Saturday, June 26, 2010

Flickr Set: Lunch in Wujiang

Working Hard at Lunch in Wujiang

I've made it through the first days here in China. I'm taking my time to relax this morning before going outside on my own to explore. Thursday I worked hard all day in the office on fixing print artwork for the line of swim boardshorts that I design. Friday was less about formal work, and more about nurturing relationships with the agents who control the printing processes here in China. This kind of work somehow drained me more than sitting at a desk.

Friday morning I waited in the hotel lobby for the driver to pick me up to drive to the print factories in Jiangsu Province. I watched as boatloads of young 20-something loud Americans poured out of taxis to check into the hotel, probably for the World Expo. Although I look like one of them, in my casual clothes and Northface backpack, I am here for some serious work. I hoped they didn't get all loud and spring-breaky up in this piece. I need my rest!

Before long, I was packed into a car with our English-speaking agent Dream, the driver (Mr. Xu?), and the "Fabric Guy" (whose name they don't tell me because it doesn't translate - they just call him Fabric Guy). He's tall, wears T-shirts and jersey shorts, talks on his fake Iphone, and you can tell he's probably a pretty cool guy. Mr. Xu is a very talented and smart driver. Otherwise we might have died on the highway, considering people drive in an "S" pattern here, weaving in and out without blinkers - large trucks driving wherever they wander without signals. People just cut other people off and turn in front of on-coming traffic. The horn blasting is constant, as well as light flashing - since no one uses their mirrors. Road signs try to warn motorists to leave space between to avoid rear-end collisions, and other signs encourage caution not to crash in certain areas with "very important water bodies" probably used for crops or other money-bearing purposes.

We arrived at the printing offices in Wujiang (a town almost entirely made up of Textile mills) after about an hour and half of chatting and near-death experiences. I didn't see any machines here, just some offices. Fabric Guy and Mr. Xu lit up a cig with the Printing Boss. Dream and I sat in the Boss's office, waiting and eating nuts. I think we spent about 40 minutes there on the couch, hammering nutshells on the coffee table. I couldn't manage to scrape the nuts out very well with my teeth, so Dream kept picking pieces of nuts out and putting them in my palm. I'm not sure the kind of nut, but it reminded me of breakfast cereal because it was kind of crunchy like a Cheerio. They kind of look like a black walnut, but crunchier, and taste like chocolate and hazelnut. As we ate and ate from the nuts, I prayed I wouldn't develop some allergy to the strange new food.

And then it was lunch time. Printing Boss, his wirey and stylish Sidekick, and the rest of my colleagues piled into cars and drove to a restaurant to have a traditional lunch. On the way there, I explained to the agent that I like to take photos of foods that I cook and eat, and showed her some pictures on my camera screen. So it was only natural for me to pull out the camera to photograph the live aquariums from which we chose our lunch. After eating so much vegetarian food lately, choosing which animal would die for our lunch kind of bothered me. Those 3 little crabs lined up in a perfectly spaced "V" with their claws resting in defense position did not look like they wanted to be eaten. That skinny fish with the pointy snout didn't look ready to leave his friends. But this is the very important part of relationship building in Chinese culture - acceptance of, and participation in, the local customs. So I picked some fish and felt a little guilty inside.

We were taken to a higher floor and seated in one of several private dining rooms with its own tv, couch, bathroom and kitchen. As the waitress loaded up the giant glass turntable with foods, the real work began. Luckily I am a seasoned wine drinker - the skill proved helpful this day. The Chinese take offense if you do not participate in the wine drinking with the rest of the table, raising your glass to the others. And they have a kind of saying for bottoms-up, when told this you must finish your glass. I'm not a wine-chugger by habit, but the Printing Boss was very pleased with my participation.

My appetite has not been large here, and those around me have seemed quite disappointed in me for leaving food untouched. A phrase I have come to use at every traditional meal here is "too much work!". I can negotiate sampling deadlines and reject color strike-offs day-in and day-out, but eating here in Shanghai is the REAL WORK.  I'm quite good at using chopsticks, which Printing Boss was complimenting me for. He said I am very good at using the chopsticks. Thank goodness! Because there are so many things you must eat with your hands, and use your mouth to navigate shells and bones. It's kind of a dance between your mouth and the food - manipulating odd seafoods into your mouth, moving and twisting with your tongue and spitting the unchewable parts back onto your food plate. All this to get very tiny morsels of flesh in the end. So much work for so little food - eating takes forever. I think this may be one part to the secret of this thin and small-bodied culture (aside from walking and biking to work each day). After 20 minutes of working on eating, you start to feel full - yet have actual eaten very little. But I am getting better at this eating dance. I was only scrutinized for spitting out fish bones - they actually gave me the bones of the fish we chose. Printing Boss wanted me to eat the bones, a very special privilege. I just couldn't do it - I tried one bite and feared the chewed up crunchy bits would perforate my intestine somehow, leaving me crippled that evening on my modern, cold, stone bathroom floor - all alone.

Overall, I think Printing Boss was very happy with my lunch performance. I really took one for the team today. I think they were trying to get me drunk so I would be more agreeable. I told them this, awaited translation, and they laughed. Thank goodness they get my humor. And thank goodness I can hold my wine like a champ and be perfectly coherent for an afternoon of negotiating my printing priorities be rushed to me by Tuesday. However clever I think I was in my negotiations, the real triumph of the day was when I spun the prize wheel in the restaurant and won some crabs for the Printing Boss. It's my first time giving someone crabs (insert winky smiley face here ;) ), but he seemed extremely pleased to receive them.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

1000% Improvement

It's amazing what $30 will buy you in China. Our garment agent set me up in a local Chinese hotel, and said that there were no other hotels available because of the World Expo. I don't think this person is terribly familiar with the hotels in the area, however. It's probably the same for myself - I live in NYC and I'm always receiving Aardvark questions about where to stay. But I don't stay in NYC hotels. I live there. I do get feedback from friends, so I can point to a few, but other than that, I'm pretty clueless. Hotels in big cities are hard to judge based on brands and reputation. A Holiday Inn in Vermont may be just fine for an overnight and $100. But in New York, over $200 will buy you a real crappy room at an unrecommendable hotel in K-Town. Now don't be offended, I'm not knocking little Korea, I happen to work there and it's just fine despite the lingering bbq smells. But the point is that you just don't know how to compare city hotels without word of mouth.

When it comes to Shanghai, I suppose it should be no different. I will say from experience that Chinese people in general have a different set of aesthetics and place value on certain amenities over others. Having traveled all over the world, I must say I have tended to become somewhat of a hotel snob. There are just some things that you can't budge on, and it's staying in a place where you do not feel comfortable or safe, and a tad bit skeeved out. It's not that I thought I would be harmed, or bug-bitten or made sick in the first hotel here in Shanghai, but uncomfortable and totally skeeved I was, for sure. And when I learned that the price of this hotel was around 1,000Y ($150) per night, I knew there must be an alternative. I just flew almost 20 hours in a tiny coach seat, saving the company thousands of dollars (to fix a problem with our factory to try to make them hundreds of thousands of dollars). I wasn't about to give up my sanity for this.

This morning I took a shower that made wierd noises in the pipes, without conditioner. I dried my hair with some sort of hot vaccuum tube from the 1970's. I pondered the 45 Chinese channels, stared at the smoke detector taped over with some previous guest's party decorations, which were also half-peeled off of every wall and door. I avoided the oddly stained living room furniture and out of proportion artwork on peeling wall paper. For the last time. And then I was transported to another world, thanks to my husband's platinum status at Marriott. For a mere 200Y more per night I went from hostel to heaven. From experience, I know the Courtyard hotels to be less nice than regular Marriotts, and usually with less amenities. But like I said, in cities everything is unpredictable. This is the nicest Courtyard hotel I have ever seen - I have electric window shades and a wooden sliding door room divider with modern art built in. There are beautiful details in every corner, very modern and trendy. I have a DVD player and HBO. Free internet, newspaper, breakfast and happy hour. I know there's a lot outside to explore but I kind of just want to hang out here. Talk about a 1000% improvement over the course of one day. Maybe we Americans are spoiled (let me just go ahead and include most Europeans in that too), but if you can afford to spend just $30 more per day for a 1000% upgrade, why wouldn't you?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

6/24 8:30 am, Shanghai

Chinese people go left for buffet with ticket. White girl go right. White girl pay 35 Yuan and eat cold french fries, bok choy, fried eggs and boiled peanuts with star anise. No coffee or tea. White girl go back to room and drink hot green tea out of water glass. Not easy. Praying to come across a Starbucks sometime today.

All of a Sudden Shanghai

It's been exactly 30 hours since I got up this morning. I've eaten 2 breakfasts and 4 dinners, all in different countries. It looked like the China trip didn't need to happen, after I canceled all my plans for a month. But, at 2pm on Monday afternoon, I was asked to fly out to Shanghai by Tuesday morning. As if flying last minute coach-class at the mercy of unorganized penny-pinchers wasn't enough, my hotel kinda sucks too. Oh yeah, and it seems like they block Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, and English language Google over here. I had this pipe dream of coming back from work to run in the gym (this crap hotel doesn't have one), and updating my blog with the fun things I see and eat each day. I looked forward to falling asleep watching movies on Starz and other syndicated shows we forgot about, but the only English channel here is all World Cup. I figured I'd call my office, and my man, but the friggin phone only works once every 4 tries - and you can only call landlines. But I'm smarter than you, fate. My husband has Platinum status which earned me a hotel change where rooms are few due to the World Expo. Goodbye, beat up crappy hotel with the wierd smell. I've still got high speed internet, even if I am chained to the desk by a 3-foot cord. I have Skype. I have Ichat. I have yahoo mail, from which I can still blog. And flickr seems to work too - so watch out for photos when I finally have the balls to go out on the corner and be that white girl taking pictures of wierd stuff. I had two todays, but tomorrow will be a better day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Roasted Breakfast

 Roasted French Breakfast Radishes with Purple Scallions

It's a beautiful sunny Saturday here in NYC. We didn't get many sunny weekends last summer, when it rained from amost every Friday through every Sunday. So this year we can really appreciate the nice weather.

Before heading out to the farmer's market today, I'm trying to use up last week's finds in my breakfast. I found more LaRatte potatoes in the bottom of the produce drawer, so I'm seeing how those fare as oven fries. That made me wonder what would happen if I roasted the breakfast radishes... can you roast radishes? They're a root, so in theory it should work out. After all that chopping, I don't really feel like cooking eggs to go with all this - so I flattened out a whole wheat sandwich bun to make into parmesan toast in the oven. I happen to like these sorts of things for breakfast, which might be wierd. But, it's good experimentation for future dinner sides.

 Roasted LaRatte Potatoes with Shallots, Parsley and Sour Cream

Lessons learned: 
-LaRatte potatoes don't have much flavor when roasted. Also, the skins get tough.
-French breakfast radishes taste a bit bitter when roasted, like a turnip. They would make a fine side dish at dinner - maybe roasted together with other veggies like carrots.
-If the vegetable has a French name, take the French approach and keep it simple (such as my radish salad). Don't overthink it!

Roast French Breakfast Radishes and Scallions
1. Wash, trim and halve the breakfast radishes. 
2. Toss with chopped scallions, olive oil, sea salt and pepper. 
3. Roast in a 425F oven for 15 minutes.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

LaRatte Potato & White Turnip Soup with Lovage

What happens when I find a whole bunch of things at the market that I've never noticed before? Throw them all in a big soup and blend it up, of course.

Here are a few things that I decided to experiment with:
Scapes - A very young garlic stalk with a mild garlic flavor.

Lovage - Similar to parsley, but with a very strong celery scent and flavor, but a hint of fenugreek taste.

LaRatte Potatoes - As per the farmer's sign: "A gourmet French potato with buff yellow skin and smooth yellow flesh. They have a subtly sweet, rich flavor reminiscent of chestnuts and hazelnuts. The texture is smooth and custardy when pureed, yet they maintain a firm texture when cooked." There are so many varieties of potatoes to play with, but I thought this one would work nicely as a base for a soup. Don't cut them too early before cooking, as I found they turn brown very quickly.

Red Scallions -  I'm not sure how they differ from the white ones, but they just looked prettier.

White Turnips - Some farms called these Japanese turnips. They seemed a lot milder and smoother than the larger ones. I figured they might add a little bitterness to contend with the very potent lovage. 

At the left: LaRatte potatoes and White Turnips
Center: Red Scallions and their tops
Right: Lovage
Far Right: Garlic Scape

For a bunch of spring findings, these made a kind of hearty root soup. One might be fooled into thinking it was a celeriac soup, since the bit of lovage was quite potent. It turned out quite velvety and a nice spring green color. Days later, I find no desire to finish this soup - the flavor from the lovage is just too strong to keep going back for more. I'll stick to the milder greens in the future!

LaRatte Potato & White Turnip Soup with Lovage
1 T unsalted butter (*omit for vegan*)
1 T Olive Oil
2 entire Red Scallons, include green tops, chopped
1 garlic Scape, about 8", chopped
2 LaRatte potatoes (6-7"long), peeled and sliced into 1/2" rounds
5 small White Turnips
1/2 C chopped Lovage (flavor is strong - try 1/4C or less), or use parsley, or try tarragon.
3 C Vegetable stock
1 C Water
1-1/2 tsp Kosher salt
Black pepper to taste

1. Melt butter & oil in stock pot. Add scallions and scapes and saute 3 minutes. 
2. Add potatoes and turnips, saute 3 minutes.
3. Add lovage, saute 1 minute to wilt.
4. Add stock and water and simmer 25 minutes. 
5. Puree with a hand-mixer and season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Big Apple BBQ Fest in Madison Square Park

I finally had the opportunity to check out the Big Apple BBQ in Madison Square Park this weekend. I've been meaning to go each year, but just never seemed to make it happen. I met my girlfriend on the corner and we eased into the festivities with a stop at the Heartland Brewery beer garden. Unfortunately it's a bit hard to drink and eat at the same time, since you can't leave the beer garden with your beer. So we people watched and discussed which food tent to hit up first.

Beer Garden

Not really in the mood for pulled pork, we decided to focus on ribs. We started with St. Louis style, which neither of us had tried before. The line at Pappy's was pretty long, so we figured it must be worth the wait. The whole setup is actually quite efficient, and we were on our way to the grass with our food rather quickly. The St. Louis ribs were tangy and saucy, long and thin, but not that meaty. Delicious, though, and not too fatty. The beans on the side had just enough sweetness with a hint of spice.
 Ribs fresh from the pit at Pappy's, St. Louis

 Pappy's St. Louis style Ribs

By the time we found the bathrooms and walked up the Madison Ave side of the park through throngs of people, it was starting to sprinkle. So we chose a shorter line at Blue Smoke for the Salt & Pepper Beef Ribs. They appeared shorter and meatier, but it was really just a lot of fat. The seasoning was nice - more focused on the meat flavors than the saucier St. Louis style. The pickled okra, carrots and onions were crisp and refreshing on the side. We didn't make it much further before it started to rain, so we didn't get to compare any other ribs. From the two we tried, I'd go with the St. Louis style hands down. I'd expect better quality from Blue Smoke. But I guess that's why the South is known for it's BBQ, and NYC is known for, well, just about anything else. I look forward to going back next year, and hopefully trying more things. 

 Texas style Salt & Pepper beef ribs from Blue Smoke, NYC

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Union Square Greenmarket in Full Swing

I've been making due with whatever produce I can find at the Borough Hall market lately, but I have been on a search for French Breakfast Radishes. I strapped the backpack on and headed to Union Square market to collect them today, although their beauty does not compare to those in the Paris markets. In general, the produce are not as pretty here at the markets - they're kind of dirty looking. But I still enjoy seeing stacks upon stacks of colorful vegetables all over.

Now in mid-June,  the greenmarket encompasses three sides of the square, while artists occupy the remainder of the space. Despite the aimless meandering gazers all bumping into each other with granny carts, I love the Union Square market. You have to be patient with the crowds, because you never know what you might find. 

Below are a few things I found particularly beautiful or surprising at the market today.

Buckets, buckets and more buckets of all kinds of gorgeous flowers. You can find almost any type of growing plant, herb, or cut flowers right now.

Red Scallions were one option among many kinds of scallions, spring onions and other root items. I'll be using them in a soup - with both the red and green parts as garnish.

I have never in my life seen a razor clam until today - and I wasn't the only one stopping to puzzle over them. Show stopper.

These scapes were offered under several names - Green Garlic, Scapes, or Rocambole Garlic. Apparently you slice it and use it just like regular garlic.

So many kinds of radishes from white to red to these purple plum radishes. For now I'm sticking to the mild French Breakfast Radishes - but maybe someday I'll acquire the taste to try other kinds. They sure are pretty.

Sometimes I pick new things to try by the way they smell. I just pick up bunches of things and smell them. This is called Lovage, or Love Parsley. It's smell reminded me a little of Indian flavors (I guess it has a slight taste of fenugreek). The helpful people at the stand let me taste it and gave me some tips. It tastes like very strong celery. The woman working there told me that it is great in soups, replacing regular celery. She personally liked it cooked with fish - layered raw underneath the fish and baked in the oven, it wilts down. She said you could also cut it with parsley and use it to season fish. I'll be trying this in a root vegetable soup today, but I also wonder if it would make an interesting pesto sauce. I was told that the Romanian chefs from a local Queens restaurant buy it by the bagful and freeze it (dry in a container) to use throughout the winter.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Veggie Meatball Flatbread Pizza

After our Friday night Bikram class, we take our time walking home. We sip our Zico. We try not to get angry at the people in our way. We come home, shower, get dressed again and then begin the EATING FRENZY. 

Tonight I immediately reached for leftover green beans almondine, while my husband heated some Smart Wings drenched in hot sauce. When those were gone, I made some awesome pizzas from some leftover spaghetti sauce with veggie meatballs from days ago. I picked up the flatbreads while waiting in the never ending line at Wholefoods one evening. They were looking at me. And reminded me how awesome and easy pita pizza is.

Perfect Pita Pizza
Flatbread or Pocket-less Pita
Olive Oil
Garlic powder
Grated Parmesan
Black Pepper

1. Heat broiler. Place flatbreads on a pan and drizzle the back with olive oil. Broil until crisp and not soft any longer.

2. Flip the bread and drizzle the top with olive oil. Sprinkle with garlic powder and grated parmesan cheese. Broil until slightly browned.

3. Top with small dollops of sauce, salt if needed, mozzarella, parmesan, dried parsley and black pepper. Broil until bubbly and just shy of burnt around the edges.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gardein Chicken Piccata & Tomato Bisque from "The Conscious Cook"

Gardein "Chicken" Piccata

I recently discovered the only interesting looking vegan cookbook I've ever seen. And maybe that's because Tal Ronnen seems to have connections all over the food and media world and I couldn't have missed this book if I tried. I decided to see what the hype was about and buy it. I even read most of the text and felt a bit more educated for it. One problem: I couldn't make a single recipe in the whole book with things that I normally keep on hand, at least at short notice. Almost every recipe contains cashew cream - something you need several hours or overnight to produce. I just don't have that kind of foresight - I tend to decide at 7pm what to make by 9. 

 My first Cashew Cream from 1C raw cashews - looks like milk!

Having gone through and sticky-tabbed half the book, I decided to make a Fresh Direct order with the book at my side and actually plan some meals. I chose two recipes to start with: Tomato Bisque and Gardein Chicken Piccata. My recent discovery of Gardein is what lead me to this book in the first place. 

The tomato bisque seemed simple enough, what with using canned tomatoes - but it took longer than I expected and created a lot of dishes to clean. The one major mishap was forgetting to remove the bay leaves before handing the immersion blender to my husband (that's his job - blending). I may not have bothered to strain the soup otherwise, but the bay leaves left all kinds of floating chips in the soup and we struggled to strain the whole thing into another soup pot (more dirty dishes!). Overall the soup turned out pretty tasty. Unfortunately I don't have a photo as we were pretty starved by the time it was ready and went right to eating. So I can just tell you it was pastel orange liquid - not too exciting anyways!

The Gardein Chicken Piccata came out excellent. I didn't use any vegan butter like the recipe called for, no one is vegan in my house so I wouldn't waste money buying fake butter. The "chicken" browned nicely once I got the oil/butter hot enough, which took some experimenting. The rest of the prep was easy. I made simple steamed swiss chard on the side, and some fingerlings which I left in the oven far too long which were rendered unedible. There was just too much going on between the soup, chicken, sauce and chard already in work. Next time I would serve the piccata over simple plain pasta with a bit of olive oil. I don't think I could mistake this for real chicken, as one of the stories in the cookbook tell of dinner guests thinking it was real meat. Not so much, I think. But for fake meat, it's not bad at all. This recipe would work great for real chicken also - good for a dinner party with both vegetarians and meat eaters, since you could have two pans going with real vs. fake.

*I won't list the recipes here (since I think that's just wrong to republish), but if you google properly you'll probably find them out there in web land. Here are some other officially shared recipes by Tal at

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sweet and Hot Chicken-less Cashew Stir-Fry

I feel like I have little inspiration in cooking lately. I'm not really using the creative side of the brain at work lately, and maybe that's the root of it. As a designer, when work starts to feel like WORK, I tend to feel really crappy all around. I'm supposed to be having fun for a living. But rarely can that be so.

With little creative inspiration, I set out to use something from the fake meat shelf for dinner. I was inclined toward seitan fingers and fries, but we're trying to eat healthy. Fake Chinese take-out would have to do. I strayed from the bland recipe and added a little honey and some Indian red chili powder (Lal Mirch) my mother-in-law gave me. I think it's just a bit more potent and interesting tasting than cayenne. I must have been inspired by the fact we would be eating the stir-fry over leftover Basmati rice from a Makhanwala variation I made on Tuesday. This actually came out really good (and just mildly spicy) - we both went back for seconds and ended up overeating a little. I might be a bit more generous with both the chili and honey in the future.

Sweet and Hot Chicken-less Cashew Stir-Fry
(approx. 4 servings)

1T Vegetable Oil 
3/4 C Onions, cut into strips
1 Clove Garlic, sliced thin
1 Large Carrot, chopped (2/3C)
2 Large ribs of Celery, chopped (1C)
1/8 tsp ground Ginger
2-3 grinds Black Pepper
1/2 tsp ground Indian Red Chili (Lal Mirch) or use Cayenne
1-1/2 C Vegetable Stock
1T + 1/2 tsp Low Sodium Soy Sauce (such as Kikkoman)
1 tsp Cornstarch
1 tsp Honey
1 package Chicken-less Strips (Trader Joe's)
1 C raw Cashews
Salt to taste (optional)
Cooked rice (such as Basmati)

1. Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat and add onions. Sauté 2 minutes. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute.

2. Add carrots and celery and cook another 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle with ginger, pepper and chili and stir to coat.

3. Prepare sauce by mixing together stock, soy sauce and cornstarch. Add to the pan, stirring, and then add honey. 

4. Add chicken-less strips to the pan and cook through, about 3 minutes. Add cashews for another 2 minutes.

5. Serve over warm rice and garnish with the greens of the carrot tops, or parsley.
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