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Bay Area buffet

Monday, October 31, 2011

Before I left to visit my sister and her family in San Jose, California, I thought about what food stories could come out of the Bay Area. Most of the time, I would be eating what Joyce prepared at home but I was sure we would go out and look for something special as well. I knew that there would be plenty of fresh, organic food and I could always find a farmers' market somewhere. Food trucks were also big in the San Area and that was something else I could focus on. And let's not forget Californian wine, San Francisco sourdough and amazing seafood.
    There's all that, and pleasantly, I found more.
    I am ashamed to say that, although I read everything I can about bread, I had never heard of Dutch Crunch, or Tiger bread, until I looked up the sandwich menu at Driftwood Deli & Market in Palo Alto. I had never tasted a pluot, a cross between a plum and an apricot, or Santa Maria tri-tip, or held a 35cm (14-inch) churro in my hand (every one of these items was excellent). And doughnuts with strange names and stranger toppings? Fuhgeddaboudit!
   And I'm going to be laughed right out of town for admitting this but I used Twitter for the first time to hunt down a food truck. Look, this social media stuff is not my thing, okay.
    So, yes, I did have plenty to write about for the newspaper column (and included a recipe for corn dogs), apart from several posts in this space on:
    Of course, there's always room for more images by which to remember all the food and food-finding excursions.
Visit the Campbell Farmers' Market for fresh produce and freshly made food
Sam's ChowderMobile is well-known in the Bay Area. On the menu are clam chowder, lobster roll and Baja fish tacos
This no-name food truck sells cold drinks, packaged snacks and goodies like corn dogs and deep-fried burritos
    There's not been much baking in the past few weeks, and the most complicated thing I got around to when I got home was opening a packet of instant noodles and pouring water onto them. But as I write this, something I learned about in America – which I hope will turn out well – is proofing on my kitchen counter as the oven heats up.
    I think I might also try making a S'More doughnut , like the one from Psycho Donuts. This is how I plan to do it:
  1. Buy a chocolate-covered doughnut.
  2. Melt some marshmallows in the microwave oven.
  3. Melt some chocolate in another bowl in the microwave oven.
  4. Break up some graham crackers.
  5. Spread the melted marshmallows on the purchased chocolate-covered doughnut.
  6. Pile the graham cracker shards on the melted marshmallows, pressing them down lightly so they stick, and drizzle on the melted chocolate.
Now I just have to see if it actually works.

Away from San Jose*

Saturday, October 29, 2011

* A post that is not about food.

The beach makes everything tastes better, doesn't it? On picnics, that first bite of nasi lemak after a swim, whether in the Straits of Malacca or the South China Sea, is glorious. Someone should come up with a gimmick/gadget to simulate that ambience. They would make money.
    On our visit to Monterey one Saturday, we stopped by the Point Pinos Lighthouse. We got there before it opened, so we headed down to the beach nearby to have an early lunch (I found out that when you have two small children, everything has to be early). We had made tortilla wraps with slices of honey smoked turkey, cheese and avocado. The avocado was still a little under-ripe, but when you have a vista like the one we did, everything tastes good.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
    The lighthouse is lovely. The cottage is so pretty and would be my perfect place to live: great view, close to the sea, and a little remote.
    I don't know if it was because of the weekend, but there were so many people in Monterey. We took a walk down Cannery Row although we didn't make it far enough to see John Steinbeck's bronze statue. We had some frozen yoghurt and stopped by the beach.
Monterey beach
    On the rocks, sea-lions were sunning themselves. They're actually on the left in the picture above, on that little rocky outlay in the centre and they're the ones I was focusing on but unfortunately, I didn't get a good shot.
Visiting two pumpkin patches
    Halfway to Monterey, we stopped at Earthbound Farm in Carmel. In the collage above, the two top pictures were taken at the farm. There's Mady on the left looking up at a sunflower that's bigger than her head, although with her mass of brown curls, she almost measured up. We had fun going through the corn maze and running around the stone labyrinth. And the herb garden was quite amazing. Just the mint varieties alone drove me crazy – if I were a pixie, I would live in just that one section of the garden.
    The two bottom pictures are from Uesugi Farms near Gilroy, which we visited another day. This pumpkin patch has a fairground atmosphere, with rides and games. Mady and I went on the big train ride (on rails), as well as the Cow Train which was pulled by a tractor. Any child shorter than 36 inches has to be accompanied by an adult, and me trying to get into one of those sawn-off barrels that was a "cow" was a comical sight. The barrel wasn't very big and it was a tight squeeze fitting my bum into it. But I got to ride it with my god-daughter so there's nothing to complain about.
    The last stop on the visit was to get pumpkins to carve for Halloween. Joyce got a Sugar Pie Pumpkin each for Mady and Sophie – there they are making their choices in the bottom left picture. In Malaysia, all the pumpkin varieties seem to be round, and I was fascinated with what you could find in America. I really liked the shape of that Turban Squash on the far right.
    But know something: there was pumpkin everywhere and I didn't eat any during my visit.
Stanford University: (clockwise from top left) a 'You Are Here' map; a delightful drinking fountain; the Memorial Church; the corridor of Building 40-70 facing the Main Quad; Hoover Tower; and a sculpture at the Rodin Sculpture Garden (Mady has her hands in the dirt. That girl!) 
    Now, one last place I have to include in this post that is not about food is Stanford University, although being in Palo Alto, it isn't exactly far away from San Jose. The last time I visited Joyce and Keith (before the girls were born) I had mentioned that I was interested in seeing Stanford. When I was thinking of doing a PhD some years ago, this was one of the universities I looked at because it had (and probably still does although I haven't checked since then) the perfect area of language studies for my research interest. I enjoyed the visit. Thanks Joyce!
    Actually, I have much to appreciate Joyce for. My sister is the ultimate multi-tasking mum. First of all, it amazes me how, when she is driving the minivan with the girls in it, she is able to comfort Sophie when she is fussing, answer Mady's constant questions, keep her eye on the road, follow the GPS thingy and listen to the radio all at the same time! And then she also has a guest to take care of for two and a half weeks. I am humbled. The next time I have another badly written story to edit at work, I shall remember that it is nothing compared to what Joyce does.
    I shall end this post with a picture of the amazing vista we passed as we made our way back to San Jose from the pumpkin patch in Gilroy.


Monday, October 24, 2011

I am not a vegetarian but my diet is primarily meatless. Joyce and family eat meat at practically every meal. So by my calculations, I must have eaten four months' worth of meat in the two and a half weeks I was at her place. That's a lot of meat for me. Almost as much as I have mentioned meat in this one paragraph.
   My first dine-out meal out in California was at a sports bar called Smoke Eaters, which is known for its hot wings. Adam Richman of Man vs Food has been there for the restaurant's hell-fire challenge. Its seven levels of heat are mild, traditional, atomic, nuclear, traditional death, 4 alarm, and inferno.
Clockwise from top left: Braised beef short ribs; Smoke Eaters' fried chicken wings and tenders; St John's Bar and Grill tri-tip sandwich; and pork and beef meatballs (uncooked)
    With our fried chicken wings and tenders, we decided on atomic as our hottest hot sauce. Based on the name, I expected some level of explosion but there wasn't even a small one. Quite a dud, I must say.
     Another time, Keith met us for lunch at St John's Bar & Grill on Tri-Tip Tuesday. It was the first time I have tasted this cut of beef, which was grilled Santa Maria-style, and I thought the sandwich it came in was good, but Joyce says she has tasted better. The fries at the restaurant, however, deserve the right to be called "the best in the universe".
    As I said, meat features prominently on the menu at home. For dinner one night, Joyce made an excellent braised beef short rib, and although she portioned two hefty ribs for each of us, I could only eat one. It was just too much for me. Another night, Mady and I made meatballs for a spaghetti sauce. They look like little cannonballs in her little three-year-old hands.
Turkey, cheese and avocado sandwich
    On our way to Stanford University in Palo Alto, we stopped at Driftwood Deli & Market for one of its gourmet sandwiches. We were not disappointed. Sitting under a big tree in front of the students financial aid office in Stanford, Joyce and I shared a pastrami melt and a turkey, cheese and avocado. Both came in a Dutch crunch roll, a type of bread I encountered for the first time. It is something I am planning to try to make myself.
Crispy bacon and maple cream doughnut
    And then, when I thought I had had enough meat, we go to Psycho Donuts and even the confections are not meat-free. On the same day, we had some corn dogs, which we microwaved from frozen. They weren't bad, but frying them would have probably been better.
    Needless to say, there's a lot of extra meat on me now. It's going to take me longer than two and a half weeks to work it all off.

Crabby and lovin' it

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What's not to like about a crab boil? Place seafood and a bunch of extras into a pot of seasoned poaching liquid, remove them when cooked, place on newspapers and get cracking.
    Well, there is one step in the process that isn't so pleasant: For the best flavour, the crabs have to be fresh and they must go into the pot alive. Put them to sleep in the freezer or iced water before cooking.
    There's really not much to do to enjoy a crab boil. The toughest part is probably putting down enough newspaper for all the cracked shells and discarded skin. The corn needs to be husked, but the seafood goes into the pot innards and all. Onions can be added to the poaching liquid for added flavour but since the broth isn't drunk, unless one wants to, the onions can go in with their skins on.
The brand of seasoning we used for the crab boil. The whole mesh bag of spices is put into a pot of water.
    We had the crab boil when Jer was over from Malaysia for a business meeting at his company's headquarters in Silicon Valley so it just happened that there were three Ragavans in San Jose at one time. We had just had a brunch of dim sum at home and then cousin Philip, who had driven over from his home five minutes away, decides that he wants to have a crab boil. So he goes out to get the blue crabs, prawns and crab boil seasoning and at 2pm, with the dim sum hardly digested, we sat down to another meal. Talk about eating too much!
Corn and red potatoes are traditional extras, but not the Vietnamese beef balls
    Spicy andouille sausages are the traditional addition to the mix of sides, but Philip is fond of Vietnamese beef balls so we used those instead. I didn't think they looked very appealing, but they tasted good.

Scoop out the seafood and sides from the poaching liquid
    My fingers smelled of seafood for hours after the crab boil. But with the fantastic frozen strawberry margarita that brother-in-law Keith had made in my hand, who could be bothered with smelly fingers.

How to prepare an artichoke

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The last time I had fresh artichokes was the first time I visited Joyce in San Jose three years ago. Having the ones pickled in bottles at home is nice, but of course that is just the heart of the artichoke and one doesn't get to enjoy all of the globe.
    I thought these facts about the artichoke from whatscookingamerica are quite interesting. I didn't know that artichokes are the oldest foods known to humans, and that Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949.
    I wouldn't know where to begin preparing an artichoke and documented the process when Joyce was doing it. It wasn't as intimidating as I had thought. 
Preparing and eating an artichoke
Top row: Trim the stalk; cut off a little of the top to expose the leaves; rub lemon juice on the cut side to prevent browning.
Second row: Trim the tip of the leaves; the trimmed leaves; cut the artichoke in half lengthwise.
Third row: The pretty cross-section; remove the choke (the "beard"); the prepared artichoke halves are ready to tbe cooked.
Bottom row: Arrange the halves in a steamer and cook for 10-20 minutes depending on size; to serve pour a little melted butter in the centre, pull off a leaf/petal and dip the bottom (the inside soft surface) in the butter; place leaf against bottom teeth, butter side down, and pull against teeth to remove the pulp.
Not shown: I was too busy eating the the heart of the artichoke after all the leaves are enjoyed to take a picture.
    Grilled artichokes are also delicious. They're steamed for about five minutes less and then put on the barbecue to get those pretty grill marks and smoky taste. But getting the outdoor grill going was too much work for just the small family (plus sister/sister-in-law/aunt!). We did have dinner outdoors that night because it was a little warmer than usual, but while everyone else was in shorts, I was in my jeans and had to put on a light jacket. What a wuss!

California dreamin'

Monday, October 10, 2011

After three days in San Jose, I finally slept through the night and did not wake up at 2am as I have been since arriving in America. Insufficient sleep wasn't going to get in the way of my having a good time, but I could enjoy the Californian sights more if I didn't keep falling asleep in the car.
    On Sunday, we all piled into the family minivan and headed off to the Campbell Farmers' Market about 15 minutes from home. The market isn't very large, spreading over just three blocks and it sells fresh and cooked food. There are also a few stalls selling hand-crafted items like earrings and soap.
   I'll be writing about the farmers' market for the newspaper when I go back to work (boo hoo), so I have to keep some pictures for that.
Fresh from the market
    We got a lot of wonderful fresh produce: strawberries, potatoes, nectarines and a hybrid plum-apricot called pluots, artichokes, crimini mushrooms and a bunch of basil whose aroma lingered on my fingers now! There were a couple of girls selling Indian food, and we bought a couple of their samosas, but I have to say, they were not very good. The pastry was soggy and the filling rather meagre.
    I had to get a bag of kettle corn, of course. The one in the picture is the smallest bag for US$3. It's the size of my head but I still wanted to get the medium-size one. Joyce said it was too much, even though she knows how much I like popcorn.
Something you don't necessarily need but is always welcomed
    As we walked back to the minivan, we passed a restaurant with a sign on the window that beckoned. If only it wasn't 10 o'clock in the morning.

The Bernard Clayton Jr collection

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The sabich is a sandwich with a bunch of goodies layered into pita bread. I knew I had to make it as soon as I read this recipe. I've used it as a guide and changed the form slightly. On the bottom of a sliced baguette, I spread a thick layer of chickpea purée, topped that with fried eggplant slices, fried potato slices, sliced hard-boiled egg and cucumber slices, seasoning in between with salt and pepper. On the other half, I spread hot mango chutney and topped that with fresh coriander leaves. Put the two halves together and there's my version of sabich – which has become my favourite vegetarian sandwich.
    The slices that hold the sandwich together are from an egg-white bread. I made it to use up the last bits of flour in the pantry. I am going away and don't want to come back after three weeks to containers of flour hosting The War of the Weevils.
    And so for the past week or so, I have been making various breads using various types of flour.
    First, I made bagels using a recipe given by Adam Kuban at Serious Eats.
    Then, I made a loaf based on the recipe for honey-lemon whole-wheat rolls from The Wednesday Chef.
    And finally, because I had egg whites left over from when I made Coconut Crème Brûleé, I made French bread with egg whites, a recipe from
    By coincidence, these three recipes have two things in common: 1) the dough is made in a food processor, which is something I hardly do as I prefer to mix with my trusty powered-by-one's-own-energy dough whisk; and 2) Bernard Clayton Jr.
    I actually only realised the common elements after making the third bread. And funnily enough, Veggie Chick had asked me a few days ago whether I owned any books by Clayton Jr, the journalist-turned-baker and cookbook writer who passed away this April at the age of 94. The universe must be telling me something.
Cranberry bagels
    I think the bagel recipe is excellent (and Adam Kuban provides metric measurements, which I prefer). I made some plain bagels topped with poppy seeds, and to some of the dough, I added chopped cranberries.The ends of a couple of the bagels weren't stuck together properly, however, and the circles came apart during poaching so I ended up with bagel sticks instead. They were still nice and chewy.
Honey-lemon whole-wheat spelt batons
    For the honey-lemon bread, I substituted some whole-wheat flour for spelt and made batons instead of rolls. This is a very tasty bread even if mine turned out a little dry. I added a bit too much flour at one point and couldn't go back to remedy the imbalance.
Egg white baguettes
    For the egg white bread, I also substituted some of the white flour with whole-wheat. As usual, I did all the kneading by hand, but used Dan Lepard's exceptional method of the 10-second knead at 10-minute intervals. I don't know if it had anything to do with the egg whites, but my hands felt so soft and smooth after every knead! Unlike the recipe, I allowed the dough to proof in the fridge overnight. The bread rose beautifully in the oven. It was light with a closed crumb and soft crust. Now, since it touts itself as French bread, I was expecting a baguette-like texture with a crisp golden crust and open crumb. It is obviously not like that but makes good sandwich bread nonetheless and is another way to use up egg whites.