Refreshing Dishes for a Hot Day

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Mediterranean Wraps

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Caprese Salad

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Chilled Tomato Soup

I came home on an exceedingly warm day for San Francisco.  Audrey’s class is on a camping trip, but she is at home because we have a wedding rehearsal to attend on Friday.  She made us a delicious vegetarian lunch, which was exactly what I needed after two weeks of potstickers, pork buns and crepes. 

Audrey is a true and natural cook who does everything by feel.  A dash of this and a dash of that; a handful of this and a handful of that.  I enjoyed watching her making the dishes as much as I did eating them.  She has great instinct and a keen sense of adventure when it comes to creating food.  The home cooked lunch was the best welcome home gift I could imagine, but I am now struggling to re-create the dishes in the blog and share her recipes.  It was a good thing that she kept things very simple and here are the recipes to the best of my recollection.

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Mediterranean Wraps

Ingredients:

8 oz. French green beans, trimmed (blanched or steamed until crisp tender)

1 tomato seeded and thinly sliced

3 oz. garlic-and-herb goat cheese

3 whole-grain tortillas

21 Pitted Kalamata olives

6 canned artichoke hearts, drained and sliced

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Preparation:

Spread a thin layer of goat cheese evenly on each tortilla and line 1/3 of the other ingredients in the center of each.  Roll tortilla tightly, folding in sides.

Chilled Tomato Soup

Ingredients:

4 cups diced ripe beefsteak, heirloom or cherry tomatoes, divided

1 to 2 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 red jalapeno, seeded

1/4 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced, for garnish

Salt and pepper to taste

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Preparation:

Blend 3 cups of tomatoes with oil, lime juice, honey paprika, seeded red jalapeño and salt with 1 cup of water until smooth.

Pour soup into four bowls.  Top with the 1 remaining cup of the tomatoes and 1 tablespoon of basil.

Serve at room temperature or chilled. 

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Caprese Salad

Ingredients:

Cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

Fresh Mozzarella balls, sliced in half

English cucumber

Basil leaves, sliced

Micro sprouts

Balsamic Glaze

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Salt and pepper

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Preparation:

Toss everything in the salad bowl with vigor!

Birthday Thoughts & Pork Buns

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The Ritz Carlton in Tian Jin surprised me with the birthday greetings laid out in rose petals all around my suite.

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I was never keen on celebrating my own birthdays when I was younger — never saw the point.  The first time I uncharacteristically had a big birthday bash was when I turned 30.  It felt more like a grand funeral — marking the end of my youth, which to my young arrogant mind meant the end of everything.

When the big 40 came around, Angela was three and half and I was huge with Audrey.  I was too busy, exhausted and preoccupied to bother celebrating.  The next ten years I measured time by the birthdays, growth charts and milestones in the lives of the girls.  My own birthday didn’t seem to warrant much attention.  Peter and the girls would make me a card, or buy me roses and we would have a cake after dinner, but the celebration, on my part at least, was usually perfunctory.

For my 50th, Peter took me to Big Sur and stayed at the Post Ranch for a few days.  As I often refused to travel alone with him without the kids, he simply said to me on my birthday, “Let’s go take a drive.”  Knowing that I was not comfortable being the center of attention in a crowd, he arranged a surprise party just for the two of us.  The peace and quiet away from the children in Big Sur allowed me the time and space to contemplate about life.  And for the first time, I appreciated the marking of time with my own birthday.

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Turning 50 in Big Sur with Peter

Nowadays, I don’t take it for granted that I lived another year; neither do I take it for granted that I have one less year to live on earth.  On my birthdays, I am reminded of the gift of time.  According to Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, the finite nature of time is the very essence of existence:  “Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm…  To man, time is given like a piece of land, as it were, entrusted to him for faithful tilling; a space in which to strive incessantly, achieve self-realization, move onward and upward. Yes, with the aid of time, man becomes capable of wresting the immortal from the mortal.”

In writing a three-act script, the 2nd act takes the most skill to develop and to make exciting.  You open with a bang and close with a blast, but the middle act, which carries the substance of the whole film, often threatens with boredom. In real life we spend most of our time in the 2nd act, day in and day out.  And there is not necessarily a breathtaking chase in the finale.  It is within and through the everyday tilling of the middle act that we leave legacies and reach transcendence. Mostly, we just live the best we can.

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I spent my 54th birthday on location in Tian Jin, where I took a cooking class in pork bun making from the most famous pork bun restaurant in the entire China — Gou Bu Li (狗不理).  If this isn’t nice, what is?  For me, life is worthwhile as long as I can continue to explore, to learn, to love and to contribute. And of course, let’s not forget, to eat!

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Fringe Benefits

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Playing Madame Sun Yat-sen

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I am filming in Tian Jin, a city that is about two hours drive from Beiing.  It was heavily colonized in the 1800s by different European countries and retained much of its colonial architectural characteristics.  Some of the government protected colonial relics have been used as sets in TV series and films and we filmed in one of such buildings today.
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St. Joseph Cathedral Church

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The first time I was in Tian Jin was when I was 19.  I came on the backseat of a motorcycle with a group of friends from Beijing.  The only thing I could remember of the trip was the yummy breakfast and snack foods that I ate.
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View from my hotel

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Breakfast on set with the director

The producer heard that I loved the local breakfast and had three plastic bags full of the special potstickers delivered to the set before I stepped into my costume.  After I finished my breakfast, I could hardly get into my qi pao.
This is one of the most European looking cities in China, but the cuisine here is thoroughly local, and delicious beyond words.
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The mung bean crepe — Jian Bing Guo Zi (煎饼果子)— is one of the most well known local snack food that can also be breakfast, lunch or dinner.  It is made of freshly ground mung bean flour, eggs, cilantro, chili and onion.  You can also add a thin sheet of crispy fried dough for a more complex texture.
Delicious fringe benefit for location work!
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Snacking on Mung Bean crepe

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Story From My Father

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With my parents in front of our house – my first winter

My father never chitchatted with me the way my mother does, but he has been very chatty with me on this trip.  At lunch yesterday, he told me an interesting little story about his maternal grandmother’s tomb.  In the late 1970s, when the government wanted to build a highway over his maternal grandmother’s grave in Jiang Xi Province, my father went with a Feng Shui master to the site to move the sepulcher.  They dug up the grave and saw 6 blind carps in the underground water around the coffin.  The Feng Shui master told my father that the fish needed to be released to the river and the children — meaning me, my brother and our cousins —  should go as far away as possible.  “That’s why your mother and I did everything in our power to send you and your brother to America,” he said.
The story reminded me of another incident that seemed puzzling at the time, but is now clear to me.  In the late 90s, a friend of mine was opening a private heart clinic in Shanghai and wanted to recruit my father and Peter to be her partners.  I was excited by the idea of moving back to my beloved hometown to be near my parents.  And Peter was intrigued enough not to call me crazy.  I thought my parents would be pleased by the possibility, but my father emphatically said, “Don’t do it.  Your destiny is not here.”  In retrospect, I believe that Peter would have been miserable living and working in Shanghai, where the medical culture and beliefs were completely different from his own.  At the time, though, I was taken aback and a little hurt by my father’s staunch opinion that I no longer belonged in Shanghai.
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My father has been a doctor all his life and at the age of 84, he works half a day everyday at his office or meeting patients at his home office.  In my mind, he would be the last one to believe what a Feng Shui master had to say.  Just as I was contemplating my father’s complex and contradictory beliefs and personality traits, he made light of his own story, “actually one could often find fish in the mountain caves of that region.  It was really nothing magical.”
Then both my parents began to talk about the different types of burials that people employ nowadays.  There was the flower burial, where you plant flowers in the ashes.  There was the ocean burial where you take a ship and scatter the ashes in the open sea.  My mother said to my father, “I don’t want an ocean burial.  I won’t be able to be with you if you scatter the ashes in the sea.”  I was surprised by the casualness and lightheartedness with which they brought up this so far taboo subject.  They had never even made a will, as if the very thought would bring upon bad luck if not death itself.  “I would like to have a tree burial — two trees side by side — in your backyard.”  My mother told me.  I didn’t know what to say for a moment when she added, “so that’s settled.”
The thought of my parents as two trees growing side by side in my backyard made me happy.  When I called Peter and told him about this, he said but what if we sell the house?

Pineapple Cucumber Avocado Salad & Spicy Mango Turkey Burger

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I really can’t blame my children to be procrastinators because they got it from me.  Why didn’t I have the kitchen lights fixed a month ago when it broke?  Why didn’t I answer the emails when I received them?  I was running around all day frantically trying to get things done before flying out tomorrow.  I have barely unpacked from my Las Vegas trip and am now packing again for Shanghai. 

There wasn’t a lot of time to cook, but I wanted to use up some of the produce in the fridge before leaving.  So here are two dishes that were inspired by the sunny weather, most importantly, that only took 20 minutes to make.  And preparing them made me feel in control of my life again.

When we were filming in the Inspire Theater in Las Vegas, there was a magazine rack in the cafe area that had many pretty cooking magazines on it.  The hair stylist Ross and I talked about tweaking one of the recipes and exchanging our ideas after we have tried them.  We decided on a chicken dish that is somewhat elaborate, and I haven’t yet found the time to make it.  However, I remember seeing a simple and delicious looking salad in the magazine, and making a mental note of it.  Here is my version of the Pineapple, Cucumber and Avocado Salad.  It is crunchy, creamy, sweet, spicy and a little tart; it went perfectly with the turkey burger I made for dinner.  Peter called tonight’s dishes winners, and that made the chef happy. 

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Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup of English cucumber, seeded and diced

1 1/2 cup of fresh ripe pineapple, diced

1 large ripe and firm avocado, cubed

3 red jalapeno, seeded and minced

2 teaspoon green onion or chives, minced

Juice from 1/2 lime (to squeeze on the the cubed avocado to prevent it from browning)

Salt and pepper to taste

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Preparation:

Stir together everything except for the avocado.  To collect or squeeze additional 1/4 cup pineapple juice and stir into the salad.  Fold in avocado and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

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Spicy Mango Turkey Burger

Ingredients:

2 links lean spicy turkey sausage, casings removed

1 ripe mango, peeled and finely chopped

2 tbsp cooking wine

1/4 cup panko or oat bran for gluten free

2 tbsp minced chives or green onion

1 tbsp coconut flour (optional)

2 tbsp egg white (Angela bought too many cartons of egg white and has asked me help her use it.)

Olive oil cooking spray

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Preparation:

Mix all ingredients well with your hand and make four patties.  Spray a nonstick pan on medium to medium high and cook the burgers until browned and cooked through, about 3 minutes on either side.

Mango Sorbet

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It was a glorious April day and the temperature was in the 70s — warmer than many of our summer days.  How could anyone be inside and working on a day like this?  I called Peter at 5pm and asked, “ Can you play a little hooky and take a walk with me?” — meaning “I miss you,” not expecting him to actually do it. 

Ten minutes later, I heard the garage door open and there he was.  “Let’s go take a walk,” he said casually as if this was an everyday occurrence.  I was so surprised I couldn’t speak. 

Peter changed into shorts while I quickly made a mango sorbet for him.  It took me less than five minutes, but he said it really hit the spot.

We walked on Union Street holding hands.  This almost felt illicit — strolling with him in the afternoon sun on a weekday.  It was as if he was not my husband, but someone else’s husband that I had stolen just for today.  It was wonderful, better than a real vacation.

We walked by a few restaurants where people were dining al fresco style on the sunny sidewalk and we decided to do the same.  We sat down at an outside table in a restaurant call Capannina.  After we ordered, I heard the lady sitting at the next table telling her young daughter about me as if I was a painting on the wall.  She said, “Remember you said you wanted to be a Chinese princess?  This lady played a princess in a film.  She is a movie star.”  The young daughter looked at me — practically an old woman — and was dubious.  The lady probably sensed that I was a bit uncomfortable and embarrassed by her admiration and apologized.

Peter and I had a delicious three course meal, and when we asked for the bill we were told that the dinner was paid for by the lady at the next table. We thanked her and walked into the setting sun.

Our impromptu date turned out perfectly.  Everyone should play a little hooky once in a while.

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Mango Sorbet

Ingredients:

2 cups frozen mango cubes

2 tbsp fresh lime juice

2 tbsp fresh sweet orange juice

Blend everything in a powerful blender or food processor.  I used my Vitamix.

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Spring Stir Fry with Chicken and Sugar Snap Peas

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I bought a beautiful used book by Life for 3.99 today: The Meaning of Life — Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We are Here. Why are we here?  Life posed the grand question to 300 celebrated authors, artists, scientists and to ordinary barbers, taxi drivers and welfare mothers, and published the answers with a selection of black and white photos from the magazine’s photo archive.

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about how the Costco roast chicken was the best $4.99 anyone could spend.  Today I found the best $3.99 that anyone can spend in this book — a feast to the mind, the heart and the eye.  You can open it at any given page and find something poignant or poetic or funny.

Here is the answer from one of my favorite writers Annie Dillard:

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.

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And here is the answer from a butcher by the name of Carmine Pucci:

The meaning of life is listening to Pavarotti, feeling the sun on your face, drinking a bottle of wine, and then another. The meaning of life is having a safe and healthy society, a happy family life, good health, a loving wife, work that you like, smelling the smell of a new car and the ocean air, being able to hit a bull’s eye, coming home with the fish and not another fish story.

I couldn’t agree more.  We are here to bear witness, to create and to feast.

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I made similar stir fries quite often before, usually improvising and by feel, but I like today’s recipe a great deal – flavorful yet light.

Spring Stir Fry with Chicken and Sugar Snap Peas

Ingredients:

For the sauce:

1 tbsp low sodium soy sauce

1 tbsp + 1tsp fresh lemon juice

1 tsp fish sauce

1 tbsp water

1 tsp cornstarch

1/4 tsp sugar

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For the Stir Fry:

1.2 lb skinless, boneless chicken breast, sliced, marinated for 15 to 30 minutes in 1 tbsp of cooking wine, 1/2 tsp cornstarch, a pinch of salt and a few thin slices of ginger

2 tbsp rice bran oil, or canola

2 tsp fresh garlic, minced

2 tsp fresh ginger, grated

1 cup sugar snap peas

1 cup carrots, sliced diagonally

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Preparation:

Combine soy sauce, lemon juice, fish sauce, sugar, water and cornstarch in a small bowl, mix together and set aside.

Heat a large wok over high heat. When the wok is very hot, add half of the oil, then add the chicken. Stir fry, stirring occasionally until the chicken is just cooked through and slightly browned, about 3-4 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken and set aside. Reduce heat to medium.

Add the remaining oil to the wok; add the garlic and ginger, stir for 20 seconds. Add the sugar snap peas and carrots, stirring over medium high heat until tender crisp, about 3-4 minutes.

Return the chicken to the wok, add the soy sauce-lemon mixture, mix well and cook another 30 seconds to one minute. Serve immediately with rice.

Adapted from: skinnytaste.com

Red Cabbage Slaw with an Asian Twist

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I read an article on today’s New York Times about a 78-year-old Iowa man, who has been arrested and is now on trial for having sex with his demented wife in the nursing home.  Apparently, he visited his wife almost daily, sometimes twice a day, praying rosary by her bedside and taking her to church on Sundays, and occasionally he made love to her.  According to social workers in the nursing home, the wife was always happy to see her husband and they would hold hands and talk.  Sweet old man is all I can say. 

I asked Peter if he would visit me twice a day when I am institutionalized for dementia.  He just said, “All I want to know is what vitamins he was on?”  Well, whatever vitamins he was on have brought him big trouble now.  The problem was that she was so demented that she was not deemed fit to give consent to sex.  And without consent, sex is rape.  The demented wife who was not deemed fit to consent to sex had to go through an examination with a “rape kit.”  It that even legal?  Anyway, Peter just reminded me to add in my “Advanced Healthcare Directive” that he has my consent to do you know what.

Peter, who usually doesn’t like coleslaw, loved this red cabbage slaw with an Asian twist.  He seems to believe that it contains aphrodisiac properties, and is also a cure for headaches.  So, yeah…

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Ingredients for the Salad:

1/2 head red cabbage, thinly sliced

1/4 mint leaves, chopped or cilantro, chopped

2 tbsp minced green onion or chives

1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

1/2 cup chopped candied walnuts or candied cashews (I used cashews)

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Ingredients for the Dressing:

1 tbsp minced ginger

1 tsp minced garlic

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 tsp lime zest

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

1 tbsp 100% pure sesame oil

2 tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsp fish sauce

1/2 tsp Sriracha sauce

2 tsp brown sugar + 2 tsp xylitol (you can use 4 tsp brown sugar if you prefer)

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Preparation:

Thinly slice the cabbage and put in salad bowl.  Mix all ingredients for the dressing in a bowl.  Pour the dress over cabbage and mix well.  Let sit for an hour in the fridge. 

Before serving, add everything else to the salad bowl and give it a few good toss.

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Chocolate Thistle & Chicken Soup

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A crunchy chocolate dessert high in cereal fiber

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A hearty chicken soup with whole grain and vegetables

Last week, Peter bought a Costco roast chicken as he often did when I was away at work.  Tasty, tender and versatile, Costco roast chicken is the best $4.99 anyone can spend.  Peter would usually eat the drumsticks on the first day, and then breast meat for sandwiches for the next couple of days.  If I am home, I often use the breast meat to make a quick chicken curry, or use it on top of a caesar salad.  And I use what’s left to make a stock — for porridge or for soup. 

When I opened the fridge today, the roast chicken carcass was waiting there to be transformed.  I suppose this is what home cooking is often about — improvise with leftovers.  I usually make the soup with hulled barley, but I was out of it today and made the soup with farro instead.

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Chicken Farro Vegetable Soup

Ingredients for the Stock:

1 Roast Chicken Carcass

1/4 cup cooking wine

1 inch giner, sliced

12 cups water

1/4 tsp salt or to taste

Ingredients for the Soup:

1/4 farro or hulled barley

1 cup diced carrots

1 zucchini

8 to 10 oz mushroom, sliced

2 cups chicken broth (from carton or can)

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Preparation:

To make the stock, put the entire carcass in a large pot with cooking wine, ginger, water and salt.  Bring to boil and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.  Turn off stove.  Pour the entire pot of soup over a colander into another large pot.  Discard the bone and the skin from the colander and save the meat.  Skim the fat off the top of the stock.

When the stock is simmering, cook the farro or hulled barley with the chicken broth in a rice cooker.

To make the soup, add the meat back into the stock with the cooked farro and carrots. Cook for about 10 minutes.  Add the zucchini and mushroom and cook for another 5 minutes.

Peter has a sweet tooth, but he is supposed to be careful with his sugar intake.  So the one thing he missed the most when I was away was healthy dessert.

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Chocolate Thistles

Ingredients:

1 1/3 3.5 oz milk or dark chocolate bar (I used dark)

1 cup All-bran cereal (I used Kellogg’s)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

1/4 cup unsweetened shaved coconut

1/4 cup dried sweet cherries

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Preparation:

Break the chocolate bar and put in a bowl.  Steam the bowl with chocolate in a steamer on low to melt.  Remove the bowl from the steamer and pour in the cereal, almonds, coconut and dried cherries.

Spoon 1 tbsp mounds of chocolate mounds onto prepared baking sheet.  Transfer to freezer to set for 10 minutes.

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Leaving Las Vegas

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She wanted to take a picture of everything because she said she didn’t want to forget anything.

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When we wrapped late last night, Audrey took a very long time saying good-bye to people.  She hugged everyone multiple times and snapped as many selfies as she could with many of them.  How different she is from me, who always quietly sneaks away at the end of every shoot.  As soon as we got back to the hotel, she said to me, “I’m sad.  I will probably never see them again…  I wish it would never end, but I’m also happy that it’s finished…”  Then she added, “I miss Tiffanie.  I miss Ross.  I miss JQ.  I miss Houston.  I miss Pin.  I miss Kyle.  I miss Julian…” She named everyone that had had any contact with her during the filming.  Her melancholy reminded me of my younger days when I, too, felt forlorn the night after a film was completed, as I knew I would probably never again see many of the people with whom I had grown close to during the intense filming.  

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Yesterday, we filmed in Inspire Theater, the loveliest little place in the entire Las Vegas. It is a specialty theater with a cafe and a bar and lounges. Audrey was having lunch and doing SAT words on the balcony.

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Just across the street from the loveliest place in Las Vegas is this restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill, where people over 350 pounds eat free meals in a hospital gown on stage. I had to take a picture for my cardiologist husband Peter.

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Audrey’s character Adeline volunteers to be “disappeared” by the magician on the stage of Inspire Theater.

Audrey has grown by leaps and bounds in this whirlwind of a spring break. She was kept on her toes and learning something new every moment.  Before this film, she hadn’t even expressed any desire to act, but by the end of the shoot, she was practically a pro.  Her ease in front of the camera surprised me.  Her innocent instinct to trust the things and people around her was a quality that I wish I had more of.  I have no idea if Audrey will be an actor in the future, but playing mother and daughter in this little project was the most wonderful adventure that the two of us shared, better than any vacation anywhere in the world. 

Who would have guessed that Las Vegas, of all places, would become so special for us?

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Using her per diem to buy gifts for daddy and Angela in the airport

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No more looking out the car window on the way from SFO to home. During the filming, she hardly ever looked at her phone.

The first thing I did after I got home was, of course, to cook dinner.  Peter had suggested for us to go out, but Audrey and I missed simple, healthy, home cooked Chinese food.  These are dishes that I have made hundreds of times in my life.  They make me feel that I’m home.

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Quick braised tofu with vegetables in Ponzu sauce

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Bok Choi shiitake stir fry with oyster sauce

I will try to remember what I used in these stir fries and share the recipes in the next couple of days.  So happy to be home!