Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Dragon Fruit

Growing up in an Asian family, I was taught from an early age the importance of eating plenty of fruit, not just from a "health" vantage point, but from a "spiritual" one. During the Lunar New Year and birthday celebrations, fruit took on a deeper meaning, as certain types of fruits (such as peaches and oranges) signified prosperity and good fortune for our family. Because my father grew up in Vietnam, he made sure to introduce his children to fruits from his childhood, even though such fruits were very expensive and rarely available anywhere near where we lived in Arizona. Durian, starfruit, lychees, longans (dragon eyes), pitaya (dragon fruit), and mangosteens were his favorite tropical fruits. I have already posted before on lychees and mangosteens, and today, I would love to share with you about the dragon fruit.

The outside of the dragon fruit looks akin to a hot pink and underdeveloped artichoke, with flipper-esque growths emanating from the fruit's oblong body. With its audacious appearance, it is clear to see where the dragon fruit gets its name. You can easily imagine the tentacle-like dragon fruit stems to be the twirling, suspended whiskers of a dragon's mane. However, the inside of a dragonfruit is a monochromatic contradiction to the brazen colors of the outside rind. The fruit is just supple white flesh, simply flecked with a scattered design of black poppy-like seeds.

To eat a dragon fruit, cut it just like a melon, lengthwise, and then into wedges. Next, peel away the hardened rind to reveal a delicately soft and fleshy interior, which texturally feels identical to a kiwifruit. The subtle fruit flesh tastes both like a soft, ripened pear and a kiwifruit, but without any bite of tartness.

Check out your local speciality store or the ethnic area of your supermarket, to discover the dragon fruit. Happy holidays, and Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Spiced German Elisen Lebkuchen Cookies

Although the beau and I visited Switzerland from late October to early November, we noticed that many Swiss stores had already begun decorating for Christmas. For instance, luxury clothing boutiques had sparkling strings of Christmas lights dangling from the storefronts and chocolate shops had cottony bundles of artificial snow nestling in the corners of their windows. Best of all, the Swiss supermarkets were stocked with bountiful displays of seasonal Christmas cookies. The Christmas cookies that repeatedly caught my eye (and helped to empty the cash from my pocket, time after time) were "elisen lebkuchen" cookies, or spiced German Christmas cookies.

The first time I purchased
elisen lebkuchen cookies, I was mesmerized. After carefully opening the crinkly cellophane wrapper, I laid out the three different cookies from within the package and delicately inspected them one-by-one, caressing the edges with my fingers. I divided the cookies according to their three types: (1) plain, (2) coated in chocolate, and (3) coated in a milky sugar glaze. Each cookie had an airy, rice papery, communion wafer layer adhered firmly to the back. (Although I have analogized certain textures to communion wafers before, the cookie backing literally tastes like a communion wafer, and later, after industriously scouring the web, I discovered that indeed, the backing is a communion wafer.)

As I bit into the thick and pillowy soft cookie, I found that they possessed the encompassing, warming flavors of gingerbread and rum with a soothing aftertaste of cloves and allspice, and just a hint of cinnamon. The dimpled cookies had crunchy bits of chopped hazelnuts, distributed throughout the cookie dough. The cookies coated in chocolate and the thin layer of hardened sugary icing were also delightful. Even though I purchased the cookies from the store rack, the cookies had retained the moisture and texture of being freshly baked, just a few hours ago.

I hope my post about my experience with
elisen lebkuchen cookies gets you in the holiday mood. They sure did for me, way back in October!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Window Shopping in Zurich

I loved window shopping in Zurich, and I hope from this picture, you can see why.

I would spend hours walking up and down Bahnhofstrasse and the nearby neighborhoods, simply peeking through storefront glass and deciding what I should purchase for a mid-afternoon snack. See the candied citrus segments coated in chocolate on the lower left hand corner? For a chocolate-lover like me, Switzerland was a dreamland.

(Also, since we are on the topic of "looking," I just wanted to thank the blogger at Three Column Blogger for providing the instructions for me to implement this new, three column layout. Check out the blog for amazing, detailed, step-by-step guidance on changing your blogger code.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Confiserie Sprüngli

The one store that defined my trip to Zurich, Switzerland, was without a doubt, Confiserie Sprüngli, a delicious store which is a combination bakery (with a dizzying selection of toothachingly sweet Swiss pastries) and confectioner/chocolatier’s shop. (Thank you for the tip, Just Hungry!)

The moment you enter, you will see a throng of eager patrons standing in line to order Confiserie Sprüngli’s renowned Luxemburgerli macaroons. The macaroons generally consist of (1) decadently buttery chocolate ganache or (2) cloud-like puffs of whipped cream, sandwiched in between two melt-in-your-mouth meringue mounds that have an airy, wafer-like crispness. The meringues literally evaporate in your mouth like a sweet silk, made of sugar.

Yes folks, this is what manna must have tasted like. Hallelujah!

The first thing I thought of when I read the word “luxemBURGERli,” was the word, “burger.” The Luxemburgerli macaroons do indeed look like dainty finger-sized burgers, but exhibit an artistic flair—they might possess a bright pastel sheen, a luminescent surface which reflects the glistening sunlight, or be covered in a blanket of powdered cocoa. Confiserie Sprüngli has a stunning array of robust flavors, including pistachio and alcohol-infused flavors such as champagne and Bailey’s liqueur. But there are flavors even for the unadventurous, including classic French vanilla, and Swiss chocolate.

After you’ve ordered your macaroons and paid at the counter (but before you open the pristine box flaps to your macaroon feast), take the time to read the attached message printed in three different languages (German, French, and English) on a paper slip the size of those you find in fortune cookies. The instruction on the message is simple, yet forceful, "Enjoy [your macaroons] as soon as possible." The delicate texture of the macaroons are best eaten in seconds so that they retain their crisp and airy texture, and don't become chewy and stale from humid air.

These Luxemburgerli macaroons, unfortunately, don't come cheap. I remember the price as roughly five Swiss francs (approximately, four dollars) for a small box of four macaroons. But believe you me, they're worth every bite.

If you aren't in the mood for sweets, the Confiserie Sprüngli on Bahnhofstrasse (the main thoroughfare in Zurich) sells savory foods, such as sandwiches, quiches, and meat pies.

So to recap, if you're in Zurich, you "must" visit Confiserie Sprüngli. It's the place to eat Swiss sweets!

Friday, December 12, 2008

I Love Being Barefoot

I adore Ina Garten. I worship her recipes, show, taste, and wit. Did I mention that I am enamored with her recipes? They are precise, easy-to-follow, and yield immensely satisfying results. Her vanilla ice cream? Do die for. Her roasted chicken? Hells yea, it's good.

My favorite Ina Garten recipe is her take on tabbouleh, a fresh, cleansing, and uplifting parsley salad from Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Ina's version is amazingly delicious, although, not entirely as parsley-dense as the versions that you find in Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants.

To make a more traditional (or more "restaurant-like") tabbouleh than Ina's version, (1) cut the portions of boiling water and medium grain bulghur wheat in half, (2) chop and add an additional bunch of flat-leaf parsley, and (3) also add a tsp of cumin or a pinch of allspice. You should definitely try her recipe, but check out my slightly adapted version, here.

Recipe adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties!
1/2 cup medium-grain bulghur wheat (grains should be this size, look at the fifth picture down)
3/4 cup boiling water
juice from 2 lemons
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 bunches of flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch (not one sprig) of scallions
1 bunch of fresh mint
1 cucumber
3 medium tomatoes
1 tsp cumin, or a pinch of allspice
salt, to taste

In a large lidded pot, combine all of the liquid ingredients (the hot water, lemon juice, olive oil), the cumin, and the bulghur wheat. Immediately cover the pot, and set aside.

Finely chop the parsley, scallions, and mint, discarding the brown leaves and stems. Add the parsley, scallions, and mint to the bulghur wheat mixture.

Next, peel and cut the cucumber into small dices, and core and similarly dice the tomatoes. The tomato dice should be "pico de gallo salsa-sized." You can keep the tomato seeds and juices and add them in the tabbouleh salad, if you'd like. They usually will be absorbed up by the bulghur wheat. Now, add and stir all of the ingredients together, and add salt to taste.

I hope you enjoy this recipe (or Ina's). It's a refreshing and healthy salad that goes great with toasted whole wheat pita bread, and creamy hummus topped with toasted pine nuts. I like to let the tabbouleh sit in the fridge, to allow the flavors to combine, and have it the next day at a picnic or at lunch.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Depression Sets In

Sigh, I have been feeling down and out recently.

The economy.

The job market.

And it's only been getting worse. The latest bad news to befall my ears was the recent trade by the Suns of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw for Kevin Richardson. Well, yes, granted, it is a good trade, but it breaks my heart to know that the dynamic, explosive, and adrenaline-filled Suns team of just a few years ago is now completely torn asunder. Note to Steve Kerr: You already had Shawn Marion, but you let him go in pursuit of your short-term desire to go further in the playoffs. You just got rid of two amazing players for a "great scorer" that you already had! Well, not to bag on Richardson, but Marion is actually better than Richardson. . .

I guess this hurts more because I love, love, love Raja Bell. And I mean "love."

Bye-bye Marion, D'Antoni, Bell, and Diaw. And bye-bye to the Suns that were a great team. We will miss you all, and you will be a special part of Suns history and my heart.

Sweets? Specifically, an ice cream-filled crepe cone, with pan-crisped edges and an airy light texture? I need you now. Help me to cope with my loss.

Hornets? Please lift me up, baby.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Therapeutic Cooking #2: Warming Winter Soup on a Budget

I don't want to keep on harping on the dismal state of the U.S. economy, but I know we've all been feeling the impact of the recession in our lives. However, just because we are feeling the pinch in our pocketbooks, doesn't mean that we have to feel the pinch in our waistlines! I want to share some brief instructions on how to make an amazingly simple and cost-effective meal with very affordable ingredients.

First, let's address the base of the soup. Using water for your soup is fine, but if you've roasted a chicken or turkey recently and still have the leftover carcass sitting in your refrigerator (specifically, I am referring to the ribcage, neck, wingtips, and butt, with all large pieces of meat removed), use it! Boil the carcass in a large stockpot until the meat on the bones is stringy and spent of all of its flavor. Save the "stock" and add it to this winter soup. The stock from the leftover carcass will be rich in body and in flavor because it has collected all of the concentrated, roasted poultry flavor from bones and oven-roasted skin. You don't have to add anything else to make this stock--you don't even have to add onions! Also, feel free add whatever leftover wine you have left in your refrigerator to your soup. I wouldn't open a new bottle of wine for this soup, but if you have a half-consumed bottle in your fridge, pour it in!

Next, let's talk about the meat. Instead of purchasing a large, premium cut of beef or even cubed chuck, go to your butcher and ask for beef soup bones. These are usually as cheap as 0.99 cents a pound! Usually, beef soup bones have a lot of gristle, gelatin, and fat that breaks down only after prolonged cooking. The bones will also have remaining bits of meat, which will be little protein surprises in your soup. I promise, these bones will make your winter soup divine. The marrow from the soup bones lends milkiness and unrivaled depth to the soup. Simmer the bones in the water (or stock) for at least 2 hours.

Then, you can add 2 cans of whole tomatoes, and peeled and roughly cut carrots and potatoes. Boil these root vegetables and tomatoes until they are tender, and add chopped celery. Boil the celery until just soft, and then cover the soup with the lid and take it off the burner. Feel free to extend the soup with cans of tomato sauce, for a deeper, thicker feel. Then, you are done. Taste the soup and the root vegetables, and cook it longer, if necessary.

See how easy and affordable that was? The texture of the soup will be substantial, and the flavor will satiate even the most hungry of beasts. And really, all you have to purchase is the beef bones, carrots, potatoes, celery, and two cans of whole tomatoes. That is what I call a hearty and therapeutic meal!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Wanton Lust for Wontons, Part Three

One holiday recipe my family always makes during the Christmas season, is warm, steaming, and soothing wonton soup.

My parents taught me two methods to fold wontons: first, into a beggar's pouch and second, into the shape of a gold ingot, the ancient form of Chinese currency. According to Chinese tradition, such gold ingot shaped wontons are said to bring one's family fortune and prosperity. During the holiday season and the Lunar New Year, our family exclusively folded wontons in the gold ingot shape.

I have already posted about wontons on two other occasions, but I never included a step-by-step pictorial on how to fold wontons. Well, I am posting one now! Check out my recipe for wontons (and step-by-step wonton filling pictures) at my previous post, here.

To fold a wonton, first, place a tsp of filling in the middle of a clean wonton wrapper. Then, wipe a corner of the wrapper with egg wash or water. Fold the wrapper over the filling diagonally, making sure to squeeze out any air, sealing the filling tightly. Then, bring the two opposing triangle corners together, and squeeze them firmly so that they form an almond shape (with no exposed or loose corners). You can also use a little bit of water or egg wash for assistance here. Look at the pictures, to see what I mean.

If you followed the instructions correctly, you have just folded a gold ingot style wonton! Congratulations!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Strawberry Fields Forever

As child, I loved sweet, ripe, and juicy strawberries. Strawberries were my favorite fruit in the whole entire universe. I would eat so many green plastic containers of the berries that sticky red juice would stain my lips and clothes and the delicate poppy-like seeds would get stuck in my teeth.

I was a "strawberry girl" all the way--I demanded that my mother buy me strawberry flavored lip gloss, strawberry scented items, and strawberry flavored bubble gum. If we had Neapolitan ice cream in the house, everyone knew that the strawberry section on the left belonged to me. After trick-or-treating at Halloween, I would even trade the prized brand name chocolate candy bars for a few more strawberry hard candies. I know, it is unbelievable that anyone would do that because those candies are the rejects of the bunch.  Well, those, the starlight mints, and those peanut buttery candies wrapped in orange or black wax paper.

When I grew older, my love for strawberries waned. They simply weren't as sweet as I remembered. However, thankfully, I later learned how to capture the summer sweetness of the berries in my adulthood, by making a chunky and viscous strawberry syrup. Drizzle this syrup on vanilla ice cream, on a short stack of fluffy hot cakes, or in the warm pockets of waffles, and I promise that you'll never go back to chocolate or maple syrup again! Or at least, it will be difficult for you to do so.

Chunky Strawberry Syrup

5 cups of frozen strawberries
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1/4 cup of water

In a saucepan on medium heat, dissolve the granulated sugar in the water, constantly mixing the sugary water with a wooden spoon. When the sugar has dissolved, add the strawberries, and bring the berries to a boil. Turn the heat to medium-low or low, and allow the mixture to simmer uncovered for about 30 mins, until the syrup reduces. Be careful not to break apart the strawberries. Allow the syrup cool, and then refrigerate the mixture until chilled. Serve cold.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Celebrating Monumental Victories

This has been an unprecedented year in American politics, and most importantly, American history. First, the nation resoundingly elected its first ever non-white president, a brilliant and charismatic gentleman named Barack Obama. This past week, after the votes were tallied from the December 5, 2008 election, America discovered that Louisiana had elected the first ever Vietnamese-American congressman, Anh "Joseph" Cao.

My parents would have never imagined that these two events would have happened in their lifetimes, much less the same year. Thank you America, and thank you Louisiana, for teaching me that we can achieve what once was impossible.

Image courtesy of the Times Picayune.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bring It!

I just got back from my one month long honeymoon from Europe!

During my time there, I attempted to taste all of Europe so that I could report back to my amazing-incredible (not just amazing, and not just incredible, but "amazing-incredible"--with the hyphen) readers with all of my findings. Well, I also ate like a beast for myself too. But mostly for you. Really!

But I have some really disappointing news that actually took me a few days to digest. When we returned home, we were in the process of uploading all of our pictures onto the computer, when a serious mistake of astronomical proportions occurred, resulting in the permanent deletion of 90% of our honeymoon pictures. It has to do with moving files through the command prompt using an Apple.

Trust me, it took me a full week before I could talk about this like an adult. For the first couple of days, the only thing I could say was repeated expletives. Yea, those dirty words shot out of my surly mouth like a AK-47.

Unfortunately, after countless visits with the tech support at Fry's and hundreds of dollars spent of freakin' useless "recovery software" purchased online, we discovered that we pretty much lost those photos for good. And the pictures included our multiple visits to Berthillion in Paris, France (the best ice cream in the world), Nico in Venice, Italy (the best gelato in that region of Italy). Oh yes, and pictures of us, the honeymooning couple. (For a food blogger, you know I was just a tad more devastated by the loss of those food pictures though. Shh, don't tell the beau!)

However, the limitations of modern technology will not get this food blogger down! No!

This is my new goal. To blog my attempt to try and recreate my most memorable meals and snacks in Europe with recipes. Yes, the pictures were deleted, irretrieveably. But the memories? Still in my head. And I can still use this to my advantage. I don't want to just say, "I had the best paella ever in Barcelona," or "I loved the pizza and pasta in Florence and Rome," but I want to say something like, "Paris was the start of my love affair with excellent coq au vin."

So I am turning this horrific nightmare into something good. Just to give you a roadmap: for the future, I will be blogging about my experiences with (1) Swiss, (2) Italian, (3) Spanish, (4) French, and (5) English cuisine. I know, that is a lot of places, but it was a one month honeymoon, and we exhausted our life savings for that trip. (Oh, and as a side note, upon our return to the U.S., we discovered that the remainder of our life savings in our 401(K) had also been "exhausted," or apparently eliminated.) But thankfully, since I backed up the pictures from Zurich, there will be a few more Zurich posts.

Welcome back to Passionate Eater folks, you will be seeing me more often now!
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