Cooking for 80 – the Results

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Whew!  The big day has come and gone: cooking for a group of up to 80 for a community event called the River Space Dinner Party and Talk.  Reservations for the event were coming in faster and earlier than ever before in their several-month history and the day before, Yvan, one of the organizers, suggested I prepare for as many as 90 diners.  Thanks to a little rain, we ended up with about 70 people, still more than any previous dinner.

Much like I imagine one feels after running a marathon, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to tackle this challenge.  Now I know I can do it.  But it was exhausting and took a lot of hard work, not to mention the support of several friends who pitched in, so I’m probably not going to volunteer to cook for such a large group again anytime in the near future!

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The preparation was spread over three days leading up to Tuesday’s dinner.  Most of the prep work involved careful planning – extrapolating my recipes into larger batches, creating shopping lists, and checking prices to ensure I would stay within my budget of 80 baht (US$ 2.63) per head.  When it came time to do most of the shopping on Tuesday morning, I had to go to three stores, managing to clean out two stores of their supplies of cilantro, radishes, and cherry tomatoes.

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Tuesday morning I also baked more than 80 buttermilk shortcakes, which would be part of the dessert.

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The grains for the mixed grain salad were cooked in batches and then sealed in bags.  Note the carefully-written labels.  Four parts (each serving about 20-24 people) with bags A, B, and C providing the different mixtures of grains.  Bag A contains brown rice, GABA rice, and Job’s tears.  Bag B contains brown rice, black beans, and small red beans.  Bag C contains pearl barley and corn.

I used large plastic storage containers to divide the ingredients by dish.  Some dishes took several containers, which completely filled our car.

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The River Space is located on the second floor of a building in a local market on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, next to the Millennium Hilton hotel.  Since the street is some distance away from the building entrance, we temporarily parked (during rush hour!) and Tawn hired a porter from the market to help us move everything into the space.  That cost 200 baht (less than $7) and was the best 200 baht I’ve ever spent.

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While I thought I had prepared a pretty simple recipe, one that required only one dish to actually be cooked on-site, there was still a lot of peeling, slicing, chopping, and dicing that needed to be done.  Thankfully, a half-dozen friends came early and rolled up their sleeves.  Little did they realize they would spend the next four hours in the kitchen!  From left to right, Bee, Ken, me, Sophie, and Linda.

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At moments like this, I imagine that a Cuisinart food processor might be a worthwhile investment!  Except they would have decimated the tomatoes.

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Very organized, I had instructions for pulling together each dish, including plating diagrams, prepared and taped to the kitchen walls.  These aren’t exactly a recipe, but helped everyone keep track of what steps we needed to complete and what the finished items were to look like.  This is for the dessert, a buttermilk shortcake topped with macerated mango and ginger whipped cream.

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We had two burners to work with, although a second-hand stove was recently acquired that has three burners, significantly expanding the capacity.  Here, I start frying batches of the green curry marinated chicken while organizer Yvan prepares his signature garlic bread recipe.

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Done with the mixed grain salad, my volunteers (now joined by Tammy and Tawn) slice mangoes for dessert while Doug, the friend who roped me into this event, supervises.

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Doug also wandered around with my camera, documenting the action.

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By 8:30 the crowd was ravenous, the best way to have them!  People started pouring into the kitchen and my friends expertly plated the meal, controlling portion size and garnishing with chopped cilantro and sliced almonds.  Unfortunately, in the chaos, nobody snapped a picture of the finished product!

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After everyone ate, the guest speaker took the microphone for about 20 minutes.  Since this is an art space, they try to have someone at each dinner who can talk about a project they have worked on, usually with some relevance to Thailand or the local scene. 

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In this case, it was Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat and German writer Tom Vater, the photographer and author, respectively, of Sacred Skin, a book about the history and contemporary practice of Sak Yant, Thailand’s spirit tattoos.

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These tattoos, written in ancient Khmer, are said to provide powers of protection from accidents, misfortune, and crime.  You see these tattoos peeking out from under monks’ robes, the shirt collars of young men, and even on Angelina Jolie.

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The crowd seemed very interested in what Tom and Aroon had to say and enlargements of Aroon’s photos had been placed on the wall, startling images that sparked many discussions throughout the night.

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As the talk concluded, we served our dessert, complete with a mint garnish.  Again, in the rush we managed to not get a picture of the finished product!  Next time, I need to bring my own media people, right?

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We received a lot of compliments and had no troubles convincing people to take zip-loc bags of the extra mixed grains salad home, which is perhaps the best compliment of all.  We ended up with about 70 people and a final cost of 7,400 baht.  Based on the 90 people we prepared for, this was just ever-so-slightly over budget, coming in at 82.2 baht per person, or US$2.70.

To say I was exhausted when we returned home at about 11:00 is an understatement.  I’ve rarely been so tired, ever.  Working in a space that is not well-equiped for group cooking, I gained a new appreciation for the work of caterers and restaurateurs.  Thanks again to all my friends (and my husband) for helping me pull it off!

 

Preparing to Cook for 80

This weekend I’ve been scrambling to prepare for a dinner on Tuesday night, at which I will cook for up to 80 people.  This will be the largest group I’ve ever cooked for by a factor of three, and I’m excited to take on the challenge.  Oh, and an added challenge: I’m working on a budget of 80 baht (US$2.63) per head.  How did I get roped into this?

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Two months ago, my friend Doug, an expat American to whom I was introduced by a friend from the San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Festival, invited me to an event called the “River Space Dinner Party and Talk”.

The dinners are inspired by Jim Haynes and his famous Paris dinners which have lasted for more than 30 years. Jim’s son, Jesper, helped launch the Bangkok dinners at the River Space a few months ago.  Jim described his dinners during a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered:

Every week for the past 30 years, I’ve hosted a Sunday dinner in my home in Paris. People, including total strangers, call or e-mail to book a spot. I hold the salon in my atelier, which used to be a sculpture studio. The first 50 or 60 people who call may come, and twice that many when the weather is nice and we can overflow into the garden.

Every Sunday a different friend prepares a feast. Last week it was a philosophy student from Lisbon, and next week a dear friend from London will cook.

People from all corners of the world come to break bread together, to meet, to talk, connect and often become friends. All ages, nationalities, races, professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn’t be better. I love the randomness.

I believe in introducing people to people.

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Here in Bangkok, the dinners are held twice a month in a second floor flat on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, immediately next to the Millenium Hilton hotel.  The space is used for various arts events and is mostly just a large, open space.

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The space is spectacularly situated, though, just above a small market and adjacent to the local ferry pier.  The reflection of the setting sun bathes the banks of the river in shades of purple and pink as residents who live on the west side of the river commute home.

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The dinners are cooked by volunteers in a kitchen that is, to be generous, under-equipped.  But there are plenty of hands willing to pitch in, which is the important thing.  As I’m preparing to cook on Tuesday, most of my thoughts are about the strategy of how I’m going to do this in the most organized manner.  What tools will I need, what equipment, what supplies?

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The meal served when I attended in April.  Potato salad, green salad, quiches (made at home by the head chef), and a wonderful strawberry triffle.  One of the things I’ve realized is that to cook effectively in this space requires a lot of advance cooking at home.

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When I say “under-equipped”, you get the idea when you watch Doug contorting himself as he tries to make garlic bread for what was about 50 people using only a tiny toaster oven.  Needless to say, I was dragooned into the kitchen, willingly, and helped prepare the garlic bread.

So that’s the challenge I’m facing.  Having given a lot of thought to the meal, I’ve adapted, updated, and revised my proposed menu several times.  Finally, Friday night I cooked a “proof of concept” meal, to make sure the recipes worked (at a small scale) and would be on-budget.

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The menu as it stands today: Mixed grains and vegetable salad with a sherry vinaigrette; stir-fried chicken marinated in green curry; and a yogurt relish with cucumbers and tomatoes.  The homemade bread and hummus will not make the cut.  Instead, the garlic bread and a green salad will be provided by another person.  And for dessert?  Saturday night I did another “proof of concept” and served homemade buttermilk shortcake with mangoes and ginger whipped cream. 

Stay tuned to heard how it all turns out!

 

Food in LA: Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner

One of our dinners, per my sister’s request, was at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park.  Knott’s Berry Farm is “the other amusement park” in Orange County, located just up the road from Disneyland.  Jennifer requested that we go to Mrs. Knott’s as she had fond memories from a visit there when we were children.

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The history of Knott’s dates back to 1920, when Walter Knott and his family sold berries and preserves from a roadside stand.

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In 1934, to make ends meet, Knott’s wife Cordelia (1890–1974) reluctantly began serving fried chicken dinners on their wedding china. For dessert, Knott’s signature Boysenberry Pie was also served to guests dining in the small tea room. As Southern California developed, Highway 39 became the major north-south connection between Los Angeles County and the beaches of Orange County, and the restaurant’s location was a popular stopping point for drivers making the two hour trip in those days before freeways.

These days, the wait for dinner is still long.  Admittedly, we were a larger group than normal – about 10 people – but the wait was still about an hour.

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Prices have gone up over the years (by about 100 times) but the menu remains pretty much unchanged.  Frankly, this was more food than I wanted to have, as I was more interested in the boysenberry pie than anything else.  Walter Knott was responsible for naming and popularizing the boysenberry, a blackberry, raspberry, loganberry hybrid cross-bred by Rudolph Boysen of nearby Anaheim.

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The interior of the restaurant, made up of several medium sized dining rooms, looks very run-down, badly in need of a makeover or, at least, a deep cleaning.

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Buttermilk biscuit – okay, but not nearly as flaky or tasty as mine.

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Rhubarb compote served chilled as a starter.  Very, very sweet.

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Very sad salad.  “Farm fresh”?  Pathetic, really.

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The main course itself – three pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn.  The food was okay, although I found the chicken a bit oily and, like pretty much all chicken in the US, the meat lacked any discernable flavor.

The dessert – the boysenberry pie with ice cream – was pretty good.  So good that I managed to not get a picture of it!  But overall, the meal proved the conventional wisdom that things are better in our memories than they are in real life.  At least I was surrounded by family, so in good company for an otherwise mediocre dinner.

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A nearly full moon climbs over the structure of GhostRider, the park’s wooden coaster.

 

Visiting my Thai Relatives

One of the biggest highlights of our vacation was spending time with Tawn’s relatives.  Some time ago, I wrote about the complicated relationship I have with Tawn’s father.  While he has acknowledged that I exist and we met on two occasions before I moved to Thailand, he doesn’t want to confront that aspect of who Tawn is.  This is, broadly speaking, a typical “Asian father” sort of mindset. 

Because of that, we have had no interaction in the nearly six years that I’ve lived here.  Tawn’s mother is very welcoming but around here, the man rules the roost, so I only rarely manage to see Tawn’s mother or any other relative.  This has left me feeling a sense of disconnection from Tawn’s side of the family, a stark contrast to the very close relationship Tawn has with my family.

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Tawn’s cousin and his family, me and Tawn, and my sister and her family.  When considered as a whole, I would call it “my family”.

One big exception to the gulf that keeps me away from my in-laws is Tawn’s aunt and uncle in Los Angeles.  Tawn’s aunt is his father’s older sister.  She and her husband moved to LA more than four decades ago and raised a family there, three boys who are around our ages, and now five grandchildren.  Since first visiting them almost a decade back, they have been very accepting, supporting us, welcoming us into their family, and advocating on our behalf.

Two of their three sons still live in Los Angeles.  I hadn’t seen them since that first visit but we stay in touch regularly through Facebook.  This vacation presented the perfect opportunity not only to see them and meet their children, but also to introduce their family to my family and bridge that disconnect I feel.

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We were able to meet with one cousin, Pete, and his wife and two girls Saturday afternoon at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.  (A mighty fine aquarium, I’ll add.)  The girls are roughly the same ages as my nieces (although Emily is a head taller than Jessie), so it provided them some new friends to meet and made it easier to break the ice.

Both Jessie and Sydney are very cute and outgoing.  After about a half-hour of walking through exhibits, Sydey tugged on my pants leg and asked if she could hold my hand.  Later on, Jessie stopped me and said, “Can I tell you something?  You’re really nice.”  I’m not sure what she expected, but am glad I made a good impression.

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Lots of interactive exhibits kept Sydney, Jessie, Ava, and Emily entertained and engaged.

After spending several hours together, we met up for dinner with the other cousin, Don, his wife and three children, and Tawn’s aunt and uncle.  Spread across a very large table – we ended up being 17 people! – I got to know Tawn’s cousins better, seemed to be the center of attention for their children, and for a few hours felt less disconnected to Tawn’s side of the family.

Unfortunately we didn’t take a picture as I’d love to show you that lovely group.  But picture or no, it was still a wonderful opportunity to get together and, for me, helped a bit to bridge the gap that I feel.  I know many married couples don’t have close relationships with their in-laws.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to have as close a relationship with Tawn’s family as he has with mine.

 

Vacation in a Beach House

For our vacation with my sister, brother-in-law, and nieces, we opted to rent a three-bedroom house in Hermosa Beach, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean.  Not only did this work out quite reasonably financially – roughly $400 a night – but it gave us a lot more room than a hotel would have, plus the ability to easily cook our own food and do our own laundry.

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Tawn leads a junior yoga class, which was surprisingly effective at helping the girls calm down, focus, and not get into squabbles with each other.  Maybe we should sign them up for daily classes?

Actually, we didn’t rent one house, but two.  The initial house was booked for our final three nights but the property manager had another similar house just three blocks away, so we moved into that one.  I have to really credit this lady, she was super friendly and very helpful.  If you are ever looking to rent a vacation home in Los Angeles, I’d be happy to recommend either of her two properties.  (This is the first house, a 3br/3 ba and this is the second house, a 3 br/1ba.)

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We did a little less cooking at home than I had anticipated, but we did eat at least breakfast at home each day, allowing for some cost savings.  As soon as we moved in I made a big (2 pound) batch of pizza dough and kept it in the refrigerator for use in a couple of meals.  Who doesn’t like pizza?  Here’s the girls shape their own pizzas.

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And there’s the finished but not-yet-cooked product, ready to go into the oven.  Their dough ended up kind of triangle shaped, huh?

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And of course there was room for everybody to pitch in with cleaning up and loading the dishwasher.

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Once you do that, we can bundle up (it was chilly by the beach in the evenings) and head to Pinkberry for some dessert.

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The second house we were in had TVs in each room, something I wouldn’t approve of at home but certainly fine for a vacation home.  That provided everyone with the opportunity to lounge in bed in the morning and watch cartoons.  As you can tell from this picture, we had already gone to Disneyland and everybody (including Tawn) had their stuffed animal.

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A view of Tawn walking along the Strand, the 22-mile class 1 paved pedestrian/skater/bicycle path that stretches along pretty much all of Los Angeles County’s western coast from Pacific Palisades to Torrance.  This grey overcast was a fixture of our vacation, at least when we were near the beach.

 

Returning Home

Late Sunday morning, Tawn and I returned home from two weeks in the United States.  While I still have a bit more to share about the trip, and will continue to blog about it in the coming days – including about some other restaurants we ate at! – I wanted to let you know that we were back in Bangkok so that you don’t get confused about what would otherwise seem to be a month-long vacation!

Here’s a short video I shot on the taxi ride in from the airport, where I discovered some helpful and slightly shocking tourist materials.

 

Two Visits to the Happiest Place on Earth

The main objective for our vacation in Los Angeles was to take my nieces, ages eight and five, to Disneyland.  They have never been to California, nor to any of the Disney parks, and the last time my sister went was at least two dozen years ago, so it seemed like the right time.

At their California location, Disney now has two theme parks: the original Disneyland and California Adventure, which is more geared to the Pixar characters than the classic Disney ones.  Since there were two parks, we decided to get a two-day park-hopper pass.  One thing we learned was that you do not have to use the passes for consecutive days.  This is helpful because going to an amusement park can wear you out.  Doing it two days in a row with young children can be overwhelming.  As I observed while walking around the park, Disneyland may be the “Happiest Place on Earth” but it is also the most tearful!

We arrived a few minutes before opening time the first day, a Thursday, tickets already purchased online and printed out at home.  Thankfully, the typical Southern California weather pattern known as the “June gloom” lasted most of the day, giving us cool temperatures (around 70 F) and an overcast sky that made walking around the park a pleasant experience.

Crowds were not too heavy and we used the FastPass system to secure tickets to the most popular rides – the recently reopened Star Tours, for example – so that we did not have to wait in line for a long time.  One thing we learned is that when the park opens, most people head to their right into Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, and not to their left into Frontierland, Adventureland, and New Orleans Square.  If you want to beat the crowds, head to the left and do those rides first.

I was shocked to discover a sign leading into Mickey’s Toon Town that has a spelling mistake!  Do these things really happen in the Disney organization?

For lunch we ate at Cafe Orleans in New Orleans Square.  For amusement park food, it was pretty decent eating.  I may write a post with the pictures of the food later on.  For now, I will share a picture of the Mickey Mouse shaped beignets.

Among my niece’s many objectives was collecting autographs from the various characters, including the princesses.  At the back of Fantasyland is a Princess Pavilion, which offers various princess-themed activities as well as the opportunity to meet princesses from the different Disney films throughout the day.  Ava and Emily met Belle, Cinderella, and Mulan (pictured above), to name just a few.  I’ll give credit to the young ladies who play the princesses: they do an amazing job of being tirelessly friendly, gracious, and engaging for their young guests.

Something fun to do at Disneyland is to look for the hidden Mickeys.  These are representations of the Mickey Mouse silhouette that are intentionally, but subtly, placed throughout the park.  Can you spot the hidden Mickey in the above picture of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad?

Our first day at the park went very well.  We were there about twelve hours – from opening to closing – and except for one minor bit of lunchtime moodiness by niece number one, everyone was in good spirits the whole day.  Above, the section of the It’s A Small World ride that is themed after Thailand.

The following Monday we headed back to Anaheim, this time to spend most of our day at Disney’s California Adventure.  This newer park is themed around various areas of California, including Hollywood, the aviation industry of Southern California, the beach boardwalks and amusement piers found along the coast, etc.  As you can see from the above picture, it was a sunnier day.  While the temperature was only about five degrees higher (75 F), the intense sunlight made it a much tougher day for everyone.

There is an area of the park called A Bug’s Land, themed around the Pixar animated film, A Bug’s Life.  It offered a number of fun rides that were perhaps just a little too juvenile for our nieces.  The above ride is called Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train, named after the caterpillar in the film with an insatiable appetite.

On the Hollywood Studios Backlot, the girls pretended to talk to each other on a variety of different phone booths ostensibly used in different movie sets.  With the hot sun shining on us and a greater amount of open space reflecting that heat, we experienced some after-lunch defections.  Tawn left the park and went to the next door Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment district to seek out some air conditioned comfort in a movie theatre and my brother-in-law and older niece went back to the Disneyland park, which has a bit more shade.

My sister, younger niece, and I persevered, though, and took a ride on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  This drop tower thrill ride is a lot of fun and my adventurous five-year old niece (who is only an inch taller than the minimum height requirement), announced upon exiting from the ride, “Let’s go again!”  

We concluded our visit to the Disneyland parks by stumbling into Mickey Mouse back on Main Street USA, letting the girls collect their most prized autograph of all.  Hindsight being 20-20, I think we could have stuck with just a single day of Disney, visiting Disneyland and not the California Adventure park.  But it was a fun visit nonetheless and was probably the highlight of the trip.