At the Land’s End

It has been a long while since I managed to sit down and write something.  

The past 18 months have been a strange period for my family.   It started with an unprecedented amount of traveling, for various reasons—the combined distance that we traveled would have been able to circle the Equator.  It included a lengthy road trip from the Pacific Coast all the way to the Atlantic Coast, leading us to a new life in a completely different environment. Then the pandemic suddenly hit and we were confined.  Such solitude, in a relative sense, finally allowed me to contemplate in detail the places we had just been to—historic cities, scenic driveways, frozen waterfalls, and colorful deserts.  The expected and unexpected sights at each place, how they fulfilled my curiosity about nature and history, the conversations that each destination inspired us to have, and eventually, shreds of bitter-sweet nostalgia, all seemed to have precipitated into a dense spectrum of emotions.

The first place that leaped out of the emotional spectrum was a cool, soothing deep blue, blending clear, cloudless sky and topaz-like ocean.  It was Point Reyes.  Just 30 miles north of San Francisco, this National Seashore park felt like a different world.  Its quiet rolling hills, vast beaches, and idyllic wildlife made it one of our family’s favorite places to visit during our 14 years living in this area.  Our first visit was a weekend getaway back in the summer of 2012.  I can still vividly remember Emily’s joyful expressions when she waded along a creek in a miniature natural rain forest, pointed at a gang of grazing elk, and picked wild blackberries along the foothill roads.  That trip was the foreword of a colorful book that records our exploration of many natural wonders along the west coast of the country. 

In the early spring of 2018, we visited again.  After a strangely tiresome winter, we were hoping that a day’s escape would rejuvenate us.  Our Saturday morning drive there was a remarkable start, as the winter rains had dyed the hills with a verdant tinge, and the cool wind brought a palpable freshness of trees and grass through the car window.  The Bear Valley Visitor Center was located right at the entrance of the federally protected Point Reyes National Seashore.  A stroll in the grove next to the Visitor Center led us into a meadow surrounded by rows and rows of giant oak trees, many of which arched over the hiking trail, like humble, bearded guards.  At the heart of the grove there lay a recreated village of the Native American tribe that used to live herethe Coast Miwok.  A few “kotcas”, huts made with redwood bark, together with a fire pit and a larger gathering structure scattered around.  Despite these signs of human activity, we were the only humans there at the moment—no birds stopped their morning songs; even a fox in the grass only slightly turned its head to us as we passed by.  

An old oak tree with furrowed bark
Bear Valley Trail covered by arching trees

Then we drove on into the depth of the park.  The geography of Point Reyes is unique, as it is a cape, protruding from the smooth Northern California coastline.  On the map, it looks like a woodpecker clinging onto a tree.  And its presence outside the motherland, for some reason, seems to harbor a higher variety of scenery and wildlife.  Lagoons were studded among hills; reed-decorated narrow driveways connected groves and marshlands.  Two gangs of tule elk, a species only found in California, crossed our paths with a cautious leisure.  Then we started climbing onto higher grounds until we reached the westernmost point on top of a cliff.

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The view was spectacular, with a simple, unconfined grandeur that was composed of straight coastlines and smooth, deep blue ocean.  This was where I saw California’s coastal waters at their bluest, most mesmerizing state. Only when we saw the strings of broken waves near the coast did we realize that the water was moving.  Along the paved path leading to the very tip of the cape, giant cypress trees grew with a leaning postureharshness could get here after all, perhaps in the middle of the winter.  The path became more and more steep, serpentining among boulders, beyond which the ocean unfolded more of its eloquent details–its fine ripple patterns and gentle embraces with the rugged rocky coasts.  At the end of the path was a lighthouse, white, solitary, minuscule, just as many others along the California coast.  I oftentimes felt a similar sentiment upon visiting these lighthouses,  that the past of this young state had morphed so much in just a couple of centuries, and that many, myself included, tend to take its prosperity for granted.

Looking out at North Beach
Cliff-side view at the Pacific Ocean
Trail leading to the Lighthouse

The last stop of the day was Drakes Beach, just tucked by the southern corner of the cape.  This was Point Reyes’ most tender, intimate place, as a smooth beach was encircled by an array of ivory bluffs, and waves meandered up the sandy territory silently.  It was right before the mating season for elephant seals.  Quite a few had already picked their spots along the beach, resting, waiting, and ignoring the approaching curious tourists.  Only one of them rose its head and belched a series of loud noises, its demeanor content and carefree.  Emily was having the best time of the day.  Barefoot, she walked along the line where waves had ceased, leaving a row of shallow footprints.  Then she started leaping as she watched her reflections on the mirror-like water, which had been gilded with a gloriously golden hue by the setting sun.  In front of me it suddenly became a platform, spotlighted by the sun and gazed at by faraway hills, where my daughter was having her balletic strides, the curvature of her arms supple and graceful like the spring breeze.  My heart was heaped with warmth. 

The serene Drakes Beach with ivory bluffs
A ship-like rock at the beach during sunset
A proud elephant seal claiming territory
Emily’s joyous leap

Point Reyes Station was a quaint little town just outside the Seashore park.  Starving and in a rush to go back home, we found Whale of a Deli right by the main road serving food at the speed that we would appreciate.  My wife, Fei, as always, managed to spot a delicious quick meal off the menu–salmon burritos.  On this chilly evening, the rich, hot, and spicy entree was a perfect ending of the day.  

Seared salmon burritos with pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream, from our kitchen

And of course we would want to make the dish in our own kitchen to reminisce about that wonderful day.  I found a seared salmon recipe loaded with bold Mexican flavors; Fei prepared her signature re-fried beans and seasoned rice.  For extra freshness and richness, we also put together some pico de gallo and guacamole, serving on the side with dollops of sour cream.  We typically don’t prepare all the condiments and sides from scratch, but sometimes it is worth the extra effort.  There goes a satisfying Mexican-inspired feast, to remember that special destination at the distant end of the West. —WZ, FZ, & EHZ

Keeping Darkness at Bay

For various reasons, touring San Francisco always gives us perplexed feelings. Meandering contours, lingering fogginess, and colorful shades all render the city dazzling and dynamic, but also lofty and eccentric.  In a practical sense, the sinuous, traffic-jammed 40-mile drive between the suburban town we live in and the ocean-side metropolis makes it more distant and difficult to reach.  Once in a while, however, we would overcome the mental barrier to plan a trip for a specific destination in the city, to feed a corner of our curious minds.

At the end of 2017, we decided to pay a visit to Alcatraz Island, an essential landmark of the San Francisco Bay.  Even though mystery and thrill within Alcatraz’s very fabric, as an abandoned prison, met the requirements for popularity in contemporary culture, it only became appealing to us when we realized that it was now managed by the National Park System for its historical and ecological values.  National parks never disappoint! This trip turned out to be a thought-provoking one as well.

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Alcatraz in the Bay, from the shuttle boat

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Lighthouse and cellhouse

For a winter day, the San Francisco Bay was sunny and warm, and moderately humid, which made the shuttle boat rides between the city and the island enjoyable.  While the cluster of buildings on the island got close and started to its true rugged faces, it became clear that this isolated island had gone through such harsh conditions over its short history.  In the 1920’s, Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary that held America’s most notorious criminals.  Their lives, in the forms of factual biographies, fictional films, and speculative anecdotes, added tremendously to the fame of the island.  But only upon walking through the detailed audio tour of the island did the lives of the inmates became hauntingly tangible.  The grand cellhouse, despite its size, did not boast spacious individual cells.  In fact, the sheer concentration of cell rooms under the same roof made it suffocating even when viewed as an outsider.  San Francisco’s vibrancy was clearly visible through the small windows along the walls, which must have added unimaginable weights to the thoughts of freedom.  The Bay’s iconic landscapes, the turquoise water, verdant hills and vivid buildings, even became seemingly within reach when one would walk down the stairs the led to the outdoor recreation yard.  And yet most knew that they were facing an agonizingly long wait, if any, before returning to the free world.

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Hallway and cell rooms in the main cellhouse

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Landscape from recreation yard

This unsurprisingly ensued riots with horrid violence, and attempted escapes with obscure outcomes.  The Bay’s grim natural surroundings—cold water, speedy torrents, and occasional appearances of predatory sharks—resonated solemnly with the darkest side of human nature in these stories.  Before long, authorities came to the realization that the torment of being places in this prison, both for inmates and federal personnel, was unbearable.  That, in combination with the mammoth undertaking to financially maintain the prison, led to its end of service in the 1960’s.  And yet history did not end here.  A group of Native Americans claimed the island shortly after it was decommissioned, an act, among many others across the country, contributed to the Indian self-determination becoming the official US government policy.

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Warden’s house

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Side view of cellhouse and surrounding indigenous plants

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Blossom

When Spanish colonists first spotted it in the fog-locked bay in the 18th century, the island was said to be habitat of a large number of California brown pelicans, hence the name—”alcatraces” means pelicans in archaic Spanish.  Nowadays, measured have been taken to preserve the breath of nature on this island that had been densely impacted by historical human activity.  Between buildings and paths, native plants were stretching freely; birds and seals had also returned to multiply.  “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.”  This was a famous quote from the island’s last inmate, Frank Weatherman.  With a condensation of many historical events in a oddly isolated environment, the island had unfortunately gathered and reflected a remarkable number of human nature’s unflattering facets—sin, despair, prejudice…  It was a consolation, however, that all were preserved and examined there today for a good reason.


Boudin Bakery is a must-go place for every tourist visiting San Francisco. As food enthusiasts, we could not say no to the opportunity of savoring one of the city’s most interesting culinary offerings—sourdough bread. I have to say, the deep tang of sourdough is an acquired taste.  But its earthiness and complexity do become appealing when repeatedly tasted.  Besides the signature clam chowder in sourdough bowl the is ordered by virtually every customer, Boudin is also creative about using sourdough for other bread-based dishes, waffles, pancakes, pizzas, tacos.  Their shrimp pesto pizza we ordered this time hit a fabulous balance between freshness of seafood and that we decided to try it in our kitchen.

Breadmaking is an art, and not an easy one.  And sourdough may be among the finest of the art.  As beginners, we were not brave enough to grow our own starter from the floaters in air—we were told that could be scarily unpredictable. Instead, we requested dried starter from the famed Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter.  With that healthy, consistently robust colony of yeast, we also referenced King Arthur’s sourdough pizza crust recipe, and MyRecipes.com’s shrimp pesto pizza recipe, for our final production.  A home kitchen’s oven can never reach the high temperature required to accomplish the authentic level crustiness of pizza, but we were satisfied with what we had, and the flavors were fantastic.

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Sourdough pizzas: shrimp pesto; pears, arugula, walnuts and truffle oil

As we were looking for ingredients in the pantry, we saw a bottle of truffle oil gifted by a good friend, which we had not been able to use much.  That immediately reminded us of a fragrant pancetta-arugula pizza flavored with truffle oil that we had tasted at a local bocce ball alley, Campo di Bocce.  We quickly gathered a few things at hand and put together a modified version of that pizza, loosely following rusticcrust.com’s recipe, ommitting crumbled gorgonzola but drizzling a touch of truffle oil to impart some unique, strong flavors.  These two pizza recipes seemed always appropriate to be served hot or cold under the perpetually mellow climate of Northern California’s inland valleys.  —FXZ and WZ

Fleeting Past and Flickering Present

The departure from Los Angeles after each trip always ends up feeling like the lingering chapter of a nostalgic music piece.  Remnants of the cozy sunshine and breezy ocean gradually fade out and transition into something wilder and earthier,  before we enter into the familiar scenes up north.   The delight of visiting some hidden destinations studded along the lengthy pathway between the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolises has become a vital part of our Southern California trips.

This time in January of 2018, we chose to take a detour along the historic US 101.  Santa Monica Mountains, the range separating the LA basin and California’s Central Valley, turned out to contain so many natural and historical treasures.  A mere 20 minute drive from the bustling LA metro and north of the famed Malibu beaches, mountains rose with rugged rock formations and extensive vegetation coverage.  At the visitor center of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area,  we learned that this area is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna as well as the Native American’s sacred grounds, and therefore a key point of interest to locals for outdoor activities.  Outside the urban life of the City of Angels, this place must be a pure enjoyment for those who wanted to slow down and savor the beauty of life’s another façade.  For us, time was a luxury.  During the short morning in this area, we could only visit the Paramount Ranch, which preserved film sets used for western-style movies.   The dusty roads and false-front buildings blended in the rustic mountain scenes around them, bringing us back to the legendary pioneer times.  The history of film had portrayed valor, love, loyalty and resilience that were the themes of the primal land.  Aside from that, however, how much of reality still exists that could lead us to comprehending the true charisma of the past?

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Hills and a horse rental at Paramount Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains

Western town film settings at Paramount Ranch

Hearst Castle, which is 200 miles up north, turn out to be another interesting manifestation of that notion.   On top of the hills along the scenic California State Route 1, accessing the castle was only possible via a shuttle ride, now a state-run park service.  Owned  by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst,  construction of the mansion lasted 3 decades since the 1910’s, and technically never completed to reach its original full design.  Tt is now among America’s most famous castles,  boasting a compound of historic architectural style across Europe, and the owner’s collection of numerous antiques to decorate the castle.  The front façade of the main building, Casa Grande, was a colossal marble display of fine sculptures, with ornate windows and rails around the towers on the two top sides.  It was nothing but grand, luxurious, and splendid, neither was the interior.  The owner’s attention to details created many admirable elements in the interior design, brought to life by the finest craftsmanship of the time.  Surrounding the main mansion, a number of exquisitely designed smaller buildings served as guestrooms for the celebrities Hearst invited to the castle for the weekend, among which we found the most beloved film stars of all times.  A century later, however, one might argue the glamour of the castle only remained faintly in tourists’ leisurely minds.  How much it encourages or inspires may be a question that invites various answers.

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Hearst Castle’s Casa Grande

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Details on the ceiling of the Gothic Suite

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A guest house

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The indoor Roman Pool

As we descended from the hilltop via a winding path, the castle’s mountainous surroundings started to reveal themselves from the winter’s misty veil, and yet hid itself momentarily, only leaving the rising sun’s golden rays flickering from the distant Pacific Ocean.  Our adventure, fortunately, did not end here.   On the hillside of Highway 1 leading us away from the castle, we surprisingly spotted herds of zebras idly grazing with cattle, a wild and humorous sight no one would have imagined.   They were, in fact, descendants of some residents of Hearst Castle’s private zoo.  Further down the road, a beach crowded with thousands of elephant seals was one of the scenic route’s deserving top tourist spots.  The cool water of the California coast provides them with abundant food, making it optimal feeding grounds for these migrating sea mammals.   Mostly resting, the occasional budging and roaring of the sheer large number of the seals made the beach an extraordinarily lively place.  We found this moment of our trip most delightful.  Among all the busyness of modern life, decorated endeavors sometimes end up being a feeble attempt to celebrate life’s glory.  The plain, humble, unadorned efforts, on the other hand, may become the most relevant, and touching.

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Herd of Zebras at Hearst Ranch

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Bustling elephant seals


In the quaint little town Cambria south of Hearst Castle, we had a delicious Mexican dinner after a long drive, the evening before our castle tour.  Medusa’s Taqueria had a most refreshing chicken salad that struck the jackpot of nutrition and flavor for all of us.

Mexican chicken salad
Mexican chicken salad from our kitchen

Back in our kitchen, we succeeded in replicating this dish, based on a recipe found on recipetineat.com.  We almost followed the recipe step by step, except adding a handful of cucumber slices.  Chicken breasts were marinated with lime, honey, chili, cumin, and oregano, pan-seared to just done before sliced.  The winning combo of vegetables imparted self-complementary crunch and creaminess.  After an exhausting road trip, it was hearty and comforting; on a common Sunday afternoon, it is a dish that the entire family can prepare and appreciate together, a reminder of life’s wonderful richness.  —FXZ and WZ

Tranquility in the Bustle

Los Angeles was where our family started our journey in this foreign country back in the early 2000’s.  My wife and I spent a few years there attending graduate school, and had our daughter Emily.  Every trip back to LA since we had moved to the Bay Are, this kaleidoscopic city seemed to be constantly changing, adding colors and shades here and there.  The recent trip was no exception.  In early January of 2018, we visited LA again and spent a few wonderful days with our close friends, the Kim family—they were one of the families that helped us with incredible generosity when we had first settled down there.  Deep friendship had developed between our families and each reunion had been so memorable.

During this visit, we took a nostalgic trip to the campuses where we did our postgraduate studies.  As we entered the southern periphery of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), staggering buildings of familiar maroon exterior started to remind me of the many walks I used to have along this same path, and yet the scene had certainly changed significantly with the addition of a handful of new buildings.  Modern and vibrant, these buildings were said to have fulfilled some of the growing needs of the university.  The heart of the campus, however, remained solemn and placid as I had remembered.  Buildings of Romanesque architectural styles, though not uncommon on American university campuses, contrasted from the surrounding buildings.  Royce Hall, one of the four original buildings of the campus when the University was established in the 1920s, had always been my favorite architecture on campus.  The most intriguing attribute of Royce Hall is that the two prominent bell towers on the front façade subtly differ from each other in terms of structural and decorative details, even though they are dimensionally identical.  Inspired by the Abbey Church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, such asymmetric design was intended to exhibit man-made beauty inferior to God’s perfect creation.  I found tremendous awe and peace in such humility, which was becoming rarer in academia as in the rest of the world.

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UCLA’s Royce Hall

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In Royce Hall’s front porch

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Bruin Bear, UCLA’s mascot

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Magnolia in front of Kerckhoff Hall

University of Southern California (USC) was located much nearer to Downtown LA.  The campus was equally spectacular, with similar maroon-tiled buildings shining in the warm sunlight.  As we strolled down Trousdale Parkway, passing the towering spire of VKC library, the martial Tommy Trojan, and the elegantly ornate Hutton Park, groups of new students and families were also there for the spring orientation, with beaming excitement and curiosity.  USC is known for its warm welcoming culture to international students.  Judging from the crowd, the school was still a popular destination for youngsters from all over the world.  Our biggest surprise came from the newly renovated University Village (UV).  As a top research school, USC also had an contrasting poor reputation for its unsafe neighborhood.  The new UV area seemed to be a significant step toward improving that reputation.  Brand new dorm buildings were enclosed in a plaza with vast lawns, a grand central fountain, comfortable outdoor sitting areas, as well as convenience facilities within.  Recognizing all good intentions, I personally doubted the necessity of such luxurious living conditions.  After all, one attends a university to equip themselves with skills, knowledge, and wisdom.  And I had a difficult time connecting what I was seeing with that purpose.

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Main building of new UV of USC

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Tommy Trojan, USC’s mascot

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VKC Library

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An old piano outside the University Religious Center

One spectacle of LA in the last decade was the booming of Silicon Beach.  A large number of startup companies, together with high-tech moguls, had established their offices  on the west side of LA, boosting local economy tremendously.  Driving westward from the Kims’ home on Jefferson Boulevard, the neighborhood of Playa del Rey had become like those we typically saw in the South Bay Area, with numerous buildings of contemporary styles, extravagant apartment complexes, and vivacious shopping centers.  All were pleasing to the eyes, but once again, I did not find bliss and enjoyment until we drove further down and reached the beach area.  The azure ocean leisurely raised waves white as snow; the surrounding neighborhood was rustic and quiet.  Our children spent the entire afternoon running in and out of water, molding sand into various structures with their wild imagination.  My mind was pacified by such simple, innocent joy.

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Beach at Playa del Rey

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Beach houses

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Beach village

To us, the City of Angels is always different from the one where glamour and prosperity dominate the popular culture.  It is a second hometown, a place where we were and continue to be nurtured by intimate, enduring friendship.  In this world that keeps jolting forward with indiscreet strides, it comforts me to find such pleasing tranquility.


Los Angeles is a cultural melting pot that can certain fulfill a foodie’s cravings.  Back in our LA days, we were so blessed by the hospitality of our Korean American friends, who had repeatedly treated us with the best Korean food.  In this nostalgic trip, we did not want to miss the opportunity to relive those experiences.   Sundubu jjigae, or soft-tofu stew, was one of our favorite dishes that strike a remarkable balance between spiciness, flavor, and texture.  Cooked in a small clay pot, the piping hot stew brings together silky tofu, earthy seafood or meat, and the signature Korean chili broth, a perfect dish to share with family and friends especially on a cold winter evening.  We ordered three varieties (beef, pork, and seafood) from one of the best local tofu houses, BCD tofu, and they surely satisfied our stomachs.

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BCD’s sundubu jjigae, they were so good that nobody remembered to take a picture until we were half way through

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Sundubu jjigae from our kitchen

Back in our own kitchen, I had to use a larger clay pot we usually used for Asian soups and stews.  I mostly followed the recipe on mykoreankithen.com with minor modifications.  First step was to prepare Korean style dashi stock, leveraging seaweed and dried anchovies.  The simple, 30-minute process would extract such strong, earthy umami from the raw materials.  The anchovies smelled pungent but did not render the stock overly fishy.  From the local Asian market, I found both guchujang (Korean chili paste) and guchugaru (Korean chili flakes).  Instead of using the flakes as the recipe called for, I used the paste like a few other recipes recommended—I personally preferred the sweetness from the fermented rice in the paste.  Three types of mushrooms, enoki, oyster, and shiitake, were all used in this dish, which were another source of the wonderful umami.  For the seafood, I made the shortcut to use the seafood medley from Costco that included shrimp, scallop, mussels, and calamari.  The rest was simple: sautéing the seafood briefly in the chili paste, adding hot dashi, tofu, and mushrooms, bringing it to a boil, garnishing with green onions and a dash of sesame oil.  This rich, flavorful stew will certainly appear on our dining table for many more times.  —WZ

 

 

Sunshine After the Storm

I landed in Orlando, Florida, right after the catastrophic Hurricane Irma had passed the state.  Overlooking from the airplane, all seemed to be normal already.  Slightly overcast but no wind or rain, the city felt perfectly normal;  only patches of palm trees and pockets of wetland at the end of the sight reminded me this was the tropical Southeast.

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The lion statue at the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine

I finally got to have a relaxed appreciation of this area after a few days of in-and-out of conferences, meetings, and dinners.  Northeast from the city of Disney World and Universal Studios, the road led me through lush wide-leafed woods and humble residential houses.  At this point, the impact of the hurricane started to show.  Only few of the giant billboards along the roads were intact; debris piles of tree branches lined up; some houses still had sealed windows and doors, indicating the absence of their owners.  To my comfort, my destination, the old town of St. Augustine was calm but vividly colorful.  Spanish colonial architecture of various shades of bight colors, studded with tall cathedrals and stone monuments, revealed a charisma different from most American towns I had been too.  After all, this was one of the earliest European settlements on the North American land.

Castillo de San Marcos was a 17th-century masonry fort built at the shore of Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine, guarding the  waterway that led to the Northern Florida.  Over the past three hundred years, this fort had witnessed the richness of history on this land.  Its ownership had been exchanged multiple times, between the rivalry of Spanish and English colonist armies in the early years, and similarly, between the Confederate States and United States during the American Civil War.  Constructed with coquina, a sedimentary rock composed of ancient seashells and corals, which had been quarried locally, the fort’s extraordinary mechanical strength had successfully resisted firepower from these historic battles, and remained its original form today.

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Wall of Castillo de San Marcos and water-filled moat

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One of the sentries

When I started to stroll on the broad roof of the fort, I realized that it had a simple, square outline.  On each corner of the square, however,  an arrow-head-shaped bastion protruded, each with a garita (sentry in Spanish) at the tip, silently boasting its defensive sharpness.  At that moment, the fort felt like a colossus ancient beast in dormancy.  The numerous marks of erosion on its grey skin testified to its age, but it felt firm, solemn, even a bit grim.  After all, besides the battles it had endured, it eventually became a prison that claimed the freedom and lives of a large number of Native Americans towards the end of the 19th century.  Landmarks like this are often times mesmerizing in many ways.  On the one hand, they may be remarkable demonstrations of engineering excellence or artistic merit.  But more often than we imagine, they expose a fragment of history that triggers our introspection.

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Fishing along the quiet lagoon

Going south along the scenic Florida A1A toward my next destination was a pleasant drive.  The wavy Atlantic and calm lagoons on the two sides of the road composed a dramatic contrast.  Cars were still scarce shortly after the hurricane, and most of the vacation beach houses and resorts looked idle.  Sporadic piles of debris added some ruggedness rare to tropical beaches.  By the lagoons, however, joggers and fishers were already out enjoying a peaceful afternoon.  It was difficult not to pull over and take a closer gaze at this scene in front of me.  The clear, still water extended into clusters of emerald woods at the end of the sight; the humid, warm air brought slight saltiness that felt so strangely exciting to me; the sound of clashing waves echoed gently from far behind.   This corner of the world became surreal.

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Looking south on Canaveral Seashore

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Shells on the beach

And all led to absolute reclusiveness when I approached Canaveral National Seashore.  This federally preserved and protected area includes a 15-mile-long barrier island, its adjacent wetlands, and thousands of species residing there. The Atlantic Ocean continued to fascinate me with its warm embrace, coarse sands, and colorful seashells.  Thriving marsh plants weaved into blankets and rose like towers, rendering the land with prominent livelihood.  Flocks of large shorebirds—egrets, storks, pelicans—were leisurely gliding over the sky.   In water, families of endangered manatees surprised me many times while I as pondering upon the lagoon scenery.  My stay was quick and short, and yet it relaxed and amazed me perfectly.

When I stopped at the visitor center, the worker there explained that this was actually the first day that the seashore park reopened after the hurricane.  Parts of the park were still closed due to the hurricane damage.  “We are still in a rough shape.” She explained apologetically.   I responded with a word of appreciation.   So often we travel with the expectation of being entertained, and Orlando evokes none other than the paramount of such expectations.  I was so glad I had chosen to visit these hidden gems to appreciate and celebrate something far more worthy.


My trip to the southern states left me with many wonderful culinary experiences.  With the leftover North Carolina barbecue pork in my last post, I also tried to recreate Brunswick stew that I had enjoyed.  It was a tomato-based soup with chunky meats and a medley of vegetables, which was delicious, hearty, and nutritious.  Jamie Deen’s recipe seemed to resemble what I had eaten most closely, and the outcome of the imitation was satisfactory.  By the way, it was the first time I used baby lima beans in cooking, and they were fabulous!

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Brunswick stew from our kitchen

In a coastal state like Florida, I thought I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to check out the local seafood venues.  Karen’s, a humble, self-serving eatery, presented a southern-style crab meal that was not to be missed.  Crab legs cooked perfectly in spicy, buttery Cajun-Creole seasoning, were tender, juice, and so flavorful that I could not stop eating.  In my kitchen, I used more meaty, but less tender Dungeness crab that was readily available in California, and married them with YouTuber Blissful Creation’s oven roasted crab legs recipe.  Without quantified instructions from the video, I had to devise some of the details, but it was more fun that way, and again, the flavors were quite all right.

Recipe serves 4–6

3–4 lb cooked, refrigerated Dungeness crab, cleaned and separated into sections
1 lb small potatoes, halved
1 lb corn cobs, halved
4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
1/3–1/2 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 TBSP parsley, minced
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 TBSP minced garlic
1 TBSP Cajun seasoning
1 TBSP Creole seasoning

In lieu of Cajun seasoning and Creole seasoning, I used the following mixture of seasonings:
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp ground mustard
1/4 tsp dry thyme
1/4 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp dry sage
1/4 tsp dry oregano
1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, depending on preference
1/2 tsp chili powder

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix butter, oil, and all seasonings in a bowl. Liberally brush the crab sections, potatoes, corn cobs, and eggs with the seasoned butter until they are completely covered. Place them in a large baking dish.  Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes.
3. Flip all the pieces, and apply more seasoned butter if needed. Return to oven to bake for another 10-15 minutes, until all pieces are thoroughly heated. Serve warm.

Last but not least, cheese grits were served multiple times both in North Carolina and in Florida.  This rich, savory staple side dish added so much flavor and substance to the meals that I fell in love with it quickly.   After I visited Canaveral, I stopped at Goodrich Seafood & Oyster House for a late lunch.  The rustic, waterfront diner’s beautiful deck had been completely wrecked by the hurricane, but the quality of their food was not affected, nor was the hospitality of the owner, who sent me a bowlful of fish stew as I was waiting.  The fried alligator I ended up ordering was a blast, but certainly something I cannot replicate easily.  The remediation was to whip up some cheese grits to remind me of the bold, warm southern flavors.  Paula Deen’s recipe turned out to be an even more flavorful version of what I had tasted.  I used half the butter and cheese the recipe called for, also replaced 1/3 of the cheddar cheese with some nutty Gruyère.  Next time I will probably use less chicken broth as well.  —WZ

Old North in the South

For a family who have been living in California for over a decade, every trip out of this vast and wild western state becomes an exciting adventure.  This past September, I had the opportunity to travel to two southeastern states for a week.   The few moments of leisure outside my work schedule, where I managed to take a peek at the unique natural and cultural heritages of the region, turned out to be such a refreshing experience.

The 3 days in North Carolina, I was going back and forth between Raleigh-Durham, the state capitol, and the rural-industrial areas around it.  In appearance, Raleigh-Durham was not different from any other modern American city with a scenic combination of high-rises, urban afforestation, and road network.  And yet widespread waterways and endless patches of broadleaf trees made it vibrant and exhilarating.  The bustling vibe quickly quieted down as we drove out of the city, and tobacco fields and rustic farmhouses became the major characters of the stage.  This scenery became an interesting topic between a couple of co-workers of mine, whose families were both connected to this agricultural tradition of North Carolina—the coastal Atlantic plains’ sandy soil was uniquely suitable for tobacco; tobacco farming helped forming the industries of the state since the 17th century; tobacco remains the #1 cash crop of North Carolina today.

Historical facts like this, trivial as they may seem, always fascinate me.  On my last day in North Carolina, I took a detour to Greensboro for a quick visit at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, which commemorates a critical battle in the American Revolutionary War.  The Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place on March 15th, 1781, lasted only 9 minutes,  resulted in the British Army claiming victory while sustaining heavy loss,  then forced to abandon the gains and retreat.  From that point on, the United States army proceeded to confining and destroying the British Army, leading to their eventual surrender.  How dramatic it was that such a short battle was the turning point of a historic war and impacted the fate of a nation!

The current state of the park was a decorated celebration for the event, with numerous statues, monuments, and demonstrations reminding people of faith, valor, and tenacity that upheld this country’s history.  More than that, this place is anything but an isolated memorabilia of the past.  Miles of trails wound under the vast canopies shaped by  lush woods providing joggers and bikers a perfect destination in which to enjoy this warm, beautiful late summer day.

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Green woods in Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

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Trail in Guilford National Military Park

As I drove out of the parking lot, one of the park rangers rushed out to correct a piece of information he had given me earlier about the site.  Thanking him, I was reminded of the few brief encounters I had with the Southern hospitality.  Folks here never seemed to hide their thoughts, and yet their words conveyed genuine care, proven by them going out of their way to extend help.  Among many things, this will probably at the top of my list to remember.


As the cool autumn breeze suddenly descended on the land of Northern California, I started to crave the warm, spicy, hearty food I got to enjoy during my trip.  I vividly remembered that one lunch I had in North Carolina was a feast of all the southern goodness in a simply but hearty way with the state’s signature barbecue pork, accompanied by a handful of side dishes.  It certainly filled my stomach and replenished my mind like magic.

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Lunch in North Carolina

First dish to replicate was the Carolina style barbecue pork, with a tangy vinegar sauce accentuating the natural richness of pork.  As a meat eater, I never succeeded in fully appreciating the smoky Texan barbecue flavor, but the Carolinas seemed to know how to cook meat like a Chinese.  I  tried a simple recipe on allrecipes.com for the pork, which required no more than adding salt, pepper, and vinegar to pork shoulder and letting it cook in a crock pot for a day.  The outcome was outstandingly satisfactory.  For the sauce, this recipe combines vinegar, sugar, and a few common spices to concoct a perfect mate for the pork.  Moreover, a mayonnaise-less coleslaw can bring some extra freshness to the table.

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Carolina style pulled pork with coleslaw, from our kitchen

I made this meal on a busy day where nobody had big chunks of time to cook.  We would have made cornbread to appropriately pair with the pork.  On that thought, maybe I will challenge the ultimate Southern side, hush puppies, next time to compensate.  —WZ

Into the Deep Valley

North of Sequoia National Park and contiguous of it, is Kings Canyon National Park.  Departing from the Grant Grove where many giant sequoias resided just like Sequoia National Park, CA 180 quickly and steadily descended from the rocky peaks of Southern Sierra Nevada. Although Kings Canyon is the deepest canyon in the US, registering 8,200 feet from top to bottom, it does not seem to enjoy the fame it deserves among the many popular destinations the Sierra has to offer.  And yet as soon as we stepped into its periphery, we realized its beauty and grandeur were not to be dismissed.

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Kings Canyon from the mountain top

The giant shady trees were gone.  Instead, cliffs and domes were bare and rugged, sporadically covered by short shrubs.  The rocks themselves displayed an amazing variety of colors and hues under the crispy clear California sunlight, some golden and shiny like brass, some gray and dense like steel.  On one side of the windy and steep road, the deep valley gradually became visible.  The silver-white traces of rivers stretched across the entire range of solid land in between two lanes of towering mountains, outlining the paths where the massive glacier had mightily scraped through.

At the bottom of the valley, the cliff faces were nearly vertical, with white granite reflecting sunlight beautifully, which once again evidenced the power of glacier that formed and shifted this landscape millions of years ago.  Water was still the main character of the stage here.   Rivers were rushing and roaring among boulders, demonstrating yet another  formidable facet of nature’s forces.   Waterfalls could be found in many places in the valley.  Some were turbulent, immense, and boisterous, others slender, lofty, and delicate.  At places where water became placid, grass and trees flourished, forming patches of green land that were serene and tender.  Water brought such deep and complex character to this geological wonder .

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The Sierra Nevada nourishes California as its main watershed.  Kings Canyon and its humble beauty, despite being shielded by the stark mountains, is a manifestation of the range’s deep nurturing power.  On an otherwise desolate land, what can compare to this source of livelihood that dates back to the beginning of time and endures on?


Although mentally satisfied by Kings Canyon’s unparalleled marvel, we were physically drained after an entire day’s exploration.  In Fresno, which was one of California’s largest cities and only one hour from the park, we enjoyed a relaxed dinner at Koja Kitchen.  This modern Asian Fusion chain was such an interesting depiction of how the culture of Central Valley had evolved over time.  Their miso-coconut braised pork bowl, was an ultimate comfort food to me, mixing deliciously cooked meat, bold flavors, and balanced nutritions.  Coconut is not the most common ingredient in Eastern Asian cooking, but its sweet rich fragrance added a unique flavor to the pork, and the use of miso brought out the best earthiness (or umami) one could ever anticipate from pork.  The inclusion of masago and kimchi in this dish was also ingenious.  Masago brought a delightful burst of saltiness when we bit into the rather mild meat, and kimchi simply balanced the overall flavors with its signature spicy acidic notes.  Fortunately these ingredients are all available in the Asian market near us, and using a crock pot basically means very little time is needed in the kitchen to bring this dish to our dining table.

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Original Koja burger and miso-coconut-braised pork bowl from Koja Kitchen

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Miso-coconut braised pork with kimchi, masago, salad greens, and brown rice

Recipe serves 6–8

3 lbs pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch thick slices
1 can (14oz) reduced-fat coconut milk
1–2 TBSP white miso, depending on its saltiness
1 TBSP fish sauce
1 TBSP sake
1 TBSP minced fresh ginger
Half a medium-sized onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced
1/3 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
1 scallion, green and white parts, thinly sliced
3-5 oz masago (capelin roe)
Kimchi
Salad greens of choice, with any light vinaigrette, if needed
Unsweetened coconut chips, for garnish (optional)

  1. In a large non-stick skillet, heat 2 tsp vegetable oil on medium heat until hot but not smoking, and sear sliced pork shoulder in batches until all sides are lightly browned, about 3-5 minutes per side.
  2. Sauté onion and garlic with the leftover oil in skillet until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes.
  3. Mix coconut milk, miso, fish sauce, sake, ginger, and cooked onion and garlic in a large bowl. Use a whisk if needed to disperse the miso paste.  Taste the marinade to determine if more miso is needed before marinating the seared pork in the refrigerator overnight.  The saltiness of marinade should be about the same as that of cooked meat to your liking.
  4. Reconstitute shiitake mushrooms, and make sure to wash thoroughly to get rid of any sand they may carry.  Transfer pork with marinade into a crock pot, and cook at low heat for 7-8 hours, or at high heat for 4-5 hours.  Flip the meat at the middle point of the cooking time, and add the mushrooms.
  5. On a large plate, use forks to shred the cooked pork. Transfer the desired amount onto a serving plate, add some liquid and mushrooms from the pot to it, and sprinkle masago, scallion slices, and coconut flakes on top.  Serve warm with the salad greens, kimchi, and rice or bread of choice.  —WZ

Giants of Millennia

The grand Sierra Nevada is home to a wide variety of natural wonders, including the country’s second oldest National Park, Sequoia National Park.  Driving southeast yet again along the broad California Central Valley for three hours, we reached a little town called Visalia.  Eastward from there, the windy CA 198 slowly but steadily elevated into the Sierra, unfolding extended lush vegetation.  Although expected, this was still a pleasant change of view after a long, dry summer in suburban California.  A rushing river leaped in and out of our view as we wound along the road, reminding us the source of such livelihood among these mountains.

Moro Rock is a bare dome extruding from the vegetation-ridden mountains within the park, and a popular hiking destination.  A stairway was built along Moro Rock’s natural ledges and crevices, allowing us to climb onto the top of the rock.  It gave us a perfect stretch after the long drive, as well as a chance to overlook the surrounding mountains from a high point.   Sunlight in early September was still bright and warm, and yet the breeze seemed to be carrying a cool sweet scent from the emerald-green hues around us.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the deepest interior of the Giant Forest, where numerous giant sequoia trees (sequoiadendron giganteum) towered magnificently.  Their furrowed bark radiated a red-brown hue, setting them apart from the gray and moss-green pines and firs around them.  Their clustered dark green leaves were high above the ground, creating large areas of shade beneath them.  The sheer size of the giant sequoia trees were beyond imagination.  Human beings, or even cars, seemed so tiny and negligible next to these giants.  The General Sherman Tree, world’s largest living tree by volume, stood among its peers with an astonishing 275-ft height and 25-ft diameter, since about 2,500 years ago.  It had stopped growing vertically after 2 millennia, but continued to increase in width and volume year after year.

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Giant sequoia trees among other types

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Me at the bottom of three giant sequoia trees

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Comparison between a car and a giant sequoia tree

They were undoubtedly the kings of this old land and survived the transformations caused by nature and human activity.  This dry land experienced frequent wildfires.  With their thick natural armor, the giant sequoias survived these tribulations, though charred marks of these events still remained on many of them, probably permanently.  While age shifts waters and crumbles mountains, life continues and thrives with amazing resilience.


On our way home from this wonderful 2-day trip to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon (will be recorded in a separate post) National Parks, we stopped in Fresno, one of the largest cities in Central California, to re-energize.  Our meal at Koja Kitchen, an Asian fusion chain restaurant, was a pleasant surprise.  The restaurant combined elements of several Asian cuisines into dishes of such bold flavors, that I could not resist trying them in our own kitchen.  My first attempt was there signature “Original Koja Burger”.

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Original Koja burger and miso-coconut-braised pork bowl from Koja Kitchen

Having spent 5 years in Southern California, we could never forget the exquisite tastes of the dishes from the Korean restaurants and our Korean-American friends’ homes.   The Koja Burger blended the sweet-savory and tender beef ribs, which reminded us of the good times, with a creamy-sweet aioli that mimicked the dipping sauce for fried meats (katsu) in Japanese cooking.  It was an ingenious invention.  In my attempt, I marinated the meats with our friend Grace Kim’s family recipe for Korean-style barbecue beef (galbi).  It turned out quite similar to what Koja Kitchen had to offer.

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Briased ribs burgers with white and brown rice patties

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Braised ribs with katsu aioli, leafy vegetables, and sesame seeds

Recipe makes 8 burgers

2 lbs boneless beef short ribs
3 cups short-grain white-rice, preferably sushi rice
2-3 cups leafy vegetables of choice, lettuce, spinach, arugula, or spring mix, coarsely chopped
Toasted white sesame seeds for garnish
1 tsp corn starch

Marinade (Korean galbi) for 2 lbs meat:
1/2 cup regular soy sauce
1/2 cup dark soy sauce (may be substituted with 1/3 cup regular soy sauce)
3 TBSP rice wine
1 TBSP toasted sesame oil
Half a pear, peeled, cored, and chopped
Half a medium-sized onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 TBSP minced fresh ginger (or 1 tsp powder)
1/3 to 1/2 cup light brown sugar

Katsu aioli
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp mirin
1/2–1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp garlic powder

  1. Add all ingredients for the marinade in a blender, and blend until well mixed and smooth.  Trim the meat and cut into 3/4-inch pieces, mix well with marinade, and let sit in refrigerator overnight.
  2. Cook rice according to instructions and let cool. Sprinkle corn starch on top of cooked rice and mix with spatula. Whip all ingredients for the katsu aioli together until uniformly mixed.  Keep the aioli refrigerated.
  3. In a large non-stick skillet, heat 2 tsp vegetable oil on medium heat until hot but not smoking.  Drain liquid and wipe out excessive marinade from meat. Add about half of meat into skillet to form a single layer, cook for 2 minutes, flip the meat, and cook for another 2 minutes.  Turn fire to medium-low, stir occasionally to prevent burning, and cook with skillet covered, for another 3 minutes until the center of the meat registers 160 degrees F.  Transfer meat and any leftover juice onto a platter with a foil tent to keep warm.
  4. Use a mold, or a large cookie cutter, to compact rice into a firm patty. Sear each side on a lightly oiled skillet at medium heat for 2 minutes or until a crust forms.
  5. Spread one side of 2 patties with katsu aioli. Add leafy vegetables and cooked meat to assemble into a sandwich.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Serve warm.  WZ

 

 

The Shape of Eternity

Paris’s architectural charisma was irresistible.  Ornate or simple, colorful or plain, the buildings all carried a unique temperament that was a vital part of this city.  Notre Dame and Sacré-Cœur, the two cathedrals that represented its grandeur, gave us the chance to walk into the past of Paris and savor its historical evolution via these two monumental cathedrals.

And yet they were so different from each other.  Notre Dame was gray, solemn, almost forbidding.  Its sharp outlines, towering spires and grotesque gargoyle statues demonstrated a textbook gothic style.  Approaching its grand front façade, however, we were immediately drawn by the incredible level of details of the numerous statues around its doorways, telling stories silently but vividly.  After a long wait in the queue, we climbed up the famous narrow and windy stone stairs to the top of one of the front towers.  Our ascension by foot was laborious and slow, and yet enabled us to see the cross-shaped hall roof and its accompanying flying buttresses.  It was a strange sensation viewing the vast city through arrays of gargoyles, some of which already worn out by the touch of ages.  It was beyond my fascination what viewers in the past saw from these particular angles.

Sacré-Cœur, on the other hand, was pure white.  Its hemispherical apse (back altar), together with numerous round arches, made the outline soft and mellow, marking the obvious oriental influence on the style.  Located on top of Montmartre Hill, the highest point of Paris, it provided yet another overlook of the city.  On the sunny and warm day of our visit, Paris was as radiant and vibrant as the cathedral itself.  Meandering its periphery, we encountered a string duet playing under one of the cathedral’s side arch doors.  We did not recognize the piece they were playing, but they were focused, skillful, and friendly, smiling at everyone that stopped to listen to them.  The echoing music added to the serene, narrow alley such liveliness  that it no longer felt like a relic, but something upbeat and relevant.

As protestants, touring a catholic church is always a mesmerizing experience.  Early Christianity not only defined regional culture heritages, but also shaped European history.   Notre Dame is considered the earliest Christian worship site in Paris, remained center of Catholicism in France, and witnessed numerous historic events there.  Sacré-Cœur was constructed much later, after the defeat of Franco-Prussian War and the uprising of Paris Commune, to expiate the “decline of morals” during that turbulent period of time.  How the faith for Christ guided the establishment of nations and yet became mere renditions of political agendas is profound.  These astonishing artistic virtues of these cathedrals may be attributed to divine inspirations, or more indirectly, expression of worship and awe in a most ingenious form.  And yet as time goes by, have they become the likes of other man-made wonders that boast the abilities of human mind and craftsmanship?  Did the height of the spires and vastness of arches point to the path to eternity, or did they limit it?

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Side view of Notre Dame

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Side view of Sacré-Cœur


Harmony Café also served a chicken dish that was earthy and comforting.  Its version of poulet suprême, or the best of chicken, was pan-seared to perfection, tender and juice, served with a sweet-savory jux (thin sauce), on a bed of roasted mix vegetables that reminded me of ratatouille in a lighter, fresher form.  I found the NYT Cooking’s chicken breast and chef Anne Burrell’s roasted veggie recipes gave very similar results to what we tasted in Paris.  Click on the links to view the original recipes—my versions did not deviate from them significantly.

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Poulet suprême with roasted veggies and jus at Harmony Café

The chicken breasts in this recipe are seasoned and seared in an oven-proof skillet before the cooking is finished in the oven.  The cooking juice of the chicken is then mixed with verjuice, which is a sweet-sour fruit juice, more chicken stock, and herbs before being reduced to the jus.  Verjuice is not a common ingredient in the US, and I found that it could be replaced with the same amount of white wine vinegar and a little bit of sugar (to taste).  The recipe also calls for a generous amount of Dijon mustard, which I think might be overpowering.  I would reduce it in half or completely remove it, to allow the chicken flavor to shine.

The roasted veggie ratatouille requires cooking veggies in just 2 batches, which makes it less time-consuming than traditional ratatouille.  The harder-to-cook veggies, Eggplant, zucchini, squash, and tomatoes, are sliced into the same thickness before being roasted in oven.  Onions and bell peppers, which take less time to cook, are sautéed and then mixed with the roasted veggies after they are cooled and cut into smaller pieces.  Vinegar and fresh herbs are added in the end to make the dish earthy-rich and fresh-tasting at the same time.   —WZ

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Chicken beast with jus and roasted vegetables from our kitchen

A Valley Not Barren

Death Valley had always been a mysterious and formidable destination for us.  Extreme heat and aridity being the causes of enjoyable objects was simply beyond our imagination.  And yet we kept hearing testimonies about the unique landscape and experience it could offer.  We finally decided to explore it at the end of a peaceful winter break.

Having lived in California for over a decade, we thought we had already gotten used to the geological and climatic diversity within this vast state.  Within a few hours of drive, we had departed from the humid cool East Bay, cut through green-orchard-ridden Central Valley, and reached the southern tip of the High Sierra.  Turning eastward from there, towering mountains and extensive deserts began to alternate dramatically, and finally led us into the rust-colored Panamint Range that guarded the west rim of Death Valley.

Entering the valley at dusk added another layer of mystery to our anticipations.  The setting sun cast its deepest red-brown hues onto the mountains, blending short shrubs, rocks, and soil into unpolished canvases, which quickly started to sink into darkness.  At that moment the edges of mountains where they met the sky became the only visible thing, outlining the extensive yet fathomable dimension of the valley.   When the daylight finally appeared, however, the valley became surprisingly lively, not so much in the varieties of creatures, but rather the shapes, colors, and textures of geological formations within our sight.

Badwater Basin, the lowest point of land in North America at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, was a grand salt flat.  Rain, scarce as it is, dissolves minerals in the soil of surrounding mountains, brings them down to the bottom of the valley, evaporates under high heat, and accumulates the salt crystals there.  The majority of the area was flat, smooth, and white as snow; the edge, where the ground was a mixture of mud and salts, however, had a much coarse, wavy appearance.  The visuals were so unusual that we felt as if we were walking on a giant lake, frozen in time.

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Badwater Basin

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Devil’s Golf Course at the edge of Badwater Basin

The high 70s temperature here reminded us of the amenable Southern California winter weather, but as we drove around, we were reminded of the harshness of the natural conditions during the rest of the year.  Rock arches among bare, crumbly hills, along with the badlands structures at Zabriskie Point were evidence of  the immense power of nature over ages that had drastically shifted the shape of land.  At Artist’s Palette, the entire face of a hillside displayed the most unnatural array of vibrant colors, caused by chemical weathering and hydro-thermal alteration of an area where various geological components had deposited and cemented.  Every tourist was ecstatic here, climbing up the radiant hill like children.  What a feast of visual enjoyment in such an unexpected way!

Mosaic Canyon was a spot where the valley seemed to have opened her heart to us.  A rocky side road led into a trail that was a dried river bed.  The two sides of the river banks often times revealed completely different textures–one side mainly contained coarse, grainy sediments; the other was composed of enormous, smooth boulders.  Walking on the quiet trail, I could imaging the river in the past, where roaring water gushed down, carrying rocks that constantly scraped  the banks for centuries or longer.  Was that not the past of the entire Death Valley that was dynamic and ever-changing?  Or was it even the case now, except we couldn’t notice it with our naked eyes?

 

We were told this was the start of Death Valley’s light season for tourists, and yet clusters of people still filled the place, most with awe and joy upon setting foot on this marvelous land.  And we were not alone!  Native Americans have been residing here for over a thousand years, relying on the flora and fauna that are resilient enough to survive the extreme conditions.  At Salt Creek,  where streams of water flowed all year long, we saw an expansive bed of desert plants, and were told that pupfish, a species unique to Death Valley, could be found abundantly in the extremely salty waters in spring, along with blankets of wildflowers that could cover large areas of the valley.   The name “Death Valley” may not be really appropriate after all.  And yet it does proclaim the reverence we ought to have toward nature and the forces it is able to render.

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Salt Creek


Stovewell Pipes was the town we stayed in during our visit.  This town was within the National Park periphery and provided comfortable daily rest one would need to explore a remote area like this.  Toll Road Restaurant, the only dining place in the town, had a decent menu, where an entrée called Pigs N’ Puddin’ stood out.  This Tex-Mex dish featured barbecue ribs on a bed of polenta.  The rich, tangy barbecue contrasted and complemented the creamy polenta nicely, with some salsa on top, bringing a touch of freshness.  It was a beautiful, hearty dish after one day’s exploration in the dry, warm wilderness.

Coming home, Fei successfully brought the Pigs N’ Puddin’ into our kitchen.  She used the Smitten Kitchen’s oven-roasted ribs recipe, where spare ribs (for flavors) or baby back ribs (for tenderness) were seasoned with a dry rub, wrapped in foil packets, and cooked in the oven.  The juice of the cooked meat was then reduced into a naturally thick sauce.  Polenta was cooked with milk into a thick porridge, blended with cheese for extra creaminess, and then topped with the cooked meat and sauce.  Minced fresh herbs (cilantro or chives) and diced tomatoes and avocado added the final complexity of colors and flavors.  This dish has become a course of comfort food that we now cook often times, and reminds us of the memorable moments we have spent in Death Valley.  —WZ

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Barbecue ribs with creamy polenta, avocado, tomatoes, and fresh herbs