Octopuscarwash's Gourmet Adventures

I live to eat. Yes, I am an Asian Jew. My favorite meal is breakfast (oatmeal in particular). I'm only in high school, so I am a complete amateur. Some of my favorite cuisines are Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Japanese and Korean. I eat so much Chinese food that it's hard to say whether I like it or not... all I know is that I don't like what most of America seems to think of as Chinese food, Panda Express. I'm a pescetarian and love coming up with my own healthy fusion food.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Beijing countdown number one: Da Dong

I've decided that since I'm leaving tomorrow morning (!) and there are a lot of restaurants that I didn't mention that I've eaten at, that I would do a sort of countdown as a goodbye to Beijing.
I'll start with the fanciest, which is a famous Peking Duck restaurant called Da Dong. There are several branches all over Beijing, but they're known for impeccable presentation and a more subtle, refined approach to Chinese cooking. They've also recently added a "lowfat duck" to their menu, which is a much leaner alternative to the more traditional fatty Peking Duck.
We went there for an extremely late lunch a couple weeks ago, and the huge restaurant was almost empty. We decided not to order duck at all, but since dishes could be ordered in individual portions, to each order something we wanted and get some other dishes to share. This is what we got:
I chose the scallops with sweet corn, which were perfectly cooked, but in fact turned out to be the least successful out of all our dishes. They had been coated in egg yolk, which added nothing but a sandy mouthfeel and extra cholesterol. They were garnished with a sprig of mint, kidney beans, and a swipe of green sauce (cilantro sauce?). However, it has to be said that the sweetness of corn and scallops go together perfectly.
My dad ordered oxtail with peas, carrots, cilantro, anise, and 5 spice powder.
My mom ordered a sampling of all duck parts: the liver, webs (feet), and breast, which had been boiled in rice wine dregs with tree ears. Unfortunately, this was just a bit too adventurous for her.
To share, we ordered three FANTASTIC dishes. We started off with an amaranth and mushroom broth with roasted garlic clothes that added an amazingly robust aroma. It managed to be light and satisfying at the same time.
My personal favorite (or not... it's so hard to decide) was the eggplant, which was deceptively simple. It had been simmered to tender shreds with anise and five spice, roasted garlic, and a sprig of rosemary. Because the flavors were similar to that of my dad's oxtail and other traditional meat dishes, the soft, almost fatty texture really made it taste like meat. While in the West we look down on fatty meat, the Chinese relish it.
Because I'm a pumpkin fiend (if I could eat pumpkin every day for the rest of my life I would be happy), we ordered the roasted cod in steamed pumpkin. While the cod itself was flavored similarly to the eggplant and oxtail, it was the combination of the fish and pumpkin that was truly outstanding. This was because the cod was soft and salty, whereas the pumpkin was durable and mild, yet managed to absorb all the flavors of the sauce. I must have eaten half the pumpkin by myself.
For dessert, we were sent out a simple fruit platter surrounded by dry ice.
As you can see, we usually prefer simple, homestyle Chinese cooking, but I never realized how worth it the fancier places are sometimes.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pasta Lessons

This might be a lengthy post.
The reason I still haven't written about Singapore is that 1) a lot of stuff has been happening here too and 2) probably the most "Singaporean" and interesting meal (hint hint: CHILI CRAB), I didn't attend. I still feel that it's worth blogging it, so I have to convince one of my parents to write a little description.
Anyways, these pasta lessons, that were given to me by Patrizia, were given in two parts, but I decided to put them together. The first time we made tagliatelle, which my mom and I then took home. The second lesson (yesterday) was much more complicated and enjoyable, because it also included cooking: we made spinach ricotta tortelloni and vegetarian lasagna, which our families then ate together.
This post will be like a tutorial. I'll start with the tagliatelle. First of all, let me just say that Patrizia grew up in Bologna, where everything was impeccably fresh (her parents still live in a little house in the mountains over there)-- in fact, she didn't have factory-made pasta (i.e. spaghetti) until she was in her TWENTIES!
My friend Bea was there for the tagliatelle, but not so much for the second cooking lesson.
1. Tagliatelle-- Making the dough was much simpler than I would have thought. All you need is flour (wheat, not semolina, which is too hard) and eggs. No water. That's it. You pour yourself a pile of flour (we just eyeballed it). Then you dig yourself a little hole in the center of your pile and push outwards to make it bigger. This can all be done on the kitchen counter. Then you crack three eggs into the center and start to beat them into the dough with a fork. You want to gradually start beating outwards so as to incorporate the eggs into the flour. When the flour-egg mixture is no longer running, you can start using your hands to knead it together, adding more flour if it's too sticky.
Now you begin the kneading motion. Use your right hand to fold the dough over towards you, then use the heel of your hand (is that a word in this context) to PUSH outwards. Now use the same part of your left hand and PUSH again. The dough should be elongated, facing you horizontally, like a baguette. Now turn it so that it's vertical, and use your right hand to fold it towards you again. Once you get into the motion, you start to use your whole body-- I don't think I ever got that far, but for Patrizia, this motion is as natural as brushing your teeth or toasting a piece of bread.
The dough will begin to harden, but it should still remain pretty soft. You should be able to tell when you don't need to knead it anymore. It should stay in a loaf-like shape, and should have a homogeneous texture.
The next step is to slice the loaf into about two-inch thick pieces (we used a Chinese meat cleaver), then dip the pieces in flour and flatten them. At this point we need to crank out the pasta machine, which is a very simple, hand operated, and attaches to the table. The only problem with the machine is that it doesn't attach very firmly, so you need someone to hold onto it while you turn the handle. What you do is this: pass the flattened pieces of dough through the machine, and turn the handle while gently pulling the dough out as it comes through in a much thinner piece. Each piece should go through the machine about three times, or at least until they have the thickness of two or three pieces of paper.
For tagliatelle, you gently fold each stretch of dough onto itself like an accordian, then use the cleaver to slice thin pieces LENGTHWISE (too thick and it becomes fettucine). After you've sliced the pieces, you can unfold them, and see your beautiful work!!!!
Tagliatelle needs to dry before boiling (you can keep it up to two weeks). Store it folded in a dry cloth.
We took it home to eat it, but sadly, we overcooked it so badly that it became inedible! It really only needs to cook for one or two minutes, but even so, when you taste it it seems much more al dente than dried pasta. Nevertheless, if you overcook it, you WILL be sorry.

By the second pasta lesson I felt like I had started to get the hang of the dough, so it was time for some more time-consuming (and more rewarding) tasks. Although we were making about three different things at the same time, I'm going to separate them so that it's easier to understand. We'll start with the tortelloni.
Begin by boiling the spinach (she used frozen, but obviously fresh, especially pre-washed to save you time, would be better).
Combine a tub of ricotta (we had to use what was available to use here in Beijing, bought at the Western supermarket Jenny Lou's), two eggs, some parsley, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and a decent-sized pile of parmesan in a bowl and combine. When the spinach-water is boiling, drain the spinach, roll it into logs, slice it, and add it to the filling.
As for the pasta itself, it's exactly the same as the tagliatelle up until the very last step-- instead of folding the sheets, use one of those ridged ravioli cutters to cut them into squares. We were making tortelloni, so they were on the large side, but tortellini are about 1/4 of the size of tortelloni.
use a knife or spoon to put a dollop of filling IN THE CENTER of each square (this part is a lot like making Chinese dumplings). Fold the square in half so that it forms a triangle, taking care to seal the edges well. Now this is the tricky part, which took a while to get the hang of. Put the triangle so that one corner loops over your thumb. Use your thumb and index finger to squeeze the corner that's further away from you, then do the same to the corner on your thumb. Now take the corner that's further away from you and loop it downwards around your thumb and bring the two corners together, pressing them so that they stay. And voila! Your first tortelloni!

I was so proud when I finally got it right.
It was right before we were about to eat when we realized that we didn't have a sauce to serve with it-- sage butter is a classic accompaniment, but we didn't have any sage (and the thought of melted butter still makes me shudder a little, neurotically), so we decided to make a simple tomato sauce with garlic and canned tomatoes.

Lasagna: Begin by slicing your eggplants (we used four of the skinny, Asian variety), then salt them in a colander to get rid of some of the excess liquid.
When you can see the water droplets on the surface of the eggplant, rinse and dry them (obviously, while the eggplants were sitting there, we were preparing other things-- this isn't an instant process).
The next step is to fry the eggplants-- since eggplant has a reputation of being disgustingly oily (I had a stirfried eggplant the day before yesterday that made me feel nauseous, because by the time I got to the bottom of the bowl, it was just a giant puddle of oil), we tried to use a minimal amount of corn oil and olive oil (at home I would use canola and olive), since using just olive oil would be too strong a taste.
Frying them is pretty self-explanatory... wait until you see golden skillet marks, then put them on a plate between paper towels to drain (We didn't need to cook them TOO well, since we were going to bake them anyway).
The pasta-- again, the same process up until the last step.
Cut the pasta sheets with the tortellini-cutter, only this time you can be much less precise about the shapes, as long as they're slightly longer. This is because even after you've already cut them, you can continue to do so so that they fit the casserole dish you're using, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. BOIL them before you layer them in the dish!!
For the tomatoes, we just used canned tomatoes-- don't even bother making a sauce. We put a thin layer of tomatoes on the bottom of the dish so that the lasagna wouldn't stick. Next, put a layer of pasta, then a layer of eggplant, then mozzarella, taking care to space them far apart, since we knew they were going to melt all over the place. Continue layering like this until you get to the top, then bake (sorry! forgot the temperature, and either way it was in celsius) for 45 minutes.

Last but not least: the simplest but most delicious apple cake.
At first, Patrizia told me she was making an apple pie, and my mind skipped to my mom's Thanksgiving apple pie: using the food processor to grind up the butter, flour and shortening, refridgerating the dough overnight, rolling it out over plastic wrap, making the filling, making an egg glaze, etc. etc. etc. How could we possibly have enough time to make an apple pie? Then I thought maybe she meant an apple tart, so we would only have to make one crust... then it turned out that we weren't even making anything as complicated as that-- just an apple cake.
Because I have no (good) baking experience and Patrizia wasn't even using a recipe, I must admit I was skeptical at first. But then it turned out to be the most wonderful, light, moist (I HATE THAT WORD but it applies here) cake ever.
ADDED: RECIPE, gotten directly from Patrizia:
Apple cake
about 200 gr flour
about 150 gr white sugar
about 50 gr butter
1 table spoon red sugar (brown sugar, but this is too cute so I have to keep it)
1 tea spoon vanilla concentrate
1 tea spoon baking soda powder
1 lemmon zest (thanks Lida, I learned this new word)
2-3 apples (depending on size)
powder instant yeast (the dose for 500 gr of flour, usually one packaging is the dose for 1, Kg.) so use 1/2 package, my favorite brand is Pan degli Angeli (Angel's Bread) no wonder it's so good
put all the ingrediants in one bowl, liquify the butter in advance, keep a table spoon of butter to grease the baking pan
peel the apples and make cubes
bake about 30 min at 200 degrees Celsius (you make the conversion)
I'm not sure of the weight, but proportions are right.

In fact, I barely got any photos of the process because it seemed so simple. She combined equal parts flour and sugar in a bowl, added two eggs, a little brown sugar, vanilla, a packet of yeast, and the zest of a lemon, at the same time as melting half a stick of butter over the stove and cutting two apples into chunks. She threw everything together, mixed it, put it in the oven (didn't even preheat it!) for about 30 minutes, and it was done.

THE MEAL: We decided to eat Chinese-style, which I prefer: i.e. rather than eating in courses, we just put EVERYTHING out on the table so everyone could help themselves. This was good, because lasagna and tortelloni aren't traditionally even supposed to be served at the same meal, and I thought eating them one after the other would mean that I wouldn't be able to stomach whichever one we ate second.
Because the dads of both families are Chinese, we had some xiao chi ("little eats:" appetizers/hors d'oeuvres): spicy cabbage with vinegar, bamboo shoots, and liang fen (solid blocks of mung bean starch, what glass noodles are made of). We also had a simple salad with a balsamic vinaigrette.
My mom had bought them a bottle of red wine. I had a tiny amount to go with the fabulous dinner.
Everything was wonderful: the tortelloni really did bring back childhood memories-- they were a little bit too chewy, but perfect for me. the filling was perfect: a little sandy from the ricotta, but pungent from the parmesan. The spinach added more color than taste, but it was so hard to believe that I had made these!
But what was really the best was the lasagna, although I would have been happy to just eat the eggplant, which was meltingly tender and not too oily at all, on its own. Maybe next time I'll make eggplant parmesan.
The only problem was, after eating not even that much (maybe four tortelloni and a little bit of lasagne), I got one of my terrible stomache-aches! I actually get stomache-aches daily, and sometimes acid-medicine doesn't help. It usually feels like flames are erupting in my stomach (above my belly-button), and people say they think it's acid, but my mom wants to get me tested for allergies. Please don't let me be allergic to anything I love! I don't think it can be lactose-intolerance, since I drink a lot of milk and eat cottage cheese and yogurt (although lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt)....
I sampled the cake but wasn't feeling up to having a piece for myself. It really wasn't an apple cake-- while the apples added texture, it was the lemon that overwhelmed it (in a good way). It reminded me of a lemon honey cake, although there was no honey in it.
After dinner, they cracked out the aperatifs, and for some reason, I really wanted to try some. I had tiny sips of amaretto (way too sweet... definitely prefer it in gelato) and limoncello.
It was a great dinner-- for once, I felt like we actually had family friends, something we don't have much of in Chicago. Cooking with Patricia was such a fun experience: she kept muttering in Italian the entire time, and I found I could understand most of it, it being a Romance language (except now I know that adesso means "now").

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dinner at la Maison Boulud

Before I write about Singapore, I wanted to note down last night's dinner before I forget.
We were invited to La Maison Boulud by Handel Lee, a lawyer and entrepeneur who has opened a number of art gallery and restaurants, especially the Courtyard here in Beijing. About La Maison Boulud-- If you're familiar with the restaurant Daniel in New York (who isn't?!), it's another one of his restaurants.
The food was wonderful, but at the same time, it wasn't anything spectacular-- none of the combinations challenged your tastebuds or mind. Of course, everything was prepared perfectly and it was still wonderful to eat there.
I APOLOGIZE IN ADVANCE FOR THE PHOTOS. Usually I find that using flash makes everything look unnaturally white, but I think in this case it would have been wiser to use it.
The people sitting next to me had lived in Paris for 15 years, although they had already moved back to Beijing. They spoke French like natives, and were really nice to me, letting me practice my French with them. It was great, because since the restaurant was at one of the old embassies and the chef was actually French, some of the waiters were also french. The exchange when I asked for the bathroom was too cute:
me: les toilettes, s'il vous plait?
waiter: je peux vous les montrer?
me: oui, bien sur!
waiter: vous etes francaise?
me: non, americaine.
waiter: vous habitez ou?
me: a chicago, mais je viens de passer un mois a paris.
waiter: PAS VRAI.
Anyways, I want this post to be relatively short and sweet.
Before our appetizers came, we were served foie gras, which of course I didn't eat.
When it came to ordering, I was extremely indecisive. I wanted to try the chilled tomato soup with babaganoush and get the scallops as my main course, but realized that wouldn't be enough food. At the same time, I was tempted by the roasted beet salad with walnuts, goat cheese, and greens, but realized also that I have that same salad at home all the time. I decided on the soup, and my mom got the scallops.
The soup itself was exactly what it sounded like... good, worth eating-- a classic gazpacho, but I could also puree some tomatoes and top them with a scoop of babaganoush. I'm being cynical again... it was served with an olive sesame cracker that was also fine.
As for the scallops, they were the juiciest, sweetest, most tender scallops I've ever had the pleasure of tasting. They were served in a stack atop a bed of roasted cauliflower with capers (were they? tasted more like raisins to me, and those two aren't similar in the slightest), croutons, and an orange glaze. Because the scallops themselves had such a sweet flavor, the tastes of the other components didn't quite come through. That was fine: this was more of an explosion of textures than taste-- the scallops were chewy, the croutons crunchy, and the cauliflower somewhere in between. I would have gladly ordered this as my main if the portion had been bigger. I would not have gotten sick of it.
Other people ordered Alaskan king crab salad with mango, cucumber, lime, and a mint coriander dressing, and the tortellini of broccoli, fried artichokes, pancetta, and parmesan emulsion.
Our host, Handel Lee, let me have a bite of his tortellini (the pancetta was off to the side)-- it was wonderful, and made me remember my frozen three-cheese tortellinidays, but in a good way. The crispy artichokes were also fantastic-- like apple chips, but artichoke.
Everybody else ordered the scallops, except for my dad, who ordered foie gras.
With our appetizers, we drank a white burgundy and a rosé champagne, and the wine just kept coming! These glasses were the bowl-sized ones, and we were served what I think was a red bordeaux with the mains-- but don't quote me on that! I know nothing about wine. The French-Chinese guy across from me kept encouraging me to drink it, like I thought wine was a sin. I enjoy wine, but a few sips is just fine for me.
On to main courses: like most fancy restaurants, the appetizers were better, but my tuna was fabulous! I ordered it rare (it felt so strange being asked how I wanted something done), and it came in two beautiful blood-red rectangles topped with sweet peas, radish slices, soybeans, quail egg, and was drizzled with a touch of aioli. I was skeptical about the sauce, since anything with mayo in it makes me want to throw up, but it was so subtle that I didn't even notice it. The tuna itself was the best part-- it probably is the closest thing in the world to steak. It was crusted with spices: I tasted cumin, coriander, fennel, and maybe some hot pepper. The spices were great in contrast to the light elements of the dish. As for the quail egg, it was just a mini-hardboiled egg that probably added a few extra yuan.
Lots of other people ordered the seabass in a clam-saffron broth with shrimp, stirfried arugula, shrimp, and olives. I wasn't sure what the appeal was, but I had some of my mom's-- a perfectly cooked piece of white fish with some fragrant Asian-style greens that I mainly ate just to get some veggies in. Personally, I didn't think it was anything special.
Somebody also ordered the salmon, which was just a classic oven-baked salmon with carrots, leeks and a cream sauce. The awesome guy across from me ordered the cumin roasted loin of lamb with sweet pepper stew, persian dried figs and summer squash.
Our host ordered squab with a cherry compote, creamy spinach, glazed turnips, and "foie gras stuffed legs..." (I'm quoting the menu, in case you can't tell).
My dad ordered crispy suckling pick with daikon sauerkraut, apple coleslaw, and dijon mustard jus. I suppose he has to take advantage of all these carnivorous oppportunities.
The kitchen also sent out braised short ribs with garlic potatoes.

The moment I found out where we were eating, I made up my mind that I was ordering dessert, and no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I think you guys have to understand that
1) I haven't had McDonalds for four years, and haven't had a french fry for three
2) It's also been two years since I ordered my own dessert (not counting occasions where people order it for you)
I used to be so stringent about eating-- wouldn't eat any refined grains, butter, etc. etc. Now I realize that while I still eat really healthily on the whole, I don't need to punish myself forever. So an occasional dessert is fine! That being said... I still felt obligated to push myself today in swimming, and because of it, I got a GREAT workout. Maybe I even got a swimmer's high, the equivalent of a runner's high, because after an hour of high intensity swimming without stopping for more than 5 seconds, I felt like I could still keep going. So I felt the dessert was justified.
The problem was, I couldn't decide once again! The verbena parfait and some of the other fruity desserts appealed, since I've always been more of a fruit person, but I felt like I needed something sinful. No beating around the bush. I wanted chocolate and I wanted it BADLY, so I ordered the mocha with a chocolate-coffee ganache, caramel sauce, and whiskey ice cream.
The funny thing is that even when I ate steak and french fries every night and took McDonalds apple pies to school for lunch, I never even liked chocolate. Maybe abstaining for so long has just unleashed the chocolate monster in me.
Anyways, my mom ordered the verbena parfait, which came with peach compote and peach cassis sorbet.
My dad got the Napoleon with "raspberry chiboust" (come again?), puff pastry (duh...), and lychee sorbet.
Somebody also just got sorbet: peach cassis, lychee, and cherry.
I was glad I ordered what I did, but it turned out to be huge, just like a tart you could get at a bakery... not so much something you would order at a restaurant (wow, I'm being critical today, aren't I...). Either way, it reminded me a lot of the chocolate tart at Fox and Obel, which is an insanely rich, fudgy chocolate ganache within a dark chocolate crust. I couldn't detect an ounce of coffee flavor within the tart itself, but what I enjoyed immensely was the crumbles of what seemed like coffee brittle scattered underneath. There was just a drizzle of caramel, and while the ice cream just tasted like vanilla to me, it was delicious. My dad ate about a third of this tart, and my mom had some, so I think I probably only had about half.
The rest of the desserts were all deconstructed, meaning that the napoleon wasn't actually stacked puff pastry, but rather the puff pastry, ice cream, and fruit were all separated. In some cases this makes the dessert original, while in others it just makes it seem disorganized. In the case of the parfait, instead of a trifle in a dainty glass, it was a thin wafer-like rectangle of almond cake with some kind of green cream in between. It came with sorbet and a long gingery cookie.
Still, maybe I'm being too mean. According to our host, the "black forest cake," also deconstructed, is a deliciously summery take on the overbearing classic, complete with a chocolate sponge, cherry sorbet and diplomat cream.
The kitchen also sent out the most perfect, spongy miniature madeleines, as well as a plate of petits fours: macaroons (which I have definitely had enough of), chocolates, financiers, and candied fruit.
All in all, it was a delicious but not especially spectacular experience. Still, it was hard to believe this restaurant was in Beijing.

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