Every week I look forward to Tuesday because that’s when I get to play with clay. There’s something about making a thing with your hands that’s not only satisfying but also relaxing. It took a long time for me to throw clay properly on a pottery wheel. My first bowls looked so alien—“Hey, they’re abstract! Hey, it’s art! Oh hey, now it’s a planter.” I watched numerous videos on wheel throwing, shaping, growing the bowl or cylinder, but of course videos don’t give you the feel of clay, how thin or thick it should be, how your hands just know when the clay is centered properly and when it’s not. When I’m at the wheel, every thought zeroes in on the mound of clay in front of me. The lump of clay that will soon become a thing. It’s almost like yoga. I’m in my own world, working muscles that I usually don’t use as the arm strength needed to keep clay steady and centered is surprisingly high. At the end of a couple of classes, I’ve made a bowl. And let myself not think for a few hours a week. It’s all good.
Pulled pork, I hear, is one of the easiest dishes to make in a slow cooker. I hadn’t found the right rub until now. It’s only when you don’t have all the ingredients on hand for a recipe does the magic happen. At least for me. When I follow instructions too closely, the end result is typically disappointing. That’s probably the mantra for my own life.
Alora, good thing I didn’t have chili powder or cumin for CHOW’s recipe. Instead, I used red pepper flakes (maybe a smidge less than the recommended 1TBSP for chili powder) and smoked paprika for cumin. I added slightly more kosher salt than the recipe asked for, and reduced the amount of brown sugar by half. After combining all the spices in a small bowl, I rubbed the mixture all over the pork. Then I placed the big hunk of meat gingerly on top of the sliced onions, garlic, and chicken broth already in the slow cooker.
I think the key to slow cooker cooking is knowing if your slow cooker is accurate or not. Mine cooks faster than it should (something I’ve learned the hard way) so I always adjust for a longer cooking time. Here, I set the time at 8 hours, checked it at 6-1/2 hours, and it was perfect.
When I came home, upon opening the door, the tantalizing smell of pork simmering in its own juices with cooked onions and garlic welcomed me back. Oh, it was so good. I daresay it was one of my best efforts with the slow cooker.
Now is pulled pork part of my diet plan? It may not be the healthiest thing I’ve eaten this week, but hey, I cut out some of the brown sugar so that’s got to count, I think. All I know is that this pulled pork is delicious. Another mantra for me this week is: take it easy on yourself.
I knew I had to do something other than chicken for my getting-back-on-the-wagon meal. Tonight’s healthy dinner offering is salmon marinated in soy sauce and lemon juice with a splash of olive oil and Vietnamese chili garlic sauce (the one with the rooster on the label).
This dish was the first home-cooked dinner for the then-boyfriend, now husband. It’s super easy and super quick. Cooking by taste, without any strict recipe, remains my motto here.
Mix all the ingredients in a small bowl —approximately 1/4-1/2 cup soy sauce, juice of 1 lemon, small splash of olive oil, and a tsp of the chili garlic sauce. Place the salmon in a larger bowl, flesh side down especially if skin is still on, and then pour the marinade on top. The fleshy part of the salmon should be covered with the marinade. If not, add some water to the bowl to bring the marinade level up. Swirl the bowl around a bit to mix. Marinade in the fridge for 15-20 minutes minimum. Set your oven on broil.
After the marinade time, place the salmon on a cookie sheet and put the cookie sheet into the broiler. Broil for 7-8 minutes. Remove salmon and check for doneness. I like my salmon cooked to almost done, with the thicker areas on the medium-rare side. Remember the salmon will continue cooking while resting on the cookie sheet outside of the oven. If you need to send the salmon back into the broiler, do it at 1-minute intervals to prevent overcooking.
The husband just told me he never orders salmon out because he knows my salmon trumps all. Well how about that!
Day 5 of healthy eating and I’ve not fallen off the low-carb wagon yet. Normally I would celebrate with something sweet, but nope, not anytime soon.
Tonight’s dinner offering is an easy-peasy chicken dish. No recipe necessary. That’s how I like it.
Just sprinkle a bit of Himalayan salt and fresh ground pepper on the chicken breast. Then pour some Trader Joe’s champagne vinaigrette dressing over the chicken breast, enough to coat both sides. In a Dutch oven (or a skillet) with splashes of olive oil, cook the chicken over medium heat. Throw in some Crimini mushrooms. Then add a bit of red wine (always the key for cooking) and reduce it a bit until the chicken is cooked. Add another couple of twists of freshly ground pepper and salt to the mushrooms and chicken while cooking. The two simple ingredients—red wine and mushrooms—elevated my dinner from boring to almost-gourmet.
Day 2 of healthy eating and diet time. Day 1 went well with a baked Mediterranean chicken breast with whole olives, lemon, and thyme, so I figure, “Let’s keep going.” Cutting out carbs for a couple of weeks to see what happens. I keep wondering how can I make it through without rice or pasta? I guess I’ll focus on the green stuff for now. Who knew fresh avocados by themselves were so good? After more than five years on the West Coast, I’ve just discovered this truth. Just a sprinkling of Himalayan salt and fresh pepper are all you need. The other easy green dish on the menu is broccoli florets and stems sautéed in olive oil with garlic powder and red pepper flakes. I wonder if I shouldn’t just pick another color of the rainbow for tomorrow…
And now, for more of the same — fabulous food! Which makes up the final installment of the husband’s birthday celebration. First up, a homemade coconut cake with lemon zest topped with mascarpone frosting, shredded coconut flakes, and sweet strawberries. I went a little overboard with the birthday sign made from teeny, tiny bunting. I probably should’ve secured the string better before placing each triangle on. Oh yeah, and I free-hand cut every triangle myself. “Say whaaat?!” Yeah, that’s right. Watch out, Martha Stewart. Since I didn’t have matching cake rounds, I used two different sizes. I also didn’t have much mascarpone on hand. So many limitations. But the cake turned out deliciously moist, and, as my friend said, “Old-World style”. Recipes below.
Two days later, we went on a hike through Santa Ynez Mountains. The trail had a forest of wicked-looking trees — some thorny, some not. Even though it reminded me of the forest under Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (or what I’d like to call Maleficent’s Forest), I’m glad we made it through for the magnificent view.
Finally, after much rock climbing and squeezing through (at times) thorny trails and getting a little lost, we rewarded ourselves with the goal of the day — mouth-watering tri-tip sandwiches at Cold Spring Tavern! It’s only 15-20 minutes from Santa Barbara, so GO if you’re in the area. A little advice — tri-tip sandwiches are only available on Sundays. It gets a bit crowded, so we chose to arrive later in the day. We got there at 5:30, ordered our beers and sandwiches right away because tri-tip service stops at 6:00. It was perfect.
After watching the movie Chef (highly recommended!) by Jon Favreau with an appearance by everyone’s favorite Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., I was hungry for some good slow-cooked beef. While watching the grill master do his thing and slice the tri-tip, said grill master gave me a piece to taste. One morsel and I was in food heaven.
Apparently, Central California has the best tri-tip in the country.
I followed Martha Stewart’s recipe for Coconut Cupcakes, including the step-by-step directions in the Basic Cupcake How-To. Sift the flour, an important step that no one tells you to do because they expect you to do it automatically for cakes and cupcakes. I added zest from one lemon into the liquid vanilla mixture and would recommend using two lemons because one wasn’t nearly enough.
I would use two (or three) 6 to 8-inch cake round pans. I had used two. Line them with parchment paper, if you have it, and then butter the pan/parchment paper, and dust with flour.
Once you have the cake batter ready, pour the batter evenly into the two cake pans. Bake at 350 deg F for 30-40 minutes. Test at the 30-min mark with a cake tester (toothpick or sharp knife) to see how much more time is needed. The cake tester should come out clean when done.
Transfer cake pans to wire racks to cool, about 15 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, and let cool completely on racks, tops up.
With an electric mixer, whisk together 1/2 of a small tub of mascarpone cheese with 1/2 cup of powdered sugar until it looks like the consistency of frosting. It should look smooth. That’s it. Or follow this recipe.
Putting it all together
1. First, have the cake stand or cake plate ready.
2. Remove the parchment paper from the cake rounds and place one on the cake stand. This is your bottom layer. Save your best-looking cake layer for the top.
3. Place a good amount of frosting on the bottom layer, and spread it around. I chose a rustic style and didn’t frost the sides of the cake. Or, more accurately, since I didn’t have enough mascarpone for tons of frosting, the rustic Old-World style chose me.
4. Add coconut flakes to this frosted bottom layer. Then place another cake layer on top of the first one. Repeat the frosting and coconut sprinkling process. If you have another layer, repeat.
5. Finally, make sure to sprinkle enough coconut flakes all over the top layer of the cake, and then add fresh strawberries around and on top of the cake for decoration.
After celebrating Tiki Night at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, we continued adventuring with culinary treats at The Bazaar by José André, celebrity chef extraordinaire. The Beverly Hills restaurant was a complete spectacle, from the presentation of the tapas dinner to the atmosphere. And the food was truly delicious. I had my doubts at the beginning, admittedly (“What do you mean I need to eat the mozzarella ball with a spoon and not a fork because it will liquify immediately?”), but I loved it so much I wrote a review on yelp. The most surprising part of the experience turned out to be the humble eggplant tempura with honey air. Yes, you heard right. Honey air. Think Pooh Bear with a tiny wooden spoon and a cubit of honey foam. It was my favorite part of the meal… But first, a bit of Liquid Smoke to cleanse the palate for dinner.
After dinner, we wandered to the dessert area. You actually move to another part of the restaurant to have dessert. Since I wasn’t in the mood for pastries, we looked at the eclectic objects in the gift store. Did I forget to mention the restaurant is attached to the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills? The restaurant and the hotel both exude a trendy, rock-and-roll, baller lifestyle vibe. In any case, I was tempted to pick up the wax skull with a salamander sitting on top, or the spinning black Medusa candle. What a modern day Kunstkammer!
Summer means… well, not a lot of difference from the regular school year for a graduate student, except that I get to celebrate the husband’s birthday with a trip to the Walt Disney Family Museum for Tiki Night. I also baked him a coconut birthday cake (complete with tiny bunting), and we communed with Mother Nature by hiking in the mountains (and we’re not exactly nature folk), but I’ll save those for future posts.
Part 1: 11-hour round trip drive for 4 precious hours in San Francisco
The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco is a must-see for animation and Disney enthusiasts. Since it’s owned by the family, not by the corporation, the museum holds significant works of art, equipment and awards that hasn’t been seen anywhere else. For example, original art from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Peter Pan, and many other animated films line the walls. The multi-plane camera used to film Bambi and Pinocchio also resides at the museum. Disney’s Oscar for Snow White, along with seven little Oscars to represent the dwarfs, is seen alongside other awards. We went on Tiki Night — the event’s name was “Animate Your Night: Choose Your Own Adventure” but everyone wore tiki and they served tiki drinks, hence, I continue to call it Tiki Night — as I wanted to wear my Hawaiian gear and see the special Mary Blair exhibition of Alice in Wonderland concept art. And yes, we drove 11 hours for this plus an ice cream treat at Ghiradelli’s Square located at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s amazing how few cars are on the road from 12 to 5 in the morning.