Saturday, 26 Dec
Phở has been one of my all time favourite dishes to have, especially when winter comes along — winter meaning anything under 60°F (~15°C), since I hail from California. However, I’ve never really been able to figure out how to make it. It has such a distinct flavour and I don’t trust very many website when they give you recipes for Asian food, as they’re typically radically different from what I expect once the dish is made. Luckily for me, my beau just happens to be Vietnamese — apparently — and his mother has been known to teach a numerous amount of people how to make phở from scratch. So, logically, I volunteered myself — and one of our mutual friends — to come and learn to make phở with my beau’s mother. Little did we know that we were in for an adventure.
The first and foremost thing you must know — we should all know, as cooks and not chefs — is that the traditional cooking of any culture does NOT use precise measurements. Usually it’s “a couple” of this, “a bit” of that, “a handful” of this, “a pinch” of that — very chef-like. This freaks me out as a meticulous cook — as my specialty tends to be baking where specific measurements are rather vital to the success of the dish. Much to my dismay, this was what learning to cook phở was like with my beau’s mother. Not only this, but the soup base consisted of a WHOLE chicken cooked in a Crockpot overnight to create the perfect chicken soup base. Then, I saw a few spices I knew well (e.g. star anise) and some strange seed-pod like thing the Vietnamese know as thảo quả (I had never heard of nor seen such a thing). I read the Chinese written on it — thankfully it was simple enough that I could read it — but that was no help (in case you were wondering, it translates to “grass fruit”). So, I turned to my friend Google and just typed in the Vietnamese name without accent marks. Faithful Google churned out “black cardamom.” Interesting, still had never heard of it. Then, there sat the soup…overnight — last night.
Anyhow, after the broth had cooked overnight, as the best soup bases and broths are made — my friend and I were taught the “mastery” behind making phở today. It was actually much simpler than I had expected. It started with the broth’s finishing ingredient. What we put in what quite a shock to me. It was the ONE ingredient I had not been able to pinpoint all these years. I had seen a bottle of it growing up in my household. However, I could never figure out how to use it nor what it was used for — as I had never seen my father use that giant bottle of it we had, no matter how many times I watched him cook. So there it was, right under my nose all along, this mysterious ingredient I couldn’t quite pinpoint. What was it? Fish sauce. After a random amount of fish sauce was added — as much as we felt we liked — we started putting together the ingredients that make up the substance of the phở soup as we know it. The easiest — and probably the best — way to make the noodles is to buy it “fresh” and simply blanch it as you would vegetables. We had gotten a whole 5 pound bag’s worth of fresh noodles. It was GLORIOUS. Surprisingly enough, it took a lot more noodles to create a full bowl than I expected, especially since the noodles went from a rather stiff form to the nice, soft, chewy texture in a matter of seconds and our strainer for blanching was rather small. Then, after blanching the fresh noodles, you put them in a bowl, lay some paper-thin slices of raw meat — like the ones you’d use for hot pot or shabu-shabu — over the noodles, some green onions or cilantro. Then, last but not least, you pour the hot, simmering soup straight over the raw meat. The trickiest part about all of this was that the blanching process and the final soup addition required the water to be just simmering, but not at a full, rolling boil. Tricky, but yet oh so simple!
To top it off, the delicious bowl of phở is served with lime (or lemon), Thai basil (not to be confused with regular basil used in Italian cooking, also known as sweet basil) and bean sprouts. The funny part is, apparently, it is also traditionally served with some sort of greens. We had some weird leafy green vegetable I’ve never seen in my life! My beau claims that every restaurant has them; I think otherwise. The mystery green: culantro. What is it? I have no clue, but I sure didn’t like the taste of it.
So that was that, my lesson in making phở from scratch.
Sunday, 27 Dec
Today a rather low-key day. I met up with one of my long-time friends from my first semester as a college student. We’ve both come so far since we first met. I’m sometimes in awe of how far we’ve come. Anyhow, we got to hang out and managed to get lucky. We decided to go roller skating at a rink nearby. As it turns out, we arrived 20 minutes before their closing time for public skating. The nice gentleman on the other side of the counter gave us a free 20-min pass for some roller skating fun! It was totally awesome!!!
Afterwards, we went to grab some noms at The District. My friend Yelp‘d “comfy couch” because she wanted a nice spot to sit. It churned out for us a nice, hipster-esque place with lots of novelty foods, like a cookie shot for milk — which my friend got — and the biggest, most filling crepe I’ve ever had.
Monday, 28 Dec
“Adventure is out there!,” as Ellie said in Up. My friend Kyle and his friend Kyle took this to heart and began to explore the world — within driving distance/California — as the Adventure Kyles. Almost every week or two, the two Kyles set off on some adventurous expedition across Southern California. They find what a travel guide would never cover: hidden gems for the local resident. I don’t know HOW they keep finding so many fun and interesting places, but they do.
Today, I was invited on one of these adventures. Today’s adventure: Queen Califia’s Magical Circle and a dilapidated, abandoned asylum/building in the middle of the wild chapparals of Southern California.
Our first exploration to Queen Califia’s Magical Circle was rather anti-climatic. We found it with more ease than expected as it was a common park many people spend time at — and play frisbee golf, apparently — called Kit Carson Park. We had parked across the park at a church, thinking it was going to be a hiking trail we’d have to meander through on foot. When we finally arrived, we realised that our navigation apps just didn’t pick up on the fact that there were roads into the actual park and that there were places we could have parked in there for free. Anyhow, as we entered, we first sighted a sculpture here, then another…and another…and another. Then, we managed to find the “magical circle;” it was fenced in. So, we did what explorers do: we walked around the entirety of it. To our dismay, it was closed for renovations and apparently we need to make an appointment — with a large, interested party — to get in on a regular day anyways. The boys refused to give up with just that. So they did what grown-up boys do best: use their height to their advantage. It was pretty entertaining. Three of the guys would stop every so often to create a pyramid: two guys kneeling and one guy propped up on top to peer over and take pictures for the whole group. Then, on several occasions, the tallest guy — with his girlfriend on his shoulders — would take The Adventure Kyles’ GoPro and go around the perimeter of the fence to take as much footage of the magical circle as possible.
After this first half of adventurous fun, we decided that a food break would be nice. Meals had not been previously planned, so the majority of us pulled out our phones and used the mystical resource called Yelp to look for a place to eat. After a long discussion, we decided on Filipino food. The loudest one of us had already had Filipino food so the idea was overlooked for a good long while until the quietest of us insisted on it because nothing else sounded adventurous enough for Adventure Monday and she had not had Filipino food before. After a series of discussions had began and ended and the chorus of grumbling stomachs had begun, the majority of the party (five of the six of us) came to the realisation that they had not had Filipino food as well. So, we ended up at CARiN de RiA where we delighted over the deliciousness of Filipino food for the first time. We had some chicharons and lumpia to start, then some main dishes to go around — including one with garlic rice. All I have to say is: it sure reminded me a lot of the Chinese food I’ve had, at least the main dishes. To finish off, our group got two orders of halo halo and indulged in the strangeness of the Filipino dessert while I opted for some delicious, classic leche flan.
Once we finished stuffing our faces silly, we set off to our next location: the abandoned asylum/building. I had fallen asleep on my ride there, so I had no idea where we were. We parked in a seemingly strange neighbourhood and walked alongside a sidewalk-less road to sneak through an opening into what seemed like a common hiking trail. As we walked up the trail and explored a little, we saw a row of trees that were eerily planted in a straight line — not to mention, they did NOT meld well with the natural chaparral landscape of the area — a stone’s throw away from the base of the hill. So, we went back down to the low point where the trail had originally split off and took the flatter route, only to find some creepy remains of what looked like a jacuzzi and some abandoned blocks or flooring that seemed to have even been randomly strewn about as if someone ripped out a building there.
Boy, today was quite an adventure. To top off a great adventurous day, a few of us ended the day by visiting one of our host’s family liquor store, cleverly named Liquor On The Rocks, where I had a great time fascinating over how much the store had changed since I last saw it 2 years ago.