The Kentucky Castle

There are castles in Kentucky.  The most impressive one in my opinion is the one in Versailles, not that Versailles of Sun King Louise XIV outside of Paris, of course.  Nevertheless this castle of Versailles, Kentucky is quite fabulous, and no lack of fairytale story.

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Not far from the castle, there was a lovely orchard where you could pick apples and my favorite Asian pears.  So every time we passed by this castle to the orchard, I wondered out loud what could the inside like.  So my dear husband took notes,  a few years ago, he surprised me for an overnight stay in this caste for our wedding anniversary!

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At that time, the castle was called the Castle Post.  It hosted special events, only open to public occasionally.

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It was December, the castle was decorated for Christmas.

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Our suite was at the left turret, the Executive Terrace Suite with a huge study.  The suite was tastefully decorated in rich burgundy color with traditional furnishing.  It was classic and upscale.  The king-size poster bed was lovely!

The breakfast was not large, but delicious with pastry, eggs and my favorite smoked salmon.

The castle has gone through chances in management and ownership, it was open again last year after renovation.  On their Facebook, there were morning yoga on the roof top, weddings and various events, so we decided to go back to try their farm-to-table restaurant.

And we were impressed.

We stayed past sunset.  The castle was truly magical at night.

So pay a visit when you are in the area, you may discover a new spot of romantic gateway.

 

 

 

Puerto Vallarta Winter Getaway

It is very easy to fall in love with Puerto Vallarta (PV).  Warm weather, clear beach, great food and show, and extremely friendly people.  Here are the things we loved and things we could have skipped in PV.

Marietas Islands Hidden Beach tour is the #1 on my list, an absolute must-do! These groups of isles are more than an hour ride from PV, they are beautiful with rugged rocky shore.  Boats can’t dock there, you have to swim to get on the islands.  The tour company provides life jackets and gaggle gears for the swim.  The water is so blue and the islands very beautiful.

There is a hidden beach, you can’t see the beach from outside sea, have to swim over the low overhand to get on the beach, so check the tide table for low tides.  Only 80 people per day are allowed to get on the island, six people to get on the beach in any given time. Make sure to book early.

On the way to the islands we saw whales and many dolphins.

We also highly recommend the Rhythms of the Night Dinner Show! The show is on Las Caletas, an hour boat ride to the south of PV, a place of sporty recreation during the day and romantic candle-light dinner and entertainment at night.  There is no electricity there, four thousands lit candles were waiting for us when we reached the shore!

The food was great and the show was full of amazing acrobatic moments.  Each evening there are two dinners and one show in between, so make sure to specify which dinner you want for the evening when booking.  I wish I knew more about Mexican culture and language to understand the show.  What a wonderful way to spend the night.

Puerto Vallarta is a very artsy tourist town.  There are many wonderful art displays over every corner of the city especially the one-mile long El Malecon Boardwalk along downtown water front.  Every Tuesday morning there is a guided art sculpture tour, it costs $15. Although you can easily do a self-guided tour, just walk along the boardwalk you won’t miss anything.  The dance of the Flyers, Danza de los Voladores, is a preserved ancient Mesoamerican ritual.

If you have children, the Turtle Camp is a wonderful and fun educational activity with the whole family.  You learn about the life of turtles, at the end you can hold a baby turtle and release it back to the ocean.

The Puerto Vallarta City tour is suitable for someone who wants to see the whole city in one day.  It is too crammed in my opinion.  The bus picked us up from our hotel and everybody else, it was a bus-ful of tourists.  We stopped at many attractions briefly including Malecon boardwalk, the church of Our Lady Guadeloupe etc.

We had lunch at a family-owned restaurant near Mismaloya, very unique setting in the wood.  Afterward we walked to a nearby tequila distillery for tasting.  They even blocked big chunk of time for us shopping for souvenirs, twice!  It was a whole day tour.

We stayed at Marriott.  Everywhere we travel, I like to book Marriott for lodging, just love the bedding and pillows and their affordable price. This resort offers many water activities and have a couple of restaurants and nice pools.

I like the location, walking distance to food and market.  There is a public bus stop outside of the resort, the bus fare to downtown is only 7.5 pesos. (The exchange rate $1=19 pesos!)  Our bus ride was fun, we met many snowbirds from America and Canada on the bus.

And taxi is very convenient and reliable, about 80 pesos from hotel to downtown.

When we were in Mexico City two year ago we fell in love with the real Mexican food.  So this time in Puerto Vallarta we were searching for authentic seafood at the places where the locals went.  We tried a handful of the local favorites, and liked most of them, especially fresh seafood, even the food from street vendors and night market were excellent.

The Cafe des Artistes is on the top list of my recommendation. It is at the high end, about $50 per person.  Really romantic, perfect for anniversary or any special occasion.  The restaurant is beautifully decorated, the exquisitely prepared food is accompanied with romantically serenaded music.  They have the best pumpkin soup, the fish dish is so flavorful, and the dessert is to die for.

Another restaurant on my recommendation list is La Langosta Feliz (The Happy Lobster), a seafood restaurant.  If you don’t order the gigantic seafood platter (shown on the picture above), we didn’t, the price was very cheap–four of us spent about 1,500 pesos, less than $80!

We had quite adventure there, I had to share this story!

As I mentioned before, our love of food always push us to search for authentic local food.  One taxi driver highly recommended the Happy Lobster, so we decided to give it a try.  We left from Malecon boardwalk thinking it would be a pleasant walk, it turned out way too far to get there on foot.  As we were asking a local woman how much further we needed to go, we were approached by an elderly man who warmly volunteered to take us there.  Not only that, he also acclaimed to be the owner of that restaurant and offered us 20% discount!  Apparently he owned a couple of restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, the Happy Lobster we were going was currently managed by one of his sons! “Just wait here!” he said, “Let me go and get my car, I take you because I am going there anyway.”

What do you think?  If in your shoes, would you wait and go with him, in a city where you were a stranger?!

As soon as he left, we waved down a taxi.  We couldn’t get out there fast enough! It turned out we were only half mile away.

The restaurant was awesome! Seafood was great, fresh and tasty. Lots of locals and tourists like us were there.  The waiters spoke good English. The service was prompt and warm, the food portion was decent. I had octopus ceviche and freshly caught snapper (see the pictures above), loved both.  If I had to pick on something, the music was a bit too loud to our taste, especially the band came to the table side and played.

By the time we ordered and chewed on our appetizer, lo and be hold, that elderly man walked in and straightly approached our table, padded my husband’s shoulder “haha you made it.” !!!

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The manager (on the right) was indeed his son!!

We are so accustomed to not trust strangers; we teach our children that and we model those teachings ourselves.   We may be safer but how we miss otherwise great opportunity to make friends!   People are much more genuine and loving than we portray them! Especially in Puerto Vallarta!

So if you visit Puerto Vallarta, please go and eat at the Happy Lobster.  If you see him, ask for a discount, I guarantee you will get it.  (I didn’t get the discount he promised since I didn’t even want him to remember our prior conversation.)    His heart is made of gold.

 

Jackfruit Is the King!

Have you seen this in the supermarket and wonder what it is?  The name is jackfruit, not durian.  It is not a huge monster but rather a delicious fruit. In fact, it is the largest tree-borne fruit on Earth.  Once you try it,  I promise you will come back for a second!

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One fruit can go up to 100 pounds! This “small” one I got at my local Meijer weighs more than 20 pounds. (FYI: $1.49/Ib for whole, $2.29/Ib for cut.)

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Cut open the fruit longitudinally to expose the yellow fresh (the avrils), the first thing that hits your nose is the fragrance!  The aroma! You will totally ignore the scary look of the cut surface.

First, I use a sharp knife to remove the white center core, this helps to expose the yellow fresh that in-bedded in the fibrous chambers (the rags). It is much easier that it looks, just dig in and get messy.  There are lots of fruits! So it’s time for jackfruit party!

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The avril is meaty and DELICIOUSLY sweet, with a taste all its own.  Some says it tastes like mango, some says peach or banana; while others say juicy fruit gum. It is not.  The literal Chinese translation of jackfruit is “pineapple honey 菠萝蜜”, it doesn’t taste like pineapple, not even close.  You have to try it yourself.

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Don’t throw away the leftover once the flesh is removed.  The rags are edible!

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Recently my mother visited us, she made this rag stirfry for us.  She removed the rags from the rinds, and soaked them overnight in water, and stir-fried with carrots. They are refreshing, but a bit bland to my taste.  Next time, I will try to stir-fry with some hot chili pepper or cumin to boost the flavor.

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There is a smooth stone inside each fruit, don’t throw it away since that is the third edible part of the jackfruit.  Collect the stones, cook them like you boil potatoes!  I boil them with little salt for about half an hour. They even taste like potato!  However the skin outside the stone is much harder than potato skin.

Lot of people confuse jackfruit with another tropical fruit, durian (a nasty fruit in my opinion).  They look similar, both are big with bumpy green skin.  But they taste different like day and night. It is also personal. My cousin in Shanghai thinks the flesh of durian resemble high-end quality soft cheese, such an delicacy to her; however, it smells and tastes like something rotten to me. Yikes!

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If a whole fruit is too much for you, especially for someone who never had this before. Meijer also sells cut jackfruit, a quarter or a piece of the whole fruit.  A good option to test the water.  Also if you can’t finish the whole fruit, the flesh and the stones freeze well, you can store away the fruits for later enjoyment.  Just make sure to remove the flesh from the rags and take out the stone, and freeze them separately.

My whole family love this fruit, even my picky teenage daughter! So give it a try and let me know what you think!

 

 

 

How to Loose a Tea Brick

Many of my friends have a beautiful tea brick somewhere inside the house.  It may be a gift received or purchased during one of the China trips. However it just sits there because they haven’t figured out how to chip a small piece off the brick as recommended or suggested.

Are you one of them? Loosing the tea brick is actually easier than you think.

You need:

  1. a steamer pot with a perforated stack, the pot should be wide enough to hold the tea brick flat.
  2. water, at least an inch deep in the pot, but not too deep to touch the tea tray
  3. a mitten
  4. a flat tray, as a working surface for breaking and drying the tea. I use my cookie sheet lined with paper to absorb the moist.
  5. tea jar and/or any container, to store the loosened tea

First, prepare the steam pot by bringing water to boil.  Then carefully (hot steam) put the tea brick on the steamer stack, close the lid.  Set a timer for FIVE minutes.  That is right, all you need is to steam the tea brick for no more than five minutes!

While the tea is being steamed, get your mitten ready.  When the time is up, use your mittened hand to take the tea out to the tray.  The edge of the brick will be slightly bendable and center still solid. Work QUICKLY with both hands. Start from the edge, breaking your way into the center of the brick. Once the broken pieces cool, they turn harden again; so you only have a few minutes of workable window.

I didn’t take any pictures while actually working on the tea brick.  Too busy!

Five-minute is a good time frame for my round pu’er tea brick, less than an inch in thickness. If your tea is thicker or thinner than mine, you may need to adjust one minute more or less of steaming period. As we all know, tea making is a delicate process.  The brief steaming here is to loose the binding of the tea only. Never we want to introduce excess moist, which will create all sort of problems, such as taste change, or worse, mold growth etc.

After the broken pieces cool and dry, it is time to store them away.  I usually put the chunks in a cloth bag and the loose tea into a jar.  Always use the loose tea first.

Well, I hope this article help and good luck with your tea brick! If you like, I appreciate you hit “like” at the bottom of this blog, and give me your feedback and thoughts. Bon AppeTEA!

 

Cuban Food, Cigars and Coffee

Cuba lies 90 miles south of Key West, FL, between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, to the west of Haiti, east of Mexico and northwest of Jamaica.  Now I have been to each island mentioned above, except Haiti.  (hmm… Haiti)

Although this was my first time to Cuba, it was the 30th times for our team.  Year after year they showered compassion to the Cuban people providing the Cuban churches with generous material and spiritual support long before the lift of embargo. Each year new members were added to the Cuba team, we were so privileged to be part of this wonderful group.

Each year the team experienced a bit differently than the year before.  This time we stayed at the two beautiful guesthouses.

Barbara was the hostess of one guesthouse, and also our cook for breakfast. Each day breakfast began with a plate of fresh fruits of papaya, banana, guava and pineapple slices. Toasts were served with butter and home-made pineapple marmalade, the best I’ve ever had! Eggs were either fried or scrambled; probably because of our language barrier, Barbara thought “sunny side up” meant “natural” or raw egg.   Huh… no… I didn’t want to swallow a raw egg in the morning. 🙂

Barbara also served us deliciously home-made juice, such as papaya, guava or pineapple, and coffee. A word for Cuban coffee, it was STRONG! A little cup of the Cuban coffee would keep me going for a whole day! Coffee was served black, with sugar and/or heated whole milk. By the end of the week, I grew addicted to Cuban coffee.

Lunch at church was usually a simple sandwich with ham and cheese. Naturally we opted for lunch from street vendors in downtown Havana. This fried chicken (three pieces) costed only two dollars, juicy and full of flavor.

We had lunch out once at Matanzas. Great pork!

For something to munch on while scrolling the street, you might pick a bag of Churros for half a dollar or Corn on the cob with mayonnaise or a sprinkle of salt.

In Cuba, we used bottled water for drinking as well as for brushing teeth. The rule for shower in our guesthouse was to turn off the water whenever you were not ACTIVELY rinsing; otherwise you would suffer the consequence of running out of hot water.  I am speaking from my personal experience.  Also check whether you had water in the tank BEFORE you used the commode, otherwise you might risk have nothing to flush with.  Again, my personal experience. 🙂

Rice and Beans was Cuban’s staple dish.  We had rice and beans almost every night at church.  In my opinion, New Orleans had the best rice and beans, Cuban version came very close as the runner up. Our chefs knew how to make delicious Chicken and pork; we were told that beef and seafood were not readily available/affordable for common people.

Our last dinner was at a Chinese restaurant “Tien Tan 天璮饭店” in China town. If you missed seeing the archway at the entrance to Chinatown, you would not have guessed you were in China town. There were very few Chinese people and the structures of the many buildings resembled anything but China town. My hubby and I were the only Chinese we saw. 🙂

Finally, a few words about gifts.  Cuban cigars and coffee were the gifts we brought back home, they were easily available in Old Havana. Since the ease of travel to Cuba,  US customs lifts the import limits on Cuban cigars. If you are new to Cuban cigars, “Romeo y Julieta” and “Cohiba” are two popular brands. Also the coffee we purchased at the Old Havana tourist area was the identical price as in local market.

The Quest for the Exotic Stirfry

Whenever traveling to the Far East, I am always on the lookout for new vegetables to stir fry. Stir frying is my weekday go-to cooking since it is fast and healthy. If you can grow it, I can stir fry it. I recently added four more new vegetables on my list, hooray!

  1. Shansu 山蘇 (Hualien, Taiwan)
  2. Red Phoenix 红鳯菜 (New Taipei, Taiwan)
  3. Dragon Bean 龙豆 (Shanghai, China)
  4. Water Celery 水芹 (Suzhou, China)

Shansu (Asplenium) belongs to the fern families, one of oldest plants on earth. I first encountered shansu’s tender shoots when strolling along the night market of Hualien. I remembered thinking it would make a delicious stirfry!  The next day on the return route of hiking Shakadang Trail in Taroko Gorge, I spotted a field full of wild shansu, completely covered the hill on my left. This time I wondered about which condiments to pair with shansu, maybe roasted peanut? The following stir-fried dish showed the plate from a small restaurant in Tianxiang, there shansu was stir fried with a handful of tiny dried anchovies. Totally unexpected, but surprisingly delicious!

红鳯菜 literally means Red Phoenix (Gynura). I was attracted by the deep purple color in a three-table family-owned restaurant.  I asked the mom what the fresh vegetable looked like.  She run back to the kitchen, a few minutes later emerged with the colander filled with purple leaves. How sweet the people!

My cousins in Shanghai know about my quest.  Each time we go to visit her, they bring something new to the table to satisfy my curiosity. This time was no exception, I love them so much!

 

Here Dragon Beans were sliced and stir fried with lily bulbs (the white pieces). An unusual combination.  We had this dish in 全聚德, which was famous for its trademark Roasted Peking Duck.

This Water Celery was stir fried with garlic.  Garlic was the most common condiment for stirfry, the unexpected was Water Celery didn’t taste like celery at all!

The Natural Beauty of Taroko Gorge, Hualien, Taiwan

My First impression of Taiwan was her stunning beauty.  Although an island just about 14 thousand square miles, Taiwan has nine National Parks!

I visited Taroko National Park (太鲁阁国家公园) last November, it was a perfect time to avoid the island’s hot and humid summer. Taroko, a word for the Truku aboriginal tribe, Gorge is the main attraction of the national park, however there are other attractions in the park and surrounding Hualien City. So plan for at least two days, and be prepared to be blown away for there is nothing like it!

The park is free.  Most of the hiking trails are flat and paved, suitable to all physical conditions. Here is a short list of my must-sees and tips.

I recommend making Qingshui Cliff your first stop.  The morning is usually less crowded, and the lighting before 10 am is at its best.

Shakadang Trail has the most amazing blue stream running alongside the trail, with marbles, big and small, popping and scattered in the creek.  The best view is at the end of the trail.

The next one is Swallow Grotto Trail. It is mandatory to wear a helmet to walk the trail because there is an issue of landslide and falling rocks. Haha, I had the same thought–a plastic helmet vs falling boulders?! But a rule is a rule.

Lushui Trail is a bit more strenuous than the previous two. There is some climbing, here and there, and part of the trail is dirt road.  The words ‘Lushui’ mean ‘green water’. When we were on the trail, a gloomy cloud covered the sky, started drizzle.  As you could see from the photo, the water was not green at all.

The most iconic view in the Taroko Gorge is probably the Eternal Spring Shrine.  It was built to commemorate the lives lost during the construction of road through the Gorge. No one is allowed to enter the Shrine any more.

Looking for a quick stop for lunch inside the park? Look no farther than Tianxiang, a cute and colorful town inside the park. There are a couple of restaurants there with a reasonable price tag.  Since Hualien area is famous for rice, so I ordered purple rice steamed in a bamboo tube. To keep the bamboo theme going, I also had a broth made from the tender part of bamboo shoots.

Temples, marble gazebos, bridges and suspension bridges, the park has all, and many more.

A few words of cautions: we took Taiwan Railroad from Taipei to Hualien City.  The speed train tickets are usually hard to get for the individual travelers since travel agents often stock most tickets.  So remember to buy tickets ahead of time; an alternative route is to take the bus which takes 4-5 hours, double the time of the train. If you fancy Taiwan’s local food like me, make sure to have dinner at Hualien’s night market, 自强夜市. There are variety of local food, fruits and vegetables to choose from, I had the grilled squid (it was delicious!) and oyster as the island was famous for fresh seafood.

Also I highly recommend to hire a taxi for the day.  For $100 (New Taiwan $3,000) or less, you can hire a private driver for 8 hours.  Don’t pick up any from the train station, wait until you check in your hotel, the hotel staff can arrange one for you.  We were very satisfied with the service of our driver. He was not only our driver, but also our tour guide plus photographer, and he went the extra mile to please us. Simply decent down-to-earth people.

So with the spectacular natural beauty, stunning gorges, hiking trails, shrine, temples, waterfalls and bridges,  Taroko is not to be missed if you are in the area!