First Attempt at Baeckeoffe

On an episode of Top Chef Masters, chef Hubert Keller prepared a dish called baeckeoffe, an Alsatian baked stew. It had an interesting back story and I decided to try making it.

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As he explained it, baeckeoffe, which means “baker’s oven” in the Alsatian dialect, was a traditional dish prepared on Sundays by the women of the village. They would marinate meats and potatoes overnight in white wine, juniper berries and herbs. On Monday morning, which was washing day, the women would drop their ceramic pots of baeckeoffe at the baker’s who would seal the lids with a strip of dough and then put them in the oven after he was finished baking the bread. The women would return after a day scrubbing clothes in the river and pick up the cooked caserole.

While the traditional recipe includes beef, pork, and lamb, I made mine with only pork. I then brought the caserole to my friend’s house and used her oven to bake it. The video showing the breaking of the bread seal and the opening of the pot is above. The opening was more of a challenge than I had expected.

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The end result was very fragrant and the meat was tender. The bread seal was flavorless, though, and overcooked. As I understand it, though, it was never meant to eat; instead, it was designed to provide a tight seal to hold in all the moisture.

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A serving of pork baeckeoffe, salad, and homemade black olive and rosemary bread. Tasty meal!

 

Absentee Voting from Thailand

Many Americans (most, perhaps) are unaware that citizens living abroad still have the right to vote. They can register with the last state in which they resided, or if they are only overseas temporarily, the state of their residence. A useful website, VoteFromAbroad.org, provides a handy resource and will help you will out the correct absentee voting application. Unfortunately for the November election, the deadline to request absentee ballots in most states has already passed.

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As luck would have it, the day before I left for the United States on business, my absentee ballot arrived. Convenient, since I won’t have to pay postage if I mail it from the United States! I have to credit my county’s election department. Many expats I speak with have problems getting absentee ballots in a timely fashion, but the team at my county’s election department do a great job of responding to questions and getting the ballots out well in advance of the elections.

While I don’t vote in the local races on my ballot – judges, county commissioners, etc. – since I don’t know any of the candidates or most of the issues at stake, I do appreciate being able to raise my voice for state and federal level matters because they still affect me, even all the way over in Bangkok.

 

A Brief Thunderstorm Video

September is the heart of rainy season in Bangkok. Far more rain falls in this month than any other. Last night at about 1:00, we were awakened by a loud thunderstorm that stubbornly stayed overhead for a half-hour. A few days ago, I had to take off my shoes and roll up my pants legs to get out of the taxi because my street was flooded after an hour of heavy rain.

A few weeks ago I was stuck in traffic and watched as these storm clouds formed out of thin air, close to the ground. They looked like smoke but were the result of the heat and moisture in the air. Very ominous, no? Not a minute after shooting this video, the torrential rain started to pour.

 

Get Them Started Early in the Kitchen

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One of my friends with whom I regularly cook, has an almost three-year old son who loves to play in the kitchen. A favorite activity is to open the spice drawer and pull out each individual jar and pretend to pour it onto the stove. This was great fun until the lid of white pepper came off and spilled all over.

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Later, he sat with Uncle Tawn, using a pair of tongs to pick up appetizers and move them from pull to another. All fun and games until I caught him picking up a spear of asparagus, briefly chewing the end of it, and then putting it back on the platter!

I’m glad he enjoys cooking so much, though. When he grows up to be a famous chef, we’ll be able to say that we knew he was destined for the kitchen, even when he was just a little fellow.

How about you? Were you welcome in the kitchen when you were a child? I remember being in the kitchen “helping” when I was no older than kindergarten and I was scrambling my own eggs by six or seven years old.

 

Xangans in Bangkok

While it wasn’t an official Xanga meetup, I managed to meet a trio of Xangans here in Bangkok over the last week, none of whom I’ve ever met in person.

A week ago Friday, both Rudy (@rudyhou) and Andrew (@stepaside_loser) were in town from Indonesia and Australia, respectively. It was a coincidence that both were here at the same time and presented a nice opportunity for us to gather for dinner at Soulfood Mahanakorn followed by some dessert at a street vendor nearby.

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From left: Me, Tawn, Andrew (who requested that his identity be obscured), Rudy, and Rudy’s friend Sam. Sam isn’t a Xangan but is still a nice fellow! Very nice meeting everyone.

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Now, another Xangan whom I knew lived in Bangkok but had managed to forget is Marlar (@I_love_Burma). We had been in touch several months ago and it wasn’t until another Xangan, who is coming to visit her in a few weeks, messaged me to see if I’d be in town, that I remember that Marlar actually still lives here! I invited her to the impromptu meet up two Fridays ago but she couldn’t make it, so we instead met for lunch yesterday.

See? It really is a small Xangan world!

Now, I’ll be seeing Rudy again, along with three or four (or more) other Xangans in Hong Kong on December 28-29. If you will be in that neck of the woods, let me know and you’re welcome to join the meet-up.

 

Serving a Second Lavish Small Plates Dinner

A year ago, my friend Nat and I cooked up a storm, preparing an 11-course “small plates” dinner for a dozen friends. While it was a success, we lost sight of the “small” part of small plates and halfway through the meal, everyone was thankful that one of our dessert courses had to be scrapped. It took twelve months, but we worked up the courage to try again and this time we stuck to the original intent, keeping portions very modest so that by meal’s end, everyone was satisfied but not stuffed.

I arrived at Nat’s house at 9:00 and we started planning our menu before heading shopping. Here are some pictures from the day-long cooking process:

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Left: preparing the bread pudding for dessert. Right: steeping pandan leaves in cream to infuse the flavor.

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Left: making homemade chili oil as a garnish. Right: the salmon head left over from making fish stock.

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Left: lotus root chips cooked in the air fryer. Right: sauteeing rhubarb for a sauce.

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Left: braising daikon radish coins in a Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Right: testing the bread pudding.

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Left: deep frying the pieces of pork belly. Right: testing different consistencies for the kaffir lime foam.

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Left: individual soba noodle nests. Right: sauces and plating notes for each course.

After 7:00 pm, guests started to arrive and an hour later, with the help of Nat’s kitchen staff, we started to serve dinner. Here are the twelve courses.

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Spinach soup served with a garnish of creme fraiche. This soup had Indian spices and a bold, clean flavor. Made for a nice amuse bouche.

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Seared tuna slice with lemongrass jelly and chili oil, both homemade. The initial batch of lemongrass jelly was too weak in flavor so I had to make a second, stronger batch about two hours before dinner. Thank goodness for Nat’s super-cooling refrigerator. I think a leaf or two of microgreens would have complemented the colors.

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Third course was a very simple salmon stock risotto with salmon roe. Served as a single bite in order to keep servings small and allow our guests to enjoy a variety of flavors and textures throughout the evening.

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The next seafood course was a seared scallop (which didn’t get crispy enough as the surface wasn’t properly dried before frying) with a braised daikon radish coin served with kecap manis, a homemade Indonesian sweet soy sauce. I liked the concept of this dish and wish I could have properly cooked the scallops and served the dish warm. Unfortunately, we had no way to effectively warm the plates, so the sauce started to thicken and get sticky. Flavors were good, though.

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The final seafood dish was a slice of salmon, poached and then oven roasted, served with a nest of soba and a kaffir lime foam. Yes, I know that foams are so ten years ago but the flavor was interesting. Unfortunately, we got too much gas in the cannister and the cream came out like whipped cream rather than a true foam. We struggled with portion size here as I had to really twist Nat’s arm to convince him to cut the salmon this small – about two bites. He wanted to make it about twice as large.

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Mid-meal palate cleanser was a really pleasant cucumber gelato, the idea came from the dessert I had at Pollen in Singapore. We had to reduce the cucumber syrup by about two-thirds to sufficiently concentrate the flavor, but the results were worth it.  

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Twice cooked pork belly with a duo of sauces. The pork was poached until tender, then sliced and deep fried. The sauces were green chili and cilantro on the left and a rhubarb chili on the right. The sauces turned out nicely, one with a bite of heat and the other with a bite of tanginess. The pork was cooked too early and we kept it warm in a low oven, which dried it out. Would probably sous vide the pork in the future and then slice just before serving.

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For the chicken course, we prepared a Thai take on chicken Kiev. Chicken breast was pounded thin, sprinkled with curry power and wrapped around a green curry compound butter. It was then coated in panko crumbs and fried and then served on a shiso leaf.

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When you cut open the chicken, the butter runs out, leaving a green curry sauce on the inside of the fried chicken breast. It was an interesting dish to eat and tasted good, although a bit buttery.

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Recognizing a shortage of vegetables on our menu, we prepared a vegetarian course of two types of Thai vegetable blossoms stir fried simply and garnished with an air fried lotus root chip. Very clean and pleasing.

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The final main course was a take on nam tok nuea – Thai waterfall beef salad. The beef was cooked sous vide and despite the pink color is completely cooked through. It was meltingly tender, very flavorful, and served with lemongrass, chili, shallots, mint, and a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chili. Very strong finish to the meal.

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For the cheese course, we served a small slice of halloumi cheese grilled in a panini press and served with royal Bhutanese orange marmalade.  Yes, the marmalade actually came from the Bhutanese king’s mother’s royal project. This was a nice combination of textures and flavors.

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As it came time for dessert, I realized I hadn’t made the sabayon, a thick sauce of egg yolks, sugar, and liqueur. So I ran over to the stove and started to prepare it, absentmindedly putting in whole eggs instead of only yolks, so it took a lot longer to cook and never became as thick as I wanted. Instead of liqueur, I added the pandan flavored cream that I had prepared some ten hours earlier. It ended up tasting very nice. 

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Uniformed staff pick up desserts for delivery to the dinner guests.

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Our dessert, a coconut bread pudding served with pandan leaf sabayon and fresh berries. This was really nice, although I would have liked to toast the slices of bread pudding so they had a crisper exterior. All in all, it made for a pleasant conclusion to the meal.

As always, this was a lot of fun and a lot of work. It will probably be another year before we attempt it again. At least we have learned some lessons and it seemed a whole lot easier (and actually required less help from Nat’s staff) than our first dinner did.

 

Hanging Out by Marina Bay

As recently as just three years ago, the widely-held opinion was that Singapore was – despite being a modern, efficient, and overall decent place – quite boring. Evidence to counter that belief is becoming ever more prevalent, especially in the area around Marina Bay where we spent a bit of time a few weeks ago.

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Anchoring the change is the Marina Bay Sands, a casino, hotel resort, and shopping complex on the southern edge of the bay. The trio of towers, connected by a roof deck, is visually arresting and provides the city with a signature element to what was an otherwise bland skyline.

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Looking back at the Singapore financial district on the other side of Marina Bay from the Marina Bay Sands. In the next few years, the existing financial district area will double in size, spreading south around the bay and meeting up with the Marina Bay Sands complex.

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As a sign of future growth, you can see the Bayfront MRT station just west of the Marina Bay Sands. Within the next few years, these blocks will be developed as the financial center spreads south. All of this is reclaimed land.

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Despite the heat, humidity, and rainfall, the attractions around Marina Bay seem designed to lure people outside at least some of the time. In the shadow of the lotus-shaped ArtScience museum is a reflecting pond and waterfront promenade.

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Part of the Marina Bay Sands complex is a massive shopping mall (because Singapore has a shortage of malls!) with more than 800,000 square feet (74,000 square meters) of shops and restaurants. In addition to an ice skating rink, the mall features a canal on which you can take sampan rides.  

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The complex also features a 1.3 million square foot (120,000 square meter) convention center. We stopped by to visit our friend Otto Fong, the author of the Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science comic book series, as he launched his fourth book at the Singapore Toys, Games, and Comics Convention. A former science teacher at Singapore’s prestigious Raffles Academy, Otto left to follow his passion drawing comics.

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I’ve known Otto since the mid-90s and am happy of his success. I was also tickled because he invited Tawn to be a character in this book, playing a fashion designer in the not-too-distant future, designing clothes for a K-pop superstar’s tour. You can see Tawn’s cartoon self just above his head, to the left of the bunny.

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A close up of how Tawn looks when cartoonized. Otto captured him quite well. Here, he explains to the K-pop star how the scientific process applies to costume design.

Gardens by the Bay

One of the most exciting changes to Marina Bay is Gardens by the Bay, a trio of parks bringing 250 acres of parkland to central Singapore. The highlight of the gardens are the two climate controlled conservatories: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. 

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The Flower Garden, the larger of the two, covers three acres and replicates the semi-arid region. The inside temperature is a pleasant 74 F (22 C) and flora from around the world populate the garden.

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The gardens have been open only a few months and the plants are still taking root. We were there on a weekend that coincided with Malaysia’s national holiday so the gardens were too crowded. I look forward to my next visit, though, when I will be sure to visit the gardens on a weekday afternoon and take the self-guided audio tour.

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The second conservatory, the two-acre Cloud Forest, recreates the cool, misty conditions of a tropical mountain. In the center of the conservatory is a lift that takes you seven stories up, then you can stroll down a meandering skywalk that weaves in and out of the “mountain”. 

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At the base of the 115 foot (35 meter) waterfall, a rainbow appears in the mist. Despite the crowds, the Cloud Forest was quite a treat, lush but comfortable. If you make it to Singapore, be sure to go to the Gardens by the Bay. 

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Singapore is a young country, one that continues to reinvent itself. Despite a British colonial heritage dating back almost two centuries, Singapore is developing a unique, distinct identity, one that is increasingly sophisticated and ever more interesting. Because it is the first country outside of North America I visited, way back in 1995, Singapore holds a special place in my heart. It is especially nice, then, to see it maturing into something more than the neat, clean, but boring relative into that cool cousin that is always up to something new.