A Birthday Dinner for Friends

There are few things more satisfying to me, than to cook a meal for loved ones. To celebrate my birthday and the birthday of a friend, I took over another friend’s kitchen and we cooked a dinner for 13 people. It was a nice feast and an even nicer group of people.

IMG_3387The menu was full but not too ambitious. I was trying to do something in an autumnal theme, although a few ingredients like figs were not available so did not remain on the menu.

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The most ambitious item was the individual lemon soufflés. I did not have enough ramekins, so made a morning visit to the Chatuchak weekend market to buy a set of 20, along with a set of matching individual pitchers, perfect for serving sauces in.

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A salad of mixed greens including butter leaf lettuce, sunflower sprouts, and radicchio, with persimmon, pears, and pumpkin seeds. Served with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

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The side vegetable was a roasted saffron cauliflower, a Mediterranean-style dish from the cookbook “Plenty” by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. The combination of red onions, raisins, and green olives is fantastic.

IMG_3356The main course was a salt and herb-crusted pork loin with new potatoes. This dish, a mash-up from this recipe and another from Jamie Oliver, went okay but I didn’t have quite enough salt to make a full crust. As a result, the meat was just a tad dryer and the potatoes a tad undercooked. But still, very flavorful.

IMG_3364The finished product. I will play more with this means of cooking. The salt crust locks in moisture and adds seasoning.

IMG_3368To accompany the pork, I cooked an apple and onion chutney, based loosely on this recipe. I am not always good about following recipes.

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I think it made for a nice plate and reasonably healthful, too!

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Dessert was very ambitious. I had prepared the lemon cardamom base, which is essentially a choux pasty (milk, cream, flour, cornstarch, and egg yolks). I then added whipped egg whites. Sixteen of them, in fact.

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Top: as I put them in the oven (not quite as filled as they should be – I quintupled the recipe but only had enough for 13 instead of the expected 16). Bottom: just before taking them out. Since I did not smooth the tops, I didn’t get the typical “high hat” look.

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The end result was perfectly fine, though. Served with a side of raspberry coulis, the soufflés were a show-stopper. Recipe here.

I’m glad I could spend the night before my birthday celebrating with friends in the way I enjoy best: cooking for them.

An Umami Birthday Dinner

Trying to catch everyone up on my recent activities, in November I celebrated my birthday by cooking a dinner for some of my friends. One friend had recently remodeled his condo and was itching to have a dinner party to show off the new open-format kitchen. Never shy about messing up, err… cooking in someone else’s kitchen, I accepted his offer and started planning a meal around the theme of umami.

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Umami is the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). A Japanese word, it describes the “savory,” “meaty,” or “fulfilling” quality. Umami is tasted through glutamates, a type of amino acid that is found in foods such as mushrooms, anchovies, fish sauce, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and MSG.

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The appetizer course featured three umami-rich items: a Parmesan and wild mushroom custard, miso and bacon glazed eggplant, and whole grain toasts with avocado and soy-sauce dressed sardines. This was probably a wee bit ambitious as there ended up being so much food that this course was almost a meal in itself.

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The “soup” course was a bit clever, if I say so myself. I borrowed a friend’s ice cream maker and turned a roasted tomato soup into a granita and served it with Parmesan sorbet on top. It really had all the flavors of a tomato soup (plus a little spicy as I added dried chilies) with cheese sprinkled on top, but it was frozen.

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The main course was balsamic vinegar marinated roast chicken with green olives. This excellent choice of a marinade makes for rich, flavorful, and moist meat. Will definitely repeat this recipe.

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Accompanying the main corse were garlic and black truffle infused mashed potatoes with more Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

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We concluded the meal with a salad course, a Caesar salad with homemade dressing. This is the first time I’ve made Caesar dressing from scratch and it is incredibly easy and really much better than from a bottle. Served with homemade croutons with truffle salt.

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For dessert, I served an interesting Sicilian orange olive oil cake with homemade cardamom ice cream. The cake was interesting because it is made by quartering and boiling oranges (unpeeled) in three changes of water and then pureeing the oranges, rind and all, and incorporating it into the batter. The result is a moist, intensely flavored cake. The cardamom ice cream was an excellent compliment to the cake.

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While there were some friends who weren’t present, the dinner itself was a success. I was very happy with the dishes and while I would probably not be as ambitious next time, I think many of the recipes are worth visiting again.

 

Sunday Brunch

Last Sunday we had four couples over for brunch. It had been about two months since I last had guests over and was missing the sounds of a full house. Normally, because of our small dining table, we limit guests to four. However, you don’t get the opportunities to introduce groups of friends who have never met when you have so few guests, so I invited a larger crowd.

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In a moment of OCD, I actually printed the menu and tied it above the kitchen counter so guests could see what they were serving themselves. (Buffet style service today.) To save your eyesight, here’s the menu:

  • “Make Your Own” Parfait Bar – Fresh tropical fruits, homemade almond maple granola, local whole milk yoghurt, and Northern Thai honey.
  • Crostini – Made from Maison Jean Philippe baguettes drizzled with annatto seed and garlic infused extra virgin olive oil, served with fromage blanc from Yogi.
  • Salad – Imported black quinoa and chickpeas mixed with bell peppers, rocket, capers, raisins, and toasted almonds, dressed with black sesame tahini, lemon juice, and honey.
  • Main – Baked organic eggs Mediterranean style with spinach, Kalmatta olives, onions, feta and mozzarella cheese, and green onions. Drizzled with annatto seed and garlic infused extra virgin olive oil.
  • Bread – Whole wheat, toasted oat, walnut, and date muffins served with Swedish whipped honey.
  • Dessert – Choice of American cherry tart or American blackberry tart, served with Disaronno infused whipped cream and nutmeg garnish.

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Main counter with the parfait bar, crostini, muffins, and tarts from left to right.

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Second counter with the quinoa and chickpea salad and baked egg dishes. I had originally bought aluminum tins (tacky, I know, but easy clean-up) but didn’t look at the package count so had to cave in and use ramekins anyhow.

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The quinoa and chickpea salad. The market was out of regular tahini so I had to use an organic black sesame spread (think peanut butter made from sesame seeds) which required a lot of lemon juice to overcome the sweetness of the honey in the spread. The result was tasty, though, and very healthful.

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The muffins, although a little stunted, were tasty. With mostly whole wheat flour and lots of toasted oats, they were fairly healthful. Plenty of chopped dates added minerals, nutrients, and fiber. Oh, and a little sprinkle of sugar on top? Well, who can resist?

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One of the two tarts. One of my guests had not so subtly suggested I bake a cherry pie for dessert so I took him up on it. Decided to do a tart, though, so I could use puff pastry from the store. Unfortunately, while it looks impressive, the brand of pastry uses shortening instead of butter so I found it a bit tough. Looks nice, though!

The conversation was wonderful and some friends who had never met each other before finally had a chance to connect. Of course, some who did not know each other, knew of each other. It is a small world here, even smaller when you are in my condo!

Homemade Pizza and Pasta Party

Last Friday we gathered at Chow’s place to cook dinner. The menu: homemade pizzas and pasta. The pizzas were a variety of gourmet types based on the menu of Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn, which Chow had tried on a recent visit. The pasta was a homemade chorizo and butternut squash ravioli. And to top it off, I made kaffir lime cheesecake.

Friends gather around the large island in the kitchen, helping to prepare ingredients and eat appetizers. The ravioli are already prepared and drying and we were waiting for the oven to preheat for the pizzas.

Every time I cook at a friend’s house, it is a bit of a logistics ordeal. In this case, I needed my KitchenAid mixer so I could roll out the pasta. I was also bringing a case of Oregon beer.

The beer in question is from Rogue, an independent brewer. The most interest beer of the evening: Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale. Had a distinct smokiness with a subtle sweetness on the tail end of the flavor.

For the pasta, I made homemade fresh (not dried) chorizo. I bought pork belly and ground it, adding paprika, garlic, and chili powder.

Browned the sausage in a pan, drained it on paper towels to remove the considerable grease, and then blended it with a butternut squash puree made from locally produced organic squash.

Make the pasta from scratch using Thomas Keller’s “Seven Yolk Pasta” with semolina flour. This is the best way to mix pasta dough, using your hands.

Using a creative technique I picked up watching Season 10 of Top Chef, I layered sage leaves between two sheets of pasta dough and then pressed them several more times. Then flattens the leaves, making the pasta pretty and adding some sage flavor.

Completed ravioli. I cut them relatively small so they didn’t have a lot of filling. In hindsight, I would have added more butternut squash and less chorizo as the sausage overpowered the squash flavor. A few more sage leaves would have been nice, too.

After boiling the ravioli, we fried them in a pan with browned butter and sage leaves. Became a bit more crispy than intended but were tasty all the same.

While I made the pizza dough (with Type 00 flour, a finer texture than regular all-purpose flour), I let Chow coordinate the toppings for each pie.

Half mushroom and pepperoni and half Jerusalem artichoke and pesto.

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Sliced Brussels sprouts, Boursin cheese, and locally produced pastrami.

Tomato, fresh buffalo mozzarella, and rocket.

For dessert, I once again made the kaffir lime cheesecake that was such a hit on New Year’s Day. It begins by steeping the lime leaves in heavy cream.

The crust is made of graham crackers, toasted pecans, sugar, and butter.

The main ingredients are cream cheese, eggs, the infused cream, kaffir lime zest, and a little lime juice. The juice comes from a regular lime as the kaffir lime juice is much to acidic.

The ingredients are blended together until smooth and light. Truth be told, I add two or three drops of green food coloring just to augment the color. The leaves alone give it only the most pale of greens.

Tap several times to release air bubbles and then cook in a water bath for 40-45 minutes. The key to a cheesecake with a smooth top (no cracks) is to turn the oven off when the edges are set but the center is still very shaky. Then let it complete cooking in the closed (but turned off) oven for another hour. This lets it cool down gradually and prevents the cracks.

The finished product has a mixture of sour cream, kaffir lime zest, and sugar poured over the top. I garnished with a chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves. This worked okay the first time but this time the leaves were a bit tough. I need to choose the smaller, more tender leaves and cut them more finely. The taste of the cake was good, though, and won rave reviews.

Most importantly, we had friends gathered together and shared good food, good wine, and good company. After all, that’s what makes the best meals, right? The company with which they are shared.

A Grand Wedding in Chiang Mai

This week we have been in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, to attend the wedding of two friends of ours. Both Thai, one of them is from Chiang Mai, so it seemed the perfect setting for them to start married life.

The wedding was held at the Rachamankha Hotel, a 24-room boutique hotel located in the old city walls. The entire hotel was taken over by the wedding party and we arrived a few days early to enjoy the setting.

The entrance to the hotel is flanked by a pair of buildings that are designed in an interesting blend of tropical, Chinese, and colonial styles.

The interior courtyards echo Lanna architecture, the kingdom that covered Northern Thailand from the 13th to 18th centuries. Most of the rooms line the two courtyards. Ours was to the left. The pavilion in the center offers comfortable seating and nice breezes.

One of the front buildings is covered with vines, giving an interesting European feel to the entrance area.

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The preparations for the wedding started two days before. The grooms’ friends provided many of the services: flower decorations, cupcakes, and in the case of Tawn, designs of the wedding party’s female members’ dresses. Above, Tawn and I pose with the beautiful floral decorations.

Tawn poses with the nieces (and nephew) of the groom. He designed the dresses for the girls.

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The day of the wedding began with a traditional Buddhist wedding ceremony. The wedding party and guests walked to the local temple at 6:45 am to feed the monks.

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Monks and novices after receiving their alms. They then chanted and blessed the wedding party.

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We returned to the hotel and later in the morning, performed a traditional ceremony in which the parents and elders pour water over the couple’s hands. The beautiful puang malai garlands were placed around the couple’s necks. And in a nod to northern Thai tradition, guests tied strings around the couple’s wrists to wish them good luck and happiness.

In the late afternoon, a traditional Christian ceremony was held by a friend of the grooms who is a minister. A few minutes before the guests were seated, I snapped this picture of the courtyard that was decorated for the ceremony. The flower arrangements were amazing. The small white flowers in the grasses at the front of the picture were added by the florist.

After the service, guests were invited to participate in a loi krathong ceremony, in which small rafts holding flowers, incense, and a candle are launched – usually in a river or lake but we made do with the swimming pool – as a way of sending away bad fortune.

The swimming pool filled with krathong.

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After dinner, guests participated in another version of loi krathong that is unique to the north: yii ping. These paper lanterns are launched in the same gesture as floating the rafts of flowers, incense, and candles. It is something I’ve always wanted to see in person as it strikes me as very beautiful.

Here are two short videos that show the guests launching the lanterns. They will give you a sense of how beautiful the tradition is.

This second video is in HD.

We had a wonderful time at the wedding, truly honored to be a part of this special moment in two friends’ lives. We wish them all the happiness and a long life together.

 

Friends and Xangans and Xangan Friends

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to meet several Xangan friends. In addition to meeting Jason (Wangium) for dinner at Nopalito in San Francisco, I met with Andy (ungrandvoyage) in Mountain View, and Kenny (kenpcho – not really active anymore) in Cosa Mesa. I’ve known all of them for some time and had met them before.

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While in Los Angeles, I also had to opportunity to have brunch with Gary (currypuffy – to my right) and Jimmy (Rm2046 – to my left), along with their friends William and Chris. Wonderful brunch at 3 Square Cafe in Venice Beach and I appreciate them making the time to see me. Sadly, Jimmy has been AWOL from Xanga for two years.

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After several years of knowing and just missing each other on my travels to the Bay Area, Kevin (Devilgaysianboi) and I finally had the chance to meet while I was in Southern California. He’s every bit as nice as he comes across on his blog. 

There are still plenty of Xangans I haven’t yet me whom I hope I’ll someday meet. These include, but are not limited to, the two Megs (Passionflwr86 and TheCheshireGrins), Val (murisopsis), Sheldon (brooklyn2028), Vivek (Dezinerdreams), Ben (bengozen), Alex (Roadlesstaken), Aaron (kunhuo42) and of course Matt (the appropriately-handled ElusiveWords). Well, I still have my whole life ahead of me, right?

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Of course, the trip wasn’t all Xangans. I also met with my high school friends (including their children and nephews, some of whom are pictured above). It was the seven-year-old (in the Groucho Marx glasses) who spurred me to finally cave in and buy a smart phone. During dim sum, the children were playing with their parents’ smart phones. Joaquin asked if he could borrow my phone. I fished out my inexpensive, old Nokia candy-bar phone. He looked at it for a moment, looked at me, and then said, “No, Uncle Chris, your real phone!”

I went to the Apple store that afternoon.

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This US trip was also the visit of babies, several of whom have been born in the last six months and all of whom I was pleased to spend time with. None of them starting a Xanga account yet, but at the rate that young people are adapting to technology, I expect they should be ready to blog by kindergartern. 

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No sooner had I returned to Bangkok than another pair of Xangans (well, former Xangans – how long can you be away before we give up hope that you will blog again?) came for a visit. Aaron (toypetfishes – the middle of the picture), who was the one who introduced me to Xanga more than seven years ago, and Tae (sagicaprio – between me and Aaron), shown here at brunch along with Tawn and our mutual friend Louis.

I’m amazed how many people from Xanga I’ve had the chance to meet in real life – 32, based on a quick count from my friends and subscribers list. That doesn’t include about a dozen relatives or friends I already knew who post (or used to post) on Xanga. Pretty successful for a social networking site, no?

 

You Don’t Like Uncle Chris?

Generally, I get along well with children and animals. Something about my disposition, personality, or perhaps my general vibe, helps us “click.” This was not the case, though, when I recently met the three-month old daughter of friends here in Bangkok.

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This little pumpkin was fussy from the get-go, giving me only a few tear-free minutes. I tried rocking, standing, sitting, cooing, singing… anything to soothe her. Eventually, giving her back to mom was the answer.