So long, Shanghai. Farewell.
Lifting off from the steaming, teeming, humming, laser-beaming, shiny-gleaming metropolis, I felt like Stephen and I were slithering snakes, shedding a layer of dried-up skin and slipping into a new life.
Eight days in China, and so much changed for us — while we were on the trip, at home, and while we were on the trip, inside our unified little mind bubble.
You know the feeling. Sometimes vacations shift your inner compass permanently, clarify your vision of life, harden your purpose. Existing on distant shores for a week or two allows you get to dip your toe into an alternate reality, a separate self. The Odyssey for Dummies, Marco Polo’s adventures for the couch-bound.
Traveling China-style with our clinically insane travel guide made juggling a full-time job, freelance writing, cooking projects and life look like child’s play. We were up every day at dawn (it is the land of the rising sun, bah doom boom, I’m here all week folks) and home by, oh, 10 pm. I got used to five hours of sleep and fueled myself with the sights, sounds, tastes and chaos of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai.
Stinky tofu for breakfast (it tastes like moldering blue cheese crossed with kimchi with a dash of pate, yum!), Imperial Palace, Summer Palace, lunching on mysterious street meat in the back alleys of hutong (“I think I just ate a scorpion!”), afternoon in the gardens, kung fu show, supping on Peking Duck (no words), driving tour of Beijing.
Seven more days of this. It was mentally absorb everything, but my favorite moments were:
- Sprinting up the Great Wall in a miniskirt, barefoot
- Kissing Stephen in the middle of Tiananmen Square in front of a poster of Mao
- Getting yelled at by the guards for climbing on the city walls of Xi’an
- Touching Terracotta warriors
- Pomegranate Baby and Pleasant Goat (my two new favorite Chinese toys)
- Walking on glass miles (it felt like) above Shanghai in the Pearl Tower, which I kept (accidentally) calling the Pearl Necklace
- Squirts of herbaceous pork soup dumplings running down my chin after waiting in line for them for 45 minutes in a back alley in Shanghai
- Local women laughing and pointing at my apparently poor technique in the ubiquitous squatty potties
- Realizing that Stephen and I could handle the two things we most feared we could not
This has been a big month for us: I will have major news that I can officially stop wadding up in a big box marked “Don’t Tell!” in my brain soon, which may or may involve large wads of bubble wrap, innumerable trips to fax machines, mass hysteria, deflating bank accounts and large trucks driven by gentleman who earn their keep by lifting objects from one abode and set them down in another.
Meanwhile, Stephen and I are thrilled to be back in the chaos we control on this side of the ocean, with lots of cheese, offal I can identify with confidence and non-Communistical candy. And of course, Penny!
What better way to celebrate our return to the States than with an all-American feast of grilled BBQ Chicken & Macaroni Salad with Bacon & Frozen Strawberry Yogurt?
All-American BBQ Chicken on the Grill
Makes 12 servings
Ingredients for the Brine:
- 3 1/2 quarts water
- 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled but smashed with a knife
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 12 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless or bone-in
Method for brine:
- Put all the ingredients in one (or two) bowls, add the chicken and marinate in the fridge for 15 minutes to 6 hours, depending on how much time you have. Remove from brine, blot with paper towels and get ready to grill! (NB: You can skip this step but the chicken will lack the tender, flavorful, moist-tender texture of brined chicken).
Ingredients for BBQ Sauce:
- 1 TBSP vegetable oil
- 1 TBSP butter
- 1 slice bacon, chopped into large chunks
- 1/2 bunch thyme
- 1/2 yellow onion, diced fine
- 1 jalapeno pepper, diced fine, ribs and seeds removed (that’s where the super spice lives so leave it in if you can take the heat)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup bourbon
- 1 TBSP lemon juice
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 2 TBSP apple vinegar
- 1 cup ketchup
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp paprika
- pepper, to taste
Method for BBQ Sauce:
- One option is just using store-bought if you’re pressed for time. If not, throw butter and oil in small saucepan, add bacon, thyme and cook over medium until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Add onions, pepper, garlic and cook on low until translucent. You don’t want any color here.
- Remove pan from heat. Add the bourbon. Put back on heat and slowly bring to boil. Allow bourbon to cook down for 5 minutes. Add the other ingredients and stir, simmer and then cook on low for about 20 minutes. Taste occasionally and adjust seasoning.
Method for grilling boneless, skinless chicken:
- Preheat a grill pan or outdoor grill to medium heat. Lightly oil the grill with oiled paper towels (use a large wad and mind the heat). Take dried off chicken and arrange on grill. Cook for about 8 minutes on each side. For the last few minutes of cooking, feel free to baste the chicken with BBQ sauce. This can be messy, so skip it if you like a clean grill. Serve with plenty of BBQ sauce.
Method for grilling bone-in chicken breasts:
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Prep grill pan / outdoor grill as above and grill for 10 minutes, flipping once. Transfer to cookie sheet and cook for 15 minutes in oven. Remove and wollop with sauce. Return to finish cooking, about 20 more minutes. Serve with more sauce.
Nutritional Breakdown for BBQ Chicken: With a healthy dollop of sauce, each 4-inch portion of the skinless/boneless should clock in at about 200 calories and 9 grams of pretty good (about 2.5 grams saturated) fat. High in protein, niacin, zinc, Vitamin B6 and selenium. Somewhat high in cholesterol. Carb-free. Skin-on versions will add about 75 calories and 6 grams of naughty fats, plus cholesterol.
Cost Breakdown for BBQ Chicken: About $1.75 a serving if you go for organic chicken, less if you don’t. (Assuming you have ketchup, soy sauce and some of the other sauce ingredients on hand).
Verdict / In the Future: It’s sweet, tangy, salty, smoky — everything you want in BBQ, with a little kick in the back of the throat from the jalapeno. Being a Yankee, I don’t hew closely to any BBQ tradition and I’m sure my Kansas City, North Carolina and Arkansas friends would be horrified by my BBQ Sauce-making attempts. The best part is, I can eat the leftovers with salads, sandwiches and over rice all week. It’s good to be back.
Macaroni Salad with Bacon
Makes 12 generous servings
- 2 packs of elbow macaroni, cooked in salted water, rinsed well, drained
- 3 slices bacon, cooked, crumbled (more to taste)
- 1/4 cup celery, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup red onion, soaked in cold water for a few minutes to eliminate some of its punch, drained
- 1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, sliced thin
- 1/4 cup mint, sliced thin
- 1 oz. Parmesan, grated
- 1 tsp red wine vinegar
- 1 TBSP sour cream
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 2/3-3/4 cup olive oil, to taste
- salt and pepper, to taste
- In your largest (seriously) bowl, mix the macaroni and veggies.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, sour cream and mustard, then add the olive oil in a steady drizzle, starting with just a drop or two until it emulsifies. Season with salt and pepper.
- Toss over the macaroni, top with bacon, mint and Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Nutritional breakdown for Macaroni Salad with Bacon: I was really surprised at how reasonably low in calories and fat this salad was when I tallied the results. I was planning to use mayo, but life intervened and I didn’t have time to make it from scratch. So I swapped out olive oil and added a tablespoon of sour cream for just a touch of creaminess. It resulted in a much healthier dish; just 500 calories and about 11 grams of fat per serving. Packed with heart and skin-happy omega-3s, low in saturated fat, sugar and cholesterol.
Cost Breakdown for Macaroni Salad with Bacon: About $0.75 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: “This is the best it could possibly be without homemade mayo,” Stephen said. Stephen is a great mayo enthusiast; if it were possible to formulate a career and / or lifestyle devoted exclusively to homemade mayo, that did not involve actually creating, manufacturing or selling it, he would. Instead, he eats about a jar a week, of which very little, sadly, is homemade. I’m a terrible wife, and an even worse American. Maybe next time, I’ll try half mayo, half oil.
Frozen Strawberry Yogurt
Makes 16 servings
- 4 pounds of strawberries, cleaned, tops removed, sliced in half or quarters for the big boys
- 1 TBSP lemon juice
- 1 TBSP Framboise liqueur if you have it laying around (Kirsch or vodka would work too)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cup granulated sugar (if you have a sweet tooth, add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar)
- 1/2 TBSP salt
- 4 cups whole fat Greek yogurt (don’t cheat with low-fat)
- 1 cup fat-free or low fat Greek yogurt
- Place strawberries, lemon juice, liqueur, vanilla, sugar and salt in large saucepan (I mean big! big!) over medium heat. Stir and cook until it simmers and sugar dissolves. Crush most of the berries with a potato masher, but leave some chunky if that’s how you like to roll.
- Remove from heat, let sit for about 15 minutes.
- Add yogurts, stir well. Stick in the fridge for several hours until completely cold.
- Proceed according to your ice cream makers instructions. Eat with more sliced berries, whipped cream, framboise or solo.
Nutritional Breakdown for Frozen Strawberry Yogurt: About 170 calories and 6 grams of fat. Chock full of Vitamins A, C, E and D. Brimming with calcium, protein, potassium and maganese. Low in fat, moderately high in sugar.
Cost Breakdown for Frozen Strawberry Yogurt: If you go for fresh berries (a must during the summer) and organic and local berries, plusgood organic Greek yogurt, this will run you about $1.30 a serving, much much less if you nab a grocery store special on berries.
Verdict / In the Future: We brought these over to our friend Ash and Matt’s for a little dinner by their pool. Ah, summer. It worked for everyone, even with Stephen and Matt, two decidedly non-health conscious men. It was also a nice, modest little refreshment after busting our guts on the delicious trays of cheese, the bowls of olives, the platters of sausage and the insanely yummy filet mignon those two kept carting out.