The Chinese New Year’s Eve Dinner

The year sure went fast and now we are in the year of the dog.  Being a dog lover, this is a good year.  Ours is getting old, but it is his year.

Anyway, we have been eating Chinese food now for a week and loving it.  We hadn’t had a big dinner, with many dishes, for a while so we decided to invite friends and serve a bunch of dishes.

Recently on KNKX in Seattle there was a discussion on their “Food for Thought” page that was debunking the fact that you can’t make decent Chinese dishes at home.  I agree, you can make wonderful dishes at home.  I find the only drawback with making them at home in the US of A is getting the raw materials.  There is a wonderful grocery on the mainland where I can occasionally shop, but I am seldom likely to get on the ferry at $14 to go there just for groceries. Still, they don’t have everything that I used to get down the street when I lived in Beijing.

But it IS possible to make good Chinese dishes at home. Here is the menu from our 4715 year of the dog new year’s eve celebration.  Typically you should serve at least two dishes for each of the number of people attending.

Snow peas fried until crispy

BBQ pork with hot mustard (red pork)

Pork Jiaozi (dumpling with sweet and spicy sauce)

Porcupine balls

Char Sui Baozi (steam buns)

ShuMai ( two kinds: crab and also shrimp)

Steamed pork bones with hot peppers and fermented black bean

Eggplant with peppers and potatoes

Lacquered chicken with ginger/scallion oil

Cucumber salad with black vinegar and cilantro

Coconut gelee with red almond happiness character

Walnut cookie

It was a lot and we did have leftovers.  It was a great meal and very reminiscent of our meals in China, maybe not the banquets, but adequate enough for us to feel very good about it.

If you are hesitant to try making Chinese food at home, I would suggest you start with one dish plus rice.  This way you won’t be overcome trying to do quick, stir-fried cooking all at the last minute.  When we chose our menu, we only had a couple of items that had to be made just before serving.  Many of the items were in the steamer cooking so didn’t require a “dance” to bring it all off.  The eggplant dish could sit for a few moments without harm.  We were not rushed.

One website I like to refer to is The Woks of Life for recipes.  They show step by step photos of the processes for each dish with clear instructions.  Sometimes they have ingredients that are unavailable to me, but I can generally find something to substitute.  That is the beauty of this type of cooking. Another site that I have just found, due to the information on KNKX, is Chinese Cooking Demystified at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC54SLBnD5k5U3Q6N__UjbAw.  Check those out and take on the challenge of Cooking Chinese dishes.

 

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New Year, New Things

Crust

When I was in eighth grade, I took my first home ec. class.  I had been cooking and baking since I was six years old, but I had never made a pie crust. Our unit’s job was to make a chocolate cream pie.  The four girls in my unit worked on the crust and made the filling.  We whipped the cream and we were ready to make our presentation.  Unfortunately, you could lift the entire pie out of the pan by the crust.  It was like cement.  Tough.  It was more like the dish for a chocolate pudding, rather like stoneware.

The instructor commended our filling and gave us an A on that.  Unfortunately, the crust got a failure.  For years after that incident, I would not make pies because I was afraid of tough crusts. If I did need to make one I would purchase premade pie crust at the grocery.  It was easy that way and there were no failures.  Betty Crocker to the rescue.  You could purchase sticks that could be rolled out and no one was the wiser.  If you purchase the already rolled crusts in the pie pan, the crimping around the edge was the dead give-away.  They looked too perfect.

When I was about thirty-five, a friend gave me a recipe for a crust that has been my stand-by for forty years.  It uses an egg and vinegar to keep it from getting tough.  I was the pie lady at the farmer’s market for years and this was my crust for all my pies.  Everyone loved them.  The current pie lady at the market got this recipe from me and she has used it since.

Now we are in a New Year, 2018, and our neighbors invited us for New Year’s Eve celebrations.  They made empanadas as part of the snacks we had before the bewitching hour.  The crust was extraordinary.  Boiling water crust.  Boiling water!!! I thought everything had to be freezing cold.  I have even found recipes where they freeze the butter or shortening and grate it into the mix to try to keep it really cold.  Boiling water?

On the second of January, I was inspired to make pasties (pronounced past-ees), a Cornish pastry filled with meat, potatoes, onions, apples.  The crust was magnificent.  On the sixth of January, I made a crust again and blind baked it (for a cream pie, blind baking is baking without filling).  We had the most fabulous banana cream pie with the flakiest crust I think I have ever made.

Next I will try a pie that has the filling baked in the crust to see if this boiling water crust can withstand that process, maybe pecan pie.

Boiling water?  Breaking all the rules.  Maybe breaking rules is what it is all about.  Maybe experimenting in ways that are very different we come up with new and wonderful things.  Boiling water crust is now my favorite.  I may never make my old stand-by with the egg and vinegar again.

 

Here is the recipe.

 

Boiling water crust

1/4 cup boiling water

Poured over 1/2 cup of shortening

And beaten until they coalesce.

Combine 1 1/2 cups flour with

1/2 teaspoon salt and

1/2 teaspoon baking powder.

Pour the dry ingredients into the liquid.  Do not overmix.

Roll between two sheets of plastic wrap and use for pie, pastry, pasties, etc.

Bake as you would any pie crust.

 

Note when eating, see how flaky it is.  It is wonderful.

Enjoy.

 

 

Back Roads

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The Back Road to our Farm (the only road)

Today we will go to a potluck sponsored by the local historical society here on Whidbey Island.  The potluck is at a hundred year old community hall.  This gathering happens once a quarter and the discussion is about back roads of Whidbey.  This time we are discussing Quade Road and Goodell Road.  I assume that this is the current Goodell Road as there use to be a couple of roads named Goodell Road.

The photo above is a back road, albeit, more rustic in nature than the ones under discussion.  It is an old road to my farm where I grow my vegetables and fruit.  I have talked about growing there in former blogs.  The interesting thing about this road is it is six hundred and sixty feet down this road to the edge of my farm.  I travel another four hundred feet beyond to the garden.  The farm is ten acres of very secluded land.  About two acres is cleared and my garden and fruit trees are in this clearing.  We have farmed here for about seventeen years.  It is not where we live, but eighteen miles from our home.

We use to garden at our home, but the land to the south of us, which was fields when we moved here, have grown up into tall conifers and shaded out our garden and orchard.  Now we garden in this remote site. I love the peace and solitude this remote location affords.  About the only sounds I hear when I am gardening are the resident raven making his croaky sound to talk with its mate, an occasional airplane and the scream of an eagle who has his eye on my dachshund. I have to keep a careful eye on both the dog and the eagle.  If the eagle gets too aggressive the dog has to be in the truck.  He would much rather be looking for mice in the garden. He likes to dig in the garden with me.

The interesting thing about this back road to my garden is that once this road was frequented by trucks that hauled strawberries to the local steamboats that took the goods to larger city centers.  Until 1945 this was a strawberry farm, as were many of the farms in adjacent area.  They had their own grange in the community as well.

In 1945, for some reason, the farm was left to decay.  The folks who lived here moved out, leaving a very small house, two rooms, no plumbing, electricity, with wood heat, and never returned.  We bought it in 1988.  The house was partially collapsed and had to be taken down.  A neighbor down the street gave us a photo of what it looked like when a family lived here.  He didn’t know what happened to them.  When we bought the property, strawberries still grew here, wild, but not flourishing.

There were also two other buildings on the property and an old root cellar.  The two other buildings were at opposite ends of the property and were workers shacks.  They were about ten by fifteen feet with just studs on the inside walls.  The outsides had shiplap siding.  Where there were knot holes in the siding and the knots had fallen out, the residents (strawberry pickers and weeders) had nailed up cornflakes box tops over the holes to keep the elements and mice out.  Tin can lids were nailed over some of these as well.  The same was true of the boards on the floor.  The roofs were hand split cedar shakes from the property.

It was always fun to travel down this long road through two gates and arrive at this little part of history that we owned.  We had hoped to build here someday, but life passed us by and it never happened.  We garden and enjoy the solitude and hope that the folks who had tended there garden here so long ago watch over us and feel that we are good husbanders of their land.  It is never easy work.  Even with my modest garden, it is still a lot of work.  I can’t imagine tending acres of strawberries.  They also had goats, so maybe they provided milk and cheese and weeding for the strawberry farmers.

Now we are to an age where we have to think about the end of our lives and the farm will provide our retirement when we sell it.  The time has come and I only hope that the new owners, when they materialize, are as reverent of the land as those who have gone before.

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Hundred Year Old Apple Trees

The dish I am making for the potluck, if you are interested, is Italian Strata

Here is the recipe.

Italian Strata

Layer the following in a large casserole (I am using my lidded cast iron kettle)

Large cubed bread (day old, stale, tough) soaked in a little butter, cream and milk until soft

Finely chopped onion

Pesto

Sun-dried tomatoes

Goat cheese (chevre)

Homemade ricotta (see previous blog) with a little lemon zest stirred in

Red and yellow peppers chopped

Diced and browned lonzino (you could use bacon or ham)

I mixed five eggs with milk and poured over

Topped with shredded romano cheese

And bake until set.  Because mine is large, I am baking part of the time with the lid on and then taking off to brown for the last few minutes.

I know, I didn’t give any measurements.  It is just great to do it by feel and sight.  You can add lots of goodies or a few.  Bread is the main constituent, but it doesn’t have to be.  Just have fun.

Culture and idiomatic English

This is a piece that I wrote for my memoir and I am sharing it with you today, timely as the Chinese Lunar New Year is just past.  It is sort of long and somewhat humorous.  I taught in Beijing in 2001 and 2002.  I am currently working on writing a book about the experiences.

 

Many of the students in China who wanted to perfect their conversations skills in various languages went to a place called English Corner, or French Corner, etc.  This was a street corner where, on certain days, all sorts of people met to speak the language of their choice.

My husband attended a couple of these and since he was a native English speaker, he became the focus of these sessions.  No longer were the attendees speaking in conversation to one another, but all were vying for Bob’s attention in order to practice with a real English speaking person. It was tedious and very tiring.

What could we do with our students that would help them improve their English speaking skills?  I used several methods, including debate, tour guides, plays, but the most popular by far was the soap opera.  I have to explain that in Beijing, soap operas are very popular, taking up a good percentage of broadcast time on many of the local television stations.  They are maudlin, with a good deal of intrigue to carry your interest to the next episode.

I used the soap opera was used in my classes for both semesters.  These performances were at the beginning of each class session; especially the ones after lunch, as it excited them and brought them fully awake from their postprandial stupor. I had noticed students in other classrooms sleeping after lunch.

When arriving in class, five students were told they were the stars for the day.  These five would go out in the hall to prepare for their performance.  They had ten minutes to work on their episode. Sometimes I would give a topic and sometimes I would allow them to carry on in their own way continuing the story from the day before.

I wish I had recorded these scenes as they continued to unfold over the term.  It was interesting to see what they would use for their own ideas, but also fun to see what they would do with the ones I presented them. Many had preconceived ideas of “the American Way” and it was interesting to see these ideas in play form.

One class originally started with a Chinese family that lived in the United States.  When I asked them to describe this family, they told me that they lived in a big house, had a red convertible.  This comes from watching too many American movies.  “Well what kind of family do they have?” I asked.  “Oh, Miss Deon, they will have twelve children,” they replied. My response to this was how do we fit them in the little red convertible when it is time to take them to the movies or school?  They hadn’t thought this through.  So in one episode, we went on to find an appropriate vehicle for this family, shopping for a vehicle for a large family.  (The large family is the Chinese couples dream as they have been so limited to one child for so long.)

After we had fashioned the U.S. family, we created a Chinese couple with a child who were coming to the U.S. to visit our newly created family. One episode included piling into the new fifteen passenger van the family had purchased (financing was never figured out) to meet the Chinese family at the airport.

We had engagement of oldest daughter, guys night at the bar watching football (read soccer), one child who wasn’t doing well enough at school, a neighbor whose daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, sightseeing to Yellowstone Park, Grandmother who gambled too much at mahjong, and many more.

After a while they became very talented in creating scenarios for these vignettes.  They were so comfortable doing this that I decided to occasionally throw in a monkey wrench to scenes.  During the one were the guys were in the bar watching football, I had arranged for one of the women in the class to enter the play and go up to her “husband” and say “Where have you been?  It is our anniversary and you promised to take me to dinner and here I find you playing with your friends at the tavern!”  You should have seen the actor’s faces.  They were mortified. The students in the audience already knew this was going to happen as I had arranged it while the actors were in the hallway working on the plot.  We all laughed hysterically.  If course, the carefully arranged plot needed to be modified and the rest of their play changed to an impromptu, extemporaneous skit.  They really had to think on their feet to finish their ten minutes of fame on stage.  I must say they managed to pull it off well.

Toward the end of the term, one group of actors, who now knew that I might throw in something anytime, arrange for a surprise of their own.  The pulled me into their plot from the audience.  I’m not sure they got the responses they wanted, because I made it more difficult for them to hold to the plot by playing around with their addition of me to the game.

Needless to say, this whole exercise really pushed them to learn casual conversation.  After the skit was over, we would talk about the cultural inaccuracies they had portrayed, like fitting fourteen people into a red convertible.  Since I was teaching Western Culture as well as idiomatic conversation, it was a learning curve all around.

My husband’s class decided to put on a play.  They chose, of all things, Snow White. Well, this seemed pretty straightforward and probably not too difficult.  They would practice their parts in class as well as in their dorms.  However, in China, all the important parts should be played by men.  Snow White is an important part; therefore, it should be played by a man.  Chinese men normally do not have much facial hair, if any, but the gentleman chosen to play Miss White had a full beard.

Well, if a man could play the main woman then women could play the men.  The whole play was done with cross dressing! All the dwarves were women dressed as men.  The wicked queen was a man, the prince (another important part) was the only part played without cross dressing.

So here is Snow White in a dress he borrowed from one of his classmates.  He is wearing Bermuda shorts underneath, thankfully, as he sits with his legs splayed in front of his audience,  the dress being hiked up to a level as to be too revealing. Well the whole play was a riot.  Though they practiced a great deal, the glitches, such as the queen tripping over the hem of his gown, and the dwarves singing “hi ho, hi ho” off-key, it was wonderful.  They invited all my students to come for the audience as his students all had parts and they needed an audience.

My students chose an abbreviated version of The Merchant of Venice, so abbreviated that it was a little hard to follow and the audience, Bob’s students, got a little bored with the whole thing. They had a good time doing it and developed elaborate costuming from their limited wardrobes, but they did get a chance to practice their English Conversation.

Needless to say, this was just a couple of more examples of my quirky way of teaching conversational English and Western Culture.