Thursday, December 29, 2011

Crispy Chewy Scallion Pancakes

These are my one of my Chinese carb favorites. They're not like American pancakes per se, which are fluffy and eaten sweet – these are more like a savory, chewy flatbread or roti. They're flaky and come apart in layers, each folded in with oil and a scattering of green onions.

The smell of fried dough and scallions and sesame oil...mmm. Your kitchen will smell amazing.

To get real flakiness, you're technically supposed to use lard, according to the mother. I use oil each time, just cause I'm happy with the texture it produces.  May or may not experiment with lard in the future.

Scallion Pancakes (葱油饼)

Makes 4 pancakes (each with a diameter of a large plate)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • ~1/2 cup toasted sesame seed oil
  • 2 cups thinly sliced scallions, green parts mostly
  • Oil for frying
  • Kosher salt to taste


Prepare the dough:
  1. Mix the flour and the salt in a medium sized bowl.
  2. Pour in boiling water into the bowl, mixing little by little with chopsticks. Take out the dough and knead on a floured surface until smooth. 
  3. Cover for 30 minutes at room temperature.
  4. Divide the dough into four portions. 
Make the pancakes:
  1. With each portion: Roll out the dough until flat. Brush with sesame oil. Roll up into a tube, and then into a spiral.

  2. Roll flat again. This time, brush with sesame oil, and then sprinkle some scallion slices on top.

  3. One more time: roll up until a tube, and then into a spiral. Roll flat again for the third and last time.
  4. When each of the portions has suffered through this treatment, you should have four uncooked scallion pancakes. Heat up cooking oil in a flat-bottom skillet, and then fry each pancake until golden brown on each side – about 2 minutes.

  5. Stack the pancakes on a plate, and slice however you'd like. Taste and sprinkle with kosher salt if needed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Favorite scones

I was not a scone person until this year. I think my first scone must have been some horrible dry and coarse monstrosity, but after some amazing fluffy raspberry homemade ones that a roommate offered me a few months ago, I am no longer hating.

scones, pre-bake

Each bite of these scones from this recipe has a slightly salty, slightly sweet mix of crumbly exterior and tender interior (moistness due to the addition of sour cream). I finished these off with rough turbinado raw sugar, cause I like the crunchiness of the sugar on top.

I want some with chai right now.

Favorite scones
Adapted from Allrecipes

Makes 8 scones

  • 1/2 heaping cup sour cream
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour (all purpose is fine)
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 egg (yeah...)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins (optional. Also, regular raisins are fine. For some reason I don't like them.)
  • 2 tbsp melted butter for brushing
  • 2 tbsp turbinado raw sugar for dusting

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a baking sheet.
  2. In a small bowl, mix together sour cream and baking soda. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, mix together the baking soda, flour, sugar, powder, cream of tartar, and salt.
  4. Chop the butter up into small cubes and place into the dry mixture. With your fingers, work the butter in until it's kinda coarse and clumpy.
  5. Spoon in sour cream stuff with flour stuff until just barely mixed in.
  6. Beat the half egg with the vanilla extract, and pour into the large bowl. Mix in raisins, if using. Knead for a couple minutes until just barely mixed in. Don't overmix!
  7. Place scone dough on greased baking sheet, and shape into a circular object. Cut into eight slices, and carefully give each scone some breathing room by slightly rearranging on sheet.
  8. Brush each top with melted butter, and sprinkle with the turbinado raw sugar.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown.
Post baking

Moments before entering mah tummy

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Man Behind Elmo

I may be the last person in the world to learn this, but this man, Kevin Clash, is the muppeteer behind Elmo:

I listened to an interview with Clash, and here are the couple things I found especially interesting:
  1. There's something not quite right about the name of the toy, "Tickle Me Elmo." Clash (who wasn't consulted in the naming of the doll) remarked that Elmo never refers to himself in first person. It should technically be "Tickle Elmo."
  2. Muppeteers have to be fit. When they're on the set, they're covered in dark cloth and rolling around on these ottoman-like contraptions. To be able to pull off all the puppet movements while laying low, they apparently have to go through a regimen of crunches and sit-ups. Great images here.
During the interview, Clash morphed into Elmo a couple times. I don't know if this only happened during that interview, or if it always happened and I just had never noticed it, but when Elmo laughs there's a tiny twinge of a deep, low rasp at the end that is very much Clash's voice.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Roasted Five Spice Chicken

Ever since I discovered five spice chicken, I've been ordering it like mad at Vietnamese restaurants. To date, it's my favorite meat accompaniment to both pho and vermicelli dishes.

I found and tweaked a recipe, and was very satisfied with the outcome. It's slightly less sweet than the versions at restaurants, but its flavors are much more amplified.  I am a huge fan of the spices. The toasted crushed star star anise is crucial – it imparts this really deep smokey sweet flavor that makes me swoon.

Only one piece was left for photographing...we'd eaten the rest :x

Roasted Five Spice Chicken
Adapted from Epicurious

Servings: 3-4
Time: 20 minutes active time + an overnight marination

  •  1.5 lbs chicken, preferably dark meat
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp sliced ginger (mine were about 2mm thick)
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp oriental five-spice powder
  • 1/2 tbsp sea salt
  • 4 whole star anise, lightly toasted for 3 minutes, pounded into powder

  1. Prep your meat: trim the chicken of any excess fat. Make 3-4 slashes in each piece to allow for better marinade penetration + quicker cooking time.
  2. Make the marinade: mix together the oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sugar, turmeric, five-spice powder, and salt.
  3. Plop the meat into the marinade, coating all surfaces and crevices well. Leave covered in your fridge overnight. (Or for a minimum of four hours, if you must).
  4. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with foil, and place a grill rack (with stands) on top. Place the chicken on the grill rack and sprinkle the toasted star anise powder on top. 
  5. Place the chicken into the oven. At the 20 minute mark, turn each piece of chicken. Bake for 20 minutes more, making it a total of 40 minutes oven time. Cool a few minutes before serving.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Death/Life Mask

Long ago, death masks were a common way to preserve the faces of the deceased. Death masks were made from the faces of royalty and nobility, notable poets and philosophers – Henry VIII, Voltaire, Dante, and so on.

It's highly ironic to me that the face of the CPR dummy was based on a death mask – the death mask of a young woman found drowned in the Seine River in the 1880s. She was called L'inconnue de la Seine – the unknown woman of the Seine.

L'inconnue de la Seine

One of the myths I've come across is that she threw herself into the river after an affair with a married man was uncovered. Nobody really has proof of the real story though.

When she was found, her body was laid out in the street for identification purposes (common practice at the time). She was considered so beautiful that a pathologist at the morgue made a plaster cast of her face, though she was not of nobility or royalty, or anyone famous.

Her death mask — with its "beguiling," "enigmatic" little smile — was beautiful enough to be cast and recast and eventually sold as a fashionable fixture in European homes.

Her mask made it to the living room where a Norweigan toymaker by the name of Asmund Laerdal grew up. This toymaker (whose own son had nearly drowned in the river as a little boy) had been commissioned by an Austrian doctor to create a dummy for people to learn artificial resuscitation. Laerdal happened to look up and see it on display in his parents' living room, and thought it perfect for the face of the now ubiquitous first aid mannequin, CPR Annie.

Friday, December 2, 2011

November Highlights

– Seeing San Francisco from two new angles:

– Re-watching two of my favorite movies of all time: Pan's Labyrinth and Nightmare Before Christmas.

– Attending a Disney dinner party, where the theme was "kiddie treats with an adult twist." We ate homemade full-size bagel bites, drank Capri Sun, and watched Lion King in Blu-Ray.  Somehow, this movie has gotten better since the first time I saw it.

I love Rafiki. I tried not to think about how real-life male baboons beat the sh*t out of female baboons and was able to preserve my warm feelings towards Rafiki.

– Listening to Radiolab live. Hearing two blind men debate the importance of sight. "They told my wife, 'you're lucky, he'll never see you age. You'll always be as young as the last day he saw you.'"

– Kayaking the Loxahatchee River, with its tangled mangrove roots, black water, and fallen palm trees.

– Picking a Christmas tree. I love the heavy evergreen scent in Christmas tree lots.

– For the very first time: mulling wine with cider, cloves, cinammon, brown sugar and star anise.

– Finally satisfying an ongoing caveman craving for a giant turkey leg.

– Watching Cirque du Soleil's Totem.  This by far was my favorite act. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Barber's Pole

In medieval Europe, surgery was more of a craft than a science. In 1163, when the clergy (who were the "surgeons" of the time) were forbidden to participate in any activities involving bloodshed, their duties were passed to the barber, with his array of sharp tools.

The barbers became known as the "barber surgeons," and would regularly perform bloodletting, dental extractions, minor surgeries, amputations...and haircuts.

Image credit: T. Tauri
The barber's pole was often placed outside shops to signal that the barber there performed bloodletting services.

The red and white stripes represent bloody bandages wrapped around a staff – a staff that a patient would grip during a bloodletting procedure.  The top silver cap represents the basin that held leeches; the bottom silver cap represents the basin that would receive the blood of the patient.

It was only in the 18th century that the surgeons formally split from the barber and formed the "Company of Surgeons."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Feijoa, or Pineapple Guava

Last night, R shared with me feijoa fruit from his cousin's backyard.

You eat these like kiwis: cut in half, and then scoop out the flesh. They were about the size of duck eggs, with a thick and waxy skin.

The insides were smooth in the center, becoming grittier as they neared the perimeter. Both the skin and the flesh smelled and tasted very familiar. It took me a while to land the particular taste...

...which was of Cherry Lip Smackers! Strangely artificial tasting and overly sweet. So much so, that I'm not sure that I would eat these again. Though I can see how these might contribute to an cold mixed juice drink.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tropical fruit and spice park

In November 2011 I traveled to South Florida and visited both Fruit & Spice Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens*.

I was hoping to sample more tropical fruits this trip, but only a few varieties were fruiting in mid November. If I visited in July, I would've been there for Mango Madness, where Fairchild offers samples of rarer mango cultivars at the peak of their ripeness.

And if I lived there I'd be able to regularly attend workshops with themes like Ice Cream from Tropical Fruit and Lychee and disturbs even me the levels of jealousy I experience when I think about these things I'm missing as a non-South Florida resident.

Anyway, here are several of the more fascinating plants I came across at Fruit & Spice Park:

Ylang ylang
The blossoms are very fragrant, with narrow yellow-green spidery petals. Essential oils derived from the flowers are used in perfumes like Chanel no. 5.

Ylang ylang blossom

You know the root, but might not be familiar with the flowers. Squeezing the flowers produces a clear liquid that smells very fresh and fragrant. It's often used to make sweet-smelling lotions and shampoo.

Ginger flowers (picked)

Wild pineapple
Also called the "original pineapple," this plant bears egg-shaped orange fruits that taste exactly like pineapple. It's often planted near fences or under windows because its extremely sharp, deep green leaves that can act as effective barriers.

Wild pineapple

Certain chewing gum makers came across this fruit, and tried to replicate its taste in Juicy Fruit gum. The fibers were very strong and elastic, but it tasted and smelled like a mix of pineapple, banana, and strawberries.

Jackfruit being cut up for samples

Jackfruit growing on the tree

Egg fruit, or Canistel
Soft and crumbly, with the texture of a cooked egg yolk (hence its name). Tasted like a baked potato crossed with an unripe persimmon, with a lingering chalky aftertaste. Not my favorite, but apparently it's great for ice creams and custards.

Canistel fruit. Photo credit: Carib Fruits

Bay Rum.
Used in men's aftershave/cologne. Leaves smelled exactly like it.

Bay rum leaf

Midnight Horror, or the Broken Bones Plant
A tree that's creepy in a couple ways. When its large leaf stalks wither and fall off the tree, they appear like piles of dried human bones. It's also a night-bloomer, with blossoms that emit a strong and foul-smelling odor that attracts bats, which pollinate it.

Midnight Horror. Look hard to see the elongated seedpods.

African Sausage Tree
Best name for a tree, ever. The fruit are leathery and not really edible for humans, but hippos, baboons, giraffes and other mammals love these.

African Sausage Tree

The little fruits turn from white to red to black as they ripen. When ripe, the fruits are sweet and sour, reminiscent of pomegranates, but with the texture of miniature blueberries.

Antidesma fruits

These fruit were the size of a large grapefruit, with a spiny exterior and magenta-red insides that have been likened to "human intestines." The red oil from the seed chambers is used as a dye. The mesocarp (yellow flesh) of the fruit is poisonous, but the seeds and red oil surrounding the seeds are edible, though on some accounts not very flavorful, and not worth eating unless for potential nutritional benefit.

Gac fruit, found on the ground

There were some other plants that I encountered – poisonous, hallucinogenic, and crazy in all types of ways – I'll write about those some other time.

* These two parks offer totally different experiences. Here's how I'd describe the difference between the two: Fairchild is like a Whole Foods; Fruit & Spice is like a farmer's market. Fairchild is enormous, its displays are meticulously pruned (walking in their Rainforest section reminded me of the Lost World ride at Universal Studios), its visitors are on the more affluent side, and it's extremely touristy. Fruit & Spice just had a lot more local flavor, felt a lot more intimate, and offered generous samples.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The elusive mangosteen...finally eaten

It's been said that the mangosteen is the most delicious fruit in the world.

I've heard it multiple times, but it wasn't until a couple months ago that I finally got a chance to form my own opinion.

At the time, I was in the city of Dezhou, in the coastal province of Shandong, which is located on the breast of the metaphorical "Rooster of China." The climate there in the summer is hot and humid, the type where an hour-long walk outdoors will soak your shirts, so I shouldn't have been so surprised to come across a bin of mangosteens in the supermarket.

I took out my camera and was immediately reprimanded for taking this photo:

Supermarket workers in China, I've found, get very excited in a horrible way when they find you taking photos. Bowling alleys, too. My brother and I actually had a very bizarre encounter with a worker at one, but that's a story for another time.

As for how it tasted: the fruit was fragrant, sweet and tangy, lightly tasting of banana and pear. Its flesh reminded me of the lychee's, in that it was white and juicy, but was a bit slimier and not as firm – it melts as you eat it. The insides are sectioned like a tangerine's. The seeds were large, with smooth, chestnut-like shells.

Photo credit: Cream and Sugar

The verdict? It was OK. Just OK. It's very possible that these just weren't good and ripe and fresh mangosteens. They could've been imports. In any case, they were a bit too tangy for me, and the fruit to seed ratio was not as high as I personally like.

Wishlist for Blogger UI (ongoing)

Here's a list of UX complaints I have with Blogger. Will add more as I become more familiar with the interface.

WARNING: Probably won't make sense to non-Blogger users. And in either case this is not titillating material.
  • Make it quicker to publish a post by moving the Publish button to the bottom part of the right panel. That's a standard spot for action buttons (e.g., Save).

    It's also the fastest to get to. It takes some time for my mouse to locate the Publish button's hot spot currently since it's in the centerish of the top panel. (When I'm writing a post, my mouse is not usually resting at the top of the screen – it's resting somewhere in the post body.) And as Fitt's Law dictates, it's speediest to move your mouse to the four corners of the screen.
Here's what I see at the top of my screen.

  •  Shorten the pathway to customizing the blog's appearance. It takes way too long to get to the 'Edit CSS' area. The current pathway is: Dashboard → Template → Customize → Advanced → Add CSS. I know it's not a basic feature, but if a user's obviously not using a default template, there's a good chance that they're tweaking CSS and could benefit from a shortcut somewhere.

    I think that this "Design" link in the topnav

    should immediately go to the "Customize" view:

    It's more likely that a user's going to want to customize their current theme, vs. picking a new skin and starting from scratch – that's a more drastic, less frequent action.

  • Better image integration. I can't really embed slideshows or utilize any other sexy gallery navigation.

  • Offer themes that people will actually want to use. Tumblr's beautiful themes are enough for me to want to drop blogger. It's only due to account centralization that I haven't gone there yet.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A couple Yucatán fruits

In April 2011, I traveled to the Yucatán peninsula. This was a place that I'd been aching, absolutely aching to go to. Top reasons were its cenotes – freshwater sinkholes with crystal-clear turquoise water, often found in limestone caves – and its diversity of plant and animal life.

A couple fruits that I managed to nab at a small supermarket in the less touristy areas surrounding Playa Del Carmen:

Cainito Fruit, or Star Apple
It's called the star apple because you're supposed to bisect it properly.  (Oops.) I got a green-skinned variety, though there are purple ones as well.

Its insides were a gorgeous magenta and white hue. Taste-wise, it was creamy and mildly sweet, a bit of melon and a bit of sour grape. Texture-wise, it was very soft and pulpy.

Custard Apple
The exterior was a bit reptilian, though not as nearly as much as the snakefruit's. Another interesting name for it is Bullock's heart – you can see why. Its flesh was soft and milky, tasting a little bit like banana and pineapple, but more tart. Didn't taste very custard-like to me, it was much too tart for that.


P.S. Check out Playa del Carmen!