Happy Birthday Alex

Alex There are many interesting Xangans out there and Alex (Roadlesstaken) is one of the more creative ones.  He has a lot of subscribers and has worked with them to compile an interesting series of video entries called Xanga Secrets (watch Volume VIII here).

The thing is, Alex is celebrating his birthday on March 1st.  For some reason, he sounds a bit bummed out about turning – gasp! – 24.  I can’t imagine why, seeing as how he isn’t even old enough yet to get a discount on his car insurance. 

Last week he sent out a call asking Xangans to help lift his spirits by giving him a shoutout to help him remember his birthday, seeing as how in his old age he has already forgotten how he spent birthday number 23.

So here it is, Alex, my birthday shout out to you:

Alex's Site

If you would like to help make his birthday memorable, feel free to drop by his site and wish him a happy birthday.  If you think it is a bit of a desperate ploy to grab attention, that’s okay, too.  (Just kidding Alex…)

Sunday Mediterranean Brunch

There’s a cookbook I bought years ago called San Francisco Flavors, compiled by the Junior League of San Francisco.  While I never thought I’d have much use for something that seemed so high society, over the years I’ve found a lot of useful recipes.  The recipes make good use of locally available ingredients and given the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate, many of the dishes have flavors that echo those found in the Mediterranean region.

This afternoon we had two friends over, Tammy and Roka.  Tammy is the sister of a friend I worked with during my high school days spent tearing tickets and popping popcorn at a cinema.  She’s now living here for a few years.  We’ve known Roka for a few years now and she’s recently moved back after a year in Australia.  They made for perfect company on a Sunday afternoon for brunch.

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Above, Chris, Tawn, Roka and Tammy.  I don’t think Roka and Tawn coordinated, but maybe.  I need to think more carefully about my placement in photos – I look huge!

The meal centered on two dishes from San Francisco Flavors, both of which I ended up modifying just a little.  The first one was a cauliflower dish served at room temperature.

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The ingredients are interesting because the flavor of the sauce is very savory.  A closer look:

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Clockwise: kalmata olives, capers, garlic, chili flakes and anchovy paste.  In this case, not having anchovy paste I just minced several anchovy fillets.  Add some tomatoes, parsley, rosemary, and thyme and you have your dish.

You sauté the cauliflower until just starting to brown but still crisp.  Remove from the pan and then cook the savory ingredients for several minutes until soft.  You then add the cauliflower back and cook for a few more minutes until starting to get crisp-tender.  In a small saucepan you bring a bit of balsamic vinegar, sugar and tomato paste to a boil then pour it over the cauliflower mixture.

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The whole thing is allowed to marinate overnight before serving at room temperature with some additional thyme added to it.  This turned out to be a very tasty way to serve cauliflower.

The main dish was crepes stuffed with a chicken, apple, and mushroom filling.  The original recipe called for regular crepes but I used buckwheat flour mixed with all-purpose flour, which lent the crepes a little more heft.  When making the crepes the night before (something I like about crepes is you can make them in advance) they were a little delicate.  I need to look for a better buckwheat crepe recipe, one that tears less.

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The filling takes onions and mushrooms (supposed to be shitake mushrooms but one of my guests isn’t a big fan of shitakes) and sauté.  Pull that out of the pan then cook the chicken, which has been cubed and dusted in flour to help thicken the mixture.  I deviated from the recipe a bit and marinated the chicken breasts in soy sauce and sake to give it a bit more flavor.  Then you clear the pan again and sauté the apples, finally adding everything together with some pre-cooked and crumbled pancetta.  I substituted regular smoked bacon.  Add some chicken broth and cook for a few minutes until the liquid is reduced.  I finished up with some parsley and salt and pepper to taste. 

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The filling process this morning was easy enough – a small scoop of the chicken mixture then fold like a burrito, tucking snugly into the dish.

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Nice colors, huh?  The spots are on the “second” side of the crepes whereas the lines that look like the surface of the moon are from the first side on which the crepes are cooked.  I mixed it up a bit so there would be more visual interest.

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The original recipe has no sauce on top and you just sprinkle cheese and bake.  This seemed a bit dry so I made a roasted red bell pepper cream sauce and poured that on first.  Almost any time I have the oven on I go ahead and roast some peppers.  They store  nicely in the fridge and add a wonderful flavor to many dishes.  The sauce was easy to pull together and the flavor and color brightened the overall dish.

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The finished dish turned out very nicely and with twelve crepes would have been enough to serve at least six people.  In fact, given how filling buckwheat flour is, one crepe per person would have been fine!

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With those two dishes anchoring the meal, all I needed was a nice salad to round things out.  I went for a Greek style salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, and the rest of the kalmata olives, all tossed in olive oil and basil and served on a bed of greens.

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Served with a glass of Argentine Viognier, it proved to be a very satisfying meal.  A nice accompaniment to the pleasant company!

I hope your Sunday was great, too.

Then Why the *#%! Did You Decide to Learn It?

Thursday afternoon I was chatting with Khruu Kitiya (“Khruu” = “Teacher”), my Thai tutor, and she told me about her other job.  While she has a few private students like me, her primary job is working at one of the ubiquitous Thai language schools here in Krungthep.  As Khruu Kitiya explained, her Level 3 class, the one in which writing and reading Thai is first introduced, has been giving her trouble.  Of the six students from six different countries, one of them is proving to be difficult. 

Ugly American It seems that there is always at least one in every class.  He (almost always, it is a “he”) asks too many questions, leads the conversation down rabbit trails, and is always demanding the teacher justify why the language is the way it is.  As near as I can tell from my own experience, it is the analytical types (yes, you engineers!) who seem to have the most trouble just letting go and accepting that there are some things in this world – and particularly some things in languages – that just don’t have a rational explanation.  They are called the exceptions to the rules

In this case, Khruu Kitiya’s one student spent a half-hour debating with her during class about why the Thai government should just march right in (between coups) and fix all the problems with the language.  Those unarticulated consonants?  Get rid of them!  Those confusing spellings that come from Sanskrit?  Change them!  He wanted to know why, if the language had these “problems,” someone didn’t fix them.

Khruu Kitiya, with extraordinary patience that is characteristic of the Thais, tried to explain that even if the government wanted to change the language, they couldn’t.  The language is a deep part of the Thai people’s culture and it is the way it is because it is a reflection of the many cultures and people who eventually became a part of the country.  (In fact, as a historical side note, the Thai government has tried to change the language before under the military leader Field Marshal Pibulsonggram during the World War II era.  The changes did not stick.)

The student used the analogy of an old sofa.  If you had an old sofa in your house and you knew it no longer was useful, why wouldn’t you just through it out?  Needless to say, Khruu Kitiya was not won over by that analogy.

What I don’t understand is why someone would come to a country and choose to study the language if he or she was not prepared to accept it on its own terms.  Why would someone be so arrogant as to think that his or her perspective on what was “right” or “wrong” for another language was superior to the way the language already is?

While Khruu Kitiya wanted to remain non-confrontational, I encouraged her to ask the student next time – in a friendly and non-confrontational way – whether in his country (Italy) it is considered polite to go into someone else’s house and criticize their furniture.  She could explain that in Thailand, one doesn’t go into a house as a guest and then suggest the sofa be thrown out.

Anyhow, this is the type of thing that keeps me from hanging out with many expats.  Whether it be the language or a dozen other things, there are many people who seem to lack any understanding of how to appreciate the culture they have chosen to live in.

 

Skytrain Sukhumvit Extension – Update

Being a transit/infrastructure/civil engineering buff as well as a long suffering resident of this traffic clogged metropolis, I’m always curious as to the status of different mass transit projects.  One of the two that I’m eagerly anticipating is the extension of the Sukhumvit Line of the BTS Skytrain.

Sukhumvit is the main east-west running road in Krungthep.  It changes names along the way, but it pretty much runs from the heart of the old city, through the Siam Square area, past the Asoke, Thong Lor and Ekkamai neighborhoods, before turning to the southeast and eventually – a few hours later – ending up in Pattaya.

Even with the existing Skytrain line running to On Nut, traffic on Sukhumvit remains very heavy.  Currently, an extension is underway that will take the line all the way to Bang Na on the border of Bangkok and Samut Prakhan provinces.  There is an additional extension planned that will take the line well into Samut Prakhan and would help many commuters to reach the city.

Earlier this week I was dropping our car off at the Nissan dealership at Sukhumvit 101 and I decided to snap some pictures of the current progress.  It took me a while to find the previous pictures I had posted from the same spot.

Before and After – Taken from a pedestrian bridge just south of the future Punnawithi Station (at approximately Sukhumvit Soi 101), I was able to look north (back towards On Nut, Thong Lo, Asoke, and Siam) along Sukhumvit Road.  The top picture was taken in December 2007.  The bottom picture (taken just about 30 feet to the left of where I was standing for the top picture) was taken this week:

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February

Of course the big question is, when is it going to open?  It seems that the infrastructure is largely complete.  According to reports, the delay in opening was caused by someone at city hall who didn’t process the paperwork to order track switching equipment.  Pardon me while I roll my eyes.

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Meanwhile, after dropping my car off at the dealer, I decided to catch one of the dozens of bus lines running along Sukhumvit to connect back to the On Nut Skytrain station, which is the current end of the line.  These busses do not have air conditioning, have wooden floorboards, and don’t quite come to a stop when picking up or dropping off passengers.  At 7 baht (about US$0.21) they are a bargain, though.  Thankfully, it was mid-day and there were few passengers.  I was able to snag a seat beneath one of the oscillating fans.

 

Rabbits

Tawn is a big fan of rabbits.  This is no surprise, perhaps, given that he was born in the year of the rabbit.  Characteristic of a rabbit, Tawn can be a bit jumpy and is easily startled.

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The nearby yoga studio and spa where Tawn goes for classes has lush landscaping and a handful of rabbits that live amongst the foliage and hop about the shady areas of the car park as if they owned the place.  They aren’t especially skittish but they will usually stay a few hops away from you if you move towards them.  In fact, once when I was picking Tawn up after a yoga class, I watched as he chased one rabbit in slow motion.  Tawn moved towards the rabbit to pet him, then the rabbit would hop away.  Then Tawn would move towards the rabbit again and once again the rabbit would hop away.  This continued for several minutes.

Once, when Tawn came out of class and was getting into his car, he noticed that a pair of rabbits were getting intimate with each other under the car.  He tried to shoo them away so he could drive off, but they just ran out from under one side of the car and then ran back under the car from the other side.  This continued for several rounds until they finally hopped off into the bushes to get back to their business.

 

Concert in Lumpini Park

A few Sundays ago, Jason and Ben invited me to join them for the second to the last concert in the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra’s annual winter Concert in the Park series.  While you would never think that the weather here, even in winter, is cool enough to enjoy an outdoor concert, it was actually the perfect event.

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Located in Lumpini Park, the closest thing we have to a central park, the full symphony orchestra performed to a crowd of more than 1,000 picnickers.  Spread out on rental mats, lawn chairs, and blankets, the audience enjoyed the pleasant after-sunset breezes and moderate temperatures of about 80 F / 28 C.  Not too bad.

Jason and Ben own a little cafe called Kiosk and borrowed the beanbags and ice chest from the cafe, packing quite a spread.  Prosciutto and melon, cheese and crackers, fruits and salami, nuts and spreads – we were well satisfied.

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Ever stylish, Ben and Jason (and their friend Zenya – in red pants) artfully arranged our spread.  The one drawback of the event, one we worked around, is that the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority prohibits the consumption of alcohol inside city parks.  Now, I can understand not wanting winos wandering around drunk but a nice bottle of bubbly goes so well with al fresco music.

Security guards were keeping an eagle eye out for violators, confiscating any alcohol (which they no doubt later consumed for themselves).  We got around it by keeping the bottles in the cooler and discreetly pouring the glasses inside the cooler, too.  Nothing could ever be seen outside the cooler except our paper cups of “apple juice” and “white grape juice”.  Ha ha…

Thank you to Ben and Jason for their invitation and lovely hosting.

 

February in the Kitchen

I thought I’d share with you some of the cooking I’ve done so far this month.  It has been a busy month so nothing terribly elaborate and no videos of my cooking, but some interesting meals have come together in addition to the third (and successful) attempt at macarons!

Cornmeal Crepes with Ricotta and Ham

The first dish was a Cornmeal Crepes recipe from Gourmet magazine.  Cornmeal crepes (in fact, just about any type of crepe) are pretty easy to make and since you can make the crepes themselves in advance and then assemble them later, they are a pretty convenient dish for a weeknight dinner.

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While I do have a crepe pan, I actually can’t use it because it isn’t compatible with my induction heating stove.  No worries, though, as a good nonstick skillet actually works every bit as nicely as a crepe pan.  This means that if you don’t have a crepe pan, you don’t have an excuse not to make crepes

The filling of the crepes is a mixture of ricotta cheese and ham.  The locally produced ricotta we have here in Thailand is oddly dry and chalky, more like smooth feta than the creamier ricotta I’ve had elsewhere.  Because of this, the filling was a bit dry when baked, even with the addition of egg and cheese.

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The individual crepes are filled and instead of placing them in a large ovenproof dish, I used these little individual-size serving dishes.  Very “airplane kitchen” of me…  I covered and baked the dishes until the filling was bubbling hot and then topped the crepes with a stir-fry mixture of corn, spring onions and asparagus, with a few shreds of Parmesan cheese.  The asparagus wasn’t in the original recipe, but I couldn’t resist.  Ham and asparagus is a great flavor combination.

 

Polenta with Mushrooms and Fontina Cheese (Kind of)

One of my favorite food blogs is Joanne Choi’s “Week of Menus”.  She’s a friend of a high school friend, a working mother whose children have a variety of food allergies.  She’s also an avid foodie and good cook.  As you can imagine, she’s juggling multiple priorities and her recipes do a great job of balancing cooking from scratch with good flavor with healthy ingredients that avoid many common allergens. 

Polenta (coarse corn meal – a.k.a. grits) is a favorite of mine that I had not prepared in a while.  Joanne’s original menu is basically sauteed onion and mushrooms baked on top of polenta with a healthy smothering of fontina cheese.

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Unable to control myself, I started improvising, adding the rest of the asparagus from the crepe recipe along with a bell pepper.

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These were nicely fried up until just starting to get tender.  I then poured the polenta into a pot of boiling milk and water, stirring at to thicken.  A few minutes later I noticed a lot of little brown specks floating in the liquid.  “That’s strange,” I thought, trying to figure out what spice I had added that could be floating there.  Nutmeg?  Cinnamon?  No, I hadn’t added anything, I realized.  They were little bugs.

One of the frustrations with buying imported food products here in Thailand is that sometimes the grains and dried goods come with extra protein.  This happens from time to time, I know, and in most countries and in most parts of the population, people probably just deal with it. 

While I did consider for a moment whether there would be any ramifications for eating the polenta with the extra protein, I decided against it.  So I grabbed some pasta from the cupboard and boiled it up, doing a last-minute substitution of starches.

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The end result was a perfectly nice dish.  You’ll see I added some chopped prosciutto.  The problem with the pasta is that when you mix it with the fried vegetables (with no sauce), the vegetables kind of fall through to the bottom of the dish!  It tasted fine but didn’t work the same as it would have with polenta.  Well, I’ve bought a new bag of polenta and we’ll try again one of these days soon!

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With the polenta… er, pasta… dinner we had a few sliced of whole wheat bread I had baked.  I’m ever-happier with my breads and think they are not only really tasty but they look great, too.

 

Garlic Scallion Noodles

Another of Joanne’s recipes I wanted to try was Garlic Scallion Noodles.  Being of Korean heritage, she makes many dishes that employ traditional Korean flavors: garlic, ginger, scallions, soy sauce… all of which are very yummy.  The noodles were very easy – boil pasta and toss in a sauce of butter, soy sauce, sake (or mirin), scallions, garlic and a little brown sugar.  I would have added some slivers of ginger and some more garlic, but that’s just me.

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The noodles lent themselves nicely to some Ginger Soy Chicken, which has an excellent an easy marinade.  You can either pan-fry the chicken, grill it on the barbecue, or use the broiled in your oven to lend an indoor barbecue flavor.  The meat stays so moist that even if you give the outside a good char, you can scarcely dry out the meat!

 

Blueberry Oat Scones

Tawn had been wanting to make some scones for a long time now.  While I regularly bake buttermilk biscuits which a former London-born roommate of mine said were just the same as her grandmother’s scones, I don’t usually make proper scones.  The difference is mostly in the fat used.  My biscuits use Crisco vegetable shortening, which lends a very flaky texture to the bread.  Scones, on the other hand, are made with butter, which results in a more crumbly texture. 

I tried the recipe from Martha Stewart’s Baking cookbook for oat and dried apricot scones, omitting the apricots and instead using frozen blueberries.

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Mix together oats, all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Then cut in chilled butter until it forms coarse crumbs.

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“Coarse crumbs” is a relative term, but I look for pieces of flour-coated butter about the size of a green pea.  Then mix in the liquid: buttermilk blended with an egg.  The resulting dough is very wet, perhaps a bit more wet than I would have expected.  Folk in your blueberries, currants, raisins, dried apricots, or whatever else at this point.

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Working on a well floured board, form a circle about 1.25 inches (3 cm) thick and cut into wedges.  I could have made these a little narrower pieces.  Then you arrange the pieces on a parchment lined sheet and freeze them, covered, for at least an hour.  Not having the space in my freezer, I refrigerated them, which resulted in dough that spread more during baking than anticipated.

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Before baking in a 375 F / 185 C oven, brush with a cream and egg yolk mixture (I substituted buttermilk for the cream) and sprinkle with coarse sugar.  It took about 30-35 minutes to make the scones.  They turned out really tasty although I’m going to fiddle with the recipe.  I think a butter-shortening mix would be better as I like scones that are flaky and not just crumbly.

So that’s the cooking thus far this month.  I’ll probably return to both the polenta and crepe recipes and try them again this week to see if with bug-free polenta and creamier ricotta the results will be more in line with what I expected.

Here’s to your good eating!