Sunday, September 30, 2012

phở goodness sake

I am starting to understand how some Italians feel about lasagne. It is wonderful that the rest of the world loves their food so much and it may be acceptable when other cultures tweak the dish to suit local tastes...within reason. There is a point when you are pouring that block of melted Velveeta over crumbled breakfast sausages that you may have lost the right to call it lasagne.

I feel this way about phở. It is gratifying that the rest of the world has gotten caught up in Vietnamese cuisine and especially in this soup to the point that they have coined the term "pho-natic" to describe aficionados. Phở differs from region to region in Vietnam as well as varies from beef based to chicken based so I don't see a problem in a chef in Russia wants to add some local herbs to their version of the soup. However, there is a point where you have taken it too far.

People who have taken phở to places it should never go seem to misunderstand the basics of what makes it phở as opposed to, say, beef noodle soup with an "Asian" twist. As with various Chinese cuisines, Vietnamese cuisine follows the five flavor principles of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy, along with yin and yang.  Vietnamese cuisine often incorporates fresh and distinct layers of flavor.  Phở is a showcase of this with all of its different textures and subtle flavors.

First, your foundation is the broth.  There should be a lot of it; a proper bowl of phở should contain enough broth to keep the noodles hot for the duration of your meal.  The broth will take the most effort because the high quality stock bones must be cleaned and blanched once to remove any impurities before being simmered gently to yield a clear broth.  Charred ginger and onions round off the base, along with spices per personal taste (fish sauce, star anise, cloves, etc.).

Next, you want the neutral and chewy textured banh pho noodles or rice sticks.  Traditionally, the 1/16-inch-wide variety is used.  Your third layer will consist of thinly sliced raw sirloin that will cook in the broth, along with any other textured meats that you prefer such as beef balls, tendon bits or tripe.  The fourth layer is the garnish layer of thinly sliced onions, scallions and/or cilantro.

Serve the bowl of phở along with a platter of bean sprouts, Vietnamese herbs, chilies and limes.  These items will be added as the diner eats, creating the last and freshest, crispest layer.  Unlike with Western cooking, the spices should make a layer to the dish, and not just a few lousy strips of chiffonade.

Southern Vietnamese phở-natics like to add fish sauce, hoison sauce, or other savory flavors to their finished product but my family hails from the more unbending North and you will not find me adding anything more than a squeeze of lime and perhaps a sprinkling of chili.  If I were ever to raise a bottle of hoison sauce to my phở then something must have gone terribly wrong.  I want to taste the unadulterated deliciousness of the painstakingly created broth.

 I have seen phở recipes that have included Italian pasta, bouillon cubes, ketchup or sweet and sour sauce mix.  I say blech but if that's what tastes good to you then bon appetit.  But I draw the line when you dump all of your fixings into a pot and cook it into a single taste.  That isn't phở; it's faux and it's foul.

Amen, end of rant.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Recipe: Almond Cornmeal Biscotti

I was looking for something to pair with the New Orleans style chicory coffee that I received when I came across David Lebovitz's cornmeal biscotti recipe.  What could be more Southern than cornbread flavors?  I made a batch for our weekend brunch and enjoyed the crunchiness of the stone ground cornmeal but couldn't taste the almond extract or the lemon.  I decided to tweak the recipe by adding ground almond, forgetting about the lemon, and then attempted it in my toaster oven. So to the readers who previously complained that the Chinese style kitchens in Hong Kong apartments do not provide proper ovens (or room to install ovens), this recipe is for you!

You can make this recipe in one go but after reading a New York TImes interview with Shirley O. Corriher, the author of “CookWise,” who advocates long resting times for dough so that gelatinous and slow absorbing eggs can fully incorporate with the butter and flour, I decided to mix up the dough the night before and then bake the biscotti fresh in the morning.  The results were given a hearty thumbs up by SB.

Almond Cornmeal Biscotti (the original recipe claims 60 biscotti but I only managed 30):

Adapted from David Lebovitz who adapted from Anita Chu's Field Guide to Cookies 

1 1/2 cups (210g) flour
1/2 cup (70g) cornmeal, preferably stone-ground (you can buy Bob's Red Mill and City Super)
1/2 cup (70g) ground almonds
1 cup (200g) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 medium eggs
4 tablespoons (55g) melted butter (if you use salted butter you may omit the 1/4 teaspoon of salt)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (175ºC.) Line your toaster oven pan with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, almonds, sugar, baking soda, and salt.

Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and then make a well in the dry ingredients to add the eggs.  Stir to incorporate as well as you can. Add the butter, then stir to a uniform consistency.  Refrigerate overnight or continue to the next step if you are baking in one go.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times until smooth. Divide the dough in two and roll each portion to almost the length of the baking pan (mine was about 28cm).  Place the logs on the baking sheet, leaving at least 5cm of space between the two logs for the dough to spread while baking.  Pat down the logs slightly so that when you cut them, the cross sections won't be too tall.

Bake the logs for 20 minutes, or until they feel set. Remove them from the oven and let cool for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat of the oven to 230ºF (110ºC.)

Using a sharp serrated knife, slice the biscotti crosswise into individual cookies, each about 1/3-inch (1cm.) Place the biscotti on the baking sheet, cut side down, and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the biscotti from the oven and turn each one over, then continue to cook for 10 minutes more to make them dry and crisp.

Serve to your significant other and watch him gobble them up or store the completely cooled cookies in an airtight container for maximum two weeks.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

save your kisses for me

Last night before retiring to bed I noticed that the bathroom fixtures were accumulating some mineral build-up and set about scrubbing them with a recycled toothbrush.  Then I was distracted by a football game.  When I returned to the bathroom half an hour later the toothbrush was nowhere to be seen.  After looking around for a bit I noticed that there was one additional member of the toothbrush holder.

I asked SB to verify that his toothbrush was blue while the cleaning brush was green but he didn't remember which one was his.  Then I realized the great likelihood of him having just brushed his teeth with my cleaning brush before replacing it in the holder.  The look of horror on my face must have clued him in because all of our toothbrushes were violently expelled into the trash.  Then he stormed off into the bedroom while I wrung my hands.  Eventually he came back and we replaced our toothbrushes.  Then he took out a knife.  Oh, now I know that brushing your teeth with a cleaning brush is kinda terrible but shanking me seems kind of like overkill.  Luckily he was not interested in carving me up though he did proceed to mutilate his new toothbrush so that he would be able to identify it.  He may have been trying to carve his initials but a craftsman he is not.

Later that night I generously informed him that although I would prefer to wait a week before kissing him, I would do so then because I loved him so much.  "Thanks," he replied.  Then as I was leaning in with the smallest pucker I could manage he grabbed my face and licked me from my chin to my nose.  This led to a fight to the death, or at least until I was gasping for air from laughing too much while struggling in his octopus-like grasp.

He is so lucky to have me.  I tell him so all the time.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cornell goes Gangnam style

photo by Mandy Guo

My experiences with the Korean architecture students at Cornell was that they were a force to be reckoned with.  The younger students would appear like clockwork right before dinner because according to culture, my older, male classmates would be the ones to pay for the meals.  This was not such a bad deal for my two Korean classmates because come finals, the younger Korean students moved into our studio and became a model making factory for them.  These undergrads had an uncanny ability to mobilize once the call was made.

With the recent craze over the K-pop single, "Gangnam Style" by PSY and his gleefully silly dance moves you knew that it was only a matter of time before others would be posting their Gangnam Style dancing debuts (the performance by the US Naval Academy midshipmen in their dress whites is notable). A few weeks ago, a Cornell dance troupe, BreakFree Hip Hop Crew, created a flash mob in Ho Plaza on campus and posted the video online.  It always makes me smile to see McGraw tower and the Arts Quad.  Ah, the memories...

Here is the original video by PSY:

And here is the Cornell flash mob:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I like it when

I like it when I walk home from rugby training and people actually make room for me on the sidewalk.  When I am on my way to training (and clean) I still have to dodge and weave around other people who appear to be oblivious to my presence, walking in the middle of the sidewalk toward me without a care in the world.  But when I am sweaty and slightly muddy I suddenly warrant a care.  Goodbye obliviousness.  People step aside to share the path.  Couples part like the Red Sea.  Congestion clears.  Birds sing.

I need to always carry a bottle of water so that I can spritz a nice sheen onto myself when I need to get somewhere in a hurry.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


A friend recently attended dinner with several other friends at a new restaurant where the meal went from bad to weird.  Upon being presented with a particularly strange food combination he joked that the dish was some sort of health potion that would improve sperm count.  Another man at the table took exception to the comment (he and his wife had apparently been trying for a second baby for three years) and my friend apologized for the perceived insensitive remark to this man's personal issues.  24 hour later, the offended party still was steaming over the remark and send my friend a series of texts that ranged from enraged to sarcastic and insulting.  My friend apologized again though I told him that I felt his friend was insane.

I understand that for some people, having a "natural," biological child is greatly important.  I understand that to these people, the inability to produce that child leads to great strain.  I try to feel empathy but frankly, as someone whose life does not revolve around the need to see my progeny populating the earth, I am lacking and I know it.  During a conversation with a colleague who was discussing her aversion to pregnancy I suggested adoption and she responded with concern that she wouldn't love the child as much as her own [biological child].  She looked at me with surprise that I didn't understand while I looked at her in similar disbelief.

I was friends with a woman who had been unsuccessfully attempting IVF for several years.  Our group of mutual friends spent years supporting her and commiserating over her trials and failures.  The friendship eventually broke up after another friend became pregnant and we all received a ranting email over how the pregnant woman was rubbing the woman's face in her pregnancy by having the indecency to invite us all to her baby shower.  I heard through mutual friends that IVF woman and her husband are experiencing financial troubles but are continuing their (expensive) quest to have a biological child.  Yes, by her actions I understand that infertility is a dominating issue in her life but no, I don't get it.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

getting what you asked for

While visiting my parents in Tucson, and being trapped indoors for most of the day by the oppressive heat, I helped them complete a few projects including sorting through old photographs.  Some of the older photographs were in sad condition due to being stored in acidic paper albums so I was only too happy to remove them and scan them into digital files.

Some of the photographs can't be improved easily, though a digital media graphics expert could probably fill this one in:

early 80's.  I'm the smallest person.  Yes, I know that I looked like a boy.
Yes, I also am aware that my shirt reads, "fondle with care."
But a few more years of weathering will erase that fact.

Other photographs I was able to scan and then edit in Photoshop until they were close to their original condition.  I am a huge fan of Adobe products.  Here's a photo of my father with his sister and their family pets:

circa 1946 in Whitesboro, New York.  I love how "Americana" this photo is.
But perhaps any rural photo looks that way to someone who grew up as an expat.

For my last batch of scans, I chose an album of high school photos.  One of my favorite photos is this one, which was taken during my sophomore year.  It was my first time wearing the white varsity top instead of the orange junior varsity top:  

I posted the photo on Facebook and several of my high school classmates responded with their own favorite photos.  I had a good chuckle at my friend Shannon's photo because I knew the background story.  Shannon used to work in the food service section of an independent theater.  It was a seemingly ideal job for a high school actor and drama club member, except that it wasn't.  The manager of the Cinema Grill might have benefited from reading up on workplace sexual harassment.  One of his less odious moves was to dictate that the female members of staff were required to wear lipstick.  Shannon eventually decided to comply.  Enthusiastically.

Technically, her manager did get what he asked for.

Thank you Shannon for reminding me that sometimes rather than protesting unfairness I need to think of more creative solutions.  I should keep a copy of this in my wallet for inspiration.

Friday, September 7, 2012

true wuv, maybe

My sister, who resides in San Francisco, sent me this excerpt from the San Francisco Craigslist's "Missed Connections" section:

You may of been my true-love-prince! - w4m - 24 (marina / cow hollow)

Date: 2012-09-05, 12:52AM PDT

I, was wearing purple polka-dotted crotchless panties, yellow fuzzy tap dancing shoes and rainbow knee-high socks with swirly peace signs. On my tits, I had disco pasties. I have sicc multi-colored dreads.

You, had a green goatee, and no pants. A cow patterned blazer, No shirt. Sicc tatts.

I saw you hula'n on the multi-colored flying dragon art-car as I was riding my TIGHT cruzer thru da sicc playa dust.

We made eye-contact and never saw each again! Hope the universe brings us together. Namaste.

P.s. my name is Raven.

p.p.s we saw each other at burning man. 

p.p.p.s  Raven, pointing out that this happened at Burning Man might be stating the obvious.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

photo finished

I don't always look my best in photographs, especially posed ones.  By the time the shutter is released my smile has become strained, the sunlight is burning a hole in my cornea and that happy, relaxed look is starting to reveal cracks.  Group photos all but guarantee that someone is going to be caught grimacing or squinting.  This is why I was amazed that everyone in the group shot of a recent wedding looked great.  Too bad the couple in the third row on the right ruined the picture.

The picture ruiners were the bride's cousin and his date.  Cousin Bob was just thrilled that he had managed to snag such a hot date to the affair.  Come picture time, he must not have wanted anyone to confuse who his date had arrived with because he was pressed up so close to the back of her that the pressure gradient might have created a suction.  And just to make sure, he also had his arms around her in mimicry of an octopus mating ritual.  One can only hope that this ends for him as well as it does for male octopuses (hint: the woman gets to keep something that a human female only gets to keep metaphorically).

His date, who was the only wedding attendee close to rivaling his level of smugness, left her mark on the group wedding photo by pouting sexily with shoulders back and bosom thrust out.  I'm sure that Cousin Bob is going to be thrilled when he receives his copy of the photograph, at least for the net few weeks until his date discovers that his bank account isn't as big as she thought and dumps him for a banker.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Frenchman went into a restaurant

My friend, let's call him Frenchie, went to have a roast at a popular "Western" restaurant. When his meal arrived he inquired if the server had any French mustard. The server proudly returned with a plastic squeeze bottle of French's mustard.  Needless to say, he did not use mustard with his meal.