Andi’s Candies!

I know I usually restrict myself to writing about the flavours of China and the arts here, but with Mid-Autumn Festival (in all its hockey-puck-of-a-mooncake glory) coming so late this year (10.3) and what with there being so much to celebrate right now, I wanted to share my mother’s fabulous recipe for saltine brittle.

This weekend marked the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Eid al-Fitr, and tomorrow brings the Autumnal Equinox, the oxymoron of earth holidays marking the demarcation between light and darkness, celebrating the bounty of the harvest and preparing for the stillness of the land. The resonation of this change within echoes with each increasingly brisk breeze reddening sun-browned skin, with bright eyes that follow the path of each leaf from branch to soil and belie the annual darkness with firelight and vivid pumpkins on the front walk, with smoky warmth and roasted root vegetables, with cider mulled with warming spices and sweetness simmering on the stove.

For many, this day of balance is a time of reflection, a time to take stock of the important events of the past year and to think about filling mental reserves with good things to carry us through the darkness. As I reflect, I remember and love and am grateful, and tonight and tomorrow, with good things of the earth simmering in the kitchen, and candlelight dancing on the walls, will I spend time with those who are beloved and send love, deep and rich, to those whom the firelight cannot touch.

So here is my mother’s recipe, sure to please across cultures and times, and making a lovely gift nestled in tupperware and wrapped with festive ribbons that pay homage to the colours of the season.


Andi’s Candies

1 box regular Saltine crackers
1 regular size bag milk chocolate chips
1 cup (2 sticks) of salted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 handfuls (1 small bag) sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Cover a baking sheet (preferably one with sides) with a sheet of tinfoil. Line the crackers up in a pale checkerboard across the entire sheet, breaking them to fill in gaps on the sides if necessary.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and sugar together over medium high heat, stirring fairly constantly for about 5 minutes. Once these ingredients have coalesced satisfactorily (no skim of butter liquid remaining on the surface), slowly pour the contents of the pan over the sheet of crackers. Using a spatula, gently spread the caramel over all of the crackers.

Put the caramel crackers in the oven for 5 minutes (and not a second longer!); the caramel will be bubbly and hot over the crackers. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and pour the bag of milk chocolate chips evenly over the caramel, using the spatula to smooth the chocolate as it melts. Crush the sliced almonds in your hands over the chocolate, gently patting with the back of a spoon to encourage them to stick to the chocolate.

Let the brittle cool until the chocolate has solidified, then peel the brittle away from the tinfoil, breaking it into manageable pieces as you go.

This sticky warming toffee has pleased palates from Chengdu to Chicago, and is deceptively easy to make. I’ll be serving it tonight with roast chicken and bold yellow potatoes and sending some in simple packages to the office tomorrow.

Wishing you a First Day of Fall filled with balance, breathing and bone-deep joy.
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鱼香茄子

This weekend, for the first time since returning, I tested my memory on a classic Sichuan dish, 鱼香茄子 – Yuxiang Qiezi (Fish-fragrant Eggplant). Now, a hundred little noodle shops will have a hundred different preparations, but I wanted to share this seriously fantastic vegetarian interpretation that struck me so honestly of China I was stunned back into standing in wonderful-smelling, oil-smoked kitchens with the loud PAH of vegetables slapping into woks crashing like waves against my ears.

Ingredients
3 Asian Eggplants, quartered twice lengthwise and sliced into thirds
Peanut Oil, about 3-fingers-worth in your wok
Stock of some sort (I used organic mushroom, but regular veggie or College Inn chicken broth would work just as well), perhaps 8-12 oz
Hoisin Sauce, three generous tablespoonfulls
Soy Sauce, a generous and prolonged swirl
Rice Vinegar, a fast splash, perhaps 4-6 oz
Sesame Oil, a careful 2 drops
Brown Sugar, a loose handful
Chili Seeds, shaken out of perhaps 13 dried chilies; I suppose a handful of red pepper flakes would suffice here
Garlic, an entire medium head, crushed
Ginger, a root the size of your hand, finely minced
Scallions, 3 or 4 bunches, thickly chopped

Preparation
1. Heat oil on high in wok until a chili seed dropped therein begins to sizzle
2. Toss a handful of eggplant strips into the hot oil (stay well back)
3. As the eggplant browns, remove fried eggplants from hot oil with a slotted spoon and deposit them on a paper-towel lined plate to drain slightly before adding more raw eggplants to oil.
4. Once all the eggplants are fried and set to drain, pour oil into a heat-safe container for disposal (there will be a bit of oil left in the wok. no worries)
5. Turn heat to medium high, add remainder of ingredients in one fell swoop and stir to mix
6. Immediately add eggplants and stir gently to coat. Cook until it starts to bubble, stirring occasionally with a wok spatula.
7. Serve hot over rice. (Reheats well, but disintegrates.)

Enjoy!

The Duck Restaurant

Every so often – and more often than not – I’ll go on a Top Chef kick and enjoy multi-hour marathons while crafting or knitting or mapmaking. These extravaganzas inspire an already sensually foodie disposition to go on a bit of a mental rampage of menus and ideas and textures and flavours – none of which I’ve ever been trained to do, of course. Can I get that perfect crisp sear on a scallop which I remember melting on my tongue (with a rich truffle butter) in Parallax – visit http://www.parallaxtremont.com/ – so long ago? Probably not without tons of practise … even supposing I could find fresh diver scallops in southern Illinois any time of year. Could I create a casein-free risotto crisped in an oven to the tremulous crackling texture of the softshell crabs I had in Galveston with my beautiful sister last summer? Not a chance; even if I could replicate the chemistry with a soymilk product, I’d more likely than not burn the whole thing in the 30 seconds between just about and offal.

Buttery savoury pumpkin seeds, I can manage. I whipped out four fabulous separate curries today of such different feels and flavours it staggered me at the versatility and chemical makeup of spices. My scones speak of quiet rainy mornings with a cup of tea and a really engaging book – and even my herbed winter breads are becoming more useful for slathering spiced butter upon and less for using as blunt projectile missiles.

It’s about the process, right?

But tonight I’m reminiscing about this incredible little restaurant up the mountainous back streets of Fuling – not so far from the quintessential hotpot place which at some point will merit multiple entries of its own. Mm, every restaurant in China seemed to have a couple of things they did so extraordinarily well – garlicky mushroom jiaozi (dumplings), sweet and sour spareribs, incredibly thin griddle cakes sliced and lightly filled with this wonderful rich pork concoction that tickled every taste bud simultaneously. Here’s a tip – never choose from the menu when dining with people who are familiar with the place; follow their lead. Your favourite dish could sour in your mind in an instant, while sugarless rice crispie bars sizzling under hot seafood sauce could make you fall in love all over again. That’s because there are literally thousands of ways to make everything.

And what I’m craving tonight, with it’s crispy bites and tender meat melting off the bones and possessively flavourful sauces – so long as you AVOID biting into whole huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns) – is the duck restaurant.

Fuling is a deceptively large city. To me, it always felt like my community, a manageable, homey, familiar walk across tall bridges and tiled streets. But it’s really this sprawling labyrinth of awesomeness, and my time there could never have been enough to explore all its nooks and crannies.

When you doubled back after arriving at Gaosuntang, the slick red and green tiled sidewalks wound upward past plumbing supply shops and noodle joints, and I think a couple of karaoke establishments. And eventually, on the left, up a flight of stairs, was this little classy slice of heaven – the duck restaurant.

I can’t remember if I went first in a relaxed evening with Fengling and Shea, or in a regimented banquet with Liu Min and family. What I do remember is a basket lined with parchment and fragrant with a crispy-skinned flash-fried whole duck, still sizzling. It was like finding the doppelganger of Rodhe’s bucket chicken (http://www.rodhesiga.com/)

Photo from http://www.rodhesiga.com/ in Millersburg, Ohio

Photo from http://www.rodhesiga.com/ in Millersburg, Ohio

except so uniquely foreign. That fantastic crunch of perfectly crisped skin, and the dark succulence of meat underneath – nothing but buttery seafood, fine chocolate and hot duck really emulates that melting in the mouth experience.

The reason, of course, that we called it the duck restaurant – which, by the way, is not even a little helpful when directing taxi drivers – is because all of their main dishes were centered around that protein. The other dish I remember that makes my blood thicken and sing in my veins was this deep brown sugary, savoury stew comprised of thick chunks of duck meat which had been marinating and cooking for hours and so were not only incredibly tender and hearty, but also intense bursts of this indescribable flavour – dark sugar and soy and starch and spice. There were potatoes in the stew as well, which were equally tender and flavour-filled and cannot in any way be discounted.

I wish I could do justice to the flavours I’m trying to convey here. Better yet – I wish I could replicate them. It will be enjoyable to go back and do the research, but with the rapidity of change in China right now, what exists one moment may be something completely different the next, and I don’t know how it would make me feel to go back and find my city a paragon to growth, my favourite restaurant replaced with a skimpy clothing store, my salon a repository for lighting fixtures.

I tried to find some photographs of things I remember from my Fuling, but all google roads seem to lead to Peter Hessler, and try as I might, I can’t find any of my Fuling in any of his visions and rambling.

I don’t really want to.

I want to savour my bittersweet memories without the numbing awfulness of huajiao brimming in my throat. I want to remember balancing on the slick sidewalk tiles in the rain in my practical flats, while professional women with four-inch stilettos glided all around me.

And it was gliding – I think that might have been something that marked me as foreign much more than my long yellow hair or my stilted accent or my baffling habit of working through xiuxi (siesta – what was I thinking?!) – I speedwalked everywhere. It wasn’t until my feet were back on U.S. terra firma that I actually felt the climate of time from my Fuling affect me. Perfect bloody timing then, to move with studied grace and the complete understanding that time is fluid and alinear now that I’d returned to a world of schedules and traffic and screaming electronic devices. A world where punctuality isn’t just a virtue, it’s a given.

And so it’s good to remember long evenings spent laughing over shot glasses of lukewarm beer and a plate of duck mandibles. And that’s the image with which I’m leaving you tonight – a plate of fried duck heads. And I know that will make some of you recoil. But imagine, if you would, just for a moment, finding that intense comfort and faint reminiscence of home in something so otherworldly – and just how bone-deep good that would feel.

Fabio & Pork Fat

After failing so miserably tonight to reproduce Fabio’s Beef Carpaccio(http://recipes.mt.bravotv.com/top_chef/season_5_1/episode_2_2/beef_tenderloin_carpaccio.php), I spent some time ruminating on my home cooking in China. As I sliced the beautiful ribeye I’d chosen to attempt the carpaccio, the wide ribbons of creamy fat reminded me starkly of one of my favourite dishes in China, a sweet and savoury stirfry of pork belly and lotus root.

While some may remember my harrowing tales of learning to skin pork during my first year in China, others hearken to my myriad attempts to find fresh, whole lotus root in the Midwest. Last week, at a Chinese shop in Peoria, I found not only kong xin cai – a lovely aldante-spinach-like vegetable I ate almost daily stirfried with a glove of garlic crushed under the flat of my cleaver, but also fresh lotus root, which in our dialect was pronounced “Oh!”

To the great sorrow of my bottom heart, every last piece of Ou was rotted and knarled, nothing crisp and cream-coloured and geometrically-sound like I could find on any given day back home. Even in the dead of winter, when nothing green could be found in any market outside the city, Ou florished. The lotus root is one tough son-of-a-bitch, barely breakable, connecting the lotus flowers which float atop the still water to the nutrients below by a long, and surprisingly strong, stem. I’ve seen people tip their boats trying to unearth those stems.

So that which I cannot find in the most authentic of markets here, served there any time I wanted to add a crunch to a hot dish.

There are many many favourite dishes made by others I enjoyed in China, but here is one of my own favourite recipes.

Pork Belly & Candied Lotus Root

Remove the tough skin from one long slice of pork belly (if not already done). Cut into rough cubes, taking care to preserve the fat. (Fat is such a facinating thing, disgusting and rigid when cold, juicy and flavourful when warm.) Drop the cubes into a wok with very hot peanut oil swirling around the bottom. You can tell how hot the oil is in a wok by how fast it moves when you shift the wok. Listen to the lovely “pah” that is distinguishable from every other sound – that of some substance containing water hitting a hot pan of oil. Add a dash of salt. Stir until the pork belly is showing some white, then begin adding brown sugar, a little at a time, stirring it in until the peanut oil and pork oil and sugar have created a thin caramel. Add the Ou. Turn down the heat to medium high or so and stir often until the pork can be easily halved with the metal flat of the spatula blade and the Ou is satisfactorally coated with caramel. (Add more brown sugar is necessary.)

Then it’s ready. You don’t even have to serve it over rice. In fact, I liked to have it with a semi-sweet pound cake (the American version is probably that “sweet” French bread you see in groceries) to sop up the savoury sweet juices. The crunchy, sugary lotus root was the perfect counterpoint to the thick juicy cubes of pork, and especially lovely with a cold Snow beer on a 115F degree day, and a good book held open with a knife on the table beside you.

Somethings never change, no matter where you are.