A Simple and Yummy Spring Stir Fry

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Whenever I am pressed for time, I turn to stir fry.  Not only is it something that I have been doing since childhood and therefore second nature, but also it is a way of cooking that is, in my opinion, good for almost any food.  A quick stir fry enhances the flavor without compromising the nutritional value of the vegetables, and it never over cooks the meats.

A friend who seldom cooks texted me today to let me know that she was making the Chinese shredded pork that I posted yesterday.  It brought a smile to my face to know that the blog inspired a friend to try cooking. All the fancy culinary performance shows can sometimes be intimidating and  make cooking a spectators’ game. In reality it is just an activity that human kind has been doing since the use of controlled fire over a million years ago.  You don’t need to be a professional to cook.

So, let’s cook!

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Spring Stir Fry with Sugar Snap Peas and Chicken

Ingredients:

For the Marinade:

2 tbsp Chinese cooking wine

A pinch of salt

2 slices of ginger

For the sauce:

1 tbsp low sodium soy sauce

1 tbsp fresh lime juice

1/2 tsp xylitol or brown sugar

1/2 tsp pure sesame oil (optional)

1 tsp cornstarch

For the Stir Fry:

1 lb skinless, boneless chicken breast, sliced

1/2 tsp corn starch

1 tbsp or more canola oil

2 tsp fresh garlic, minced

1 tsp fresh ginger, grated

1 heaping cup sugar snap peas

1/2 red or orange bell pepper, sliced

scallions for garnish

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Preparation:

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

Marinate the chicken for 30 minutes to an hour.  Drain the chicken and discard the marinade. Add 1/2 tsp corn starch and mix.

Marinating meat in wine enhances the flavor, if you don’t have the time, you can skip the step.  Just salt the chicken and add 1/2 teaspoon corn starch.

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 cooked through and browned, about 3 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 bell pepper, stirring over medium high heat until tender crisp, about 3 minutes.

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

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Recipe adapted from: skinnytaste.com

Spicy Chicken with Cashew Nuts

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I have had the good fortune of tasting the most amazing food while traveling for work in countries like Turkey, Spain, Italy, Malaysia, United Emirates and Morocco.  But inevitably by the 2nd week, I’d be missing Chinese food.  I remember frantically looking for a pack of instant noodles on the streets of St. Petersburg.  When the craving hits, it feels as if it were life and death.  Aiya, you can’t take the China out of the girl la. 

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In St. Petersburg

I was about to eat leftovers for lunch today when I suddenly craved for Chinese food.  To satisfy the urge, I made a quick stir-fry.  It was a simple dish, but very delicious.  It really hit the spot for me.

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Everyone should own a wok and try stir-fry.  It’s one of the fastest and simplest ways to prepare any food.

Spicy Chicken with Cashew Nuts

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons oil

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 small onion, cut into halves

6 finger-length dried red chilies, seeded

1/2 cup roasted cashew nuts, rinsed and drained

15 oz skinless chicken thigh or breast, cut into bite size

3 scallion, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-in lengths

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Sauce:

3 tablespoon soy sauce (or Maggi seasoning sauce / Golden Mountain sauce)

2 tablespoon Chinese Cooking Wine +  1 tablespoon for marinating

1 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce

2 teaspoon xylitol or sugar, or to taste

Preparation:

Marinate the chicken pieces with 1 tablespoon of wine for 10 to 20 minutes.  Drain and pat dry with paper towel.  Mix the cornstarch into the meat.  (You can omit this step if you want to save time, but it does make the chicken taste better.)

Heat up a wok and add the oil. When the oil is heated, add the garlic, onion, dried red chilies and stir-fry until fragrant or when you smell the spicy aroma of the chilies. Add the cashew nuts and follow with the chicken. Stir-fry the chicken until the surface turns opaque. Add all the ingredients for the Sauce into the wok and continue to stir-fry until the chicken is cooked. Stir-in the scallion, dish out and serve immediately with steamed rice.

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Recipe inspired by rasamalaysia

Marco Pol(l)o

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Marco Polo just got renewed for a 2nd season!  Yay!  Reunion with my Mongolian Beef and hordes of international eye candy.  And of course playing the wonderful Empress Chabi. This is exciting news for everyone involved, myself included.

But what about my family?  Though my girls act as if I annoy them all the time, they are at an age when they most need a mother’s guidance and influence.  In my younger days, I used to love this caravan life of a circus person — traveling the world while doing something I loved to do.  Having children has changed everything. While I believe many can do my job as an actress or filmmaker, only I can be the mother for my children.  There are times I become paralyzed by the prospect of a great opportunity, knowing fulfilling my desire and realizing my dreams professionally also mean abandoning the people I love.   P1020077

Work is a double edged sward for me.  Perhaps it is so with most working mothers.  I realize that I am lucky to be in this dilemma.  Many people don’t have the choices that I’m facing.  The ingredients of fulfillment is difficult to balance, but I have a secret ingredient in life — my husband Peter, the best husband and father anyone could ask for.  He is my lobster.  He is my salt.

And he does dishes.

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To celebrate Marco Polo’s 2nd season, I made a delicious Chinese dish called Three-Cup Chicken (三杯鸡).   Historically, it was made of 1 chicken with 1 cup each of soy sauce, cooking wine and sugar.  The dish has evolved through time to its contemporary version.  Mine was adapted from the recipe from rasamalaysia.com.

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Ingredients:

1 lb. chicken drumsticks (I used 1 lb. of skinless thighs)

2 tablespoons dark sesame oil or toasted sesame oil

2-inch piece old ginger, peeled and cut into thin pieces

2 to 3 dried red chili pepper, without the seeds (optional)

7 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 shallot, sliced

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon corn starch

1 tablespoon xylitol or sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine + 2 tablespoon to marinate the chicken

A big bunch Thai basil leaves

(I added 2 small boiled red skin potatoes, halved and peeled.  This dish ordinarily does not use potatoes, but I improvised this time because I had two boiled potatoes lying around. I added the boiled potato after I poured in the sauce and before I cover the lid.  They tasted yummy with the chicken.)

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Preparation:

Cut the chicken into pieces and marinate in 2 tablespoon of cooking wine for 10 to 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry.  Add 1 tablespoon of corn starch to the chicken and mix well.

Heat up a wok or clay pot on high heat and add the dark sesame oil. Add the ginger, garlic, shallot, chili pepper and stir-fry until aromatic.

Add in the chicken and do a few quick stirs. Add the soy sauce, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, xylitol or sugar and continue to stir-fry the chicken. Cover the chicken and lower the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Add the basil leaves and stir well with the chicken, dish out and serve immediately with steamed rice.

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Empty Chimney Once Upon a Time

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Angela at four, Photo by Tony Metaxas

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Angela was severely allergic to dust mites and she was always scratching herself. We had to get rid of all her stuffed animals when she was diagnosed.

As I wrapped last minute gifts for the children, I remembered how I told Angela that there was no Santa Claus when she was four years old.  I saw her letter to Santa on Christmas Eve and there was no time to get her a real Magic Wand and a Teddy Bear that wouldn’t give her an allergic reaction.  Having grown up in Communist China, I did not feel sentimental toward Santa or Christmas.  I thought that she was such a precocious child that there was no need to keep lying to her about something as ridiculous as Santa Claus. On Christmas morning I sat her on my lap and told her the “truth.”  Angela was heartbroken.

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Angela at 14 when she wrote about that Christmas Morning

Years later, Angela wrote about this traumatic experience for her English class:  “The tears did not come immediately. It took several minutes for my epiphany to sink in, for the scattered puzzle pieces of knowledge gathered over my four-year-old existence to finally fit together. My world began to make terrible, terrible sense. Santa Claus was a lie. Nearly everything I knew was a lie. I could never have a pink baby unicorn, for magic pets could come only from a magic source. It was more than just Santa. Gone, too, were the fantastical fairies in the garden, the pegasi hiding playfully behind the next grove of trees. Kris Kringle killed them. He buried them with him, down in the unreachable realm of the unreal. The jolly bearded men in the mall were just actors taking a break from waiting tables. And their beards were the same cheap Chinese polyester as their flimsy suits. That broke the dams.

        I wept hysterically and inconsolably, not even stopping to breathe for four hours. It was as close as I could have come to an existential crisis. If something as sacred as St. Nick could be a mere fairy tale, then nothing could be taken for granted.”

How do you console someone like that?

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Bear Bear is his name and he’s been quite a family member for 12 years.

The morning after Christmas I rushed to Ferragamo to buy her the silk teddy bear, which she has kept ever since then. It has survived twelve years of rips, wear, tear, and emergency cleanups, always safe from being tossed into a donation bin or being sold at a garage sale.

On December 26th, 2002, I resuscitated Santa for Angela for a brief period.  I hid the magic wand and the silk teddy in the basement fireplace and then told Angela that we would all go down there to see a film on the large screen TV.  I told her to put a log in the fireplace for us, and that was when her eyes lit up and she gasped, “Santa!”  A few months after that, while we were driving Angela said suddenly, “You know, Santa’s handwriting looks a lot like Mommy’s. Perchance they attended the same grammar school.”

Perchance we did.

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Christmas Eve dinner was made easy by the rotisserie chicken from Costco.  Not only was it tender, juicy and flavorful, it only costed $5.  The racks for the roast chickens were empty when I got to Costco today, and there was a line of people waiting for the chickens to come out of the oven.

After I brought the chicken home, I baked some potatoes to go with it.

Ingredients for the Rosemary Garlic Potatoes:

10 red skin potatoes (quartered)

3 cloves garlic

2 teaspoon chopped rosemary

2 teaspoon chopped sage

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven at 350F.  Toss potatoes in oil and spices.  Bake in baking dish for 40 minutes.

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I also made a yam casserole which had been a family favorite ever since I first cooked it.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE YAM CASSEROLE:

4.5-5 pounds sweet potatoes (5 large) 

1 1/2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil 

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, or to taste 

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon fine grain salt, or to taste

FOR THE CRUNCHY NUT CRUMBLE

1 cup rolled oats 

1 1/3 cups pecan halves, chopped 

1/3 cup almond meal or almond flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt

2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil, melted

2 1/2 tablespoons pure maple syrup (I used 2 tablespoons)

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Directions:

Place yams into a large pot and cover with water. Bring water to a boil, reduce heat to med-high, and gently boil for 30 minutes, until the potatoes are fork tender. Drain and peel the yams.

Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly grease a 2.5 quart (10 cup) casserole dish and set aside.

Prepare the crumble topping: Pulse the oats in a food processor until coarsely chopped. In a medium bowl, stir together the chopped pecans, oats, almond meal/flour, cinnamon, and salt. Pour on melted coconut oil, melted butter, and maple syrup. Stir until combined.

Place cooked and peeled sweet potatoes into a large bowl.

Mash yams with coconut oil until smooth. Now, stir in the maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Adjust to taste if desired. Spoon into casserole dish and smooth out.

Sprinkle the crumble topping all over the sweet potato mixture, evenly.

Bake, uncovered, at 375F for 25 minutes, until the dish is hot throughout and the topping is crispy. Plate and serve immediately. 

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Busy Bee Housewifery

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My nanny has really become quite a “farmer” lately and often brings me produce from her yard.  This morning she brought me a couple of vine ripe heirloom tomatoes.  They looked so enticing that I wanted to bite into them and eat them right away.  But my better sense prevailed and I decided to make a salad for the family to share.  I can’t think of a better gift than home grown vine ripe produce.

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2 tomatoes

1/2 English cucumber

2 avocados

1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar glaze (I think Lemon juice would have been fresher tasting but I was out of lemon)

1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

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When the produce is this fresh, simplicity is the best way to go.  You can taste the food’s original flavor.

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Because I am between projects, Peter and the girls just think that I have all the time in the world to run all their errands for them.  This is the problem with freelancing.  People think you have more time than they do.  Just as I sat down with a book, Peter called me to go buy a broom for him.  What for? I asked.  For my golf travel bag.  Please make sure that the stick is longer than my longest golf club so it will absorb the impact and protect the clubs if the bag is thrown down by the handlers.

I have been asked by a Chinese film company to adapt an internet novel into a screenplay.  I thought that writing would be a perfect job because I wouldn’t have to leave home. But at home I’m never alone enough to write even when I’m alone.

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He didn’t ask me to run any errands for him then.

Audrey came home from school very anxious about the League of Creative Minds debate that she will attend at Stanford University this Saturday.  The topic is the coalition against ISIS, and she will represent Iran’s position.  She needed my help but I was equally ignorant on the issues.  Thank goodness for Google.  We could easily access all the information at our fingertips.  However, she still had many unanswered questions when she was reading the online material about the ISIS crises.  Angela decided that it was time for her to give both Audrey and me a basic history class on the Abrahamic religions, starting from the birth of Ishmael.  Audrey got more and more confused and asked more and more questions. She did learn a word that was repeatedly used in all the articles on ISIS: quagmire.  As you can see, I had a lot on my plate before I got to cooking dinner.  I am glad I chose a very easy and quick recipe from rasamalaysia.com.

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1 1/2 lbs chicken drumsticks (I used thighs and I halved the recipe for only two people)

One 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped

5 garlic, peeled and chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon sesame oil

3 heavy dashes white pepper

Pinch of Chinese five-spice powder, optional

Pinch of salt

Method:

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Add the ginger and garlic to the chicken and gently rub them on the chicken. Add the rest of the ingredients to the chicken, stir to mix well so the chicken drumsticks are nicely coated with all the ingredients.

Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes. ( I marinated for 60 minutes)

Pre-heat the oven to 375F. Line the chicken on a tray lined with baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes in the middle of the oven, or until the surface turn golden brown and charred. (I used the toaster oven at 375F for 17 minutes and broiled the chicken for about 3 minutes in the end.)P1050004

Hungry Empress on the Big Screen

When I picked Audrey up from school today, she looked sad and tired.  What a horrible day, she said.  I asked her what happened and she told me that they had a really difficult math test. Half the class didn’t finish and many of them cried during and after the test.  I asked if she cried too and she said that she did only because her friends cried.

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So, it was time to churn some ice cream.  Audrey has a sweet tooth. And the ice cream (and perhaps Mommy’s hugs, too) brightened her right away.  With our healthy ice cream recipes, we can eat it everyday and not worry about weight gain or tooth decay.  As a matter of fact, xylitol is even good for your teeth. 

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We had Chinese food for dinner.  I only have enough daylight to take the pictures of one of our dishes.

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Chinese Mountain Yam with Sliced Chicken Breast and Celery:

1/2  6 inch long Chinese Mountain Yam (Chinese supermarkets)

1 celery heart

1/2 carrot

1 chicken breast

8 ounces cashew nuts or macadamia nuts

4 slices of peeled ginger

2 tablespoon cooking wine

1 teaspoon of corn starch

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon Sha Cha Jiang or Sha Cha Paste (Chinese supermarkets carry it)

1/2 teaspoon or less of salt

1 to 2 tablespoon canola oil depending on how healthy you want to be

Instruction:

Slice all vegetables into desired similar sized pieces. 

Mix chicken meat, corn starch, wine, oyster sauce and Sha Cha in a small bowl. Marinate for 1 hour.

Heat the wok on high heat, drop in the ginger, when ginger is dry pour in the oil. 

When the ginger is sizzling in the oil, put in the vegetables and stir for about 3 minutes or to desired tenderness. Set aside.

Repeat the same process to stir fry the chicken, but save the marinate.  Set aside.  Cook the marinate until it thickens.  Mix in everything. Mix in the nuts.

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Dessert is all American apple crisp, but a much healthier one than the traditional recipe.  The girls were excited about going to see The Last Emperor tomorrow and asked me how I got to play the part of the empress.  And I told them well, that’s a long story.

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Baked Apple Crisp (Dairy-Free, Grain-Free, egg free)

Filling

7 apples, peeled, cored, sliced into thin pieces

1/2 cup frozen cranberries

1/4 cup coconut water

3 tbs. xylitol

1 tbs. pure maple syrup

2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

In a large bowl, mix together apples, coconut water, 1 tbs. xylitol, maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into a pie dish and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven to sprinkle crumble on top.

Crumble Topping

1 cup almond flour/meal

4 tbs. chopped walnuts

1/3 cup shredded coconut

2 tbs. xylitol

1 tbs. maple syrup

2 tbs. coconut oil

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Mix together almond flour, pecans, honey and coconut oil in a small bowl until well combined. Take small portions of it into your hands and sprinkle chunks of it onto the apples. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

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I have never been good at auditions.  When I was growing up, modesty and humility were the two qualities that were hammered into me ever since I could remember.  And expressing personal desires was frowned up.  Basically the only thing we were encouraged to express was our desire to serve the people and to devote our lives to the realization of Communism. This kind of mentality was so ingrained in me that it was difficult for me to “sell” myself at auditions.  Growing up I was supposed to negate every compliment or praise given to me.  If someone said that I was pretty, I would immediately say no, no, I am ugly; if someone said that I was smart, I would say no, no, that’s not true.

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It took me at least one year to get used to saying thank you after people complimented me, and another year to honestly express my feelings and desires.  The first time I truly fought for what I wanted was when I auditioned for Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon. It was a lengthy process which lasted several months and involved dozens of call backs and a final screen test with Mickey Rourke.  The part was a sophisticated TV newscaster and I still looked and talked like a FOB from China.  In retrospect, I could see that I was completely wrong for the part but at the time I gave it everything to get the part.  I hired the the most expensive dialogue coach in Hollywood to teach me speak newscaster English.  Every session was $200 for 2 hours while I was working as a receptionist in a Chinese restaurant earning about $5 an hour.  I went for broke but I did not get the part.  Both the director and the casting director were very impressed by my progress not only in my dialogue but also in my acting ability, but in the end I was wrong for the part.  This was the only time that I ever received a huge bouquet of flowers from any director who rejected me.  I felt very dejected, believing all my effort had been a complete waste and hard work meant nothing in this business. 

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Ariane Koizumi is the actress who won the part in Year of the Dragon

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Fresh off the boat Joan

Then about a year later, I got a call from Joanna Merlin, the casting director who worked on the Year of the Dragon, and she said, Joan, there is a part that is perfect for you and I want you to meet with the director who is in LA for only a short time.  Can you come?  I said yes, anytime, I will be there.  Joanna said it is still preliminary.  We haven’t started casting, but I have told the director to look no further because I have exactly the person he’s looking for.  That’s how I met Bernardo for the first time, with the highest recommendation from a very reputable casting director who just a year before had combed through all the Asian actresses around the world. The months of work I thought was wasted paid off in a much grander film.  It would take the producer Jeremy Thomas another year to complete the financing , and they did go around the world to cast the film, but Bernardo would always call me whenever he came to LA and we would meet for coffee and chat.  The role was mine the first time Joanna brought me to meet Bernardo.

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With Bernardo in Jack Nicholson’s house. Jack told me that speaking perfect English has nothing to do with my acting career. I didn’t quite understand what he meant at the time, but I think I do now. Imitating an American accent, however perfect, is not going to change the life experience that makes me who I am; and that entire being is my asset in acting as well as in life.

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So I told my girls that hard work always pays off.  And that’s when they told me I was boring and left the table.

Slow Lazy Saturday Again

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Saturday morning.  Peter went to play golf.  He often plays 9 holes on Saturday mornings before the girls wake up.  That is if he is not on call.  I cooked oatmeal while reading whatever was around.  Since Audrey became a vegetarian, I have been racking my brains to get enough protein in her.  She doesn’t like eggs or cheese, so oatmeal cooked in milk with rice protein or whey protein powder has been an important meal for her.

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As I stirred the oatmeal, I read this week’s Time Magazine cover story The Truth About Home Cooking.  How fitting!  The best selling food writer Mark Bittman shared his views, experiences and statistics on cooking. 

Nowadays, the internet is clogged with food porn. More and more people say they are concerned about their health and the well-being of the planet, but fewer and fewer people are actually cooking dinners at home.

Bittman wrote: “There’s something peculiar about the our obsession with the business of cuisine.  There are 24/7 TV shows on Food, countless food magazines and more Instagram accounts of impossibly beautiful and exotic dishes than one could count or, frankly, stomach… Making food a performance, as entertaining as that can be from our seats in the grandstand, has had a damaging effect on our relationship to cooking.  In a land of million-dollar kitchens, Himalayan pink salt, dragon fruit, truffle butter and Wagyu skirt steak, most of us feel like outsiders — and as result, we cook less than we ever have.”  He encourages us to take charge of our food and gives us suggestions on how to start cooking again.  “Dinner can be simple: a soup, even one based on frozen vegetables; a piece of meat and a loaf of hearty bread; a chicken that roasts while you make a salad; pasta with vegetables…”

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照烧鸡面

So, in the spirit of easy and basic home cooking, I made crock pot honey teriyaki chicken based on the recipe from Rasa Malaysia.  The crock pot comes handy when you need to go in and out of the house running errands while the food is cooking.  And today was one of those days for me.

Ingredients:

2 boneless chicken breasts (I will try thigh next time. Dark meat should work better for this)鸡肉

1/8 cup dry sake 日本清酒

1/8 cup mirin 料酒

1/4 cup soy sauce 酱油

3 tablespoons honey 蜂蜜

2 cloves garlic, minced大蒜

2 tablespoons ginger, minced姜

freshly ground black pepper胡椒

1/8 cup water水

1 1/2 tablespoons corn starch (I omitted)淀粉

2 stalks green onions, chopped葱

toasted sesame seeds (I omitted this)芝麻

I added some vegetables in the pot.

Put all the ingredients other than the green onion and sesame seeds in the pot and turn it on high.  Go do whatever you want to do and come back in 4 1/2 hours.  Viola! You have your meal!  Simple and delicious.

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香煎味增豆腐

For the two vegetarians in the house, I made a crispy miso tofu on a bed of spinach and a hearty vegetable lentil soup.

I always buy washed organic baby spinach from Costco.  It is the easiest thing to use in any menu.  I use it for my sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and sauté it for a side dish for many main courses.

I use a teaspoon olive oil, a couple of crushed garlic and a little salt.  You only need to cook the spinach for about 45 seconds.

I use Hodo Soy’s organic firm tofu from Costco.  Spread a thin layer of miso paste on the sliced tofu and sear it dry with a little cooking spray.

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蔬菜汤

The key to cooking the vegetable soup is to sauté the onion, tomato and carrots with olive oil until they caramelize. Then add vegetable stock, or chicken stock or water.  I usually add whatever vegetable I have at hand. Or soak some beans.  Or, like today, I used lentil.  The soup was perfect for the cool grey autumn day.

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煎麦片椰丝核桃煮梨子

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In Mark Bittman’s article there is a simple desert recipe for Skillet Pear Crisp.  It was a something Audrey could easily make and her desert was a smashing success. She even made it healthier by omitting the butter and sugar and using coconut oil and xylitol. By involving the children we instill in them the love and habit of cooking from a young age.  While Angela is the nerd, who studies the details of nutritional value of everything, Audrey enjoys being a hands on cook.

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