Pork and salted bok choy with cold noodles

Today is Saturday, the last day before we get the next giant box of vegetables.

We’ve been pretty clever with this week’s haul. We made the Tuscan kale with gnocchi, walnuts and crispy fried salami. Roasted the beets. Cubed and oven roasted the potatoes, which we added to potato-zucchini-leek soup. Beet greens and Swiss chard got baked with beef shanks and quinoa. These were all very nice. We also made zucchini into a hell of a lot of zucchini bread, which for some reason we thought would try with gluten-free flour. It… was not a success… (the squirrels loved it)

Yes, it’s all been lovely, but it’s Saturday, and what the hell are we going to do with all of this bok choy?

We looked everywhere – and every recipe was some variation on “stir fry,” which unless you are in a proper Chinese kitchen, just does not work.  Also, bok choy is mostly water, which means that no matter how you fry it, it’s gonna be soupy and gross.

Today we had a revelation. Don’t fry the water out – salt it. We did this last week when we made gyōza – chop the bok choy super fine, toss in salt and let it drain a few hours in a colander. By the way, here’s our gyōza…

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My plan was to make something akin to xue cai, which is salted mustard greens. I chopped the two giant heads of bok choy into roughly one inch pieces, and dunked them in salted water for about two hours. For that much bok choy, I used about 1/4 cup of salt, but you should add salt to taste, aiming for the level of a too-salty soup stock. After about one hour, I added about 1/2 pound of sliced pork, which is always good to brine before cooking, and let the two get to know each other for an hour or so.

We decided to have this with thin noodles called sōmen, and wanted then cold, so cooked the noodles and let them sit in cold water while we finished the dish.

Preparation was easy. Take out the meat and drain the bok choy. Give the vegetables a rinse if they are too salty. Toss in a little corn starch and set aside. Dry the pork and lightly fry it with plenty of oil and a little grated ginger and white pepper. Once the meat is cooked, add the chopped bok choy and cook on medium heat for another three minutes or so, just until everything is blended and any remaining water has come out of the vegetables. Just before serving, add sesame oil and sprinkle on sesame seeds, and place in top of cool sōmen in a bowl.

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You won’t need to add salt, or any other flavoring, and the surprise was how nicely the marinating added the very slightly spicy taste of the bok choy to the meat. You could also add other ingredients, such as edamame, to the dish, but don’t go overboard. The attraction here is the simplicity of flavors.

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Aunt Clem’s stuffed cabbage

This morning was the Ithaca 5 and 10 run, meaning that you choose either 5 or 10k.

Misa and I both ran 10, but they gave me the number bib for the 5k, which means that somewhere around the 45 minute mark, the roadside cheering went from “you’re doing great!” to let’s go already!

But it was all good fun. One guy who wanted to drive across the race route, pulled up to the intersection, stopped his car and yelled dramatically to the race marshals “I SHALL PASS!” To which I yelled back – well, obviously…

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Which is of course exactly what he had been waiting for. Imagine how disappointed you would be if you gave a crowd of people the perfect setup and nobody took you up on it. Actually, he even kind of looked like that picture of Gandalf, which seems pretty meta. Is that meta? I think it’s meta. Also, what’s meta?

So anyhoo, after the race, we went to the Ithaca Farmers’ Market to get the box of surprise organic vegetables. A culinary Christmas, if you will. Among much else, we got a big cabbage and two giant zucchini, which could only mean one thing.

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Oh boy!

That’s right, an alarm went off in my Palestinian soul, and just like that – it was mezze time.

Forgive me, all of my mother’s sisters, who would be horrified to know that I have dared to change the ancient (and I mean really) family recipe for these most fundamental of dishes. Actually scratch that – they’d be proud.

You know? What the hell, let’s just say this was my favorite aunt’s recipe. It isn’t hers, but it’s one I think she would have loved.

Aunt Clem’s stuffed cabbage
Remove the leaves from a head of cabbage and either dip in boiling water or microwave to soften. Using a sharp knife, cut out the center rib to make the leaves easier to roll. Set aside.

Combine 1 pound ground beef with 3/4 cup long grain white rice and 3/4 red (shelled) lentils. They have to be shelled because you want them to disappear when they cook. Add 1 1/2 tsp each: garlic powder, dill, allspice, cinnamon, paprika and cumin. Salt to taste and mix by hand.

Roll the mixture into a cabbage leaf – the technique is hard to describe, but basically put the leaf rib side down, roll away from you stem side first, tucking the sides in as you go. Place the rolls seam side down in a baking dish, and cover with water, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.

Cover with foil and bake at 350 for at least an hour. (It wont hurt to leave them in for longer) They are done when the rice inside is cooked. Let them cool a bit before serving, you could even serve at room temperature (but not cold, as the rice gets starchy).

For me, the secret is the lentils, which disappear into the meat, but leave a rich taste that adds something special to this well known dish.

Braised pork soba in organic Ithaca

Oh my, it’s been a while. I’m not exactly on the other side of the world, but it feels like a pretty good approximation.

Since leaving Shenzhen, I returned to the US and spent one week in Montana, another in Indiana and am now in Ithaca NY visiting Misa.

It’s nice to be back in the US, but needless to say this much travel is pretty disorienting. One of the big shocks is how hard it is to get around. Despite having grown up in “not-a-damn-thing-for-miles-around” Indiana, I still never seem to get used to/sufficiently plan for this. Yesterday I left the house to go pick up Misa from campus, and accidentally locked myself out – with neither car nor house keys, nor of course my phone, which sat and mocked me from the window ledge.

It was at that point that I realized that I had no options. The Cornell campus is at least 7-8k away, and I had told Misa that I was “on my way.” Even calling a taxi meant a 15 minute walk to a pay phone (assuming that those even exist anymore), and then we would have to take a bus back — a good hour-long journey, just to end up right back where we started, and hungry to boot.

Luckily – and I mean really – a very nice stranger extricated me from this dilemma by giving me a ride to campus and giving both of us a ride back. Now that’s beyond nice, but just shows how lonely life can be without a car.

In any case, we got our dinner, which in true Ithaca fashion, consisted mostly organic kale. Actually, Misa has a subscription from one of the community gardens for a weekly box of organic produce. You don’t know what you will get, but you know it will be good. Last week she got celery, cabbage, onions and purple potatoes – the celery was so fresh that it was sweet. I honestly did not know that was possible. I diced it very fine and mixed it with ground pork and tofu to make meatballs, which we ate with toothpicks, in order to be fancy.

Today after a morning run, I made this dish to finish off the carrots and onions:

Braised pork soba

– Boil one package of soba noodles, leaving them slightly undercooked. Rinse under cold water, toss with a bit of oil and leave to drain.
– Slice one pound of pork loin into very thin strips, and then cut again in half. Toss in oil, salt and corn starch, and set aside.
– Cut two large onions into thin strips, and coarsely grate two carrots, finely grate about two tablespoons of ginger

Lightly fry (without browning) everything except the noodles. Stir in 3 tbs of sake, 2 tbs of soy sauce, about 1/2 tsp of dashi powder and 1 1/2 cups of water, cover and simmer until the onions are soft and the flavors have blended. Remove from heat, mix in 2 tsp of sesame oil and the cold noodles, cover and let sit for five minutes. Serve with sesame and/or chopped green onions.

This was a simple dish that really showed off the taste of Ithaca’s incredible local produce. The richness of the pork and onions blended beautifully with the earthy soba.

 

North beef-south beef – carnivorizing about in Shenzhen

When I was first learning Chinese in Taiwan, I remember being told that one of the teachers (who I didn’t know) had become gravely ill because of “wind.” This of course put my imagination on edge – was it pollution? extreme flatulence? They couldn’t explain, and I couldn’t ask.

I discovered the answer some years later, when I went to teach English at a school of Chinese medicine in Shandong. “Wind” in fact has many specific meanings in Chinese medicine, as do other ideas like “lethargy” or “heat.”

People often talk about “rising heat” (上火), which is not so much an affliction as a condition, specifically one of imbalance, often (but not always) caused by eating too many “hot” foods. These would include meat, especially sheep, but also some fruits like lychees. Rising heat will give you pimples, sore throat and shortness of breath, and the way to get rid of it is dissipate the heat. Some foods like ginger are very good for this, which is why ginger tea is so good for an oncoming cold.

My reason for bringing all this up is that like all food, Chinese people think about meat in a specific nutritional context. Beef (we knew we would get there eventually!) is a warming food. That’s why it is good for the elderly or ill. It’s also why it is often paired with ginger, not just for the taste, but to balance out the excess.

I knew that Cantonese food included a lot beef, but I have been surprised at how common, and how good the beef is in Shenzhen. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised, since this whole area has a long history of trading beef cows.

The taste is clearly different than the beef I had in Hulunbuir, though I can’t really explain how, especially since it is cooked so differently. Yesterday I had hot pot, which is of course the most common way to eat beef or lamb, but what was interesting was the way the meat itself was prepared. In most places, you get meat that’s been frozen and thinly sliced, which produces a kind of melting effect. Here, it’s all fresh meat that is hanging up in the front entrance, you point to the piece you like and they prepare it for you. It’s still very thin, and very soft, but has a much meatier quality.

Today I went looking for lunch, and saw this giant boiling bowl of beef bones, and inside saw a big crowd all eating rice noodle soup.

I wasn’t passing that up, and as soon as I walked in, they asked “20, 25 or 30?” Having no idea, I said 30, which worked out well, because 30 (yes, they did mean price) meant that I got soup with three items: sliced raw beef, braised intestines and beef balls. You often see this combination in pho restaurants, but the taste was different, among much else, the soup clearly had cinnamon and ginger.

And you know what it did not have? MSG! Boy did that made for a much nicer afternoon.

Shenzhen – double skin milk

Its been a couple of weeks and a few thousand kilometers since Bayannuur.

After that, I went on an epic train journey through Hohhot, Chifeng, Tongliao and Qiqihar – arriving three days and some visible beard growth later back in Hailar.

Hailar was basically the three r-s, resting, riting, and running so apart from the fact that I had fun doing all three, there isn’t much to report. After a couple of weeks, I finally got back on a plane and headed to Shenzhen, crossed into HK and ended up at the Hyatt, which was inexplicably not only the cheapest option, but also the one that upgraded me to a suite.

IMG_6487I subsequently moved to a cheaper option, but eventually thought since I can’t use the CUHK library on weekends, that I should get out of HK and go back over the border to Shenzhen, a place that I have repeatedly been through, but never spent any time in.

So I did, and apart from much nicer hotels (not you Hyatt, I will always love you), Shenzhen is – interesting!  I aways had the bias that Shenzhen is not worth seeing because it’s a new city, which it was when it was founded over 30 years ago. For those of you counting at home, that’s a long time, and Shenzhen is now an interesting, and pretty fun place.

Since Shenzhen is full of migrants, it has food and culture from all over China, and especially from all over Guangdong. One dish that immediately caught my attention was something called “Shunde double skin milk.” (顺德双皮奶)

This is for two reasons, first milk – duh – and second because Shunde is a place that I associate with a specialty water buffalo cheese (酪). I saw a place selling this as I walked from the train station to my hotel, and a few hours later traced my steps back.  Here’s what I found.

IMG_6505Basically it’s a steamed milk custard. I asked why it was “double” skin and nobody seemed to know. What they did know is that I should also order this:

IMG_6510That’s right kids, it’s fried milk, that same stuff you see in every American Chinese restaurant. I had always assumed that fried milk was up there with fortune cookies in its sheer fakeness. Whenever I saw it on a menu, I felt it my responsibility to roll my eyes and heave an audible sigh.

Well, it turns out I wasn’t dead, I was just in Kansas. And also fried milk is delicious. More specifically, it is delicious once. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

Double skin milk, on the other hand, yeah, I definitely wanted that again, so I went to another place that looked and was older – they have been making this same dish for twenty years. Even better than yesterday. This one was made with actual water buffalo milk, which they get delivered every morning. The taste was richer, and the skin on top was a layer of butterfat.

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Seriously, Bayannuur, what the hell? (also, sheep)

Here’s a trick for you. The next time you find yourself in the mountains, or specifically find yourself leaving the mountains, make sure to bring a loaf of bread. Pack it nicely so it doesn’t get smooshed in your luggage, and then open it up at sea level.

I did this recently when I left Lanzhou. Packed a nice loaf of fluffy bread at about 2000 meters, then got on an overnight train to Linhe 临河 at significantly fewer meters, and ended up with what was essentially naan. Hilarious!

Why Linhe? Because my fine friend invited me to visit his sheep farm in Wuyuan 五原, about 80 km from here. And he wasn’t kidding – this was in fact the largest sheep production facility in China (I know these details because I have spent the past few evenings translating some of their corporate literature into English), and I have to say, was a pretty amazing operation. Among other things, it was huge – that one farm has about a hundred thousand sheep, which by any standards is quite simply one hell of a lot of sheep.

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The fun part was that the management and most of the workers all came from Liaocheng, waaaaaay over in Shandong, and quite near Ji’nan where I spent two years right out of college. They wore that accent as a point of pride.

Anyhoo, back to Bayannuur. This is the name of the region around Linhe, all of which most people would consider to be the train equivalent of “flyover country.” (go-through-real-fast country?) It’s certainly not a place that calls for you to get off the train, especially when said train arrives to the station at 5:00 am.

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Pictured: Too early for this sh-t

That’s a real shame, because Bayannuur is charming. For one thing, the KFC let me hang out for about three hours while I waited to check into my hotel. Gotta be grateful for that. For another, the places just across from the KFC served some of the best noodles I have ever had. I also stopped and had a sheep milk yoghurt, then a cow milk yoghurt, then a latte, which were lovely, but did add some urgency to the hotel check in.

But the real prize was the park.

I love Chinese parks, especially in small towns like this one. They are nice spaces where everyone comes out to have fun.

They also have nice exercise equipment, which is good when you are traveling. I am very partial to the monkey bars.

Sometimes these parks feature some real feats of athleticism. One of my friends in Hailar was a regular at the riverside park. We started talking when I saw him doing some serious routines on the pull up bar. He was not trained– just saw the routines on the Internet and just decided to learn them. Seriously.

Every park has a few of these superhumans, but Bayyan nuur seems to populated entirely by them. Seriously, one small park in one small town features a badass brigade practicing chain whip style martial arts, these hackeysackers, that would shame 1995’s best:

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I bet you guys don’t even like Jamiroquai

And the cruelest blow of all – get the action on my beloved monkey bars:

Everyone – old, young, very small children, men and women – everyone had a monkey bar routine. It was like one of those dance lines on Soul Train – everyone stands on two sides and you do your thing through the middle.

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Plus, the cutest little traffic jam, ever

And the best part is that it was all so nice and friendly. When I finally got my turn and did my monkey swings, people clapped and called me “mini Vin Diesel.” Interestingly enough, it’s actually not even the first time I have been called that exact same thing, but I will say that it might be favorite.

Wait, wait, oh yes, sheep.

Well as charming as they were, the sheep were also delicious. I mean seriously delicious. Back at the ranch (literally) in Wuyuan, we had the usual dish of 涮羊肉, which is thinly sliced lamb that you dunk in a pot of boiling soup. It’s a universal winter dish and is often served with a spicy Sichuan-style hot pot broth, and a separate dish of sesame paste with chive flowers or garlic.

At our first lunch, I was given the usual deep red broth, but everyone else was using plain water with a couple of dates floating in it. The reason was obvious – the meat was so good that spices took away from the taste. I asked for the same, and saw my social standing immediately rise from “rank amateur” to “has potential.”

Wow, were they ever right. This meat was amazingly delicious with nothing but salt and a tiny bit of sesame paste. Anything else might as well have been a burnt steak with ketchup.

Lanzhou night market – sweet egg milk

Hello from Lanzhou!

This is the big industrial city of the Northwest, once known for its horrific pollution. Now that the pollution is mostly cleaned up, I’m not sure what it’s known for, but my guess would be noodles. Every city has at least one Lanzhou beef noodles shop.

Since I am pretty tired of noodles, and had a good day of writing, I saw fit to reward myself with a trip to the Lanzhou Zhengning night market.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. Every city has a night market of some sort, and they tend to be filled with the same stuff, much of it awful. The Northwest in general is not what I would call sophisticated in its food traditions, lots of meat and bread. Its filling, but it ain’t Chengdu.

I was so very wrong.

The first thing you notice about the market is that it is very orderly. Nobody screaming through on a motorcycle, no blasting techno music forcing you to speed walk through, and a large, but remarkably polite crowd of patrons.

The second thing is that the food is diverse, fresh and good. Since I showed up very hungry, I almost made the rookie mistake of grabbing the first thing I saw. That would not have been terrible, as that was a fried mixture of green chilis and diced lamb (the market is about 80% Muslim) that is served on a dense bread that is sliced in half.

Ok, I lied. I did have one. It was delicious. I regret nothing.

After that, however, I decided to be more discerning, and take a walk up and down the whole street before proceeding. This is what I saw.

Good grief, just look at that lamb! It is sliced and skewered after you order! And that pot with the red on top – that’s a good six cups of dried chilis. The ice cream isn’t ice cream – its mashed potatoes. It didn’t really work, but you have to admire the ingenuity.

Any one of these stalls would warrant a star spot in a recipe blog, but the star of the show was a drink called 脑枣鸡蛋牛奶, which translates roughly to egg milk with dates. I was told about this drink, and in about one stall where people wait in huge lines. Although there were about ten stalls serving the same drink, this particular stall was not hard to find.

So being a follower by nature, I got in line and had about 15 minutes to chat with the people in front and behind, and eventually to watch the man making them. This is a Xinjiang dish that is made by boiling milk in a shallow pan, adding a scrambled egg and stirring vigorously. Since the milk is on a fast boil, the egg immediately cooks into little slivers. From there, add raisins (the green and slightly tart ones that come from Xinjiang are best), crushed peanuts, and black and white sesame seeds. The name seems to suggest that it should have Chinese red dates (though I have never heard them called 脑枣 before), but nobody I saw was adding them.

And that’s it. There were plenty of other people making the same drink, but for some reason (nobody seemed to know what it was), everyone waited in line that was extra slow because he only cooked one small pan at a time.

I’d say the wait was worth it. Only very slightly sweet, and nicely balanced with the nuttiness of the raisins and dates. The egg gives it richness. This would be lovely on a winter morning, but even on a scorching hot afternoon, it wasn’t bad.