A Black Friday Hijacking

It began with one of my Irish Breakfast Tea-induced manic states, leading to a split second decision to bypass the Black Friday insanity and head to San Francisco for a family food adventure. On Friday morning, I lured my groggy family into our Camry with the bait of a delicious adventure ahead, and some bananas to keep them sated until we arrived at our secret destination.

The sun was shining, no fog was in sight, and the Camry breezed across the bridge traffic-free. While the masses were fighting over mittens in the malls, we reminisced about our Thanksgiving meal in Sonoma the night before and how special it was. The food was exceptional and everyone seemed to be in good cheer as we squeezed around my sister Niki’s farmhouse table.

We arrived at 23rd and Geary and I parked the car. I could tell that Mateo was beginning to register our destination as Ton Kiang Restaurant  — a Hakka style Chinese restaurant featuring some of the best dim sum to be had in San Francisco. We walked through the front doors and as I was eyeing a tray of golden-hued baked pork buns, I heard Caleb say, “Hey, Kevin’s here!” Kevin, my brother, who I had just seen the night before at Thanksgiving, was sitting at a large table with my sister-in-law Rebecca and their good friends. This was one of those cool psychic meet-ups that you can never plan for.

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Before long, we were feasting on baked and steamed pork buns, ginger glazed foil wrapped chicken, shrimp dumplings, jook (rice porridge), and an assortment of other delightful dumplings. Our stomachs were now bursting at the seams and we had sampled much of what the restaurant had to offer…it was time to move on to the next adventure. Ocean Beach!

On this beautiful summer day in mid-November, we practically had the beach to ourselves. Mateo and I showed the kiddos where we met for the first time, which was right at the wall overlooking the ocean. We then walked to the water and plopped down lazily on the sand, where we made lame attempts at sand castle construction.

I then led the family on a this is where Momma grew up tour of the Richmond District, as Mateo rolled his eyes internally in the passenger seat (having received this tour one too many times). As we passed the elementary school I attended, I asked Caleb what he thought and he remarked “This isn’t a childhood I would want to grown up in.” He sees a very different San Francisco than the one Mateo and I experienced – one filled with dirty streets, cigarette smoke, graffiti, and impatient drivers quick to lay on the horn.

Before heading back to Mayberry, I pulled up in front of Cinderella Bakery on Balboa. This was a Russian restaurant from my childhood that specialized in delicious borscht, pilmeni soups, and piroshiki fried and baked. Clearly time has gone by because it is now a hip looking café, which thankfully still serves some of my favorite treats. Caleb and I bought a beef and cheese piroshki, frozen pilmeni (Russian dumplings to be cooked in chicken broth at a later date), and hamentaschen. As we drove home, I turned to Mateo and said “Ya know, pirshoshkis are basically just deep-fried beef donuts!” and we both laughed hard at the thought.

This was a Black Friday diversion worth remembering and just the type of family hijacking I enjoy orchestrating!

…Stay tuned as we cook up our pilmeni soup!

No Dumpling Left Behind

On Sunday, our family needed to do something out of the ordinary. Our weekends have been feeling predictable and routine as of late, so we jumped in our car and headed over the bridge to San Francisco for an adventure.

Mateo and I both grew up going to Mountain Lake Park in the Richmond District and we thought it would be fun to bring Caleb and Sadie there. For the middle of winter, it was a beautiful, sunny day and it seemed like the perfect place to be.

Once we arrived at the park, our kids immediately took to the sprawling play structure. We then walked down to the little lake and shared our childhood memories of the park with Caleb and Sadie. It was really something special sharing a beloved spot from our childhood with them and watching them enjoy it as much as we had.

Goofing off and running around the playground earned us a good appetite, so we walked over to Clement Street. After first visiting Haig’s Delicacies (our favorite middle-eastern / specialty food shop), we stood in line at Good Luck Dim Sum and came away with a pink box packed with delicious dim sum. I enjoyed the standing in line part, to be honest. A bunch of dedicated dim sum devotees holding onto our little pink menus, all helping each other out with suggestions and helpful translations.

With dim sum in hand, the family trekked back to the park and found the perfect sunny spot on the grass for a mid-winter, Northern California picnic. The sun was out, the grass was dry, and we were surrounded by happy dogs, sunbathing twenty-something’s, and a few other families enjoying themselves as we were.

After pure enjoyment of our dim sum goodies (we’ll call it “No Dumpling Left Behind”), we opened up a package of fresh, marble halva that we purchased from Haig’s. My kids had never tried halva and loved it like I do. I took pleasure in their enjoyment of the rich, sweet, chocolate-infused sesame seed dessert.

Yes, I know, my family eats a lot of dim sum! I’m sure you’ve caught on by now. But, it’s so good and the kids love it. It’s an inexpensive and delicious lunch or dinner treat, and very accessible in the Bay Area. It was so easy to pick up a box of our favorite dumplings and take them to the park to enjoy with our kiddos. I would highly recommend partaking in a dim sum picnic some weekend soon! Keep a blanket packed in your trunk for such a wondrous occasion!

Cha Cha Cha Siu Bao!

Freshly steamed pork buns

If I ever put the ‘What three foods would you want on a desert island?’ question to Caleb, his answer would simply be “three steamed pork buns!” Caleb is smitten with these Chinese barbecue pork buns (Cha Siu Bao). He inevitably orders them whenever our family ventures out for dim sum, much like I did when I was his age.

I recently promised Caleb that I would teach him how to make steamed pork buns. Not that I’ve ever made them myself, but I figured we’d take on a recipe together and see what happens. Hmmm…what was I thinking? I was daunted by this ambitious undertaking at first, but once I glanced at a recipe or two, I felt hopeful that we could create something that, at the very least, would slightly resemble (and hopefully taste) like what we so enjoy eating in dim sum restaurants.

Our family is enjoying a stay-cation this week; a restful (hah!) week off to do whatever we like in our own backyard. I woke up this morning with the inspiration to take Caleb on a shopping adventure to our local Ranch 99, a large supermarket stocked with everything ‘Asian’ under one roof. We had a ton of fun running around the store snapping photos of fish and crabs swimming around in tanks, of all of the Asian sauces you can imagine on one shelf, of dim sum prepared for takeout, etc. We also bumped into three local restaurateurs that we know in this small world of ours. They were so happy to see us and were tickled when we told them that we were shopping for ingredients to make pork buns.

I was proud of Caleb when he walked up to the butcher’s counter and ordered one pound of char siu (barbecue pork). The butcher smiled and chopped up the dark, hoisin glazed pork, which Caleb proudly walked away with. Once we had gathered up the remaining ingredients, we sat down on a bench outside the market, where Caleb devoured a warm baked pork bun that we had just purchased for a snack. We’ll just write today off as “Pork Bun Appreciation Day!”

Once home, Caleb and I prepared the dough, then put it aside to rise. After I chopped up the pork, we made the filling, which was easier than I thought, then added the meat. I tasted the filling and was surprised by how similar it was to classic pork bun filling. This filled me with hope that we might be in store for a delicious outcome.

After a few hours, we took our dough and had fun kneading it together. We rolled it into a log and cut it into 16 pieces, for larger buns. Caleb helped me spoon the filling into the center of our dough, and we each took turns twisting the filled dough into a bun. I placed the parchment squares on the bottom of each bun and we put them on a cookie sheet to await steaming.

I took the classic bamboo steaming baskets that we just purchased at Ranch 99, filled them with our handmade buns, and then placed them on top of a pot of boiling water. Once the steam was steadily moving through the baskets, I timed them and we waited.

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When we sat down for dinner and put the freshly steamed buns on the table, I couldn’t wait to eat one. Caleb was eager too. I honestly couldn’t believe how good they were. The dough was perfectly steamed and tasted much like the pork bun dough that I’m used to. The filling was full of flavor and although it didn’t have that almost-bright-red tint that the restaurant buns do, ours tasted better than most I have had. Truly. Caleb loved his pork bun and I think that he’s the best judge. I was very proud of our amazing homemade pork buns.

This was a fun (and successful) experiment with Caleb. I would call this recipe ‘doable’ with a five-year-old. Most definitely labor intensive, but all of the steps were pretty simple, resulting in warm and steamy barbecue pork bun goodness. Most importantly, I enjoyed our time together in the kitchen and how excited we both were to replicate one of our favorite dim sum treats.

I feel very fortunate that we live in a corner of the world where we can expose our children to almost every ethnic cuisine out there and can so readily purchase all the ingredients to make pork buns, or whatever else we like. I am also appreciative that we have so many wonderful ethnic restaurants within close proximity. How very convenient that the next time we’re in the mood for cha siu bao, we can just run out to our local dim-summery and enjoy delicious pork buns…prepared for us by someone else!

Off to take a nap now!

Recipe: Cha Siu Bao

Note: We skipped the step of preparing the roast pork and used real, already prepared char siu purchased at the market.

A Dim Sum Celebration

Last Friday, my Caleb graduated from his Pre-K program in Berkeley. Not to sound too much like a proud Jewish mother, but I’ve been waiting for this day for five years and was teary-eyed when it arrived. It feels like just yesterday when we enrolled our 5-month-old in their infant program. In the blink of an eye, he has transformed into an intelligent, creative, kooky and curious five-year-old, well-prepared to take on kindergarten.

In the early evening, following the sweet graduation ceremony, we took Caleb out to the restaurant of his choice. Not surprising at all, he chose dim sum at our local favorite, King Tsin on Solano Avenue in Berkeley – a very family friendly restaurant that excels at dim sum. We spontaneously invited another Pre-K family to join us…a lovely family from France who will be returning soon.

Caleb and his friend, Prosper were excited to sit next to each other at the round banquet table. Prosper’s parents were caring for his little brother, Gaston on one end and Mateo and I were feeding Sadie on the other. The centerpiece of our table was a Lazy Susan (this one was not so lazy and a dependable workhorse) topped with steaming plates and bamboo containers of freshly cooked dim sum. Yum!

Prosper and his family are pretty new to dim sum, so it was fun exposing them to some of our favorite choices. We kicked off our meal with a dazzling bowl of sizzling-rice soup, which I mainly ordered for the boys because it’s fun to listen to the sizzle when the waitress pours the fried rice into the large bowl at the table. Prosper called the soup “magic” because he liked the sound and enjoyed eating the large shrimp bobbing around. We also ordered pan-fried pot stickers, steamed spinach dumplings, shrimp dumplings, Shanghai dumplings, green onion pancakes, sticky rice wrapped and steamed in lotus leafs, and Caleb’s favorite…steamed pork buns (char siu bao).

Pork buns were my favorite as a child and I have fond memories of my father walking with me hand-in-hand to the local dim sum counter in San Francisco’s Richmond District. I would step up on my tippy-toes and order a “char siu bao” over the steamy counter…so proud that I knew how to ask for them in Cantonese. Once received, I would carefully peel off the white paper from the bottom and proceed to gobble my bun down. I loved the sweet, stewy barbecue pork mixture inside, and what kid wouldn’t like that sweet dough? It warms my heart that Caleb is just as crazy about pork buns as I was when I was a kid. Such good taste my child has!

Leave it to a Jewish mother (“Eat, eat!”) to order too much food at our dim sum graduation banquet, but we all did a more than adequate job of polishing it off. After the dinner, both families hugged, congratulated our little graduates, and packed the kids into our respective cars to head home for bedtime.

I truly love exposing Caleb and Sadie, and others to the wonderful ethnic foods available to us in the Bay Area. I feel spoiled and very fortunate to have such an abundance of delicious things so readily accessible. It was this way when I was growing up in San Francisco and I think it’s even better now, since the diversity of the Bay Area has expanded. A good life, indeed. Congratulations, my Caleb!