How d’you like them apples?

One of the most satisfying things about leaving behind a megalopolis of ~23 million for a rural island of ~11 thousand is being so much closer to the land where the food we eat is grown. We had a great time recently scavenging for free apples and seeing how many different uses to which we could put our little red and green treasures.

Childhood friend L and I started off hitting up our friends and acquaintances with apple trees. We took a couple afternoons, in the company of Baby A to do some very inefficient, albeit enjoyable, apple picking. Implements such as rakes, shovels, and pruning clippers were employed. Deer poo was stepped in. A writhing, wriggling infant was lugged cross-country.

Precision Apple Picking with Shovel

L’s mom and dad are the proud owners of a cider press they built from a kit many years ago. We rounded up a few extra hands one crisp, clear Sunday afternoon and had ourselves a pressing party. This was, of course, the first time my Better Half had participated in a cider pressing. He quickly became an expert apple crusher.

Twist and Turn for Cider!

Cider, Sweet Cider...

L’s mom had the bright idea to make applesauce from the crushed pulp of the squeezed apples. We tried a couple different ways. First, we boiled the pulp with an inch or two of hot water and ran the resulting soggy mess through a food mill. It wasn’t half bad! Baby A’s been eating this unsweetened wonder mixed with organic oatmeal and loving it.

The second way we made applesauce was to run the pulp, uncooked, through my mom’s Champion juicer. Side note – that machine is a beast. Mom bought it 10 or 15 years ago from a woman who was living in an old school bus. It is a solid, piece of equipment and I know she’s never regretted the purchase. It doesn’t even compare to the two juicers the Better Half got me in China. The resulting applesauce (sauce, not juice, because most of the moisture in the apples had of course already been pressed out) was naturally sweeter and more intense than the watered-down cooked version, but still pretty juicy. I cooked some of this down and spiced it up to make Apple Butter, which has been great on toast and waffles.

There were also some tasty Applesauce Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Frosting that resulted from that applesauce, and plenty more tucked away in the freezer for use throughout the Winter.

Applesauce Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Frosting

The cider itself has been amazing to drink with breakfast, and the other night I boiled several cups of it with homemade mulling spices (cinnamon, crushed nutmeg, star anise, allspice berries, whole cloves, and orange peel from my Grandma’s trees in central California). It was ah-ma-zing.

Hot Apple Cider with Mulling Spices

Next up: I’m going to try and modify a recipe for Apple Cider Pie. Yes, that’s cider pie. No actual apples involved. I’ve made it once before and it doesn’t quite fill up the pie crust, so I’m going to try to make it a tart with a shortbread crust. Stay tuned.

Masiacan (that’s ˈmeɪˌʒɪ.kən) Fish Tacos

When two cultures collide and commingle, the food is one of the first elements that gets thrown into the mix. We really are what we eat, in not only a physical, but also a social and cultural sense. In the spirit of getting back to my travelling roots (yes, I do realize how ludicrous that phrase is) I decided to try adding an Asian flair to my trusty Baja-style fish tacos.

Element 1: Ginger beer instead of Corona in the fish fry batter

Verdict: Barely perceptible difference. Not bad, though!

Element 2: Ginger-Lime-Cilantro Pico de Gallo

Verdict: A winner! Next time maybe I’ll call it coriander instead of cilantro and add lemongrass for a more Southeast Asian flair.

Element 3: Lightly pickled Baby Bok Choy instead of chopped cabbage.

Verdict: Very nice. The key is not leaving the bok choy to brine too long, as the leafy parts can get waterlogged and soggy.

Element 4: Wasabi Guacamole

Verdict: Almost as awesome as it sounds, but not quite. Maybe next time I’ll punch it up with a little more lemon juice and some minced jalapeño to even the flavors out.

Element 5: Wash ’em down with a Ginger Margarita

Verdict: Flat-out AMAZING. I used this recipe from Jean-Georges Vongerichten

I made my usual white sauce, a mixture of yogurt with a bit of mayo, cumin, lime juice, and ground red pepper.

It was a tasty experiment in fusion cooking. A few tweaks to be made, but nothing a few more fish taco dinners won’t fix!

Recipe for an Autumn Morning

I’m calling it. Summer, such as it was in Seattle this year, is officially over. Time to break out the sweaters and buy butternut squash and start leaf-watching.

I walked into my mom’s kitchen this morning and was hit smack dab in the face with the ultimate smell of autumn: German Apple Pancake.

This recipe occupies a sacred place in our family lore. It’s from The Vegetarian Epicure. Mom and Dad were once “plainclothes hippies” – vegetarians, gardeners, in touch with the planet and all. Their copy of the cookbook consistently falls open to the German Apple Pancake page. For a decade now the binding has been broken there, and there are little droplets staining the paper, souvenirs from pancakes past. My dad used to make this recipe for weekend breakfast once the good apples started to appear in the stores. No Red Delicious ever got near this recipe! We’re apple snobs in Washington.

We experimented with all kinds of varieties for the pancake topping…Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, Jonagold, and in later years, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady. The original recipe suggests Pippens, a varietal that seems to have gone the way of shag carpeting.

The pancake itself is a light, airy wonder, with no leavening, just equal parts egg, flour, and milk, with a pinch of salt thrown in. It gets baked in a seasoned cast-iron skillet, climbing up the sides of the skillet and emerging from the oven a golden pancake bowl that is crisp and airy on the sides and doughy and absorbent on the bottom. This delicacy is subsequently topped with peeled, thinly sliced apples sauteed in butter and brown sugar.

Stop. Close your eyes. Really, you need to do this. Take a minute and just imagine all those smells…melted butter, eggy pancake, apple, caramelizing brown sugar, a bit of nutmeg…THAT is my smell of autumn.

My role as a kid was always to help my dad peel the apples. I was in awe of his skill with an apple peeler. (This is how important this recipe is in my family. We don’t have potato peelers in our kitchen; we got apple peelers here.) His long, curling strips of peel far surpassed Meg Ryan’s in Sleepless in Seattle. By the time I was finished peeling one apple, one round little blurb of peel at a time, he’d already powered through the other three.

He taught me to time it just right, to start sauteing the apples just as I turned down the temperature on the oven so that both apples and pancake would be done at the same time. He taught me to hold back, be a bit patient before starting to eat, so that the juices would have time to soak into the pancake, sweetening it and adding depth to the eggy flavor.

I learned on my own never to tamper with perfection:

German Apple Pancake, as I remember it from The Vegetarian Epicure:

Pancake:
1 TB butter
3 large eggs
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup milk
pinch of salt

Topping:
4 apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
cinnamon and nutmet

Method: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Melt the butter in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, coating the bottom and sides. Mix the eggs, flour, milk, and salt in a bowl and pour into the skillet. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake ten minutes more.

Saute the apples in the remaining 1/4 cup of melted butter. When the apples are just soft, add the sugar and spices. Fill one half of the pancake bowl with apples, then fold the other half over on top.

Wait a few minutes.

Devour.

Dim Sum and Applause

We took my parents out for dim sum last week. It was an impromptu affair, as we suddenly found ourselves near the International District around lunchtime with time to kill. I’m not too familiar with the Seattle restaurant scene (in my defense, I’ve never really been an adult in this town) and phone calls to my go-to Canto-friend went unanswered (rant for a future post: why NO ONE picks up their cell phone in the States anymore) so we kinda just parked the car around 6th and Dearborn and decided to wing it.

We almost went into the promisingly named Ocean City Restaurant & Night Club when I spotted a gaggle of Canto-grandfolk chattering away animatedly on a street corner. We passed them and stopped for the light to change (this IS Seattle, after all…best not to jaywalk here). This gave me the moment’s pause I needed to muster up boldness, double back, approach the group, smile and, in my best gutteral slur greet them with a: “M’ho yisee, ngomen yiu yumcha. Bindoh ho?”

And then the heavens opened and angels sang because they didn’t give me I-Don’t-Speak-English Face. We did have to carry out the rest of the conversation in Mandarin, but they understood my opening line and directed us down the street to a place called Honey Court Seafood. The light changed, our little party of Westerners moved off down the street with many a goodbye smile and head-bob, and the Canto-grandfolk burst into a spontaneous round of applause. Really. They did!

I love Canto-grandfolk.

Honey Court doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the hubs speculated (in typical Southern China Expert Expat style) was probably owned by one of our newfound friends’ family members. He may well have been right, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t about to spoil this glorious linguistic exchange by letting my new friends see us walk into any other establishment. They might’ve thought I didn’t understand them.

The dim sum wasn’t half bad, though. In addition to the requisite har gao and shu mai and char siu bao, which were consumed too rapidly to be digitally documented, we had these:

    

Sadly, our dim sum lunch could not be considered a complete success because we were unable to procure a plate of lok bak gou 萝卜糕, which is, of course, China’s greatest contribution to the culinary arts. This, along with eliminating the opportunity to practice food characters, is why I’m not a fan of the dim sum cart system. Oh well.

A couple days later, we were telling a Cantonese 华侨 friend about our dining adventure (and my linguistic triumph). His only question: “How long did you wait in line?”

No more than five or ten minutes, we told him.

He snorted. “Food must not have been good, then. Good place, you wait hour, maybe hour and half.”

I’ll do better next time.

Successful Fried Rice…At Last!

After numerous previous attempts, I have finally succeeded in making the best fried rice ever. Thank you, Lifeskills Master JP Villanueva.

In an attempt to ease my sandwich-hating husband’s lunchtime hunger pains, I threw a couple of mashed garlic cloves, some leftover rice, a pork chop, a couple handfuls of carrot, and a bit of cilantro (it’s healthier if you add something green) in the requisite “screaming hot wok.” Dropped an egg in, too, for good measure.

And ’cause I AM hard-core, I stirred and let it all sit in the wok with the gas dialed all the way up to High. The result: crunchy yumminess!

Best fried rice I’VE ever made…paired it with Black-Eyed Pea and Sweet Potato stew the hubby had whipped up the day before for a complete Afrasian lunch.

This was the crunchiest rice we’ve had since the 4 kuai clay pot wonder-rice in the dirty labyrinth of alleyways populated by poor university students behind the 广州东站. Wish I had photos of that place. We may have been the only foreigners the shopkeepers had ever seen. The eateries were tiny. Short-plastic-stools-and-no-tables tiny, and the kitchens were even tinier. You could choose the meats and veggies from a display tray to have tossed in your clay pot of rice. I remember having Chinese sausage, shitake mushrooms, and spring onions. Amazing. The Better Half took me there while we were still dating. It’s clear why I married him, isn’t it?

GPS and Prenatal Care

It seems that while I was navigating my way around subway systems abroad, a GPS service became de rigueur back in the US of A. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

See, I’m kind of a map fiend. I love maps. Love them. I don’t care if the map is of a place I’ve never been, or don’t particularly want to visit. I don’t even care if they’re accurate or not. Some of my favorite maps ever are the ones from the 18th and 19th centuries. Apparently the continents looked different back then. Nothing pains me more than throwing away a perfectly good map, as my better half will attest. He’s learning to live with all sorts of clutter.

The thing is, though, I’m really good at reading a maps. I think that being able to intuitively feel which way is north is a very important lifeskill, one that everyone should acquire if at all possible. Couple this instinct with a decent map, and you’ll never be lost for long. Even the time you spend a bit turned around is time well spent, as it helps fix those streets, landmarks, what have you, in their relative position in your mental map of a city.

I digress. GPS services. I kind of hate them, and even though I do recognize their usefulness in some situations, like figuring out how the heck to get on the West Seattle Bridge from downtown since they closed the Spokane Street onramp and neglected to change the signs, I confess to (often) talking back to the woman with the grating voice and to thinking myself wiser than she. My major objection to most GPS services is their assumption that I will just blindly, with complete disregard for the bigger picture, follow their commands as to what I ought to do next. It reminds me of my prenatal care experience in China.

There are lots of babies born in China every day. This means there are lots of pregnant women, which in turn means that even hospitals that specialize in prenatal care and birth are very crowded places. The administration of these hospitals deals with the issue by instituting policies that take expectant mothers through doctors’ visits that vaguely resemble circuit training. You check in with Registration so they know you’re there and are issued some sort of a number that will be important later. Then you go to Area A, take a number, wait your turn, get your blood pressure checked. Go to Area B, take a number, wait your turn, get a little test tube, go down the hallway and give a urine sample. Then you head on over to Area C, or sometimes back to Area A or maybe even up to Area D, to take another number and have some other test done. When you’re done with all your tests for the day, that first number gets you in to see your doctor, who looks at all your results, tells you to eat the blandest food humanly possible, and asks you to teach him two new medical terms in English.

The problem with this very orderly system, as it pertained to me, was that I never knew where I was supposed to go next. My medical Chinese is, um, not very advanced, and I don’t do well in crowds, so these were very stressful occasions for me. I made the mistake once or twice of asking WHY I should go to a certain department. On every occasion, the staff were so flummoxed by this question that they would put down what they were doing and say, “OK. I’ll take you there myself.” I soon realized that I couldn’t possibly beat them. I had to join them. So every visit, I would go to my usual starting point, find the friendliest-looking orderly, hand her my little book and say, “Where do I go now?” Once that task was done, I’d ask the orderly on hand, “OK, where do I go next?” As a coping device, I gave up on the big picture.

By my eighth month of pregnancy, I had finally figured out the routine and had started preparing for each visit by looking up whichever handwritten characters were decipherable in the doctor’s instructions from the previous visit. This way, I was able to map out an approximation of what indignities I’d be subjecting myself to that day. Still, by not insisting on an explanation of the big picture I had wasted tons of time and caused myself more stress that I certainly didn’t need.

My concern here is that GPS, like many other demonstrations of modern technology, is nothing more than a coping device, and that in relying too heavily on it we are giving up our critical thinking skills. Why? is the most powerful and the most important question I know, and the answer to it lies somewhere in between the big picture and the next step.

Breakfast and cultural identity

So yesterday I’m following a one-armed used car salesman around the car lot with my fussy daughter on one hip. I’m speaking to her in Spanish, ’cause I’m pretentious like that, and we want to expose her to all the languages we speak, and ’cause when she’s understandably fussy my natural inclination is to speak to her in the most tender language I know. Plus, the salesman’s heavy accent reminds me that I ought to be speaking more Spanish to her. Sometimes I forget.

Anyway, he overhears me and asks where my husband is from, assuming he must be the reason this güera speaks passable Spanish. No, mi esposo es africano, I tell him. So how come you speak Spanish, he wants to know. En mi corazón soy mexa, I reply. Tapatía, de hecho. I explain that I spent five and a half years in Mexico, most of that time in Guadalajara, and really came to identify with that city. Turns out he’s from Guada, too. I would have called him paisa if I’d liked him more. Smarmy used-car sales guy.

I was thinking about that statement this morning as I made breakfast. For a long time I have asserted that what people choose to eat for the first meal of the day is a true indicator of their dominant culture. Your average North American might be a very adventurous eater when it comes to lunch or dinner, but we really tend to stick to what’s familiar when it comes to the most important meal of the day. Why is imported boxed cereal so outrageously expensive in stores that cater to expats? They know they’ve got us right where they want us.

The Better Half, incidentally, shoots down this theory. He couldn’t care less what he eats for breakfast. He has, in fact, developed an affinity — bordering on obsession — for maple syrup since our marriage. He’ll make French toast just so he can douse his plate in maple syrup. Still, there is no way anyone would claim that his dominant culture is North American. He believes himself physically incapable of eating a sandwich for lunch two days in a row. If he goes more than a week without some egwusi or ogbono and fufu, you can tell something’s wrong. It’s like his world is just slightly off-balance and he has trouble being his usual wonderful self.

Back to my breakfast. If you were to ask me what my favorite breakfast food is, I wouldn’t have to think about the answer for even a second.

Chilaquiles rojos, with queso fresco, a little bit of cremita, and un huevo estrellado. OK, the ones in the picture are verdes, but this photo looked the most appetizing. To my way of thinking, there can be no better breakfast food. Now, ask me when was the last time I partook of this soul-soothing dish that makes such a bold statement about how I view myself and who I think I am… I couldn’t even tell you. It’s not like it’s that hard to prepare, but in the mornings, I just can’t be bothered.

Sigh. Better finish off my English muffin…which I’m really enjoying, by the way. Those things were hard to come by in China, outside of McDonald’s.