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Because Missing Out Is Never Fun!

One Yan-tastic Evening

This is where the magic happened.

One Yan-tastic Evening

Weekends during my childhood were pretty standard. My family would hop into our car and drive five minutes to my grandparents' two-bedroom apartment where we would meet up with aunts, uncles and cousins for our traditional Saturday dinner, all of us hunched around a table grabbing fried chicken or serving up slices of thick lasagna while downing ice-cold Shasta.

After dinner, the kids would attach themselves to the Nintendo in the spare bedroom while the adults settled into comfy chairs, just feet from the dinner table, and watched cooking shows, daydreaming about the next family dinner.

We did it all again on Sunday.  This continued for years.

As I got older, I joined the adults in the living room for Great Chefs of the West, the Frugal Gourmet, and Yan Can Cook, starring local celebrity chef Martin Yan.  I sat, mesmerized, as Chef Yan stir-fried meals with lightning speed, played with garnishes and deboned poultry in mere seconds.  Each family member picked up a few tips here and there, and the Ginger Beef with Rice and Sweet and Sour Pork that I grew up on seemed to taste better year after year.

Fast forward a few decades and I find myself shaking hands with Martin Yan himself, making small talk as he whips out his phone to show me video footage from his last trip to Vietnam.  Moments later, I witness him completely debone a chicken in under twenty seconds.  Dream come true? Absolutely.

Martin Yan is a TV host, world traveler, writer, and restaurateur.  Santa Clara is the lucky home of Yan Can Asian Bistro, a true gem in the upscale strip mall of Rivermark Village.  It's here where he hosted a Chinese New Year dinner and cooking demonstration, entertaining both young and old with his food preparation skills, culinary mastery and sharp wit.  With vast culinary knowledge and genuine courtesy, it's no wonder that the staff feel like one big family.
But, on to the food!  Several courses were introduced to our small, intimate group of diners who made reservations for this event well in advance. With each course, Executive Chef Cory Chen described the ingredients, preparation and suggested condiments (when appropriate) to complement each course.  Both chefs made additional options available for the vegetarians in the group, which, in many cases, meant more meat and seafood for yours truly.

Fresh Oysters with Asian Mignonette tasted as if they had just been plucked from the ocean, and the perfectly caramelized Teriyaki Glazed Scallops were served with unique light and fluffy Potato Pillows.  Subtly seasoned Truffled Ginger and Carrot Soup and sweet Crab Salad rounded out the small plates before the main courses were presented.  I felt honored as Martin Yan himself served me Mustard Beef with Rice and Melaka Curry Vegetables from a large platter, while an assistant offered deliciously salty Fish in Gold Dust (amazing fried battered catfish and corn kernels).  It all culminated in a spectacular dessert of Mango Ice Cream with Grilled Apple and Pineapple.  Eventually, each of us sat back in our seats, reflecting on this multi-course extravaganza and rubbing our full bellies.

Before departing, the chefs and staff graciously posed for photos and many of us took home some of Chef Yan’s merchandise. I left completely stuffed, grinning ear to ear, with an autographed box of almond cookies under my arm. I promptly drove home, mentally crossing an item off of my bucket list.

Thank you, Chef Yan.

Bowled Over!

Bowled Over!

He came, he saw, he set out to conquer.

Prior to his attempt on April 5, 2012, Sacramento's own Wayne Gillaspie was no stranger to the Sacramento Pho Challenge at Pho Bac Hoa Viet in Rancho Cordova, California. A buddy of his knocked it out in 52 minutes the previous Saturday night; eager eater Gillaspie was not only ready to defeat the challenge, but annihilate his friend's time.

The Sacramento Pho Challenge is no easy feat: optimistic challengers must consume two pounds of meat and two pounds of rice noodles within 60 minutes.  While finishing any excess broth is not required, keep in mind that the rice noodles are weighed dry and can soak up a pound or two of the broth in the process.

Pho Bac Hoa Viet has reserved one wall of the restaurant to showcase photos of the challengers.  Out of nearly 1,000 who have attempted the feat, less than 20 have succeeded.  Bravo to the restaurant for devising a clever marketing ploy and a solid revenue stream, considering those who fail must fork over $22 for the soup.

Gillaspie arrived that Thursday afternoon wearing comfortable clothing and a huge smile on his face, accompanied by his lovely wife, Jennifer, and two more friends.  He took a deep breath and announced to the server he was going to take on "The Challenge". That, in turn, put a huge smile on the face of the server, who scampered into the kitchen to grab a camera for a quick "before" shot of Gillaspie.  The newest challenger was also given a lengthy waiver to sign, releasing the restaurant of all liability should he hurl, choke or die.

I was able to get a couple questions in before we got started:

TheFunJunkie:  As a bowler, do you think this rapid caloric intake will have any short-term effects on your game or athletic physique?

Wayne Gillaspie:  Ha!  If this is considered a physique, I guess not.  I do have a bowling tournament on Saturday, so we'll see.

TFJ:  There are two schools of thought when it comes to preparing for an eating competition: (1) training the stomach to stretch by eating several large meals or (2) utter starvation leading up to the competition.  What, if anything, have you eaten today?

WG:  Around noon today I had some leftovers from the dinner my wife made last night - shells with cheese and tuna, and some peas and carrots.  Yesterday I had a couple of big meals with tacos, rice and beans.

As I was about to ask what his strategy was going to be (meat first, noodles first, or just shoveling it all in), our server arrived with the largest red soup bowl I had ever seen.

As expected, it was huge.  I mean, HUGE.  You could have bathed a baby in it.  Hell, two babies would have fit inside that monstrosity.

Gillaspie ordered two large glasses of ice to cool down the soup because his time began the moment the bowl was placed on the table and there wasn't a minute to spare. A large calculator-size timer was set up next to his bowl, ominously ticking down his time and reminding him that less than 2% of all challengers have succeeded.

At that point, we all got comfortable in our seats, some sipping on fresh-fruit milkshakes, and began watching the ridiculousness.

5 minutes in, the broth was cooled down to the point where Gillaspie could really dig in.

TFJ:  Wayne, how does it taste?

WG:  Pretty good.  It's a lot more than I expected, but I should be fine.

We all watched as he shoveled spoonful after spoonful into his mouth.  The weird part?  The broth level never seemed to go down.  It seemed to be neverending.  This concerned his wife, who shouted and giggled 21 minutes in, "Come on!  We don't have $22 for this!"

After 35 minutes, Gillaspie felt the need to switch things up.  His spoon and chopsticks were traded in for a fork, and Sriracha was introduced.

TFJ:  Flavor burnout?

WG:  Yeah, it's starting a little bit...

With 20 minutes left, Gillaspie got up and stretched for the first time.

TFJ:  What's the biggest obstacle right now?

WG:  The texture...everything is soft...and the flavor is so bland and monotonous.

That said, he chewed on some bean sprouts just to experience something crunchy.

During the next few minutes, progress slowed to a crawl.  Forkfuls held less and less meat and noodles.  Deep breaths were taken. The teeth of onlookers were clenched in anticipation and nerves, but also with pride for such a physical attempt.  Would he throw in the towel? Would I be quick enough on the draw to switch my camera from photo to video mode to record a possible reversal?

9:35 was left on the clock when Gillaspie officially pushed his bowled aside and surrendered.  The broth was drained off, revealing a couple pounds of noodles and meat left unconsumed.  Gillaspie profusely apologized for not completing the task at hand, while the small crowd applauded the endeavor.

Our challenger was then presented with two parting gifts: a souvenir Sacramento Pho Challenge poster and a bill for $22.

We went our separate ways after one last question:

TFJ:  Hey Wayne - I'm heading to Dairy Queen.  Can I get you anything?

WG:  Ha ha.  A Blizzard actually does sound pretty good right about now.

Wayne Gillaspie and fellow challenger, Ho.
Better luck next time, guys!

Do you have a new challenge for Wayne to attempt?  Go to SUBMIT YOUR IDEA! above and...well, you know.

The Queen of Cakes

Sweet glasses!
The Queen of Cakes

If you drive southbound on El Dorado Street towards downtown Stockton, California, you may notice a pink house with white trim.  The porch features a swinging wooden bench where my great-grandfather would be found enjoying the fresh air, counting passing cars with any one of his great-granchildren.

Inside, my great-grandmother would be knitting or crocheting in her rocking recliner or shuffling around her crowded kitchen, whipping up something rich and delicious.  Holidays meant one dessert in particular: Orange Delight Cake.

I don't believe I ever watched her make the actual cake.  I just remember eating it...lots of it.  Ditto for the rest of my family.  I do recall a dense chocolate behemoth, slightly fruity and studded with Muscat raisins that were specially ordered directly from Sun Maid each year just for this cake.  As a young girl, I knew there was something special about this dessert; I just didn't know how special.

When my great-aunt shared the recipe with me a few years ago, I paid certain attention to a note at the top of the page: the cake was my great-grandmother's own creation, and it won 1st place in a contest in Houston, Texas in the late 1930s.  Perhaps that accomplishment is what made it so special.  Or, maybe it's the copious amount of sugar and cocoa.  Nevertheless, this cake is both delicious and a piece of my heritage.  Give it a try should you happen upon a surplus of Muscat raisins.

Orange Delight Cake

1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 grated orange peel (save the orange for icing)
1 cup Muscat raisins
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons cocoa powder

Cream together the shortening and sugar.  Add the slightly beaten eggs and orange peel.  In a cup, mix buttermilk and baking soda. Add to shortening mixture.

Coat raisins with 1 tablespoon of the flour in a small bowl and set aside.

Sift together remaining flour, cocoa and salt.  Add half of the dry mixture to the batter and combine.  Fold in the raisins.  Add the remaining flour mixture, then pour into a well-greased 10" round pan.  Bake at 375 for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Make the icing: Squeeze the juice of two oranges and add enough granulated sugar to make it syrupy.  Spoon over the hot cake, which usually cracks, allowing it to absorb more icing.

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