Monday, April 28, 2008

Pocket Guide to Paris

As promised in my previous post, here's how I made the pocket guide to Paris as part of a thoughtful and useful wedding gift. The guide was based on my fiance and my own lovely experience in Paris last year. It was made to be brief but informative and travel friendly.

The guide starts with off with some tips and top must do's, then a 2-page map in the middle, and ends with an itinerary by area. It was simple to make, but took a bit of brain power in terms of the page order since I was doing double-sided printing. All you need are paper, ruler, sizzers and stapler.

To start, I found a cute Frenchy image on the internet for the came from a book I could not find the name to. I used Word and created a table with 2 columns and 2 rows on one page, and repeated that on page 2. The image was placed on the upper right cell on the first page.

For the bottom 2 cells, I merged them so it could fit a map. This was the center spread. I mapped out all the top must see's using Google Maps, did some cropping and many cut and paste to make it all fit, making sure they were readable.

Page 2 is where it gets a big difficult. The tricky part was to figure out the page arrangements since I was doing double-sided printing. For my 8-page mini guide, here's the layout in Word by pages I followed. Each cell represents their respective cells in a table by page.
All you have to do after printing the pages is to cut each page across by half, fold along the middle in each half, and staple. Here's what the first couple of pages inside look like after putting it all together.

All done!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

It's that Time of the Year Again

My fiance's friend's wedding yesterday marked the opening of that time of the year again...yes, the wedding season. Weddings can be fun if you're not going to 5 in a year (way too much for me). Every couple is different, so I try to have fun with it by being creative with their gifts. I know the registry and cash are usually the preferred gifts of choice for the bride & groom, but I truly believe in being personal and thoughtful. So below, I'm letting you in on my gift giving secrets, all functional AND thoughtful.

Give a gift that keeps on giving

A gift certificate to a culinary school is a favorite of mine. We found a school that offers a wide range of classes, from wine appreciation to cooking. Learning about wines (and tasting lots of it) or cooking is not only fun, but really pays off. I got this this idea when I gave my fiance (a wine lover) a gift certificate for the local culinary school for an introduction to wine class. Now every time we go out for dinner, he's confident and knows exactly what to get!

Here's the one rule I follow with gift certificates - while it's nice to get a piece of certificate with meaning behind it, combine it with a little of something. If you think the couple would enjoy a cooking class, include these rubber spatulas - they're great not only because they are a must have for the kitchen (I swear by them), but also because they can be personalized with the couple's names. And if you think they would enjoy wine classes, start them off with a great bottle of wine or champagne.

Give a gift they can use on their honeymoon

We just used this idea recently. Since the happy couple were going to France for their honeymoon, we combined a gift certificate that's great for international travelling with a mini travel guide for Paris. See that I followed my rule here for gift certificates?

Anyhow, the gift certificate could be used in hotels & restaurants in any country of your choice. For the mini-guide, I made it from scratch and put in tips, a map and the top must see's in Paris based on our own lovely experience. I'll blog about this craft project later, but here's an image of what I made.

Give cash when you know you should

For me, cash could be a personal gift if you mean it. This is ironic considering my general belief that registry and cash are very impersonal. They are safe bets if you don't really know the happy couple, or on the other extreme...if you're family.

The family thing and cash gifts is especially true for the traditional Chinese culture...for practical reasons perhaps. This is traditionally how it was done - the groom's family throws the wedding banquet (which is about a 10 course feast with no dancing *gasp!*), and guests show up with cash in red envelops. Basically, the bride's family does not spend a cent on the wedding; instead, they get a dowry. This is because in the old days, the precious daughter was thought to be taken from her family to live with her future husband and in-laws. This was how the bride's family was "compensated." Believe it or not, some form of dowry is still customary today.

So with cash, I usually add to it little things like a scrapbook of our good times together (me and bride/groom), or a shadow box with meaningful objects in it. This is how I add personal meaning to an impersonal gift.

If you're in a bridal party, the gift really depends on the much you're spending on everything - the attire, travel, hotel, etc. The bottom line to creative wedding gift giving is that if you really know who the bride & groom are (their personalities, interests, needs), a little bit of thought should take care of the rest. Hopefully my gift giving secrets gave you some good ideas.

I hope you enjoyed this really long post, and I sure hope my married friends enjoyed my gifts to them. Here's to a fun wedding season and life-long happiness to all my married friends!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

I try my best to help the earth, but I am by no means a tree hugger. I've been spoiled by beautiful sunsets almost every day when I look out my window, and I fear this won't last because of what human beings are doing that could destroy the earth.

Here're the three major things I practice without being overly obsessive, and if you don't have a habit of doing them, please start:

  • Recycle paper. This is not just tying up old newspaper for trash collection. Be conscious of paper printing at work too! Print on both sides of paper when you can - just figure out which side your printer prints on first by drawing an arrow with pencil on a piece of paper before putting it in the paper tray. Also, if you have paper you're about to trash but has a side that's blank, reuse that for printing.

  • Reuse plastic bags. I bring a canvas bag with me for grocery shopping because it's easier to carry, but end up with lots of plastic bags anyways. Reuse all plastic bags for garbage; don't just throw them out after one use.

  • Don't waste food. If you're using herbs, fennel, leek or any other kind of vegetable, save the stems or the tough parts that are usually cut off - you can make vegetable broth with them. If you're removing shells off shrimp, keep the shells for making flavorful broth. Just put them in a freezer for future use. And if you're eating rice, make sure you finish every single grain. My grandmother always said that if you don't, you'd end up getting struck by lightning (so believe me when I say my rice bowl is always clear of rice after I eat).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Sneak Peek

Not much has been done to my sister's new house since I was last here more than 3 weeks ago, but here's a sneak peek at "my room," aka the guest room, and the dinning room.

We picked a neutral tone for my room, which is covered in a beige paint from Benjamin Moore called North Hampton Beige (the name is so appropriate as this will be my retreat). There is a wall though that we painted a darker contrast color called Stormy Monday. The idea behind having a darker wall is that the focus will be on it - the bed will rest against it and will be the first thing you see when you enter the room.

Above, my room (please excuse the mess and the color swatches
from Benjamin Moore that appear a bit off here)

As for the dinning room, my sister went for a dramatic metallic color from Ralph Lauren called Manchester Purple. You have to see this shimmery paint when the chandelier is on. And it's so my wedding color! No, not every room has a chandelier.

Above left, the dinning room, and right, from Ralph Lauren

Saturday, April 19, 2008

When Bad Plants Happen to Good People

It was about time that I checked on my sister's new house. Since spring was in full bloom (as alerted by my allergies), we, or shall I say my sister, did some gardening. All under my supervision and direction of course. :-) I may be Martha, but I am no gardener.

I must tell you though it wasn't a good idea. Fighting fire (allergies) with fire (gardening) did not work well. Anyhow, we planted some white & purple hydrangeas, multi-color calla lilies, and multi-color peonies. My sister wanted to test if she can successfully grow some flowers for my wedding next year. She was also growing some narcissus indoor, and here's when bad plants happen to good people...or is it when good plants happen to bad people.

Above, a 4ft plant vs. a 5ft4 woman (my sister)

Apparently, there's a trick you can use with rubbing alcohol to stop narcissus from growing that tall, but we only learned after it bloomed. Good thing we're just testing right now. I think a table lined up with a couple pots of (normal height) narcissus makes a pretty powerful impact on the eye, don't you?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Red Bean Soup

If you've been to a Chinese restaurant, you'd know that they're not big on desserts. And if you've been to a traditional (not Americanized) Chinese restaurant, there are no fortune cookies after a meal. Most likely, the choice of dessert is either fruit or red bean soup.

Above, my mother's red bean soup

Well, I grew up with red bean soup. It's a delicious sweet dessert made with azuki beans, lotus seeds, dried tangerine peel, rock sugar and some times sago (they look like little transparent pearls, similar to tapioca). It's almost always served warm in restaurants, but is also excellent when served cold. The sign of a good red bean soup is soft & tender beans and a nice texture to the liquid itself - if made just right, the soup should 出沙 (loosely translated as having texture of soft "sand" velvety sand if there's such a thing).

Anyhow, if you're not a big fan of sweet soups for dessert, you can try making these into popsicles. I loved doing this when I was little whenever my mom made red bean soup. It was so fun to have in the summer. I have yet to try making red bean soup, but will definitely take a stab at this traditional dessert some time.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Highlight of My Day

Unrelated to being Martha...just thought I should share the highlight of my day. This was what I came across during my studies yesterday.

The Fredo may not be a real currency, but my fiance says I'm the queen of Fredonia!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Feast for the Eyes

I've been drooling over these works by Tord Boontje, a brilliant Dutch designer, ever since I saw them. They caught my eye while I was looking for wedding inspirations. He does alot of designs based on flowers, and a good number of his projects involve crystals. He actually made some products for Target for a very brief period (too bad I missed it). Currently, you can find his works in cool home furnishing stores and even Moma.

If I owned a home, I would definitely want his garland light (below) in one of my rooms. All you need to do is wrap it around a light bulb, and you can use it on a ceiling light or lamp. I can even imagine these at my wedding! Floral centerpieces are a waste, but these aren't (the question is what would I do with 15 of them afterwards). And did I mention that they come in different colors?

images from Unica Home

The other pieces I've been eyeing are the ivy panel and curtain (below). If you have a large space and want to divide it up, they would be a very good choice...functional AND pretty (you might need more than 2 of them though). For my wedding, if I were to do some kind of a photo area, these would be a very nice backdrop for the photos when put against a wall. And the purple color would be perfect!! I'm gonna dream on now.

images from Unica Home

Feeling Bubbly?

For those special times when champagne is in order, why not go for a sparkling wine? While both, I heard, go equally well with Chinese food (according to my fiance who got wine classes as a gift from me), sparkling wines are less pricier than their counterparts made in Champagne, France.

I've been a fan of Gloria Ferrer for a while now, but didn't realize how good their vintage reserve was until we had their 2004 bottle. I'm not a wine expert, but I enjoyed the flavor from the vintage so much more. Can't say the 2004 had just didn't have much character.

So, we went hunting for the vintage reserve. I don't remember if it was 2001 or 2000 that we originally had, but when we saw the six sparkling wines of Gloria Ferrer 2000 vintage reserves sitting on the shelf of a liquor store, we had to bring them home. Maybe we'll pop one open for those rare occasions when I cook a Chinese meal.

Don't go running to the wine store now!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Chinese Roast Pork

Yup, it's about time I write about a Chinese recipe. I wished I could tell you that I cook Chinese food all the time, but the truth is that I don't. Unlike most American meals, Chinese meals are prepared in a labor-intensive manner. Most dishes are made in a wok, not in an oven. Take fried can't cook it in an oven; you have to slave over prepping and cooking it in a wok.

This roast pork (called "cha siu" in Cantonese) recipe for the home cook is one of those rare non-labor intensive Chinese dishes. I generally don't like cha siu in the States. If you have ever been to Hong Kong, you would know what I'm talking about.

Cha siu is usually served over rice, stuffed in a bun ("cha siu bao") or stuffed in a pastry shell ("cha siu sow"). My mom makes a pretty good cha siu, so when I first tried to make it, I was impressed at how easy it was! All this recipe needs is to sit in the marinade over night, and you can get the marinade at an Asian grocery store. And directions are on the jar! How great is that?

Chinese Roast Pork (Cha Siu)

Pork butt (about an inch thick)
"Char Siu" sauce (don't know why there is a "r"...maybe it's Mandarin. I use Lee Kum Kee brand.)

Pour marinade over pork butt and refrigerate over night. Place in an oven preheated at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Baste every 10 minutes with a mixture of a quarter part cha siu sauce and to a full part honey. Increase oven temperature to 375 in the last 10 minutes of cooking so the meat would be charred (hence "siu" in Chinese). To serve, slice at about 1/4 inch on the bias.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Oven Roasted Tomato Pasta

This is another one of my go to meals. It's tasty, easy, and uses mostly ingredients you should have already. If you have fresh herbs, by all means use them. I just don't have my dream herb garden yet (sigh). Use more oregano if you're using fresh as dried oregano is stronger.

I often make it for lunch when I don't feel like having a sandwich, and only takes 25 minutes max to make. You can eat it warm or at room temperature.

Oven Roasted Tomato Pasta
Serves 2

1 10 oz. package of grape tomatoes, halved (or cherry tomatoes)
3 small shallots, sliced (or 1/4 of a small onion)
1 clove garlic, sliced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon bread crumbs (Italian style is fine)
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
a pinch of sugar
salt & pepper to taste

Cooked pasta (any kind) enough for 2
1 tablespoon reserved pasta water

Combine all ingredients except for bread crumbs on a baking sheet. Place in a 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes. Toss half way during cooking. About 2 minutes before finishing in the oven, sprinkle with bread crumbs.

If the mixture is dry after roasting, add 1/2 tablespoon of pasta water to loosen up the sauce. Add the rest of the pasta water if it is still dry. Toss in pasta and serve.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Call of the Wild

I have been drawn to prints and patterns ever since I started searching for wedding inspirations. So when I was shopping with my sister one weekend, I was immediately drawn to these chairs (below). They were calling my name!

I think they would work so well as an accent in a modern room. Just imagine the pop they bring out of an understated room. And the price was just right. I just had to have them. I am not a home owner yet, so I bought them as gifts for my sister's new house. I don't think my brother-in-law likes them, so perhaps they'll just stay in "my" guest room.

Days later, I got my hands on an issue of Elle Decor, which featured the home of the fabulous wedding gown designer Monique Lhuillier. Hey, if I can't get one of her beautifully well made wedding gowns, at least I should make my future home look like that! It looks like we both have the same love for the zebra pattern. I think great minds think alike, don't you?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

I LOVE Macarons

I fell in love with macarons in Paris, and have been hunting for them in NY. These are not the coconut macaroons that most people are familiar with in the States. Parisian macarons are basically almond cookies with a butter cream filling. We couldn't get enough of Laduree's macarons. They weren't cheap, but were all worth it. Don't you just want to eat the packaging?

(images from Laduree)

There were surprisingly a good number of places that makes these delicious treats in NY. To narrow down to the ones worthy to try, I did my research by reading other foodies' reviews on macarons in the tri-state. So far, these were the places that we checked out: La Maison du Chocolat, Bouley Bakery, Madeline Patisserie, Financier Patisserie, Patisserie St. Michel (in NJ). We have yet to try Payard.

Many calories and pounds later, my fiance and I agreed that Bouley Bakery and Patisserie St. Michel were on top of our list (NJ - who would have thought?). Their macarons had textures that were reminesant of the ones we had in Paris - crunchy exterior, slightly moist & chewy interior, and with tiny random bits of ground almond.

(top - Patisserie St. Michel; bottom - Bouley Bakery)

(Raspberry macacrons, from left to right - Bouley Bakery, Madeline Patisserie, La Maison du Chocolat)

Here's a round up of the ones that didn't make the cut:

  • La Maison du Chocolat - It looked like a giant mutated chocolate cookie that tasted like a flourless chocolate cake. Don't get me wrong, their chocolate flavored macaron was right on in terms of taste, but it was much too smooth, too large, and too flat compared to what we had from Laduree.
  • Financier - They were ok in terms of taste and texture. If I recall correctly, they were on the dry side. But Financier does have the best brownies!

  • Madeline Patisserie - They have macarons in all the colors of the rainbow. They seemed too artificial for my taste though.