July 18, 2009

Happy 70th Birthday, Mom!

Here she is, in a very rare moment of relaxation. My mother is not the laid back type, she is always busy doing something, but I guess that's why she looks so good at age 70!

This week, a book I have been waiting for arrived from Amazon. It's a Ruth Reichl book entitled Not Becoming My Mother & other things she taught me along the way. To be perfectly honest, I didn't see the "and other things she taught me..." part of the title until the book arrived. Not becoming my mother has been one of the focuses of my adult life, and all the while I thought that was my bit of rebellion. Turns out that (just like Ruth's mother) I suppose that's what my mother wants. That's what parents want- for you to have it better than they did. For you to take advantage of the times and attitudes in the world in ways they were less encouraged to. For you to not become them but perhaps to become, in some way, a better them. I certainly haven't lived up to that, but I am fortunate and thankful to have the opportunity to tell her that I'm trying.

Here she is on my birthday making my cake. Mom, happy birthday, I love you and I wish I was there to make you a birthday cake...and the eggs.

July 3, 2009

Cooking School in China by Guest Blogger Linda Lou!

Lou is this summer's guest blogger, and I have been living vicariously through her news and photos for over a month. This post is beautiful- hope you enjoy!! Thank you, Lou.

It’s 8pm and I am only now beginning to think about food again. I am sitting in the courtyard of the Gigging Tree Hostel, a delightful inn located about 5 km outside of Yangshuo. If you like to look at beautiful countryside from an old but comfortably renovated mud-brick farmhouse, away from the “action” of the city, then this is the place for you. Though I’ve become accustomed to the hustle and bustle of China, I confess that the aggressive and persistent souvenir hawkers in the city streets and the never-ending shouts of “bamboo, bamboo” from hopeful rafters wanting to give you a ride along the river have put me off just a bit. Don’t get me wrong, Yangshuo is wonderful. I am simply glad that we have the Giggling Tree to retreat to rather than one of the many hotels downtown.

This morning we took a cooking course at the Yangshuo Cooking School. Originally begun by an Australian woman in an old farmhouse in Chaolong Village, the school now has two branches – the original in the village and a new facility located directly on the Li river. Both morning and afternoon classes are offered in each location six days per week. We took the morning class in the Li river location, and we were not disappointed.

Class began with a trip to the local market where we looked at a nearly unending variety of vegetables, spices, and varieties of tofus. In an adjacent portion of the large space was the meat section. The meats came in many different forms including roasted, butchered, in the process of being butchered and still alive. Duck eggs, chicken eggs, quail eggs, pickled eggs, so-called 1,000 year eggs – all were there. We were warned that some of the vendors don’t appreciate having their picture taken by invasive tourists (the tofu ladies, apparently, are particularly sensitive on the matter) and that pickpockets were a possibility, so I kept my camera in the backpack in order to devote my full concentration to the tour guide and his knowledgeable discussion of the many ingredients on display.

Having toured the market we departed for the cooking school. The location is simply gorgeous. We sat down for a cup of green tea in the open courtyard sitting above the Li river. As tourist boats passed by we chatted with the other cooking students, one couple from England, one couple from Australia, one couple from San Diego and us. They were an interesting and charming group – foodies are such wonderful people! The discussion of food, travel and cooking classes in exotic locations was fascinating to listen to.

After tea we went into the classroom, where the large windows also opened onto the Li river and individual cooking stations were prepared for each of us. Our instructor, Leo, demonstrated the chopping and cooking techniques we would need for each dish. We tasted his, and then made our own under his guidance and the watchful eyes of assistants who moved with ninja-like stealth and speed to turn down one of our gas stoves before the garlic burned or to point to which ever ingredient was needed next.

The first dish we prepared was steamed chicken with mushrooms. We finely sliced chicken and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and rice wine. This was placed on a plate, to which was added sliced ginseng root, reconstituted dried Chinese mushrooms, a couple of dates and an ingredient that I have never seen called wolfberries. These are smallish pink seeds with a texture similar to raisins and a lemony taste. Finally a touch of sesame oil was drizzled on top. Each plate was placed in its own, numbered bamboo steamer (numbered so we’d each get our own dish when it came time to eat). The steamers were stacked one atop of the other over a wok with boiling water forming a small, food filled bamboo tower.

Our second dish was egg-wrapped dumplings. According to Leo, you won’t likely find this dish in a restaurant in town, but if you go to a local home in the country or a village eatery you will see them consumed in large numbers. The filling is primarily ground pork with simple salt and pepper seasoning and an unexpected ingredient – fresh mint leaves. Hot peppers are optional, and Leo had us add a small amount of oyster sauce to the dish which is not included in the printed recipe booklet we got when the class was finished. The final ingredient was a beaten egg. We used duck egg, but I’m sure that any old egg would do. When the wok was hot, oil was added to make a small pool in the bottom. A small portion of egg, perhaps a tablespoon or so, was added to the center of the hot oil. The egg immediately began to set, and a dollop of the pork mixture (around a teaspoon) was added to one side of the egg disk, flattened out a bit, and then folded over like a turnover. Leo made the process look easy, though it took a bit of practice. Once formed, the dumpling was pushed up the side of the wok, out of the oil and away from the direct heat, and the entire process repeated until the egg mixture and filling was all used (6-9 dumplings depending upon how big you make them). Though formed, the pork filling was not fully cooked, so we flipped the dumplings and moved them back to the center of the wok before adding water and covering for a few minutes. When the water evaporated it was time to eat. We took a short break to eat our dumplings before moving on to the remaining dishes.

We completed the chopping for our next two dishes, Eggplant Yangshuo Style and Stir-fried Pork with Vegetables and Oyster Sauce together before cooking. The eggplant was sliced into planks about one quarter inch thick and two inches long. These were stir-fried with garlic, ginger and sweet red pepper. When softened, a touch of salt and a teaspoon of a condiment made of bean paste and chili was added. About one table spoon of water went in next along with a bit of oyster sauce. When the water was evaporated, sliced green onion was tossed in and the dish was complete.

Thin sliced pork loin was then added to a hot wok with garlic for the next dish. When the pork changed color, carrot, sweet red pepper and the main surprise which Leo called garlic stalks were added. I’m not sure if these are actually garlic or not, because they didn’t really taste like garlic and were added more for their crunch than for their flavor. They were green, very crunchy and a bit less than ¼ inch in diameter. Leo said that anything crunchy like cucumbers could be used in their place, which would be good but would definitely change the flavor of the dish. At any rate, the garlic stalks were cut into ¾ inch pieces. We added the vegetables to the pork and cooked for 1-3 minutes based upon our preference for crunchy or soft vegetables in our stir fry. I like crunchy, so I pulled the dish off relatively quickly. Both the eggplant and the pork dishes were placed under our wok cover to keep warm.

Our final dish was one of my all-time China food favorites, simple stir-fried greens. As simple as it is delicious, this dish only requires a bit of oil added to a hot wok along with some seasonal greens (bok choi or even spinach would be fine at home) and garlic. A bit of water is added after a minute or so of stir frying. Once the vegetable is tender to your taste, yank it from the flame.

It was lunch time! And if I do say so myself, the food I ate was marvelous! The flavors were more subtle than what I have grown accustomed to during my month in Chongqing, but were every bit as interesting and delicious especially because of the ingredients that were new to me.

The beautiful surroundings, pleasant teaching staff, charming companions and toy poodle mascot were all bonuses – but the food was the real star. My only regret was not signing up for the second class, with its own unique menu, that is offered on alternating days.

June 27, 2009

Country Style Donuts, Richmond, VA

Upon arriving in Richmond, we picked up our rental car and headed to the city. At one of the first intersections, we saw this donut shop and made a mental note of it. For that, the next morning we were rewarded with--hands down--the best donuts we had ever tasted. Specifically the one they call the Old Fashioned. It has an almost crisp texture on the outside and the inside is so heavenly in it's plain-ness that all you want is more!

The Old Fashioned are at the top of the box. Each morning during our visit, we went to Country Style. The first day we went, we stood in a long line, wondering if it was normally that crowded. Someone told us that they had just done a story about the shop that morning on the local news. Go figure.

The assortment is vast, and each day we bought a dozen donuts which, by the time the next morning rolled around, were somehow almost gone. They were a great treat to have on hand with relatives stopping in, pre-wedding. Everyone enjoyed them. All their varieties are very good- but for me, nothing compared to the Old Fashioned. The coffee was fantastic, by the way.

I am not responsible for this sad sight...and the eggs.

Country Style Doughnuts on Urbanspoon

June 13, 2009

Cakewalk in Portsmouth, Virginia

Portsmouth has a new cake shop in it! Burgess and Shannon recently started Cakewalk- and business is booming! Take a gander at these incredible cakes! The keyboard cake is the most amazing cake I have ever seen in person. It was made as a groom's cake for JB and Steve's wedding last weekend.

Butterfly cake!

Easter cake!

Little black dress cake!!

Check out this one, which was made for an adoption celebration.

The photos speak for themselves, don't they?? If you would like to order a cake from Cakewalk, call Burgess Hodges at (757) 735-7883 or Shannon Campbell at (757) 615-7391, and they will hook you right up...and the eggs.

June 5, 2009

JB and the Captain!

We're in Richmond, Virginia for the wedding of my sister and Steve!! Their friend Teri of Celebrations Catering is doing the food for the wedding, so check back for pictures next week! Our friend Burgess has a brand new cake company out of Portsmouth, Virginia- and created an amazing groom's cake shaped like a keyboard (Steve is a musician)- so check back for a post all about the new company, complete with recent cakes they have created.

It will be a weekend to remember...and the eggs!!

May 22, 2009

Louhead's First Guest Blog From China!

While some of us are enjoying our stay-cations, one of my friends is off on a great adventure. It's her second trip to China and her first guest blog post. Linda-Lou is a professor at a university in Minnesota, a singer/songwriter, a foodie, a dog lover, a seasoned traveler and, best of all, a kind soul.

Climbing Jinyun Mountain: Sichuan Cuisine with No Middle-Man

For the true foodie, no trip to China would be complete without a healthy sampling of Sichuan cooking. Known as one of the Four Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine, Sichuan (Chinese: 四川) food can perhaps be best described by four words: spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant. Complex in flavor and rich in tradition; the food is hearty and unpretentious. No dainty portions or fussy plating. The food is served family style with diners reaching in and taking what they wish with their own chopsticks. As we began our meal our wonderful guide told us of the Chinese proverb that states - “There are no short arms at the table”. The message was simple. Dig in.

And dig in we did, because we were all hungry. Who are we? We are a traveling band of students, plus one professor, from Minnesota. We have the pleasure of spending the next several weeks at Southwest University in Beibei, Chongqing China. Today we climbed to the top of Jinyun Mountain, the largest of the peaks surrounding Beibei. About half way up we dined at the Great Well (大水井). No, that is not a typographical error. The well is great here, not the wall. To be honest, I didn’t actually see the well but the water from the faucets in the outdoor sinks ran cold and clean and was very refreshing to wash hands, face and neck after our long climb on a warm, bordering on hot, day.

The Great Well Restaurant is more like a family home than a restaurant. It is nestled high in the hills, surrounded by bamboo forests, accessible only by steep paths. It is inhabited and run by a family that includes four generations; three were involved in cooking our meal (the fourth was off at school when we arrived). Whatever you call it, the Great Well epitomizes Sichuan cuisine. The food was spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant.

Let’s begin with fresh. In America most of us live our lives rather disconnected from our food. Even if we are avid cooks we likely obtain most of our food partially prepared and neatly packaged from the supermarket. Not so at the Great Well. We arrived, sat down and had a cup of tea while our guide ordered. With the food order in, a live black chicken was selected for us, brought into the kitchen and killed. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. Black chickens are more expensive than white chickens because their strong color is thought to be good for the health. The feathers and skin were definitely black in color and the meat considerably darker than the grocery store birds found in the US. Our chicken was plucked, cleaned, and singed over an open flame in a matter of minutes and the family of chefs swung into action chopping, steaming, and stir-frying in the kitchen, only occasionally slowing down to step around yours truly, who was constantly getting in the way with the camera. The family seemed amused, but not at all annoyed at my curiosity and intrusion into their kitchen.

I watched as the family sliced small, tender fresh bamboo stalks retrieved from a plastic paint bucket where they had been rinsed, spicy pickled ginger and chilies, and fresh lotus root. Corn and pumpkin, were sitting ready for cooking in bowls on the counter. Cucumbers were brought around from the back of the house, which leans into a steep hill, by the eldest generation of the family. It wasn’t until our meal was over that we walked out this way and I saw that the family garden was there. I didn’t recognize all of the crops, but I saw corn and beans and a variety of other plants. I suspect that most, if not all, of the vegetables we were served came from the garden or the surrounding forest. I didn’t see a pig, but one of the students saw a family member leaving a stall located away from the house with some pig’s feet. These did not go into our meal, but I watched the family cut thin slices of smoked pork, and julienne strips of fresh pork loin for stir frying.

With the well-oiled efficiency of those who have worked together forever, the family steamed and stir-fried our food in large woks. When the chilies went into the wok, smoke filled the room, and even the family coughed and sputtered. At this point, with the meal about to begin, I left the kitchen and rejoined the group.

Our meal began in the typical Sichuan manner, with a cold course of tofu that one adds to small dishes of spice mixes or sauces. At the Great Well we ate our tofu with red chili oil laced with small piles of red chilies, ginger and garlic. The cucumbers were added to the table. These were served fresh, salty, and heavily seasoned with garlic. Delicious.

Subsequent courses were rapidly added to the table. Our hot vegetable courses included pumpkin, which was absolutely perfect in its simplicity and as a counterpoint to the spicier dishes, and my personal favorite, green beans prepared Sichuan style, which is quick fried. I don’t know if it is the preparation or the actual beans themselves, they are a bit bigger in size and appear to be harvested at a more mature state than typical European or American green beans. Whatever the reason, the green beans here taste like nowhere else. Often they come highly seasoned with chilies and garlic, but at the Great Well they were served relatively simply, like the pumpkin, highlighting the fresh perfection of the vegetable itself. Bowls of seasoned potatoes that were boiled in a pressure cooker and then stir fried were also added to the table. These were a big hit with the Minnesota natives.

But don’t be alarmed. The Great Well did not miss the mark with the spicy criterion. This came in the meat dishes which were served next. Our chicken was featured in a dish that highlighted the areas signature ingredient, the sichuan peppercorn. These actually bear no relation to black or red peppers but are the outer pods of tiny fruits. In the US I obtain these dried and typically grind them up before adding them to a meal. Those used at the Great Well seemed fresh and were tossed in whole. In and of themselves, sichuan peppercorns aren’t really hot or pungent. They actually have a taste that, to my buds, is lemony and woodsy at the same time. If you bite directly into one, which I enjoy doing though it may be strong for some and is definitely woody in texture, it produces a tingly, numbing sensation in the mouth. It is usually paired with “hot” spices like chilies for one of the trademark tastes of Sichuan cooking. In our chicken dish, the hot spices included mass quantities of pickled ginger and chilies that I’d seen chopped up in the kitchen just minutes ago.

The pork dishes followed. The fresh pork julienne found its way into a spicy and delicious marriage with garlic and fresh chilies. The smoked pork was combined with lotus root and green peppers. At this point, again typical of a meal in China, the rice was served from a gigantic bamboo steaming basket. I’m not sure why, but rice is always served towards the end of a meal in China, perhaps so that guests don’t fill up on it before they are able to sample the many other dishes provided. We added rice to our bowls and placed bits of meat and vegetable on top to be eaten along with the staple. Finally, bowls of some version of steamed bitter greens were brought to the table. These came plain and were absolutely delicious and wonderfully cleansing to the palate. I’ve heard that bitter tastes are good for the digestion and this was good for us, as our climb up the mountain was only two-thirds of the way complete (and this was before we got lost, but that adventure is another story).

We left an hour and a half after we arrived – quite a quick pace by Chinese standards where lunchtime lasts from noon to 2:30 every day, even in university offices and laboratories. This break in the day, unacceptably long by American standards, allows one to linger over a fantastic lunch and even take a short nap when it is through. Perhaps we should add another word to our description of Sichuan cuisine to capture this ability to take time to savor and rest. How about spicy, hot, fresh, fragrant and civilized?

May 6, 2009

S&S Diner- A Miami Institution since 1938

We last lunched at the S&S on "Turkey Tuesday", and THIS was the plate of turkey (all white meat by request) they served!

This was the salad that went along with it!

As you can see, you will leave full of food and full of love for this 71 year-old restaurant. Our waitress, Yolanda, has worked there for 30 years and it seemed like she was waiting with baited breath to hear what we ordered, just so she could tell us what we should have ordered instead, smiling all the while- see?

Yolanda does not suffer fools.

The S&S's famous horseshoe-shaped counter.

She let me order this, my favorite dish at the S&S- blackened chicken with salad. I like spice and this lit up my taste buds. It's just as good every time I have had it, and it's hard to order anything else.

This was the menu board last Tuesday and as you can see they had already run out of a few favorites. I wanted to try the stuffed cabbage, but I just love that blackened chicken.

Yolanda finally caved and allowed two in our party to order hamburgers since they said they were the best burgers in Miami.

Good old diner mashed potatoes- the epitome of comfort food.

Just when we thought we couldn't eat any more, we spotted these on the counter, and got some key lime cheesecake to go. Mmmmm. A tart layer of key lime stuff on top of creeaaammy cheesecake. To die for.

It wasn't my first trip to the S&S and it certainly won't be my last. Yolanda recommends the daily specials but from what I have seen, you can't go wrong with any of the dishes here. The diner's address is 1757 N.E. 2nd Avenue and it's open from 5:30 AM to 7:00 PM Monday through Friday and 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday. Stop by and enjoy the food, watch the people and chat with the regulars for a while, it will be an experience you won't forget...and the eggs.

S & S Diner on Urbanspoon