“Son of Quartermaster” Reports on Food in China

FullSizeRenderQuartermaster’s Note: This is a “guest post” by my oldest son, a 13-year-old beginning 8th grade this year, who traveled with me to China this Summer.

In China there were many times when our group would sit down to a meal, and just be blown away, by food that didn’t even cost half the amount of a much lower-standard American Chinese restaurant, but looked and tasted three times as good!! In this way Chinese cuisine in China was on a whole other level.

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A chef at a restaurant in Beijing preparing to serve the famous “Peking Duck”

One of the things noticeably different in the places we ate, yet such an improvement, was the lack of fried flavorless meat with an overwhelmingly sticky sweet sauce (e.g., lemon chicken, General Tso chicken, orange beef, etc.). Instead, meat was carefully cut according to its cooking method, seasoned and flavored with things like cumin, Szechuan peppercorns, all sorts of other interesting spices and ingredients, and without heavy doses of syrup or sugar.

There were lots of interesting proteins to try: in addition to chicken and beef, we enjoyed pork, lamb, mutton, duck, and an array of fresh seafood. One of my favorite dishes was lamb cut into strips and stir-fried in a hot wok with lots of different spicy peppers and cumin. It was brought to the table atop a little portable stove that kept the aromatic meat sizzling through the meal.

With at least one vegetarian in our group at all times, we enjoyed lots of different

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American fast food such as KFC is fairly popular in large Chinese cities, but we were too busy enjoying all the authentic Chinese food to try it

vegetables and tofu. I don’t normally like tofu, in part because it’s rather flavorless, but the preparations of it in China were varied in terms of texture and cooking method — we sampled it in soups, cubed and deep-fried or cut into ribbons and stir-fried. Generally, tofu actually tasted like something edible, and since we always had other dishes with meats at mealtime, the amazingness of the meat balanced out the quantity of tofu, so that the tofu dishes became another fun thing to try.

During my visit to China I learned some things about stereotypes concerning Chinese food. For example, dog as food is not as widely accepted in China as the stereotype suggests. In fact, one of our hosts in Taiyuan shared his experience that animals like dogs and mules are sometimes consumed as food in China, but usually eaten only in certain areas and at specific times, like special festivals. He also told us that he would not eat the meat of an animal that he knew has been mistreated.

Picture2Soy sauce is a universal condiment at the Chinese restaurant in the United States, but not something you find on the table in China; it’s still an ingredient in cooking, but it is far more common to find a condiment such as hot chili oil or malt vinegar (certain provinces, such as Shanxi, are famous for special vinegars). All you salty rice lovers, being your own soy sauce.

The weirdest thing I ate in China was definitely scorpion, which we tried on Wong fu Jing street in Beijing. It was my first fried arachnid, and while crunching into something with tiny little legs and a stinger was a new experience, the taste was similar to crispy fried chicken skin, and hence, not bad. The most upsetting part of the experience with eating scorpion was watching the live ones that had been skewered and anchored in display baskets, waiting for their turn in the fryer, squirming around while remaining fixed in place.

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YUM!

As a seafood lover who is especially fond of sushi, I enjoyed visiting the local markets in Beijing, which had an absolute top notch selection of not only fresh and live fish, but all sorts of shellfish, shrimp, crab, octopus and squid, oysters, claims and other mollusks. We saw an amazing variety of things from the sea during our visit.

IMG_1918My personal food favorite of the trip definitely goes to the dumplings (“Jiaozi”). Unlike potstickers common in American restaurants, jiaozi are steamed and very tender. The dumplings contain a delicious mix of meat and vegetable, and usually a little “soup” that escapes when you bite into one. They are served with vinegar and chili oil. I enjoyed them so much, and literally ate dozens of them during the trip.

My trip to China this summer was one of the most tantalizingly awesome trips I have ever embarked upon, for me and my palate. I hope to travel there again very soon, and for anyone reading this, I hope that that your experiences involving China are filled not only with God’s love and grace, but also with the amazing Chinese  cuisine that I love so much.

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A culling of links

14768069492_581f144c67_oIt’s been a busy few weeks/months. Lots and lots of work. And then a whole array of new church activities. I pray for you, the readers of this blog, and I hope that you have all received many blessings, joys and consolations from Our Lord. Anyway, I’ve got enough time to provide some of the links I’ve been meaning to share here:

Much more to follow in coming weeks and months, as soon as time permits! Hopefully your Easter Season was fruitful, and may you receive many graces from the upcoming Feast of the Most Holy Trinity!

Something “Different” for this Year’s Thanksgiving Turkey

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After 16 years of hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our house, I’ve learned a few things about Roasting the Bird.

In prior years, long ago, my sister raised turkeys and I had a hand in the slaughtering for the holiday dinner. Then, in the earliest years of hosting at our house (or apartment), we traveled out to the Heartland on a pilgrimage to buy a fresh, free-range, organic, and exceedingly expensive turkey. Then we got tired of the drive but continued to buy fresh free-range from the grocer.

About 10 years ago I started to brine the Thanksgiving turkey, which I am convinced is the single most important element for roasting a bird that is flavorful and moist. If you haven’t tried brining your turkey — regardless of whether you intend to deep-fry, roast, or crock pot the thing (blech) — you’re doing it wrong. Heed the Quartermaster’s instructions for brining your bird and be amazed.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 12.31.50 PMThe beauty of brining is that it elevates a cheap frozen turkey, so much that spending more money on fresh almost seems a waste. Not only will the meat be flavorful throughout, it will be much more forgiving in roasting, so that dry turkey is still theoretically possible, but practically difficult to achieve.

Moreover, with brining you can entirely forgo the whole basting ridiculosity, which I’m convinced does nothing more than slow down even cooking and reduce efficiency with all the periodic opening of the oven and removing of the turkey. And you can forget about roasting bags (a mistake), covered roasting pans (no), or starting with the breast down and flipping mid-way through cooking (LOL).

This year, I’m intrigued by something new, which I intend to try: in place of butter or oil rubbed onto the skin of the bird, I’m trying it with….. mayonnaise.

On the one hand, mayonnaise for cooking seems slightly gross. Any time I’ve gotten a mouthful of hot mayonnaise I’ve been pretty disgusted. But it does have an interesting viscous texture and composition that leads me to believe it would cling to the bird longer during cooking rather than melting in the heat and running off quickly like butter, thereby retaining juiciness in the meat and crisping the skin nicely. So, we’ll try it, and I’ll report back.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dear Chicago, I have Mastered your Pizza

It took me three attempts, but since the Quartermaster does not like pizza very much, when he declares a pizza good and worthy of eating, he really, truly means it. Behold, the “Chicago Deep Dish Pizza”:

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I wish I had taken a picture of a slice, so you could see the stratified layers of crusty, crunchy exterior, flaky and chewy inner crust, a thick blanket of mozzarella, and then all the topping goodness on top. True Chicago deep dish is always upside down (cheese first, tomatoes on top). A recipe is forthcoming.

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot…..

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 1.17.50 PMOf course, a lot of people already have a machine that can do that. However, another technological convenience is on its way: Israeli technology company invents the precursor to the Replicator from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It uses “pods”, similar to a Keurig for coffee, except instead of coffee there are freeze-dried food ingredients. You use your smartphone to control it. Looks like it’s capable of making a lot of different items and may be available for purchase “for several hundred dollars” next year.

Limoncello: It is Finished!

The “Limoncello Project” began in February with the gift of some locally-grown lemons. I posted a mid-point update in March, and am now happy to report that the entire batch has been bottled and is resting comfortably under refrigeration.

"Going Green" -- Recycling old sparkling water and vodka bottles for limoncello

“Going Green” — Recycling old sparkling water and vodka bottles for limoncello

This was a first attempt, and I used a fairly basic procedure: I removed the zest of more than 6 dozen fresh lemons, marinated the zest in about 10 liters of cheap (but good quality, made in Austria, potato-based from Trader Joe’s) vodka for a month, added a simple syrup consisting of water and granulated sugar to the lemon vodka, and let it rest at room temperature for another 6 weeks. Finally, today I transferred the contents of my five-gallon carboy into bottles and stored them in the refrigerator in the brewhouse.

Sometimes I have a tendency to “overdo” the size of my projects, especially the first run. When I first attempted salami, I made about four times as much as I should have, expecting it would be great (it wasn’t; almost all of it had to be thrown away). I’ve done forty or fifty pounds of guinciale at once, with success. I put in my pilot vineyard with 48 plants, expecting that (green thumb I am not) some would take off and others would die, and I might end up with half that survive and thrive (I was right).

IMG_1620Point is, I have a high degree of fallibility in assessing my capabilities and determining how much of a “first bite” I want to take. With the limoncello, I feel like I was aiming for the brass ring, since the first batch ended up at over five gallons, which would have been a lot of hooch to pour out if something went wrong.

Thankfully, nothing went wrong. It’s great. All of the oils and color from the peel were well extracted, there isn’t a trace of bitterness or pithy flavor (nor any off flavors or aromas), the limoncello hits you instantly on the nose with a really pungent and attractive lemony citrus aroma, it has a great smooth mouthfeel and it warms your palate with a gloss of unctuous lemon oil going down. It is the way a digestif should be.

Most importantly, and the thing I like most about my limoncello is that it is completely natural. It tastes, looks and smells like authentic lemons, and not artificial variants that have been processed to the point that it’s more like lemon Pledge that limoncello.

26099Commercial limoncellos can be highly processed and have added colorings. The one I am most familiar with is Caravella, which is sometimes available at Costco and normally sells for about $20 a bottle. It states that it is produced in Italy, from Sorrento, but it does not compare with my version.

I’ve enjoyed homemade versions, house recipes at high-end restaurants in the U.S. and trattorias in Italy. I’ve sampled boutique lines, both in Italy and domestically. Even without a side-by-side tasting, I am confident that my version easily stands up to what I have tried elsewhere.

This was a very simple project, much easier than brewing or curing meat. Zesting lemons makes the house smell wonderful, whereas grinding pork with lots of garlic does not. And you will experience a flush of pride when you present your homemade limoncello to your guests following a feast at your table!

[N.B.: Now I need to figure out how to get all this zest out of the narrow neck of my carboy!]

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The FRANKENQUE: How to Make a Wood-Fire Pizza Oven for Under $30

A nearly-finished "salad pizza" (my own creation): pesto, caramelized onions, chèvre, topped with a salad of arugula, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, pine nuts, and shaved parmesan

A nearly-finished “salad pizza” (my own creation): pesto, caramelized onions, chèvre, topped with a salad of arugula, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, pine nuts, and shaved parmesan

Anyone who knows anything about the near-cultic devotion to the famous “Napolitano” style of pizza-making knows that to make such pizza, you need to spend thousands of dollars to install your own wood-burning oven.

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Ever since seeing a write-up on a guy known as the “Pizza Hacker” — who sets up his own little “pop-up” on the streets of San Francisco using a modified 22″ Weber Grill — I began to believe that the people who drop big money into a professionally-made custom oven — something that will (at best) only be used once or twice a month — were actually posers just looking to get in on the next trend.

But I was still pondering the possibility of going the homemade route and spending a little bit of money to make my own free-standing permanent oven in the backyard, believing that I’d never get to the necessary temperatures with anything else.

Most home and even commercial ovens will not produce an authentic pizza the way Giuseppe in Naples makes it. Traditional pizza is made in a wood-burning oven, at a high temperature. Good typical temperature is at least 700F, up to 1000F.

However, recently I learned that if you don’t care about showing off the latest cooking gadget with Coolness Factor, you can make your own wood-burning pizza oven for less than $30, using something you already have (and without permanently modifying it). For me, the Cheapness Factor way offsets any perceived diminution of Coolness.

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Because of the high heat, the pizza cooks within a couple minutes, and the dough is crispy, crunchy, and also chewy, especially around the crust, and has just a whiff of smokiness from the wood fire.  Without that blast of high heat, pizza cooked in a conventional oven will be more flat and lacking in the textural quality that exemplifies the style.

To make your own oven, you need a charcoal grill. In theory, I’ve heard that a gas grill can be used also.

As you can see from the pictures, my grill shows a lot of use. That’s ok. From the hardware store, you need some bricks and ceramic floor tiles. Ceramic tiles that are “unglazed” are best.

For my big old barbecue grill, I needed six 12-inch floor tiles ($9) and four or five 6-inch floor tiles ($5), and eighteen standard bricks ($12.50). You can play around with the configuration, but the goal is to make a reasonably well-sealed enclosure with adequate cooking surface.

IMG_1472You build your fire underneath (a grill like mine [with doors on the front that provide access to the coals/wood underneath without upsetting the structure above] is best, but as noted, a Weber can also be used) and will need to tend it as you go.

Once you’ve heated coals using a chimney starter and spread them out, you place the grill, and arrange your tiles on the grill surface, which you “surround” with an adequate number of bricks to make a “wall” with a small opening a front for accessing the oven.

Then you close the lid, add more coals and wood and watch the needle on the thermometer climb to a good cooking temperature. The bricks and tile provide a lot of thermal mass, which means they will hold heat for a long time, but it can take up to two hours to reach your desired temperature (N.B.).

We learned through trial and error that leaving an open space without a 6-inch tile in a back corner of the oven helps maintain good heat in the “hood”. We also learned that depending on the intensity of the fire below, you might want to use two tiles stacked together for your primary cooking surface, or alternately, two or more layers of parchment paper for sliding the pizzas. You will need to learn how your oven works best and make provisions for your experimentation.

FullSizeRender 8After two cooking sessions with this thing, I can tell you that you will attain the necessary temperature if you use a combination of coals (to start the fire) and good hardwood (for use during cooking). With adequate wood on hand, reaching temps of 800-900F were well within range and capable of being maintained for adequate time to cook four or more pizzas. On one evening, we cooked 16 pizzas, and on another night, I cooked 8 pizzas.

Also, it seems fairly obvious, but please note that you are dealing with rather high temperatures, and the bricks and tiles (as well as the grill itself) will be exceedingly hot, and therefore dangerous, especially with children nearby. DO NOT permit children to operate the oven or be near it without adult supervision. DO NOT cook in an enclosed or unsafe area. Have a supply of long sturdy tongs, a pizza slide, and oven mitts on hand.

Due to this caution about the extreme heat, it is also important that in arranging the bricks and constructing the oven, you assemble it so that it is sturdy and does not permit movement. You will not want to be rearranging bricks or tiles when the oven is 700-800F.

Once you make your own oven using this method, I think you will be pleased with the result, and find it to be rather versatile and suitable for more than just pizza. Meats would do well roasted in the oven, and yesterday we discovered it works great (at a lower temperature) for baking bread:

IMG_1491Buon appetito!

Limonicello Update

I’ve been rather busy with work stuff lately, which has cut into the blogging (sorry), but last weekend I did manage to find time to brew a batch of Religious Liberty Ale, and keg my newest DIPA after dry-hopping with an obscene amount of hops (more than a pound total of Cascade, Simcoe, Columbus, Amarillo and Centennial).

FullSizeRender 3Also, on Sunday, I took the next step in the Limoncello project. Since last month, I’ve had nine liters of potato vodka from Trader Joe’s “marinating” in the peels of over 70 lemons, extracting the citrus oils and esters from the lemons, along with a nice pale yellow color. Every so often I’d take the glass carboy out, shake it up a little bit, and put it back.

The next step was to add the sugar syrup; slightly less than a 1:1 ratio of water and sugar, boiled on the stove for five minutes, and cooled before adding to the lemon-ized vodka.

The objective is to arrive at a sugar and alcohol concentration that provides about 20%ABV, and more importantly, does not form ice crystals. The limonicello should pour without any solid or semi-solid ice formation even when taken directly from the freezer. Any freezing indicates that there is too much sugar and water, and not enough alcohol.

The contents of the carboy should continue to sit out at room temperature for another month or so before bottling. In other words, there should be a bit more flavor and color extraction from the lemon peel. The bottles that you see on the side were filled on Sunday because I didn’t have quite enough space to fit everything in the carboy. And they also have a bit too much syrup, so I’ve been “removing” a little bit from each bottle and “replacing” it with straight vodka to get the ratio right.

IMG_1402The bottles I filled Sunday won’t be quite as good as the “final” product that has had another month in contact with the peels, but I am very pleased already. The flavor, aroma and texture is definitely in line with commercial examples. In fact (not to be too self-congratulatory), I think it’s rather better than most commercial examples.

For one thing, the color is totally natural; in contrast a lot of makers add yellow dye to produce the neon yellow color. Also, there is a very full and authentic LEMON flavor and aroma in my homemade version; sometimes limonicello veers toward the flavor/aroma of furniture polish or candy.

Although we’re a few weeks from bottling, barring any surprises I think we can call the pilot limoncello project a success. It’s delicious. We took some to a family gathering on Sunday evening and everyone who tried it seemed impressed with it.

Once I get the right sugar/water/alcohol ratio (I don’t anticipate any problems here; and I have a little more plain vodka on hand for this purpose) we will have made about 22 liters total. I plan to keep about half on hand under refrigeration for ourselves and our guests, and I’ll be giving the rest away to friends and family.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, each 750ml bottle costs about $4, versus around $18 for a cheap commercial example. Yay!

Another Libational Project: Limoncello

IMG_1357South of Naples, in and around Sorrento, the Italians have had citrus groves for centuries, and continue to make a wonderful liqueur called Limoncello, which involves taking the yellow zest of the local Femminello St. Teresa lemons and steeping them in clear spirits for a period of time, and then introducing an admixture of simple syrup before bottling.

Limoncello is big business in southern Italy; a lot of shops specialize in it for the tourist crowd, and trattorias and families make their own homemade versions. There are different varieties, including opaque, clear, and with cream. There are other citrus liqueurs too, including blood orange.

For limoncello, typically no actual lemon juice is used to make the drink; rather, the lemon flavor, aroma, and yellow color comes from the oils contained in the zest, which are released into the alcohol. Depending on the amount of sugar and water added in the form of syrup, the final alcohol content ranges between 20 and 30%.

IMG_1358Limoncello is reputed to aid in digestion, and anecdotal evidence confirms this. We frequently bring out limoncello at the end of our large dinner gatherings, and a dose or two encourages guests to undertake an attempt at dessert. Limoncello is stored in the freezer, and (ideally) served in frosted aperitif glasses, and it is refreshing. Sambuca is another nice (Italian) liqueur, but is not as refreshing as limoncello.

IMG_1359Apart from drinking as a digestif, it can be used to make other cocktails, flavor desserts (I use it to make a dessert similar to tiramisu, with limoncello and white chocolate in place of espresso and semisweet), or poured over berries and fruit salads.

I have an uncle who supplied a couple bottles of homemade limoncello made from his Meyer lemon tree, and we enjoyed the fact that rather than the opaque, emulsified commercial limoncello typically found for sale, he left some of the zest as sort of a textural counterpoint in his version. His version tasted a bit more “fresh” and lemony than others we have sampled.

About half the lemons needed for this batch

About half the lemons needed for this batch

Rather than trying to score some more bottles of my uncle’s limoncello, I decided to go ahead and attempt making some myself. Recently I zested nearly 70 lemons from local (California) lemon trees belonging to friends — some Meyer and some the more ordinary lemon variety — which I added to 9 liters of potato vodka sourced from Trader Joe’s. Within minutes, the spirits had already taken on a tremendous yellow color.

IMG_1342The vodka and lemon zest will “steep” for over a month, before a 1:1 simple sugar syrup (approx. another 9 liters) is added, to steep for another month or so before bottling. I’m planning (since I’m going to get 18-20 liters of this stuff) to make two versions — one “with zest” and one “without” — and if it’s any good, we’ll give some of it away to our favorite friends at Christmastime.

In terms of cost, the finished product is about $4 per 750 ml bottle to make, along with a few hours worth of time, and even if we give a few bottles away, we’ll be stocked with limoncello until 2017 or so.

On Poverty, Bread Bags on Feet, and Hating Eggs

On a Bloomberg site, there is a good article entitled “When Bread Bag’s Weren’t Funny“. Despite the fact that we definitely have a sizable number of people living below the poverty line in the United States, whose basic needs are often unmet, the article suggests that modern day America no longer knows true poverty as it once did:

In 1901, the average “urban wage earner” spent about 46 percent of their household budget on food and another 15 percent on apparel — that’s 61 percent of their annual income just to feed and clothe the family. That does not include shelter, or fuel to heat your home and cook your food. By 1987, that same household spent less than 20 percent on food and a little over 5 percent of their budget on apparel. Since then, these numbers have fallen even further: Today, families with incomes of less than $5,000 a year still spend only 16 percent of the family budget on food and 3.5 percent on apparel. And that’s not because we’re eating less and wearing fewer clothes; in fact, it’s the reverse.

The anecdotes in the article are interesting, and reminded me of a few stories that I heard from my grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression as a young girl in Tennessee.

One time, her mother scrimped enough money to afford to buy my grandmother a pair of new stockings for Easter. But my grandmother lost the money on the way to the store ($.05, I think), and alas, she went without a precious pair of new stockings that year; there wasn’t another nickel in the house to pay for them.

Shortly before she died, while we were caring for her at home, I offered to make my grandmother an egg salad sandwich for lunch, and — delightful, sweet woman that she was — she appreciatively accepted the sandwich. After she ate it, she wistfully told me that the sandwich was good, and she was sorry it had been over fifty years since she ate one.

14780587614_e1c5e6bfc0_oI asked her why she hadn’t had an egg salad sandwich for so long, and she told me that she had grown to “hate them” as a girl. I don’t think I’d ever heard her use the word “hate” before, especially when it came to food; she was always so genteel, and never picky. She explained that during the Depression one of her uncles — a bachelor — was a traveling salesman who had a customer — an egg farmer — who would pay for purchases with eggs, which the uncle would bring to my grandmother’s family. There was a lot of barter and trading what you had in those days.

The eggs her uncle brought the family were a large part of their diet for a number of years, and egg salad was a daily staple at lunchtime. She was grateful that they had healthy food, but honest that even good things become tiresome after a while. She said that it was fairly common for the pantry to be bare, and that her mother would not know how or what she would feed her children for their next meal, since there was no food or money in the house.

But my grandmother also said that “God always provided, and we never went hungry or actually missed a meal. She [my great-grandmother] always came up with something. We knew a lot of families who weren’t as fortunate as us.”

My grandmother vowed that after the Depression (and war that followed) she’d never eat another egg salad sandwich for the rest of her life. But — loving woman that she was — she made an exception for me before she died, even though (had I known) I’d have made her anything she wanted.