Palatial Bookstore & Braised Cauliflower

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Audrey and I found the most amazing book store today within a few blocks from our hotel.  It is called Alexandra Bookstore.  We later learned that Alexandra is a chain of bookstores and the one we came upon is located in an Art Nouveau building that was once the Paris Department Store.  The café on the third floor, Lotz-Terem, is decorated with beautiful chandeliers and a fresco-style ceiling, painted by Károly Lotz, a prominent 19th century artist of German origin who lived and worked in Budapest.  I have been to many bookstores around the world and this is certainly one of the most palatial and grandiose.  What’s most interesting is that bottles of wine are sold along side the books — what splendid intoxication of the senses and the mind.

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Since we couldn’t read most of the books there, we browsed for a while and then had lunch in the cafe.  Sitting there sipping my coffee, I felt as if I entered a time capsule of an earlier era.  The atmosphere of the entire space suggests a reverence for books — I suppose reverence is not really the right word — one is simply reminded of the wonderful pleasure of reading.  I am so glad that we wandered in by chance.  I see myself going back there again and again in the months ahead.

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In the past few days of exploring the city, I found that the people here truly appreciate their authors or at least they did.  I have seen streets, restaurants, parks, and even dental buildings named after them.  I have also seen bronze statues of Hungarian writers all over the city.  I would google the name of a statue that I passed by and quite a few times it was an author.

Palace-like bookstores and streets named after authors — for someone who loves books, how can I not fall for this city?

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People also revere their musicians here. Audrey imagining Liszt as her piano teacher.

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Audrey getting chummy with a famous Hungarian author on the bench.

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After days of heavy restaurant food, Audrey and I stayed in our apartment and cooked some vegetables for dinner.  Since I only have the most basic ingredients, I made this simple braised cauliflower and bell pepper with olive oil, garlic and spaghetti sauce.  It’s quite delicious.  There is no measuring tools in the little kitchenette.  I cooked in the old fashioned way — by tasting the food until it was perfect for me.

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Braised Cauliflower

Ingredients:

1 small cauliflower, florets of

1 large red bell pepper, diced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

Olive oil

Spaghetti sauce

Salt

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Preparation:

Heat olive oil on medium high.  When the oil is hot, add crushed garlic and stir until aromatic.  Add cauliflower and bell pepper and sauté for about 4 to 5 minutes.  Add salt and continue to stir for a couple of minutes.  Add water and close the lid for 3 to 5 minutes depending on how soft you like your cauliflower.  If you like it on the crispy side, shorten the cook time.  If your cauliflower is large, sauté in two batches.  Add spaghetti sauce and stir until all liquid is absorbed.  Serve immediately.

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Audrey said that she would read more and love reading more if she could read her books here.

Pork Knuckle in Budapest

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Budapest is one of the loveliest cities that I have been — rich history, beautiful architecture, delicious cuisine and friendly people — what more could one ask for?  I have been doing costume fitting and script read-through in the past few days, but Audrey and I have also been exploring the city when I have free time, mostly on foot.  We walked so much that one of her wedge sandals broke today just when we arrived at the Four Season’s Hotel for lunch.  The top of the sandal separated almost completely from the sole and Audrey had to hop into the swanky lobby dragging a broken shoe.  It was quite hilarious and embarrassing at the same time. 

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from Audrey

We sat down in the restaurant and asked the waiter for duct tape, but he didn’t understand what we were saying and thought it was a food item that was not on the menu.  Thank goodness for Google Translate that we found duct tape in Hungarian: szövetbetétes ragasztószalag.  Audrey taped the sandal to her foot and kept the rest of the tape in her purse, just in case. 

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For lunch, we ordered the special of the day — pork knuckle with pearl onion and baby potatoes. It was absolutely delicious.  Budapest is a city of carnivores, where vegetarian choices are somewhat limited.  Audrey has eschewed her vegetarianism since we arrived and is now eating meat with a vengeance. 

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Bread in Europe is really, really good. Here it is served on a hot stone to keep it warm and toasty.

In the market near our hotel, we saw fresh pork bones and decided to make bone broth for a lentil soup for dinner.  Next to the lentil bean packages, I saw something that looked like oat bran or wheat bran and bought one to cook breakfast porridge.  After I made a big pot of bone broth and sautéd some chopped onion and carrots, I poured the vegetable and the lentil in.  And then, at a whim, I added about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of what I thought was oat bran or wheat bran to the soup.  Much to my surprise, the soup turned into a gloppy elastic consistency and texture that would roll off the utensil.  I quickly googled the words on the package: utifu maghej, and it turned out to be Psyllium husk, a plant seed husk that is used as a laxative in this part of the world. Good thing I checked.

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Tired after gluttonous eating

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Working off the pork knuckles in the pool. The pool and the spa in the hotel was the inspiration of the original novella of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Blackened Halibut with Nectarine Salsa & Budapest

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Leaving home for the airport

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Lunch at the airport lounge

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The hotel has stocked the kitchenette with snacks and essential ingredients such as olive oil and salt.  Will visit the local market in the next few days.

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Audrey and I arrived Budapest yesterday after a long flight with a transit in Frankfurt.  We went to bed early and woke up this morning before 2 am.  There is a little kitchenette in the hotel suite where we are staying and we made pasta and sandwiches in the middle of the night.  I travel quite a bit amongst different time zones, but I have never yet found a cure for jet lag  the necessary evil of arriving at an exciting location on another continent. I suppose the jet lag is a part of the global trotting experience; the 3 am dinner followed by the 6:30 am breakfast buffet is the dawn of a great adventure. Audrey and I may look and feel like zombies right now, but we have so much to look forward to and so much to explore in the the days ahead.

The day before we left San Francisco, I made blackened halibut with nectarine salsa for dinner.  The blackened fish was adapted from skinnytaste, one of my favorite cooking website for healthy food.

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Nectarine Salsa Ingredients:

4 large nectarines, pit removed and diced

8 campari tomatoes, diced

1/4 sweet onion, diced

1 habanero, seeded and finely minced

1/2 packed cup chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon xylitol or sugar

2 tablespoon lime juice

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

Mix all ingredients and let stand for 30 minutes before serving.

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Ingredients for Blackened Halibut:

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp dry mustard

1/4 tsp (1/2 tsp for spicier) ground cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground oregano

1/8 tsp black pepper

1 lb skinless cod or halibut filet

1/2 lime, juiced

cooking spray

8 corn tortillas

lime wedges for serving

1/2 lime, cut into wedges

Mix the dried spices and seasoning together in a small bowl, squeeze the lime on the fish then rub the seasoning onto fish.

Heat a cast iron skillet on grill or stove on high heat till really hot. Spray with nonstick oil spray. Cook until opaque in the center and well browned on the outside, about 5 minutes on each side.

Top fish with salsa and serve.

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Avocado and Mango Salsa

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I’m beginning to pack for my trip to Budapest to start Marco Polo season 2.  Though I will be away from my kitchen, I will be exploring eastern European cuisine when I am in Hungary and Slovakia, and collecting recipes to try on weekends.  I will continue to share my travel and work experiences with you, with an emphasis on food, of course.

I found this delicious salsa recipe on one of my favorite cooking website skinnytaste.com and decided to try it since I had all the required ingredients at home.  I also had some tortillas that were getting a little stale in the fridge, so I cut them into wedges and toasted them in the toaster oven into chips to go with the salsa.  I didn’t add any oil or salt or flavor to the chips.  Those simple chips turned out to be perfect for the richly flavored salsa. 

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Avocado and Mango Salsa

Ingredients:

1 1/2 mango, peeled and diced

1 large avocado, peeled and diced

4 big grape tomatoes, diced

1 jalepeño, seeded and diced

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tbsp fresh lime juice

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1 tbsp olive oil

A few shakes of garlic powder

salt and fresh pepper to taste

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Preparation:

Combine all the ingredients and let it marinate in the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.

Adapted from: skinnytaste.com

Coconut Greek Yogurt Pie

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What can I say about June?  Long and lazy summer days stretch endlessly on.  The girls have no schedules to adhere to, no responsibilities to carry out, and autumn is still far in the distance.  June is the childhood of the year — expectant and full of possibilities.  Everything is done spontaneously — going for a walk, seeing a matinee, shopping for a summer dress, making a dessert and making another dessert… 

My favorite healthy dessert recipe website is chocolatecoveredkatie.com.  Many of my dessert recipes have been adapted from or inspired by it.  Today I decided to try Katie’s Coconut Greek Yogurt Pie.  The only things I changed were making 1 1/2 portion of the filling, and making my own no-bake almond coconut pie crust.  When I make it again, I will try to churn the filling in the ice-cream machine and make it into an ice-cream pie.

Audrey and I made the dessert and left it in the freezer before we went to a 3D screening of Jurassic World.  Summer blockbusters are usually not my favorite kind of films, but I had fun today because I went with Audrey, who almost jumped out of her seat every time the Indominus rex made her sudden and stealthy screen appearance.  Every time someone got eaten Audrey would wince and turn her head from the screen while I felt nothing.  For the entire film, she grabbed onto my hand.   Audrey is definitely the targeted audience of the film.

When we got home, the dessert was ready!

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Ingredients For the Filling:

2 cups plain yogurt of choice (I used non-fat Fage)

1/2 cup to 2/3 cup coconut butter , depending on desired thickness

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/8 tsp uncut stevia, OR 1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/8 tsp salt

fresh berries of choice

9-inch crust of choice, optional

Ingredients for Crust:

1 1/4 cups raw almond meal or almond flour (or you can grind 1 1/2 cup of almonds)

1/4 cup coconut oil, melted

1 1/2 tablespoon xylitol or sweetener of choice

1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

(You can add a little more coconut oil if the almond mixture feels too crumbly.)

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Preparation:

Blend all but the berries and crust until completely smooth. (This can technically be done by hand if your coconut butter is fully melted and your yogurt is not chilled, but it’s recommended to use a blender or food processor for best results.) Pour into either the pie crust or individual ramekins. Chill overnight, or until firm enough to cut. Top with fresh berries before serving. 

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Zesty Lime Lobster Corn Salad

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Somewhere in the world, perhaps in Maine or somewhere in Canada, lobsters must be in season, because Costco is selling them at a great price.  I couldn’t help getting another tray of them today.  Eating lobster twice a week seems a bit excessive, but why not?  It’s good to give yourself a treat now and then, especially on a Monday.

Zesty Lime Lobster Corn Salad

Ingredients:

4 large fresh lobster tails

4 ears of fresh corn, kernels of

1 large avocado, sliced

2 red jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoon or more lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

3/4 cup halved cherry tomatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 tablespoon pickled red onion (optional, see note)

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Preparation:

Boil the lobster in a large pot of boiling water for 8 minutes, or until red.  Using a pair of tongs to take the lobsters out of the pot and set aside to cool.

Cook corn in the same boiling water for 2 minutes.  Discard the water.  Using a serrated knife to cut the kernels in a large bowl.

Peel the lobster tails.  Devein and slice each in half length wise.

Mix all ingredients in a salad bowl, except for the avocado.  Add avocado and gently stir to coat.

Makes 2 large main course servings or 4 appetizer servings.

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Note: 

Pickled Onion Ingredients:

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

Bring vinegar, sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1/2 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Add onion and remove from heat, and let sit 5 minutes; drain. Let pickled onion cool.  Drain before using.

Honey Spice Glazed Salmon

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There was an article on yesterday’s Wall Street Journal titled Television Habits That Put Family First.  Apparently a new study showed that a family that watches TV together stays together.  Everyone is supposed to put their individual devices away to bond over TV.  There was a time not too long ago when TV watching was a vice for children, especially for tiger mothers.  The question from other Asian mothers such as “What?  You let your children watch TV?” used to make me feel very ashamed.  Well, nowadays  there are so many other unproductive or even harmful activities that TV watching is considered a remedy, at least when the family watches it together.

Tonight, we watched Sixth Sense, a film that I really enjoyed but hadn’t seen again since it was first released.  It was fun to see it again with the girls, especially when Audrey got so scared that she had to cover her eyes with my hand.  The problem is that now she refuses to go anywhere in the house without me.  She is afraid that she will see dead people.  As a matter of fact, she is sitting next to me right now holding one of my hands.  She insists that she must sleep with us tonight.  This is the type of bonding I didn’t expect.

For food, I made honey spice glazed salmon, which Peter and I ate for both lunch and dinner.  It’s delicious hot or chilled.  The smoked paprika gives it a smoky flavor that is perfect for a salad or sandwich if there is leftover.

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Spice Honey Glazed Salmon

Ingredients:

1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

3/4 tsp dry mustard

1/2 tsp (1 tsp for spicier) ground cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp ground oregano

3/8 tsp black pepper

1 lemon, separated

2 tbsp or less honey

1 wild sockeye salmon fillet, with skin (1/2 whole fish)

Olive oil cooking spray

Oregano sprigs for garnish

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Preparation:

Turn the oven on high Broil.

Mix the first 7 ingredients in a bowl to make the rub.  Scrape off the scales on the salmon skin in the sink.  Rinse and then dry the fish with a paper towel.  Squeeze some lemon juice on the fillet.  Sprinkle the rub on the fish generously on both sides.  Rub with your fingers.  Let sit in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

Mix 1 tsp lemon juice with 2 tbsp of honey in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Line the baking with with foil.  Spray the foil with oil.  Lay the fish on the pan and spray the fish with oil.  Put 4 slices of lemon on top the the fillet.  Broil it for 4 1/2 minutes.

Open the oven and pull the rack out half way.  Pour the lemon honey mixture on top of the fish and return to broil for another 1 1/2 minutes or until slightly charred.

Transfer fish to serving platter and garnish. 

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Lime Avocado Chicken Soup

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I talk to my mother in Shanghai almost every Saturday.  Sometimes a couple of times every week.  Lately I have noticed that instead of telling me about the novels that she was reading or rereading, she talked about the events and stories that she had read online.  She told me that her sister, my aunt, often forwarded her the links of interesting stories, and from there she would surf and find more stories by herself.  Once an avid reader of books, my mother, at age 81, has finally been sucked into the irresistible world of the internet. Old age has made her forgetful.  I imagine her — sitting under the ceiling fan, cradling her iPad wandering from one link to the next, lost and enthralled all at once.  I suppose if one’s mind begins to wander, the internet is a pretty entertaining place to get lost in.  

When we call each other, we often talk about what we have eaten.  As a matter of fact, instead of “how are you” the Chinese ask “have you eaten” when greeting people.  I told her now that she roams the internet, she can find out what I have eaten even on the days when we don’t talk on the phone. 

For food today, I transformed the leftover roast chicken into this piquant soup.  It reminds a bit of the Chinese hot and sour soup which I enjoy, but only better.

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Lime Avocado Chicken Soup

Ingredients:

1 roasted chicken breast (I used Costco roast chicken)

1 carton organic chicken stock (32 FL OZ)

3 or 4 limes, juice of

1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

1 large white onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 to 2 red jalapeño, seeded and minced

1/2 cup cilantro leaves

1 Haas avocado, pitted, peeled and diced

Salt and pepper to taste

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Preparation:

Heat the oil in a pot or wok on medium high.  Sauté onion, garlic and jalapeño until aromatic.  Add torn chicken breast and stock.  Bring to boil.  Turn stove to low and simmer for 2 minutes.  Turn off stove and add avocado and lime juice.  First use juice from 3 limes.  Taste the soup to decide if it needs extra lime juice.

Ladle soup into bowls.  Add cilantro before serving.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice-cream Pie, Healthy-fied

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It’s summer and it’s Friday.  Time to indulge a little.  Or a lot.  This chocolate peanut butter ice-cream pie is so delicious and so healthy that you will want to eat more than one slice.  And there is no need to wash your plate afterwards, I promise  it will be licked clean by you.  

If you don’t have an ice-cream maker, I really encourage you to get one soon.  You can have skinny ice-cream or fro-yo anytime you want at home all summer!

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice-cream Pie

Ingredients for the Crust:

1/2 heaping cup toasted walnuts

1/2 heaping cup prunes

1/2 cup unsweetened shaved coconut

2 tablespoon 100% cocoa powder

1 tablespoon xylitol

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Ingredients for the Filling:

1 cup + 2 tablespoon creamy peanut butter (See note)

1 cup milk (I used 2% milk)

3/4 cup greek yogurt (I used non-fat Fage)

1/4 cup xylitol

3 packs stevia

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt or more if your peanut butter is unsalted

4 tablespoon shaved dark chocolate (I used 86%)

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Preparation:

Combine all ingredients for the crust in a food processor and blend. Then transfer to an 8-in baking dish or aluminum pan. Using a piece of wax or parchment paper, smush into the pan.  Leave the crust in the freezer while you make the filling.  You can also save the crust in a ziplock bag in the freezer until you need to use it.  I used saran wrap to line the baking dish for easy transferring of the pie after it is done.

Mix all ingredients for the filling except for the shaved chocolate in a food processor.  I used Vitamix.  Pour mixture into the ice cream maker.  Pour the shaved chocolate into the ice cream maker while it is churning.

When the ice-cream is ready.  Scoop out and fill the pie crust.  Return the pie to freezer for another 30 minutes to an hour.

If the pie gets too hard, thaw it for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Note:  I made 1 cup of peanut butter with PB2+2%milk , which contains 85% less fat than regular peanut butter.  I added 2 full fat peanut butter to enhance the flavor.  The pie tasted very peanut-buttery.  You can hardly notice the difference.

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Lobster Salad with New Potato & Pickled Onion

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While enjoying this lobster salad, Peter told me that I had successfully turned him into a salad lover, and I was very happy to hear that.  For a long time, he didn’t appreciate salads because he associated them with the old iceberg lettuce that he had eaten too much of at the cafeteria during his college years. 

Growing up, I didn’t eat any salad because my mother believed all foods should be cooked before eating.  She had a point there because all the vegetables grown in China back then were fertilized with the most abundant and inexpensive organic material human waste.  however, I have been converted to a devout salad eater since my arrival in the US.  To me, the spirit of the American salad is like the spirit of her culture — with rich and diverse influences and open to infinite possibilities — any food can be a salad. One unique salad that I’m sure most of you have not tried is beef tendon salad in spicy oil.  You can order it in Terra Cotta Warrior, one of my favorite Northern Chinese restaurant in San Francisco.  Terra Cotta Warrior also serves a crunchy pig’s ear salad, which I am yet to try. 

Sky is the limit when it comes to salad.  It can be raw, steamed, fried, pickled or cured; it can be savory, sweet, spicy, tangy or bitter. Or all of the above in one plate.  Need I go on any longer?

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Lobster Salad with New Potatoes and Pickled Onion

INGREDIENTS

1 12-ounces bottle pale lager

5 fresh lobster tails

1 pound new potatoes or small Yukon Gold and/or red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed

1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 cups arugula

2 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon leaves

Freshly ground black pepper

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PREPARATION

Bring beer to a boil in a large heavy pot. Add lobsters, cover, and steam until shells are bright red and meat is cooked through, 8 — 10 minutes. Remove from pot with tongs and let cool 10 minutes. Crack shells; remove meat.  If you don’t have pale lager and don’t want to make a trip to the market, you can boil the lobsters in water with a few slices of ginger and 1/4 cup cooking wine.

Meanwhile, place potatoes in a large saucepan and add water to cover by 2″; season with salt. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, 10–12 minutes; drain. Cut potatoes in half or crush them a little with a fork.

Bring vinegar, sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1/2 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Add onion, bring to boil again and then remove from heat, and let sit 5 minutes; drain. Let pickled onion cool.

Whisk lemon juice and 2 tablespoon oil in a medium bowl; season with salt. Add tarragon, pickled onion, potatoes, and lobster meat; toss to coat. Add arugula, if using, and toss to combine. Drizzle with more oil; season with pepper and more lemon juice, if desired.

DO AHEAD: Lobsters can be cooked and meat removed 2 days ahead; cover meat and chill. Onions can be pickled 1 day ahead; cover and chill. Potatoes can be cooked 1 day ahead; cover and chill. Bring potatoes to room temperature before using.

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Adapted from Epicurious