Chinese Halloween

Beijing Opera Mask & Jack-O-Lantern
Beijing Opera Mask & Jack-O-Lantern

I taught English at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the largest language university in China some years ago. We, of course, discussed all the holidays in America as they approached. Though Halloween is not typically celebrated in China, my students were fascinated by the idea of it. After much scurrying around, they finally found something that actually looked like a pumpkin, weighed about ten pounds, but was some type of large, yellow winter squash and wanted to carve it as we had discussed in class.  An outing was in order as I didn’t want the mess in the classroom. Off to the Purple Bamboo Park we walked with a picnic lunch and the essentials to carve the “pumpkin” into a Jack-o-Lantern.  They had a great time and a couple of students even brought along Beijing Opera Masks to wear.  It was one of the few sunny days in late autumn, and we sat on blankets and enjoyed carving and being in the sun and practicing our English.  Several strangers came by to see what we were doing and ask questions about this American custom. My students explained all they had learned in class to the casual passers by.

In the evening we put the carved pumpkin with a candle inside in the lobby window of our apartment building and all my other classes came by to trick-or-treat and have cookies, beer and whiskey in our apartment.  While the students were there, several children of the other language teachers in the building came by to trick-or-treat as well.  One didn’t speak English, so my Chinese students taught her how to say “trick or treat” in English.  There were lots of giggles and smiles and excitement when they got goodies at our door. They had improvised costumes as they had heard we were celebrating this  American holiday in our apartment. Luckily I had baked LOTS of cookies.  The chocolate chunk ones were a real favorite with gingersnaps running a close second.

In China, Tomb Cleaning Day would be the closest in intent to Halloween, similar to All Saints Day in Mexico.  The family will come to clean the tomb, offer burned paper money and food, and eat a picnic.  So in a way, the students could relate to the Halloween tradition.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beijing Opera Mask & Jack-O-Lantern

Green Tomato Time of Year

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I live in maritime Washington State.  We are noted for having temperate summers.  This one was especially so.  It was rather cool.  Gardening of green goods went well with lots of peas, beans, yellow squash, carrots and beets.  In the greenhouse we had great success.

My husband always grows tomatoes via the Dutch bucket hydroponic system.  We usually have bumper crops.  This year’s is modest.  I raised peppers in the Dutch buckets, in a trough system too, and some just in pots.  I had great success in all with the Dutch bucket system performing extremely well.  Not only do I have lots of peppers, they are HOT.  They don’t always get HOT if the weather is cool, but they did this year.  Maybe it was a different variety.  Some I planted were just from a package of “mixed hot peppers.” The only one I recognized was a pepperocini.

Well the outcome of a minimal ripe tomato crop is that there was a bucket of green tomatoes to be had.  Not being a fried green tomato fan, I fell back on my usual recipe for green tomatoes, green tomato salsa. Green salsa usually has tomatillos.  I substitute green tomatoes and it turns out fine and the chickens don’t end up eating all the green ones.  No waste.

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The pressure cooker is in the process of processing them this very moment.  I chop yellow onions, peppers, hot or sweet, according to your taste, garlic and brown that in a little canola oil.  When most of the liquid has dissipated, I add the chopped green tomatoes, some cumin and ground coriander.  Simmer until the consistency you like.  If you prefer it smooth, put it in the blender and blend until smooth.  We like it chunky. Pack in clean jars and process in the pressure cooker.  You could probably hot water bath them, but I am more partial to the pressure cooker for canning.

I have a little left, intentionally, and will make chicken enchiladas for dinner and use the remaining amount.  I can hardly wait.

So, if you are wondering what to do with all those green globes sitting on the plants you are about to compost, try some green tomato salsa, or…. some years I make hot dog relish with them, but that is for another session.

Crabbing Season is Here!

crab omleteWow! Crabbing season just started and we were gifted wild Dungeness crab yesterday.  My husband, sweet soul that he is, picked it all while I was at work yesterday.  So this morning we are in for a great treat, Dungeness Crab Omelets with garlic herbed chevre cheese.  I even got busy and made quick bread cinnamon rolls to go with it.  Living in the lap of luxury!

Crabbing season generally starts with the first of July or thereabouts.  My sister and her husband go out, and this early in the season, generally limit, which is five crab each.  That is a lot to cook and a lot to pick, so they get out their big turkey fryer kettle and the propane burner and do it in the yard, many crab at a time.  The cooking doesn’t take too long that way, but the cleanup of the boiling process takes some energy and time.

Picking is the time consuming.  Dungeness crab is probably one of the easier kinds of crab to pick, but I can only manage to clean one about every fifteen minutes. If there are several to do, you usually end up with some cuts and abrasions as a result.  The reward is you get to snack on the crab while cleaning.  We usually keep a little dish of mayo handy to dip in.

Once finished, you have this unctuous, sweet, mildly fragrant (with slight umami taste), white meat and legs that are beyond compare to any other crab I have ever tasted. Yes, it is better than king crab, snow crab or any kind we have access to.  Close in taste is the northwest red rock crab which is almost impossible to extract its meat.

Breakfast was all we had hoped it would be.  Needless to say, we ate decadently and are thoroughly sated.  Envious? You can do it too.  All you need is a boat, crab pots, a strong back to pull the pots, a large kettle to cook the crab, lots of time for picking and moments of pure joy eating.  Prep time: very long.  Eating time: minutes of pleasure. The alternative is to pay $35 a pound and worry about freshness.

We are luck to live where this is all possible.

Hobbies

“Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love and something to hope for.” (Joseph Addison)

I am not sure that I have had time for hobbies in my life.  Gardening was always for food, not much of a hobby.  Cooking gourmet meals is just a way of life.  Camping? It is getting very difficult to locate places to stay when I have time available. Reading?  Probably.

What is a hobby? The dictionary says it is an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation, not as a main occupation.  Well cooking and gardening? Too much work and not enough relaxation or pleasure.  Gourmet cooking can take a lot of time and the pleasure of it is consumed in moments.  Gardening, real work with a nice outcome, but not much pleasure in the process and it is back breaking as well.

Camping used to be a pleasure for us.  Now, with so many snowbirds, the parks are crowded and you must plan six months to a year in advance to camp in your favorite place, which also happens to be everyone else’s favorite too.  I don’t buy green bananas, how can I plan THAT far ahead?

Reading.  I guess I would say that by the strictest definition of the word, my hobby would be reading. I spend a goodly amount of time doing it and I enjoy it and it isn’t part of my work, therefore it qualifies as a hobby.  I read about one hundred fifty books a year, sometimes more, reading most evenings for a couple of hours.  Since it interferes with work I should be doing, it really seems more like an addiction than a hobby.

Writing.  Writing is probably a hobby for me too.  My original goal in starting to write  was publishing books about my life, memoir.  I have written and rewritten and belabored the subjects ad infinitum. Am I any closer to my goals….NO! I have enjoyed doing it and it does give me satisfaction.  It does take some of my time though not as much as reading.

Overall, I guess I am such a busy person that hobbies have not really had much place in my life.  A sad thing.  One should have “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation.” as the definition required.  I still prepare gourmet meals, garden, read and write, but that is about the extent of non-work activities in which I participate.  I guess I need to find a good hobby.

Experimental Baking for the Holidays

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Not much left.  Just enough for another meal!

 

We were recently invited to dinner for the holidays.  I was to bring dessert.  What kind of holiday dessert could I make?  I decided on a cake, but a different cake than I had baked before.

I have a basic carrot cake recipe that is usually my go to carrot cake.  It is carrots and pineapple and walnuts.  I didn’t have carrots or pineapple in the kitchen when I was getting ready to bake.  I did have yams and applesauce.  Off on a new recipe experiment.  I knew the neighbors would overlook any weirdness this recipe might create.  How would the yams cook?  Would they be tough or chewy?  Would the applesauce be too moist or not moist enough?

The only way to know was to try.  I peeled and then grated the 2 cups of yams just as though they were carrots.  They even looked like carrots when I finished grating them in the food processor.  The apples I had were canned apple slices, so I processed those into applesauce.  I probably could have left some chunks, but I needed the moisture to give the batter the proper consistency.  Otherwise I made the cake just as it is in the recipe.

I mixed it up and the consistency was the same as the regular carrot cake so I popped it in the oven and it even smelled the same while it was baking. It took about the usual time to bake and I took them out and cooled them on racks just as I always do.

When they were cool enough, I was ready to frost them.  My original recipe calls for a cream cheese frosting.  I find it a little heavy, rich and cloying.  Recently I had discovered a two ingredient white chocolate frosting that is much lighter, just white chocolate and whipping cream. I used that.

When it was frosted, I sprinkled it with red sugar sprinkles, tucked in some winter greenery and I had a holiday cake to take and celebrate with the neighbors.

The resulting taste?  Fantastic.  Ever as good as the carrot version and more “holiday” in the ingredients.  I think the next time I make it I will add dried cranberries (craisins), as well, to make it even more festive.  Not only is it good for the December holidays, but appropriate for Thanksgiving too.

The results just reinforced for me, experiment! You will have a new product that doesn’t require a special trip to the store ( I had all the ingredients on hand) and tastes great.  Try it sometime.

Crabbing Season is Here!

crab and cheese breakfast
Here we have the breakfast muffin with crab, poached egg and cheese.

Saturday was the first day of crabbing season here in the maritime Pacific Northwest.  One of nature’s bounty waiting out there for us to pick up and eat.  Though it sounds easy and, at the beginning of the season, is abundant, it is more work than it would seem.  There is a reason why picked Dungeness crab is $36.95 at the fishmarket.

Firstly, you must have a boat which is seaworthy.  You can go out in a kayak, and I have seen a few folks do it that way, but it would be dangerous.  Pulling a pot up from the bottom of the sea takes some effort, a lot of lead weighted rope and hopefully a pot full of crab.

Luckily for us, my brother-in-law has such a boat with a winch to haul up the pots.  I have gone out with friends, invited because I was strong enough to grab the buoy marking the line and strong enough to raise the pot from the ocean’s floor.

My brother-in-law’s first haul on the first day was a full pot, filled with all males, all legal size.  You can only harvest the males and only five a day per person with a state wildlife permit. In two days, he and my sister limited and shared their abundance with us.

Next you need a large pot with a heavy duty burner.  A turkey fryer set up works well.  You can boil about 4-5 crab at a time.  Then the cleaning when they are cooked.  Plunge them into cool water to cool them.  Peel off the main carapace and clean their second-hand dinner from inside.  Rinse well.

Now you are ready for the hard, time-consuming part, picking the crab.  Yesterday I picked, and picked, and picked.  We had crab for dinner and the chickens got the shells (a good source of calcium for them).

We netted about two pounds, about a quart, of picked crab.  Last night we had crab melt sandwiches, hot.  This is an English muffin with crab in mayo covered with melted cheese.  Breakfast was almost the same with an addition of a poached egg and fresh tomato.  We still have lots left and our next choice will be crabcakes with red pepper rouille. Yum!

After reading all that, some of you probably will go to the fishmongers and buy the picked crab and consider yourself lucky to have it for $36.95 a pound.  Well you enjoy it and hope it is as fresh as ours.

Crab season is upon us.  It doesn’t freeze well and turns grey if you can it, so eat it while it is fresh and say thank you to mother nature for providing such a superb delicacy.

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.