Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Definitive Guide to Planning a Foodie Wedding on a Budget

If 2013 was the year of world-wide travel for us, 2014 has been the year of weddings. Starting with ours. We got married in May. And in June. We got married twice so we could share and celebrate with families both in North and South America. For us, the timing was just perfect: we had been engaged for a few years already and our original intent was to honeymoon it in Brazil for the World Cup. However, the timing was not ideal for our wallets since we had just returned from our nine months of travel and had just started to replenish our piggy banks.

Instead of stressing out about it, we knew from the beginning we were going to have a very casual, budget-friendly wedding in California. I also knew from the beginning that as far as logistics went, food was my priority and I would not budge on in terms of quality and deliciousness. During our multi-day treks in Ethiopia and long bus rides in Sri Lanka, we would mentally plan our wedding and throw numbers together in our heads to see how we could work with a tiny budget.

Our challenge was to do a great wedding with a hundred and forty guests for five thousand dollars. Insane. I know. But it didn't seem too impossible and I love getting creative with money and food. In the end, we got our dream wedding for $6k and I loved every blissful second of it. I never turned into a bridezilla (so I'm told) and the whole thing was a ton of fun and not all that stressful.

If you are tight on money and want to have a foodie wedding, this is the definitive how-to guide. Or at least it's my how-to. But first, three words of advice on general wedding planning:

First
Set your priorities. For us it was food as #1 and then a casual vibe as #2. Your priorities will drive your budget. If you want a foodie wedding, then make sure that food makes your top two.

Second
Congrats! You're engaged and make sure to give yourself the gift of time if you can. Try not to rush into the wedding. If you can give yourself a year or at least nine months to plan, you will increase your chances of not turning into a nut-case and having an enjoyable wedding planning experience.

Third
DIY. When it comes to budget, planning and doing a wedding yourself is key. Ask family and friends to help. From the point of view of saving money, I would advise against a wedding planner (make friends and family your planners), a DJ (iPod or iPhone plus portable speakers are great DJs), table staff (we hired college kids) and bar tenders (tap a keg and give people wine bottle openers for self-service). The only exception is a photographer so go ahead and spend money on that. Buy all of your decorations piece by piece over time and store them at home. On wedding day, recruit your planners to help you decorate. Oh and by the way, a day wedding is more economical than a night one.

Recycled wood and white paint: voila!


Now, the FOOD.

Venue
Definitely go for a venue that gives you 100% freedom to figure out your own food. For a naturally beautiful setting, I'd highly recommend you consider renting out a space at your local county or state park. It's cheaper than almost any venue and they allow you to do almost whatever you want. Plus, if there are tables there already then you don't have to spend money renting them. We reserved two picnic areas in a park and the whole thing cost us $600. Tables and chairs included.

Redwood park venue

Choosing a restaurant/caterer 
Since we have agreed that food is a priority, the first thing to do is to not go with a traditional wedding caterer. They're expensive and the trick to their business is not delicious food but the sweet margins they'll make from you. A strategy that worked really well for us was to think outside the box and to ask the most unusual suspects if they catered. Our first choice was an amazing seafood Sinaloa taco truck in a less than ideal part of East Oakland. Unfortunately, food trucks couldn't drive into the forest so that didn't work out. Too bad because they would've done the whole thing for $900. Instead, we found a great tiny hole in the wall Mexican joint further down the street from the Sinaloan spot that had delicious home-made cooking and even used Niman Ranch beef! Although it was only $300 more dollars than the food truck, it was still a great deal. Plus, Taco Grill is the best Mexican food we have found in the Bay Area so far and the owner was a pleasure to work with. So what I suggest is to go "hole in the wall hopping" and sample a wide variety of food from these small restaurants. Once you have found a few that you love, ask them if they cater. If they do, you're probably in business.

Taco Grill Goodness

Ordering
Try not to mention the "w" word from the beginning just because it tends to hike up prices by at least 20%. Say you're curious about their catering options for your party size—ours was 140—and you're wondering what kind of service they offer. We opted to not get any appetizers or drinks (seemed like it just added to the bill because people would be guzzling beer and wine) and just focused on the food. We wanted to make sure every guest could stuff themselves (God forbid you run out of food!) but we estimated about two tacos and a tamale for each person, which is already too much, plus side dishes like veggies and salad. We ordered food we actually liked instead of trying to cater to our vegan, gluten-free, dairy intolerant, raw food, whatever-else-is-out-there friends. We only got pork, beef and veggies.... because that's what we wanted. As far as finances, the total came out to under $9 per person for a very filling lunch. Not bad. Plus, set up and two servers were included in our order.

Appetizers
We didn't get appetizers from Taco Grill because we figured we could do it ourselves. The only exception was the 380 oz (almost 3 gallons) of their home-made guac—it's to die for, we didn't want it running out and was worth the investment! This is when Costco really came through. We kind of have a thing for cheese so we bought 13 pounds of all kinds of gourmet cheese for a massive cheese platter. We finished up the appetizer tables with strawberries, blueberries and grapes, all kinds of fun crackers (we didn't opt for bread or other types of fruit because it would've been a pain to slice/cut), chips and guac. I think we spent around $300 total on appetizers.

Keeping it simple: berries, cheese, crackers /chips and guac

Drinks
Our venue did not allow hard liquor so it made our choice nice and easy: wine and beer. We got a 15 gallon keg of golden ale, a 15 gallon keg of black lager, and a five gallon keg of IPA from one of our favorite local breweries, Linden Street, for about $150 total. We could've easily gotten away with one 15 gallon keg plus a five gallon keg and spent even less. Wine was a big challenge initially. Our goal was to spend $5 per bottle for GOOD wine, which involved a lot of sampling but gave us a great excuse to have a lot of wine dinner parties! Living in the Bay Area, we decided we would be able to score at some of the Sonoma wineries so we did some tasting weekends up in wine country. There were no deals to be had! We then tried the 0.5 cent sale at BevMo! but those wines were actually too expensive and just not very good. Maybe $5/bottle was too ambitious... until we wine sampled at Trader Joe's. We were shocked at how good their less expensive wine tasted. We ended up settling for about six cases of mostly red and some whites. There were definitely $3.99 bottles in there that tasted quite good! We also got lucky and one of our friends who works at a winery in Napa hooked us up with three cases of very good wine and charged us at cost so we were able to offer our guests a very nice bottle for their first few glasses. So my advice is to go on some wine tastings just for the fun of it if you're going to have wine at your wedding but if you're pressed for time just skip it all and give Trader Joe's a try. We ended up spending around $500 on wine and stayed on budget. To be honest, no one drinks that much wine at a day wedding so we could've spent $350 total and still be fine. The risk of running out while we were planning the wedding kept us on the more conservative end of things but, oh well, now we have wine for the remainder of the year!

Don't forget the non-booze drinks! 

Cake
I don't have a sweet tooth and I don't really like cake or anything sugary for that matter. Neither of us wanted a wedding cake so we were looking for alternatives like huge bowls of sliced fruit or dark chocolate truffles. But there was no time to buy a lot of fruit and cut it up and a minimum of 300 chocolate truffles would ruin the wallet. A month or so before the wedding we still had no f***ing clue about the whole dessert thing and it was starting to get a little stressful. Thankfully, our dear friend and neighbor invited us over for a charcuterie and sangria party and they randomly got a red velvet bundt cake for dessert. I focused 99.99% of my attention on the beautiful salame, smoked turkey, fig, goat cheese, green apple, honey and brie display he had made and I wouldn't have even tried a pinch of that cake if it wasn't for his urging. I gave in and had a tiny taste of the cake and I was sold. It was a delicious, chocolatey, velvety, moist, ridiculous cake! We ordered eight for our wedding from Nothing Bundt Cakes and were finally able to solve our dessert conundrum. For your wallet's sake, my advice is to avoid the whole traditional wedding cake route and get something you actually like to eat. If it does not come in an extra large size, just order 3 or 4x the amount and you'll be all set. I think we spent about $240 on all eight cakes and it was such a hit I know I went for seconds and almost everyone else I talked to at the wedding did too!

One of the few cakes I'll ever eat

So, let's run the food tab:
Booze: .......... $650
Appetizers: ... $300
Lunch: .......... $1,250
Cake: ............ $240

Let's round that total up to $2,500.

The rest looked more or less like this:
Photographer: .... $1,300
Decorations: ...... $500
Wedding dress: .. $40
Venue+Uhaul: ... $800
Miscellaneous: ... $400

For a $6,000 wedding, that's not bad at all. And to be honest, we really did get a lot of food and booze. Although we had a small budget, we never compromised on taste or quality and focused on getting truly delicious food for our guests and us. We had a keg and a half of great local beer left over, about three or four glorious cakes that we ate for the rest of the weekend and froze, BOMB Mexican leftovers even after people went up for triples (!!), about two blocks of awesome cheese we stashed in our fridge and approximately four cases of really good wine.  I'm not saying that I wanted to—a foodie's worst nightmare, running out of food, kept me in check—but less food could have been purchased, allowing even more breathing room for all the rest of the wedding stuff. But regardless we were thrilled to accomplish our goal of having a fun, relaxed and casual wedding with the best food ever.

If you're a foodie, don't let a small budget scare you into compromising on your passion. Have fun with it and get creative, you'll be amazed at how exciting the process can be and how budget-friendly wedding food can be. Remember to relax and to enjoy sharing the best day of your life with your closest friends and family. Most important, eat, drink and be merry.

**This post is dedicated to our friends who came from far and near, our amazing and supportive families who put up with us and dedicated countless hours to help us plan and set up our wedding, our amazing wedding officiant and his wife, our musicians and all of you we know wish could have been there but could not make it. Above all, I dedicate this to my brilliant, loving and talented husband Eliot: I'm excited about the adventurous and food-filled times we'll get to share for the rest of our lives.**

Mr. and Mrs. Peper

PS: feel free to reach out to me with any questions. I left out a LOT of wedding planning stuff because there is just so much that goes into a wedding but I'd be happy to try to help if I can!

All of the photos on this post were taken by our great photographer, Praise. Check her out if you want a good, affordable photographer: www.comeplum.com

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Confessions of a Sabbatical Returnee

Whoa, those BLUES came out of nowhere...

It happened within hours of returning to California from Burning Man and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The 9-month world foodventure that started in Nepal, brought us to Ethiopia, Indonesia and a lot of other places in between had just ended. Although we spent a few days in Los Angeles and San Diego immediately after we left Singapore, it was all in preparation for Burning Man, which felt like it was closer to being in Mars than being in the USA. The acknowledgment process that our fantastic sabbatical was finally over did not start until we unpacked our playa dust covered backpacks and started cleaning up after spending a week in the insane desert up in Black Rock City.

From one moment to the next, there wasn't somewhere to be, something to pack or  some way to figure out how to get from point A to point B. It all just felt "settled" and static. I realized something was wrong when I was sleeping-in and did not even want to get out of bed, talk to anyone or go out to socialize. I didn't know why I was feeling so funky but after a few days, as I was sitting in the parked car just staring out into space, I jerked back a little and realized I was depressed. Depressed! How did I just go from being so obnoxiously happy and content to actually feeling depressed? Change.

I'm a fan of change. I like spontaneity. Routine can get boring. But routine can also get addicting and it doesn't take much to get used to. When that routine is fun and involves traveling the world, it's even easier to get used to. This change was too abrupt. Everything was too different. Everything seemed too dull. Worst of all, everything felt too serious. I felt immense amounts of pressure to "get serious" and go back to work and start being productive. Thinking about it made it worse and I felt even more depressed. I started feeling anxious that I was getting myself into some deep negative emotional hole that I had no interest in experiencing. This whole return business was just awful.

It remained awful for a few days until I broke my awkward silence and started talking about it. I broke the silence because I realized I was focusing on the wrong things. I kept wishing that I was back on the trip and not permanently in California. I wanted to hop on a plane so bad and disappear again. But I realized that this was no different from dealing with reverse ear block 15 feet below the ocean surface, mouse infested guesthouses in the middle of nowhere or being covered in white and green gunk from a sickly woman who just sneezed all over you in a cramped bus (gross, I know, but that did happen). 

Those of us who have the luxury of choice are extremely fortunate. I finally got out of the fog and chose to have a different perspective and to start talking about how I was feeling. By making this choice and with Eliot's incredible support and patience, I was able to get out of what felt like a self-induced brief spout of mild depression. I'm lucky it was easy for me. It's not that easy for others tormented by this illness...

I have since loved being in the Bay Area, and have gone on endless hikes in the redwoods, eaten at the best hole in the wall places and discovered that if you're a foodie, Christmas is possible every day if you live close enough to Berkeley: it's called Berkeley Bowl.

Fellow travelers: if you're ever stuck in that dark hole, just remember that you have a choice and make sure you surround yourself by a strong, supportive community who'll help you get out of it. The adventure of life never stops, no matter what changes may come or where you may find yourself. Get out there. Eat your heart out. Never stop adventuring.

****In memory of our beloved friend Brian****


Sunday, June 8, 2014

The food adventures continue in California!

This is a very brief post but I just wanted to announce that the food adventures are back! Get ready for several posts on California food adventures: from olive oil and shrub tastings to finding authentic lebanese and thai hole in the wall establishments, the eating and finally the cooking (oh the COOKING!) has not stopped.

Sunday funday: home-made brunch!



Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Got any regrets? Burn 'em!

Not a bad bonfire
Dust storms rage across an apocalyptic landscape filled with brightly painted bodies writhing to the pulsing rhythm of electro beats highlighted by intricately orchestrated laser light patterns and roaring belches from a dozen military-grade flame throwers. 

Sound like a good place to seek enlightenment? Maybe not, but Burning Man is the frenetic center of the world's creative class and there are a lot of lessons we can all learn from what for many is an annual pilgrimage.

In 1986, Larry Harvey was dumped by his girlfriend. He took it hard and the doom and gloom of a failed relationship soon set in. But then he had an idea. He invited some of his friends to a bonfire on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Then he crafted a wooden figurine and added it to the flames. 

The "Burning Man" was himself. More specifically, it represented all the things he wanted to let go of so that he could turn a new page in life. It wound up being an interesting page to turn: since that first year Burning Man has moved to the desert in Black Rock City, Nevada and evolved into a 60,000+ person event.

There are 10 core values that form the cultural foundation for the event. The seriousness with which participants live by these values really transforms the event. Three of those values in particular shaped our experience every single day :
  • Radical inclusion. Anyone and everyone participates. Whether you're into tap dancing, software development, BDSM, environmental activism or corporate finance, you're invited. Participants set aside judgement and accept each other for who and what they are.
  • Radical self reliance. Everyone is camping in an extremely harsh desert environment. Given the sheer volume of people, large art installations, moving parts, sandstorms and flamethrowers my guess was that approximately thirty five people would die during the event. To our amazement, nobody diedThe worst injury we witnessed during the entire week was a bike collision (the riders were naked which didn't help). Everybody has to pack in and out their own shelter, food, water, shade, etc.
  • Gifting. No cash is allowed at Burning Man (the only exceptions are for buying coffee and ice). Instead, participants bring things to give away if they want. We were gifted individually made Vietnamese iced coffees, a ride in bike taxi,  gourmet Montreal meat sandwiches, ceremonial green tea worth more than its weight in gold, a lecture on microeconomics, and much much more.   It reminded me of the potlatch ceremonies of the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.
The unifying theme of the event is letting go. Whether it's your cultural moors, societal norms, emotional baggage, or clothing, you're encouraged to leave it at the door. The result is an atmosphere of imagination. The air is permeated with possibility (and dust) and thoughts are unleashed beyond their normal boundaries.

You may not want to go camping in the desert, but every one of us could let go more often. We require permission only from ourselves to live the lives we want to live. Burn those regrets, tomorrow's a new day.


Co-posted on www.eliotpeper.com

Friday, November 8, 2013

Less and longer: a few words of wisdom on traveling right

So you’ve saved and budgeted for your trip and now it’s finally time to plan your itinerary. Six months of travel time stretches out before you like a magic carpet. So many opportunities to explore exotic locales! So much time to explore all those places on your bucket list!

Ahh, your bucket list… How many boxes will you be able to check? You have six months. Why not do the Inca Trail, explore Patagonia, go shark diving in South Africa, eat dumplings in China, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, go to a full moon party in Thailand and find yourself at an Indian ashram? Hell, you should probably throw in an Italian cooking class and a camel riding in Morocco for good measure. It all sounds great. Until, of course, you hit the brick wall of reality.

Inside a hellish bus for a heinous ride through Nepal
Travel can be hard, frustrating and draining. You start to think about that into your second day into a thirty-hour bus ride in Nepal where the space between the seats was apparently designed to be perfect for two-year-olds and there’s a box of meat rotting in the back. Or when you arrive in your fourth Tanzanian town and every single local is trying to cheat you for forty times the proper cost of accommodation. Or maybe when you get violently sick in the middle of the wilderness with no hospital (or road) for days. These are the times when you start to appreciate two magic words: less and longer.

Less really is more. Don’t stack your itinerary. It’s far better to spend two months than two weeks in any given country on your list. And in that country it’s far better to spend two weeks rather than two days in any given city or destination.

By doubling down on particular places you kill two birds with one stone. First, because you’re in one place for a long time you’ll find that perfect beach bungalow owned by the local mayor’s family and get invited to a massive wedding party where you make friends for life. If you were only there for two days you’d probably be at that guesthouse with decent but outdated reviews from Lonely Planet that now has a cockroach infestation.

Second, you minimize your exposure to the bane of all travelers: logistics. You don’t spend half of your time in country on a local bus. You don’t discover that your fourteenth taxi driver rifled through your bags. You don’t loose you luggage on an avoidable regional airline flight. You've taken six months off, use that time wisely: with less and longer you'll interact more with locals, enhance the quality of your experience and maintain very healthy levels of personal relaxation.

Basically, you’ve taken the work out of the travel. By staying longer in each place you actually get a feel for the local life there instead of blazing through in a series of photoflashes. As you get ready to plan your trip, doing a country a month would be a good rule of thumb. You may not check as many boxes but you’ll learn a lot more about yourself, a lot more about the country you’re visiting and a lot more about the true meaning of fun!


Co-posted on www.eliotpeper.com

Monday, November 4, 2013

Finding mind-blowing coffee in the most unusual places

If I had to pick one thing that makes Ethiopia one of the most unique traveling experiences, I would say it's all in the small Coffea arabica beans. I'm not one of those coffee crazed people who needs coffee to function but I do enjoy a fantastic cup of coffee every once in a while. The great thing about Ethiopia is that I found fabulous coffee everywhere. Instead of my usual three cups of tea a day habit, I started drinking coffee at least three times a day while visiting the former Abyssinia empire. Being completely surrounded by the wonderful frankincense, freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee smells made it impossible to refuse a cuppa. Cafes felt like magnets and we'd often find ourselves walking in and ordering macchiatos almost involuntarily. Even while we were trekking for a few weeks in the northern highlands of Ethiopia where there is absolutely no running water or electricity whatsoever, we found light, medium and dark roasts and still enjoyed coffee before and after almost every meal.

Good with our Sumatran breakfast but not the best coffee ever
I knew I wasn't going to drink good coffee either in Sri Lanka or in Maldives but I was genuinely excited about Sumatran coffee. I was actually quite disappointed with the coffee there and the best one I was able to find was an Illy roast served at a small cafe at Lake Toba. Everything else paled in comparison to Ethiopia's delightful coffee so I stuck to fresh coconut water instead.


Not the fanciest roasting equipment but it works!
I had not lost all hope on good coffee as I knew we'd spend all of September up in the Bay Area and I had heard very good things about new cafes that were doing exceptionally well. I decided to check them out and first went to Blue Bottle Coffee in Downtown San Francisco - the cafe is very hipster and they have all the chemistry experiments set up to brew what many people say is amazing coffee. Amazing in San Francisco comes with a price so Eliot and I ended up paying $9 for two iced coffees. I anxiously waited for my order and I grabbed the tall, skinny glass full of ice and coffee. I took my first sip and did not like it at all. Wait, what? My taste buds must have clearly been wrong. Everyone here seemed to love the coffee and even at 3pm, there was a line of at least 15 people going out the door and wrapping around one of the street corners. I took my second sip and I sighed. I sighed out of disappointment because my iced coffee just wasn't that good. For the price, it was actually bad. I have to admit I only had one of their drinks so I can't speak for the rest but I do not get what all the hype is about with Blue Bottle Coffee.

Later that week I decided to give San Francisco's hip and trendy coffee scene another shot. This time I went to Four Barrel Coffee in the mission and I decided to stay away from the iced coffee and just get their cup of coffee. For $2.50, I received a freshly brewed cup of coffee and didn't add any milk or sugar to it. Four Barrel Coffee roasts its own beans so I was hopeful that my coffee would be delightful. Again, pretty big disappointment with my first two sips. It wasn't the worst coffee I've ever had but it just wasn't spectacular - I left half of it behind and didn't even finish my cup. Four Barrel Coffee had a full house that day and it was 4pm. Everyone there seemed to love their drink except me.

Is exceptional coffee just that hard to find? Or is my particular and biased taste towards Ethiopian coffee ruining my coffee drinking experience now that I'm back in the US?

Colorado and amazing coffee, who would've guessed?
The answers seem to be maybe for the first one and thankfully no to the second question. Just was I mentally preparing for giving up on most cafe's, I happened to run into an amazing micro roaster and cafe in Leadville, Colorado out all places.

City on a Hill is one of the few cafes in this small mountain town. They pride themselves on roasting their own coffee and on serving great cappuccinos. I was a little skeptical based on my Bay Area experiences but decided to give it a go anyway. And my oh my was I glad I did! Finally! A fantastic cup of coffee! There was no bitterness whatsoever to my drink and it was neither too wet or too dry. Although the taste wasn't exactly like the coffee in Ethiopia, the quality was insanely high and I have a feeling it all had to do with the care City on a Hill takes when roasting their green coffee beans, just as Ethiopians care so much about taking 45 minutes aside to make a few cups of coffee from scratch. If you ever find yourself in the Leadville area, a trip to this coffee oasis will be worth the stop (hours and directions are here: http://www.cityonahillcoffee.com/about-us/).

Can non-export quality coffee beans still make good coffee just like they do in Ethiopia? Can you still get just "meh" coffee even if the beans are high, export quality?Is the secret to fabulous coffee in the roasting? I think it is, and I think I'm onto something...

Smell that heavenly goodness! 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Words of wisdom from grill master Mr. Castle

Grilling is a very fun and tasty way to prepare food. Throughout our travels we found plenty of coal BBQs and outdoor cooking with wood. In the United States, gas grilling is much more popular and we've been enjoying very flavorful and juicy meals, straight off the grill. But not all food from a grill is, juicy, tender or delicious. So what's the secret?

First things first, buy the right equipment. Look for a gas grill with a high BTU output. Look for about 10,000 BTUs per burner anything lower could jeopardize your grilling experience. Look for a grill with stainless steel components (burners, flavoring bars and grates). This will cost you more initially but will last for ever.

Grilling in Indonesia - coals and low BTUs

Taking care of your grill. 
The best way to clean the grill is with a steel wire brush immediately after you're done grilling your food. Dip the brush in water and brush the grill racks while they're hot. This is very similar to giving your gas grill a steam bath. It gets hot so it is best to wear heat resistant gloves if you want to keep your arm hairs on you. You'll probably keep the grill outside so make sure to get a snug cover for it, it will reduce rust and wear and tear.

For grilling meats, novices will do best by using a meat thermometer. So, here's a quick guide to grilling like a pro -- no more dry, rubbery, un-chewable meats!

Part I.
Chicken

Turn on your grill and turn on your burners on high -- as high as they go (for larger grills you only need to turn on one side). If your grill has a built-in thermometer, check it and you know it is done once it's reached the highest temperature (between 400 and 500 degrees F depending on the grill). Grab your marinated chicken and put it directly on top of the flame. For chicken breasts with bone and skin, put the bone side down first about 3 minutes. Then repeat on the other side. For skinless, boneless breasts, put the convex side down first (this part of the breast has a thin film on it). For non-breast chicken pieces, put them on the grill any way, cooking on high for about 3 minutes on each side.

After cooking on high heat - you can either move the chicken away from the flame or you can leave it in the middle, turning off the middle burners and turning on the laterals. The point is you want the chicken off the direct flame and you want it cooking with an indirect flame.

When is it done? For smaller pieces like drumsticks and thighs, it should take about 15 minutes. It will be done once the meat is tender and coming off the bone (if there are bones). You can open it up a little bit with a knife and make sure there is no pink, the meat should be completely white. For the chicken breast, a grilling thermometer will be your best aide. Once you reach the poultry temperature, you're all set. Once you've grilled enough, you won't even need a thermometer and you can "just tell".

Important tip: once you turn down the flame, close the lid and keep it closed until it's done.

Part II.
Salmon

Perfectly cooked salmon
Heat up grill on the highest setting. Use heavy duty foil and put a little bit of oil on it, placing the foil directly on the rack as the grill heats up so the foil is hot.

Place the salmon on the foil skin side down. If you don't want to use foil, that's fine but the skin might stick to the rack, giving you extra homework during clean-up time. Turn down the heat without moving/relocating the fish and close the cover. Keep an eye on it and when you see white juice oozing to the top of the fish, that means it's done.

Remember: don't flip the salmon, just cook it skin side down with the lid closed!

Part III.
Meat (medium done)

Heat up grill to the maximum temperature. Place steak on the grill, cook one side for about 3 minutes on high heat. After, turn down the temperature to medium high and flip the steak. Leave the steak on top of the flame and do not close the lid for cooking your steak. For medium done steaks, it will be done once juices (blood) start flowing to the top (a meat thermometer can also help you out here).

It's gotta be hot for steaks!

Tip: A very tasty and simple steak marinade is simply adding salt, pepper and a little bit of oil to the steaks just before grilling them. No more, no less.

Part IV.
White fish

Slow and low temp "grilling", Iraqi style
The best way for white fish is to use the French method for steaming. If you place the fish directly on the grill rack, it will probably get stuck and create a mess. Grab yourself two pieces of foil. Place a nice bed of vegetables on the foil so they go underneath the fish. Place the fish on top and then add another layer of vegetables. Use the other piece of foil to put it on top of your fish and veggies. Seal the foil well so that no air escapes and place your foil pouch on the grill.

This whole process should take about 10 minutes and should be cooked on medium high.

Part V.
Pork loin

You'll need an extra tool for this: a meat injector. Also, give yourself a whole day to prep this. Marinade the pork loin by injecting it with your favorite marinade, leave in the fridge over night. Heat up your grill to the ultimate maximum (just like for chicken and meat). Put the loin on the rack once your grill is hot and cook each side for no more than 3 minutes. Once the entire outside is cooked, turned the heat to the lowest setting possible, close the lid and cook for at least 4 or 5 hours (ideal cooking temperature is about 300 degrees F so that it's slightly pink and delicious juicy inside).

I have been very lucky to enjoy wonderfully grilled meals by Mr. Castle for decades now. Thank you dad for these wonderful grilling tips!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Man vs. Mule

Stubbornness and sustainable trekking in Nepal

Quite a heavy load in that basket...
There's a dark side to the beauty, enchantment and amazement of Nepal's Himalaya Mountains. Some of the treks in Nepal can be easily done without assistance from a guide, porter, or sherpa. 

You can just show up with your backpack, have almost nothing planned and do a week-long trek such as the "ABC" one without any hassle. The trekking infrastructure in Nepal is actually quite good, the trails are in good shape and there are plenty of guesthouses offering accommodation and food for as much as $5 a night (food included).  
For longer treks, camping trips or treks in restricted areas, however, at least one guide is often required and a crew of sherpas, porters and/or mules might be needed. Camping trips, especially, require many supplies as there is no food, water or shelter readily available.

I noted in one of my earlier posts that trekking agencies need to be looked at closely but I decided to write this post to really focus on the issue. The problem with "staffed" treks in Nepal is that they can result in gross abuse of the porters who carry all the supplies. Porters are Nepalese men (typically) who go on trekking trips and bring all the supplies on their backs. If done right, mules are also employed to share the load. Neither men nor mules are not supposed to carry more than 40 kilos or so.

The problem is that many trekking agencies promise their trekker clients that they pay fair and don't overload their staff. In reality, many of these agencies charge for, let's say, 10 porters, only hire six and keep the difference in their pockets. Not only do they underpay their porters but they also force them to carry as many as 100 kilos on their backs. 

A backbreaking 100 kg/220lb 28-day journey
These treks can last as many as four weeks and porters have to carry these loads up and down insanely steep and difficult terrain. That's basically lugging around 220 pounds every day for a month at more than 13,000 feet in altitude! 
Unfortunately, many porters have low income and families to support so they're willing to put up with the heavy loads in exchange for a few dollars a day of pay.
 
One of the best ways to go about trekking in Nepal to ensure these hard working people are not abused, is to work with an independent guide who hires his own staff and ideally has his own mules. This guide should go with you on your trek and you should get to know him quite well prior to your departure. Get to know your crew and ensure that they are well paid and carrying appropriate weight. Trekkers should support a wholesome and sustainable trekking industry in Nepal where human rights are respected, not abused. 

And what about the mules? Well, mules are known for their stubbornness so if they're overloaded with more than 40 kilos, they simply won't move. No matter what. Regardless of any beating, yelling or screaming, these stubborn animals won't move an inch with so much weight on their back. Why should anybody else? 

If you're interested in going on a sustainable trek in Nepal, contact our fantastic guide, Karma Mustangi. 

Too much weight on their backs: one of the packs constantly leaked kerosene all over the porter

Our porter Manoz was stoked we packed so little, asking us "and the rollie bags"? There were none of course.
A more reasonable load

Just about right for what a mule will handle




Thursday, October 17, 2013

Can smartphones lessen the impact of reverse culture shock?

My 2008 relic versus my new MacBook Air
We borrowed an iPhone 4 for our trip. It has a SIM card slot and it came in very handy for the duration of our trip. One of the unfortunate parts of returning to the US was giving up the phone -- we have Verizon and they don't "do" SIM cards -- and it made me think about the possibility of finally replacing my six year old Samsung flip phone from forever ago (I hate to admit it, but, at this point my rebellion against smart phones might be coming to an end). Part of life back in the USA means more e-mail and flip phones just can't handle it. I e-mailed a great friend of mine who is not a techie, but gave me better advice than any other tech website or blog out there. Here is what she had to say about the iPhone vs. everything else debate:

I think that unless you want the fingerprint security (so you can be a show-off), you may as well stick with the 5. I have the 5. It holds a little more thrill than my 4 (extra row of apps on your screen) but for my small hand, it is not as comfortable as the 4. Plus, my one-handed texting speed is diminished because there is an extra stretch involved from the added height.

If you are looking at the 5c (5cheap), they will probably work fine. It's an apple product, so you can't go wrong. But the colors are a bit day-glo and probably meant to attract non-professionals and kids. I see the Wendy's drive-through workers or Jersey Shore thousandaires sporting them (similar to the BMW 1 series or mercedes hatch-back from 15 years ago, these will be entry-level products). If you're going with the 5c, keep your dignity and choose either white or black. You can always buy a festive case later and you won't be married to a bad mistake that clashes with your wardrobe.

HOWEVER, in my attempt to find something good about the 5c, it would be a good "trial" iPhone. If you like it, you can upgrade to the macdaddy version without hesitation or regret.

So. Bottom line. The plain old 5 is prettier than the 4, but not as comfortable to use (for female hands).

The 5c is fine for a 1-year test drive, but watch your color choice or people will think you're credit score sucks.

The 4S will probably cost the same as the 5c, and may be more comfortable. Plus the casing is glass and metal, not plastic.

The 5S is for show-offs and people with money to burn (think Shahs of Sunset). My husband wants one, but that's because of the fingerprint security. I give him a pass only because he's military and into that stuff. I may get the 5s, but you know me. I'm an impractical show off, and I own that quality.

And what about non-iPhones??

I pay no attention to non-iPhones. They are meaningless on the world stage and are kidding themselves by calling themselves competitors. It's like Nadya Suleman (octomom) comparing herself to Angelina Jolie.  The only one making that comparison is Nadya.

Our friends in Samar, Nepal (accessible only by foot/horse) have brand new iPads. I'm getting the message...
Conclusion: I bought the iPhone 5c and it works very well. I was used to the 4 so the transition made sense. The best thing to do is protect the investment so I got it a protective case and now I have the phone on the Prey app. If you're ever a victim of theft, having the tracking app and reasonable insurance (check the deductible!) could save bad headaches from happening. This recently happened to a very close friend of mine (at gunpoint nonetheless!) and it wasn't insured or with a GPS tracker on. Cost of a new smartphone can be well over $500.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Gourmet extraordinaire and desert camping in Nevada

Desert camping isn't for everyone. Conditions can be harsh, especially for peak heat times in the middle of summer. Without natural sources of water and shade, dehydration and sun poisoning could easily happen. Extreme self-reliance is the best way to survive and lack of preparation could have devastating consequences.

A very fancy desert (Dubai)
Good thing we're not everyone and we love extremes! For our first week back in the United States of America, we decided to go desert camping for a week, in the middle of the northern Nevada desert. We had actually planned on going there before we left on our 6-month sabbatical and paid $380 each to secure our spot for our tent. Usually, camping is never that expensive. However, this type of camping is as unique as it gets so we had to commit eight months in advance to it.

We're talking, of course, about Burning Man: absolutely, 100%, one of the most epic events we have ever attended in our lives. Burning Man is very hard to explain so it is best to just go see for yourself. The reason it's so hard is because the event becomes what you want it to be. Many people bring their children for a family experience, many people come to do ultramarathons and others, like us, come as foodies, not knowing what to expect but excited about everything.

Our two good friends spent all summer planning for Burning Man. One of them, in particular, planned everything in insane detail and we had everything from 1,000 baby wipes to superglued seals on every single car window to keep the majority of the playa dust out.

All four of us are total foodies so we went on very fun food shopping sprees and prepared meals in advance. We packed the 'obvious' camping food such as canned beans, corn, rice and curries in pouches, but we also packed exciting foodie treats. We were thrilled to find bacon jerky and purchased the Costco size bags of that amazing treasure. We brought two huge logs of goat cheese, a large wedge of Manchego cheese, an entire wooden box stuffed with smoked salmon from Seattle, garlic and jalapeƱo stuffed olives, a case of V-8 fruit and veggie juices and our home mix of hemp and almond granola with raisins.
Preparing the lasagna sauce

Eliot made a gallon of home-made cold brew coffee and Drea made cinnamon tea soda syrup. We also made two pans of home made lasagna with beef and de-cased Italian sausages (Drea did this by hand), an entire head of garlic and a dash of nutmeg to give it a Bologna twist. Our friends made an amazing summer gazpacho with tons of parsley, lemon, Tunisian olive oil and refreshing cucumbers plus at least two dozen juicy home-made meatballs in an amazing home-made tomato sauce (peeled AND seeded tomatoes!). Oh and let's not forget their tasty garbanzo, parsley, parmesan cheese salad.

We showed up at Burning Man and were in awe for at least 144 hours. The dry heat suppressed our appetites a bit but we still found time to indulge in decadent meals. Thanks to our extremely detail-oriented friend who planned 99% of our journey to the desert, we were able to keep our pre-made meals frozen solid with the 50 pounds of dry ice we stuffed in three coolers.

The Man
De-frosting was super easy: we took out the containers in the morning and by dinner time, they had naturally thawed. We ate the gazpacho and garbanzo salad cold and then heated up the lasagna and the meatballs on the propane camp stove. Our other campmates brought a healthy kale and broccoli salad and we destroyed it our first night. We also indulged in the best home-made grilled cheese sandwiches we've ever had! Part of the secret was toasting the bread on both sides and using three layers of cheese (we're getting hungry just writing this!).

Fire cyclones as the Man burns on Saturday
Burning Man thrives on a gift economy and we were lucky to have delicious treats along the way. At Burning Man, you give. The gifts we received were absolutely fabulous. As far as food goes, we had Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches (think gourmet smoked/corned beef and spicy mustard) served by our Canadian neighbors, fresh ground coffee used to make legit Vietnamese iced coffee (ice is a highly coveted item at Burning Man), emperor's tea from China prepared in front of us at a formal tea ceremony (the tea had to be smuggled into the US because it is worth more than gold by weight!) and cheese fondue straight from a fondue pot!

We will try to make this a yearly event for us and we look forward to the foodie events we missed: bacon bloodys, morning hash browns, home-made pickles, massive barbecues and whatever else we are bound to walk or bike into.

Co-posted on www.eliotpeper.com

Robot Heart Party

Awesome Playa Sunset

Biking around, checking out art exhibitions everywhere

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mango sticky rice in a climbers' paradise

Approaching Tonsai
“For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man.” --George Mallory, British mountaineer 

We were really tired of spending Ramadan in Muslim countries. It turned into a real hassle in Maldives and Indonesia so we made a game time decision to seek out the Buddha instead. Luckily Thailand isn't too far from Sumatra so we jumped on a quick flight to Krabi via Kuala Lumpur (KL). This, of course, wasn't part of our budget plan but we decided it would be worth it nonetheless.

Our evening spent in KL was surprisingly fun. We stayed in the budget friendly Chinatown area and explored the local night market for street eats and cheap gear for Burning Man later that month. Then we zipped back to the airport and hopped over to Krabi. 

We stayed in Tonsai, part of a series of three beaches on an isolated peninsula on the Andaman Sea that doesn't have road access. Visitors have to take the traditional long-tail boats from Krabi beach to get out there. We wandered around for a while in the jungle up behind the beach searching out places to stay. Tonsai is the cheapest of the three beaches on the peninsula but we were still surprised at the costs. 

Our guide only climbed barefoot
Lucky for us, the week turned out to be indeed well worth it. We signed up for a three day lead climbing course with Basecamp Tonsai, the most reputable climbing operator in the area (German-managed). Before starting our sabbatical we had spent a year climbing three to four days a week in a climbing gym in San Diego. Climbing in Tonsai blew all of that away.

The rocks in Tonsai are absolutely epic. Spires of limestone jut thousands of feet up from sparkling tropical ocean and verdant jungle. We were there in the 'wet' season and it rained for about three hours total for the whole week were there. There are a lot of overhangs so even if it rains a lot of the rock stays dry. There are tons of bolted routes for sport climbing and literally thousands for trad, which attracts some very serious climbers. Even during this low season, most of the decent places were pretty full and the majority of the best climbers we saw were from Spain, Australia and England. 

Eliot leads a beach route
We had a blast learning how to lead climb. For the uninitiated, lead climbing is when you set up your own safety ropes as you make your way up the rock. It means you often take longer falls than you otherwise which alters the psychology of your climb: you tend to be more risk averse. We climbed all day every day and even tried deep water soloing, climbing without safety but jumping off into the ocean. Unfortunately on the last day of our class Drea took a dangerous fall and hurt her ankle. It could have been a lot worse so we racked that up as a win.

The other rockin' thing about Tonsai is that once you're done scaling rocks, you get to gorge on delicious Thai food and wash it down with Eliot's favorite: Thai iced tea! We gobbled up mountains of mango sticky rice to fuel our climbing adventures and look forward to returning to Tonsai to sharpen our skills some more!

But we had a flight back to California via Singapore scheduled for the next week. Some might say it was the end of our trip but we thought it was just the beginning. We were headed to Burning Man.


Co-posted on www.eliotpeper.com

Drea's about to fall
Drea's awesome belay attitude!

Eliot fends off local mozzies

Not bad, not bad at all

Deep water solo territory



At last, Thai iced tea...

Monday, October 7, 2013

Indonesian food is terrible! Or not...

I have to admit it, initially we chose to go to Indonesia not for its spectacular food but rather for its nature and adventure potential. When we were trying to choose which island to focus our travels on, we wanted the path less traveled and Sumatra became a candidate.

Sumatra, beautiful, wild and delicious!
We finally settled on it not just because of adventure but because contrary to all popular belief, Sumatra was supposed to have the best food in all of Indonesia. Could it be true? We figured there's only one way to find out so we booked our ferry and plane tickets to our first destination in Sumatra: Padang.


As a city, Padang is just "meh" and surprisingly expensive. Like $30 dollars for a shared room expensive. Turns out Padang is the launching point to the surfing mecca at the Mentawai islands and prices are hyper inflated. The saving grace for the city is that supposedly, it has the spiciest food in Indonesia. That's definitely something to get really excited about! But wait, it's Ramadan, will there even be anything to eat? Yes. Oh yes there was.

We got the impression that Muslims in Padang are pretty chill about the whole Ramadan thing as we saw hoards of them 'cheating' and eating throughout the day. Good news for us! Our first stop was a coconut stand on the side of the road prior to arriving at our hotel. After a long flight, a nice juicy coconut was exactly what we needed.

Pile on the goodies please!
We then walked over to one of the best restaurants in Padang (according to our guesthouse) and just drooled as the waitstaff piled plate after plate of all sorts of dishes all smothered in bright red hot chilies: braised tofu, beef, potatoes, fish, dry beef, curry beef, yellow chicken, saucy chicken, silken tofu, eggplant and boiled eggs among many, many others. This amazing dish pile is apparently called Nasi Padang. YUM!

Similar to Ethiopia, the custom in Padang is just to dig in with your hands and enjoy. We didn't realize that you don't really get to "order" your food, instead they just pile it on and you ask them to take away the reject plates. Naturally, we just tried eating everything on the table until we were stuffed beyond belief. The favorite was definitely the Beef Rendang, tender chunks of beef cooked in a toasted coconut sauce. We tried ordering more of it but they had just run out and the three of us nearly fought over the last little piece. A close second was a deep fried spicy fish that felt more like fish jerky but was so crisp that you could even eat all the bones.

Roll up your sleeves, and scoop it all up (crispy fish @ 10 o'clock, the last of the beef Rendang at 5 o'clock)

We only ended up staying in Padang for a short day and decided to hit up the dinner spot once more for lunch before heading out to the airport. At 1pm, the place was packed with locals and there was even a live band playing. You wouldn't have known it because the whole city looks like it shuts down between sunrise and sunset but luckily for us, the restaurant was definitely open, you just had to know to pull away the curtain and slip in through the very narrow entrance. Apparently in Padang, not even Ramadan stops people from eating and given how delightful the food was, it's no wonder!!

Got chilies?
So Padang was kind of a bust but from a foodie perspective, it was definitely worth the visit! Plus I was able to find a fruit I thought only Colombians had, tomate de arbol. I ordered it as a fresh fruit juice from this little old lady who couldn't believe I didn't want any sugar in my juice. It was delicious, just like the Colombian version and I was in heaven! I was also very glad I didn't get any sugar in it: apparently Indonesians have one of the highest per capita consumption of sugar in all of Asia. Watch out for spikes in diabetes, Indonesia!  [China, by the way, is the #1 in Asia and India is the top consumer in the world]

[Note: I found this nice blog where you can read much more about Padang cuisine. This blogger had a bit more time to explore the food options than we did: http://afastar.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/west-sumatera-cuisine/]

Best way to end a meal: fresh fruit and coconut
While Padang was quite the exciting food city, we were shocked to discover one of Sumatra's best kept culinary secrets: the Batak people in Lake Toba are food geniuses!! One of my good travel buddies from Spain even commented how she does not like Indonesian food at all but Batak food was really good!

I think one of the tricks to this simple but delicious food is the lake itself. Lake Toba, a few hours west of Medan, is a gem of a place. The depth of the lake (almost 1 kilometer!) helps to keep the water clean and is home to delicious fish. We walked into a small hole-in-the wall restaurant for a late lunch, hoping they would serve us food. They were happy to have us and we all decided to order their fried fish. As is typical in most developing countries, our fish was deep fried whole and served with some veggie garnishes. We weren't expecting much but as soon as we took the first bite, we looked at each other all wide-eyed and almost simultaneously went "mmmmmmm!!!!!!!!"

One word: succulent!


The fish had definitely just been caught that morning and our hosts clearly knew what they were doing because it wasn't that greasy, which probably means they heat up the oil just right: even the tail was crunchy enough to eat it all! As a Colombian, deep fried whole fish is just one of those things you grow up with and the ability to eat the tail of the fish so that it feels like a potato chip is a true sign of excellence in the kitchen (my dad taught me this when I was probably 5 years old).

Best BBQ fish in town

Anyway, "Shugary Restaurant" is a must if you ever find yourself in Tuk Tuk. The fried fish was topped by our chef's dinner the next day: slow cooked whole fish on the barbecue. The chef made a little BBQ brush out of lemongrass he used to keep the fish moist with home-made marinade as it cooked for almost an hour. His wife fixes a great veggie salad (with cheese!) and she makes toasted coconut from scratch, which she then uses to top off a fruit salad with passion fruit.

Shredding coconut is a very laborious process and actually a great arm work out. My friend Jamie and I took a cooking class in Tuk Tuk and we had a first hand experience on how tiring this process is! But, regardless, making things from scratch is probably the other secret to Batak cuisine.

A coconut grinder really helps to get all that meat out

We learned to make sambal (like a chili paste) from scratch without the use of any electronic devices: we used a good ol' round stone and stone tablet to grind chili, garlic and shallot into a deliciously spicy paste. I learned to wrap fish in banana leaves to trap all the flavor and moisture as it steams. We also used heaps of the ground coconut to make our own coconut milk and used a mortar and pestle to make a coconut paste we used for a chicken Rendang. Similar to beef Rendang, we coated pieces of chicken in a toasted coconut paste and slowly cooked them until tender perfection!

Banana leaves keep the fish nice and moist


All in all, Batak cuisine was simple, yet flavorful, fresh and cooked with tender loving care. As an added bonus, the Batak eat a lot of pork and although it wasn't the best pork I had ever had, my tastebuds happily welcomed the change and made me long for bacon...


TLC @ Shugary
Shugary's delicious toasted coconut fruit and home-made muesli with passion fruit


What do you do with all that ground coconut? Make coconut milk, of course!


Mortar and pestle for Rendang dishes

Making chili sambal like a cavewoman