Pool Party

As part of my efforts the past year to improve my overall fitness, I have taken to running and swimming on alternate days. Our condo has a nice pool, although at 15 meters, it is a little shorter than ideal. Morning swims are best for me as they get the exercise out of the way and the water is generally cooler. The problem is, there is a crowded, informal “schedule” of who uses the pool, when. If I am not downstairs on time, I miss my opportunity!

About 6:30 on weekday mornings the middle-aged, silver hair British gentleman takes the plunge. He is friendly and our paths cross in the fitness center, but since he and I both use kickboards to augment our swimming, I would feel a little self-conscious if I was in the pool at the same time. It would feel like swimming class.

After he has finished, a Danish (I think they are Danes) retiree couple arrive around 8:00. Though they appear stern, they are friendly enough. The wife floats around while her husband’s swimming style involves a lot of splashing. Not enough room for me to share the pool without the sense of intruding upon their morning ritual.

By 9:00, the quiet, Japanese-looking (I think) Thai man who lives on the first floor with his male roommate comes out to swim. We were in the pool together at the same time a few weeks ago and his head-always-out-of-the-water combination doggy paddle and breast stroke is so slow that his body is almost vertical. As we swam, I was hyper-conscious that any wake I made would slosh him.

The sun hits the pool by mid-morning and I generally don’t like to swim in the full sun. In the afternoon, a Japanese retiree who lives on our floor removes his toupee and heads to the pool for his daily regimen of sunbathing. He alternates between lying on the lounge chair and lying in the pool resting his head on the deck. As he turns an ever darker shade of brown, the water around him is so still that I can’t bring myself to interrupt his sense of serenity by swimming laps.

By late afternoon, the children arrive at the pool. I love children but trying to swim laps while children are playing in the pool is futile. You become a target as they swim across the pool, seeing just how close they can come to colliding with the farang. Great fun for them. Less fun for me.

So that leaves me with my 7:15 am slot, right after the British gentleman and before the Danish couple. Use it or lose it, as they say. Of course, I am speaking a bit tongue-in-cheek. There is enough room that three people could swim laps without running into each other. But you know how it is, different people have different swimming styles and sometimes you don’t want to share a smallish pool with them. 

Have a good weekend!

 

Adventures in Cooking: Raviolo

At a friend’s recently opened Roman style restaurant (about which I will write), I enjoyed a “raviolo” – singular of “ravioli” – a single, large filled pasta. His version has an egg yolk in the middle and it is cooked to just the right point that as you cut into the raviolo, the egg yolk pours out. Very dramatic presentation. I decided to try my hand at the concept and make my own raviolo.

The end result, which looks pretty enough, is about seven inches in diameter. Truly, I did make “ravioli” as there was one for Tawn and one for me. I just like saying “raviolo”. All things considered, it was a bit of a misadventure due to lack of experience and finesse on my part. But we learn from our mistakes, right? Well, I try to.

The filling was made of braised spinach and chicken, seasoned liberally with garlic, rosemary, and chili flakes.

I used Thomas Keller’s seven-yolk pasta dough recipe, which is my go-to recipe for pasta. Instead of pulling out the KitchenAid mixer, I hand rolled the dough. First mistake, as I couldn’t roll it nearly as thin as I should have. That may be because I didn’t let the dough rest long enough after kneading. It was getting late and I wanted dinner on the table before 9:00.

A good-sized portion of the filling was placed in the midst of the dough and an egg yolk was nestled on top. This was my second mistake. I separated the egg yolks at the same time as I separated the egg yolks for the pasta dough. In the intervening hour or so, the yolks formed a slight skin on them, so when I tried to pour them onto the filling, they tore. That ruined the effect of having a nice soft-cooked yolk to cut into!

Mama-mia! That’s a meat-balla! Well, actually, just a raviolo. Quite large and a bit of a pain to cut because I had no cutter large enough. Instead, I traced around a saucer with a sharp paring knife.

After about six minutes boiling (they were a pain to flip!), the ravioli were ready to serve. I put a simple homemade tomato sauce on top, sprinkling a bit of mozzarella cheese. As you can see, the egg yolk is hardly discernible as it has melted into the filling. The pasta skin, as I mentioned, was a little thick especially around the edges. All in all, I think it was an okay first attempt and was definitely a learning experience. Next time, I’ll make them a bit smaller, roll out the dough using the pasta machine, and separate the egg yolks at the last minute. The one thing I was pleased with was the filling. While it could have used more spinach (the darn vegetable just shrivels up to nothing when you cook it!), the flavor was very good – salty, garlicky, and slightly spicy.

 

A Little Bit of Nature

Short entry here. Was cutting down a tomato plant in my balcony garden as the growing season has ended. Amidst the leaves was a short thread that must have drifted down from someone’s laundry drying on a higher floor. How long the thread was stuck on the plant, I can’t say. What caught my eye, though, was that some sort of spores were growing from the thread, looking like eyelashes. I was fascinated at this example of how nature works.

 

Cooking with the Smoking Gun

On my recent trip to the United States, I stopped by Williams Sonoma and purchased a kitchen gadget called the Smoking Gun that I had been looking forward to trying. Made by PolyScience, the company behind much of the kitchen equipment used in molecular gastronomy, the Smoking Gun is an easy way to smoke food at home, without the need for a barbecue or smoker. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to put it to the test at my friend Nat’s house, where he, Chow, and I prepared a four course meal. Each course contained a smoked element.

This video shares the whole story but photos are below, too.

The Smoking Gun is more or less a battery powered hair dryer with a smoking chamber. You put the combustable substance in the chamber, turn on the fan, and then light the substance. Air is drawn through the smoking chamber and the smoke it blown out a spout to which a rubber tube can be attached. This makes it easy to direct the smoke where you want it. The Smoking Gun is easy to use and about thirty seconds is enough to produce as much smoke as you need. 

The smoke can come from wood chips (four types are sold directly by PolyScience), herbs, spices, tobacco, etc. and can be used on meats, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and beverages. The key is that you need to trap the smoke in the cooking vessel or some other container and allows the food to absorb the smoke compounds for at least five minutes. Here, some pieces of sushi-grade salmon are smoked in a zipper-lock plastic bag.

Here are the finished dishes with some notes:

The meal started with sashimi grade salmon which had been smoked (I used a different type of wood with each dish but don’t remember which I used) and then served very simply with creme fraiche and a chiffonade of shiso leaves. The lemony flavor of the herb and the tanginess of the creme went nicely with the salmon. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like the salmon was as good quality as I wanted and it warmed up a bit too much during plating. Other than that, it was tasty.

The second course was cod fish. This, too, was smoked and then pan-fried in an oil that had been infused with Thai “tom yam” herbs. The fish was accompanied by a garnish of the fried tom yam herbs including shallots, garlic, lemongrass, and chilies. The smoke flavor was less noticeable on this dish. If I was to do it again, I would fry a second batch of herbs to serve as a garnish, instead of using the herbs that had infused the oil with flavor.

The third course was beef tenderloin, smoked and then cooked sous vide. Afterwards, the beef was briefly pan seared and served with a broiled butter leaf lettuce, roasted, carrots, and air fried potatoes. Again, the smokiness was pretty subtle but the beef was nicely tender. The broiled lettuce was a real treat, lending a lot of complexity to an otherwise simple vegetable.

For dessert, I fired up the butane torch and burned some sugar. Where there’s smoke, there must also be fire, right?

Vanilla creme brûlée with meringue, smoked Granny Smith apple compote, and raspberry coulis. The smoked apple compote was very successful – I used both wood chips and cinnamon in the Smoking Gun – and the meringue was a nice touch. I must admit to being proud of thinking of a way to use the leftover egg whites and browning the meringues with the torch made them very attractive.

My overall impression of the Smoking Gun? It is an easy to use tool and effective for adding a subtle, superficial smokiness to food. It isn’t the same as smoking pork belly for twelve hours to get bacon, but it also requires a lot less space, so the trade-off is worth it. I’ll have to think carefully about what items to smoke and would like to experiment with using herbs and spices. Hopefully, that means more videos!

 

Food in KL – Limablas

While in KL, a former colleague from the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now, mercifully, called CAAMFest), met me for lunch, taking me to a charming restaurant called Limablas

Located in the eclectic Mesui neighborhood near upscale Bukit Bintang, Limablas (which means “15” in Malaysian) resides in an old shophouse that has been meticulously restored. The co-owner, Uncle John, keeps an eye on the business and visits with guests, many of whom seem to be regulars.

The interior is a veritable museum of antiques and a meal there feels a bit like a trip back to the middle of the 20th Century. Old glass jars hold ingredients used in the dishes, including dried chilies and dark, sulfurous palm sugar.

The collection of decorative items can lead you to wonder whether you should sit at a table or simply stand and admire it. That said, sitting is a good idea so you have a chance to enjoy the food!

The menu is pretty straight-forward, filled with a selection of basic Malaysian and Chinese dishes. Both Bryan and I ordered the mee siam, which is a noodle dish with a curry sauce that is ostensible Thai-style. More than anything, this illustrates a common food heritage stretching from southern Thailand (think Phuket) into central Malaysia. The noodles were simple but tasty. Since this was lunch and I had enjoyed a large breakfast, I didn’t try anything else from the menu. Prices were reasonable, especially for this area, and other reviews I’ve read online praise the food as authentic and tasty.

For a combination drink/dessert, I had cendol. The bowl is filled with (sorry, not visible in this picture) thin, green pandan-flavored flour noodles that look a bit like worms. Shaved ice is mounded on top and then the rich, molasses-flavored palm sugar syrup is poured on the ice, followed by coconut milk. Perfect for the warm weather. Probably not so perfect for my diet! This dish also speaks to the common culinary heritage of the region. Probably originating from Chinese traders, the same basic dessert is found in Thailand, too.

For a final thought, I will leave you with this cute picture of a couple huddled over their smart phone amidst the brightly colored walls and open air well at the back of the restaurant. If you find yourself in Kuala Lumpur around lunch time, I would suggest you stop by Limablas for a bite.

 

Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur

This past week, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to renew my non-immigrant visa at the Royal Thai Embassy. While there, I had a chance to visit with some friends and also to stop at the Islamic Arts Museum, something that has been on my to-see list since I first went to KL a few years ago.

The Islamic Arts Museum is located in a large park not far from the central train station. It is surrounded by expressways, though, making it very difficult to reach on foot. The museum is just up the street from the National Mosque, a beautiful blue-roofed complex that is worth a visit.

The collection is not as well-curated as I had hoped, although it covers a diverse range of subjects from architecture to textiles, ceramics to metals. Also, the collection represents all the major cultures in the Islamic world from Africa to the Middle East to India to Southeast and East Asia. Here is a selection of some of the pieces I saw.

There was a large selection of beautiful Quran. This book is the central religious text for Muslims and there is a wonderful tradition of hand-painting copies of the text, complete with exquisite illustrations, calligraphy, and gold-leaf decorations.

The exhibit also explained the different fonts of calligraphy – Arabic and otherwise – used in the displayed Quran. The scripts are beautiful, written from right to left, some highly stylized and others with more distinct characters. 

There were many examples of fine metal working, especially silver. My understanding is that Islamic art generally avoids representations of humans or animals and so there is a lot of emphasis on geometric patterns (which represent the perfection of creation) and floral patterns.

There were many ceramic pieces. Blue seems to be a popular color and this turquoise glazed three-legged pot was practically glowing, the color was so vibrant. If you look closely (sorry, hard to see clearly through the glass), there is stylized calligraphic script around the top band of the pot.

This example of cloisonné, metalwork decorated with enamel. Very fine detail and, again, very vibrant colors.

This piece, a painted glass bottle, is one of the few exceptions I found to the “no people, no animals” prohibition. A little bit of research while writing this entry and I discovered that this type of restriction is known as aniconism. New word for the day. 

The final piece I want to share with you is this finely sculpted chess set. The detail was amazing and I can only imagine the pressure the craftsman must have felt to not make a mistake and waste all the hard work completed so far.

I hope you enjoyed the selection of pieces from the museum. Sorry for not posting more while on the road. I’ve found the Xanga site to be uncooperative in the past few weeks, often freezing while a page is loading.  

 

Sunset on Rattanakosin Island

The core of Bangkok is the old city, the section of Phra Nakhon district known as Rattanakosin Island. It was here, in 1782, that King Rama I established Krung Thep Maha Nakhon – what we foreigners call Bangkok.  In addition to being the home of the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and many government buildings, there are many vibrant communities on Rattanakosin Island and plenty of great food. The other evening, I took a canal boat into the old city as a brilliant sunset bathed the City of Angels (for that is what the Thai name for Bangkok means) in gold.

This is a fascinating little neighborhood nestled just next to Fort Mahakan (see the map below) looking east towards Wat Sakhet, also known as Golden Mount. Fort Mahakan is one of only two forts that remain from the original 14 that defended the old city. Wat Sakhet itself predates Bangkok by many years, but the man-made hill was built during the reign of King Rama III. It was originally meant to be a giant chedi, or stupa, but the ground could not support the structure and it collapsed mid-construction. Over many years, it was covered with brush and locals came to refer to it as “Phu Khao” or Golden Mount. Under King Rama V (late 1800s), a small chedi was built on top of the hill and is said to contain relics of the Buddha, brought from India.

Looking the opposite direction from nearly the same spot as the first picture, you see a plaza with a statue of King Rama III. Wat Ratchanadda is in the background. This plaza used to be filled with a grand old cinema – the Chalerm Thai (pics here) – that was torn down in 1989 to create more inviting views along Ratchadamnoen Avenue. While I generally hate the idea of destroying old single-screen movie palaces, the view at this important corner was definitely improved with its removal.

A few blocks away, we stopped for an early dinner on a small soi just off Thanon Tanao, is the center of the map below, right north of the intersection of Thanon Bamrung Mueang. This cute little neighborhood, called Phraeng Phuton, features one of the first automobile repair shops in Thailand (still in business and has a collection of classic Aston-Martins and Mercedes parked inside) and it was also Bangkok’s first driver’s license bureau. 

This is one of the corners of the city, just a few blocks away from the noisy (and very foreign) Khao San Road backpacker neighborhood, that deserves more attention from visitors to Thailand. In many ways, it is a time capsule, very easy to slip back and see what life was like in Bangkok many decades ago.

The Wikipedia map, in case you want to reference the locations of the above pictures. Original and larger versions here.