cook - recipes

2 Secrets to Perfect Fried Calamari (with Lime Chipotle Aioli)

Working in a restaurant is hard. The hours are long and life is short. Most cooks start when they’re young. I was fourteen the first time I stepped into the kitchen of a restaurant, at Bijou in Toronto. The afternoon started with hours of prep work, then a spot sweating on the line at the salad/dessert station and running up and down the stairs every time the chef ran out of an ingredient, and after the dinner service was over, and my feet ached and my pits tank, it was assumed I would go and pitch a few extra hours in the dish pit. The only respite was that back in the day, there was an ashtray in the dish pit, so you could smoke while you worked as long as you were agile enough to balance a cigarette on your lip and keep it dry in the splash and spray of the mess.

Every shift started the same, with gallons of squid in ice cold water. If I tried to wear gloves, or warm my hands, the chef would mercilessly taunt me. I remember the shocking feeling of plunging my hand in and feeling the surge of cold in my veins and the gelatinous, writing mass of the sea creatures’ bodies. First, you slip out their ‘spines’, a clear malleable, plastic-like shard, then you pop out the ink ball, which most restaurants worth their salt reserve for a squid ink pasta or to use darkening and thickening a sauce.

Slippery squid

Once you’ve cleaned the squid, the next step is to cut off and set aside the tentacles.

Tentacle aside: Easily, my favourite part to eat, the texture and multiple crunches gets me every time, and with the multiplicity of surface areas, they’re a better vessel for dip than a ring. Let your sucker friends think you’re taking one for the team, save them till the end and eat all the tentacles yourself.

Then, carefully so your knife doesn’t slip, slide a very sharp blade across the body in one smooth motion until you’re left with slices the size of a thick rubber band. Make sure not to overcook the calamari, or it will feel like you’re chewing rubber bands.

2 Secrets to Perfect Crispy Homemade Calamari:

  1. Marinate the squid slices in buttermilk overnight in the fridge, or for at least 2-3 hours before dredging and cooking. This tenderizes the meat with the subtle lactic acid, adds depth of flavour, and helps the dredge adhere to the slippery surface of the squid.
  2. Don’t skimp on your oil. Peanut, Canola, and Sunflower oil, in that order, have the highest smoke points, and thus get the hottest and cook the fastest (i.e. crunchiest exterior without overcooked meat). And be patient, wait to add the squid until the oil is hot. Use a thermometer to make sure it is above 450F/230C.
Deep fried delicious calamari

Perfect Crunchy Fried Calamari

Ingredients:

  • 8.5 C/ 2 L high-smoke point oil
  • 6 whole squid, cleaned and sliced
  • 2 C/500 ml of Buttermilk, for overnight marinating
  • 1 C/250 ml Flour
  • 1 C/250 ml corn meal
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

  1. Cover a plate or baking sheet in paper towel or newspaper.
  2. Preheat your oil in a deep pot on the stove, or a deep fryer.
  3. Remove squid from the fridge and strain all excess liquid through a colander. Be patient, this may take a few minutes.
  4. Dredge one large handful of squid at a time, tossing to coat in the combined flour and corn meal, then lightly shaking off excess dredge before you drop the squid into the fryer.
  5. Fry squid rings and tentacles for 2-3 minutes in small batches, so the oil keeps its high temperature and the rings don’t congeal and cook into a clump. Clean out any crumbs or burnt bits as you go to prevent the oil from taking on an acrid, carbon taste.
  6. Set aside batch after batch to drain on the paper towel, making sure to season calamari to your liking, before serving.

Lime Chipotle Aioli

Ingredients:

  • .5C/ 125ml of Mayonnaise (make it at home if you’re fancy and have the time)
  • 2 chipotle peppers in a adobo sauce (I prefer the La Costena cans)
  • 2 tbsp/ 30ml lime juice
  • 1 tsp/ 5ml lime zest

Directions: Put everything in a blender and whip it up real good.

Note: This recipe is total crack, and it works just as well for kids drinking soda, for a bunch of sports fans downing cans of pilsner during the game, or for your classy friends relazing on the patio in the summer, downing glasses of Moscato rose.

Also, if you’re using store bought mayonnaise, the lime chipotle aioli has a super long shelf life in the fridge and can be made and kept in big batches to eat with basically everything that can be used as a vessel for dip.

As always, get in touch with me if you have any questions, or want to buy a print.

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cook - recipes

The 5 Magical Secrets to Perfect Homemade Pan Pizza every single time; plus, a recipe for The Perfect Baking Sheet Pizza Pie.

Note: Scroll straight to the bottom for the full recipe, The Perfect Baking Sheet Pizza Pie.

Friday nights were pizza night in our house when I was growing up. Pizza Night was a family tradition. The week’s menu was always written out in my mother’s longhand and taped on the inside of the kitchen cupboard. I would come home from school and stare longingly at Friday, wondering why it had to be Broccoli Casserole Tuesday, or Spaghetti Arrabiata Thursday. Homemade Nut Burger Monday was excruciating because it meant four more sleeps until Pizza Friday. No amount of ketchup and mustard could replace melted cheese and marinara.

During the years when my parents were both working full-time, we would order from a local chain, Pizza Pizza. There were inevitable fights about what toppings to order. One of my sisters hated mushrooms. “Gross! They smell like Chlorox,” she’d yell.

If you’re like my sisters and I, you might want to go half and half to avoid costly debates over what goes where.

I always wanted to try the pepperoni. My friends at school wouldn’t eat pizza without the shaved coins of sausage. It was my first brush with the fear of missing out. We were a devoutly vegetarian house.

Our oldest sister was always saying pineapple on pizza was for kids. She was a teenager. She wanted her own pie. 

I was the youngest, and after a few years, Pizza Night attendance thinned out. My sisters had boyfriends, parties, suspicious amounts of perfume on their coats and tic-tacs on their breath. Dad went through a phase of working late, every night, including Friday. Only mom and me were left at home for Pizza Night. 

Homemade pizza pie

I always loved to cook, so Pizza Night became an opportunity for us to experiment in the kitchen. We made pita pizzas. Tortilla pizzas. Microwave pizzas. Grilled cheese pizzas. Focaccia pizzas. Thin crust pizzas. Gluten free pizzas. We even tried cauliflower-crust pizzas. But nothing quite matched the delicious, gooey, crunchy stringy-cheesed magic of delivery, until we found a recipe for homemade baking sheet pan pizza. Because I love you, and I know you’ll put it to good use, I’m going to share the 5 magical secrets of our recipe with you, so you can start your own Pizza Night.

Secret #1: Make your dough as soon as you get home from school, so it can rest for a few hours before you dressed it up and cook it. 

Secret #2: Don’t add anything to your tomatoes! No sugar, no herbs, no oil, no garlic, no salt, no nothing. Just simple, canned and pureed plum tomatoes. When you open the can, you will smell Italy at the base of Mount Vesuvio, and you don’t want to mess with that.

Secret #3: Use exactly one ball of mozzarella. No more, no less. Grate it right before you use it, otherwise you’ll snack on the stringy bits and eat a bunch of it before any cheese makes it onto the pizza and melts into gooey goodness.

Secret #4: Shake lots of cornmeal into the bottom of your baking pan before you add the dough. It will give the bottom of your crust that extra crusty crust crunch.

Secret #5: You can peak and stare into the window to your heart’s desire, but don’t open that door of the oven, until you switch your pie from bake to broil at the end. Watch as the cheese bubbles and browns and turns into the perfect homemade pie before your eyes.

The Perfect Baking Sheet Pizza Night Pie

Ingredients

Pizza Dough:

  • 2 cups/500 ml lukewarm water
  • 2 tablespoons/30 ml yeast (2 packets of Fleischmann’s)
  • 4 cups/1 L all-purpose flour (sifted if you’ve got the time)
  • 3 tablespoons/45 ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon/5 ml fine sea salt
  1. Dissolve the yeast in water as warm as your hand, but not warmer. You’ll know it’s alive, when it starts bubbling after a few minutes.
  2. On clean flat working surface, make a mountain of flour and salt, then carve out a crater with your hands. 

Note: Keep the flour and olive out out, in case you need to add more of either to sticky hands or a sticky counter.

  1. Slowly add the yeasty water and olive oil, pushing the edges of the crater into the well until gets stick and forms a dough ball. 
  2. Knead until the dough becomes elastic and gently rises back up when you poke your finger into the ball. 
  3. Now, the most important part: Give yourself a break! Wrap the ball up in plastic wrap. Or, you can oil the outside of the ball and place it in a large mixing bowl, then cover the bowl with a damp tea towel
  4. Go and peak every once in a while until the dough has doubled in size (about an hour or so)

Tomato Sauce:

  • 1 28 oz can San Marzano plum tomatoes.
  1. Puree the tomatoes in a blender, or with a hand blender in the can, or dice them up and send them through a sieve. Just don’t add a thing.

Cheese:

  • 1 ball mozzarella
  1. Grate the cheese, immediately before use, otherwise, it will slowly disappear in roaming hands and inquiring mouths. 

Toppings:

  • The best part about cooking is being creative. The toppings are up to you, and there’s no limit, from oysters to kiwis, blue cheese to antelope, you can eat anything on a pizza.
  1. Cut your toppings before hand into bite-sized pieces, so they cook evenly.

Cooking instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees, or as hot as it will go.
  2. Dust your baking sheet with gritty cornmeal. This will add megatons of crunch.
  3. Oil your dough ball and roll it out on a floured surface, tossing it up in the air as high as you dare. When it is stretched enough, lay it out over the cornmeal coated baking pan and tapdance a fork’s prongs over the surface of the dough until it is perforated. 

Note: Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter if your dough rips. Dough is sticky, so you can just stick it back together.

  1. Put a big splotch of tomato sauce in the middle and draw spirals outward with a big spoon or ladle. It doesn’t matter if it’s even because it will flatten out while cooking.
  2. Now quickly grate and add the cheese before it disappears, then dress your pizza in delicious toppings.
  3. Bake until the edges start to brown (7-9 minutes), without opening oven.
  4. Switch the oven to a high broil. Wait thirty seconds, then carefully move the pizza to the top rack of the oven.
  5. Count to one hundred, keeping watch for smoke.
  6. Remove pizza from the broiler and enjoy The Perfect Baking Sheet Pizza Night Pie.
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eat - reviews, travel - places

El Balcon de Zocalo Restaurant – Centro Historico, Mexico City

When I first moved to Mexico, I was broke. Not like, I was only eating tacos and drinking six packs of beer and staying in hostel dorm rooms, I mean literally, I had no money. I was young, in my twenties, and I had saved a few hundred dollars in cash doing odd jobs after winning a scholarship to write a book, which I never finished. I decided to go by train south from Canada to Mexico, mostly because I was going through my first really bad breakup and, also, because I didn’t respect myself enough to care what happened.

My heroes were the poets of the beat generation, Kerouac, Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and their crew. I knew that they had all at various times escaped the realities of America by heading south. I was enamored by the Infrarealists of Mexico City, who roamed the streets of Distrito Federal at night, slept all day, then wrote poems at the cafes every evening. I would do the same. My first stop was El Paso, Texas. I decided not to cross over to Juarez direct from the train station because the lineup of Mexican labourers on day visas returning home was too long. It was nearly sundown, the light low over that famous bridge to Juarez, which was more dangerous and violent than Iraq at the time.

I met some homeless, punk girls from Kentucky, and we had a few beers at a truck stop bar, then went to a parkette across from a Bank of America that was being gutted, post-2008 crash, and drank from the gallon of honeyshine they’d brought from home. Some local meth heads came by to smoke and started a scrap with us after trying to steal a knapsack. I ended up in a rundown flop house, sleeping with my cash rolled up in my fist and my clothes on. If I hadn’t heard about the ‘Couchsurfing‘ website, from a young drifter who’d been crashing on a boat in San Francisco, I have no idea what I would’ve have ended up doing. My first few months in Mexico, I was blessed with free beds and I subsisted entirely on bananas and instant coffee, both of which cost pennies.

The point is, I spent years in Mexico, eventually learning the language, living in a house full of college students and artists it was hard not to become fluent with a little patience. I fell in love, got a job teaching English at a small college, and later, much later, became comfortable enough that I could afford to do the expensive, touristy things that most travelers do everyday on their holidays. It’s hard for me to say if El Balcon de Zocalo is actually as good as I feel, but I love it. It’s a sentimental spot for me. It’s on a rooftop, at the height of excess, it’s full of “rich” people, and foreigners. But it does, without a doubt, have my favourite view of the Cathedral and Zocalo looking through a porthole. And it’s one of those places, where the Chef has clearly decided that every plating has to be equally as beautiful as the environment, which speaks to me as an aesthete. I’m a sucker for beauty, and the food here is beautiful.

Whether it’s dressed up octopus tacos, tacos de pulpo, or breakfast, avena y semillas con frutas, or one of their many gorgeous salads, this restaurant aims to make the guest feel luxurious. It serves cocktails on wood blocks, and tacos on marble slates. It’s one of those places that was instagrammable before photo apps were a thing. So, if that’s your thing, and you’re a selfie shark, then you should at least stop by for a light lunch.

On my first visit, I was with a rich friend from Vancouver, whose parents have oil & industry money. He treated me to guacamole peppered with grasshoppers, and overpriced Coronas, while we watch a youth soccer match. I was being spoiled, and I enjoyed it. Since then, I have returned many times over the years, my girlfriend once got violently ill after ordering raw tuna here, but in general, it’s a bad look to order raw fish in a landlocked Southern city.

In a sentence, if you want a nice setup for your photo collection, and you want to be pampered a little, El Balcon de Zocalo is your spot. But skip the fish, there’s two coasts in Mexico, and the city ain’t on either. Unless, you can get a reservation at Contramar.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.

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travel - places

A Perfect Day in Mexico City – CDMX dream itinerary

On the February days when winter feels the longest at home in Toronto, I often find myself reminiscing for the years when I lived in D.F., the city of eternal spring, Mexico City, the capital, El Monstruo, the largest city in North America, and for many of us, the most beautiful. Then I imagine my perfect day in Mexico City. At sunrise, I’d walk from my flat off of Alvaro Obregon to Plaza Rio de Janiero in Roma Norte and have a cappuccino at the Cafe Toscano.

Cafe Toscano at Plaza Rio de Janiero

After the first coffee of the day, I’d walk around Roma for an hour or two, strolling back toward Alvaro Obregon and then on to the Plaza Luis Cabrera to see Javier Marin’s statue and linger around the fountains. I’d eat a pan and maybe grab a second coffee at Cardinal, then read or sketch, relaxing for an hour or two and enjoying the screen time out.

Fountain at Plaza Luis Cabrera

Lunch absolutely has to be at Maximo Bistrot. It’s beautiful, delicious and unmatched anywhere in the city, serving a completely unique take on Mexican inspired French classics by Chef Lalo. It is hands down my favourite restaurant, especially in the day when it’s quieter and the sun is out on the patio. A great place to drink a bottle of dry white, like an Albarino, or to pop a frizzante at noon.

Dessert at Maximo Bistrot

Siesta. Then we take an Uber south to the super wealthy enclave of San Angel for a visit to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s compound. They built separate studio houses, with a tryst inspiring Romeo and Juliet walkway bridge spanning the gap between them, and distinct his and hers red and blue colours. It’s a much quieter and more personal museum than the more famous Casa Azul, where Frida was raised in Coyoacan and her whole family lived (you should visit there as well, but this is what I would do in a day).

Diego’s studio with cactus fence

Afterward, I’d head back to Roma for a siesta and pick up a few cervezas for a sundown on the rooftop. Because of the earthquakes, there isn’t much of a skyline in Mexico City, but the lack of showy architecture means almost any 3 or 4 story walk up in the city will give you a panoramic view. There’s usually access to rooftops of most residential buildings because everyone air dries their laundry. So if you can find a way up, you will be rewarded for that one fleeting yet magical moment when the sun slips below the haze and sits perched above the hilltops on the horizon.

Sunset over Mexico City

After you finish your beers, and the light disappears, have a few cocktails at one of the many bars along Alvaro Obregon, and then take the train or an Uber to the Centro Historico. The central part of the city used to be a bit janky, kind of sketchy and barren after dark, but it’s slowly making a comeback since Billionaire Carlos Slim started gobbling up real estate. There’s a ton of good taco spots, but I’d go to my favourite hipster spot, pizza del perro negro, which is the perfect juxtaposition of fresh, uninhibited cooking and stunning, classical architecture in the courtyard of a historic 16th century building at 66 Donceles with a gallery upstairs. There are going to be a lot of mezcals and cervezas throughout the night, and the tacos will inevitably arrive on plastic plates sheathed in cellophane, eaten standing at the corner like the street meat they are, but before a heavy night out, I want something starchy and what better than a pizza pie.

Hipsters making video of making pizza. My kind of place.

I’m not going to list a bunch of cantinas and bars in Centro, that’s a post of its own. My only advice would be to keep eating all the free food they offer you while ordering drinks, and don’t be afraid to Uber from bar to bar, it’s easy to trip on the five hundred year old cobblestone streets.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.

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cook - recipes, travel - places

Puerto Escondido – Salsa Verde con Piña

girl-in-pool

There are certain meals that slap you out of a waking sleep. I remember the exact moment I first tasted this salsa verde con piña. I was in Sayulita, a sleepy little surf town with an easy break, just close enough to California for ex-pats to drive down and just far enough to keep away the droves of tourists. I had only been drifting around Mexico for a few months, my Spanish was barely passable, and I was living out of a backpack. After hitchhiking to the Pacific coast with a girl from landlocked Guanajuato, we had been lazing on the beach, licking the salt off each other’s napes, and drinking long-necked Pacificos for a week.

canada-van

Sayulita is not the culinary capital of Mexico; it’s not even the culinary capital of Nayarit. We walked up from the beach to the main drag in a haze of heat and humidity, and plunked ourselves down on stools under the surfboard awning at another one of the beach-themed taquerias that you find everywhere from San Diego to Puerto Escondido. We ordered the classic deep fried white fish tacos  served with a ‘crema’ that is usually watered down mayonnaise. Our expectations were low.

blonde-surfer

A day earlier, we had smoked mota and walked through a forest so thick with mangoes that they were plunking into the soil around our bare feet., then lay down on the black sand beach and scooped the dripping flesh from the fruit with our bare hands. The rich, pregnant taste of the mangoes had been ethereal.  So when I reached for an American style squirt bottle of a yellowish salsa verde at a sidewalk taco stand, I was not expecting a life-changing bite. What I got was the sharp burn of serrano chiles, the acidic nip of tomatillos and the incredibly layered caramelized sweetness of charred pineapple. It was then, and remains now, one of the most incredible salsa I have ever tasted.

Enjoy. Provecho!

salsa-verde-con-pina-vert

Salsa Verde con Piña – Green Salsa with Pineapple

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Makes roughly 500ml

Ingredients

  • 6-8 tomatillos, peeled, rinsed and halved
  • 2 serrano chile peppers
  • 2 limes, juice only
  • 1 clove of garlic, preferably a small one
  • 1 fresh pineapple, peeled and sliced into wedges
  • 4 sprigs of cilantro, chopped
  • sea salt

Instructions:

  1. Grill tomatillos, garlic, serrano peppers and 1/2 of the pineapple wedges until charred.
  2. Blend in a food processor, then bring mixture to a boil in a pot. Simmer for ten minutes, season with salt.
  3. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Blend in the remaining pineapple, cilantro and lime juice. Taste and season again, if necessary.
  4. Eat on everything. It is sweet, sour and spicy amazing.

Nota: Dime si la no esta riquisimo.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.

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cook - recipes

Lion’s Head Meatballs (紅燒獅子頭) and Sichuan Strange Flavour Sauce (Guaiwei 怪味)

The first time I made Lion’s Head Meatballs (紅燒獅子頭), I forgot to write down the recipe. I had looked at a hundred variations, but none of them stuck. I planned to serve the wok-fried then braised meatballs with bok choy, then finish them with Sichuan ‘strange flavor’ sauce (Guaiwei 怪味) to add a bit of lip smacking flavour to what seemed like a plain sort of meat and greens dish with a punchy name. When I got home, annoyed at myself for having lost the recipe I wanted to riff on, I unpacked my groceries and realized I had compounded my mistake and somehow bought ground turkey instead of pork. Thus, this crackpot Chinese-American Thanksgiving holiday mashup recipe was born.

bok-choy

The dish works like a charm for a bunch of reasons: turkey meat is primarily dark and packed with rich, gamey flavour, but famously dry and texturally boring. The meatballs are heavily seasoned and fried, giving a deep caramelized brown to the exterior and a bit of crunch to the exterior while sealing in the natural juices. Then, they’re braised in chicken stock suffusing the potentially dry meat with succulent moisture and ensuring a delicious and juice-packed meatball. The Sichuan strange flavour sauce has a tahini and sesame base, ingredients not native to Sichuan which were introduced via the Silk Road, hence the unique name. The nutty chilli sauce adds a layer of salty sour sweet and spicy umami bang to the dish that will give you a bit of leo pride when you lay it down on the table beside the sliced cardboard, dry beast meat everyone else is serving.

lions-head-meatball

Lion’s Head Meatball  Recipe (紅燒獅子頭)

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35-40 minutes
Makes  8-10 meatballs, serves 4-6 people

Ingredients:

Meatballs
  • 900g/2 lb ground turkey
  • 30ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
  • 45ml soy sauce
  • 15ml sesame oil
  • 15ml neutral oil
  • 10ml cornstarch
Broth
  • 2 scallions, slivered
  • 1 finger of ginger, in matchsticks
  • 200ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
  • 500ml chicken broth, simmering
Odd Sauce
  • 45ml soy sauce
  • 45 ml neutral oil
  • 30ml tahini
  • 15ml chinkiang black rice vinegar
  • 15ml sesame oil
  • 10ml sugar
  • 20g ginger, roughly chopped
  • 20g garlic, smashed
  • 10g Sichuan peppers
  • 2 whole dried chilis
Garnish
  • 1 head of bok choy

Instructions:

Preparation:

  1. In a mixing bowl, beat together turkey, soy, shaoxing wine, and sesame oil until the meat forms a smooth paste.
  2. Stir in cornstarch and neutral oil, then form 10-12 large meatballs, cover and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.

Cooking:

Odd Sauce:
  1. Heat oil in wok or frying pan until smoking point. Add ginger, garlic, chilis, Sichuan peppers and scallions.
  2. Remove from heat and stir rapidly for 30 second as the oil cools.
  3. Blend mixture in a food processor, coffee grinder or mortar. Stir in remaining ingredients and set aside. (Note: this is an awesome all purpose umami rich dipping sauce.)
Meatballs (Not using a wok):
  1. If not using a wok, line a roasting pan or crock pot with cleaned and stemmed leaves of bok choy. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Heat a frying pan over a medium flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
  3. In two or three batches, fry the meatballs, cooking evenly on all surface areas. As they brown, set meatballs on waiting bok choy leaves.
  4. When the meatballs are all browned and set aside, deglaze your frying pan with shaoxing wine, add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions and stir rapidly as moisture evaporates.
  5. When the wine sauce is reduced by half pour it over the meatballs, add simmering chicken stock.
  6. Cover with aluminum or parchment and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
Meatballs (With wok):
  1. Heat wok over high flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
  2. At smoking point, add meatballs and roll around cooking surface to brown, careful not to burn as you must work fast.
  3. Once the meatballs have all browned, push to the side of cooking surface, deglaze wok with shaoxing wine, and add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions, toss mixture together as moisture evaporates.
  4. Slip bok choy leaves under meatballs, add simmering chicken stock, and cover wok with a large lid. Turn down heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve & Plate:
  1. Serve as Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs in a larger meal, such as a Thanksgiving or a pot luck. Plate meatballs on bok choy leaves and drizzle with odd sauce.
  2. Don’t ditch the broth! Make a soup, or freeze for stock.
  3. Alternatively, if you’re making Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs for a weekday dinner or your family, serve swimming in the broth, atop noodles or rice. These meatballs and their cooking broth make a hearty and pungent soup, served over a starch.
  4. This dish will be the most talked about addition to any holiday dinner. It tastes delicious, looks intense and has a bad ass name. It might even be healthy.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.

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travel - places

A Visit to Aidao Nunnery, for the Buddhist Vegetarian Lunch Ceremony, Wenshu Monastery and a walk around Chengdu

Chengdu is damp, gray, and fresh with scent of running water this morning. Like the Pacific northwest, the green is pervasive, flora sprouts from sidewalk cracks and coats stone lions in a mossy patina. The city lies in the midst of the fertile Chengdu Plain, known as the Country of Heaven and ‘Land of Abundance’. For most of its history, this region has been the bread basket of China, providing a surplus of rice, grains, and Sichuan spices to more populous Eastern provinces and cities.

old-chengdu

Recently, Chengdu has seen an incredible population and economic boom as families and companies relocated through the government’s ‘Go West’ programs and subsidies. The urban core is now home to 8 million, with over 15 million in the surrounding administrative area, making it roughly the size of New York City. According to a French couple I spoke with, when they were on university exchange here in 1996, traffic was still primarily bicycles, and none of the skyscrapers that dominate the central business district had been constructed. Despite the population doubling in the last twenty years, there are neighbourhoods that retain the quiet, cloistered feel of its recent past.

mix-hostel

I head out from Mix Hostel, a subdued guesthouse on a quiet side street near the river, and walk across the bridge to the old quarter to experience a bit of the city’s history. My first stop is at the Aidao Nunnery for their Buddhist (vegetarian) lunch ceremony. There are no signs and certainly no one who speaks English to guide me in the right direction, so I wander in through the open gate and circle the luscious plant-strewn courtyard a few times before I spot a small pantry, where other visitors are collecting table ware. I mimic everyone else and take two bowls, one for rice and one for hot dishes, then find a matching pair of chopsticks in the large bamboo steamer.

At precisely 11:40, the fish gong is struck and the lunch ceremony begins. Nuns sit in the first two rows of benches that line the Five Vision Hall, and visitors quickly sort out spots in the back rows. The nuns, with shaved heads and unadorned jiāshā robes dyed in the familiar Buddhist shades of ochre, pale brown and bright saffrons, sit and say a few words, sing a short and strikingly beautiful hymn, and then food is served. Because it was neither the time nor the place for photography, touristic voyeurism would have been rude and disruptive as a guest in the temple, I will try and offer a vivid description of each plate.

monastery

The Mahayana school of Buddhists in China abstain from alcohol, meat, fish, eggs, garlic and onion, as part of the Brahma’s Net Sutra, a list of 10 major rules, and as result their cuisine is strikingly different from the Sichuan fare of Chengdu. One after the other, younger nuns circle the cafeteria and ladle scoops of subtle, yet refined dishes into our outstretched bowl, which flavour and accompany our steamed rice. First, we eat soy beans (黄豆 Huángdòu) braised in acidic tomato sauce; followed immediately by crunchy, lotus root (莲藕 Lián’ǒu) that has been wok-tossed with a generous amount of fresh, spicy ginger; the third dish consists of cubes of taro (芋头 Yùtou) jelly and steamed Chinese spinach (菠菜 Bōcài), the gelatinous root has an exquisite mouthfeel countered by the bitter, earthy green vegetable; next, a sharp, vinegar heavy,  palate cleansing array of pickled vegetables that includes carrots and mustard root (芥菜根 Jiècài gēn); before a gentle finish, boiled sweet potato (甘薯 Gānshǔ), which most of us elect to have poured over the remaining rice, creating a sweet soupy, colourful rice pudding to finish.

While we are eating, each of the nun’s guests places a 5 yuan note on the table, which is collected during the meal. The meal is a pleasant surprise, filling and pungent if unadorned, layered with the delicious flavours of market-fresh bounty from this land of abundance. After lunch, everyone returns to the pantry to wash and put away their chopsticks and bowls. I walk away relaxed and sated, enjoying the rest of my afternoon dawdling around the old quarter.

Wenshu monastery is just up the street from the nunnery, no more than a five or ten minute walk. I saunter past old-style shops and a bevy of tourists eating the fiery dandan noodles, Chengdu is most commonly associated with, and through the old gates of the temple grounds. I pass through a serene, verdant sculpture garden and tea house with a courtyard full of chatter, wander away as the sound of voices trails off and quiet prevails on the many paths circling through bamboo reeds and past prayer halls and a rock garden. The Wenshu Monastery and its many winding paths are a delightful bit of calm, tucked away in a city the size of Manhattan, and I forget for a moment where I am, lost in the tranquility of the fish ponds and Buddhist reveries.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.

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eat - reviews

Tim Ho Wan: In search of an authentic (barbecue pork bun) experience in the margins of Hong Kong.

It is 3:42 pm, when you arrive at the Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po, and you haven’t eaten a morsel of food. A morning coffee and OJ slosh around your empty stomach. You moved hotels from Hong Kong Island this morning, and are staying in a shit hole of the lowest common denominator, a place reminiscent of the Chungking Mansions (not that kind of mansion), so you could walk here. You are already a little peevish before you get sat at a two top, in part because you’re hungry and have low blood sugar, and partially because you could have just gone to a Tim Ho Wan location in Manhattan, or Waikiki, or even Las Vegas.

Tim Ho Wan is famously the “world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant”, a rapidly expanding global chain of dim sum restaurants founded by an enterprising chef, Mr.Mak who left a three Michelin-starred restaurant, Lung King Heen, to start his business. In other words, you could have tasted Tim Ho Wan pork buns without leaving home, could’ve just UberEats’d it to your apartment door. But no, you came to Hong Kong because you are in search of the “authentic”, whatever that means in the context of what is really just a much-hyped international fast food chain.

Worse, you may have lost your appetite on the walk over. You see, you are a foreigner, a stranger in Hong Kong, clueless about the city and the context, other than passing knowledge of its colonial past as a British outpost. But on the walk through Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s poorest district, you became progressively more disturbed by what you saw. You passed by thousands of Malaysian, Philippine and Indonesian women lying on cardboard boxes, an endless congregation of young women in pyjamas, socks and hijabs. Your first thought was that there must have been a refugee crisis, which you didn’t hear about. Was a boat lost at sea? Were these women survivors of another tragedy buried in the liner notes of the news?

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You ask around and find out these women are not homeless. They are in permanent flux, marginalized like a remainder in a bookkeeper’s equation. Once a week, domestic workers in Hong Kong are given a break from their slavish labour, but they are required to leave their employer’s homes, which also happen to be their (permanent) temporary homes. Known as ‘Maids Day Off’, every Sunday these women lay out cardboard boxes, and picnic blankets, and cell phones and cards and snacks are brought, and they take off their shoes and stretch out their feet and rest in the streets and overpasses and parks. They chat and laugh and enjoy themselves in spite of the miserable working conditions.

The normalization of this local abberation is unmistakably a bellwether for the decline of a democratic civilization, a hangover from Hong Kong’s colonial past before Beijing took control. These women, who cook and clean and care for the wealthy families of bankers and lawyers, have been pushed out into a lawless frontier. And, like Hong Kong itself, the rising tide of progress threatens to brush aside their story into the forgotten annals of history.  

Back to Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns. They are brown-bottomed, buttery crispy flaky dough that shreds as you tear it in half and litters your plate with detritus, like a perfect homemade pie crust. Wispy, senescent tails of steam slip from their hot, gooey center, which spills out a sweet and savoury ‘char siu’ barbecue pork that has the unmistakable shine of maltose, and tastes so exquisite that you must lick the saucy dribble off your thumb. Make no mistake, Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns are delicious. When crumbs fall off, you’re tempted to lick the Tim Ho Wan branded paper placemat. They’re so good, you eat all three in quick succession.

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When more dishes arrive, you have forgotten about Hong Kong and the outside world. The flavour combinations and gentle textures of each bite work their magic and let you slip out of body into a trance of tastes and aromas. The spicy wonton is so subtle, just a breath of Sichuan pepper’s mouth-numbing ma spice, and a throat tickle of fresh chilli’s la spice. It’s a gorgeous dish to look at, bright with the painted red and green of chillies and scallions contrasted against inky sauce and translucent wrapper. The experience is finished with a wonderful black vinegar nip and fresh ginger click that brings your mouth alive with tingling pleasure.

The turnip cakes are soft, falling apart with a fish flakiness and salty, freshwater crab flavour lanced with a garlicky chili dip. Shrimp har gow, a dim sum classic, is restrained in seasoning and beautifully folded, letting the sweet shrimp flavour stand alone. The steamed chiu chow style dumplings are a garden medley of water rich radish and nutty crunch; a fertile soil sweetness, and a refreshing bit of cilantro green and earthiness among so much shrimp and pork meat. But Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns are the beginning and end, they take center stage, the only star of this show. 

It turns out that eating one of Tim Ho Wan’s baked barbecue pork buns is actually one of those transcendent food experiences, once you get all that other shit out of the way. You smile and nod at all the other tourists and bloggers craning and stooping and angling their Iphones over their small, white trays of buns, and it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, knowing you’re all about to location tag the same instant, right here, right now. IT makes you think: Oh yeah, this is why I flew fourteen hours and however many thousand kilometers over the melting Arctic ice caps and down across the Russian steppes and over the grasslands of Mongolia, to ingest (and Instagram) this bun in to this body at this exact moment. For now, deep down in that cliche drowned heart of yours, you’re still a romantic, a poet like Byron. You’re in love (with a pork bun) and where thoughts serenely sweet express, how pure, how dear their dwelling-place (like this pork bun) in your belly comes to rest.

In fact, the pork buns are so good, there is a limit of four orders per guest, which limits (sort of) lead you back to the question of haves and have nots in Hong Kong, and “free” time, and the culture of food blogging, and in a tertiary way to you, strolling by all of those working women with your camera and its CANON strap around your neck, like a great big TOURIST sign, and your countless number of privileges, and your ridiculous quest for an authentic pork bun, instead of just ordering delivery to your couch. If right about now you’re getting annoyed with me, and you’re thinking, why don’t I just drop the second-person facade and admit that you are, in fact, me . . .

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Well, you’d be missing the point entirely. Because there’s thousands of us, and we’re all lined up for tables, every day in every city in the world, waiting to get our teeth into the perfect pork bun (ramen, burger, paleo, brunch, vegan, whatever), so we can snap a photo and upload it to our stories, before we eat. You see, the old MFK Fisher maxim: First we eat, then we do everything else, no longer applies. First we snap a pic, then we hashtag the fuck out of it, then we share it online, then we eat, and only then, maybe, we do everything else, like live.

In this world of fingertip interconnectedness, this local practice of kicking domestic workers out of the house for a day, of creating a brief but regular weekly wave of homelessness, becomes part of the context of a meal in Sham Sui Po on a Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong. You see, food, trade and labour markets, specifically unpaid or underpaid workers, derogatorily called ‘coolies’, were the backbone of colonialism. There would be no Hong Kong without this ongoing history of oppressed labour. And so, there is history in each bite, a backstory, notes in the margins and secrets between the lines, and in telling these unheard stories, they also become truths. 

So you do a little more research because you can’t resist a good Google deep dive, and something just doesn’t sit right after lunch. It’s not quite food poisoning, just a little bout of acid reflux, probably it was the acidity of your coffee and orange juice and an empty stomach, not the overly sweet filling of the pork buns, and definitely not the lingering undercurrent of racism.

What you find out, way off in the margins, is that Mr. Mak, the founder of Tim Ho Wan, actually has his own history with Malaysia. You see, he opened a Tim Ho wan there to capitalize on all the Hong Kong Malays who knew about his brand. But he failed, spectacularly. Local reports suggested “the price of Tim Ho Wan’s is too high, the food is so and so, and service is poor”. And when the ship went down, rather than accept his losses, Mr. Mak blamed Muslim practices and cultural differences, for the shortcomings of his pork buns.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.

Note:  If you’re curious to learn more about domestic workers in Hong Kong, check out ‘The Helper’, (2017) a documentary by Joanna Bowers.

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