Waiting for the cake

Chocolate CakeThe plane from Savannah to Atlanta, Georgia lands around 1:30 p.m.

“We have about two hours here,” says what I presume is the grandfather, in the seat across the aisle from me.

“I’m ready for lunch” says the 11-or-so-year-old boy kitty corner to me, who turns around and perches his hands and chin on the headrest “Kilroy was here” style to address his grandfather. The elder man seems not to notice. Instead, the grandfather carries on a discussion with what I guess to be his wife regarding the logistics of the stopover and the birthday of a relative in their final destination.

“I’m ready for lunch,” repeats the boy.

More adult conversation.

“I’m ready for lunch.” The now familiar refrain isn’t a demand or an example of tween entitlement. He makes his declaration in calm, measured tones.

Three more times.

The grandfather, in an adroit demonstration of multitasking, keeps his focus on his wife but mentions that they likely have enough time during their stopover in Atlanta to grab some lunch.

The grandson ceases his mantra, turns back to face the front of the plane. A long pause. Then, he turns a quarter of the way back so that he’s facing the aisle where no one is yet standing (we’re still taxiing across the runway in what feels as if we’re spending more time driving in this plane than flying in it). In the same level tone of voice but with a dreaminess that was lacking in his lunch remarks, he says to no one in particular, “I can’t wait to eat chocolate cake.”

*******

Personally, I can get pretty jaded flying almost every week for work. I find myself making comments — hopefully only in my head — about “amateur hour” at the airport, especially this time of year when Spring Break is underway. And it is always underway somewhere it seems, from the end of February (how is that “spring” anywhere?) to early May. People who clearly have either never been on a plane or at least not for some time shuffle around the airport dazed and distracted, like someone texting as they walk. Only these travelers walk eyes up, glancing around in a whiplash manner as they try to find their gate, wandering child or missing composure. They make for tricky obstacles to navigate around at the airport and challenges to on-time departures on board as they try to get a suitcase that exceeds the carry-on restriction by at least 50% into an overhead bin that was already full back during Zone 2 boarding.

Travel snob? Spoiled elite traveler? Not a very nice person at airports? I’ll own the first two but I still try to put people over efficiency. Unless I’m late for a flight. Then, it’s probably three for three, alas.

But then, on that endless taxiing across the tarmac, I overhear this conversation. And suddenly, all the hassles and judgments of travel and travelers melt away. Because in that boy’s single sentence, I remember what it’s like. The long journey. The pinched cheek by an aunt with too much rouge on hers. All the adult chitchat and maybe, hanging out with cousins you rarely see. And then, the cake and all it represents.

I hope those folks — especially the boy — had a great lunch at the airport. I hope the birthday was a wonderful event for all. And I hope the chocolate cake tasted as good in reality as it did in that boy’s mind on the plane.

It all makes me think I’ve been on too many planes myself lately. There’s more to life than flights or travel or even work. There’s family and home. Arrival and lunch. And somewhere, after a long journey, maybe a piece of chocolate cake waiting just for me.

 

How to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

How to make Brussels Sprouts taste delicious

My now not-so-secret ingredients to make Brussels sprouts or other bitter vegetables quite tasty.

The mystery of memory, scent and taste

This morning, as I ascend the stairs, I encounter a scent at once delightful and curious. Delightful because of the wondrous aroma. Curious because none of the supposed ingredients are currently in play at our house. What wafts my way seems to be a delicious blend of Chanel Number 5 and bacon. To my male olfactory receptors, this is clearly what heaven will smell like. The combination evokes both hunger and romance, a savory/sweet blend that brings to mind Christmastime, dinner parties and awakening ravenous after arriving home from abroad. And yet, my wife has not applied the suspected perfume nor have we cooked any bacon lately.

The phantom scent, while welcome, reminds me that when smell and memory collide, the results frequently defy logic.

Scents are famous for triggering memories, even if we don’t understand why or can’t pin down the direct connection. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to tastes. But with tastes, I’ve found that not only can they evoke memories, they can also spark new ideas.

Take, for example, our food tour of Seattle’s International District. There I encountered a taste — the sweet, delicate and clean flavor of the salad dressing/dipping sauce used for our lunch. Later investigation revealed the contents to be fish sauce, scallions, ginger and sugar. Hmmm. Sugar.

In that one taste, I had the beginnings of a plan. A dream really. A nutritionist’s nirvana: Make palatable the very vegetables that so many people hate to eat.

Can you actually make Brussels sprouts taste delicious?

It started with broccoli. As a kid I always wondered how something could be good for you that, when cooked, smelled like the substance you clean off your shoe. And not just broccoli. All the cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Let’s face it. They stink. They are also an acquired taste (bitterness does not come naturally to the human palette).

So how do you get around the smell and the bitterness?

For the smell, simply don’t overcook them. Al dente means “no stinky” in my kitchen. The longer most cruciferous veggies cook, the more they smell like a frat house bathroom. Don’t overcook them.

But what about that bitter taste? That’s where my fish sauce and sugar moment kicked in.

Why try and simply overpower the bitter taste of broccoli by drenching it with a cheese sauce as so many parents do when there’s a more elegant approach: Offset bitter with sweet.

General Tsao's Sauce to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

If you want a simple one step way to make Brussels sprouts taste better, here’s your solution in a bottle. And if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby, you have my heartfelt condolences…

To do this, get a bottle of General Tso’s sauce (Orange Chicken sauce will do and even Hoisin sauce works in a pinch). Trader Joe’s has their “General Tsao’s Sauce” and many supermarkets and Asian food stores carry the other two. Add about a tablespoon per two person serving to Brussels sprouts as you stir fry them or mix in before serving if you steam, boil or roast them. Viola! No bitterness! And if you need pointers on various ways to cook Brussels sprouts, check out this helpful article.

The secret formula to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious

The success of this simple approach led me to experiment with other recipes. Here’s one that has become my favorite. Assuming you like spicy foods, even the most cruciferous hater out there may think differently about Brussels sprouts after trying this approach. It combines a subtle sweetness with more punch than the above options. The proportions are mere estimates:

  • 1 tablespoon Caribbean jerk sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

This is meant to be a light additive, not a heavy sauce. The amount listed is enough to cover (or rather, infuse) a serving for four. I cut the Brussels sprouts into slices or quarters (they cook faster this way, so remember, don’t overcook) and, for the final touch, I add the piece de resistance: some crunchy bacon bits.

The slightly sweet, spicy and flavorful combination does something amazing to the Brussels sprouts: It makes them something you actually want to eat.

And of course, the bacon helps. Bacon always helps (unless you’re a vegetarian).

Wearing Chanel No. 5 while you cook, however, is optional.

 

Food tour of Seattle’s International District

Chinatown on a food tour of Seattle's International District

Hing Hay Park was one of our last stops on the food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown

We started our food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown a few weeks ago with, naturally, food.

Cream puffs to be exact.

Our tour, led by Taylor Hoang and assisted by Rayleen Nguyen both of Pho Cyclo Cafe, departed from the Huong Binh Restaurant in Little Saigon. This Vietnamese dining place is run by Taylor’s mom and is, as we’d soon find out, amazingly good. First stop from there: Saigon’s Bakery and Bubble Tea where we tasted scrumptious cream puffs; light and not too sweet.

Cream puff's on food tour of Seattle's International Disrtict

The best cream puffs I’ve ever had are found in Little Saigon on this food tour of Seattle’s International District

I think some of our fellow guests on the 12-person food tour of Seattle’s International District could have gladly just spent the rest of the day there in cream puff heaven. But onward we pressed.

Time to go shopping on the food tour of Seattle’s International District

From there we visited Lam Seafood on King Street near 12th. If you live in the Seattle area and you want fresh produce or seafood, come here.

Indian Bittermelon on the food tour of Seattle's International District

Indian Bittermelon was just one of many fruits and vegetables we don’t see too often at our local grocery store

The prices are in many cases half to a third of what they are in the grocery stores and the selection, at least for Asian foods, is unbeatable.

Taylor explaining Caro on our food tour of Seattle's International District

Here’s Taylor our guide explaining how to look for and prepare caro root at Lam Seafood

We came back later on our own to shop and stock up on sauces, as well as buy from a huge selection of mushrooms, vegetables and fresh fish.

Fish on display at Lam Seafood on food tour of Seattle's International District

At Lam Seafood, you just point to the fish you want and then point to a sign that tells them how you want it prepared.  Compare the prices here with where you normally get your seafood…

Next stop, Thanh Son Tofu. Even if you don’t like tofu, you should check out the very affordable sub sandwiches and other treats they have in this brand new facility. And if you do like tofu or soy milk, well, this is your cream puff of a place…

Sesame balls on food tour of Seattle's International District

These sesame balls are just some of the tasty goodies you’ll find at Thanh Son Tofu even if you don’t like tofu

Back to the Huong Binh Restaurant for a wonderful soup of wontons, pork, shrimp, squid and quail eggs along with celery leaves, chive and fried shallots in a pork broth. That alone could have been lunch enough, but then came the “main course:” Rice noodles, grilled pork, pork meatball and grilled shrimp garnished with lettuce, peanuts, herbs, onions and a delectable sauce. Oh, and cookies for desert. Delighted and satisfied, our food tour of Seattle’s International District could have ended there.

Huong Binh Lunch on food tour of Seattle's International District

Our first course for lunch at Huong Binh. Delicious.

But wait (as they say in infomercials), there’s more on this food tour of Seattle’s International District!

We headed from lunch down to Chinatown where we tasted dim sum, stuffed buns, barbecued pork and coconut-infused rolls. We learned of other places to shop, restaurants to try and gift items to purchase. By the time we finished, we were full. OK, more than full. Stuffed. And not just of food.

We learned so much that day from Taylor that we’d never have uncovered on our own, at least not without considerable time and effort. It reminds me that sometimes a guide can make all the difference in your experience of a place.

Ten Benefits of Using a Guide

In fact, here are ten benefits a guide provides in a new place (or at least did in this situation):

  1. They make you aware of places you’d never find on your own
  2. They introduce you to new people
  3. They introduce you to new food types and sources of ingredients or new products and even ideas
  4. They show you how to use the things (ingredients in this case) you find there that may be unique to that place.
  5. They keep you from getting lost
  6. They vet the good from the bad and show you the best
  7. They make you feel like an insider or like you belong there or have a right to be there
  8. They create a sense of community, with your other group members on the tour and with the people you meet along the way
  9. They increase the number of customers and business for mom and pop stores: You know where your money is going and that it is a good deal. (Unfortunately, with some guides overseas, you are channeled to expensive tourist traps where the guide gets a kickback. Here, the guide does it out of a sense of community and desire to share what is good.)
  10. They show you how to do this yourself next time on your own
King's Barbeque House on food tour of Seattle's International District

Here Taylor explains the various types of roasted meat you can get at King’s Barbeque House on 6th Ave.

And in this case, they also give you a little goody bag with containers for all the food you can’t possibly eat at the time, as well as a coffee press that Taylor showed us how to use at the end of the tour.

This food tour of Seattle’s International District was a wonderful experience that revealed a hidden world in our own neighborhood. It also showed how valuable a guide can be to any place that seems foreign to you…even ones so close to home.