Thursday, July 9, 2009

Doing Some Freelancing

I (Camilla) have been trying to do some freelance writing on the web.  I've always enjoyed writing and since I have some free time these days, I thought I would try my hand at it.  I'm just trying to build up my portfolio at this point.  I have gotten paid, but not much.  Some people actually do make a living at it though, and we're hoping that will happen for me as I gain more experience.

One of my articles about the Yumberry won (to my utter astonishment) an Editor's Choice Award on!  You can read it here: 

Check out some of my other articles on the site as well.

I am still writing for, a travel site based in my native Toronto!  Lately my article about Fujianese Tea Ceremony has appeared there:

I'm excited to see where this freelance writing thing takes me!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is that Pork in my Lasagna?

After getting back from Shanghai with a couple boxes of no-boil lasagna noodles in my suitcase, I decided to try making lasagna with the homemade ricotta recipe I tried a couple weeks ago. But of course in Xiamen, ground beef is nowhere to be found, except allegedly at Metro which is an hour away. So I went in quest of ground pork. After a slight argument with the butcher over the price (there was a heavy bag of meat leaning against the meat scale, which somehow made my one pound of pork weigh about 4 pounds), I returned home to assemble the lasagna in time for a couple of dinner guests.

The ricotta recipe is REALLY simple (see the post below). I had fresh ricotta in about 20 minutes, while chopping up the other ingredients. You basically need about 1/4 cup of lemon juice per litre of whole milk.

While the cheese was draining I tried to figure out what to do with the pork to give it more flavour, as I find it is usually a bit bland when I use it in spaghetti sauce. So, improvising, I mixed the ground pork with a handful of fresh herbs, some pepper and salt, dried oregano, and a bit of oil. I let it sit for a bit while I prepped the other stuff. The rest was typical lasagna - mixed the pork with tomato sauce, layered it with the ricotta in a pan, topped it with cheese, and baked the whole thing for about 25 min.

Our Chinese friends had never had lasagna before. In fact, when we mentioned that we would be having Western food, they looked blankly at each other as if that was an entirely foreign concept (well, I suppose it was, literally). So I was highly gratified when at the first bite both of them said, "Mmm!" They weren't such great fans of the Caesar salad or the broccoli with balsamic dressing, but they liked the lasagna =).

Lasagna in a land where beef is scarce

My casserole dish is small because I have to use a toaster oven to bake things, so you will want to double the recipe for use in a standard size casserole dish.

1 jin (aka 500g) of ground pork
1/2 cup of chopped fresh parsley and basil
1 tsp dried oregano
3/4 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1 can tomato sauce (or about 2.5 to 3 cups of homemade sauce)
1/2 cup shredded cheese (Mozzarella or whatever is available)
1 medium onion
1 green bell pepper
1/2 package no-boil lasagna noodles
olive oil
salt and pepper

Mix pork with fresh herbs, oregano, and a tbsp olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
Dice onion and bell pepper up small. Saute onion till transparent, then add bell pepper and cook till bell pepper is slighly softened. Remove to a plate.
Fry pork until browned, breaking up any lumps. Add onion and bell pepper and mix in pan, then add tomato sauce and cook till hot.
Start with tomato sauce mixture and layer noodles, ricotta, and tomato sauce in casserole dish, ending with tomato sauce. Sprinkle shredded cheese over top.
Bake in 350 degree oven for about 25 min, or until noodles are tender when a fork is inserted into lasagna.

I'm not sure whether the fresh herbs are best mixed into the pork or stirred into the sauce later. I liked that the pork seemed to be more flavourful with them added, but I wonder if their flavour would be stronger if they weren't cooked so long. For a future experiment, I guess.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Summer Tomatoes and Fresh Ricotta

I went on a cooking rampage when I came back from Canada. I didn't cook at all during my visit, and I felt like experimenting. The first thing I made was Bayberry jam... More on Chinese bayberries later...but suffice to say that they were disastrous in jam. I knew they probably would be, but I wanted to try it anyway on the off chance that they would be surprisingly good. But that's for a future post...more later!

Anyway, my second experiment was homemade ricotta. You know, cheese is somewhat difficult to find in China. I mean, just normal supermarket cheeses like mozzarella and cheddar are hard to find, let alone fresh cheeses like ricotta. Somehow, though, when I was browsing through my favorite food blogs, I came across the idea of making my own homemade ricotta. After all, the only fresh milk they sell here is full cream, so I've got the only really crucial ingredient at my disposal.

It turned out surprisingly easy. Almost too easy, in fact. I found myself thinking...why did I ever buy this at the supermarket? All it took was:

2L fresh whole milk
1/2 cup lemon juice

I heated the milk in a pot until it was just about to boil, then I removed it from the heat, and dumped in the lemon juice. The milk curdled immediately (it was pretty amazing actually). I stirred it a bit and then poured the curds and whey into a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a large bowl. I let it drain for 1/2 hour, salted it, et voila! Fresh ricotta.

Using the lemon juice did give it a slightly lemony fragrance, but it was not unpleasant. Other recipes called for using buttermilk, but I don't have any here, so using lemon was a simpler option.

We had it the other day for dinner spread on toasted, garlic-rubbed, crusty bread (from Carrefour) and topped with summer-fresh tomatoes and the first leaves of basil from our windowsill herb garden. was so refreshing - the tomatoes were sweet, the basil fresh and aromatic - an early taste of summer.

Now, if I can only get to Metro at the same time that the lasagna sheets are in stock, there's lasagna in our future...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Spring Morning

In my opinion (though I'm certainly not an expert) Toronto is a gastronomic delight. Never have I been in a city that offers so much diversity, at so democratic a price point. You can, of course, frequent the posh bistros of Yorkville and spend a small fortune at the trendy restaurants and bars, but in my opinion the most satisfying food is found in more humble establishments. The authentic ethnic restaurants on Baldwin, for example, the great Cantonese places in Richmond Hill, or the excellent Indian and Italian restaurants dotted across the map.

And of course, no trip downtown is complete without a Toronto street dog. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the Toronto street dog is to New York's as Dijon is to Heinz (please don't hate me). Today, however, I decided to forgo the meat on the street in favour of an "everything" bagel at Tim Horton's.

I know people who wouldn't be caught dead at a Tim Horton's. And, I know, it's true it's not the best quality food, but for $2.44 for a bagel and a coffee, who's gonna turn up their nose (that's Canadian dollars, by the way)? Plus the bagels are really not bad. Plus where's your Canadian pride? Yes, nevermind that there was a Hep A scare at the Timmie's near my house. NO food is immune from contamination these days (see this article). But I forgive you if you forgo Timmie's - at least you can visit the largest Canadian-owned specialty coffee retailer, Second Cup, my personal fave and Starbucks' stiffest competition in this country. Try their cranberry-apple muffin.

Anyway, after breakfast, I stopped at Whole Foods for some MSG-free bouillon cubes, organic cider vinegar, and chai tea. Then I walked nostalgically through the UofT campus, my alma mater, on my way to the charming Kensington market, where already someone had made the mistake of backing up on the narrow one-way street, traffic was at a dead-stop, and a Japanese fishmonger, a Mexican shop owner, and the Chinese truck driver were having a friendly argument about whose fault it was. I did pick up some Mexican hot sauce for Chris though, and spent some time admiring the fresh stalks of asparagus, ranging from grass-slim to chunky, boxes of fresh fiddleheads, and all sorts of exotic veggies (there was cassava in front of a Caribbean spice store).

I also took my time strolling through Chinatown and almost thought I was back in China again. Gleaming piles of cherries, gaudy dragonfruit, spiky lychees, exotic mangosteen and piles and piles of mangoes filled the fruit stalls, while at other storefronts, the pungent smells of Chinese medicine wafted out of doors and windows. I thought this sign was a cute symbol of how Chinese and Canadian culture manage to cooperate..."Lucky MOOSE Food Mart????"

After all, the diversity of our eating is a direct result of the diversity of our people, and the fact that we can enjoy so much delicious, reasonably priced food is due to the hard work of all the people who have made Canada their new home.

And I had all-you-can-eat Indian food for lunch.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stocking Up

I'm writing this from the comfort of my parents' home in Toronto, Canada. That's right, I'm not in China! My sister is getting married and I'm here for a very short visit (2 weeks), leaving my beloved hubby at home in China to fend for himself. While I'm here, I've gone shopping several times, stocking up on goodies to bring back to the ol' Middle Kingdom. There are so many ingredients that are common in your average supermarket in Canada that are rarities in Xiamen. When we lived in Shanghai, many of these ingredients were available. But in our current location, a smaller city with a smaller expat population, many of these things are available only at Metro (a 1 hour trip each way on the bus for us), or not at all. So for those of you contemplating living abroad, or expats who are going home for a visit, here's a list of groceries to find and pack. Remember to try and find relatively "light" packaging as your abundance of delicious food may put you over the airline's weight limit!

  • vitamins and mineral supplements
  • dried cranberries (I use these in everything from salads to baked goods)
  • dried herbs and spices (oregano, thyme, basil, bay leaves, rosemary, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, sage, paprika, cumin, curry powder, etc... These are often available in sturdy resealable bags, nice and light for your journey!)
  • flavourings (vanilla, almond, peppermint, anise, coconut extracts)
  • paper muffin cups
  • flavoured western teas
  • dried mexican black beans
  • sun-dried tomatoes (a little bit goes a long way)
  • steak seasoning
  • cream of tartar (in the absence of cream, this is useful for cake icings and whipped topping)
  • confectioner's sugar
  • active dry yeast
  • cheesecloth and parchment paper
  • food coloring (for icings), cake decorations
  • double acting baking powder (I think the local Chinese baking powder is single-acting)
  • red wine and sherry vinegars
  • a good quality whisk and silicone spatula
  • capers
  • MSG-free bouillon cubes, Knorr soup mixes, dressing mixes, etc...
  • poppy seeds, flax seeds
  • black peppercorns and sea salt with grinders
  • bulgur wheat, couscous, other specialty "grains"
  • ground coffee and a French press
Ok, I know that's a LOT. And when I think of more I'll add more in. When I came back to Canada this time, I brought a duffel bag and an extra suitcase just to put all the goodies in. I would also suggest buying a couple of thick thirsty towels for your bathroom (towels in China are paper thin). I'm also bringing home Dove shampoo and conditioner. While they do have those in Hong Kong, for some reason they don't have them in China, and Dove conditioner is the only thing that keeps my hair from becoming a parched mess.

Some of these things you can get at large international chain supermarkets such as Carrefour or Metro, depending on where you live in China, but unfortunately for us, Metro is far away and Carrefour doesn't stock much imported food. Once, I went to Carrefour, and they were out of both BUTTER and CHEESE. Sad, isn't it?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Virtues of Cabbage

Today I want to share this really simple but DELICIOUS dish that I learned about from Orangette's website.  Essentially, it is fried cabbage.

Ok, pick your jaw up from the floor.  Yes, I know cabbage doesn't have the best reputation, but cooked this way, it will change your entire conception of cabbage.  It will be a revelation.  I've eaten it three times in the last 2 days.  I kid you not.

But first, why cabbage?  According to Wikipedia (that most reliable of sources), cabbage is an excellent source of vitamins and dietary fiber.  It is reputed to have a bad odor when cooked, but that is only when cooked for a prolonged period of time.  We usually see it used in pickled form (ie sauerkraut, which my husband doesn't care for, despite being half German) or used in soups and stews.

In this dish you are cooking the cabbage at high heat for less than five minutes, which means the vegetable remains relatively crisp and less sweet than in prolonged preparations (the sugar doesn't have time to be released).  The original recipe called for fennel, but that's impossible to find in China, and I substituted garlic.  The result is peppery and homey, the creamy egg yolk falling gently into a bed of slightly salty cabbage - it is a humble dish, but deeply satisfying.

Fried Cabbage on Toast
adapted from Orangette's recipe

half a cabbage, chopped into strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
oil, salt and pepper
soy sauce
2 eggs

Heat the pan on high heat.  Add a tbsp of oil.  When hot, add minced garlic and stir around for a few seconds.  Add cabbage strips, stir to coat with oil, and stir-fry until cabbage is wilted and slightly browned.  Add a dash of salt, a generous grinding of black pepper, and a splash of soy sauce.  Continue stir-frying until liquid is evaporated.  Mound onto two plates.  Top each with a fried egg and serve with a slice of whole-wheat toast.

Could anything be easier?