Recipe – Chinese tea eggs

A lot of the food I miss from living in Beijing is difficult to near impossible for me to cook now that I’m back in the states. Some of it is lack of ingredients, some just lack of specialized skills, and some of it is (in my opinion) a hearty dose of wizardry. I have never had properly cooked 干煸四季豆 (Sichuan dry-fried green beans) outside of China, not even in a Chinese restaurant. It’s like there’s some sort of magnetic field that keeps all the deliciousness on the mainland.

However, one of my absolute favorite Chinese breakfast/snack foods is actually easy (and fun!) to make at home. 茶叶蛋, known in English as “tea eggs” are a staple in China. You’ll see them bubbling away in vats at grocery stores, neighborhood restaurants, and sometimes just on the sidewalk with a long extension cord reaching back to someone’s apartment.

They’re made by cracking the shells of boiled eggs and then simmering them in a savory broth. The end result is a subtly seasoned egg with a pretty marbled pattern on its surface. While they’re great for eating pretty much any time, tea eggs would make a particularly great addition to your Easter brunch or Passover seder.

Lapsang souchong tea

The most important element to a delicious tea egg is obviously the tea. I am a firm believer in using Lapsang Souchong (known in Chinese as 正山小种), a variety of tea from Fujian Province. After the leaves are picked they dry them over a wood fire, resulting in a very smoky tea. You can probably find it in any large specialty market (like a Wegmans or Whole Foods) or you can do what I do and buy it online.

Now, when I say the tea is smoky I mean very smoky. It smells like a campfire when you open the bag. In addition to tea eggs, I think it’s great for making a hot toddy, especially if you’re a fan of earthy liquors like Laphroaig. If you can’t find Lapsang Souchong, yerba mate tea also has some of the same smoky qualities.

Some people just use regular black tea, and in a pinch it will certainly do the trick. The flavor won’t have quite the same depth, but you will still get the lattice patterns. I am a huge fan of this smoky Earl Grey tea from Fortnum & Mason, and if I ever find it for sale locally I would love to give tea eggs a try using it.

star anise

There are just a few other spices involved, but it’s important that you use quality star anise here. I promise that the eggs won’t come out tasting like licorice. It helps enhance the herbal qualities of the tea, especially when paired with the cinnamon sticks. It’s also important that you buy the star anise from a shop that you trust, because there are two different types. One kind (from China and Southeast Asia) is delicious and edible, while the other (from Japan) is poisonous and should only be used as potpourri. The link I provide above is for a reputable source, and although a pound of star anise is a lot to buy, there are all sorts of amazing recipes you can make with it.

Ingredients

  • 6-8 eggs, hard boiled (reserve boiling water in pot)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. coconut palm sugar (or your sugar of choice)
  • 1/2 tsp. celery salt (optional)

Sachet containing:

  • 4g Lapsang Souchong loose tea (equivalent to 2 tea bags)
  • 3 pieces star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick (broken in half if necessary to fit)
  • 2-4 pieces fresh orange peel

Recipe instructions

Place your eggs in a pot and add enough water to cover them, plus about two inches. I’d say just go ahead and cook them to hard boiled, but if you feel comfortable handling a medium boiled egg that would work as well. Once your eggs are cooked, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and leave the water in the pot. Turn the heat down to low and leave the water simmering. Place the eggs in a colander and run cold water over them until they’re cool enough to handle.

Once the eggs are cool, take each egg and tap all over the surface of the shell with the back of a spoon or the dull side of a knife. This is the only step that requires a bit of finesse – crack too lightly and the broth won’t make it through the layers of the shell; crack too hard and the shell will fall off and disrupt the pattern. I would say err on the side of gentle at first, until you get a feel for it. You can always give the shell another few whacks if you don’t think it was adequate the first time.

tea egg spices

Let the eggs sit for a few minutes on the counter before you put them back in the pot. This will allow for some of the water to drain from within the shell. While the eggs are sitting, add the soy saucesugar, and celery salt to the simmering water and stir to dissolve. Using the slotted spoon, carefully lower each egg back into the broth. Then, add the tea sachet into the pot and cover it.

The length of time that the eggs simmer is really a matter of preference. I like to let them simmer, covered, over low heat for about an hour. Then, I take the pot off the heat, leave it covered, and let the eggs steep in the hot broth for another hour. At this point, if you’d like to eat the eggs you totally can. But I would recommend transferring the eggs and the broth to a glass container (removing and discarding the sachet), covering the container, and leaving it to steep in the fridge overnight.

tea eggs

The eggs pictured here were steeped overnight and eaten cold, because I was lazy and anxious to bite into them. When I’m not feeling that lazy, I prefer to eat my tea eggs slightly warm (not piping hot). To do this, take the eggs (still in the shell) out of the fridge and simmer them in the steeping liquid until warm. Then peel and enjoy!

I think the flavor stands out enough on its own, but if you wanted to get a little fancier with your brunch presentation tea eggs also taste great with a little dollop of sriracha mayonnaise (1 part sriracha to 3 parts mayo).

Update 3/29

I had a lot of leftover tea eggs in the fridge from recipe testing, so I decided this afternoon to turn them into egg salad. You don’t get the cool presentation of the pattern, but I will say that chopped tea eggsmayo = super delicious egg salad. No other spices necessary, unless you want to add in a bit more salt.

Book review – Horrorstör

There are few pastimes in this world that make me happier than reading scary books or watching scary movies. One of those few happens to be strolling through Ikea. I know it’s probably indicative of some sort of psychosis, but I find Ikea very soothing. The second time I moved to Beijing I lived pretty close to one of the 10 largest Ikea stores in the world and I went there often. Sometimes just for dinner.

So, when I heard about a horror novel that takes place inside an Ikea knockoff store I knew that I absolutely had to read it. Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix, follows a group of employees who stay overnight at Orsk, “The Better Home For The Everyone”. They’re trying to figure out why the morning crews keep arriving to unwelcome surprises like broken Liripip closet solutions and a Brooka memory foam sofa covered with putrid goo.

Horrorstör novel by Grady Hendrix

Before I get into the finer points of the plot, I think it’s important to talk about the stunning design of this book. It’s larger format, the exact dimensions of an Ikea catalogue, and organized like one as well. The inside front cover has a map of the store, followed by a welcome page and how-to guide for shopping at Orsk. There’s a detailed home delivery order form that slyly and seamlessly integrates the copyright and publisher information.

Orsk yourself

Take it from someone who derives great enjoyment from the Ikea design esthetic, this book fully embraces their iconic combination of form and function. All of the chapters are even named for imaginary Orsk products, and the products become more twisted as the paranormal plot progresses.

As for the plot, the best synopsis I can give without spoilers is that it builds in a very expected way until very suddenly it diverges into something wholly unexpected. The characters are your standard horror archetypes: A snarky skeptic who just wants the overtime pay; A ditzy babe with a ghost obsession; A suave hunk who feigns interest in spirits to get a date; A nervous older woman with a fear of “Creepy Crawlies”; A level-headed manager whose religion is the Orsk ethos.

The basic premise is that things are getting busted up overnight while the store is empty, and Basil (the manager) wants to get to the bottom of things before representatives show up from the Orsk corporate offices. He asks Amy (the skeptic) and Ruth Anne (the nervous older woman) to stay in the store with him overnight and catch the assumed vandals in the act. They both say yes, because Amy is perpetually short on cash and Ruth Anne is a dedicated lifelong Orsk employee. Matt (the hunk) and Trinity (the babe) sneak into the store the same night, convinced the vandals are actually angry spirits, armed with gear to film a concept episode of their ghost-hunting show.

The entire first half of the book, this is what was playing in my mind:

The second half of the book completely justified the feelings of “hell no”, with a darkness that is made perhaps even more dark by the flippant humor of the first half of the book. It’s not the most original plot, but it is the most original telling of a classic plot that I’ve read in a while. Overall it was an enjoyable book, written with a unique voice and an admirable attention to thematic details.

Horrorstör is available in print or as an ebook, but if I were you I would buy a print copy. You can find it at any major book retailer or get it directly from its publisher, Quirk Books.

The Return of the Cereal Killer

Last summer I wrote about replacing my morning cereal with a tasty mix of raw nuts and seeds. While it’s filling (and easy to mix up a different batch day to day), I’ll admit that the base of coconut flakes exponentially increased the amount of time I spent chewing in the morning. Like, an insane amount of chewing. Delicious chewing, but time-consuming.

So, I started adding a few oatmeal mornings into the rotation. I prefer to make overnight oats, for the same reason I like pre-mixing my faux cereal the night before. It’s nice to just walk into the kitchen in the morning, grab breakfast out of the fridge, and be on your way.

Grain-free granola

On one of my recent treks to Wegmans to stock up on siggi’s, I decided to poke around their specialty food aisles to see if there were any other non-cereal (but still cereal-esque) breakfast options available. It turns out LÄRABAR, despite having kind of a ridiculous name, makes a new granola product that is gluten free, grain free and totally awesome. I’ve tried all three flavors and I’d have to say my favorite is the Cinnamon Nut because it pairs well with pretty much anything.

siggi's yogurt and grain free granola

In honor of this new discovery, I figured it only made sense to (as I did previously) take a look at some more recent cereal television ads. While the previous spate of commercials seemed intent to cash in on adults remembering what it was like to be a kid, the ads I’ve been seeing for the past few months focus more on actual adulthood.

Lucky Charms seems to have a very specific demographic in mind here, namely creepy roommates and the people who room with them. Dude just wants to wake up and make himself a tasty(?) bowl of styrofoam puffs, but it seems his roommate has other plans. Never mind how much effort it must have taken to paint himself to the exact specifications needed to blend into the bookshelf, Kyle would also have to know his roomie’s morning schedule and gotten up early to be in place before someone saw him. Which is damned creepy, when you think about it.

Oh, Cheerios. I know you’re trying to be hip and all, but there is a time and a place for Usher’s seduction and the breakfast table is not that place. I mean, I guess it could be that place, but I don’t think you intended to make me picture Usher sweeping away cereal bowls in a fit of passion. Or maybe you did, because you chose a song that is literally about how to achieve sex with a lady.

It’s a catchy song, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say if your product is a honey “O” you should probably not advertise it with a lyric like “she came to give it to you”.

I really really really like this Shredded Wheat commercial. It’s actually pretty rare to see an ad aimed at people over the age of 50 that has some genuine humor in it. I chuckle every time I see her start to wolf down that bowl of cereal, then a little more when she tells her husband to “eat up”. I also appreciate that not once does Post claim that Shredded Wheat is worth eating for the taste. They’re basically admitting that they know it tastes like carpet fibers, so instead of trying to sell you on the flavor they’re promising more lifetime years of sex. And while they’re not doing it subtly, they are doing it without Usher’s gyrations, which takes some real skill.

I’m still going to stick to my faux-nola, though. For now.

Snow day sampler

A three-day weekend (thanks, dead presidents) has now turned into a four-day weekend (thanks, snow), which means I’ve had lots of time to write. Just kidding, it means I’ve plowed through my Netflix watch list and clicked my way through at least 60% of the internet. It’s possible I also watched the first two Twilight movies on ABC Family while drinking bourbon and questioning my life choices.

So, in no particular order, here’s a collection of things I’ve spent time on.

Stuffing food in my face

I promise, it tastes better than it looks.

I promise, it tastes better than it looks.

I’ve been messing around in the kitchen, and come up with a few gems. In trying to make myself a not sad Valentine’s Day dinner for one, I somehow thought microwave cooking was the answer. I took my recipe for quinoa flakes, swapped the milk for chicken broth, and added celery salt, garlic, parsley, Parmesan and tuna.

On the flavor scale I’d give it a 7 – nice and creamy, kind of like risotto, all in all an enjoyable meal. On the sadness scale I’d give it a 9, but this is probably because I ate it directly out of the microwave-safe bowl while watching an insufferable teenage girl choose between two metaphors disguised as abs.

I also found a not-so-guilty cookie recipe that I think I like even better than the one I’ve blogged about previously. This new one has a combination of almond and coconut flours, which leaves the cookies softer. Not quite like a soft-baked chocolate chip cookie (more like cookie-cake) but still tasty. I used coconut palm sugar as my sweetener and Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips.

Movies, movies and more movies

I’ll be honest, I spend so much time watching Netflix that I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the streaming barrel. There were a few films that had just been sitting in my queue gathering dust, so I figured I’d spend my weekend watching through them. The only film that I genuinely enjoyed was John Dies At The End. It’s a really refreshing addition to the horror genre (or I guess, more accurately, the horror-comedy genre) that had me simultaneously grossed out and laughing out loud.

Movies that I now can, without any hesitation, tell you not to bother watching include HickMr. Nobody, and World War Z. That last one really disappointed me, because I enjoyed the book immensely. The movie is absolutely nothing like the book, except for the fact that there are zombies in it.

I’d say maybe give Electrick Children a try if you like coming-of-age stories and magical realism. I’m not much a fan of either, so the film wasn’t really for me. However, I did really like the song that plays as a constant refrain throughout.

So much internet

Even on a regular day, I spend more time online than is probably medically advisable. More so on the weekend, and monumentally more so on a long weekend (now an even longer weekend, as I’ve found out since starting this post that my office is closed tomorrow too).

long-weekend

The past few weeks I’ve been working on a little Twitter side project as a sort of snark outlet. I get an email every day from one of those daily deal sites, and while sometimes there are actual bonafide deals, there’s mostly just bizarre dreck. So, I gather up the weirdest of the weird and post one every day. It’s nice to have something that prods me to write each day, even if it’s just a snappy caption.

Because obviously I’m not spending enough time as it is watching moving pictures, I’ve also been catching up on some of my favorite YouTube channels (and watching some of their back catalogs that I haven’t seen yet).

And catching up on current events.

Stream themes – Flirting with disaster

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, there will be many sites out there that offer romantic viewing suggestions for you and your special someone. This is not one of those sites. Not in the traditional sense anyway.

Just as my first love of literature was science fiction, my film and television soulmate is the end of life as we know it (in its many splendid forms). While we have an open relationship that leaves room for horror and dystopia, the apocalypse knows who I’m coming home to each night. If you’re looking to woo me, the second step is a shared love for all-out disaster.

The first step is pancakes, obviously.

Z Nation

I was skeptical about this series at first. It’s produced by The Asylum, a company known for such fine cinematic works as Mega Python vs Gatoroid and Sharknado.  But it turns out I love seeing the zombie apocalypse through their eyes (incidentally they’ve also produced several zombie movies, including the deliciously cheesy Zombie Apocalypse).

Z Nation succeeds in walking the line between horror and humor with only the occasional facepalm moment. There are a few legitimately startling jump scares, creative zombie kills (egg beater!) and honestly some of the most realistic interpersonal relationships I’ve seen in the genre.

DJ Qualls, as a lone NSA agent trying to guide survivors from a snow fortress, pulls off the difficult task of acting in isolation. Everyone else in the ensemble cast can play off each other, but even though he speaks with them he’s never in the same room as the rest of the team. And Nat Zang impressed me in his first professional role (also half the teenage internet, judging by all the fanfic out there).

It was surprising to me that a show written by two men could do such an amazing job capturing the survival challenges of women. Especially considering how The Walking Dead completely fails at that. I got angry at TWD when I realized that any time a woman started exuding strength or confidence the writers killed her off. But not only is Z Nation full of strong, confident women, it also broaches the subject of these women still having to make different compromises than men in order to survive.

The entire first season is now streaming on Netflix, with a second season in the works for later this year.

How I Live Now

This film (based on the YA novel of the same name) follows a girl named Daisy who goes to England to spend the summer with distant relatives on their farm. While she’s there, World War III breaks out and the kids are forced to fend for themselves sans adults. I haven’t read the book, but my understanding is that the film follows fairly closely to the plot (with just a few creative diversions). One of my favorite elements of the story is that the instigators of the war are referred to as “terrorists,” yet given no description of nationality or religion or mission. You don’t know why they’ve started a war, only that they have.

how-i-live-now

It’s unique in the apocalypse genre in that the kids are mostly left alone to make it through. This is not a Hunger Games dystopia where there are a bunch of adults pulling strings, but there are soldiers who try to enforce some semblance of order. Even with that, it’s a fascinating look at how the primal survival instincts kick in and I think the author masterfully weaves in moral dilemmas. Also, Saoirse Ronan was a perfect casting choice for Daisy.

Also, also, the film opens to the sounds of Amanda Palmer’s “Do It With a Rockstar,” which was a surefire sign I was going to like it. (Video very much NSFW)

Black Mirror

It’s not apocalyptic, per se, but I’m still including this British series on my list. It’s an anthology (so far two “seasons” of three episodes each are available to stream) which means that each episode is a self-contained story. It explores various themes of how society interacts with technology and the often disastrous outcomes.

This is hands-down the best show I’ve seen in ages. It’s dark, but not soul-crushingly dark, and has moments of levity as well. The alternative futures that the creators imagine are not so far outside the realm of possibility, and that dose of reality is what really drives the message home. The second episode of the first season (“Fifteen Million Merits,” pictured above) is my favorite – a decidedly sci-fi look at a world of constant stimulation.

Rumors are flying that they’re looking to make an American version of the show (much to my dismay) and apparently Robert Downey Jr. bought the rights to one of the episodes looking to turn it into a film (even more to my dismay), so I’d recommend watching the original before someone ruins it for you.

Honorable mention for this list goes to Pontypool, for being a zombie-esque film that also takes place on Valentine’s Day. It’s a bit of a slow build, so much so that I found myself getting bored, but the premise (once it eventually gets going) is interesting. Points for creativity, but not much else.

I’m always looking for a good disaster to curl up with, so leave your suggestions in the comments!

Healthy snack hack – Fruity frozen yogurt bites

About a month ago, I discovered an incredible yogurt. I know this doesn’t sound like a terribly exciting event, but I take life’s joys where I find them. The brand is siggi’s, and what they make (among other products) is an Icelandic-style yogurt called skyr. Jammed with protein like Greek yogurt, it also goes a step further on the awesome scale by being strained to the most silken texture I’ve ever encountered in a dairy product.

What I find particularly great about siggi’s is that they really care about what goes into their food (and what doesn’t). The ingredient list is short, free of any artificial flavors or sweeteners, and generally light on sugar. This means the end product is packed full of flavor and deliciously tart.

While I’m perfectly content to just spoon it directly into my mouth, I thought I’d try out one of the recipes they have on their site. I tweaked it just a little bit, and the end result was a quick and simple frozen treat.

yogurt-ingredients

All you need is 1/4 cup chopped fruit (I used strawberries), 1/4 cup coconut milk (full-fat, from a can) and one 5.3 oz container of siggi’s (my choice was coconut, in keeping with the theme). Mix all the ingredients together in a glass or ceramic bowl. This is an important distinction, because no matter how well you wash plastic bowls they are still porous and absorb all sorts of things. Using glass or ceramic ensures that no flavor ghosts from recipes past make their way into your tasty yogurt.

yogurt-mold

After the ingredients are well combined, spoon the mixture into a decorative candy mold or ice cube tray. I went with a nautical mold, because why not. My mix filled about 1.5 trays, and I’d say the trays I used were for relatively small pieces. With larger shapes, it would likely just fill one tray.

Then all you need to do is find a nice level spot in the freezer for these little guys to set. They’ll be soft set in about 30 minutes, and more solidly set after two hours. I find it’s best to let them defrost ever-so-slightly before eating them (for maybe just two or three minutes) so that they’re easier to bite into.

yogurt-bites

Aside from the tastiness, a great reason to make something like this is to help with portion control. When you want a little treat, you can take a few yogurt bites out of the freezer to satiate your craving without any guilt. Add to that the fact that siggi’s is certified kosher and gluten free, plus they only use milk from grass-fed cows, and you have yourself a healthy snack that you can feel good about eating.

While it’s not available in every store, siggi’s is still pretty easy to find. Just in case you’re not sure where to look, you can pop your zip code into their store locator.

As an added bonus, when I emailed siggi’s to tell them how much I loved their yogurt (yes, this is totally a thing that I do) they sent me an adorable packet complete with measurement swaps for cooking and a bunch of coupons. I think the best way to spread the love is to pass some of it along to you, so I’ll send a coupon for a free container of siggi’s to the first five people who comment on this post.

Happy eating!

50 Shades of Grain

The past week or so, it seems like my world has been inundated with ads for the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey movie. For the record, I have not read the books, nor will I be seeing the film. Not because I’m offended by the concept of kink, but rather because I’m very offended by terribly written books. Especially terribly written books that hit it big solely because there’s a big segment of the human population that thinks taking an extra cheese sample at the grocery store counts as living dangerously.

So instead, I’m going to see if I can milk some of the promotional web traffic by casually mentioning 50 Shades in a blog post that has nothing at all to do with the books (or movie), but is instead about my love affair with quinoa. Actually, if you intentionally exile your mind to the gutter, you could argue that quinoa sounds a little bit like a tool Christian Grey would keep in the world’s lamest BDSM den. Just a little.

Aside from the awkward name, quinoa is a pretty sexy little powerhouse. It has tons of protein, plus fiber, calcium, iron, and a whole cocktail of B vitamins. And even though it seems grain-like in texture, quinoa isn’t a cereal, which makes it a gluten-free food. It’s actually in the same plant family as spinach, and the part of the plant you see packaged in stores is the seeds. Essentially, quinoa is the epitome of all that is awesome, the complete polar opposite of Anastasia Steele.

The only real downside to quinoa is that it’s coated with saponins, a natural defense mechanism that tastes bitter and foams like soap. In other words, saponin is the Christian Grey of the plant kingdom. This means that you need to thoroughly wash quinoa before cooking it, and you’ll need to use a very fine mesh strainer so that the sneaky little seeds don’t slip through. Once it’s washed, combine a 2:1 ratio of liquid to quinoa (I prefer chicken broth), bring it to a boil, then reduce to simmer for about 20 minutes (or until all the liquid is absorbed).

In addition to eating quinoa as a side dish like rice or couscous, there are tons of great recipes out there for more creative ways to cook it. One of my favorite recent discoveries is this recipe from Whole Foods for an egg bake that uses quinoa to create a sort of crust. You could easily adjust the recipe to accommodate whatever herbs you have on hand, and it can also be made paleo by swapping out the milk for coconut milk and skipping the cheese topping (but don’t do that, cheese is delicious). I used Silk unsweetened coconut milk in the version pictured above, and it worked like a dream without any coconut flavor.

Unlike 50 Shades of Grey, I completely understand and support quinoa’s recent rise in popularity. Not content to rest on their laurels (and some damn fine laurels, at that), the superfood superheroes at Nuts.com have started carrying pre-cooked quinoa dry goods. Quinoa puffs are a tasty gluten-free alternative to cereal. They taste like Rice Krispies (and sound like them too) but have the added benefit of protein. I love combining them with a handful of freeze-dried fruit and coconut milk.

quinoa-puffs-cereal

If, like the rabid 50 Shades fandom community, you’re looking for something hot and messy, they also carry quinoa flakes. These cook up with the speed of instant oatmeal and the texture of Cream of Wheat, but with the slightly nutty, legume-y taste of quinoa. The mixture may seem a little liquid at first, but it quickly thickens as it starts to cool.

Put 1 cup unsweetened almond milk in a large microwave-safe container and heat for 1 minute. Add 1/3 cup quinoa flakes, stir well, then return to the microwave for another 1 minute – 1 minute 30 seconds. Top it off with a handful of freeze-dried strawberries or 2 Tb apple butter and prepare for a mouthful of pleasure.