Saturday, August 31, 2013

We are heading North

I'm back at school, and it feels so good.  It's definitely bizarre to be the oldest students on campus, mainly because some good friends graduated this past spring.  Many of my classmates are also back after a semester abroad, and it's our turn though to be the heroes at St. Lawrence.  
A few of my roommates and I arrived early to start work, and there was a volunteer student leader orientation. As a sophomore, I helped established an after-school mentoring program at the local middle school called Club SLU.  So I joined student leaders from other community service clubs on campus to prepare for the coming year and how to increase participation and make our programs as effective as possible.  We also helped first year students move-in, which was a brief reminder of my experience as an orientation leader last fall (exhausting).  Our orientation also included a glorious afternoon at Lampson Falls.

I'm living with five of some of my closest friends in the senior townhouse quad.  There were only 24 houses for over 40 application groups!
Living room views; it's still in revision, but we have a southwestern and travelling vibe going on.

 And of course, it's fantastic to host dinner parties once again.  Here we have sauteed squash and eggplant, steamed green beans, roasted black beans, brown rice and corn tortillas.  We've also had curry, pasta sautees, mashed sweet potatoes, and so on.  I'm looking forward to progressive dinner parties with neighboring townhouses.

 Syllabus week for classes means afternoons are free to play tennis.. and ultimate frisbee!
  Another perk of being a senior is having a half meal plan and enrolling in a CSA, or community supported agriculture.  Every week my housemates will receive two shares of vegetables and eggs from Little Grasse Farmworks, just a mile from school.  Aside from a payment, we also exchange farm labor; either the second Saturday of every month working on a big project, or swinging by whenever they need a hand.  I'm eager to connect with our local producers and understand the food system in a hands-on way.  And eat amazing food.
 Bob and Flip from Little Grasse are also growing hops in their barn!  Too bad my friend who brews has gone to France for the semester..

That's a small look at the beginning of a promising year.  I've missed life at St. Lawrence, and although I'm yearning to do something more with my life, like sample of "adult" life that China granted, but my time will come.

Listening: club remixes as my housemates and I prepare to throw our first dance party of the weekend!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Finger Lakes Rendez-vous

These last three weeks at home have been a rushed blur of family, friends, food, work, cleaning, recovering, and gearing up.  Long gone are the days when I could call several friends for pool parties and bonfires late into the night, but I still managed many dates with my people-- usually under the premise of food.  It's almost better this way because I can have a real in-depth conversation with friends, each who manages to elicit different aspects of my China experience to share.

 >> Coffee in town with Caitlan and Kristen on the regular.
>> And some wine and dine at the golf course where Caitlan's boyfriend works (love the perks of free dessert~!).
 >> Into the suburbs of Rochester at Jenny's house, one of my good friends from school.  She's a grilling master, and that night we prepared dinner for the family with food from her dad's garden.

>> Kayaking the serene Canadice Lake with my dad, only 15 minutes over the west hills.


>> Breakfast date with Brad, who's always working at his summer camp, and Trevor, who I haven't spent time with in ages!  Twenty minutes south of Honeoye is Naples, which sits in the valleys at the end of Canandaigua Lake and is a gateway into Finger Lakes wine country.  The downtown village is a pleasant two-mile street of small grocers, artisans, and eateries.  The Grainery is a particular favorite for locals because it's open by 6:30 or 7 AM every day and serves organic and locally-sourced breakfast fare until early afternoon.  The bagels are homemade and available for purchase as breakfast sandwiches or as they are to bring home.  They also serve fajitas, paninis, homefries, sweet baked goods, and a variety of coffee drinks.  On a warm morning I love sitting street-side, but the interior is also enjoyable with polished wood booths reminiscent of Adirondack lodges and charming, outdoorsy decorations.

The Grainery on Urbanspoon


>> My mom is part Simply Crepes' brirthday club, so we have made it annual rite to eat there in Canandaigua every August.  The other location in the Rochester Area is in Pittsford, but this one is much closer to us and has a more relaxed atmosphere.  Nonetheless, when you walk in, the kitchen is in full view as white-uniformed chefs deftly spread batter across the traditional, edge-less iron skillets with wooden rakes.  The interior is wooden with pastel accents on the walls, making it feel like a welcoming French cottage.  I've only dined here for lunch and dinner, but on Sundays they feature a brunch buffet with eggs, fruit, sausage, and breakfast crepes.
After devouring so many crepes on the streets of France (usually before our 2-hour marathon that was History of Art at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen), I've taken initiative and attempt to create them at home.  Yet sometimes, you just want someone else with more resources and creativity to dazzle you with a thin, malleable pancake, and that's where Québecois owner, Pierre Heroux, has filled the need.  In fact, when I was in middle school, he and his mother came to my French class for a demonstration!  In Québec, their specialty is maple syrup crepes, whereas in France they tend to favor Nutella.  It's all heaven to me.
At the Canandaigua location of Simply Crepes, during rushes you have the sense that they are understaffed but working very hard to deliver an exceptional experience for every table.  I'm usually not phased because there are so many varieties of crepes -- appetizers such as fried crepe chips with powdered sugar; breakfast crepes with eggs and sausage; minimalist crepes with asparagus, ham, and hollandaise; vegetarian crepes with arugula,tomatoes, and goast cheese; Philly steak crepes; Thai-inspired crepes; Buffalo chicken crepes; Nutella crepes; ones filled with fruit and ice cream, and more.  I pretty much pick something different each visit, and I was very pleased that they added buckwheat crepes as an option., It's acutally closer to the authentic French galette from Brittany for savory fillings.  Otherwise I believe they use the same batter for entree and dessert crepes, which is a white flour and egg-based, with a soft texture and mild flavor.  Unfortunately, they were out of buckwheat when we arrived so I haven't tasted their take on the heartier version.
It does seem far-fetched that you could be full from a flimsy French pancake, but order correctly and you will be groaning with fullness after an entree and dessert -- even if you order the smaller portion to share!  If you're in Rochester and are inerested in eating something different but not entirely off the map, Simply Crepes is worth the visit.  Just don't buy one of their over-priced coffees and smoothies.  In the last few years, they've also opened a location in Raleigh, North Carolina!  If you have some Franco-gastronomic urges in the South, I suggest you stop by.

Simply Crepes on Urbanspoon


>> Lunch date at Aladdin's Natural Eatery with Jen, another great friend from high school who actually now attends college about 15 minutes up the road!  Despite the closeness, I preferred having our heart to heart because if she ever visits at school, there's too many distractions for long conversations.  This was my first meal at this Mediterranean restaurant, which also warrants a review :)

 >> A visit to my miniature horse, Tina.  My family had a miniature horse farm for years, but as we downsized, Tina was one of our last.  Once I left for college, we realized it would be best to give her to a friend that would provide the just amount of attention and care.  It pains me a bit, because as pets, they have no choice in their ownership and where they head next; but I know we made the right decision.  Tina now lives next the corn fields of old friends, and their granddaughters just love her.

>> A stroll along Canandaigua Lake with Kristen and Tucker, finishing with gelato from one of my favorites, the Muar House Cafe.  Tucker is an untethered spirit and usually on the move, which I admire; but he always manages to find time for old friends.

Canandaigua Lake, above -- Keuka Lake, below, which is the next Finger Lake to the southeast.

>> And lastly, a visit with Phil to Eric's cottage on Keuka Lake.  It's arguably the best of the Finger Lakes as a fresh water paradise; boat traffic never too heavy, unpretentious residences, deep, clear water, and bordered by charming towns.  I've lived with these two guys in the Habtiat for Humanity theme house, so we had a lot to laugh about, reminisce, and plan for this fall.

The cottage has been in Eric's family for a while, and it's filled with momentos and vintage knick knacks and lake decorations.  On the fishing boat, for example, they use an old record player that's been converted into a trolling reel with steel line-- but no snags for us!  We had a bonfire with friends around the lake, dined on grilled corn and his mom's peach crisp, went fishing at dusk and early morning, took turns sailing the white caps (and almost capsized!), tried water-skiing for the first time (I wasn't able to stand up, my balance is pretty poor), and tossed a lot of frisbees with his beautiful dog, Max.  

What a glorious end to a brief summer in New York.  
My parents are taking me to St. Lawrence for the last time today, which is bizarre and depressing.  Though after being away since January, I am reeling with excitement!  Of course I will miss home and I'm always thinking of China, but this is the next step in my journey.  I'll finally be on campus the entire year for the first time since freshman year, and I'm predicting that it will be the best one yet.

Listening: "Silly Fathers" by Rubblebucket

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Explosions, frisbees and frames

Watching Explosions in the Sky was a concert dream come true.  I check my favorite bands' websites every season to see if they're touring through the area, and after over a decade of existence, Explosions finally came to the northeast!  So when I knew about my early return to the U.S., I purchased my ticket for the Westcott Theater in Syracuse.  I also convinced my neighbors, two brothers down the road, to join.  Catching up with them made the hour and a half car ride fly by.
The venue is a restored theater that fits a few hundred people at most.  Aside from the stifling body heat of a sold-out show, it was an ideal space to experience the atmospheric, post-rock music.  It seemed so right to finally feel this music come alive before you, proving that lyrics aren't necessary for an incredible concert.  The band members just seemed to lose themselves in every rift and build-up, swaying and falling to their knees.  I was blown away, and at $20 a ticket, I would follow Explosions in the Sky anywhere to watch them play again.
Each concert I've attended at the Westcott has concluded with a stop at Alto Cinco, right next door to the venue.  I imagine their restaurant menu is as extensive as their take-out boards that feature bursting burritos, quesadillas, pizza, enchiladas, tacos, tostados, fish and other bar fare.  I love that they have vegetarian and vegan options, which are no less substantial than the meat counterparts.  Also nearby are pizzerias and a Greek restaurant, all open late for the usual college and concert crowds.


Saturday the 10th was spent under the sunny, clear skies of Rochester at Ellicott Park playing ultimate frisbee.  I registered for the TJ Weber Memorial Hat Tournament through the regional ultimate league, giving me the opportunity to play with students and adults for the day, while fund raising for disease research.  There were some amateur professional players, but everyone still had that friendly, crazy spirit that guides ultimate.  My handling skills (passing the frisbee) aren't that secured and controlled, but I made a fair contributions with cuts, even scoring a few points!
I attempted to upload a video of my team, Faraflies, on the field as another team's stereo rocks in the background.  We were all given these enormous, glittering blue butterfly tattoos to denote our team and it left an awesome tan line on my upper arm.  After playing from 9 AM to 3 PM without much break in between, we had a bye, watched the finals (which we obviously weren't in), then wolfed down the picnic.
It was certainly one of the best meal offerings I've had at a tournament: garden salad, potato salad, grilled portabellos, grilled chicken and brisket.  If I happen to end up around Rochester in the future, I certainly plan on joining the league.
Oh, and look what I found from Beijing ultimate summer league!  We had a group of sports photographers sponsoring the league, and someone captured me going for the disk during a drill.  And yes, I pretty much wear the same uniform (the reversible Ruckus pinnie and Five ultimate shorts) whenever I play.


I also had the opportunity to purchase not one, but two new pairs of glasses!  
We switched our eye care provider to one that doesn't have as many designer frames, but is much more affordable.  I haven't had new glasses in about six years, so this was a well-welcomed change.  I was also pleased that my prescription has hardly changed.
And our cat, Samantha, stealing the scene.  She's been pining for much more attention her mother passed away this winter.

Listening: the NPR Tiny Desk concert of 17-piece(!) chamber orchestra, Motherfalcon.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Cooking Chronicles: Brown-Butter Fruit Cake

Summertime brings gorgeous fruit.  
I have difficulty justifying baking or cooking with fruit because now is the best time to eat it, raw and whole.  However, last summer I found this recipe on the blog Eat, Live, Run for a brown butter plum upside down cake-- and it has since changed my perception of baked fruit desserts.  The brown butter makes all the difference here because it adds a nutty, rich taste to the more sour fruit.

Two mixing bowls / non-stick saute pan / cake mixer or electric beater / spatula / 9" round cake pan / oven @350 deg. F / a fancy apron (optional)

2 pounds of firm plums, or peaches!  This would be 5-7, depending on how you slice and how many layers of fruit you want.  As you can see, I used both and the effect was gorgeous and added varying tastes to the cake.  

1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup of milk
3/4 cup of granulated white sugar
1 stick of unsalted butter, at room temperature
    *(room temperature ingredients make for better cakes!)
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) of unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup of packed brown sugar
1. Cut peaches and plums into 1/4" slices.
2. Melt a 1/2 stick (4 tbsp) of butter into saute pan on low heat (very important, otherwise the butter will burn), stirring occasionally.  First it will separate and clarify, then foam, then gradually turn brown -- the darker the brown, the nuttier and more rich the taste.  This should take 5-10 minutes.
3.  Once the butter is browned, stir in the 3/4 cup of brown sugar and cook for another 3 minutes.
4. Pour into a round cake pan, then arrange the fruit slices in a layered, circular pattern.
5. In one bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.
6. In another bowl, cream the remaining stick of butter and 3/4 cup of white sugar.
7.  Add eggs one by one, then vanilla.
8.   Fold  in dry ingredients, alternating with the milk, beating until fluffy.
9. Spread batter onto the fruit, then baking for 40-45 minutes until the cake is golden brown.
10.  Let the cake cool for a few minutes.  Run a knife around the edge of the cake, and if you want, flip it onto a serving platter and enjoy!  It's incredible with vanilla ice cream and a semi-dry white wine (heh).

There is nothing like homemade cake with seasonal fruit.  I've followed this recipe exactly, but I think next time I'm going to try to substitute oils and apple sauce, reduce and sugar a bit and hopefully make a cake that's less heart-stopping yet equally delicious.  If anyone happens to try themselves, please let me know how it goes.  Man, have I missed baking!

Listening: "Jump in the Line" by Henry Belafonte

Monday, August 12, 2013

Anniversary at Ember's

 My parents celebrated their 46th anniversary a few weekends ago.

I would basically need to marry someone within the next year if I'm interested in passing the same anniversary mark by their age..!  But marriage is complicated and not worth rushing, so nope, not happening.  Alas, I'm thriving in my independence.  It was a great chance to round up my siblings though for a family dinner out.  It was the first time I saw a lot of them since Christmas, and I'm always astounded at how much my nieces and nephews have grown (physically and mentally.. kind of).

We had 4:30 reservations at Ember Wood Fire Grill in Livonia.
I ate here once before a few years ago, and I was really pleased to see that their quality has not diminished in the least.

The elegant interior has brick walls and polished wood furniture, but the ambiance is relaxed and the restaurant fills quickly after the doors open at 4:30.  Our server worked with our party of 14 with grace and humor as everyone tried to navigate their tapas concept of ordering dishes to share with others.  
*Gasp!  Eat off the same plate as another?  After coming from China, this just seems standard, but I know people here are more conscious of germs and prefer to devour their own food.  So in that sense, I think the ideal group size is 4 to 6 people that are enthusiastic about democratic eating. 

The menu shifts seasonally and Ember tries to source their ingredients locally, so visiting any time of year is bound to be a treat.  I really appreciated their Asian-inspired dishes, like the baby octopus salad that was charred and a bit spicy, over a bed of soba noodles, shredded carrots, scallions and lime.  My mom ordered the sweet potato wontons, which were crunchy and sweetly glazed.  I wasn't surprised that they would also order a dozen chicken wings and french fries, but being New American cuisine, they were done deliciously and even looked a bit classier than you'd order in a bar.  Also pictured is the macaroni and cheese, the large portion which is made to serve at least four people, but my nephew Josh tried to conquer himself (fail).  My brother Chris ordered woodfire pizza special that had steak, pesto, artichokes, roasted red peppers and dotted with feta cheese.  The flat bread crust was crisp, though the pizza as a whole was a bit dry.  Other dishes ordered included an iceberg lettuce salad with blue cheese and bacon; roasted chicken; bruschetta; more macaroni and cheese.  The table was too large for me to steal bites of everyone's food!
The prices at Ember are really fair considering the inventive sharing menu; tapas dishes range from $6 to $15, while the New American dishes are around $17 and up.  It was nice catching up with my family, and I really look forward to returning to Ember again.

Ember Wood Fire Grill on Urbanspoon

Ember Woodfire Grill on Foodio54

Listening: "Octopus's Garden" by The Beatles