August 19, 2008

Flax seed sandwich loaf

Our 4th (or 5th?) attempt at one of Rose Levy Berenbaum's bread recipes, this loaf has whole wheat flour, unbleached all-purpose flour, rye flour, and ground flax seeds.

I feel like a proud parent overlooking my child's flaws but look how charmingly it leans to the left. I have to say, I really love the imperfections and finicky nature of home baked bread. It makes it more fun.

We let it rise for an extra 2 hours, is the explanation. In lieu of baking the bread, we went out for Tex-Mex with our friend Ilan (irresponsible parenting? maybe). It puffed up alarmingly high in the oven but turned out fine in the end.

Oh, and my review: Excellent, complex flavor. The crumb is soft and a little springy, with a nice firm texture, especially when compared to the dry, cardboard texture of some store bought whole wheat bread. Great toasted (especially if smeared with butter and Bonne Maman Quatre Fruits.) Should make delicious sandwiches.

August 14, 2008

Vietnam recap

We returned from our honeymoon in Vietnam just a few weeks ago. What an incredible trip! Having never been to Vietnam, I had weak attachments to my mother's family -- who, sadly, were mostly in Germany at the time we were there -- and knew almost nothing about my mom's birthplace. But I was happy that Mark was enthusiastic about visiting, because I wanted to experience it myself. 

Vietnam is a beautiful country, vibrant with change and modernization and wealth but also full of stories from the past. The people were frankly curious about us (especially me, because they could tell I was part Vietnamese, I think), and happy to have tourists there to learn about Vietnam's culture and food and also to spend their dollars.

After a 24 hour layover in Tokyo (where we slept and ate ramen), we flew to Saigon. Over the next 4 weeks, we made our way way through the Mekong Delta, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Sapa, and Ha Long Bay and back to Tokyo. 

Ho Chi Minh City was loud, crowded, polluted, insane, and (despite all this) kind of wonderful. It seems like all 7 million of inhabitants are all on the streets at the same time, zipping around on motorbikes. The constant honking is almost unbearable. But the scenery and the food make up for it.

Crossing the street is a skill you must cultivate immediately. Saigon streets are like Frogger on crack.

These are the rules:
  1. Never hesitate. Just go.
  2. Look both ways. Keep looking both ways. Never stop looking both ways.
  3. A walk sign does not mean that the cars/motorbikes will stop. There will just be less of them to contend with.
  4. When in doubt, wait for a Vietnamese person to cross the street and follow him/her.
Sometimes the motorbikes are carrying crazy items. Like 7 live piglets. Or maybe goldfish, like this gentleman:

We spent our days wandering around the parks, temples and food markets, seeking out our next cold drink. Guys, it was so hot and humid. Fortunately, Vietnam has an incredible array of freshly made beverages available on the street and in cafes. My drink of choice was soda chanh, or lime soda. Simple and utterly refreshing: Lime juice, sugar syrup, and club soda. We also loved sinh to, or icy fruit smoothies sweetened with condensed milk. My favorite was the mango (xoai) and Mark liked the soursop (mang cau xiem). And we drank a lot of Vietnamese beer and iced coffee.

Let me just say right now that we pretty much ignored all the warnings not to get ice, not to eat the fresh herbs, not to eat fruit we didn't peel ourselves, and not to eat street food. It would have been impossible to enjoy Vietnam's incredible cuisine without sampling street food and trying all the different raw vegetables, herb garnishes, and iced concoctions. I paid the price for my lack of caution and got sick briefly but Mark was totally fine. We ate extremely well in Saigon, but the best thing would have to be the cha ca: juicy morsels of turmeric-marinated fried fish garnished with chopped dill. I still think about this meal.

From Saigon, we hired a driver to take us to the Mekong delta past rice fields and herds of water buffalo. Can Tho felt immensely quiet and peaceful compared to Saigon, until we got caught in the most wonderful rain storm we've ever experienced. So much rain, so much thunder, and all so quickly. We ate a fantastic sour seafood and vegetable hotpot with our hired guide, enjoying the rain and chatting with our guide about life in the Mekong delta, where he grew up. Mark saw a little mouse in the restaurant, but we can't blame him for seeking refuge from the downpour!  He was funny, smart, and informative. When we asked how his family and friends felt about Americans, he reminded us that Vietnam is a country that has known many wars with different countries. He thought it better to look to the future than worry about past horrors.

Up early the next morning for filtered coffee and a tour of the Mekong and its floating markets. There were lots of homes built on the river so people could easily access their boats, their fish, their neighbors. 

We sampled some local products, the most notable being toasted rice cakes flavored with coconut and brown sugar. Not bad at all.

From Can Tho, our driver took us to Mui Ne, a tiny beachside town where we had rented a tiny bungalow on the beach.

This place would have been idyllic if it wasn't for the moth infestation (apparently the moths are kept in check by rain storms but this area had been dry for the last week). I'll never forget our dinner here: tamarind crabs, beers, and every surface covered in white moths. It was totally Hitchcockian.
Up early the next morning to Nha Trang. My mom spent most of her life in Nha Trang so I was excited to visit. This was our "splurge" of the trip -- a beautiful, private, totally peaceful cottage on the beach. It was the most luxurious place we stayed in and it felt truly honeymoon-ish. We swam, snorkeled, took a cooking class (the teacher said that everything I made tasted better than Mark's, even though we used the exact same ingredients), got massages, tried every kind of tropical fruit we'd ever heard of, watched Cham dancers, and read on the beach beneath coconut trees. It was so nice we decided to extend our stay in Nha Trang for two extra nights.

From Nha Trang, we visited Hoi An, a tiny/charming town known for its tailors, old merchant homes and proximity to Cham ruins in My Son.

Next up was Hue, where we took a boat tour of the Perfume river and a moto-taxi tour of the emperors' burial grounds. Mark died laughing at the look on my face when I found out I had accidentally arranged a moto-taxi tour, but we had no choice. It was okay; we couldn't really go that fast because I outweighed the driver by at least 50 pounds (poor guy!). The burial grounds were amazing, though, so I was glad we did it.

We flew from Danang to Hanoi, a fun, vibrant, beautiful city. We wandered around the city, met up with two friends of a friend who proved to be the best tour guides we could have hoped for, and ate a lot of street food.

From Hanoi, we did two side trips -- Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa. To get to Sa Pa, we took an overnight train into the mountains, where the air was cool and foggy. We learned about the culture of the mountain people and the terrace farming they do here, which were both super interesting. The crafts they did here were beautiful and unique, but once I bought some pillow cases every other sales woman marked me as a target. One lady waited for us for an hour outside the restaurant we had lunch. They were aggressive and totally determined, but also smiling and kind.  

In Ha Long Bay, we booked a room on a junk boat and they took us fishing, kayaking, and cruising throughout the bay. This was a high point of our trip, especially the kayaking, maybe because poor Mark did all the rowing work while I pointed out fish and interesting rock formations! The boat proprietors were impressed with Mark's fishing skills (that guy caught 6 fish in an hour using a bamboo stick with string tied to it) and also let him steer for a bit. They also called us a "love couple" and gave us flowers since we were on our honeymoon. It was pretty adorable. We caught a fantastic sunset on the last night. 

From Hanoi, we caught a flight to Tokyo and we were determined to visit the city before our flight to Houston left 6 hours later. We took the train in, caught a cab, and asked him to take us to a place where we could eat "soba or tempura." This kind man felt very confused by our question (his response: "soba ... and tempura ... different!") but dropped us off at the best possible place: Tsukiji fish market. We ate sashimi for breakfast before hopping in another cab and catching the train back to the airport for our flight home. What a honeymoon! Looking forward to another trip one day, hopefully with my mom and her family.

August 3, 2008

Adventures at the flea market

Me: Mark, do you want to go to the flea market with me?
Mark: [hems and haws] Not reeeeeaaalllly...

*10 minutes later*
Me: Ooh, this magazine article says the flea market has funnel cake.
Mark: I'm coming.

20 minutes later? Happiness is a mound of fried dough, hidden under an avalanche of powdered sugar.

Unfortunately, the funnel cake was the only thing the flea market had going for it. My ongoing search for vintage Pyrex was woefully unsuccessful. I am such a fan of vintage Pyrex! Check out the Flickr PyrexLove pool.

My favorites are the mixing bowls and the refrigerator dishes, especially the refrigerator dishes, because containers with glass lids for food storage are the best (no plastic leaching into your food). I have been meaning to check out some of the vintage shops near my parents' house, so maybe I'll have better luck this week.

*update* We inherited a set of the primary color mixing bowls! BLISS.

Birthday Pizza: Part 2

Since I know you are all on the edges of your seats wondering about how our pizza turned out, I'll spare you the suspense and confirm it was totally delicious.

I used Rose Levy Berenbaum's recipe for pizza dough. Our normal dough recipe, from a random but awesome cookbook we picked up while we were in Italy, yields a super thin, crisp pizza, which is what I'm always looking for. We all agreed that RLB's dough has great flavor and texture but a) it is a bit tricky to work with and b) is a little thicker than I like. However, my mom and brother prefer a very bready pizza, so this pizza was a good compromise.

Our first pizza, with cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, basil (and no tomato sauce):

My brother is of the "pile as many toppings on your pizza as possible" school, as you can see; his pie had tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, tons of sausage, red onion, and basil.

After the first two pizzas, I stopped taking pictures because everyone was wolfing down the pizza too quickly. Such is life.

By the way, pizza is one of my favorite, favorite ways to entertain friends who love food as much as we do. Buy wine, lots of pizza toppings, and spend the evening inventing pizzas. I mean, it is still fun and delicious if your friends don't love food... but I'll admit I was a little disappointed that my brother preferred shredded mozzarella to the burrata, didn't care that the burrata was from a buffalo, and was not at all interested in putting arugula on his pizza. We are sooo different.

August 1, 2008

Preparing for a birthday dinner

Today is my mom's birthday - happy birthday Mom!!! She is an amazing lady: hilarious (usually unintentionally so), very smart, and hard working. She also has an incredible treasure trove of adventure stories under her belt, like when she accidentally came under the protection of an organized crime boss or how she escaped from Vietnam. Wow! But I'm saving all those for an eventual book, so I won't give away anything... for now.

Since my mom is not a fan of birthday cake, I made an ice cream pie, inspired by Mark's grandpa's favorite summer dessert (more on this later). But first, we'll be rolling out lots of thin crust pizzas with a variety of different toppings: fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, banana peppers (hot!), Italian sausage, fennel, red onion, basil... oh, and anchovies, by special request from my mom.

I made the pizza dough a few hours ago and it is rising, rising ... slooowly rising. Just like my level of excitement about constructing a blistery crusted pizza with milky mozzarella, sweet cherry tomatoes, and fragrant basil. And maybe some fennel-y Italian sausage. I love sausage so very much.

Have a great weekend!