July 26, 2013

Sometimes I think, I wish there was a way I could share all of the neat things I find online with other people. Maybe I should start a store, make cool products or create the next cool thing. Then I think, wait a second, I have a blog, and a food blog too! That means sharing another cool thing related to food I have found and added to my wish list.

If you've ever wondered how to transport pies from one place to another without it crushing or sliding, then you need a Piebox ($35). A Piebox is a reusable pine box perfectly shaped to carry pies safe and sound. 

For all the places you take pie, such as in the car, on the bus or on your bike, the Piebox will keep your homemade creations warm and in tact. 

Then, if you want to give a pie as a gift and not give away the fancy box there is the Good Neighbour Pie Kit, $9.95. Each kit contains three heavy duty metal pie tins and three pie post cards with an "I'm giving you this pie because..." checklist. 

Because there is always a good reason to gift a pie. Everybody loves pie and everybody loves a trendy, cute way to carry those pies. Add some twine, patterned napkins and mason jars and you have a Pinterest-worthy picnic. 
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July 23, 2013

I have been meaning to recap my adventures in Southeast Asia last summer and I am only now getting around to my second post about the trip: Vietnam. Exactly a year ago last weekend, we departed on an amazing 6-week adventure through Southeast Asia. In the first two weeks, we started in Singapore and then traveled to Malaysia and then Indonesia. A large part of our trip was spending 10 days in Vietnam starting from the south and working our way up north.

I thought ten days seemed like a lot of time in Vietnam. Those days were jam-packed with sights, sounds, food and much more. When you're traveling for six weeks straight, it's assumed you'll take a rest in between some of that. We put our feet up for a little bit in Bali before venturing onto Vietnam.

After relaxing in Bali, Vietnam is quite a shock to the system. At this point, we were a few weeks into our trip and getting somewhat used to maneuvering around Asia. There is something about many of the the places in Southeast Asia that you feel you will take with you always. Something about experiencing it, and making it through the ups and downs that is really not something you can explain and seems well, like a world away from the world you normally live.

When I got home, I tried to replicate many of the meals, including fresh spring rolls. Everything had such simple ingredients and flavours done in a beautiful, balanced way that makes you appreciate real food. There were many ways I tried to capture my experiences in Asia through photos, memories, sights, experiences and now, looking back and trying to document the trip.

There is no shortage of good food in Vietnam, however, you won't find many people sitting down for a quiet, relaxed meal. There are thousands of stools and chairs on the street that people crouch on the sidewalk to eat their meals. Most meals are shared family style and consist of rice bowls, vegetables, some type of meat or tofu, sauces, pickled vegetables and stir-fries.

There are still remnants of another time throughout the city, but it seems to have adapted to futuristic developments while maintaining its history. The city was the capital of the Republic of Vietnam until 1975 until it fell to the North Vietnamese forces and was re-named Ho Chi Minh City. The main centre of the city, and a lot of the main attractions, are located in District 1 (the city is divided into 19 urban districts) which is still known sometimes as Saigon.

Then there is pho: the famous Vietnamese soup with broth, noodles, meat and herbs, really, all of the herbs and spices you could want. The pile of fresh herbs they give you to garnish the pho is probably as big as the bowl itself. There is also a variety of sauces and spices to add. Condiments are a serious business there. It was also impossible to down a bowl of pho without getting half of it on my shirt. We eventually learned the proper head over the bowl and slurping technique. It is never a clean endeavour and chances are you will leave a meal with remnants of broth on your clothes. There is actually a famous chain of pho restaurants in Vietnam called Pho 2000. Although they claimed to have good pho, we went for the real experience on a metal bench of a tiny corner place by our hotel. 

Some things are tough to handle in Vietnam and it's not a place for the weak of heart as I learned. Everything can be overwhelming, from the motorbikes, noise, smoggy air to even crossing the street. When we first stepped out for the day in HoChiMinh we headed to Ben Thanh Market. I usually love seeing markets in different places. For some reason, I couldn't handle this one. As tourists, we were flocked, poked and prodded and we only made it through one aisle.

I dashed towards the first stall of "ca phe chon" that I saw and bought a bag to take home. By the way, it's coffee made from the droppings of weasels. The animals eat the coffee beans and then digest them and the droppings are sold as premium coffee. I like good coffee and this was good coffee, despite the back story.

Markets are usually a hustle and bustle I can handle. Turning into a human traffic cone, however, is a little much. I ended up gripping Mike’s hand with unnecessary force and yelling obscenities under my breath as we weaved through traffic. On the second day I decided to wear a bright orange tank top to make sure the drivers could see me. Slow and steady wins the race, as do bright colours and quick judgment.

There is something in the air even 40-50 years later, a sense of re-building and looking forward after so much devastation; it's almost a sense of not being able to forget the past. From the French influence, to the guards on the street in green uniforms and the shops selling antiques and propaganda posters. Some things are still quite upsetting. I have never seen people so shaken up at a museum before like I did at the War Remnants Museum. The museum documents the graphic destruction of the Vietnam war and the devastating effects the use of bombs and napalm.

I am skipping on a bit to our trip to Hanoi. I think Hoi Ann deserves its own post, so you will see more in Part 2.  We did the walking tour laid out in our Lonely Planet book of the Old Quarter. We started at the Ngoc Son Temple, then followed the route past jewellery shops, markets, shops, bars and more shops. There is definitely a lot of French influence in Hanoi and often the winding streets and busyness reminded me of Paris. As we only had three days, we stayed in mostly the central area and chose to take one of the days to see Halong Bay.

Hanoi is a little calmer than Ho Chi Minh, but not quite. It acted as the capital of French Indochina until 1954 and celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2010. There is also a hot, subtropical climate and rains for about an hour or two every day.

The best way to see things is to walk and soak everything in, like the mazes of backstreets, alleys, markets, fountains and shopping. The Old Quarter is also the home of the Temple of Literature, the oldest University in Vietnam dating back to 1010. And of course, one of the world's best places for food whether it's restaurants, cafes, night markets or stalls. It is also quite established and modernized, similar to Ho Chi Minh City, with expanding developments, business and commercialization.

You will also learn a new way to drink coffee. Forget everything you know about iced coffee. Vietnamese coffee, as well as weasel coffee, is some of the best in the world. In the warm and humid weather, drinking hot coffee is almost unbearable, so most places sell refreshing iced coffees extra sweetened with condensed milk and sugar. Along with a cold, caffeinated beverage, a bowl of hearty noodles is also in order. 

I wish I had a better picture of this meal. This was the first time I have walked into a restaurant having no idea what anything on the menu was in English. I sat down, pointed at the menu and this delightful bowl of meat and noodles was brought to the table. Bun Cha, which originated in Hanoi, is a dish of grilled pork and noodles with herbs similar to Pho, but not quite a soup. We actually went back to this restaurant twice after we learned what to order the first time. Apparently Hanoi is also known as the place "transfixed by Bun Cha."

As we only had three days, we chose to take one of the days to see Halong Bay. Thousands of limestone monolithic islands dot the landscape with many wondrous grottos inside and clusters of lakes outside to explore.

The guides don't recommend only one day on Halong Bay. You would be best doing a two to four day cruise around the bay. In our case, we packed into a mini van with eight other tourists, drove a shaky four hours then hopped onto a boat. After a quick lunch on the boat, it sailed around for a bit and we docked and piled into canoes to explore the bay. We had about 30 minutes to canoe around the bay and then everyone piled back onto the boat to explore the caves.

Cross another UNESCO World Heritage site off the list. Did I mention it also about gone through about 500 million years of evolution and formation? Most of the islands are uninhabited, however, as any beautiful tourist attraction, they are swarmed with people. 

A tour guide took us through the colourful caves and pointed out inappropriate shapes in the rocks. We explored the Surprise Grotto, one of the largest caves in Halong Bay, also known as the "Sung Sot Cave." The ceilings are about 30 feet high, so I did not feel claustrophobic whatsoever. Then it was back on the boat and then into the mini-van for another bumpy four hour drive back to Hanoi. If you're looking to relax on the bay and spend time exploring the caves and lakes, I would recommend a few days doing a Halong Bay cruise or boat trip. 

Then our trek through Vietnam was at an end and we spent our last day in Hanoi before heading to Thailand to meet up with our tour group for the last leg of the journey. We were pretty tired from our day trip. Our plans for that day included finding a nice cold beverage and sitting at a cafe somewhere to catch our breath. The Lonely Planet guidebook always amazes me. We found the most nondescript address mentioned in the book and went up some back alley stairs to find this beautiful cafe with a peaceful balcony overlooking the street.  Personally, I think one of the best ways to soak in any new places is so sit at a cafe and watch the world go by.

All we wanted to do that day was sit and drink cold beverages. We migrated from one cafe to another and had lunch before flying to Bangkok. One final meal using the classic combination of pork, noodles and sauce. No matter what way you eat it, whether it's a soup, stir fry or spring roll, you know Vietnam is a place you will never forget. With such an exploration of the five senses in each twist and turn, you simply can't forget.


Read more about my tasty travels in Singapore
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July 19, 2013

Some people scoff or chuckle when someone who works in online media is known as a content "curator." Personally, I don't mind the title. Whether you write online, blog or read a lot, you are finding ideas, inspiration and desires every day. Similar to a museum curator, you are gathering things of relevance and interest. I am always seeing neat things from other sites and want to share them--or add them to my wish list--so I am going to post some of my favourite things here. Once a week, I will share a neat item (most likely food-related) that I need to tell the world about.

Cuppow is a company based out of Portland that creates cool accessories for mason jars. They wanted to solve the problem of how to drink from mason jars without having them spill in transport.

Mason jars are something we all have lying around in our house, but this lid that turns it into a bonafide sippy cup brings it to a whole new level. (Cuppow Drinking Lid, $7.99)

Then there is that constant problem of how to separate dip from crackers, chips or vegetables so they don't go soggy. The Cuppow Lunchbox Adapter, $7.99 solves that problem by acting as a divider in the jar. The concept is similar to a bento box and allows you to compartmentalize your jar.

Their products are also eco-friendly and because you're upcylicng a jar you already had, you're reducing your carbon footprint. They are also family friendly and BPA free, so they would be great for kids lunches or drinks. If it helps me to not spill something all over myself, I am in. Check out Cuppow and start recycling those mason jars.
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July 15, 2013

The Toronto Zoo is the largest zoo in Canada. Go Canada! They recently acquired two giant pandas on loan from China: Er Shun and Da Mao. The pandas arrived in Toronto in March after a special Fed Ex flight (that cost the government a special amount of money) and now close to 14,000 people a day line up to see them at the zoo. 

I will save you a lot of time by showing pictures of them here, as the line to see the pandas--on a nice day in mid-July when school is out, you know, not a big deal--was 2 1/2 hours long! Yes, we waited outside, in the heat to see two animals at the zoo. We didn't really have time to see a lot of the other animals, as we, along with thousands of other people, had the same idea for a nice summer outing. 

It wasn't a bust though. I'm glad I saw the pandas, even if it was tiring standing in line. The point was to spend a nice afternoon in Toronto after picking Mike up from the train station from his placement up north. Since going to the Singapore Zoo last summer, we've discovered it's alright to go to the zoo even if you're not a child. It's not weird, right? Like going to Disneyland with no children weird? There was a lot of people there--of all ages--to experience the Giant Panda (and giant line) Experience. 

We saw a few other animals and then called it a day and went for a Summerlicious dinner at Pangea Restaurant in Yorkville. Summerlicious is Toronto's city-wide culinary celebration where you can enjoy a three-course meal at participating restaurants for $25, $35 or $45. For some Toronto restaurant prices, those are amazing deals. I had a tough time choosing which restaurant to try and based on the menu selection and reviews chose Pangea Restaurant. Although it is in Yorkville, it is upscale without being stuffy or uncomfortable. I actually really like the atmosphere and simple, cozy decor. 

For my appetizer, I ordered asparagus and 65 degree poached egg with grapefruit emulsion. The dish doesn't look like much food, but this was actually my favourite course. A few pieces of asparagus, a poached egg and a tangy and creamy grapefruit sauce was refreshing and not too filling to start the meal. 

Mike ordered the tomato ginger soup, which was again, simple, but well executed. Just because it's a fancier restaurant, doesn't mean the food has to be flashy and pretentious. I like simple, well made food with good ingredients. That is what all good food should be like. 

We both ordered the flat iron steak with a ragout of summer vegetables, mushrooms and a veal reduction. Pangea prides itself on its devotion to simplicity and nature with its regional cuisine and local, fresh ingredients. They also have an impressive wine and loose leaf tea selection even if it is a little pricey for a pot of tea. When in Rome...

For dessert, I had the raspberry semifreddo with raspberry compote, lime caramel and white chocolate shavings and a shortbread cookie; however, I wish I had ordered the strawberry shortcake with marinated strawberries, hot milk cake, lemon whipped cream and meringue. Wow. I normally find strawberry shortcake a little too "cakey." This one was highlighted with a lemon-flavoured cream and a light and fluffy cake, as well as crispy meringues. My dessert was pretty good. I can't help getting food envy when someone orders something just a little bit better than mine. 

We had a little stroll through Yorkville after dinner and headed back home. Summer is such a good time to try things, like re-living childhood experiences at the zoo or splurging on a nice downtown restaurant. Summer is also the time to relax, enjoy and let adventures take flight. I hope I can fit in enough adventures in the six or so weeks we have left. 
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July 01, 2013

I don't usually buy a lot of things in bulk. Even when there's a sale, I only buy one or two of an item. I am by no means a "stockpiler" and make careful considerations before purchasing most things. Mason jars, however, are the one thing I actually have stockpiled and bought in mass quantities. I have mason jars for canning, organization, decoration and food. I especially love these dreamy Blue Heritage jars.

There is something classic, vintage and beautiful about a mason jar. Preserving and canning opens up a whole new world when it comes to using mason jars; however, that doesn't limit you to canning. You can make recipes in them and freeze them, eat them right out of the jar and take to picnics and parties as individual treats. They make the perfect single serving treats, gifts or make-ahead dinner party desserts.

I made a traditional pie crust and layered the jars with the crust, custard and homemade strawberry rhubarb pie filling. I took the Strawberry Rhubarb Pie recipe from The Joy of Cooking and baked it in jars in the oven although I should have put the jars in a water bath. All I did to take them to a picnic was put some reusable plastic lids on top and placed them in a cooler bag with some spoons.

So instead of eating a whole pie you can eat multiple mini pies, which have less calories, right? They are along the lines of the "mini" trend where everything made always looks cute and is bite-sized, so you can eat less--or more if you'd like. 

strawberry pie in a jar

I was ecstatic that one of Robert Rose's spring cookbooks was a book on making desserts in a jar. 150 Best Desserts in a Jar by Andrea Jourdan includes recipes in jars for everything from puddings, cobblers, pies and cakes plus tips on choosing the right jar, baking and creative techniques. I learned that baking the jars in a dish of water half-way up the jars is one of those essential tips. 

150 Best Desserts in a Jar Cookbook

I have completely earmarked this book with recipes I want to make, including Peach and Mango Parfait, Lemon Lavender Panna Cotta and Apricot, Chocolate Chip and Yogurt Treat all desserts that would let the beautiful layers and colours shine inside the clear jars. "Whether it's a bevelled antique jar picked up at a flea market, or that classic mason jar saved at the back of the kitchen cupboard, all kinds of containers can become sparkling, creative and beautiful ways to prepare and serve divine desserts." 

Strawberry Kiwi Flan in a jar

When using jars for desserts, Jourdan suggests always cooking them in a water bath (something I learned after my first attempt before I read the book), leave extra space at the top of the jars if you're going to freeze the dessert and always leave them to cool completely after baking in the oven. Also, the cooking time will differ with each recipe depending on the content in the jars and how it's distributed. 
One of my favourite summer desserts in the book was the Kiwi and Strawberry Flan. 

Before you start, make sure you have:
1. The oven preheated to 350F (180C)
2. Four 8-ounce (250ml) jars, buttered
3. A baking pan large enough to accomodate the jars

Kiwi and Strawberry Flan (pg. 48)

4 kiwifruit, peeled
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
Pinch of salt
3 eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
3 tbsp strawberry jam
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

jars with fruit

1. Cut each kiwi into thin slices and place in the bottom of each jar.
2. In a bowl, combine flour, cornstarch and salt.
3. In a large bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until foamy. Gradually whisk in flour mixture. Mix in sour cream, jam and vanilla. Pour over kiwis, dividing equally.
4. Place jars in baking pan, spaced evenly apart and not touching the sides of the pan, and add enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the jars. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes until flan is no longer wobbly. Remove from oven. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes before serving. 

The flan was quite tart with the acidic fruit, but still refreshing. It's similar to the custard filling I made for the pies in a jar and certainly fitting for a jar dessert with lots of layers and fruit. If you're just making desserts for two, the recipes are easy to half to make only a few portions: it's portion control at its chicest. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.  
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