Sunday, December 20, 2015

First Batch of Infused Cocktails

Cheap liquor and a wide variety of interesting fresh ingredients is the perfect recipe for experimenting with infusions. My first batch of infusions got made into cocktails over the last week and here I’ll document the results.

Christmas in Cambodia

1 Shot Absolut Orient Apple
½ Shot Tamarind Infused Vodka
½ Shot Citronge
5ml Cinnamon Tincture

 Mix ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a strip of orange peel.

This was a slightly tricky drink to get the balance right on. I assumed at the outset that I wanted it sweeter and used simple syrup and a cheaper triple sec. In my opinion the drink benefits greatly by moving away from this. It’s nice and complex with the initial apple and orange flavors hitting you first and the tamarind comes in on the finish. While I’m not usually a huge fan of pre-flavored vodka, the Orient Apple flavor from Absolut is quite a nice mix of apple with a bit of ginger. For the tamarind infused vodka I let about 4 whole tamarind pods seep for roughly 6 days. The tincture was made by toasting 4 whole cinnamon sticks and then crumbling them into 500ml of vodka for just about a week. The tamarind, and to a lesser extent the cinnamon, give this cocktail a really nice pale orange color.

Phuket Margarita

2oz Kaffir Lime & Lemongrass Infused Tequila
1oz Triple Sec
1oz Lime Juice
1 Thai Chili, sliced

Mix ingredients in a shaker with ice, including a thinly sliced chili, and shake until chilled. Rim a margarita glass with a mixture of coarse sea salt and chili powder. Strain contents into glass and garnish with a sliced chili.

This is your classic margarita ratio and ingredients with a bit of a South East Asian twist. Getting the infusion right is a bit tricky. Most recipes call for the kaffir lime leaves, but I wanted a bit of the bitterness you get from the zest, so I sliced one whole kaffir lime and used a couple stalks of lemongrass. The trick is getting the lime out before the rind makes the tequila too bitter. I had it seep about two days and was happy with the result. I left the lemongrass in. The tequila has a very fresh, citrusy taste and I really like the contrast that you get by adding the heat from the chili. Like many Thai dishes, this cocktail is all about attaining balance of flavors, and in doing so getting more for the whole.

Kampot Pepper Gin Bloody Mary

2oz Fresh Pepper Infused Gin
Bloody Mix

Fill a tumbler with ice and pour the gin in over the ice, then top up the glass with bloody mix. Stir until contents are well mixed. Garnish with a lime wedge, olives, pickle, and a sprig of fresh pepper.

The fresh pepper from Kampot is known as some of the best in the world. It’s excellent to cook with and it turns out it makes quite a nice cocktail too. You only need to seep the gin with the fresh pepper for a couple days. One of the interesting things with this is the color; the infusion originally takes on the greenish color of the peppers, but then it turns dark black. Black is actually a very rare color for liquor as I found out trying to do Halloween themed drinks one year. The extra peppery taste adds a lot to a Bloody Mary. The real trick in Asia to making a good bloody though has been finding all of the correct ingredients to the mix itself, with horseradish and celery seed being the tough components to collect. If really desperate you can always use some wasabi powder to substitute for the horseradish and sometimes the celery seed can be dropped all together- or you use celery salt or even mince a bit of the top of a celery plant if they are available. Luckily I was able to assemble the ingredients within a day or two of arrival (priorities)!

Other infusions I’ve worked on here are a basil infused Gin, which makes a nice gin & tonic, and I’m working on a tequila infused with roasted chilies that were smoked with bacon. Hopefully will follow up at some point with a recipe to go with that.

This week we get to fly to Phuket to meet up with some friends from Nepal for Christmas, and then it will be back to Phnom Penh overland via Bankgkok. Hopefully I’ll get up to enough fun to have something to post about!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Not Easy Rock 'N' Roll

Traveling in the past I’ve never really gotten that into the music of the place I visited. Nepal had way too much of an Indian influence, and no one born outside of South Asia can really take Hindi pop seriously. Cambodia however has an excellent legacy of their own take on rock from the 60s and early 70s when the arts flourished in the Kingdom. I was first introduced to the sound initially via the band Dengue Fever, and was hooked after listening to it. While the band played plenty of their own songs, many of my favorites were covers from singers I had not yet heard of like Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ran, and Sin Sisamuth. Before moving to Cambodia much of this music became regular listening music, either while relaxing, running or in the car.

This week we got to enjoy the Cambodian International Film Festival, which had possibly more murmurs about it this year than average due to the involvement of Angelina Jolie. One of the films we went to see was Before the Fall, a kind of film noir thriller set in the days leading up to the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. The central character was a Cambodian singer who is caught between an increasingly besieged city and two lovers- one American and the other French. The film was a lot of fun and I’d recommend it to anyone, and the soundtrack was absolutely excellent. The music was done by a band called The Cambodian Space Project.

A couple days later, this band was itself the subject of a documentary Not Easy Rock n’ Roll which followed the discovery of the lead singer in a Phnom Penh karaoke bar to their current success touring internationally and all of the struggles getting there and that remain. The story was quite touching, following the hopes and dreams of a woman from a rural province in Cambodia that has dreamed of being a singer all her life. As anyone who has visited South East Asia in the past knows, more than singing goes on in the dens of karaoke bars, so it was great watching her transformation from someone who was essentially shunned by society to someone that was drawing large crowds around the country, supporting her aging parents, and generally going from pariah to respected singer. Highly recommended watching to anyone that gets the chance. 

Cambodian Space Project preform with the grandson of Sin Sisamuth
Not only was the story great, but the band is excellent as well and Srey Thy has an amazing voice. Just a day after seeing the documentary they put on their last gig in Cambodia for the year at The Exchange in Phnom Penh. It was one of the better small venue live sets I’ve been to and was an absolute blast.  One of the things I love about that style of music is that I genuinely enjoy dancing to it, which is not that common for me. They played for almost 3 hours and we danced just about the entire time. The old Cambodian rock songs especially are just pure fun.

All said, it is exciting to be in a country where the music I enjoy is not just things imported from home, but music that was created and is unique to the place where I am living. Often times local arts are in many places supported for the sake of it, not necessarily because they are actually any good. In Phnom Penh this is not the case, there is plenty of really good stuff going on here. So far my impression here is that there is some really talented people putting together things that are not only unique to here but stuff you really want to be engaged in just for the experience of it. That’s exciting, and really makes me look forward to spending more time here. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

I'm Thankful that Cambodia is Awesome

Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, which is one of my favorite holidays. It also reminds me that I have a hell of a lot to be thankful for. I've got really great people in my life, a supportive and loving family, and I have had and have taken advantage of a number of great opportunities in my life. I can very honesty say that I wouldn't trade my life with anyone in the world.  Most recently contributing to this is the latest thing I am very Thankful for which is how awesome Cambodia is.

I really love East Asian Markets
As already stated in the previous post, the food here is excellent. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, live seafood, excellent cuts of pork, duck that is cheaper than chicken, tons of fresh herbs and spices- simply put if you really love working with food these markets are like paradise. Central Market is especially awesome, but even the smaller markets around town surpass the experience of all but the best stocked grocery stores back home and lack the pretension of a place like Whole Foods.

Hermione in appropriately themed American  top
 with Thanksgiving Dinner
 For thanksgiving I bought my first whole duck- like not even gutted and beak still on it's head (well the butcher removed this as I ordered it). Fresh vegetables easily found for roasting and the imported items that you can't find at the local markets can usually be found in the more expensive super markets. Things like cream to go in the pumpkin pie (made with fresh roasted pumpkin) or decent Parmesan cheese to go on the salad, or even horseradish to pair with the fresh oysters- all of it was found in a store just a 15 minute walk from the house. While I love Nepal, one can't help but compare experiences with other places they have lived and after struggling there for years to find and secure decent ingredients, Cambodia feels like I've died and gone to heaven. It all doesn't just end with food either, it's just the beginning.

Tamarind Vodka, Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass Tequila &
Fresh Pepper Gin
There's the absurdly low cost of liquor here. Apparently Cambodia just doesn't bother tax it. This means that setting up a fully functional home bar that can produce most classic cocktails is a rather simple endeavor. Currently the only thing I'm really missing at the bar is Chambord- so no French Martinis or Chat Noirs served here at the moment, but I'm sure with a little digging I can find it. Combined with the excellent markets you are also given the opportunity to put together some really cool infusions- as seen in the adjacent photo. The other night we had Mezcal margaritas shaken with fresh local chilies, they were excellent. Even things like using the local chili/salt mixtures to rim glasses are really promising.
Riverside during the  recent Water Festival
Cambodia is also a very fun place. Like many places in Asia, holidays go on for almost a week as opposed to a day. Out and about during the recent water festival was a good time. While the service at restaurants and bars can be a bit sulky, it can also be really interactive and fun. $1.50 margaritas also help (see above points). Even on quiet nights out though it's been great getting wood fired pizza out of a modified food cart  tuk-tuk or watching the people pass by on riverside sipping drinks from atop the Foreign Correspondents Club. Even the girls at the well named Mr. Butterfly Bar have been quite charming and were fun to have a couple of drinks with. Then we can always just sit out on our balcony on a tropical evening and relax for an evening, and that isn't bad either.

Just up the road from me is Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, which is an excellently designed area, that becomes quite lively before sunset. It has a great community like feeling where groups of people participate in exercise dance classes to horrible pop music, grill chicken and make fresh sugarcane drinks, while others run down on the track or play volleyball in the adjacent sand pits. In a city that isn't very good for walking or running, it's really nice to have a space like this that can be utilized by the public. And honestly I love running on good rubberized tracks, so I'm very excited about running here regularly.

Then there is just the relative ease with which everything seems to happen. Furniture supposed to be delivered at 9am? It actually shows up and is delivered up your absurdly steep stairs at 9am. Need a visa for a year? Showed up to a travel agent, forked over some cash and they said please pick it up on Friday. Even the local currency is in my native currency, meaning when transferring funds from the US I don't get murdered slowly over exchange rates. Even dealing with internet and buying electronics for work was a piece of cake. Because of past experiences trying to do anything in Asia I enter most situations expecting the worse (Nepal had an uncanny way of exceeding my worst expectations) but Cambodia so far has just been one pleasant surprise after another.

Stay awesome Cambodia, and thanks for a great introduction.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pineapple & Tamarind BBQ Ribs with Prawn & Avocado Salad

 After about 30 hours of travel I finally arrived in Cambodia. As Hermione arrived a month ahead of me she already had many of the logistics taken care of, all that was left for me to do was unpack and adjust to the heat and time zone difference.
Welcome to the Kingdom of Wonder

One of the first things I got to do was check out the great Central market here and check out what kind of food was available. To say I'm impressed with the selection and quality of the produce, meat and seafood here would be an understatement. The butchers seem skilled and the pork cuts especially looked great. Seeing a really nice rack of ribs I couldn't help but grab them and then run around and find some stuff to go with them. I love to take something I know well and then put a local twist on it with some of the nicer ingredients found locally.

Pineapple & Tamarind BBQ Ribs

Marinading the Ribs

One of the other great things about Cambodia is that liquor is absurdly cheap. Bourbon costs the same as a bottle of wine. What this means is that it's cheap to cook with plenty of liquor which can add some really nice flavor to food. so once home i rubbed the ribs down in salt, pepper and oil and then marinaded it in a mixture of oil, vinegar and bourbon.

1 Part Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Parts Sunflower/Olive Oil
4 Parts Bourbon

Rough chopped 

Added a bit more salt, pepper and some sweet chili powder.

Mixed it all together and set the ribs aside in the refrigerator for a while

BBQ Sauce

I love fresh tamarind and you just don't find too much of it outside of Southeast Asia. Instead of using tons of brown sugar I instead used pineapple as a natural sweetener and supplemented it with some palm sugar which has a really nice almost caramel like flavor.

First thing to do was to make a paste out of the tamarind. I softened it up by simmering it in a 50/50 solution of bourbon/water and then once cooled a bit took the pits out and mashed it up in one of the worlds best traveled mortar and pestles (it's now traveled from Nepal to the UK to the US back to the UK and then back to the US before getting to Cambodia). With the pulp made it was time to get the rest of the ingredients together.

Shallots, diced
Garlic, diced
Fresh Chili, thinly sliced
Ginger, julienne cuts
Sunflower Oil

Fresh Pineapple, sliced and rough chopped
Tomatoes, Diced  
Tamarind Paste
Palm Sugar

Dijon Mustard
Worcestershire Sauce
Apple Cider Vinegar

In one pan saute the shallots, garlic chili and ginger in a bit of oil until it browns. In another pan mix the pineapple, tomatoes, tamarind paste in some bourbon and toss in a healthy amount of palm sugar. Cook until the tomatoes dissolve and then mix in the sauteed mixture as well as a spoonful of mustard, a good couple glugs of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and  a bit of vinegar. Cook until the sauce thickens a bit. Let it cool a bit and then toss it in the blender.

Cooking the Ribs

I would have used a grill, but I only had my newly picked up large toaster oven. In any case preheat something to a lower heat, around 285-300F. Heat some oil and sear the ribs briefly on either side. Coat them in sauce and place in oven or grill. I cooked them for 2 hours and applied more sauce about every 30 minutes. 

Prawn & Avocado Salad

The seafood at the market was excellent; squid, scallops, prawn, skates, plenty of fish and so much more. Not able to resist some good looking prawn I decided to mix them in with a light mix of thinly sliced cucumber, avocado, diced tomato and a light citrusy Honey-lime and chili dressing.

1 part lime juice
1 part honey
a glug or two of fish sauce
thinly sliced red chili
Salt & Pepper

Mix the dressing ingredients and let it sit as long as you can as it lets the chili diffuse. The prawn can just be boiled in a bit of water, I usually add some lime and salt to the water as well. Prawn just need to cook for about 8 minutes or so. Once removed from the water, just let them chill in the refrigerator. 

I find that for salads like this a really thin cut on the cucumber is nice and, depending on the consistency, for the avocado as well. Add the diced tomato and then toss it all in the dressing. Some of the avocado will dissolve a bit making a bit of a nice creamy dressing. Throw prawn in around the side, they were quite tasty with that dressing. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

5 Things- What I will Miss and Be happy to Be Rid of from the US

This is my last few weeks in America, so thought it was a good time to reflect on some of the things I will possibly miss a bit and those things I will be Happy to be rid of. First let’s get the negatives out of the way;

 Political Correctness- I grew up in the original hey-day of political correctness, and it was as painful then as it is now. Sometime recently the pendulum has shifted back to this crap and everyone is offended all the time. It’s simply obnoxious watching a bunch of first world people bitch about their lot in life. New terms like body shaming, fat shaming, micro aggressions, trigger warnings and much more reminded me of why I left college the first time. Being offended is a choice people. Grow the fuck up and move on.

 PC Principle Makes Sure Kids Check Their Privlage

People in Asia also get offended of course, in fact they can be exceptionally thin skinned about a number of issues, but they are not politically correct. In fact there have been plenty of moments where I was the one blushing and slightly embarrassed at what someone was saying in my company. That said, I will take a world where people are unafraid to speak their minds, even if they are in possession uninformed and bigoted opinions, then a world of self censorship and feigned moral righteousness any day of the week.

Politics- American Politics has become abhorrent, and I am exceptionally glad to be out of the country for the upcoming election year. We have a two party system that minimizes the choices we have and the primary process is terribly corrupt. Not a single person running for president should become president and more than half of them should probably be in jail. No more Clintons or Bushes should ever hold public office ever again and Donald Trump is a clown. It’s pathetic and it’s a horribly sad statement about how much of a sham the election process has become.

From what I do know of Cambodian politics it appears to be complete sham as well. But at least Asian countries don’t even really try and pretend they are a Democratic Republic. I think the next election is about three years out, and I doubt that when it does come around there will be quite the same outpouring of campaign advertising and “news” that we have to endure in the US. Good riddance.

Daylight Savings Time- We are setting the clocks back this weekend, and ending DST. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Is anyone excited about the sun going down an hour earlier? Probably not. Why we try and adjust time itself to the natural ebb and flow of the seasons and not adjust ourselves around these factors is something I’ve never understood. Generally I also just hate getting up before the sun and then working until after it’s dark. Winter in the northern hemisphere is just miserable for so many reasons.

All of South East Asia gives all this stupidity a pass. It also keeps a rather even keel year round with regards to when the sun rises and sets. Being closer to the equator it will be a near even split of sunlight and evening. Skype and flights still have to account for the rest of the world engaging in this foolishness, but at least I don’t personally have to deal with it. This sounds like a small petty thing, but there was barely a more motivating factor to me wanting to stay in the third world than the West's unwillingness to fluctuate behavior based on environment. Seasons are different, our bodies react to them differently and we should behave differently to compensate for this. Changing the time on the clock isn't the solution.

Predictability- Every day here you have a rather good idea about what is going to happen. Occasionally you may be surprised, but generally not so much. The well organized societies function like clockwork- they are safe and predictable. Some people really like this, it offers a sense of control and security. I find it mind numbingly boring. I like a little chaos, a little unpredictability, and working on the fly reacting to situations as they develop without really knowing where they will lead. That’s daily life in places like Nepal and Cambodia and I think I miss that more than anything else.

Shit Weather- Now during most of the months I’ve been in New England, the weather has actually been great, but I know what’s around the corner. Winter. Cold, shitty, freezing winters. Last year there was so much snow in New England that people were literally tunneling to work. No thanks! Although we only have one word for snow anyone that lives up this way knows it comes in a plethora of varieties from that freezing pelting stuff to that light dusty powder and about thirty varieties in between. What does it all have in common? It sucks. Yes you can ski, snowboard, snowshoe, or even sled in it and I’ll be the first to admit that these activities can be fun. That fun is negated for me by the sheer ratio of time spent living in the same bitterly cold temperatures and shoveling or driving in snow.

This is sacrilege coming out of the mouth of a New Englander, especially a Mainer, but I’ve been too far afield for too long. A friend of mine noted that it is “just weather”. Well sure it is. I mean hanging out in the arctic in winter is just weather too. For me it’s the same as living in a place where some old guy comes around a couple times a year knocks on your door and when you open it just kicks you square in the nuts. You can call me a pussy for not wanting to live in a place where I won’t get kicked in the nuts, but I’m content to live in a place where that old bastard just doesn’t show up at my door. I’ll admire your toughness via Facebook. Sipping rum. On a balcony. Without a coat.

Now five things that I’m going to miss about the good ol US of A

Things Work- Last time I was in the third world I had gotten into the habit of assuming that nothing would ever work. I often had contingency plans for my contingency plans and still it was almost impossible to predict how a system would break down or fail. In the US you expect everything to work, to the point that people become indignant if they don’t. People show up early or on time, things you purchase work as advertised, infrastructure is reliable and services you hire people for generally get done as promised. While there are certainly exceptions they are just that- in parts of Asia I would say the exceptions are the rule.

Some days you just don’t want the headache and when you need something done, it’s nice to know that with minimal planning you can generally just do whatever it is you need to do. I suspect there will be more than a few instances in my not so distant future where I will be sorely missing this about the US.

Lack of Corruption- At the national level we are horribly corrupt, and I do fear that there has been a bit of a trickledown effect. That said I can think of nothing that the average person here holds in more contempt than public corruption. The result of this is that in our daily lives we very rarely encounter too much corruption. For all the problems we do have with an overly militarized police force, they are generally made up of decent men and woman who won’t ask you for bribes every time you interact with them. I like knowing that if I need to go to city hall for a certificate I’m going to pay a single fee that is the same fee that everyone else pays.

Now I haven’t spent much time in Cambodia, but it sounds like it operates closer to Nepal than the US when it comes to the common practice of paying off anything that involves government procedure. Greasing palms to get government documents to move has never been a practice I was comfortable with and I suspect never really will be. I’ve spent months of wasted time dealing with procedures simply for refusing to convert to the way things are done over there. Luckily I hope to minimize this type of interaction, as I won’t be trying to run a business over there and the visa process is far simpler.

Anything You Want at Any Time- If you are willing to pay for it you can get just about any goods or services you want at almost any time in the US. You want sushi at 2am. No problem. Want to order a aviator sunglasses with an American flag across the lenses- it can be delivered the next morning. Want grapes in winter or oranges in Autumn? Seasons affect more the price and freshness of fruits and vegetables but not their availability. In the US you never think of if you can get something or not, it’s much more of if you can be bothered to possibly shell out the money for it.

Unlike some other western countries we also operate in a much more around the clock manner. One of the things that seemed just foolish in the UK was how everything just shut down for Sunday. Cambodia will be another whole ball of wax though, and I suspect that many things just won’t be as available as one might like. Can you get Amazon deliveries there? Maybe. While cheeses might be available at some higher end markets I doubt there is a massive selection and am even more dubious as to what to expect for quality. Clothing in Asia generally doesn’t fit well and things like shoes tend to either be terribly overpriced or cheap imitations that fall apart quickly and fit funny. I’ve already bought deodorant, stuff is hard to come by over there.

It Probably Isn’t going to Kill You- Now I have plenty of gripes about the insurance system in the US- it’s abysmal, but if something happens and death can be averted it most likely will be. People don’t generally die over her until we’ve hit the bounds of medical science. This is however not quite the case in some parts of the world. I was reminded when getting travel vaccinations that there are a number of tropical diseases like Dengue fever and Malaria in places like Cambodia that I also just don’t have to deal with here. More concerning is how things like a burst appendix or a gash from an accident that would normally be just a painful easily resolved issue in the US can be deadly in countries with a very poor medical infrastructure. While I don’t mind living a little on the edge, I’d also rather not die from a simple infection.

Clean, Clean Everything- Arriving back in the US it was nice to have unpolluted fresh air. There isn’t trash everywhere and garbage is picked up in an orderly manner. Restaurant kitchens generally look like places that have been cleaned in the last year and you can go swimming without bumping into floating soda bottles. Running and jogging in fresh air is especially nice. It’s also nice to go past rivers and streams and not have to hold your nose. I think Cambodia lacks the industrial pollution that Nepal has to put up with drifting up from the Ganges basin, but as a country with a dry season I know there will be lots of dust. I don’t miss the dust, and I will miss the clean air and water here.

As an honorable mention I should probably mention American Football. It's the only sport I find interesting to watch and it's difficult to watch with foreigners because they have no clue what they're watching. Then you have to listen to some half drunk Scotsman go on about how there's no action because of all the starting and stopping. Usually you just have to bite your tongue and shake your head at these simpletons that equate motion and exciting action. I've watched more than enough soccer matches where people were moving the whole time but there were only about three moments in the entire game where something might actually happen and anticipation ran high (and usually the shot on goal is missed anyway and the score remains something thrilling like 1-1). I'll take a violent game of chess where more happens before anyone starts moving than in an entire soccer match, thanks. 

I'll still be watching football over there though, so I won't miss it too much.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Next Stop: Cambodia

Mad hatters at a tea party
Before moving on to discussing moving to Cambodia, I need to briefly address this blog being entirely dormant. London was great. I enjoyed it so much in fact that I rarely took the time to write about it. This may seem somewhat paradoxical, but between mad hatter themed tea cocktail parties, trips to Portugal and Thailand, ancient Roman themed dinner parties and generally enjoying some of London’s excellent restaurants, hanging out with friends and meeting up with family I just didn’t make time for it. Writing about it just didn’t seem as interesting as simply doing it I suppose.

Shortly after returning back to the US, Nepal was hit by a large earthquake. Thankfully friends I had over there all survived and it turned out that the actual damage in Kathmandu wasn’t nearly as bad as initially feared. That said, the damage in the hillside areas outside the city was devastating. I was contacted by my friend, Amelia Hillary, about a week after the first quake and was on a plane the next day to assist up in the Helambu region just north east of the capital. I got to work with some great people and feel like we did some really meaningful work as we assisted in getting medical teams out to remote areas and toward the end began distributing corrugated metal sheets that could be used as shelter in the quickly approaching monsoon. I was also there for the second earthquake, which was a bit sketchy. After 10 days in country I was back on a plane to return to the world of pipeline engineering.
The remote village of Tarkegyang in Helambu shortly after the April earthquake in Nepal

Thursday, February 12, 2015

I've Been Busy!

So much to write and so much unwritten!

Let's see, I've been in the UK  long enough to write plenty of observations.

The Patriots won the Superbowl! That and a tie in on how surprisingly popular the NFL is over here.

Skiing in France. This was really great! Southern Alps are really beautiful and French food is wonderful. Also me trying to ski is funny.

Food continues to be great, the UK has great access to really nice base ingredients and their much maligned food is better than their reputation gives them credit.

Found an online PDF of one of my favorite books; Pyrrhonism, How the Greeks Reinvented Buddhism. Have been happily reading this again and recommend it to anyone interested in this kind of subject matter.

New England has been slammed by one snow storm after another and the temperature continues to be well below freezing. Britain is no tropical paradise, but an average temperature of around 40F seems like paradise in comparison. That said, Krabi in Thailand seems to be sitting at around 90F which really seems ideal.

Which brings me to this,
I feel like I'm trapped in somebody else's master plan; go to school, get a job, get a mortgage. All I'm really doing is dying.

The tone of the video is a bit self indulgent, but I really felt exactly the same way at one point. While there is certainly a balance somewhere- balanced is not where the vast majority of people seem to sit. The number of people who define success by acquiring things that don't actually make them happy is massive in society and our reaction has been to assume that there is something wrong with us and not with the social norms that we've been conditioned to follow. Thus we are more likely to medicate ourselves than to try to change our lives, and the psychiatrists reaction in the video of "Let me get you some more pills." is perfect.
Not all of us are cut out for this Brave New World
There is actually a great reference to Fight Club in the video where her shoe shopping site is called I am Jill's Footwear. Fight Club, was a movie that despite the violence, dealt with exactly the same issues and was essentially about a person finding a way to change their life and becoming an active participant in it as opposed to a spectator.

The real world has its advantages. It's safe, it's secure, it pays well, and it can be a lot of fun. It also can be slowly soul crushing and has a tendency to take vibrant interesting people and make them dull as hell. While freedom might be a bit easier where there are palm trees, the truth is as Voltaire stated;
"Man is free at the moment he wants to be."

To do list;

1) Don't give a fuck.

2) That is all.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Farmer's Markets, Game Birds & Venison BBQ

Selection of squash and other veg at the local Saturday market.

Saturday's in Nepal were defined by one thing for me, the local farmer's market that we had at 1905 on Kantipath. It was a great opportunity to get ingredients that were otherwise hard to find and catch up with people. Saturday's here aren't quite the same but I'm already looking forward to being able to get my hands on some really great ingredients at the market just down the street from us.

A really good habit I got into while in Nepal was making just about everything I ate from scratch. It forced you to learn a wide array of techniques with many different types of food, aside from also reducing my intake of preservatives, corn syrup and other junk. What I find most exciting about food is taking ingredients that you aren't so familiar with, and then preparing them with techniques that you are familiar with. Sometimes the resulting fusion style food is a miserable failure (Wild Boar Pulled Pork comes to mind) but more often your left with something kind of exciting and very often quite tasty.

One of the things I was most excited about in the UK was the wide availability of game birds and meat. I had already gotten into duck, so when I saw pheasant and partridge I picked up a few decent looking birds. The same lady also had some venison shoulder which looked great so I grabbed that too. England really doesn't get enough credit for how good their cheeses are either. While everyone knows that the French and Italians produce some of the worlds best, Stiltons and aged English cheddars are among the worlds best cheeses.  So aside from some great meat we picked up cheeses, lots of fresh herbs and some vegetables. Over the next few days it all got cooked into some really great dishes.

Roast Pheasant Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms & Pear

I served this dish with a fig & cranberry red wine sauce and roasted parsnips & carrots in with the bird, flavored with pear, cranberries, shallots, and garlic. 

For the stuffing i combined sautéed wild mushrooms, diced pear, celery, a few cranberries, and some crushed walnuts all mixed with some fresh rosemary, thyme, sage and butter. The cavity inside the bird isn't all that large so there isn't really room to make use of any filler like bread crumb. 

To season the bird itself I simply rubbed it down in olive oil and liberally applied salt and pepper to the skin. I stuffed fresh rosemary and thyme under the skin and then covered it in a bit of foil. I put it directly into the roasting pan placing on a few pieces of carrot and parsnip to keep it off direct contact with the pan. I cooked it at a relatively low heat, right around 300F for a a few hours, removing the foil for just over the last half hour. 

For the sauce I sautéed finely diced garlic and shallot in butter, then added diced dried fig and a handful of cranberries. I then added about a cup and a half of wine and some of the fat that had thus far cooked off the bird. I brought this to  a boil then simmered it until it was reduced by a little more than half.

Pheasant In Squash Curry

Roast Squash, dressed pheasant, Nepali Spices and pheasant stock on the stove
When I left Nepal one of the first instances of reverse culture shock I faced were the ridiculous prices on spices. After spending a stupid amount of money on some rather sub-par spices for an Indian dish I had wanted to make I got Skype with Hermione and asked her to go pick up a whole bunch of spices from the market in Assan Bazaar. Those well traveled spices came with me to the UK from America, and were put to use in this dish. 

For this dish I dressed the pheasant, (and used the carcass to make some really great stock) and flayed the legs a bit. I noticed when roasting that the leg meat on these birds was a bit tough, so I wanted to get some more exposure to the juices they were going to be cooked in in order to soften them up. I used delicata squash for the base and roasted it until it was very soft (probably over an hour but I didn't time it). Once roasted I took out the seeds and flayed the skin. I then toasted some cardamom, cloves, coriander seed and cumin seed before grinding it up to powder and discarding any parts that were a bit too fibrous. I then sautéed shallot, onion, garlic, carrot and the spices in butter before adding the squash and then cream. I then added the pheasant and a bit of stock to the mixture and put it in the oven at around 320 for not quite two hours. Not traditional curry, but nice thick and creamy with all the same tastes that I do like in curry.

Truffled Pancetta & Sage Wrapped Partridge 

This was served over sautéed spinach and mushrooms with a white wine sauce and a watercress salad with cranberries and sliced almonds. I really like partridge meat as it has just a slight game taste to it making it more interesting to work with than chicken, but neutral enough to do just about anything you want with it. This was a nice chance to get away from some of the heavier winter flavors and go for something a bit lighter and delicate. We had picked up some great Truffled pancetta, and I thought this would work nicely with the partridge. 

The sage I got at the market was really nice and fragrant, and I stuck just a couple of leaves between the breast and the pancetta. Using toothpicks to hold it all in place, I pan seared everything first and then finished it off in the oven to finish cooking the partridge breasts. For the white wine wine sauce it was just the basic mix of shallots and garlic sautéed in butter and then cooked in white wine that was reduced by about two thirds and then some butter stirred in at the end. 

BBQ Style Venison Shoulder

I should probably devote an entire post to this, as it was one of the top five meals I've ever cooked. Not much to look at in the photo, but this was absolutely amazing on the taste buds. One of my main complaints about venison is that it is normally a bit tough, so after I picked up this shoulder cut I thought I would marinade it a bit in order to soften it up and then slow cook it like I would BBQ for a couple hours. 

I cleaned and oiled the shoulder before patting it down in plenty of salt and pepper. The marinade itself was an oil and apple cider base with sliced onions, garlic, mustard, horseradish, honey, ground chipotle,Worcestershire sauce, and paprika. It only sat in the marinade for about five or six hours. It was then cooked in a concoction of  BBQ sauce, apple cider vinegar, sliced onions, garlic, shallots, fennel, mustard, honey, hickory smoke, bacon, sliced Bamley apple, freshly ground chipotle peppers, Frank's hot sauce and mixed whole pepper and fennel seeds. Cooked it covered for three hours and uncovered for about another hour or so. 
Made some wheat biscuits (the American version- though I'll use white flower in the future), and served it with a cucumber slaw, which was really nice. From the looks of the photo I washed it down with some decent rum too! The meat was fall of the bone good and the flavors were really rich and layered. Will absolutely make this again.

Cranberry Stuffed Red Kuri Squash

Red kuri is my new favorite squash. It has a great pumpkin like taste, and has this really cool teardrop like shape. Best of all when you hollow it out there is plenty of space to work with. My favorite so far was to add a sprig of rosemary, crushed walnuts, lots of cranberries, some whole cinnamon & nutmeg, a spoonful of brown sugar and plenty of butter.

I wrap it in foil to start and cook it for about an hour or two, depending on the heat of the oven (generally it's cooking along something else). For the last half hour or so I take off the foil, making sure the exterior doesn't get too mushy.

So already looking forward to Saturdays. Just last night I had a leg of lamb I got last weekend and cooked it in a red wine, which came out really well. I'm hoping this trend of buying great ingredients on the weekend and making fun meals during the week continues!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

There are Christmas Crackers, Wizzards, and Plenty of Booze- Celebrating the Holiday in the UK

I've been aware for some time that the UK is not simply America with funny accents. If I needed this proven to me any further, the difference in Christmas traditions certainly made this apparent. From the way that the Holiday is celebrated, the traditions that go along with it, the food that is consumed, and even the songs that are sung, the British celebrate the holiday in very much their own way.

I arrived not even two weeks before Christmas, so I've been consistently exposed to this throughout my short stay here so far. The first thing I was introduced to was the music. I had commented to Hermione that while out shopping and picking up the tree one afternoon that most of the Christmas music I had been hearing out was American. I mean sure there was a few too many of the very questionable last Christmas by Wham and classics like Good King Wenceslas with an English rolled R or two, but they seemed vastly outnumbered by Jingle Bells and Holly Jolly Christmas in full American accents. As we were decorating the tree I had put on "classic" Christmas music. She informed me that this list seemed lacking and then asked me where Slade, Wizzard, and a few other names I had never heard. My look of sheer confusion produced this video;

This video resulted not in further understanding, but instead with quite the opposite and it was followed up by several other equally bizarre 70s era strange concoctions that seemed not something I would relate to as Christmas classics. This combined with a love of Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You and a strange affinity for the before mentioned Last Christmas proves that I am indeed a stranger in a strange land when it comes to what the British enjoy for Christmas music.

With the tree decorated (this was essentially the same- though the thing is left up until the 6th of January which seems odd) it was time to move on to other unrecognizable traditions. An even week before Christmas we traveled down to Oxted to have dinner with Hermione's parents. Everything was going fine when at one point everyone picked up these odd looking cardboard rolls with festive string tied to them and held on to them in one hand and crossed arms. I apparently was supposed to grab and pull these- and as we all pulled they burst apart with a bit of a pop. Inside is a paper crown, a very bad joke, and a toy. It's like a fortune cookie and cracker jacks had a drunken hookup on New Years and the Christmas Cracker as they are called, was the resultant love child.
Christmas Crackers- These don't make any sense.
Another thing I have quickly learned with the British is that alcohol is much more casually integrated in their society. Not like the French or Italians mind you, but they don't have quite the hangover we have from the years of prohibition and the social stigma that drinking has since gained due to a number of social quirks in the US. Here work and drinking go hand in hand in a way that the US has at least not enjoyed since the way the 50s are depicted in Mad Men. Aside from the fairly normal attitude toward pub lunches and office parties being far more boozy affairs than they would be in the US, the Christmas holiday season seems to be filled with a rather liberal taking in of mulled wine, hot toddies, and other drinks to keep people in a consistent merry mood.

For our part we treated ourselves to a trip to a local speak-easy style bar called BYOC for our present to each other on the night before Christmas Eve. The concept is that you bring the liquor and they make craft cocktails from a range of specialty mixers that they have at their location. With a reservation 20 quid will get you a two hour slot. We arrived at the location, which on the outside appears to be a closed juice bar, and were lead down a dark steep stairwell to a underground bar as it were. We brought a nice mix of liquor in Patron Silver, Sacred Gin, The Kraken Black Spiced Rum, and a very nice Absinthe I had brought in from the US- Vieux Carre. The drinks that were produced were really decent, lots of use of herbal flavors, some nice syrups and mixers and even the use of some nice ingredients like rose water and chili. All in all a good experience and a place I'd happily go back to.
BYOC- Speak-Easy Style Bar
 Cocktails duly imbibed and merry states reached we reached the morning with slight not-so-merry hangovers. Luckily I had prepared a great remedy to this the evening before. After a night out drinking I just like to eat different food than normal, and my "hangover breakfast" is something I only really enjoy after a night out drinking. Normally I like much lighter food, but on these occasions you just want a bit more grit in the morning, so enter the bacon, egg and cheddar sandwich on an English muffin. Served with a side of home fries and grilled tomatoes it is best washed down with a bloody mary. This was enjoyed while watching Casablanca, as watching movies is another activity I find is best enjoyed when feeling slow enough that you don't want to do much else.

Christmas Eve Hangover Breakfast
Breakfast taken in and feeling much refreshed it was time to head back to Hermione's home town and begin the festivities. Upon arrival we assisted with some of the tasks that needed to be done in preparation for the next day's Christmas meal. This included the making of more mulled wine and the creation and subsequent eating of mince pies. These are things we don't really get to enjoy too often in the US, and think it is one area where the Brits certainly seem to have things better put together then us. They also have really holly and mistletoe everywhere- which beats our plastic stuff that is hung due to a lack of the real thing being nearly as ubiquitous.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant that Hermione had spent years working in off and on through school and as recent as this last summer. A few bottles of Prosecco and three courses of food later the place started to close up, but as Hermione knew all the staff, we just kind of hung out. Prosecco continued to be imbibed and it turned into an interesting night as many of the staff were from Nepal. Given my tenure there this lead to many interesting conversations and watching Italians and Nepali folk drink and dance together was quite entertaining. Although on most levels I absolutely despise Hindi Pop music, the great times I had doing ridiculous dancing with friends in Kathmandu has left an endearing imprint on me, so when Yo Yo Honey Singh's Sunny Sunny, which may be one of the worst songs ever recorded, I was quick to jump up and engage in some serious shoulder shimmying. The vast amount of Prosecco that had been consumed probably helped with this. Dancing and drinking having taken us past three in the morning we collapsed back in the bed set aside for us and rested up for Christmas Day.

Seriously- One of the worst songs ever.
But I do have a soft spot for bad Hindi music occasionally.

We slept in a bit on Christmas morning and then once up continued to assist with some of the dinner preparation. This whole part was not all that unlike Christmas in the US. Family gathers, presents are exchanged, and light drinking ensues. Food on the other hand is much closer to the kind of spread we would put together for Thanksgiving. I find in the US that Christmas dinner varies significantly from family to family depending on cultural heritage and  how people decide to gather around. We can do anything to an informal pot luck kind of thing, to a full ham or turkey, to something more ethnic like a large Italian or Greek spread if that happens to be where your ancestors came from.The UK however seems to consume mostly large turkey dinners with stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, roasted parsnips and carrots, cranberry sauce, bread sauce, bacon & sausages and of course Christmas pudding.
Flaming Christmas Pudding with Holly on Top
Some of the food was familiar some of it was quite different. We had two types of stuffing, a traditional sage and pork stuffing that was inside the turkey and an 18th century style chestnut stuffing- both of these I really loved and they were quite unlike our standard stuffings back home. The bread sauce was also very different and was something from medieval  English cooking, enjoyable as well. The biggest difference was in the desserts. We simply don't do Christmas pudding which we wouldn't even recognize as pudding. American pudding and UK pudding are just not the same thing at all. This was a rum & brandy soaked, very rich sponge like cake that had lots of raisin like fruit and plums, which are also soaked in more liquor. Liquor continues to be a recurring theme. It is then set on fire, topped with holly and served. Toppings included cream, custard and brandy butter. The cream and brandy butter I was a fan of. English Custard on the other hand, I don't really dislike but I don't see what it adds to a dish. It's thick and gloopy, so it doesn't add much in the way of texture, it's kind of sweet but doesn't add much flavor. Over all I don't really get it- it kind of seems like the ketchup of British dessert condiments.

Everyone dully stuffed with food it was time to move on to strange English TV. These included a speech from the queen (I still don't get why there are royal families in the modern world), a Doctor Who Christmas special which I slept through mostly, and then some dancing shows that seemed thoroughly confusing. Alcohol and food taking their toll it was time to go to bed.

Traditional morning after Christmas food involves something called bubble and squeak. It consisted of mashed up Christmas leftovers seared into patties. Not too bad really. Not something I'd go out of my way to cook myself, but once a year I can see why this might be a thing. With the day after Christmas brunch consumed it was time to go on a country walk through the town. I have to keep reminding myself not to call everything quaint and cute- as it comes across a bit condescending- but really this is how everything over here in these small towns looks to me. Quaint really is the best adjective for everything it seems. Possibly I can use old-world or charming to diversify my thoughts, though I suppose that doesn't come across much better.

Walk done, it was time to pack up and return to London. It was time to start resting up for New Years!