world according to sam

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first. Mark Twain

Month: March, 2015

Good Morning Vietnam …. Part 1

IMG_0878As I am now searching for my next holiday destination I thought it would be a good moment to get down some thoughts on our Vietnam Adventure …. So this is the postcard I should have sent from there a couple of years ago …… this post is the equivalent of the postcard you find at the bottom of your beach bag when you drag that same sand laden bag out a year later, there it is just waiting to be sent, stampless but complete with grease spots, salt, sand and an unwrapped Werthers original stuck to it coupled with fond memories … happily through the wonders of modern science this is no longer sitting in my beach bag but will instead be sitting here as a postcard to you all.

We chose Vietnam as it offered not only the opportunity for a new destination but also great value, when compared to Europe which over the Summer months can be eye-wateringly expensive.  After doing a little research, I discovered that both the North and South of the country can experience a lot of rain at the time we planned to travel in September. Influenced by this, we chose two resorts in Central Vietnam which had the added benefit of not requiring anti-Malarial drugs. We only needed the standard jabs for Hepatitis, Tetanus etc (always check with your GP’s practice nurse before travelling as they will have up to date information on immunisation for all over the world).  Vietnam definitely offers up new and exciting experiences, culture and cuisine. As with all our travels we had some very funny moments enjoying all these. 

The journey was long with no inflight entertainment simply because, it would seem, that the stewards weren’t quite sure how to make the system work, although the films on offer all seemed to be widely available on DVD anyway (#firstworldproblems – quit my moaning!). Vietnam Airlines at the time was new to the UK direct market and I think may have been a work in progress, although the staff were absolutely lovely – and we were offered limitless Pot Noodle at any time of day or night throughout  the journey (yum! not).   After a 13 hour flight we had a stopover in Hanoi which truly was an assault on all the senses, anyone who has travelled long-haul with little sleep knows that the brain is working on an altogether different frequency to normal.  Hallucinations are not unusual, tired and emotional in the extreme, Mr H and I get a little snippy with each other, there is quite a bit of that spittly, under-the-breath talking between gritted teeth followed by tear-filled eyes ready to weep any second – and that’s just him!!  Hanoi airport and the interchange was baffling to our sleep deprived brains – my one saving grace was that at 5ft 2 and a half inches, I was unusually a head above most of the indigenous travellers as we moved from International Arrivals to Hanoi Domestic Departures, which gave me an advantageously clear view as to where I was trying to get to. Once in the domestic departure lounge we were desperate to eat something  …. And more Pot Noodle was all that was on offer.  I kid you not, we saw a lot of the pour on water type noodles in a pot on offer – a students dream, for me – not-so-much!

A brief and comfortable one hour flight from Hanoi to Hue on the domestic service which is reminiscent of a 1960’s air travel infomercial, this is the way to cover the country if your destinations are far apart.    We came out of the airport to be greeted by 20 or so yipping taxi drivers, each vying for our attention but not permitted to approach from beyond a line where they stand ever hopeful that you will pick their taxi over the others.   We gratefully fell into the care of a pre-booked tour guide and private transfer who bundled us into a car and off we went …. Only to receive a phone call 5 minutes into the journey  to return to the airport. Our tour guide had unwittingly sent us in the wrong car and needed us to return, change cars and he would join us to give us a little history as we were driven to the hotel. 

Vietnam is very laid back in its approach to service. always friendly and sometimes a little hit and miss and no concept that telling a group of two couples that one man is more handsome than the other may be offensive … yes, we really had THAT conversation, fortunately Mr H was the more handsome so I didn’t feel compelled to protect his honour and good name.  oh yes, and another favourite is to tap your (his) tummy and say “happy Buddha” … not rude at all! 

On the way to the hotel we passed paddy fields and farmers laying their rice crops out in a very busy road to dry (and not one truck, cyclist or moped drove over this valuable crop – seems rice may be a more valuable commodity than life!!!), as well as goats, chickens and assorted livestock milling about in the roads, …. And a herd of Water Buffalo …. We are yet to understand if these water buffalo that we had seen everywhere belong to anyone or if they roam free but they, along with the most beautiful mountain range skylines capped in white clouds that are the perfect introduction to Vietnam. 

Our guide-book advised us that when crossing the street one should avoid sudden movements and walk at a steady pace, however this is difficult in practice when you are faced with a sea of mopeds coming at you from both directions – the instinct is to flay your arms around and RUN.  We survived and took away with us the indelible aural memory of NeepNeep …. the constant sound of Vietnam and its traffic!!

IMG_0804Despite telling ourselves this was going to be a relaxation only holiday, with no sightseeing, a deluge of rain prompted us to don our Haviainas and a very fetching khaki plastic duck suit to wade through Hue’s old town and visit the Citadel …. This ancient palace is now little more than ruins but still a city-within-a-city surrounded by lotus blossom and water-lily gardens …  

IMG_0966Anxious that we may be missing out on the culture we also booked a Dragon Boat Trip on The Perfume River to visit ancient tombs and a Pagoda and working monastery (The Perfume River is a bit of an anomaly, it’s NOT perfumed! the waters are fast flowing in places and milky brown in colour)   …. The sightseeing, on a very sunny day, was incredible and the Dragon Boat journey memorable. The boats are used during the day for tourist trips but are also the homes of the family who take you along the river and tourists are their main source of income … The youngest ‘crew’ member was 3 and a very enterprising salesman, using our time on shore to swiftly change into silk pyjamas (very conveniently available for sale) and turn up the cute levels. 

IMG_0883After ten days in Hue we prepared to move on to our next destination.  As we passed through Central Vietnam and over the Hai-Van Pass (Sea Cloud), a three-hour drive takes you to another province and it becomes clear that each region is different and unique in its people and food. A cookery class in our first hotel taught us how to make Hue Pancake (Banh Khoai), hand rolls (banh beo) and Bun Bo Hue Noodle soup and introduced us to our lovely translator Nhung who invited us the following day for Vietnamese Coffee at an off the tourist trail Coffee Shop sitting on the banks of the Perfume River   An experience we would have missed had Nhung not met us after she had finished her working day, as the only Westerners at this off the beaten track coffee bar we were made very welcome. 

… From purchasing the cheapest ‘Genuine’ 3 dollar Ray Bans from a street seller who, whilst we were deciding on tortoiseshell or black, put in a call to his hilarious daughter in the silk market who hot-footed it over to meet us and frog marched us to her stall of yards and yards of fabrics and a team of tailors. They proudly presented us with several seasons of Next catalogues and nobly advised us they could make anything we liked for very cheap US-dollaaagh or Vietnam Dong

IMG_1033We spent a couple of very happy hours with about 15 women who were so generous in spirit (I know there was a sale at the end of it!) and so much fun that it really was one of the highlights of our holiday. Kelvin had a massage while I browsed the Internet for designer togs and we were introduced to friends and family, all interestingly, purveyors of fine quality Vietnamese goods!!

And of course we have had our usual trials and tribulations with the paper knickers at the spa, It is safe to say that the cut of the Vietnamese gib is no roomier or generous than those found in the Indian Ocean …. and once again we managed to reduce the therapists to hysteria with Mr H’s struggle to get said knickers past his knees!!

So we took home with us some new cookery skills, very happy memories and our daily conversation with street vendors … Where you from? …. London? Or Kangaroo? …. Luvvly Jubbly (who teaches them this rubbish?) …. You know Elton John? Not personally, no …. 

Most important travel item is …. A camera!

More information to follow on the resorts and top tips for travel

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Chicken Liver Pate

FullSizeRenderThis harks back to the days of Abigail’s Party but is so simple and delicious that I think it is worthy of a mention and isn’t retro back?

 

400g Organic Chicken Livers

100g butter (plus approx 30g to add at the end) at room temperature

A little milk

1 Onion finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

Salt & Pepper to taste

 

Trim the chicken livers of any sinewy bits and then place in enough milk to cover them, add the garlic and some black pepper – allow to soak for at least 30 minutes.  (My mother and grandmother always told me that soaking in milk would remove any bitterness).

Take a knob from your butter and melt in a pan.  When sizzling (but be careful not to allow the butter to overheat and burn). Gently soften the onion in the hot butter and when soft,  throw in the drained livers to sizzle quickly on both sides.  You want to cook the livers sufficiently without over cooking – the idea is for the centres of the livers to remain pink (but not raw!).

 

Place the onion, garlic and liver mixture into a blender with the remaining butter from the 100g and blitz to a smooth paste

Spoon into a terracotta dish and place in the fridge

Melt the 30g piece of butter, remove pate from fridge and pour melted butter over the top of the pate

Serve with fresh crusty bread and cornichons

Chinese Pork Rice with Cucumber Ribbon Salad

FullSizeRenderI picked up this recipe when I signed up for a Gousto food box last Summer at Feast Food Festival  … The Gousto introductory offer was a great deal and is a great service for foodies who lack time to plan their menus for the week ahead. You order three meals a week, quality ingredients and recipes cards to make your chosen meals are then courier delivered to your home once a week in a chilled box.  Gousto use high animal welfare meats and organic vegetables. The exact measured ingredients for each recipe are included with all the fiddly little extras that if you were making from scratch at home can add a kings’ ransom of value to your shopping basket and never ever see the light of day again – so where necessary a teaspoon of mustard, a sprinkle of ras-al-hanout, a splash of rice wine vinegar, a dribble of honey etc are all part of your dish along with a handy wipeable recipe card.  Prices start at £4 per meal/per head, this is the perfect service for those short on time or inspiration to cook during the week! …. But frankly as I now only work part-time I have absolutely no excuse not to measure out my own teaspoon of mustard or splash of vinegar and I am also truly trying to advocate the #shoplocal ethos, supporting local shops, particularly independents.

The Gousto recipes are simple, take minimal preparation and time to cook, usually no more than 30 minutes  … as with most recipes I find I have gone on to tweak this recipe a little, to my own taste.

Recipe

600g Pork Mince

300g Basmati Rice

A tbsp of oil – I like Rapeseed for any recipes where I am frying due to its higher burning point than olive oil – and half the saturated fat!

A sprinkle of Chinese Five Spice (according to taste – the original recipe called for 2 tbsp of this stuff – fine if you want to feel like you have sucked on a star Anise for a week but not for me!!)

A generous chunk of ginger ( i L-O-V-E ginger, so  I use lots of it), peeled and crushed/grated/chopped depending on how you like the texture

2 or 3 cloves of garlic – crushed

A fresh red or green chilli (according to taste again) – chopped finely

2 tbsp Runny Honey

200ml of water

A good glug of Dark Soy Sauce

2 spring Onions – chopped

Salt & Pepper to taste

Bunch of Coriander – stems removed and leaves chopped

For the Cucumber Ribbon Salad

1 cucumber

4 tbsp rice/wine vinegar

Salt to taste

 

Start by rinsing Basmati rice thoroughly (until the water runs clear), this removes the excess starch and assures you of light and fluffy rice not rice pudding.  Place the rice in a saucepan with 750ml salted water and bring to the boil.  Once boiling turn down the heat, place a lid on the pan and simmer for 15-20 minutes.  Check that the rice is not sticking to the bottom, when all the liquid has gone  switch off heat and allow to continue to steam through.

To make your ribbon salad, using a potato peeler ( I like the chunky handled Good Grips Y Peeler) slice ribbons from the cucumber into a bowl, stop when you get to the seeded centre, turn the cucumber onto its side and start again down the other side of the cucumber until you are left with just the seeded centre, dice this and put aside.

Add the rice vinegar (white wine vinegar is fine if you don’t have rice vinegar) to the cucumber ribbons and leave to marinate.

In the meantime start to brown your pork in a little rapeseed oil, breaking it down gently with a fork so there are no clumps of mince.  Once browned add the chilli (as much or little as you would like), garlic and ginger.  When cooked through add the honey, soy sauce, sprinkle of Chinese five spice, salt and pepper to taste and the water, your mince will now take on a rich brown colour.

Cook for a few more minutes and then stir the pork mixture through your steaming basmati rice (before you do this, do make sure all the water has evaporated and gently fork through to ensure rice is light and fluffy). To finish add the diced cucumber flesh, chopped spring onion and a generous handful of coriander leaves (coriander haters can leave this out but it is one of my favourite herbs and adds a true asian flavour)

Serve with the cucumber ribbon salad on the side

Delicious!

 

 

Still Alice …. The book

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 15.00.21

The film of the book, Still Alice by Lisa Genova has just been released, I urge you to read the book before you head off to the cinema. The film has had some great reviews, but it is a missed opportunity not to read the story before you see the characters played out on film by familiar Hollywood faces.  The book is the poignant storytelling of a woman affected by Alzheimer’s. This is particularly resonant  if you have been touched by this terrible disease yourself,   I read this when my own mother was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s a few years back. Like the fictional Alice, my mother’s was early onset dementia, she was officially diagnosed at 60 but had struggled for many years beforehand.  My mothers decline saw her past crumbling away into an abyss and a mercurial present that was running away from her increasingly each day, leaving her and us confused, frustrated and afraid.  

Still Alice was given as a gift by a friend.  I started the book with a mixture of feelings, I had by this time read some real life accounts, some funny, all tragic and each bringing a sense of familiarity and understanding of this far-reaching problem. My initial concerns that this would be a schmaltzy, saccharine Hallmark Channel style story were allayed early on.   A fictional story, Still Alice is written, uniquely from the Alzheimer’s sufferers perspective. The book plays out her frustrations, fear, denial, anger and the huge memory voids rained down on Alzheimer’s sufferers.  And the impact of that on family.

This is the synopsis from Amazon …..

When Alice finds herself in the rapidly downward spiral of Alzheimer’s Disease she is just fifty years old. A university professor, wife, and mother of three, she still has so much more to do – books to write, places to see, grandchildren to meet. But when she can’t remember how to make her famous Christmas pudding, when she gets lost in her own back yard, when she fails to recognise her actress daughter after a superb performance, she comes up with a desperate plan. But can she see it through? Should she see it through? Losing her yesterdays, living for each day, her short-term memory is hanging on by a couple of frayed threads. But she is still Alice.

On reading the book, it brought to me a better level of understanding of how my mother must have felt in those early days. The days when she would call her sister on the way to work to ask her how she could get to her office, she had forgotten the way. Her repetition of sometimes inappropriate phrases addressed to the general public, that at best were irritating and at worst toe-curlingly embarrassing and offensive, often requiring a hasty apology and retreat. Compulsions and frustrating childlike behaviour and a world that increasingly became self-centred and selfish. Yes, my selfless mother became at times a selfish, truculent child. But overwhelmingly still lovable, lucky us as some are not so lucky and the effects of the disease can leave behind a spiteful or aggressive adult-sized child and someone far removed from the person you once loved and shared a life with.  

The desperate plan that Alice has made for herself in the story is brutal (and frightening) but the book did much to explain how the sufferer is feeling and its conclusion gave me great comfort.   I have a LOT to say about Alzheimer’s but it’s rather a piece waiting to be written still, I will get it done, but in the meantime DO READ THE BOOK! 

“You’re so beautiful,” said Alice. “I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.”
“I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you.”
“What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
“Then, I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”
                                                                                                             ― Lisa Genova, Still Alice

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