Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dill refrigerator pickles, and finding home

For a long time, I willingly let go of the feeling of home. When you move often, you give up things like knowing the lay of the land, knowing where to find specific things without resorting to big box stores, running into people you know everywhere, seeing your own history imprinted on the world around you. I had that feeling of home in Baltimore, where I lived from the age of 10 until the age of 23, and then not at all for a long time. I didn't really want to know most of the places I lived between Baltimore and Oakland. I passed through them, taking what I needed, then left. I never fit, and they never fit me.

Oakland -- the Bay Area in general, I suppose, but really mostly Oakland -- was always different. The first time I came here, when I still lived back east and came on vacation, I knew I belonged here somehow, that one day it would be my home. Still, it took a couple years of living here until the city imprinted itself into my memory, until I could go anywhere I needed without getting lost, until I found places that would ground me here: a trustworthy car repair place, my favorite coffee shop to be alone in, my favorite coffee shop to take other people, shortcut routes for when highways are backed up. Anyone can come to San Francisco to ooh and aah at the Golden Gate Bridge, but it takes time and trial and error to find a place that will reliably fix your car without ripping you off.

I feel at home here now. I run into people I know all the time in random places like grocery stores and BART trains. It's not an experience I've had for a while, ever since I left Baltimore, and it's a great feeling I hadn't realized I missed. As my roots grow deeper into this place, I relish it more and more.

Which brings me to homemade refrigerator pickles, made out of crispy fresh cucumbers from the weekly farmers market in my neighborhood. For a while, I made it a point to go every week, and buy all my produce there, structuring my meals around what the season had to offer. Then grad school insanity and budgetary restraints got in the way, and I had to stop going so often. Fast forward to this summer, when my schedule was suddenly freer and my wallet somewhat fuller, and I again resumed my weekly Saturday morning stroll to the Grand Lake farmers market. When I stopped at one of my favorite stands, the guy working it greeted me like an old friend, asking me why I hadn't been around for a while. It got me thinking about roots, and about how I finally feel like I have them after living out of suitcases for so many years. The produce guy and I talked for a bit, and I mentioned I wanted to try making pickles. He offered me a discount on cucumbers, so the following weekend I made plans with a friend to meet at the farmers market, get a ton of high-season cucumbers, and make a big batch of pickles. Seven pounds of cukes cost me $5 (they are normally $1.50/lb). Having roots pays off, it turns out.

In that week between the offered discount and the pickle party, I did a lot of research on pickling. I knew I was going for refrigerator pickles rather than properly canned ones, and didn't want sweet pickles. For that, I realized I needed to use plain white distilled vinegar instead of the oft-suggested apple cider vinegar, because the latter gives the pickles a sweeter taste even if you don't add sugar to the brine. These came out perfectly tangy and salty, just as I wanted.

The basic proportion for making the brine is to use equal parts vinegar to water, and a good amount of salt. Other add-ins can include herbs, whole spice seeds (cumin, coriander, dill, mustard), dried chilis, etc. But for my first shot at fridge pickles, I opted for a pretty basic recipe: white vinegar, salt, peppercorns, garlic, and plenty of fresh dill. They are crisp and delicious, and Boyfriend and I polished off the first (small) jar within 10 minutes of cracking it open.

Basic Dill Refrigerator Pickles
(adapted from Food in Jars, which also features lots of useful information about pickling things)

2 lbs kirby/pickling cucumbers
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1 cup water
1/4 cup salt
1 tsp whole black peppercorns for each jar you're making
several garlic cloves, peeled
several sprigs of fresh dill

Gather enough glass jars to fit all your pickles. Wash the jars. You don't need fancy self-sealing jars, though they're nice. Reused jelly/salsa/tomato sauce jars work perfectly well.

Wash cucumbers. Cut them however you want them -- I went with a mixture of spears and chips, mostly because it's hard to fit a whole bunch of spears into a jar without leaving a ton of awkward space. Pack the cucumbers, garlic, and dill tightly into the jars. Add about a teaspoon of peppercorns to each jar.

Bring vinegar, water, and salt to a boil, stir until salt dissolves. Pour brine into the jars, making sure to cover the cucumbers but still leaving about 1/4 inch of space at the top. Screw jar lids on tightly. Let the jars cool, then keep in the refrigerator.

Try to restrain yourself from eating the pickles for a week, or at least a few days.

Nutritional info: Pickles don't have very many calories. They do, however, have a lot of sodium. But as far as I'm concerned, they're guilt-free.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Granola bars and San Francisco summers

I hate summer. Rather, I hate hot weather, especially hot and humid weather like the kind that descends on Maryland and North Carolina and China - all places where I've endured summers. One of the many things that attracted me to the San Francisco Bay Area was the legendary cold summer. Every year, when the fog rolls in and makes itself comfortable in June and July, people around here like to bring up the quote "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco," which gets attributed to Mark Twain though he never actually said it.

Oakland, where I live, is always a bit warmer than San Francisco though, and sunnier. It's really only the ocean-facing side of San Francisco that never gets warmer than 70 degrees and is perpetually shrouded in fog and mist from the ocean, not the Bay side. But every day for the past week, as I've stepped out of a bus into the SF morning, a gust of that cold water wind has hit me and carried me through the day. It's a magical wind. I love the cold patches of summer here. Everyone else complains about the unfairness of sun deprivation at such a time of year, but for me, it's just right.

When I've lived in warmer climates, I cooked a lot less during the summer because I just couldn't bear to turn on any heat-generating device. But here, I can conduct granola bar-baking experiments in June. This is exciting, trust me. Especially when it means that I can have a chewy, satisfying, homemade snack between teaching classes, because with my new work schedule I am teaching for five hours straight. Oops. These granola bars are heartier than the Luna bars I have been gobbling up (while staying in the same calorie range), much cheaper, and customizable to whatever you've got on hand. 

These come from Smitten Kitchen, but I use fewer ingredients. The original ones are delicious, but honey *and* corn syrup *and* sugar? I cut the sweetness, use only honey, and reduce the oil. I also list crisp rice cereal as a main ingredient, because for me it's vital to the texture. For the add-ins, the granola bars in the picture have dried apricots and banana chips, but only because I thought I had more nuts and dried fruits stashed away and discovered at the last minute that I didn't. The possibilities are endless -- shredded coconut, dark chocolate chips, any dried fruit, nuts, seeds, etc. These can go in a lot of directions. I'm thinking my next batch will be based on coconut and chocolate.

Chewy Granola Bars

1 2/3 cups rolled oats
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and/or other spices of own choosing (optional)
1 cup crisp rice cereal (I used brown rice)
1-2 cups add-ins, like dried fruit, nuts, etc.
1/4 cup (4 tbsp) coconut oil (or another neutral oil, like canola)
1/2 cup honey, or other liquid sweetener of choice
1 tbsp water

Preheat oven to 350, and line a 9x9 baking dish with parchment paper. This is important because it will help you extract the resulting giant granola bar from the pan without it crumbling. Coat the parchment paper with non-stick spray. Toss all the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Melt the coconut oil in a measuring cup (or just measure out whatever oil you're using), and add honey and water. Mix together, pour over the dry ingredients and mix until you don't see any more dry spots. Spread the mixture in the pan and press it down so it fills the pan evenly. Bake for 30-40 minutes. You want the edges to darken a little, but the middle should still be a little soft, otherwise the whole thing may be too dry and crumbly. Let it cool, then cut into squares or bars. 

Nutritional information: makes 9 servings. Each serving has 193 calories, 32 grams of carbs, 7 grams of fat, 3 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Corn salad and a personal victory

I tried to begin this post without reverting to butterflies. This did not work. See, I've lost nearly 20 pounds in the last two months. I haven't written much about it. I haven't written much of anything. What with finishing an extremely challenging year of graduate school, and a general in-flux feeling about life, words have been elusive - words not meant for others, that is, words for myself, about myself, words not intended to satisfy school assignments, words not intended for my students. The personal words have instead remained inside, churning, cocooning. That's where the butterflies come in - the breaking of cocoons, etc. But I don't want to talk about butterflies. I want to talk about these 20 pounds that are no longer a part of me.

This past year was the first time in quite a while that I had health insurance. This prompted a desire to get everything screened and prodded and checked out, just because I could. As a result, I had to face some uncomfortable truths about myself. For a while now, I've really embraced the fat-positive/health-at-every-size movement. Over the years, I had slowly become comfortable and even happy with myself and my own fatness; seeing this movement take shape online gave me a framework to talk about my own personal discoveries. But then it turned out that I wasn't actually as healthy as I always thought. In April (two months ago), my doctor told me that my cholesterol and trigliceride levels were so high she wanted to put me on medication immediately. My blood pressure, which had been climbing little by little over the years, was also getting to a point where it was almost too high for me to continue taking birth control pills.

That doctor visit was a wake-up call. I asked her for more time to get my health under control without pharmaceutical intervention. She gave me two months. In these two months, I joined a great fitness and diet tracking site, started eating less and moving more. No crazy fads no tricks, just old-fashioned diet and exercise - lean protein, high fiber, whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and veggies, smaller portions, taking the stairs, frequent walks, regular gym time. And yesterday, I had my follow-up appointment. And I did it. I did it! I got my cholesterol and trigliceride levels down to where I don't need medication anymore. It's a fantastic feeling. And one of my rewards to myself is a return to blogging - this time, with a lean towards health/food/wellness/body issues. All recipes will come with nutritional information.

What better way to return to the blogosphere than with a healthy, seasonal salad that pops with flavor and color? This stuff is downright festive, not to mention delicious. A few notes: I've made variations of this with frozen corn and supermarket veggies. It is always pretty good. But using fresh, seasonal, farmers market veggies will produce the best results. I particularly loved this combination of carrots and radishes, but use whatever ingredients suit your fancy.

Corn Salad with Carrots and Radishes

4-5 ears of fresh corn (or about 3 cups of corn kernels)
1 bunch of young carrots
1 bunch of radishes
1 bunch of parsley, cilantro, or other herb of your choice
Juice of 3 limes
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the corn until tender, and let cool. Slice the kernels off and place in a large bowl. Dice your other veggies, combine with corn, and dress with lime and olive oil. Let sit for at least an hour, if possible, to let the flavors mingle and become all friendly-like.

Nutritional info: makes 6 servings. Each serving has 115 calories, 17 grams of carbs, 5 grams of fat (from the olive oil), 3 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Orange spice cupcakes, and a dubious return

For New Years 2011, I resolved to take up food blogging again. It is now January 2, 2012. It has taken me a year to post this. Better late than never, right?

Over the past year and a half, I have made about a dozen different versions of this recipe. I have made it with different types of oranges, added lemons, played with the spices, made it in different shapes and in different pans. I've frosted it, covered it in powdered sugar, and had it plain. And you know what? It's always good. There's something about the brightness of fresh citrus juice that always saves it, even if you bake it too long or forget about the last piece sitting on top of the fridge.

I knew the original recipe was a keeper when I first saw it, but it needed some major spicing up. Omit or reduce spices to your own taste. The frosting in the picture was okay, but nothing too fabulous, so I won't include the recipe here.

Orange Spice Cupcakes

4 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice from 2 fairly big oranges (at least 1/2 cup of juice)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Preheat oven to 350. Grease some muffin tins (this recipe makes two dozen muffins, if using regular sized tins) or a 13x9 baking dish.

Zest and juice your oranges, and set aside.

Beat the eggs and sugar together, then beat in the oil. Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices. Then add orange juice and zest along with vanilla. The batter will be fairly liquidy.

Spoon into muffin tins, filling them about 3/4 of the way, or pour into pan. If making cupcakes, bake for about 25 minutes; if a bigger cake, about 40. It's done when a toothpick comes out clean.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The needle has landed again

It's been both overwhelming and anticlimactic, this return. I now understand why so many run back to their far-off overseas outposts almost as soon as the jet lag of return wears off -- "real" life is fucking hard. There are the financial strains of life in the first world (the recession an added bonus), the sobering realities of flat tires and other mundane troubles, the maddening exactness of job ads. One is responsible for so much more when one speaks the language and can't just hide behind a foreigner's privilege, the charmed ignorance of the expatriate. It makes one almost miss the staggering strangeness of the days when making oneself understood in a restaurant without resorting to pictures or charades was enough to make the day. Almost.

I've been slack on updating here because I haven't had much to say. That's the anticlimactic part of the return: comfort, normalcy, reclamation. Familiar faces, and access to as many delicious burritos as I can stuff into my face. It's all been good. I'm studying for horrendous and unreasonable standardized tests and starting to get things together for graduate school applications. Not working, because no one's hiring, but that was expected. Hence the goal of retreating into academics. But for now, while my savings still make for a comfortable enough cushion, I lay low and enjoy the calm that comes before the next inevitable wave of wanderlust energy sweeps me off to the next adventure.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man?

Koh Phangan sunset 1

Back in Bangkok for a couple days before flying out, and I've got to say that the city is not as impressive to me on the second go-round. Then again, the elation I felt when I was here before had more to do with not being in China anymore. Since then, I've cleared out my lungs and brain in the wonderful, fresh sea air. It's hard to get excited about any city after spending more than a week sitting under the shade of coconut trees, breathing along with the tide. I'm now having serious Koh Phangan withdrawal. But perhaps it's better this way. If I were leaving directly from the island, I might never actually get on a plane, just disappear into the wild hills and turn up several years later as the proprietress of a guesthouse on a remote beach, my hair in dreadlocks and my feet rough from never wearing shoes.

I've returned to the cultural airlock of Khao San, the necessary step for the leavers and the arrivers, bars open all night for the jet-lagged and the party-till-you-drop crowd, playing the same music they've been playing since they filmed Cheech and Chong there, interspersed with bad techno. I got in last night and somehow ended up drinking with South African sailors until nearly dawn. That's the kind of effect Khao San has, somehow: staying up late with people you don't expect.

About 24 hours left in Thailand before two overnight flights in a row deliver my exhausted and miserable self back to San Francisco. My bags are packed (not hard to do, I feel like I haven't unpacked in years), my mouth used to the taste of travel. The soundtrack is Joni Mitchell, the consummate melancholy woman on her own in a strange place, always Joni Mitchell singing in my ears when I travel alone. Here she is, singing a song that rings perfectly true.

Friday, September 11, 2009

... But better

Haad Rin from a boat

So, I'm in the tropical paradise of Ko Phangan. I got my pasty foolish self sunburnt to a crisp within 24 hours of being here, of course. But no matter. The lobster look will soon enough turn itself into a tan, and by the time I come back home I will be a nice attractive bronzy color, rather than my current sick-looking bright red.

Everyone who recommended this particular island to me said that reservations were absolutely not necessary. You just get off the ferry, they said, and you will be swarmed by people bearing pictures and all kinds of other information about their guesthouse or bungalow operation. Unfortunately, when it rains, everyone on the island scatters off to a bar or under a rock or something. So I was left on the pier with all my awful luggage and no place to go in the rain, all after traveling on buses and boats for the past 14 hours. I'm kicking myself for shipping my nice, light backpack home from China and traveling with a suitcase. I did this so I wouldn't have to leave the suitcase behind in China, but damn, I'm so kicking myself now for having to lug this unwieldy thing around hills and rickety island piers and unpaved streets, not to mention looking like a total fool compared to the all the glossy-tanned carefree backpackers.

Deserted island

So I caved and spent the night at the overpriced and shabby little "resort" right by the pier for the first night. Then I went exploring and found a better place to stay. But not before collapsing on the beach and turning myself around in the sun like a rotisserie chicken. Asian people don't ever do this. Asian people are scared to death of the sun. They apply all sorts of horrible toxic whitening agents to their skin so they can be whiter. It's only us Westerners who strip down to next to nothing and do our rotisserie chicken impressions until we're burnt to a crisp. Everyone wants what they don't have...

Incidentally, I had been worried about traveling about Thailand in the rainy season, but I am actually very glad that I am here now and not any other time of year. There are not as many people, things are cheaper, and the weather is cooler (though still quite hot -- this is tropics, after all). Every day, it rains for an hour or two, then the skies alternate between beautifully cloudy and mostly sunny. It's perfect.

Big swoopy bird. With coconuts!

Today I went on a "reggae boat tour," which was a boat ride around the island with stops at various points to hike up to a waterfall, go swimming, have lunch, get really stoned on some very nice Thai weed, then go snorkeling. It was wonderful.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Same same

Young monk feeding pigeons

The predominant sound in the Thai language, which is a tonal one much like Chinese, is "ka" -- or at least, it seems like the predominant sound to my untrained ears. As a result, I feel like I'm surrounded by a huge flock of some exotic species of tropical crow. I can't quite call it a pretty language, but it's certainly mesmerizing.


On my second day in Bangkok, I met another American girl traveling by herself on a ferry-bus down the Chao Praya River. For her, Bangkok was the staging area before she went south to teach English in a city near the Malaysian border. We got along, and hung out together for the next few days until she left. It was interesting to compare perspectives, her in the initial oh-god-what-have-I-done panic of arriving at her work-abroad post, me with my jadedness at the opposite end of the same experience. She hated Bangkok for its servility to the West, which is what I (somewhat guiltily) appreciate about this city.

Floating market 3

Despite the wild-eyed craziness of Bangkok, I have managed to find many pockets of peace and tranquility for myself, despite staying just half a block off Khao San Road. On Sunday I took a boat tour on the river, and somehow ended up being the only person on the boat. I've also found a chill little coffee shop nearby; most of the time I am the only person there.

Khao San musicians

I do have to admit that the tourist trap aspect of Khao San is getting to me a bit. The other night I was walking down a busy side street when a man complimented the tattoo on my back. I thanked him and kept walking. He continued trying to talk to me, until I got a little creeped out and ducked into a shop. When I came out he was still there, and continued following me and trying to talk to me until I turned around and said, "You are following me. Stop it." He left me alone then, but I can't stop thinking about the fact that there are many women out there who will be too clueless, polite, or unaware to face a man like that and tell him outright to leave them alone, and they will be taken in and have devil-knows-what happen to them. The thought of it is chilling.

Making green curry in a mortar and pestle

On Monday I took a cooking class, which was one of the goals I had for Thailand. It was amazing, and I learned a great deal. Overall, I am completely enchanted by Thai food. I have not had a bad meal the whole time I've been in this country, between all the curries and the heaping plates of Pad Thai and the fresh fruit.

Street curry

Tonight I take an overnight bus, then ferry, down south to Ko Phangan. Stay tuned for updates from tropical paradise. In the meantime, more of my Thailand pictures are up on Flickr.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Greetings from the Banana Pancake Trail

BANGKOK - Let me tell you something about Khao San Road in Bangkok: it's a huge and horribly touristy stretch of bars and shops catering to hippie children and other lost souls who are trying to drink away the memory of their real lives across the ocean by vacationing in a type of resort only an acid trip could dream up.

Let me tell you something else: I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT HERE. Not because I have any illusions about this being "real" Thailand, but precisely because it's not. I've spent the past half a year in "real" Asia, gawked at by everyone I passed on the street, constantly lost and confused. Traveling around "real" Asia, not even to mention living in it, is f'ing DIFFICULT. Khao San Road is easy. Blissfully, carelessly, stupidly easy. Stay in a guesthouse and eat pad thai and banana fritters and pineapples off the street for pennies. Drink super strong iced coffees thick with condensed milk. Bargain in English for T-shirts and necklaces. Stay up all night drinking, then eat breakfast in the gathering sunshine.

My first day in Thailand overlapped with my friend Julie's last day, and we met for breakfast near her hostel. She told me about riding motorbikes around some remote part of Laos, and complained of how touristy and insulated parts of Bangkok appeared to her in comparison. And of course, for those searching out the hard ground of authenticity, this city will ring hollow. But for me, weary from the authenticity-overload of living in provincial China, this is perfect. For the first time in six months, I can blend in. With my dirty sandals and ripped jeans and hair messy from the humidity, I look just like everyone else here. No one questions my presence. I cannot even express how good this feels. I'm tired of having travel experiences that feel like work.

I'll be here at least a week before going to Ko Pha Ngan, the hippiest little hippie island in the Gulf of Thailand known for holding massive raves on the beach, and laying on the beach frying myself in the island sun until it's time to go home. Oh yes.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chinese moving in, building discoteques

In 24 hours, I will be in Beijing, probably in transit from train station to airport. In 48 hours, I will be in Bangkok.

The horrible, oppressive heat of summer has subsided. The rain no longer steams on the pavement, but collects in cold, muddy puddles. It's fall. A change of season, and the familiar taste of leaving on my tongue.

Last night I went to dinner and then clubbing with some friends. Chinese clubs are weird. People dance in one little spot, packed in like sardines, doing the same ridiculous hopping-and-head-twitching dance. The was a trampoline dance floor; it took a minute to get used to, but then I started really dancing. And for just a couple minutes, I was so glad so feel the bass reverberating through everything, to move and not care about anything else except moving. But then random Chinese men started trying to grope me, and it killed the mood, and I stopped.

New teachers are arriving now, still wide-eyed as they drag their overpacked suitcases through the mud on the unfinished driveway to the apartment building. I've been giving penny tours and survival tips to the newcomers, and this more than anything else has really made the passage of the last six months seem real. I've been here long enough to count as a veteran, and my survival Chinese is good enough to tell others to just get in the taxi and let me do all the talking.

For the past few days, I've had a lot of moments when I got ready to be sentimental about things -- my last day of work, the last time sitting in the teachers office talking about nothing, the last time loitering outside the McDonalds by my school drinking coffee and scowling at passerby, my last jaunt through the city square, the last time I'd see certain people -- then realized that I would not actually miss any of these things. Except the food. I will miss the food.

Next update will be from Thailand, where the Internet actually works. I have a feeling that it will take a lot of willpower to go sightsee instead of spending too much time online.