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.