Summer of 2014

Posted in John's Current Blog on August 19, 2014

Bread, June 6, 2014

Chengdu, China August 19, 2014. I see that I haven’t blogged in over a month, but I’m not surprised. It’s been a wild summer here in China, with the long, mild, dry winter and spring turning into¬† a month of rain and hot weather confusing my heirloom Bulgarian tomatoes to no end and dampening many of my plans and spirits as well. The sun rarely shines through the fog and smog of Chengdu. Though renowned for its food, I can’t say that I have fallen in love with the everyday cooking here. Most of the restaurants use too much oil and too much spice — everything can end up tasting the same. And I’m very uncomfortable sitting on plastic stools, which are ubiquitous in most of the smaller restaurants. I also have missed many of the western ingredients I love so dearly. Consequently, I have been growing my own herbs, baking my own breads, and doctoring the jarred olives I can find.

Olives in oil with capsicum and black peppers, garlic, and lemons

Many years ago Mikel and I rented a cabin in the mountains of West Virginia and it poured rain the entire time. I had brought plenty of food with us, including a jar of brined olives, which turned out to be insipid. Fortunately, I also had very good olive oil with me, so I added some lemon juice and garlic to the olives in a cast iron pan and slipped it in among the embers in the fireplace. They greatly improved in flavor, so I’ve been marinating all the tasteless olives I find here in China before serving them. I add whatever I feel like at the time, and continue to add olives to the jar after we eat all that’s there. Eventually, I use the oil as well. In the photo at left, I’ve marinated thick slices of leg of lamb (also nearly impossible to find) in the mix. I roasted it and whole garlic heads, then squeezed the garlic onto my homemade bread. I’ve been so thrilled to find okra, albeit bigger than I like, in a Japanese market, so I’ve been making gumbos and okra and tomatoes. With the lamb, I spread leftover okra and tomatoes over grilled eggplant and left it warm through. I also roasted cauliflower. An amazing meal if I do say so myself. Chianti Classico accompanied but, as is often the case with some Italian wines, as soon as the food was gone the wine lost its character.

Most rewarding on the table this summer has been my breads, which are utter simplicity to make. Using a combination of Jim Leahy’s renowned No Knead Bread recipe (I needn’t give you a recipe; it’s all over the internet) and Ken Forkish’s Pinch and Fold Method (also online, with videos), I have come up with my own formula that seems to work best here in this humid environment where there seem to be many wild yeasts. The breads contain flour, water, yeast, and salt only. I can make a loaf of bread with 500 grams of flour using barely a pinch of dry yeast. I bake it in a superheated Dutch oven.¬† Below are some photos of some of my recent loaves (I’ve also been making pita bread; I posted the recipe on the blog on January 10, 2008.) And our basil plants have been very productive, so we’ve had pesto often (detailed instructions were posted on the blog seven years ago here.)

So while it appears that I can continue with my Italian/Southern American style cooking here, in fact it’s nearly impossible to find many ingredients and I find myself going from one end of town to the other looking. I was growing my own salad greens until it got too hot. The ones in the photo above were home-grown. But that was in late June.

In July, we had to go to Hong Kong. It’s complicated. Because China does not recognize our marriage, I am in the country on a tourist passport and must leave every three months. So we go to Hong Kong. Fine with me. I much prefer Cantonese food and the city is so much cleaner and better organized than cities on the mainland. We’ve had great food there, from steaks at a bistro called Classified to marvelous dim sum in both tiny and enormous restaurants, to tapas at both Viva Ana and the hip new Quemo. We’ve found great wine shops (particularly Chris Cheung’s family’s Wine Chateau stores), old fashioned barbers, charming pizza parlors, and phenomenal Japanese restaurants. But the highlight of the trip for us this time was dining on a funky little boat in the harbor at Shun Kee Typhoon Shelter (the photo above shows steamed crabs with hot peppers, duck soup, and clams, three of 8 or so courses). We had a boat to ourselves.

Alas, my yearlong visa is about to run out and the knee surgery I had last year has been problematic, so I am headed back to the States for awhile, where Mikel and I are buying a little house to use as our home base. Another reason I’ve not been blogging: buying a house sight unseen (except online and via a few cell phone images taken by a friend) from 10,000 miles away is a nightmare of paperwork. I’m not disclosing the location of our new home until I’m well settled. Until then, I’ll try to be better about blogging. I post LOTS of photos with captions on Facebook and I invite you to friend me there. (Here’s my page.) I’ve been blogging for nearly 8 years now and sometimes I think I’ve said all I have to say about food anyway. I can always be reached through email, though there will be days here and there in the next month when I’ll be traveling and/or without internet service.

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