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.