November 2006

I played around with a new template for the blog — what do you think of the new format?


We celebrated a small version of Thanksgiving yesterday with our next-door neighbors. I got to enjoy my second day off in country in nine months, and Danny only had to work half a day, so it was a red-letter day on all accounts. The dinner was overall a great success, although there was one small tragedy in the form of my pecan pie…but more on that later.

I’ve included some pictures below of the various stages of preparation — we had to use a bit of ingenuity to get around our logistical limitations here. We joked that we have a talent for creating Thanksgiving in challenging situations. Although this year was certainly more challenging in terms of acquiring ingredients (we managed to get a turkey “thigh roast” from the marines to supply the main dish, and Danny had to scrounge up every celery stick on the salad bar in order to make the stuffing), we have previously made Thanksgiving for seven in a kitchen that didn’t even have a full-size oven (I think it was 2/3 life-sized so to speak).
In order to get cornbread stuffing (something that we agree on, luckily, is that stuffing should always start with cornbread), we made corn muffins in our toaster oven first as our real oven was occupied with the aforementioned pecan pies. This actually worked surprisingly well, especially since our toaster has been much used and abused in the six and a half years we’ve been married. After the muffins were done we crumbled them and dried them, along with some bread for texture, in the oven a bit, added the sauteed onions and celery and herbs, and produced something that tasted remarkably like normal stuffing.
I will have to get a copy of the picture of our solution as to how to cook the several pounds of boneless turkey thigh meat and stuffing without a roasting pan, but until then you’ll have to imagine it. We used one square Pyrex baking dish (like one would use for brownies or sheet cake) and one square ceramic pot of sorts (like what you would use for casseroles…it has a glass lid). We put a layer of stuffing on the bottom, and topped it off with the meat in order to simulate the stuffing that comes out of the turkey, which is Danny’s favorite. We had not bet on how much juice is produced by thigh meat, however, and about half-way through had to pull the turkey off the top, drain some of the juice off the stuffing, which was swimming, and bake them separately for the remainder of the time. Thanks to the abundant amount of juice, we actually had enough to make real gravy with only a little bit of help from a turkey gravy packet.
So other than our turkey and stuffing, we had mashed potatoes, fresh bread courtesy of our neighbor, canned green beans and cranberry jello (also courtesy of our neighbors). Our neighbor also brought a pumpkin pie, which came out perfectly.

Ah, but the pecan pies. They’re Danny’s favorite, so I was very excited to be able to surprise him with them — my parents sent me the requisite ingredients, which arrived on Tuesday just in time. As they baked they looked amazing, and I was thoroughly excited to get to try them.
Not having ever made pecan pie myself before, I was a little disturbed that they didn’t seem to be solidifying as quickly as I expected underneath the beautiful brown crust on top, but I figured maybe it was just that I hadn’t really paid attention before. After all, I followed the instructions exactly.
I forgot about the altitude. We’re at almost 7000 feet elevation here. I may have noted before that this small detail wreaked havoc with my first attempts at brownies, but for some reason I didn’t think about that fact that it might affect my beloved pecan pies. As you can see, what happened is that underneath the beautiful brown crust was a pool of syrup. Very tasty syrup, mind you, but hardly the texture I was going for. So Danny gamely ate part of the crust and the top part of the pie, but the rest of us steered clear of the pecan pie soup.
I will note, however, that I have come an awfully long way from when we were first married in terms of my ability to cope with such unexpected culinary disasters. Had this happened a few years ago, I would definitely have been in tears and throwing things, inconsolable about my failure to produce a “Southern Living” quality pecan pie despite whatever practical reason there was for said failure (such as an altitude that takes two weeks for a human to adjust to before one can walk up stairs without be winded, let alone an unsuspecting pecan pie). As it was, I was cranky for about half an hour and then was able to laugh about the fate of my poor pies.

I still plan to finish going through the rest of our last R&R in China (of course, at this rate we’ll be going on our next one before I finish telling you about our last one!), but don’t have time this morning to actually sit down and go through the guide book to remember all of the places in Hong Kong that we really loved. The one observation I wanted to make is how much of a shock the difference between a dry season and a wet season can be in a place like this. Before a couple of weeks ago, it hadn’t rained since about May, and all of a sudden now it’s 45 degrees and raining every third day or so. Quite an adjustment from walking out the door every day knowing that the only question was whether it was going to be 80 or 100 that day to all of a sudden have to remember things like umbrellas and jackets and other logistical concerns!

I remember from when we lived in Turkey that the change was pretty sudden and permanent, but years of living in the DC area where every season begins with several weeks of one step forward and two steps back to sort of ease one into the change. I went on TDY two weeks ago and brought only thin long-sleeve shirts, and by the time I was sitting on the (not very insulated) plane coming back, I was cursing myself for not remembering that the temperatures would drop an average of 15 degrees pretty much overnight. So now I’m digging out our sweaters and jackets and trying to remember where the heck we put our rain gear six months ago when we last needed it…

Obviously, for someone who loves Chinese food as much as I do, one of the main attractions of a vacation to China was the food — and it certainly didn’t disappoint. A couple of general observations about Chinese food in China before I list some of the restaurants we liked the most:
– as my sister observed, it’s sort of surprising how much Chinese food in China is like Chinese food at home. That sounds strange to say, but I somehow expected that it would be radically different or more authentic tasting or something.
– Chinese food in China is NOT less greasy than Chinese food in the U.S. — if anything, it has more oil in it
– there’s a lot of fresh cilantro in Beijing style food. We love cilantro, so we were pretty happy about that, but it initially came as a bit of a surprise.
– vegetables are incorporated in a lot of dishes, but there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of just raw vegetables or vegetables without sauces. I was sort of craving a salad by the end of the week.
– Chinese people do eat pretty much everything with chop sticks, but they also “cheat” a lot by doing things like bringing bowls right up to their mouths and sort of shoveling things like rice in, instead of trying to pick it up and bring it to their mouths like we tend to do when eating with forks. I’m sure there were plenty of people laughing at us while we tried to sit up straight and not drop rice grains all over the table until we figured that little trick out.

It would be an exercise in futility to try to write about every place we ate, so I’ll just hit some of the highlights:

Makye Ame: This is one of the first restaurants we went to in Beijing, maybe even the very first, although I don’t remember now. It’s a Tibetan restaurant, and we had read about it in our guide book. The food was really good — we had mushrooms and a mutton dish that was cooked with hot stones in a chili sauce. The fermented barley drink that Danny ordered was quite funky, but everything else was really very good. The ambiance was the best part — it’s on the second story overlooking a park, and the inside has exposed wooden beams and traditional Tibetan textiles and things on the walls. There was a musical group there practicing while we ate, and whatever song it was that they played about nine hundred times periodically got stuck in our heads for the rest of the trip, usually because Danny would start singing it to drive me crazy. 🙂

Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant: There are two branches of this restaurant in Beijing, but the one we ate at is located in a park that was right near our hotel. We ate on the roof, so got to enjoy the perfect weather while we ate. The food was fantastic — I had a fried tofu dish, Danny had some sort of beef something (I really shouldn’t have waited this long to write this…), and we also got some really good sauteed greens. We decided to try something different and order a Chinese white wine, which was actually pretty good, although neither one of us are so into white wines that we really know the difference.

Green Tea House: This was one of two restaurants that were recommended to me by someone who used to live in Beijing, and it was amazing. The sort of restaurant that I would expect to find in New York — very hip and stylish, with everything presented in some really unique way. The menu is arranged like a play, with various acts, and the restaurant is very theatrical in the way it’s decorated — white floors, ceilings and walls, with stark black furniture. There was a seating area up next to the windows that was basically like a really wide window seat with padded cushions and low tables, which is where we sat. It was definitely a wee bit on the pretentious side, but the food was phenomenal. I’ve attached a link to the website so you can check it out:

Courtyard: This was the second restaurant that was recommended to us, and it too was well worth finding. It overlooks the walls of the Forbidden City, and has a sort of nouveau French/European cuisine. The restaurant is also a gallery, and the wine list was incredibly impressive. The most memorable part of the meal for me was the foie gras brulee, which I’m now obsessed with getting our chef friend to recreate for me some day. It was basically a chilled layer of foie gras on top of a piece of some sort of bread, and on top was a layer of caramelized sugar just like a creme brulee. Sounds a bit strange probably, but it was so silky and rich and the crunch of the sugar was a great contrast.

Tiandi Yijia: This was one of the last restaurants we ate in, and the only upscale Chinese restaurant. We tried an aged rice wine, which was interesting but not something we’d probably do again. We also tried shark fin (the texture is a lot like glass noodles, actually, which was not what I was expecting) and abalone (not bad, but definitely not worth what they charge for it, the texture is sort of like a rubbery scallop). The inside of the restaurant was really beautiful, though, it’s a traditional courtyard-style setup with fountains and potted plants and statues scattered throughout.

Niuge Jiaozi: This is the place that got Danny totally hooked on jiaozi. They had a huge selection, we had one with egg and vegetables inside, one with beef and one with lamb, and all of them were made fresh in the kitchen after we ordered. They were really very good — very fresh tasting and not so doughy that we were full after only a few. A dumpling lunch is definitely not something I’d want to do if I had to work afterward, though…we were walking around all afternoon and were still pretty sleepy for a while.

Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant: This was the second of two duck restaurants that we ate in, but of course I can’t remember the name of the first one. The first one was a pretty typical touristy duck restaurant, except that it didn’t have English menus. We also ended up on the fast food side, which we realized later, and that may have been why it was sort of a utilitarian experience. The duck was definitely good, but I liked the duck at the second restaurant, Beijing Dadong, better because they somehow trim most of the fat out before they cook it. It still has a really crispy skin and a rich flavor, but my mouth didn’t feel coated with duck fat the way it did after the first place. The other interesting thing was that at Beijing Dadong they brought out a little bowl of sugar as one of the condiments (along with the traditional duck sauce and scallions and such), and told us that it was traditional in the imperial court to dip the crispy skin parts in the sugar. I have to admit, even though it sounded strange at first it tasted very good — the crunchy skin and fat and the sugar somehow made a very good combination.