Archive for June, 2008

I didn’t expect that two weeks after leaving San Francisco I’d find myself making Chinese dumplings from scratch on the side of a Texan freeway.

I-90 Dumpling Stop

Reading through my street food Google Alert, I was thrilled to discover that the theme of The Spice Cafe’s Monthly Blog Patrolling (MBP) was street food, hosted this month by Sia of Monsoon Spice. The task: make a street food recipe from a fellow blogger, write a post, and link to the original blogger. Having only just begun Streats and having a long list of bookmarked recipes to try, I was game—except that I was in the middle of a cross-country roadtrip.

The day after reading the MBP, David and I drove east from Tucson to New Mexico, and then South into Texas along I-10. We spent the night in Van Horn, a dumpy highway town where over half the single-story brick building had long-since been abandoned. Our motel, the Economy Inn, was economy—$41 for a room that reeked of cheap perfume and backed onto the train tracks. It was too unhygienic to even consider making the jiaozi and guotieh recipe I’d been aching to try from the Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog.

In 2002, I lived in a small town in China and taught English to 5- and 6-year-old xiao pengyou (lit. little friends). I lived on jiaozi, guotieh and other street foods, hence my interest in the genre. Since my return, I’d yet to replicate the crisp, brown bottoms and doughy skins of this Chinese staple, but the Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog looked set to change that with its insistence on home-made dough.

Economy Inn, Van HornNot certain how I’d participate in the MBP, I doubted the quality of the only market in town, two blocks north of the motel on the desolate road running through Van Horn. With afternoon thunderstorms approaching, we trekkedNew Mexico Chilies to Pueblo Market where I was happily surprised at the variety (if not quality) of its produce and the myriad of local New Mexican chilies. Yet I still refused to cook in the Economy Inn.

Leaving Van Horn on I-90 East, the scenery changes dramatically as the highway cuts through yellowed fields which abut old volcanic hills. Twenty miles on, I saw a shaded picnic spot—that was where I’d cook dumplings.

In Van Horn, I’d bought the ingredients needed for the dumplings but not the dipping sauce as, during my time in China, I became very partial to my own dipping sauce—Zhenjiang Vinegar, a famous, sweet, back vinegar from a neighboring town with chopped chili, ginger and cilantro. As Pueblo’s was lacking in the Zhenjiang Vinegar department, I made my dipping sauce using soy as a substitute. It lacked the sweet tang of the vinegar, but the local chilies gave the sauce its requisite kick.

Cooking in a picnic stop on a propane stove wasn’t easy, but the filling of the dumplings was straight-forward, and my makeshift cooking surface (a cookie sheet I’d bought and washed) worked. The dough kept drying out in the 90+ degree Texan heat as there’s no humidity that far west, resulting in clumsily shaped dumplings.

But, as David and I sat down in our picturesque spot with trucks and Border Patrol rushing past, and dug into freshly made dumplings, I knew I’d found the recipe I’d been craving since I left China.

Dumplings in Texas

Recipe From Asian Grandmothers Cookbook Blog (My photos from Texas)

Ellen Chou’s Pot Stickers

Time: 1 to 2 hours (depending how nimble your fingers are at making the pot stickers)
Makes: about 40

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 to 1 cup lukewarm water

1 pound ground pork (2 cups)
2 cups finely chopped napa cabbage (half a medium cabbage)
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger (about 1/2-inch)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons plus pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour with 3/4 cup water. Mix well with a wooden spoon until it starts to come together, adding more water if necessary. With your hands, form dough into a rough ball. You want the dough to be pliable but not stick to your fingers. Sprinkle a little more flour if dough is too wet. The dough won’t feel smooth at this point. Set the dough ball in a bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rest while you make the filling.Chopping Ginger

Place cabbage in a medium bowl and sprinkle 2 teaspoons salt. Mix well. Taking a handful of vegetables at a time, squeeze water out. Or wrap cabbage in batches in a cheesecloth or non-terry towel and wring dry.

In a large bowl, combine pork, cabbage, green onions, ginger, soy sauce, salt, white pepper and sesame oil. Mix well with Makeshift Workspacechopsticks or a set of clean hands. Set aside.

Make the wrappers. Knead dough for several minutes until it is smooth all over. Divide it into 4 balls. Knead each ball individually for about 30 seconds. Roll each portion into a log about 5-inches long and 1/2-inch in diameter. Pinch off 9 or 10 even walnut-sized pieces. Dust with flour as needed.

Filling DumplingsRoll each piece into a ball and flatten into a disc between your palms. Place flattened disc on a well-floured surface. Starting at the bottom edge of the disc, use a Chinese rolling pin* [I used a Yosemite mug] and roll from the outside of the circle in. Use your right hand to roll the pin as your left hand turns the disc anti-clockwise. So the sequence goes: roll, turn, roll, turn. Roll each disc into a circle about 3-inches in diameter. Don’t worry about making a perfect circle. Ideally, the wrapper will be thickerCrimping Dumplings Shut in the middle than on the edges.

Spoon about 2 teaspoons of filling into the center of wrapper. Fold wrapper in half over filling to form a half-moon pocket and pinch shut.

Repeat until all the dough or filling is used up. Set pot sticker down firmly on a parchment-lined tray seam-side up so that dumpling sits flat.

Heat an (8- to 10-inch) non-stick skillet overFrying Dumplings medium-high heat. Swirl 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into the bottom of pan to coat evenly. Place about a dozen dumplings in a single layer seam-side up in the skillet and brown for 1 minute.Frying Dumplings

Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup water to the pan, depending on its size. Cover immediately and steam 9 to 10 minutes, until all the water evaporates. The bottom of the pot stickers should be golden brown and crisp but not burned. Remove pot stickers with a spatula and serve on a plate with bottom side up.

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Nellie\'s Cafe Sign

Scoville-craving heat junkies flock to New Mexico for its capsicum bounty. Leaving Arizona on I-10, we had one Las Cruces destination in mind, Nellie’s Cafe.

Nellie\'s Menu

Nellie’s began as street food. Nellie Hernandez and her husband Danny sold burritos from a cart in 1962, but the quality of their burritos and the stellar chile sauces quickly had people clamoring for more—soon they were selling 200 chile-laden burritos a day. The cart became a mobile kitchen and by 1967 the brick-and-mortar Nellie’s Cafe was established.

We were welcomed by friendly waiters, some of whom are the Hernandez’s children who now run Nellie’s since Danny passed away in 1998. Agonizing over the inexpensive menu, we were advised to order combo platters “Christmas” style topped with both red and green chile to taste the widest breadth of the cafe’s offering.

I ordered the #1 Combination Plate with an enchilada and taco, along with refried beans and rice, smothered in meaty red and green chile sauce ($7). David ordered combo plate #2, which was combo plate #1, plus a chile relleño ($8).

Combo Platter at Nellie\'s

Nellie’s cooks very good New Mexican food and starts each table off with hot fresh tortilla chips and spicy green salsa, but the two meat chiles elevated the meal to something worth planning a road trip around. Tangy, citrus-y, sharp and imbued with cilantro, the green chile was the spicier of the two while the red chile offered a meaty, sweet balance to the green. The red chile, with its combination of capsicums and the rendered pork fat from the meat stewing in the sauce, was an elegant braise.

New Mexican Sopapillas

Following the lead of fellow diners, we ordered two Sopapillas with honey for dessert ($3) and reveled in their lightly fried exteriors and warm, doughy interiors.

After a week and a half on the road, this was a meal to delight in.


Nellie’s Cafe

1226 West Hadley

Las Cruces, New Mexico


Hours: 8am-2pm, Tuesday-Saturday

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Crater LakeWhile the logical route from San Francisco to South Carolina involves heading east on a highway straight through the center of the United States, I didn’t want to leave the west coast before exploring the oft-praised foodie-haven of Portland. So from Post Creek we drove further north, with a quick stop at Crater Lake (the stop would have been longer but the trails surrounding the lake were still under 8+ feet of snow!).

Portland Farmer\'s MarketWe arrived in Portland with lists of food suggestions but only a short time to explore. We ate excellent comfort food at Mother’s that evening and then began the next morning with a trip to the Wednesday Farmer’s Market at Shemanski Park in anticipation of our drive through Utah deserts and the accompanying dearth of fresh, organic produce. There were tables stacked high with the first tomatoes of the season, which were juicy and sweet but retained the tartness of the vines they’d just been picked off, along with stalls of petite, sweet strawberries and Salmon at the Portland Farmer\'s Marketlusciously rich cherries. I bought fresh bread and raw goat’s milk cheese, and exotic pestos—chipolte and cilantro-pistachio. We bought garlic stalks and were instructed to roast as we would asparagus. I also discovered that while the west coast salmon stocks had collapsed and were closed to commercial fishing, Native Americans were exempt from the ban. I was torn…I love salmon and had avoided buying it as I detest the slimy vapid taste of farmed salmon and I didn’t want to further encourage fishing of these depleted stock of fresh fish. And, quite frankly, I can’t afford the wild Alaskan salmon as demand has driven up the price. Taras Grescoe wrote a brilliant op-ed article in the New York Times about this issue. But here is was, beckoning to me. While I understand and appreciate the exemption of the Native Americans to this fishing ban, I still couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the salmon as, thinking back to my economics major, increases in demand with a limited supply will further increase prices, or people will find a way to increase supply potentially involving illegal fishing.

Tamale Stand at Portland Farmer\'s MarketMy friend Jen, whom we were visiting and who was a fellow teacher with me in China, raved about the street food scene in Portland–cheap, plentiful and varied. With only one morning, I had a limited time to eat and contented myself with a tamale from the farmer’s market. I ordered the Yucatan Chicken ($5) and can safely say it was the best tamale I’d ever eaten. The steamed cornmeal dough was hearty and moist without the dense, glue-iness I’ve often encountered. The shredded chicken filling was red and smoky and the spicy salsa had a wicked kick. These tamales have already been discovered by the people of Portland, so arrive before 11:30 to avoid a line but I’d have to say, the tamales are well worth any length of line.

Yukatan Chicken Tamale

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Hittin’ the Road

David and I packed up and left San Francisco last Sunday. We’re moving east and spending the summer in Charleston, SC with my parents before embarking on an international trip. So we decided to spend a few weeks exploring the US on the way home

Researching, as I do before any trip, I found we could rent a fire lookout from the park service. Post Creek Lookout sounded divine on the www.recreation.gov website.

Post Creek Lookout

It was. Except that it was a 100 mile round-trip detour off the highway that involved a rock-slide strewn, 13-mile dirt road winding past steep cliffs which my ’98 Volvo, ladened with our possessions, only just managed. But for $43 a night…the view was hard to beat.

Post Creek Lookout 2

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Home-made Sauerkraut

Last week I moved from my little cottage in San Francisco, and for two weeks before the move, our cottage stunk of rotten, moldy towels. It would be easy to imagine that the stench was due to a damp towel forgotten in a dark corner of my bathroom during the in the craziness of moving and quitting my job, but truth be told, the stench was emanating from a dish on the top of fridge. I was making sauerkraut.

I’d read that home-made ‘kraut elevated even bland, rubbery dogs and their Heinz-made, generic accompaniments to something worth craving. Clearly I love my dogs, and since I wasn’t about to attempt this forecemeat dish from start-to-finish, I settled on testing out sauerkraut.

The recipe is simple. I modified it from this site:

1. Boil utensils and crock pot (or glass dish as I used) to sterilize.Cabbage for Sauerkraut

2. Slice/chop cabbage and mix with salt at a ratio of 1 1/4lbs cabbage to 1 tbs of salt.

3. Mix thoroughly as the salt will draw water from the cabbage, creating its own brine. If there is not enough brine, mix 1 quart of water with 1 tbs of salt to made additional brine and add to the cabbage. (I needed no extra brine)

4. Once cabbage is ready and the brine has formed, lay a thick plastic bag across the surface of the kraut and then place a plate (sized to rest on top of the sauerkraut) and weights (tins of food work well) on top of the plastic. This weight will ensure the sauerkraut stays submerged in its brine, keeping it from molding.Submerged Sauerkraut

5. Ferment from 1-4 weeks depending on the temperature in your kitchen. Aim for a 65-75 degree kitchen. I fermented for two weeks at about 75 degrees.

I followed the directions, adding sliced organics carrots and two arbol peppers for some kick, yet my kitchen stank.

Two weeks later, when the smell was unbearable, we headed up to Sonoma for a weekend away and decided on grilling–the perfect chance to test the sauerkraut. As I was unsure that my ‘kraut was even edible, I found another “live” sauerkraut at Whole Foods and discovered a jar of Safeway brand in the back of my ‘fridge–enough ‘kraut for a taste test.

3 Sauerkrauts

While the stench of the fermented sauerkraut was overpowering, the flavor was divine. It struck a nice balance between, tart, funky and salty with a satisfying crunch that store-bought brands miss. In comparison, the Safeway sample tasted blandly of vinegar. You’d never have guessed that there was cabbage in the jar of lank, beige strips. The “live” Alexander Valley Gourmet Sauerkraut was so salty it could have been mistaken for seaweed–far from lust-worth. The home-made condiment was the clear winner though I’m not sure how often I can test my boyfriend’s patience with a stinky house.

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