Pork Knuckle & Other Important Things in Slovakia

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I felt a little tense as we were about to film my last scene of Marco Polo season 2 — an emotional scene of great significance for the character of Chabi.  Is there a different way to express what’s written in the script?  Will I be able to deliver it if I could imagine an alternative?  The thoughts of my own limitations as a performer threatened to surface and defeat my confidence.  As I walked around trying to find a quiet and private space to concentrate, I saw Max — the 11-year-old son of my makeup artist from Kazakstan — gazing at the magnificent High Tatra Mountains in a reverie. 

The sight of this little boy transfixed by the immensities of nature took my breath away.  I stood there watching him, forgetting my own inadequacy for a moment.  Then Max returned from his trance and noticed me. He declared in a whisper, “It is so beautiful.”   I don’t think I have ever met another child with such a sense of wonderment in front of nature.  Mine, who have remarkable attributes of their own, are quite unmoved by nature, especially when there are insects crawling and flying around them. 

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Max shifted his mood suddenly as only a child could and invited me to a game of Uno.  I said I couldn’t play right now because I would have to cry in 15 minutes.  He looked at me with sympathy for a second and then I saw a twinkle in his eyes, which were wise beyond years, “Can I tell you a secret?”  I nodded.  “If you open your mouth wide and yawn like this,” Max demonstrated as he continued, “your eyes will get teary.”  I laughed out loud, imagining the director’s face watching me from the monitor as I yawn on camera at the most inopportune time.

As I spent the most casual and simple moments with Max, my worries and self-doubt dissipated. I could now see the majestic beauty surrounding me — the mountains, the waterfall, the lake, the wild flowers, the sky — and feel dissolved in something great and complete. 

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I was able to return to my instinct and trust it to bring me to shore from the stormy sea that was my own mind.  According to the director and the producers, my fellow actor Zhu Zhu and I “nailed the scene.”  I guess we deserved the huge pork knuckle that we had for dinner in a local restaurant called Humno. It was slightly cured and smoked.  And utterly “porkelicious.”

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My scene partner Zhu Zhu and our pork knuckle.

Cauliflower Fried Rice

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I am beginning to pack again for the last leg of my European travel — Slovakia.  As I often do before a trip, I went to the library to borrow a book that I otherwise would not read if I wasn’t stranded midair on a transcontinental flight — Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace.  I leafed through the pages and found the following sentences, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.  Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”  Weil believed in the meditative power of the inner supplication we call “attention” as a superior tool for self-transformation.  Instead of will, she suggested we try to “cure our faults by attention.”

I was piqued by the topic of attention because it seems to be the hardest thing to have in this age of multi-tasking and non-stop stimulation/distraction from every direction.  Sometimes my entire family is glancing at different devices and returning emails and texts when we eat our meals.  It is not that we need it all the time, but I think it would be nice to truly pay attention to each other as if we are all on our first date with someone we like.

In another of Weil’s books First and Last Notebooks she writes, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”  This was true for her time, but much truer for ours — a time when attention is often carved into little snippets and thrown at whichever way the wind is blowing.

On the day the DOW fell nearly 600 points, let’s pay “absolutely unmixed attention” to the part of lives that are not and can never be commodified — our most intimate relationships, our moral fortitude, our spirit and our understanding of what it means to be human — and be thankful that that essential part of us is well. 

For food, I cooked cauliflower fried rice.  The versatile cauliflower did it again! This “fried rice” is absolutely delicious.

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Cauliflower Fried Rice

Ingredients:

1 medium cauliflower, florets only

1/2 onion, finely chopped

1/3 carrot, finely chopped

5 to 6 stocks green onion, chopped

4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced or crushed

2 to 3 thin slices peeled ginger, minced

2 eggs + 2 egg whites, beaten

1 red Jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1/4 cup frozen peas

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon yellow curry paste

1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon or less fish sauce

1/4 teaspoon brown sugar

3 tablespoon canola oil or other cooking oil, separated

Red pepper flakes to taste and for garnish

Preparation:

Pulse the washed and dried florets in food processor in small batches.  Make sure the florets are completely dry and don’t over process.  I hand chopped a small batch to give it a little more texture.

Beat the eggs and egg whites with a pinch of salt and a pinch of minced green onion, garlic, and ginger.  Let it sit while you prepare the other vegetables.

Mix curry paste, soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar in a small bowl.

Heat a non-stick pan on medium high with 1 tablespoon of oil.  Stir fry the egg mixture for about 2 to 3 minutes.  Using the spatula to cut the egg into small pieces while stirring.  Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoon oil in a large wok on high.  When the oil is hot, add garlic, ginger, onion, jalapeño, white part of green onion and stir until aromatic, about 4 to 5 minutes.  Lower the heat to medium high or medium if the wok becomes too hot and the content begins to brown too much.

Add cauliflower rice into the wok and continue to stir for about 3 minutes.  Add frozen peas and continue to stir for about 2 minutes.  Add the green part of the green onion and stir for another 2 minutes. 

Pour in the soy sauce mixture and stir until well coated and dry, about another minute or two.  Make sure the cauliflower race is not over cooked and mushy.  It needs to be al dente.

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Massaged Raw Kale Salad 2.0

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Angela asked me to make her my massaged kale salad today and that made me happy.  She has wanted very little of me — my time, my company, my thoughts or my wisdom, especially my wisdom. Whatever I try to say to her is met with the retort “old man yells at cloud,” which is supposedly a Simpsons reference. “Millennials are so lazy! Go start a war or ruin the economy or something! Wait… how do you send an email?” In my defense, I know how to send an email.

I wait patiently because I know that she is at an age when she needs to explore and evolve into her own identity apart from her parents. But sometimes I can’t help feeling a little sad about the loss of the intimate oneness we used to have.

When I was away, she had been eating out a lot with her friends or ordering take-out from the nearby restaurants.  For quite a few days after I came home, Angela continued to order her meals.  The one thing that I used to be really good at — feeding her nutritious and delicious food — Angela no longer seemed to need from me. 

When she came to me carrying a bunch of kale and said, “Mommy, can you make me your massaged kale salad for lunch?” I leapt into action.  As I washed, cut out the stems, dried and massage the kale, Angela stood there and talked to me and laughed with me like she did when she was little. 

Angela took a photo of the salad as she was eating it and texted it to her friends.  “They all said that it looked so delicious,” she said, “Can you make it again for me to bring to school tomorrow?”  Wow ! it was as if she was still my little girl.

I usually make this salad with feta cheese, but I was out of it today.  I found that Parmesan is also delicious with this salad.  The sweet grapes are a perfect balance to the tinge of bitterness in the kale. 

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Massaged Raw Kale Salad

Ingredients:

2 bunches lacinato kale, ribs removed and discarded (12 oz total without ribs)

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 tsp kosher salt or to taste

2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)

Shaved Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup red seedless grapes

1/2 cup green seedless grapes

1/4 cup chopped dry roasted almonds

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Preparation:

Slice the kale into 1/4-inch thin ribbons. In a large bowl combine the kale with oil and salt. Using your hands, massage the kale for 3 minutes until the kale softens.

Toss kale with the lemon juice, then add grapes.  Sprinkle shaved parmesan cheese and chopped almonds before serving.  The recipe makes 4 meal size servings.

Kale is such a hearty vegetable that the salad doesn’t get soggy if you let it sit in the fridge over night.  I have always liked kale, but eating it raw like this is a great variation in preparing this super food.

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I used the lemons from my dwarf lemon tree. I’ve been feeding my unwanted boiled egg yolks to the soil and the little tree is bearing so many lemons.

Cantonese-Style Ginger Scallion Lobster

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In the past couple of months I had enjoyed the best meat dishes of my life — pork neck, beef cheek, pork knuckles, beef neck, goose leg, duck breast — you name it.  Hungarian cuisine is known for its meats.  Like the Chinese, nothing on an animal is ever wasted for an Hungarian butcher; every part is made into food.  While I loved the food in Budapest, I really missed Chinese food and fresh seafood that are always abundant in San Francisco. 

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Now that I am back at home, Chinese food is what I have been eating almost everyday.  During our weekly visit to Costco today, we bought some really fresh lobster tails.  One of Peter’s favorite dishes when we go to a Cantonese restaurant is ginger scallion lobster, which I had never attempted at home.  When Peter asked me to make it, I said I didn’t know how.  Peter looked at me with a big smile and exclaimed, “But you are the Hungry Empress!”  Peter volunteered to clean and cut the lobster tails while I poured over the internet for a Cantonese style ginger scallion lobster recipe that looked good.  I found this delicious recipe on TheWoksOfLife.com. The dish turned out beautifully.

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A surgeon at work

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Did I ever mention in any previous blog that Peter was smuggled out of Canton and into Hong Kong in a secret compartment of a rickety junk at the age of five?  Well, you can get the boy out of Canton, but not the Canton out of the boy. The affinity for Cantonese cuisine never fades with the passage of time.

Cantonese-Style Ginger Scallion Lobster

Ingredients:

3 large lobster tails

2 tablespoons all purpose flour

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2/3 cups oil for flash frying, plus 2 tablespoons for stir fry

16 thin slices ginger

5 scallions, cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons shaoxing wine

1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

pinch of sugar

fresh ground white pepper

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Preparation:

Wash and cut lobster tails into 1 1/2 inch pieces.

Let all of the lobster pieces drain of excess water after you rinse them and pat dry with a paper towel.

Mix the flour and cornstarch in a shallow bowl, and lightly dredge the lobster pieces. Dredge only the exposed meat to seal in the juices.

At this point, many restaurants deep fry the lobster in a large wok to quickly seal in the juices.  This process only takes 20 seconds or so, but I used on 2/3 cup of oil in a non-stick pan and pan seared the lobster pieces flesh side first.  This flash fry method cooks the lobster about 70% of the way through, enhances the lobster flavor, produces a rich color, and seals in the juices while preventing the tender meat from overcooking.

Heat 2/3 cup of oil in a non-stick pan to about 350 degrees F, and drop the lobster into the pot a few pieces at a time for about 15 seconds on either side. Remove to a sheet pan to drain. The shells should turn bright red almost instantly.

To finish the dish, start with a clean wok over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the wok, along with the ginger and garlic. Let the ginger fry for about 30 seconds, until fragrant.

Add the white portions of the scallions and the lobster. Stir fry on for 20 seconds, keeping the heat cranked up as high as it’ll go.

Pour the wine around the perimeter of the wok and immediately cover it. Let it cook for about 2 minutes. This step infuses or “bakes” the lobster with the ginger and scallion flavor.

Uncover the wok and add the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, white pepper, and the rest of the scallions. Stir fry for another minute. You can add a couple tablespoons of chicken stock or water if the wok is too dry.

Serve hot!

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Five Minute Pineapple Fantasy Pie

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It ’s Peter’s birthday and he took the day off as a present to himself.  There is no better gift than leisure for someone who works long and stressful hours year in and year out.  I don’t remember since when but this has become an annual ritual for Peter on his birthday — a day to rest and reflect, a day free from the tyranny of schedule.  In our culture of productivity, we need to now and then take pause and remind ourselves that we are much greater than our professional identities and life is much more expansive than work.

Peter and I curled up on the sofa and read Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals together.  It is an extremely well researched and eloquently written book about the food we eat in the industrial food chain. I was so engrossed in the book that I could hardly peel myself away when it came time to make Peter’s birthday cake.  I decided to simply open a couple of cans and whip up a quick and easy no bake pie – a refreshing and delicious dessert that any lazy fool can make.

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Five Minute Pineapple Fantasy Pie:

Ingredients:

1 can (20oz) crushed pineapple in 100% juice

1 can (13.6oz) coconut milk or coconut cream

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/4 tsp salt

2 tbsp xylitol

Pie crust

Note: Be sure that you’re using full-fat coconut milk, not coconut milk beverage or lite coconut milk.

Preparation:

To make the pie, blend all ingredients except the crust until very smooth. Pour into a prepared pie crust. Freeze 4 hours or until firm but not yet hard, or freeze longer and thaw at least 2 hours before slicing and serving.  I churned the pineapple mixture in the ice cream maker before pouring it into the crust, but the original recipes doesn’t require an ice cream maker.

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Adapted from chocolatecoveredkatie.com

Farewell to the City of Castles

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I have been homesick and looking forward to the end of the Budapest shoot, but when the end actually approaches, I’m sad to leave.  Having finished packing, I took a long walk along the now familiar streets from my hotel to the Danube.  A realization hit me that perhaps I will never see this city of castles again. 

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

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The Grand Opera House

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Liszt Academy of Music

Over the weekend, a friend visited me and I took her on a walking tour of my favorite places in Budapest.  As we were meandering around, we came upon a crystal shop that carried the most exquisite cut crystal ware that I had ever laid eyes on.  We stayed a long while, marveling at the brilliant colors, elegant shapes and intricate patterns before continuing on our walk toward the Fisherman’s Bastion.

I had been thinking about the crystal ware when I was packing, and decided to take a walk back to the shop.  In the sweltering midday heat, I combed through the area where I thought it was located, but the shop with the most splendid crystal ware was nowhere to be found. I was disoriented in the labyrinth I thought I had come to know well.

For quite a while, it felt as if my stay here would be indefinitely long, and I could always wait until tomorrow to do the many wonderful things on my list — to visit the aromatic Turkish spice market, to see a film in the grand Urania Cinema, to soak in the mineral spring of the ancient Rudas Baths, or to shop at the dazzling crystal store.  Now suddenly there is no more time.  Time is capricious; it never moves in a dependable pace.

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The 500-year-old bath that I have not been.

I say good-bye to Budapest with a little regret — much like the kind one feels when leaving a sumptuous buffet without having tried all the delicacies, though completely satiated; or the hint of salt in the salt caramel chocolate, without which sweetness is incomplete and boring.

I imagine decades from now when I least expect it, I might look up the night sky idly and suddenly remember the warm evening when I spotted the mysterious flying creatures soaring atop the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building — glowing like fireworks — and think of the friends who shared my adventure.  Then more years might pass without a single thought of Budapest when out of nowhere, I’m stopped in my tracks by a brilliant sapphire crystal ware in an obscure storefront.  A nameless longing will surge inside of me; and that night I will dream about being lost on the cobblestoned streets of a distant city searching for something that I will never find…

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Or perhaps there is an alternative ending to my dream (or is it my life?):  Not finding what I thought I was looking for, I will stumble upon a place of astonishing beauty an unfamiliar sanctuary so alluring that I surrender to it like a weary waddling duck gliding into the cool water of a tranquil pond…

Getting lost is sometimes the only way to find home again.

Beauty and Love in Budapest

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After two weeks of eating in the restaurants, I finally moved back to the apartment where there is a kitchen.  I invited a couple of friends over and cooked a ton of vegetables which are usually lacking when eating in restaurants in Budapest. The tomato-egg stir-fry that I made — the most basic comfort food during my Shanghai childhood — finally alleviated my craving for home cooked food.

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After dinner, we went to an organ concert at the St. Stephen’s Basilica.  I had never before heard Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor through such magnificently booming organ pipes. The vibration shook my bones.  I was awestruck.

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We were on our way to get a post concert drink when serendipity had us run into some members of our cast and crew who were having a birthday celebration for Michelle Yeoh at a restaurant.  The ex Bond girl is playing a kick ass fighting nun in Marco Polo. 

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Michelle’s Hungarian friend knew the restaurant chef, who prepared for us sumptuous dishes that were not on the menu: minced pork stuffed paprika, beef stew, ratatouille with mixed peppers… My second dinner was an absolute feast. 

I don’t remember who started it, but after a few bottles of wine (and three sips of limoncello for me), we began taking turns to define the two most over used words with the most expansive meanings: beauty and love

Michelle Yeoh’s assistant said to Michelle, “Beauty is Michelle.”  No wonder she had worked for Michelle for 11 years.

“Beauty is what arrests you for reasons you can’t quite articulate — it’s unreasonable,” said Tim Yip, our costume designer.

“It is the purgation of superfluities,” someone quoted Michelangelo.

“Yes, it must be simple.”

“And everlasting.”

“But beauty is fleeting.”

The discussion went on and on, and no one could completely agree with the other because what lends beauty its luster is precisely this ineffable quality that escapes analysis and speaks to the imagination.

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Two years ago with Peter in Budapest on family vacation

Then we came to the definition of love, which is so all-encompassing and amorphous at the same time that anything we said paled in comparison to what we intuited it to be.  Looking back, we sounded down right corny, but we all took a moment to think about love — each carrying a private memory or longing that tugged at his heartstrings.  I immediately thought of my children, my husband and my parents, who are all far away but rooted deeply in my heart as I am rooted in theirs. 

“Body and Soul.”

“Something to die for.”

“Something to live for.”

We interjected between bites and sips, laughing at each other’s mawkish declarations.

“Love is what I’m feeling right now,” John Fusco concluded with a big smile, looking at all of us who had gathered here because he created Marco Polo.

It is mysterious and wonderful how fate brought us here — around a dining table on a cobblestoned sidewalk in Budapest from different continents sharing food, wine and friendship, contemplating beauty and love. 

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With John after dinner. St. Stephen’s Basilica in the background.

Budapest Fast Food — Caviar

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I had the most sinister kind of nightmares last night and woke up scared out of my wits and longing for a warm body to turn to.  I fumbled for my phone and face timed Peter in San Francisco.  Words seemed completely useless as I tried to describe the images, the sounds and the sensations that I lived so vividly in the nightmares.  Peter listened sympathetically while he brushed his teeth, getting ready for bed — what a sweet and reassuring sight.  I was so happy that I caught him before he went to sleep. My stories didn’t make much sense, but the effort of recounting the nightmares made the perverse phantasm lose potency, much like the sun disperses the fog.  Dreams don’t belong to the realm of words, voicing them break their spell.  No matter how you try, you can never truly reconstruct precisely the ephemeral dreams with words.  Once spoken, they are gone.  That’s why you should never attempt to tell the ones you want to keep.

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It was hot outside and for most of the day I stayed in the room and binge watched House of Cards — occupying myself with other people’s nightmares.  After 6 episodes, I needed a break.  A little aimlessly, I walked along the now very familiar Kiraly Ut. and turned on Bajcsy-Zsillinszky Ut. toward the St. Stephen’s Basilica.  That was where I noticed a little sandwich shop called Durcin Szendvics, where for less than a dollar you could eat an open-faced caviar sandwich.  The place looked like a fast food chain, but you could see the Basilica from there (if you craned your neck a bit).  I enjoyed my caviar sandwiches in the sun as the saints peered down at me.  Had the restaurant used better bread — which is available everywhere in Budapest  this would have been a gourmet sandwich.  But I can’t complain.  Caviar for less than a dollar.  Where else do you find that? 

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The Best Italian Food in Budapest

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I took this picture on our way to the restaurant, which is a couple of minutes from here.

I love the long summer twilight in Budapest, where al fresco dining is popular and dinners turn into parties.  John Fusco, our show creator, invited some of us to his favorite Italian restaurant Da Mario for dinner.  Many years ago, John was taking his then 13-year-old son on a horseback journey through the steppes of Mongolia when the vision of Marco Polo was born to him.

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As we enjoyed our mouthwatering food, John told us about how he had discovered Marco Polo’s original testimony in the vault of the ancient San Lorenzo Church where he was buried.  In the testimony, there was a list of objects including the golden tablet from Kublai Khan that Marco Polo had bequeathed to his daughters.  Where are those valuable artifacts now?  John’s next project will be to find out their whereabouts.  I envision him to be the next Indiana Jones — only better because John is a badass martial artist.  

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I ordered grilled vegetables for starter and seafood soup as the main course.  The soup was perfectly flavored with a variety of the freshest fish, shellfish and calamari. It was large enough for two people to share, but of course I devoured it all by myself.  I also sampled pasta and pizza from my friends’ plates.  If you want excellent Italian food in Budapest, this is where you will find it.

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Toward the end of our dinner, I suddenly noticed thousands of magically glowing birds flying in the night sky circling atop the magnificent Gothic structure of the Parliament.  Many in our party also turned to gawk at this incredible sight, and a lively discussion ensued: 

“They are bats.”

“But bats don’t glide like this.  They must be birds.” 

“Most birds are not nocturnal, what are they doing this time of the night?”

“They want to show us how beautiful they are.” 

“But what is the biological advantage in that?”

“They are feeding on the insects in the sky.”

“No! It’s a mating ritual!  A lot of sex is going on up there right now!” 

“This is not the mating season.”

Mystified, we asked the waitress who was completely unimpressed by this phenomena, but she couldn’t give us a definitive answer.  She went inside to ask a colleague and came out to tell us that they were quails who lived in the nearby lake.

“Quails?  Quails are like smaller chickens.  They can’t fly like this.”

“They must be fairies, or angels.”

I sipped a little limoncello and felt satisfied with that answer.  I don’t usually drink alcohol and the few sips made me lightheaded as if I was floating.  I didn’t really need an answer.  The question of who those mysterious creatures of the night were will linger in my mind like a memorial for this gorgeous evening.

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If you click on the photo, you will see speckles of light (flying creatures) above the Parliament Building in the dark sky. I wish I had a better camera to capture the magic sight.  Da Mario is on the righthand side of the photo.

John, his wife Richela and I decided to walk back after dinner.  It was after eleven and I asked if we would get mugged by bad people.  Without batting an eyelash, John said, “I’ll kill them.”

If you want to find out more about John and his Marco Polo stories, please check out his blog.