Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pumpkin Patch at the La Verne Heritage Park

Those of you in SoCal still have time to get to this little gem of a pumpkin patch in La Verne. Today is the last day they're open. If you can't make it, there's always next year.

I was tipped off to this event by my friend, so when she took her kids to go, I took mine along. This pumpkin patch is sponsered by the La Verne Heritage Foundation and is located at Heritage Park in the city of La Verne east of Los Angeles. At the park sits the historical Weber House and its citrus groves. For a few weeks in October, the pumpkin patch is open to kids and adults alike. It's much less crowded than that of Cal Poly Pomona's, and more fun, and entrance is free!

Want a pot belly pig? They're on sale here for $150 and are suppose to make very good pets. Can we say George Clooney?

The kids had the best time feeding these friendly goats. There is hay nearby to feed the goats with, but we found out the goats loved the citrus leaves more. They (the goats) were very tolerant of the wild (human) kids.

C and J were afraid at first, but they did end up holding these adorable baby chicks.

For two bucks a person, you can ride on this tractor that takes you on a five minute trip around the grove.

Of course we had to buy a pumpkin to support the foundation. They have them in all shapes and sizes. There are also photo ops with giant pumpkins, cut-outs, scarecrows, and opportunities to pet bunnies and hold larger chicks. At the park itself is a cute playground for the children.

If you check their website, the La Verne Heritage Foundation also has other events here throughout the year. Have a great Halloween, everyone, and keep safe.

The Pumpkin Patch at Heritage Park is located at 5001 Via de Mansion, La Verne CA, 909-593-2862

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thai Fish Cakes (Tod Mun Pla) with Cucumber Sauce

Having three kids mean lots of parties. Lots and lots of parties. At almost every one of these parties where my in-laws were present, my mother-in-law would bring her Thai Fish Cakes with her as one of the dishes. Hubby's mother is herself Chinese, but her husband is Thai-Chinese.

As hubby's family doesn't share much info and hubby himself doesn't know much about his family's history, I got the scoop from hubby's cousin, who I chat with because we have kids of the same age. It turns out that hubby's father used to own two of the very first Thai restaurants in the LA downtown area. Cousin-in-law used to work there waitressing tables. After awhile, the family sold their businesses, and eventually the restaurants closed down under new owners . In the course of chatting about the restaurants, hubby's cousin also shared with me their recipe for Tod Mun Pla.

Recipe for Tod Mun Pla:
1 lb white fish paste
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
3 kaffir lime leaves (6 kaffir lime leave halves), chopped finely
1/3 cup of Chinese Long Beans, chopped
1.5-2 tablespoons red curry paste

If you can't find fish paste in your locale, you can process a pound of white fish such as cod or tilapia with a teaspoon of cornstarch, 1 tablespoon sugar, a teaspoon of salt, and an egg. Usually I purchase my fish paste in tubs from the store, and these already has egg whites, salt and sugar pre-added.

The red curry paste can be found in Asian supermarkets. If you can't find it, you can substitute a mix of red curry powder and chili powder, but it won't be as fresh.

First chop up the kaffir lime leaves and the long beans. The lime leaves are tough to cut. I stack them on top of each other and cut lengthwise first, then gather them and chop crosswise.

Add all the ingredients to the fish paste. Mix well, and then form flat 1/4 inch thick patties about 1.5 inches in diameter using a spoon to aid you.

Meanwhile, start a pan with about an inch of vegetable oil on the bottom on medium high.

Once the oil is hot, drop in some of the patties, well-spaced, and fry for about 2 minutes per side. Once golden brown, remove the patties and let drain on paper towels.

I like to make all my patties beforehand and then scoop each patty with a spatula into the pan one at a time once I start the frying. But you can also shape each patty as you drop them into the pan. Just do it quickly before the oil stiffens them up.

Since I didn't ask hubby's cousin about the cucumber sauce, this is my own creation, but I've got it pretty much down pat since I've eaten it for so many years at so many parties and family dinners. The only thing I added was the shallot because I like the taste of it in my sauce.

Recipe for the Cucumber Sauce:
1 cup hot water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 red chilis, sliced
1 cup cucumber (i use pickling cucumbers), quartered and then sliced
1 shallot, sliced (optional)
1 teaspoon chili garlic paste

Dissolve the sugar in the water. Add in the rest of the incredients and then chill. The longer this sits, the more time for the flavors to come out into the sauce, and the better it tastes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kaffir Lime Leaves

As the years passed and I found myself cooking more and more Thai food (my kids and hubby are part Thai), I've discovered that I could not live without kaffir lime leaves. Good thing mother-in-law has a huge tree in her front yard, so I never have to buy them, as they're not exactly cheap.

My mother-in-law gave us a tree when we bought our first home, but once I pruned it, it started producing leaves that were definitely not of the kaffir lime. It must have been a graft and the tree must have reverted back to producing regular citrus leaves or something. Anyways last year, I gave my mom a tree for her birthday gift to plant in her yard. The tree is coming along nicely.

Kaffir lime leaves are essential in Thai cooking, but it's also widely used in other Asian cuisines. My mom uses them in her canh chua.

The lime itself has this funny bumpy texture, and the leaves are also interesting. They look like two hearts stuck together, and they have a wonderful aromatic, citrusy scent to them. Interestingly, according to wikipedia, the term kaffir is offensive in some cultures, but I usually refer to these in their Vietnamese name, la chanh thai (Thai lime leaves) in our family anyways.

This post is a teaser. Tomorrow I will post my family's Thai fish cake recipe, using kaffir lime leaves, of course.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Coconut Bay Bar and Grill in Rowland Heights

J had a birthday recently, and to celebrate, I was gonna drag my family to Happy Harbor in Rowland Heights. When we got there, we noticed there was a wedding party there, and hubby was told that the whole place was booked for the wedding. So we improvised and headed across the street to Coconut Bay Bar and Grill.

It took a while for our whole party of 13.5 to arrive but the waiter was quite patient with us. I'll get back to that .5 in a bit. The waiter took our order electronically, and as the food took a while to arrive, we had time to check out the football games projected on the walls or broadcast on the screens hanging everywhere in the restaurant and enjoy yelling at each other across the table to get our conversation across.

We ordered quite a few dishes, most of which birthday boy himself couldn't possibly eat. Not until I desensitize his little tongue to spice. My favorite of the night was the Homok Talay. This is a hodge podge of seafood (shrimp, crab legs, mussels, clams, fish, and mussels) mixed with chili and coconut milk. Not pretty to look at, but it had a nice kick and was very tasty.

The Three Flavors Sand Bass was fried nicely and was quite crisp on the outside. The sauces made it sweet and tasty, but the meat was a little dry.

The Tom Yum Koong was my cousin's favorite. It was very spicy, which I like, but it was also on the salty side (not a downside for me at all). Believe it or not, the first time I came here with friends, it was even saltier and spicier, so much so that in our party of four, I had to eat the whole pot by myself because no one else could take the spice. Some people might be turned off by the saltiness. One pot was not enough for our party, so we ordered a second pot, and cousin noted that this one had more soup and less food than the previous pot did.

The beef Nam Tok was ok for me. This is a dish of beef covered with roasted rice powder and mixed with herbs, onion, and lime juice. Could have had more flavor.

Hubby ordered the Paradise Duck. This was roasted duck mixed in a red curry/coconut sauce. It was good and had a lot of flavor, but I really don't like duck too much because of the tougher texture. Also, I was turned off by the measly serving of this dish.

The Lemon Fertile Calamari is seasoned with lime and is served over mung bean noodles. The calamari, although fresh, definitely needed more lime or spice or something because it was basically tasteless, and the noodles were sparse. The presentation was great though- it was served in a fish shaped metal dish over a flame.

Update on 11/2/08 See comments below regarding the Lemon Fertile Calamari. My cousin failed to tell me that there was a sauce that went with this, so to be fair, I will have to re-review this dish in the future.

I didn't get to taste the Chow Mein, and neither did hubby, but the kids liked it. This was eaten before I got to take a photo of it.

The kids also liked the Chicken Macaroni, which I absolutely did not like. This was a sweet dish of penne pasta (not macaroni) mixed with tomatoes, shrimp, and chicken.

The BBQ Chicken Fried Rice was good. The rice was average, but the chicken was nicely done inside and out.

The Lagoon Noodles is a rice noodle dish with shrimp, crab claws, and shitake mushrooms, but I didn't get to taste it. Hubby said it was good, but I take his judgement with a grain of salt because he really has a different sense of taste than I do. Afterall, he liked the Chicken Macaroni.

The Clam Chili Paste was my other favorite. It was spicy, tasty and fragrant with basil.

A lot of young groups frequent this restaurant, but so do a lot of families. There is a sign posted for free karaoke on Friday nights, and a happy hour for cheap drinks. Also advertised is a pool table room, which I didn't see. For me, I'm just happy getting the free refills on the Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee.

Some rumors have been flying around about the relationship between Coconut Bay and Banana Bay, another Thai restaurant further west. All that is important to me is that the food at Coconut Bay is better than that of the other one. Now back to the .5 bit. This would be my 5 month old, R. As my family was getting up to leave, the patient young man who had taken our orders and had served us many times over came over to say bye. At that moment, R used his amazing cheek magnets to lure him over, and it worked because the waiter started asking about him and commenting on how cute and big he was and of course had to pinch them cheeks. I got into a brief conversation with him and found out that he was the brother of the owner here, and I asked him about Banana Bay. All he said was that they used to own Banana Bay but not anymore, and I didn't dare to delve any further.

I'm glad we came back to Coconut Bay because my first visit here gave me a bad impression. I cannot remember what we ordered at that visit besides the Tom Yum Koong, but whatever they were were not the right dishes to order, and I guess being a measly party of four placed us in a booth and at the mercy of the younger waitstaff that was not as adept as that of the night we went with the larger party. I also know there are authentic Thai behind the scenes here because when hubby, who himself is part Thai, called on the phone to order for catering last week (which we ended cancelling), he could hear the conversation on the other end of the phone was in Thai. I do recommend Coconut Bay because of the above average and authentic Thai food. It's great for large groups and late night eaters, but be prepared for loud, long waits for food to arrive, some dishes being pricey and smaller in portion, and iffy service if you're a smaller party during busy hours. I think for me, heading to Krua Thai in West Covina is a better deal as their food tastes better to me, and their portions are larger with prices being cheaper. But it is further for us to drive there.

Coconut Bay Bar and Grill is located at 18922 Gale Ave., Rowland Heights, CA (626) 913-9933

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Canh Chua Ca: Vietnamese Sour Soup with Fish

As some of you are quite aware now, my mom has taught me everything I know about Vietnamese cooking. I started documenting our family recipes when I moved into my own apartment for college about 10 years ago, but I've only started seriously taking pictures of everything for this blog because time is short and well.. you know we don't live forever. Now I'm really enjoying bonding time while doing this with Ma, but I have to let you know that my mom is really getting a kick out of me blogging her food too.

For example, I was busy attending to R's diaper needs when Ma says (in Vietnamese of course), "Did you take a picture of the fish?" So I hurry and finish and run over to snap a picture (after washing my hands of course). Then when the finished bowl of canh chua was ready for a photo, she all of a sudden removes the ladle from the bowl and says, "Why you put this here? Take it out." In Vietnamese, I tell her i WANT it in there, so she puts it back. Then she moves the small rice bowls out from the background. I say, "Hey!" And she says, "Oh you want it there too? Why you have two or three different bowl types, at least use matching bowls." Aiya. I ended up not using that photo anyways because frankly the lighting in her house sucks (hinting for a Lowel EGO light unit for Christmas), so the final photo above is from the day after with take-out from Ma's house. Just for fun, below is the photo Ma was fussing about:

In Vietnamese, canh translates to soup, chua means sour, and ca means fish, so canh chua ca means sour soup with fish. Which fish to use? Tried and true in our family are red snapper (ca hong) and catfish (ca bong lau), catfish being the better choice of the two.

6-8 pounds of red snapper or catfish cut into about 1 to 1.5 inch steaks
8 quarts water
1 tablespoon rock sugar
half a pineapple, sliced into 1 inch wedges
1/3 pounds okra
3/4 pounds bac ha, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices diagonally crosswise
6-8 tomatoes, cut into eighths
1 pound bean sprouts
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup kaffir lime leaves
1/4 pounds ngo om, chopped
6 tablespoons fish sauce
7-8 tablespoons sugar
2 ounces tamarind soup base powder
oil for frying

First thing to do is fry the garlic lightly in oil and then add in the fish. Continue to fry the fish with the garlic until the fish loses its translucency, about five minutes. Remove the fish and set aside, and also collect the fried garlic and set aside because we'll be adding it to the soup later.

Get the pot of water boiling and add to it the rock sugar. This makes a lot of soup because we cook in bulk in our family, so feel free to adjust the amount unless you want to eat canh chua for a week. In the meantime, prepare all the veggies (bean sprouts, bac ha, okra, tomato).

This is what bac ha look like at the supermarket:

Usually found at Asian supermarkets, these are the stems of a plant related to the taro family. I looked up the English term for the plant and found that it's referred to as giant upright elephant ears (alocasia odora). To prepare these, you peel the outer skin until the spongy part remains. Just peel the edge a bit with your knife and use your hands to peel the rest off.

Slice up the pineapple and wash the okra:

Here's some of the ingredients that go into flavoring the soup. Tamarind soup base is a powder that adds sourness to the soup. You'll be using one and half bags of this powder. The leaves in the upperleft corner are the kaffir lime leaves which add its aroma to the soup. And at the bottom is the ngo om (rice paddy herb), which with its citrusy fragrance is essential in bringing out the flavor of the soup.

Chop up the ngo om:

Once the water is boiling, add to it the pineapple and fish. Bring to a boil again. Add the tomatoes, okra, bac ha, and bean sprouts. Bring again to a boil and then add in the tamarind, kaffir lime leaves, and ngo om.

Season with the fish sauce and sugar, and add in the fried garlic. Simmer for 20 minutes. Serve with rice and perhaps some meat dish.

So, are you making soups now that cooler weather is creeping back into our lives?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Green Mango with Sweet and Spicy Fish Sauce

Last month, a coworker of my mom's gave her this huge green mango (the size of a cantaloupe) to enjoy the way we Vietnamese often enjoy green mangoes. I'm not exaggerating the size either, and as evidence, that whole plate of mango below came from one mango.

There is a lot of confusion regarding what makes a green mango. Yes you can get the more common mango and eat them in their unripened stage, but they can be very, very sour, The mango we got is special because of its characteristics in its unripened stage, although I'm unsure of what exact species my mom got (as many varieties of special green mangoes exist). Even while unripened, specialized green mangoes are tart enough to be tart but not so sour that it makes your mouth pucker, and it has that wonderful crunchiness. As a note, if you leave the specialized green mango long enough, they do ripen to be sweeter, but usually not as sweet as the more common mangoes you'd find in a supermarket, and not as soft either. As least I've never left a green mango to ripen so much that it gets that soft or sweet- they're always eaten by then.

So getting back to how Vietnamese eat their green mangoes. We often dip it in a quick and easy sauce consisting of fish sauce, sugar, and hot chili peppers. The spicier for me, the better, but you can adjust it to your liking.

Recipe for the sauce:
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
2-3 thai chili peppers (or however many you'd like)

Mix this all together to create a thick syrup, and if you'd like it sweeter, add some more sugar.
I've actually tried regular sweet mangoes with this sauce out of desperation for a spice kick, and although not as good with green mango, it's still yummy.

I know there are lots of ways to eat mangoes as a snack, from sprinkling them with chili or drying the sweet version. How do you eat your mangoes, and do you prefer them sweet or tart?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Beech Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce and Fruit Vinegar

While shopping at the San Gabriel Superstore, my mom told me she came across these ladies who were demonstrating how to cook these brown and white beech mushrooms. She tried a few and liked it, so she bought three packages home and showed me how those ladies prepared them.

I don't remember the exact numbers, but my mom told me that the prices on these were not cheap. But I was shopping at Arirang Supermarket in Garden Grove for Korean BBQ beef recently and saw that there were also demo ladies there selling beech mushrooms for $1.79 for a package of 100 grams (3.5 oz).. Much cheaper. I bought two packages there myself because C and J look at mushrooms the same way they look at candy. I would have bought extra for my mom but I didn't think they'd keep long, but I later found out that they will keep up to 30 days. Nice!

At first sight, I thought these looked like larger versions of enoki mushrooms, but after looking them up, I found that they are very different from enoki mushrooms. Brown beech mushroom (Buna shimeji) grow on beech trees in the wild, hence their name. These are prized and are popular in Japan. I thought they are quite pretty and are very clean looking. Here are the three ingredients that go into the sauce: fruit vinegar, oyster sauce, and black sesame oil.

Demo ladies told my mom that one can either boil the mushrooms in water for a minute, or steam them for 5 minutes. I always prefer to steam when I can because I don't like losing the nutrients in the water if I'm not going to drink it.

So here's how my mom prepared the mushrooms:

1. Wash and clean 3 packages (about 11 ounces total) of beech mushrooms.
2. Steam them for 5 minutes.
3. Remove the mushrooms and to them add:
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon black sesame oil
1 tablespoon fruit vinegar
4. Sprinkle some sesame seeds on top and serve either hot or cold.

When I ate the mushroom in the sauce, it was sweet and delicious with just that barely noticeable bitter taste. But that bitterness is the antioxidants at work! I actually preferred the cold leftovers the next day. When I prepared this myself the following week, I just used regular sesame oil and cider vinegar and the taste was pretty much the same.

If anyone has tried beech mushrooms in a different recipe and liked it, let me know because I do love these.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Boston Kitchen

A year or two back when the KFC in the Hong Kong Plaza in Rowland Heights was chased out by what is now Boston Kitchen, I wondered to myself why someone would want to open an American restaurant in a setting surrounded by restaurants serving the likes of stinky tofu and fish ball soup. But it turns out that the only thing Bostonian about Boston Kitchen was its name.

Our family went to eat here on a Friday night, and it was packed. Granted, the restaurant is very small, and it felt small. We were fortunate to arrive just as a booth opened up. As with any Chinese restaurant, the atmosphere here was loud, boistered by the 4 or 5 flat screen TVs hanging from the walls. As soon as we sat down, two friends from church came over to say hi, and we asked them what was good here. They told us pretty much everything was good.

We only ordered two dishes because it was two of us and the kids, and the kids eat like birds. We went simple, starting with the Seafood Chow Mein. This was very flavorful but a bit oily, and when I bit into the shrimp and squid, there was a slightly off taste, kinda like not-so-fresh seafood.

We also ordered the Seafood Rice Porridge, which was very good too, until I bit into the shrimp. Despite the weird taste of the seafood and the mixed reviews, I still think the food here is better than the Garden Cafe in the same plaza.

Hubby also ordered a strawberry slush. Not my kind of stuff, but the kids liked it. Didn't taste natural to me at all.

After eating, we were in a hurry to get to Mervyn's before closing time, but the waiter asked us if we were leaving already. Turns out dessert was coming. This was a bowl of tapioca, taro, and black eyed peas pudding, the yummiest part of the meal and a nice touch.

I would recommend Boston Kitchen for fairly cheap and decent Cantonese food. They are open very late and take credit cards. They also have a second branch in Hacienda Heights.

Boston Kitchen is located at 1700 Batson Ave., Rowland Heights, CA (626) 810-2300

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Persimmon and Marinated Salmon Salad

My parents have freaky persimmons. Perfect for Halloween. The first year their persimmon tree produced fruit, the persimmons were the size of cantelopes. I'm not joking. Thinking back I should have entered them into some strange persimmon contest, but I was too young back then to think entrepreneurially. Now the persimmons that the tree produces are smaller, but they are still strange looking and often have these spokes coming off of the main body. Like these....

...and these...

Well, since my parents unloaded some of these freaky persimmons on me, I had to come up various ways to use them up. Now, I also love the Morey marinated, grilled wild Alaskan salmon from Costco and had some on hand, so I had to try persimmon and salmon salad.

I baked half a pound of salmon 400 degrees 20 minutes skin side down. That was enough for 6 servings of salad. You can use any salad and I prefer lots of spinach, but hubby had purchased whatever was on sale, and whatever was on sale was a romaine lettuce/iceberg lettuce/cabbage mix. I'm almost certain that this would taste better with a spinach salad mix.

Dice the persimmons. One to two medium sized persimmons is enough. And you don't need to use freaky persimmons either.

Assemble your salad and serve with ranch or blue cheese dressing. Using a larger portion of the salmon would be great too if you'd like the salad to be a meal in itself.

Has anyone come across persimmons like these?

Porto's Potato Balls

I have never heard of Porto's before. Yes, that's a shame for someone living in Southern California, but I really don't like bakeries besides my Asian ones because I find cakes at other bakeries are just way too sweet for me.

When my father-in-law celebrated his birthday a few weeks ago, sister-in-law bought a cake from Porto's in Glendale. Porto's is a Cuban bakery with two branches and is supposely quite famous. But like I said, I've never heard of them before. When I tasted the cake, it was as I feared. Way too sweet for my taste, but hubby and kids seem to like it. And it was pretty. Sorry, I didn't think to take a picture, and hubby's family are not too into photos.

But the other night, hubby brought home some leftover Porto's potato balls from his sister.

These are essentially deep-fried balls of potato filled with a ground beef and I think, onion mixture. When I tasted them, I thought they were okay. I've tasted the combination before, but I started reading reviews on Porto's and it seems everyone was raving about these. So, someday I will just have to venture out there myself and taste a fresh potato ball or bribe someone to get a fresh one for me. In the meantime, yes if you're looking for something decent and very filling, a potato ball from Porto's will do.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Jujube Rice Pudding with Cinnamon and Honey

Yesterday, I had some time to come up with a snack for C and J while they were at school and baby R was taking his nap. I don't get too many opportunities like this in the mornings where I have the time and want to cook up something when I can be doing something for myself, like scrapbooking, or blogging. Like I said, I'm a selfish mommy, so don't make me cook more than once a day.

Anyways, so I promised to use up some of those jujubes I posted about previously. Rice pudding was doable enough, so here's my recipe for you to enjoy and perfect a little bit more. I also thought this would be a good submission for the online event Sugar High Friday created by Jennifer (Domestic Goddess). Hosting the event for this month is Anita (Pastry Girl) at Dessert First, and entries call for any sweet dish created using one or more spice.

Simmer about 8 diced jujubes in 1/2 cup water for 15 minutes.

Bring to boil 2 cups milk (I used 2%), 1 cup water, and 2 cups white jasmine rice. Reduce to simmer.

Add the softened jujubes to the rice and milk and simmer for another 20 minutes. Stir now and then, and towards the end, keep a watch out for the pudding. If you find that it starts to get too thick, you can add more water.

Add in 1 tablespoon honey, 1/3 cup sugar, and a 2 teaspoons of cinnamon.

This makes about six servings and can be eaten warm or cold. You can definitely add nuts or raisins as a variation. The next time I make this, I will peel those jujubes because the skin got in my teeth and was quite annoying. But, if you are short of time or are just plain lazy like me, leaving the peel on is fine and is probably healthier anyways. I am thinking about trying jububes with Thai black rice sometime in the distant future. So then, anyone have any other suggestions on cooking jujubes?