Lovin’ it: Homemade burgers

It wasn’t long ago that rainbow figurines of my childhood frolicked in their eternal happiness everywhere you looked in my house: on my tiny white book shelf, on the ledge from which my curtains hang and even hiding in the grass in my garden. I’m embarrassed to admit that those plastic dalmatians, mermaids and Looney Toons came with two chewy pieces of bread, a slice of pickle, sometimes processed cheese and something that was meant to be meat, all wrapped up in the most famous golden arches in the world. Yes, that’s right, many of the toys from my childhood came from McDonald’s Happy Meals.

For as long as I can remember, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC have always just been down the road from my house. There used to be a Pizza Hut restaurant as well but that closed down when I was in high school and a Carl’s Jr has recently risen – and flourished – in its place.

For a time when I was at primary school, it was a regular occurrence having reheated pizza and deep fried chicken for breakfast on Sunday mornings. And to respond to what you’re probably all thinking, no I wasn’t a particularly fat kid. I did athletics and gymnastics, and I was also blessed with a hyper-speed metabolism. But I know this doesn’t make eating all that fatty food any more acceptable.

I don’t blame my parents for letting me eat so much fast food. When we look back on those times now, my mum always says the same thing: “We didn’t know any better”. Neither of my parents eat much junk food now and they’re two of the fittest “older” people I know. They went swimming every single day for about two decades and have only recently started cutting that down (getting older, and stuff).

Despite the questionable quality of food I sometimes ate during my childhood, it still didn’t put me off burgers in the long run. But, I’ve moved on from tiny squashed McD’s cheeseburgers to burgers that tend to be more hearty, more fresh, made with more love.

My dad works for Tip Top Bread, which makes the burger buns for Carl’s Jr here. He’s allowed to take two bags of bread home from work each day and a couple of weeks ago on Friday night he brought home several Carl’s Jr burger buns. I knew immediately what I wanted for dinner. My parents don’t eat meat so I decided to make a fish burger for them and a beef burger for myself and Andrew.

I used tarakihi, which is a white fish, marinated for a couple of hours in lemon juice and garlic, then seasoned with salt and pepper. This was fried in the skillet. For the beef, I seasoned mince with salt, pepper, garlic, onions, dried oregano, paprika and dijon mustard. This was mixed with a lightly beaten egg, refrigerated for about an hour, and rolled into balls, which were flattened into patties when I cooked them on the skillet.

There were also salad greens, gherkins and melted cheese in the burgers but something I feel quite proud of is the sauce I made. I couldn’t decide what sauce to use for my burgers and consequently I spent a very long time looking around on the internet. Surprisingly, nothing really caught my attention until I chanced upon this link: http://americanfood.about.com/od/keytipstechniques/r/secsauce.htm

Big Mac sauce. I love Big Mac sauce! At least, I remember loving Big Mac sauce. Thinking more healthily though, I decided not to follow this recipe but instead adapted one of my own using greek yoghurt. I actually found another Big Mac sauce recipe here, if anyone is interested.

Here’s what I used for my sauce:

1/2 cup natural greek yoghurt (full fat)
1 tbsp dijon mustard
4 tsp diced gherkins
1 tsp vinegar from the gherkin jar
1 tbsp minced onion
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of salt

Mix it all up, dollop it on and top with a toasted bread bun.

Served with oven-baked fries, these burgers made for no left-overs and a meal that disappeared before anyone had the time to say, “I’m lovin’ it!”

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Then and Now

My mother’s auntie (I call her grandmother, lao lao, for some reason) lives in the Daxing district of Beijing, some 31 kilometres away from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. Beijing is divided into 6 “ring roads”, with central Beijing (i.e. Tiananmen Square) as Ring Road 1. Daxing is on the 6th ring road. By the extremely efficient and cheap Beijing subway, it takes 45 minutes to get from my grandmother’s house to the push and shove of the middle of town.

When I visited in 2003, all of the area in which my grandmother lives – all of the apartments, broad multi-laned roads and giant supermarkets – was all fairly undeveloped land. Back then, she lived in what I would describe as a big courtyard with three buildings: one for the bedrooms and living room, the other for cooking and another for the “toilet”. By “toilet” I mean “hole in the ground”, but let’s not get into that discussion.

It definitely didn’t feel like we were in the 21st century. The pillows weren’t filled with soft goose down or foam that moulds to the shape of your head, but rather, uncooked rice. We used bed pans if we needed to go to the toilet during the night – either that, or we had to carry a torch with us to go to the outside toilet. I went to my mum’s cousin’s work every night to shower because a shower at my grandmother’s house was literally getting water in a tub of some sort and washing yourself with it outside, regardless of whether it’s in the middle of Beijing’s stifling summer or bone-chilling winter. Oh and the water? Pumped straight out of the ground with questionable cleanliness.

But meandering along the dirt roads, I found a bustling community. Make-shift BBQs lined the streets, letting off clouds of smoke and filling the air with the smell of spiced, chargrilled meat. Locals sat around on old tables and chairs playing cards or just hanging out. Bicycles, mopeds and scooters zoomed in and around each other, adding to the chatter of passionate conversation. Just like the city, the countryside never really slept.

Leap forward to today and it’s all gone. The dusty roads, the droopy trees that were a grey-green hue, the atmosphere, the general openness. The government approached the residents of Daxing, as they did with all the other areas they’ve now urbanised, and bought out the people’s properties, giving them a place in one of the many apartment blocks they built instead. It wasn’t so much an offer as it was a notice of their intention to take away the people’s land, knock down their homes and build up from the soil, rows and rows of mid-rise apartments.

I visited again in 2011 and stayed with my grandmother for the time that I was in Beijing. For someone like me – a complete city slicker – it was at the high end of the comfort scale. The floor was marble, the furniture was polished wood, the toilets had bidets, there was air con in every room and the kitchen is bigger than the one I have here in my quarter acre home. From that kitchen came dumplings and various stir fries, as well as iced green tea drinks and weird yoghurt drinks that tasted like sour milk.

My relatives always joke that my grandmother’s cooking all tastes the same – oily, slightly tangy and very salty – but to a foreigner, it’s always delicious. I guess when it comes down to it, my mum’s cooking is similar in that most of her dishes all taste the same. This is because she uses the same seasoning products – mainly soy sauce – for most of her dishes unless she’s making something with a unique flavour, such as satay beef or Ma Po tofu.

I’m sure I’ve written about this already but there are several different cuisines in China, which isn’t always represented by Chinese takeaways or restaurants that all serve the same fried rice and wonton soup. Contrary to popular belief, rice isn’t eaten everywhere in China, nor are noodles. And sweet and sour pork? Not really a thing north of Canton, although I’m sure people would know about it regardless.

About two weeks ago I made a tofu and prawns version of General Tso’s chicken, which is also not traditionally a “thing” in China – it was created in the US. The recipe I based it on can be found here. I just half-cooked the prawns before adding it to the mix and then let it cook the rest of the way as everything was being mixed together with the sauce.

It tasted fine but not sure I’d make it again. There is a suggestion from a reviewer to marinate the tofu, then bake it after dunking it in some egg and cornstarch mix. I personally think this is unnecessary unless you are after that crispy fried tofu. There is enough sauce to coat the tofu and veges quite generously.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Alternatively, you could just stir fry everything with some garlic, ginger, soy sauce, maybe some oyster sauce too, and cornflour and it’ll still taste amazing.

As much as I am all for change and thoroughly enjoyed the more modern lifestyle in present-day Beijing, I couldn’t help but feel forlorn for the loss of its more rural areas. These people who now live next door to a hyper-efficient public transport system and newly sealed roads didn’t ask for their homes, or their lives, to change.  They may have lived a harder life, though maybe not as hard those begging on the city’s most inner streets, and they lived with little. But despite having little, they were in want of nothing. They had open air and space, food and water, electricity, the freedom to cook, drink and play whatever they liked out on the neighbourhood paths, and they weren’t restricted from each other by metres of concrete and cold security gates.

As my grandmother gets older, she certainly enjoys the accessibility and modernity of everything that surrounds her now but at the same time, I think she also looks back on those less-privileged times with fondness and a touch of wistfulness too.

Easiest soup ever

When I come home from uni or work in the middle of winter, or even just a cold, rainy day, one of the most comforting things to find is a saucepan simmering with steaming, nutritious soup. The soups my mum makes are more broths under the English definition but I prefer them like that – no cream, no milk, no mush that was apparently once vegetables.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all kinds of soup – pumpkin, tomato, potato, minestrone, chicken etc, etc – but I love even more the lightness of Chinese soups. One of my favourites is sweet corn soup. No chicken, just sweet corn. In fact, my mum doesn’t even make it using stock and yes, that can be a bit bland compared to one made with a good stock, but I love it nonetheless.

I’ve made my own variation before but the most recent attempt has been my favourite so far. It really all comes down to the stock. Unfortunately, I can’t say I made my own stock this time so I guess I can’t credit the success to myself entirely. I wanted to use a vegetarian stock but literally had nothing in the fridge to make it with, except a couple of carrots and some old stems of celery, so I just used store-bought stock, which I think is perfectly fine.

I used 400ml of Campbell’s vegetarian stock, heated it up with a can of creamy sweetcorn after very gently frying some crushed/finely diced (or chopped, whatever!) garlic and ginger in the saucepan. Once that boils, you just simmer everything for about 10 minutes and then lightly beat an egg and dribble that into the soup so it forms long, wispy strands. If you want to add sesame oil, add that at the very end before serving. The same goes for spring onions and/or coriander.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

This has got to be one of the easiest soups to make and for me, it beats the time and process required to make other vegetable soups (don’t get me started on my attempt at pumpkin soup), plus it tastes fantastic too. It’s also really easy to add some chicken or even ham to the pot. Finally, this soup has never been something I’ve had just on its own but always as an accompaniment to a larger meal because it’s so light.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

A black sesame twist on two classics

When I was younger, about 11 or 12, I remember really wanting to buy other people gifts for their birthdays and for Christmas. I was old enough to understand the gratification of giving, rather than receiving, but I was too young to be able to buy anything really cool. I was never given an allowance or pocket money; I simply asked for money when I needed it (all within reason, of course). I remember buying friends lip glosses from the $2 shops, as well as books, pens, CDs, bath stuff and jewellery.

When it came to my parents, I ended up buying them things with their own money, which is kind of funny but really, really pointless in hindsight. I remember buying my mum a really cheap necklace of her star sign, Aquarius. For my dad, I remember one Christmas gifting him a ring binder and rewriteable CDs. I remember he held them up in a victory-like pose and thanked me with a great, wide smile on his face, even though he had more than enough ring binders and blank CDs to choose from already.

To this day, I still struggle with gifts for my dad. Last year I bought him new headphones, which very much disappeared in comparison to the gift I bought my mum – tickets to see Mary Poppins, the musical. Naturally, he didn’t say anything or show any sort of resentment. He is my dad, after all. For his birthday I got him a massage at one of the city’s most luxurious spas and he enjoyed it but I don’t think he wants to experience something like that again. What I really wanted was to buy him a holiday, even just to Sydney, because the last time he and my mum went overseas was 13 years ago when we all went on a family trip to Los Angeles. Unfortunately I don’t quite have the money for that (yet) but I’m hoping within the next year or two I’ll be able to make that happen.

Nowadays, I’ve been utilising my newfound love of cooking to make food for my parents that they may not ever eat or very rarely eat if I didn’t make it for them – special “treats” if you will. For Mother’s Day, I made lemon drizzle cake. For Father’s Day this year (last weekend for us Kiwis), I made two desserts: black sesame panna cotta and black sesame creme brulee.

My dad has a penchant for black sesame, if you hadn’t figured out already, and I’ve been saying ever since I first made creme brulee that I would make a black sesame variation just for him. Well, for some reason, I thought I’d try panna cotta first. I found what seemed like a really good recipe  and I thought it would be a bit healthier than creme brulee, so I went for it.

I kind of wish I hadn’t.

Following the measurements, ingredients and method in the recipe exactly, I created something that was really tough, hard and completely unpleasant to eat. It was like ingesting black sesame flavoured rubber. I personally think it’s the amount of agar agar the recipe called for. I didn’t have the common sense at the time to look back on my green tea panna cotta and see what I could do better from there, which probably would have helped quite a bit.

Anyway, what’s done is done, rubbery dessert and all. I would be keen to try this dessert again but would, hopefully, remember to use less setting agent.

Black sesame panna cotta. Excuse the shocking lack of presentation skills! Photo: Tao Lin

Black sesame panna cotta. Excuse the laughable lack of presentation skills. Photo: Tao Lin

With this failed experiment and the accompanying sense of disappointment that I wasn’t able to pull through for my dad, I turned to my dearest, most velvety smooth love, creme brulee. I followed the recipe and method by Nigella Lawson – perfect for those times when you really want to make creme brulee but just cannot be bothered turning on the oven (that can’t just be me, right?!) – and guesstimated how much black sesame I used. I think I used about 3 tablespoons for half the amount of ingredients in the Nigella recipe. By the way, you can buy black sesame powder from Asian supermarkets. I’m not sure if they have different “finenesses” of powder but I’d imagine a finer powder would work best.

It turned out fantastic and it made my dad really happy, which was the main point. The colour is really off-putting – grey doesn’t really flatter any sort of food – but other than that, there’s really nothing I would change about it.

Happy Father’s Day Dad. I hope this makes up for all those redundant presents I got you in the past!

Photo: Tao Lin

A more successful black sesame creme brulee. Photo: Tao Lin