Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010 Resolutions, Food and 50 Pounds

I don't have 2010 resolutions but I'd just like to share a long journey I started back in mid-October of 2008.

I lost twenty pounds pretty quickly in 2008 and I began this year with the resolution to lose thirty more pounds. When I began my blog this August, I had reached twenty of that thirty and I decided to increase my goal and lose another twenty instead of just ten more.

I love to eat, cook and bake and I'm happy to report that my goal and love has gotten along very well. Heh, I would venture to say they are best friends because how could one live happily and have the will to pursue goals without satisfying one's passion?

Just counting back from August, I've enjoyed Iberico Pork, Bacon Apple Pie, BBQ Ribs, Oxtail Stew, Dodger Dogs, Roast Pig, Turducken, countless Korean BBQ nights & ramen/pho runs, guilt-free eating in Hong Kong & Tokyo and of course, lobster! I don't feel like I'm on a diet at all. I exercise four to five times a week at Core Performance to build strength, muscle and metabolism and I love going there. Heck, I look forward to going there and I'm the girl who used to look for 1000 excuses to get out of gym class. I eat pretty sensibly and frequently and in small portions without even having to think about it anymore. I guess that's what all those nutritionists / diet experts mean when they say it has to become your lifestyle.

It hasn't been easy, but as of today, I've reached my original goal of losing thirty pounds this year and I've also learned that losing fat isn't the only thing that's important. Gaining muscle and losing actual inches are just as important, if not more, in gauging your progress. Since joining Core Performance, I've gained muscle, lost inches on my waist, thigh, and back and toned my body overall. I just took five dresses to be taken in yesterday and these dresses were all bought only six to eight months ago!

I guess what I'm trying to say is if you love food and cooking as much as I do and you're trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, my two cents is that it can be done without sacrificing your taste buds. A healthy attitude, realistic goals, determination and portioning your food into frequent meals are keys to success. Don't stress out too much and just take it one day at a time. The first ten to twenty will be the easiest and the last stretch will be the hardest but don't give up. And it's really important to find an exercise routine or sport that makes you look forward to doing it. If you're dreading it and always thinking of excuses to not do it then you need to look for a different physical activity. Of course, I'm not a doctor or nutritionist but I'm just speaking from experience.

So, resolutions for 2010? In no particular order...

1) Continue toning and gaining some muscle and losing ten more pounds.

2) Eat good food! Cook good food! Share good food!

3) Learn new things. Perhaps a culinary course is in my near future but I'm also being pulled by my interest in learning French. I want to go to Paris this year and I'd like to be able to at least order a proper meal in French.

4) Be happy. Have fun. Laugh. Bring others laughter.

5) More kayaking, hiking, dancing and hopefully, dragon-boating.

5) Get a reservation at El Bulli. Yes, not easy but I'll try anyway. I won't give up trying. I think my odds in getting a reservation is waaaaay better than winning the lottery.

6) Oh, and blog more often :)

Happy New Year everyone!!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Consider the Lobster

"We should have gotten steaks because they don't have legs, they don't run around."

Annie Hall. That wonderful movie with Diane Keaton and Woody Allen is one of my all-time favorites and one of my favorite comedic and romantic scenes from that movie is when they cook lobster together for the first time. If you haven't seen the movie, you!! It's one of Woody's best films and it's full of gems. Or, at least check out the lobster scene so you know what I'm talking about.

It's California spiny lobster season and a lobster monger has been selling live lobsters he caught at Santa Cruz Island for the last few months. Sadly for me, today was his last day at the farmers market; he'll be concentrating on fishing and selling direct to restaurants for the next quarter. So I decided to begin my New Year celebration one day early with a California spiny lobster. It's a challenge for me because I've never cooked lobster without my dad's help; he usually does the hard part like the actual killing...

I bought this 2-pounder early in the morning and I still had to return to the office for work. How to keep it alive until dinnertime? Luckily, I had a big bucket at the office so I kept the lobster in there with a little water. The lobster monger also gave me three snails for free to try. I forgot to ask him the exact name of the species.

Notice California spiny lobsters don't have giant claws like Maine lobsters.

Per the lobster monger's advice, I placed the lobster in the fridge for 30 minutes before cooking. I also lopped off the two long "antennas" with a cleaver. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous handling the live lobster with it's skinny legs still moving and all. I've chopped off chicken heads, duck heads and fish heads before but they were dead already.

I prefer steaming over boiling; steaming brings out more of the natural sweetness in the fresh lobster meat. I have a double boiler so it's perfect for the job. I brought the water to a boil then separately, I placed the lobster (thank god it didn't really put up a fight) onto the top half of the double boiler. I put the lid on and with a mix of anticipation and anxiety, I fitted the top half of the pot onto the bottom with the boiling water.

No, the lobster did not scream. And no, it did not kick off the lid and jump out of the pot. I did place a towel over my glass lid so I didn't have to watch its legs twitch as it was steaming.

Done! Steamed for 11 minutes. So easy!

I lifted the top part of the double boiler out of the steaming water and just let the lobster cool for about 5 minutes. Wrapped in a clean dish towel, I grabbed onto the head and used a sharp knife to separate the tail with my other hand. Then I used a pair of sturdy kitchen scissors to cut apart the softer bottom shell of the tail and I used a cleaver to hack off the legs.

The delicious results. The lobster meat was cooked just right - not overdone which would have made the meat very chewy - and it had a crisp, refreshing sweetness in every bite. A quick dip into salted drawn butter made it even more heavenly.

The tail had most of the meat but I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit of meat under the head. Though it took a little bit of work (and cracking), there were good small bites of sweet meat in the skinny legs too.

Again, per the lobster monger's advice, I boiled those three snails for about 10 minutes and then using a sharp knife, I hooked the meat out of the shell. The fishiness of the snail meat was too overpowering though so I ended up not serving it. My sister and I love all kinds of seafood and can deal with a lot of fishiness but this was just way beyond us.

To compliment the lobster, I also whipped up a simple pasta with some fine-chopped garlic, diced onions, fresh tomatoes and some burrata cheese.

So, I'm happy that I'm ending 2009 having successfully faced another cooking challenge. Time to think of resolutions for 2010...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Turducken At Last!

I love my friends.

My friend Becky invited me and a bunch of friends to her house for Turducken and a good ol' Southern feast of country ham biscuits, squash casserole and mashed potatoes.

Hot butter rum warmed us up as soon as we arrived. Wow, I didn't know you could combine butter with rum. Really, how could I (we) live without butter? Unthinkable! And how could I ever live without wonderful friends who know I'm hungry and would indulge my taste buds?Impossible!

I'd like to use this post to give thanks to my family and friends and everyone who made 2009 fun and tasty for me and I'm looking forward to more good times in 2010. I'm sure 2010 will be even more fantastic! Happy New Year!

Le Turducken
If you seriously don't know what a turducken is, please Google it :)

Becky cooked this for about 4 hours. It's stuffed with delicious Jambalaya Rice.

Country Ham Biscuits
Becky served these babies as appetizers; they were soooooooooooo good. The biscuits were warm and fluffy. The ham was a perfect balance of salt and a bit of fattiness and it was real meat - not the over-processed "franken-ham" you normally find at the supermarket. Becky ordered the ham from Loveless Cafe in Tennessee. I just placed my order...yeah, I don't waste time.

Carving time. Becky also scooped out all the Jambalaya Rice which we devoured completely.

The layers of chicken, duck and turkey looks like stratas of ancient sedimentary rock. Beautiful isn't it? And it was tasty too! All the layers of meat were well-seasoned and the chicken and duck was good but the nicest surprise was the turkey. I usually don't like roast turkey because it's bland and dry but this turkey was moist and super flavorful. The most awesome and fun part was eating the giant turkey wing too...hehe.

Squash Casserole
Becky made this with squash obviously and generous amounts of butter, cheese and bread topping. I get the feeling that a good ol' Southern meal cannot be without butter, cheese and meat. Nice.

Homemade Mashed Potatoes.
We forgot to put gravy on the mashed potatoes and we didn't even miss the gravy because the potatoes were so good with milk and butter mixed in.

Another friend, Coolia, made Apple Cake with her mother's recipe. This light, fluffy cake was a perfect ending to our sumptuous meal. It wasn't too sweet and there were nice bits of apple in it.

This was my first turducken experience and it was fun and delicious. It was fun because it's not something you can do often and it was so nice to share the experience with friends. And of course it was delicious. You have three layers of different meat. What could possibly go wrong? Hmmm, I love quail and pigeon. I wonder if there's a way to stuff a couple of de-boned quails or pigeons into the chicken. Turduckenail? Turduckenigeon? The sky's the limit :)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tokyo Eats...and Tsukiji Fish Market

I skipped from Hong Kong to Tokyo to spend 6 days. I was pretty exhausted when I left Hong Kong and I caught a bit of a head cold upon arrival since it was freezing and rainy in Tokyo. Yeah, I'm a SoCal girl so 40ish degrees Fahrenheit gets me shivering. Anyway, I forged on because there was delicious Japanese food to be eaten!

While I was in Hong Kong, I picked up this super useful Tokyo guidebook: Tokyo Eat Play Shop Ultimate Heaven Book. That's my best attempt at translating the Chinese title; the term "Heaven Book" in Chinese is just a way to say it's the ultimate source book. I'm so thankful I can read Chinese because this guidebook was really, really helpful in pointing me to all the good eats, sites to visit and interesting shopping destinations. I found it much more focused and detailed and more attuned to my tastes than English guidebooks. Most of my good eats recommendations came from this book.

If you're in Hong Kong and can read traditional Chinese, I recommend you visit a 7-Eleven and check out all the titles they have, or heck, have a Hong Kong friend mail you a copy. There are many editions on cities in China and throughout Asia.

First stop off the plane - Santouka Ramen in Shinjuku

Santouka is famous for its delicious ramen bathed in its rich pork bone broth. I got the salt special pork ramen which came with extra fatty and tender pork on the side, "wood-ear" mushrooms and a perfect hardboiled egg with a runny yolk. All bowls of ramen at Santouka are topped with a spoonful of oil to seal in the heat of the soup.

There are several Santouka locations in Los Angeles and I after trying this Tokyo location, I think the LA ones are just as good and preferable because it's cheaper. My bowl in Tokyo cost me $16 USD!

All that salt from the ramen made me crave sugar so I immediately stopped when I spotted a random dessert shop in Shinjuku. I got a 3-course prix fixe. The best was the red bean cake with fresh sweet whipped cream. The mochi swimming in the red bean soup was okay. I didn't care for the mochi wrapped in seaweed that was in the middle; savory mochi isn't my thing.

Chicken Curry from Nakamuraya in Shinjuku. The curry was perfect with the chewy short-grain jasmine rice.

In addition to its curry, Nakamuraya is also know for its creme bread (top rack) in its bakery section. It has a daily schedule and people queue up at the designated times for a hot piping creme bread. It was soooo good.

Asakusa is a district in Tokyo (about 20 min train ride from city center) most famous for the Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo. Just outside of the Sensoji Temple is a long avenue of snack vendors. I pretty much hit all the highlights. This is a fried "mantou" bread - it's sort of like a donut I guess. The orange one has sweet pumpkin filling and the green one was green tea. The pumpkin was really good.

"Human Shaped Burns" - that's my straight translation of this fabulous snack. It's really animal and architecture shaped breads with a smooth, sweet red bean filling inside. Fresh hot ones are constantly being made so get a hot one and cooled ones can also be bought as gifts but they don't last beyond a day or two.

The highlight here are those light green rectangular cakes which are a kind of Japanese yam that' pureed and then formed into these blocks. (Sorry, can't find an English name for the yams.) I really enjoyed the delicate texture and light sweetness of this dessert snack. The flavor was subtle and not as bold as red bean.

Hot sweet sake was so comforting on that cold, cold night in Asakusa.

Broiled eel bento rice box at a restaurant (sorry, no English name) that specializes in broiled eel in Asakusa.

The broiled eel went along perfectly with this eel liver soup. The soup was refreshing and had a hint of the crisp sweetness of the sea.

A nice fluffy cake filled with sweet red beans in a shop that has been specializing in these cakes since 1924 in Asakusa. Red Bean Cake is one of my favorite Japanese snacks.

Order ramen / food from a machine? This took me by surprise when I first saw it. You place your order at this machine and it gives you a ticket. You take the ticket and give it to someone in the restaurant, find a seat if seating is offered and then wait for your food to arrive (and hope that you really ordered what you thought you saw displayed on the picture).

This was an awesome bowl of ramen - not ordered from a machine :). Located in Shinjuku, this ramen shop specializes in pork bone soup that's boiled for a full day. Oil is carefully removed from the soup to leave a milky rich broth that's sweet with meat flavors and not greasy. The ramen was the thinner variety, cooked al dente, and I loved the generous amounts of green onions, "wood-ear" mushrooms and thick cuts of tender pork char siu.

The tonkatsu at Mai Sen in Harajuku is known for serving the best tonkatsu in Japan. The fried pork was bursting with juiciness and it was "melt in your mouth" tender. I never miss an opportunity to top something savory with an egg so I ordered a katsudon which is basically tonkatsu with an egg and a light sauce on top. The katsudon was so perfect. It's hard to find a good katsudon in LA; in my experience, the egg is often overcooked and combined with too much sauce, the pork becomes soggy and chewy.

My friend and I actually managed to wake up at 4am to catch the 5:02am Oedo line to Tsukiji Fish Market to witness the amazing tuna auction. It was definitely worth the trip and it was quite an experience dodging trucks and boxes and barrels of fish in the humongous market.

Note the size of the tuna and the men who are standing. I bet that large tuna in the front was bigger than me!

The tuna auction finished around 6:15am so we quickly scrambled to find the two best sushi bars at Tsukiji: Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa. Both are located in the six mini side streets just next to the market. The lines were super long at both places and we decided on Sushi Dai because it has an 11-piece "Trust the Chef" sushi set for around $40 USD.

Sushi Dai consists of only a bar and it only has 13 seats. We waited for almost 90 minutes.

Fatty Tuna
The 90 minute wait was totally worth it. That's all I'm going to say :)

Sea Bass
Sushi at for breakfast at 7:30am is actually pretty great!

Red Snapper
I normally don't like Red Snapper in LA because I find the taste dull. However, this one was really sweet; I would order Red Snapper in LA if it all tasted like that.

Uni (aka Sea Urchin...aka my love)
The 11th piece on our set menu was up to our own choosing. The uni was so fresh and sweet that I chose a second order of uni over fatty tuna. Note that beautiful gold color and no black veins! I never order uni that has black veins running through the middle or if it's a very dull yellow.

Sweet and crunchy.

Horse Mackerel
I've never had this before and was really surprised by how good it was.

Baby Shrimp
Again, I usually don't order raw shrimp in LA because it rarely tastes like anything but this one was really, really sweet. Yes to raw baby shrimp if they're all prepared and sweet like this.

Salmon Roe.
Mmmm, lots and lots of potential salmon...but so delicious as roe.

A very simple tuna and cucumber roll mix. The chef used really good tuna for the roll and we could taste the difference.

Anago (aka salt-water eel)
Interesting. In LA, I prefer Unagi (freshwater eel) over Anago because it's fattier but this Anago was very good - light in taste and it didn't fall apart when I picked it up even though the meat was very tender. This cooked piece was a great way to finish off a heavenly sushi experience.

Everything is expensive in Tokyo and I have my priorities so most of my budget went to food over shopping. But six days was not enough to hit all the ramen shops on my "to eat" list and my Tokyo Eat Play Shop Ultimate Heaven Book gave me so many good ideas for restaurants in general that I'll just have to make a second trip back to Tokyo (and the rest of Japan) soon. I don't speak Japanese so there were many frustrating moments on this trip but knowing Chinese definitely helped when it came to reading Kanji since the Japanese writing system does borrow from Chinese characters. And it was a bummer that I had to leave when I finally got a handle on the Tokyo rail system (not easy!).

Tokyo will overload every one of your senses.
Be prepared and be open-minded. :)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Two Fabulous Meals at Tai Woo (TST, Hong Kong)

My dinners at Tai Woo Restaurant (太湖海鮮城) was so memorably good that it deserves it own post. At least I can refer to this post until the next time I return to Hong Kong and you bet I'll be visiting Tai Woo again.

I had been to Tai Woo two years ago with a local friend and Tai Woo really impressed me with their simple dishes so this time I made sure I returned to try some of their famous / award-winning dishes. The dinner was so amazing that I immediately returned the second night for my "farewell to Hong Kong" dinner.


"Tai Bak" Drunken Pigeon (金獎太白醉乳鴿)

This is one of their most popular dishes and it's often sold out. It was sold out the first time I went two years ago so I made sure I ordered one right away this time. Boy, I was not disappointed. I've had fried pigeon (squab) before and it was good but that pales in comparison to the Drunken Pigeon. It was marinated in Tai Bak Wine which is a very smooth and fragrant wine. I forgot to ask how long the pigeon was marinated but I bet it was at least 24 hours ; the meat was tender and oozed delicious game and wine flavors and the skin had a beautiful wine-soaked layer of fat on it and for once, I ate the skin. (No worries, you walk everywhere in Hong Kong so calories will be burned!)

The Drunken Pigeon was so good I even ate the head - sucked out all the brainy bits and discarded the beak. Yeah, a friend recently warned me that I should stop admitting that I eat brains, etc. because that'll scare people away...

Lettuce Stir-Fried with Shrimp Paste (蝦醬炒生菜)

This is a simple dish but it was so good. I'm not a huge fan of Western raw salad but I eat it because I should. Chinese people don't really like their vegetables raw. We love to stir-fry and we love to use wonderful stuff like shrimp paste, black bean sauce or "fu yu" (soy bean paste - 腐乳).

Shrimp Eggs & Pomelo Skin Clay Pot (蝦子柚皮)

The deliciousness and creativity of this dish blew me away. Who would of thought that the thick, pudgy white rind of the pomelo could be stewed in soup overnight and then sprinkled with tiny dried shrimp eggs and turned into a fabulous dish? The pomelo rind is similar to the rind of a grapefruit which I thought was inedible but the soup completely transformed the rind into a spongy soup bomb in my mouth and the dried shrimp eggs were a wonderful fragrant touch. After one bite, I immediately ordered a bowl of rice to soak up that extra rich soup/sauce and shrimp eggs.

Fried Anchovy Taro Pork Patties (馬友咸魚鮮肉藕)

Another very creative and delicious entree. I love Chinese anchovy and the saltiness was a perfect compliment to the taro and fresh pork patty. Plus, it was fried. How perfect is that? I think I'll try to make this at home.

Chinese Mitten Crab (大閘蟹)

This was my first time trying Mitten Crab. I can only say that I wish I could have it more often but I don't think it'd be good for my LDLs. Why? Because Mitten Crabs are small, hand-sized crabs known for its rich crab roe which I believe is not good for bad cholesterol levels.

Plus, Mitten Crabs are considered an invasive species in the States so I don't see it often in LA restaurants. But really, to control an invasive species, they should just give it all to Chinese restaurants and we'll take care of the problem.

The golden yellow crab roe is best mixed with hot, steamed rice. The Mitten Crab's roe is distinct; it's a lot richer than say the roe from dungeness crabs. Note that the Mitten Crab doesn't have a lot of actual crab meat since it's so small.


Wine-Marinated Duck Gizzards with Salted Bok Choy Roots.

This was a small complimentary appetizer. It was so good, I could have eaten a whole big plate of it. I love duck gizzards.

Baked Sesame Salted Chicken (芝麻鹽焗雞)

This award-winning chicken should be reserved in advance when making reservations. It's another dish that's often sold-out. The toasted sesame gave the chicken a nice aroma and made the fatty skin crunchy. And like I always say, chicken just tastes better in Asia.

Crispy Juicy Stewed Beef (三弄回味牛肉)

This was good but the least memorable of all the dishes I tried at Tai Woo. The beef was tender and well marinated in soy but I didn't really like the slices of cucumber wedged between the beef. The crispy part of the dish came from the fried pastry sheets so that was kind of cheating.

Scrambled Egg Whites with Crab Meat, Fried Prawns and Salted Duck Egg Yolk (西施伴霸王)

This was really, really good. My descriptive translation of the name says it all. The salted duck egg yolk gave all that seafood a nice savory touch.

Fried Rice with Fresh Fish & Ginger (薑米鮮魚炒飯)

I love ginger fried rice and this fried rice was perfect on every level. The rice had a delicious aroma. The egg was scrambled just right (no rubbery eggs here) with fresh fine-grated ginger and the de-boned meat of a fresh fish. All seafood restaurants in Hong Kong (and often in Los Angeles) have tanks of live fish to show customers they're really getting a fresh fish. The meat of fresh versus frozen fish is a world of difference; fresh fish is sweet, not fishy at all, and the texture of the meat is "alive" in your mouth.

Haha, I love that the dish came with the fried head and tail of the fish too. I think I had 3 bowls of fried rice that night. A record! That's the most I ate during my entire trip in Hong Kong.

This was my third time visiting Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not a huge place and after using my first visit to check out all the famous sites, I've pretty much concentrated my second and third trip on exploring the produce markets and random side streets and shopping. My fluency in Cantonese really comes in handy in Hong Kong. And of course, each time I have my "hit list" of restaurants to revisit or try. Hong Kong, after all, is known as a the heaven of dining and shopping.

And you know what the best part is? You walk everywhere in Hong Kong (don't cheat too much with taxis) and it really helps burn off everything you eat. I actually lost weight coming back from my trip!

Next Stop: Tokyo! Yes, from one crowded city to an even more crowded city. I swear my next vacation will be mountains and rivers.

Tai Woo Restaurant (太湖海鮮城)
3 locations in Hong Kong and Kowloon (I went to the Tsim Sha Tsui location
every time)

14-16 Hillwood Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Tel: 2368-5420

27 Percival St., Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, Tel: 2893-0822

192-198 Shau Kei Wan Road, Shau Kei Wan, Hong Kong, Tel: 2569-5144