Sunday Eggs

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Most of the actors in Marco Polo eat a lot of eggs and chicken breasts — a high protein, low fat diet that helps them grow big muscles and look ripped, I was told.  That made me think of the Disney cartoon character Gaston in Beauty and Beast.  The kitchen is so used to actors eating lots of eggs that when I order my 5-minute boiled eggs in the morning, they come in fours unless I specifically ask for only one or two.  Claudia Kim, who plays Khutulun in the show, would eat six eggs in one go. She has been training to transform her slender willowy physique into one that is taut and muscular.  Unfortunate for me, I never get to train with them, because my character doesn’t move much at all.  I remember getting excited over a long tracking shot of me walking briskly as I talked — the biggest action I had in the entire season.  Needless to say, I don’t need to eat eggs the way they do.

But I love eggs.  The first few times the kitchen delivered 4 boiled eggs for breakfast, I actually ate them.  After a while, I stopped eating so many because I didn’t want to have clogged arteries and die of a heart attack.  Since I began taking Pilate lessons last week, I felt that I deserved some eggs for Sunday morning.  I made a Malaysian omelette for breakfast.  And when I saw a leftover boiled egg and some leftover black rice in the fridge, I made an egg prawn rice stack for lunch. It was fun to make the leftover into something new.

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Malaysian Omelette

Ingredients:

3 medium eggs

2 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon coconut milk (full fat) or milk of choice

2 small Thai onion or shallots, thinly sliced

2 stocks spring onion or green onion

2 to 4 chili peppers or red and green jalapeño peppers, seeded and sliced

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 tablespoon or more cooking oil

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Preparation:

Beat eggs with salt and coconut milk

Heat oil in a non-stick pan on medium high heat. Stir fry the Thai onion, spring onion, peppers until aromatic. Pour the egg mixture into the pan and turn the stove to medium. Let it cook for a minute or two.  When the omelette is set at the bottom, but still a little runny on top, fold it in three and turn off stove.

Serve with shrimp sambal sauce. 

Note:

Sambal is a Malaysian spicy sauce that can go with almost any food.  You can substitute with other spicy sauce of your choice if you can’t find it near you.

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Egg Prawn Stack

Ingredients for each stack:

1 hard boiled egg

1 tablespoon seeded and cubed English or Japanese cucumber

4 prawns, poached

2 to 3 tablespoon cooked black rice or other rice of choice

A dash or two of rice vinegar

Garnish with chives, sliced chili and sesame seeds

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Ingredients for sauce:

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon 100% pure dark sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 bird’s eye chili pepper, chopped

1/2 teaspoon chopped chives or spring onion

Mix more sauce if you are making more stacks

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Preparation:

Chop the cook prawns and set aside.

Chop boil egg(s) and mix with a dash of white pepper powder, a pinch of salt and a dash of rice vinegar.  You can also add 1 teaspoon of mayonnaise to each egg, and serve the stack with a mayo based sauce. But I decided against mayonnaise for obvious reasons.

Rinse the cup that you will use as a mold and do not dry it. Add cubed cucumber, then chopped egg mixture, then the prawns and finally the rice.  Press the rice down to pack the stack firm but not too tight.

Cover the plate with a small plate and flip it.  If the food sticks to the cup, use a knife to run around the edge to loosen it a bit.

Garnish with chopped spring onion, chili and sesame seeds.

Serve the stack with the sauce.

Easy Meal for One & the Versatile Oyster Sauce

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I did a very emotional scene yesterday and felt drained from the intensity and the commotion.  I needed some peaceful alone time, some stillness and silence to rejuvenate myself. Slowly making a meal for one was my form of meditation.  The act of washing, slicing and stirring food kept me present and engaged with the here and now, yet it was also simple and familiar enough to allow daydreaming.  There was no hurry, no need for precise measuring, no complicated steps to follow and no pleasing anyone else but myself. Like a stroll with no particular destination, being and doing became one for me in cooking. 

One ingredient that I love to use for Chinese cooking is oyster sauce.  Often times, it alone is enough flavor for many different kinds of food both vegetables and meat.

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Silken Tofu Medallions in Oyster Sauce

Ingredients:

250 g silken firm tofu

1/2 carrot, sliced

10 sweet snap peas

1 red chili pepper, seeded and sliced

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Chive and sesame seeds for garnish (optional)

Ingredients for sauce:

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1/2 teaspoon corn starch

2 teaspoon water

Preparation:

Mix all ingredients for sauce in a small bowl.

Slightly brown the tofu in a non-stick pan with the 1 tablespoon of oil on medium high heat. Set aside.

Use the left over oil in the pan to stir fry the snap peas, carrot and the chili pepper for about 2 to 3 minutes or until snap peas turn bright green.

Lower the heat to and return tofu to the pan. Pour sauce into the pan and stir gently to coat for 30 to 45 seconds.  Turn off stove.

Garnish with chopped chive and sesame seeds.

Note: You can use frozen peas if snap peas are not available. The tofu that I bought in the market here came in a tube and I sliced it into medallions.  If your tofu comes in a rectangular box, you can slice them in half length wise and then slice them sideways into quarter inch pieces.

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Garlic New Zealand Spinach in Oyster Sauce

Ingredients:

New Zealand spinach (I estimate about 3 1/2 cups in the bag I bought)

2 cloves garlic

1 bird eye chili pepper (optional)

2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon cooking oil

2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon oyster sauce

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Preparation:

Throw away the tough stems of the New Zealand.  Wash and air dry or spin dry the spinach.

Heat the oil in a wok on high and add garlic and pepper.  Stir until aromatic and add spinach.  Toss until wilted and bright green. 

Serve with the oyster sauce.

Note: Adjust the amount of cooking oil and oyster sauce with the amount of vegetable you cook.  Baby Chinese Broccoli can be cooked the same way.  You can also blanch the vegetable instead of stir frying it.  Add a little sesame oil on top if you blanch instead of stir frying.

Here are some photos of yesterday’s lunch on set.  I couldn’t help sharing these pictures because the dishes tasted and looked wonderful.

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How I love that the chef lined the tray with a beautiful banana leaf for me.

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Black rice coconut pudding with mango slices

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Steamed Asian eggplant topped with prawns.

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Sweet Spicy Braised chicken

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Fried rice

Tropical Black Rice Salad with Mangos and Prawns

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My friend Russel brought me to visit the amazing Malaysian artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar and his family.  We drank tea and chatted in his tranquil front yard surrounded by tropical plants and next to a goldfish pond. I felt close to him right away because I grew up with a painter brother, whose love and skill for figurative painting Zakii seemed to share.  Zakii’s are mostly charcoal and acrylic, while my brother Chase’s are mostly oil.

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We toured his gallery and his studio, and then we moved to his movie room where the screen is a perfectly white canvas that reminds one of infinite possibilities.  I thought it was a brilliant idea for an artist to show movies on a large blank canvas where images from his favorite films stimulated his painterly imagination.  We sat under the screen and talked about his art, his inspiration and life in general.  A gentle and mellow family man, Zakii appeared to have dispensed with all his tension in his art.  There is something very absolute and pure in his paintings that I appreciate very much. We went on talking until it was dinner time and he took all of us to eat at a wonderful Peranakan restaurant called EPL near his house.  This was one of the most special evenings I have spent in Johor.

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For lunch today, I made a myself a black rice salad with mango, prawn and macadamia nuts. And I mixed a sweet, tangy and spicy soy dressing that was absolutely yummy.

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Tropical Black Rice Salad with Mangos and Prawns

Ingredients for the salad:

1 cup of black rice (raw, cooked with 1 1/2 cup of water and a pinch of salt)

1 Japanese cucumber or 1/2 of a long English cucumber, seeded and cubed

1 large mango, (1 1/2 cup diced)

12 large prawns (peeled, deveined, poached)

1 large red chili pepper, sliced

1 or 2 stock spring onion

1/2 cup macadamia nuts (I chopped half of them and left the rest whole)

Ingredients for the dressing:

4 small limes, juice of (about 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoon)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 teaspoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 tablespoon 100% pure dark sesame oil

1 small Thai red onion or 1 small shallot, minced

1 bird eye red chili pepper, minced

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Preparation:

Cook black rice according to package direction.  Cool to room temperature.

Mix all ingredients for dressing.

Toss together all ingredients for salad.

Pour first 1/2 of the dressing and try the salad.  Add more to suit your own taste.

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Cow Painting

My brother Chase Chen’s painting. For quite a while he was obsessed with Californian cows.

The Royal Lunch Break

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Monday lunch with Laksa, Japanese tofu, Thai lemongrass chicken, broccoli and rice

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Why am I so compelled to take photos of my food? I don’t know. It is like the prelude to eating — an appetizer to all my meals.

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Laksa

I love my work as an actor on Marco Polo, especially when I am doing a scene that I can sink my teeth into or when the lighting is particularly flattering to my face.  But truth be told, the thing that I’ve enjoyed the most since my arrival on location in Malaysia is lunch break.  What could be better than getting out of the muggy heat, stepping into the cool dressing room to see a tray of delicious food waiting for me on my table?  I would fling off layers of costume in a matter of seconds and run to the food with my camera.  I would pretend that I am having room service in my bathrobe in a five-star hotel.  During the short respite from that organized chaos called a movie set, I feel relaxed and peaceful.

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The off duty royals riding a buggy to lunch

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Today’s pan-Asian flavored lunch

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Northern Indian Chicken kema

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Pomelo pomegranate salad with Vietnamese dressing

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Prawns with salted duck egg yolk

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Tofu with gingko nuts and shiitake mushrooms

With more than 700 people working on the show, the set is a crowded place and for me, lunch hour is a perfect time to have solitude.  Sometimes, I read a little.  Sometimes, I just stare out the window.  Other times, I FaceTime my family in California while I eat. 

Lei Cha

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Of course I don’t get the “royal treatment” all the time, but even a sandwich on a park bench can turn into a beautiful and meaningful moment in life if we decide to make it so.  I remind myself that life is short and we live only once.  Enjoy your lunch breaks wherever you are!

Spicy Sweet and Sour Asian Eggplant & An Amazing Dinner to Remember

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Hairy Crabs from Shanghai

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Chef Deyen brought back 20 live hairy crabs from my hometown Shanghai, and knowing that I’m from there she invited me to enjoy the crabs with her.  I thought we were just going to get a few friends together in one of our apartments and eat the steamed crabs with minced ginger and vinegar.  That’s often what I do when I go back to Shanghai during crab season.  It’s always casual — everyone digging in with their hands, smacking their lips and licking their fingers as they eat.  I told her that I would bring a dish or two just in case someone didn’t like hairy crabs.  A much coveted delicacy for people like me, hairy crab is not everyone’s cup of tea. 

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Me, running around with my little camera

When I arrived at the appointed apartment, I was surprised to see that the dinner table had been exquisitely laid out with white table cloth, purple orchids and placemats made of leaves.  Our head chef Collin and Deyen were busy cooking an elaborate dinner.  My first reaction was that I should just hide the eggplant and fried rice dishes I cooked. No one needed to know I brought them.  But in the end, our chefs convinced me to serve the eggplant, and kindly complemented my cooking.

This was by far the most sumptuous and memorable dinner that I have had since we began filming Marco Polo.  The food was absolutely delicious, and the company was the best kind — people who truly love food and eat with great joy, gusto and bravado.  In my opinion our first time hairy crab eaters could out eat any Shanghainese men who have grown up on hairy crabs.  We pigged out like there was no tomorrow. 

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Our producer and host for the evening, Tim Coddington, owns a very successful winery in New Zealand.

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At work today, one of the ADs came to take lunch orders from the actors as she usually does.  When she saw me, she simply said, “Deyen suggested the avocado quinoa salad for you.”  I almost laughed.  Deyen knew what I ate last night. 

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My healthy redemptive lunch

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Now, about the eggplant that I cooked.  It’s a dish rooted in my Shanghainese (sweet) upbringing and Szechuanese (spicy) ancestry.  I have cooked it quite often in the past.  At home, I usually steam the eggplant or microwave it in a sealed container to soften it.  Then I stir fry the garlic, chili, ginger, red onion and tomatoes until aromatic. Then the cooked eggplant is added into the wok and mixed with the other ingredients.  But this time, I fried the eggplant.  It is more flavorful and the dish looks prettier.

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Spicy Sweet and Sour Asian Eggplant

Ingredients:

3 long Asian eggplants

5 cloves garlic, pressed

2 green chili peppers

4 red Thai chili peppers

4 slices peeled ginger

3 small Thai red onions or 1/2 small red onion

6 – 8 cherry tomatoes

Oil for frying

Ingredients for sauce:

2 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoon brown sugar

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Preparation:

Cut eggplant into 2 inch sections and then quarter them into wedges.

You can either leave the chilis whole or cut them in half lengthwise.  I halved 1 red chili and 1 green chili and discarded the seeds, and I left the rest chili peppers whole. 

In the pan or wok, fry eggplant wedges in batches on medium heat.  I did it in 3 batches.  Let fried eggplant dry on 2 layers of paper towel in a plate.

Use the oil left over from the frying to stir fry the garlic, chili peppers, ginger, onion and cherry tomatoes until aromatic and soft.  If you have too much oil left in the pan, discard all but 1 tablespoon for the stir fry.

Pour the sauce into the wok, and add the fried eggplant back.  Toss to coat and let cook for about 2 minutes.  Serve hot.

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Vegetable Curry & Black Rice

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Everything I have made since my arrival in Malaysia has been vegetarian.  I find myself eating less and less meat as I grow older.  My body simply doesn’t need it as much.  One of my favorite things to do over the weekend is to listen to TED talks, and today I listened to a talk given by chef and cookbook author Mark Bittman titled What’s wrong with what we eat. He explains the view that it is better for everyone and the environment if we eat more vegetables and less meat.  It is an approach to food that I share completely.  The same ideas that are in his talk have also been discussed in length in Michael Pollan’s superb book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which all food lovers should read.

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That’s all the ingredients in the curry. You can use your own choice of vegetables such as green beans, potatoes pearl eggplants and so on, I added baked tofu in the dish to give myself a little protein.

I made the vegetable curry the easy way — with a ready made curry paste.  I found curry paste to be one of the most useful things in the kitchen.  It makes cooking easy and fast, and you can cook anything and everything with it.

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Stir fry the garlic, ginger, shallots and chili peppers in coconut oil until aromatic.  Add vegetables and curry paste and stir for a couple more minutes.  Add coconut milk and cover the lid.  Cook until the vegetables are tender.  Serve with rice of choice.  I ate it with Thai black rice.

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Soba Zen & Mango Bliss

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A publisher friend from Singapore came to visit me today and brought me a whole stack of beautifully bound cookbooks.  We sat in Starbucks chatting about our love for food while all of a sudden we noticed a patch of translucent blue in the opaque grey sky — a thread of white cloud laced in it.  This is the first time in weeks since I last saw blue sky.  Our hungry eyes fed on this little piece of heaven as if it was the most delightful thing in the whole wide world.

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I returned to my apartment feeling like celebrating this day with less haze by making something special from my newly acquired cookbooks, but I found that I didn’t have most of the ingredients required in the recipes.  I must go find ingredients this weekend.  After taking stock of what I had on my shelves and in my fridge, I was able to prepare a very Zen like simple meal for lunch.  It was clean, refreshing and delicious.

Inspiration struck when I went out to the balcony and saw that my Ipoh mangos had ripened in the warm weather to perfection.  I would make tropical vegan desserts with fresh mangos and fresh coconuts!  

They turned out magnificently. A couple of friends came over after work and enjoyed the desserts so much that they all had seconds.

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No-bake Coconut Mango Mousse Cake

Ingredients:

2 fresh mangos (save half a mango for topping and decoration)

1 to 1 1/2 young coconut meat (depending on how thick the coconut meat is)

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil

Sugar to taste

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Mint leaves for garnish (and it taste great with the dessert)

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Preparation:

Scoop out the coconut meat from the shell.  Blend with coconut oil and sugar until smooth.  Leave in a flat bottom container rubbed with coconut oil.  (I used a rectangular plastic take-out box.)

Leave the box in the freezer for 30 minutes while slicing the mangos and blending them with coconut oil, cornstarch and sugar.  Add the mango mixture to the same container on top of the congealed coconut mixture.  Put it back to freezer for another 30 to 45 minutes until congealed.  Transfer to the fridge before eating.

The coconut oil will begin to soften at room temperature.  It is important to keep the cake in the fridge.

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Coconut Mango Chia Pudding

You can find mango chia pudding recipe from of previous blog.  The only difference is that I used a whole fresh coconut instead of any milk.  I blended the coconut juice with the meat and use that instead of milk.

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Soba cucumber Salad with Soy Wasabi Dressing

Ingredients:

Soba noodle

Japanese cucumber

Soy sauce

100% pure black sesame oil

Rice Vinegar

Wasabi paste

Fresh lemon juice

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Preparation:

Cook Soba according to package instruction.  Drain and rinse with cold water. Add a little sesame oil to coat.

Please reference my previous blog for the soy wasabi dressing.  The recipe called for mirin, which is a Japanese rice wine, but I didn’t have any today.  I added a dash of lemon juice instead.

It’s maddening how I still haven’t found measuring cups and spoons to give precise amount of ingredients, but it was fun to experiment, tasting and adjusting as I cooked.

Lunch Break for the Hungry Empress

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My friend Russel brought to set my favorite local food — a Hakka dish call Lei Cha, meaning pounded tea.  It is made with chopped baby Bok Choy, green beans, cabbage, tofu and roasted seeds served in a green minty broth with rice or rice noodle.  It is light and healthy, yet very satisfying.  We broke for lunch more than two hours later than scheduled (yet again,) and I was ravenous.  After devouring the Lei Cha in a matter of minutes, I went on to eat the quinoa pumpkin salad with prawns and the flaxseed veggie sandwiches from our Marco Polo kitchen. 

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It was a good thing that I was only off camera after lunch because I couldn’t put my belt back on with all the food that I had consumed.  And I was in such a food coma that I could barely stand up. One consolation is that all the dishes were made with healthy and fresh ingredients.  And I have also foregone snacks on set, because I am boycotting palm oil.  The palm oil industry has been burning thousands of acres of rain forest everyday, dooming this region in a haze, a literal gloom every year during this season. Today, schools here were shut down again because of bad air pollution. 

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The haze today

My Amazing Work Lunch

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I had a long day at the studio today — starting at 6:40am and getting home at 8pm.  There will be a lot of dialogue to memorize for tomorrow, so I will make this a short post.  I fear wordy scenes and much prefer the way my character was last season — a taciturn presence.  English is not my mother tongue.  Though I’m fluent in it, it is an acquired fluency.  I love acting — and having done it for four decades, it is almost second nature — but now and then I can still be stumped by English dialogue. 

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from Marco Polo season 1

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Since I didn’t have time to cook today, I will share with you my delicious lunch from Marco Polo kitchen.  We broke for lunch a few hours later than scheduled (again), but the food stayed miraculously fresh.  And these dishes could be enjoyed either warm or cold.  Our chef Duyen is beginning to know my taste buds.  And from the growing quantity of the food, she must have also learned of my great appetite.  The soba noodle salad with prawns and tempeh was the kind of healthy lunch I would make for myself and my family at home.  And I will most certainly get the recipes for the raw flax & chia seeds crackers with artichoke dip and sun dried tomato cashew dip.  The semi-sweet no-bake berry-nut mousse cake is also a healthy dessert I will try to make myself.

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There are many more types and choices of foods at the buffet lunch line, but I love to just walk into my dressing room like the hungry wolf, and be surprised and spoiled. 

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Nori-Wrapped Salmon with Edamame Shiitake Salad

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A few years ago, we spent a day at a friend’s beautiful vineyard in Napa. Looking back, the vineyard itself has become a blur, but one appetizer that they served was so delicious that I still remember it distinctly.  It was sockeye salmon wrapped in seaweed and then deep fried in a fryer.  Today, I saw some very fresh salmon in the market and decided to I try a baked version of the nori-wrapped salmon.  The seaweed helps to seal the moisture in the fish and gives it great flavor. 

The dish was a smashing success with Peter, but my biggest accomplishment was that Audrey, the vegetarian, took the day off from vegetarianism and ate a piece of salmon for dinner.  It helped that the salmon was wrapped in seaweed and she could use her hand to eat it.  It also helped that I pan fried the salmon skin with salt and pepper into crispy chips for her to eat with the salmon.  I have always been a little worried about her being a vegetarian for fear that she doesn’t get enough protein to grow. She doesn’t like nuts or eggs, and she is fed up with eating tofu everyday.  I try different ways of disguising nuts and eggs, such as in almond flour cup cakes or soufflé.  But making her eat a piece of fresh salmon was a coup for me.  As I watch her enjoy the salmon, I imagined it turning into grey matter in her brain. 

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Peter came back from work with a beautiful flower arrangement.  “A 94 year-old patient passed away last week,” he said. “And the family wanted to thank me for taking good care of her for the last 15 years.”  That’s nice.  He often comes back with bottles of wine or boxes of homemade sweets from his patients.  There has been a lot of stress and frustration at work, but his relationship with his patients is what gives him gratification.  He cares about little else.  There is a beautiful quote from Pablo Picasso, “The meaning of life is to find your gift.  The purpose of life is to give it away.”  Peter is not one to ponder much about the meaning of life, but he lives it.  Decades of long days and interrupted sleep don’t kill him because when he is working, he is in his “flow”  as they call it in positive psychology.

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Flower arrangement from Peter’s patient

Baked Nori-Wrapped Salmon

Ingredients for Seaweed Wrapped Salmon:

20 oz. wild sockeye salmon fillet, skin removed, cut into 1 1/2  inch pieces

6 sheets Nori (seaweed wrap)

Cooking spray for the baking pan

Ingredients for the Marinade:

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons mirin

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoons or to taste wasabi paste (optional)

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Preparation:

Mix all ingredients for the marinade in a bowl.  Put the prepared salmon in a large ziplock bag and pour the marinade into the bag.  Seal and leave int the fridge for 30 minutes to 4 hours.  I marinated mine for 2 hours.

Preheat oven at 450F.  Grease a baking pan or line with parchment paper.

Take salmon out of the marinade and discard the marinade.  Place each piece of salmon on a sheet of nori. Wrap the salmon in the nori and lay it on the baking pan with the seam down.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

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Ingredients for the Salad:

1 head of butter lettuce, torn

1 cup cooked shelled edamame

8 oz. shiitake mushrooms, sliced in half

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Ingredients for the Salad Dressing:

3 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon honey

1 tablespoon sesame oil

Preparation:

Mix all ingredients for dressing in a bowl.

Heat the oil on medium high, Sauté the shiitake until they just begin to sweat.  Set aside.  Mix the lettuce, edamame and shiitake in the salad bowl with the dressing.

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