Southeast Asia, Part II (or Central Vietnam)

After Hanoi, we traveled south to the coast cities of Hue and Hoi An. Still cold but getting warmer! Lots of amazing food plus interesting history as Hue was the former capital of Vietnam (well before the French colonization). Unfortunately, many of the ancient temples in this region were completed destroyed by bombing during the war, but we were still able to see quite a bit of the historical sights and even did a bike tour in the countryside, where we met lots of farmers.

Grounds of a tomb site in Hue

Grounds of a tomb site in Hue


Guardian statues at the entry ways as you walk up to the tombs

Guardian at tomb entryway


Rice fields

Rice fields


Danang beach, at the former north-south border.

Danang beach, at the former north-south border.


View from above at Hy Van Pass.

View from above at Hy Van Pass.


Noodle making at a family operation.

Noodle making at a family operation.


Farmer I

Farmer I


Farmer II

Farmer II


Farmer III

Farmer III

Dreams of Southeast Asia

We just got back from a three week trip throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore. Despite some pretty dreary, cold weather, we managed to enjoy the sights and especially tastes of this wonderful region. Pictures going up here in the next few weeks. Here are some images from Hanoi.

Flowers on bikes are everywhere in Hanoi

Flowers on bikes are everywhere in Hanoi

In the suburbs

In the suburbs

Fishing boat in the lakes of Hanoi

Fishing boat in the lakes of Hanoi

Back In The Swing Of It…

So it’s been a while since we last surfaced. While plenty has happened since last summer’s post, we’ll start small…

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Bakerbiker, since February, has been taking an online course once a week, and it just so happens to fall on Sunday nights, 6-9pm. Ouch – I know. But I’ve taken it as an opportunity to return to the Sunday night dinner tradition, which is the focus of today’s post.

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Tonight, for example, dinner was oven-roasted salmon, tossed with French beans and muti-colored potatoes. Served alongside steamed artichoke and couscous with almonds, cranberries, and fresh goat cheese, it was a delicious end to the weekend.

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And lest you think we eat this way every night, you should know that we had leftover pizza for dinner last night. Enjoy the pictures, and hopefully we’ll be back in the swing of it here in no time!

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A joie de vivre summer

Wow! I can’t believe it’s been four months since our last post. We’ve been super busy with travels and time really got away from us. I had a tour of the South in the middle of a heat wave (hello Texas, where it was 97 degrees in the middle of the night) and bakerbiker and I went on a two and a half week trip to France, starting in Paris, wending our way through the Loire, Burgundy, and Provence, and then back to Paris. It was pure heaven.

I have to be honest – I had somewhat low expectations for France. I’ve been there once before and though I found it beautiful, I also found it to be rude and cold. But this time around, I made a point of adding to my limited French vocabulary by taking six months of Coffee Break French, which was just awesome for learning basic phrases for travelers to France. I got by with a smile and a little bit of French and most people eventually took pity on me and started speaking in English.

Paris, as you can imagine, is just glorious at this time of year. We went in the June and the weather was a bit rainy, but romantic. And the food was truly amazing. We hit lots of little cafes and shops and sampled all kinds of pastries, croissants, and macaroons. Almost too many to count. A true favorite was the salted caramel and chocolate macaroon by Pierre Herme.

Pierre Herme Macaroon.

There are the obvious pastries that can be found on every block. But a true pleasure of France that I didn’t know about before this visit are the markets. There are dozens of them – outdoor markets, full of any kind of gourmet item you want. Fresh flowers, fruits and veggies, meats, milks, cheeses, pastries – you name it. We hit the organic market in Raspail, and cooked ourselves several full meals using just what we purchased at the market. Because we were out and about all day, we kept it simple, but it’s hard to go wrong with ingredients like these.

Heirloom tomatoes with basil and burrata

Though we did a lot of cooking, a visit to Paris wouldn’t be complete without a few restaurants in the mix. Two that we especially liked were Le Comptoir in Saint-Germain and Spring Restaurant near the Louvre. Both had casual atmospheres, but impeccable food. Le Comptoir is known for really long waiting lists and inventive cuisine. However, a nice way to enjoy the food without making a reservation months in advance is to go for lunch any day of the week or dinner on Sunday night – neither requires a reservation, but you do have to wait in line. The food is a la carte, and I’d describe it as classic European with a twist. Both times we went there, I had sashimi grade fish that was out of this world.

Spring, which is owned by an American, is all the rage, and apparently gets 850 reservation requests a night. Also impossible to get into, but I called to see if there were any cancellations, and indeed there were, so we were able to get in here for bakerbiker’s birthday celebration. Spring is known for its inventive food and you basically have no choices when you eat here – menu is prix fixe and there are about seven courses. There was so much I loved here, but the lobster consomme with lobster, corn, and basil was truly special. Delicate and flavorful at the same time. Too bad it was so dark in there that I couldn’t take any photos!

Signing off for now, but more to come on other France highlights soon!

A bathroom odyssey

After years of making small changes to our apartment, this spring, bakerbiker and I decide to take the bathroom remodel plunge. Unfortunately, bathroom renovations are not exactly cheap, but we hit a point where we just had no choice. When we purchased our place several years ago, it was considered a new renovation. But as you might expect, not everything is as it seems. Over time, things just started falling apart. The floor tiles were cracking and the tub started chipping, but what really prompted this decision was the fact that the bathtub decided it wasn’t going to drain anymore. Now that’s a problem. An emergency really. I had never particularly liked our bathroom, anyways, so rather than fix just the plumbing problem, we decided on a complete re-do.

The original bathroom, pictured above, was all white. In general, white seems like a safe choice, because it’s neutral. But I found the room to be overly cold and sterile – almost like a hospital room. So when we started thinking about the changes we wanted to make, we decided pretty early on that we wanted a natural, warmer look using things like wood and stone. If you’ve ever researched bathroom “stuff,” I’m sure you’ve found that there are not only about a million options, but that things can add up super quick. There’s wood, marble, slate, graphite – the list goes on an on. There are jacuzzi tubs and clawfoots. They’re made of porcelain and steel. We were VERY tempted by some of the more fancy goods out there, like handmade glass tiles and tubs with jets, but that was just not in our budget. In the end, we bought most of our stuff at Home Depot, with a few splurges to give the bathroom a “luxe” feel that we hope will be good for value when we sell.

So first choice, and really the easiest one, was the floor. We went with a cork floor that’s actually intended for industrial use. There are so many reasons to love cork – it’s naturally anti-bacterial and environmentally sustainable. It also comes in large tiles that snap together so easily you wouldn’t believe. No caulking between the tiles and you don’t even need to glue them down.

We thought this would be a simple job, given how great the material is, but when the contractors started pulling up the old tile, that’s when the trouble started. There were four, count ’em, FOUR, layers of tile underneath the top one. To do the job right, they needed to pull up all the layers and lay the cork down over the sub-floor. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when one problem leads to another…

Next up was the tub. This was actually the most exciting decision for me. In our old tub, I was NEVER able to take a bath because the tub was only about eight inches high and the water drained out about a mile a minute. So the tub was splurge #1 – I really wanted a deep soaking tub that I could take a bath in when I wanted. We went with the Evolution soaking tub from American Standard, which I have to tell you, is a DREAM. It has a high drain so you can really fill up the tub and stay in for a while without the water level falling too quickly.

And the tub leads me to problem #2 – the old tub. In the process of removing the tub, we discovered that the old tub was made of steel, not your usual porcelain. This made it super heavy and not really flexible to move in and out. The only solution was to saw the tub in half. This made for a pretty comic experience. Just take a look.

When they removed the tub, the contractors got started on the walls. And here’s where we hit problem #3 – underneath the tile, the walls had been packed with dirt for insulation, instead of your standard fiberglass. Over time, the dirt had settled and eroded. Now wonder the bathroom was so cold! The bathroom window had completely rotted and dirt literally started falling out of the walls.

Once we got all that figured out – rebuilding the window and filling in the insulation – we were able to focus on the new tiles, which was a tough decision. Stone tiles are REALLY expensive. But we found a pretty good deal on a quartzite tile at Home Depot that we liked well enough. The biggest challenge with this tile was that it is difficult to install. The tile started out a very light grey. But when our contractors installed it, they forgot to seal it first, so when they applied the grout, it stained the tile a very dark grey in some places and a light grey in other places. After several days of fretting, we decided that the dark shade with some irregularities was fine, so we went ahead and stained the whole thing a dark grey, using linseed oil and some color enhancing sealant. I won’t lie – this wasn’t my favorite part of this project. I was pretty upset with how uneven it looked for a while. And it delayed the completion of our bathroom, which meant I was hitting the gym every day to shower for about five weeks. I did get into great shape, though! And in the end, we got a very natural, “wet” look that I do like a lot, which you can see in the picture below.

Splurge #2 was made on our final touches – faucets and the shower heads. I had no idea how expensive a little water spout could be. We were going for a modern and minimal look, which narrowed our choices down quite a bit. In the end we went with a Kohler set, which we like a LOT. It makes the bathroom feel a bit more “fancy” and is a nice design touch.

Overall, this was a big project, but in the end and about six weeks later, I’m really happy with how it turned out and am hoping it will continue to look nice for years to come. Now, on to some new furniture projects that I’m hoping to post about very soon!

Please melt!

Hey everyone! We’ve been quiet here recently because home renovations have completely taken over our lives. I was hoping to post some new home updates in this space, but as those of you who have had construction done in your living spaces know, things almost never go according to plan. And in recent weeks, we’ve almost completely lost use of our bathroom and kitchen, which is a minor tragedy in our household. With very little counter space, we’ve been coping by sticking to one-pot meals and/or fleeing for the weekends. This week, we did both with a theme that stayed with us from breakfast to dinner.

Part I:

It’s been a super cold and just pretty awful winter here in New England, and amidst the mess that is our house, bakerbiker and I were at our wit’s end trying to figure out what to cook for dinner that didn’t involve leaving the house to brave the snow, sleet, or whatever else seems to be out there all the time. And then we looked in the fridge and lo and behold: the perfect ingredients for stick-to-your ribs gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches were staring us in the face.

We’ve taste-tested many different grilled-cheese combos, and have really come to like a mix of melty cheeses rather than just one kind. For this meal, we used gruyere, manchego, and cheddar. We shredded even amounts of each, piled them between two slices of Fornax bread (which in our opinion is really the best for grilled cheese), and grilled them in three generous pats of butter.

And to make things interesting, we happened to have some homemade pickled green tomatoes in the fridge – a layer of that spread on top of the cheese adds a little zip that’s really tasty. You can pickle or preserve your own green tomatoes – we really like Martha Stewart’s green tomato chutney recipe – or, if you’re in the Boston area, City Feed and Supply also sells their own version of pickled green tomatoes that are very good.

To make things just a little bit healthy, we tossed together some roasted beets and arugula with olive oil and salt for a salad on the side. At least SOMETHING is finally melting in our lives, even if it’s not all the snow.

Part II:

You all have heard me rave about Portland, Maine and its amazing food scene, so I won’t rehash too much here again. But part II of our home renovation escape involved a trip to visit our dear friends in Portland. And just when we thought we had created the perfect grilled cheese, we discovered the brunch menu at Blue Spoon, an amazing little spot that offers grilled cheese (among many other tasty dishes) for breakfast!

This was not your everyday grilled cheese, served with taleggio cheese, which really is a wonder, apricot jam, and arugula. You can guess that we just had to try this sweeter version of heaven and it was AMAZING – sweet and salty and perfectly melty. The apricot/taleggio combo is really pure genius. I think we’ve permanently added a new grilled cheese to our repertoire.

Do you have grilled cheese ingredients that you like? Please share!

Green Tomato Chutney from Martha Stewart Living
Servings: 1 1/2 quarts

Ingredients:
4 pounds green tomatoes (about 12 medium), diced
2 yellow bell peppers, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
2 Vidalia or other sweet onions, finely diced
1 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 cups packed light-brown sugar
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 sticks cinnamon (each 3 inches long)
1/2 cup cider vinegar

Instructions:
Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan. Set over high heat; bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to medium-high, and simmer until mixture has thickened and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 1 hour.

Using a slotted spoon, remove cinnamon sticks. At this point, chutney can be cooled and served, or canned: Ladle chutney into clean canning jars, and wipe excess from rims; screw on lids.

Bring a large stock pot of water to a boil. Using canning tongs, gently place jars in boiling water, making sure the water covers the jars (if not, add additional water to cover). Let jars sit in gently simmering water for 10 minutes. Remove; let cool slightly. Check seal by pressing in center of lid. If it doesn’t pop back, it is properly sealed. If it does, return jars to water for 10 more minutes. Let sealed jars cool completely.

Let pickled tomatoes stand until flavors have melded, at least 2 weeks. Store unopened jars in a cool, dark place up to 6 months. Once opened, jars will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

My crafty winter wonderland

Hi everyone! I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but not to worry! I’ve been hard at work on some new fun projects. When I was little, my grandmother used to sit in front of the TV for three hours every day to watch soap operas and knit. Funny enough, I’ve turned into my grandmother and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing on these snowy weekends – watching my secret soap and knitting. I’ve got a bunch of projects going and one of my faves is this basketweave scarf that bakerbiker requested, made out of a supersoft, plush merino wool. I especially like the texture of this piece; it’s not a hard stitch, but boy does it take concentration! I’ve made a few mistakes, but hopefully you can’t see them.

I’ve also been practicing lacework on this skinny pink scarf. It’s a bit meticulous in terms of having to remember when to do what, but it’s been fun to learn how to create those deliberate holes. I’m thinking this will be a nice spring wardrobe addition.

I’ve been traveling a bit this fall, and knitting has come in handy on those boring airplane rides. I’ll have a few more projects to share again soon, but am curious what you think. And when you catch me watching my soap and knitting, just think, it’s a continuing family tradition!