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.