Thursday, 30 July 2009

Picnic bento: two versions

We are experiencing a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest. Max of 31-36(!) and min temperatures of still 20-21 degrees C at night. Coupled with high humidity and no wind = pretty hellish weather. This is set to last for this entire week. Eeks. Of course, there are folks who enjoy the high summer and make the most of it with picnics and outdoor dining, swimming and plenty of iced water and ice cream.

I much prefer last week when it was warm and sunny but at a decent temperature (around 23-26 in the day). I packed two picnics last week, one for lunch and one for dinner; both were eaten at parks. The first was much more simple than the other, since that was made a day after I returned from Hong Kong and I was all jetlagged. The second one took more time and effort and looked better. Both were delicious though and we certainly enjoyed the fresh air and fresh food.

The first picnic (at Ron Basford Park, Granville Island): blueberries, applewood smoked cheddar, Swiss cheese, cherries, honey ham and Turkish bread. Local blueberries and cherries in season are THE BEST.

The second picnic (at Trout Lake):

Onigiri, chicken nuggets, cherries

Inarizushi, cherry tomatoes

I could never fill up all 3 tiers of this jyubako box for two person. I used the third tier to hold chopsticks, soy sauce and some napkins.

I suppose my point of this post is to encourage people to pack a healthy and delicious picnic, using a variety of colours and food groups, and enjoy the summer. Even if you don't have the time to do cute cut-outs and pretty arrangements so often associated with bento, it can still be a healthy, delicious and enjoyable.

Using regular containers or your bento boxes also help reduce waste, compared to grabbing sandwiches and salads packed in disposable plastic containers or wrapping at most supermarkets. Just remember to keep perishables (e.g. cheese, ham, salads) cold in a cooler or insulated bag, and with cool packs. So go on, pack a picnic, whether simple or more elaborate, and enjoy the summer :)

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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

White Spot Triple O's... in Hong Kong!

When I was in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, I was coming up the escalator at Admiralty MTR station and came upon a poster advertising a Triple O's restaurant at Pacific Plaza. Cue surprised grin spreading across my face and gleam of delight in my eyes. Now you got to understand that coming across a White Spot restaurant overseas for a Vancouverite (or at least someone living there) is rather like stumbling upon a Bee Cheng Hiang, Yakun or Bread Talk outlet for a Singaporean, or a Wetherspoon's or Thornton's for a Brit, without knowing that they had overseas outlets in the first place. (I know that there are Bee Cheng Hiang and Breadtalk outlets overseas, just not in Vancouver, boo.) According to a leaflet on the counter, there are 6 Triple O's outlets in Hong Kong, and also starting up in Thailand and South Korea.

The first White Spot restaurant was opened in 1928 on Granville Street in the Marpole neighbourhood and has been a Vancouver and BC institution ever since. Triple O's is a fast food concept chain belonging to White Spot restaurants, focusing on burgers made from quality ingredients and its famous Triple O sauce. This Triple O's outlet at the food hall of Pacific Plaza is evidently quite popular with the office crowd. I got there just before noon and by 12.30pm the entire place was packed and people were standing around waiting for seats, like at a food court.

White Spot Triple O's at Pacific Plaza, Central, Hong Kong

I ordered a basic burger with thick hand cut chips and iced lemon tea. The beef patty was of good quality and fresh meat, nicely cooked and moist. There was even a traditional pickle on top of the bun, just like at White Spot restaurants. The signature Triple O sauce inside the burger was the same as I remembered. The chips were nicely done too, hot and crispy on the outside and just a little fluffy on the inside. And after more than a week of noodles and rice at that point, I was more than ready for a good burger. At HK$55 (CAD$8.50), the price went down as well as the meal. Yum.

Basic burger with thick cut fries and iced lemon tea

So if you are in Hong Kong (whether visiting or living there) and in the mood for a good Canadian burger that would not be too much of a burden on your wallet (unlike many other places that serve awesome-tasting but also awfully-expensive burgers), try out any of the following six (!) outlets:

Unit 9, Level LG1, Great Foot Hall
Pacific Place

Shop 10, 1/F, The Forum
Exchange Square

Wan Chai
Shop 121, 1/F, Harbour Centre
25 Harbour Road

Causeway Bay
Shop B 105D, Basement 1
Sitysuper Times Square

Tsim Sha Tsui
Shop 3001-DB, Level 3
Citysuper, Harbour City

Shop 128, Level 1,
New Town Plaza, Phase 1


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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Indoor herb garden

Late spring or summer is just the right time to start an indoor herb garden. The longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures are kinder not only to outdoor plants but also indoor potted ones. I developed a love for gardening during my stay in the UK and with a large back garden to learn from and experiment with. Herbs are just another type of plants that I enjoy looking after. But the real impetus for growing herbs, personally, is the convenience of being able to pick or cut the right amount as and when I need them, without having to buy a big bunch or or packet when I would only use a quarter or less each time. Leftover fresh herbs can be frozen (as noted in this previous article) but it does not work well for all herbs. Woody herbs like rosemary and thyme freeze best, and parsley will do OK, but tender ones like basil don't do so well.

Indoor herb garden

If you have some space in a garden outdoors, all to the good. Find a sunny or partially sunny spot and have a little herb garden. They need very little attention and will reward you with fresh herbs year after year. If you plant the herbs now (well grown ones, not little seedlings), there is still time for them to become established and develop good root systems to survive the winter and regrow next year.

But even if you don't have the luxury of an outdoor garden, herbs are pretty easy to grow indoors, either on a patio/balcony, a sunny window sill or any location that is bright. Most herbs love the sun but the small pots of soil can dry out quickly in direct sunlight, in which case watering needs to be carefully monitored. Partially sunny spots and bright locations with no direct sunlight will do just fine.

My herbs are placed on a ledge indoors that get bright light through the day. Most of them were bought as seedlings from the garden centre back in early-April and I have found it very satisfying to watch them grow over. But very young plants that are not well established can be quite tricky in terms of over or under-watering. You may find it easier to buy fairly well grown herbs in pots and just maintain them that way.

Parsley is a multipurpose herb that do well in most Western type cooking. Chop them up and add them at the end of cooking or just before serving, on stews, pasta and soups. They work really well as garnish, especially if you just need to add a few springs in bento (again, the convenience of growing your own).
Flat leaf/Italian parsley

Chives have a mild onion flavour, often used in French cooking and complements cheese and cream sauces well.

Oregano is widely used in Greek, Spanish and in Italian cuisine, especially in tomato sauces, and grilled or roasted meat.

Basil is a culinary herb that features prominently in Italian cooking. Unlike other herbs such as oregano and rosemary, whose flavours intensify with drying (so dried herbs will still work well), dried basil loses most of its flavour and fresh really is best. Italian basil is also known as sweet basil, which is different from Thai basil, lemon basil or holy basil used in Asia. Italian basil tend to be eaten raw in salads or added to the end of cooking as the heat destroys the flavours easily.

Thyme is widely used in cooking and works particularly well with lamb, chicken and fish. It tends to be added early in the cooking stage as its flavours take time to infuse the dish.

Rosemary is used frequently in traditional Mediterranean cuisine and one of the most hardy herbs. It goes particularly well with chicken and also good in stews.

To harvest the herbs, snip off individual springs or cut off the tops. Frequent trimming this way encourages offshoots and more healthy and bushy plants with tender leaves. I water my herbs roughly twice a week and feed a weak liquid fertiliser once a month. Some plants are more thirsty than others (e.g. thyme and rosemary need less water compared to basil), Google for more specific information on growing different types of herbs.

Actually, I do hope that my herbs are still alive! I have been out of the country travelling for work (thus the lack of recent updates) and the husband had been given instructions on how often and how much to water. He does his best of course (bless him) but watering plants for someone else is always difficult to gauge. The most recent phone call suggests that my thyme is on its way out, and one or two stalks of basil are looking rather unhappy. Still, these efforts are well worth it to have my own fresh stash of herbs for whenever I need them. And I hope that you will also feel similarly inspired to start growing some yourself.

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