Chinese Fajitas & A Tale of Intrigue

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One great thing about living in California, especially in San Francisco, is that we have a wide variety of cuisine choices.  From Afghan to Zambian, you name it.  There are also many different cross cultural influences that define brand new taste. Who doesn’t love a little Asian fusion? Today, I decided to give my good old Chinese stir fry a little Mexican twist.

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Speaking of Chinese Mexican cultural mash, I remembered an anecdote from a few years ago.  I was filming a fancy dinner scene in Beijing and there was a group of expat extras at the table.  I got to talk to the young man sitting next to me and found out that he was from Mexico.  I met quite a lot of expats in Beijing and Shanghai, but that was a first time I encountered a Mexican national.  I asked if he was a student, he said no.  Businessman?  No.  Diplomat?  No.  I became curious, but he seemed reluctant to tell me what he did. 

Finally, after sitting next to me for hours, doing take after take, angle and angle of the same scene, he began to volunteer his story, probably out of boredom.

He said he was kind of hiding out in China.  “Who are you hiding from?” I asked.  “The cartel,” he said.  “My father worked for the government and he was kidnapped once before.  We paid three hundred thousand dollars to get him back.”

I thought his father was some government official who had cracked down on the cartel, and now the cartel was after him.  But he said no.  His father was a lawyer who sometimes worked for the cartel.  I said, “but you just told me that he worked for the government.”  He said that sometimes it was the same thing.  It turned out that his father negotiated payoffs between the corrupt officials and the cartel.  Something must have gone wrong and now his son was in hiding in Beijing. 

As the day went on, he told me that all the male children of the family were all in hiding in different countries.  I thought it interesting that the female children didn’t matter as much.  For someone who was in hiding, he seemed completely carefree.

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This was the scene outside of the dining room.

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With my co-stars Yao Chen and Lou Ye, and the director Alexi Tan

As I ate my Chinese fajitas, I told Peter the story and wondered if my Mexican “dining partner” was still alive.  He might never have imagined that I would remember him over dinner in San Francisco.

Chinese Stir Fry Beef Fajitas

Ingredients for the Marinade:

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine

1 tbsp corn starch

2 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tsp sesame oil

Other Main Ingredients:

8 to 10 oz beef top sirloin, sliced

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and sliced

1/2 red bell pepper, sliced

1/3 onion, sliced

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp minced ginger

2 tbsp canola oil or peanut oil

A dash of Mexican chili powder

Salt and white pepper powder to taste

4 wholewheat tortillas

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Preparation:

Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl.  Add beef to the marinade and mix well with tongs.  Let sit for 30 minutes.

Heat a wok on high until hot.  Add 1 tbsp of oil and swirl to coat the sides.  Add minced ginger and garlic and stir for about 20 to 30 seconds.  Add beef and save the excessive marinade for later.  Stir the beef for about 2 minutes.  Remove beef from the wok.

Add the remaining 1 tbsp oil and sauté the onion and pepper with a dash of Mexican chili powder for about 1 1/2 minutes.  Add the beef back in.  Add the remaining beef marinade if there is any.  Stir for another 1/2 minutes.

Separate into 4 servings on 4 tortillas.

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Nutty Citrusy Kumquat Muffins

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 I got a call today from a friend whom I haven’t heard from in a long time.  She is very much into astrology, and some years ago she had my astrological chart read by some very renowned astrologist in Shanghai unbeknownst to me.  She shared the findings with me afterwards and I remember one of the things was that I should never wear the color brown.  She meant well, but I told her I didn’t believe in astrology.  Through out the years though, what she said would pop up in my mind whenever I shopped for clothes.  And subconsciously I avoided buying anything that was brown.

Today’s call was about some dissonance between my astrological sign in the Year of Ram.  My friend had my sign read again and was calling to warn me to be extra careful.  Now what do you do with a call like this? 

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Well, the Chinese remedy everything by eating the right kind of food.  One of the lucky foods that we eat during Luna New Year is Kumquat.  As a matter of fact, any citrus fruit is considered lucky because the word “citrus” sounds like the word “auspicious.” Kumquat is the most auspicious because it sounds like “golden auspicious.”  

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Nutty Citrusy Kumquat Muffins

Ingredients:

2 cup 100% whole wheat flour

1/4 cup canola oil

1 cup Kumquat jam (see note)

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 cup pecan nuts, coarsely chopped

1 cup nonfat lemon Greek yogurt

1/4 cup xylitol or sugar

The recipe makes about 16 – 18 muffins.

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Preparation:

Mix all dry ingredients together.  Add all wet ingredients in the mixed dry ingredients.  Mix well, but don’t over mix.  Leave a little lumpiness in.

Preheat oven at 375, line or grease muffin pan.  Add muffin mix to the cups and bake for 15 to 18 minutes. 

Serve with Greek yogurt and kumquat jam.

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Note:

I made the kumquat jam the day before with about 1 pound kumquats, 1 cup xylitol (or sugar), 1 cup water, 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract.  Cut and seed the kumquats and cook with all ingredients for 30 to 40 minutes. 

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Spicy Chicken with Cashew Nuts

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I have had the good fortune of tasting the most amazing food while traveling for work in countries like Turkey, Spain, Italy, Malaysia, United Emirates and Morocco.  But inevitably by the 2nd week, I’d be missing Chinese food.  I remember frantically looking for a pack of instant noodles on the streets of St. Petersburg.  When the craving hits, it feels as if it were life and death.  Aiya, you can’t take the China out of the girl la. 

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In St. Petersburg

I was about to eat leftovers for lunch today when I suddenly craved for Chinese food.  To satisfy the urge, I made a quick stir-fry.  It was a simple dish, but very delicious.  It really hit the spot for me.

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Everyone should own a wok and try stir-fry.  It’s one of the fastest and simplest ways to prepare any food.

Spicy Chicken with Cashew Nuts

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons oil

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 small onion, cut into halves

6 finger-length dried red chilies, seeded

1/2 cup roasted cashew nuts, rinsed and drained

15 oz skinless chicken thigh or breast, cut into bite size

3 scallion, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-in lengths

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Sauce:

3 tablespoon soy sauce (or Maggi seasoning sauce / Golden Mountain sauce)

2 tablespoon Chinese Cooking Wine +  1 tablespoon for marinating

1 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce

2 teaspoon xylitol or sugar, or to taste

Preparation:

Marinate the chicken pieces with 1 tablespoon of wine for 10 to 20 minutes.  Drain and pat dry with paper towel.  Mix the cornstarch into the meat.  (You can omit this step if you want to save time, but it does make the chicken taste better.)

Heat up a wok and add the oil. When the oil is heated, add the garlic, onion, dried red chilies and stir-fry until fragrant or when you smell the spicy aroma of the chilies. Add the cashew nuts and follow with the chicken. Stir-fry the chicken until the surface turns opaque. Add all the ingredients for the Sauce into the wok and continue to stir-fry until the chicken is cooked. Stir-in the scallion, dish out and serve immediately with steamed rice.

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Recipe inspired by rasamalaysia

Pickled Green Turnip, A Taste From My Childhood

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Shanghai has changed so much in the recent years that most of the places from my childhood memory no longer exist, but the familiar foods are still everywhere from my parents’ house to street vendors.  And they fill me with nostalgia.
Yesterday I made a jar of pickled green turnip and it’s ready to eat today! They make the crunchiest and most refreshing appetizer or a side dish or a savory snack. I used to have pickled or dried turnip with porridge at breakfast every morning. I never thought they were particularly delicious in anyway.  They were just a part of a very meager diet.  Back then, no one had refrigerators and we often pickled or dried our food to preserve them.  But this once mundane everyday staple became completely new and special after decades of living in America.
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Basic Pickled Turnip Ingredients:
2 turnips
30 to 40 grams salt or to taste
4 to 6 chili peppers
1/4 teaspoon peppercorn or Chinese 花椒
1 pack Equal or other sweetener that is not sticky
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Preparation:
Wash and scrub and peel the turnips.  Slice them into two inch long wedges.  Mix all the ingredients in a mixing bowl or any large container before transferring them to a jar.  Let it stay for at least an hour and up to two days, either in the fridge or in room temperature.  Pour out all the juice that came out of the turnip.  Press a serving spoon on the turnip and squeeze out as much water as you can.
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Elixir for the Traveller

There was a pot of hot and flavorful bone soup waiting for me when I arrived in Shanghai last night for work and to see my parents. They sat across from me at the dining table looking very pleased that the elixir had the expected effect on their daughter. It was an instant energy reviver and mood booster.  There is always bone soup waiting for me whenever I visit my parents because they know it’s my favorite and they also know that I don’t cook it at home.  The girls, especially Angela, hate the smell.
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Before I left for Shanghai, I cooked Peter lunch to quell the separation anxiety.  I used the oranges that we picked from my in-laws’ garden to make this Orange Mustard Pork Chop.  I always brine the pork before cooking to ensure that the pork stays juicy.  
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Basic Pork Brine Ingredients:
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup sugar
4 cup water
A dash of pepper, rosemary, thyme and sage.
Brining direction:
Melt the salt and sugar in warm water, add all spices and leave the brine in the fridge until it is completely cold.  Pour the brine in a large ziplock bag and add the pork chops in.  Seal the bag and leave in the fridge for 4 to 8 hours.  
If you decide to leave the pork in the brine overnight, be sure to soak it in fresh water for about 30 minutes before using.  If you cook the brined pork on the same day, just rinse the pork and pat dry before cooking.
Orange Mustard Pork Chop Ingredients:
1/4 cup fresh orange juice 
1 tablespoons orange marmalade
1/2 tablespoon whole-grain mustard 
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 pork loin chops (1 inch thick) 
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 rosemary sprigs
1/2 medium red onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1 tablespoons fresh lime juice 
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Preparation:
1. Preheat oven to 425°.
2. Combine juice, marmalade, and mustard in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes or until syrupy.
3. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil; swirl to coat. Add pork to pan; cook 5 minutes or until browned. Turn pork; add rosemary and onion to pan. Pour juice mixture over pork; bake at 425° for 10 minutes or until a thermometer registers 150°. Place onion and rosemary on a platter. Return pan to medium-high heat; add lime juice. Cook 4 minutes or until liquid is syrupy. Add pork to platter; drizzle with sauce.
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Speaking of oranges, I remembered an image that Angela forwarded to me the other day — how an orange cemented the love of this young couple. I suppose that one of the troubles with a life of abundance is that beautiful things are available without much effort and so the things don’t seem to have the same value.  Nothing in the world was ever so precious as that one orange for this couple in Jerusalem.
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Marco Pol(l)o

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Marco Polo just got renewed for a 2nd season!  Yay!  Reunion with my Mongolian Beef and hordes of international eye candy.  And of course playing the wonderful Empress Chabi. This is exciting news for everyone involved, myself included.

But what about my family?  Though my girls act as if I annoy them all the time, they are at an age when they most need a mother’s guidance and influence.  In my younger days, I used to love this caravan life of a circus person — traveling the world while doing something I loved to do.  Having children has changed everything. While I believe many can do my job as an actress or filmmaker, only I can be the mother for my children.  There are times I become paralyzed by the prospect of a great opportunity, knowing fulfilling my desire and realizing my dreams professionally also mean abandoning the people I love.   P1020077

Work is a double edged sward for me.  Perhaps it is so with most working mothers.  I realize that I am lucky to be in this dilemma.  Many people don’t have the choices that I’m facing.  The ingredients of fulfillment is difficult to balance, but I have a secret ingredient in life — my husband Peter, the best husband and father anyone could ask for.  He is my lobster.  He is my salt.

And he does dishes.

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To celebrate Marco Polo’s 2nd season, I made a delicious Chinese dish called Three-Cup Chicken (三杯鸡).   Historically, it was made of 1 chicken with 1 cup each of soy sauce, cooking wine and sugar.  The dish has evolved through time to its contemporary version.  Mine was adapted from the recipe from rasamalaysia.com.

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Ingredients:

1 lb. chicken drumsticks (I used 1 lb. of skinless thighs)

2 tablespoons dark sesame oil or toasted sesame oil

2-inch piece old ginger, peeled and cut into thin pieces

2 to 3 dried red chili pepper, without the seeds (optional)

7 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 shallot, sliced

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon corn starch

1 tablespoon xylitol or sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine + 2 tablespoon to marinate the chicken

A big bunch Thai basil leaves

(I added 2 small boiled red skin potatoes, halved and peeled.  This dish ordinarily does not use potatoes, but I improvised this time because I had two boiled potatoes lying around. I added the boiled potato after I poured in the sauce and before I cover the lid.  They tasted yummy with the chicken.)

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Preparation:

Cut the chicken into pieces and marinate in 2 tablespoon of cooking wine for 10 to 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry.  Add 1 tablespoon of corn starch to the chicken and mix well.

Heat up a wok or clay pot on high heat and add the dark sesame oil. Add the ginger, garlic, shallot, chili pepper and stir-fry until aromatic.

Add in the chicken and do a few quick stirs. Add the soy sauce, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, xylitol or sugar and continue to stir-fry the chicken. Cover the chicken and lower the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Add the basil leaves and stir well with the chicken, dish out and serve immediately with steamed rice.

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Remembering My Grandfather

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My grandparents in front of our house. Grandmother was holding me and Grandfather was holding my cousin.

My maternal grandfather, who has been posthumously recognized as one of the most important scientists in the 20th Century in China, took his own life 47 years ago today during the Cultural Revolution.  He was wrongly persecuted as a foreign spy and a “reactionary `bourgeois scholar”  because he studied in the US and in England. 

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Grandfather in the Suzhou Hospital where he had apprenticed since the age of 14. When I filmed the Chinese version of Who Do You Think You Are last year, I went on the same balcony where this photo was taken. The building was to be torn down soon.

In the months before he died, my grandfather was summoned daily into a windowless office in Shanghai Medical University to confess his crime.  The only person sent by the Party to interrogate him in that office was Yang, the deputy head of the Pharmacology Department, a “red” scientist.  My grandfather was the head of the department and was well loved and respected.  According to my mother, who also worked in the same department, Yang was an insecure and despicable person.  He was not only jealous of my grandfather’s accomplishments, he was also intimidated by his incorruptible character and integrity.  No one knew exactly what was said in that windowless room. I can only imagine the darkness that enveloped my grandfather’s mind in those final moments of his life.  After he died, Yang declared that my grandfather killed himself because he knew he was guilty.  The Cultural Revolution was an extreme time in China when people’s worst nature surfaced and flourished.  In the early years of the Cultural Revolution, countless innocent people committed suicide.

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I was too young to remember much about him.  My parents and grandmother didn’t talk to me about my grandfather during my childhood for fear that the memory of his “guilty” suicide could hinder my revolutionary future — the only kind of future that mattered then. But subconsciously, I must have been haunted by his sudden and premature death all those years.

When I left China for the US, my mother told me to only pack what was necessary and essential.  Along with soap, toothpaste and a couple of other “essentials” were all the photographs of my grandfather that were in the house and my Chairman Mao badge collection. It was curious why I felt the pictures of my grandfather and the badges of Mao were essential to my new life in the US.  Yet looking back, I see that those irreconcilable objects, in a strange way, represented the make up of my contradictory character. 

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My friend Anchee Min took this photo of me with my Mao badge collection in the late 1980s.

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Grandfather in Suzhou before he left for London in 1937

In 2006, there was a commemorative event in Shanghai to celebrate my grandfather’s 100th birthday.  Many of his former students and colleagues gathered to remember him — a talented, passionate and incorruptible person who loved and lived for science.  Many of them wanted to help my mother get closure and demanded that Yang tell where he had kept my grandfather’s diary, and what was said during those months of interrogation.  Unfortunately it never happened as Yang was already well into his 80s and suffered from senile dementia.

I will never know what finally pushed my grandfather off the cliff on that cold night of 1967.  It no longer matters.  At the event in 2006, I suddenly remembered the song Vincent — how I was gripped by it when I first heard it. I felt the song was sung for him, too.

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Grandfather in England

Now I understand

What you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how

Perhaps they’ll listen now

For they could not love you

But still your love was true

And when no hope was left in sight

On that starry, starry night

You took your life, as lovers often do

But I could’ve told you Vincent

This world was never meant for

One as beautiful as you

Home Sweet Home

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I got home this morning, just in time for Thanksgiving.  There was unopened mail piled up on the dining table, dishes piled up in the sink.  There was hair all over the bathroom floor.  And the piano was dusty…  But the girls and Peter were all happy and healthy.  That was all it mattered.  I can’t believe I actually was able to cook today.  What a joy!  It was a simple dish, but it’s Angela’s favorite: ratatouille.  

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Always Mommy’s little helper

Ingredients:

2 large eggplants (cubed)

2 large tomatoes (diced)

2 medium onions (chopped)

1 red sweet pepper (diced)

1 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

1 teaspoon sugar

4 cloves garlic (minced)

1/3 cup Tomato Basil Marinara Sauce

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

a dash of each ground cumin, paprika, coriander, oregano

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Put the cubed eggplant in a microwave-safe container and cover with a lid.  Microwave it for 12 minutes or until soft throughout.

Sauté onion and garlic on high with half of the olive oil for about 6 minutes, add sweet pepper and tomato and stir for another 6 minutes.  (I used a wok for this.) Set aside.

Use the other half of the oil and sauté the eggplant on medium for 4 to 5 minutes before mixing in the onion, pepper and tomato.  Pour in the Marinara sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt and spices, and cook at low for 20 minutes.

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As we have been doing for the past fifteen years, we went to David People’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.  The five cakes and pies were made of full fat cream, real sugar and butter and white flour.  Happy holidays, right?

Spaghetti Squash Lasagna

Our mother needed a break today, as all mothers occasionally do. Audrey is cooking dinner, which terrifies me, and I am writing today’s blog post.

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Tonight’s dinner is vegetarian spaghetti squash lasagna. This healthy lasagna is low-carb, reduced-calorie, paleo (depending on what marinara sauce and cheeses you use), “clean” (depending on your very subjective definition of “clean”), high-protein and veggie-packed! Hey, I think I hit all the buzzwords! Seriously, though, this lasagna is delicious but far far better for you than your usual starch- and fat-laden junk from Olive Garden or whatever.

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The idea of spaghetti squash lasagna is not a new one, but given our great love for all things spaghetti squash and all things lasagna, we thought it would be appropriate to make our own recipe and share it with everyone.

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Spaghetti Squash Lasagna

Serves 3-4 hungry people

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 cups cooked spaghetti squash (we microwaved the halved squash for about 8 minutes)
  • 1 cup marinara sauce (we used Francesco Rinaldi no-salt-added tomato sauce)
  • 15 oz ricotta cheese (we used Trader Joe’s Fat-Free Ricotta)
  • 1 oz or 1/4 cup parmigiano reggiano, shredded
  • 6 oz or 1.5 cups mozzarella shreds (we used Lucerne Fat-Free Mozzarella, which has 9 grams of protein per ounce, about 50% more than regular mozzarella!)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Layer the spaghetti squash, marinara sauce, ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella in an oven-safe casserole dish, making sure that the topmost layer is a cheesy layer!
  3. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for about 20 minutes.
  4. Remove the foil and broil until the cheese bubbles.
  5. Eat!

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make salad with the leftovers!

make salad with the leftovers!

Spaghetti Squash Lasagna, 中文 Translation

今天我们的妈妈很累,所以妹妹做了晚饭,我得写今天的博客。对不起,我的中文不好。

我们今天的晚餐是健康的烤宽面条,其实一点面也没有。最近美国人不喜欢吃面粉,因为他们都觉得麸质是有毒的。当然麸质没有什么不好的,我常常吃面筋,可是面粉其实没有什么营养,而且吃面粉会让你的血糖提高,所以吃这种没有太多碳水化合物的食品会让你健康,对你的小蛮腰好。

我不知道你懂不懂我的中文。我的父母不知道我的中文这么差,因为我考AP中文考了一个五(最高分)。其实,谁都考了一个五,化学考试也是的。请别告诉他们,我中文是很马虎的。哈哈哈,我是老虎,妹妹是马,我们最的事当然都是很马马虎虎的。

成分:

  • 差不多710 mL意大利面条壁球 (谢谢,Google 翻译)
  • 237mL 防切将
  • 425 g 乳清干酪 (谢谢,Google 翻译)
  • 28 g 干酪 (谢谢,Google 翻译。不知道你对不对。)
  • 170 g 无肥马苏里拉奶酪

用这些成分做lasagna,有没有那么难!快吃!很好很强大!

我们在养这个草泥马,真可爱!

A Day of No Cooking!

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A day of no cooking!  Nonfat Fage and fruits for breakfast, leftovers for lunch and takeout for dinner!  Peter and I went hiking on Crissy Field before the girls got up.  It made me think that this is how I should be every morning — to eat yogurt and to take a brisk walk along the bay. 

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Since we had to leave the house at 5 to go to the Castro Theater, we ordered Chinese takeout from this hole-in-the-wall place called Green Island.  Cheap and yummy comfort food, the kind that I love.  They have a three dish special that is $21 and we ordered rock cod with black bean sauce, salted fish with chicken and eggplants clay pot, beef and string beans in oyster sauce.

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I told the girls that when they grow up and serve their husbands cheap Chinese takeout, they should dress up, take out the linen napkins, uncork a bottle of champagne or drink water in fine crystal goblets… That’s the only way to eat cheap Chinese takeout. 

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The screening of The Last Emperor 3D was an emotional experience for me. I teared up with the first note of music. Everything felt so vivid that I could almost reach out and touch the young self I had left far behind.  That splendid and miserable youth of 28 years ago.  Sitting in the audience holding hands with my daughters, I relived the six months I spent making the film.  Six month on location would be unthinkable today.  I would be needed at home.  And I would need my home.  But back then I had no one in particular to rush home to and being on location was exactly where I wanted to be.  I thought of all the talented people, the best in their own fields, who had worked on the film.  Quite a number of them have since passed.  I sensed their spirit in the lightwaves and particles.

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With Bernardo, Jeremy Thomas, Vivian Wu

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With Ryûichi Sakamoto