Unfortunately, my exposure to ramen was also exclusively limited to the Top Ramen lineup: chicken, beef, or shrimp.
It was a pivital moment when Chef began preparing a cup of ramen for his lunch. Knowing him to be extremely particular about food, I called his bluff. "You're joking. You're not going to eat that!"
A boyish grin came across his face, "Yes I am....It's good!"
I eyed him dubiously.
With a walk-in cooler filled with the finest gourmet ingredients....Chef actually chose to eat ramen! Granted, the package instructs you to guild the ramen lilly by adding an egg--he used a duck egg...but no other modifications were necessary.
Watching him happily slurp long strands of noodles....clearly, I needed to investigate.
Could there be good ramen?
My ramen quest brought me to Seattle's Uwajimaya. This place is a culinary wonderland of Asian ingredients. You can find durian, bitter melon, live abalone as well as countless types of nori, tofu, chilies...and yes, ramen.
The ramen isle at Seattle's Uwajimaya
The selection of ramen at Uwajimaya is staggering. Less than 20% of the packaging has English...but thankfully, many of them feature pictorial diagrams. Smiling cartoon characters with the occasional pig or chicken depiction...provided a clue about the contents.
And if the selection above isn't overwhelming enough...that's just the varieties that don't come in a cup or a bowl! The other side of the isle features this bountiful selection:
Luckily, ramen is also cheap. Good packaged ramen may cost a little more...but it's still usually under $1.
I tried several different varieties and they were all much better than the ramen I remembered. Most varieties had the familiar spice packet...but some featured an additional packet with optional chili oil or spices for an extra kick. No doubt, these ramen were much more flavorful.
Further research revealed a whole world of ramen I knew nothing about....blogs dedicated to ramen here and if you want recipes with your ramen...check out this site.
I also discovered lovely trivia:
Maruchan, the manufactuer of Top Ramen, makes the equivalent of 81 million miles of ramen, annually. It's mind-boggling when you think...in one year, Maruchan cranks out enough ramen to circumnaviate the earth 3,253 times!
Not long after I began exploring ramen, I learned of a museum in Japan that was dedicated to the stuff. The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum features the historical development of instant ramen. The walls are lined with examples of ramen packets and commercials from around the world. They even have ramen-themed video games!
Finally, I learned that the history of Japanese ramen is really quite fascinating. After WWII, Japan was experiencing food shortages. As part of post-war reparations, the US gave wheat to the Japanese. An inventor named Ando decided if they could use the wheat to make noodles---instead of bread, people could eat a more well-balanced meal.
Ando explored noodles that were dried and then could simply be rehydrated. But then, after watching his wife cook tempura, he was inspired to make a noodle that was fried, then dried. Ando found that when reheated, the fried noodles would absorb broth and as a result, make a more flavorful noodle. He was the inventor of what ultimately became "Cup of Noodles," which spurned a myriad of instant noodle choices.
Now, turning the tables....I'm curious. Dear reader, fess up! How do YOU like your ramen????
The conversation went a little something like this:
"Hi, I'm Traca."
"I'm Michael." No need to say anything more. I was swooning already!
Then he kept talking...and I wish he hadn't.
"What's your name again????"
Ah...here we go....people often have trouble with my name.
I sounded it out slowly. "Tray....suh...."
"Okay. Theresa, this is my friend John."
John pipes in, "Did you say it's Theresa or Traca?"
Mr. Handsome is still struggling with it. "Tracy???"
"No, Traca. Like Tracy with an A on the end instead of a Y."
"Theresa?" Okay, clearly he wasn't a spelling champ.
"No, like you trace a line. Tray-suh...."
Suddenly my fantasies of him were far more appealing than the reality!
"What kind of a name is that?"
It's okay, I've been explaining the name my entire life.
Here's the story: My older brother was 3 years old when my mom was pregnant. My parents were discussing a name for their unborn child (me). Suddenly, my brother pipes up and says, "Traca." He meant to say "Tracy," but his 3 year old self couldn't sound out the vowels.
Inspired, my parents decided to go with "Traca."
And so it is.
People ask me if it's actually on my birth certificate.
Yes, it is.
Today, for the most random of reasons, I Googled my name. It turns out "traca" is actually a word in Spanish. Ironically, I've lived my whole life never knowing that. (When I travel in Spanish speaking countries, I have the least issues of all. Now I know why...)
Here's the definition:
1 (de fuegos artificiales) firecrackers
2 fig (final explosivo, sorprendente) spectacular finale
What's in a name? Now, I finally know!
But seriously, after reading this excellent demonstration on making chocolate bars from scratch...I'll never balk at paying for good chocolate again!
Another great site discussing the wonders of making chocolate is Chocolate Alchemy: The Art & Science of Homemade Chocolate. While you're there, take a look at the Alchemist's Notebook....and sign up for the newsletter. Fascinating.
And if candies and truffles make you swoon....explore your inner chocolatier fantasies at Ecole Chocolate. These online classes have impressed the likes of chocolate gurus David Lebovitz and Michael Recchiutti. The Ecole's next class begins January 5th...talk about kicking off the new year right....
Confessions of a cookbook junkie: gearing up for Holiday baking, I realized a deficiency in my cookbook collection. Happily perusing Amazon, ordered myself several books dedicated to cookies....and waited with delicious anticipation!
And then my power went out.
On December 14th, the weather forecasted severe gusts of wind with advisory precautions. I cranked up the heat, set my travel alarm, and went to bed. As predicted, I woke up with no power.
My area was hit especially hard and within miles of my home, only a small pocket remained functional.
I'd never experienced anything this severe, but figured we'd get power by the end of the day. Then I waited over an hour in line for gas. Things would not return to normal anytime soon.
I learned later that 80 transformers were damaged in the storm and over a million people in the Seattle metropolitan area were without power.
As the temperature inside my home approached the winter temperatures outside, I tried to find a place to stay for the night. The problem was, most of my friends were also in the dark.
Finally, a chef friend of mine invited me to stay with her. We made cookies together and I hoped for power the next day.
No such luck.
I ended up not having power for a total of 8 days.
Every night, I'd come home to check on the cat and grab more clothes by candlelight. As the days stretched on...the cookie books started to arrive. Vagabonding from one friend's home to another, I'd lie in bed and earmark all the wonderful cookies I'd make when I FINALLY got power again.
I'm now back in my home and things are beginning to return to normal. The grocery stores have all replaced their meat, dairy & frozen food sections, gas supplies have stablized, and nearly everyone has their power restored.
In spite of the delay, I'm starting my baking frenzy....and this chocolate cranberry oatmal cookie was first on my list. Deliciously moist and chewy with just a hint of spice...I must admit...they were worth the wait!
May you have a wonderful and warm holiday...enjoyed with treasured friends and family....and a fistful of these cookies!
Author's note: These are extra chewy due to the melted butter. Browning the butter gives them a very rich flavor.
Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from Dede Wilson's "A Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies"
2 2/3 cups rolled oats (use old-fashioned, not quick or instant)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried cranberries
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghiradelli chips)
1/2 cup walnut halves, finely chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 cookie sheets with Silpats or parchment.
2. Whisk oats, flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl. Stir in dried cranberries, chocolate, and nuts.
3. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Continue to simmer over medium-low heat until the milk solids turn golden brown, about 4 minutes. (The foaming will subside when you are about 3/4 of the way there....) Take care not to burn.
4. Pour browned butter into a large bowl and whisk in brown sugar until combined. Whisk in cinnamon, then whisk in eggs and vanilla, beating well after each addition.
5. Add dry mixture to wet ingredients and stir until just combined. Mixture will be thick. Using a 2 tablespoon capacity ice cream scoop, drop 2" apart onto cookie sheets.
6. Bake until light and golden brown and just dry to the touch, but still a little soft inside, about 10 minutes (no shiny spots in between the oatmeal). Immediately remove them from the baking sheet and let cool on a rack.
After viewing an emergency BBC broadcast, I sent the following note home:
Hi there. I've just seen the BBC news and a military coup claims to have taken over the government. Apparently there are tanks and military personnel on the streets of Bangkok.
I want you to know I am here still on the island of Phi Phi. Before the news of the coup, I bought a ticket back to Bangkok and I will be arriving there tomorrow.
According to my guide book, Thailand is famous for military coups. They maintain an elected and an appointed government with the military fluctuating in power. I suspect the same for this.
Please know I will take all reasonable safety precautions. If my plans change for any reason, I'll be sure to send an e-mail.
Now I've been in Seattle in the middle of the WTO riots and in Havana, Cuba during protests for the return of Elian Gonzalez. Upon arriving in Bangkok, I was prepared for mayhem.
The reality was quite different than the media broadcasts.
Thai citizens were unfathomed by the military presence. In fact, they were bringing water and ice cream to troops in the streets.
The Bangkok Post and other papers reported the coup more in terms of a protest by the military. No violence was anticipated...and every Thai citizen seemed aware of this.
However, the international news and the US government had a completely different reaction. In fact, days later, the US imposed sanctions on Thailand. SANCTIONS! We have imposed sanctions against North Korea and Iraq...but Thailand? I was stunned.
In Thailand, what takes precedence over any elected or appointed government official is loyalty to the King.
Note: In the photo above, soldiers have garlands of yellow flowers draped over the nose of the tanks. Citizens, who have come to take photos, also wear yellow shirts. Yellow is the symbol of loyalty to the king. As long as the King was not being threatened, there was no great concern.
In fact, according to an article written by the BBC, the present King of Thailand has held his reign through 17 military coups, 20 different prime ministers, and 15 constitutions.
It had been my dream to dive in the Andaman Sea. Although I didn't have much hope, I knew whale sharks could be found in these waters. Noted by their white spots, an average adult whale shark is the size of a school bus! Technically, whale sharks are filter feeders and don't pose a threat to divers.
Once arriving on Ko Phi Phi, I headed for a dive shop. The reefs near the island were damaged in the tsunami, but very close by, there was still some excellent diving. I booked a trip for the following day.
Just a short 30 minute ride and we arrived at our first dive location. My dive buddy was an Italian guy who spoke limited English, but had logged over 200 dives. The signals in diving are universal, so we had no problem understanding each other. Our dive master was a guy from Texas, who was supposed to go back home 3 months ago....ah, the island life!
Both these divers were excellent and the Italian guy had a really great eye. He was the first to spot a turtle...and a reef shark. While I never did see a whale shark, we spotted white-eyed moray eels, angel fish the size of dinner plates, a lion fish, and tons of other tropical fish. The diving was easy...and shallow enough to reveal the vivid tropical colors.
Surfacing along the face of limestone rock spires was incredible. While we waited for the boat to pick us up, we bobbed on the surface of the water and studied the rock walls. Birds' nests and trees were anchored precariously along the rock face. Occasionally we'd spy a cave or see remnants of waterfalls now turned dry.
Once on the island, waiting locals rushed to sell rooms. Laminated photos faded from the sun advertised limited choices. Naturally, they lobbied hard to sell the most expensive rooms first. After those were sold, they conceded and finally spoke to me about more humble offerings.
In the frenzy to snag a room, I agreed to stay at a place within a "7 minute walk to the beach" and a "10 minute walk to town". They shuttled me off to a motorcycle with my pack and I in a side car. We carefully navigated through the rough path. Most of the roads were under construction and the rest were still barely serviceable after the tsunami's destruction. No doubt it was one of the scariest rides of my life!
We somehow manage to arrive at the guest house alive and without damage. The driver immediately whisked my big backpack to my room while I checked in on the red mud street (like Georgia clay). Check in was a table on the side of the road. I kept thinking...the pictures looked nice.....
I entered my room. I had my own private toilet and shower, which was an improvement over the place I stayed in Chiang Mai. I spied my bag in the corner...check...it made it. Then I took in a deep breath and collapsed on the bed. What's that smell? I breathed in again, deeply. Stale and humid...it was the smell of mildew. I scanned the walls for any evidence of mold. Nothing. But the air was thick in the humidity and I couldn't get past the smell. It's then that I noticed an air freshener that long ago used up its life...and it was tied to the fan. My room had obviously been flooded in the tsunami.
While I waited for friends to meet me, I scoped out the local travel booking shops. They offered tours around the island, scuba diving, and rock climbing. Each shop had similar packages, but were slightly different (same same, but different!) I checked out a couple places in the amount of time it took my friends to go through the same hair-raising ride from the dock.
One shop I visited even books rooms. I took a look around. The buildings were wooden, newly constructed, and had beautifully landscaped grounds. I asked to see a room. It was positively stunning. Seriously. Straight out of Architectural Digest. Carved wood headboards, battique sheets and pillows, double bed. The bathroom was utterly beautiful with a skylight, French doors leading to the bedroom, tropical plants and orchids everywhere...in the BATHROOM!
The stench in my room haunted my memory.
My room was already paid for two nights, but I inquired anyway, "How much?"
Only 50 baht more than I paid!!! (36 baht = $1).
I asked if they had a vacancy two days from now. He had no idea. First preference went to guests already staying...and none of them appeared to be leaving soon.
I headed back to my room and stewed about what to do. Finally, I decided, to hell with it! I walked over, and booked that beautiful room for the next four nights.
Motioning behind me, the booking agent says says, "But you've already paid for a room over there."
"I don't care. I'm not staying."
He looked perplexed.
"Maybe you can get your money back."
The truth is, I wasn't really worried about it.
Just at that moment, two girls came up and inquired about a room. They obviously walked in the heat and the humidity from the boat. The guy tells him he is now fully booked. They were travel weary and frustrated.
I handed them the key to my old room, "Here you go...this one is paid for the next 2 nights. Enjoy!"
They couldn't believe their luck! "Seriously????"
"Yep, I just need to get my bag out of there."
"Oh...you're an ANGEL!"
It turns out they were traveling for a year and on a very meager budget. "We'll buy you a drink at the pub!"
No worries. I figured it was good backpacker karma.
They entered the room and said, "This is fine. We've stayed in worse."
I have too, but now I'm older and I've got a choice in the matter. I was not staying there....especially when contrasted with the room I got!
After the first day, I got a bad sunburn. Thankfully, staying out of the sun suddenly had an added appeal!
Phi Phi island is located in the Andaman Sea, off the coast of Thailand. It is predominantly limestone, and features stunning spires off the coast. Three hours by boat from the mainland town of Phuket, for years, Phi Phi was an "insider's" paradise. As I understand it, five years ago, there were less than 10 tourist shops, no paved roads, and small huts on the beach.
Ko Phi Phi was severely damaged by the tsunami on December 26th, 2004. I went to the island to see not only the legendary beauty of the limestone spires, but also to see the progress made after the devastating tsunami. This photo shows the shape of the island. The water from the tsunami intensified as it was forced through the horseshoe bay. The isthmus connecting the two bays is only 3 meters above sea level, and this area is also where the heaviest concentration of tourists is located.
Today the island is on the radar for backpackers and the well-heeled alike. 21 months after the tsunami, there is still a significant amount of construction. While I was there, investment for large scale projects ensured construction was continuous...7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
Being on an island has also impacted the recovery effort. Every brick, bag of cement, nail, and qualified employee has to be brought over by boat. All the remnants of the tsunami's destruction that could not be burned, also has to leave by boat. Construction materials and wages are 3-5 times higher than on the mainland. Piles of old mattresses, broken cinder blocks, shards of corrugated metal, and mountains of sandbags all claim ground wherever there is not a current construction project.
On the way to the beach...
Since the tsunami, not only is tourist lodging at a premium (thankfully I was traveling during the low season), but so is permanent housing. Buildings that were obviously still under construction were being inhabited by work crews. Walls waiting for glass shipments, donned lines of laundry drying in the sun.
I'd like to say I had a normal "beachy" time on Ko Phi Phi, but the remnants of the tsunami were still very much an impact and consequently never far from my mind...
Kaffir Lime Leaf
Like the Kaffir Lime leaf, except this has a lemon essence. Recognized by the double segmented leaf, but the thorns and the 1st leaf segment are shorter.
Galangal (The tall plant with the broad leaves)
The root is used in Thai cooking. It's a strong flavor similiar to ginger.
Fresh red chili known as a "big red" or "finger" chili (mild in flavor)
Kaffir lime leaf
Pea eggplant (these have a thick skin and are bitter)
Green Grapes (the dish I prepared had them in the curry)
Fresh green peppercorns
Dry components for Thai red curry paste
Fresh Ingredients for Thai red curry paste
Small Fresh Green Chili, refered to in my class as "rat dropping chili"
No introduction to Thailand would be complete without a mention about THE BUCKETS. When the sun begins to set, if you are anywhere near a beach these buckets will be prominently featured at restaurants, bars, and anywhere selling cold drinks.
For a mere $5, you get a hip flask of Thai whisky, a can of Coca-cola, a Red Bull energy drink...and a straw. If you're lucky, you may even get some ice.
Pour the entire contents into the bucket...and drink.
Word of warning...while the buckets may be cheap, they're pretty much a guaranteed hangover. Many days have been spent on the beach...recovering from THE BUCKETS.
Branding gone too far? Starbucks logo on a moon cake
Packaged nori at 7-11
The Dreadlock Shop sings "The Sticky Rice Blues..."
At this restaurant you can have your laundry done, book a trek or your transportation out of town, AND enjoy the city's the SECOND best pizza
Sex sells...ramen noodles
Sex sells...energy drinks
This was labeled as a "gourmet" sandwich. White bread with crusts trimmed, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, mango?, cheese, and shredded carrot.
Continental breakfast includes mini hot dogs
Grilled "sausages". For the most part, these were filled with rice.
I have no idea what this guy is selling...but I love this picture. You can't see it very well, but he's sporting an Elvis t-shirt.
As I discussed earlier, food in Thailand is very important. There's an artisan sensibility about it. One night I splurged on a dinner at a lovely restaurant. Each dish came with a different garnish....chrysanthemums carved out of root vegetables, the most delicate leaves carved out of carrots, etc. It was so beautiful (see photo below).
One day, my cooking class kicked off with a lesson in vegetable carving. My only brag-worthy effort was a rose carved out of a plum tomato. Above, the instructor is demonstrating the method for carving a lotus blossom. It's extremely delicate work as you trim the interior around the cluster of seeds. I enjoyed this aspect of the class very much and when I learned I could schedule a private session, I booked it immediately.
My class was with Roong and she was an excellent instructor (see examples of her work here).
We started by carving a rose out of the flesh and rind of a watermelon. The knife is like an exacto knife with a long curved blade. I'd never seen anything like it and it took me a long time just to get the feel of how to use the knife properly. Adjusting the angle of the blade as you cut through the rind, I'd cut past the deep green exterior to reveal the pale rind and red flesh. First use a steep angle to make the petals thin, then point the blade differently to express the base of the petal as it gets thicker. Trim out the excess flesh to reveal the petals, being careful not to cut too far or you lop of the petal that you just cut.
Um, yeah. I did that.
"No worry," Noong assured me.
"We have Thai super glue."
She picked up the dislodged petal and put it back in its place, secured with a toothpick--which was cleverly concealed. Nice!
Concentrating on my cutting, she kept saying, "Be happy! Smile, be hap-py!" and she'd then break into a chorus of "Don't worry...be happy now."
I'm a long way from needing a kit like this, but I did send 3 knives home. I'm looking forward to playing with those....and keeping my Thai super glue handy!
(Above) Carvings from my private class: Roses made out of small, round watermelons (the watermelons in the US are larger and oblong shaped), white swans and leaves out of daikon radishes, and small swans out of plum tomatoes. Eyes are black peppercorns. Beaks are carved carrots or the tip off red chilis.
Chrysanthemum carved out of a root vegetable
Back in Seattle, I'd stare into my latte cup and think, for the same price as my coffee...I could be staying in paradise.
Traveling never really finds me flush with cash. With a meager budget, often I'll stay in cheaper accommodations so I can take advantage of other things. Guest houses and hostels are inexpensive places to stay, and there you'll find other travelers who have a wealth of information to share.
Every morning, I'd stumble down for breakfast. Inevitably, this is where networking is at its best. Where have you been? Who has the good tours? What did you see? What would you recommend? Where are you from...and where are you going?
I'd meet all kinds of travelers. Most had been on the road for months traveling South East Asia and Australia/New Zealand. Occasionally I'd meet someone who was on an around the world trip--customized tickets to circle the globe. One girl had been in South Africa, Venezuela, Australia, Thailand, then on to India before returning to London.
No doubt, most of my fellow travelers were on the trip of a lifetime.
Immersing yourself in other cultures challenges commonly held beliefs. It begins to wear away the division between "I'm right, you're wrong." At some point you just begin to accept that things are done differently. That's all.
Through multiple border crossings, busses, trains, rickshaws, overland, waiting in endless lines, heat, rain, dust, and sweat...stripped of comforts and often your dignity, you learn what to appreciate what really matters.
On the backpacker trail, there's a common bond. I find an openness and a sense of welcome that is readily shared. No matter how long you've been on the road, we've all been disoriented--bewildered by another culture or custom. Inevitably we've all had some seemingly prized possession stolen...and then were grateful it was gone. We've sacrificed and lived without...and discovered how easy it is to live without the burden of stuff. Down to the barest essentials, you find things are much more enjoyable when you have only what's necessary.
After dragging my pack from one place to another, I'd open my bag and examine each item. Do I really need this?
Now that I'm home, I'm doing the same thing. I'm living the life expected in the Western World, but the backpacker imprint has made its mark.
Each item I touch, I examine and wonder...do I really need this?
Based on great recommendations from my friends Connie and Becky, when I arrived in Chiang Mai, I immediately signed up for cooking classes. Several places in the city now teach Thai cooking, but the Chiang Mai Thai School of Cookery was the first. I was so impressed, I can't imagine how they could be improved. Trust me, I've taken a ton of cooking classes and this place was really special.
I befriended one of the cooking school instructors and happily became his pet. After every dish I prepared, Ollie would come along and say, "Taste. What does it need?"
It was no stretch for me to look befuddled and say, "I don't know. What do you think?"
"I think it needs more lime and just a touch of tamarind juice," which he would swiftly add to my dish.
Then we'd taste again.
He'd smile and in his English with a beautiful British lilt, Ollie would finally give his endorsement, "Yes. That's bettah."
- Thai cooking is FAST and mise en place is very important. Have everything cut and portioned before you begin.
- When cooking with fish sauce, try adding it last. Why? The longer it cooks, the saltier it gets.
- Cheap fish sauce is really salty and often made with snails, not fish. For good fish sauce, the darker the color, the higher the quality...and typically, less salty.
- Green Thai chilies are younger...and spicier. (Like people, young chillies have more fire!)
- Traditional Thai cooking uses 3 different kinds of basil:
Holy Basil or Purple Basil has a purple stem and leaves. It has a hot flavor and is used for stir fries. It's added at the last minute.
Lemon Basil has a light green stem and leaves. It has a lemony flavor and is used in soups, salads, and curries--especially those containing seafood. It's added at the end.
Sweet Basil has a purple stem and dark green leaves. It has an aniseed flavor and can be used in all types of dishes including curries, stir-fries and curry pastes. It is often used as a garnish. This is the most common type of basil found.
Here's one of my favorite recipes from the class:
Fried Fish with Chili and Basil
(Plaa Nin Laad Prik Bai Horapa)
from the Chiang Mai Cooking School
10 oz pan fried fish fillets (cod, haddock, plaice, halibut, or red mullet)
2 tablespoons oil
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 onion, chopped
5 medium red chilies, thinly sliced (fresh)
1 big red chili, sliced*
1 big green chili, sliced*
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock or water
3/4 cup sweet basil leaves
1/2 cup coriander, chopped
* Note: These chillies are different than commonly found in the US. For the big red chilli, substitute 1/2 medium red pepper. For the big green chili, substitute 1 small Anaheim or 1/2 medium green pepper.
Deep fry the fish fillets in very hot oil until crispy and cooked through.
To make the sauce, put the oil in a hot wok and add the garlic, onion and chilies. Fry until the garlic starts to turn brown. Then add the fish sauce, soy sauce, and chicken stock. Fry for 1 minute. Add the basil leaves and stir fry well to combine.
Turn off the heat and pour the sauce over the fish. Garnish with the coriander.
Since I'm playing a bit of catch up...this first post is from a series of e-mails I sent home from Thailand.
Hi there everyone. Just wanted to drop you a quick note and let you know I arrived safely.
I'm getting reacquainted with Thailand and loving it! I'm staying at a place called the "Smile Guest House"--teak floors and a room overlooking the pool for the grand sum of $5 a night! It's the rainy season, which means they get a short soak in the evenings so I'm hanging out at the internet cafe until the rain subsides. I didn't get into Chiang Mai until this evening, so I'm looking forward to checking out the city a bit more. As we flew in, I could see the city has lovely mountains to one side (see photo above).
Tomorrow I'm off for a day of cooking classes at the Chiang Mai School of Thai Cookery (thanks to Connie & Becky's seal of approval). Then on Monday nights, there's a Buddhist monastery that features a local monk giving a talk on some aspect of Thai Buddhism (I think I read somewhere that over 95% of Thailand is Buddhist). I'm going to try to find that place tomorrow night.
I had a nice chat with this British guy staying at my guest house. Last week he got attacked by a monkey!!! (Alison...remember that EVIL monkey we saw???) Anyway, he was lucky the beast was chained to a tree. As it is, he got bit in the face, broke his glasses and popped out both his lenses. He's like, "Do you think I should go get a tetanus shot?" Umm....yeah.
Stay tuned for more tales from the road!
With my schedule suddenly cleared, I had enough time for a quick trip out of the country. Lucky for me, I have an endless list of places researched and on my radar.
Surfing the internet...toggling between Orbitz and the Lonely Planet World Guide, I entered multiple combinations trying to figure out where to go.
India? I found a great airfare, but it took a minimum of 5 business days for a visa. If I was going to be back by the end of the month and still leave the country, I needed to go sooner than that.
Morocco? Airfare was rediculously expensive.
Indonesia? Not enough time to do it justice.
Panama? The past two years, I've spent vacations in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Enough of Central America, for now.
Europe? Not exotic enough for this trip. Besides, the exchange rate is terrible right now. I've also been before (9 countries). Europe is out.
China? This is the place I'd really like to linger. A friend of mine just returned from Chengdu and highly recommended it. Airfare, however, was astronomical.
Thailand? I've been there before, but I was really green then.
I found a respectable airfare, and no visa is required.
It also offers high cultural elements as well as great beaches. (Places with scuba diving get even higher points!)
Plus I was exhausted and I knew Thailand is fairly easy travel.
Thailand it is!
When I was a kid, people would ask the inevitable, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" The only occupation that ever came to mind was an international correspondent. I've always wanted to circle the globe, experiencing cultures as people really lived...and follow in the footprints of Earnest Hemmingway.
At heart, I'm a traveler.
My mom learned long ago to keep my address in pencil. In fact, until recent years, people told me I had more addresses than a circus performer! Thanks to a houseguest I had this summer who was on tour with Cirque du Soleil, I can attest...I wasn't that bad. But I'm sure it was close!
Truth be told, what I'd really prefer is to have no address at all. One day I want to close the door on my home, kiss the cat goodbye, and get lost on the backpacker trail for a year...or more.
I yearn for adventures in far flung destinations.
For some reason, this urge becomes especially overwhelming in September. Maybe it's the imprinting from my student days...and the looming school season ahead. For me, September represented one last chance to craft a noteworthy response when asked, "What did you do this summer?"
Looking my passport, it's obvious that September cat scratch itch has never left me.
Fast forward to last month. I was restless. I toyed with taking weekend trips to New York, San Francisco, Vancouver...or anywhere, really. Points laid out on a map before me....yet something kept holding me back. I didn't have enough time...or it wasn't exotic enough.
Then one night...I was hanging out with some friends and the bossman handed me my paycheck. As he passed it to me, I was told, "Be back by the end of the month." I thought that was strange, but didn't dwell on it. Absentmindedly, I stuck the check in my bag and never gave it another thought. The next morning I finally looked...and the figure was double what I was expecting!
Tears welled up as those words came back to me, "Be back by the end of the month...."
Three days later, I was on a journey half way around the world.
But it goes beyond that. It's not about just the food.
There's a certain ineffable quality about the places that make my short list. They're the kind of places that feel more like home than my own. I walk in the door and am often greeted with a big smile...and a hug. I have become part of their culinary "family." And if I haven't stopped by in a while...they notice.
Under their care, I am nurtured in a way that goes far beyond my belly.
Last weekend I went to check out a new Szechuan restaurant in my neighborhood. It's in an obscure area, located in a strip mall where the anchor store left years ago. Yet, as I pulled up and spied the restaurant, there was no parking anywhere close. This was a good sign...and I started to get excited.
The restaurant was completely packed and I was one of the only Caucasians in the place. Without even sampling the food, I knew I liked it already.
As I stood at the entrance, striding towards me was a waitress with a smile that outshined the glimmer from her silk blouse.
I was greeted with a loud and long "Hiiiiii! How are yew?"
Zeroing in on her face...I quickly recognized her as a favorite waitress from another restaurant!
She opened her arms wide and gave me the biggest hug.
"I've been waiting for yew!"
My mind was fuzzy. Am I missing something in the translation?
As it turned out, no, I didn't miss anything.
She had switched restaurant allegiances months ago. Somehow she knew our paths would cross again, eventually. I hadn't seen her in 6 months and surely she had seen hundreds of people come and go. I was pleased to be remembered.
I had stopped to get a simple take out order and scanned the menu for a brief moment before she said, "You want crispy garlic chicken? Here we call it ...."
I was stunned she actually recalled my favorite dish!
"No, I'm thinking I'll try something different."
Pointing to a line on my menu, she said, "We have your dan dan noodles here."
I was amazed. And touched.
My eye landed on moo shu pork and I placed my order. Laughing, she recalled how I tried to get the other restaurant to add it to their menu! (It's true.)
While I waited for my order, she introduced me to the entire staff--including the kitchen crew! I was honored to be receiving such gold star treatment.
As I turned to leave, I fell into her arms for another hug...and it was more welcome than anything in my carry out bag.
In business lingo, they call that a value added experience. Call it what you will....for me, there's nothing better than being cared for...and cared about.
While it may be a simple dinner, in the end, it's much more than that.
Value added, indeed!
Another chapter for my Year of the Pig....
Although we had a "name the pig contest", they remained with the nickname "the twins"
Rotating the pigs...Ethan (left) and Rocky (right).
A perfect way to end a most memorable summer.
Unlike my friend Della, I've never really considered myself a raving Team Pork fan, but this past year has had an undeniable reoccuring theme. I've affectionately called it my "Year of the Pig."
It started this spring when by sheer dumb luck, I attended a lecture by Fergus Henderson. If you don't know Fergus, he's the author of "Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating." He is also the mastermind behind England's highly acclaimed St. John restaurant where...you guessed it, the menu is completely nose to tail! The lecture included a slide show featuring the butchering of a pig...in full detail. It was one of those moments where a picture truly was worth more than 1,000 words. Shocked and a bit appalled, I chided my friend for bringing me.
In a crazy twist of fate...that the lecture proved to be invaluable.
It also primed me for a set of other pig-centric experiences.
A few weeks later, I took a charcuterie class. It sounded interesting and I knew virtually nothing about the subject. I had no idea what I was in for. The class was my first encounter with hog casings and fatback. Luckily the casings were already soaked and prepped by the time I got to them. Since this was my virgin experience, I don't know if I could have handled cleaning them myself. I was already taken back by the entire sausage-making process. Learning works in stages and early on in the class, I'd hit my limit. I volunteered to make the only chicken sausage on the agenda. I'll also confess...I shamelessly found a different project to work on when it came time to stuff the sausages!
But the sausage was good....really good.
In fact, it was the best I'd ever had!
I was intrigued.
When friends gathered for a sausage making party, I hesitated, and finally agreed to go. Still unsure of myself, I stayed out of the pre-party planning and discussions. It was obvious everyone else was really excited...and enthusiastically read up on the subject both online and by reading Michael Ruhlman's "Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Curing, and Smoking." I, on the other hand, barely got my act together enough to be a worthwhile participant. I had my recipe, ingredients (sans casings), and waning confidence.
The group of us descended on the house. The room quickly filled with talk of sausage and smoking meat. I was content to be a fly on the wall, listening and learning. Although I had purchased the ingredients, I was secretly hoping to make myself useful and avoid making my own sausage. At just the right moment, a few nurturing soles took me under their wings and guided me through the process. Finally, lying in a spiral before me, were sausages I'd actually made myself! I vaguely remember someone even calling my sausages "beautiful."
For this foray, I revisited the chicken sausage recipe I'd enjoyed so much. Made by my own hand, I'm happy to report...they were just as good as I remembered!
Back at the restaurant, the chef teased me, "What if Jason (chef de cuisine) wants to put your sausage on the menu?"
To me, the idea was preposterous. I retorted, "Then I think he's got a problem!"
But the wheels started turning..."what if..."
I bought the "Charcuterie" book and it was exceptionally well written. I could actually see myself making sausage on my own.
After a couple attempts under my belt, my confidence was growing.
Next was the Porcella sausage making class. By this time, I was confident and it was fun to get a refresher. The best part about the class was meeting Porcella's charcuterie guy, Noah. As I mentioned earlier, I made it a point to work with him. Hence, the HEAD CHEESE.
Rounding out my "Year of the Pig" was a pig roast over Labor Day weekend. Two whole 75 pound pigs, who we affectionately dubbed "the twins," slowly roasted over charcoal for 9 hours. (See my next post for photos and details.)
So what's next for my "Year of the Pig"? At this point, that's anybody's guess. More sausage, for sure!
While the quantity of this recipe makes a lot, I recommend making the whole batch. The sausages freeze very well. If you want to skip the hog casings, you can easily form the sausage into patties instead.
Green Chile Chicken Sausage
From Culinary Communion
makes 11 ½ pounds
7# boneless chicken thighs, cubed
3 # fat back, cubed
6 T chili powder
5 tsp cumin
5 tsp sweet Spanish paprika
5 tsp oregano
5 tsp dried basil
1 ½ tsp onion powder
6 garlic cloves, minced
5 tsp Tabasco sauce
3 ½ oz salt
3 jalapenos, seeded and minced
12 oz poblano chiles, roasted, seeded, peeled and cut into ⅛” dice
12 oz ice-cold water
21 ft hog casings, rinsed
Process: Toss the chicken and the fat back with the combined seasonings. Chill well. Grind through the fine plate (⅛”) of a meat grinder into a mixing bowl over an ice bath.
Combine: Mix on low speed for 1 minute, gradually adding poblano chiles, jalapenos, and ice water. Mix on medium speed for 15-20 seconds, or until the sausage mixture is sticky to the touch.
Test: Panfry a test patty. Adjust seasoning and consistency before filling the prepared casings and shaping into 4” links.
The sausage is ready to prepare for service now by pan frying, baking, grilling, or broiling to an internal temperature of 150°F, or hold under refrigeration for up to 7 days.
I'd like to thank all of you who encouraged me to start this blog--including those of you I can't call out publicly (you know who you are!)
Since I started The Blog, everything I see, touch, eat, or experience is considered for fodder. And now, I constantly have a running commentary going through my head! I'm positively obsessed.
Of course, I have also added a camera to the list of things I never leave home without.
Oh yeah, The Blog.
Somehow, I never manage to eat anything anymore...without first taking a picture of it. My dining companions wait patiently while I snap photos of our food. Again. And again.
"Oh, that one had the flash on. Let me try it again."
"I just can't get this detail in focus...wait...wait...wait...."
"Okay, just one more..."
And it starts all over again when the next course comes out!
Then last night, I saw a good friend of mine who just moved back to Seattle. I took 20 (or more) photos at dinner, and exactly NONE of them included her!
What is wrong with me???
Oh, wait. I know.
How's this for food porn?
Seared Ahi Tuna on Avocado Puree with Heart of Palm and Parsley Salad
Fried Quail with Fingerling Potato Salad, Pancetta, and Chives
And this beauty was from the dessert menu...
Strawberry Sorbet with Lemon Marscapone and Toasted Pine Nuts