Monthly Archives: March 2010

Shortbread Cookies

Since I am still pretty jet-lagged I figured I’d soothe my insomnia with a post :).  I had actually meant to post this entry while I was in China but apparently they do not allow blogging websites there.  I was also unable to access Twitter and Facebook as well, thank god for the whole “Freedom of Speech” thing we have going for America eh?

Shanghai was a blast, I come to realize that I will always be a big city girl at heart.  I loved the energy, the endless amounts of delicious (and cheap) food, and the shopping — oh my god, the shopping.  Surprisingly, it was Collin who lost himself this time.  Yes, you heard correctly, my fiance was completely out of control compared to me.  You see, in China you can always bargain for your price, it’s like gambling, except the ultimate goal is to get a stinkin’ good deal.

He made two custom fitted suits for a whopping $96 dollars each along with several custom tailored dress shirts for about $10 each.  He also purchased belts, watches, wallets, polos — he literally came back with an entirely new wardrobe.  NOW the good child (me) had a tailored jacket made for $60 and had a custom wedding dress made for $85, the one I found here in the States was $3500.  This convinces me to never buy clothes in the States ever again, (okay not really because I love shopping) but it is amazing as to what you can have made there and for such a good price!

We didn’t have enough time to visit HangZhou so that will be saved for next time, but we ventured all throughout Shanghai and stopped by Wuxi and ShuZhou.  I took over 1200 pictures while I was there, now that I am editing through them I am becoming a little regretful about my trigger happy finger.

Everytime I go back, I am always amazed as to how much changes around Shanghai.  Highrise buildings magically sprout out of nowhere, old restaurants replaced by new, and there always seems to be more people.  Always. The traffic is a constant clusterf*ck and you always think someone’s going to die, yet there are minimal car accidents and pedestrians and bikers always seem to come out alive.

I shall save the many adventures of Shanghai for the following posts, seeing that I have thousands of pictures to go through as well as numerous information pamphlets to read I should probably get started… I would also like to pose a warning for the following cookie recipe: they are extremely addictive.  Collin ate about a dozen to himself in one sitting, these cookies will make you lose all self control so plan wisely 🙂

I found this recipe in Frank Stitt’s Southern Table — these cookies are melt in your mouth delicious and using only 4 simple ingredients they are not only easy to make but can be paired with any dessert and goes great with coffee.

Ingredients for Shortbread Cookies:

(Makes 3 to 4 dozen cookies)

  • 3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment beat the butter and sugar until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes.  Sift the salt and flour, then add to the butter mixture, mixing until just combined.

Form the dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter.  Wrap the log with plastic wrap and chill for 3 hours to overnight.  Freeze for up to 2 months.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, remove the plastic wrap and slice the dough into 1/4-inch disks.  Place on an ungreased baking sheet 1 inch apart and bake until the bottoms of the cookies just turn golden, about 10 minutes, turning the sheet 180 degrees after 5 minutes.  Remove from the oven and cool completely.

VARIATION: After removing the dough from the refrigerator, slice as above, then roll each disk into a ball.  Moisten a thumb and press into the center of each ball.  Fill each indentation with high-quality raspberry or other fruit preserves.  Place on an ungreased baking sheet.  Bake until slightly golden, 10 to 12 minutes.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

You can also use other preserves like apricot, cherry, strawberry — and since Easter is this Sunday this would also make a delightful dessert to bring to any party.  Easy to make, delicious to the max, trust me these cookies will become the hype of any party :)!

Holy Guacamole!

It’s crazy how fast time goes by when life becomes so busy you lose count of the days.  In just a blink of an eye, March is here, Spring has begun and I am on my way to Shanghai.  I can’t begin to express the utter excitement I am feeling now. I realize the older I become, the more I want to learn about the culture that I come from.

I realize the beauty of my original home, it seems that every time  I go back I grow to love it more and more.  I definitely had an adverse reaction when I went for the first time when I was 12.  Maybe it was the “awkward teenager” stage where everything sucks but I thought Shanghai was dirty, stinky and the people were rude, especially in traffic.  My second time I went back with my mom when I was a freshman in college.  I became much more immersed in the culture and felt more comfortable just being around the city.  I also randomly bumped into one of my close friends David (Hey Da ge!), while I was shopping with my mother in Cheng Huang Miao.  Funny story is, neither of us knew we would be in Shanghai then — all I heard was a familiar voice say “Joy??” The minute I saw him I started screaming and hitting him with excitement (his mother probably thought I was crazy) but I just couldn’t believe my eyes!  Truly, what a small world!!   We later met up and went to a bar, and at the time I felt super cool being  able to roam the city at night (by myself!), not only hanging out with people my age but being able to drink at bars (the drinking age was 18).  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a Paris Hilton kind of night but we definitely had our fun dancing to ridiculously mixed American pop music and laughing at all the awkward dance moves.

I have a feeling though, this trip will be one of the best ones yet.  I will be spending a lot of time in Shanghai, eating my way through the city, shopping until Collin cuts me off and learning more about where I originally come from.   I feel as I reach my mid 20s I have a sudden struggle for a sense of identity — a groove in life that I can fit in, understand and be comfortable.  As my friend puts it, your mid to late 20s is the “Junior High of Adulthood” and it’s true.  My god is it confusing sometimes.

All throughout college I felt completely lost.  I hated my major, I didn’t enjoy the stupid prerequisite classes, yet for some reason I felt I had to stick to it.  And I realize now, it’s because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.  I mean they are the two people I look up the most to, all I’ve ever wanted to do in life was to make them proud and happy.  They had held my hand tightly until I left for college and the entire transition was confusing.  It wasn’t until I finally graduated, it dawned on me– What am I doing here? Am I really about to commit 8 years of my life doing something I’m not sure I even like? AM I CRAZY?!!!

I think finally telling my parents that I wanted to pursue my passion in food, was one of the scariest moments of my life.  I thought the world was going to explode.  Thankfully, it didn’t.  And yes, they were disappointed.  But finally being able to stand up to them and make such a major decision in my life has really set me free.  One of the most important things I’ve recognized is that my parents are human (not superheroes like I thought) — they make mistakes, they don’t necessarily have all the right answers, and all they ever want is the best for their child.

I really have Collin to thank for it.  He was the one who pushed me to pursue my passions in life: Art and Food.  Life offers you all the right elements to become everything you’ve ever wanted to be and it’s up to you to make use of the opportunities that are presented to you.  My father’s strong passion for photography and my mother’s love for food has naturally placed me in the spot that I’m in today.  I could eat, shoot and write about food for the rest of my life, and not have it feel like work.  Perhaps it’s not the practical route in life, but I never thought life was meant to be easy.

I am packed and ready to go for Shanghai — I am eager to see my relatives and my grandma and I can hardly wait to be immersed in the crazy intense beautiful culture that is Shanghai.  Collin has stocked his bag full of antibiotics, anti and pro diarrheals, all topped off with a huge bottle of antacids.  I hope China will be good to him :).  For the 10 days I’ll be there I will:

  • Take engagement pictures
  • Make Collin a couple suits
  • Visit Wu Xi where my grandparents are originally from
  • Make my wedding gown
  • Go shopping for gifts
  • Visit Hang Zhou and see Xi Hu and visit tea plantations
  • Hug and kiss grandma every day 🙂
  • Eat, eat and oh yeah more eating…
  • A ferry tour at night of Wan Po River
  • Hitting up a couple local bars at night
  • Checking out and eating famous soup dumplings at Cheng Huang Miao
  • And too many other activities that my mom made me write down but I’m too lazy to type out, ha!

Since Shanghai probably won’t have Guacamole, I thought this would be a nice, simple recipe to share.  No cooking necessary, only six ingredients and it only takes like 10 minutes to make! The best part is, everyone freaking loves guacamole, so this makes the perfect pot luck item or perfect dinner appetizer or heck even during sports games and intense wrestling matches.  I uncontrollably yell “HOLY GUACAMOLE” every time I do a taste test when I make a batch of this stuff — partially because I am very silly but mostly because it’s so gosh darn good yall!  Over and out.

Ingredients for (Holy)Guacamole:

(serves 4-5)

  • 3 ripe avocados, pitted and skin removed
  • 2 ripe roma tomatoes, small diced
  • a handful of cilantro, cleaned and finely chopped (omit if you do not like cilantro)
  • 1/2 medium purple onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 lime, juice only
  • 1 tsp salt

Place all ingredients in a mortar and pestle or large bowl.  If you do not own a mortar and pestle you can mash the avocados with a fork or potato masher.  Thoroughly mix the ingredients — if it needs more acid add more lime, a little at a time, same goes for salt.  Place in large bowl and serve with tortilla chips.  If not serving immediately, cover and refrigerate.

You can also use Guacamole on sandwiches, salads, meats and use it for dips for pita wedges, pretzels, crackers, etc.  I actually use guacamole to make my chicken sandwiches so it omits the mayo — avocado has a nice creamy consistency that contains heart-healthy monosaturated fats so its a lot better for you.

Penne and Meatballs Stuffed with Mozzarella

Dear World,

I have only a week and a half left before my trip to Shanghai, yet here I am sitting with a muffin top and a pair of love handles.  Why are they called love handles when I feel anything but love about having them?  If anything they cause me stress and much strife when I wear my low rise skinny jeans or that nice body hugging dress that looked good that week when I bought it (before I bought 2 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies) but now looks horrible.  They should honestly rename them “hate handles” because I HATE THEM.

Also, why do pastries give you a muffin top?  My mother was right, you are what you eat.  I am slowly watching  the edge of my stomach hang over the band of my pants — the muffin top effect is full fledged and ready to attack.  Good thing over the years I’ve learned the tricks of the trade like conveniently tucking in the muffin top underneath the pants, or wearing a loose fitting shirt, or better yet one of those “Spanx” thingys that wraps your fat so tight you can barely breathe.

Either way, the stress that I’m causing myself about losing weight is ironically having the opposite effect and making me gain weight.  As Alanis Morisette would say “Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?”  Yes a little Alanis, except the irony is far from funny.  Every time I go back, my relatives always comment on how “healthy” I look — grabbing my arms as their eyes widen exclaiming “OOOOooo HENG ZHUAN!” or very fit; it’s pretty much a nice way of saying “Man dude, that is one meaty ass arm you got there.”

But then this weekend I had an epiphany.  Life can be much worse than having meaty arms or not being a size nothing, like not ever being able to experience the perfect bowl of Spaghetti and Meatballs.  Now before you stamp crazy across my face, allow me to explain.  Not just ANY spaghetti and meatballs, but the PERFECT spaghetti and meatballs – picture this with me if you will: a trio of meats veal, pork and beef mixed with herbs and spices then seared off to trap in all the delicious juices, then finishing the meatballs off by slowly simmering them in a fresh basil tomato sauce.  What more do you need?  Though the origins are Italian, spaghetti and meatballs have become a comfort food to every American kitchen – and spaghetti and meatballs were my culinary introduction to the American culture.

My mother never made them; I think to this day she doesn’t really like any food outside of Chinese, she finds American food “heavy” so 7 days a week it was always Chinese for dinner.  So you can imagine my excitement when I slept over at a friend’s house in elementary school and her mother invited me over for dinner, FINALLY something NOT CHINESE.  You must realize now, I fully appreciate my upbringing, but at the time I really hated having to eat Chinese food all the time. My only access to “American Food” were those awful school lunches they would serve in the cafeterias, yes that depressing gray looking food that was either too salty or tasteless.  The only exciting days were Fridays when they would serve really nasty mushy pizza, but it was pizza and when you’re 7 that’s totally awesome.

Remember the cartoon Lady and the Tramp?  Remember that scene when the dogs share that plate of spaghetti?  Well while most people were probably concentrating on the developing relationship of the Lady and the Tramp, I was drooling over the cartoon spaghetti and meatballs. AND NOW I was about to experience my very FIRST “American Dinner” and not just any dinner, but a spaghetti and meatball dinner.  And it was beautiful, it was soul satisfying, and even after almost 20 years I still remember it.

I recently had my love for spaghetti and meatballs renewed when I tasted Chef Thomas’ recipe last week.  It was moist, savory and filled your nose with aromatic herbs and spices – I had to close my eyes as I tasted it, to pay respect to the meatball gods because it was FREAKING delicious.  I threw my arms up in amazement and exclaimed – “CHEF YOU GOTTA TELL ME WHAT THE SECRET IS!!!!” And he didn’t want to tell me.  It wasn’t until an intense ninja battle in the kitchen where I finally had to twist Chef’s arm behind his back and threaten to dump him into a gigantic pot of bubbling bisque that he finally said “Milk and bread, MILK AND BREAD!!!!”

Okay. So the ninja battle and the threatening fight didn’t happen, but Chef was gracious enough to share the secret – Milk and Bread folks.  I’ve never had a yummier meatball, it gives the meat a velvety texture that just melts in your mouth and immersed in a homemade tomato sauce with fragrant garlic and herbs, life doesn’t get any better than this.

Now, before yall get your panties in a bunch, the reason why I didn’t do Spaghetti and Meatballs was because…I’m an extremely messy eater.  Every freaking time I eat spaghetti and meatballs I ruin a shirt with spaghetti sauce — it’s inevitable.  So I used penne here instead, less sauce splatterage, no loose noodles dropping onto my shirt, and instead of the art of fork twirling, it’s simple fork stabbing 🙂  BUT by all means, use spaghetti, just because I am a slob during spaghetti and meatballs doesn’t mean you have to be. To each it’s own I always say!

Ingredients for Italian Meatballs: (Adapted from Chow)

(makes about 30 meatballs)

  • 2 cups stale bread (I used a baguette), crust removed and torn into large
  • 3/4 cup milk (I used skim but whole can work here too)
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • 4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground veal
  • 1/2 medium white onion
  • 3 large eggs
  • 6 tablespoon Italian Parsley, cleaned and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Thyme, finely chopped
  • 6 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano- reggiano
  • 30 1″ cubes of Mozzarella cheese

In a medium sized bowl, place the bread and cover with milk.  Make sure all of the bread is moistened and let soak until the milk has been thoroughly absorbed by all of the bread, about 20 minutes.

Place the garlic, fennel seeds, salt and pepper on a cutting board and finely chop the mixture until it becomes well mixed and paste like.  In a large bowl, place the meats with the fennel mixture and mix until evenly combined.  Add the bread and any remaining milk until it is fully incorporated with the meats.  Add the onion and eggs along with the parsley, thyme and Parmesan and mix thoroughly until combined.

Take about 3-4 tablespoons of meat mixture between your hands and roll into a smooth compact ball, about 2 inches.  Make a hole in the center of the meatball using your thumb, and tuck a cube of mozzarella cheese in the middle.  Roll the ball closed to envelop the cheese, adding more meat if necessary. Set aside and continue to roll out balls until all of the meat mixture is used, will make about 30 meatballs.

In a large pan heat a tablespoon of olive oil or coat with cooking spray over medium-low heat.  Place the meatballs in the pan, leaving about 1/4 inch between each one — this will probably have to be done in a few batches.  Brown each meatball on both sides, making sure it is well browned on each side, about 4 minutes on each side for about 20 minutes.  Transfer the meatballs to a large heavy-bottomed pot or crock pot and set aside.

Ingredients for Tomato Garlic Basil Sauce:

(serves 6)

  • 1 can (14.5 ounce) whole peeled tomatoes
  • 4 roma tomatoes, cleaned and diced
  • 1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
  • 3 cups beef stock
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan Cheese
  • salt pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in large heavy bottomed sauce pan at medium heat.  Once heated, add onions and tomato paste and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic and chopped tomatoes and cook for an additional 2 minutes.  Pour in the canned tomatoes, broth, sugar, and half of the basil and bring to a boil, stirring.  Reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes or until thickened.

Once the sauce is a fork consistency, pour over the meatballs and place back on heat.  Bring back to a simmer on medium heat.  Cook uncovered, constantly stirring and allow meatballs to cook through, about 20-30 minutes.  Meanwhile, cook your penne.  Fill a large heavy bottomed pot 3/4 of the way with water, add 2 tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil.  Add 2 cups of dried penne and cook for 8-10 minutes or until el dente (Meaning still firm and almost cooked through).  Immediately strain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.  Place pasta in a large bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  Once meatballs are cooked through add the remaining basil and cheese and remove from heat.  Serve immediately.

When ready to serve, place penne in serving bowls and spoon sauce over noodles and top with 2-3 meatballs.  Serve with fresh basil as garnish and toasted garlic bread if preferred.

Now you can cut this recipe in half if the quantities are too large or you can do what I have done, which is freeze the additional meatballs I didn’t use.  I simply took a quart size bag, laid a piece of cardboard and placed my meatballs on top.  Now you have dinner ready for any day of the week you don’t feel like cooking or if you have unexpected guests coming over.  These also make great appetizers, you can simply roll the meatballs smaller (in bite size portions) and freeze them off the same way.

Price of Items:

  • 1 lb of pork – $5.99
  • 1 lb of veal – $ 7.99
  • 1 lb of beef – $ 5.99
  • 1/2 lb Mozzarella – $3.50
  • 2 cups of dried bread – $.50
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan – $1.25
  • 3 eggs – $1.00
  • 1lb of penne – $1.50
  • 1 can of peeled tomatoes – $1.50
  • 1 can of tomato paste – $.75
  • 4 roma tomatoes – $.67
  • 2 white onions – $.50
  • 1 quart beef stock – $1.99

Total cost per serving: $4.14

Chocolate Spice Cake with Cranberries and Pecans

I spent the entire week trying to find the perfect words to celebrate the life of James Neal Blanton.  Unfortunately, my entire post got erased yesterday, yes a n00b mistake, I know.  A million times Collin had told me “Always backup Joy” “You should write your posts in Word first Zhang.” So I guess after the millionth and one time, it finally stuck and NEVER AGAIN will I make the same mistake.

After screaming a string of cuss words and letting out all my frustrations by punching a few pillows (they don’t hurt your hand and they don’t fight back), I realized, maybe this was for the better. I honestly wasn’t entirely happy with what I had written.  So I decided to start over, and go old school with a tablet in one hand and a pen in the other.  I sat outside on a lawn chair, soaking up the sun and waited for the right words to come to me.

Since I was a young child, a common question I’d ask my parents was “What is the purpose of life?  How do we know what our job is?”  My parents would usually reply “You need to work hard and study and do well in school, so you can become a successful person like a doctor or a lawyer.”  And for many many years I truly believed that.

It takes a man like Mr.Blanton to help you realize otherwise.

Kate quickly became one of my closest friends in high school, her warm personality, kind heart and contagious laugh made it easy for me to immediately “click” with her.  Her house was always the place to be on Fridays after school.  It was conveniently right by school but the best part was she always had the coolest parents.  I am always very nervous when I initially meet my friends’ parents, mostly because I am out of control with the volume of my voice and I guess a bit “rambunctious”.  My usual self takes a complete 180 and suddenly I turn very shy and quiet.

However, Kate’s parents always had a genuine, positive and loving energy that made you instantly feel at home as if you were part of the family.  Back then, my own personal family life was tumultuous to say the least, and I always avoided going home because neither of my parents were ever in a good mood.  Every Friday, I would look forward to hanging out at Kate’s (with her parents) because it always seemed to give me a peace of mind no matter what was going on back at home.

Her parents always took the time to greet us and sit down to see how we were doing.  No matter how boring the story, Mr. Blanton always listened attentively with a big smile on his face.  His eyes never held judgment, and were always filled with much comfort and warmth.

I now realize the solace Kate’s family provided me helped me not only keep my sanity during those years but helped me grasp the importance of having an optimistic attitude in life.  It made me recognize that the purpose of life wasnt to become a doctor or a lawyer, but the positive impact, you as an individual, are able to make on other people’s lives.  Only then does your spirit and being live on after you are gone.

When I heard the news of Mr.Blanton being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s or otherwise known as “ALS” I knew the outcome would not be good.  My heart sank and I had trouble understanding why certain people were given such fates.  But Mr.Blanton never questioned it, all he knew was that he had to make the best out of what he had.

One of the last times I saw Mr.Blanton was around last November, the disease had almost taken all mobility in his legs and his speech was impaired. By this time, I had not seen him in over a year.  I was shocked as to what this disease had done to this beautiful man.  However, he soon made me feel foolish for even feeling pity towards him, for he didn’t seem to let his condition phase him at all.  Instead he was eager to show us his new gadget — a fully stocked recliner that could raise and lower you in and out of the chair.  We couldn’t help but laugh and clap, for his excitement and award winning smile was always highly infectious!  And as always, Kate’s parents took the time to sit down and chat, and as always, Mr. Blanton listened with bright eyes and a smile that brimmed from ear to ear.  I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia, missing the same feelings of comfort that always felt so familiar in their home.

For the two and a half years he fought the battle against his condition, I’ve never seen such determination and bravery come from one man.  And not only was it prevalent in him but the entire family as well.  I am unable to express in words the admiration I feel for this family, but I can only hope I will be able to show the same strength, unity and unwavering faith they held during the challenges we encounter through life.

I was nervous about attending the service.  I was never good at saying goodbyes.  As I was driving to the church, I felt like I was in a complete (panicked) daze.  Before walking into the sanctuary, I paused and took a deep breath — “You can do this Joy, don’t flip out” I kept repeating to myself.

Upon sitting down, I took a look at the program that was handed to me and on the very front was a picture of Mr.Blanton’s bright smiling face.  I completely broke down, for I realized that this was it.  He was really gone.  My heart started to race, the blood rushed to my face and I could barely breathe through the choking of tears that poured down my face.

Then, “Amazing Grace” begun, the angelic voices of the choir singers suddenly filled the entire sanctuary with such magnificence.  I closed my eyes, trying to calm my nerves and it was then that I felt it: a blanket of calm and soothing stillness that permeated throughout the entire room.  Immediately I felt my fears erased and replaced with a sense of serenity I have never felt before.

Kate made the perfect speech about her father that left everyone feeling positive and uplifted.  She shared 4 life lessons that her father had taught her and I wanted to share them with you.

Don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk

Always give second chances.

Stay in touch.

Sing Loudly.

We are all born with the opportunity to change and improve the world.  Mr.Blanton chose to make a positive impact through his service to not only his family and friends but also to his community.  He always strived to help the less fortunate and always made an effort to make a difference in people’s lives.

He has taught me the importance of sharing and spreading happiness to others, to never assume a person’s situation, and to always love with an open heart.  It’s men like Mr.Blanton that makes this world a better place.  Though he may be gone, the impact he has made will live on forever.

May you rest in peace.

James Neal Blanton

(July 17 1935 – February 22 2010)