It’s been a little while and I have missed you dearly.
For two wonderful weeks I visited one of my best friends from college all the way over in Hong Kong. It was one of the strangest (and most amazing) cities I have ever been to, and I had the time of my little life. Now I’m back, I’m close to conquering the jet-lag, and I’m ready to get back to what I love.
The key piece of advice I have after making this trip is don’t pack a bag of cornmeal in a carry-on.
Confused? I’ll explain.
As a big fat “Thank you for letting me invade your apartment for free for two weeks” present, I promised my sweet southern friend that I would bring her anything from the US that she couldn’t get there. Her requests? Cumin and cornmeal. No wonder we love each other so much.
I decided to pack in just a carry on and personal item because I am paranoid as hell and did NOT want to risk having my luggage lost on the way. My happy ass lovingly packed up a package of cornmeal into my rolling bag and carried on my way.
I went through security and got flagged, which wasn’t surprising to me because I seriously believe on some kind of watch list. Something about my 120 lb frame and infant face seems to make TSA nervous and I get flagged EVERY TIME. This time, however, they probably had a good reason.
See because I am some kind of idiot I did not think through the fact that a bag of cornmeal in an airport scanner DEFINITELY looks like a giant brick of drugs. The TSA agent pulled it out of my bag and the conversation went something like this:
Agent: What is this?
Me: Uhh… stone ground cornmeal.
Me: MY FRIEND IS LIVING IN HONG KONG AND SHE CAN’T GET CORNMEAL AND I WAS TRYING TO BE A GOOD FRIEND AND I’M SORRY AND-
Agent: Putting a large brick of white powdery substance in your bag is a really dumb idea.
Me: I am not a smart girl.
Agent: *sighs heavily with the weight of my dumbassery on her shoulders* God, whatever. Bye.
In the end I emerged victorious and was allowed to keep my cornmeal but if I wasn’t on a list before, I most definitely am now. Sorry TSA. For future reference, pouring it out of the bag into a large Ziploc and laying it out flat did not get me pulled aside in the second airport so that may be a better bet in case I am not the only dummy in the world trying to traffic ground corn.
My original plan was to cook a classic southern meal in Hong Kong and write a post about it but plans and the fact that the typical Hong Kong ‘kitchen’ is two burners and a ½-size toaster oven got in the way. So now I have made a vaguely related segue way to talk about my trip while still providing y’all with a tasty recipe.
Hong Kong is one hell of a place. Trying to describe it has proved difficult because it is so unlike any place I have ever been. At rush hour, the overabundance of choice is offset by a perceived absence of free will. It gets so congested that if you were to pick your feet up the crowd would just carry you onwards. On Sundays, the Filipino maids swarm public parks and walkways, setting up picnics and karaoke stations to socialize and enjoy the only 24 hours they get off per week. Just a short ferry ride away are secluded islands and sleepy fishing villages with rocky coves where you can sit in silence, listening to the waves crash against the shoreline.
In such a relatively small area, there are mountains, beaches, clubs, restaurants… literally everything you could ever need is within a few stops along the subway line. One day I hiked to the top of a mountain (and nearly died because I am a woefully out of shape asthmatic) and the next I sat and devoured a spicy crab overlooking the tiny fishing boats off the coast of Lamma Island.
Walking around the city at 5’8”, I felt like Godzilla. In restaurants I had to be careful not to tip tables and chairs over with my gigantic American body. Apologies to the (at least) three people who I accidentally booty-bumped into spilling their beverages. That was my bad.
Along the way I met some really wonderful people. Sidney’s friends, an eclectic group from all over Europe, were so welcoming and fun. In just two weeks, I fell in love with the city and the amazing people I met there. I even caught my first British blog follower, my birthday twin Adam (shout out to you and May 24th, you magnificent person). We ate, we drank, and we made merry.
Emphasis on ate.
Lord I ate a lot of good food on this trip. I will dream about that spicy crab for the rest of my natural-born life. The heat from the chilis rising in my chest and keeping me warm in the gentle sea breeze, laughing as we sat around the table drinking our shitty beer and taking in the salty air will remain one of my happiest memories. Big bowls of noodles with boiled turnips (which I quickly learned are one of my favorite things) and, mother of pearl, the char siu bao. I am making it my personal mission to figure out how to make those delicious bastards. It blew my mind.
When it was finally time to head home, I sniffled my way through the airport and a heated argument/ game of charades with a Hong Kong security guard who didn’t understand inhalers or why I did, in fact, need it to board a plane. Just picture it, me half-crying about how much I already missed my friend and her new home and flapping my arms about, miming choking and then doing inhaler puffs. It was quite the spectacle.
When I finally stepped foot back in my home I just wanted to hug every appliance and countertop in my kitchen. I had missed it so. In my jet-lagged stupor the next day, I decided to make a trip out to the beach and grab some fresh shrimp, inspired by my seafood adventures in Hong Kong. Here’s what came of it:
Gulf Shrimp Risotto
- 1 lb gulf shrimp (any shrimp will do, but fresh is always better)
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 1 lemon
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup diced pancetta
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
- ½ cup dry white wine (I used sauvignon blanc)
- 1 cup grated white cheddar
- 1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2 cups asparagus, chopped into two-inch sections
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Peel and devein your little skrimpies. The vein can be easily removed by slicing along the center line on the backside of the shrimp and scraping out the black line. Yes, this is a pain in the ass, but do it. The line is shrimp poop, people.
- Roast the shells for about 5-8 minutes at 400°F or until dry and pink.
- Toss the shells, chicken stock, and lemon juice in a saucepan and set over medium-high heat. Once bubbling, reduce heat to simmer.
- While the liquid heats, render the pancetta in a large pot over medium heat. Start the meat in a cold pan so that the fat can fully render (same trick works with bacon).
- Once the pancetta is crispy, remove with a slotted spoon and add the butter and onion. Sauté until softened before adding the garlic and sautéing for another 2 minutes.
- Add the Arborio rice and stir gently to coat each grain with the fat. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the outer edges of the grains become translucent.
- Add the wine and stir until the liquid is fully absorbed.
- For the next 25 minutes, add the stock in ½ cup increments, stirring and allowing the rice to absorb all of the liquid before each new addition.
- During this time, poach the asparagus in the stock for 3-4 minutes or until bright green and cooked through (while still retaining some crunch). Remove from the stock and shock in ice water to prevent overcooking and keep them bright.
- As the risotto is finishing up, season the shrimp with a light dusting of paprika, cayenne, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté in butter over medium heat for about a minute per side. Once the center becomes opaque, they are done.
- Once the risotto is finished (when the grains are tender but still have some bite to them), gently stir in the cheese, asparagus, and chopped parsley.
- Serve topped with as many happy little shrimp as your heart desires.
It felt so damn good to be back cooking again. If I could have a decent sized kitchen and I wasn’t going to doctor school, however, I’d be moving to Hong Kong immediately. To comfort me in my time of severely body-clock confused time this risotto was perfect. And yes, I used cheddar instead of parmesan in a risotto. Wild, I know. I was kind of going for a shrimp and grits vibe. Parmesan would have been just as delicious.
In the future, I might push this dish even further in the shrimp and grits direction. Maybe a little diced bell peppers and sausage? It could work. As is, the pancetta was crisp, the shrimp were flavorful, and I was happy.