Road Trip with CiCi

roadside in Sonoma

Last month, I retired my old car and bought a new one.

A brand new gleaming white 2013 Honda with the scent of installed buttery, black leather. She’s quite pretty. She’s also technologically savvy –equipped with bluetooth capability, eco drive button, and a rear camera for those awkward reversals. This new baby is a huge upgrade from my former car, a glamorous makeover from its humble predecessor. I’m not used to it.

Letting go of my previous car, a 1999 black Honda Civic affectionately named CiCi, felt like the end of an era. If a person is approaching 30 (like moi), the last ten years of one’s life warrants being called an era. My car definitely showed its battle scars from a long life lived. My ’99 had two nearly identical scratches on either side of its front bumper from two separate parking incidents in the same damned garage, a visor that no longer stayed put and would occasionally bop the driver on the head, a faded Civic marking on the back from where the car label fell off, and a disintegrating parking sticker in the back windshield from an apartment complex back during my undergraduate college years. She was a beauty weathered by age and experience. She was certainly eye-catching to the various carjackers throughout the years who had unsuccessfully attempted to steal her (at least four times) and to the occasional admirers who randomly inquired if I would be willing to sell her.

She was my companion on many road trips and milestones throughout my teens and twenties. She was the first car I inherited when I got my driver’s license –a moment I reverently prepared for by burning five mixed CDs for my driving ambiance and by promptly calling my best friend. “Hey, what are you doing? Let’s go hang out at the mall. [dramatic pause] I’ll come pick you up.”

I took her with me to college, memorizing the windy stretches along the route to UC Davis and anticipating when I’d need to gun the accelerator during the steep upward hills. She was the first car I had when I met my then-boyfriend J, who would later become my husband. We drove it on our dates to Sacramento, to the fairground, and to stand in line at the popular buffet sushi spot –a treat for all college students on a scraping budget. As my birthday gift, J and a friend, had “borrowed” my car and installed it with a shiny, sleek mp3 car deck. I finally had an MP3 player of my own –no more measly 15 track songs on one CD! Now I could fit entire albums on one disc! In a pre-iPod world, this was mind-boggling. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. It would get stolen three months later. Only to have my second deck stolen about two years later. So far, the third one has been a charm. I’ve learned a few car-savvy lessons along the way: a brake lock works wonders.

She was the car I took when I drove to Los Angeles for the first time, taking along my two younger brothers who would see me off for graduate school. As a small car, she thrived on weaving in and out of Los Angeles traffic on the I-10, though she did start to break down a bit more often. Tired and old as she was, she still carried me home to the Bay Area where I started a new career and eventually got married. While I was busy transitioning from a teen to a young adult to a full-fledged adult, my car noisily struggled to keep up. At some point in the middle of last year, J began to mention the prospect of buying a new car. I pretended not to hear him –in denial of what was inevitable.

I suppose it’s bittersweet that the next car I owned would be one that I purchased together with my husband. I felt like I was betraying my ’99 CiCi as I started the process of car shopping and hunting around dealerships. As much as I could appreciate nice-looking cars, I never saw myself driving a luxurious one. I had never thought about driving any other car period. I assumed that I would always have the same car, and run it to the ground. I much preferred a practical car –a loyal car. And right then, I felt like the opposite of loyal.

“How about a Prius?” J suggested. “The Prius-C looks cute for you. Great mileage, and it’s compact.”

“A PRIUS?” I scoffed. “That dinosaur egg? It’s pretentious and annoying.”

“Fine. A Passat? A Corolla? A Civic Hybrid? A Honda Fit?” he countered. Too foreign-sounding. Too boring. Too expensive. Too boxy. I had different excuses to combat each car.

After several months of hemming and hawing on my end, he declared that by the middle of March, I will decide on my top three cars. End of story. He was no longer amused by my sentimentality (or stubbornness). When I shared with him my choices, he assured me that once I went and started test driving cars, I would feel better about the decision. That I might find something I liked. That I would be okay with moving on.

Of course, he was right.

During the last week of March, and after much haggling and expert game-playing on J’s end, I drove home in my new car. Later that weekend, we took the car out to test its legs on a mini-road trip to Napa. It was a fun and romantic trip, and I slowly realized that it would be the first of many trips that we would share in our new car. New trip, new memories. It will likely be the car that will carry our first family. The smell of leather is still fresh, the odometer is clocked at a clean slate, and the stories in the car are still untold and waiting to fill the space. It’s a road trip that I’m finally ready to take.

Posted in Writings | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Prima Donnas and Barbecue Shrimp | New Orleans

New Orleans

Last month, I hopped on a plane and spent a festive weekend in New Orleans with 11 other girls for a bachelorette party.

It wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.

As my friend D’s Matron of Honor, which meant I was also the default trip organizer, I was both excited and antsy about planning for such a large group in the heart of the south.  Given that our weekend trip was sandwiched in between Superbowl Sunday and Mardi Gras, there were plenty of events and activities to fill our days and appetites.
New Orleans

Strolling through the streets in an evening Haunted French Quarter Walking Tour was one of the best ways to start our trip.  It was on a Thursday, so while the rest of the city was uptown enjoying the start of the Carnival parades, our group followed an elder man named Frank through the darkened and quiet streets of the usually vibrant neighborhood.  Mardi Gras feathers, garland, and masks – colorful and festive during the daytime – cast eerie shadows along the building balconies as Frank recounted tragic, historical stories of the spirits “unresolved issues.”  These spirits ranged from unrequited loves, tormented slaves and owners in the 19th century, a notorious pirate named Jean Lafitte, and nuns who guarded the church during the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

New Orleans locals and workers loved telling stories.  We visited restaurants and bars that were built in the 1800s, each containing its own history beyond the brick walls, iron-wrought gates, and antique chandeliers.  Our first night, we stopped by Lafitte’s Black Smith Shop, which was built in 1722 and arguably the oldest bar in America.  Dining at the Court of Two Sisters for their popular brunch buffet, our waiter regaled us with the background of the sisters – two aristocratic Creole women named Emma and Bertha who used the court’s patio as a specialized boutique and shop in the early 1900s.

NOLA

As I stood in line for the Cajun shrimp, I struck up a conversation with a woman in a pink and black beaded corset dress with skulls, her hair adorned with a nest of wild pink feathers.  She was part of the Prima Donna parade later that afternoon and it was an annual tradition for the other Donnas to eat brunch at the Court of Two Sisters.

“Where does everyone get their costumes?  They’re lovely,” I said.  Next to her, I spied one of her friend’s in a blue and green tutu with fish swimming on our beaded bodice.  Her lashes are bright blue, and I imagine her as a Mardi Gras mermaid who looked with interest at the King’s Cake dessert platter.

“Oh, we gather together and have bead and outfit parties every week just to decorate!” she giggled.

New Orleans

On our way out, we caught the Prima Donna parade –marching band and official banner – and waved our hands to collect their souvenirs.  Among them are bright colored thongs, pink and purple beads, bracelets with crowns, and bare-breasted rings.  It started to feel like Mardi Gras.

NOLA

New Orleans

With colorful parade floats and crowds that block the streets from all over the city, we spent most of our days and evenings walking through the French Quarter – less than 10 minutes away from our hotel.  When we weren’t wrestling our way through the bead-crazed thick of Bourbon Street en route to popular bars such as Channing Tatum’s Saints and Sinners and Cat’s Meow, we were shopping or eating.

NOLA

New Orleans

New Orleans

NOLA

New Orleans

We caught a late night snack at Café Du Monde for their powdered beignets and chickory coffee.  In the daytime, we spent a few hours browsing the French Market‘s endless tables of fancy hats, cheap masks, jewelry, and souvenir trinkets.  At the other end of the market, there are food stalls that sell yummy snack items like freshly shucked oysters, fried crawdaddies, and fried pickles.

When we had dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro, I finally understood the fuss and hype over their famous barbecue shrimp dish.  As the rest of the girls conspired with each other over the menu (Do you want to share?  Maybe an appetizer and an entree?  I’m not too hungry).  Granted, it was 5:30 PM and we were stuffed from fried pickles.  My friend D pushed her menu aside.  ”I’m having a barbecue shrimp plate all to myself,” she declared.

I stifled a laugh when the wait staff came around to tie a delicate tissue bib around our necks.  The restaurant was surprisingly fancy; was this necessary?  The dish came out – a jumble of succulent shrimp covered in a rich and subtly sweet sauce – and as soon as we took a bite, nobody laughed or said a word.  We were all too busy eating – our fingers and mouths biting, slurping, and peeling all at once.  It was the best shrimp dish I ever ate.  When the last shrimp was devoured, my table mates and I continued to ravage the sauce with table bread.  I almost protested when they finally hauled the plate away.  At one point during dinner, a girl friend and I looked at each other and grinned messy, sauce-sticky smiles.  We originally were going to split the shrimp plate, but decided at the last minute to bite the bullet and order separately.  A wise decision.

On our last full day in New Orleans, we wanted to venture outside the French Quarter and into the Garden District.  It was an adventure just to leave the area.  Parades were starting in one end of town and wrapping up at another part of the city, which meant that most of the main roads were blocked off.  People were gearing up to catch the much anticipated Endymion parade, which featured the royal court and an endless stream of marching bands.  It was nearly impossible to reserve a taxi or flag one down – much less two to fit our crew of 11.  “Drive out of the French Quarter?  Sorry, no.”  We lucked out and found a nice gentleman who volunteered to take one half of the group, and return back for the other half.  That’s the sort of hospitality we found throughout our trip in New Orleans. 

New Orleans

New Orleans

We had our final brunch at Commander’s Palace, another excellent dining experience that involved wearing golden crowns, pastel rooms with chandeliers, a jazz group serenading “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, dressed up wait staff who quietly set down plates in unison, and rich, decadent food such as eggs poached in cream, incredibly tender braised beef on top of buttery cajun grits, and warm bread pudding served with whiskey sauce.  The restaurant was built in 1880 and only closed temporarily to undergo renovations following Hurricane Katrina and Isaac.  Apparently, U.S. presidents make it a point to dine here.  This meal provided a glamorized snapshot of the New Orleans culinary experience – service that is hospitable and warm, indulgent flavors of sweet and savory meals, and a bit of history served up with a little liquor.

New Orleans

New Orleans

It feels oddly nostalgic for me to walk through the city – like I’ve been here before or someplace like it.  The French Quarter district of New Orleans feels like a blend of FranceSpain, and – oddly – a surreal Disneyland Main Street.  It’s no surprise that the Creole people have cultural roots in a mixture of French and Spanish.  I see the European influence in the street architecture, the elegant doorways and balconies, the tiled street signs on the floors and walls, the open air markets, parade of musicians, and bursts of purple, green, and yellow decorations adorned on buildings.  It was a slice of old European charm in America.  This historically rich and vibrant city was the perfect backdrop for my friend’s milestone celebration.  Needless to say, the bulk of our group’s accumulated Mardi Gras beads remained sheepishly behind.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Old + New Habits | San Diego

December in San Diego

Ever since J recommended the book The Power of Habit, I started noticing my personal habits – particularly the habits that creep up while on vacation. During our December trip to San Diego, I noticed the following:

My need to consume more than three meals per day, including an unusually high number of fried, salty food, caffeine, and alcohol. “But when’s the next time I’ll EVER come back to this restaurant again? We have to order the bacon-wrapped corndogs and bacon ice cream sandwich.”

Over-planning my day so that my brain and body gives out by the end of it
Never factoring in driving, parking, or traffic time in between destinations.
Being grumpy when unexpected things happen during my picture-perfect vacation – like traffic. And rain. And only having one blazer when I should have brought a coat.
My desire for escapism. And disappointment when reality hits me again.

San Diego

Of course, I don’t think I’m the only person who experiences such things. It made me curious to see why I would expect certain things to occur only on vacation and daily habits (such as working out, eating right) tend to drop to the side. Why do our behaviors and expectations change so dramatically when we’re on vacation? Comedian Jim Gaffigan refers to this as a false sense of entitlement when we are on vacation, that we feel we deserve to spoil ourselves silly in fancy hotel rooms, come to expect the free little chocolates on our pillows, and blow money on nice restaurants all day long. “How about we eat first then go get something to eat after?” he says.

And eat a lot…we did.

After we arrived at the modern Hotel Indigo, we drove into San Diego’s popular Gaslamp District to have dinner at Cafe Sevilla. From the large intricate glass chandelier to the vintage European poster collage to the hanging bull heads, it was like being transported to a surreal version of Spain. The live guitarist band, crowds, and delicious tapas of ceviche, potatoes bravas, and shrimp ajillo brought back wonderful memories of our honeymoon.

San Diego

Since we had a rental car, we also drove into the Los Angeles Little Tokyo area to have lunch at our favorite Japanese ramen joint Daikokuya. Unfortunately about 50 other people had the same idea, which prompted a nearly two hour wait for the exceedingly popular, tiny restaurant. However, as soon as we were seated at the counter area and the large bowls of steaming, creamy broth and fresh noodles were set in front of us, we hungrily dove in and proclaimed that it was just as good as we had remembered back in our college days.

December in San Diego

My best friend and her husband drove from the LA area to stay with us for a day in San Diego. We see each other about once or twice a year, so it was a treat to spend a full day and a half exploring the city’s eats, sights, and nightlife together with our husbands. We had brunch at the Cottage Inn in La Jolla, where we clinked tangerine mimosa glasses and I savored my polenta eggs benedict. We strolled around Balboa Park and chatted about our new jobs, our current favorite TV shows, and comparing life with a dog to life with a baby – all with the backdrop of the massive, gorgeous museum architecture.

San Diego

San Diego

We crammed our evening with a delicious melt-in-your-mouth sushi dinner at Hane Sushi, shared an incredibly moist passionfruit cake and ultra-sweet salted caramel ice cream at Extraordinary Desserts, a bottle of Pinot Noir at the hidden and lively Vyn de Syrah lounge, and ended the night with greasy, hot slices of pizza.

December in San Diego

December in San Diego

December in San Diego

That next day before my friends left, we had a lunch at Craft and Commerce – a cool gastropub that had no problem serving  strong daytime cocktails, bacon wrapped spicy corn dog appetizers, and bacon bits in an ice cream sandwich. It was one of the best meals I recalled on the trip. And it also curbed my hunger for a long, long time.

San Diego

San Diego

San Diego

We spent the next few days of our trip on Coronado Island, where we stayed at the luxurious Loews Coronado Bay Resort. This was a good idea, since we could retreat from the hectic pace of driving through downtown San Diego and freeway traffic. The mornings and afternoons rejuvenating. Strolling through the expansive hotel lobby and quietly sitting by the large window panes or poolside cabana to read felt like a treat I don’t normally indulge in while traveling.

December in San Diego

I also loved stepping outside to view the waterfront and look across at the city skyline, as if I could wave across to downtown San Diego like a friend standing off in the distance. During my quiet mornings, I finished reading The Power of Habit, and I had some fresh ideas for what I wanted to work on developing in 2013.  I wasn’t ready for my winter break to end, but I was more than ready to go back home.

Posted in Travel | Tagged | 2 Comments

The lazy cook

I’m starting off 2013 with an honest confession.

I’m a lazy cook. A really, really lazy cook.

Untitled

Don’t get me wrong. I love food. I love eating it. I love making it. I love photographing it. I even sometimes love writing about it. But I am a faux-food blogger. I tried on that chef hat for awhile, but it didn’t mask the fact that I’m truly not that experienced, talented, or creative in the kitchen. True food bloggers create their own recipes, adapt recipes, test recipes, and stage their recipes well. I represent neither.

This is who I am. I occasionally like to try different recipes. I enjoy thumbing through cookbooks, surfing food websites like Fine Cooking and Rasamalaysia, and ripping out new ideas from my magazines. I even subscribed recently to Cooking Light. I love to host dinners and cook for friends and special occasions. I love doing extensive research on visiting restaurants when I travel. That is about the extent of my food expertise – a willingness to try new and delicious things.

I am an awful baker. When I come home from work, I don’t like to spend more than an hour throwing together a meal. My eyes glaze over when the ingredients list looks about as long as the instructions. I think my tolerance is five ingredients. Bonus if I already have two of them stocked in my pantry. Small, minute amounts of herbs annoy me (a 1/2 tsp of thyme – really?). I love an uncomplicated meal that can taste really, really good.

Untitled

What do I also love? Shopping at Trader Joe’s. It’s the ultimate dream for lazy cooks like me who enjoy food and want to still feel adventurous in the kitchen. It’s like a treasure hunt every time I step foot inside one – I never know what buried brightly packaged gems I’ll find.

Untitled

For a recent girls’ get together, I was on the prowl for savory appetizers. As much as I love the whole expected wine-cheese-fruit-salami combination, I suspected there would already be plenty of that. I came across TJ’s chicken parmesan lollipops. Savory chicken pops! Just pop them in the oven, then pop them in your mouth. Simple and tasty. They reminded me of cheesy chicken nuggets. They even come with their own sticks for that added homemade look.

Untitled

Since bringing over an alcoholic beverage was mandatory, I ended up buying both the Lambic Belgian beer and Fragolino strawberry wine. I’ve had Lambic before and love it’s fruity, semi-tart taste. The Fragolino was a gamble because it sounded interesting, and truthfully, I had once embarrassed myself asking for it while traveling in Italy a few years back. Apparently, I was mis-pronouncing “Fragolino” and called it “bean wine” instead of “strawberry wine.” Coming across it at Trader Joe’s seemed to be fate’s way of giving me a second chance

As some gambles go, I didn’t fare so well with the Fragolino choice. It tasted like bad strawberry soda with a strange bitterness that lingered. At least two out of three wins in Trader Joe’s purchases isn’t so bad.

I also love cooking easy appetizers that taste like I spent a long time in the kitchen.
NYE

For last night’s New Year’s house party, I quickly whipped up a batch of savory spinach and feta pastries. I’ve made Gail Simmon’s version of sweet potato and goat cheese pastries before, which are also delicious. I figured – new year, new pastry filling. In less than an hour, I had a pile of warm, flaky spinach feta pastries ready for the party. It was a “Bond” themed night of appetizers and cocktails, so these babies fared well with girls in cocktail dresses and guys in suits. Imagine James and Jane Bonds munching away on spinach feta pastries! My friends loved them, and the dish cleared out soon after the countdown.

After this recent experience, I remembered what else I loved about food. Trying and buying new ones so that I could share with friends. I also love the simple joy of discovery – whether it is tasting a new product, trying a different wine, or testing out a recipe. Besides, food is more fun when you have people you care about to enjoy it with.

NYE

And with everything I’ve learned this year about myself, I need to stick with what I know I love and stay true to that. Cheers to authenticity. Happy 2013.

Posted in Food, Recipes, Writings | Tagged | Leave a comment

Salted Caramel Popcorn | Nostalgia for the Holidays

Salted Caramel Popcorn

Remember the Cracker Jack box? I used to buy those small boxes, and feel giddy with anticipation about the surprise gift inside. Now that I think about it, a lot of packaged food items I consumed as a kid featured a special toy or treat inside. Lucky Charm cereals, Cocoa Puffs, frozen dinners, Lunchables, McDonald’s Happy Meals, etc. I’d tear through the package, shake the box around until I spied my treasure buried beneath a pile of crunchy cereal and marshmallows.

Granted, these toys were not anything special. They usually consisted of tiny toy cars, stickers, temporary tattoos, or 3-D cut-out glasses. The real fun was in the surprise of the gift. Of anticipating what’s coming up next. Like hearing the initial notes of your favorite song on the radio or reading the first few pages of a new book.

For the holiday season, that feeling of surprise and joy makes gift-giving fun and special. I spontaneously decided to crank out a few batches to bring over to various family gatherings. Toss them in adorable holiday tins, and presto! Instant edible holiday gifts! Which truly are the best sort of gifts, since they are homemade, thoughtful, and can be enjoyed on spot. For a completely unconventional take on gift-giving, check out Freakonomics entertaining, enlightening podcast. I know it made me feel better about not trudging through the packed malls for hours on end.

The element of surprise in these homemade caramel popcorn treats is in the salted caramel coating. Just when you grab a handful, you delightfully realize that it’s a delicious blend of salty and sweet. And that they can be addicting. Oh, yes, and very, very easy to make. (More later on why I’m a lazy cook). As a bonus, they also taste like Cracker Jacks.

Enjoy the recipe here, courtesy of Food52. Happy Holidays!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Posted in Food, Recipes | 2 Comments