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. 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.

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“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, Gewürztramine.

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, 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.

Challenging myself

At times I wonder why I chose the path I did. Before starting grad school, I had this rather naive and earnest outlook, thinking my life would continue on the linear path to success and greatness. As long as I tried hard, I’d get to where I’d want to end up. That philosophy seemed to work for undergrad. However, that’s one big difference between undergrad and grad school that I’ve learned this past year: in undergrad, you know exactly what to do to succeed: study hard and do well in class; in grad school, you have no idea what you’re doing. And for me, a person who likes to know what’s expected of her, this has been one of the most difficult things to deal with. Everyday I question whether I’m doing enough or what I’m doing is right. This doubt then leads me to wonder why I chose such a path. Why am I putting myself through this, to become a better person or just to torture myself?

I do similar things when I choose baking projects. In high school, for my French class, we could get extra credit for baking a French dessert for Christmas: either buche de noel or croquembouche. I’d say up late into the night trying to perfect those desserts, only to roll up a cracked genoise or burn my sugar coating. The one thing that I’ll always remember thinking from those experiences: “Man, French desserts are hard.”

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Having learned my lesson from those near all-nighters just baking, I’ve tried to choose rather simple, straight-forward recipes to try. I often bake quick breads because of their simplicity. However, my ambition has gotten the better of me several times. One time in particular, I stayed up till 2am making empanadas. But I should mention that I did start at 11pm. The recipe wasn’t that difficult; it was just time consuming. I’m sure if more than one person was doing it, the process would have gone much faster.

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But in the end, it was all worth it. Once I had finished baking, I took the piping hot empanadas to my friend’s house for brunch and they were a hit! The crusts of the empanadas were flaky, buttery, and golden. The spicy sweet potato and black bean filling had a depth of flavor. Everyone praised the empanadas, and even my friend’s boyfriend, who is quite the foodie chef, complimented my beautiful crust. Right then, I realized that all of that work was worth it. All of my efforts and hard work that night had made people happy and that reward was so satisfying to me.

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And perhaps that’s why I’m putting myself through all of this work in grad school – to gain the skills and knowledge so that I can help the world and make a difference. The ability to create new knowledge and spread it throughout the scientific community actually excites and motivates me. And the satisfaction I’ll obtain in the end will make all of that hard work and suffering worth it.

Bitten by the Baking Bug

Recently I’ve been “baking up a storm” as one of my housemate says when she sees me in the kitchen, once again baking. For some reason, lately I have the urge to bake almost everyday. It’s a good way to relax and take your mind off things, not to mention it’s also an awesome way to procrastinate doing homework.

I have my classmates to thank for motivating me to cook and bake more. Being in a class of people who all love to cook and bake as well as throw dinner parties and potlucks has given me countless opportunities to cook and bake. Being in Berkeley, with its amazing grocery stores (Berkeley Bowl), has also made me enjoy cooking more.

I’ve always been a follower of several food blogs and know the blogosphere quite well. Some of my favorites are “use real butter” and “smitten kitchen.” But I’ve never really had the urge to blog and document my own cooking and baking accomplishments until now. So, here are some of the things I’ve whipped up and baked in my kitchen for the past four months. Hope you enjoy!