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Monday, April 28, 2008

Swallowing clouds

As part of Jude and Serene's ongoing effort to recreate all things we love to eat from home, we made wontons tonight. The schizophrenic Michigan weather turned chilly this weekend and the temptation of a steaming bowl of dumplings and noodles was too hard to resist. Wonton noodles are a dime and dozen in Singapore, but as with all foods from home, there are either hard to find here in Ann Arbor, or what we have isn't very good. A teeny pinch of meat in thick, floury wrapper, floating lifelessly in of-dubious-origin broth is not wonton soup, people. On a night like tonight, I had visions of succulent dumplings bopping in a broth richly flavored with Chinese wine and ginger. And so, that's what we had for dinner :)

Homemade wontons are just yummy. They take some work, but these little gems are worth it. Slightly translucent and slippery as they slither down your throat, they manage to be succulent, delicate, and satisfying all at the same time.

I've written before about the lyricism of the Chinese language, and today, as we tucked into our steaming bowls of wonton noodle soup, I am reminded again of how beautiful and evocative my mother tongue can be. The word "won 云 ton 吞 " translates literally into "swallowing clouds"- perfectly apt for these comforting morsels of dumpling goodness :)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

To remember Earth Day today, here's an excerpt from food activist, Alice Waters' latest book, "The Art of Simple Food". Jude and I wish we could heed all her exhortations here, but we can only try. It's difficult on a grad student budget which doesn't allow us to buy organic as much as we'd like, and living in a part of the country where it's too cold 6 months of a year for local/community farming to be very viable. Still, as both of us become increasingly conscious of where our food comes from, how it's grown and reared, and its larger implications for the environment and economy (we've just been talking about the documentary, King Corn, that talks about the pernicious effects of genetically modified corn on our environment, our health, and our social fabric), these are points of inspiration and sound advice to keep close.

Eat locally and sustainably.
Learn where your food comes from and how it is produced. Seek out a diverse variety of vegetables and fruits from small, local producers who take care of the land. Buy eggs, meat, and fish from producers whose practices are organic, humane, and environmentally sound.

Eat seasonally.
Choose food in season. Even where the growing season is short, organic gardening and farming can extend it: Greens can be grown in cold frames and greenhouses, and there are always local foods that can be stored, dried, and canned for the winter months. Eating seasonally inspires your menus, gives you a sense of time and place, and rewards you with the most flavorful food.

Shop at farmers markets.
Farmers markets create communities that value diversity, honesty, seasonality, locality, sustainability, and beauty. Get to know the people who grow your food. Think of yourself as a partner with the farmers, learning from them and working with them.

Plant a garden.
It is deeply satisfying to eat food you have grown yourself, in your own backyard or in a community garden. Even a pot of herbs on your windowsill can transform your cooking and connect you to the changing seasons, as can foraging for wild foods and harvesting fruit from farms that allow you to pick your own. Learn what the edible landscape has to offer.

Conserve, compost, and recycle.
Take your own basket to the market. Reuse whatever packaging you can. Keep a compost bucket nearby when you cook to recycle kitchen scraps. The more you conserve, the less you waste, the better you feel.

Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
Plan uncomplicated meals. Let things taste of what they are. Enjoy cooking as a sensory pleasure: touch, listen, watch, smell, and, above all, taste. Taste as you go. Keep tasting and keep practicing and discovering.

Cook together.
Include your family and friends, and especially children. When children grow, cook, and serve food, they want to eat it. The hands-on experience of gardening and cooking teaches children the value and pleasure of good food almost effortlessly.

Eat together.
No matter how modest the meal, create a special place to sit down together, and set the table with care and respect. Savor the ritual of the table. Mealtime is a time for empathy and generosity, a time to nourish and communicate.

Remember food is precious.
Good food can only come from good ingredients. Its proper price includes the cost of preserving the environment and paying fairly for the labor of the people who produce it. Food should never be taken for granted.

[Excerpted from “The Art of Simple Foods: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution” by Alice Waters]

Trailer for King Corn:

Yeast- I have overcome!...

So for a long time, I avoided the matter entirely. If I happened upon a recipe that called for yeast, I simply skipped ahead to another. The word "yeast" was synonymous with "stop," or "dream on, lady." I guess you could say that yeast was like the cute guy in junior high: the one with great hair, the one who looks like heartbreak waiting to happen. To spare yourself the sure humiliation, you decide to give him a wide berth, to only stare from afar. But then, when he sits down at your lunch table, instead of striking up a conversation, you cower in your beef stew. That was me with yeast.

But then, you know, there was this pesky business of the cinnamon roll. Namely, that I wanted one.
-Molly Wizenberg (a.k.a. Orangette), Bon Appétit

So that was me on Saturday. Well, Friday specifically. I really wanted to make sticky buns, both because I was craving one- really craving one- but also because I had promised to bring some to tea with our friends, the Cooks and Cooneys. I had initially thought I could take the coward's way out and use frozen bread dough. Because why?

Yeast intimidates me.

I've heard too many horror stories from friends who bake about all that can go wrong with yeast- not rising, being temperamental, killed by water that was too cold or too hot- all imaginable disasters a baker could conjure. Plus, I'm not a baker. I'm not precise when I cook. What do you mean 5 oz by weight? Can't I just use a cup measure? When you say half a tsp of salt, is that a pinch? My sister's the baker in the family, the one with the patience, precision and thoughtfulness. I'm the one who goes, Oooh, let's throw all this together and see what happens! I wonder what happens if you put orange zest in here? With the pork.

Oh, and then there's that tiny thing of not having a stand-mixer. I confessed that at dinner in front of two friends who are avid cooks and they literally looked at me in disbelief. The idea that I would even contemplate making bread without a stand-mixer. Say it isn't so! But oh yes indeed. I couldn't find frozen bread dough at the store (I couldn't be a coward even if I wanted to) and so if I wanted to make some kick-ass sticky buns, I was going to have to do it from scratch.

And so I did.

It was an incredibly elemental experience, this whole making your own bread business. I kneaded everything by hand, which was quite wonderful actually. There is something pleasurably soulful about turning flour, eggs and milk turn into tender, voluptuous dough with your own hands. And don't even get me started about how unbearably good the house smelled as the buns were baking- a heady fragrance of cinnamon, orange and brown sugar. Hours after we came home, there was still a delicious, lingering scent. And the final product- better than I could have hoped for, thankfully. Trust me, taking that first bite of your own homemade ooey, gooey cinnamon bun- still warm- is as close to baking heaven as you can get...

This just might make a baker out of me yet :)

[Recipe adapted from Simply Recipes and Joanne Chang of Flour in Boston.]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Run, Serene, run..."

Last month, I signed up for the annual Dexter-Ann Arbor Run coming up in June. For a while now, I've wanted to train for a marathon- a little inspired by my dad, sis and best friend who've all done competitive races. I figured this is the fittest I'll probably be in my life and if I don't at least start trying to challenging myself a little more now, it's never going to happen. But being the wuss that I am, I thought I'll go easy on myself by registering for the 5K and see how that goes before trying something longer. Running the distance wasn't the challenge- I run close to that on my regular runs already anyway- doing it under 25 minutes is, or so I told myself. So I've been pushing myself a little harder everyday I run and I've made some progress, but there's just this threshold at about 5:10/K that I just can't seem to break. Plus the nerves in my feet have been tingling painfully these past weeks after every run, not to mention the fact that I almost passed out from running three days in a row yesterday...

And then I spoke with my dear best friend on the phone and she mentioned that perhaps the pain has something to do with the fact that really, at our age, our body can only be pushed that far before it retaliates. Not that we're old, but because I haven't run at those speeds till last month, and so my body's just not used to the "abuse", so to speak. That in the long run- pun fully intended- it might be more beneficial to run long distances slowly, than short distances fast- less wear and tear on the joints, muscles, and nerves.

And so, despite an (un)healthy amount of uncertainty about whether or not I can actually complete the race and some anxiety over having enough time from now till June 1 to train properly, I transfered my registration from the 5K to the 10K race. Like my friend, Stella, said, why do anything half-assed? If I'm going to run, I'm going to *run*. I've planned my first non-stop 6K for tomorrow. I'm also closing my eyes, saying (actually, whimpering, more like it...) a prayer, and crossing and fingers- let's hope I don't come to regret this... ;)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Food Pornography

So, with the photo of the buttermilk drop biscuits I made for dinner last night, our Food Pornography set on Flickr has officially reached 500 pictures! For those of you who follow our Flickr account, you'll know that Jude and I are as obsessive about documenting our food experiences as we are indulging in them. We have a ways to go before perfecting the art of truly stunning food photography, but thankfully, our trusty Lumix has a Food mode which helps :) The aim is to ultimately go full manual, but despite my dear husband's best efforts, I've just never been able to remember all the different settings on the camera. That or I'll just have to wait till we save up enough for a digital SLR and then I'll be inspired to play with as many of the light, flash and aperture settings as I can possible handle.

Till then, here's just a sample of some of my favorite of our food photos in all their graphic, obscene, delectable glory!

1. Fried bread (ham chee paeng), 2. Creamy crab, 3. Cannoli from Mike's Pastry, 4. Tempeh tauhu goreng, 5. Bean sprouts ("tau gay"), 6. Food Symmetry, 7. Dusted with powdered sugar, 8. Adobo, 9. New mac & cheese recipe, 10. Roasting sausages with grapes, 11. Jude's Wagyu skirt steak, 12. Sushi in auto mode, 13. Laksa!!! @ Les Amis, Botanical Gardens

What you've got to realize is that the clever cook puts unlikely things together, like duck and orange, like pineapple and ham. It's called 'artistry'. You know, I am an artist the way I combine my business and my pleasure: Money's my business, eating's my pleasure and Georgie's my pleasure, too, though in a more private kind of way than stuffing the mouth and feeding the sewers, though the pleasures are related because the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together that it just goes to show how eating and sex are related.
-Albert, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tune of the week: M83 - Graveyard Girl

OMG you don't know how much this track is hitting the spot right now! I've been tracking French musician, M83 (aka Anthony Gonzalez), through his past two albums (Before the Dawn Heals Us & Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts). Before, his music were dense noisy pieces that owed a lot to the synthesizer pop of the 1980s. But with his new album, Gonzalez lightens up a whole lot and takes on a different side of the 80s - the side that John Hughes teen dramas inhabit. I really connected with this description of the album offered up by Pitchfork:

The album has the same nostalgic sparkle as Hughes' films, a soft-focused mythology of eternal summers and young love. In the liner notes, Gonzalez dedicates it to "all the friends, music, movies, joints, and crazy teachers that made my teenage years so great!"

As much as I hate to admit it, I used to love John Hughes' movies. Especially Some Kind of Wonderful - it had all the right elements of teen angst, first loves and the "I want to be taken seriously but I don't know why I am doing these stupid things" theme so characteristic of teenhood. I know that Hughes' movies can sometimes be cheesy and predictable and that I might be waxing lyrically and being a tad bit too nostalgic. But you have to admit that this M83 song and video transports you back to the era when Hughes' movies reigned. And this song is something that would have been so playing on my Sony Walkman ;)

Some Kind of Wonderful trailer (and with all the classic lines no less):

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tune of the week: The Thermals - Returning to the Fold

It's that time of the week when one needs a track like this to put some spunk into a lethargic afternoon. And also just because it's a rooftop performance by Portland, OR's The Thermals playing a track from their 2006 album "The Body, The Blood and The Machine". Plus, I wanted to try out the new Pitchfork TV service :)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Young @ Heart

[Update: New York Times review here.]

[click for trailer]

I had seen the trailer for this a while ago and made a mental note to catch it when it opens in Spring. I've heard a little about this rocking New England senior citizen chorus before and was kinda excited that someone had made a documentary of them. I was reminded of it again when I saw this article in the NYT yesterday about the upcoming movie and so did a little poking around to see if I could videos of them online. Oh boy, are they wonderful! There is something so delightful about seeing grandmas and grandpas rocking out to The Ramones and The Clash :) And these folks have got spunk and spirit in large doses for sure. Especially when it comes to performing rock songs that they themselves might have told their children to turn down back in the day, like "I Wanna be Sedated" by The Ramones:

or (and Jude's going to love this) Sonic Youth's 'Schizophrenia':

But with all that joyousness, there's also a level of poignancy and sadness to the documentary that I think is quite palpable. According to the NYT article, they actually "lost" a few of the troupe's members during the making of the documentary. When the troupe conductor makes a joke about kidney stones in the trailer, you get a sense that kidney stones might be the least of many of their physical concerns. Which is why I say to watch them perform Coldplay's "Fix You" with caution:

By the time I was done with this, my lunch was decidedly soggier and my face was streaked with tears. I adore Chris Martin, but I'm sorry, dude, what this cover lacks in technical perfection, it more than makes up for with a whole lot of heart. When that old man, Fred Knittle, started singing, I literally felt a shiver go through me and I couldn't stop crying till it was over. You can almost feel the hush cast over the concert hall. Apparently, this song was intended to be a duet between Fred and another chorus member, Bob Salvini. Sadly, Bob died of a heart attack and it was left to Fred to carry the song on his own. There are supposed to be some very moving scenes in the film where we see Fred rehearsing alone soon after Bob's death. This is powerful, beautiful stuff, people...


Saturday, April 05, 2008

"I am Alexander Supertramp!"

Yes, hiking through Alaska. Yes, gorgeous. But please, bring a map and a cellphone. And stay away from the purple plants.

Oh, and Hal Holbrook, you broke my heart, you dear old man... *sniff*

. . . each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.
- Jack London

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Placeholder meme

Until something blog-worthy happens in our lives... :)

If your life had a soundtrack, what would the music be?

1. Open your iTunes library
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that’s playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don’t lie and try to pretend you’re cool…

Opening Credits
"The Greatest"- Cat Power (The Greatest)

Waking Up
"Good As Gold (Stupid as Mud)"- The Beautiful South (Carry On Up the Charts)

First Day of School
"Major Label Debut"- Broken Social Scene (Broken Social Scene)

Falling in Love
"Twilight Chases the Sun"- Furniture (Twilight Chases the Sun)

Breaking Up
"Until the Day is Done"- R.E.M. (Accelerate)

"What the World Needs Now"- The Carpenters (Scrubs Soundtrack)

Life's Okay
"Piazza, New York Catcher"- Belle & Sebastian (Dear Catastrophe Waitress)

Mental Breakdown
"Every Wall Your Own"- Chris Bathgate (A Cork Tale Wake)

"California One Youth and Beaut"- The Decemberists (Castaways and Cutouts)

"Dummy Song"- Louis Armstrong (You've Got Mail Soundtrack)

Getting Back Together
"1995"- The Radio Dept. (Lesser Matters)

"Brick"- Ben Folds Five (Whatever and Ever Amen)

Birth of a Child
"Lo Boob Oscillator"- Stereolab (High Fidelity Soundtrack)

Final Battle
"One Fine Day"- Natalie Merchant (One Fine Day Soundtrack)

Death Scene
"All of Your Days Will be Blessed"- Ed Harcourt (From Every Sphere)

Funeral Song
"A-Punk"- Vampire Weekend (Vampire Weekend)

End Credits
"Haiti"- Arcade Fire (Funeral)