travel

3 pairs of shoes, 1 tiny tote bag: how to pack luggage efficiently

As mentioned in last week’s post about the iGrill, Memorial Day—thus, summertime—is just about upon us. With the kids out of school and the climate luring us from beneath our down comforters and out our doors, summertime is peak season for a lot of people’s favorite pastimes: vacations!

Almost everyone has at least one (if not several) fond memories of vacations from childhood to present. My most memorable ones from my wee days were of road trips to southern California to visit family. I grew up an only child, so my cousins were the closest thing I had to siblings. We would hang blankets from the top bunk and force the youngest to go through our “haunted house.” We’d play with Barbie dolls or lip sync and dance to the VHS tape of Madonna’s Like A Virgin tour. In my adulthood, some favorite vacations include my backpacking through western Europe the summer after I graduated college, our honeymoon to Paris and Barcelona, and my two trips to Japan. If backpacking has taught me anything, it’s how to pack light and efficiently.

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blind life episode 2: visiting the set of masterchef canada

Back in October, I was in Toronto shooting the first season of my Canadian cooking show, “Four Senses,” when I received a message on Facebook from Sandee Birdsong, the almighty culinary producer behind all the main competitive culinary shows you see on American television, including MasterChef U.S., Top Chef, and now MasterChef Canada.

“You’re in Toronto?? I’m here doing MC Canada, and we’re about to tape our finale. Can you come visit the set and give a pep talk to the finalists?” Sandee had said.

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the vision thing: an essay in houstonia magazine

My life for the past 20 months has revolved around cooking and food. But before that, my life had revolved around writing. I hope that soon enough, I will be able to strike a fine balance between the two loves of my life, as I like to call them.

So it was with great pleasure that I was recently asked to write a personal essay for the new kid on the Houston journalism block, Houstonia Magazine. My former editor at Eating Our Words, the Houston Press food and dining blog for which I was a former contributor, is now at Houstonia, and she approached me about writing for the “H-town Diary” column, which she’d mentioned also boasts the likes of such writers as Chitra Divakaruni and Mat Johnson, both of whom were my instructors at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Of course I agreed I would write a piece for the December issue—it was my chance to switch gears and float back towards my writer persona. Plus I figured it would give me new material for my memoir (which I plan to finish a draft of in 2014—more on this later).

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cruising down memory lane: l.a. in july

Ever since I’d returned from filming the show almost a year ago (can you believe it’s been that long already?!), I’ve been quite the jet-setter. I adore traveling because I love learning about other cultures and especially their foods. And when I say “other cultures,” I don’t always mean countries on the other side of the globe. “Other cultures” could refer to another region in the U.S. Or even that neighboring city a couple of hours down the interstate.

But, as I believe with most things in life, everything in moderation. Too much traveling can be exhausting, and now that I’ve found myself home with no foreseeable travel plans for at least a month or two, it feels so damn nice. Since last summer, I’ve watched the mileage in my airline frequent flyer miles climb; I’ve flown over 40,000 miles in less than a year.

Sometimes, I am still treated like I’m incapable at the airports. A recent trip found me in a strange conversation with a TSA employee at security checkpoint.

TSA employee: Can you see anything?
Me: Very little.
TSA employee: You look so normal.
Me: What do you mean? I am normal.
TSA employee: It must be scary flying alone.
Me: Not really. I fly alone all the time.


I wanted to sock him and say, “Scared to fly alone?! I survived MasterChef, biatch!” But of course, I didn’t. I have a respectable image to uphold, you know.

Anyway, looking back at all my travels, I realized I’m way behind on my blog posts. When I first started this blog, my goal was to blog at least once a week. Then I left for the show, and The Blind Cook went on understandable hiatus. Then I returned and was super busy with post-show obligations, and my posts became bimonthly at best. Now I just looked at the last post I wrote, and it was over a month ago! I know this is unacceptable, but please cut me some slack. I just finished writing a cookbook, came back from Vietnam where I was part of the production of “MasterChef” Vietnam, and now I’m trying to hammer out my thesis to graduate in May.

I was looking back at the long list of entries I need to write and decided I’ll just take a trip down Memory Lane. Here’s a trip I took to L.A. In July 2012. There’s not much to this trip in the ways of enjoyable gastronomy, but it was a nice trip nonetheless. FOX was holding their Television Critics Association (TCA) press conference and invited both MC3Felix and me to attend as reps for “MasterChef” season 3. They knew we were dynamic together and good friends, and what could’ve been an intimidating day turned out to be great fun. (After all, isn’t it always all about the company?)

In the same trip, I also did a cooking demo on ”Good Day L.A.”. I’m always nervous before a cooking demo or before I go on camera, in fact, but they usually turn out swell.

Since July, I’ve returned to L.A. A handful of times (including last week when I had that notorious conversation at checkpoint). More to come.

Till next time, wish me luck on my thesis!

taking a bite out of the big apple 1.4: eleven madison park

Finally. My long awaited post wrapping up my September trip to NYC. The ridiculous thing is I’ve been back to NYC since, so there will be a future post on my subsequent NYC trip. All this traveling is bogging me down.

It’s funny what they say about being careful what you wish for. Travel has always been something at the top of my list of favorite things to do in life. But lately, I’ve been traveling so much that all I really want nowadays is to read and sleep in my own bed.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings. Let’s talk about my first 3-Michelin star experience ever. I got us (and by “us,” I mean myself, my cousin Pauline, and Frank from the show) reservations at Eleven Madison Park. A couple of people who work at Pauline’s Manhattan firm had highly recommended 11 Mad, so we decided to pop all three of our 3-Michelin cherries together in one big hoopla of a meal.

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happy thanksgiving: a montage of my korea trip

I recently went to Japan and Korea for a much needed vacation away from my laptop and cell phone (though I ended up working throughout the vacation anyway–gotta get that much anticipated cookbook written!). I regret not doing crazier things in Japan worth capturing on video, but I made up for it in Korea. I ate so much food overseas that a friend’s mom rubbed my belly and exclaimed something in Japanese that alluded to my being pregnant. The thing is, I’m not pregnant! She’d just fed me a delicious dinner of shabu shabu, so if anything, I was pregnant with her shabu shabu baby! It didn’t matter that I was drinking beer over dinner…sigh. Time to lose the pot belly. It is no longer cute.

Anyway, here is a video of our time in Seoul, Korea. I try live octopus and do the Gangnam-style dance in the actual Gangnam district. I was quite embarrassed doing it because: (1) it was in public at a subway stop, and (2) I hadn’t had any shots of soju. But I did it for the fans since it got a laugh from so many of you. Enjoy the video, and happy Thanksgiving to all.

taking a bite out of the big apple 1.3: momofuku ssam bar

Okay, so I lied. I said I’d cover both Momofuku Ssam Bar and Eleven Madison Park in this entry. But the fact is I just discovered I have no photos from my evening at Eleven Mad, so I am awaiting my dinner companions to send theirs over. This means I won’t get to the Eleven Mad dinner till next post. But it’s all good because I have plenty to say about Ssam Bar.

Momofuku Ssam Bar is the closest thing to a gastropub of Chef David Chang’s family of Momofuku restaurants. (Ssam is in reference to the Korean term for “wrap” and indicates dishes in the Korean cuisine that involve wrapping some meat and pickled veggies in a lettuce leaf and dipping in condiments of sesame oil, salt, and pepper or soy sauce before enjoying.) We went on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend and was told there would be close to a two-hour wait. Fortunately, like Ippudo, the hostess is willing to take down a number and text when the table was ready. That’s when we made our way over to our usual waiting spot at Sake Bar Decibel.
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taking a bite out of the big apple 1.2

In my last post, I discussed the cheaper eats in New York City. This time, I continue the NYC gastronomical tour by talking about some of the additional places at which I dined, the not-so-cheap but also the not-so-expensive (I’m saving that for part 3 of this NYC series). Basically, these are the in-betweeners, the delicious, the memorable.

Ever since I’d gone to Japan and tasted what real ramen is supposed to taste like, I’ve been on an eternal hunt for a close imitation this side of the Pacific. There is a place in L.A. that I find pretty yummy and close to what I’ve had in Japan. But I’ve never had ramen East Coast style, so of course, I had to pop that cherry.

The first place on my list was Ippudo in the East Village. This ramen joint is notorious for table wait times of two hours plus. But the nice thing is you can put your name and number on the list, amble on over to Sake Bar Decibel, and throw back a few bottles while awaiting the coveted text message from the Ippudo hostess saying your table is ready. And that’s exactly what we did the two times I went. I’m a purist a lot of the time when it comes to food, so I always like to try the classic of anything, especially when it’s my first visit. I found the classic pork ramen at Ippudo to be incredibly savory but not oily; since ramen broth is made by cooking pork bones for several hours, it can sometimes taste too fatty. (For almost all noodle soups, the clearer the broth, the superior the quality and taste.) You can add extra toppings like an onsen (hot springs) egg or extra pork. The pork buns are also worth trying: slightly spicy pork belly nestled inside a steamed bun with extra crisp veggies to cut the fat. I took Frank here one night, and he agreed the ramen was even better than the bowl he’d had at Momofuku Noodle Bar though he’s not nearly of ramen connoisseur status either.
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taking a bite out of the big apple 1.1

I was recently in New York City for some press and, of course, the finale reception party hosted by Joe Bastianich himself at his Eataly in the Flatiron District (where, I might add, I got to meet his famous mama, Lidia Bastianich). Being the vision impaired traveler that I am, sightseeing is no longerhp as exciting to me. Instead, all my vacations and trips revolve around (what else?) FOOD.

I hadn’t been to NYC since 2006, so I was looking forward to eating at joints I’d never been to before, especially since I’ve cultivated an even more discerning palate in the last few years. Of course, a discerning palate doesn’t mean I only dine on fine foods; in fact, I absolutely love cheap eats, street food, what have you. Some of the best foods cost just a few bucks, and you eat them standing in the street or seated at a tiny bench rubbing elbows with strangers. In the first of this three-part series highlighting my recent NYC gastronomical experience, I pay tribute to the less expensive eats. Who said you have to break your bank to eat well in the City?

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eating my way through the bay 1.2

Russian River in Santa Rosa

With less than two full days left in the Bay area, John and I tried to cram everything food-wise into our schedule. We woke up early Monday morning to a dreary, drizzly day and made our way north to wine country. We meant to drive across the Golden Gate bridge since we were heading to Russian River in Santa Rosa first, killing two birds with one stone so John can finally see the acclaimed bridge he’d so often seen in photos and on TV. But being heavily dependent of the GPS, we ended up crossing the Bay bridge instead. Oh well.

On the way to Russian River, we stopped by Lagunitas which was only a tiny store. The brewery wasn’t open that day for tours so John quickly ran inside to grab a few bottles while I waited in the car where it was nice and dry. We idled up the highway and finally came upon the famous Russian River who makes two of the top beers in the world (according to Beer Advocate). The place was filled with the lunch crowd. We immediately ordered the flight of beers which gave us a 2 oz.-serving of every beer on tap that day from both the California-style hop ales and the Belgian-style ales. It was a perfect marriage as John liked the hoppier beers while I preferred the sweeter Belgian ones. We also ordered two pizzas: one with mushrooms, the other with corn and cilantro. Both were very good and complemented the different beers. When it came time to check out, John bought half a dozen Pliny the Elders and one Damnation (or was it Salvation?). We left satisfied and full.

Joseph Phelps winery in Napa

Our next stop was the Joseph Phelps winery, recommended to us by our friend Stan whom was kind enough to house us for our visit. Admittedly, John and I know very little about wine, so while we paid $80 for a tasting, we liked them all but couldn’t define what it was that we liked about each one. I thought about buying a bottle, but the prices were too steep, and thinking about transporting them and all the other money we’d been spending on food discouraged me from dishing out the dough for a bottle of their pinot noir.

Two months before our trip, we had tried to get reservations at French Laundry. I actually called the restaurant back in May when I knew I’d be coming to the Bay area for my friend’s wedding, but they laughed at me and said reservations are only accepted two calendar months ahead of time. So I put it on my calendar, and on August 9, John and I began calling the restaurant to get our names on the list. We both got busy signals for quite some time, and I gave up after a few minutes. John got through a few hours later and was on hold for twenty minutes. Finally, he spoke to a live person who only told him we had to go on a waiting list. I also got through the next day on August 10, but I was disappointed again: October 10 is also full.

Dinner at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc Restaurant in Napa Valley

So fast forward. We never heard from French Laundry. I ended up making reservations at Thomas Keller’s other more casual restaurant, Ad Hoc. We showed up right as they opened, and our entire meal from start to finish was delightful. The restaurant had a casual cozy yet modern feel from the decor to the furnishings to the staff uniforms (John told me they looked like simple Dickies work shirts). The menu is set, and the food is served family style. For that Monday, the first course was a mixed greens salad with sunburst tomatoes, prosciutto, and pomegranate seeds. The second main course consisted of Wagyu beef skewers, pork ribs, cole slaw, and smashed purple potatoes. The meat was good, but the things I could not get over were the purple potatoes. They were lightly smashed with a fork and roasted with what tasted like rich buttermilk, making the bite-sized purple things so simply delectable. I could not stop oohing and aahing about the purple potatoes, and ever since then, they have become my latest food obsession. (Stay tuned for a recipe.)

The third course was a cheese and apple mostardo platter, followed by the fourth and last course: cornbread topped with homemade vanilla ice cream and candied cashews. The service, like the ambience, was attentive but not at all stuffy. Best of all, it was a fraction of what we would’ve paid had we gone to French Laundry. Only regret was not coming on the day they had the fried chicken.

We drove back to the city with plans to eat a second dinner. We were pretty tired so decided to order it as take-out. Delfina Pizzeria is famous for their Neapolitan pizzas. We didn’t care that we just had pizza for lunch; we were going to eat it again for dinner. They had run out of the clam pie so we ordered one with a tomato cream sauce and another with prosciutto and arugula. Delfina was nice enough to pack the prosciutto and arugula on the side so they wouldn’t be wilted by the time we opened the box at home.

Neapolitan style pizza from Pizzeria Delfina

Never before in my life did I like arugula, but twice today I had it accompanied by prosciutto. There’s something about the fatty saltiness and mildly sweetness of the prosciutto that cuts so well into the bitterness of the arugula. Ever since I returned from our trip, I’ve been dreaming about prosciutto and arugula, combining the duo on top of homemade pizzas and salads.

We also hit up Bi-Rite, a creamery known for interesting flavors. I sampled the honey lavender and balsamic strawberry, both of which were amazing. We ended up walking out with pints of honey lavender and salted caramel. Lucky for us, it was a rainy Monday night so the line was short—only a five minute wait instead of the usual wraparound-outside line. After we pigged out, it was time for bed. Another day of eating ahead of us before catching our flight back home.

The next morning, we stopped by Tartine Bakery to see what the hype was all about. Lucky for us again, there was a short line. Upon the bakery’s recommendation, we purchased a morning bun and the bread pudding. We also threw in a regular croissant and a chocolate pain (“bread” in French, not that we were getting punched by the chocolate). Surprisingly, the two things we picked out on our own turned out to be the best in the bunch. The bread pudding, while good, was not something phenomenal or new to me. And the morning bun, which was like a fancy cinnamon roll, was also too rich for me. Maybe I preferred something simpler.

Our last Bay meal: Dim sum at Koi Palace

For lunch, we hit up Koi Palace in Daly City for some West Coast dim sum. We noticed everything, to our astonishment, was larger here than in Texas (at least when it came to dim sum). The xiu mai were larger, the shrimp in the dumplings were huge. Everything was so tasty, but we were seriously splitting our pants by this point. We had some time after lunch before our flight so we parked at a park overlooking the water and took a short nap in the rental car. It’s been several weeks since our trip, but we still talk fondly of the Bay area and all the awesome things we ate. Expensive, yes. But totally worth it.

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