Butternut Squash Salad with Pomelo & Pomegranate

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Butternut squash is in season.  Pomegranate is in season.  Pomelo is also in season.  When I saw them in my neighborhood grocery, I decided to put them together in this delicious winter salad that bursts with flavors and colors.  During the filming of Marco Polo in Malaysia, Chef Duyen often prepared the most refreshing pomelo pomegranate salads with Vietnamese dressing for us.  The sight of the pomelos in the store brought back memories of that extended “summer camp” in the tropics, where every Thursday, my friend Russel would buy pomelos for me from the “Pomelo Man” who drove a truck to a certain cross road in Johor to sell the fruit from his farm. 

This is a relatively easy and simple salad to make.  The only time consuming part is preparing the pomelo and pomegranate.  The best way is to use your hands after you open the fruits with a knife.  I happen to enjoy this type of work where your eyes and the hands are engaged in a task and the mind is free and relaxed, you feel the sensual texture, inhale the sweet scent of the fruits and free associate.

Pomelo is a fragrant citrus fruit that is sweeter than grapefruit.  If there is no pomelo in your super market, you can probably substitute with a grapefruit.

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Roast Butternut Squash Salad with Pomelo and Pomegranate

Ingredients:

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed

1 pomelo, peeled, pith and seeds removed

Seeds from 1/2 pomegranate

1 packed cup arugula

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Ingredients for the dressing:

2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon light maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

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Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400F.

Mix all dressing ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Toss cubed butternut squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper.  Roast in a baking dish lined with parchment paper in a single layer for 30 to 35 minutes.

while the butternut squash is roasting, prepare the fruits.

When the butternut squash is done, take the baking pan out of the oven and let cool.

When the butternut squash is cool, mix in pomelo, pomegranate seeds and arugula.  Add the dressing and toss to coat before serving.

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Live Hairy Crabs from Shanghai

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It is curious how the Singaporean customs would confiscate packs of chewing gum at the border, but live hairy crabs enter the country with impunity. Chef Duyen flew back from Shanghai with live hairy crabs on Sunday.  I missed the crab feast with our chefs last night, but she saved me three.  I steamed two for myself, and kept one for Zhu Zhu, a fellow Marco Polo actress who is also a hairy crab fanatic.  The golden roe of the female crabs and the gelatinous soft roe from the male ones are what make these crabs completely irresistible and addictive.  They burst with such a rich taste that anything you eat afterwards will appear to be flavorless.  There is absolutely nothing I could compare it to.  Perhaps imagine your favorite French cheese, except it’s not that at all.  If you eat a hairy crab for the first time, it will be an entirely new taste to you.

They are easy to prepare.  Simply put them in the steamer when the water is boiling and cook for about 10 to 12 minutes.  That’s it.

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The two key ingredients is the dark rice vinegar and the minced ginger.  No one eats hairy crabs without them — not only because they complement the taste perfectly, but also because according to Chinese tradition, the warming effect of ginger and sweet dark vinegar balances the cooling effect of hairy crabs.  You eat each bite of the crab with a generous amount of the vinegar mixture.

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I would usually tear away the legs and the claws, and go directly for the roe, sometimes saving the legs for the next day, but most times giving them to my mother, who claims that she hates the taste of the roe.  I’ve always secretly believed that she just wants to save the roe for me.  I missed her very much today as I put away the leftover legs and claws in the fridge.

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The hairy mittens on the claws are what give them their name

Below are some pictures of my lunch from our kitchen today.  The lily flower in the tray made me feel extra pampered.  At home, I am usually the caretaker — pampering everyone around me. I would get special attention from the kids and the hubby on my birthdays or Mother’s Days. I have to admit that I’m really liking this treatment I’m getting from our kitchen.

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Mung bean noodle in bone broth with vegetables, tofu and chicken

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Indonesian tempeh salad with sweet spicy peanut sauce

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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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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. 

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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!

Marco Polo Kitchen

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Chef Duyen making green papaya salad

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Fish wrapped and baked in turmeric coconut milk and fresh herbs

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I had a tour of the Marco Polo kitchen and met the people who cook two meals a day for many hundreds of us cast and crew.  It was pre-lunch hour and the whole place was an organized frenzy — every pair of hands was busy slicing, chopping, stirring, tossing, kneading, frosting.  I was surprised to see that our morning sausages are actually homemade from our own kitchen.  Every cooking station fascinated me and I lingered for quite a while.  I wanted to stay longer, but felt like a sixth toe and somehow in everybody’s way.

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Homemade sausages

When I first arrived in the studio, I met our assistant head chef Duyen Hackett and she asked me what I would like to eat when I am filming.  I said simply delicious healthy food — without much expectations because of previous experiences.  Therefore I was happily surprised by what I found waiting for me in my dressing room at lunch hour.  The fusion flavored foods she had prepared for us in the past few days were really tasty and healthy.  We are sometimes many hours late when we break for lunch and the dishes have often been sitting in my room for quite a while before I get to it, but they have all been quite yummy.  Or have I simply been too hungry?  I’ve always finished everything on my plates.

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Lunch was over two hours late, but the grilled dory fish, shrimp avocado mango salad was still yummy

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We are in an area where fresh seafood is abundant.  After all the pork knuckles that I ate in Europe, I was ready to switch to fish.

Duyen has promised to give me a few of her favorite recipes in the next couple of days. I will share with you soon!

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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.

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.

Eat and Meet in Budapest

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The restaurant is in a small apartment some distance away from the center in a quiet residential district by the Danube. The Balcony where we had our lemonade and water had a pleasant view of the river.

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Audrey’s new best friend, Benedict Wong – Kublai Khan

I’m afraid last night I led my posse into a tourist trap — a gentle, cozy and innocuous one, but a trap nevertheless.  I was looking for a special and different culinary experience and came across this pop-up restaurant called Eat and Meet on tripadvisor.com.  The reviews were fantastic.  It was rated as #7 out of 1,971 restaurants. I was ready to be wowed.

The hosts are Susie the Mother, Susie the Daughter and Frank the Father.  Since we were never given their full names I am now not sure if these are their real names or just their “stage names” — easy to use and remember for the tourists.

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Susie the Daughter would gently but firmly shush us in mid sentence whenever a dish or wine was presented to give us the history, background or benefit of each item.  After a while, some of us stopped paying attention and carried on with our conversation and Susie was somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed, as if we had deviated from the script.  I noticed that Audrey was always listening even when the region of the wine production didn’t really interest her.  I felt secretly proud that my daughter had good manners and was kind. 

I think for ordinary tourists who are in Budapest for two three days, this contact with a nice local family might be enchanting. But we are no ordinary tourists, and they are no ordinary local family. They are in the tourism business, and we are that strange species called film crew — seasoned travelers who feel at home wherever we happen to film.  We go to work everyday like the locals.  We shop groceries like the locals.  We drive around the city armed with GPS as if we know it like the locals.  A tourist trap was the last place we would like to find ourselves in, though quite a few from our party were rather amused by the whole situation. 

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The appetizers were fresh vegetables, cured meats, fresh and smoked cheese and cold fried pork fat. The main course was baked chicken breast wrapped around prunes, served with stewed apple and rice.  Dessert was a lemony fresh cheese, whipped cream, fruits and semi sweet cookie crumbs.  The appetizers were interesting — probably the best part of the dinner, though cold fried pork fat sounded like something I would make someone eat if he lost a bet.  To be fair, Dan Minahan, one of our producer/directors, did love the fried pork fat and said it was his favorite.  The baked chicken was unfortunately as dry as cardboard.  For 30 Euros per person in Budapest, even with the wine pairing, the food quality was not worth it.  I felt really bad for having led everyone into the trap.  If the family simply talked to us like real people about any topic instead of giving us a rehearsed speech about the food, we would have found the authenticity and the connection priceless.

Thank goodness for friendship and camaraderie, we enjoyed this shared experience and laughed about it afterwards. When I look at the photos I took, I remember mostly of the fun conversation and warm laughter we shared.  After we came back to the hotel, Audrey said, “They probably just hit a low point in their cooking tonight.”  She is always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and made me feel that I might be too harsh in my judgement.

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Palinka helped

We used Uber in Budapest for the first time this weekend.  Audrey and I went everywhere with Uber and found the rides at least 50% cheaper compared to the taxi cabs.  Some in the crew told me that the taxi drivers are not always straight when it comes to fares.  Uber is definitely the way to go.  

Budapest Indulgence

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Last day on Tamas Farm

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First day on Tamas Farm, sharing screen with the lovely Audrey

I was very happy when our van drove away from Tamas Farm for the last time on the narrow dirt road last night.  So many of our trucks and vans drove back and forth on the dirt road kicking up so much dust that it felt as if we were in a dust storm.  As I sat in the departing van cussing and choking on dust, I realized that one day I will look at the pictures of the idyllic gently rolling meadow and miss the place, the people and the time I shared with them.  It’s strange how I had a premonition of the imminent nostalgia as our van sped away leaving behind a plume of dust.

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Audrey with Marco Polo

Someone in the crew commented that I had not updated my blog lately and I said I had been on set everyday.  She joked, “Get your priorities straight, Joan, we are waiting for your recommendations for the weekend.”  This is how a hobby becomes stressful.

So what’s new?  I have apparently indulged in too much heavy Hungarian food because I noticed that my costume was becoming very tight.  I love to eat and have a voracious appetite.  It is truly difficult to eat healthy if I don’t cook for myself.  Last night I decided to order “the big raw mixed salad” from “Gluten Free And Carb Smart Options” for room service.  When the “carb smart” food arrived, it came with a basket of assorted breads and butter.  What is one to do?  

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For dinner today, Audrey and I went to a restaurant recommended to us by a Hungarian foodie from our camera crew.  He gave me a list of restaurants and one of them, Bock Bisztro, happens to be downstairs of the hotel that we are staying in.  The restaurant has won many awards and is Michelin Guide recommended.  Since we didn’t have a reservation we went very early before the dinner crowd.  Everything on the menu looked interesting to me.  I decided on Ox Cheek Retro while Audrey ordered Csango Vegetable Soup and Salad with Parmesan.

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I looked at the beef poster on the wall that explained the different cuts while waiting for my ox cheek.  I thought of my husband Peter, whose favorite part of a steamed fish is the cheek — that tiny pearl of flesh appreciated only by the most discerning fish eaters.  It has been many weeks since I last saw him and I grieve for all the meals that I can’t share with him — a food lover like myself.

The ox cheek came with chopped pig’s ear served in a bone and a huge buttery Hungarian dumpling.  The braised meat was melt-in-your-mouth soft and tender with the most delectable sauce. 

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Audrey’s vegetable soup was lemony and creamy with cauliflower, carrots, peas, onion and baby spinach.  She loved it, but was so full after eating her soup with bread that she couldn’t finish her salad. I had a few spoonful of her soup and regretted it right away.  Though it was delicious, it was like drinking cream.

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Bacon flavored lard for the bread.

Off to the pool now to try to undo some damage.

Pork Knuckle in Budapest

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Budapest is one of the loveliest cities that I have been — rich history, beautiful architecture, delicious cuisine and friendly people — what more could one ask for?  I have been doing costume fitting and script read-through in the past few days, but Audrey and I have also been exploring the city when I have free time, mostly on foot.  We walked so much that one of her wedge sandals broke today just when we arrived at the Four Season’s Hotel for lunch.  The top of the sandal separated almost completely from the sole and Audrey had to hop into the swanky lobby dragging a broken shoe.  It was quite hilarious and embarrassing at the same time. 

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from Audrey

We sat down in the restaurant and asked the waiter for duct tape, but he didn’t understand what we were saying and thought it was a food item that was not on the menu.  Thank goodness for Google Translate that we found duct tape in Hungarian: szövetbetétes ragasztószalag.  Audrey taped the sandal to her foot and kept the rest of the tape in her purse, just in case. 

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For lunch, we ordered the special of the day — pork knuckle with pearl onion and baby potatoes. It was absolutely delicious.  Budapest is a city of carnivores, where vegetarian choices are somewhat limited.  Audrey has eschewed her vegetarianism since we arrived and is now eating meat with a vengeance. 

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Bread in Europe is really, really good. Here it is served on a hot stone to keep it warm and toasty.

In the market near our hotel, we saw fresh pork bones and decided to make bone broth for a lentil soup for dinner.  Next to the lentil bean packages, I saw something that looked like oat bran or wheat bran and bought one to cook breakfast porridge.  After I made a big pot of bone broth and sautéd some chopped onion and carrots, I poured the vegetable and the lentil in.  And then, at a whim, I added about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of what I thought was oat bran or wheat bran to the soup.  Much to my surprise, the soup turned into a gloppy elastic consistency and texture that would roll off the utensil.  I quickly googled the words on the package: utifu maghej, and it turned out to be Psyllium husk, a plant seed husk that is used as a laxative in this part of the world. Good thing I checked.

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Tired after gluttonous eating

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Working off the pork knuckles in the pool. The pool and the spa in the hotel was the inspiration of the original novella of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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