taiwan. I love it. It is so simple, healthy and tasty. Every time I make it I remember visiting Huang Laoshi: making sweet and sour sauce, flipping pieces of fried pork out of the oil onto a waiting plate, sitting and talking in her cozy living room, slicing carrots, and maybe best of all, drinking tall, refreshing glasses of her homemake passion fruit juice. I haven't seen her since I left Puli in December of 1998, but I still miss her.

With Huang Laoshi

Stir-Fried Chicken with Soy Beans and Carrots

1.5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 large carrots
3 c. frozen, shelled edamame
4 green onions

1.5 T. corn or potato starch
4 T. sesame oil
1 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
2 T. soy sauce

Cut the green onion into 1" long sections. Then cut the sections into quarters so you have long slivers of green onion.

Cut the carrots into chunks about 1" long. Cut these chunks in half. Then very thinly slice the chunks so that you are left with large, thin slices of carrots (see final photo below for a visual). Put the carrots into a Ziploc bag, sprinkle in a little bit of water, seal, and then microwave for 2 minutes.

Cut the chicken breast into small cubes. Mix with corn starch, sesame oil, salt, pepper, and soy sauce. Let sit for approximately 15 minutes.

Heat a splash of sesame oil in a wok or saute pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add chicken and stir-fry until cooked through. Transfer the chicken to a bowl, and then return pan to heat. Add the edamame and carrots and stir-fry until cooked to your taste (for me this is about 5 minutes, but check the carrots to make sure they are cooked the way you like). Add the chicken back to the pan along with the green onions. Stir-fry briefly, approximately 1-2 minutes. Serve.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Shanghai: Let Me Count the Ways...

We arrived in Shanghai after a 20-hour, overnight train ride. Even with tickets in the soft sleeper carriage, that was a little too much time on the train for me. Matters were not helped by the fact that all the toilets on the train were of the squatter variety and were not cleaned during the train ride. Draw your own conclusions on the state of the bathrooms a few hours into the trip...

Shanghai at night.

It was a relief (joy) to arrive in "my town", and even more of a relief to discover that our hotel was far nicer than expected - by far the nicest of our trip. If you ever travel to Shanghai, I highly recommend it - the Astor House Hotel. It is the oldest hotel in Shanghai and has hosted many distinguished guests, to include Albert Einstein (although, in true Chinese fashion, the hotel managed to misspell his name on the plaque commemorating his visit).

Carri on the train.

Some of my favorite moments from our two-and-a-half days in Shanghai...
  • Dinner at Simply Thai
  • Seeing the Incredible Hulk at 新天地 (Xin Tian Di) - my first movie theater experience in China
  • Hottie trumpet boy, not to mention great jazz and blues, at the Cotton Club
  • Dinner at Malones
  • Evening river cruise... where it was once again confirmed that I can't travel without running into fellow Mormons
  • The Silk Market - I only wish we had hit it our first day in Shanghai so I could have ordered a custom-made winter coat
  • Chinese acrobats at Shanghai Centre
  • The Pearl Market
  • Watching The Prestige on HBO with Carri... and then being totally bugged by how ridiculous the storyline was
  • And last, but most assuredly not least, Papa Beards cream puffs

Catching a cab at the hotel.

As a little bit of background on that last point... Before arriving in Shanghai, with the exception of a few visits to McDonalds (because its hard for me to pass up an opportunity to indulge in a deep-fried pineapple pie), we had eaten Chinese food for every meal since we arrived in China. Now, although I love Chinese food, I get burned out on any cuisine pretty quickly when it's all I eat. Because that was all we had eaten for almost two weeks, by the time we arrived in Shanghai I was DONE! with Chinese food.

The sitting area next to our hotel room.

Therefore, we didn't eat any Chinese food while we were in Shanghai. I just couldn't do it. We had Thai, Japanese, Italian, and American, but no Chinese food... this of course meant that I didn't eat any of the Shanghai specialties I was excited about prior to our trip. While it now makes me more than a little sad to realize that I passed up a chance to devour a basket or two of 小龙包 (little dragon dumplings), Shanghai was definitely the perfect city to take a culinary detour because my favorite restaurants from 7 years ago are still in business, and based on appearances, thriving.

At the Shanghai Museum.

While I was avoiding Chinese food, and rediscovering my favorite eateries from back in the day, I did make one new discovery - Papa Beards. I hit it twice while we there. I'm a sucker for a good cream puff and the ones at Papa Beards, while slightly unconventional, were decidedly tasty. I became a big fan.

At the Japanese photo booth shop... finished product below. Who knew decorating these shots could be so much fun? Well, I suppose Japanese girls have figured it out as that is where the craze started.

Anyway, our few days in Shanghai passed far too quickly, especially because it took me a good day and a half to realize that this was indeed the same place I lived in for 6 months of my life... it has changed so much I really didn't recognize it. Suddenly I found myself back in the States and I then started thinking about which dishes from the trip I wanted to recreate for my blog. Beijing and Xi'an were easy, no-brainers really. But Shanghai had my stumped. What to make for my Chinese cooking blog when I didn't eat any Chinese food while we were there?

At Xin Tian Di.

And then I remembered Papa Beards and the cream puffs. Definitely not Chinese, but in this particular case it seemed fair to diverge from my blog's stated purpose. Plus, I had never made cream puffs before so it did at least meet the requirement of providing me with an opportunity to further develop my culinary skills.

Blues at the Cotton Club.

I decided, in the spirit of Papa Beards, to create a somewhat untraditional cream puff. I combined a whole-wheat puff pastry dough with Devonshire Cream, a recipe my friend Jessica gave me that seemed perfectly suited for a cream puff filling. Then, for added punch, I topped the cream with fresh raspberries (although really any fresh fruit would be good). These were surprisingly easy and very tasty. If you like cream puffs as much as I do, give this recipe a try and then let me know what you think.

On the river cruise. Good times our last night in China.

Cream Puffs with Devonshire Cream

Whole-Grain Cream Puff Pastry (adapted from The Baking Sheet)
½ c. unbleached flour
¾ c. whole wheat flour
1 c. water
½ c. unsalted butter
¼ t. salt
4 large eggs

Combine the flours and set aside.

Put the water, butter, and salt into a saucepan, and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Remove it from the heat, and add the flours all at once. Stir vigorously. Return the pan to the burner and cook over medium heat, stirring all the while, until the mixture forms a boil—this should only take about a minute. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool for 5 to 10 minutes, to 140 degrees F. It will still feel hot, but you should be able to hold a finger in it for a few seconds. Transfer the dough to a mixer and beat in the eggs one at a time. The mixture will become fluffy. Beat for at least 2 minutes after adding the last egg.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place the dough in a pastry bag with a ¾” diameter opening (you could use a Ziploc bag and cut off the corner if you don’t have a pastry bag). Cover 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Pipe the dough onto the baking sheet in mounds approximately 2 inches wide. Leave at least an inch space around each mound because the dough will expand as it cooks.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the door a crack, and leave the pastry inside to cool for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven to cool completely.

Once cool, use a fork to cut off the top of the cream puffs. Fill the cream puff with Devonshire Cream and fruit.

Devonshire Cream (adapted from Joy of Cooking)

8 ounces mascarpone cheese
2 c. heavy whipping cream
2 t. vanilla bean paste
3 T. white sugar
zest of 1 lemon

Add all ingredients to a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat until the mixture holds its shape and looks like softly whipped cream. Refrigerate the cream until ready to use. This cream does not hold very well and should be made shortly before serving.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Real China

I remember having a conversation with my friend Dave awhile back. Dave lived outside of Tianjin for a few years and in this one conversation he was expressing how he didn't like Beijing or Shanghai because they weren't the "real" China. I took mild offense at his words because I had lived in Shanghai so it felt like he was saying that I hadn't really experienced China. The point I made at the time (and hold to even now) is that China is a multi-faceted place. China is both the new and the old; big modern cities and little provincial country towns, luxury import cars and bikes that are 20 years old, wealth and poverty, capitalism and communism. So in my opinion, cities like Beijing and Shanghai are the "real" China... but only one side of it.

Carri, Pippa, and I outside Hua Shan. (Notice the nasty air.)

Xi'an is a great example of the other side of China. It's dirty, polluted, messy, poor. It's not the modern, clean developed face that China likes to present to the world. Scratch the surface of any Chinese city and you are bound to find the poor underbelly of modern China - migrant workers, disadvantaged minorities, crippling poverty. In Xi'an however, I feel like there is no effort made to disguise or hide this reality.

I really like Xi'an. I think the reason for this stems from the fact that I like places that have an obvious historical heritage. Places where the long road from antiquity to the modern day is still on display. Xi'an was the ancient capitol of China and the terminus for the Silk Road. Unlike most modernized (or modernizing Chinese cities), Xi'an's ancient city wall is still completely intact. Unusual for a Chinese city so far to the east, it also has a large Muslim population, and therefore, an interesting and vibrant Muslim Quarter. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to return to Xi'an on this trip (I first visited there in 2001) and while I think Christy was thrilled to leave, my desire to return again has not abated in the least.

The Terracotta Warriors

The two highlights of our 3 days in Xi'an, at least for me, were visiting Hua Shan (more on that in a moment) and the food. On the food front, I loved being able to buy fresh, obviously locally-grown, produce. Top of my list were pomegranates (so sweet and so fresh), sweet potatoes, and macadamia nuts.

About to chow down on a pomegranate.

Our first day in Xi'an we checked into the hotel, freshened up a bit, and then headed out to the Terracotta Warriors. Along the way we passed groves of pomegranate trees and when we arrived at the warriors I was delighted to find numerous merchants selling fresh pomegranates outside the gates. Before heading back into town at the end of the day, we each bought a few pomegranates that we munched on over the next few days. 

Wood carving at a historical home in Xi'an.

Other food favorites from Xi'an included roasted sweet potatoes (one of my all-time favorite street foods), and the local Muslim food like yang rou pao mo (a lamb soup), sesame noodles, and a ground beef flat bread sandwich. At the very top of my list however, were the stir-fried noodles I picked up at a mini-night market heading back to our hotel after 2 hour massages one night. The girl making the noodles looked to be about 16 but she had her system down to a science. It was so much fun to watch her throw various ingredients into her wok, and then moments later be presented with a steaming hot bowl of incredibly tasty noodles. I think I could eat those every day.

Our favorite server at the Muslim restaurant.

Food aside, a definite highlight of the trip was visiting Hua Shan. Almost everything we did during our two weeks in China were things I have done before. I was perfectly happy to revisit cities/places because I wanted to share my favorite parts of China with my closest friends. However, it was a lot of fun to do one thing that was a new experience for all of us.

The somewhat terrifying ride up on the cable car.

Hua Shan is one of Taoism's five sacred mountains and is a major tourist attraction within China. It is also considered one of the most dangerous mountains in China. Per an information card at our hotel, it is known as the "mountain of extreme peril". At the ticket booth they give you the option of purchasing life insurance for 5 yuan (approximately 80 cents) along with your entrance ticket. Of course, I couldn't help but think that if I fell off the mountain my proof of insurance would fall right along with me.

Carri on Hua Shan.

As we were short on time we opted to ride the cable car to the top. At the top there are five peaks you can hike to. We spent almost 3 hours on Hua Shan and we only managed to make it to one, Central Peak. It was more than a little bit embarrassing to constantly find myself being passed by women in heels, 8 year old children, entire families (including grandparents)... when it comes to physical fitness as a societal ethos, China pretty much has America's butt kicked.

Chains of locks on Hua Shan.

One of the elements of our visit to Hua Shan that I loved the most was being able to participate in a tradition that is practiced on the mountain. Visitors to the mountain can buy padlocks from any number of vendors on the mountain. They will engrave the lock with a loved one's name. Then you find a section of chain on a part of the mountain that appeals to you (the chains are everywhere so this is not hard to do), lock your padlock there, say a prayer for your loved one while holding the key, and then toss the key off the mountain. This act signifies that the blessing/prayer you have requested for your loved one will never be removed. I thought it was lovely and had a lock engraved with my mother's name.

More locks.  More view.

My trip recap aside you may be wondering if I have a recipe for you today. Good news! I do. The recipe for today is my attempt to recreate a dish we had the day we visited Hua Shan. We ended up eating lunch at a little restaurant in the town next to the mountain and this dish aside, the rest of the meal was pretty disastrous. It's the only meal from our trip that I look back on with a shudder. However, when we sat down I noticed that they had some roasted sweet potatoes sitting out where I could see them. Once the waitress saw my interest/adoration she promised to make us a house specialty with the sweet potatoes. I didn't know what would come out, but was delightfully surprised when a plate of sweet potato fries covered in caramelized sugar hit the table. Delicious! (Although admittedly, not too healthy.)

Christy enjoying sweet potatoes during our lunch outside Hua Shan.

Caramelized Sweet Potatoes

Potatoes (adapted from Cook's Country, June/July 2008):
1 c. cornstarch
3/4 c. club soda
2 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2" x 1/4" lengths
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying - my fryer uses 1 gallon of oil... if you are using a Dutch oven you will probably only need 2 quarts

Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees F.

Heat oil to 375 degrees F. While oil is heating, whisk cornstarch and club soda in a medium bowl. Place a cooling rack in the sink. Working in small batches, dip sweet potatoes in cornstarch mixture, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl and then place dipped potatoes on the rack in the sink.

When oil is ready, fry half of the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and crisp, approximately 6-8 minutes. Drain fries on paper towel-lined baking sheet and transfer to oven. Return oil to 375 and repeat with remaining fries.

Caramel (adapted from Classic Chinese Cooking by Nina Simonds):
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy saucepan. Heat slowly until the sugar has dissolved, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar has dissolved however, do not stir. Continue cooking the mixture over medium heat, occasionally brushing down the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in water (this will prevent crystals from forming). When the mixture has turned a light golden color (310 degrees F on a candy thermometer) and a chopstick dipped in the caramel spins a thin thread when lifted from the caramel, turn the heat to the lowest setting.

Prepare a large bowl with cold water and ice. Remove the fries from the oven. Working in small batches, dip the fries in the caramel and then immediately dip them in the water (this will harden the caramel coating). Place on a serving platter and continue until all the potatoes have been caramelized. Serve immediately.

The finished product.

Note: I don't work with caramel very often (read: never), so didn't really know what I was doing and thus learned a few important lessons the hard way. The biggest lesson was the need to keep the caramel on a low heat source so that it stays liquid. As soon as you are done dipping the fries, toss the caramel (tricky... not sure what to say as it will still be mighty hot... maybe dump it in a disposable aluminum pan) and rinse your pot immediately. I did not do this and as a result was treated to the joy of spending a good 20 minutes scrubbing hardened caramel out of my saucepan. Not fun. Second lesson, I made this alone mostly because I wanted to figure out the recipe so I could get it up on the blog. However, this would be a great desert to make with friends. You can invite everyone to dip their own sweet potatoes... almost like fondue.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Beijing 2008

I made it back from China about two weeks ago, and then spent most of that first week recovering from jet lag, a nasty cold, and the shock of returning to my 9-5 job after two weeks away. It was, by far, my worst case of jet lag to date and I'm not sure what the reason for that might be. Could be age (sadly, I am getting older). Could be the fact that the cold had me worn down. Regardless, I didn't sleep a night through until I'd been home for almost a week. For all those reasons (and maybe more), getting a post up on my blog fell way to the bottom of my list of priorities.

At beach volleyball

I'm sufficiently recovered now to cease slacking off and get back into the blog. I had to spend a bit of time trying to decide how best to approach blogging about the trip, and in the end, decided to do three separate posts, each one devoted to one of the cities we visited. Today I'm focusing on Beijing.

I visited Beijing twice back in 2001 when I was living in Shanghai and although I enjoyed it, I never really loved the city. This time around however, I became a huge fan. During this trip at least, its fair to say that I even liked it more than Shanghai... words that feel almost blasphemous coming from my fingertips.

The city was beautiful. It felt so modern and new. It was clean. The streets were devoid of traffic jams thanks to Beijing's authorities limiting the number of cars on the road. The venues for the Olympic events were amazing. And of course, there was a fantastic feeling in the air because the Olympics had come to town.

Downtown Beijing

While we were in Beijing I woke up early every morning and went for a walk around our neighborhood. Mostly this meant that eventually I stumbled upon a park of some kind and then spent an hour or so wandering amongst the groups of people practicing tai chi, ballroom dancing, hacky sack, or some other physical activity like thigh slapping. I loved being out and about at a time of day when the chances of running into other foreigners were relatively limited and I could kind of quietly enjoy being immersed in Chinese culture again.

During our week in Beijing we visited the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, took a tour of the Hutongs (old Beijing neighborhoods), and even caught a Beijing Opera performance (actually more like an introduction to Beijing Opera for foreigners, but still). On Wednesday afternoon, while Carri and Christy were at whitewater kayaking, Pippa and I rented a couple of bikes and rode around the city. That afternoon is one of my favorite memories from the trip. Initially I was terrified by the idea of attempting to ride a bike amongst the cars and scooters and motorcycles and other cyclists. But in actuality, it was one of the easiest, safest cities I have ever ridden in. Add that to the wonder of riding through old Beijing neighborhoods one moment only to find oneself cycling past Tiananmen Square the next, and it was a truly delightful afternoon (thanks Pippa!).

With our French friends on the Great Wall.

As far as the Olympics go, I was able to see three events. The process of obtaining Olympic tickets was somewhat convoluted because China retained 75% of all seats for Chinese nationals. That didn't leave very many seats for the rest of the world. The US hired a private company to distribute their share of the tickets which meant the tickets were distributed via lottery. Once in Beijing it was quite the bummer to learn that apparently every American, Carri and I excepted, made out like bandits in the lottery, while we each got just 2 or 3 of the events we requested. Regardless, I felt lucky to even be able to attend three events. I ended up seeing Whitewater Kayaking, women's Beach Volleyball, and Track and Field. I had a blast at every event.  I wore my Red Sox hat a couple of times and thereby managed to meet a few more members of Red Sox nation.  Honestly, it acted like a beacon calling Red Sox fans to my side. Unfortunately, I was not so lucky with my 99 Carl Edwards NASCAR hat.  

My favorite Olympic event was probably the beach volleyball (although I could have done without the lame scantily-clad cheerleaders). The most exciting match of the day was between Greece and Australia and it was the only match-up that actually went to three sets. Thanks to all the crazy Aussies in the stands it was far more entertaining than the earlier matches. However, being able to see track and field in the Bird's Nest was also a great experience. I am in love with that stadium. It was so fun to get inside and marvel at the crazy, but cool architecture.

Chinese fan at Badminton.

After talking to an American family at one of the events I now have a new life goal. I want to attend every Olympics. Possibly a tad "pie in the sky", but considering how much I love the Olympic games, it seems like a genius method for planning my future international travel. Vancouver 2010 anyone? My sisters are already on board and I'm pretty sure Carri is committed....


Before I sign off for the day however, I do have a few sour notes I feel compelled to mention. By the end of our week in Beijing I was very ready to leave. Sadly, the reason for my impatience to be gone was the way I felt China, and by extension its citizens, approached and handled the games themselves.

My favorite thing about the Olympics is being able to watch the entire world come together, to see/experience sporting triumphs by athletes from all over the world. It's never been about the United States for me. I love my country and its exciting to see our athletes do well, but I'm just as thrilled to see a Jamaican athlete kick our trash in track and field or India win its first ever individual gold medal. I knew China wanted these Olympic games to be a sort of "coming out" party for the nation as a whole, to be a way of announcing to the international community that China is a big kid now and ready to play ball. However, I didn't really envision how that would impact the games themselves.

Peking Duck

I can't deny that it's an amazing sporting feat for China to have won the haul of gold medals it did. Being in Beijing during the Olympics however, drove home the fact, again and again, that for China (and its people) these games were not about the world, or even about sport. They were about China. The rampant nationalism the games unleashed in Beijing had me feeling sick by the end of the week. If it had been accompanied by a respect for other nations or their athletes, it might not have bothered me so much. Unfortunately, seeing firsthand how the host nation only cared about cheering for its own athletes and teams drove me a bit mad.

Silk worms ready to BBQ

As an example, at beach volleyball as soon as the Chinese team finished their match, the Chinese spectators left the event. No joke. We found ourselves sitting in a stadium maybe a quarter full. The Chinese spectators didn't care to cheer on the other countries that had yet to play.

In our experience, and in talking to other foreigners at the games, it seemed like most events were like that. For one, most of the Chinese ticket holders didn't even go to the games, so every event had oodles of empty seats. Then the people who did go only cheered on Chinese athletes or teams. The television coverage also only focused on China. OK, I know NBC mostly focuses on US athletes, but at least they show everyone that has won a medal at the medal ceremonies. In China the camera would zoom in on whichever Chinese athlete had won gold, and they wouldn't even show the silver and bronze medalists, even if they happened to be Chinese. The television coverage also never showed a Chinese athlete losing or making a mistake. Instead the networks would re-air, again and again, the same clips of a select few Chinese athletes winning their events and accepting their medals.  

Hot Pot

Add all that to the fact that the Beijing Organizing Committee desperately needed to hire a few international consultants on the food front and that is was almost impossible to buy flags or t-shirts for any country other than China (Chinese entrepreneurs, where art thou?) and I found myself very ready to be gone by the time Saturday rolled around.

I did eventually find a savvy entrepreneur outside the beach volleyball venue and was therefore able to buy an American flag for my last day of events. It was definitely a "hallelujah" moment, even if my American flag cost twice as much as the Chinese flags that were also on sale. I bought the flag anyway and waved it proudly at the two events I attended that day. Honestly, I was hoping that a combination of the flag, my USA t-shirt, and the American flag painted on Carri's cheek might enable us to make it onto the NBC broadcast. Sadly, those efforts seem to have been unsuccessful. 

Hollow-heart vegetable at Bellagio, the Taiwanese restaurant

On the food front, Olympic Park at least had two McDonalds locations, so you weren't completely limited to the otherwise awful food offerings available everywhere else (never thought I'd find myself feeling grateful for McDonalds). There were, oh, about 7 food options and they were the same no matter where you went (unless they had run out of something, because you know, heaven-forbid we try to plan for those kinds of developments). The food options were: Oreo cookies, Snickers bars, breadsticks, a cold hot dog baked in a sweet bun and smeared with ketchup, saltine crackers, peach yogurt, and chocolate/marshmallow cookies. Drinks were cheap, but again, limited. For the most part the food was so lacklustre that it mostly inspired the foreigners to stay away from the refreshment stands and instead eat either before or after events.

Taiwanese shaved ice at Bellagio

On that note, it wouldn't be fair to go without mentioning that outside of the venues food in Beijing rocked. So tasty and so cheap.  My favorite kind. The night Carri and I arrived I took her to a little place across the street from our hotel for a quick bite to eat. We ordered just two things: 空新菜 (hollow-heart vegetable) and 番茄炒蛋 (stir-fried tomatoes with eggs), but they were both delicious and deeply satisfying after spending so many hours on a plane. Over the course of the week we followed that meal up with dumplings and noodles and Beijing roast duck and Taiwanese food, and oh so much more. A repeated theme however, that entire week, was the tomato and egg combination that Chinese people love. As mentioned, we had the stir-fried version, but we also had a dumpling version and a noodle version, all of which were delightful. Stir-fried tomatoes and eggs has been one of my favorite Chinese dishes since I lived in Taiwan, so in honor of both Taiwan and China, I'm leaving you with a recipe for that today.

番茄炒蛋 (Stir-Fried Tomatoes with Eggs)

4 eggs
1/2 medium-size yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 lg. tomatoes
1 1/2 T. vegetable oil, divided
3/4 t. sugar
1/2 t. salt
Pepper - to taste

Cut the tomatoes into 1" chunks and set them in a colander to drain.

Beat the eggs in a small bowl.

Heat 1 T. oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Shake the colander with the tomatoes a few times to get rid of any excess liquid. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and stir-fry until slightly soft, approximately 3-5 minutes. Add the tomatoes to the pan and stir-fry briefly, about 1 minute. You want the tomatoes to retain their shape so you don't want to cook them for very long. Transfer the tomatoes/onions to a bowl and set aside.

Return the now empty pan to the heat and add the remaining 1/2 T. oil. Once the oil is hot add the beaten eggs. Quickly, but gently, scramble the eggs until they have just barely set. You want big soft clouds of egg. Add the tomatoes and onions back to the pan, sprinkle with sugar, salt, and pepper and then stir-fry briefly just to get everything mixed together.  Serve with rice.