“Don’t look outside.”
“Huh?” I replied back, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “Why?”
Then I saw it.
Overnight, Toronto had its first major snowfall of the winter, dumping upwards of 10 cm of the white stuff onto two financial independent early retirees who were taking it with the grace and calm befitting their years and wisdom.
“God DAMN it!”
“Waaaaaah! I want to go back to Asia!”
“This is BULLSHIT!”
When FIRECracker and I retired in 2015 and started travelling the world, one of our shared life goals was, and I quote, “to never seeing another goddamned snowflake in my entire life ever again.” It was an admirable goal, but alas, here we are. Wings clipped by the pandemic and stuck in the frigid North, winter has officially descended on us.
After I calmed down, it took me a while to remember that I was, in fact, Canadian. I used to deal with winter every year, and I didn’t complain then. So I guess it’s time to put on my big boy (snow) pants and figure out how to get through this winter just like everyone else.
So here’s what we’ve been doing to stay sane this winter.
One of the biggest things we miss about travelling (besides the awesome weather) has been the food. From the street markets of Taipei to the high tea shops of Bristol, food is an attraction in and of itself when we travel. Now that we can’t travel, we’ve had to improvise, and as Mr. Money Mustache would say, why not in-source the skill rather than out-source it?
So we embarked on a mission to recreate some of the foods we love and miss using ingredients we can get locally. It hasn’t always worked out, but some of the results turned out surprisingly well! Things like…
High Tea: Clotted Cream & Scones
The British are…shall we say…not known for their cuisine. But one thing I absolutely love about being in the UK is their high tea. Freshly baked scones covered with clotted cream and strawberry jam is easily my favourite thing about that country, and we make it a point to get some every time we stopover in London.
The problem is, you can’t find clotted cream in stores outside of the UK.
I’m not sure why, but even if I walk into the fanciest grocery store in Toronto and ask for clotted cream, they have no idea what I’m talking about.
But it turns out, you can make you own!
The trick is that you have to find the right cream. It has to be organic, and it has to have milk fat content of at least 30%+. Many recipes online demand that the milk be unpasteurized, but I don’t think it’s even legal to sell unpasteurized milk in North America. Fortunately, I was able to find something that worked in a (of course) Whole Foods.
The recipe itself is simple, but it takes a while. You have to heat it at 200 F for 12 hours, and then cool it in the fridge for another 12. All the milk fat rises to the top and then solidifies (or clots) as it chills. Then you have to carefully pour out the liquid underneath into another container and scrape off the solidified cream, and to our surprise, what came out was actually really good. Like really good! It tasted exactly like what we got in the UK!
That was the hard part. The easy part was whipping up some British style scones, which you can do with ingredients that you can get from any old grocery store, and voila! High tea, British-style!
The Recipes We Used:
Oil-Seared Biang Biang Noodles
Biang biang noodles are a classic street food that you can find all over Asia, and the best style in FIRECracker’s humble opinion are seared using smoking hot chili oil the way they do it in the Xi’an province of China.
The problem with biang biang noodles is that you can’t buy them from a store. Unlike pasta or vermicelli, biang biang noodles are thick and chewy, and have to be hand-pulled right before cooking. If you try to dry or package them, it destroys the texture. So we had to figure out how to make it from scratch.
Making the dough for these is not nearly as simple as baking bread, where you just throw all the ingredients into a bowl and toss it in a mixer. You have to knead it just right for enough of the wheat’s gluten to separate and make the dough’s texture stretchy and elastic. Too little and it doesn’t pull properly, too much and it loses its starchy texture when cooked. And even when you get the dough right, you have to cover it with oil and leave it overnight to rest.
This dish was by far the hardest to get right. We kept screwing up the dough and as a result, the noodles kept snapping when we tried to pull them. After weeks and weeks of trial and error, we figured out the right combination of mixing, kneading, and resting to get the dough’s texture right.
Once we got that part figured out, then comes the fun part: hand-pulling each dough log into long, stretchy noodles while smacking it against the counter. The “biang biang” sound it makes while you do it is where the name comes from.
Then after a quick boil, we garnish it with green onions, a Szechuanese chili bean paste called Lao Ga Ma, and we sear the entire bowl with smoking hot oil to create…authentic Xi’an style oil seared biang biang noodles!
Man, my mouth is watering just looking at that picture.
Recipes We Used:
Campechana & Tortilla Chips
Unlike some of our American readers, up here in Canada we don’t get access to the best Mexican food. When I was growing up, I legitimately thought that those Nachos Supremes you get from Taco Bell where the guy squirts sour cream out of a caulking gun onto it was what actual Mexican people ate.
So imagine my surprise when we visited Mexico in 2018 and found out that holy shit there’s such a thing as Mexican cuisine that does not come out of a caulking gun!
One of our favourite discoveries was campechana. We first discovered it when we were exploring the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (or November 20th market) in Oaxaca. We stumbled on this little family-run stall in the fishmongers aisle, and they made these.
It’s like a shrimp cocktail, but way way fancier, with octopus, clams, onions, cilantro, and avocado, all in this awesome rich tomato-based sauce. Normal, lame-ass shrimp cocktails are usually just an appetizer, but these things were full meals! So of course we had to figure out how to make them.
Fortunately, one of our Chautauqua friends who grew up in Mexico knew exactly what I was talking about and sent us a recipe. Fortunately, the ingredients themselves were easy to find at a normal grocery store.
However, one thing you really need to make on your own are the tortilla chips. Tortilla chips are another thing that after I had them in Mexico I just couldn’t deal with the crap we have back in Canada. Up here, all we get are those Tostido things that come out of a bag, and they taste nothing like what they actually make in Mexico. So when I came back and couldn’t find anyone that was making them properly, I got dejected and resolved myself to never eating proper nachos again.
Turns out, you can totally make them on your own!
First, you need to find tortillas. Not the chips, but the soft round tortillas that come packaged in a stack. And they have to be corn tortillas! Not those crappy flour kinds.
Then, you lay them out on a baking sheet and bake them at 350 F for 5 minutes to dry them out. Then you cut them into slices like a pizza, and then you fry them in peanut oil.
Making tortilla chips is 10% ingredients and 90% technique. You have to watch these things like a hawk, getting them to fry evenly to just the perfect shade of golden brown before flipping them. Then getting them out of the oil at just the right time before they start to burn. I’ve burned many a tortilla figuring this out.
But if you get it right, they come out looking like this…
Not too shabby for a gringo chino, eh?
Recipes we used:
I know, I know. This is supposed to be a finance blog, not a food blog. But a) I really miss travelling and b) life is too short to eat at Taco Bell.
Before 2020, FIRECracker and I were some of the least domestic people in the world. Cooking was only something done as a last resort, because when we were travelling, eating from street markets was so incredibly delicious and cheap there was no point. But 2020 has changed everything, hasn’t it? Now we can actually cook a few things! And they actually taste pretty damned good! *pats self on back*
So what new skills have you picked up while stuck indoors this year? Let’s hear it in the comments below!
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