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.

Chocolate Mug Cake & Love

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The Marco Polo production sent a hair stylist from LA to re-measure my head just in case it grew or shrank since the last season. One could never take anything for granted in making the perfect wig.  A mold of my head was made out of saran wrap and Scotch tape and then my hairline was drawn on it so the wig maker will know exactly where everything is. 

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Things seem to be gearing up for Season 2, and I’m anxious to read the scripts, which should come my way this week.  We will be filming in Hungary, Malaysia and New Zealand — places that are all excitingly exotic and very far from home.  This is the bonus and hardship of this business — I get to travel to exciting places and stay there long enough to truly experience the local life, but at the same time I will also feel terribly homesick and guilty for leaving Peter and the girls for so long. 

The only reason that I could continue to go on location shoots was because I married a solid and supportive man.  Peter has been the most wonderful father and husband that anyone could imagine.  Though he has never complained, I know it could not have been easy to have his wife and the mother of his children to be away for months on end.  For me, love has little to do with Christmas gifts or birthday parties.  Love is the consistent support of the other person’s growth and contentment, day in and day out, good days and bad days.  When I tried to tell Angela that the most important thing in one’s life is to find the right spouse, she sneered and told me to shut up as if I’d said the most asinine thing in the world.  Of course if my mother told me this when I was 16, I also would have ignored her.  I had to learn it the hard way — like everyone else.  That is the only way to learn about love.

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Angela is too young and too single-mindedly focused on her academics to understand that amongst all things in life, love is the most difficult.  As Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “… [love] is the most difficult task that is set us, the ultimate thing, the final trial and test, the work for which all other work is only preparation.” 

According to Rilke, all things worthwhile are difficult and “the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.”  From my own experience I know that to be true, but I also find certain very worthy things to be extremely easy.  They may be insignificant in the grand scale of life, but worthwhile nevertheless for the uplifting pleasure that they bring.  In the case of these chocolate mug cakes, worthiness is not at all measured by its level of difficulty. You can make them in 5 minutes and they are the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.  

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One-minute Chocolate Mug Cake

Ingredients:

3 tbsp flour wholewheat flour (24g)

1 tsp 100 % cocoa powder (7g)

2 tbsp chocolate chips from 85% dark chocolate bar

1/8 tsp salt

1/4 tsp baking powder

2 tsp sugar OR xylitol 

3 tbsp milk of choice

2 1/2 tsp oil (or mashed banana if you like the texture of fat-free baked goods)

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

3 tbsp mashed banana or 8 thawed frozen cherries

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Preparation:

Grease a mug or 1-cup ramekin and set aside. (If using the oven, preheat to 350 F.) In a cereal bowl, stir all dry ingredients together fully. Add all remaining ingredients except the 3 tbsp banana and stir. Pour half the batter into the greased mug, then make a well in the middle with your spoon. Fill the well with the 3 tbsp banana, then smooth the rest of the batter on top.

Either microwave 50-70 seconds (depending on microwave wattage) OR bake in the oven for 13-14 minutes. If you don’t want to eat the cake straight from the dish, be sure to wait for it to cool completely before trying to remove from the dish.

Adapted from chocolatecoveredkatie

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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Elixir for the Traveller

There was a pot of hot and flavorful bone soup waiting for me when I arrived in Shanghai last night for work and to see my parents. They sat across from me at the dining table looking very pleased that the elixir had the expected effect on their daughter. It was an instant energy reviver and mood booster.  There is always bone soup waiting for me whenever I visit my parents because they know it’s my favorite and they also know that I don’t cook it at home.  The girls, especially Angela, hate the smell.
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Before I left for Shanghai, I cooked Peter lunch to quell the separation anxiety.  I used the oranges that we picked from my in-laws’ garden to make this Orange Mustard Pork Chop.  I always brine the pork before cooking to ensure that the pork stays juicy.  
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Basic Pork Brine Ingredients:
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup sugar
4 cup water
A dash of pepper, rosemary, thyme and sage.
Brining direction:
Melt the salt and sugar in warm water, add all spices and leave the brine in the fridge until it is completely cold.  Pour the brine in a large ziplock bag and add the pork chops in.  Seal the bag and leave in the fridge for 4 to 8 hours.  
If you decide to leave the pork in the brine overnight, be sure to soak it in fresh water for about 30 minutes before using.  If you cook the brined pork on the same day, just rinse the pork and pat dry before cooking.
Orange Mustard Pork Chop Ingredients:
1/4 cup fresh orange juice 
1 tablespoons orange marmalade
1/2 tablespoon whole-grain mustard 
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 pork loin chops (1 inch thick) 
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 rosemary sprigs
1/2 medium red onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1 tablespoons fresh lime juice 
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Preparation:
1. Preheat oven to 425°.
2. Combine juice, marmalade, and mustard in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes or until syrupy.
3. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil; swirl to coat. Add pork to pan; cook 5 minutes or until browned. Turn pork; add rosemary and onion to pan. Pour juice mixture over pork; bake at 425° for 10 minutes or until a thermometer registers 150°. Place onion and rosemary on a platter. Return pan to medium-high heat; add lime juice. Cook 4 minutes or until liquid is syrupy. Add pork to platter; drizzle with sauce.
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Speaking of oranges, I remembered an image that Angela forwarded to me the other day — how an orange cemented the love of this young couple. I suppose that one of the troubles with a life of abundance is that beautiful things are available without much effort and so the things don’t seem to have the same value.  Nothing in the world was ever so precious as that one orange for this couple in Jerusalem.
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Very Nutty Apple Crisp & A Smile

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On our recent after dinner strolls, Audrey has been asking to walk to the same spot to see a homeless old man.  She gives him some of her spending money and whatever coins she could find around the house.  Peter has the habit of leaving coins on his nightstand because he doesn’t want them in his pockets.  Nowadays, Audrey cleans up Peter’s nightstand everyday.

Last night Audrey was wearing a jacket that had a broken pocket, so she hid the coins in one of her boots as we went out in the light drizzle for our usual walk.  When she found the old homeless man, she leaned against the wall next to him and took off her boot to get the money for him.  What made the old man truly happy was not only the money that Audrey gave him, but that she smiled and chatted with with him as she took off her boot.  As short as the moment was, it was a shared humanity that enriched them both.

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Big dimpled smiles through out the years

In his book Letter to a Hostage, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry recounted how a smile saved his life when he was a journalist covering the Civil War in Spain.  He concluded the book with a reflection on the universality and life-giving force of that one simple gesture, the human smile: “Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed. We communicate in a smile beyond languages, classes, and parties. We are faithful members of the same church, you with your customs, I with mine.”

I am very proud that she has turned out to be a kind and compassionate person.  And she always has a warm and sincere smile for everyone.

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I adapted the Very Nutty Apple Crisp recipe from:

http://www.chow.com/recipes/11416-apple-crisp-with-oatmeal-streusel

I replaced all sugars with xylitol and flour with almond flour.  I replaced the butter with coconut oil and cut the added fat by half.  I also added walnuts and pecan and shaved coconut to make the streusel extra crispy and aromatic.  Though I didn’t take the best pictures today, the apple crisp was truly delicious.  I consider this a keeper.

Very Healthy and Very Nutty Apple Crisp Ingredients:

6 Granny Smith apples (peeled and cored)

2 to 3 tablespoons Xylitol or sugar (for the apples)

1/2 cup xylitol or brown sugar (for the crisp)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup rolled oats

1/3 cup almond flour (original recipe uses flour)

1/3 cup walnuts (chopped)

1/3 cup pecans (chopped)

1/3 cup shaved coconut (unsweetened)

2 tablespoon coconut oil (original recipe uses 4 tablespoon butter)

Preparation:

Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Lightly coat an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with butter. 

Combine the apples, xylitol or sugar, cinnamon, and half of the salt in a large bowl and toss to coat. Place the apple mixture in the prepared baking dish and set aside.

Using the same bowl as for mixing the apples, mix together the xylitol or brown sugar, oats, almond flour, and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt until evenly combined. With your fingertips, blend in the coconut oil until small clumps form and the oil is well incorporated, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the apples and bake until the streusel is crispy and the apples are tender, about 50 minutes. Let cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before serving.

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