Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Paradise Found

Captain Lito! Former pirate, gunrunner, cigarette smuggler, dynamite fisherman, Manila airport electrician—and now, captain of the Aurora II of Tao Expeditions! Oh yes, El Capitan Lito led us safely through the ethereal islands of Palawan, Philippines on a five day magical journey that started in Coron, famous for its wreck dives, and ended in El Nido, the source of inspiration for the author of “The Beach.”

Even if I dreamt up paradise, I’m not sure it would compare to this trip. There were twelve of us passengers aboard (an assortment of Americans, Brits, Aussies and Nordic folk), five crew, Captain Lito, our trip leader ZaZa, and a seadog named Tiger (aptly named for her grey-brown stripes). ZaZa began the trip with an orientation in which she told us to chill out, relax, and not ask her what time it was or what we would be doing for the rest of the day. The philosophy of Tao trips is pretty existential—live in the moment, appreciate the beauty in the water and on the horizon, and stop worrying about what comes next. We were also told that if we were not already nice friendly people, now was the time to become so. We’d be sharing close quarters.

After her gruff but oddly appealing welcome, and once we had purchased our alcohol supplies (beer and local Tanduay rum) plus mixers (mango juice and the tiny, sweet-tart local limes called ‘calamasci’ limes), we boarded ship. At the back of the boat was the kitchen that would be providing us with delectable food for the next five days, and in between this area and the bow were the captain’s area in the middle (we steered clear) and shaded benches for lounging up front. Up top were two lounge chairs with ample space for two and a flat deck for sunbathing (or in this blazing sun, preparing for lobster metamorphosis). Fresh water, iced tea and cushions were always provided, but other than that, the crew pretty much left us to our own devices to laze about, read and gaze at the endless views as they navigated the seas for us and got busy in the kitchen.

The next five days were truly, without exaggeration, mind-blowing. From our first snorkel—a wreck teaming with brightly-colored schools of fish, alien-looking coral reef and bathtub-warm water—to our first meal—fresh ahi steaks (caught by Jimmy, one of the deck hands), green papaya and coconut meat slaw, sticky rice and fresh mango—to our first base camp—a picture-perfect island ringed by a white sand beach dotted with palm trees drooping their wings into the sea—it felt like paradise. Our first night the crew converted the wooden dining tables into ‘beds’ by covering them with mattresses, sheets and pillows and stringing up mosquito nets. Very simple, but effective. After bucket showers, pineapple rum sundowners and a delicious feast, we fell asleep to the sounds of waves lapping at the shore (and our companions enjoying more fruity rum), and woke up to sunrise, and a breakfast of banana blossom fritters, fried eggs and fresh fruit. The crew kayaked us back to the boat and our adventure continued.

I could write endlessly about the gorgeous views—a seemingly never-ending supply of islands fit for a Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe style ‘marooned on a tropical island’ type scenario—as well as the magical snorkeling and the fresh, scrumptious cooking, but the photos speak for themselves. Throughout the course of those five days, we braved a torrential downpour to help ZaZa transport building supplies to a remote village that Tao is helping to build a day care center; we hiked to a waterfall and freshwater plunge pool; we tasted a variety of wonderful local fish (my favorite was called ‘sweetlips’, aptly named for its lipstick-pucker lips) and tropical fruits (jackfruit curry was exceptional); we snorkeled until I turned into a human prune; we visited a coconut farm and drank fresh coconut water with a straw stuck in it; we slept in huts and felt raindrops dripping through the banana-leaf thatched roof; we kayaked through a azure blue lagoon ringed by cathedral-like soaring cliff walls that commanded a respectful silence; and we spent our last night on an island near El Nido that made the photos I’ve seen of Halong Bay, Vietnam pale in comparison. This island was so stunning it almost made my eyes hurt—a tan sandy beach that jutted up to dark craggy rock, which rose dramatically to mountainous heights, the tops of which were carpeted with a forest of lush, verdant trees, vines and mossy undergrowth. Along these cliff faces, birds nested, and we were told that local village men risked their lives to harvest these nests for the Chinese market and Asian diners’ palate for birds’ nest soup. To me, it looked fantastical and wild enough to be straight out of the jungley landscape described so vividly in “The Life of Pi.”

That last night we were treated to massages on the beach by local village ladies, the aforementioned jackfruit curry (tender and almost like artichoke meat but better), and stories of shipwreck survivals and fishing adventures by Captain Lito. When we left the boat the next day and said our goodbyes, I felt that pang of sadness and sense of loss you feel when something truly great—something so unique and special—has ended. I hope we go back on Tao Expedition again someday, but I’m not sure another trip will ever capture the sense of mutual wonder and awe that we felt as we glided through paradise for five extraordinary days.

Seven Hours in Seoul

You know the travel piece the NY Times does, called “48 Hours in City XXXX”? Well, during our layover in South Korea on our way to the Philippines, Drew and I lived it up for “Seven Hours in Seoul.” Our flight from Narita, Japan landed at 10pm; our next flight departed at 9am. Normal people might use this short window of time to get an airport hotel, rest up, and take a shower—but not us. We dropped our bags at a nearby motel and hopped on a futuristic-looking above-ground rail headed towards downtown Seoul. A brief scan of travel articles before landing had convinced us to head towards the Hongdae district, where one of Seoul’s main universities is located. We figured that we could count on college students to provide us with a quick dose of late-night eating, drinking and local color. Hongdae did not let us down, and after walking down a very stinky smelling main thoroughfare, we soon found ourselves amidst bright lights, rows of food stands selling everything from meat skewers to fried dough and egg balls, and hordes of people. As we wandered around, looking for a place to sample various Korean delicacies, I noticed lots of funny (both funny haha and funny weird) things. A truck selling oversized stuffed animals. A stand where a man with a sad-looking enormous furry dog sitting on the asphalt let you take pictures—for a price. Heaps of garbage piled up. (Drew took a picture of me next to that for free.) Korean street buskers crooning American-style ballads. More hanging ventilators than I have ever seen (these were attached to do-it-yourself hissing barbeque grills at the dozens of Korean BBQ cafes we walked past). Drunk people crumpled on the side of the street (ok this part not so unusual for any college district). There were lots of little restaurants and cafes to choose from, and we picked one on the second floor of a building with hanging lights and a fun atmosphere. The menu was in Korean, but there were pictures, so we basically pointed at things that looked tasty (or remotely recognizable) and waited for some kind of edible treats to arrive. First came a bottle of the local rice wine, a milky-colored slightly sweet beverage not entirely dissimilar from sake. It was decanted, poured into a ceramic vase of sorts, and then left for us to fill our little porcelain cups—repeatedly. The first dish arrived, and while I don’t remember its Korean name, it was basically a rolled up Asian-flavored omelet. It was delicious—soft eggy egg, peppered with green onions, garlic and other spices as well as a small amount of cheese, and then topped with fish roe and aioli. We were given a small dish of pickled black beans (tangy and delicious) and some spicy peppers that Drew advised me to stay away from. We gobbled up the omelet, and then dug into our savory ‘pancake’—full of umami flavor and packed with some kind of greens resembling chard. By that point we were too full and tired to sample Korean BBQ at the place next door (our initial plan)—an outcome that I think Drew may regret (though not as much as the debacle our last day in Tokyo that I have termed The Great Sushi Disaster, the topic of another entry). I felt okay about it, especially since my apartment basically sits on top of Oakland’s Koreatown (yeah yeah, not the same but whatever, delicious grilled meat is delicious grilled meat). We headed back to our motel, caught about three hours of sleep before rousing ourselves to perhaps the most painful alarm wake-up call of my life. We did get our seven hours in Seoul though, and who knows when we’ll be back—so I think it was well worth it. If you’re going: Where to stay: In Incheon, the Sky Hotel is very clean, has nice big shower, an unfortunately hard bed, and is a great value ($25-30/double). There is a person at the front desk all night. Where to eat: I don’t know the name of the place we ate. But just wander around Hongdae and you’ll find a plethora of tasty spots. If I went again, I would also be sure to sample more street food as it looked amazeballs. Transport : The subway is very convenient, has signs in English, and can get you straight from Incheon to downtown Seoul. However it closes around midnight, which means if you have a late night out as we did, you have to cab it back (around $60).

Friday, March 16, 2012

news flash!

apparently my blog post last night was timely!

see article about food waste detracting from sustainable farming...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

cream of asparagus soup

Many of my friends know this, but I HATE wasting food. It makes me sick to think about all the food that gets thrown away--after parties, at catering events, stuff people forgot about in the back of their refridgerator, and of course restaurants. I'm not sure if its my time in Africa or the things I've learned in school or what, but I try my darnest to use the groceries I buy before they go moldy. In a way, it kind of becomes a game, some sort of Top Chef challenge--I've got A LOT of cream cheese and sweet potatoes that aren't going to last too much longer--what can I do with them? At the same time, asparagus arrived in my farm box for the first time this week (yay spring!), and I'm itching to make something with it. Plus, its cold and raining out--I want something comforting. What to make?? This thrown-together soup, is the result. Funny enough, it's probably one of the better soups I've made...served with crusty whole grain bread and butter, it made for a satisfying dinner on a chilly Thursday evening.


one large leek
half an extra large sweet potato (or one normal sized sweet potato)
a bunch of asparagus
sprinkle of thyme
one bay leaf
oil (high heat, olive, or whatever you fancy)
chicken stock (or veggie)
cream cheese (I used light)
fresh black pepper

Peel and chop the sweet potatoes and get them in the steamer. Meanwhile, saute the leek and garlic in oil (or butter if you prefer), adding the thyme and bay leaf. Once cooked, add the stock (I usually use about two cups but you can adjust depending on how thick you want your soup). Then add asparagus and let asparagus cook in the boiling stock until bright green (a few minutes). Add steamed sweet potatoes. Remove bay leaf. Puree using immersion blender. Once almost done pureeing, add in cream cheese and give final pulse or two. Serve hot, with freshly ground pepper and any other toppings of your choice (croutons would have been nice).

You'll note that I'm not very precise with measurements here--soup, thankfully, does not require the art of precision. Just experiment! I find on a Thursday evening, cooking is less stressful if you're not trying to measure ingredients perfectly and if you instead embrace soup-making as a Jackson Pollock style affair (just throw a bunch of stuff in there and hope for a masterpiece :) ).

Friday, February 25, 2011

the art of culinary simplicity

I have talked to several friends who felt their dining experience at Chez Panisse to be…underwhelming. While I have loved both of my two meals there immensely, I think I know why some feel a letdown. Most of us expect a high-end restaurant to mean “fancy” food—complex sauces, brightly colored emulsions, unusual flavors paired together and whatnot. At Chez Panisse, you don’t get that. You get what is actually quite simple food—dishes that are prepared in a way that seeks to bring out the essence that each ingredient naturally contains. The idea being that fresh organic produce and meat do not really need much added to them to taste flavorful and delicious. Most dishes don’t feature very many ingredients—the idea is less to sample something tasty but potentially unidentifiable, and more to experience a few high-quality in-season items in their natural form of perfection. This experience wouldn’t be necessarily if we didn’t have an agricultural industry constantly shoving pesticide-coated watery vegetables and oversized under-flavored boneless skinless chicken breasts down our throats, but the fact is, most of us have no idea how good a single carrot can taste on its own when given a chance to grow in a natural, healthy environment. They’re almost like candy! And so Chez Panisse tries to open our eyes to the wonders of what the land can produce for us if we let it, by plying us with fruits, vegetables and animals that have been seasoned and cooked just enough to bring out their inner goodness. It all reminds me a bit of the scene in the movie “The English Patient,” when Juliette Binoche feeds Ralph Fiennes (the patient) a plum from the garden and he says, between juicy bits of it dribbling down his chin, “Mmm. It’s a very plum plum.” I imagine the Chez Panisse staff say these sorts of things to each other all the time, as they decide which of the day’s freshest ingredients to incorporate into their daily set menu.

Why am I talking about Chez Panisse? No, I was not lucky enough to go there recently, but I was lucky enough to spend my birthday weekend in Hawaii (actually I think that beats out a dinner reservation at CP). On top of that, I was there with a handful of my favorite people in the world and I got to run around the island with them for a few days, sharing some of my favorite spots and discovering some new ones as well. As always, cooking dinner together featured as a main event. I had described our local fish market to my friends but I don’t think they had fully understood what I meant when I said the fish comes fresh off the boat until we arrived at the shop. Quite literally, an elderly Asian man sat pulling off his boat galoshes while his wife arranged the large tranches of fish, practically still wriggling, in the glass window display. To make a long story short, we selected ahi (to make fresh poke!) and ono to grill, and took note of the owner’s suggestion that we keep our ono preparation simple—a little olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon was all it needed.

And boy was she right. Our most culinary friend Charlie prepared the fish as recommended, and after a short spin on the grill, topped it with a mango salsa. Et voila. It makes total sense to me now why ono means “delicious” in Hawaiian—with barely any additions, it made for the most tasty and satisfying meal. I think Alice would have been proud.

onion about to be grilled

sweet potato, feta and arugula salad

Ono--fresh enough to eat as sashimi (like our ahi poke) but we chose to grill

Saturday, January 29, 2011

caramelized tofu and oh-so sweet potatoes

I've decided to skip writing about The Great Bean Flop (i.e. pan-fried broad beans and kale gone wrong), which resulted only in a burnt pan, a dry end product requiring olive oil dousing and later on a whole lot of elbow grease to clean said pan. Instead I'm moving on to a much much more successful tofu-oriented recipe: caramelized tofu, no less! It came off Heidi's blog of course and in one of the listed comments a reader wrote it was the best-tasting tofu she (or he) had ever made, which I assumed had to be a hyperbole. But I kid you not, this is the tastiest tofu recipe I've ever made, and quite frankly, I right now can't think of any tofu I've had ever that I've liked better. Quite a statement, I know! I followed the 101 Cookbooks recipe to a T, apart from adding roasted sweet potatoes to the entire concoction, and her pictures are much lovelier than mine anyways, so I'll let you access that recipe yourself and instead insert here a few musings on tofu.

I recently received an email directing me towards a website railing against the dangers of soy--its a GMO monocrop-produced highly processed food item that is BAD FOR YOU and could HARM YOUR BODY in a number of different ways, the site said. Now I wholeheartedly agree that processed foods filled with chemicals and additives are one of the biggest health concerns facing our society today, but websites like this one bother me for two reasons (well three if you count the fact that this particular one was shamelessly trying to sell me something--vitamin pills--awesome).

First, I wonder how food concerns have become so focused on the health of our bodies as consumers while the health of the environment and the health of say, farm-workers and industrial laborers, are issues that have quietly dropped off the table. Doesn't it seem kind of selfish? Like maybe most people shop at Whole Foods and care about organic or non-GMO only so much as it lets them breath a little sigh of relief that they are perhaps exposed to one or two less cancer-causing agents in their everyday life? This is a reasonable desire on the part of the average Jane, but it makes me sad to think that food safety advocacy has been in part reduced to an appeal to our self-interest, rather than a multi-faceted issue that should be causing alarm and making us think not only about our own consumer-oriented bodies but also the bodies of those who grow our food, and the animals and plants that we want to sustain us.

Second, I am suspicious of anyone who is so all-or-nothing in his/her approach to nutrition and diet--to me these approaches scream of fads and trends that will eventually prove to be unsustainable for various reasons, or just plain wrong, and that a few years down the line will likely be overturned. I still stand by my mother's philosophy that most things eaten in moderation (including chocolate and ice-cream) are okay for you. I don't plan to eat soy products for breakfast lunch and dinner, but I also don't think that an occasional tofu stir fry is going to make me infertile. Bottom line, as a student immersed in the world of scientific inquiry, I am all too familiar with the limitations of most scientific "randomized trials" and very wary of all those who cherry-pick findings and warp them to suit their championed cause. Just because a study has been peer-reviewed, doesn't mean it can't be misinterpreted and inaccurately yielded by the crazies. So I'm going to eat some tofu. and some bread. and chocolate. and I'm going to try to buy as much of it local, package-less, pesticide-free and farm-animal friendly as I can. and put it in re-usable cloth bags. and then I'm going to try to stop worrying about it all for long enough to enjoy what i'm cooking and make it tasty and pretty. and that's my soy rant for now.

Friday, January 28, 2011

More soup! Fava beans and rosemary get cozy

We're still sick. Thankfully the malaria-like fever, chills and body ache part is over; now it's more just like the worst head cold ever. Fun times. But I'm well enough to potter around the apartment and I've had enough of Amy's soup so I made some of my own. I had mushy leftover giant fava beans that I'd overcooked and were unfit for an other recipe (post on that debacle soon to follow), so I turned them into soup. The laziest soup (if it can even be called that) I've ever made because all I did was mush them a bit more, add some chicken stock 'till it was spoon-able consistency, throw in some rosemary and black pepper, and heat it all up. Drew thought the rosemary flavor was too strong, but I kinda liked it like that. Maybe because my taste buds are currently severely impaired. Either way, it gave me mild comfort to be eating soup that was not out of a $3.89 tin can.