Mandy Lee – the writer and cook behind popular food blog Lady and Pups – knows a thing or two about cooking. She has clocked thousands of hours in the kitchen, having started the blog in 2012 to stay occupied after she and her husband relocated from New York to Beijing.
“I didn’t enjoy living in Beijing,” says the Taiwanese-Canadian, who first got into cooking while living in Vancouver and New York City. “So I found myself at home cooking all day – I wasn’t really going outside. My husband was like ‘Why don’t you start a food blog and just put your recipes online?’ I wasn’t into the idea at first, but I did it. And after a while, the site took on a life of its own.”
Soon enough, Lee garnered an international following thanks to her inventive, intense flavour combinations and candid commentary. The blog became a way of keeping in touch with the world outside China and a journal of sorts.
Her cookbook, The Art of Escapism Cooking, came out in 2019 as a summary of her creations. But flipping through its beautifully shot pages, it feels meant for 2020 – a year where we have all been yearning for one form of escapism of another.
A treasure trove of creative cooking ideas, the book is Lee’s “memoir of recipes and stories” that she documented during a difficult time in her life – the lonely Beijing years – and “the delicious aftermath of how I cooked my way out,” she writes in the introduction. “My lemons and lemonade.”
“When it comes to cooking, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no hard or easy, new or old, real or fake,” she continues. “There is only good or bad. It’s about orchestrating an idea, mapping the most sensible way to get there, chasing the high.”
Here, she shares two recipes that are perfect diversions from your regular cooking repertoire and bound to help you rediscover the joys – and challenges – of making elaborate and time-intensive dishes.
Follow her detailed steps, and you will not only learn new techniques, but you’ll also have a restaurant-worth meal to show for it.
The Recipe: The Inconvenient Ragu-th
“I wrote this recipe right around the time the movie The Inconvenient Truth came out,” Lee recalls. It’s by no means a traditional way of making ragu, she notes, but rather her take on it. “This is not an authentic dish,” she says. “You will never see an Italian person making it this way.”
But that’s beside the point. For Lee, what matters is the delicious combination of milk and tomatoes, as well as the rich flavors created by her cooking process. “To me, ragu is all about intensity,” she says.
One of the best parts of this recipe, she says, is that it is pretty hard to mess up. “Any tomato-based sauce with ground meat will probably end up tasting OK,” she explains. “So there isn’t much that could go wrong.”
One important tip before you get started: Take your time when reducing everything down. “You want the sauce to get nice and thick,” Lee says. This recipe is a slow, repetitive and meditative process. Enjoy!
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup finely diced pancetta
- 21oz fatty ground pork
- 23.6oz ground beef
- 1/4 heaping cup dried porcini mushrooms
- 7 cloves garlic, minced
- 10 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 tbsp minced rosemary leaves
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- 2 medium stalks celery
- 1 large onion
- 1 small carrot
- 4 dried bay leaves (or 2 fresh bay leaves)
- 4 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 Parmigiano rind (2” x 2”)
- 7.5 cups whole milk, divided into 1.5 cups for each addition
- 4 cans high-quality Italian peeled tomatoes
- Coarse sea salt/grey salt and freshly ground black pepper to season
- To finish:
- Any type of fresh thick-cut pasta, such as tagliatelle
- 1 little nub of unsalted butter per serving
- Aged Parmigiano cheese to grate
- Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
*Note* Use a flat, wide-bottomed pan for this recipe.
Prepare the ingredients:
- Finely mince the celery, onion and carrots, then set aside
- Wash the dried porcini mushrooms, then set aside (no need to soak)
- Blend all the canned tomatoes with the juice inside until smoothly pureed, and set aside
STEP 1: Brown the meat and vegetables (approx 30 min)
- Heat the pan over medium-high heat and add 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- Add the pancetta and cook until lightly browned, then add the ground pork and ground beef
- Season with 1 tsp of sea salt/grey salt and 1 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
- Keep cooking the meat until all the liquid has evaporated and there’s a layer of browning at the bottom of the pan (approx 15 min)
- Now add the porcini mushrooms, minced garlic, fresh thyme, minced rosemary and chilli flakes. Cook until fragrant
- Add the minced vegetables (celery, onion, carrot), bay leaves, tomato paste and Parmigiano rind
- Season again with 1 tsp of sea salt/grey salt and 1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
- The vegetables will release juice/liquid which is going to “loosen” the browning on the bottom of the pan
- Scrape the brownings with a wooden spatula; just as before, keep cooking until all the juice/liquid has evaporated and there’s a new layer of browning at the bottom of the pan, (approx 15 min)
STEP 2: Reduce the milk and harvest caramel (approx 1:40-2 hours)
- Once all the meat and vegetables have adequately browned, add 1.5 cups of whole milk (if using red wine, add and reduce it down completely before adding the milk)
- Keep heat on medium-high, and stir to mix all the ingredients evenly
- The milk will loosen the brownings. Scrape it off with your wooden spatula to let it melt and become part of the sauce
- Let it cook, and the milk will completely evaporate and form another new layer of brownings (approx 20 min). You see the repetition now, don’t you?
- Add the next 1.5 cups of whole milk and repeat this process
- If your stove tends to heat unevenly, move around the pan to “maximize” the brownings
- Don’t be afraid to let it get deeply rich and dark brown, as long as it doesn’t burn/blacken
- You will harvest the caramel (the brownings!) in each of the 5 additions of milk
- By the end, you should have a pot of meat sauce that’s rich and brown with intense flavor
STEP 3: Add and reduce the tomatoes (approx 1.5 hours)
- Once you have added, reduced and browned the final addition of whole milk, add all the pureed tomatoes
- Season again with sea salt/grey salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Stir to evenly mix the ingredients and scrape the brownings on the bottom of the pan
- Reduce the heat down to medium-low and partially cover the pan with a lid (tomato sauce splatters like crazy!)
- Let the sauce reduce down by one-third to almost one-half. Stir occasionally to prevent burning
- Cook the pasta (I prefer fresh tagliatelle) according to instructions
- In another pan, add a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano cheese (for each serving) and little nubs of butter (about 1 tsp per serving)
- Add the cooked pasta to the pan with a generous amount of ragu
- Cook and stir over medium-high heat until everything’s incorporated
- Serve with more freshly grated Parmigiano cheese and drizzles of extra virgin olive oil
The Recipe: Caramel Soy Sauce Sticky Ribs
If you like dishes that are both savory and sweet, then Lee’s Caramel Soy Sauce Sticky Ribs are for you. A slightly more complicated affair than the ragu, this is Lee’s take on “really tender ribs” – dry ribs are one of her pet peeves.
“What should be at all times, gelatinous and succulent, can often come disappointingly dry and under-flavoured, deceivingly passable for televised food-porn only,” she writes about ribs on her blog.
To avoid disappointing ribs, Lee ditches dry rubs and dry heat in favor of a deliciously thick caramelized sauce and a steaming method. To balance the sweet and sticky sauce, Lee adds Chinese yellow cooking wine, five-spice powder, cayenne and tangy Dijon mustard.
Lee suggests a watermelon salad to bring a light, refreshing flavor to the table and soft, fluffy bread to soak everything up if you are looking for an accompaniment.
- 35-42 oz baby back ribs or spareribs
- Caramel soy sauce:
- 8 large scallions, cut into segments
- 1 tbsp oil for frying
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup apple juice
- 1/8 cup Shao-xing wine, or other Chinese yellow cooking wine
- 6 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/4 tsp + 1/8 tsp five-spice powder
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- To finish:
- 1 tbsp dark brown sugar + 1/2 tbsp for adjusting
- 1/2 tsp rice vinegar (important)
- Ground white pepper for sprinkling
- A few sprigs of scallion, finely diced
STEP 1: Make this the day before
- Clean and dab the ribs dry with a clean towel, and set them meat-side down over a deep baking sheet in a single layer
- Combine soy sauce, apple juice and Shao-xing wine inside a cup (this is just for easy pouring), then set aside
- In a saucepot, heat 1 tbsp of oil over high heat, then cook the scallions until deeply browned and almost charred. Remove the scallions and set aside
- Add the granulated sugar into the same pot and melt over medium heat
- Once the edges begin to melt, stir slowly to incorporate the rest until all the sugar has melted and turned into dark, amber-color caramel (the pot will start to smoke, a good indicator that the sugar is caramelizing).
- When the sugar reaches the desired color, immediately remove the pot from the heat and add the soy sauce/apple juice/wine mixture.
- The liquid will bubble up then quickly subside. Return the pot to the heat (the caramel may have solidified but don’t worry, it will melt back into the liquid)
- Add the browned scallions, smashed garlic, Dijon mustard, ground cayenne, smoked paprika, five-spice powder and ground black pepper
- Simmer the sauce for 7-10 min on low heat, then turn off the heat and let the sauce cool for 20 min
STEP 2: Bake your ribs (approx 3-3:30 hours; the day before or same day)
- Pour the sauce over the ribs and use your hands to coat every surface of the ribs evenly
- Cover the baking sheet tightly with foil, then bake in the oven for 3-3:30 hours
- Re-baste the ribs with sauce about twice during baking
- When the ribs are done, you should be able to insert a fork effortlessly into the meat
- If you’re serving the ribs the next day, keep them covered tightly with foils and keep in the fridge
STEP 3: One hour before serving
- If you have kept the ribs in the fridge, warm them in a 300ºF oven just until the sauce has returned to its liquid state
- Carefully remove the ribs with a wide spatula. Lay them meat-side up this time on another baking sheet
- Remove any scallions and garlic attached to the ribs, then cover with plastic wrap while you prepare the sauce
- Preheat the top-broiler on medium
- Pour the sauce out of the deep baking sheet through a fine strainer into a saucepot (should be just shy of 2 cups)
- Skim off as much fat as you can from the surface and bring the sauce to a simmer over medium-low heat
- Adjust the sweetness with 1 tbsp of dark brown sugar or more and let the sauce reduce down by about 2/3 (leaving you with a bit more than 1/2 cup)
- The sauce should have thickened quite a bit. Now turn off the heat and mix in 1/2 tsp of rice vinegar
- Brush the sauce over the ribs, and place the baking sheet on the middle-upper rack under the broiler
- Once the surface of the ribs starts to sizzle and bubble up, baste another layer of sauce and bake until bubbly and sticky again
- Sprinkle the ribs with a bit of finely diced scallions and ground white pepper to finish