Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fall CSA: Week 6

The fall extension to my CSA nears its end, but the bounty just seems to be getting better:
  • Blue Hokkaido squash
  • Spinach
  • Gold beets
  • Napa cabbage swapped for tatsoi
  • Lacinato kale
  • Bok choy
  • Turnips
  • Onions
  • Sweet potatoes
I made kale chips this week using the previous batch of Lacinato kale, and they were surprisingly good, and nearly insubstantial (it was like handling ancient paper or something).  I oversalted them a little bit, but I will definitely make them again.  I am also looking forward to making something new with the Hokkaido squash -- maybe a soup?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Playing Too Many Games is Bad for Your Health...

...and if that is the case, I am screwed.

Anyways, I have played a bunch of computer games since returning to the US, building a new desktop, and registering with Steam, Valve's online game distribution system.  Here are a few femto-reviews on games I really, really liked.

The Witcher 2: The Witcher 2 is dark, grimy fantasy, with a badass protagonist, interesting Eastern European-inspired takes on fantasy monsters, and meaningful choices that come back and haunt you later in the game.  The story is strong, the visuals are very good, and the overall feel is a nice departure from your bog-standard CRPGs.  5 out of 5.

Bastion: An action game produced by an independent developer called Supergiant Games, I picked up Bastion on a whim.  The gameplay is great (different weapons give you different abilities, but you can only carry 2 at a time), the narration actually follows what you are doing in-game, and the soundtrack is fantastic.  The thing that stands out most is the style.  4 out of 5.

Elder Scrolls V - Skyrim: I will preface this by the fact that I barely played Morrowind, and even though I bought Oblivion, I played it for a couple of hours and just stopped.  What Skyrim has going for it is an incredibly rich world, both in terms of landscape (climbing to the top of mountains at night, when the sky is clear and the Northern Lights are out, is just ridiculous), NPCs, and quests.  Now many of the quests become boring, but I did not find the open world approach in Skyrim as paralyzing as the previous games.  There are still some hiccups in terms of bugs, and the leveling system can encourage some gimmicky min-maxing, but the world of Skyrim pushes all those small problems to the background.  4.5 out of 5.

Batman Arkham City: Arkham Asylum was another game I bought on a whim on Steam, after hearing many rave reviews about the game.  It was tremendous, and I have been looking forward to the sequel ever since.  Basically, this game lets you be Batman.  Like, in every way -- stealthily taking out criminals, crushing a dozen thugs in hand-to-hand combat, gliding from rooftop to rooftop, and extricating yourself from trouble using an array of gadgets (the game even calls them Gadgets).  My only complaint about the game, compared to Arkham Asylum, is that the main plot is a bit more forced, and has perhaps a few too many twists.  On the plus side, the side quests and the open nature of Arkham City itself makes this game more interesting to explore than its predecessor.  4.5 out of 5.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fall CSA: Weeks 3 - 5

So yeah, I am a bit behind.  I blame it on Thanksgiving (traveled to California and spent the holiday with my mom, brother, and sister-in-law) and grants and stuff.  Ya know.

Anyways, week 3 was Thanksgiving week, so I gave everything to my friends (with whom I am sharing the CSA share).  For week 4, here was my haul:
  • Pea tendrils
  • Red radishes
  • Chiogga beets
  • Carrots
  • Bok choy
  • Yellow onions
Today, I picked up the veggies for week 5:
  • Celeriac
  • Lacinato kale (I may finally try making these famous kale chips)
  • Spinach (looks really good)
  • Leek
  • Tatsoi and chickweed
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Rutabaga

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fall CSA: Week 2

This week I did not pick up much produce, mainly because I will not have time to use it before leaving for Thanksgiving week.  Instead, I let my friends keep most of the vegetables.  What I did get, however, looks delicious:
  • Sweet onions
  • Shallots (these stand out because I once read or heard Anthony Bourdain say that using shallots is what separates home cooks from professional chefs)
  • Tatsoi
  • Purple top turnips
  • French breakfast radishes

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fall CSA: Week 1

The Empire Strikes Back!

And you thought I was done posting about my CSA.  Oh no.  I just started my Fall season CSA, again with the same cooperative (Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative), only this time I purchased a full share, splitting it with two other friends.  My haul from this week?  Pretty nice:
  • Leek
  • Red radishes
  • Micro tatsoi
  • Tatsoi
  • Broccoli
  • Hokkaido squash
  • Carrots
I am very excited to try the Hokkaido squash -- it looks like a mini green pumpkin.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011

    CSA: Week 25

    I have finally reached the end of my CSA journey.  Well, not quite, as I signed up for a 7- or 8-week "fall extension," but I am not counting that.

    What did I think?  Well, it was pretty neat not having to go shopping for produce each week.  I prepared vegetables I would have otherwise not used, like radishes and beets, and were introduced to a few new ones, like tatsoi.  The experience also reaffirmed that I find lettuce boring and I need to find a better way (or improve my technique) to cook eggplant.

    This was the haul for the last week:
    • Red meat radishes
    • Yellow onions
    • Arugula
    • Leek
    • Cilantro
    • Green cabbage swapped for French breakfast radishes
    • Red leaf lettuce swapped for cilantro
    • Applesauce
    • Red raspberry jam

    Sunday, October 30, 2011

    More Like Watching Paint Dry with Dragons

    The fifth book in the acclaimed series A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance with Dragons hit the shelves in July, amid the buzz created by the HBO series Game of Thrones.  The earlier books in the series were selling like never before, and after nearly six years of waiting since the last installment (A Feast for Crows), George R.R. Martin fans were clamoring for this volume.

    Unfortunately, in this case, the wait was not worth it.  Book 5 is slow, nearly devoid of action, and the few exciting moments basically end as cliffhangers.  Pro tip: cliffhangers are good for weekly TV series, tolerable for season-ending episodes or movies with sequels coming within the year, but just awful for a book series where we cannot honestly expect the next volume to appear anytime soon.

    Of course I will read the next book, but I already have a sinking feeling that this series is going the way of the Wheel of Time, and that would be a very bad turn for what has otherwise been a classic fantasy series. 

    Verdict: I would give this book a very mediocre 2 out of 5 boomsticks.*

    *It occurs to me that I have not introduced my new rating system.  For reference, on a scale of 0 to 5 boomsticks, the restaurant Vetri would get a 5, and the film Army of Darkness would get a 7.

    Saturday, October 29, 2011

    Cthulhu for Kids

    Just found this link (via Akratic Wizardry):


    The author / artist is up to page 23 of his Dr. Seuss-inspired tale of Cthulhu.

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Excitement at 600 N. Broad

    Months ago, work started on the old automotive shop at 600 N. Broad St., just across from my apartment building.  I saw liquor license notices in the windows, so I knew bars or restaurants were coming...but I did not know what they were going to be until now.

    Three different spaces are opening up in the old building.  One is a catering/event space called Vie, which looks to be already good to go.  I am pretty disappointed about this one -- the location is perfect for a coffee shop or patisserie, and instead we get a place for wedding receptions and charity dinners.  Oh well. 

    However, I am excited by the other two places: a New England-inspired seafood restaurant from Stephen Starr called Route 6, and a Marc Vetri gastropub called Alla Spina (formerly Birreria 600).

    These developments complement the 98 loft apartments built just off of Broad Street.  Exciting times in my neck of the woods.

    CSA: Week 24

    Being away at the Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting (in rockin' Hartford) crushed two weeks of CSA shipments for me, but today I picked up my second-to-last delivery...before the 7-week-long fall extension.
    • Radicchio
    • Red bell pepper
    • Leek
    • Mixed sweet peppers
    • Broccoli swapped for habanero peppers
    • Green butterhead lettuce given away
    • Mini bok choy
    • Mesclun mix
    • Jar of red raspberry jam
    • Empire apples
    • Heirloom cranberries

    Monday, October 3, 2011

    CSA: Week 21

    I have been doing a pretty poor job cooking with my CSA produce, but today the air was brisk and bracing, and I suddenly was inspired to get cooking again!   Hopefully that inspiration yields tangible results this week, i.e., tasty dishes made with fresh, local ingredients :)
    • Tomatoes
    • Micro radishes
    • Lacinato kale
    • Red radishes
    • Eggplants swapped for red radishes
    • Green cabbage swapped for red radishes
    • Red butterhead lettuce given away
    • Hungarian hot wax peppers
    • Applesauce
    • Golden Supreme apples

    Friday, September 30, 2011

    CSA: Week 20

    A quick update on my CSA:
    • Cajun peppers
    • Italian eggplant swapped for more cajun peppers
    • Red butterhead lettuce given away
    • Sweet candy onions
    • Collard greens
    • Beauregard sweet potatoes
    • Cremini mushrooms
    • White mushrooms
    • Acorn squash
    • Gala apples
    • Golden Supreme apples

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011

    CSA: Week 19

    I failed pretty badly at using my CSA produce last week.  Fortunately, we are starting to get a lot of squash, which keeps, and I have really enjoyed these delicata squashes. 
    • Eggplant
    • White onions
    • Butternut squash
    • Delicata squash
    • Red potatoes
    • Kale
    • Green bell peppers
    • Green leaf lettuce swapped for baby bok choy
    • Green endive swapped for cajun peppers
    • Pears
    • Apples
    In a little over one month, I will be starting the so-called 'Fall Extension' of this CSA -- 7 or 8 weeks of produce, hopefully good stuff for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals :)

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    CSA: Week 18, back on the horse

    I discovered, during this past week without a CSA delivery, that I have become wholly dependent on that weekly delivery of fresh vegetables and fruit.  I do not shop for fresh produce much anymore; this became apparent when I found myself ordering out a lot this week because I lacked ingredients to make proper meals.  Well, no longer!

    This week's shipment is pretty solid:
    • Tatsoi
    • Bok choy
    • Delicata squash
    • Italian eggplant swapped for more bok choy
    • Romaine lettuce swapped for another delicata squash
    • Jalapeno peppers
    • Red beets
    • Flat-leaf parsley
    • Portabello caps
    • Peaches
    • Pears
    I have never had tatsoi, so I am excited to give that a try.  As you can see, I also am tired of eggplant, I still do not like lettuce, and I really like the delicata squash.

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    Violent, Visible Death

    One of the vices that I have reacquired since returning to the US are computer games.  In part it is because I built a new desktop that can run current generation games relatively well, and in part because of the beautiful abomination that is Steam.  Regardless, I have been playing more computer games now than any time since graduate school, including exploration of some smaller indie titles.  At some point I hope to post some micro-reviews of games I have played in the last year, but I thought I would mention my latest drug: Space Marine.

    Space Marine is a first/third-person shooter based on the highly successful Games Workshop property called Warhammer 40,000.  Warhammer 40K is a table-top wargame (one that I have dabbled in twice, but I could not afford it, nor could I bring myself to do all the painting -- I like a well-painted army, but painting 5 guys is my idea of fun, not 50) that has moved into other media, including a number of successful computer games.  To make a long story short, during development, the game developers said that one of their design principles was "Visible, Violent Death."  Well, nothing sums that up better than nailing an Ork to the ground with a glowing power axe through his foot, then grabbing his upper and lower jaws and ripping them apart.  Wow.

    If you are a fan of the Warhammer 40K intellectual property, this game is worth checking out.  If only to ram a chainsword through an Ork.  Yes, you read that correctly -- a chainsword.  As in a sword that is also a chainsaw.

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    CSA: Week 17

    I have been distracted by deadlines this week, so my CSA post is quite late.  This week's bounty was substantial -- in fact, I gave away a half dozen ears of corn, and still had some to spare.
    • Sweet corn
    • Delicata squash: I really liked this from last week.  I read that it tastes like sweet potato, and this is a good description.  I made a Thai yellow curry last week, I may try something similar with red or green curry this week.
    • Sweet onions
    • Green bell peppers
    • Bok choy: Strangely, the last time I had bok choy was one of the first deliveries of the season.
    • Mixed cherry tomatoes: These have already been combined with the cherry tomatoes from last week, some garlic, white wine, and basil to make a nice fresh tomato sauce.
    • Yukon gold potatoes
    • Peaches
    • Bartlett (I think) pears

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    CSA: Week 16

    I am excited about this week's haul, especially after how delicious the sangria watermelon was last week.
    • Yellow patty pan squash
    • Italian eggplant
    • Garlic
    • Sungold cherry tomatoes swapped for an assortment of cherry tomatoes
    • Yellow onions
    • Delicata squash
    • Curly parsley
    • Sweet corn swapped for seedless yellow watermelon
    • Cantaloupe
    • Sangria watermelon
    • Apples

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    CSA: Week 15

    This week's theme seems to be tomatoes, as well as a few repeats from the last few weeks (e.g., eggplant, bell peppers, squash).
    • Red tomatoes (swapped for gold grape tomatoes)
    • Sungold cherry tomatoes
    • Garlic
    • Yellow straightneck squash
    • Green bell peppers
    • Italian eggplant
    • Yellow wax beans
    • Roma tomatoes
    • Heirloom cantaloupe
    • Sangria watermelon
    Mercifully, this week's watermelon was a bit smaller, so it is a bit easier to cart around.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Three More Reviews

    I am way behind the ball, but I wanted to mention three restaurants that I ate at with a friend over the course of three days in mid-July, mainly because they are all recommended:

    Barbuzzo: Barbuzzo has been on my list to try for awhile.  Located in that stretch of 13th Street that is so replete with good eateries, Barbuzzo serves Mediterranean small plates, with a definite emphasis on Italian cuisine.  We tried a variety of dishes, including the vegetable board (which was very good, but not as good as Osteria's vegetable antipasto, see below) and their coniglio pizza, which has rabbit-hazelnut sausage on it.  It did not quite live up to some of the hype I had heard, but the pizza was very, very good, and I think with another go at the menu, I could probably find a combination of dishes that would really sing to me.

    Fond: Fond is one of these Passyunk Avenue BYOBs that seems so popular in Philadelphia these days.  And when it comes to Fond, there is a good reason for this.  They have a pretty small menu, and when we were there they offered only a couple of specials, but the result are dishes cooked to perfection.  We enjoyed the veal sweetbreads and the hiramasu crudo, but the highlight was definitely the main course.  My friend ordered the salmon, but she could not stop raving about the house-made fettucine, which tasted like pure buttery goodness.  I ordered the swordfish, which was quite honestly the best rendition of swordfish I have ever had.  Fond is definitely top ten material in this city, and could push into my top five.

    Osteria: This is the third time I have been to Osteria, and the second time I have had something other than its signature pizzas.  Every time I have been, however, I have had the seasonal vegetable antipasto, and it is definitely a must have.  Fresh, colorful, simple, and just downright delicious.  The grilled pork belly, served with melon balls and mint, is also excellent.  The pasta changes from time to time, but this time I enjoyed ravioli with peaches and guanciale.  It was a small portion, but perfectly delicious, and left plenty of room for a killer white chocolate lavender mousse with blackberries.  Osteria has cemented itself as one of my favorite restaurants in Philadelphia, and is definitely in my top ten, and another worthy challenger for top five.

    In short: Osteria and Fond are must-trys, and Barbuzzo is certainly worthy of much (but not all) of its buzz.

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    CSA: Week 14

    The assault of watermelons continues!  Actually, I am pretty happy about this -- I like watermelon, and having local, in-season watermelon is really nice, but it is murder to carry these things around.  I need to (a) get ripped and (b) buy a collapsible cart or something.  Anyways, this week had some more of the recent standbys:
    • Sweet corn
    • Italian eggplant
    • Cherry tomatoes
    • Yellow straightneck squash
    • Green bell peppers
    • Romaine lettuce (given away)
    • Butterhead lettuce (given away)
    • Heirloom golden midget watermelon
    • Red seedless watermelon
    • Peaches
     I am really excited to crack open the heirloom watermelon -- it is small, yellow on the outside, and apparently pink-to-red on the inside.  Maybe I should try making some more exotic watermelon dishes this week?  Two that really inspire me: the sorbetto di cocomero at Gelateria Perchè No! in Florence, and the watermelon gazpacho at Distrito.

    Monday, August 1, 2011

    CSA: Week 13

    I did a pretty good number on my CSA last week: Bush Baby zucchinis in a Thai yellow curry, shredded, sauteed, and combined with spaghetti; a spicy stir fry with onions, heirloom carrots, and green peppers; a Thai sour curry with okra; cantaloupe and Surryano cured ham (my Americano version of prosciutto e melone); fruit smoothies; and my favorite, watermelon juice.

    This week will be quite the opposite, however, as I am away for several days.  Too bad, too, since the haul is pretty good this week:
    • Sweet corn (given away)
    • Cherry tomatoes (given away)
    • Green bell peppers (given away)
    • Potatoes (given away)
    • Red tomatoes swapped for Dragon Tongue beans
    • Japanese Italian eggplant
    • Jalapeno peppers
    • Canary melon
    • Peaches
    I kept the few things that I really wanted to try and I thought would last until the weekend, and the rest I gave to a friend so they would not go to waste.

    Monday, July 25, 2011

    CSA: Week 12, or Watermelons are &#$@! Heavy

    An exciting week for me, because I just received the first (of hopefully many) watermelon from my CSA this season.  It is a pain to carry, however.
    • Peaches
    • Watermelon
    • Cantaloupe
    • Purple potatoes
    • Green okra (apparently there is red okra, but I was not one of the lucky ones to get that)
    • Bush baby zucchini
    • White cucumbers
    • Green bell peppers
    • Dill
    • Bi-color sweet corn
    • Green kale swapped for carrots
    I made decent headway on my previous deliveries, with only some potatoes, onions, peppers, and heirloom carrots remaining from the last two weeks of produce.

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    CSA: Week 11

    What happened to Week 10, you ask?  Well, I was gone most of last week, so I had my dad pick up my fruits and vegetables, and he managed to use a portion of them.  I still had one ear of corn, some delicious plums (for some reason my dad did not think they would be good because they were so small -- whereas I subscribe to the theory that smaller fruit = better fruit, because they have not been bred exclusively to be gigantic), and a few other vegetables.

    This week is another story, and I am staring down the barrel of the following summer bounty:
    • Bi-color sweet corn
    • Heirloom carrots
    • Sweet onions
    • Green bell peppers
    • Pea tendrils
    • Cucumber
    • Green cabbage (swapped for white cucumbers)
    • Blackberries
    • Blueberries
    • Peaches
    The cucumbers, bell peppers, and carrots scream some sort of non-leafy green salad.  Sweet corn needs nothing else except a pot of boiling water.  But what shall I do with all the summer fruit?  A fruit salad, maybe?

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    CSA: Week 9

    In an effort to catch up a bit with my CSA produce usage, I made a cherry and blueberry crisp using the sour cherries and some of the blueberries I received over the last two weeks of the CSA.  The fruit filling was delicious, but the crisp part was just okay -- I should have used my normal crisp recipe that I use for my mango pear crisp.  Oh well.  I also roasted all of my new red potatoes with rosemary, thyme, and garlic -- those turned out pretty well too.

    This week, I am staring down an impressive list:
    • Green cabbage swapped for pea tendrils
    • Red kale swapped for flat parsley
    • White beets
    • Fennel
    • Broccoli
    • Green bell peppers
    • Red gold potatoes
    • Blueberries
    • White currants
    • Rhubarb
    I think I plan on using all of this stuff this week!  The parsley makes my life easier, since it is more garnish/ingredient than principal veggie.  I am excited to try the white beets (after last week's delicious red beets), and I may finally make that blueberry rhubarb crisp (with the good crisp topping).  But what I am going to do with white currants?

    Friday, July 1, 2011

    Pictures are worth 1000 words...

    Per Alex's request, I am going to try and post pictures of some of the dishes I make with my CSA produce.  Since I am many weeks behind, here are pictures of two dishes I made awhile ago, and one I enjoyed today.

    This is a salad made with arugula, pink radishes, roasted rhubarb, a fresh Italian goat cheese called caprino, and walnuts.

    This time I used both the pink radishes and the radish greens to make a lamb stir fry.  The greens cooked down considerably, so they unfortunately did not add much beyond some dark green color to the dish.

    I simmered some tofu in a sauce with garlic, ginger, hoisin sauce, and hot bean paste, then added some pea tendrils.  Very tasty - and spicy!



    So there you have it.  It is not everything I've cooked, and I need a lot of practice to get better food photos, but hopefully you'll see more culinary creations on my blog soon!

    Thursday, June 30, 2011

    Pumpkin

    Today my dad and I hit up Pumpkin, a BYOB on South Street.  It is a small, ten table restaurant whose hook is serving food made from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.  We started with grilled shrimp and a plate of raw, pickled, or slightly cooked summer vegetables.  The colors of the vegetable plate were killer, and the shrimp was very well prepared.  For the main course, my dad had skate served with hearts of palm and a Meyer lemon sauce -- not overpowering, and the fish was again simple but superbly prepared.  I had duck -- seared breast along with leg meat wrapped in pastry.  It was very tasty.  For dessert, I had a warm chocolate cake with coconut ice cream, accented with some cardamom and lemon.  Again, very well done, and I enjoyed the reasonable size of the dessert.

    Pros: Very colorful and pleasing plating, fresh flavors, exceptional culinary skill
    Cons: Cash only (why do such places exist in the 21st century?), food could be a bit more daring

    I'd give Pumpkin a 7 out of 10**, and I would definitely come back to try something from their ever-changing menu.



    **Have I rated restaurants like this before on my website?  I don't think so.  So, as a reference, on a scale of 1 to 10, I would put Vetri at 9.5 (the best restaurant I have eaten at in Philadelphia -- not a 10 because I assume that worldwide there is better), most of my top 10 restaurants in Philadelphia around 8 or so, and TGI Fridays around -2.

    Wednesday, June 29, 2011

    Beets are Da Bomb Diggity

    I've had beets before, though mostly pickled, boiled, or thinly sliced and served raw in a salad.  Yesterday I roasted the red beets I received in my CSA shipment, as an accompaniment to some chicken paillard (or escalope, as the kids are calling it).

    Wow, talk about tasty awesome.  I peeled the beets and cut them into 1/2" slices, halving the larger slices to even out the sizes of the various pieces.  Then I tossed them with extra virgin olive oil and a liberal dash of kosher salt, and put them into a 425F (~220C) oven for 25 minutes.  Honestly, they probably could have stood to roast longer, just to caramelize the edges a bit more, but regardless they were sweet, mellow, and delicious.

    Thus, eight weeks into the CSA, I've discovered I really like radishes and beets.  Go figure.

    Monday, June 27, 2011

    CSA: Weeks 7 and 8

    Oh no, I am behind!  Here is a quick recap of what I received last week and what I just picked up (15 minutes ago) this week:
    • New red potatoes
    • White cucumbers
    • Broccoli
    • Curly endive
    • Garlic scapes
    • Red chard
    • Strawberry jam
    • Blueberries
    I quickly used the red chard in a pasta dish with butter and lemon (of course I overdid the lemon, and I actually do not like chard).  Both the scapes and the broccoli were used in stir fries.  I have eaten one white cucumber just to try it, and I am accumulating potatoes (week 6 also included new reds).  The endive, predictably, did not get eaten.

    This week, my delivery is once again ridiculously robust.  I am doing my best to give away a few of the items:
    • Green romaine lettuce
    • Broccoli
    • Cauliflower (swapped for fennel)
    • White cucumbers
    • Collard greens
    • Pea tendrils
    • Red beets
    • Yellow squash
    • Cilantro
    • Blueberries
    • Sour cherries
    Hopefully I can find takers for the lettuce, broccoli, and maybe the cucumbers.  I do not normally cook or eat collard greens, but these ones looked really good.  I am probably going to freeze the blueberries with last week's pint.  And I have no idea what I am going to do with the sour cherries -- baking them, or maybe some sort of compote or sauce to go with duck or those beef short ribs I have in the freezer.  I am looking forward to trying the beets (I like beets, but never cook with them) and the squash.

    Wednesday, June 22, 2011

    11 days on the Philly food scene

    Over the last eleven days, I have eaten at three exceptional restaurants in Philadelphia, so I thought I'd post three nano-reviews:

    Amada: Jose Garces's Philly flagship, serves high-end Spanish (and Spanish-inspired) tapas.  We had the chef's tasting menu paired with wine.  Overall it was very good, though I can't help thinking that compared to his other small plates restaurants, Tinto is a bit tastier and Distrito is more creative.  The standout dish of the night, in my mind, was some amazing grilled Spanish rock octopus -- perfectly charred yet still marvelously tender.  Runner-up were raw oysters with strawberry escabeche.

    Zinc: Zinc is a French neighborhood bistro, and walking into the place it certainly felt that way, all the way from the decor and the music playing to the menu itself.  It was my dad's birthday, and he loves duck, so I had ordered ahead of time Zinc's signature pressed duck dinner.  The stars of this show are the duck, the antique press, and the chef.  The chef came out and showed us the duck, which had been roasted for 14 minutes at 500F (260C).  He removed the breasts and placed them in a pan tableside, then removed the wings and legs (sending them back to the kitchen for the second course).  Then he chopped up the carcass and placed it into the press, while sauteing the breasts.  Then the chef pressed the carcass, collecting a steady stream of red liquid in a saucepan.  After flambeing the breasts and setting them aside, he reduced the liquid into a sauce, strained it once, and then continued reducing.  Finally, the crisp duck breasts are served with the dark, rich sauce (which includes blood, other juices, marrow, and I think some of the organs).  The sauce was rich and decadent, and went perfectly with the duck.  The second course consisted of the grilled wings and legs.  They were a bit chewy, but even more flavorful than the duck breast.  If I lived closer to this place, I would probably go once a month.

    Adsum: A newer bistro in Queen Village, Adsum has a quirky, sometimes daring, and always decadent menu.  The signature is poutine made with foie gras -- I passed this time, saving it for another occasion when I am dining with someone who would actually help me finish it :)  Instead, we started with grilled rock octopus in a black pepper caramel sauce (really good, though not quite as perfect as Amada) and fried oysters with a pickle juice remoulade, which my dad adored.  For our main courses, my dad had the pork belly and I had the fried chicken, which is apparently cooked sous vide before frying.  The fried chicken came with some amazingly buttery cornbread.  For dessert, my dad had vanilla sugar doughnuts and I had mint panna cotta with a hard chocolate layer topping it.  The panna cotta had an incredible fresh mint flavor that I am still thinking dreamily about.

    So those are my most recent excursions in the Philadelphia food scene.  I would highly recommend all three -- I know my dad wants to go back to Zinc for the pressed lobster (!) dinner, and Adsum has a few menu items, including the pig tails (which they were out of) and the poutine that I must try.

    Friday, June 17, 2011

    CSA: Week 6

    I waited to post a bit longer this week, so I could talk about what I've made using the fruits and vegetables from my CSA share.  This week was the first for fruit shares (even though the shares have included strawberries the last two weeks):
    • Red butterhead lettuce (I gave this away)
    • Radicchio (I also gave this away)
    • Garlic scapes
    • White scallions
    • Pea tendrils
    • New red potatoes
    • Broccoli
    • Rainier cherries
    • Applesauce
    As you can see, I gave away the salad greens because I probably would not eat them otherwise.  I also had some portabello mushrooms and scapes left over from the previous week.  The first thing I made was a pesto from scapes and walnuts.  It was very tasty and the scapes had a slight sweetness, but it probably needed to be sauteed briefly -- otherwise the pungency of the scapes eventually became too much.  The next day, I made a stir fry of tofu, scapes, and portabello mushrooms, finished off with hoisin sauce.  That was very good.  Finally, I prepared some of the new potatoes -- nothing fancy, just quartered, boiled, and mixed with butter, dill, salt, and pepper -- as a side dish to accompany a pork chop with, what else, applesauce.

    I also ate the one pound of cherries in one night.  I really like cherries.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    CSA: Week 5

    I am ashamed to admit that last week was not a good one for my CSA-motivated cooking.  As much as I like mint, I have not found occasion to use it the last two weeks.  I did use some of the lettuce for a nice salad, and made a lamb stir fry using the spring garlic.  However, the red kale is still hanging around (eventually I will try the kale chip recipes I've seen).  But another week has arrived and I am looking at the following haul:
    • Romaine lettuce
    • Green endive
    • Purple mizuna (I swapped out collard greens to get this)
    • Garlic scapes
    • Cilantro
    • Portabello mushrooms
    • Strawberries
    I am planning on making a salad tonight, and I am very excited to try the mizuna and the scapes, as they are entirely new to me.  This week was the first time I used the swap box at my pick-up location.  Basically, you can swap one item you received in your share for one in the box.  I dumped the collard greens and grabbed the mizuna, because I wanted to try something new.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2011

    CSA: Week 4

    Four weeks into my CSA, and I have learned a few things.  First, even a half-share is a bit too much for me, especially when the majority (by mass percentage) of produce I have received recently has been lettuce.  I am not a big lettuce eater -- when it comes to salad, I prefer things like arugula, spinach, rampon, and the like.  Second, I still need to become more creative with these vegetables.  Third, I really like radishes!

    This week's half-share featured my first fruit, though my fruit share delivery does not officially start until later this month:
    • Red leaf lettuce (I gave this to my dad)
    • Romaine lettuce
    • Red kale (maybe make kale chips?  I failed to use the kale from the previous delivery)
    • Spring garlic
    • Strawberries
    • Mint
    If nothing else, the mint smells amazing.  I already had a salad last night (supplemented with red radishes I picked up at the farmer's market stand that shows up on Tuesdays at Drexel), and hopefully I will try the kale chips this week.  The strawberries were pretty good -- some were excellent, others were not yet ripe.  The good news is that these strawberries are pretty much red right through, unlike the giant mutant monstrosities they sell at grocery stores, which look beautiful on the outside but are otherwise tasteless.

    Monday, May 23, 2011

    CSA: Week 3

    Another week, another CSA post.  This week's half-share was much bigger:
    • Romaine lettuce (I gave this away -- too much lettuce for me)
    • Red leaf lettuce
    • Red mustard greens
    • Kale
    • Pea tendrils/sprouts
    • Scallions
    • Shiitake mushrooms
    • The most amazing bunch of mint I've ever smelled
    Tonight I already sauteed the red mustard greens (greens only, no stems) with mild Italian sausage and made a nice sausage sandwich (on an Abruzzo seeded Italian baguette) with some bite, based on this recipe.  My plans are to do a stir fry with the mushrooms, scallions, and maybe the pea sprouts, a salad with the remaining lettuce, and roast the kale to make kale chips.  I am not sure what to do with the mint -- a mint pesto with lamb, or perhaps a few mint juleps?  I doubt I'll finish all these vegetables before they go bad, unfortunately.

    Thursday, May 19, 2011

    CSA: Week 2

    This past Monday, I picked up my second half-share of vegetables from the Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA.  This week's batch consisted of:
    • Bok choy
    • Pink radishes
    • Romaine lettuce
    • Spinach
    • Spring garlic
    • Curly parsley
    I already used the spring garlic (substituting it for normal garlic) and some of the curly parsley to make a variation on the classic spaghetti aglio e olio con peperoncinoToday, I am trying a fresh spring kimchi salad recipe from the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative CSA Recipe GroupI opted to add less fish sauce, use sambal oelek instead of chili powder, and I used Granny Smith apples.  The salad looks pretty good in the mixing bowl, so I am cooking white rice at the moment and soon I'll know if it tastes as good as it looks. 

    Update: The salad was delicious!  I ate it with steamed white rice, because otherwise it is quite salty and spicy, but it tasted a lot like kimchi, just fresher and more vibrant.

    Friday, May 6, 2011

    Community Supported Agriculture

    I became interested in community-supported agriculture (CSA) shortly after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (which I highly recommend to anyone that is interested in learning more about their food, which should be everyone).  The idea behind CSA is that you, as the consumer of a farmer's goods, pay in advance for produce and other agricultural products, and you receive a share of whatever the farm is producing at that time, i.e., seasonal produce.  The farms are local (thus cutting down on the energy costs associated with transporting food across states, nations -- even oceans) and often organic, so you can feel good about the people you are supporting and the quality of ingredients you are receiving.

    I joined the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative CSA because I wanted to support local farmers, and because I thought the highly variable contents of each week's delivery would force me to eat more fruits and vegetables and learn to cook with a wider variety of ingredients.  The cooperative includes 75 Lancaster County farms, and the CSA subscription runs 25 weeks, until late October.

    This past Monday, I received my first share (right now it is only vegetables, fruits will start appearing later), conveniently dropped off at the CHOP building on 35th and Market:
    • Arugula
    • Bok choy
    • Pink radishes
    • Rhubarb
    • White mushrooms
    Now, I've eaten a lot of arugula, bok choy, and white mushrooms in my day, but I only occasionally eat rhubarb (almost always part of some strawberry rhubarb dessert) and radishes, and I've never cooked with either.  So far this week, I've made a salad with arugula, roasted rhubarb, radishes, and goat cheese, tried stir-frying radishes and radish greens, and made another stir fry with the bok choy.  I really enjoyed the radishes, the bok choy and arugula were of very high quality, but I am undecided on the rhubarb.  I have quite a bit left, so I froze the remaining stalks, and I think I might try making a traditional dessert out of them.

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011

    My Top 5 Philly Restaurants

    Over the last ten and a half years, even though I've been away, I've had many occasions to dine in Philadelphia.  I've eaten at some of the fine dining establishments this city has to offer, and I finally feel like I can give a solid top-something list.  Note that these are all fine dining establishments -- places like John's Roast Pork, Paesano's, and the Nanzhou Hand Drawn Noodle House really belong in a different conversation, though you could argue they are every bit as awesome.

    1. Vetri: I said pretty much everything I wanted to say in my blog post.
    2. Morimoto: I have been there three times, once for lunch, twice for dinner, and I always had the omakase.  The cool decor, the fact that I loved watching Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef (the original Japanese series), and fusion-style Japanese cuisine really made this restaurant for me.  Memorable dishes include Kobe beef served atop foie gras, amazing yellowtail sashimi drizzled with hot oil and soy sauce, and some sort of crazy addictive chocolate malt sauce (I can't even remember the rest of the dessert).
    3. Fountain: Visited once with my brother, contemporary French cuisine prepared and served with care.  The one dish I remember involved salsify cream, and since then I have been obsessed with salsify.
    4. Zahav: Israeli haute cuisine?  Yes please!  The pomegranate-marinated lamb shank was killer.  So were the salatim and hummus.
    5. Tinto: I've not been to Amada, but Tinto had amazing tapas.  Most recently, I really enjoyed their duck montadido.

    Some of my favorites that finish just outside the top 5 and probably could be exchanged with Tinto or even Zahav: Osteria, Amis (Marc Vetri's other two Philadelphia joints), Distrito, JG Domestic (two other Jose Garces restaurants), and the reinvented Philadelphia institution Fork.

    I am looking forward to trying Amada in June, and hopefully Bibou and/or Barbuzzo (Philadelphia's current restaurant darlings) in July, so this list may change -- or expand.

    Saturday, April 30, 2011

    Z is for Zermatt

    I struggled with Z, not because it was hard to think of a topic, but because I had two really good topics: Zurich, Switzerland's largest city and home to many of my friends there; and Zermatt, the famous ski resort town at the base of the iconic Matterhorn.  I finally opted for Zermatt because people seem to enjoy my mountain pictures :)

    I visited Zermatt four times during my four years in Switzerland, not an inconsiderable number given that each time it was a day trip, and it takes over three hours (one way) to travel from Lausanne to Zermatt.  I actually did not spend much time in Zermatt itself, because it is something of a Swiss tourist mecca, perhaps only matched by Interlaken, and after six months of living in Switzerland, I stopped feeling like a tourist.  Instead, Zermatt was the starting point for three very memorable hikes, and one memorable train ride on the Gornergratbahn with my mom.

    To reach Zermatt from Lausanne, you take the InterRegio to Visp (if you are lucky, you can occasionally catch the faster Cisalpino on its way to Milan), then switch to the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn traveling south to Zermatt.  The train climbs up near three-quarters of a mile in altitude (in some places using cogs to handle the incline) as it travels through the Mattertal, finally ending in Zermatt:

    The Matterhorn looms above Zermatt

    Trip #1: August 2007

    Two of my good friends visited me in Switzerland, and I suggested we go to Zermatt and see the Matterhorn.  The weather in Switzerland, particularly in the mountains, is fickle, so I woke up at 6 am on a Saturday to check the webcam for the Matterhorn.  When I saw it was blue skies and no clouds, I roused my friends, we hustled to the train station (stopping for some delicious croissants at a nearby bakery), and away we went.

    We were fortunate, for though it was August, the previous week had been rainy and cold, so the mountains above Zermatt were newly dusted with snow.  We did a classic hike, starting at Sunnegga (2288 m), an underground funicular ride up from Zermatt, past three lakes -- the Stellisee, Grindjisee, and Gruensee -- to Riffelalp.  I have many pictures of the hike, but this is forever my favorite:

    The Matterhorn, reflected in the clear waters of the Stellisee
    We have lunch by the Stellisee, and a light snack near at a restaurant near the Gruensee, where the waitress was impressed by the fact that my friend ordered a full liter of Coke (Er hat eine grosse Durst, I told her).


    Trip #2: August 2009

    It would be two years later that I would return to Zermatt.  This time, two more friends (both Americans, but living in Lausanne and working at EPFL) joined me.  We had decided to tackle the steep climb from Sunnegga to the Unterrothorn, topping out at over 3100 m above sea level.  The weather report forecasted early clouds, but by the time we arrived, I hoped they would clear.  When we arrived in Zermatt, the clouds hid everything, including the Matterhorn, and we were very disappointed.  Nonetheless, we took the funicular up to Sunnegga, hoping we might get above the clouds.  Even up there, however, the clouds still obscured everything.  We resigned ourselves to finding a shorter, less scenic hike, but as we were studying the map, I turned around and saw this:


    Within 30 minutes, the Matterhorn looked like this:


    With suddenly blue skies and snow-capped mountains welcoming us, we began the steep ascent to the Unterrothorn, culminating in a rocky, exposed trek along the Ritzengrat:


    Finally, we reached the top, and were rewarded with 360 degrees worth of views:



    Trip #3: October 2009

    In the fall of 2009, my mom visited me in Switzerland.  She was very lucky because we had one week of glorious weather, a truly rare feat in Switzerland.  Towards the end of her trip, I think she was getting a bit tired with crisscrossing the country (though it is her fault on insisting we go to Liechtenstein), but I told her that the weather was great and she would not forget a trip up into the mountains above Zermatt.  This time, we went to Zermatt not for a hike, but to take the Gornergratbahn up to Gornergrat, a station at 3100 m complete with a shopping mall!  But the best part of Gornergrat are the views: 



    Trip #4: July 2010


    My last visit was a grand hike up to the Hohbalmen, an alpine meadow high above Zermatt, with fantastic views of glaciers and mountains all around.  The hike consists of two parts: a traverse up a stream bed called the Triftbach, and then a climb up to the Hohbalmen itself.  This hike took me to the other side of the valley, somewhere I had not been before above Zermatt.

    The Triftbach
    At Trift, below the Gabelhorn Gletscher
    Hohbalmen, with a view of the Matterhorn
    After reaching the Hohbalmen, we were originally going to hike to a point called Zmutt, but instead we decided to call it a day and make the incredibly steep descent to Zermatt.

    Like I said, I could do without the town of Zermatt, but it is the launching point for numerous incredible hikes in one of the most picturesque locales in the Swiss Alps.  That wraps up the A to Z Blogging Challenge here on Occam's Samurai Sword, I hope you enjoyed it!

    Y is for Yttrium

    So close to the finish line, and I drop the ball and forget to post on Friday.  Oh well.  Here was my planned post for Y, which was incidentally just as hard as U and Q.

    I've thought yttrium was a pretty cool element ever since I heard about it back in the 1980s.  I learned about it either from a TV special, or a National Geographic article on superconductors.  Yttrium is a key element in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO), what is known as a "high temperature superconductor" because it displays superconductivity above the boiling point of nitrogen.  This is a big deal, because instead of having to use very expensive liquid helium (boiling point 4.2 K) to cool the superconductor, you can instead use the comparatively inexpensive liquid nitrogen (boiling point 77.1 K).  I thought this was particularly cool because of the pictures they always showed of levitating superconducting magnets

    Yttrium is a transition metal and a rare earth element with the atomic symbol Y (making it perfect for today, er, yesterday) and atomic number 39.  Its name, interestingly, comes from a town in Sweden called Ytterby, on the Stockholm archipelago.  In fact, three other elements -- ytterbium, erbium, and terbium -- were similarly named after the town because they were also discovered in the quarry near Ytterby.  It is the 28th most abundant element in the Earth's crust, and it is used in a number of applications beyond superconductors, including making synthetic garnets, increasing the strength of various alloys, and the radioisotope yttrium-90 has a number of medical applications.

    That's it for today's foray into the periodic table.  Hopefully I won't forget to post Z tonight, so I can finish off this A to Z Blogging Challenge on the right foot!

    Thursday, April 28, 2011

    X is for Xiaolongbao

    Xiaolongbao are a pretty special treat.  I remember having them as a kid, but I don't recall having a good xiaolongbao any time during my adult life, at least not until recently.


    Xiaolongbao are confusingly called "soup dumplings" in English, even though they are not what the Chinese would call dumplings, and frankly the appellation "soup dumplings" would be more appropriate for jiaoziThey fall into that classification of bao, which is translated into "bun" in English.  Their distinguishing characteristic is that the bun is filled with broth, hence the translation soup dumplings.  If you bite into a hot xiaolongbao, they will practically explode in and scald your mouth, which is not pleasant.  The trick is to bite a small hole in the side of them and slurp the broth out, then eat the now less explosive bun and its pork filling.

    I had not eaten xiaolongbao for a long timeAccording to the guidebook I had with me in Singapore, there was a good place that served them somewhere off Orchard Road, but I failed to find it.  When I moved to Philadelphia this past fall, I had xiaolongbao at the Sang Kee Noodle House on 36th and Chestnut.  They were okay, but not what I remembered from my childhood (which of course is always a difficult standard to meet).  A few months later, however, a friend and colleague of mine mentioned Dim Sum Garden, a small restaurant located on 11th Street, in the underpass where people catch the Chinatown buses to New York.  The surroundings are less than pleasant, but the little restaurant itself is simple and clean, and their various buns and dumplings are excellent. Their menu features xia jiao, shumai, and most importantly, their flagship dish, xiaolongbao.  They offer two varieties -- one made with the traditional pork, and the other a mixture of pork and crabmeat.  They are freshly made, meaning you have to be careful when you eat them, but they are delicious.     

    Check around your city or neighborhood and see if you can find a place that specializes in these little guys -- you will not be disappointed!

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    W is for Walensee

    I've already mentioned my two favorite lakes in Switzerland (is it weird that I have such a ranking?), the Vierwaldstättersee and the Oeschinensee, but today I am going to talk about another of my favorite Swiss lakes, probably #3 or #4, a lake called the Walensee.

    The Walensee is located partially in the canton of Glarus and partially in the canton of St. Gallen, in the eastern portion of Switzerland, not far from Liechtenstein.  In fact, the first time I saw the Walensee was when I was traveling from Vaduz back to Zurich, and rode (by train) past the southern shore of the Walensee.  The view from the south shore is fantastic -- the Walensee is a long lake, and the northern shore is more cliff than beach, and beyond the cliffs rear up the Churfirsten, a range of mountains:

    A view of the Churfirsten, from the north side of the lake
    The moment I saw it, I knew I wanted to hike along the north side of the lake, and a few years later I finally did.  It was November 1, 2009 (I remember the date because the day before, on Halloween, I hiked up to the top of Monte San Salvatore in Lugano), and I met up with friends in Rapperswil.  We took a train and then a bus to the village of Amden, and then proceeded to hike most of the length of the lake, from Amden to another village called Walenstadtberg.  For the beginning of November, the weather was almost summer-like -- a really perfect autumn day for a late season hike.


    One of the best parts is that we finished up in Walenstadtberg just as darkness was falling, and stumbled upon a small restaurant, which ended up being more a person's living room and kitchen than anything else.  The proprietor and a few of her friends were celebrating the anniversary of the restaurant, and they welcomed us in without hesitation.  About 45 minutes later, we caught the PostBus down the mountain and returned to Zurich.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    V is for Vinho Verde

    I was going to write about the Vierwaldstättersee, my favorite lake in Switzerland:


    Instead I am going to discuss the virtues of vinho verde (literally "green wine" in Portuguese).  Vinho verde is a type of wine produced in the Minho region of Portugal.  It is called green wine because of how young and refreshing the wine is, though the most common varieties are white wines that may possess a slightly greenish hue.  In fact, I later learned that there are white, rosé, and red varieties of vinho verde.  Because of its youth, you tend to drink it within a year, and the alcohol content (in the white wines at least) are lower, around 9-11% abv.  It is not quite a semi-sparkling wine, but there is a hint of fizziness, which just adds to the refreshing character of the wine.  Vinho verde enjoys official name protection and pretty much exclusively denotes wines produced from certain grapes following certain guidelines in a region known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho.

    I was first introduced to vinho verde on, of all days, my 30th birthday.  My friends and I gathered alongside the lake in Lutry for an evening picnic, and one person brought a bottle of Gazela vinho verde.  I really enjoyed it, and as coincidence would have it, I was leaving early the next morning to go to a conference in Porto.  Now, you would expect that I would drink a lot of port while in Porto (and I did), but my beverage of choice in the warm Portuguese summer was vinho verde.  As far as I am concerned, no wine is better enjoyed in hot weather or accompanying fresh seafood.  Porto had an abundance of this in Matosinhos, where restaurants line the sidewalks selling freshly caught and grilled fish (particularly sardinha assada, grilled sardines).  Actually, I could spend a whole blog post just waxing poetic about the fish in Matosinhos.

    I have yet to try rosé or red vinho verde, but with the weather growing warmer here in Philadelphia, I certainly plan to.  If you have never had vinho verde, I suggest you take the opportunity this summer to do so.  It makes a great aperitif or, as I have said, pairs well with simply prepared grilled fish (whitefish mostly) and shellfish.  I have tried a few producers -- Gazela, Casal Garcia, and Aveleda are the ones I can remember -- and have not been disappointed.  And vinho verde is inexpensive, so taking a flier on a bottle hardly requires an investment.  Check out the official Portuguese webpage (in English) for much more information about vinho verde. 

    Monday, April 25, 2011

    U is for Umami

    The letter U proved to be a difficult one, perhaps only slightly less difficult than Q or X.  I finally settled on a food-related term that I learned only a few years ago.

    Growing up, I learned that our sense of taste was divided into four "basic tastes": sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  I also learned that the taste buds associated with each of these tastes were not uniformly distributed -- instead, certain regions of the tongue featured more or less buds for each of the four tastes.  As it turns out, we have more than four basic tastes, and our taste buds are relatively homogeneously distributed across the tongue.  The former is the subject of my post today.

    The fifth basic taste is sometimes called savoriness or meatiness, but the term that seems to have gained the most traction is umami.  Umami comes from Japanese and means "pleasant savory taste."  It is a flavor caused by the presence of glutamate or certain ribonucleotides in food.  It is because of umami that monosodium glutamate is such an effective "flavor enhancer" -- and it is not surprising that MSG was used so frequently in Asian food, because the Japanese and Chinese have been using seaweed extracts and other natural ingredients that contain MSG for centuries*.  If you are interested in a brief description of the biochemistry and interesting properties of umami compounds, I suggest the Wikipedia article.



    *I own older Chinese cookbooks where practically every recipe calls for MSG.  And while most people think that MSG is bad for you, there is no compelling evidence for this, and in fact many foods contain sources of glutamate just as substantial as MSG.

    Saturday, April 23, 2011

    T is for Ta Prohm

    One of the places I always wanted to visit was the temple of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia.  In November 2008, I finally had the chance, and it was an amazing experience.

    Perhaps only slightly less famous than Angkor Wat is the ruined Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm.  Even if you have not heard of the name, you may recognize the pictures:


    Yes, those are huge trees growing over the temple itself.  When the reclamation and restoration of the Angkor temples began during the 20th century, a decision was made to leave Ta Prohm as it was, largely (but not completely) taken over by the jungle.  This was in contrast to many of the other ruins, where there were extensive reclamation efforts.  This was largely done because Ta Prohm, in its state, was so magnificent in its disarray.  Since then, efforts have been made to maintain its state, preventing further overgrowth of the jungle, and to reinforce some of the more fragile structures.





    The temple was commissioned by Jayavarman VII, king of the Khmer Empire, in the late 12th century, and construction was completed around 1186.  The most amazing thing about Ta Prohm, and all of the Angkor temples, is its age and grandeur -- the Khmer Empire was a highly advanced civilization that ruled from the 9th to 13th centuries, and built singular structures like Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, and Banyon.  And yet I barely knew anything about it before I visited Cambodia. 

    When we think of ancient civilizations and the architecture they left behind, names like the Great Pyramids, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Great Wall of China spring to mind.  I think the temples of Angkor deserve mention in the same breath. 

    Friday, April 22, 2011

    S is for Starkbierzeit

    You've all no doubt heard of Oktoberfest, the huge festival in Munich that has become an international phenomenon.  But Oktoberfest is not the only beer festival held in Munich, and I don't even think it is the coolest.  My money is on Starkbierzeit.

    Starkbierzeit literally translates to "strong beer season."  It is a two week celebration that takes place in March every year, during the period of Lent.  Its origins date back to the Paulaner monks, who during the Lenten fast were only allowed to drink (not eat).  The Paulaner monks were already exceptional brewmasters, and during Lent they would brew a stronger version (nearly 8-9% abv) of their dark beer that they called doppelbock (literally "double" bock).  The beer was sweeter and more nourishing than the regular bock, and thus perfectly suited for making it through Lent.

    Now the people of Munich celebrate Starkbierzeit every year.  The Paulaner beer hall on Nockherberg remains the center of the celebration, but all the beer halls in Munich participate.  The famous Paulaner brewery produces the original doppelbock called Salvator, and other breweries in Munich follow suit, following the naming convention by ending their brews with "ator".

    The Paulaner beer hall in Nockherberg
    My friends in Switzerland and I found out about Starkbierzeit, so in March 2007 we drove from Lausanne to Munich to take in a weekend at the event.  After getting lost in Munich and asking for directions from old Bavarians in their local bar, we finally found our hotel and then quickly hustled to closest beer hall, the Augustinerkeller.  Their doppelbock is called Maximator, and like all beer in Bavaria, is served in one liter glasses:
    At Augustinerkeller (faces cropped out to protect the innocent)
    Two liters of 8% abv dark beer and less than an hour later, I was done.  The next day, I could barely eat or drink anything -- I did not even try the Delicator at the Hofbrauhaus, I had a few sips of Salvator at the Paulaner beer hall, and finally a small glass of Triumphator at the Löwenbräukeller.  In retrospect, I think I would drink my Maximator more slowly next time.  But if you want to go to a great beer-centric celebration in Munich, one still owned by the locals and not dominated by sloshed tourists (and before you comment, despite drinking too much, I was still well-behaved), Starkbierzeit is the place to be.  And despite overdoing it, I had a fantastic time.  

    Thursday, April 21, 2011

    R is for Rigi

    Rigi is one of the most famous mountains in Switzerland.  It is called Die Konigin der Berge ("Queen of the Mountains"), though it is barely over 1500 m high.  Instead, I think the draw of Rigi is its location -- towering above the beautiful Vierwaldstättersee and Zugersee in central Switzerland, with a 360 degree panoramic view that lets you see many of different parts of the Swiss Alps.

    I had wanted to visit Rigi for sometime, and finally had the chance in the fall of 2009, when my mom visited me in Switzerland.  We got really lucky and enjoyed five days of glorious weather.  We spent one of those days taking the train from Lausanne to the city of Arth-Goldau in the canton of Schwyz.  From Arth-Goldau we took a rack railway up to the top of Rigi, where we could look in every direction and see something spectacular:

    Pilatus to the west
    The view southwest towards the Berner Oberland
    A close-up of the Berner Oberland, including Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger

    The Schilthorn, made famous in the James Bond film "Her Majesty's Secret Service"
    The view east of the Glarner Alps
    The southeastern view of the Urner Alps
    After we had our fill of the views (if that is even possible), we took the train down the other side to the town of Vitznau, where we took a boat across the Vierwaldstättersee (which, with all due respect to the Oeschinensee, is my favorite lake in Switzerland) to Luzern, one of my favorite cities in Switzerland.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    Q is for Qimen Hongcha

    I am cheating, and using a pinyin spelling for today's Q topic!  Qimen hongcha literally means "Qimen red tea" and is the Chinese name for Keemun tea, a type of black tea from China.  What we refer to as black teas because of the color of the oxidized tea leaves, the Chinese refer to as red teas because of the color of the tea liquid.

    I've enjoyed drinking tea for some time now, but this past Christmas, my brother and sister-in-law gave me a gift of a tea pot, three sampler sets of tea (black, green, and white), and a book about tea.  My brother told me that he expected me to become a tea connoisseur.  So I've been trying -- with a tiny bit of success.  My favorite tea so far (I have tried probably upwards of a dozen different varieties, mostly green and black, but also a couple of white teas and one rare yellow tea) is the aforementioned Keemun black tea.  Keemun tea comes from the county of Qimen in the province of Anhui (Keemun is the old colonial English name for Qimen) in China.  Keemun tea comes in a number of varieties, generally related to the age and condition of the buds.  Most recently I have been enjoying a Keemun Hao Ya (one of the highest grades, I think) from Premium Steap, a great tea shop near Rittenhouse Square.  Keemun teas are one of China's Ten Great Teas, a vaguely defined list of the most distinguished types of teas from the country, and are a part of Russian Caravan and some English Breakfast black tea blends.  

    I really enjoy Keemun tea because of the wonderful aroma of the dry tea, the coppery color of the infusion, the slightly smoky nose, and the bitter chocolate notes (yes, chocolate).  Since it has gotten warmer, I drink it less frequently, but during this year's rather cold Philadelphia winter, I routinely enjoyed a cup a day.  If you like black teas, I highly recommend Keemun.  Make sure you get something high grade (anyone at a decent tea shop can help you with that), it really makes a difference.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    P is for Professor

    My thesis for this particular blog post is this: Ph.D. graduate study and post-doctoral training do little to prepare you for being a professor.

    Of course, they do something.  A Ph.D. is a prerequisite for any tenure-track faculty position.  Post-doctoral training has become a de facto requirement for getting a faculty position in the sciences and engineering.  Both provide you a strong background in doing research.  These are important for becoming a professor.  But what does a professor do all day?  Well, what I have discovered as a new tenure-track assistant professor is that I do the following (in no particular order of importance or time investment):
    • Attend committee and faculty meetings
    • Meet with interested undergraduate and graduate students
    • Prepare for and teach classes
    • Write grants
    • Advise my own graduate students
    • Balance my lab budget
    Sounds very different than the average day for a Ph.D. student or post-doc, right?  I do not do much bench science, except when I have been training my graduate students or lending a hand.  Instead, many of my responsibilities are largely administrative.  My contact with research is largely in an advisory role (in meetings with my students) or through the writing of grants, which are necessarily much larger in scope than what I normally encountered as a Ph.D. student or post-doc.  I spend a lot of time mentoring students, both my own graduate students, as well as students in my classes, and other students who are simply interested in what I do or what I have to say, apparently.

    I am fortunate in many ways -- my Ph.D. and post-doc advisors gave me ample opportunities to write grants, mentor students, critique manuscripts -- so those aspects of my new job are not entirely mysterious to me.  But in other ways, I was totally unprepared for being a professor -- I have very little teaching experience, no management experience, and I do not have the intrinsic talent for navigating the tricky political waters of the university and academia at large.  But I am learning.

    Since I can't do it over again, the best I can do is offer advice to graduate students and post-docs out there.  It is easy to keep your head down and focus on just your own research, but if you are serious about getting a faculty position, and want to be as prepared as possible for when you start (and even then you will still be woefully unprepared), I would take every opportunity you can find to participate in research-related activities separate from doing research, and to try and teach at least part of a course, if not two or three courses.  You will be glad you did -- and if you find you really dislike all these seemingly ancillary activities, then perhaps being a professor is not the profession for you.


    P.S. If anyone has any suggestions for Q, I am in need of some help :)

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    O is for Oeschinensee

    A Swiss friend told me that he thought the Oeschinensee ("Oeschinen Lake" in German) was the most beautiful lake in Switzerland.  What do you think?


     That picture does not even show you the coolest feature of the lake, which I shall reveal in time.  After having the endorsement of a Swiss citizen, I decided to visit the Oeschinensee in the summer of 2008 (I would later return, under much cloudier conditions, during the Hohtürli hike).  As it turned out, the forecast for the day I picked was beautiful in the morning, with increasing clouds in the afternoon, so I hopped a very early train to Bern and switched to the BLS line to Kandersteg.  Kandersteg is situated in the beautiful Kandertal:


    From Kandersteg I took a chairlift up about 400 m to a path leading to the Oeschinensee:



    Instead of following everyone straight to the lake, however, I took a path that veered up towards the mountains surrounding the lake -- my goal was to walk above the lake to its far end, then descend quickly and walk at lake level when I finished my circuit.  Following this path (and hilariously giving directions in Germans to other hikers, even though I knew next-to-nothing about the trail), I would catch glimpses of the lake through the trees, but finally I reached a point far enough up to see it in its entirety:

    The most dramatic feature of the Oeschinensee is not its turquoise color, or the surrounding snow-capped mountains, but the sheer cliff, which is probably 300 m tall, at one end of the lake.  I continued my way along, getting more beautiful views of the lake and surrounding mountains.



    The farthest point of my hike was a mountain restaurant, where I had some sausage and leek soup, and from there I descended rapidly among cows happily lounging in the sun (a pretty common sight when hiking in Switzerland):

    Finally I was back at lake level, and hiked the flat path along the Oeschinensee and back to the chairlift, just as the clouds started to roll in.  Perfect timing!

    Overall, it is a relatively short hike, unless you link it up with something else, but the scenery is magnificent.  There are a number of hikes that start or finish in Kandersteg as well, several gems in Swiss hiking, including the famous Gemmipass.  I highly recommend visiting the lake, even if you do not hike around it. 

    If you want to see more pictures of the Oeschinensee, check out my photo set.

    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    N is for Ninja!

    NINJA!

    Here's a quick primer for everything you need to know about ninjas:
    And finally...



    (Yes, that is me dressed as a ninja, cooking Chinese food, as it turns out.)

    Friday, April 15, 2011

    M is for Mondeuse

    When two friends visited me in Switzerland in August 2007, we immediately took a weekend trip to nearby France, driving from Geneva to the wine region of Savoie.  It is a little-known region, with many mountains and massifs (Albertville, host of the 1992 Winter Olympics, is in Savoie) and rare but wonderful wines.  The second place we visited was nothing more than a man's garage, where he stored the wine he produced and offered tastings.  He spoke French, we spoke English, and my own French was terrible (and still is), but I remember trying a red wine called Mondeuse that he said was "plus rustique", and that has stuck with me.  For some reason -- perhaps because of all the ancillary memories of visiting the beautiful valleys of Savoie -- I now have a fondness for Mondeuse, and try to have it whenever I notice it, which is not particularly often, since it primarily a grape grown in Savoie, and they are not a large producer by any definition.  The wine itself is deep and dark red, full-bodied, and like the man said, has a rustic taste and feel to it -- it is not refined like some red wines, but it is very enjoyable to drink.  I think it goes well with hard cheeses and meat dishes.

    The second time I had Mondeuse was in Switzerland, in a restaurant in Lausanne.  They had a bottle of Mondeuse produced in nearby Mont-sur-Rolle, a really beautiful wine-growing town west of Lausanne, in the region called La Cote.  This particular bottle, produced by the Domaine de Maison Blanche, was blended with pinot noir (the most popular red wine grape in Switzerland), which mellows the flavors and makes it smoother in the mouth (don't put too much stock in this description, I don't know what I am talking about).  As an aside (and still letter M appropriate!), visiting Mont-sur-Rolle is highly recommended if you are going to be near Geneva, particularly during a special weekend called Caves Ouvertes ("open cellars"), where the producers open up their businesses (oftentimes their homes) and encourage people to come in and taste the newest vintage.

    If you happen to see a bottle of Mondeuse (or red Vin de Savoie, it is likely made with this grape) wherever you are, give it a try.  And let me know where you found it :)