Sunday, October 18, 2015

A thing or two about yogurt and why you should make your own

My husband and I have been making our own yogurt pretty regularly since about 2010 when our sweet neighbor in San Diego introduced this great idea to us. At the time money was tight. I’d cook as often as possible but always bought yogurt at the store. I knew better than to buy the individual 6 to 8 oz small cups of yogurt because the bigger 32 oz tub was clearly a better deal. Little did I know that I could be eating something way better for way cheaper and that’s when I learned about the possibility of making my own. Our neighbor Del showed us which yogurt maker to buy and how to do it. Soon enough we were on our way to eating healthier yogurt that cost at least half of what we were spending. 

It's been a few years and now I’m a bit of a yogurt snob. I haven’t quite gotten to buying my own lactobacillus bulgaricus et al concoctions, so from time to time I still buy some yogurt at the store to use as a starter. I refuse to buy anything with additives or added sugars because I’m a purist at heart when it comes to yogurt. Yogurt is just one of those magical foods rooted in simplicity.  

About yogurt and the home made process

So let’s start with the basics. As far as ingredients go, all yogurt is—and is supposed to be—is milk and bacteria. The process that turns the liquid milk into yogurt is just a heating process: milk has to heat between 180-195 or even 200 degrees Fahrenheit and then brought back down to 110 degrees. At that point, bacteria is added to the milk usually in the form of a starter from another batch of yogurt. About a cup of yogurt is mixed into the warm milk and then the mixture sits in a comfy warm container for about 9 hours— a typical ‘work day’ for the bacteria. Afterward, the container goes in the fridge and once it cools down, voila! you’ve got yourself yogurt. 

Homemade goodness
What’s really cool about this food is that it’s full of protein, calcium and probiotics and even has a bit of sugar, which is naturally there already from the milk. A cup of pure whole milk has about 11 grams of sugar, it’s just the way it is. Yogurt also has fats in it from the milk (mostly saturated fat), and whole milk makes the best kind of yogurt, especially when it comes to consistency. The fats in the milk help give yogurt that smooth creaminess to it, which can be enhanced even more by straining it for an hour or two. Straining removes the whey in the yogurt and leaves you with a bit of a “yogurt concentrate”, aka greek yogurt. All greek yogurt is is strained yogurt, which is why it’s more expensive: you need more yogurt to make the equivalent 8oz container. It also has more of everything (more fat, more sugar, more protein per ounce) so you don’t need to eat as much greek yogurt as you would regular yogurt. 

Putting our homemade yogurt in the "Wave" strainer to make Greek Yogurt -- leave it straining longer and you've got Labneh!

Store bought yogurt

Ok, so back to my snobbery with yogurt. When our homemade yogurt sits in the fridge for more than a week, I don’t like to use it as starter because it doesn’t have as much useful bacteria that I can put to work later. We’re pretty good about making yogurt once a week or so but when we forget, we have to replenish the starter with a fresher batch of store bought yogurt. 

Ideally I’ll make it to a fabulous store like Berkeley Bowl that offers plenty of choices. I usually buy organic yogurt and I devote time to looking at the ingredients. If the yogurt only lists two ingredients—milk and probiotics/bacteria— then I get it. If it starts listing crazy things like pectin, sugar, the evil, evil high fructose corn syrup, gelatin, citric acid, etc. I put it back on the shelf. When I’ve been in a bind and go to stores that don’t have a lot of variety, I’ve had to buy yogurts with things like pectin in them and my homemade yogurt just isn’t as good. A good, pure organic yogurt starter is essential to making great homemade yogurt. 

But that’s only half the battle. Milk is just as important and should not be skimped on. I always opt for organic whole milk and I buy the whole gallon so I can make my 64 oz tub and use the rest of the milk in coffee/tea. If I feel like splurging, I’ll buy the really fancy milk like the Straus whole organic milk from grass fed cows that comes in a glass container but at 9 bucks per container, it’s not something I always do. Still, even then you’re more than breaking even if you compare the cost of a store-bought 32oz fancy organic plain yogurt to the cost of the milk, which will yield more than 64oz of fancy organic plain yogurt anyway.

Cost per ounceTotal cost (excl. taxes)Savings per 32 oz container
32 oz. Store bought Leading brand yogurt, non-organic, “all natural”$0.09$2.78
1 gallon non-organic milk$0.03$3.20
32 oz. Homemade non-organic plain yogurt$0.03$0.96 (not even a buck!!)$1.82
32 oz. Store bought Organic plain yogurt (fancy)$0.15$4.79
1 gallon fancy organic milk (yields 4 32 oz containers)$0.06$7.70
32 oz. Homemade organic plain yogurt$0.06$1.92 (omg that's less than store bought non-organic)$2.87
Return on your $40 yogurt maker investment (comes with a 64 oz tub):
Total cost of buying two 32 oz tubs of fancy store-bought organic plain yogurts: $9.58
Total cost of making two 32 oz tubs of fancy organic plain yogurts: $3.84
Difference in cost: $5.74
Pay back period: after making 7 homemade yogurts

Low-fat and yogurt marketing nonsense

When it comes to store bought, I also don’t even bother with the non-fat or low-fat yogurts. Almost every single one of them has added sugars to compensate for the lack of fats and to enhance the taste so now you’re eating something that is less healthy even though you think you’re eating a health food. I’d rather eat naturally occurring fats, aka whole plain yogurt, than added processed sugars, aka low or non-fat yogurt. I refuse to buy those branded flavored yogurt single-serving cups that pretend to be healthy; you might as well just eat a couple of spoonfuls of sugar and call it a day. If you want to eat yogurt because it’s healthy, I would avoid anything that isn’t plain. You can add fruit or honey to it at home and keep it healthy that way.  I’m also weary of "extra-creamy/smooth" claims because there are usually additives that make that happen. For example, I was really excited when I saw a new yogurt at the store claiming to use a secret Australian recipe. When I was in Australia I ate yogurt like it was my job and I’ve missed it dearly. I could barely contain my excitement at the dairy section when I saw that we were finally getting Aussie yogurt in the States. To my surprise, however, this yogurt wasn’t pure goodness but instead had the pectins and gelatins I like to stay away from. So the lesson with plain yogurts is to always look at the ingredients and to just walk away if the list has anything other than milk and bacteria. 

Why get pre-flavored ones when you can just DIY?

Anyway, if you want to save a couple of bucks on your grocery bill, eat a truly healthy product and stay away from additives, make your own yogurt at home. If it seems like too much of a hassle, at least do yourself a favor and get the good ol’ stuff with just milk and bacteria in it. Your gut will appreciate the friendly bacteria and your organs will appreciate taking a break from processing any extra sugars! 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Saturday, February 21, 2015

If you're a foodie in Berkeley and you haven't been here yet...

... you're missing out! And no, it’s not Chez Panisse. Or with fellow foodie, Nancy Li (photos/captions)

Think back to your childhood memories and try to remember how you felt when you visited your favorite toy store. The sheer joy from being in the store is hard to forget and even harder to replace. Throughout my life, I have found several blissful spots that make me explode with joy — although I have yet to write about them, Yushan in Taiwan and my godmother’s dining room are two of a handful of these places. These powerful places that heighten almost all my senses are hard to find and to my surprise, and unexpectedly, I found one of those places last year in Berkeley, California. What was most surprising to me was that I suddenly felt overcome with joy and I wasn’t outside hiking a mountain or in the middle of a fantastic meal. No. I was in a supermarket. And I was ecstatic.

Entrance to Berkeley Bowl West in Berkeley, California
Greetings, foodie!

It’s hard to describe a Berkeley Bowl (West) experience in writing but we will give it our best shot. The back of the massive 54,700 sq. ft (5,000 sq. m) space feels like it offers a curated version of everything that grows in California’s Central Valley plus a variety of many other fruits and vegetables you’d find in farmer’s/street markets throughout the world. The produce section in the back splits into the organic and the non-organic section and has a fantastic bulk area with four rows of bins full of dry goods. The organic section is much more seasonal and the majority of the produce is actually affordable. Now that dark leafy greens are in season, I saw at least four varieties of kale, at least seven different kinds of organic mushrooms and a kind of lettuce I had never seen before, leopard lettuce. 
Organic glory!
The larger non-organic section could be a produce market just on its own and there is almost nothing they don’t have — my recent favorites are the bins full of shishito peppers, baskets full of Mexican guayabas/guavas, the bulk section where you can fill your own bags of baby kale, wild arugula, mizuna or the banana/plantain section where, even if my 6 ft 3 in husband were to stretch his arms out, he would still not be able to hug all the kinds of bananas and plantains offered. 
Them 'shrooms!
The bulk section, my go-to spot for granola-making, has three rows of floor to ceiling bins stocked with anything from organic coarse pink Himalayan salt and goji berries to roasted salted, roasted unsalted, raw, smoked, slivered or crushed almonds. I may or may not have spent one hour in this back area during several of my visits there. Time flies when you’re food shopping, I have proof!

I'm a sucker for value and spend a lot of time at the bulk section

The rest of the perimeter consists of a large and busy meats and seafood section where you can get their deli peppered bacon, massive cuts of pork shoulder or the wild caught, seasonal fish. There is also a huge L-shaped refrigerated dairy section that wraps around the south-eastern corner of the store. If it wasn’t so frigid, you may be able to spend more time thinking about which of their 20+ selection of egg dozens to get or which of the milks to try next: organic whole, organic whole cream top, Strauss in a glass container or in the larger plastic gallon? Decisions, decisions! 

Life without yogurt would be miserable! They've got St. Benoit further down the aisle (can't see it though!)
Across the store in the north perimeter you can go snag a free sample of the featured cheese and walk around the DJ-booth-like cheese section. You may go bananas if you’re a fan of zee goats; you’ll freeze in excitement about all of the opportunities — humboldt fog, raw goat milk cheddar, the truffle tremor, the cremont, the goat gouda or any of the other Cypress Grove ones. For me, if I visit the Bowl with a type of dish in mind, I’ll get stuck on various sections as I move down this little piece of cheese heaven. The other day it was all about the blue cheese; I was struggling to pick the right mix of blues for Smitten Kitchen's blue cheese and chive buttermilk biscuits I was planning on making. Mind you though, I’m not complaining. For those of you with a sweet tooth, there is a lovely selection of delicious desserts immediately adjacent to the cheeses and they feature a phenomenal Tiramisu according to my friend Nancy. 

A lady ate half the samples after this picture was taken -- goat cheese can have that effect on people

Knowing that the middle section is full of the more processed, packaged and high-margin goods, I tend to skip it. But from time to time I do get sucked in. You can find yourself spending way too much time picking the next mustard or three for your fridge door - how about a green peppercorn or a seeds and suds (beer) one? The same could happen in the spice section where you could buy at least six different brands of spices or over by the tofu racks where you can get organic firm tofu, organic non-GMO firm, non-organic silken or how about some teriyaki, BBQ or spicy baked tofu? I don’t know about you but this kind of decision-making is something I get really excited about.

I still don’t think I’ve done Berkeley Bowl justice. Hopefully the images below will help. But even better, next time you’re in the Bay Area and you’re in the East Bay (Berkeley/Oakland), make sure to pay a visit to one of the best food stores on earth. Fellow foodie adventurers, you won’t be disappointed.
Bulk meets organic

The milk rainbow at the Bowl
J'aime le fromage
Blueberries, anyone?
The spot for 'rug and other salad greens
It's hard to capture how huge the Bowl is, those apples are so far (behind he toddler)!
Great stop before camping trips

I don't have much of a sweet tooth but Nancy definitely recommends these
I hear this ox tail is one of the best in Town
Wall to wall meats

Delicious results after a day at the Bowl: Ox Tail Soup at Nancy's!

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:

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.

Congrats! You're engaged so 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.

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.

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

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.

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

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! 

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:

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

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

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:

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.

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.

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