Cooking Pho

A much delayed cooking story due to life getting in the way. This is a recipe we made back in March.

Since moving to the West Coast, one of my favorite foods has become pho. It combines some of the things I loves about other styles of food: it has a good broth, usually has copious amounts of tender meat, and often is quite spicy.

When we went to Vietnam for our honeymoon, one of the first things we did was take a food tour of Hanoi (the northern capital of the country). The tour gave us some insight into the making of a traditional pho, as well as a chance to taste the numerous different varieties offered by different street vendors.  I enjoyed it so much I almost exclusively ate pho from street stalls during our trip.

There are some decent pho places near where we live (outside of Seattle), and occasionally Michelle grudgingly agrees to relive the honeymoon glory days.  I really enjoy cooking, even though I am pretty sub-par at it.  I like finding new recipes and at least giving them a shot.  Well one of my friends sent me a link discussing how to prepare a good pho, and I was intrigued.  It looked fun! And intense.

The intimidating thing about pho is preparing a decent broth. Each street vendor in Vietnam has a secret family recipe/technique (well maybe not, but that’s how they sell it) passed down from generation to generation. It involves simmering a unique combination of spices, vegetables, and meats for hours. It also involves painstakingly skimming the broth from time to time to keep it free of any impurities.

We took the recipe from the Serious Eats, and hit up our local Asian market.  Even if the pho wasn’t the best we ever had, the excuse to go to the Asian market was definitely worth it. It’s a whole other world culturally, and it’s just right down the street.  So this recipe was a fun adventure in both shopping and cooking.  Without further ado, a Drayer take on pho:

Ingredients:

  • Two yellow onions
  • One clove of garlic
  • One large chunk of ginger
  • Whole star anise (I used 5)
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce – I would add more. (This is especially important as all of Vietnam smells like fish sauce. Which in my opinion is one of the most disgusting smells in the world. But also indicative of authentic Vietnamese food. I knew I was on the right track when the whole house smelled bad.)
  • One teaspoon fennel seeds
  • One teaspoon coriander seeds
  • Two tablespoons of white rock sugar – I would add more. (We had to go to the Asian market for this one.)
  • One serrano pepper
  • One jalapeño
  • I would add one habanero (I think a perfect pho is spicy enough to clear your sinuses, but I also love Michelle – it’s a hard life full of tough decisions. Michelle won out on this one.)
  • One stick cinnamon
  • Three cloves
  • Salt to taste (I hate recipes that call for salt to taste.  At least give me a reference point!  I would recommend starting with one tablespoon and go from there.)
  • One pound beef brisket – this is a debatable addition. It is expensive and doesn’t really add a ton in my opinion. Get more flavorful and cheaper meat cuts instead.
  • One pound beef chuck
  • Three pounds beef shin (Need to get that marrow!  Yum yum. This was easier to find at the Asian market.)
  • Two pounds oxtail (This is the best part in my opinion. Frozen oxtail was available at our regular grocery store, but the Asian market had some great looking fresh oxtail that I think would have been better)
  • Any other meat you think would be fun and/or would contribute to a rich flavor to your broth. The fun thing about pho is you can make it up as you go and it will probably still turn out alright. The “cheap” cuts actually are pretty great for the broth as they often have a lot of flavor and you cook them for so long it doesn’t matter if they’re usually a tough cut.
  • Pho noodles (We had to go the Asian market for this. Also note that pho noodles need to be soaked for quite a while before a quick cook. Don’t leave this until you’re ready to eat or you will be disappointed…like us.)
  • Garnishes as desired
    • Hoisin sauce
    • Sriracha
    • Cilantro (This is required in my book. If you don’t like cilantro I’m not sure I can trust you.)
    • Mint
    • Bean sprouts (The sprouts we got were bitter and not good at all, border line ruining our pho. I strongly recommend tasting the sprouts before adding them willy nilly to your broth! Also we couldn’t find this at our local grocery.)

Actual preparation:

  1. Char the onions, ginger and garlic. I did this on a gas grill and it worked great. Basically just throw this stuff on the grill on high, turning occasionally for about 25 min. Everything should be blackened for best results. For the real deal you should char your add ins over an open flame but who has time for that.
  2. Clean the meat.  You can do this by putting the meat into a big pot of water and bring it to a boil for a few minutes (you don’t want to cook the meat just break up cartilage). After the meat cools you can rinse and scrub off any debris.
  3. Start your broth! You do this by throwing in your meat and other add ins like the onion, salt, fish sauce, cloves, cinnamon, etc. into a big pot of clean water. Simmer for about an hour and a half. Exact time isn’t super important. After an hour and half you can pull out any nicer cuts of meat such as brisket and chuck. You can cool those and save for later.
  4. Continue making that broth. I would simmer for another 4-5 hours. During this time use a strainer or something similar to take off the top layer of gunk and cartilage that will form. After 4-5 hours you can take the broth off the heat, remove all the aromatics, and strain till broth is clean.
  5. Add any last minute seasoning: fish sauce, salt, pepper, etc.
  6. Prepare pho noodles. PLEASE NOTE: these can take upward of an hour to re-hydrate!img_5925.jpg
  7. Serve your pho over noodles. Include any fun add ins you want like cilantro, jalapenos, the nice cuts of meat you set aside, sriracha, bean sprouts (though I don’t recommend these), etc.
  8. Be both disappointed that it doesn’t live up to restaurant standards and also impressed that you pulled it off, and it tastes pretty good.

Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Navigating The Brazilian Medical System

As some of you may know, I have started getting serious about running again. After a really poor marathon in 2015, I decided it was time to get back out there and have a good marathon experience.  I have been training hard through the first half of 2017 and had some good success in shorter races at the beginning of the year.

When I started looking at marathons, I thought it might be fun to do one while we were in Sao Paulo. After much struggling with the requirements for foreigners I registered for the Sao Paulo City Marathon on July 30 (the weekend after my work assignment in Brazil ends).  I was doing a great job of training while in Brazil, relying on a combination of our hotel’s gym and the wonderful park a mile from our place.  I was able to go on some really nice runs in Rio de Janeiro as well.

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Run along Copacabana and Ipanema

Unfortunately, while running two weeks ago I experienced some very bad pain in my hamstring. Bad enough I had to bail on my run and couldn’t get back to it for several days.  After giving the hamstring a break with no improvement, I decided it was time to explore the Brazilian medical system. Fortunately, EY provided international insurance (ISOS) for the duration of the trip. ISOS has a team of specialists on-call 24/7 with a range of language specialists to help book appointments and navigate local health care issues.  While the team at ISOS has been great, it is challenging at times to get a hold of them, as it can only be through calls to U.S. numbers (extremely difficult in Brazil) or email (slow response time when I am standing at a hospital trying to make a future appointment).

So I called ISOS to book an appointment. Despite assuring the team at ISOS that I needed an orthopedist, I was told that I had to go to a generalist first. I was impressed they were able to set up an appointment the same day. I headed to meet my new doctor at the lovely Centro Medico Sergipe building. Centro

There are very few people in Brazil that speak English, even in comparison to places I would not expect large English speaking populations like Peru, Vietnam, or Cambodia. I try to speak Portuguese with everyone I meet, but sometimes that proves to be a losing proposition as well. I have found that if I admit I don’t speak great Portuguese early in a conversation, most people won’t even try to understand what I am saying. However, if I never admit that I don’t speak Portuguese, people will generally work harder to understand me.  It’s weird. Regardless, through my broken Portuguese I was able to get in to see the doctor.

The one criteria ISOS used in booking my appointment seemed to be finding an English speaking doctor – so once I got into his office things went pretty well. But, for medical purposes the doctor’s English as a second language combined with my bad Portuguese still left something to be desired.  After an hour of conversation and mild poking and prodding, it was decided that I did have a hamstring injury (who would have thought). This meant a further referral to the orthopedic specialist as I requested in the first place. To add to the fun, my insurance would not cover the orthopedic specialist the general practitioner (chosen by my insurance) referred me to.

Which is how I found myself at Albert Einstein Hospital on a Monday night.

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One thing about Brazil: everything requires an extra degree of security. Whether that be to get off on a specific floor in your hotel, to visit the ID processing building, or in this case to visit the hospital. I had to have a photo taken, share my Brazilian and U.S. documentation, and have a finger print taken just to get in the door. I find this level of security adds a sense of stress and…heaviness to every day activities. Sort of highlights that you’re not in the U.S. anymore and things are maybe not quite as safe as you’re used to.

The nice things about Albert Einstein Hospital: it’s a gorgeous new facility and they maintain English speaking hospitality staff to escort dumb Americans.  So I was given a personal interpreter for much of the evening.

Eventually I was able to see the orthopedic specialist (after my helpful English speaking guide ditched me). The doctor spoke some English, but things were a little muddy in our communication. The ultimate result of our conversation was a “prescription” for an ultrasound and 10 physical therapy sessions.  I thought it was odd to get assigned physical therapy before seeing the results of the ultrasound, but I guess I am not the doctor here. The ISOS folks don’t have a local number to call, so I could not immediately schedule the ultrasound (I wasn’t going to pay BRL$700 on the hope I could get reimbursed). However, ISOS took care of it quickly the next morning when I was able to call and scheduled my follow up doctors appointment and physical therapy too!

So now I am now at my third Brazilian medical facility awaiting my ultrasound. I am honestly quite impressed with how fast and helpful the ISOS team has been (minus not having local numbers to call). The other remarkable thing is that I have not had to wait for medical personnel to see me. Appointments have started on time, every time.  Which is a nice change of pace!

Hopefully, the ultrasound shows no major issues and I am able to get back to running soon!

 

 

 

Who Needs Walls?

One of the things with old houses is they defined spaces much more narrowly than current new construction.  While there is some appeal to having a function for every room, Michelle and I both enjoy having some of that open feel that is currently in vogue.  The house had a large dining area, but it was so segregated from the other rooms, it felt small.

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Michelle did really like the arch look of the doorway, but we thought that opening it up would really make the dining room live a lot larger. In theory, tearing down a wall like this is a really simple process: you knock a hole in the drywall, pull off the sheet rock, then tear down the studs.  However this process can be complicated by a couple of considerations.  One of the most obvious is the question: Is this wall load bearing?  The second issue we had to contend with was outlets and light switches in the wall we were set to remove.

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Leaving these considerations for later, our first weekend in the house we got to work starting the demo process.

After we got most of the sheet rock out of the way, we started considering those issues I just mentioned.  The question as to whether a wall is load bearing isn’t always straight forward, especially in older homes.  Exterior walls are going to always be load bearing, and interior walls that run parallel to the roof line tend to be load bearing as well.  We got into the attic space to check the structure of the roof, and it was pretty clear that load was being transferred onto the wall in question.  We also had a contractor come out to look at it and confirm our suspicions.

As a brief aside, general contractors can be a great resource.  We found a great guy who was willing to come consult for free on the notion that it would eventually turn into some paid work (it did).

After determining the wall was indeed load bearing, I did quite a bit of research on the appropriate wall structure to span the space in question.  I looked at the code for the dimensions for lumber to span the space in question and went with that.  We ended up using 2x8s for the header to keep the roof from falling down. My dad came into town to help finish demo, rewire, and reconstruction.

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Rewiring the outlets and lights was a challenge with the house being a mix of knob and tube and modern romex, but that’s a story for another time.  Once we got the wiring sorted out, we were ready to pull out the studs and remaining sheet rock.  The challenge with this process is to keep the house from falling down during the time in which the original studs are gone and before the replacement header and associated wall structure can be put up.  We bought a bunch of 2x4s to use as braces under the roof joists to take up the weight that the existing wall was originally holding.

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We were pretty confident in our support system, but still wanted to minimize the amount of time relying on it.  We constructed our header on the ground before pulling down the existing wall.  In general, you want your header to have the same width as your wall.  Due to variances in lumber, placing two 2x8s side by side was a bit off on the correct width.  We were able to find some thin MDF (medium-density fiberboard) to place between our 2x8s in order to get the appropriate width.  Once this was done we quickly tore out the studs and got our header in place.  This process was a little difficult, but two people made it possible.  I was able the hold the header in place while my dad placed the supporting studs.  Once the header was in place, we pulled out the supports.  IMG_4860

From there we hung new sheet rock and corner bead.  While mudding and texturing is definitely something a home owner can do, I long ago decided it was not something I would do.  So we called our helpful contractor from earlier and they did the mudding work.  They still have to come back to finish the texture work, but our new entry to the dining room is nearly done! From there it’s just paint and trim.

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Picking the Name(s)!

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I think one of the most exciting parts of learning you’re expecting is the realization that you get to pick a name for the little guy/girl.  The entire universe of baby names is yours to choose from, and it’s fun to think about the endless possibilities.  Then the realization starts to sink in that whatever name you choose, your child is going to carry with them for their entire lives.  You realize that the name you select for your child can impact the way the world sees them and the way they interact with the world.  And finally, you realize that the name you select is going to say a lot about you as a person and a parent.  It’s going to be a signal to everyone about what you as a parent care about and what you want in and for your child.

I don’t really love the Freakeconomics trend in economics, but the chapter on baby names from the original book has stuck with me. Economists Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner try to disentangle the impact names can have on the future of the child.  I don’t remember the exact details of the original text other than they find a family with children named “Winner” and “Loser.”  In the book, Winner becomes a loser and Loser becomes a successful member of the NYPD (disclaimer, this may not be a 100% accurate representation of original, but that’s the general idea).  When I was looking for a copy of that story I found this brief paper discussing the class association with different names. Similarly, this short article lays out some problems with current name trends, and how ridiculous the spellings are becoming (warning: a bit crude).

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And these issues matter to us as parents.  Speaking for myself, I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to select a name that my child won’t resent me for, that people won’t make fun of them about (although I am convinced young children can find reason to make fun of any name), while still giving them their own identity.  So when Michelle and I found out we were expecting we started a short list of names, a couple for boys and a couple for girls.

AND THEN WE FOUND OUT WE WERE HAVING TWINS!   Oh boy, talk about a double heaping of responsibility. It was tough for me to keep thinking about names when we didn’t know genders and had to potentially come up with two girls names, two boys names, or one of each.  So we took a brief break.  But now that we know we know we are expecting girls, we are back on the Name Game Train.  A couple of considerations that were important to me personally:

  • My initials are D.D.D, and everyone in my immediate family’s name starts with a D.  Unfortunately, Michelle ruined this fun trend so this isn’t a consideration.  That said, it was kind of fun and something that ties our family together might be cute.
  • We would like to avoid a name from the top 10 most popular lists.  Not because I have a problem with the names in and of themselves, but because I always found it tedious when I was in a class or camp with a bunch of people by the same name.  This always led to nicknames, at which point you should have just given your kid the nickname instead of their real name.
  • We also want to avoid a super uncommon/unique name.  Again, not that I have any real problem with unique names and spellings, but I would like to pick a name common enough that teachers, new acquaintances, and their future boss don’t have trouble puzzling out how to pronounce it. Nothing more stressful than being a teacher on the first day of class trying to figure out how to pronounce a child’s name correctly.
  • We would like to incorporate some homage to our families. Especially Michelle’s since she took my last name. And since my Mom is gone, it would be nice to do something to honor her as well. With twins we have a better chance of doing so for both sides!
  • We would like the first name, middle name, and last name to sound good together.  Of course this is mostly subjective and a matter of repetition, but the way names look and sound as a whole is something we are definitely considering.
  • We would like to avoid cultural appropriationA lot has been written about this. While I find it a bit silly, especially in the US where we pride ourselves on multiculturalism, I think it wouldn’t be kind to our future children to stick them with a name that’s usually associated with a cultural group of which they are not a member.

Other than that, we just wanted names we LIKED.  That still leaves a huge list of names left to explore.  Michelle purchased The Baby Name Wizard book as a starting point. I relied on web searches and eventually landed on the Social Security Administrations list of popular names.  This website is awesome because it allows you to search by year, decade, and state.  It also allows you to track the popularity of a name over time.  I found myself looking for names ranked between 50-150 for recent popularity, as I felt this range is where you’re not going to wind up with three children with the same name in every class, but also they will be common enough the teacher won’t struggle to pronounce it.

We have come up with a short list of names that we really like. We are currently trying them out over the next few weeks to make sure they work for us.  However, we won’t be sharing them yet, and might not until they actually arrive.  As all parents eventually realize, EVERYONE has an opinion on names.  For now, the only opinions that matter to us are our own, so we will try to avoid sharing to avoid the criticisms and “helpful suggestions” that inevitably follow.

 

Buying the House

What a crazy start to our home renovation story.

In January 2016 we made the move from San Jose to Seattle.  I am sure it’s getting old for people in the Emerald city to hear that, so I like to make sure they know we were only transients in San Jose.  We stopped long enough for me to get established in my new job before looking further afield for a city we could actually call home.  For us San Jose felt like an embodiment of the movie “Office Space” as it feels a bit like perpetual suburbs and very little character.  To add to that, the median home price is well over a million dollars, not something a young family enjoys.

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The problem of course, is that we aren’t the only couple that feels this way.  There has been a fairly large flight of people from California up the coast to cities like Portland and Seattle, which has driven prices up in those markets as well.  We found out we were moving in October of 2015, just a week after our wedding.  A couple of weeks later we were in Seattle looking for our Home (capitalization intentional).  That first weekend we toured over twenty homes and were left feeling tired and a bit disappointed.  It’s the reality of the market, but its still hard to face the realization that on our budget we would be looking at a home in need of serious TLC.

We wound up in a two bedroom apartment on Mercer Island, locked into a three month lease to give us a bit more time to house hunt.  Every weekend from the time we moved, we were out on the hunt – often touring upwards of ten houses a weekend. All told we toured close to 75 homes and made offers on five. Each rejected offer was soul crushing. Before making an offer we had to imagine the house as a Home, and that took a real emotional investment.

We looked at houses all around the Seattle area, not caring too much about the area as long as the schools were good and the area felt safe. Eventually we found a home in the Renton area that had everything we were looking for.  Incredibly it sat on an acre of land right next to a church and across from a new subdivision.  It was an older home, with original hardwood floors and a ton of “character.”  We began building our lives in this house in our imaginations and we liked what we saw!

We made an offer, and after some back and forth with the seller, it was accepted! But the fun didn’t end there.  We still had to get by appraisal in order to get our loan in order.  Of course that came back well under the offer and it was back to negotiations with the seller.  Thankfully, they were willing to meet us half way and a couple weeks ago we came to agreement on the final price.

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Finally, this morning we went to the escrow office and signed away our lives for the next 30 years.  Closing will be on Monday and then we take possession!  Our journey is just starting, but its already been a lot of fun with some heartache thrown in as well.  We are excited to move and get to the actual renovations.