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Pieces Of My Heart

Clearly I still need to work on my level of focus towards this blog.  Thankfully its a new year and its once again on my list of resolutions.  This post is 4 months overdue, but I’m going ahead with it anyway, because while it may be outdated, the subject has been on my mind: Taiwan.

I thought I’d be a blogging fiend the month I was in Taiwan, but as usual, things did not go according to my plans.  I figured I would have lots of things to say about being back in one of my favorite places for the first time in over 10 years.  Instead, it was like I arrived and all my words dried up.  I couldn’t think of what to say, or how to express the strange mix of emotions being back in Taiwan brought to the surface.  Given my dearth of words, I’ve decided to make this a photo-driven post.  Next post, I promise lots in the way of deep thoughts.

Without further ado, a small taste of Taiwan…

You might find yourself amazed at what people can fit on their scooters.  This is just one example.

Again with the dogs.  I saw this guy one evening at Freedom Square in Taipei.  I think he takes the idea of “man’s best friend” to a whole new level.

Occasionally additional instructions are needed in restrooms that have Western-style toilets.

And now for the actual flavors of Taiwan…  I spent an inordinate amount of time prior to my arrival debating what my first meal back in Taiwan would be, and decided that if I could find some fried rice near my hotel, that is what I would go with.  Luckily for me, it turned out there was a wonderful fried rice place right around the corner, and as I realized later, they even make my favorite kind: ketchup fried rice.  It sounds wrong, I know, but its so right.

My first meal back in Taiwan: fried rice and fresh kumquat juice.

I have dreamed of returning to this little place in Taichung for the past decade.  They make the most amazing Grass Jelly.

Just as good as I remembered.

Taiwanese night markets offer an amazing selection of food at incredible value.  Much like the hawker stalls in Singapore, you can guess which stalls have the best food by the lines in front.  My first weekend back in Taiwan I spent a night in Taichung, where I visited the night market outside of Feng Jia University with my good friend Joanne.  We both ordered grilled sausages, but the seafood options also looked quite enticing.

The following day, Joanne took me back to Zhong Xing Xin Qun, which is where she is from and one of the places I lived.  My first stop when we got into town was Greasy Joes, my favorite shaved noodle place.  They also make amazing steamed dumplings and possibly the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever had.  I’ll confess, when I lived in Zhong Xing, I did find a spider in my soup once and a friend found an unsavory critter in his shaved noodles, but the food is so good, none of that has ever stopped me from going back whenever the opportunity presents itself.

That night, Joanne and her sister took me out to dinner and afterwards we enjoyed big bowls of mango shaved ice.  Taiwan still makes the best shaved ice.  Hands down.

This past week, in honor of Chinese New Year, I made Chinese food for the first time in 3 years.  Its hard to believe that much time has passed, but I’m pretty sure the last time I cooked a Chinese dinner was Chinese New Year 2009, right before I left Salt Lake.  It felt good to get back in touch with the original inspiration behind the blog.  Turns out, I’ve missed making Chinese food.  While I made an amazing array of food (if I do say so myself) for a Chinese New Year dinner I hosted on Monday, the recipe I want to share today is actually one I tried on Tuesday with a good friend who specifically requested it.  I think its the perfect recipe for this post because it is one of my favorite things to order in Taiwan: green onion pancakes.  Growing up, I remember ordering these at Chinese restaurants in L.A., but it seems like its been a long time since I’ve seen them on a menu at at State-side Chinese restaurant.  I’m not sure if that is because they’ve gone out of vogue, or if it’s a west coast vs. east coast phenomenon.  Regardless, I ate many of these over the course of my month in Taiwan and was delighted to discover how easy they are to make at home.

葱油饼 Green Onion Pancake

(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

1 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting work surface

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus a little extra for brushing dough

6 scallions, minced (about 1/2 cup)

Soy Sauce for dipping

Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl, then add 1/2 c. of water, mixing with a fork until combined.  If you have floury bits that haven’t been incorporated into the dough, add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the dough comes together.  If you have to add more water, go slowly and make sure that you’ve mixed the dough well after each addition to be sure that you aren’t adding too much.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is soft and smooth, about 5 minutes, adding extra flour to the work surface if the dough is sticking.  Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, brush with a thin layer of vegetable oil, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into 4 portions and cover with a kitchen towel to keep the dough moist.  Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll it out into a roughly 7-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick on a lightly floured surface.  Brush the dough lightly with vegetable oil, then sprinkle with approximately 2 tablespoons of minced scallions.

Roll the round of dough into a thin cylinder (so it looks like a cigar), then coil the cylinder like a cinnamon roll, tucking the end under.  Now roll the dough out again into a flat disk about 5 inches in diameter, roughly 1/4 inch thick.

Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot.  Swirl the oil to coat the skillet, then add the dough round and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.  While the pancake is cooking, prepare the next pancake by following the instructions above.  Before cooking each pancake add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet.  As the pancakes finish cooking, transfer them to a cutting board and tent with foil to keep them warm.  Before serving you can cut them into wedges, which is how they are served in Taiwan.  However, my friend and I grabbed them whole, ripping off chunks to dip into soy sauce with our dinner.

Back in the Kitchen Again

My third week in Okinawa was mostly spent taking a scuba certification course.  We started Sunday afternoon and finished the following Sunday morning, with class every day except Monday.  Between that and work, I was kept pretty busy.  I still managed a visit to a Sushi-Go-Round place with a couple of co-workers for dinner on Monday night.


My pile of plates at the end of the night:


The prettiest seaweed sushi ever:


My favorite views of the ocean from the week:




On Friday some of the girls I work with took me to a little cafe near base for lunch.  They do a bento box style lunch.  I don’t know what half of the stuff on the tray was, but it was all delicious.  I ate every last bite.


This is the view I walked out to following scuba class on Friday night:

Friday night I went to a live music bar with a couple of co-workers.  The place has a house band that performs Western oldies in full costumes.  It was a highly entertaining evening.



Sunday morning rolled around and after two beautiful dives at Maeda Point I received my PADI Open Water certification.


I didn’t expect to do much cooking during my time in Okinawa.  I have a kitchen in the place I’m staying and I knew that coming here.  But for how much I love to cook, I can be a bit fussy about it.  I don’t like to rough it in the kitchen.  I like having good tools. I want the process to be as easy as possible.  I assumed the kitchen would not be very well stocked for actual cooking or baking, and I was right.  For my first week here it was easy to resist the urge to cook. I was jet lagged.  Work was busy.  There were so many restaurants to try.

I managed to resist the call of kitchen for 2 full weeks.  But by my second weekend here the allure of another restaurant meal had dimmed and the urge to buy some of the gorgeous red rhubarb I saw at the Commissary was too strong to resist.

Its amazing to me the items you can buy at the Commissary.  Admittedly, if I lived here I’m sure I would crave a wider variety of spices, a greater selection of fresh herbs.  However, I was surprised to see a number of flours from Bob’s Red Mill, fresh milk (organic and regular), and of course, the rhubarb.

During my two days waiting out the typhoon I inevitably spent some time perusing my favorite food blogs, which lead me to a recipe on Smitten Kitchen for a rhubarb coffee cake.  I decided to give it a try.  I took it into work and it was a big hit with my co-workers.  My Japanese colleagues had never had rhubarb before and I wasn’t sure if this would be the best introduction.  It seems I had nothing to worry about as  I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews.  One of my colleagues confessed to having three pieces!

I suppose rhubarb is now out of season in most places but you could easily substitute another kind of fruit and still give this a try.  Honestly it’s the big crumb topping that makes this one so good and as a result would probably be good with many other kinds of fruit.  If you use a sweeter fruit however, you will probably want to cut some of the sugar.

Rhubarb Coffee Cake (from Smitten Kitchen, originally from the New York Times)

Rhubarb Filling:
1/2 lb. rhubarb, leaves on top and the base trimmed
1/4 c. sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 t. ground ginger

Crumb Topping:
1/3 c. dark brown sugar
1/3 c. sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 c. butter, melted
1 3/4 c. flour

Cake:
1/3 c. sour cream
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons softened butter

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Grease an 8″ square baking pan.

Slice the rhubarb into 1/2 inch cubes and toss with sugar, cornstarch, and ginger.  Set aside.

For the crumbs: In a large bowl whisk sugars, spices and salt into melted butter until smooth.  Add flour.  It should look and feel like a solid dough (mine was a little dry and I probably could have added a little more butter).  Press the mix into the bottom of the bowl and set aside.

For the cake: In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Add butter and a spoonful of the sour cream mixture and mix on low speed until the flour is moistened.  Increase the speed and beat for 30 seconds.  Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition.  Scrape down the sides of bowl with a spatula and scoop out about 1/2 cup of batter and set aside.

Pour the remaining batter into the prepared 8″ pan.  Spoon rhubarb over the batter and then dollop the batter you set aside over the rhubarb.  It does not need to be even.

Using your fingers, break the topping mixture into big chunks.  They do not need to be uniform.  Because my mix was dry, I had some big chunks and lots of small crumbs.  Sprinkle the crumbs/chunks over the cake.  Bake the cake for 45-55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (although it may be moist from the rhubarb).  Cool completely before serving.

Land of the Rising Sun

I arrived in Okinawa just in time for Typhoon Mufia.  Which meant two days of my first week here were spent indoors, locked down in my little concrete house on base.  I went by the Commissary on Monday night to pick up some breakfast food.  Between payday (1st of the month) and the eminent arrival of the typhoon, it was more than just a little bit crazy.  The checkout line wrapped halfway around the store, and this Commissary is the same size an average grocery store in the States.  Good thing I brought my nook.

We were locked down from Thursday afternoon until Saturday evening.  Rather than indulging in delicious local food, I survived on cold cereal, instant grits, and tuna fish salad.  I can’t quite express how nice it was to go out for dinner on Saturday night.  Wanting a little bit of comfort food I’ll confess that I opted for Mexican and was pleasantly surprised to find that the place made some mean carnitas.

The view of the typhoon from my little concrete house.

View out the back of my house.

Thankfully, I didn’t get too lonely during the typhoon because I had Gecks to keep me company (oh yes, I’m very original when it comes to names.)

Gecks, my buddy during the typhoon.

He’s just a little guy.  I took the following picture so you would have a better sense of his size.  I do wish he would hang out somewhere other than my kitchen, but what can you do.

Littly bitty gecko.

When I finally got out on Saturday I drove around the base and discovered that some buildings did not fare as well as my little house.

The front of the fitness center, post-typhoon.

Plants also seem to have had a rough time of it.

The tree outside the main gate.

Sunday night I walked down to the Sunabe Seawall which is a short walk from the base.  Really wanting and needing some fresh air and a little bit of exercise I walked from there down to a large shopping complex for dinner.  Walking on the seawall was a delight.  Its been far too long since I’ve been able to enjoy the sight and sound of the ocean.

Along the seawall.

Lots of crabs down by the seawall.

Surfing at the seawall, supposedly one of the better places on island.

I hope he had a good day surfing.

As I’m enjoying the opportunity to explore this little corner of Japan, I wanted to share a Japanese inspired recipe.  This is not by any means authentic.  However, that seems somewhat appropriate because I’m discovering that Okinawan cuisine tends to mix many different culinary influences.  This is one of my favorite recipes that I got from my mom.  I love taking it to work lunches.  People always rave about it.

Sumi Salad

My mom’s original recipe called for Accent (AKA MSG) in the salad dressing, which over the years I have felt less and less comfortable using.  I did some research and discovered that fish sauce is a good substitute for MSG.  I sampled the updated recipe with Hillary and we both thought it tasted just as good as the original.

Dressing:

1/4 c. sugar

1/2 c. rice vinegar

2 t. fish sauce

1/2 c. oil

Whisk together all ingredients except for the oil.  Slowly add the oil, whisking continually until fully incorporated.

Salad:

1 pkg. shredded cabbage
2 pkg. Ramen noodles (discard the seasoning packets)
4 green onions, thinly sliced (white to very light green section only)
1/2 c.  slivered almonds
Heat a non-stick pan over medium to medium-high heat.  Brown onions and almonds together in pan (don’t use any oil).  Put the cabbage in a large bowl and add the onions/almonds.  Crumble the ramen noodles and add to the bowl.  Toss with dressing.  Serve.
This is a great salad to take to potlucks.  People love it!  The most important thing is to keep the ramen noodles and the dressing separate until ready to serve.  If you mix the whole thing in advance, the noodles will get soggy and you want them to be crunchy.

Trying This Again…

Third time’s the charm right?  Well, this is officially the third time I’m giving blogging a go, so hopefully I’ll be somewhat more successful this time around.  I have all kinds of excuses for why it didn’t work out the last time.  I was living in Baghdad.  My computer with the Adobe design programs died (sniff sniff).  I didn’t like the “look” of the blog.

That last one was the real sticking point.  When I moved the blog from Chi Bao Le over to here, it was because I wanted more control over the blog design.  Having taken, oh, 8 graphic design classes through the University of Utah continuing education program in the fall of 2008 I thought I had plenty of skills to rock the design world.  Um, yeah, not so much.

After months of procrastination and fumbling about, I can honestly say I finally have the blog looking the way I envisioned way back in January 2009 when I created this site.  Such humble aspirations, I know.  The downside of finally getting the look just right is that I have no more excuses to avoid actually blogging.

I’ve had this post in mind for months.  Earlier this year, there was a period of time where I had three different friends come to me for help with yeast baking.  They were running into various difficulties and asked for some help/advice.  It got me thinking that maybe I should do a yeast baking tutorial on the blog.  There are probably plenty of these tutorials on the web, but sometimes I find it’s easier to follow when it comes from a friend.

I started baking with yeast when I was 11 years old.  I took a one day baking class from a lady at church and she taught me how to make a recipe for dinner rolls.  It was a bit of a tricky recipe.  Depending on the local climate, you had to vary the amount of flour.  When it was time for the dough to rise, you had to set the bowl in a sink filled with warm water and then, every 15 minutes for 2-3 hours you had to punch the dough down.  It made a sticky dough, which in turn made it difficult to shape into rolls.  I’m not sure why, but I was determined to master this recipe.  And I did.  For a period of time, I made them almost every week for Sunday dinner.  I even made them when we lived in the Marshall Islands.

That right there is why its worthwhile to master, or at least feel confident with, yeast baking.  Once you understand the process, you can bake anything anywhere in the world.  Which is good, because believe me, plenty of places in the world lack good American style yeast-raised bread.  In Baghdad, I made bagels, bread, cinnamon rolls… whatever baked good I craved, I could make, and that made the experience of living there far more bearable.

Couple things to remember when working with yeast:

  • Yeast is a living thing.  Which means you can kill it.  Which means it won’t work.  Yeast is happiest in a cozy, warm environment.  Just like Goldilocks and the porridge, not too hot, not too cold.  The best temperature for yeast (or at least the guide I go by) is wrist temperature.  Test whatever liquid you are using on your wrist, like you would a baby bottle.
  • Proofing your yeast will lead to a higher chance of baking success.  What is proofing?  Its the step in baking recipes when you add the yeast and a little bit of sugar to your warm liquid, usually water.  You let it sit for maybe 5-10 minutes to let the yeast get activated.  This is a good step for baking novices because it lets you see that your yeast is working.  The liquid will get all bubbly on the top.  If that doesn’t happen, then your yeast is probably dead and you don’t want to waste hours of your life finishing the recipe only to end up with a hard brick at the end.
  • If a recipe doesn’t ask you to proof the yeast, you can still do it.  Like I said, its a good step for beginning bakers.  Just add the yeast to the liquid, add a couple pinches of sugar, and let it go for 10 minutes.  Then add the yeast mixture to the rest of your ingredients.
  • Kneading is fun.  These days, most people have machines that do the kneading for them.  This is a good thing as kneading can also be hard work.  However, its a good way to work out a small amount of aggression and I personally think its always a good idea to have a tactile connection with your dough.  You want to feel your dough because it will give you a better sense of when the dough has been kneaded long enough, when you have the  right amount of softness or smoothness.  This is probably sounding all very new agey.  Just go with it.  I let the machine do the hard work, but when its just about “there”, I put the dough on the counter and give it a couple good kneads.
  • How do you knead?  Good question.  Fold the back half of the dough towards you, then using the heels of your hands, push down and away from you on the fold.  Give the dough a quarter turn, repeat the fold/push.  Then repeat the whole process again and again until the dough feels smooth and elastic.
  • Dough likes a warm, moist place to rise.  I have never had any problems finding a warmish spot in my apartment to let dough rise.  I take a kitchen towel and soak it under hot water.  I wring it out, then place it over the top of the bowl with the dough.  I put the bowl in a warm place and let it do its thing.  You can also warm your oven up a tad (just a tad… not too hot… then turn OFF the oven), place a bowl of boiling hot water in the oven and then put your bowl with the dough in there to rise.  You can do the same thing with the bowl of boiling water in the microwave.  Unless your place is really cold, I would just find a warmish spot and use the hot kitchen towel.  Its just easier, less fussy that way.  Plus, it has always worked for me.
  • Once your dough is shaped and ready for the final rise, cover it again with a hot towel and return it to the same warm spot to rise.

Sarah’s Bread

I think this is a very good recipe to learn on because it is an easy dough to work with.  I got this recipe last June when I met Sarah down in Georgia.  She made this bread for dinner and it was so good I asked for the recipe, which she kindly shared. (You never know if people are going to be possessive with their recipes.  Thankfully, Sarah is not one of those people.)

Part of the reason this is a good beginner recipe is because it is not a whole wheat bread.  Instead, it is a mix of white and wheat flour.  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of whole wheat bread.  I find most whole wheat breads are dry and lack flavor.    Also, for anyone starting out in yeast baking, its significantly harder to learn with whole wheat recipes.  Whole wheat flour is heavier than white flour, which means the yeast has to work a lot harder to get the bread to rise.  Therefore, you have to be that much more careful about how you treat the yeast.  You have to knead the dough longer, and give it a longer rising time, etc etc.  I recommend learning on a recipe like this one, which is easier and more forgiving.  Once you feel comfortable working with yeast, branch out and try a whole wheat bread recipe or two.

2 pkgs yeast (4½ t) – Sarah uses rapid rise

⅔ c. sugar

1-2 T. molasses (depends on how much molasses taste you want, I always use the higher amount)

2 c. warm water (i.e. wrist temperature)

1 T. fine sea salt

¼ c. vegetable oil

1½ c. 100% whole wheat flour

4½ c. unbleached white bread flour

In a large mixing bowl add yeast, sugar, molasses, and warm water. Let sit for 5-10 minutes.

Starting to proof. Just a few bubbles on top.

After 10 minutes, lots of bubbles.

Add salt and vegetable oil. Mix well.

Then add both flours. Mix well, then knead for 5-7 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. You can do this by hand or by machine, although it will be much easier by machine.

At the start of kneading. Clearly, the dough is a bit of a mess. It will take a good 5-10 minutes to get it smooth and elastic.

At the end of kneading. As usual, I finished it off by hand. You can see how the dough is nice and smooth at this point.

Place dough in a large, oiled bowl, cover with a hot, damp cloth and place in a warm spot to rise. Let rise until doubled, about an hour to an hour and a half.

I like to let my dough raise in this nifty bucket I picked up from King Arthur Flour. It makes it very easy to see when the dough has doubled. Also, you can see the damp kitchen towel I've draped over the top to help add moisture to the raising environment.

And here we are an hour or so later. I love how the bucket makes it so easy to see how much the dough has risen

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, divide in half, smooth the dough and shape into loaves (roll out the dough into a rectangle, roll it up lengthwise, tuck the ends under and place in the loaf pan). Cover again with a hot, damp towel and set in a warm place to rise. Let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Dough in the bread pans, ready for a second rise. Again, I'm going to cover these with the damp kitchen towel.

End of the second rise. You can again see how much the dough has expanded in about an hour's time.

Bake at 350°F for about 29-35 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes in the pans, then remove the bread from the pans and let cool on wire racks.

Voila! Beautiful homemade bread.

This bread freezes beautifully, as does most bread.  I usually cut the loaves in half and freeze all but one half.  Then, as I am about to finish one, I take one out of the freezer to defrost.

If you have comments, suggestions, questions, please comment below.  I love getting tips from other bakers, and if you run into problems when trying this or any of my other recipes, I’m happy to help troubleshoot.

Me, my sister, my Pops, and a Mercedes Benz….

I arrived in Frankfurt with my sister on Thursday morning after one of the most uncomfortable plane rides I can remember.  I’ve done my fair share of long-haul flights, and most of those flights have been on United, but for some reason, this flight seemed significantly more uncomfortable than most.  It felt like the smallest amount of personal space that I’ve ever been given on a flight.  I think the next time I fly overseas I’ll go ahead and spend the extra money for the Economy Plus seats.

When we arrived in Frankfurt we met up with our father at the Avis counter, picked up the keys to our Mercedes Benz (yeah baby!) and then proceeded out to the parking garage to load up the car, where I promptly decided Hillary should fly back to the States so that Pops and I could enjoy one of these for the next week and a half:

Porsche

That’s right, a whole row of shiny new Porsches available from Avis.  Ah yes, it made me drool.  However, I really am pleased with our Mercedes and am especially happy to have an in-dash GPS unit.  Let me tell you, that thing has been a life saver.

We immediately drove to my cousin’s house where we had a very happy reunion with his family.  Hillary and I have missed them a great deal these past two years and are excited for all of us to be reunited in the DC area next summer.

That evening our cousin drove us to Mainz where we goofed off, toured the local historical sites, and began sampling some of the local cuisine.

Wall Mainz

Goofing Off

Mainz with M

As its been more than a month since I last blogged I’ll feel particularly guilty if I don’t leave you with a recipe of some kind.  However, I’m going to cheat.  Rather than posting a recipe I’ve done some tweaking to, I’m just going to link to a really really good soup recipe I recently tried.  I’m a big fan of King Arthur Flour and have never been disappointed by one of their recipes.  I’ve always been happy with Campbell’s Tomato soup but last month decided to try making creamy tomato soup from scratch and went with a recipe on the KAF website.  It was delicious.  Kept me happily fed for a good week.  I paired it with their popovers for one of my favorite comfort meals.  And I’m even including proof below:

Tomato Soup and Popovers

Food For Thought: 2 June 2009

Travel safety tips… just hoping I never actually have to use any of these.

Interesting (and long… don’t say I didn’t warn you) op-ed piece from the New York Times on Iran.

This isn’t really newsworthy (unless you are a Red Sox fan, which I am), but it is a nice little tribute to Big Papi.

America a deadbeat dad?

And the abortion debate continues

Latest poll results on Gitmo.

If you read this article you may understand, in part, why I love David Rothkopf.

Trouble in Paradise – Iraq feuds with two of its neighbors

Who knew Hugo Chavez was so loved in Lebanon?

Latest on the Air France flight.  This piece, on its own, is a worthy read.  The other blog posts it links too are also worth a read.  But they might make you a little more scared to fly in the future.  (Again, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

China blocks Twitter? On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square?  Really?  (Come on, is anyone really surprised by this?)

Day 7: Cleveland, OH to Arlington, VA

Well, we made it!  We finally arrived at Hillary’s apartment at 10 pm last night.  We started the day in Cleveland with a visit to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame.  You could easily spend hours there because they have a number of movies as well as listening stations devoted to different aspects of rock-n-roll’s history.  However, we didn’t have hours so we visited the main exhibit hall on the first floor and then went up to the Bruce Springsteen exhibit and the Hall of Fame.  All in all, we were there for almost 3 hours, and we didn’t come close to seeing everything.

The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame

Pops outside the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame

Pops outside the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame

Most exciting find for me at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame?  A row of framed concert posters by Derek Hess, one of my favorite artists.

Most exciting find for me at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame? A row of framed concert posters by Derek Hess, one of my favorite artists.

Bruce Springsteen's Corvette

Bruce Springsteen's Corvette

Lake Erie, outside the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame

Lake Erie, outside the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame

When we hit the Pittsburgh area we got off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and drove downtown so Pops could see how the city had changed over the last 32 years.  Around the time I was born, he was working on a case that had him traveling to Pittsburgh and Somerset, PA on a regular basis, so he wanted to take a quick walk down memory lane.  As we drove around Pittsburgh we passed the square where Hillary and I went ice skating a couple of years ago during our trip to Pittsburgh.  I guess I should say, “The square where I went ice skating and Hillary cursed my, Steph, and Dan’s names.”  I had to stop and take a picture.  Priceless.  We also passed PNG Park and Heinz Field.  I didn’t get any pictures of the fields because we were driving and it was raining and as a result the pictures I took came out very poorly.  I am however already planning a weekend trip back to Pittsburgh this summer so I can go to a Pirates game.  I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be back in a part of the country where there are multiple major league ball parks within a few hours drive.  I’ve definitely missed being able to go to baseball games the past two summers.

As a brief aside… I think Pittsburgh is one of those cities that most people don’t think of much, if at all.  I guess when people think about places to visit in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh gets a little overshadowed by Philadelphia’s overwhelming place within our nation’s history.  Not to mention that if you stick to the eastern side of the state, you have the Amish country, Valley Forge, and Gettysburg.  Also, my assumption is that people still think of Pittsburgh as a steel town, so they assume there isn’t much to see or do there.  When Hillary and I went up over Thanksgiving weekend back in 2005 we didn’t necessarily have high expectations for the city itself, but we wanted to get out of DC for a couple of days, go somewhere new and close, and we had a close friend living there at the time, so Pittsburgh ended up being the ideal choice.  We were both very pleasantly surprised to discover a fantastic city.  We had a great time during our two days there and I highly recommend adding it to your list of American cities worthy of a visit.  Our favorites from the trip included the Andy Warhol Museum, the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh, Falling Water, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and eating in Shadyside.  I quite enjoyed ice skating at PPG Place in downtown, but Hillary, not so much.

PPG Place in downtown Pittsburgh.  In the winter they have an ice skating rink set up on the plaza.

PPG Place in downtown Pittsburgh. In the winter they have an ice skating rink set up on the plaza.

From Pittsburgh we got back on the turnpike and headed to Somerset so Pops could continue his walk down memory lane.  While he stopped into the law firm he worked with there, I discoverd a little food store (I’m like a bloodhound… I have a nose for these things) tucked back a little ways from the road.  The store was run by the sweetest little old lady who might be setting me up with her best friend’s son who lives in England (random, I know… but just one more reason to love small towns).  I picked up a few gifts for friends and family at her store and then Pops and I headed to dinner at a place in town she recommended.  I had been a little bummed at this point because in my two visits to Pittsbugh I had never eaten pierogies.  Imagine my joy when the restaurant had them on the menu as a side dish.  Whoohoo!  Pops and I ordered a plate to share, and they lived up to all my expectations.  To finish off our meal, we ordered the largest chocolate chip cookie skillet sundae I’m likely to ever come across.  But it was good too.

At last, a plate of pierogies.

At last, a plate of pierogies.

And dessert...

And dessert...

Today we’re heading down to Richmond for a visit to the White House of the Confederacy and the Civil War Museum.  Which means I need to get out of bed and get ready for the day ahead.  I leave you now with recent items of minor annoyance from the final leg of our cross-country trek:

  • Speed limits on the east coast:  55 MPH on an interstate?!  Come on!
  • Turnpikes: It cost almost $10 to drive halfway across Pennsylvania.  Grrrr.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to paying to drive on an interstate.  Just one element of east coast living that I’m unlikely to ever fully accept.
  • The weather: Its a pretty ugly day here in the Washington capital area.  Lets hope things improve in time for the Orioles-Rays game tomorrow at Camden Yards.  We were supposed to go to the game tonight, but somehow (and I’m not mentioning names here, but I promise, this was not my mistake) ended up with tickets to the game tomorrow instead.  We might end up grateful for the mix-up though because I think the weather tomorrow is supposed to be nicer than the weather today.

Day 3: Gillette, WY to Rapid City, SD

We’re currently in Rapid City, SD and I’m trying not to fall asleep because I really do want to post every day between now and arriving in Virginia.  We left our hotel in Gillette at 10:00 this morning and made it to Devils Tower by 11:00.  I was entertained for a good portion of the drive by my Dad’s attempts to take pictures of the antelope (deer?) that appeared periodically in herds along the side of the road.  As soon as he would decide that he had missed his chance and put the camera away, we’d come upon another herd and he’d frantically try to get the camera out in time to get a picture or two.  Inevitably, by the time the camera was ready it was too late.  And then the cycle would start all over again.  We finally got some decent pictures of a small herd once we got off the interstate and were getting close to Devils Tower.

Devils Tower was amazing!  We both loved it.  I decided to hike the Tower Trail, a 1.3 mile trail that loops around Devils Tower.  The trail isn’t maintained in the winter, so it was covered in snow and quite deep in places.  A pair of snowshoes would have come in handy, but actually, I did pretty well with just my boots.  I didn’t see anyone else the whole time I was on the trail.  It was so nice.  Experiences like that are what make traveling in the off-season such a joy.  On the other hand, the off-season does have its drawbacks.  More on that in a moment.

From Devils Tower we drove into South Dakota (my first time in the state!  Whoohoo!) and headed to Deadwood because Pops wanted to see where Wild Bill Hickok was killed.  Deadwood was prettier than I expected, by which I mean the surrounding hills and not really the town, which much like Vegas, was one casino after another.  We left Deadwood at 3:00 pm, which left us with only 2 hours to make it to Mt. Rushmore before the Visitors Center closed.  Thinking 2 hours was plenty of time, we opted for the scenic route, which turned out to be a big mistake.  We missed our turn, wasted 30 minutes going the wrong direction, and then had a harrowing (for me at least, because I was in the passenger seat) hour-long drive to make it to Mt. Rushmore before 5:00.  We arrived at 4:45 and had enough time at the Visitors Center to read a few of the plaques and buy a couple of postcards.  I had hoped to do a little hiking at the park, but it turned out that all the trails were closed.  Whereas Devils Tower was a joy to visit in the off-season, I’ll admit that Mt. Rushmore summed up the off-season’s drawbacks: reduced operating hours and closed trails.  Still, it was amazing to see and I hope I can come back again one day in the future and spend a little more time there.
Tomorrow: Badlands NP, Minute Man National Historic Site, Wall Drug

Finally, success!

Finally, success!

Devils Tower

Devils Tower

On my hike.

On my hike.

Dead trees for Jeremy.

Dead trees for Jeremy.

The saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot.

The saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot.

In Deadwood

In Deadwood

More of Deadwood.

More of Deadwood.

Finally, Mt. Rushmore

Finally, Mt. Rushmore

Red China

Hello All,


Tomorrow I leave for China. I’ll be gone for 2 weeks so you won’t be hearing from me here (although, let’s be honest, I let weeks go by without posting all the time).


I’ll be thinking about you (and my blog) while I am gone. Hopefully I’ll be taking lots and lots of pictures of food (as well as, you know, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors and some of the other wonders China has to share). I have a recipe ready to post when I return. In fact, I had hoped to post it this week, but it wasn’t meant to be. Too much to do and not enough time.  

I’ll miss you (but really, not too much because I’ll be in China).  

Take Care,
Me

First Love

I still remember my first morning in Taiwan.  Not a truly clear picture, mostly a jumbled mess of emotions and images.  But its clearer than a lot of other memories I’ve hung onto.  I had arrived, with my fellow missionaries, around midnight or so the day before.  Whatever time it was, it seemed very late, but that impression may have just been a result of the fact that it was dark outside and I was fairly jet-lagged.  As a result I was too tired and disoriented to pay much attention to minor details like the time of day.  My arrival in Taiwan didn’t feel particularly auspicious.  It was dark.  It was raining.  We couldn’t see much out the windows of the van during the drive from Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport to Taichung.  We got to the home of the mission president and there was banana bread and milk in the kitchen waiting for us, and then it was off to bed.

We woke up the next morning and some of the Elders from the office took our whole group about a half block down the street for breakfast.  And I fell in love.  Literally.  Before we even reached the street vendor that sold us our breakfast, I was in love.  It was as though I had just found the home I’d been looking for my whole life.

Because I don’t have very clear memories of that day, I can’t explain why it is that Taiwan caught me so completely from that very first day.  It might have been all the scooters parked haphazardly on the sidewalks, or the strange mix of upscale stores and random street-side food vendors.  I’m pretty sure it was not the humidity or the smells, neither of which I ever really grew to love.  But something about the place grabbed my heart and it’s never really let go.  

As I’ve thought through my idea for this blog over the past few months, I’ve asked myself, “Why?” a number of times.  Why do this thing?  What meaning can it possibly bring to my life or to the lives of others?  At their root, I think maybe the reasons I have for wanting to do this go back to the feelings I had that first day in Taichung.  It’s been almost 10 years since I woke up on the other side of the world feeling like I had come home.  Over those 10 years I’ve grown mostly away from Taiwan – mentally, physically, and emotionally.  But I’ve never found myself at home again.  So I’m 31.  And I’m single.  And I still haven’t found a career that calls to both my heart and my mind.  I’m still searching for so many things.  And yet I can’t help but wonder if everything I’ve been looking for isn’t maybe waiting for me, back on the other side of the world, back where I always felt at home.

If life was uncomplicated and I had no obligations making me feel somewhat tied down, I might have already packed my bags and booked a ticket.  But life is complicated.  And I do have obligations, as well as family and friends and many other good things in my life besides memories of a far-distant land.  So this blog is basically my effort to reconnect with some of the things I love and miss about Taiwan, while also allowing me to explore more fully something I come to feel more and more passionate about – food!  I hope you too will find something to enjoy here, something that might in some small way, enrich your life the way my experiences in Taiwan enriched mine.