Winter Adventures in the City

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Christmastime in Union Square!

Unfortunately last month, my laziness got the better of me, hence no posts in December. Sorry. šŸ˜¦ However, the lack of posts is not an accurate indication of my activities this past month. December was filled with holiday parties, fun adventures in the city, and lots and lots of shopping! I also got to spend time with my family and friends – they’re what make the holidays so special.

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December was also filled with a bunch of firsts, including running my first half-marathon! I’m so glad I live with runners. I’ve always wanted to run a half-marathon, but never had enough self-motivation to do it until now (thanks to the support of my housemates!). Although running for two hours straight is not the most enjoyable activity, I had a blast and can’t wait to do another one!

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My first half-marathon medal! Hopefully more to come!

The day of the half-marathon also happened to be Santacon, an annual event that happens in SF in which thousands of people dress up like Santa or other holiday objects. It’s basically a huge Santa-themed bar crawl. I couldn’t miss out on participating, so after spending two hours running, my housemates and I dressed up like Santa and went out into the city.

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In front of City Hall, on the way to Polk St for Santacon!

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My friends and I celebrating Santacon!

Even though the weather is much colder and cooler in December, I’ve recently realized that December is one of my favorite months. Although the holiday decorations are beautiful and the holiday spirit is so warm and infectious, it’s really the time we spend with our loved ones that make the holiday season so special. I had so many fun adventures this past December with both friends and family and I’ve learned that it’s really the people who you’re with that make each and every experience worthwhile.

October Fun in the City – Indulging in Childhood Fun

Beautiful view of San Francisco from Dolores Park

October was a month filled with a few life changes, new experiences, and tons of fun adventures in the city! All throughout October, it was Indian Summer in the Bay Area, which meant that the weather every weekend was absolutely gorgeous! Obviously, I had to go out to the city to take advantage of the beautiful sunny weather! Luckily, there is always something fun going on in San Francisco.

Listening to The Head and The Heart at Hardly Strictly!

The first weekend in October was one of the busiest San Francisco has ever had. With Fleet Week, a post-season Giants game, and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival going on, it was estimated that a few million people came into the city that weekend! And you could definitely tell. The BART and buses were packed with people. My friends and I biked to Golden Gate Park, where Hardly Strictly was being held, and there were so many bikes parked there (some were even locked up to light poles) that we had to bike a mile further into the park just to find some open spots.

It was my first time attending Hardly Strictly and it won’t be my last! The free concert features bluegrass music, but also lots of other good music. We went to go see one of my favorite bands, The Head and the Heart. They were so good live! I had such a great time soaking up the rays of sunlight, jamming to some of my favorite songs, and enjoying the company of friends.

Looking out at the city and Pacific ocean from the top!

The next weekend, my friends and I ventured into the city to find the 16th street stairs that I had heard about through a friend and on Yelp. Leading to a very tall and steep hill in the Inner Sunset district of the city, these steps are decorated with small pieces of glass and tile to create beautiful mosaics of the sun, moon, and stars.

The famous 16th Avenue Mosaic Tiled Stairs

The following weekend was spent exploring the relatively new playground in Mission Dolores Park, which is a million times better than the playgrounds I grew up with. The playground is huge, with multiple slides, swingsets, and climbing things. It might seem a bit weird for a couple of 20-somethings to be playing in a playground, but we’re all kids at heart. With the difficulties we face as adults, sometimes it’s just nice to push all those troubles aside for a moment and pretend to be a kid again.

Dolores Park Playground

As I grow older, I’ve realized the world is really not as cut and dry or black and white, as we thought as children. With this realization, the world and people automatically become more complicated. Issues become more complex and one might realize that what he or she once thought were his or her beliefs may not actually be consistent with who he or she actually is or has become. Without us even realizing it, as adults, our actions have more weight and there is no longer anyone to tell us what is right or wrong or what we ought to do. Yes, friends and family can give you advice or help you think through and analyzeĀ situations. But only you can make the decisions. That heaviness we feel with all of those decisions we have to make can be tiring and can make our shoulders and back sore. Sometimes, even for just a short moment, we need to cast off that boulder we carry and let go. Indulge in the lightness and freedom that we unknowingly enjoyed as kids. (But just for a few moments. After all, we’re now adults and have responsibilities. :P)

Playing like a kid with a giant parachute!

Relaxing in Stern Grove with Ok Go

Ok Go at Stern Grove

This past Sunday, I went with a group of friends to see Ok Go at the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco. Every summer, the Stern Grove Festival hosts free concerts every Sunday in this beautiful park. Actually, it’s not so much a park as it is a forest… with tall trees towering over you as you walk through and wooded areas that you’d find in fairy tales. (At one point, I half expected the trees to start talking like in Lord of the Rings.)

Sitting amongst the trees (and pretending to be wood nymphs)

We got there fairly early, about 2 hours before the concert started. However, that was definitely not early enough. Some people were hardcore and arrived at 9am to snag the best spots in the park, right in front of the stage. With all of the lawn occupied by serious concertgoers, we ventured into the woods to find a decent picnic spot. Although we were hidden behind several trees, we still had a pretty good view of the stage and enjoyed a nice picnic while we waited for the show to start.

I first started listening to Ok Go in high school, after seeing their famous treadmill video. However, my favorite video remains to be their “A Million Ways” video, in which they perform an amazing choreographed dance in someone’s backyard. I distinctly remember watching that video whenever I wanted to procrastinate doing homework and secretly longed to get three friends to learn the dance with me. However, I could never convince my friends to do it. šŸ˜¦

The concert was great! Ok Go is definitely a fun band to watch live. They do crazy things on stage, such as play one of the songs only using hand bells and shoot water-soluble confetti out of giant cannons. The show was so entertaining and a majority of the crowd was dancing and rocking out. It was a great afternoon filled with food, music, and friends. Not to mention, the weather was absolutely gorgeous! It’s days like those that make me absolutely, whole-heartedly love living in the Bay Area, despite all of the hardships and difficulties I’ve been facing in grad school. Even though grad school has been a tough journey, fun and relaxing days consisting of treks into the city and hanging out with friends make it much more enjoyable.

Fancy it up – Raspberry Goat Cheese Swirl Brownies

My friends and I love throwing themed dinner parties. Not only do they give us the opportunity to cook delicious food, but they also give us a great excuse to dress up. šŸ™‚ A few weekends ago, we decided to host a fancy wine and cheese party since my friend Rachel had a gift certificate for French cheeses that was about to expire. She ordered several different types of cheeses, including Camembert, Roquefort, and Brie.

Our spread consisted of over ten cheeses, including a heart shaped Neufatel and ash covered goat cheese, several appetizers, and tomato basil fondue. And lots of wine. šŸ™‚ All of these cheeses were delicious, except for the Roquefort in my opinion (but that’s probably because I’m not a fan of blue cheese). Because it was so hard for us to choose a favorite, we spent the evening tasting each cheese over and over again.

Knowing that there would be plenty of cheese and appetizers, I decided to bring a dessert. But I wanted to make one that used cheese in an untraditional way. So when I saw this recipe from Love and Lemons for raspberry goat cheese brownies, I knew I had the perfect dessert! The original recipe comes from The Kitchn, a website that I frequent daily, and calls for 2:1 ratio of goat cheese to cream cheese. However, upon reading the comments, I decided it was smarter to switch the ratio to 1:2. After all, even though it was a cheese party, my friends might not have liked eating goat cheese for dessert. šŸ˜›

I only made a quarter of the original recipe (half of Love and Lemon’s adapted recipe). Because I didn’t have any fresh or frozen raspberries on hand, I used raspberry jam instead and swirled dollops of it into the batter. The brownies were both fudgy and cakey and the cream cheese and goat cheese batter was delicious. The goat cheese was very subtle, adding only a slight tang to the cream cheese.

My friends agreed that the goat cheese wasn’t overpowering and added a nice, fancy twist to the traditional cream cheese brownie. The raspberry jam also adds beautiful streaks of bright red to the brownies, but to be honest, I couldn’t really taste the jam.

Good wine, good cheese, and good friends. Sometimes that’s all you need for a perfect Friday night. Hosting that wine and cheese party added a nice little kick to our normal schedule. Just like the subtle tanginess that goat cheese gave to those brownies.

Raspberry and Goat Cheese Swirl Brownies
Adapted from Love and Lemons and the KitchnĀ (I made 1/2 a batch of these)

Brownies
5 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/4 cup milk
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/2 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Raspberry Goat Cheese Swirl
2 ounces goat cheese, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 egg
1/8 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Raspberry jam (I was lazy, but you could use fresh raspberries)

1. Preheat the oven to 350ĀŗF and lightly grease a 9×13-inch baking pan. (Since I made a small batch, I used a smaller pan).
2. Melt the chocolate and butter in a glass bowl placed over a simmering pot of water. Make sure the glass bowl does not touch the water. (This is the double boiler technique). I was lazy and used the microwave, but be careful if you do this, you don’t want to burn the chocolate!
3. When the chocolate is completely melted, remove from the heat, whisk in the milk, and cool for about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar and vanilla. Stir in the eggs one by one.
4. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt and fold in until just combined. Pour the batter into the greased baking pan.
5. Using a stand or hand mixer, beat the goat cheese with the cream cheese, butter, egg, sugar, and vanilla extract until light and fluffy.
6. Drop dollops of the goat cheese mixture and raspberry jam on top of the brownie batter, then swirl through the batter with a knife. Be careful not to swirl too much!
7. Bake for 30 minutes or until just barely set. The top will be just turning light brown and the sides of the brownies will pull away from the pan. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing.
According to the Kitchn, “the flavor and texture of these brownies really bloom when you let them rest overnight.” So try to make these the night before and resist eating them right away.

Dinner Partying it up – Japchae (Korean glass noodles)

Inspired by all these beautiful recipes I’ve seen on some of my favorite blogs, I decided to try to make some of them and throw a dinner party. For some reason, I have an inclination to cook Asian dishes more than other cuisines. So, on the menu were mostly Asian or Asian-inspired dishes: japchae (Korean glass noodles), chicken fried rice, mirin and honey sweet potatoes, bean sprout kimchi, pickled vegetables, and stuffed peppers with Thai curried rice.

IĀ had originally planned to make a few more dishes, including miso glazed cod. However, halfway through making dinner, I realized I had definitely bit off more than I could chew. SoĀ I decided to save those for another dinner party and serve the dishes I was really dying to make, specifically japchae, which turned out to be the star of the dinner.

Korean cuisine is probably my favorite. I love it so much that I can never refuse an invitation to eat Korean BBQ or go to a Korean restaurant. However, it can be a bit pricey and I’ve recently realized that many Korean dishes are fairly easy, especially japchae. After hearing one of my friends proclaim her love for the noodle dish too, I decided that I had to give it a shot and make them for her.

The recipe is basically a stir-fry of sweet potato noodles and vegetables. Usually, beef is included, but since I didn’t have any at hand, I left it out. For my veggies, I used onions, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, bell pepper,Ā zucchini, and spinach. But I’m sure you can use whatever vegetables you like. I didn’t actually follow the recipe that closely. Like I’ve said before, I like to play it by ear when it comes to cooking. So I don’t actually know how much of the ingredients I used. I just eyeballed it and put in however much looked right to me. Also, I was a little surprised to see that the sauce was only soy sauce with sugar. How can you get more simple than that for something so delicious?

My friends loved the japchae! As we ate, they gave so many compliments that I felt a bit silly accepting them, since the dish was so easy. This is definitely a dish that I will make again and again, and so should you! Not only is it super easy and straightforward, but also super delicious (and tastes just like japchae ordered from a Korean restaurant)! Now that I can make it myself, I will probably never order japchae at a restaurant again.

That’s one of the things I love the most about cooking (and baking) – it gives you the ability to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Because you learn how to make things yourself, you no longer have to rely on other people to make it for you. It’s similar to that old adage: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” Learning how to cook a dish will literally enable you to feed yourself for a lifetime.

Japchae (Korean Glass Noodles)
Adapted from Steamy Kitchen

1/2 pound dried Korean sweet potato noodles (I just used the whole bag)
2 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil, divided
1 tablespoon oil
3/4 cup thinly sliced onions (I used half an onion)
2 carrots, cut into matchsticks
2 cloves garlic, finely minced (I forgot this! whoops!)
3 stalks green onions, cut into 1ā€³ lengths (I only added one stalk)
1/2 cup mushrooms, thinly sliced shiitake (I used a small bag of dried shiitake)
1/2 lb spinach, washed well and drained (I don’t think I used this much…)
2 tablespoons soy sauce (I tripled this)
2 teaspoons sugarĀ (I tripled this)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Fill a large pot with water and boil. When water is boiling, add the noodles and cook for 5 minutes. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water. Drain again and toss with only 1 tsp of the sesame oil. Use kitchen shears to cut noodles into shorter pieces, about 8 inches in length. Set aside.

In bowl, mix soy sauce & sugar together. Add the cooking oil in a wok or large saute pan on high heat and swirl to coat. When the cooking oil is hot but not smoking, fry onions and carrots, until just softened, about 1 minute. Add the garlic, green onions and mushrooms, fry 30 seconds. Then add the spinach, soy sauce, sugar and the noodles. Fry 2-3 minutes until the noodles are cooked through. Turn off heat, toss with sesame seeds and the remaining 1 1/2 tsp of sesame oil. Enjoy!

Wandering and Stumbling

One of my favorite things to do is to just wander around my city and discover new places. I love stumbling upon local events going on that day or night, from summer festivals to monthly art walks in various neighborhoods. Luckily, there’s always something going on in the Bay Area, so there’s no such thing as an ordinary day or night.

In early March, my friend and I went to Souley Vegan in Oakland to use up an expiring groupon. After dinner, we walked along Broadway into the uptown area, and stumbled upon an event in which boutiques and art galleries stay open later. For the Austinites out there, it’s like First Thursdays but much smaller. After window shopping at some cute boutiques, we walked into a crowded store hosting a free concert. Although the music didn’t suit my taste, just the energy and environment made it worth staying.

I met up with my friend again last week to use up another groupon, this time to Parada 22, a Puerto-Rican restaurant on Haight St. Our dinner of mofongo and bistec were delicious, but the real highlight of the evening was stumbling upon a retro soda fountain/ice cream parlor called The Ice Cream Bar.

It was like stepping back in time to the ’50s. Lined all along the back wall were tinctures and extracts of every kind of flavor and herb, from cilantro to cinnamon to hellfire, for concocting archaic drinks such as acid phosphates and lactarts.Ā Although the drinks sounded so appetizing and exotic, we refrained from ordering them and settled on sharing a scoop of banana pudding ice cream. As we enjoyed our ice cream, we asked the soda jerk about all of those exotic drinks and got quite an education about old-school sodas, from egg-creams to phosphates and lactarts. All of the drinks on the menu looked delicious, but the most eye-catching ones were the “World’s Best Milkshake,” a pistachio milkshake made from Sicilian pistachios that are only harvested one day out of the year, and a lactart containing chai and tobacco (as a spray). If you are ever in the Cole Valley district of San Francisco, definitely check out this place! Going on little adventures like these, discovering new places and new people, is so satisfying, just like the perfect scoop of ice cream.

“The Country”

In my last post I talked about the city, and now we’re going to travel to the country… wine country, that is. About a month ago, my friends and I spent the weekend in St. Helena, a small town in Napa Valley. Thanks to my friend Rachel, we got to stay in a beautiful house in wine country, where we drank good wine and ate delicious food.

We spent Saturday touring three wineries: Castello di Amarosa, V. Sattuii, and Sutter Home (we had a lot to drink by that point and plus it was free, so don’t judge! :P). Castello di Amarosa aka “The Castle” was a beautiful, medieval castle that happened to also be a winery. Luckily I had done some research and found a 50% off coupon for the tasting tour. (I strongly suggest going online to find coupons for wineries. There are tons out there.) Touring the castle was a great way to start off our weekend. We saw beautiful views, drank delicious wine, and even visited a torture chamber!

The tasting actually opened my eyes up to the actual taste of wine. I’ve never really been “into” wine and didn’t know much about wine, except that I liked sweeter, white wines the most (basically moscato). But the wine tasting made me pay attention to the difference in tastes between Merlot and Cabernet Savignon. And through the tasting, I found another favorite,Ā GewĆ¼rztramine.

After touring the castle, we were pretty hungry. So we headed to Gott’s Roadside Diner (formerly known as Taylor’s Refresher), a classic favorite in St. Helena. When we arrived shortly after 1pm, the line was so long! A good and somewhat bad sign. But the weather was absolutely gorgeous, so waiting outside in the warm sunshine wasn’t a bad thing. I feel that Gott’s is typical California – offering classic favorites, but with a twist. I heard the fish tacos were amazing, so I knew I had to try them. I got the Mahi Mahi tacos, but most of my friends got the Ahi Tuna tacos. And don’t forget to order a milkshake! I tried the white pistachio flavor, but I thought it was lacking in the pistachio flavor, until I reached the bottom of the cup which was filled with whole pistachios. (They probably should have chopped up the pistachios and blended them with the milkshake instead of leaving them whole on the bottom.)

After our late lunch, we headed to the next winery, V. Sattuii, which is rated as one of the most visited wineries in Napa. It wasn’t so much a winery, as a tourist destination, with a large shop selling cheese and other goods as well as a large open area where they served barbeque. The wine tasting was one of the cheapest I found ($10) and you can share it too. Even though they advertised a tasting of 5 wines, we definitely got more than that. Again, my eyes were opened to more wines as I tasted Port, Madeira, and Muscat. After getting our fill of wine, half of my friends decided to head back to the house and sleep off a bit of the alcohol consumed that day. The rest of us headed to Sutter Home, known for their cheap wine and pretty good Moscato (in my opinion). Since it was free and we couldn’t say no to free wine, we headed over there. And again, my eyes were opened, not because Sutter Home has good wine, but because it has so many wines! I naively thought they only sold Moscato!

Once we had our fill of wine, we headed back to the house to relax and cook a delicious dinner. Our menu included baked brie with honey and walnuts, grilled corn and asparagus, basil and pistachio risotto,Ā pork tenderloin, and pear almond galette. Although our dinner was amazing, I enjoyed the time we all spent cooking the dinner the most.

That weekend was one of the most fun and relaxing weekends I’ve had. Good times don’t depend on where you are or what you’re doing. It’s who you’re with that really determines how much fun you have. And that weekend was definitely proof of that.

Bunch of brunches

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Brunch has become a regular Sunday event for me and my friends. It’s one of the best ways for all of us to come together, cook and bake, and enjoy each other’s company. It’s also a great excuse for me to cook something creative. A few months ago, my friend Lin and I started looking at fun brunch recipes, from glazed avocado poptarts to savory breakfast pizza. I clicked from site to site, pinning brunch recipes for later. That weekend, I tried my hand at empanadas, which turned out beautifully as I mentioned before. Other dishes that morning included breakfast pizza topped with tomato, mushrooms, and baked eggs, a dutch baby pancake, andĀ zucchiniĀ fritters.

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The next weekend, we hosted our first weekend for prospective grad students accepted into our department. We all used it just as another excuse to cook and bake. Lin bought 3 dozen eggs, two Costco packages of butter (aka 8 lbs of butter), two Costo sized bags of cheese, and tons of potatoes. We managed to use most of it up in cooking up stratas, frittatas, and lots of biscuits. Our classmate Jacob baked over sixty buttery biscuits that would make any Southerner proud. To contribute, I baked two loaves of quick bread using leftover beer as a leavening agent and banana muffins. Needless to say, our homemade brunch was a success and garnered many compliments. However, despite our amazing brunch, most of the students who visited that weekend didn’t end up choosing Berkeley for grad school. But I suppose they ought to be choosing a school for other reasons than amazing food.

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Two weeks ago, my friends and I spent the weekend up at Napa in my friend Rachel’s grandparents’ house. It was a beautiful weekend filled with amazing weather, delicious food, and lots of wine. And again, we cooked up another awesome brunch. On the menu were buttermilk and bacon waffles (Rachel was so excited to use her new waffle maker she just had to bring it on the trip), sourdough french toast, goat cheese and asparagusĀ omelets, and of course, mimosas!

Thanks to my friends, brunch has become much more than just a meal for me. It’s become an event in which we all express our creativity through cooking and baking new dishes; in which we all come together as a team and family; and in which we enjoy one of life’s simplest gifts: each other. Corny, I know, but true.