January 2009 Archives

 

All of our guidebooks dismiss Guangzhou as a grey, bland city. It's true that it is not rich in the traditional sightseeing destinations: one of its biggest photo ops is a statue illustrating the legend of the city's creation, featuring five frolicing rams. Yet, I found Guangzhou to be a charming city. As our first stop in mainland China, I can't say how it compares to its neighbors, but by western standards, Guangzhou is remarkably green and scenic. Banyan trees line all but the most heavily trafficed streets, and hang over the broad pedestrian walkway along the river. The sadly crumbling remnants of beguiling Qing-era residential blocks are lined with small shops and markets, and small alleys are filled with plants, hanging laundry and lounging card-players. On the other end of the spectrum, the metro is fast, clean and convenient, the malls are large and bright, and the neon lights line every building and boat.

And, of course, I could spend a month in Guangzhou just getting better acquainted with the food. There were two stand-outs for me. The first is the small alley off the pedestian mall on Xiajiu Lu, which is a tunnel of tiny stalls selling every grilled thing or noodle dish you could imagine. I couldn't resist, although I knew it was tourist-bait, a skewer each of scorpions and some sort of larvea or worm. They were pretty good, actually, mainly crunchy and salty. Better, though, were these dumplings of gooey rice dough, crisply fried at the corners and stuffed with a variety of vegetables, and the grilled octopus.

The second hit turned out to be our most adventurous eating yet- the HongXing Seafood Restaurant. We entered it more or less at random trying to find a quick bite before catching our train out of town, and I am sure glad we did, although it was neither quick nor just a bite. To order at HongXing, you walk past a series of tanks and counters, picking out what you would like to eat and how you'd like it cooked. With the help of a very patient waitress, I ordered some shrimp and two kinds of clams, as well as some Chinese broccoli, mostly with her deciding the method of cooking. Everything was delicious, and I barely put a dent in their offerings: turtles, fish, dumplings, and a myriad of other things were on offer that I would have loved to try!

 

Hong Kong is a city designed for pedestrians. And shoppers. The two things that I'll remember most about Hong Kong are the everpresent pedestrian bridges and the endless malls, often connected into a sprawling network, so that it is practically possible to walk accross the entire city without spending a minute on a sidewalk. In fact, we quickly learned to take the stairs up into the walkways whenever they appeared, as the mere existance of a staircase often signals the impending end of the sidewalk. Hong Kong also boasts a robust public transit system, (although we didn't venture to take anything that didn't run on a track).

In our last day and a half in Hong Kong, we explored Kowloon, enjoyed the New Years festivities around the city, and fought the crowds to take the tram up to The Peak. In between all the sightseeing, we managed to squeeze in some more dim sum, a nameless noodle joint, and some local fast food.

In Kowloon we visited the Wong Tai Sin Temple, full of long coils of insense, after a dim sum breakfast at Tao Heung. The downside of traveling with two people is the limited number of dim sum dishes you can order! Seen here are beef shortribs, shu mei, shrimp wrapped in fried bean curd, and glutinous rice with chicken, all of which were delicious, but best were the rich, runny egg custard buns and the chewy rice dumpling wrappers, not shown.

This little noodle place, on Wellington, under the escalator, had a form to fill out for your meal, which checkboxes for soup, sauces, noodles, and toppings. We chose fried bean curd puffs, cabbage and brisket with rice noodles in broth, and enjoyed the resulting gingery soup at the counter, slowly adding different hot sauces and flavorings from the trays set out there.

We stopped at this little fast food joint in Hong Kong's City Hall because the dim sum place located there was closed, but I was surprised by how good my congee with preserved egg was. Everything else was about what you'd expect from fast food, however.

 

After nearly a full day of air travel, Greg and I arrived safely in Hong Kong. Of course, our first instinct, after checking into our hostel, was to find dinner. Signs and crowds all around us indicated that the place to be was the New Year's Fair in Victoria Park. So full of people that even the walking direction was dictated, the fair featured lots of merchandise for the Year of the Bull, from stuffed cows to cow hats and blankets, as well as pinwheels, flowers and fruits for the New Year.

Luckily, there was food, too; we ate fish balls and fried ice cream, barbequed squid and sausage. While those were all fairly familiar, I also got a treat I could not identify. Crispy white tubes, sprinkled with something like coconut flakes, and wrapped in a thin, dry pancake. It tasted good enough, but was most interesting for the contrast in texture between the crunchy interior and soft exterior. The stand had a name for the snack, but of course I forgot to take a note or a photo of it.

Today, refreshed by a loooong sleep, we took a walk across Hong Kong. We met up with our relative, Leo, who found us one of the few open dim sum restaurants- most are closed for the holiday. The dim sum was great, particularly the chicken feet, but the most novel dish was the goose webs and wings. I am sure that in a couple weeks, this will seem like relatively tame fare, but it was exciting to get a first taste of adventurous eating. The goose webs are firmer and chewier than chicken feet: I have to admit, I prefer the softer texture of the chicken.

 

Cheddar popcorn and beef jerky, 6:20 am, New Jersey Turnpike, en route to D.C.

 

There are a little over 200 hours between us and the leap into the great unknown that is mostly-unplanned international travel. One day you're working 9 to 5, the next your only job is figuring out how to order your dinner or find your hostel with a vocabulary of 4 words. And then there are the hectic last few days here, packing and finishing up projects and dozens of to-do lists... at this point we'll be happy if we manage to pack enough underwear and show up to the airport on time.

To recap our travel plans: we'll be flying into Hong Kong next Saturday, and from there we'll be going through the southernmost part of China, into Vietnam, possibly stopping in Cambodia, and continuing through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. From there we'll fly north to Korea in early March. Then we'll have a few weeks each in Japan and China, and the return flight from Hong Kong at the end of April. Three months of hostels, trains and buses, sightseeing from dawn to dusk, and gobs of glorious street food!

I'll be describing our adventures, culinary and otherwise, here as often as I can. If you have any travel tips, recommended restaurants, dishes, or sights, or if you are going to be in the area and want to hang out, let me know!

 

Tonight, I cooked kidneys for the first time, and it was surprising at every turn.

Surprise number one: the little guys actually DO look like kidney beans. It's uncanny.

Surprise number two: raw kidneys are jiggly and yielding, a little like a resilient jello.

Surprise number three: There are little white connective tissues all throughout the organ that are a complete pain to remove (and re-reading all my recipes, it looks like it was unnecessary anyways.)

Surprise number four: These things are amazingly delicious! Dredged in flour and sautéed in olive oil with garlic and shallots, the chopped kidney pieces were like crisp little pillows of heaven. I can't think of another meat that is so light and smooth in texture. It was very mild, which is not what I expected from kidney, as it has the reputation of having a strong flavor. If I had to pin it down, I would say it tasted of young lamb with a touch of liver and bacon.

 

Here it is, the product of three months of waiting, my first homemade aged cheese: a waxed gouda. It is still fairly young— I'm planning to age some of this cheese another three to five months— but it has an excellent flavor, already tasting rich, with lots of umami body. It's a little bit on the sharp and dry end, but it does have a definite gouda flavor. I used, once again, a recipe from Home Cheese Making, and materials from Leeners.

Here is the curd, after the milk has been heated, the cultures and rennet added, and the resulting curd sliced into cubes. I love how the clear white curds float under the transparent whey, like cubist clouds. Gouda is a washed-curd cheese, meaning that the whey is partially drained and replaced with water several times, in order to draw out the lactose and produce a less acidic cheese.

After the curds have been washed, they are strained and pressed to form the cheese. The cheese, in the case of gouda, spends most of a day in the press, and is then soaked in a brine to add salt. The cheese must then be air-dried in a cool, ventilated place for several weeks. If I had gotten it together to procure some hardwood sawdust, I could have smoked the gouda at this point, but that will have to wait until next time. Finally, the cheese is coated in wax and aged— you can see the waxing step above. Gouda can be aged anywhere between three and nine months.

Last, and most definitely least, here is a photo of my cheese press:

See how I hid this photo down here at the bottom? Those are dried fruit containers with the bottoms cut out, lined with cheesecloth, placed between dishes, and clamped down with luggage straps. The disadvantage of this system is that there is no way to regulate the pressure applied (which is probably why my gouda is a touch dry), but the advantage of it is that it is FREE.


Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Not much, just a cool dry place to age the cheese.
  • How much time does it take?
    The initial time investment is only an hour or two, the cheese can require a fair amount of attention during the aging process.
  • Does it smell?
    No, although I haven't made cheese with mold.
  • Does it look grody?
    No.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    Yes. Like beer, you can do it simply, or you can go all-out. The basics are a big pot for cooking, the necessary cultures, a cheese press of some sort, cheesecloth and wax.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    Probably not, to be honest. The costs of the cultures and materials add up, as does the time and effort. I'll definitely keep making cheese, and maybe even buy or make a more legitimate press, but I'm pretty sure that I'll never make anything as good as something I can pick up at the local cheese shop for about the same amount of money. The exception is probably fresh mozzarella and ricotta, which are quick, easy, require minimal materials, and definitely taste better than their supermarket cousins.
 

My mom always made beans to celebrate the new year. Most say that black-eyed peas with ham hocks is the traditional dish, but usually for us it was something like black beans and bacon. I blame the California influence. Whichever bean you choose, they are the perfect way to recover from the excesses of the holidays and start the year ahead fresh with humble optimism.

New Year's Day may have been last week, and I may have spent it eating take-out, but it never feels like the year is really starting until I have a good plate of beans. Things are starting to get crazy around here with all the packing and planning, so the beans were a double blessing. I simply tossed everything I could think of into our slow-cooker and let it go: in went our left-over broth and gravy from the holidays, a can of tomatoes, chopped carrots, garlic, and a cup or two each of black-eyed peas and rice. And in the time that it took for me to sort my travel toiletries and pack our fancy china, out came a hearty, simple dish, a balm for stress and a restorative for tired paletes.

Happy New Year!

 

Last night a foodie friend joined us for a dinner and mozzarella making. We used the recipe from Home Cheese Making, but a very similar recipe can be found on Leeners.com, where I've bought a lot of cheese-making supplies.

Mozzarella is very fast and doesn't take many special ingredients, so it's a worthwhile project for even the most casual cheese lover. The best part is stretching the hot, rubbery cheese. As you pull and fold it, it becomes glossy, smooth and stringy, more and more like mozzarella with each pull.

 

Many have heard of Italy's so-called Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Christmas Eve dinner centered on seafood. Somewhat less well-known is my own holiday tradition: every year I serve game for a small family dinner. The past couple years featured venison and pheasants, and this year I brought it back to my roots with some good old-fashioned small fowl.

See, my tradition all started with my parents' habit of serving game hens for our little holiday dinners. Since there were only three of us, game hens were much more manageable than the big turkey or ham that we'd have the day before or after at the larger family celebration. I was always excited about game hens, because they were such a novelty. That, and I got two drumsticks. I also loved how that little dinner was just ours alone, even as much as I loved the jollity of the extended family gathering over presents and seven and sevens.

When it came time for Greg and I to start celebrating our own holiday dinners together, I wanted to do something special for just the two of us. I immediately thought of game hens. The meal was a hit, and the next year I wanted to diversify. Even though game hens are not technically game birds, their position on Savenor's shelves, right next to the pheasants, got me thinking about game meats. So venison it was! And now this holiday dinner is my yearly excuse to rummage around in the butcher shop for something wild and exotic.

The four birds of this year's meal were quail, partridge, duck foie gras and a game hen. Yes, those last two are not game— supporting players, I suppose. The quail, partridge and game hen were roasted on a bed of vegetables, stuffed with herbs and generously rubbed with butter and then roasted, while the foie gras was simply sautéed and drizzled with truffle oil. The quail was mild, tender and sweet, but the partridge was richly gamey, and added a delicious dimension to a pan gravy I made later. Alongside we had a salad and chestnut stuffing, and for dessert, the frozen yule log.

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