Fued at the Chinese Buffet

OK, I have a secret. I’ve been asked to leave a Chinese buffet. No, I didn’t go flying Nikes over head like when Jazz annoyed Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  It was more like Martin pushing  Pam out the front door “Get to steppin’” I’m not proud of my gluttony but I really like Chinese food.

You see, at the buffet I have a process, first round, scope out the offering.  Then I have to devise the plan of action because you can’t just mix everything on your plate.  I’ve got to get the flavour ratios just right and, note to Dad, sweet and sour sauce can’t go on everything. A proper balance of sweet and salty and sour, bitter and savoury has to be attained and I’ve got to try everything.

So, on my fifth or sixth plate (I mean full plate not just a little spoonful of this and that) the waitresses began to hover, circling like wolves ready to pounce on a defenceless baby deer. One by one every few minutes they’d come to the table, eyes rolling, to ask in thickly accented English “You finished yet?” (Annoyed translates well in any language.) To this question I happily  answer, “No” and continue savouring ever morsel of Chinese goodness while receiving the evil eye from a pack of angry silk clad waitresses. Then the next comes huffing, hands on hips to try to budge me.

The serious buffet waster (aka my two plates only Mom),  who had finished eating  30 minutes before the army began to descend, finally whispered to me “I think they want you to leave.” But I hadn’t even had dessert yet!

So, to avoid more embarrassing moments at the buffet, I’m learning to make my own Chinese at home. My teacher and best friend (in my imagination) is Ching-He Huang, host of Chinese Food in Minutes in the UK and Easy Chinese – San Francisco in the US.  Here is one of my favourites from Ching plus a one of my own to show just how easy and quick Chinese food can be.

Spicy Chicken and Cashews

Adapted from Ching-He Huang‘s Chilli Chicken & Cashews

Serves 2
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook in: 5 – 7 minutes

TOOLS

Wok or heavy guage frying pan that will hold heat

Wooden spoon or spatula

Small bowl for mixing cornstarch and marinating chicken

INGREDIENTS
1 tsp corn starch/cornflour
1 tbls cold water
3 boneless skinless chicken thighs cut into 1″ chunks

½ tsp Chinese five-spice powder
2 tbls peanut or sunflower oil
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 tsp chilli bean paste
1 red chilli chopped and seeded (keep seeds if you want it really hot)
1 tbls  Shaohsing rice wine
1 small pack of  roasted salted cashew nuts (you can substitute peanuts)
1 tbls light soy sauce
1/2 lime

METHOD

I suggest preparing all ingredients and lining them up near the wok.  This dish goes really quickly so it’s important to have everything right at your fingertips.
Mix the water into the cornstarch (the water has to be cold and it has to be added to the cornstarch not the other way around to avoid lumps).  Season with the 5 spice powder and set aside.

Heat a wok on high heat until it starts to smoke.  Add the oil and when it begins to smoke add the peppercorns, chilli bean paste and chilli.  Lift the wok off the heat and toss the mix around for 10 – 15  seconds.  Place the wok back on the heat for another 10  – 15 seconds so the wok can heat back up and then add the chicken.  Let the chicken cook for a minute before stirring then add the rice wine.  Mix it all together and then let the chicken cook until it turns white (about 4 – 5 minutes).

Add the cashews and cook for another minute.

Once chicken is cooked through, turn off heat add soy sauce and lime juice.

Serve with steamed rice and Pak Choi in Oyster Sauce.

Pak Choi in Oyster Sauce

Created by S. Cottom

Serves 2

Prep in 5 minutes

Cook in 3 minutes

INGREDIENTS

1 tbls oil (peanut, vegetable or sunflower)

4 bulbs pak choi (stalks separated from leaves and cleaned)

1 garlic clove chopped

1 tbls soy bean paste

2 tbls oyster sauce

METHOD

Separate the stalks of the pak choi from the leaves. Heat oil in a wok or heavy gauge frying pan until smoking.  Add garlic and fry for 2 -3 seconds, add stalks of pak choi and stir fry.  Splash with water to create steam to cook stalks (repeat if necessary). Stir fry for 1-2 minutes then add leaves, soy bean paste and oyster sauce.  Stir fry for 20-30 seconds until slightly wilted.

Smoked Chicken 1 – Black Girl 0

There are times in my life when I become a bit obsessive compulsive.  Like my never-ending quest for an afro (I refuse to believe that I can’t have a big round afro like every other girl I know and that one day that patch of completely straight hair will turn curly).  Or when I decided to learn how to knit and proceeded to knit everyone that I know with a head a hat.  I get that way sometimes. When I decide I’m interested, I become an expert and  won’t stop until I’ve conquered this week’s epic challenge.

Well my most recent OCD adventure was tea smoked chicken.  Yes, for some odd and unexplainable reason I decided to turn my kitchen into a smoker because if they can do it at Cha Cha Moon (my favorite Chinese restaurant), by golly, so can I. I was going to smoke anything that might remotely taste interesting.  Like with my other OCD attacks I turned to the best resource for learning any vague and obscure craft – the internet.  I spent days scouring the net for method, ingredients, marinades and all things tea smoked chicken because I would be the next tea smoked chicken master chef.

All the blogs touted how simple tea smoking at home could be.  A simple concoction of tea, rice and sugar was all I needed to turn plain old chicken wings into a smoky sensation.  I am a pretty good cook so how hard could it be?  I started off by lining my wok with aluminum foil.  If I hooked that thing to my TV I could probably watch the evening news in Beijing.   I added in the amazing smoking agents:  uncooked jasmine rice, jasmine tea, and some sugar. Note:  No one in the blogosphere knows what the sugar does, everyone thinks it’s pointless but every recipe called for it so I too drank that Kool-Aid too.

We were super excited when the contraption started to smoke.  We added the wire grate and quickly covered the contraption with foil.  Smoke began seeping out of everywhere. We frantically covered all the gaps with sheet upon sheet of foil and  the exhaust fan was struggling to keep up.  All that could be heard was the metallic crunch of foil as we tried to pinch the seams of our smoke leaving ship. Luckily  we had a rare 60 degree day in London so we opened the window to keep from suffocating.  After the frantic ripping of and scrunching of foil, we finally plugged all the holes.  Who knew cooking could be so harrowing.

After 20 minutes of smoking and 30 minutes of resting, the milky white, slimy skin of the chicken, that we nearly asphyxiated ourselves to make, underwhelmed us. I was, however,  prepared for this becuase many of the bloggers warned that a tan in the broiler might be necessary.  I put the sickly looking things in the “grill” (at this point I must add a side note on the “grill” which is supposed to be the broiler but since we don’t have gas ovens in the UK, it’s just the electric heating element of the oven getting extra hot and red and pretending to really do something) for 30 minutes.  This did nothing but put a little beige on them.  They went from pale white to “light skinneded” which wasn’t much better.  But every cook knows that it’s not what it looks like, it’s how it tastes that’s important.

Survey says…ehhh.  A big fat X.  They were horrible! I ate two (the second one only to confirm that they were actually as bad as I thought).  I tried to rationalize it but in the end, I decided I’d be better off with leftovers.  No flavor (despite marinating in soy sauce, ginger, garlic and rice wine for two hours) and the skin was still slimy despite being broiled (I told you that “grill” thing doesn’t work). Yes, I know I made them look tasty but the verdict – EPIC FAIL!  I took the photo before I actually ate them and this proves that you can’t even believe what you see sometimes.  The other lesson is that even the best of us have a bad dish every now and then…even little miss OCD.  Tea smoked chicken has won this round but I’m going back to my corner to regroup and next time, I’ll come back swinging.  This story isn’t over yet.

I used to love Olive Garden…then I learned the truth

If I have learned anything since moving to Europe it’s that Olive Garden is not Italian food.  I know we like to think that we’re really getting a taste of Tuscany but, take it from me, it’s closer to a  taste of Tucson than anything authentically Italian.

Mike and I fell in love with Italy the first time we went.  It was amazing how the flavors that we loved in America, like spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna and pizza were so drastically different from what we were used to.  At home, Ragu and Prego make our spaghetti sauce not Mamma back in the kitchen.  We pretend that we can taste a sweet hint of vine ripened tomatoes when in fact it’s just a bit of corn syrup and flavoring mixed in with the tomato paste.  But in Italy, in the café on the corner and in most homes, chefs and grandmas alike make fresh pasta and sauce early in the morning and allowed to simmer slowly until lunch time.  You can taste the pride that the chef put into making each bite a perfect Italian experience.   No matter where we went in Rome, the first  bite I  took of every dish my eyes would close, my shoulders would relax , and a chorus of mmm’s would escape my lips as the pure bliss of pasta goodness washed over me.

Two Italian dishes stand out as my favorite.  Spaghetti carbonara is the first.  We went to a tiny restaurant in Pisa (as in Leaning Tower of…) where there was a man whose sole job was to make pizza and bread sticks. If he’s off sick, no pizza or bread sticks for anyone that day.  He would walk around the restaurant dropping hot bread sticks into your basket while pizzas were baking in the clay wood burning stove.  The carbonara was so good that I now refuse to eat it anywhere else and I don’t make it anymore because, quite frankly, my version is sh*t compared to it.  It was creamy and eggy, and sweet and salty with pancetta all at once…just amazing.

Another one of my favorites is very different in Italy than what we’re accustomed to in America. At home layer upon layer of gooey cheese and drippy sauce are what we think of as lasagna.  A dish that, after dinner, has   been known to make more than a few pop open that button on the jeans. But in Italy, it’s a surprisingly light dish with only a couple of layers of ricotta, tomato sauce separated by egg pasta and covered in a wonderfully lovely cheese sauce. Unlike carbonara, I have figured out how to make this lasagna and it’s pretty darn close to what we had in Italy.  (Mike has told me that I can’t take the old school lasagna out of the repertoire though.)    This is a perfect dish for entertaining because, although there are lots of steps, it can be assembled ahead of time and popped in the oven before the guests arrived.  Served with rocket (arugula) and parmesan salad and garlic bread you’ll feel like you’ve just stepped into a cobbled side street in Rome.

Spicy Turkey Lasagna

Prep time – 45 minutes

Cook time – 45 minutes

Serves 8-10

Meat Filling

1 lb         Ground turkey

1 tsp      Chili flakes (more or less to taste)

½ tsp      Sage

1 tsp      Italian herb mix

¼ tsp      Garlic powder

1 tsp      Salt

¼ tsp      Paprika

¼ tsp      Black pepper

Tomato Sauce

3 tbls     Olive oil

10 -20    Fresh basil leaves (about a handful)

1            Clove garlic, chopped

2            12 – 14 oz cans chopped tomatoes

½ glass  white wine

1 tsp      sugar

¼ cup     water

Salt & pepper to taste

 Cheese Sauce

¼ cup     Butter

1             Shallot, chopped

¼ cup     Flour

1 cup     Chicken broth

1 cup     Milk

1 cup     Mozzarella cheese, shredded

½ cup     Parmesan Cheese, grated

½ tsp      Salt

½ tsp      White pepper

 Ricotta Filling

3 cups    Ricotta cheese

¼ cup     Parmesan cheese, grated

2             Eggs

Method

Preheat oven to 375(180C)

Meat filling

Heat a large high sided frying pan on medium high heat and add ground turkey and all other ingredients for meat filling.  Cook until meat has turned white with no pink showing.  Place meat in a bowl and set aside to use later.

Tomato Sauce

In the same pan used for meat filling (do not clean the pan), add olive oil and heat on medium heat.  Once hot add basil leaves and garlic and cook gently (do not burn garlic) for a minute.  Add canned tomatoes then white wine and heat until bubbling.  Once bubbling, boil for at least one minute to burn off alcohol.  Add sugar and water and then stir.  Add salt and pepper to taste, place lid on the pan and turn heat down to low to allow the sauce simmer while carrying on the rest of the recipe.

White Sauce

In a separate sauce pan, melt butter on medium high heat.  Add shallots and cook slowly until they become clear (about 3 minutes) being careful not to burn them.  Once soft, add ¼ of the flours, mix with shallot and butter.  Repeat this step by adding ¼ of the flour at a time until all flour is added.  Mix until flour turns a yellowy beige.  Begin adding chicken broth very slowly while continuously stirring the pan.

 Once all broth is added, slowly add milk stirring continuously.  Once milk is added, add ½ of mozzarella.  Stir until cheese is melted.  Melt the remaining half of mozzarella in the sauce.  Add parmesan and stir until melted.

 Once all cheese is incorporated taste and add salt and pepper. Turn heat down to very low.

Ricotta Filling

In a bowl, add ricotta, egg, and parmesan and mix well.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Putting it all together

Turn off all pans.  Bruch 2 or 3 tablespoons of the tomato sauce across the bottom of the baking pan.  Place a layer of lasagna sheets at the bottom of the pan.  Add ½ of meat filling, ½ of ricotta filling.  Cover with ½ of the remaining tomato sauce and then place another layer of lasagna sheets on top.

Repeat these steps with the second half of ingredients.  Cover the entire dish with the entire pot of white sauce.

 Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.

When done, remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Serve with rocket (arugula) and parmesan salad by mixing 1 bag of rocket, ¼ cup shaved parmesan, 2 tablespoons pine nuts, 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.

Dinner and a Movie – 2012 Style

Mike (AKA my husband) got the first paycheck from his new job, found out he passed (just barely) his anatomy exam and rode a mechanical bull without killing himself at work (yes, they had this in the office during work hours).  Each is  sufficient reason on its own to celebrate but all of them occurred on the same day so we could not pass up an opportunity to stay up past our 10:30pm bedtime.  The method of celebration…dinner and a movie.

Remember in the 90’s when movie theaters attempted to go upscale by providing a dining experience while watching the latest release.   In my small city, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, we achieved this with paper plates, plastic forks, poor service and cold food much worse than what you’d get at Burger King.  Odeon Lounge has brought this concept into the 21st century. OK so the tickets are a bit pricey (£18 per person) but so worth it.  When we arrive, the concierge ushers us like VIP’s past the peons queuing for the regular theater.  After ascending the stairs we arrive in what is about as close as it gets to our version of heaven.  A giant bar with a sparkling high brow liquor pyramid  accented by dark wood and stainless steel.  Leather seating skirt the walls paired with knee high tables and flickering tea lights. The atmosphere is like the most exclusive lounge in London.  The maître d’ gives us the lay of the land and offers us a seat while we wait for our screen to open.

The drinks menu was extensive with meticulously chosen concoctions that my husband says are indicative of a real mixologist in charge of the bar.  My drink, the Fruity Fizz, a non-alcoholic cocktail of ginger beer, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries was so good that I was a little concerned that it might just have a touch of something (but it doesn’t).  Mike’s drink, Perfect Bourbon Manhattan, was one of the best he’s had (and that’s saying something for a guy who has imbibed more than a few cocktails in his day).

About 20 minutes before the start of the show, the staff walked us into the screening room to our pre selected assigned seat.  All leather loungers make me feel like I’m on a Delta business class flight across the pond.  With a push of a button I prop my legs up and get ready to combine my two most favorite things in the world, food and film.

The British have absolutely no clue how to make movie theater popcorn.  In most theaters, movie-goers receive popcorn shipped in a big bag that’s kept in a store-room.  Teenage cashiers heap it into heated compartments at the concession stand to simulate freshness.  I’ve never seen a real popcorn popper at the cinema.  Oddly enough, the British think that butter on popcorn is an impossibly grotesque concept (despite putting butter on every type of sandwich imaginable).   The waitress brought our warm freshly popped popcorn in a lovely ceramic bowl and it was, quite possibly, the best popcorn I have ever had. Someone American must be running this joint.   We looked down about five minutes into the show to realize that only a few measly kernels remained.  You could almost hear the chirping whistle indicative of a shoot out at the OK Corral as we each eyed the last plump buttery white puffs.

A few minutes into the start of the movie our meals arrived.  The menu isn’t extensive but what’s there is meant to fancify movie food. The fish and chips  that I ordered were almost perfect.  The five crisp nuggets of white fish battered lightly and hot from the kitchen had only one problem…they lacked a dash of salt (and some hot sauce but that’s pushing it).  Unfortunately, despite pressing the waitress button a couple of times, no one ever showed up to bring me any.  Mike’s fried calamari was well seasoned and the portion was enough to fill him.  Mr. Fried Calamari Expert loved it.  One side question that I know you’re probably interested in…didn’t the waiters get in the way?  No, you barely notice them and one of the theater’s selling points is that the wait staff has uniforms made of special material to eliminate the swish-swish sound of their pants (trousers for you British) as they’re walking the floor.

Now this wasn’t a cheap evening – £37.50 for the tickets and £47 for our two meals, two drinks, popcorn, a small water and service (gratuity). Was it worth it?  Absolutely yes.  This isn’t something that most can do every weekend but, for a movie lover,  it’s a really nice way to celebrate those special times that come up in life.

Odeon Lounge

 Queensway

 London W2 4YN

 0871 224 4007