Monday, March 16, 2009

Birthday Weekend

So for this past weekend, the weekend following my birthday, I invited some friends over for dinner Saturday evening.

All total there were 5 of us: Jean, Ellis, my friend Erik the Peruvian, Jennifer (a new girl in Huzhou from Minnesota, I think), and myself.

Ellis offered to bake a cake with her newly acquired toaster oven, a cake whose batter that has strawberries among its ingredients. Yes that's right. Strawberries in the cake batter. Unless you've tried it, you really have no idea how WELL that works.

Anyways since I was inviting people over, I had to prepare the food. I decided to prepare baked chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and... baked ziti, once again. Jean decided to try her hand at making some sushi, as she had seen her mother do so many times before but never actually done herself.

The chicken breasts were easy to do, as I've done it here so many times before. You simply buy the boneless skinless breasts (which, here in China, are cheaper by the pound than chicken wings), marinate them overnight, add a bit of breading, and bake for 30 minutes, easy peasy. The one snag with the chicken: I didn't think about it until too late that I didn't have enough steak knives, so the guests had to use butter knifes to cut the chicken, a tool which worked better stabbing the chicken than sawing it, not because the chicken was tough, but because these were really thick butter knives which a "fake" serrated edge.

The mashed potatoes were something I had never made from scratch before, but was actually really simple. They came out just "alright." When preparing them at one point I noticed that it needed more salt. Unfortunately I added a bit too much salt. It wasn't "oh-my-God-I-need-to-drink-some-water-immediately" salty, and it actually was still pretty tasty, just maybe a hair on the salty side. The only other bad thing about the mashed potatoes is that while they were delicious, 4 potatoes doesn't make nearly enough mashed potatoes for 5 people. I think a better number may have been 7 potatoes.

The sushi that Jean made actually was not a fish based sushi, but frankly, I think that was for the better. The sushi she made contained cucumbers, sausage, eggs, and carrots all wrapped inside a rice and seaweed border. Jean claims that they weren't very good, but I beg to differ. Most of you know how picky I am, and I even liked these. To be fair, her complaint about them lies in that, with her first batch, the rice wasn't quite soft enough, which may be true, but if anything, is my fault because she asked me if I thought the rice was cooked enough, to which I replied, "yes." The rice wasn't hard though, just maybe not quite as soft as it ought to have been. Again though, my fault on that one.

As for the ziti... As I mentioned in a previous post, I couldn't get the ricotta cheese. I also didn't make an attempt to "make" a ricotta substitute. As a result, I was basically crossing my fingers and hoping that it turned out alright.

There were a couple items working in my favor, however, in contrast to last time. When I made the ziti before, I had bought a large bag of shredded mozzarella. This time, the mozzarella I had was a total of about a pound of block mozzarella. While that did mean that Jean and I had to shred it by hand, which was time-consuming, it definitely was of better quality.

Additionally, last time, I accumulated my ingredients keeping in mind that there would be a couple vegetarians among our dinner party. This time however, all omnivores, so I could add meat to the sauce. Now, I had never seen ground beef at any of the grocery stores in Huzhou, so I just planne to use ground pork, which is plentifully available. So, Saturday morning Jean and I went to the largest of the 3 big grocery stores in Huzhou to fetch the meat and a few other items. To my pleasant surprise, they actually had 2 packages of ground beef! We're talking in the entire store, there were a total of 2 one-half-pound packages of ground beef and those probably only still there because it was still morning. Anyway, I happily snatched it up.

The sauce was also better this time. Rather than just opening the can when the pasta was ready and adding it to the baking dish and mixing it, I first cooked the sauce with browned ground beef and some fennel for about 2 hours before baking the ziti. The sauce was DEFinitely better.

Mixing ingredients, pre-baking

Finished Product

In the end, without the ricotta, the ziti was still really good! Personally I thought it was marginally better than the last time, perhaps because of the meat sauce, not because of the lack of ricotta. Jean did comment that the consistency was not the same as last time, and that could've been because of the ricotta, but the flavor was really unaffected, and it turned out really well. Nuts to ricotta!

Finally, we ate the cake that Ellis had made. The strawberry batter cake, and then as a topping she had some crushed strawberries with sugar (basically a delicious strawberry filling similar to the kind Mama, my grandmother, uses in her strawberry shortcake bowl).

It was definitely a fun day, one of the best I've had since coming to China: preparing the food during the day with Jean with the radio blaring tunes, eating all the delicious food, and the warm and entertaining company.


  1. how nice. yea the ricotta makes it thicker so that's probably why the consistency was different.
    Jean is cute...tell her I said hello!
    take care.

  2. Happy Birthday, TJ. Your girlfriend looks adorable. Hope you are doing well. Take care. Mollie

  3. hey you hope your day was a great one food looks great I'd say that about your gal pal but don't want you mad ha .Perry /

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  5. HI TJ

  6. I thought the Ziti looked so good. And the sushi sounded and looked really good. Happy late b-day. Your grandma suggestions made my mouth water, sounds so good.