Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Cheesecake Fantasy vs. The American Dream

I was first introduced to cheesecake when I first came to the States. I remember my American mom bought this collage of different flavored cheesecake from the grocery store and I had fallen in love with this magical creamy delicacy since then. Then I went back to China, and my romance with the cheesecake became a long distance relationship where at the beginning I lived on beautiful reminiscences and then gradually got lost once again in the colorful Chinese gastronomy and alienated from the American desserts. But I was reunited with my estranged lover at T.G.I. Friday's in Beijing.
Now that I'm back in the land of cheesecakes, I have recuperated my love, and I was found whole again.
I remember the first time McDonald's was opened in my hometown in China my aunt took me and my cousin over there for a meal after she got her first paycheck. I took a bite of the Big Mac served in a brown box and was instantly disgusted by it. She bought us many other things as well, but only the disgust I felt towards Big Mac remained vivid in my memory. Who could know that only years later I had acquired a convenient love for the American fast food that was fast invading Chinese market. It was delicious, it's fast and it's American. Fortunately we have passed the era that Ha Jin descibed in his story about the American fried chicken restaurant in China that caused much conflict in the community purely because of the fact that it was considered capitalist and thus bad. The western culture has learned to not only expand to this vast consumer market but adapt to the local tastes. KFC now sells breakfast in Chinese style and meals with rice. I imagined myself eating these wonderful food when I would be in the country of their motherland. It was part of the American dream.
However, I've hardly ever eaten at a fast food place in the States, maybe five times total in the course of a year. I have learned that there's much more to the Western cuisine than McDonald's and KFC and preferred to cook myself, as you probably have figured out by now.
The cheesecake fatansy is realized once more and the American dream is on her way to be realized, I think I shall push it forward more by attempting to make cheesecakes: the task that almost seemed impossible.
So here it is, my 3-D chocolate cheesecake, well technically it's 2-D because I didn't use chocolate graham crackers, you know me, I wouldn't make a single recipe without making a little subsitution.

And I realized I don't have a cookie sheet deep enough for me to put boiling water in to bake the cheesecake, therefore the old saucepan had to do.

When it's chocolate, it has to be a little messy haha.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friends of the Steak

To make up for my lack of reading during the summer, I have started searching for books my advisor suggested I read. It excited me that I would have an excuse to buy books at Ukazoo again, yet of all the titles I was only able to find Alice Munro's work since he didn't give me any specific titles of her short stories. So finally I read Friend of My Youth, an interesting story written in a interesting way about interesting people. A story told by the main character's mother about a friend of her youth and how the young woman now begins to protray this friend in her own head in a different way from what she was told. If it's just about the friend, then you would think about whether you have a friend like that, who at one time in your life fascinated you so much yet then faded away as a mystery to you forever. Then there's more to this story. While Flora was this wonderful, innocent woman who never had anything she deserved but slaved her entire life for others' benefit, she was conceived by the daughter as a woman who was just as black as she was white. She had her own flaws, and she was just as responsible for her misfortunes in life as other people who had seemingly caused the misfortunes. In her mind, Flora was a total different person from what her mother believed she was. In a way, she saw what her mother really was through her memory of Flora. Then you wonder, what friends are, why some people become friends, and if you are friends, does it mean that you match one another? Does it mean that you go well together? Does it mean that you love one another?

I then wonder why in cooking certain foods only go with certain foods, and whther there is a limit to the combination. I have to confess I tried once the mixture of avocado with kiwi and bacon, and it didn't turn out so well. But last night, I embarked on another one of my own recipe endeavors and created something very interesting: A steak bruschetta. The original recipe is from the magazine Taste of Home, but I almost never really followed it except for the idea. All the time I was wondering if these vegetables would be friends of the steak.

Steak Bruschetta with BBQ sauce
three stalks of celery
one container of cherry tomatoes
one red bell pepper
three cloves of garlic
one package of steak
cheddar cheese
parmesan cheese
BBQ sauce
slices of bread, baguette prefered

Chop the vegetables and sautee them in the pan, season with salt and pepper.
Grill the steak and cut into small pieces if you can, or you can cook them in a pan as well, season with BBQ sauce.
Mix the vegetables and steak, set aside.
Grill the bread with cheddar cheese on one side.
Spread the veggies and meat mixture on top of the cheese and sprinkle with parmesan cheese on top. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Return of the Cook

After a long a lazy vacation, coming back to the blog seems to be a wake-up call that pulls me back into reality. The blog site is blocked in China, so for two months I had no access to my lovely blog. Don't ask me why it's blocked, probably for the same reason that Facebook and Youtube are blocked and the same reason that diabetic patients should be completely shunned from sugar. But it's good to be back, it's always good to be back, no matter where I am. I have grown so used to having two lives in two countries that moving from one to the other doesn't cause me any discomfort at all; in fact, I don't even feel the difference any more. The countries have blended so well in my head like an all-berry smoothie that there's no way for me to tell exactly how many berries there are any more.

Before I bring out today's plat du jour, I do have one confession to make and hope that my advisor doesn't see this, or if he does, would forgive me nonetheless. I finished perhaps only three books this entire summer: one from the Hunger Games trilogy and two Chinese collections of proses: none of which were on the reading list that we had discussed before. Although I did get started on a collection of short stories by Ha Jin, which was interesting and very educational. I now have tons of questions about the very little English reading I have done, and they keep piling up as I'm catching up now with some Garcia Marquez.

One thing I did get from having two cultures coexist in my head is a combination of two flavors in writing and in cooking, which I greatly appreciate.

Last night's return to the American kitchen dinner was a big failure according to Chinese standard, but according to American standard it was perhaps only different, and according to my endearing boyfriend Chris's taste, it was pretty good. Oh what can I say, someone who thinks eating fried fish with its head and tail is weird should not be considered a valid judge for food, haha.

It may give the impression of purely Chinese stir-fry, but true Chinese would tell you they normally don't stir-fry potatoes with red bell peppers, and they would not recognize that zucchini in the left plate. All in all, it was a culturally merging dinner, mixing the Americna ingredients and Chinese cooking style together. The failure was that I had lost some touch with the flavoring and the spices. It seemed that Chinese dishes are usually much more flavored and have more tastes while a lot of American dishes would consider rather blend; of course, the western habit of adding salt and pepper is a totally different habit whereas in Chinese cuisine the dishes are always well seasoned enough before they are brought out on the table. So, it turned out that although I felt like I shook the salt dispenser more than enough it still was blend to my taste. Oh well, my cooking skill needs just as much time to adjust as my jet lag.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should we always make our own pie crust?

I have been putting off posting this vegetable tart recipe I made a long time ago, simply because it's such a long recipe due to the number of ingredients in it. But the recipe itself is really not that complicated, and the result was fantastic. However, before I tell you about the recipe, I think we should have a little discussion about the making of pie crust.
I have always tried to make my own pie crust; in fact, I have never bought a pie crust from the store. I insist on staying true to my cooking ethnics and making everything from scratch if possible. Nonetheless, pie crust, like any other pastry, requires meticulous work and precise measurement, none of which I can pride myself on. Therefore, I brag about my making my own pie crust, but I never say it's really really good. But I try, you see, and that counts.
Why do we admire so much people who make their own pie crust? Is it just because we think we can't do it? No, everyone can make a pie crust. It's because we admire their commitment to the craft of cooking, I believe. Back in the time when ready-made pie crust was not available at grocery stores, endearing mothers and grandmothers made their own pie crusts; sometimes it almost feels like we are losing the tradition when our hands reach out to the frozen pie crust in the gigantic freezer in the store.
Are we losing the tradition?
I ask myself the very question when my hands touched my new kindle. I had been debating about whether I should get one or not, and my strong commitment to the texture of paper and the smell of ink had been keeping me away from this new fruit of modern technology. But I finally broke down and asked for it for Christmas, while my books were screaming at me calling me a traitor.
For the record, I did not touch the electronic monster since I opened the box on Christmas morning. But I have been feeding free and bargain books into it. When Amazon allowed me to borrow the kindle version of The Hunger Games for free, I finally started using it. And I have a confession: so far, I have loved every single second of it, and there's no problem of reading, if anything, it saved the time of page-turning and saves a lot of space. Am I losing the tradition?
Everytime my finger swiftly touched the right lower corner of the screen to flip a page I felt an incredible sense of anticipation, and it cost so much less energy than flipping a paper page: my laziness got the upper hand you see. I threw a glance at my bookshelf after I closed my kindle one night; I could barely smell their unique scent, and a slight feeling of guilt passed in my heart before I closed my eyes.
After I finished The Hunger Games, I put down my kindle to another hibernation and returned to my paperbacks, yet I knew that was not just because I missed them so much but because most of the books I wanted and needed to read were still in paperbacks. Guilt strike number two. Once I resumed the touch of the thin paper, I began to feel extremely calm, and the rush and excitement that kindle brought was vanished as if a husband returning to his endearing and considerate wife after a flashlike affair with a naughty mistress.
I know some tradition would never be lost.

Roasted Vegetable Tart (from Bon Appétit Jan 2012 issue)

The recipe is intimidatingly long, so I spared you the reading on my blog after going through my own long post. I do want to admit that I had two ovens working at the same time to roast the vegetables and lost track of time and temperature(Damn the Harter double ovens!!!), so I almost burned the pastry. I also believed any vegetable can be used so I used asparagus and broccoli that are not in the recipe, so my tart was very thick. One last confession: due to the lack of spices in the Harter household, I ended up omitting the fennel bulb and fresh thyme leaves, for which reason I vow to make this again in the future with much more precision.
But it was delicious after all!!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Find Where Your Roots are

During our trip to the Shenandoah National Park, I noticed my American mom was reading a book called Tiger's Wife. I was not particularly happy after reading about the author on the book cover: the girl is only a few months older than me and she has already published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic and has won numerous awards. Oh some people say you don't have to be published to prove you are a writer, but what kind of writer doesn't want to get published?!
So I went on reading the synopsis of the book and learned that this Belgrade-born author moved to America when she was 12 after the Yugoslavian war, and the novel is set in a Balkan country one and a half century ago: a family saga that's about a heroine and her relationship with her grandfather.
I was not surprised by the setting of the story, because American writers of different ethinic backgrounds usually tend to write about their own cultures. Think about my favorite writer Amy Tan and the one I'm currently reading, Junot Diaz. People tend to dig out their roots and bring them out in the open. It's what they know the best and what they can sell the best.
But is it stereotypical for a Chinese American writer to write about China or a Dominican American writer to write about Dominic Republic? Do I, a Chinese writer, have to write about China? Sometimes I so want to break out the stereotype but realize it is what I know the best. I can't write about a cowboy's life in Arizona because I don't know about it, but I can write about a Chinese beggar who spends her days on the streets of Beijing because I know about it. So I guess there's nothing wrong writing about your own culture, and you don't have to break away from the culture to jump out of the stereotypes.

To go back to my own roots, I picked up Chinese cooking again after a long dry spell of home cuisine since Chinese New Year.

Eggplant stirfried in soybean sauce
I had to use a lot of oil stirfrying eggplant as it absorbs a huge amount of oil when you fry it, but the salty soybean sauce makes you forget about the grease and highlights the taste to the Nth degree.

Sweet and Sour pork
You would never have guessed what made it sweet and sour is a combination of ketchup and sugar; although, I do have to admit that the color of the dish is not entirely professional, I may have to work on this one later: it may be an issue of measurement in terms of the proportion of ketchup to sugar.

Sour and Spicy potatoes
Don't be so impressed by the thin strips of potatoes, they are really not that thin: my Dad would not be particuarly impressed let's put it that way. You may not be able to see, but there's some dried red chili peppers there somewhere. The color is supposed to be lighter since you are supposed to use rice vinegar, but apparently I didn't realize Emily had cleared out our kitchen and all we had was balsamic, which is not exactly Chinese. So here you go, still sour though.

The rice had tiny cubes of potatoes and sweet corn in it. In case you didn't notice, I have a lot of potatoes to kill.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Creativity Rules!

If you have not heard of this book or have not read it, you need to go to the library or Amazon or Barnes & Nobles or wherever you get your books and find a copy and start reading right now! Well, maybe after reading my blog.
I have had this book for I've forgotten how long. I bought it in China and while packing books to mail to the States last summer, I chose randomly from the countless books that I had not read this particular one. And I still hadn't started until recently. But I was instantly hooked when I began flipping the pages in bed one restless midnight. When I reluctantly turned off the light after 40 pages, I was almost too excited to sleep.
Okay, now you want to know why this book is so amazing, aside from the fact that it won the Pulitzer. But has the title triggered your curiosity yet? Everything about this book screams creativity at the top of its lung: the title, the story, the language. It is simply UNIQUE.
Oscar is a Dominican American guy who grew up as a fat sci-fi nerd, constantly being bullied and made fun of. But he was good at what he knew, science ficiton and video games. He even wrote sci-fi stories himself. 
Junot's writing is hilarious and true. While reading, you feel like he's talking to you, telling you the stories in person. He doesn't shy away from profanity and idioms; forget about picturesque and beautiful prose, life is all about the brutal truth! Not everything has to be Nabokov; when your subject requires an unconventional language style, you shouldn't hesitate to adopt it. It may work amazingly well.
Now you know why I study creative writing!
Obviously, creativity rules not only in literature, but also in cooking. I bet you already knew that from my previous posts that I am a novice adventurous cook who doesn't always follow instructions. And, I make up stuff. What's wrong with a little creativity in the kitchen? You won't find out whether it's good or bad until you mix what's impossible into what's possible. Because in the kitchen nothing is impossible, but your palate may disagree.
So this was my adventure the other day.
I'm not yet very good at naming new recipes, so for the moment this is called Italian veggie wrap, a little ambitious I know. I just happened to have some old soft tortilla wraps and some celery, carrots and cabbage. Oh yes, the cabbage was from the cabbage rolls I made weeks ago. A lesson learned, cabbages stay good for a very long time in the fridge. PS. measurements don't matter in this recipe, follow your heart.
Italian Veggie Wrap
cabbage, cut into 1-inch wedges
stalks of celery, chopped
carrots, chopped
Herbes en Provence seasoning
olive oil
Drizzle the cabbage wedges with olive oil and roast in the oven at 350 for 50 minute until the edges are brown. Sautee the celery and carrots in a saucepan in olive oil until a little soft. Add a can of tomato sauce, cook and season with herbes en Provence seasoing and salt and pepper. Add the cabbage into the mixture and cook till well flavored.
Meanwhile, toast the tortilla wraps in olive oil until crunchyboth sides are brown on the edges.
Wrap the veggies in the tortilal wrap and enjoy!

I bought brie cheese that day, hmm, double creamy, Trader Joe's also rules!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Melting Pot or a Tossed Salad

I'm beginning to think one of the reasons that I like America so much is because I like being part of the melting pot, or the tossed salad, whatever it's called now. Even if most people are American born, they most likely have different cultural backgrounds, let alone you never stop meeting people who are actually foreigners, meaning who don't have an American Citizenship, like me.
My birthday party says it all.
Take a look at this group picture and guess how many countries are represented in it.
China, Malaysia, South Korea, America, France, Ghana, not that many really, ha ha. We come from four different continents, can you imagine?

Unintentionally, I cooked various finger food that in a way demonstrated a level of cultural diversity as well. I know, I made my own birthday cake, then I made my own birthday party food, no, I made up most of them, you'd think I'm crazy or pathetic, but if you truly know me, you would know how much I enjoyed every minute of it. The stress I had running around in and out of my kitchen, cutting beef at one point and then seasoning zucchini the next second. Oven door was opened and closed almost continuously. I was running out of baking sheets and pans. May I remind you, I'm a poor international graduate student, I make enough money to pay for school, but then I live off my parents on rent and everything else, so it's not really surprising that I can't afford elaborate cooking wares; it probably also explains why I enjoy subsituting or omitting ingredients in my cooking a lot: I simply don't have the extra money to buy everything. But I manage to make it work. It's not perfect, but it tastes good. And since I can't taste the pictures and recipes in the cookbooks, I'm off the hook on that one! I know, I'm not a perfectionist, and I give myself a lot of excuses. But life shouldn't be that hard. It's the joy of cooking that counts the most, don't you think?

Sadly, during the frenzy of cooking and partying, I didn't manage to take a lot of pictures. However, I will probably make some of these things again in the future, and when I do, I promise to provide more pictures.

So, here's my menu:
Mini beef kebabs with bell peppers and zucchini
1 package of thin sliced beef, four slices, cut into 2-inch squares
2 zucchinis, cut into round pieces
1 yellow bell pepper and 1 red bell pepper, cut into 2-inch pieces

Spread the peppers and zucchini on two separate baking sheets, toss with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, bake at 350 for about 15 minutes, or until a little softened. Meanwhile, season the beef with salt and pepper.
Skewer the veggies and beef with toothpicks and bake them in the oven until the beef is done, about 15 minutes, try not to over bake or the beef may get too chewy.

Tuna Salad with avacado and celery
2 cans of tuna, drained
2 ripe avcados, peeled and mashed
5 chalks of celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces (I know in the picture there's no celery, but that's because the picture was taken the night before when I was testing the recipe without the celery. My roommate suggested to add something crunchy, so I added celery the next day for the party.)
3/4 cup of mayonnaise

Mix the tuna and the avacado. Boil the celery till it's softened but still crunchy, and drain it. Mix the celery with the tuna and avacado and add enough mayonnaise as you see fit.
Spoon out a generous amount and spread it on top of a slice of baguette, Enjoy!

Baked Potato with Mushrooms (Sorry, this is the one that I don't have a picture of.)
5 medium-sized potatoes, cut vertically into 1-inch thin pieces, resembling the shape of a slice of baguette
2 containers of sliced mushrooms, browned in butter and seasoned with salt and pepper (remember not to crowd the mushrooms!)
Bake the potatoes in the oven at 350 coated with olive oil till they are softened but can still be picked up without being smushed, about 15 minutes.
Spread the cooked mushrooms on top of the potatoes and serve. If the potatoes have cooled down, stick the topped the potatoes back in the oven for five more minutes to warm them up.

I did promise to show you a picture of the inside of my cake, so here it is:
For your information, I decorated it with the number "16," as it was, you know, my sixteenth birthday, haha.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Family Rolling Pin

A week ago during my spring break cooking frenzy I made a pizza. I had thought that making the pizza dough would be extremely hard, and I wasn't wrong, but I wasn't exactly right either. Following Brittany's recipe for Shaved Asparagus Pizza, I managed to create a rather reasonably looking dough, except then I realized I didn't have a rolling pin in the house. May I remind you, I was in Chris's house, and why would a guy who had only big boxes of sliced cheese, a huge container of soy sauce, a big jar of mayonnaise and countless coke zeroes in his fridge, ever, ever, have a rolling pin in the house?! Arrgh... I thought I had come prepared!
This is the rolling pin I have in my apartment.
It may not look like a regular rolling pin that you normally see or use, but it has seen many good years and bad years in my family and is certainly a very well traveled rolling pin.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, many Chinese city teenagers of the ages from 14 to 17 were pulled away from their classrooms and sent away from home to the far west or far north to remote villages to learn about growing crops and to help develop the local agriculture. My aunt, was among the generation of the "honorable youth." She was sent to the farthest north province of China, Heilongjiang where she spent several years enduring the unbearable winters. She left home with nothing more than a bundle of clothes and this rolling pin and came back to Tianjin with a local boy that she was to marry. She is turning sixty next year, and she and her husband have been living in Tianjin ever since: he had left his hometown for her and settled in Tianjin. They are now proud grandparents of a little 4-year-old girl. My aunt gave me the rolling pin last time I came to the States in 2003 so I could make dumplings for my host family. I had left it with my American parents when I went back to China in 2004. Now the rolling pin is back in my hands again eight years later. I used it to make dumplings during Chinese New Year this year and to make pie crusts. However, I did not have it with me when I made my virgin pizza.
Therefore, my pizza was of a very odd shape.

Shaved Asparagus Pizza
Pizza Dough
7tbsps warm water
2 tbsps white wine
3/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 tsp honey
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 cups of flour

Whisk together the water, wine and yeast in a medium bowl till the yeast is desolved. (I didn't have white wine in the house so I omitted it. My pizza turned out to be a little dry and crispy, I'm not sure if it's because of the lack of the wine or because it was slightly over baked.) Mix in the honey, salt and olive oil, and stir until combined. Add flour and mix with your fingers till it forms a dough, add more water, 1 tbsp at a time if it's terribly crumbly.
Sprinkle some flour on a clean working surface and roll out the dough, kneading it for about 2 minutes. Coat the inside of a bowl with olive oil and turn the dough into the bowl and rotate till it's coated with olive oil. Cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise till it's double-sized, should be about two hours. It's ready when you press two dingers into the dough and it doesn't rise back.

The topping
1/2 pound of asparagus, shaved into thin slices with a peeler
1/2 pound of shredded three Italian cheeses
one half of a red bell pepper, minced
2 tsps of olive oil
1/2 tsp coarse salt
a few grinds of black pepper
juice of one lemon

Mix the asparagus and red pepper in a bowl with olive oil and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper.
Preheat your oven to the highest possible temperature, mine was 550.
Roll out the pizza dough to a 12-inch round, (or in my case, flatten it out with any object resembling a rolling pin, such as a wine bottle, but cleaned of course.) sprinkle the pizza with half of the cheese. Add the asparagus mixture, and top with the rest of the cheese. (I actually didn't measure the cheese, I just kept on sprinkling until Chris said it was enough: he's the cheese lover you see.)
Bake for about 10 minutes, check around 6, the asparagus should be wilted and the cheese melted and the pizza slightly browned on the edge.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Baking Heals

We are doing a ghostwriting project for the freelance class, it just dawned on me a second ago: if I could have someone ghostwrite a book for me, it could be called Baking Heals. Because it does, not just the mind, but the body too.
So before I could adjust myself back to school again after spring break, my body decided to boycott school with a nasty cold and sore throat. As I finally survived Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday came with a coughing debut. I got up and got dressed but was not ready for a day of work and an evening class. Instead I canceled everything and stayed in bed all day. By the time I got from post WWII to Cultural Revolution in China in The Chinese in America book, I was feeling much better. So I went out to get groceries for tomorrow's birthday potluck. Yes, happy birthday to me! I am officially 26 years old now as we speak.
Finally, after 26 years, I got to make my own birthday cake. Even though my nose was still running and I was coughing sporadically, I managed to pull the frosting off. It is, are you ready, a double-layered buttermilk chocolate cake with chocolate vanilla cream cheese frosting. I'll post more pictures when I finish decorating it tomorrow and when I cut it at the birthday potluck dinner.

I used the recipe from Good Housekeeping, and for once, I did not change anything, except I added cocoa powder to the frosting, because one can never have too much chocolate!
So the cake batter looked like this on the left; that is, before I dumped it in the pans and before my roommate Emily and I licked the remaining batter.This, is what it looked like after I dumped the batter in the pans and after Emily and I licked the whole thing.
In China we rarely bake cakes. The cakes we buy at bakeries always have this fully frosting that's not as sweet as the American icing. I remember when I was at Towson High in 2003 in my nutrition class the teacher made icing once. She used a whole package of sugar in it, I could still taste the sugar crystals in the icing while I ate the cake. It's waaaay toooo sweet. So, now that I'm making my own cream cheese frosting, I have decided that I would preserve the creamy taste more, just like what I did with the frosting for the green velvet cupcakes.

I've also learned the importance of parchment paper the hard way as I gently detached my cake from the pan. Oops! Well, I hope my dear guests tomorrow won't notice the occasional missing chunks of the cake. I mean, you really can't tell after I fixed it with the frosting. 
I was also trying to think of an easier way to put those almond slices on the side without putting them on one by one using my hands: it's a very delicate and hard task. The fact that I don't have a cake stand just didn't help either.

Are you wondering why I used a spring formed cake pan and a regular cake pan? It just happens to be what I have. Actually, the spring formed pan is from Chris: he didn't even know what it was until I found it in his kitchen! Oh the man needs some serious education!

As I said, baking heals. I wasn't feeling sick at all as I made the cake and I was certainly cruising the grocery store early on. Really, food is such a comfort that I can just dance in the food store. But now that I turned off the kitchen light my head is heavy as lead again, so I must send myself to bed.

Good night, my readers, if you do exist.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Greatest Show

I have finally started reading this book that I won at the first Towson reading series two weeks ago. A collection of linked stories evolved around the big circus fire in Hartford Connecticut around 70 years ago. The author, a distinguished writer with a shrewd journalist background, Michael Downs, is also a fantastic professor at Towson University. I am taking his freelance writing class this semester and am thoroughly enjoying the class every week.
The stories begin with the one about a mother and her child going to the circus when the fire happened. The tickets were stolen from her employer: she had wanted her child to see something beyond his imagination so badly that she took the tickets as she was cleaning the house. Ania, a Polish immigrant, worked hard to make ends meet while her husband was away in Europe fighting the war. Then the fire took place. And it would go on changing their lives, and the lives of many other people in Hartford, forever.
I ponder at the title of the book, finding fun, irony, and sorrow. The greatest show isn't always the greatest, is it?
To learn more about this touching book and its author, you need not go far: The Greatest Show.

I put on a show yesterday myself. Chris took me to play tennis, the single sport that I was willingly to learn at one point and took a class for two semesters in college but still ended up barely passing it. Did I tell you how bad I am at all sports? I don't like sports: I can watch some sports, but most likely playing is out of the question. So I told him I'd try to learn to play tennis again. And I did better than I thought: I mean, at least I managed to hit the ball over the net for several times. But I was never in a total sporting mood, or as Chris said, there was some laziness in me. There would always be some laziness in me, because deep inside I still reject the idea of me playing sports. So when he asked me to run a little for him I refused. Running is, if you didn't know already, my biggest enemy. All throughout middle school and high school in China, I had to pass running tests and I passed only a handful. I hated it. Once I was done with running tests, I vowed that I would never run again under anyone's command. No one, No one, can ask me to run if I don't want to. So you can imagine our tennis play didn't end quite well. It caused me two glasses of wine and a 1400-word story in the middle of the night and a comfort movie to finally manage to sleep at 3 o'clock in the morning.
I'm stubborn and my self-consciousness is high. There are things I hate to do and if I truly don't want to do it it would cause me physical pain if someone keeps asking me to do it or if I do actually do it. It reminds me of my early childhood when I didn't like taking baths and my mom would nag me all over the apartment for a bath. I would lock myself up in the bathroom, so angry, crying, screaming she was not my real mother. So, I was a stubborn child; I'm a stubborn person. I'm sorry. If you want to try breaking that down, you can try, but I can't guarantee success.

So I made the pineapple fried rice that I always wanted to make for the first time in bitterness and half silence; it turned out a little blend. I also added too much water to the broccoli, potato hash so it was too watery.
It wasn't the greatest show non whatsoever. But my beloved ate it all; he makes me so happy that I want to cry.

Pineapple fried rice
Three cups of cooked white rice
One pineapple
One piece of boneless and skinless chicken breast
One small can of peas
One red bell pepper, chopped
4 stalks of celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
Vegetable oil

Cut the pineapple in half, use one half, save the other for other purposes. Cut out the flesh and chop into small cubes, leaving the hollow half pineapple the shape of a rectangular bowl. Cut the chicken breast into bite size pieces. 
Set a wok over medium heat; pour in about 3 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Cook the chicken until it turns white; then set aside in a bowl. 
Add one more tablespoon oil and stir-fry the vegetables. Add the rice and pineapple; keep stir-frying till the rice is broken apart. Add chicken, keep stir-frying until well mixed. Season with salt and pepper. 
Cook for two more minutes, and then serve in the pineapple bowl.

The hard part of the recipe was to scoop out the pineapple flesh. The fried rice can be made into any flavor, just make the fried rice you normally like and add pineapple to it. I probably could have added soy sauce, but as I said, I wasn't exactly in a good mood.

Broccoli Potato and bacon hash (adapted from Steamy Kitchen)
4 slices bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
1/2 onion, diced
2 potatoes, cut into 1/2" dice
1 head of broccoli, peeled and cut into 1/2" dice (about 1 cup)
salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, finely minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
dried basil

1. In a large saute pan over medium-high heat, cook the bacon pieces until crisp. Use a slotted spoon to remove and reserve the bacon, leaving the bacon drippings in the pan.
2. Add the potatoes to the pan and brown the potatoes on each side, about 6-8 minutes.
3. Stir in the onions, cook for 2 minutes, then add in the broccoli and the garlic. Cook for 2 minutes. Add in 1 tablespoon of water and cover. Let cook for 3 minutes. Check to make sure that the potato is cooked through.
4. Add the cooked bacon pieces back into the pan and season with salt, pepper and basil.

So instead of 1 tbsp of water I added probably 5, and the result being my hash more like boiled vegetables. Once again, do not cook new recipes when you are not in a good mood.
Needless to say, I woke up with a raging headache and lingering nightmares about playing tennis. And, a still bloated stomach. We finally did it: we ate tooooo muuuuuch.
I ate my ritual dessert breakfast and went out speed walking. After the sweat and some reading, I now feel so much better. I also have to tell you how much I appreciate having such a wonderfully considerate and understanding boyfriend.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eat Laugh Love

One of my favorite bestsellers is Eat Pray Love. It's not a classic, and perhaps will never be, but it speaks to the heart of women, and it simply lightens up your mind. I read the book two years ago, and I can still remember the humorous language and the delightful tales along her way of self-searching across the globe. It may seem a little too unrealistic for some people's taste, especially the part where she finds her love in Bali. No one wants to believe in fairytales anymore, come on. But dreams do come true, and you should never stop believing in them and in yourself. And when you find yourself lost in faith, go find it; it's never far away.

I don't pray, I laugh: that's how I keep my faith. I believe in food and love.

Just as sweet as the freh strawberries and pears.

Yes, I have been making desserts these days. One should never stop baking!

With the new iron skillet I bought myself, I decided to finally venture on the Tarte Tatin: a French pie that was originally made with apples, but I replaced them with pears. The pears are cooked in melted butter and caramelized sugar in the skillet till the juice is thick and you cover the pie crust on top then bake it till the crust is golden brown. Once out of the oven, you simply turn it upside down. Everything about Tarte Tatin is delicate and complicated, so needless to say I didn't totally succeed. But it did turn out okay flavor wise; I mean, after all, Chris did manage to eat two slices before our steak dinner with his mother. God only knows why I wanted to stress myself out even more by making such a difficult dessert before meeting my boyfriend's mother for the first time!
Oh La Tarte Tatin! There's still so much to learn in the pastry making and caramelizing process.

I will not be providing the recipes until I feel confident I can make this right.
Baking is science; it really is.
The strawberry shortcake I made two days ago, on the other hand, is not too hard, although to make it perfect, espcially to cut the cake in half evenly, is still out of my league at this point.
If you go to the source of this recipe, If You Give a Girl a Cookie, you will see how different my cake looks from hers. Sometimes it's all about presentation when you can't taste it, isn't it? Although I'm pretty sure her cake would taste better than mine too: I just tend to make my frosting less sweet what can I say.

I burned the iron skillet, my cake layers fell apart when I ate it with a fork, but I've been eating them for breakfast everyday and I laugh at myself and I found love in Chris's non-stop fork movement. And that, is all that matters.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Là Française

In case you didn't know, I consider myself one third Chinese, one third American, and one third French. This is not only because I speak the three languages fluently, but also that I enjoy the food from the three countries as well. After all, this blog was first called "Cooking with Julia Child in Chen's Kitchen." It all started with my first encounter with Julia Child: in the movie Julie & Julia. To imitate Julie Powell, I began my own cooking blog cooking through Julia Child's cookbook, except I'm using the much simpler version The Way to Cook. Now that my cooking endeavor has taken a new direction, steering away from the full concentration on Julia Child, I've also not forgotten about my love for that movie and Child's life in France. But before I step into the dangerous realm of motion picture where I can't keep my mouth shut, let's stay focused on her book. I read this book a year ago. Although I can't really say it's a great book, it's certainly a fun read; it would make you laugh and dream about the legendary French cuisine. You can almost smell the fish in the market and touch the greasy duck. You wonder how a gigantic American woman who could barely chop onions would have developed such passion for French cooking and the French people. Don't get me wrong; the French people are not all that difficult to be around, although you do have to give the stereotypes some credit. I spent my junior year in college in Lyon, France and met some wonderful French people, but the general impression of the country is still not all that amazing as one may think. Not everywhere is Paris, and not everywhere in Paris is Champs-Elysées. But the food, the pastry, and the wine, oh my God, is nothing if not divine.

Therefore, I took a second shot on the famous Beouf Bourguignon, a phrase every time I say would cause a disgraceful imitation on Chris's part that I shall not mention here. Please don't butcher the French language; I mean, is it really too much to ask?

Beouf Bourguignon (adapted from Julia Child's The Way to Cook)

Tender beef chunks for stew
3 carrots, chopped
1 big onion, chopped
1 package of mushrooms
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, chopped
beef stock
1 bottle of red cooking wine
corn starch

Use paper towel to dry the beef( if not dried they may not brown properly). Brown the beef in vegetable oil (again, I understand Julia's love for butter, but we are trying to be healthy here). Remove the beef from the pan and drain some of the fat. Put the beef in a pot and begin to stew in beef stock. Brown the onions and mushrooms separately in the pan. Try not to crowd the mushrooms (but of course I always crowd the mushrooms even though I keep telling myself not to, I still do. What can you do; they still get brown though.) Put the mushrooms and onions in a plate. Clean the fat from the pan and cook the carrots, garlic and tomatoes in canola oil until the tomatoes become soft and juicy. Pour everything from the pan into the pot, mix with the beef and add red cooking wine. Keep stewing for about another 40 minutes. As the beef gets tender and the juice begins to decrease, fold in the mushrooms and onions. Keep stewing till there's almost no juice in the pot. Add some corn starch to absorb the last bit of juice. Serve with baguette or rice. (You know what I served with of course, RICE!!!)

You can also bake the stew in the oven for about 2 hours, but if you don't have that much time but concerned about the tenderness of the beef, I suggest you add a pinch of lemon or lime juice: the acid helps to tenderize the beef. At home, my Dad sometimes puts in a little sugared fruit in beef stew or even beer. You can't taste it, but it makes the beef get tender faster.

I don't know if you still remember this wonderful delight in the movie, but this is called Bruschetta, or, as Brittany would say, "fried bread with heirloom tomato salad."

Bruschetta (adapted from If You Give a Girl a Cookie)

slices of crusty bread (I used this marble rye bread that Chris has in the fridge)
fresh basil (I used basil seasoning, it worked out fine too)
cherry tomatoes
olive oil

Chop up the tomatoes, keep all the seeds and juice. Add basil and a swirl of olive oil just enough to coat the tomatoes. Fried the bread in olive oil until crispy on both sides. Rub the garlic on one side of the bread while still hot. Spread the tomato salad on top and enjoy! (Be careful while eating as the tomatoes do tend to fall off the bread if you don't know how to keep you bread balanced: Chris dropped half of the salad on the plate after the first bite!)

Just so you know, apparently I didn't just go French last night: I went entirely European, with this wonderful Italian pear salad with walnuts and feta!
Pear Salad with Walnuts and Feta (adapted from the Family Kitchen)

1 bag spring mix salad
2 pears, cored and thinly sliced
1/4 cup roasted walnuts
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
freshly cracked pepper

Roast walnuts either in the oven or in a small sauce pan over medium heat until just aromatic. Be careful not to burn them. 
Add spring mix to a large bowl. Top with thinly sliced pears, feta cheese and walnuts. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Add freshly cracked black pepper to taste. Toss salad to incorporate all ingredients.

Another Dinner for Two

The Spanish Sangria is the final touch of the European endeavor, and, oh please ignore the picture on the fridge: two of Chris's endearing friends.