Thursday, October 27, 2011

China - Day 2

Whew!  Day one is under out belts, so we should get to take a breather now, right?  Not-so-much.  I wanted to get more done the next day because it was Sunday and there would be some time.

Clearly I do not write these things as quickly as I cook them...

And no, Ryan, today's meat is not Panda.

It is, in fact, duck!  As soon as I saw this recipe I wanted to try it.  Something new and exciting, and yet not so new that I was scared of it.  A great combination.  Additionally, I wasn't going to let the Buddah's Delight get the best of me forever.  So I was off on a cooking journey for fewer people, but no less grand, let me promise.
Red-cooked duck is listed as being from Eastern China, which I hadn't hit yet.  The first thing I had to do was deal with the thing.  The directions on the duck told me to remove the neck and giblets - not my favorite activity.  Then I realized they were in a bag stuffed within the duck.  Woo!  I just had to quarter it.
Who knew ducks were so cylindrical?
Now what?
I have conquered the duck!
Next you are supposed to remove excess fat and marinate the duck for at least an hour.  Let me tell you -ducks are not trim creatures.  As for the marinade -
Yes, that's right, a dry ginger juice mixture.  I couldn't find anything else.  I'm not sure it was adequate for the job, but it was all I had.

Duck is sitting, and therefore it is time to play with the cats.  And hang pictures.  That's how life works, right?

Anyway!  To cook the duck, you brown it on all sides in a wok.
Then you boil a braising mixture and the duck together.  You add some other stuff, bring it to a simmer, and let it cook for over an hour or "until a chopstick pierces through the thigh easily."
There was also supposed to be a small red chile, but I didn't find that in the fridge for another week or so.  I substituted.
This was also supposed to include some things like green onions and star anise.  I believe there was some sort of controversy or mix up or something with the latter, but I honestly can't remember.  Just play along.

Star anise, in case you can't read the washed out picture...
Now that the duck is boiling, it is time for Buddah's Delight.  I was going to succeed if it killed me.  I started soaking the mushrooms again and gathering/chopping the veggies and other ingredients.  These included, but were not limited to: bamboo shoots, firm tofu, water chestnuts, napa cabbage, and gingko nuts.  All sorts of new ingredients for me!

Plus some "normal" stuff.
And thus my confusion begins.  I read this over and over and could not figure it out.  Maybe one of you could explain it to me.

It tells me to blanch all of the vegetables.  Fine.  Then later, it tells me to add the mushrooms, then all of the blanched vegetables.  That's it for ingredients.  Never tells me about tofu or gingko nuts or anything.  So, am I supposed to blanch them?  Are those considered vegetables?  What do I do?  I think some I blanched and some I didn't, because I was confused.  Also, blanching is annoying and takes a while.

I was supposed to heat some oil, add and remove garlic, and then add the veggies.  I just used some garlic olive oil from Vom Fass though.  :-)

Both recipes had me thicken up the sauce with some cornstarch.  Let me tell you - cornstarch + water = awesome.  I also added some sesame oil to the Buddah's Delight.
I bet you can guess what we were watching!
This stuff was a lot more work than the recipes would suggest.  At their core, they aren't too hard.  But there is a lot of chopping and even more blanching and it starts wearing on you.

So with that in mind, I was a little disappointed.  I was hoping for amazing duck.  What I mostly got was really fatty duck skin.  I don't think I was supposed to remove it, so I don't know.  Maybe it was just the piece I had.  I felt like I was mostly eating fat, with a little of meat thrown in here and there.  That may be fine for a bite or two, but not a whole meal.  The flavor did seem good.  And Kevin liked it.  You're also supposed to be able to serve it cold, which would be nice at times.  I don't know if I would go through the effort again.

The Buddah's Delight was similar.  It wasn't bad, but not so great either.  It felt like it was missing something, maybe to tie it all together?  I'm not sure.  It was a lot of work for not a lot of reward.  I also think we messed up the gingko nuts.  Perhaps you can get some soft canned ones?  Ours were hard.  It was like eating vegetable stir fry with rocks in it.  They didn't do anything.

So this time was not as much of a success.  Perhaps too ambitious.  But there was one more chance.  And while it was still not panda, there were still some new things ahead...

Next time: China, Day 3

Saturday, October 15, 2011

China - Day 1

This is it, we have arrived.  (In my head this is being narrated by Ira Glass because I just watched this.  It is only funny if you listen to This American Life regularly.)  I was both dreading and hoping for China.  Could I do it justice?  Would I fall into the trap of just doing Americanized Chinese food that doesn't resemble the real thing at all?  In an effort to get this right, I did not just one but three days of Chinese food.  My cookbook had four menus, highlighting separate foods for the North, South, East, and West.  I chose at least one from each and started my culinary journey.

Our blog this time in three acts.  Act one continues after the break.



Area: Over 9.5 million sq km; 4th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than the US
Borders: Borders 14 different countries, including three I have already cooked (Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Burma)
Population: Over 1.3 billion; Largest in the world
Capital: Beijing
Largest City: Shanghai
Time: All of China officially falls within one timezone; although some places observe an unofficial "timezone"
Political Pressure: According to the CIA Factbook, no substantial political opposition groups exist to the ruling Communist party
National Anthem: The March of the Volunteers, originally a theme song to a 1935 Chinese movie
GDP: Over $10 trillion; 3rd largest in the world
Stats: China dominates so many of the stats it is hard to name them all.  Top five in oil production and consumption.  Biggest labor force and most mobile phones.  More internet users than any other countries.
Source: CIA Factbook

The logistics behind getting China to work were a little ridiculous, kinda like the real country.  Kevin and I ran around the international store trying to read labels in other languages and interpret what the descriptions really meant.  After some successes and compromises, we came home:

Absurd amount of stuff.  A lot of the recipes called for similar things, but there was so much I didn't have.  And, of course, a lot of it I only used a tbsp or so.  My cupboards are overflowing and Kevin isn't happy because I am taking up some of his tortilla chip space.

Day one was going to be the most ambitious.  We invited people over to have some Kung Pao Chicken (West), Buddah's Delight (South) and Jiao Zi or Guo-tieh (North), AKA Potstickers.  I realize that none of those sound too exotic, as you can order them all at your local Chinese takeout place, but my research seemed to say that yes, people in China actually do eat these dishes.  And I was still out of my normal comfort realm, so it was a good start.

A few things had to sit for a while ahead of time, and we'll start with the most interesting: the filling for the pot-stickers.  You are supposed to take some Napa cabbage, dice it, mix it with some salt, and let is sit for 30 minutes.  Then you wring out the water.  Why would you do something like this?  Let us turn to the science guy in the house:
Osmosis! The salinity on the outside of the cabbage is higher than on the inside, and nature tries to even these things out.  Thus, water comes out of the cabbage.  (It may be called diffusion - I forget the difference between osmosis and diffusion.  But osmosis is a cooler word.)

When we were done, the cabbage lost a significant amount of its mass. 
While that was sitting, it was also time to marinate the chicken for Kung Pao.  Soy sauce (didn't specify light or dark, because apparently there is a difference), dry sherry, water, ego, oil, cornstarch.  Rice wine was always an alternative for sherry, and tapioca powder for cornstarch.  However, I already had the latter.

For the Buddah's Delight, I had to rehydrate some dried mushrooms.  This is definitely something I had never done before.

Now time to step up the pace because of the people coming over.  There were a lot of sauces and such to be mixed.
Also note: clean house!
Kung Pao sauce: dark and light soy sauce, rice vinegar, chicken stock, sugar, salt, sesame oil, and cornstarch.
I think sesame oil is now my favorite thing.
Pot sticker filling: dried cabbage, salt, ground pork, green onion, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sherry, sesame oil, rice vinegar, chicken stock, cornstarch.

There were also dipping sauces and such, but I needed to make the dough for the potstickers.  Looks simple enough.  Flour, salt, boiling water, cold water.  The end ratio of dry to wet ingredients was 2 cups + 1/8 tsp to .5 cup + 2 tbsp.  This caused me many problems.  It was supposed to sit a few times, which I hoped would help.

I don't have any pictures of making dough after this, because things got really hectic.  People started arriving and I wasn't ready and it was bad.  And the dough would NOT stay together.  I had to add more and more water to make it even a little like dough.  Why do I always have this problem?  Then I couldn't get it thin enough, so the pot stickers were misshapen.

I read what I had to do next for Buddah's Delight and saw I had to blanch all of the vegetables.  All 8 of them.  Ummmm, no.  There goes that dish.  Save it for another day because it isn't happening tonight.

We starting enlisting other people to help.  Can you tell I am anxious just remembering all of this?  I filled the pot stickers while Alison closed them up.  Kevin fried them while I cooked the Kung Pao chicken.  It was quite the operation.
Jon drank in the background.  :-p
Alison helping!
This is how much oil the Kung Pao Chicken called for.  It seemed a bit ridiculous, but it worked.
The instructions for the pot stickers were odd.  You first fried them in oil.  Then you added water and vinegar and cover them and cook some more.  Adding water to hot oil?  Not generally a good idea.  There were splatters everywhere.

A few wouldn't fit in the pan...
For the chicken, there was also some dried chile peppers, which were interesting to fry.  They took less than 30 seconds to brown.

The pot stickers ended up a little over-done, but it happened pretty quickly so it was hard to stop.
We made some rice for the chicken and we could finally eat.
Redeeming quality of the whole adventure?  It tasted good!  I really liked both of these dishes.  I think there could be some improvement on cooking the pot stickers, but they were yummy and their dipping sauce was delicious too.  I was also a big fan of the Kung Pao Chicken.  Kevin was the only dissenting vote I was given.  He said he could taste the peanuts too much, even though it was just a handful thrown in after the dish was done cooking.  Can't please them all.

Rachel ate three of the peppers, which she regretted.  I would not recommend doing that.

If I weren't trying to do so much at once, I don't think these dishes would be that hard.  I would really like to make them again.  I would probably remove the peanuts and try the steaming directions for the pot stickers instead.  I still have to figre out the dough part, though.

In conclusion, a delicious but stressful day one from China.  What will day two bring?  A new meat and a second attempt at some veggies.  Stay tuned!

Next time: China Day 2

Monday, October 10, 2011


Location: Southern South America
Area: Over 750,000 sq km; 38th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than twice the size of Montana
Religion: 70% Roman Catholic
Population: Almost 17 million; 59th largest in the world
Capital: Santiago
Today, Chile is one of South America's most stable and prosperous nations[8] and a recognized middle power.[10] It leads Latin American nations in human development, competitiveness, income per capita, globalization, economic freedom, low perception of corruption and state of peace.[11] It also ranks high regionally in freedom of the press and democratic development.   - Wikipedia
Source: CIA Factbook

What a change after the African countries we have been doing the last few weeks.  It is nice.  I did a report on Chile in grade school, which meant that clearly I was already an expert.  All I needed was to find out some recipes.  So many countries don't have a national dish to speak of.  Sorry, "...of which to speak."  Chile, on the other hand, apparently has many.  Every website I found that claimed it knew the national dish listed something different.  Guess I'll have to make a decision!

It didn't take very long.  I quickly ran across this recipe for pastel de choclo.  At least one site had this listed as the national dish, and it seemed easy to follow and delicious.  Early success!  As a bonus, I generally have most of those things on hand.

I always feel good about a recipe that requires me to get out multiple spices.  Yay.
I finally actually found cumin seed!
Lately, if I only need half an onion, I cut up the other half too and freeze it.  That way, next time I need some, I can just pull it out and voila.  It is a seriously time saver.  I highly recommend you try it.  So I just took out some frozen onion, the defrosted beef, some garlic, and the spices.  I was able to do this all on a weeknight, too.  That fact is a win.

Chicken stock > water, so I went with that.  It was all starting to smell very good and I was getting excited.  Time to process some corn!  Cornmeal +cornstarch + corn + sugar in my food processor.  I was worried about the non-specific amount of milk I was going to have to add, but it ended up working out pretty well.  It easily made a thick batter.

It didn't take long to get to this point.  45 seconds to a minute, perhaps?
Not very shockingly, at this point our kitchen smelled like corn.  I had to thicken the corn puree on the stove with some butter.  Overall, the steps were quite easy.  Not really much to write about.
Some of it actually started to cook up, a little like cornbread, which I found interesting.  There weren't estimates of time on a lot of the steps, but they happened quickly enough that I didn't need to worry, which was a nice change.
Kevin always has to do my volume estimates, because I am pretty horrible at it.  This may be one of the few times that we think he didn't get it right.  Probably could have used the smaller casserole pan.

Plus sugar on the top.
Ugh, I still need to figure out this camera.
And...bake!  It leaves some time to play with the cats.

No photos!
Kevin attack!
That's it?  Really!  Now the food is done.  Pre-cut onions and food processors make things much better.
It was a little greasy.
Ugh, messy table.  But yay home brew!
So what does excellent smelling meat + a lot of corn equal?  Not what you would have hoped.  The corn was super-sweet.  Ridiculously so.  There was a comment about US corn being sweeter than that that is found elsewhere, but I didn't realize the extent.  After a few bites it was almost unbearable.  We didn't eat much of it at all.

I gave a little to Kevin as leftovers recently.  He said after three bites he was sugared out.  Yes, he had already had a cookie (grumble, grumble), but this is the boy who can subsist on Thin Mints alone.  If he was sugared out there is a severe problem.

I don't think this is as much of a recipe problem as an ingredient problem.  If you find different corn or omit the sugar, I think you could get a whole different dish.  It smelled great and all of the separate parts are good, so I think this one deserves another chance.  Someone should try it without the sugar!

Everyone get ready, because....

Next time: China