Montana! (smoked beef brisket)

Neat title, huh?

Maybe I’ll do this from now on – instead of separate travel and food entries, I’ll just write about where I am and what I am cooking/eating.

Where I am now is Bozeman, Montana, where my sister and her family live. Jen and Garrett both work at Montana State University (science!), and I came by to help out while Jen recovers from surgery. I have been here for about a month, driving and personal cheff-ing for them and the three kids, Xavier 9, Dominic 6, and Mimi 4.

Above: Mimi discovers the joy of creating art on a spherical canvas

It’s been profoundly educational. Among much else, I am reminded how important it is to have health and family. I have also learned from Dominic and Mimi that there is a significant difference between different types of macaroni and cheese, and you’d damn well better know the difference.

Montana is glorious. We are on the doorstep of Yellowstone, and the scenery in the Gallatin Valley is stunning. Snowcaps on all sides of the horizon, trails to everywhere you want to go. Bozeman clearly has a healthy respect for community, and funds gorgeous public amenities like a beautiful town library and the Museum of the Rockies.

Above: Xavier and Uncle Tommy make tasty ricotta!

Now if you are going to be cooking for a family, this is a great place to do it. This is not far from ranching country, and the produce is beautiful to behold. I was raised in the Midwest, and the myth that grain-fed beef is somehow superior to grass-fed. “It’s softer,” we would tell ourselves, “and just look at that marbling.”

I’ll be blunt, grain-fed beef is gross. It’s the only way to say it. One of my favorite party tricks (no, really!) is to put two pieces of the same cut side-by-sideand compare. Grain-fed is pink, with visibly more fat, while grass-fed is darker color, with smaller amount of fat that is more concentrated. Depending on what the animals have been eating, the fat in grass-fed  beef may be yellow, compared to the typical white.

Cooked exactly the same way, grain-fed beef is mushy and tasteless. Grass-fed has more bite, and has much more taste. This difference is somewhat counter instinctive, since fat is so important to taste profile. You can even taste the difference in ground meat. Grass-fed hamburger tastes different, and significantly better than grain-fed.

So cooking in Montana, where grass-fed beef is readily available, has been a treat. We have had bison and beef burgers (remember that 50% of us are under 10), but also a couple of briskets in the oven or bbq.

Yesterday, we smoked a grass-fed brisket. Brisket is a fatty cut, and usually comes with a big ol’ fat cap that bastes the meat as it cooks. That sword cuts both ways–it makes for a piece of meat that is tasty, but fairly sickening after a while. Often you end up throwing out big pieces of fat from brisket, either before or after it is cooked.

This piece looked nothing I have ever seen. There was no fat cap, and almost no visible fat between the layers. The color was darker. It looked more like venison than beef.

Naturally, I was concerned as to how a tougher meat would cook without all that fat, but in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. We did the usual tactic: gave the raw meat a spice rub and cool smoked it by putting the meat on one side of the grill and the fire (and wood chips) on the other. The temperature stayed under 200 degrees, so the meat didn’t cook.

From there, we finished in the oven at 250 degrees for a few hours. Still concerned about dryness, I overdid it with the moisture, and really loaded up the pan with raw onions. The idea was that the onions would cook down, and steam the brisket in the covered pan. That they did, but it worked too well: the onion taste was too overpowering. I would do the same tactic, but cut back on the amounts.


The last thing was to let the meat rest–really rest–almost returning to room temperature, before cutting against the grain. This step is vital. Like many meats, brisket often looks good when it is first cut, but dries out immediately after. Letting the meat rest keeps the moisture in the meat, and in the case of other cuts, transforms the liquid collagen into a gorgeous gelatin.

Seriously, that picture above is the meat at room temperature, after everyone decided they were full. Too many onions or not, that’s a beautiful thing.

abai 阿拜

Hello from Taitung!

This is the one part of Taiwan that I had never visited, so we headed straight here the day after arriving in Taibei.

It’s definitely a small town atmosphere, but not just that – the indigenous culture is so evident that it really feels like a different country.

Part of that is the food, which predictably enough has lots of seafood, but also some things like abai that are really unique. From the outside, abai look like the zongzi rice dumplings that you would see anywhere in China, but unwrap the bamboo leaves, and you see another layer of perilla leaves. These are meant to stay on (as I learned when I tried to artfully remove them), and they have a slightly spicy taste. Inside that is the real surprise – it’s not rice but millet.

I love millet. It’s mankind’s original field grain, and I spent two years in Shandong starting every day with a big bowl of millet zhou. Sometimes with little pieces of torn up mantou – or even better, pieces of fried mantou. Oh crimeny, that’s good.

The abai takes this one step further, the steamed millet is stuffed with spices and stewed pork. This is genuine genius. Millet is delicious, but it can be a little pasty, that’s why it’s better for zhou, than for a steamed cake. The fatty pork and the spiciness of the leaves really take care of this.

Cinnamon rolls!

Mom used to tell us that as kids, she and her brothers and sisters (all seven of them!) ate fresh bread every day. Not because they were fancy, but decidedly the opposite–they were too poor to buy supermarket bread.

How did they do this? Every night, they would make “bucket bread,” meaning that they put the flour, yeast and other breadly whatnot into a bucket, letting it rise overnight. When it had risen to reach the top of the bucket, it was ready to bake. Mom and her sisters would pull off and flatten little balls of dough, bake for 15 minutes and just like that, you have khubz arabi.

Now what grandma called “bucket bread,” the more hipsterish among us would call autolysing – referring to the long period of letting the dough sit, in order to work the gluten. And yes, when it comes out, there is no kneading required, just pop it out and bake.

I will mix up a batch of dough every so often, and just keep a big bucket of it around to make flatbreads and pizzas. This morning I baked the remnants of one batch into incredibly tasty cinnamon rolls. Making the rolls is exactly the same technique as the onion pancakes 葱油饼 they make in China: roll the dough out long and flat (9×18 inches or so), paint one side with butter, sugar, cinnamon and walnuts (and a little salt, if the butter doesn’t have any), roll lengthwise into a long cylinder and cut into rounds. Arrange these in a baking dish and let them rise to about twice their size, then pop in the oven at 325F/160C for about 45 minutes – until they have browned on top and sound hollow when you tap them.

Seriously – this was about 20 minutes of actual work, but the result was incredibly good (and photogenic!). The best part was the bread itself, light but also moist and chewy. The secret is the easiest part–letting the dough rise overnight (or in this case, two nights, cos I made too much), and for that I thank grandma and her bucket bread.

Food in Hong Kong (aka, no love for Jade Panda Garden)

A lot of people tell me they don’t like Hong Kong. At first, neither did I. The first time I came here in the mid-90s, I had just spent couple of really nice weeks in pre-casino Macao. The comparison was pretty stark: where Macao was nice and quiet, full of piazzas and egg tarts, Hong Kong seemed noisy, polluted and distinctly lacking in chouriço.

Of course, the problem was that I only stayed a few days, and spent those days in the wrong places. For most of this semester at CUHK, I lived in Taipo 大埔墟, which is not only much less crowded, it’s also a real place with real history. The way it was explained to me was that Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British because the land itself was not valuable. It’s the peninsula, especially further up towards what is now Shenzhen that had the good land and the thriving villages. Unimaginable though it may be if you are sitting in a Starbucks in Mongkok, Hong Kong is still mostly rural, and many of the villages are centuries old. My friend and colleague He Xi took me on a tour of some of these villages in Fanling, and yes, they go back to the Ming dynasty.

Taipo itself isn’t much to look at, but it has real charm. Since my apartment consisted of a little doggie bed and not much else, I spent most of my time outside. I got to know the fruit sellers and the restaurants, and spent a lot of time in the community gym, which was full of retired guys who just hung around and pumped iron on fairly decrepit equipment. These guys were serious — 40 pull ups in a row serious. Some just wanted to work out, others wanted to chat. Later we would see each other in the street and say hi. It was awesome.

Now where this is all going is food. My colleague Igor memorably described mall food in Hong Kong as “tragic.” The stuff in real restaurants is infinitely better – not more authentic or any of that nonsense, it’s just better, as in properly prepared. One of my favorites is the Chaozhou dish of stewed beef brisket. It’s stewed, then steamed, so it has the layers of fat, but it is not greasy. Then its is cut against the grain and served with rice or rice noodles. My favorite place for this is just outside the Taiwo MTR station.

This morning I went back to my favorite dim sum place, which is a wet market in a big tent outside the MTR at Shatin wai. Again, there’s a specific charm, especially if you are there alone. I sat down with some old folks (who no doubt spent the whole morning and much of the afternoon in that same spot) and had some really good shao mai, har gao, and cuttlefish rice porridge. My new friends didn’t speak Mandarin, and I don’t speak Cantonese, but conversation flowed, mostly them insisting that I have some tea, or else I wouldn’t be able to digest my food properly. It was just so – nice. The kind of thing that fills your belly and puts a smile on your face for the rest of the day.




Recipe: Two minute avocado chocolate mousse

What? Another one? It seems you can’t take two steps on the Internet without tripping over another recipe for avocado chocolate mousse. Some are good, some – not so much.

I threw this together without a recipe in all of two minutes, and the result was surprisingly tasty. Of course, I had the benefit of starting with ice cream, but still, the result was much lighter than ice cream, but still really rich and creamy–not to mention much healthier than eating ice cream (as well as more dignified, since I tend to eat straight out of the container). All measurements are very approximate.IMG_0644

  • 1 1/2 cups (12 oz, 350 ml) softened chocolate ice cream
  • 2 ripe avocados
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz, 125 ml) applesauce
  • 2 tbsp unsweetened greek yoghurt
  • 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 shot of cold espresso
  • pinch of salt

Put everything in a bowl and whip with a stick blender until smooth, trying to get as much air in the mix as you can. Check the taste, and freeze until set (about 15 minutes – if the edges freeze solid, you might hit it with the blender again) and serve it up! You can even be fancy and top with some sifted cocoa.  Seriously – two minutes.

Recipe: Quinoa and kabocha salad


Quinoa is a nice little grain from the Andes (technically it’s not a grain, but don’t ask me to explain why) that became popular a few years back, and is now widely available. Like most heritage grains, it has a bit more taste and texture (not to mention nutrition) than most mass marketed counterparts, which makes it a nice match for this cold salad.

Quinoa: Pan fry 1 1/2 cups of uncooked quinoa (make sure that it has been


pre-rinsed, as some quinoa requires it) in a teaspoon of oil until just starts to brown. Add 1 cup water, 1 cup apple juice, salt and 1 tsp soy sauce, and cook over low heat until liquid is mostly gone. Turn off heat, add 1/2 cup dried cranberries and cover. Finished quinoa should be fluffy and very lightly flavored.

Kabocha: Cut medium sized kabocha into chunks, keeping peel


intact. Place peel side down in saucepan, and add mixture of water, dashi powder, sugar, plus bit of mirin and sake (We used roughly 1 cup water, 1/2 tsp dashi, 2 tsp sugar and 2 tbs soy, exact amounts will depend on size of pan and kabocha, but balance soy and dashi for saltiness, and keep amount of liquid low). Cover and cook on low heat until kabocha is soft – avoid stirring if possible. Cool on stovetop.

Mix quinoa and kabocha mixture with a handful of crushed walnuts and chunks of creamy goat cheese. Fix flavors with a dash of soy sauce or sesame oil, but keep liquids to a minimum, so the dish does not become too heavy. Salad is ready to serve right away.

Recipe: Kale salad with grilled beef

Hey Tom, whatever happened to your recipe blog?

Well, the old one is out there somewhere, but heck if I know where. In the spirit of moving on, I will just post new recipes here.

This salad was inspired partially by something we had at Agava Restaurant in Ithaca, and partially by a big pile of organic kale that we got on sale. The kale is salted to soften it, but otherwise raw.

Take 1 bunch fresh kale, remove stems, wash and coarsely chop. Rub in (make sure it really gets into the kale) one tbs. salt and let stand in bowl or colander for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables have shrunk down to about half their original size.  Rinse with cold water, while squeezing out any additional liquid. Set aside.



juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbs. mayonnaise
2 tbs. sesame oil
2 tbs ponzu (citrus soy sauce)
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. ground sesame
1/2 tsp. dashi powder

Mix the dressing and toss with wilted kale, and top with roasted sesame seeds. Could also add kombu kelp, sliced Asian pears, or thinly sliced raw onions.

Top with thin slices of grilled beef – use a nice strong tasting cut like hangar or skirt steak, grilled rare and allowed to cool.