Sunday, November 13, 2011

Quantifying Myself

A few weeks ago, I purchased a Fitbit.  As you can see in its description on the left, it tracks one's activity throughout the day.  Lest you call this a glorified pedometer, you might want to know that it also tracks sleep activity.

Yes, it will tell me what my sleep efficiency is given how long I slept and how many times I woke up in the middle of the night.  As a skeptic, I was amazed at its accuracy.  The first night I slept soundly through the night and was awoken only when Eric kissed me goodbye.  The second night, I knew I woke up around 2AM a few times, and it accurately tracked that as well.

But the thing that I realized I most needed was, indeed, the pedometer.  I've heard many times for several years that one should take 10,000 steps each day.  I, for one, had no idea what that exactly meant, but I was sure I was close.  Yeah, I work at a desk, but compared to others, I took the stairs to the 5th floor.  I walk over to my coworkers' offices if I have a question for them.  I'm the one who avoids the moving walkways in the airports, which I think are The Laziest contraption that has been created by society.  So imagine my surprise when I logged a whole 3,000 steps by the time I got home from work on that first quantified day.  I was truly shocked.  So THAT is what I do on a daily basis without working out?  And then I did what the Fitbit was meant for - I was motivated to get my sneakers on and I walked out into the cool, dimmed light of the emerging evening and I walked the Lina Walk - the route Eric and I take when he helps me "get healthy" that day.  Unfortunately, even that walk wasn't enough, so I kept walking around the block until I got to 10,000 steps.  So THAT is what it takes to get to 10,000 steps?  Boy was I living in LaLa Land.

Two weeks later, I'm averaging about 8,000 steps per day and am working toward a 10k average.  My key strategy is to make sure I take several walking breaks during the day so that I don't find myself at 7PM with a lot of walking to still do.  And to make sure I stay on the bandwagon, they've given me badges for steps taken and stairs climbed.  My next strategy is to start "friending" folks to create a leaderboard.  I know I'm of the competitive ilk, and that would get me motivated to no end.

Perhaps in another month, I'll actually get motivated to log my food intake to really take quantification to the next level.  But I've tried that before, and I don't last longer than a week.  So the only solution is to wait for something like the Philometron Patch which is designed to calculate BOTH caloric output AND INTAKE.  Now THAT is something I could get behind...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Korean ChamPong Makes Me Happy!

As you know, I am on an epic quest for Asian culinary delights in Central PA.  Although the area is one of the least diverse places that I have lived, and I have lived all across the country, I utterly refuse to believe that I should settle for anything less than great ethnic cuisine.  And so the search continues, and today, I happened upon this little gem of a place, while Eric and I tooled around Mechanicsburg, also visiting the Wegman's.  On Yelp it was described as a Japanese restaurant, but then all of the food described was Korean.  Now, I've had my fair share of bad Japanese in the area, and honestly, I'm taking a break from my epic search for that cuisine currently.  But Korean?  The only Korean place I was aware of was in Lancaster at a diner called The Onion Cafe.  It was decent, and I shunned it not.

It was only mid-afternoon.  Eric and I had eaten lunch only a few hours before, so a Korean deep-dive wasn't an immediate desire.  But we're almost an hour away from home, we've got a new place to try out, we shall not leave town without giving ourselves and this new restaurant a chance!

We walked into Spring Garden and were greeted by the Korean owner.  She was extremely pleasant and had a bit of sass, which is always a good thing in my book.  We explained that we would like to take the food to go but that we weren't going to eat until several hours later.  And then I began to peruse the menu.  Oh my goodness, they have JamPong, or Cham Pong, or Jjampong, boy I've seen this spelled differently anytime I've ever seen it.  It's a spicy seafood noodle soup that was brought to Korea from China, so it employs the use of Chinese-style noodles.  But the Koreans are known for their spice, and just as the Chinese everywhere is catered to local tastes, this version became spicier and spicier until it became, for me, a dish that I would consider decidedly Korean, but with the Chinese influence.

Yes, I am a fiend when it comes to noodle soups.  I have found a noodle soup that I cherish in almost all the Asian cuisines.  In Taiwan, it's the rich, dark, and sensuous Beef Noodle Soup.  In Vietnam, the fresh, bright and light Pho.  In Japan, it's the toothsome opulence of the Chinese-influenced Miso Ramen.  In China, the spicy numbness and savory delectability of the Sichuan-style noodles.  In Korea, it's the Cham Pong that makes my heart sing!  One day, I'll round out the group with a definitive choice in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand... I have a lot of traveling to do!

The last time I had a good one was about 10 years ago on the campus of Ann Arbor where I was getting my MBA.  It's a little divey place called the University Cafe.  Oh yeah, it serves Korean food.  Whut?  But the Cham Pong was great, and I've longed for it every since.

At the Spring Garden, I immediately looked up with wide eyes and a string of drool starting to hang out of my mouth.  Cham Pong!  We discussed how I could take it home without the noodles getting all gummy and nasty.  Simple - she'll just wrap up the noodles and I could take them home and cook it there.  She brought them out, and I was stupefied that they were fresh.  Beautiful strands of noodles that were malleable and soft.  So rare in some of my favorite places, and here I am.  Fresh Noodles.  Bodes well...
Fresh noodles are just so wonderful.  They don't really have that hard core that dry noodles have that give them that toothsomeness we're all familiar with, as long as you're not overcooking the heck out of them.  This is a different kind of toothsome - there's an evenness throughout the entire noodle that gives it a satisfying wholesome texture.  These cook really fast, and as soon as it comes to a rolling boil again, it's drain time.
And then lovingly bathed in a splendid seafood broth that is balanced in its spicy savoriness.  My singular complaint is that the actual seafood was rather parsimonious.  I would have wanted big chunks of fish, some shrimp, fat mussels in lieu of the chintzy leftovers. That was the single aspect that left me wanting.  But don't get me wrong.  I still ate the whole thing.

Eric ordered Galbi - marinated beef short ribs that were tender, moist, and with that really great salty-sweet flavor that is addicting.  Asked whether that Philly boy would prefer an Italian Hoagie or Korean Galbi, he refused to answer.

Of note also are the BanChan dishes - those small appetizers of spicy fermented vegetables.  All of their dishes are made in-house, and they are delicious!  Not as spicy as I would normally have it, but hey, it's Central PA, we want folks to actually be able to taste the food.  I get that.  But boy, if you're a spice monger, find a good kimchi in a larger city.  It'll blow your socks off!!

Eric says I should write the Central PA Underground Guide to Great Asian Cuisine, or CPUGGAC.  As I rethink that name, at least I now have the Korean checked off.

Spring Garden
5 South 35th Street
Camp Hill, PA 17011-4409
(717) 737-0238

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Taking a page out of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, Maison's fare is simply prepared with mostly local and organic food, and the result is simply fantastic!  It's quaint and cozy with a charming farmhouse decor.

But for as small as the space is, it can be disproportionately loud, so prepare for the "lean-in," with a hint of "ear-cupping."  And it took a while for the servers to figure out who was taking care of which table, which was surprising since there aren't that many tables.  Finally, someone came by and said, "Is anyone taking care of you?"  Nope.  Then they overcompensated, and when another couple was seated next to us, two servers doubled efforts and the couple got hear everything twice until the servers realized their duplicity.  Devil is in the details, man.  We all got a good laugh out of that, though, and the tone that was beginning to sour was reset.

And it got better all evening when glorious deliciousness came one after another.

We paid a $5 corkage fee for our BYO-2-liter-bottles-of-B.  While I liked the flavor of each as a sipping beer, and both come from pretty stellar brewhouses, I found the pairing with the food awkward and remiss, relegating my imbibing to the good ol' backup - water.

I usually don't comment much on bread, unless it's memorable.  The bread is sourced from MiLi's Bakery.  Along with the sweetness of flavor, it's substantial, chewy, moist, yet airy.  The salt flakes on the soft butter bring it together, and it's such a lovely and satisfying eat.  And then you understand why extra bread is $1 per person.

We began with two salads, the French Country and the Octopus & Fennel.  Both were flavorful and impeccably dressed.  But the French Country was the more noteworthy of the two.  You really can't lose with the combination of crispy lardons (i.e. little bacon cubes), crunchy croutons, and blue cheese.  Yum!  I do like the way it was made entirely with frisee.  It's a really nice green, and yet I see people pick them out of a mixed green salad all the time because it looks like a "weed."  Right.  I'll take a weed over iceberg lettuce any day.

Entrees were Orecchiette Bolognese and the Roasted Heritage Pork.  Both were tremendous.  The pork was moist and tender with an exceedingly agreeable crispy skin.  Combine a single bite with the creamy polenta, the sweet-sour play of the agrodolce, the toothsomeness and chargrilled flavor of the grilled savoy cabbage, and...rapture.

The desserts, while good, were like the Ringo Starrs of the evening spent with all the Beatles - a star that is eclipsed by better stars.  New on the menu was a savory-sweet custard infused with bay leaves topped with a shortbread cookie.  Upon first bite, you get that herbaceous hit that dissolves into a mellow sweetness, but the finish?  Not so great.  So what to say when the proprietor comes by to ask how it is?  Honesty is the best policy, right?  So I told her what I thought, and when she put it on trial with her own tastebuds, she said she agreed.  Not sure if she really thinks that, but I applauded the creativity and I was really pleased that she was open enough to hear the feedback.  Now that's a great neighborhood bistro.

As for the chocolate peanut butter dessert, the flavors were good, they were fine, and while I love the rustic idea of the mason jars, if there are layers of something, a deep jar just doesn't do it justice.  The bottom held a crust that is almost impossible to get to without digging your way through to the bottom like a groundhog.

But let's put things in perspective.  The food is fantastic.  The servers are friendly, the owner is sweet, and we'll definitely be back.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Opposites Rule in Bentonville, AR

On a recent visit to the world's largest retailer, I found myself on a plane to Bentonville, AR.  Truth be told, I wasn't looking forward to it.  Not only is it unquestionably inconvenient to fly between two small city airports, but it's not exactly a cosmopolitan mecca.  Then again, I have a good friend who just moved there, so I was looking forward to a little gal time.

Our Girls' Night started with drinks at the very quaint and English-bar redux, Tusk & Trotter.  The specials were playfully written out on a chalkboard, including this eye-catching cocktail - "Cucumber-Mint Gin & Tonic."  After having come in from a sickeningly sultry 100 degree day, that just sounded positively refreshing.  I'd also recently been introduced to Hendrick's Gin, which is uniquely infused with cucumbers and rose petals.  My drink of choice lately has been muddled cucumber slices with Hendrick's and tonic with a nice wedge of lime.  It's clean, crisp, cool, and I like it a lot.

So imagine my surprise when I got this.  

Whoa, where was the nuclear meltdown?  Umm.  Did you run out of mint leaves?  Ohhh, you use creme de menthe for the "mint" part.  I stopped short of recommending that they should rename this "Scope Gin & Tonic."  I finally admitted that I couldn't drink it, sent it back like one of those divas that I dislike so much, and ordered a BOTTLED beer.  

All the while, my girlfriend is just shaking her head.  There's nothing like a stereotype that totally manifests itself right before your very eyes.

Then we walked around the corner to a place called Table Mesa.  This was redemption, baby!!  We started with the Cheap Dates - Medjool dates stuffed with blue and cream cheese and wrapped in bacon.  Delectable Yumminess!  Then we split two entrees.  First, the Korean BBQ tacos.  The beef was moist and tender with a spicy sweetness that had a kick.  Then the Seafood Paella special.  Not quite like being in Spain, but the flavors were complex and balanced, and wow - I'm in Arkansas?  The meal was capped off with the Key Lime - Tres Leches.  I'm not normally a cake kind of gal, but I'll eat this kind of cake any day.  Housemade cake is soaked in three milks (what kind of milk?  Ah, I should have asked) and key lime and then drizzled with pureed fruit.  It was mildly sweet, but the beautiful thing about this is that there was no way it couldn't be moist!  When our server recommended it, I remember thinking, oh man, it's either going to be a soggy mess, or actually taste like a sponge.  Fortunately, neither was the case, and I'm glad I took the cue from the server.

Lately, I've been thinking about the Rule of Opposites and how it almost always holds true.  Here, indeed, it does.

Table Mesa
108 E Central On The Square 
Downtown Bentonville 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On a Local Organic Mission

I've talked about how Eric and I have turned into an Organic household.  Now we're taking it one step further and trying to source everything locally, if possible.  Get the freshest stuff just picked at the peak of ripeness and didn't have to travel thousands of miles to me in a freight train?  We're in.  And it can't be that hard, right?  I mean, I'm surrounded by farmland.  Turn left out of my development, and in one minute, there are cornfields.  I'm thankful for this.  With some of the best growing soil in the world, during times of  economic hardship or war, I've read about how this area rises above it all because of its self-sustaining ability.

So a few weeks ago, I took a trip to Root's Market.  Root's is the oldest family-run market in the county, originating as a poultry auction in 1925, which they still do.  If for anything, go just so you can see this take place.  It's such an experience if you're a city slicker.  Naturally, I thought that if I need to find organic goods, this should be a gold mine!

Alas, as I roamed through the vast rows and rows of gorgeous, brightly colored produce for sale, I saw lots of "Natural" and "Home Grown" and "Local" signs, but nothing that said, "Organic" or "Chemical Free" or "No Pesticides."  Whut?!?!  So I started asking the stand attendants.  "No, we spray," was a consistent answer.  I respect the honesty, and everyone seemed genuinely sorry that they couldn't help me.  At one stand, a customer next to me was ogling a beauty of an eggplant with its shiny purple skin.  It was at that moment that I felt like I was looking at that alluringly beautiful red, shiny apple being sold by the old woman outside that woodsy cottage, and I shook my head, thinking, but it's poisonous...

Out of the 200 stands that are at Root's, much of which isn't related to food, to be fair, only 2 stands had organic anything.  One was Chiques Roc Farm, the farm close to where I live.  The other was a Spice shop.  A little disappointing, as I trudged away with my empty canvas bags.

So what's an organic gal to do?  Eric used the Social Network and trawled through the web to find these stellar markets.

Eastern Market isn't new to us, and now it's expanded into the corner block with free parking just a few yards past the market, in its old stomping grounds.  All the produce is organic, beautiful, and very reasonably priced.  Open on Saturdays from 9AM - 2PM, we also stock up on the many ready-to-eat stands that are there also - Nowal and her fantastic Falafels, Victoria's tremendously flavorful Kenyan fare, Awful Good and its panini sandwiches.  Eric got their Cuban today, and it was crusty and full of great ingredients.  Lastly, we grabbed some eats from the Puerto Rican stand today - pulled pork, yellow rice, and stewed onions.  We take them to go and have some great sustenance for the rest of the week.

The Millersville Community Market is where we go when we need something on a Wednesday or need garlic.  This is small, but growing, and I'm most impressed with the Promised Land Farm Garlic stand.  There are so many varieties of garlic at this stand, and I got a really great education, like the fact that I (and probably you) have only eaten the Silverskin variety my entire life.  The Promised Land Farm grows many, many more varieties sustainably and without chemicals.  Lately, we've been enjoying the Siberian, with its spicy pungency and large cloves.

Troublingly, most of the garlic that's being distributed in the US is from China.  And I don't know about you, but when Japan and Korea has banned food shipments from China, I hardly think it's safe for me to have in our house, either.

It was at this market that I discovered Ground Cherries.  What the heck are these?!  Sweet little tomato/berries that was such a wonder to me, I dreamt about them that night.  I also had some of the largest, sweetest chemical-free blackberries ever.  Delicious!!

Last, but not least, the Marietta Market, open on Sundays 9AM - 1PM.  Unfortunately, it's been cancelled tomorrow morning because of Hurricane Irene, which is such a shame, because every other week, they have yoga in the park at 1:30PM, and I was really looking forward to tomorrow.  When we went two Sundays ago, it was pouring rain.  But a little of nature's growth serum isn't enough to stop us from supporting our local community.  We just caught a vendor leaving with her chemical-free peaches, so we managed to snag some of the sweetest, juiciest peaches I'd had in a long time.  

One stand was particularly impressive, with a broad variety of chemical-free produce that was robust and beefy.  It almost prompted me to ask, "Are you sure growth hormones weren't used here?"  In the meantime, someone poured me a glass of tomato-lemonade - pureed golden tomatoes with honey and a squeeze of lemon.  Simple goodness that was bright and fresh.  Just the elixir on a torrential downpour of a day.

These are my three go-to markets.  They're close and give me great options three times a week.  My vision for a Portland, Oregon of the East Coast?  I think it's just playing Hide & Seek with me, and seek it out, I will...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Living Organically - Part 2

I went to visit an old family friend, Lorene.  She's a doctor living in Chicago who got into Eastern Medicine as a supplement to her Western training about 15 years ago, so she's a unique medical practitioner who balances both worlds.  She founded The Whole Life Center in Lagrange Park, IL.  I never remembered her as a kid since her younger sisters babysat me, so I figured she had to be at least 10, maybe 15 years older than I.  But when I actually saw her again, I saw a woman before me who looked no older than 35, 15 years younger than she is biologically.  That was the moment I was really sold.

I went to visit her because I have a mild blood condition that western medicine doesn't have a solution for.  They say they'll jump in if the condition becomes critical.  Really?  Critical?  And then the solution they have in mind has severe side effects.  So it seems like a lose/lose situation all around.  So my mom talked to her mom, and her mom talked to Lorene, and Lorene said there was a TON that could be done from the Eastern medicine point of view.  She's a specialist in nutrition as the first line of defense, so off to Chicago I went for a session with "Weastern" doctor who looks at life holistically.

One of the main things that she recommended was getting more Greens into my diet.  She recommended a book called Green for Life by Victoria Boutenko.  Downloaded it from Amazon onto my iPad's Kindle app and was reading it voraciously the very next day.  Isn't technology spectacular sometimes?  Such a simple, old concept that in this modern day and age we've forgotten all about.  The premise is this: we don't eat enough organic greens.  Not vegetables, mind you, but the deep leafy greens that you've heard time and time again when you get into the mode of wanting to be healthy in your life, and then you don't do it.  Why?  Because let's be honest.  McDonald's fries taste so much better!  In Boutenko's book, she facilely outlines why greens are just so important, and if someone had told me that while he or she perfunctorily said, "Eat more green vegetables," I would have heeded the advice much more ardently.  Boutenko's gig is to get the greens via smoothies.  Blend it all together and voila!  All the greens you're supposed to have!

Today, I ran to the local supermarket and for $20 got an organic smorgasbord of collard greens, mixed salad greens, swiss chard, green apples, bananas, and lemons.  We've now switched almost exclusively to organic produce, and we're now purchasing grass-fed, free-range meat and eggs.  Whoo hoo!  We're finding that we're not buying as much food because organic is more expensive, but we're also not wasting as much.  So our food bill evens out.

Into our Cuisinart went the whole lot of collard greens, 2 green apples, 1 bananas, the juice of half a lemon and 2 cups of water.  And as I'm wont to do, I didn't follow one of the myriad of recipes outlined in the book and thought I'd wing it.  Well, I didn't add enough water to the mixture and it came out all pulpy and fibrous.  But it was my first time "drinking" it and I didn't know what the texture was supposed to be.  I poured both Eric and myself a healthy glassful, and we sat there looking at each other as we sipped, and chewed at it like cows on the range.  Not bad, I thought.  At first.  Upon reaching the midpoint, I looked up and declared, "I can't do this.  I think I may throw up."  

I went back to the concoction, threw in another apple, another banana, and 2 more cups of water.  Alright, this is starting to look and taste more like a smoothie!  Thank goodness for the sweetness of the fruit, I say.  

But what to put it in?  Eric had an empty beer growler hanging around the kitchen.  Fair game.  Lorene told me that I had to keep my body's pH in balance.  Beer, she said, was acidic and if I could stay away from it, it would do my body good.  Ahhh....  so if I can't drink beer, I may as well replace it with this!!

A glass a day is supposed to keep everything away.  And this should take us a few days to get through.

I'd like to think we'll stick with this.  Eric actually really loved drinking it, and he proclaimed, "I think this is more greens that we've eaten all week!"  I'm sure that's true.  So check back, and I'll let you all know how it goes.  And wish me luck.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Beer is the new Wine

We celebrated a friend's birthday at Baltimore's Brewer's Art.  It's got four distinct spaces, giving me the initial impression that it just didn't know what it wanted to be.  Through the main entrance on Charles Street, it's a good-looking bar with cool woodwork and high ceilings.  The bright space then succumbs to its living room beatnik spill-over where philosophizing seems encouraged while lounging in comfortable and deep upholstered chairs.  That space meets up with the maitre d's stand which shields a gorgeously classic dining area where a jacket could have been required if we were still living in that kind of era.  But before entering that space, you could veer down the stairs to the left and find yourself in a completely different kind of divey dungeon where pub fare rules and the bathrooms are painted black and graffitied.  So can you blame me for wondering what was going on?

We found some cushy chairs in the lounge as we waited for the others in our party.  Eric got the sampler tray of everything they had on tap.  As I made my way around their lighter brews for the summer, I'm going to just say it straight out.  Despite the cool names like Ozzy, Resurrection, and Sublimation, they were disappointing.  I'm of the Ommegang and Chimay Blue ilk.  And if that's what you also like, you and I both would not be enjoying a pint of ANY of these.  

So I moved onto their extensive beer list to peruse their "Guest Beers."  They break them out by country, and the Belgians are broken out even by whether it's really made by the monks or not.  No doubt these guys know what they're talking about when it comes to beer.  It's just unfortunate that I couldn't get into their drafts.  But we shall revisit the discussion of "their beer" in just a moment.

I chose the satisfying Tripel Karmeliet with its golden color and refreshingly mild flavor. 

We were seated in that adoringly classic dining room with modern touches, and there was a sense of tentative hopefulness.  I've been skeptical about places that purport to have great beer AND great food.  In my broad experience of eating out, very, very rarely do the two meet in quality.  Either one or the other is the king of the owner's heart, and you can tell.  So we were hoping for the best, knowing that if it didn't work out, we'd have to celebrate that same birthday another weekend.  

Alas, the menu was creative and inspiring, driving much table discussion as to what would maximize gluttonous pleasure.  The appetizers were all winners.  The opulence of the Roasted Berkshire Pork Belly over cornbread and a rich sweet-savory Bourbon sauce, the freshness and vigor of the watermelon, feta and olive salad, but the knock-you-off-your-feet Ceviche was unfortunately, not mine.  The two glasses it was served in was combined en platter, and I don't recall ever having a ceviche with such a well balanced flavor.  Most times, it's way too acidic, but here, the flavor combination is impeccable, as is the generous portion of the seafood medley.

I dare say the appetizers may have upstaged the entrees.  Steak Frites was center stage with 75% of the carnivorous table ordering the dish.  We'd read much about how great the dish was and how the Rosemary Garlic Fries were out of this world.  I ordered the Pan-Seared Cobia, a nice, flaky mild fish that I would not hesitate to order again, but I'll admit that I was more intrigued with the Corn and Spring Onion Risotto.  Decadent, with a creamy mouthfeel, it did not disappoint.  The Steak, however, was met with less enthusiasm.  High expectations combined with the fact that we've got game with a steak cooked in our backyard, and this was a table of hard-to-please customers.  The fries, though, were pretty bangin'.  

But here was the ultimate finishing touch to the meal, and it gets back to the trade of the Brewer's Art, and then some.  Over the course of the meal, we enjoyed two of their brews in their liter bottles, in the same fashion as we would two bottles of wine.  Both were fantastic, but the Green Peppercorn Tripel took me to another space entirely.  Even upon sniffing the beer, you could smell it.  Then sipping it, it's such an unbelievably clear flavor of specifically green peppercorn, I just couldn't get over it.  And it was a KNOCKOUT pairing with the food!  

This meal changed my mind in a few different ways.  First, it's now my go-to example of a place that knows how to do both beer AND food well.  Second, I'm gamely and solidly a new Ambassador of Beer as the new Wine in fine dining.