Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hong Kong Travelogue

So, I just returned from a trip to China and Hong Kong.  (Edit 12/1: this was a total lie, I was in China, then I was in Mexico but I'm already back in Hong Kong.)  I fell in love with it much more than I was expecting.  There's so much color and life in Hong Kong (and China), it's hard not to find something to fascinating and amazing at every turn.  I'm only covering my top 10 favorite things, because if I covered every awesome dumpling, I could ramble on forever.

Top Ten Things That I Love About Hong Kong:
1.) Victoria Peak Tram
2.) The Star Ferry
3.) Markets!  Temple Street Night Market, Jade Market, Graham Street Market, Cat St. Market, random street markets
4.) Fashion
5.) Flamingos
6.) High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel
7.) The Light Show over Victoria Harbor
8.) Temples
9.) Christmas Decor
10.) Pastries
11.) Motorscooter Umbrellas
(I just had to turn it up to 11.  And the last one is actually something I love about China, not Hong Kong, so I figure it doesn't count.)

#1: Victoria Peak Tram
OK, this was one of the most touristy things that I did, but it was worth it, it's incredible.  This tram runs from downtown Hong Kong to the top of Victoria Peak, in about five minutes.  It was originally built in 1888 and has been in operation more or less ever since, with some disruptions for things like natural disasters and invasion by the Japanese.
(courtesy of Wikipedia)
Both retro, charming, and a little scary, the ascension angle goes from 4 to 27 degrees.  That doesn't sound like a lot but at one point you feel absolutely sure that the car is about to peel straight off the tracks and go bouncing down the hill behind you.  Your back gets pressed hard into your seat and you feel sure that the end of your life is near.  However, once you get to the top:
Yay!  I didn't die!  Time to eat an Egglette, see #10.

#2: Star Ferry
One of the most awesome things about Hong Kong is how easy it is to get around the city.  I was staying on the Kowloon Side, near the Nathan Road subway stop.  However, even better, I was only about six blocks away from the Star Ferry dock.  The Star Ferry is an antique double-decker ferry that runs across Victoria Harbor.
Fares are something near $2 and ferries leave every five minutes.  Best of all, the views from the boat are unparalleled.
I loved all the vintage and antique touches.  Perhaps most of all, the sailors wear actual sailor suits, navy with white piping and white stars, and the seats are wood and iron with stars punched in the seats.  The backs are ingeniously designed so they can be flipped back and forth, enabling big groups to sit facing each other.  Wicked smaaaaht. 

#3: Markets
Markets are everywhere in Hong Kong.  "I'm going to the market" is a wonderful and magical phrase that could mean that you're going in one of a dozen different directions and you're shopping for live toads/socks/dragonfruit/jade bracelets/remote control helicopters/a purse or basil. 

I went to four or five different markets.  The Temple Street Night Market was amazing, with tons of clothes and other tchotchkes.  I stocked up on cute umbrellas and travel-sized mahjongg for the in-laws, but I was so excited by the shopping I forgot to take pictures, sorry!  I also hit up the Jade Market, the Graham Street Market, the Cat Street Market but my favorite was perhaps a market in a random alley where I selected a particularly adorable handbag.  However, the alley was much less photogenic than some of the more famous markets, like for example, the Jade Market:
Where I actually bought pearls, not jade. 
Oooh, shiny!

I also went to the Graham Street Market, which is a "wet" fish market, which also has plenty of other things, including fruit, spices, and home decor.
I loved this lantern store:
But the fruit sellers are probably my favorite:
And the most gorgeous fruit of all was the dragonfruit.  So beautiful and perfectly in my color scheme!
The markets are so vibrant and alive, they really embody the spirit of Hong Kong to me.  The swirl of people, colors and shopping, that's what Hong Kong is all about.

#4: Fashion
This goes hand-in-hand with all the markets in Hong Kong, but the fashion in Hong Kong was incredible.  I wanted to photograph all of it but it was hard to be inconspicuous and get good photos.  However, I spotted this girl standing on one of the "ladder streets" (stepped pedestrian streets), who is clearly epitome of Hong Kong cool:
Black and white striped sweatshirt, black and white striped Adidas and red t-shirt matching the RED BOWS on her Adidas?  Gah!  Hipster perfection.

Another amazing phenomenon of Asian fashion is the couple look-alikes.  I saw more of these in the airport in Korea, but it appears to be quite the rage for young couples to wear precisely matching outfits.  I was hustling after this couple at the ferry terminal and trying not to be too creepy, so the picture is a little blurred:
Unbelievably enough, this couple was setting a low bar by not having either matching jeans or matching shoes.  I saw another couple later where the girl was wearing a shirt that said (in English) "Will You Love Me Forever?" and the guy's shirt said "I Will Love You Forever!"  Awesome.

#5: Flamingos
This was my favorite part of the trip.  I went for a run on my first morning in Hong Kong, in the park across from my hotel.  I'm running along through the park, minding my own business when BAM!  I come across a pond with probably 200 flamingos in it!  Amazing, amazing pink pink PINK birds!  I love everything about them, their pinkness, their delicate swan necks that can rotate every direction, their improbably spindly legs that are a darker shade of salmon, their odd eating habits where they tap their heads upside down, their impressive wingspans lit with shots of black and dark pink feathers.  What a color scheme! 
They were truly a gorgeous sight to see.  I then went past them every chance I got, on my Sunday run as well as on my way to the ferry dock on Monday.  So great!  On Monday, my colleague Andrew told me that in the bird flu all of the flamingos got bird flu and died so they had to get a whole new batch of flamingos.  Poor things!  I hope the new batch enjoys a long and happy life in Kowloon Park.

OK, that is enough fabulousness for one post!  Stay tuned for items #6-10!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Foodday - More Winter Cooking

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  I hope you all had wonderful days full of turkey.  Our Thanksgiving feast looked like this:
Yummmm, spiny lobster!  We had a total feast of scallops, fresh fish, shrimp and lobster, accompanied with tortillas, ceviche and margaritas.  It was by far and away the easiest Thanksgiving I've ever had, and way more delicious than any turkey I have ever cooked.  For sure.  Perhaps not the most traditional Thanksgiving ever, but much more culturally appropriate for our locale.

In lieu of Thanksgiving, I am looking forward to having a couple of festive winter dinner parties.  I haven't actually made this recipe yet, which I realize means that I probably shouldn't post it.  But I just finished reading Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes for the nine hundreth time and I'm so inspired by her Tuscan/Italian cooking, I can't wait to try this:

Roast Chickens Stuffed with Polenta
(Modified from Under the Tuscan Sun.)
(image borrowed from Wagshal's, I hope mine looks this nice.)

2 c. polenta
1 c. butter
2 eggs
2 c. fresh croutons
2 chopped onions
3 stalks celery
2 chickens

Soak the polenta in 2 c. cold water for 10 minutes, then add it to 2 c. of boiling water in a large pot.  Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook stirring constantly for 10 minutes.  Stir in 2 sticks of butter (1c.)  Remove from heat and beat in the eggs.  Add croutons, onions, celery and season generously with salt, pepper, sage, thyme and marjoram.  Stuff the 2 chickens loosely, tie their legs, and scatter springs of thyme over the birds.  Roast on oiled racks in a large roasting pan.  25 minutes a pound at 350 deg. is about right, but start testing earlier.

Doesn't that sound amazing?  One recipe that I have tried and that I look forward to serving again is this one:
Beef Ragout with Polenta
This tastes a lot like Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon that I posted about here, but it's a bit easier and much quicker.)

1 small onion, chopped
1 rub celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
16 oz. lean beef top round steak
1 c. dry red wine
1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh basil, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped
14 1/2 oz. canned diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp. canned tomato paste
2 oz. dried mission figs
1 lb. polenta log

Heat roughly 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add onion, celery, carrot and garlic, and cook while stirring until the onion is softened.  Add the beef and cook until browned.  Add red wine and cook over high heat, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.  Cook until the liquid is reduced by half, four or five minutes.  Add basil, thyme and tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce the heat and simmer about 35 minutes.

Stir in tomato paste, figs, salt and pepper to taste.  Cook uncovered until mixture thickens, about 10 more minutes. 

While the final 10 minutes tick down on the beef, preheat the broiler.  Cut the polenta into 12 slices.  Spray a broiler pan with non-stick spray and broil the polenta a couple of minutes on each side, until lightly browned all over.

Dish up the polenta and cover it with beef ragout.  Delish!  Happy winter eating, y'all!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Friday/Monday Food-day - Fish and the Winter Princess

Hi!  So I totally unwisely declared Friday Food-days a tradition shortly before leaving on a long trip that would put me out of cooking duty for a looooong time.  So writing about cooking is a little harder if I'm not actually cooking.

As I mentioned previously, my trip schedule is China-Mexico-China.  The China trips are for work, the Mexico vacay is for fun.  I'm on the Mexico leg right now and let me tell you, life does not suck.
The view from our patio.  Oh hecks yes.  So I'm not doing a lot of complicated cooking.  I thought about trying to post a Thanksgiving recipe, but in honor of our Mexican Thanksgiving, I offer the following:

Fred's Fish Tacos
3 kilos of the freshest fish you can find.  (We think we had something in the tuna family.  But whatever pescado it was, it was delicious...)
Limes.  Lots of limes.
Sea salt.
Tortillas (preferably fresh, preferably made with lard)
Guacamole (fresh avocados, onions, tomatoes, limes, cilantro and salt to taste)
Pico de gallo (tomatoes, onions, cilantro)

Turn on the grill.  Juice the limes.  Mix the guacamole and the pico de gallo.  Rub the fish with the limes and then sprinkle with salt.  Put the fish on the grill, grill till just barely done.  Heat up the tortillas and assemble!  

Clearly, the most important part of this recipe is freshness, so it's impractical for most Americans the last week in November.  However, I'm posting it anyway as the only thing I've been part of cooking for the last week, and I think it's a great reminder of how many meals can be totally simple and still totally awesome.  Sometimes it's important not to overthink things.  (My subtlety is not strong here, but just for reinforcement, it feels nice to get out of complicated Thanksgiving prep this week.) 

As an apology for the recipe cop-out, I'll share with you the best food-related story I have from my time in China.  While working at a factory in China last week we go to a "coffee shop" for lunch.  "Coffee shops" usually make regular Chinese food and they also specialize in frou-frou beverages.  I'm reading the drink menu and trying to decide pineapple slush and strawberry smoothie when I happen across something called "Winter Princess in Papaya Boat".  There is a photo of it on the menu that looks like this:
(This pic actually from Just Delish.)  Except the Winter Princess was bright pink.  Bright pink and lumpy with a straw and a festive umbrella.  Fascinating.  So I ask my colleague Andrew for an interpretation of "Winter Princess".  "Don't ask" he advises, "just order."  I'm almost tempted to do so when he cracks.  "Toad ovaries!" he declares.  Apparently they're very good for you if you have reproductive issues.  And they are sometimes served blended in a papaya.  Huh.  I ask Andrew why they call it Winter Princess.  He laughs and says "cause if they call it anything else, no one would order it!"  Touché .  

So that's my life in food right now, from Winter Princess to fresh fish and back.  When I get back from all this, it will be time for Christmas deliciousness!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fall Quilting

You may remember that way back here, I talked about making a quilt.  I cut all the pieces, but I had a really hard time committing to the arrangement and the coordination of colors.  So I decided to take a step back and warm up on a couple of smaller versions.  I have a friend who is gloriously pregnant with twins right now, as well as a friend who just had an adorable baby girl.  It's a perfect time to make a round of baby quilts!  Baby quilts are the perfect amount of effort, doable even for the beginner.  Best of all, due to the simplicity, you can cut loose and make up your own rules!

I made the two quilts for the twins on similar lines.  I invented the pattern, but it's just a simple 9-patch with a sort of diamond design.  I wanted to do some similar colorways while still having a distinct color for each sibling, so I did a brown-and-turquoise and a brown-and-pink.  I think they turned out really well, don't you think?
I think I actually like the blue and turquoise better, something about the blue and white really plays off of the brown and it makes the nerdy (and quilting?) art director in me really happy.
I was in a furious time crunch for these quilts.  I was trying to finish them right before my first trip to China.  The shower for the bebes was on a Sunday morning and I was supposed to leave Sunday afternoon.  So my brilliant plan was to work all day on Saturday, go to the shower with the quilts and my suitcase and head straight to the airport straight from there.  Ahhh, the best laid plans of mice and men...

My flight got moved up a day.  SO, I had a 24 hour period where I had the quilt tops done, but had to turn them into actual quilts.  Just to be clear, the steps of quilting are: cut long strips.  Cut strips into squares (this is probably the most time consuming part.)  Pin and sew the quilt top and press seams.  Make the back, layout the back/batting/top to make the "quilt sandwich".  Pin the quilt sandwich, cut edges even, tuft the layers together with yarn, tie, trim.  Cut binding, stitch binding to quilt, and finally, hand finish binding on back side.  Whew!  (If you're looking for more detail on this process, please see The Practical Guide to Patchwork: New Basics for the Modern Quiltmaker by Elizabeth Hartmann.  She taught me everything I know!)  My husband stayed up with me till 4am while I finished both of these suckers.  I was especially proud of the binding.
Not bad for 4am, right?  The binding is like the frame around a painting, it makes everything look better!

I also wanted to do something a little fun on the back. On the back you get to just experiment or add a little secret feature.  I wanted to do something to nod to the brother-sister pair, so I incorporated a blue/pink block in the center of each quilt.
Cute right?  Side-by-side just like they are right now!
I have a third baby quilt on the way, but the mom in question hasn't actually received it yet, so I'm not going to ruin the surprise here.  (That one was done on a way more relaxed time schedule, luckily!)  3 quilts in 4 weeks?  Not bad, right?  Considering I was in China half the time?  I know quilting is on the old lady side of crafting, but I love futzing with great fabric and making something that could become an heirloom.  I'm already looking forward to the next one!!  Yay for fall crafting!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Food-day!

I've decided every Friday should be Friday Food-day.  A dedicated time to talk about food.  Talk about my favorite restaurants, new recipes, etc.  I know this is really supposed to be a home renovation blog, but who doesn't love food and wanna talk about it?  Cooking and eating with people you love is WAAAAY more fun than putting up trim, I'm not going to lie.

First episode?  Fall food!  Every year, one of the things that gets me most excited about fall is the food.  Soups!  Root vegetables!  Savory pies!  Who doesn't love fall food?

In a previous recipe, I noted my butternut squash soup.  I love soup and butternut squash makes me happy because it tastes delicious with very simple ingredients.  I love buying the whole squash in the grocery store and lugging it home.  It makes you feel like you are really eating from the earth, enjoying the bounty of the season.  So here's my version, it's simple but good.

Butternut Squash Soup:

1 butternut squash
1 big onion
1 giant container of chicken stock (32 oz.)
salt and pepper

1.) Peel butternut squash with a peeler.  Scoop out the seeds and chop into cubes.
2.) Chop onion, and saute in butter.
3.) Add squash and stock.  Simmer 15 to 20 minutes until squash is tender.
4.) Use an immersion blender and blend until smooth.
5.) Spice it up until it tastes delicious!
6.)  I like to top it with sour cream myself, and if you're feeling fancy, add chives!  So easy!

My other favorite fall food is chili.  I make a killer turkey chili, which is totally full of vegetables, flavorful but not spicy and actually fairly good for you?  It's kind of a miracle of food.

Turkey Chili:
1 large onion, chopped

2 carrots, thinly sliced into half rounds
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound of ground turkey
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp paprika
1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp cumin
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 c. tomato sauce, canned
1 c. chicken broth
1 1/2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 can cooked kidney beans, drained
1 medium green pepper, chopped
salt and pepper
Scallions to garnish

1.)  Swirl some olive oil in a large pot, and saute onion until soft.  Add garlic and carrots and cook another minute.  Add turkey, brown the meat.  Stir while cooking, to break up lumps, about 5 minutes. 
2.)  Add chili powder, paprika, red pepper flakes, cumin, tomatoes, tomato sauce, broth, vinegar, beans and green pepper, bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat and simmer until meat and vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, garnish with scallions.

Again, I like to top it with sour cream.  Add some corn bread made in a cast-iron skillet, and you might just have the best fall dinner on earth!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Oct. - Nov. Progress

So it turns out I'm going on an extended trip starting this week.  My trip looks something like East Coast-China-Mexico-China.  The China legs are for work, but they're sandwiched around a vacation in Mexico, so it's not all bad!  Best of all, this whole shindig is being kicked off by a trip back to my alma mater to participate in a panel on "creativity in the workplace" and have a fun weekend with my college BFF!  Yay!  In any case, I won't get back till Dec. 9th, so I thought it was worth doing a recap on our progress on the Oct.-Nov. list. 

1.) Finish molding - DONE!  This makes me so deeply happy.
2.) Photograph newspapers inside History Wall  - Done!  We're ready to button that up.
3.) Insulate and drywall History Wall - Nope.  Although hubby may get a wild hair while I'm gone and do it.
4.) Fix pass-through. - Ditto, although less likely since we still have yet to really firm up the plans together.
5.) Sand down one crappy window and repaint it. - Not going to happen since I'm going away for the next month.
6.) Get siding on the back of the house. - This is still in progress, I've called to get quotes, which feels like a good first step.  But there is a looong way to go.

OK, so two out of six isn't awesome.  But we're really only halfway through, if this little (ok, big) trip hadn't put a kink in my plans, I think we would have crushed some more of these.  Just to make myself feel better about that list, I'm going to add a 7th goal, which was sort of percolating in the background.

7.) Make some progress on sorting the craft room.  - I made a little progress.  OK, it only took an hour or so, but remember the before?
Well now it looks like this:

OK, let's zoom in so I can feel a little less insane about that photo.  See the crazy haphazard fabric storage in the before?  Now it looks like this!
Yay!  So easy to find everything I need, from glittery green Tinkerbell fabric to pink baby flannel!  I also think it's hilarious how my love of turquoise and pink is totally apparent here.  Twice as many pink fabrics as anything else.  Perfect.

I think I just have to remember that this project is one best tackled in one-hour increments.  Heck, if I could manage to find some time where I could spend one hour on it every day, I'd probably be done in a week!  However, slow and steady is not my project style.  I tend to be "big gulps" style.  It's hard to train yourself to work in a different mode than you're used to!  What about you?  Do you have a hard time training yourself to work slow-and-steady?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Molding, Part Two!

Y'all, the molding is DONE!  It is SO amazing.  I am so happy right now, its ridiculous.  Mostly because we're finally back sleeping in our wonderful bedroom, with tons of space, a view of dawn over the mountains, a leafy aspect over the backyard, it's amazing how much those things matter.  (And how much  you appreciate them when you haven't had them for two months!)  So without further ado:

Check out the beauteousness.
Yesssssssssssssss.   Cue angels singing!  Shall we see a before?  Oh let's do.
 So much better!  Shall we do a different angle?  Just so I can goo over the awesomeness again?
So great!  It used to look like this:
OK, it probably doesn't look that different unless you're a trim freak like me.  Wanna see a closeup?
The husband worked SO HARD to make these perfect.  To recap Molding Part 1, first he made a profile outline of the existing molding downstairs.  (The original molding is 110 years old, and surprisingly enough, not for sale any more.)  Then we had custom molding knives cut for an exorbitant sum and the molding itself created.  Then the hubs had to cut it, cut the roundy bits and the upper bits, make the sills, bevel the corners, nail it all down, fill the nail holes and sand before we could even get to painting.  And don't get me started on the evil prime-sand-paint-sand-paint cycle.  (The second sanding may have come as a rude surprise to the wifey and caused a little meltdown.)  That said, its all DONE!  Yay!!  Now, on to some baseboard trim.  I'm sure that'll be a cakewalk!  Right?  Right?!?  Right.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween, For Reals

This was one of the best Halloween's ever.  Mostly because the MOLDING is done and we're back in our bedroom.  (Which makes me so happy nothing short of a nuclear holocaust could dent my good mood.  OK, that might be a skotche of hyperbole, but just a skotche.)  But more about that later. 

First, the Halloween report.  I didn't take nearly as many pictures as I should have (you know you're having fun when you forget to take pictures.)  We had a couple people over to watch the trick-or-treaters, eat some food and make s'mores!  The trick-or-treaters were a little thin this year, but the ones we did have were super cute.  The food for our little shindig turned out delicious! 

Before the party I made some caramel apples.  (No, I did not make the caramel from scratch.  I'm crazy but not that crazy.)  But did you know that every fall of my life Kraft has included popsicle sticks in the bags of caramels?  Specifically so that America can enjoy its caramel apples.  This year?  NO STICKS. What the hale??  I made do with some fun (and totally seasonally-inappropriate) pastel chopsticks.
Don't those apples look great?   They're from my hometown where fruit grows on trees.  Crazytalk.  They look pretty good natural but they'll look even better robed in caramel!
Yum!!  Also got out some cider, a bowl of mini apples, a giant plate of s'more makings
What else do you need for a party??  Not much!  I figured after sending my guests into sugar shock I should provide some real food, so I made butternut squash soup too.
After we warmed up with some soup, we made s'mores in the back yard on our awesome borrowed firepit.  First time we've ever actually used it but it was awesome and made the party feel very fall-esque.  After some s'mores, the guests really started to cut loose. 
Everyone needs a cocktail, even Minnie.  As for our little family...
Meet Captain Haddock, Tintin and Snowy!  (Or Capitaine Haddock, Tintin and Milou if you're a French purist.  Photo courtesy of our friend Stacy who had us over on Saturday night.)  Snowy got partially cut off in this photo, but we had him mounted to a skateboard. Which worked like a charm!  For reals, I'm having a rolling prop for every Halloween!  
Here's Snowy ready for his close-up.  Looking good Snowy!  Best sidekick ever!  So obedient!  (It's amazing what two pieces of foamcore and a Sharpie can do for your costume!)

Between the mulled wine, the amazing cheeses, the soup, s'mores and candy, I think a good time was had by all, even with a dearth of trick-or-treaters.  The Jack O' Lanterns didn't mind though.
They had a great time.  So from our little house to yours, Happy Halloween!