Cauliflower Mac & Cheese

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On my recent trip to Shanghai, I took the high speed rail to Shaoxing, a city that is famous for its century old local opera, which is struggling, and for its traditional wine making, which is thriving.  Such is the state of affairs, sadly.  Shaoxing cooking wine, which I use in almost all of my Asian flavored meat and fish recipes, has its origin from there. The ancient city was the seat of the Yue Kingdom (770 BC-476 BC) and the once popular local opera was named after the kingdom – Yue Opera (越剧).  

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Traditional opera stage where the audience often watch from their boats

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Government subsidized opera troupe performing for free for the peasants

I appreciated the way Shaoxing was evocative of a past era and snapped hundreds of pictures of its bridges, alleyways and old opera houses.  The visit was so hurried that after I left Shaoxing, many of the images turned into a blur in my mind. One image of a shabby and dilapidated Christian church, however, continued to linger, ever more in focus. 

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The Chinese characters stated “Christian Church”

I came upon this church in one of the maze like alleyways where only the old and poor had stayed behind.  It was unexpected, out of place, and mysteriously touching. It moved me the way Vatican City, with all its wealth and power, did not. I tried to imagine the man who first build the church here some 90 years ago.  Was he a foreign missionary?  Was he a local believer?  What drove him to erect this house of worship in an obscure alleyway?  I tried to imagine the worshippers.  Who were they?  In a city with a long and rich Buddhist tradition, what brought them here?  According to my guide, this had been an operating church until last year when it moved to a slightly larger and newer location.

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This church reminded me of the last passage from one of my all time favorite books Gilead  a poignantly beautiful story told as a letter from an old priest to his young son: “To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded.  I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or you mean to do it.  This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more.  But hope deferred is still hope.  I love this town.  I think sometimes of going into ground here as a last wild gesture of love — I too will smolder away the time until the great and the general incandescence.”

What’s the connection between the story and the cauliflower mac & cheese?  Nothing, I guess.  I’m simply sharing with you where my mind wanders to at this late hour, after all the dishes have been washed and dried and the house has quieted down.

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Cauliflower Mac & Cheese

Ingredients:

1 cup milk of choice

1 tablespoon coconut flour

1/4 teaspoon or more salt

A dash freshly ground black pepper

1 bag (8-oz.) shredded 2% extra sharp Cheddar cheese

2 to 3 tbsp shaved parmesan cheese

1/4 cup panko or oat bran

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

A few dashes of ground cumin

A few dashes of Coriander

1 head cauliflower, florets only

3/4 onion, sliced

2 teaspoon olive oil

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Preparation:

Preheat oven to 425°.

Mix coconut flour, salt, black pepper, and other spices, and 1/2 of cheddar in a sauce pan, whisk in the milk.  Cook on medium low heat and whisk until smooth and thickened.  About 5 minutes.

Saute onion with olive oil until soft.

Cut cauliflower into florets and steam until tender.  Pour the cooked onion and cauliflower in a slightly greased 12×9 baking dish. Pour in the cheese and milk mixture.

Evenly sprinkle the remaining shredded cheddar cheese and the shaved parmesan cheese, topped with panko.

Bake at 425° for 30 minutes or until golden and bubbly.

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Try the recipe of Tofu Mac & Cheese, too!

Chinese Chicken Salad & the Person in the Morror

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There are mornings when I look into the mirror and see certain signs of aging, that have appeared only now and then in the past, become final.  It’s interesting how our faces and bodies shift shapes.  You don’t change for a while — just some good days and some bad days, but you more or less stay the same.  Then suddenly one morning, your features are different — not new winkles or dark circles, but a face entirely strange to you.  Jet lagged and tired, today was one of those days when I was jarred by what I saw in the mirror.  That person looked back at me, a little perplexed.  “What happened? What did I do wrong?” she seemed to ask me, her features strangely exaggerated and out of proportion.  Not a lot I could say to her, really.  I gazed at her for a few moments longer and felt a great compassion rising.  I told her that everything was okay, that I saw grace and strength in her that weren’t there when she was younger.  Her face seemed to soften as she listened to me.  The person who lives in my mirror and I are actually getting on much better now than decades ago when she was beautiful and I refused to see it. 

Nowadays, I know I am that unreliable person in the mirror — changing precariously without much warning.  I also know that I am that steadfast person who has the same love for books, the same passion for work, the same devotion for family and the same fondness for the same old friends.  And because I like myself better, I am more lenient toward that capricious person in the mirror.

What’s the most comforting for me today is to watch my daughters bloom.  I see a little bit of myself in them now and then, and that brings a smile to my face.  And I also sometimes see in them a lot of qualities that are completely alien to me, and they amaze me.  The joys and the challenges that they bring have transformed me into a richer and wiser person that a mere mirror cannot reflect.  As I see them grow, I seem to matter less and less.  I read somewhere that all living things are genetically programed to age and die so that we don’t compete for resources with our offsprings.  Old leaves become manure for their young.  Withering, therefore, is a part of renewal. 

When I sat down in front of my computer tonight, I was really just going to share this scrumptious dish with you, but I went off on a tangent. 

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Chinese Chicken Salad

Ingredients:

2 roasted chicken breasts (I used Costco roast chicken)

1 small Napa cabbage (outer leaves removed and cut crosswise into half inch strips)

10 thin wonton wrappers (sliced)

3/4 cup slivered almonds

3 oz. sugar snap peas (sliced diagonally in half)

2 red jalapeno peppers (thinly sliced)

3 scallions (thinly sliced)

1 table spoon roasted white sesames

Ingredients for the Dressing:

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Sriracha

1 tablespoon – 1 teaspoon xylitol or brown sugar

Juice from 1/2 large lime

3 tablespoon sesame oil

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Preparation:

For the wonton chips, spray the baking pan with oil and line the sliced wonton strips in the pan with a little crinkle to give them shape.  Spray again and bake for 6 to 8 minutes.

For the dressing, mix all ingredients together in a bowl.

Blanch the sugar snap peas in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes or until they turn bright green.  Drain and rinse in cold water.  Drain and cut the snap peas and pour into salad bowl with the cut Napa cabbage, shredded chicken breasts, jalapeño, scallion, sesame seeds and almonds.

Add dressing and give it a good toss.  Serve with crispy wonton strips.

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“Pulling a Chen” & Spicy Turkey Sausage Pasta

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Hi, this is Peter, the dishwashing husband.  Joan is packing again for a short trip to LA, so I have been “recruited,” euphemism for coerced, to write this guest post.

I will tell you a funny story about Empress Chabi that is not very Chabi-like. Joan called me from a public phone at SFO after arriving from Shanghai on Sunday. She was distraught that she had left her iPhone in Shanghai. We spent Sunday afternoon at the Verizon store looking at the new iPhones and calling plans. 3 hours after we got home with her new gizmo, she found her iPhone tucked away in her toiletry bag. Adding another chapter to the “Pulling a Chen” story collection.

I really enjoyed the spicy turkey pasta that she whipped up in a flash. Hope you will like it as well.  Joan was so tired that she kept calling the Marinara sauce “Marijuana sauce.”  

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Spicy Turkey Pasta Ingredients:

8 oz. penne pasta, preferably 100% whole grain

1/2 pack of lean spicy turkey sausage (2 1/2 links)

1/2 onion, sliced

1/2 red bell pepper, sliced

1/2 yellow bell pepper. sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup marinara sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoon white wine

1 tablespoon parmesan cheese, shaved

1 tablespoon parsley, minced

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Preparation:

Cook the penne pasta according to package instructions.  Err on the side of less done.

Sauté garlic and onion in a pan on medium heat until aromatic.  Turn stove to low and add the sausages without the casings.  Add the wine to the meat and slowly break the sausages apart with spatula. 

When the sausages are completely broken, turn the stove to medium high and mix in the bell peppers and cook until soft.  Add the marinara sauce and cooked pasta and stir until well coated. 

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The Best Flour-less Chocolate Brownies!

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Spring cleaning!  After months of procrastination, I finally cleaned out my study.  It was tedious work, but I reveled in the feeling of being neat and organized.  Why didn’t I do this sooner?  I had looked at the mess now and then and thought about cleaning it, but every time  I just closed the door and walked away.  All I could say was that I was not born with the neat gene.  Whenever I visit my parents, I would lose all hope of ever get organized.  My parents’ rooms were always strewn with gift bags, newspapers and other knickknacks.  My mother, whom I most resemble, has a desk with layers of books, newspaper clippings, bottles of pills and what-have-you. 

So, it was no small feat that everything was filed into its rightful place.  And the recycling bin was full.  High time to bake some brownies for afternoon tea.  These flour-less brownies are unbelievably moist and delicious without any added fat.  They felt decadent and sinful to eat, but they are actually healthy and nutritious.  In all of my efforts in grain-free baking, this is the best recipe.  A definite keeper!

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This recipe is from Skinnytaste.com.  I added 1/2 cup of walnuts to the original.

PB2 Flourless Chocolate Brownies Ingredients:

1 large egg

1 large egg white

1 cup PB2 (see photo and note)

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp water

1/2 cup raw honey

1 tsp vanilla

3/4 cup semi sweet dark chocolate chips

1/2 cup walnuts

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Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Spray a nonstick 9 x 9 inch baking pan with cooking spray.

Beat the egg and egg white in a small bowl with a whisk.

In a large bowl combine the PB2, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda and mix well with a spatula. Add the egg and egg whites and stir. Add water, honey, vanilla and stir with a spatula until combined. Fold in the chocolate chips and walnuts.

Pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and bake about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool, then cut into 12 bars cutting 3 rows x 4 rows.

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Note on PB2:

PB2 is a reduced fat peanut powder that you can order from Amazon.com.  It is an ideal product to have if you like peanut or peanut butter but don’t want to ingest too much fat.

http://www.amazon.com/Plantation-PB2-Powdered-Peanut-Butter/dp/B00H8YGOMO/ref=sr_1_1?s=grocery&ie=UTF8&qid=1420601470&sr=1-1&keywords=pb2

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End of Splurge – Back to Broccoli and Kale

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We have been eating incessantly over the holidays.  There were boxes of Belgium chocolate and Panettone from Peter’s patients.  There were the dinner parties with extended family and friends.  And this morning, Peter’s mother served us leftover chocolate mousse cake for breakfast.  I must say it felt wonderfully decadent with a cup of coffee in the Southern Californian morning sun.  But the splurge ends today.  It must or else.

In Alexander Dumas’ Dictionary Of Cuisine, he named three sorts of appetites:

1. Appetite that comes from hunger. It makes no fuss over the food that satisfies it. If it is great enough, a piece of raw meat will appease it as easily as a roasted pheasant or woodcock.

2. Appetite aroused, hunger or no hunger, by a succulent dish appearing at the right moment, illustrating the proverb that hunger comes with eating.

3. The third type of appetite is that roused at the end of a meal when, after normal hunger has been satisfied by the main courses, and the guest is truly ready to rise without regret, a delicious dish holds him to the table with a final tempting of his sensuality.

The third type was all we indulged in during the past 10 days.  I declared it over by making the Broccoli Kale White Bean Soup for dinner tonight.  Eating the soup felt like a cleansing ritual after the holiday transgression. 

I used the roasted garlic from a few days ago and made some garlic Parmesan toast with Ciabatta bread.  They made a satisfying meal together with the soup.

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Ingredients:

1 large Onion (chopped)

4 cloves garlic (chopped)

4 heads of Broccoli (florets chopped; stems peeled and chopped)

7 cups Vegetable Stock

1 bunch Kale ( stemmed and cut into 1/2-inch ribbons)

2 15 .5-ounce Canneloni Beans (drained and rinsed)

Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

Preparation:

Place a heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and then toss in the garlic, stir for 1 minute, then add onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until just translucent. Add the broccoli and again season with salt and pepper.

Pour the vegetable stock over the broccoli and bring up to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the broccoli is fork tender.

Let cool slightly and then transfer, working in batches, to a blender. Cover the blender with a towel to ensure it doesn’t splatter, and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Place another heavy bottomed pot over medium high heat and add 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the kale. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the beans and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes.

Pour the broccoli soup in kale and stir to combine. Let cook for one to two more minutes to let the flavors meld. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve while hot.

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

Mongolian Beef

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To celebrate the great Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, I made Mongolian Beef today.  Don’t think that I am ignorant of the fact that the dish is not from Mongolia.  I just wanted an excuse to put Benedict Wong’s Kublai poster on my blog, together with my food.  Benny and I shared a passion for eating yummy food in great quantities when we were in Malaysia.  He is an extremely talented, hardworking and generous actor.  His Kublai in Marco Polo is breathtaking.  And he is the sweetest person in the world. 

Okay, back to my relationship with Mongolian Beef.  It was not a dish that I had ever eaten growing up in China.  Back when I was growing up, beef was rationed for registered Muslims only.  I guess Mongolian Beef is a Chinese American invention, much like the fortune cookies and my two daughters.

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The first time I had Mongolian Beef, I was working as a receptionist in a Chinese restaurant in the San Fernando Valley to support myself through college.  A take-out order of Mongolian Beef was never picked up and the manager let a few of his favorites eat it while we were standing in the back of the kitchen.  I found it delicious and wished I could eat it at my leisure sitting down.

The restaurant was near a beer company, and sometimes the beer executives would entertain their business associates in the restaurant.  The manager would say to his VIP diners “taking you to your seats is the number one movie star from China”, as if I wasn’t present.  And the beer executives would smile and say really, she is pretty all right.  They thought the manager was attempting at a joke that wasn’t funny.  Though I had been without money all my life, I never felt poor.  As a girl raised from generations of old world intellectuals, I believed that the pursuit of knowledge was much nobler than the pursuit of money.  But I remember feeling shabby and impoverished under their condescending stare.  And I hated that feeling. 

A classmate of mine at the time was a stuntwoman in Hollywood and when she learned that I was a professional actress in China she encouraged me to find an agent in Hollywood.  She said the pay would be 10 times more than what I earned in the restaurant.  Though there weren’t any interesting parts for me to play in the beginning, I was just really happy that I never had to set foot in that Chinese restaurant again.

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My agent at the time asked me to take some sexy pictures as part of my headshot for casting directors. No wonder I was offered to play a corpse of a murdered whore as my first job. I turned it down because I didn’t want to be filmed nude.

I have ordered and made Mongolian Beef dozens of times since that first bite, and I try to perfect the dish every time I make it.  Peter told me that this was the best Mongolian Beef he’d ever had, but of course he would say that; he is my husband and he blindly adores everything I do

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Mongolian Beef

Adapted from rasamalaysia

Ingredients:

8 oz beef tenderloin (thinly sliced) 半斤牛肉

2 tablespoons cooking oil 两勺油

2 stalks leeks/scallion 两棵大葱

1 inch ginger (finely chopped) 一寸生姜

3 cloves garlic (thinly sliced)三粒大蒜

1/4 cup beef stock or water 1/4 杯水

Chili pepper flakes to taste 少许红辣椒

Marinade: 腌肉的汁

1 teaspoon corn starch 一小勺淀粉

1 teaspoon soy sauce 少许酱油

2 teaspoon Chinese cooking wine (rice wine or Shaoxing wine) 少许酒

1/4 teaspoon of baking soda (to tenderize the meat)少许小苏打

Sauce:酱

2 teaspoons oyster sauce蚝油

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce生抽酱油

1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce一点点老抽酱油

3 dashes white pepper powder白胡椒

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil麻油

1 teaspoon sugar or to taste少许糖

Method:

Marinate the beef slices with the seasonings for 30 minutes. Heat up a wok with 1 tablespoon of oil and stir-fry the marinated beef until they are half-done. Dish out and set aside.

Heat up another 1 tablespoon of oil and sauté the garlic and ginger until aromatic. Add leeks and beef stock/water, cover the lid to cook the leek until soft.  Add the beef back into the wok and then the sauce. Continue to stir-fry until the beef slices are done. Scoop out and serve hot.

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