Sunday, January 29, 2006

Woof! Woof! Happy Lunar New Year—Part 1: Introduction to Origins and Symbols

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

There are many tales on the origins of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. My favorite version is the one that describes the man-eating dragon Nian. He would terrorize the villagers once a year, but they soon realized that he feared the color red and loud noises—they used firecrackers and red objects to drive him away. The story is often told to young Chinese children and it is the basis for many of the Lunar New Year traditions we see in Chinese communities around the world today.

Lighting firecrackers was the way for the Chinese to send off the old year and bring in the new one. Today, fake firecrackers decorate shop windows of Chinatowns all over the world (some even imitate the explosive noises).

Chinese believe the color red can keep evil at bay and bring in good fortune. That is why everything is red during Lunar New Year—sometimes even the food! Oversized red lanterns decorate restaurant interiors, businesses will paste auspicious poem couplets on red paper along their doors, and everyone tries to wear as much red clothing as possible.

The first day of the Lunar New Year is today, January 29th, 2006. It is the Year of the Dog, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Those born in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, or 2006 are all under this sign and their personality characteristics are loyalty, generosity, honesty and compassion.

Much of the traditions surrounding Lunar New Year in Chinese culture are based on homonyms, using the sounds of Chinese characters and applying the meaning to similar sounding words.

For example, the word for “fish” (yu) sounds similar to the word for “abundance.” Hence, a family will serve a whole fish for the Lunar New Year Eve meal to encourage abundance for the family in the coming year. I found these decorative red fish hanging along the vendor stands of the New York Chinatown Lunar New Year Flower Market on Friday. Now that leads me to the next example…

In the Chinese language, the word for “flower” (hua) sounds like the word for “fortune.” In Chinese culture, flowers are said to bring luck and prosperity into the New Year and therefore traditionally many families will buy flowers to decorate their homes for the festivities.

Certain flowers (and fruits) are favored for specific auspicious symbolic values. Peach blossoms signify longevity and happiness. Narcissus implies good fortune and prosperity. The kumquat tree is a sign of wealth, luck, unity and perfection. I found many real and fake varieties on the streets of Chinatown as well as in the Flower Market, which is organized annually by MoCA, United East Athletics Association and the Asian American Arts Alliance.

Fruit is another important element in the traditions and symbols of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Families often buy oranges and tangerines to give to their guests—they represent abundant happiness. Pineapples are also auspicious symbols as well and you can find a fake gold one in the picture at the top of the post. Do you see it?

For the last two weeks, piles of citrus fruit have been on the street vendors carts. I’ve spotted grapefruit and loads of kumquats on a walk through Chinatown on Friday. Tangerines can be found in tin pans because they’re offered as such in Buddhist and Daoist temples as well as to the Kitchen God. More on the religious influences of Lunar New Year in a few days.

In the meantime, please come back tomorrow for Part 2: The Edible Sweet Treats of Chinese Lunar New Year.

In the spirit of this year’s zodiac and to put in my effort for SweetnicksWeekend Dog Blogging, here’s a new pic of D in her brightest New Year colors:

* Much of my information are sources from tour guide materials provided by MoCA.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

The 4x8 Meme

A few weeks ago Kalyn tagged me for another meme going around the blogosphere. Simply it is a list of things you’ve seen and done in your life in groups of 4.

So here goes:

Four Jobs You’ve Had in Your Life:

1. baby clothes retail assistant
2. museum docent/tour guide
3. curatorial collections assistant
4. babysitter

Four Movies You Could Watch Over and Over:

1. Pride and Prejudice (The BBC version with Colin Firth, NOT the new one with Keira Knightly)
2. Eat Drink Man Woman
3. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
4. Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison

Okay, so that's actually five movies--but really, aren't all Adam Sandler movies one and the same?

Four Places You’ve Lived:

1. Chicago, Illinois
2. Beijing, China
3. Taipei, Taiwan
4. New York, NY

Four Websites You Visit Daily

1. Food Blog S’cool
2. The New York Times
3. BBC News
4. Gridskipper

Four TV Shows You Love to Watch:

1. Animal Precinct
2. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
3. 60 Minutes
4. The Charlie Rose Show

Four of Your Favorite Foods:

1. Cheese (pretty much any kind will do)
2. Dark, slightly bitter chocolate (with a high cacao content)
3. Mexican Food (all of it but the pork dishes)
4. Tian bu la (a salty fish ball used in Southern Chinese hotpot)--it means "sweet not spicey" in Mandarin

Four Places You’d Rather Be:

1. Shanghai
2. Paris
3. London
4. Australia or New Zealand

To be honest, I love traveling and I’ve lived both around and outside the US for several extended periods of time, so I’m pretty comfortable being in other places, period. I just love the experience of a new city, new country.

Four People Who Are Now Obligated To Do This To Their Blog:

1. Barbara at Winos and Foodies
2. S’kat
3. Sarah at The Delicious Life
4. Cookiecrumb

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Weekend Dog Blogging #18

Are you thirsty?

D sure is :-)

*This photo has not been doctored. Boxers are known for their looooong tongues!

You can check out all the dogblogging action at Sweetnicks, our dog blogging guru ;-)

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Beet of this Rose

Music playing on the radio. Hillary Duff singing: "To the beet of my, to the beet of my, to the beet of my heart...."

Lately, I've been noticing beets just about everywhere.

It's been in dishes I've ordered at Compass and Roberto Passon, in recent food blogging recipes, and for sale at the farmer's markets.

Inspired by all this, I decided to concoct a beet recipe of my own. I had friends coming over to celebrate a birthday and I volunteered to make a dish of carbs. I figured slightly firm potatoes would go nicely with roasted beets. Taking a cue from Shauna, I added garlic, cilantro, tomatoes and capers. I decided to use balsamic vinegar instead of her recommended tomato vinegar--I love the sweetness of balsamic and I thought it would cut into the blandness of the potatoes.

My friends brought marinated eel and roasted veggies and we washed it all down with a bottle of 2002 Carneros Chardonnay from Larson Family Winery along with a bottle of 2004 Meridian Pinot Noir Central Coast. Between bites, we giggled and laughed at some of the more ridiculous outfits worn by the figure skaters at US Nationals. Who knew you could pair sequins and beets for a dinner with friends?

Roasted Beets with baby potatoes and balsamic vinegar

4 lb. red beets
2 lb. baby fingerling potatoes
Olive Oil
Freshly ground pepper
4 Tomatoes (vine ripened), cut into 1-2 in. chunks
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
½ cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
1 ½ tbsp. non-pareil capers
¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Smother unpeeled beets in olive oil and season generously with salt and ground pepper. Place in a pan and cover with foil.

Roast in the oven for about 50 min (I tend to check it a few times with a knife) or until tender. Remove from oven, cool, de-skin and then chill in the refrigerator.

While the beets are roasting and chilling, boil potatoes until tender, yet still a little firm (unless you like your potatoes mushy). Drain the potatoes, let them cool and then cut into 1-2 in. chunks. Set aside.

Cut the beets into 1-2 in. chunks and place in a large bowl. Mix and gently stir in the tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, capers and balsamic vinegar. Add the potatoes and stir very gently. Chill in the fridge for an hour.

Serves 6-8 people

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Whoo Hoo!

Finally! It is opening.

Now just a three month countdown for their amazing peanut butter.

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Too Much Information Meme

Mona tagged me for this irreverent meme going around the blogosphere:

Write 10 weird or random things about you that most people don't know about. Then tag 5 others for at the end of the post.

So, here's my stab at it:

10. I have a really funny way of eating deli pickle slices. I eat the middle soft core first, almost slurping it up into my mouth. Then I bite away the crunchy outer core.

9. I cannot carry a tune to save my life. I am so bad I don't even sing in the shower because I can't stand the way it sounds to myself.

8. I figure skated for 11 years, though I never competed.

7. I eat Jewish rye bread pretty strangely too. I like to peel the firm outer crust and eat it before I eat the soft interior.

6. Despite my moniker, I don't really like red roses all that much, I prefer champagne or peach colored varieties.

5. I am a huge Andy Rooney fan! I'll take him over Mike Wallace anyday!

4. I have been practicing Chinese painting and calligraphy on and off since my senior year of high school.

3. My favorite drink is a glass of ice wine. My favorite ice wine winery is Inniskillin.

2. My first formal training in Mandarin Chinese was with a group of first graders, but I was 16 years old at the time! My legs barely fit under the school desks. The kids giggled when I entered the room. (If only my calligraphy looked as good as the image below)

1. I've read Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish. Unfortunately, I don't remember all of it and would like to read it again--if I could ever find the time.

So whose weird ways would I like to know more about?

Well, how about Helen from Grab Your Fork?

Or Adam from the Amateur Gourmet?

Could Kel from Green Olive Tree tell us about some of her stranger habits?

What sort of wacky things does Robyn, aka The Girl Who Ate Everything, do?

And lastly, I'm very curious what interesting things Barbara from Tigers and Strawberries might reveal.

Looking forward to seeing all the oddities we posses :-)

UPDATE: Whoops! Robyn already did this meme and I laughed very hard while reading it. Well, I hope she does it again :-)

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Compass Restaurant

When my birthday was approaching, Papa Rose asked where I wanted to go to celebrate. I carefully considered my options, but really, what fine dining establishment should I choose?

Then, I read the comparison review of Café Luxembourg and Compass Restaurant in the Dining and Wine section of The New York Times. With Frank Bruni’s recommendations, I decided we should try Compass once more.

My first time at Compass, some three years ago, was a special dinner as well. I had just gotten my first job out of college and my proud parents wanted to celebrate. The meal was pretty good and although I don’t remember everything I had that night, I recall the lamb dish being hearty and flavorful. But when my parents went back there with friends some six months later, Mama Rose complained that the service and the food were rather uneven. None of us went back after that and I even came across an article that mentioned the restaurant was having issues with keeping a head chef.

Unlike our last visit, we were seated in one of the private rooms. The back wall was opened up with large windows looking into the kitchen. I’ve never been seated in such close proximity to be able to see the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen so it was I guess you could say it was a “dinner and a show” all in one.

The meal started with a palette cleanser from the kitchen, a spoonful of squid and scallops with baby greens—there was a hint of anise flavor that left a refreshing taste on my tongue.

Normally, I try to stay away from the bread basket when I dine at a particularly high end restaurants. I find that the bread usually fills me up and I don’t enjoy the rest of the meal as much. Being it was my birthday meal, I decided to at least sample the bread. I tore off pieces from several different kinds--all were good and decent, but nothing spectacular.

I was really intrigued by one of the special appetizers our waitress mentioned. It was a salad of heirloom beets and ruby red grapefruit with Greek yogurt and pistachios.

Beets and grapefruit? I was very curious.

The salad really blew me away. The acidity of the grapefruit cut through with the sweetness of the beets and the yogurt’s smoothness really blended all the other elements together. What a terrific combination of ingredients I would never think would go so great together.

Therefore, I was doubly excited to try the veal tenderloin I ordered as an entrée. You see, this is the first time I’d be eating veal in almost 18 years. As a kid, I watched a young calf born at summer camp and then traumatized when my counselor told me the “truth” about inner workings of veal production. I couldn’t bring myself to touch the meat again for years and eventually just got used to skipping it when I looked at menus.

As I had jumped into new territory with my appetizer, I decided to take a risk and try the veal. The tenderloin was accompanied with a side of roasted potatoes, red peppers and artichokes. With such hope for this dish, I was looking forward to a juicy chunk of meat full of flavor. Unfortunately what I got was a rather large, tough and rather texture-less hunk of meat. Granted, I hadn’t had veal in so long, I didn’t really remember what it was supposed to taste like, but I do know that meat in general should be tender and retain some sort of flavor. This entrée did not do that and although it wasn’t horrible, it was a bit deflating after such a great appetizer. The side was pretty savory, but it lacked creativity—I felt I could find this in a diner.

For dessert I had a bowl of mango mousse—it was like a tangy and sweet chilled soup. It wasn’t the most impressive dessert I’ve had, but it hit the spot after such a hearty entrée.

For libations, we shared a bottle of Gruner Veltliner Smaragd 2003. Just a bit of sparkle, this white was a little dry but with a sweet overtone. It matched my light appetizer perfectly and was vigorous enough to cut through the tough veal.

I topped my meal with a glass of dessert wine. I love dessert wines. It is the drink of choice at the end of a meal. Usually it is not within my graduate student budget to be able to order it often, but it was my birthday. I settled on a glass of 2002 Hopler Trockenbeerenauslese Neusiedlersee. This Austrian vintage holds a lot of complexity and it had tones of spices like nutmeg and clove. Mama Rose, a newbie to dessert wine, took a sip and loved the wine’s sweet zing.

Compass’ interior is slightly darkened, yet cozy. We were one of two tables occupying a room that looked out to the main dining room in addition to the view of the kitchen. Without the hustle, bustle and noise of other diners, it felt like we were having our own private dinner—for a birthday meal that made me feel just a little bit special.

Compass makes a good stab at being creative in the kitchen. I’m not sure if my disappointment in my entrée had more to do with my inexperience with veal or the dish itself. Only another visit to the restaurant will give me a chance to see what other interesting dishes the can produce. But overall I was pleased with my meal and I’d recommend it for those looking for a place for a dinner celebration.

Compass Restaurant
208 West 70th Street
New York, NY 10023
(212) 875-8600

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A cookie with no name...

Surfing through my favorite food blogs, I came across this discussion about a mysterious and nameless bakery producing yummy cookies down in the East Village.

Like bars that don't have signage in order to remain hip for "those in the know", maybe this is the new way NYC bakeries are trying to make a name for themselves (since there seems to be a new one popping up each week).

Looks like I have to check out a new bakery...hopefully I can find it!

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Goodbye Matzo Ball Soup...

Please, a moment of silence for the passing of one of NYC's most beloved dining institutions.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Weekend Dog Blogging #16

It is freezing today here in the greater NYC region. And D is colddddd! So it was time to pull out her brand new coat. It is a very very bright orange--brighter than even the butternut squash soup I made last night.

A warm bowl of soup was the perfect respite from the chilly air. It paired beautifully with a large chunk of sourdough.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

And the winner is...

Karine Perttula!

Come on down Karine...You've just won a historic walking tour of Chinatown restaurants for up to four people!

Send me an email and we'll plot the specifics.

A Menu for Hope campaign raised over $17,000!!!! WOW. Thank you to everyone who contributed and congratulations to all the winners.

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