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

Bonjour, Madame! Bonjour, Monsieur!

We arrived in Paris at early dusk.   After a short train ride from Gare du Nord, our rental flat was within a couple of blocks.  As we walked on Boulevard de Port-Royal, a hue of light gray started to descend on the city, which seemed to have softened everything—the edges of buildings, the noise of traffic, and the rushing waves of people that would all be typical for a modern metropolitan.   My nervousness eased a little.  It was difficult not to have high expectations when you were going to a place like Paris!  And for me that is usually a source of nervousness, even though I know some French, and Fei and I had both been there before!

Of course it was different this time.  Exactly ten years had passed, and our daughter Emily was now almost nine years old, had learned about many famous places around the world, and dreamed of climbing the Eiffel Tower.  This summer I had an opportunity to travel to Europe for work.  So here we were, beginning our five-day  trip in the “City of Light”.

Our first full day in Paris started with a casual stroll along and around Champs-Élysées.  At Arc de Triomphe, we marveled at the sheer grandeur of the monument.   Constructed in the early 1800s, Arc de Triomphe was originally commissioned as a celebration of a critical battle in the Napoleon Wars.  Two centuries later, it now commemorates valor and patriotism that uphold far more than the transient existence of the Empire.  What a recurring theme in the drama of history for rulers throughout the world to construct man-made wonders to flaunt power and wealth!  And yet how many of them survived history with legitimate legacy and artistic value for the later ages to admire?

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Arc de Triomphe

Unsurprisingly, Champs-Élysées struck us as the Fifth Avenue in another continent.  The extravagant fashion brands and exquisite foods seemed pleasing to all senses, but our detour to a street market turned out to be more satisfying.  Rue Poncelet was a narrow and short street filled with stalls displaying the richness of their produce almost in a show-off fashion.  The colors in our eyes were a resemblance of oil paintings, and air was filled with scents of cheese, meats, and baked goods.  None of the vendors spoke English, and yet all tried to at least  extend a friendly greeting.  One of the cheese vendors was finally brave enough to talk to us with single English words, and successfully sold us some excellent sheep cheese and pepper-coated salami, which we later assembled into a scrumptious picnic lunch on the shade-covered lawns next to the Petit Palais.

The most exciting moment (to Emily, at least) finally came when we approached the Eiffel Tower in the late afternoon.  It started to drizzle a little, but that did not stop tourists from all over the world from lining up to climb this symbol of Paris, us included.  Observed from its enormous base,  the steel giant was a stunning combination of straight struts of various sizes, which eventually merged into a graceful curvature, steady and silent.  When we finally reached the highest observation deck and started surveying the city from the shoulder of the giant, Paris all of a sudden unfolded right in front of us.  Once again, it was composed of various shades of gray, all indescribably lively and harmonious.  Walking around the deck, we tried to identify the famous landmarks, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur, and the spokes of roads that led to the Arc de Triomphe.  Amazed, I still felt I was missing one, then I laughed, realizing I was thinking about the tower we were standing on.  How intriguing that I had forgotten where I was after finally reaching the destination, which had also granted me this breathtaking spectacle!

I guess the man-made wonders do carry their meanings.  In this case, it helped revealing the beauty of another wonder, the landscape of Paris, the apex of civil engineering around a historic river, of which the tower itself is a vital component.  Interestingly, the tower was built to be only a temporary symbol for the 1889 World’s Fair; it attracted wide criticism upon its erection, but lasted to become the icon of the city.  Was it serendipity?   Or was it something ingenious about it that eventually stood the test of time?


After a full day of wandering, we were in desperate need for some hearty food .  Harmony Café, which stood right across the street, allured us with maroon awnings and rustic patio chairs that we would see in Paris-themed romantic movies.  The waitress and owner both spoke excellent English, and yet introduced their food with curious reservation and almost nonchalantly: “everything here is good”.  We had no choice but let our appetite guide us, and ordered croque madame.   The open-faced sandwich was built with rustic French bread,  a generous layer of nutty cheese that tasted like Gruyère, slices of earthy ham, and topped with a fried egg.  Savory, cheesy, and rich, the sandwich was a perfectly warm ending of a busy day.  As we were leaving the restaurant, we casually asked the owner their hours, thinking we might be back to explore the rest of the menu.  The owner scratched his head as if it was a difficult question.  “We close when the last guests leave.”  He answered with a smile.

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Croque madame at Harmony Café

Upon returning to the States, the croque madame was the first thing I tried to replicate in our kitchen, along with the egg-less version, croque monsieur.  Following the epicurious.com recipe, I realized that  it was the béchamel sauce that gave the sandwich the unusual moisture and richness.  Unlike many sandwiches that just require simple assembly, this dish was not something that could be put together with haste.  Two hours of restless work yielded 6 sandwiches, a very sweaty me, and a burn mark on my finger (which does not happen very often).  “It’s almost as good as what we ate in Paris.”  My little critique said in an as-a-matter-of-fact fashion after gobbling one down.  My heart felt as warm as when I was greeted by the City of Light in its own cool way.  —WZ

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Croque madame & croque monsieur from our kitchen