How Greetings Spawn Humbugs

Living outside the United States, I avoid being immersed in some of the silly, manufactured controversies that whip people into a talk radio-fueled frenzy. One of the big ones this time of year is the unbelievable anxiety some people get in over people saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

Just the other day, a former schoolmate on Facebook posted how, with Hanukkah falling in November this year, there was no excuse for anyone not to say “Merry Christmas” because there are no other holidays.

“New Year’s is no longer a holiday?” I helpfully replied.

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There are many Christians who feel that their religion is under attack. I can understand why they might feel that way, although considering that Christianity continues to be a growing religion worldwide, I’m not sure the threat is real. But when someone wishes you a “happy holiday,” feeling in any way insulted or under attack seems to be a very un-Christian response. Let’s turn to the Bible to understand why.

First, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When someone says “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” to you, they are conveying a charitable wish, one offered with no malice. In fact, they are potentially being considerate by respecting the fact that you may not be Christian. (Not always easy to tell from outward appearances alone.) Back to the Golden Rule: you would probably want people to be warm, charitable, and respectful towards you and that’s precisely the motivation of someone who wishes you a secular seasonal greeting.

Second, Jesus admonished us to “turn the other cheek.” A secular seasonal greeting is rarely intended as an insult and certainly never causes any true injury. Follow Jesus’ teaching and move on. There are much worse insults than being given warm holiday wishes by someone. Jesus died for your sins, not because someone wished him “season’s greetings”.

Third, Jesus teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is considered one of the two greatest commandments, the other being to love God with all your heart. This teaching is about giving even when you are not receiving, about loving even when you are not loved. If someone wishes you a greeting that does not reflect your faith, surely your response should be a reflection of your faith. For a Christian, that means a response that is loving and giving, not one that is angry and spiteful.

Whatever your faith, the end of the year (especially in the wintry northern hemisphere) is a special time. May it find you healthy, happy, and surrounded by loved ones, regardless of your faith.

 

Christmas Dinner 2012

Even though Thailand doesn’t officially recognize Christmas, we still had the opportunity to celebrate, gathering at the house of friends for a 16-person dinner. It was several days in the making and, of course, I was in the kitchen, too.

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This was the third or fourth meal that Nat and I have cooked together, supported by his staff. I’m definitely the sous chef in the operation, responsible this evening for only the soup and appetizers, although insert myself in plenty of other tasks. Left, looking a bit like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld, I call people over with their bowls for a serving of cioppino. Right, Nat and I share a laugh while cooking. (Thanks to Nat’s cousin Kik for the pictures.)

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Simple canapes: white bean hummis with roasted red pepper and sundried tomato chutney, and shredded roasted beetroot with fresh mozzarella and a drop of balsamic and black truffle syrup.

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My latest version of cioppino, the classic San Francisco Italian style seafood stew. This recipe is from chef Michael Mina and is even nicer than the previous recipe I used.

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A beautiful foccacia bread sprinkled with flaked sea salt – perfect for sopping up the broth from the cioppino. One of our two stuffings, this one made with mushrooms and the other with chestnuts.

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Potatoes dauphinoise, thinly sliced with a rich and creamy interior. Sous video turkey, super moist and perfectly cooked, dropped in a deep fryer at the end for a crispy exterior.

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Carrots roasted with maple syrup and sprinkled with corriander. Creamy Brussels sprouts with roasted pine nuts.

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Desserts are served! Angel food cake with whipped cream and strawberries – elegant – and a coconut cake with fresh coconut in both the cake and the buttercream frosting. Served with homemade peppermint and pineapple ice creams.

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Bee, Doug, Oates (former Xangan), and Tawn pose mid-way through dinner, trying to pace themselves so there is room for the cake.

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After our dinner, half the group stuggles to remain upright. From left, Linda, Doug, Bee, our hosts Nat and Cha, Tawn, and me. Hope you and yours had a happy celebration, too!

 

Hawaiian Christmas Luau with Beervana

Bangkok-based Beervana, a specialty beer importer, recently sponsored a Christmas Luau, a Hawaiian feast cooked by chef Tim Butler (from Eat Me restaurant) and hosted at Flow House, Bangkok’s first spot for “indoor surfing” on the FlowRider wave machine. Bangkok Glutton writer Chow invited me to come along for the fun.

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It was a warm and windless evening, which didn’t bode well for an outdoor dinner. The location, Flow House Bangkok, is on Sukhumvit Soi 26 near Rama IV Road. It has a nice second floor terrace that overlooks the Flow Rider wave machine and provided a private dining space for our twenty or so diners.

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The Flow Rider provided plenty of entertainment, watching the (mostly younger) crowd surf on this high-powered sheet of water. Especially fun was to watch how, when they wiped out, the spray of water would carry them up the ramp and onto the platform at the top of the wave. Looks like fun!

While we waited for dinner to be served, Beervana’s owners plied us with a couple of their imported beers. Beervana searches for unique beers with character. They are typically non-pasteurized and non-filtered and are made by small, independent brewers. While I’m not a beer drinker, several of their beers were very enjoyable and all paired well with the food.

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After a bit too long of a wait, the first course arrived, an ahi tuna poke with ginger and chili coconut vinaigrette. Poke is a typical Hawaiian dish generally made with raw fish mixed with various dressings. In this case, the vinaigrette made the poke into more of a ceviche. It was okay in itself but the accompanying beer, an Anderson Valley Poleeko Pale Ale, was excellent.

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Second course was a grilled prawn with ogo ogo seaweed salad, basil, and Spam. When preparing prawns for large groups, the risk is that the prawns will be overcooked. In this case, the prawns were actually slightly undercooked. The seaweed salad was underwhelming and the prawn lacked seasoning. The addition of Spam (and cilantro instead of the basil listed on the menu) added nothing to the dish other than a convenient shortcut to make the dish more “Hawaiian”… kind of. Paired with an enjoyable Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale.

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The third course was very nice, a spicy lomilomi salmon with heirloom tomatoes and coriander. Lots of lomilomi salmon in Hawaii is served with smoked salmon of so-so smoked salmon and is usually too heavy on the tomatoes. In this case, the salmon was excellent and there was plenty of it. Assertively flavored, it had a nice kick. The course was served with an Anderson Valley Solstice Cream Ale, which tastes heavily of cream soda and didn’t do much for me.

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After a long wait, the whole roasted pig was served. It was ostensibly served “family style” but that meant that we needed to walk over to get our plates.

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The pig was very flavorful and moist. Pieces of crisp skin were enjoyable but the skin attached to the sliced meat was rubbery. The taro puree and pineapple lime confit, while simple, were nice accompaniments for the pork. This was served with a Rogue Yellow Snow IPA, which was nice but I soon reverted to some more of the Anderson Valley Poleeko Pale Ale served with the first course.

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For dessert, we were served vanilla coconut custard with roasted pineapple and rum. This tasted okay but way too much gelatin had been used so the custard was rubbery. The pineapple went well with the custard, though. Served with a Rogue Chocolate Stout that complimented the dessert but I don’t like stout – too bitter for my taste.

All in all, it was a fun evening. It is fun to try a new experience and the idea of pairing beer with food is an interesting one. The beer was a bottomless flow, so if I were more of a beer drinker, it would have been heaven. Instead, it was just a slice of beach in Bangkok.

 

Christmas Dinner

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Yes, I am a few weeks late with this entry, but our friend Nat hosted such an extraordinary feast on Christmas day that it would be a shame not to share some photos with you.  Nat and his twenty-some guests supped on a dozen dishes and three desserts.  The meal was several days in the making, aided by his half-dozen staff members, some of whom formerly worked as hotel sous chefs.

Our menu:

Salmon Wellington

Sous-Vide Turkey

Garlic Honey Roast Turkey

Cornbread Chestnut Stuffing

Mushroom Garlic Stuffing

Carrot Puree

Brussels Sprouts

Grilled Broccoli Rabe

Steamed Corn

Potatoes Savoyarde

Yorkshire Pudding

Chinese Rice Wine Gravy

Cranberry Chutney

White Chocolate Bombe

Coconut Christmas Cake

Strawberry Caramel Angel Food Cake

Vanilla Poppy Seed Ice Cream

Pistachio Ice Cream

Dark Chocolate Ice Cream

Homemade dessert sauces

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I arrived mid-afternoon to find the production already well under-way.  In fact, Nat and his staff were working from a five-page itinerary that had every step of the multi-day preparation scheduled!

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First off, let’s talk about the Salmon Wellington.  You may be more familiar with the version served with a beef loin inside, called Beef Wellington.  In this version, two whole salmon fillets are topped with a ground mushroom mixture and then baked inside puff pastry dough.  Not only is it a tasty way to eat salmon, but it is quite the show-stopper!

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Left: Nat takes his frustration out on the puff pasty dough, which he made himself.  Puff pasty is one of those pain in the neck sort of things that most people are perfectly happy to just buy from the freezer section of their local grocery store.  Right: The salmon is covered with the mushrooms and additional dollops of butter before the top layer of the pastry dough is added and the edges are sealed.

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Left: I used some leftover pastry dough to cut out decorative shapes that seemed appropriate for a seafood dish: a squid, a shark, a starfish, and some goldfish.  Instead of slits to release the steam, I used a knife steel to make “bubbles”.  Clever, huh? 

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Next item, the Garlic and Honey Roast Turkey.  This is Martha Stewart’s recipe and it produces a reliably moist and tender bird.  The trouble is that you have to remember to baste it every thirty minutes.  If you have a staff, you can assign someone that responsibility.  (Oh, if only I had a kitchen staff!  Ha ha!)

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The turkey, mid-carving.  The skin gets very dark and crispy but fear not!  Because you have remembered to baste it throughout the cooking, the meat remains moist and flavorful.

Our third main course was another type of turkey, this one prepared sous-vide.  Sous-vide is French for “under vacuum” and the style involves cooking the food inside vacuum-sealed plastic bags which are then placed in a water bath for a long, low-temperature spa session.  For example, the water bath for the turkey was something like 168 F.  This way, the meat cannot get dry and tough, although more delicate cuts can turn mealy if you overcook them.

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First step, turkey parts are sealed in bags with loads of butter and other seasonings.  Next, the bags are placed in the sous-vide machine, which regulates the water temperature.  It took about three hours to cook the whole turkey.  Afterwards, the bags are taken out and put in a bath of ice water to immediately stop the cooking.

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Once cool, you remove the turkey parts, pat them dry, and then immerse them in boiling oil for a minute or so.  This allows the exterior to quickly crisp, forming a wonderful skin and an appealing color.  On the right, you can hopefully see just how moist the turkey was after the combination of cooking methods.  While the roast turkey had been moist, you had to add the qualifier, “for a roast turkey” afterwards.  For the sous-vide turkey, the meat was very moist by any standard. 

Other selected side dishes:

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Left: Cornbread and chestnut stuffing.  Right: Brussels sprouts with pine nuts.

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Left: Yorkshire puddings (which are kind of like popovers).  Center: Grilled broccoli rabe.  Right: Cranberry chutney. 

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Just after 8:00, the guests had all arrived and the food was ready to serve.  Dishes were lined up all along the edge of the kitchen counter, a buffet for which no plate had room enough!

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I tried to get a little bit of everything on my plate but, alas, a dish or two may have been missed!  I did try all of the main dishes and was in agreement with the other guests, all of whom preferred the sous-vide turkey to the traditional roast turkey.  The Salmon Wellington was moist and perfectly cooked through but such a shame to have to cut the pastry in order to serve it!

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Of course, the most memorable dinners are made not by the food – no matter how elaborate – but by the quality of the company.  Tawn and I had the opportunity to dine with wonderful companions, some of them familiar faces and others new acquaintances.  All of them, though, made our Christmas dinner an especially enjoyable one.

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You may find this hard to believe, but some of us had enough room for dessert.  Nat had prepared a trio of cakes.  From the left: Strawberry and caramel angel food cake; coconut Christmas cake; and milk chocolate bombe.  He also prepared homemade sauces – strawberry, coconut cream, and creamy caramel – to match the cakes.  Since no cake is complete without ice cream, he made three flavors: dark chocolate, vanilla poppy seed, and pistachio. 

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I indulged in a slice of the strawberry caramel food cake but topped it with some coconut sauce, which had plenty of fresh coconut meat in it, and a scoop each of pistachio and vanilla poppy seed ice creams.  What a spectacular end to the meal.  Many thanks to our friend Nat for hosting this memorable Christmas dinner!

 

Baby It’s Warm Outside – Merry Christmas

It is a warm and humid Christmas Day here in Thailand.  After some extensive cooking for last night’s Christmas Eve party with Tawn’s university friends (I’ll write about that tomorrow – homemade Lasagna Bolognese entirely from scratch!), I’m back in the kitchen today preparing maple-rosemary candied pecans for my mother-in-law and an apple pie for dessert tonight with American friends.

A week or so ago, Val wrote an entry wondering what everyone’s Christmas tree looks like.  While we don’t celebrate it as a religious holiday, it is hard not to get caught up in the spirit – even here in Buddhist Bangkok.  Perhaps especially here in Bangkok, where there are more holiday decorations and Christmas music than at a Minneapolis mall.  Here is a look at our two trees:

The first tree is a potted one that looks pine-like, brought in for the season and simply decorated.  It has spent the last six months resting up by the pool.  Seriously, the condo maids felt that it wasn’t getting enough sun on the walkway outside our front door so they spirited it away to the pool deck, tending after it for us.

The second tree is an artificial one, pulled out from storage and given a more thorough decorating, graced with dozens of ornaments that hark back to my childhood, many of them handmade by my paternal grandparents.  As I type this, some 166 holiday songs are shuffling on my iPod, my current favorite of which is the duet of the Frank Loesser song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside by Glee stars Chris Colfer and Darren Criss.  Video here.  Granted, it isn’t cold outside, but with the air conditioning on full blast, one can imagine.

After waking up about 7:30 I prepared a simple Christmas breakfast of baked eggs: stale bread cubes soaked in an egg-milk mixture, tossed with green onions, ham, and mozzarella cheese.  After making a well in the bread mixture, I break an egg, sprinkle with salt, and bake for fifteen minutes.

This results in a warm and satisfyingly simple breakfast, accompanied by a few dashes of Tabasco sauce and a hot latte.

For all of our Christian friends and family members (as well as those who aren’t Christian but who enjoy celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday), we wish you the very warmest greetings and hope you and your loved ones have a happy Christmas and a healthy and peaceful year ahead!

Christmas Comes Early

Friday evening, finished with work, I flew from Houston to Kansas City with a quick Southwest Airlines stop in Dallas.  In other words, twenty minutes on the ground as one load of passengers deplaned and another load promptly took their place.  At about 10:00 pm I was met at the KC airport by my father, who had decided to drive 9 hours from Indiana to see me.

We arrived at my sister and brother-in-law’s house well after the nieces had gone to bed, but did everything we could to keep the noise to a minimum, lest they wake up and have their surprise spoiled.  I wrapped their Christmas presents and placed them – “From Santa” – under the tree before going to bed.

About 7:00 Saturday morning I came upstairs from the basement guest room to find the two girls, going on ages 5 and 8, glued to the cartoons.  “Good morning,” I said.  They turned around and for a moment you could see the wheels turning as they tried to process the disconnect between what they were seeing and what they knew to be true: that their uncle was thousands of miles away in Thailand.

The youngest niece actually turned back to the TV before doing a double-take that would have been at home in a slapstick comedy.  “How did you get here?!” she asked.

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I made my case that Santa had brought me along with the presents.  To prove my point, I used as evidence the photo of me and Santa that had been taken the night before as part of a Southwest Airlines / Microsoft promotion at Houston Hobby Airport.  For any number of reasons, they were skeptical of this evidence.  “He looks like family,” the older niece said.

Here is a four-minute video of the present opening, if you would care to watch it.  I imagine relatives will be more interested than most of you will be, but it has a few cute comments made with the sheer innocence that only children can.

If you elected not to watch the video, here were their presents:

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Ava received the larger hedgehog (which she has named “Judy”), a beachball sized stuffed animal that took up half my suitcase and made it inexplicably light for the baggage handlers.  This one matches a smaller hedgehog we gave her on a previous visit, of which she was convinced she already had the larger one of the pair.

Emily received a Hello Kitty watch – her first watch ever as she is now finally able to tell time – and a stuffed tiger that was a Christmas gift from one of my colleagues, but which will have a more loving home in Kansas City than in Bangkok.

We had lunch with my grandparents and uncle and then after running several errands we met another family friend for dinner at Lidia’s Italian restaurant in downtown.  Andy and Sugi were unfortunately not able to drive down from Omaha to join us as they were experiencing blizzard conditions.

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That evening, Emily practiced reading (she has become very proficient and devours chapter books) with “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” while Ava (in her “To Wong Foo with Love, Julie Newmar” outfit) practiced her alphabet, shouting triumphantly, “Look!  I drew an ‘h’!”

After putting the girls to bed and saying my goodbyes, I reloaded my bags, filling the void left by the hedgehog with cans of chipotles and tomatillos.  By midnight I was in bed for a few hours’ sleep before an early trip to the airport at 4:00 am.

 

No Hong Kong for Christmas

The big plans for Christmas this year were a long weekend in Hong Kong, since Christmas falls on a Friday and Gary, W and Eric were going to be there from LA.  To top it off, Aaron was going to be there, too, and Angel as well.  What a perfect time to meet up with everyone.  Sadly, it won’t be happening.

Tawn’s managing director decided that no more unpaid leave would be approved for the rest of the year.  It seems that twelve paid vacation days a year aren’t enough for Tawn, considering that we burned through those in the first six months of the calendar.  So we had to squash plans for our Hong Kong trip, postponing it until April.

The upside is that our friend and former roommate Stephanie is in town from Melbourne and had we gone to Hong Kong, we would have had to leave her to her own devices for a long weekend.  Now we’ll be able to enjoy spending time with her through her entire holiday here in the Land of Smiles.

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Rather oddly, the maintenance people here at the condo erected two Christmas trees on either side of the swimming pool, extension cords for the lights taped down along the terra cotta tiles.  It is very pretty just after sunset when the lights are on.

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We’ve set up our own Christmas tree, too, something we do some years and not others.  It is an artificial tree, of course, and one that I think looks particularly artificial.  In fact, there is a point where the whole thing becomes a bit of a caricature of the holiday tradition since neither Tawn nor I really celebrate Christmas.  I think we put the tree up some years more as a decorative item than anything else.

The plan is to call the nieces on Christmas Eve their time and report that, since Thailand is some 13 hours ahead of Kansas City, Santa has already arrived here and has said that he is heading their way.  Let’s keep that childhood innocence alive as long as possible.