Shanghainese red braised pork belly

Have you ever thought about replacing “honey-glazed ham” with something else, potentially more divine for your holiday celebration? What about some sweet and savory braised pork belly?

Pork belly?! Does not sound very appetizing? What about this? Bacons? Better? Better yet, bacon IS pork belly, it is nothing but thinly sliced pork belly – but pork belly can be so much more and beyond! 😛

I cooked this traditional Shanghainese household dish during Christmas and received many compliments over how salivating this dish was. This dish is THE dish that will remind most of the Shanghainese kids of home. And today, let’s make this dish and satisfy your tummy!

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Ingredients:
2 lbs of pork belly (after cooking the meat shrinks about 30-40%, 2 lbs probably last 5-6 people for one meal, I cooked about 4 lbs of pork belly on Christmas Eve), chopped into 1 cubic inch chunks – the chunks should be cut so that lean/fat/lean/fat/… layers alternate and see picture below for reference.
Soy sauce, about 1 cup
Rock sugar or slab sugar, about 1 – 1.5 cup
Coconut oil, about 1/2 cup
Star anise, 5 – 6
Sichuan peppercorn, 10 – 15
Cinnamon bark, a few small pieces
Salt and pepper
Chinese cooking wine, 1/2 cup

Heat up coconut oil in a large wok and prepare a dutch oven/Chinese ceramic pot on the side. Add the sugar while turning heat to medium-high. Continuously break down the sugar by stirring until the sugar completely melts and the mixture of oil and sugar will look a little brown. Add the pork chunks and stir fast until all the pork chunks are coated with sugar/oil mix.

Quickly dish all the pork into the dutch oven/ceramic pot. Add cooking wine, soy sauce, star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, and cinnamon bark pieces. Set the heat on low and let simmer for at least 1.5 hours but not necessarily longer than 3 hours. Add water in the process if needed. About 15 -20 min before finishing, add salt and pepper and let cook till done.

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The meat should be extremely tender and juicy – when eating it, the fat layer melts in your mouth while the lean part provide a tiny bit of resistance. And the sauce bursts out so easily, it was the most fabulous thing! It is salty from soy sauce and sweet from the sugar and once reaching the balance between the two, the finished dish is to die for!

If you do not have enough meat, you can add a few hard boiled eggs or tough tofu chunks into the ceramic pot to bulk up the dish volume. I understand this will be tough competition but I hope once you tried this way of eating pork belly, you will never miss bacon again! 🙂

Short report on – Punta Arenas and in between

So I said I’d give a short report on food scene in Punta Arenas, the small town we first landed in Chile.

We only had a chance to try a couple meals and here is what we thought. The town is really small, and you can tell its energy level is closely correlated with the travel seasons. There are not many restaurant establishments to be explored per say.

But we stumbled upon a cafe near the downtown square that makes tasty yet cheap food, and hung out with the locals a bit as well. With a lot of wood structures and furniture in it, the cafe gave a nice relaxing vibe. The sandwich was pretty good but I cannot remember the name of the cafe.

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The next day, we were on the road from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales and in between, we stopped by this family hotel/restaurant – “Hotel Posada Rio Rubens”, since 1929.

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We went for a burger in which the cow was raised by the owners. The burger was divine!!! The juicy, tender and perfectly season patty went so well with the rest simple ingredients, plus a nice cup of latte – we were content! If you ever stop by the restaurant, do not hesitate to give the grandma and grandpa who run the building a hug, they are super friendly. 🙂

Next time, I will give a detailed list of establishments we had the privilege to eat in Nacional Parque Torres del Paine.

To ask or not, that is the question – Lv. 2 wedding

When it comes to saving money, having talented or resourceful family/friends is naturally quite crucial. Maybe you have a brother who is a semi-pro photographer, maybe your aunt offers to bake the wedding cake for free, maybe your girlfriend has a niche for floral arrangements – even if they are willing to help, should you ask or not?

Certainly, if everything can be done with helps from family/friends, it is a no brainer that doing so will save quite a bit of money. But, on your big day, do you really want the people you love and cherish so much (if not the most) to slave away instead of enjoying the moment with the newly-weds because it might save a couple hundred dollars? If every job is outsourced, it is highly likely one will be going over the set budget – so what about the budget?

The way I treat it is definitely dividing helps/resources into categories to determine if I should ask or not.

1. Prep work vs. The-day-of work vs. When-it-is-happening work

In general, I would graciously take the offered help with prep work or the-day-of work (immediately before/after the wedding), but not letting anyone (almost) do when-it-is-happening work simply because I do not want them to miss anything or stress over their tasks in situ.

For example, I had quite a few DIY decoration projects going for a few months before the event. It saved me a lot of money by buying just the material and crafting things myself and with hands from close-by family members. Since they could come and craft with me or at home whatever time they found available, it did not seem too big of a burden to their schedule and life and I went with the help. There were also at least a dozen people helped with putting up the decor, place cards, tipping the vendors, etc. on the day of the wedding, but it was mostly before or after the wedding for an hour or so.

But there is one kind of prep work that I strictly outsourced – cooking and baking. If you are having 20-30 people max., cooking or baking for everybody might be do-able, but stressful nonetheless. In our case, with 150 guests, we would have needed a chef army and cooking non-stop until meal time – let alone the food quality may suffer tremendously which would be intolerable with me. It would have saved a lot, but we deemed that it would worth every penny to hire professionals. The same logic goes with the wedding cake.

2. But, what if it saves a lot of money or adds a lot of fun elements? – well, let us analyze a bit further.

I did end up having friends do some when-it-is-happening work, I have to admit. And here is how I dealt with it.

There were four kinds of when-it-is-happening jobs: special roles, servers, musicians/DJ, photographer/videographer.

Special roles are people who perform certain tasks at the wedding. For example, we had a traditional Chinese portion that was hosted by my best friend from childhood and the whole session took place for about 5 min. It was super short but it received so many compliments about how special and unique the whole thing was.

Servers are people who set up/break down tables and chairs, serve guests food, pour guests drinks, and oversee the flow. They are the ninjas during the event who make the process flow smoothly. It would be too tedious to have any family/friend to work like that, so, NO.

As far as photographer/videographer goes, it was a “relatively” easy NO to us. Yes, photographer/videographer costs a ridiculous amount money! Yes, we also have friends who could shoot on a professional level! But still, NO!! Here are two major reasons why:

1. It would be miserable for any of our dear friends to follow us for 8-9 hours and not be able to share the joy with us.
2. Since it will be memory saved for life, we would rather keep it more on the business and formal side than a blurry defined favor/duty.

Musicians/DJs, that was a tricky one. They work for up to a couple hours, but not a whole 8-9 hours like photographers or servers, and having friends play the music will definitely save money (potentially quite a lot). There was a fine line here for sure – we decided to go with friends who played really well but were also trying to get gigs to build their portfolio. We had a great friend who brought his string quartet gang to play during the ceremony and that was a wonderful period of 30 min beautiful classical music instead of using iPod songs (which would have been my plan B otherwise). And we had a fantastic jazz band (also our friends) play during the reception for about 1.5 hours mixed with prepared iPod music. The band took breaks every half an hour as iPod took over and sipped on some microbrewery beers, and that worked out fabulously! 🙂

So, asking family/friend to help in the wedding? Yes and no. What is your thought on this topic? Thanks again for checking in!

Feasting on the go – Puerto Natales, Patagonia

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As an avid hiker, Patagonia always has a special place in my heart and this year everything came together, we finally decided to pay a visit to this outdoors men’s wonderland.

I will start with a cool city, Puerto Natales. We had tried quite a few places that were fantastic.

Let me start with a coffee shop. Is there any better place to be when you can plan a sea kayak tour while sipping on a cup of wonderful latte and looking out to the mountains and lagune around you?

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This coffee shop named “Kau” is on the edge of this small town up against the lagune and looking out to a mountain range. They make great latte and cappuccino and a sea kayaking company is situated in the same place where you can walk up and book a trip. Possibly the ONE coffee shop with the best view I have ever been, lol.

Next, a brewery. Coming from the Napa Valley of Beer, we seek out local beers and breweries whenever given a chance. In this town, Baguales is a good stop.

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Husband liked their pale ale better than the dark, but both were pretty good. But things tasted somewhat, hmm, familiar. And of course, reading on the history of the brewery, we learned that the owners do California-style craft ales, if they are not already Californians. 😛

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For a bar, their food is pretty decent. The burgers were a bit too greasy as usual bar food. But their tacos were done well. We had Carnitas and vegetables. I especially liked the Carnitas tacos.

Next, we recommend a pizza place suggested by our Italian nomad friend from hostel – Mesita Grande, which is located in the town’s oldest commercial building.

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All the pizzas were made to order, super fresh and well made. The topping portions were generous but not overwhelming. One pizza feeds one very hungry person, or two leisure eaters.

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In terms of other food items, while the pasta with lamb was just ok – a little bit dry and under seasoned, the spinach cream soup was quite hearty and hit the spot.

I saved the last for the best – an Italian restaurant infused with Spanish flare – Aldea. It was quite funny that, we told the owner/chef that we were from Boulder, CO and the owner were like, yeah, I know Boulder, my brother lives in Fort Collins. What a small world!

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Best sauteed wild mushrooms, need I say more? Lol. Husband ordered a mushroom gnocchi on top of the appetizer, and there was no doubt he was hooked. The flavor was earthy, savory, with depth. With just a little bit firmness, the gnocchi was soft but not gooey, which was great.

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I on another hand had their seafood risotto. It was Patagonia’s lamb and salmon season. Oh my gosh, the freshness! The various seafoods were well executed.

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The dessert was good, but a little acidic (because of the fruit) to my taste.

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But over all, this was a very satisfactory visit, we were surprised to be fed so well in this tiny town on the edge of the world.

There was this other restaurant called “Afrigonia“, that caught our attention as well. I have heard good things about the food, but also it also seems to have a high price tag.

Next, I will give a short repost on Punta Arenas and nearby. Thanks for reading!

Budget, budget, budget! – Lv.1 wedding

On average, US couples spend over 25k for weddings (statistics according to http://www.costofwedding.com). In our particular area, the average cost is over 29k, which is insane! When we decided to plan our vow renewal/reception (we have been legally married long time ago), aka “a real wedding”, for 2013, we were determined to stay way, way, way below that number, by that, I meant ABSOLUTELY no more than half, preferably 1/3 of that price tag.

Right off the bat, we realized that we did NOT have the luxury to
1. Pick an off-season date – a lot of important friends wouldn’t have made it and the weather would be completely unpredictable.
2. Have a small guest count – 150 was the best we could cut to!
3. Host the event in a cheaper location – unless we would have been willing to remote-control the planning.

So NOT having the big money-saving advantages at hand to begin with, how did we pull this event off? You guessed it right, BUDGET, BUDGET, BUDGET – by putting in more effort to offset the expensive starting point!

If googling how one should budget for the wedding, you usually get a list of percentage distributions on various websites. For example, 50% for food, 10% for attire, 10-15% for photography etc. 10% of 30k is 3000, but 10% of 10k is 1000, and in this expensive town on a busy wedding weekend, how is it impossible to find a professional photographer for $1000? – Unless that photographer is your best friend. But then again, would you like your best friend to take care of business or share the joy with you on the important day? – I will get to this point later. Of course, you can always “craiglist” someone who is trying to build up their portfolio, but are you really going to trust this newbie with the task of recording things you are going to look at for the rest of your life? If you really don’t care for capturing the essence of the day to pay for it, why would you spend all the rest of the money in a blast anyway? Please excuse my harshness. Therefore, this whole percentage guideline is simply not applicable when it comes to a very small budget.

So, how did we budget?

Step One, PRIORITIZE!

Wedding planning is a DYNAMIC process – meaning plans change, things happen, accidents occur, hence you need to be prepared to reconsider the budget constantly and make revisions diligently – provided that you hate blowing the budget as much as I do, lol.

When prioritize, the listed items on spreadsheet become useful: venue, catering, rental, invitations, photography/videography, beauty/pampering, flower/decorations, gifts/favor, entertainment, attire/accessories, planner/consultant, etc.

There were two things I cared the most, FOOD and MEMORY.

After pondering real hard, I came up with this order of priority:

Venue

Photography

Catering

Not only “VENUE” is the first thing you determine on, but also the most important factor considering money saving! Here is why,

A. Venue-Caterer coupling: venues usually either come with their own caterers or you bring in your own caterers, sometimes a bundled deal can be a steal sometimes having the freedom to choose a competitive caterer can save lots of money.

B. Venue-Rental coupling: maybe you get carried away by the beauty of the venue, but make sure that the venue will provide tables and chairs, and other rental related items can save a ton later in the planning process. For example, renting a chair at $2 a piece for 150 people (and $2/chair is a low estimate), is $300 just for chairs! Let alone, you probably need two sets of chairs for ceremony and reception, so your guests don’t spend time lugging their chairs around.

C. Venue-Alcohol coupling: in weddings, alcohol is actually a significant expense that gets overlooked until all the venues and caterers have been pinned down and it then is too late to start worrying about open bar cost. So it is crucial to look at the venue’s alcohol policy: does the venue charge for corkage? can you buy alcohol yourself or you have to use your caterer for alcohol?

D. Venue-Decoration coupling: is your venue in a natural, outdoor setting or a grand hall, indoor kinda environment? does your venue come with lots of decorative elements that will save you a lot on florists/other decorations? for example, it is perfectly fitting to use pieces of chopped wood (cheap) for signs in a rustic mountain wedding but crystals/glass (expensive) will be more appropriate in a grand ball room.

E. Venue-Music coupling: does the venue charge extra for having a DJ? does it have a policy on noise level?

F. Venue-Transportation coupling: is the venue close and convenient enough for everybody to get to or is it too far so that you need to arrange some kind of mass transportation, such as bus rental?

G. Venue-Extra Hassle coupling: for example, if you are doing an outdoor wedding, what will be the extra cost if the weather goes bad? does the venue have enough versatility so that you can easily go to Plan B? What is the risk of bad weather in your area?

H. Venue itself: is the venue fee reasonably priced? can you do the ceremony as well as the reception at the same location? does it offer any discount by having a wedding on a weekday, a Friday or a Sunday? What about lunch vs. dinner?

So, you can see clearly that the choice of venue will govern the whole planning and the budget, even though at the end of the day, the major portion of the budget probably still goes to the caterer due to the shear high guest count, but it is definitely the venue that will dominate your spending.

Here are a few thoughts on different kinds of venue (on the cheap side):
1. Reserving space for a completely outdoor wedding. For example, renting out a park area for a few hours, which can be very beautiful and dirt cheap, ranging from $30 to $300 depending on popularity of the locations in our town.

But the sweet deal comes with a tighter head counts, possibly no electricity/water provided, noise limit, limited number of parking space around parks, needing to coordinate and rent everything, maybe hiring a wedding planner for the day of, dealing with random strangers hanging around during the wedding, bad weather. So all in all, it comes with a lot extra work but possibly not much savings for us.

If you are having a very small wedding, aka manageable head counts, say under 20 or so, then renting space in a park will be an excellent idea because you can change plans on the fly, more or less.

2. Getting a place in a grand hall/restaurant for an indoor wedding, which seems like the venue fee ranges from $2000 to $5000 or you have a minimum food/drink spending requirement to use the venue’s caterer. With some perks or discounts, the lowest I could find was around $1500 in our area for renting only. With that, you will have a sheltered and private space with service provided, but you also lose the beautiful scenery the town can offer and the price associated with alcohol can generally be quite steep.

A good tip for those who would like to have an indoor wedding, and live anywhere near a major university, check out the university club house, alumni association, or alike. They usually have things on the relatively cheap side since the main users of the grand hall are poor students and they are highly likely to offer good discounts on top of the cheap price if you are or were students of that university.

3. Getting a place with a combo of outdoor and indoor setting – this means either the place has a big outdoor space and an indoor option, or you need to transport from locations to locations. It would be great if we had a humongous mansion with 2-3 acre of land attached to it so all problems solved – well, if we had that kind of living situation, the concept budgeting would never enter my head, would it? Lol. It is always fun to fantasize, lol. Long story short, we found a spacious farm nearby (outdoor) coming with a ranch (indoor) that really fulfilled nearly all the requirements we had to save money and we went with it!

The availability of types of venues can change from place to place, so my experience may not directly applicable to you. But the message to take home is, the decision on venue should be taken most seriously and one should even go as far as plugging in hypothetical numbers including potential catering, rental, transportation costs, etc associated with the venue choice to directly compare the costs under various scenarios. And you are very likely in a super tight time frame when making such decisions, so take your time but not too leisurely. 🙂

So you would ask, how much exactly should I settle for when considering venue? Well, there is obviously no clear cut answer to this question. Assume we can squeeze all other costs to very small amount because we don’t care for them much and take my priority list of three items as an example, let’s say,

Venue + Catering (food/drink/service) + Photography = 10k.

The only thing that really does not couple with anything is Photography, maybe slightly with Attire and Beauty category, but in general it is cost by itself. For example, the general cost of a decent professional wedding photographer in my area starts at about $2500-3000, and it is rather universal across the board in the area. If music (another expense by itself) is extremely important to you, add that item onto the priority list and see how much you are left with. So, you are left with $7000-7500, that means after some estimation, if your “venue + catering” cost will be below that number, then you probably have a good pick of the venue, price wise.

Thanks for reading this extra lengthy piece – I appreciate your patience with me!