Sunday, April 22, 2012

New thing #26: Epicurious Cooking School

Our good friends shared their gift certificate from Epicurious Cooking School by inviting us to join them at their home for an in-house cooking demonstration. Chef Sean Gartland brought all the ingredients for a terrific dinner, then showed us how to put it all together with hands-on demonstrations and insightful tips. As he puts it, his goal is to encourage the natural curiosity we all have in the kitchen so we can discover our inner chefs.

The menu was planned with the hostess in advance, so our theme for tonight was healthy cooking using seasonal produce. When we arrived at our friends gorgeous kitchen - seriously, this place should be on Cribs - Chef Sean had already set up his mise en place and was ready to start cooking. Now when I said he brought everything to prepare a delicious dinner, I meant it - pots, pans, knives, bowls, chopping boards, food processor, bamboo steamer, oils, herbs, seasonings, veggies, meats, etc. The only thing he didn't provide was the place settings. He gave each of us a set of the recipes he was preparing that evening, and invited us to participate as much as we wanted in the chopping and stirring.

Chef Sean has an easy and comfortable presentation style, honed as a chef instructor at The Chopping Block Cooking School in Chicago. He explained each step of the process while mixing in stories about his family and his days as a chef in Traverse City and Chicago. We learned a ton of new things - how to pick the freshest produce, the right way to hold a knife and chop, the difference between shallots and scallions, getting the oil just right to toast couscous, prepping vegetables for the grill so they cook evenly, what to ask the butcher at the market, when a protein has reached medium rare, how to use a bamboo steamer (gotta get me one of those) and more. But I'm not sharing any of the secrets here. If you want to know, you'll have to invite Chef Sean into your home.

We feasted on grilled vegetable and couscous salad with fresh pesto, grilled asparagus with caper vinaigrette, steamed salmon with bok choy and snap peas topped with ginger soy butter, and grilled pound cake with balsamic strawberries. Our hosts provided beer, Michigan wines and coffee to round out the dinner and insisted that Chef Sean join us to eat. And when we were done, he even cleaned up the kitchen! We can't wait to have him back again for another class or dinner party.

UPDATE 04/2013:  Chef Sean has changed the name of his cooking school to "Feast".  You can find his new website here

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New thing #25: Hot yoga

I like yoga but I don't go on a regular basis. I'm not sure why, since yoga classes are included in our gym membership.  Maybe it's because the last couple times I've gone, I've been plagued with muscle cramps. It's pretty embarrassing when your leg cramps up in the middle of Downward Dog and you topple over. Or maybe it's because I haven't found a teacher with whom I really connect, or a class time that's convenient.  But after spending 20 hours in an airplane, I needed a good stretch.

I wanted to try hot yoga, where the room is heated to around 100 degrees. This heats up your body to allow for deeper stretching, and is supposed to help detox by flushing impurities out with your sweat, among other benefits. There is a hot yoga studio near our house, so The Girl and I decided to try a drop-in class last night. They were offering Yin Yoga, an hour of slow passive stretching. The poses are held as you slowly control your breathing, and you keep your muscles passive in order to work deeper into the joints and tissues.

We were running late, dashing into the studio at the last minute to find the class nearly full. The room felt pleasantly warm since it was chilly out, and had that undeniable sweaty gym smell. We found a couple spots to unroll our mats just as the class began. Ceiling fans spun lazily to keep the air moving gently, the lights were dimmed and tranquil music played. It didn't take long for the room to heat up. I quickly realized that the hand towel I brought was way to small to keep me from sticking to my yoga mat. But just as I started to worry about 'head rush', my body adjusted to the temperature and I began to feel comfortable.

We both really liked the hot Yin Yoga class. It was not a workout, but it definitely worked out the kinks. I didn't have any problem with cramping, even though I was slightly dehydrated. And the instructor struck a perfect balance of being spiritual without being overbearing or apologetic. She named each pose, then described it clearly while demonstrating the moves. She noticed that some of us were clenching our jaws and gently reminded us to relax. And she kept us focused on breathing, breathing, breathing. Maybe it was all that oxygen, but both The Girl and I would like to go back another day and try a more intense class.

Monday, April 9, 2012

New thing #24: Rod Nahm Dum Hua

My trip to Thailand ended just before the start of one of the biggest and wildest annual festivals, Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year. While there are several different traditions associated with Songkran, the most important ritual of the festival is the splashing of water. This symbol of cleansing and renewal ranges from the respectful ceremony of "Rod Nahm Dum Hua", to an all out water war in the streets, where everyone gets drenched in a carnival atmosphere. Although I didn't get to experience the entire celebration, I was privileged to participate in a version of Rod Nahm Dum Hua that took place at our office in Thailand.

During a break between shifts, we were invited to the cafeteria where four chairs were lined up in a row. We sat and large engraved silver bowls were placed at our feet. The ceremony was explained to us - each person would dip a small silver cup into a bucket of water that was scented with jasmine and orchid petals, then they would take turns pouring the water over our hands. They were doing this to show respect and ask for blessings for the new year. The water was warm and smelled wonderful, as did the lei of orchids and jasmine that was placed around our necks. Everyone was in a party mood, laughing and smiling as they poured the water carefully over our clasped hands and wished us a Happy New Year. A tub containing a watery paste of white clay appeared, and everyone started smearing it on each other's faces. One of the girls apologized as she wiped it on my cheeks, explaining it was another part of the tradition meant to ward away evil spirits and provide protection. When everyone had finished pouring the water, we drank sodas and ate snacks and took pictures of each other's clay faces. It was a very welcoming and fun experience and the highlight of my trip to Thailand.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

New thing #23: Visiting Thailand

The Good: Friendly and welcoming people; colorful chaotic cities; ornate shrines in unexpected places; palm trees full of coconuts; fresh and spicy seafood; beautiful mountain vistas; listening to Thai cover bands singing GNR and the Boss.

The Bad: Lady-boys, prostitutes and snake charmers; tourists dragging their kids through the red light district; trash on the streets and beaches; humidity; giant bugs; paying for toilet paper in public restrooms.

& The Ugly: Fish pedicures. Don't do it:

For about $4 you can stick your feet in a tank of dirty water and have small carp nibble the dead skin off your toes.  Hello Hepatitis.
For less than $3 you can stick your feet in a tank of dirty water
and have tiny little carp nibble the dead skin off your toes.
Hello Hepatitis.