Coconut Panna Cotta with Fresh Mango

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My homesickness becomes worse over the weekends.  I was talking to one of the young actors yesterday about the caravan life we lead and how I’m not exactly cut out for it, even though I have been doing this since age 14.  She said that this life is like a long summer camp.  I suppose it used to feel like that for me, too — this charming and much prolonged adolescence.  That was before the children were born.

As I’m typing, Audrey is about to leave the house for her karate tournament — one of the activities that she is passionate about. The girls are extremely busy at this stage in their lives.  Angela is applying to college and Audrey is applying to high school.  Grades must be impeccable, essays knockouts, standardized tests 99 percentile, extracurricular activities packed full.  The kids must show such achievements as applicants that they would hardly need any more schooling.

Earlier today, a friend emailed me an article from The Economist about the state of college admission for Asian Americans.  It opens with: “MICHAEL WANG, a young Californian, came second in his class of 1,002 students; his ACT score was 36, the maximum possible; he sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration; he got third place in a national piano contest; he was in the top 150 of a national maths competition; he was in several national debating-competition finals. But when it came to his university application he faced a serious disappointment for the first time in his glittering career. He was rejected by six of the seven Ivy League colleges to which he applied.”

This is anxiety inducing information. Just because Angela is a Chinese American, she will need to have 140 SAT points out of 1,600 more than whites to get a place at an Ivy League university in the US.  We have taught them that you could achieve anything with hard work.  We lied.  In the end, race is one of the major factors in determining whether she will be admitted to her dream school.

There is not much I could do about their race or many other aspects of their lives even if I were home, but I could cook healthy, delicious, brain stimulating food for them, I could drive them around for activities or I could just sit there and wait for them to summon me and do whatever they need me to do.

When I started writing tonight, I was going to talk about how I took solace in the slow and methodical preparation of food, how it is a form of meditation — one of the most intensely enjoyable alone time for me.  I got side tracked by the concern over my children’s future.  Now that I got the anxiety off my chest, I will return to the theme of food. 

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The yearning for my children awakens in me a maternal urge — a boundless desire to give or simply to feed someone.  I remember flying to LA for a meeting after giving birth to Angela.  I stopped by at my friend Janet Yang’s home and she was not in.  Like me, she had also just given birth to her son.  When I heard him crying, breast milk oozed out of my bosom.  I took him in my arms and fed him to soothe not only him but myself.

I’m glad I have found some takers for my food.  Their appreciation is very gratifying for me.  Now I just need to find some take-out boxes.  Empress To Go!

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The fact that I don’t have an oven in the kitchen presents an interesting challenge and opportunity.  I am learning to make no-bake desserts that are healthy and tasty.  Today’s coconut panna cotta with diced fresh mango is made with very simple ingredients — the golden combination of coconut and mango, and it turned out to be very delicious.  I invited two very discerning dessert lovers over to try it, and they inhaled it.  Truth be told, I actually got lucky with the panna cotta because I didn’t use very strict measurement, which is usually crucial for the perfect creamy texture.

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Fresh coconut and agar agar

Coconut Panna Cotta

Ingredients:

1 young coconut, juice and meat blended to a smoothie

1/2 cup milk

(Or you can use a can of coconut milk + 1 cup milk of choice)

45 g sugar (I used 15 packs of sugar from my tea tray. I would use xylitol if I had it.)

1 tsp vanilla paste, or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 to 1 1/2 tbsp agar agar (I used the a pair of scissors to cut the long strands into short strips.)

Fresh mango

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Preparation:

Cook the all the ingredients in low heat until the agar agar is melted.  Pour the mixture into desired container and let cool.  Refrigerate for an hour before serving with diced mango.

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“My Cool, Grey City of Love”

I had a break in the shooting schedule and decided to come home for a visit.  I talked to Peter everyday when I was away, but Angela was not one to reveal much over the phone.  I needed to come home.  Angela doesn’t believe in vacations.  She would only travel for a “serious purpose” as she puts it — meeting a mentor in New York, going to school in Andover, taking summer courses at Brown, or attending a cousin’s wedding in Los Angeles.  Since she doesn’t have a serious purpose in Budapest, she will not travel there. 

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With Angela in Pompeii when she was nine

I used to lug Angela around the world with me when she was younger, but slowly she stopped wanting to go anywhere.  I found out that the external and physical world has never held as much power for her as the inner and intangible world that exists only in her head.  The vast, fertile and zigzagging interior terrain is where she prefers to explore.

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In an effort to gain insight into her mind and to stay connected when I am not with her, I resort to reading the books that she has read, and carefully considering all the notes scribbled by her on the pages.  Angela often sells the books back to Green Apple Books, a local bookstore, after she’s finished reading them, but the store doesn’t accept the ones with too much doodling.  Those are the ones I inherit my conduit to her world.  I have also begun to follow Angela on Spotify and listen to the songs on her playlists.  In Budapest, I was reading The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz and listening to Troubled Mind by Marina and the Diamonds, imagining what Angela felt about certain metaphors or symbolism.  The longer I didn’t see Angela, the more consumed I became by the incessant wondering about what’s on her mind.  Only coming home and seeing her could relieve me. Nothing is more reassuring than hugging the healthy body of one’s own child.

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It was a glorious day in San Francisco, sunny, warm and with a pleasant sea breeze, not at all our typical foggy cold summer day.  Peter took off from work to spend time with me.  We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito for lunch.  Poggio Trattoria was recommended to us by one of Peter’s patients, who lives in Sausalito.  Everything on the menu looked enticing to me.  Peter ordered grilled octopus for appetizer and seafood fregula pasta as main course.  I ordered burrata to start and grilled salmon with fresh summer corn for the main course. We loved all the dishes.  After a month of rich Hungarian food, the lighter Californian-Italian cooking was a much desired change for me.  A perfect and long overdue date with the man of my life.

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Octopus is one of Peter’s very favorite food

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Burrata is one of my very favorite cheeses

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If you ever visit Sausalito, Poggio is definitely worth your while to dine in.

Rainbow & Black Rice Salad with Mango and Peanuts

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On today’s New York Times, there was an article by columnist David Brooks titled Small, Happy Life.  When asked to share about their purpose and meaning in life, many readers submitted essays about what Brooks calls the pursuit of the “small happy life” instead of the lofty ideals and goals we usually hear about in graduation commencement speeches. 

When I was young, I was plagued by the free-floating existential angst about life’s ultimate meaning.  Having a family quelled that, mostly.  Life’s goal became extremely simple after I gave birth to my children: feed them, love them, raise them and give them the best I can give.  To rear the young has been the purpose of every mother from the beginning of time — be it birds or cats or monkeys or humans.  In my small happy life, I have a family, great books, great food, mostly great children, a lot of headaches, occasional crises and most importantly a lot of love  — everything I need to have meaning.

Audrey has been doing a school project called “My Life” which is presented in photos and videos.  They are supposed to talk about their dreams for the future at the end.  As she was putting the presentation together, she called out to me, “What do I want to be in the future, mommy?” I thought it over for a beat and said, “Anything you want to be, darling.”  And I meant it.  And she became a little frustrated, “That’s the problem.”  She finally settled on “Action Star.”  I hope in this small happy life that I strive for, my children can reach for the rainbow.

Speaking of that, here is a salad with every hue of the rainbow.  I saw it on epicurious and was immediately drawn to it by the vibrant colors of the salad.  I have always enjoyed the combination of sticky rice, mango and peanuts in Southeast Asian dessert, and this salad reminds me of the times I have spent in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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Black Rice Salad with Mango and Peanuts

Ingredients:

2 oranges

1/4 cup (or more) fresh lime juice

1 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 teaspoon fish sauce

2 teaspoon soy sauce

2 cups black rice (preferably Lotus Foods Forbidden Rice)

Salt to taste

2 just-ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, cut into 1/2″ dice

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves

1 cup finely chopped red onion (about 1/2 large onion)

1/2 cup dry-roasted peanuts

6 scallions, thinly sliced

2 jalapeños, seeded, minced

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Preparation:

Remove peel and white pith from oranges. Working over a medium bowl to catch juices and using a small sharp knife, cut between membranes to release orange segments into bowl. Squeeze membranes over bowl to release any juices. Strain juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl; reserve orange segments.

Add 1/4 cup lime juice, oil, and fish sauce (if using) to bowl with orange juice; whisk to blend. Set dressing aside.

Bring rice and 2 3/4 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan. Season lightly with salt. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until all liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 25 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let stand, covered, for 15 minutes. Spread out rice on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with dressing, and season lightly with salt; let cool.

Place mangoes and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Add rice and toss gently to combine. Season lightly with salt and more lime juice, if desired.

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Waldorf Chicken Salad – Healthy-fied

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My friends Renee and Jiebing came over for lunch today.  We’ve all known each other for over a decade, but haven’t seen each other much lately. Renee taught the girls rock climbing, and Jiebing was once — for a very short time — Angela’s piano teacher.  Angela was only three at that time and fell asleep very quickly at the piano bench.  After a few more of those unproductive sessions Jiebing quit, citing that the pupil’s mother wasn’t strict enough. 

Piano is not Jiebing’s primary musical instrument.  She is a world renowned Er-hu player, and when she was only 6 years old, her father made her practice 8 hours a day.  Once she climbed on a chair to change the time on the wall clock to fool her father, but got a terrible beating when she was caught.  At age nine she was recruited by the Chinese Navy as a performing soldier.  When compared to her father, of course I was not a strict parent in her eyes.

As we sat at the table enjoying the Waldorf Chicken Salad, we talked about how fast the kids had grown up and reminisced about the times when they used to babysit for me.

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Once Jiebing was babysitting Angela and took her to a park to play.  When Angela told her that she needed to “go potty,”  Jiebing didn’t understand.  “Go party where?  What party do you want to go to?”  Angela was exasperated, “I need to go potty!”  Jiebing’s colloquial English was not good enough to know what “go potty” meant.  It was a good thing that Angela took her hand and led her to the public toilet that was right next to the park, just in time to avoid an accident. 

The first time Renee babysat Audrey, Audrey was a little younger than two.  I dropped her off at Renee’s house and told her what Audrey loved to eat.  Like me, Audrey was passionate about food and was a ravenous eater.  When I went to pick up Audrey about three hours later, Renee said that Audrey didn’t eat at all.  She didn’t want anything, not strawberries, not pasta, not even cookies.  That was so strange that I feared she might be sick.  In the car, I asked if she was alright and she said, “I thought you gave me to her.”  I realized that she had never been dropped off anywhere before and naturally thought that I “gave” her away.

When Angela came home from school, they couldn’t believe how tall and beautiful she has become — she is now taller than both of them, which according to Angela is not saying much, but still it is another sign of change for all of us.

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Waldorf Chicken Salad — Healthy-fied

Ingredients for the Salad:

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

2 cups chopped roast chicken breast meat (I used Costco roast chicken)

1 cup seedless red and green grapes, halved

1/2 large Fuji apple, diced

1/2 Granny Smith apple, diced

1 cup diced celery

Butter lettuce leaves

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Ingredients for Fat-free Dressing:

1/2 cup non-fat Greek yogurt (I used Fage)

2 tablespoon fresh Meyer lemon juice

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon raw honey

1 1/2 tablespoon coarse ground Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

Dry mustard and cinnamon to sprinkle

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Preparation:

Mix all ingredients for dressing in a bowl.  Mix all the salad ingredients in a salad bowl.  Pour dressing into the salad and toss to coat.  Sprinkle with a small dash of dry mustard and cinnamon before serving.

Blackened Fish with Cabbage Mango Slaw

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Audrey is turning 13 tomorrow and she’s having a little celebration today with her friends — family not invited — and that’s fine by me.  I used to be stressed out about her birthday parties when she was younger, racking my brain to come up with ideas that would be fun for her friends, as all of their B-day parties seemed to be such fancy and elaborated productions.  There was one year — I think she was turning 5 or 6 — I was away on location and felt very guilty about being absent on her birthday.  Peter said that birthdays come every year, and there is no reason to stress out about it.  He said that the three of them would just celebrate at home with a cake.  I got emotional and made him promise to hire a birthday party organizer to have a big party at the house for Audrey’s entire class.  Looking back the whole thing was less about Audrey’s birthday party than about assuaging my own guilt for not being there for my kids. 

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Now that she is older, she has been organizing her own birthday celebrations — watching a movie or having a sleep-over or going to a restaurant — mostly just spending time with her friends.  That’s what’s meaningful for her and that’s how it should be.  All the stress inducing, elaborate parties of her early years were absolutely unnecessary.  They did not make anyone happier.  They were just done to fulfill some phantom expectation.  I feared that I would let my children down if they didn’t have the same kind of parties their friends had, and that would somehow damage them for life.  I wanted to do all in my power to give them the best of everything that I could muster.  I didn’t enjoy parties, and deemed birthday festivities arbitrary.  I would rather celebrate the real milestones — their first word recognition, for instance — no matter how little these accomplishments, they were more meaningful than a date on a calendar.  If I could do it again, I’d probably have a less anxious attitude about those birthday parties.  Alas, hindsight is always 20/20.

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Today, I didn’t have to lift a finger.  Audrey went with her friends to Union Street and tried out different makeup at Sephora.  They then had dinner at Castagna, a French bistro she had chosen to go on Chestnut Street. They are now playing in the basement.  Now and then, I hear them laughing, shrieking, but I hardly see any of them.  Now they are all quiet, perhaps watching a film. I think they would probably rather have Peter and I go out and leave them alone entirely.

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For food, I made blackened fish taco with cabbage mango slaw.  Remember the slaw I posted the day before yesterday?  In the original recipe it was supposed to go with the fish and they are perfect together. 

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Peter ate his fish taco without the taco shell.  He said this dish is a winner in his book.

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I ate mine with the taco

Blackened Fish taco with Cabbage Mango Slaw

For the cabbage slaw:

3 1/2 cups (1/2 small) red cabbage, shredded fine 

1 mango, julienned

1 red jalapeno pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

2 tsp olive oil

1/4 cup cilantro

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 lime, juiced

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For the tacos:

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp dry mustard

1/4 tsp (1/2 tsp for spicier) ground cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground oregano

1/8 tsp black pepper

1 lb skinless cod or halibut filet

1/2 lime, juiced

cooking spray

8 corn tortillas

lime wedges for serving

1/2 lime, cut into wedges

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Preparation:

Combine all the slaw ingredients and refrigerate.

Mix the dried spices and seasoning together in a small bowl, squeeze the lime on the fish then rub the seasoning onto fish.

Heat a cast iron skillet on grill or stove on high heat till really hot. Spray with nonstick oil spray. Cook until opaque in the center and well browned on the outside, about 5 minutes on each side.

Heat the corn tortillas in a steamer with boiled hot water. I turned the stove off after the water boils and put the tortillas on a small plate in the steamer.  The steam from the hot water will warm and soften the tortillas. 

Divide the fish equally between 4 tortilla and top each with 1/2 cup slaw. Serve with lime wedges.

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Adapted from skinnytaste

Wasabi Rice Bowl

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Angela is going to her first prom this Saturday and she didn’t have time to worry about it until now.  She needs a dress, pronto.  I have many vintage evening gowns that are gorgeous.  Any other girl would die to get her hands on them, but not Angela.  Anything I like is automatically rejected by her.  Audrey, on the other hand, loves all my old clothes.  I have a closet in the basement where I keep my formal dresses.  Many years ago, when she first saw that closet full of glamorous gowns, she exclaimed, “They are so beautiful!  Can I have them when you die?”  She was a toddler and didn’t fully understand what it meant to die.  A couple of months ago, when I was in the mood to “discard what no longer spark joy” as per Marie Kondo, Audrey took in half of what I discarded.

I have never been to a prom and didn’t understand what a big deal prom night was.  Thank goodness we have online shopping for all the last minute procrastinators.  You click a button and your dresses arrive the next day.  Since we were in panic mode, we ordered 8 dresses on Sunday and they all arrived today. There was one beautiful black lacy form fitting dress that I quite loved, but I made the mistake by saying that it looked nice on her.  Angela immediately commented, “ I look like a 90-year-old attending my own funeral.”  The good thing was that in the end, there was one out of the eight that she loved.  What a relief!

For dinner, I made Wasabi Rice Bowls — Salmon for Peter and me, and Tofu for Angela and Audrey.  Peter said that they reminded him of the rice bowls in Pacific Catch, one of his favorite restaurants on Chestnut Street.

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Wasabi Rice Bowl

Ingredients:

For The Salmon or Tofu Bowl:

1/2 cup green onions, thinly sliced

1 English cucumber, thinly sliced

1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds (I used half white and half black seeds)

1 4-ounce avocado, diced

2 cups cooked brown rice

3/4 cup watercress (the original recipe calls for daikon sprouts, but watercress tasted quite delicious too)

2 radishes, thinly sliced

1 strip nori, shredded

8 ounces wild salmon, cut in 2 pieces

1 box silken firm tofu (12.3 oz) sliced

olive oil spray

salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

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For the Soy-Wasabi Vinaigrette:

2 tbsp less sodium soy sauce (or GF Tamari)

2 tsp wasabi in tube

2 tbsp mirin

2 tbsp rice vinegar, (the original recipe calls for rice wine vinegar, but the dressing tastes wonderful with rice vinegar, too.)

1 tbsp sesame oil

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Preparation:

Combine the vinaigrette ingredients in a bowl and set aside.  Heat rice and keep warm.

Spray the salmon with olive oil and season with a pinch of salt and fresh pepper. Broil for 2 – 4 minutes per side (depending on the thickness of the fish).  Or you can pan sear it for 2 – 4 minutes on either side.

Spray a non-stick pan with oil, and brown the tofu on both sides.

Split rice into four bowls equally, 1/2 cup each. Top each bowl with 1 oz avocado, green onions, cucumbers, sesame seeds, and sprouts. Place salmon on top of 2 bowls, and tofu on top of the other 2 bowls, drizzle with the vinaigrette, and sprinkle with shredded nori.

I made 2 salmon bowls and 2 tofu bowls because the girls are vegetarians.  If you want all 4 servings to be salmon bowls, you can double the salmon and skip the tofu.

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Adapted from skinnytaste.com

Raspberry Vanilla Coffee Cake

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My mother’s memory is getting a little foggy.  The doctor prescribed playing piano, socializing, reading and writing a memoir as her treatment.  I encouraged her to write and told her that I would love to read what her life was like before I knew her. 

Today, she emailed me the story of how she and her mother traveled from Shanghai to Chong Qing to reunite with her father in 1942, in the midst of the Japanese invasion.  What is today a two and half hour flight took them more than a month of walking on dirt roads and riding on ox-powered carts.  They zigzagged away from the major routes to avoid the Japanese occupied areas.  Sometimes, her mother would carry her for hours on her back when she was too exhausted to walk. 

It was an arduous and dangerous journey, but my mother was too young to fully realize the risk involved.  She was happy to be with her mother, who had spent 5 years in England and America with her husband, leaving my mother and my aunt to the care of the relatives in Shanghai.

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My mother and her younger sister, a year or so before their parents left them in 1937.

My mother’s mother — my grandmother — was not what one would consider a good traditional Chinese woman, who would have stayed behind to take care of the old and the young while her husband went abroad.  Then again, most traditional Chinese women back then had arranged marriages.  They did not necessarily love their husbands.  From what I found out, my grandmother loved my grandfather.  A couple of years ago, I found a poem dedicated to my grandmother by a renowned poet of that era by the name of Liu Ya-zi in one of his poem collections.  It described my grandmother being in love with my grandfather. (See Note.)

The war had just broken out when my grandmother left with my grandfather to England where he received his doctorate degree in Neuropharmacology.  When they left, my mother was not yet four and her younger sister was only two years old. 

I think in my mother’s eyes, it was during the long and grueling trip from Shanghai to Chong Qing that my grandmother redeemed herself for abandoning her and her sister.  My mother admired my grandmother for her resourcefulness and for her ability to enjoy life. During their difficult journey, my grandmother always had two magical items with her to make life (or boiled vegetable and watery porridge) better, tastier — her bottles of saccharin and MSG.  That I, too, remember.  When she was persecuted for being a foreign spy and sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, she said she would be fine as long as she had her saccharin and her MSG. 

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My grandmother holding me in front of our house

I began to live in my grandmother’s room at age six after my grandfather committed suicide.  Looking back, she was not much older than I am now when she lost her beloved husband.  In the time of great personal tragedy, she taught me by example to always insist on finding pleasure in life no matter how bad things are.  When I first saw the film Mary Poppins and heard the song A Spoonful of Sugar, I immediately thought of my grandmother – the Mary Poppins of my life – making the medicine go down with a pill of saccharin when sugar was an absolute impossibility.

Here is a spoonful of sugar for you, grandma!  (Well, it’s actually xylitol, but it looks and taste exactly like sugar, with only half the calories, not that you ever worried about high calorie intake.)

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Raspberry Vanilla Coffee Cake

Ingredients:

1 cup milk of choice

1/2 cup vanilla-flavored yogurt (I used fat-free Fage)

1 tbsp ground flax or 1 egg white

1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

3 tbsp coconut or veg oil

2 cups wholewheat flour

2/3 cups xylitol or sugar (or sucanat)

4 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

1/16 tsp pure stevia, or 2 extra tbsp sugar (or 2 NuNaturals packets)

1 2/3 cups raspberries

1/3 cup more raspberries

optional: chocolate chips

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Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350 F, and grease a 9 1/2-in springform pan. Combine first 5 ingredients (yes, the flax too) and whisk. Set aside. In a separate, large measuring bowl, combine all remaining ingredients except the final 1/3 cup raspberries, and stir well. Pour wet into dry and stir until evenly combined (don’t overmix). Pour into the prepared pan, then sprinkle the remaining berries on top. Bake 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out relatively clean. Cool the healthy raspberry coffee cake in pan on a wire rack, 15 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan.

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Adapted from: chocolatecoveredkatie.com

Note:  For those readers who understand Chinese, here are a few more stories about my grandmother and the original poem by Liu Ya-zi:

思念姥姥

陈冲

杂志社约我写稿,不知哪根筋搭错尽一口答应下来,但是很长时间都不知该写什么。杂志社建议的有关如何以美颜和智慧取得成功的题目,我似乎没有任何实用的忠告可分享。眼看交稿的日子就要到了,夜里在床上发愁,突然就梦见了我已故几十年的姥姥——我的榜样和守护神。

怎样才算一位成功的女性?如果我能问她,姥姥会怎么说?今天衡量成功的标准无非是金钱和权势。如果是女性,她还必须拥有一位同样成功的丈夫。按这个标准,姥姥不是一位成功的女性,多半也从没有过这种成功的企图。但是跨越半个世纪的距离远远望她,我仍然清晰地看到她的富足。姥姥所拥有的是一份高贵——贫困侮辱或悲痛都不能剥夺的精神高贵;一份自由——手铐脚链或压制都无法捆绑的心灵自由。

我从六岁开始跟姥姥同屋,一直都喜欢和羡慕她那股潇洒劲儿和享受生活的能力。我记忆中总是有很多年轻人来找姥姥补习英文、修改文章或者闲聊,有时聊得高兴了她还点上一根烟。姥姥是一个让年轻人喜欢的老人,有许多忘年交。

文革期间姥姥下放到五七干校,虽然生活是贫瘠的,但是她的信上讲的都是她找到了什么上海吃不到的东西,我记得让她特别兴奋的好像是一种叫臭芦梗东西。她在干校跟人说,毛主席是“两论起家”,我是“两精起家”(味精和糖精)。结果让人给抓了小辫子,批斗了一通。姥姥没跟我说她挨斗的事,这是她的个性,说这种倒霉事有什么好玩儿的?挨斗的事是我母亲告诉我的,为了让我懂得“祸从口出”的道理。几十年以后,也是从母亲那儿知道,我的那位热爱生活的姥姥原来在文革初期挨整时曾经自杀过。我至今都无法将那种悲哀和绝望安在我心目中的姥姥身上。

从干校回来后,姥姥还停着职,不能从事她热爱的出版事业。被剥夺了工作权利和政治待遇是一件很糟糕的事,但是姥姥却决定乘没事干带我去旅游。那个年代没有人旅游,只有人出公差。我妈觉得很诧异,我却兴奋得跳起来。当时家里钱很紧,姥姥和妈妈又都不太会过日子,到了发工资前几天,总是缺钱买菜。为了不影响家用,姥姥取出她全部的积蓄,就带我上路了。那时我大概在小学三四年级,姥姥为我请了两周假,用的什么借口我不记得了。我的语文课本里有一篇写南京长江大桥的,姥姥就把大桥作为我们的第一个景点。站在南京长江大桥上我感受到无比的骄傲 ——— 并不是因为建桥的人克服了重重困难完成了这座壮观的大桥,而是因为全班甚至全校只有我一个人亲眼见过它。

1977年我主演了谢晋导演的《青春》,78年又拍了《小花》。在那之后,经常会有一些人上门来要认识我。据姥姥说,他们都是“高干子弟”。不管我当时在家或不在家,姥姥一概不让我出面。我总是拿着一本书待在厨房或待在厕所。姥姥照常倒茶递烟,冬天点上炭炉,夏天递把扇子,天南海北地跟人聊。来的人虽然不能满足初衷,走时也不觉太失望,有个把还回来看过姥姥。

刚开始留学那阵,我隔好久才见能姥姥一回。那个年代,如果从美国回家探亲,总是要带一台电视机什么的,那些所谓的“四大件”。可是姥姥不要大件的,也许是不舍得我花钱,也许是真的对大件不感兴趣。当我坚持要带东西给她时,她让我带一块美国最“臭”的奶酪,姥姥喜欢一切发过酵的“臭”食品:臭芦梗、臭豆腐、臭冬瓜、臭奶酪。还有一回,她问我能不能买个有点儿波浪的假发套。最让我惊讶的是有一次姥姥居然让我为她买一个在前面扣扣的文胸,让我在电话里开怀大笑好一阵。在美国拍戏后,我有了足够的收入频繁地回来看她。每次回家我总能从楼下就看到姥姥已经带着头套趴在钢窗框上等着我。

我在世界各地出外景都会在电话里告诉姥姥我的近况,她总是有问不完的问题。姥姥是一个富有强烈好奇心和探险精神的人,听母亲说抗战时姥姥曾经自愿跟中国远征军到中缅边界当过英文翻译。现在回想她一定很向往能到那些异国外景地去看看。当年护照签证都是非常难拿到的,如果我邀请姥姥,她未必能去成。但是我的遗憾是我没曾邀请她。

1989年我到澳洲拍戏,到了就给姥姥打了个电话。跟以前一样,我们嘻嘻哈哈聊了好一阵。但是我渐渐发觉姥姥的反应有些异常,说再见之前我突然意识到她不知道我是谁。挂了电话我大哭了一场,好几天都缓不过来。两星期后我鼓足勇气再打给她一次,跟她解释我是她的外孙女,是阿中的女儿,是陈冲。她笑着说,我知道阿中的女儿是谁,是电影明星。其实阿中比她女儿漂亮多了,倒是女儿当了电影明星。仍然是那位健谈的姥姥,但是她挣扎在失忆深渊的边缘。

最后一次回家看姥姥时她已经得了胰头癌,我陪她一起到医院。有些检查的过程是痛苦的,而且缺乏尊严,姥姥不想做。她不停地用哀求的眼光看着我,最后跟我说,你让他们停下来。我真想跟医生们说别查了,我们要回去了。但是我没有,我轻轻跟姥姥说很快就会结束的。不幸的是检查结束后医生让姥姥马上住院。带她回家拿生活用具时,她待在房间半天不肯走,说还要再想想有什么东西忘记了。住院当晚姥姥就动员同病房的病人一起逃回家,护士们只能把她的鞋藏起来。

手术后没两个月姥姥就去世了,她没有能从医院回到她心爱的房间,我也没有在她身边。也许当年真的应该让姥姥留在自己的屋里,也许少活一个月,也许并不,但是那是她想待的地方。很长一段时间我每夜梦见姥姥,有时梦里的姥姥生动鲜活到跟真的一样,我醒来后要好几秒钟才悟到刚才那只是梦。

我每次回上海跟老朋友们聚会都有人会提到姥姥,我出国后朋友们常去陪姥姥聊天,他们每个人都有几段姥姥的故事说来分享。也是在朋友那里我慢慢知道一些她年轻时代的事。小时候姥姥念的是苏州女子师范学校,后来到南京的金陵女子文理学院学教育。现在回想,姥姥带我去南京的时候,我们的确去了金陵女子大学的旧址,也许她不想让她的历史给我带来政治包袱,所以没有提及她的过去。

关于过去,我最感兴趣的是她和公公的关系。少年时代,他们都曾经在苏州就学,青年时代又都在南京上过大学。1932年“12.8”事件爆发后,姥姥加入了上海医学院组织的第四救护队,当时外公也在上海医学院,他们到底是什么时候相识的呢?是不是家庭包办的? 外公出国深造时,姥姥把两个幼小的女儿留在战乱中的国内,跟他去了。如果不是自由恋爱,不是那么喜欢外公,姥姥应该不会这样选择的吧。

前不久我参与拍摄《客从何处来》时,从文献中发现一位当年的著名诗人柳亚子1932年为姥姥填过一首诗, “浪淘沙 文艺茶话会座上赠史伊凡女士:珠玉泻莺喉,钢里含柔,吴娃燕语最风流。一阙新词低唱罢,怎不娇羞。京兆画眉俦,是几生修,天教韵事继红楼。为恐石凉人睡去,芍药轻兜。”在这首词里,诗人还特意注释史女士爱人叫张弓——我外公的别名。这样的“风流”和“娇羞”也许是因为恋情的缘故吧。当年的“爱人”其实是恋人的意思。留学英美回国后姥姥用自己的积蓄和稿费,一个人办起了一家现代医学出版社,外公则利用国外带回的微型胶卷文献资料先后写成了《磺胺类药物》、《青霉素和链霉素》、《现代药理学》等书。这些书填补了国内医学界、尤其是解放区医学方面的空白。姥姥和外公当年从个人到事业全方位的合作给我的感觉是一对相敬相爱的最佳搭档。

1967年,在那个是非颠倒,黑白混淆的岁月,外公选择了清白,毅然与世长辞。那天我从幼儿园回家后,走进姥姥的房间。虽然是大白天,窗帘却紧关着,姥姥一个人坐在她和公公的大床上,我永远都不会忘记昏暗中她那张无泪的脸。不久后我就搬到姥姥房间跟她同住。她的房间很简洁,墙上除了一张外公的黑白相片别的什么都没有。从悲剧中走出来的姥姥仍然爱她的所爱:外公、书本、儿女、儿孙、朋友和臭奶酪。1983年姥姥为《自然杂志》写了一篇关于外公生平的文章,字里行间流露出尊严和敬意,没有半点廉价的煽情。姥姥做了一辈子编辑和出版,深知与人心相比,文字永远苍白。

现在我也年过半百了,跟当年的姥姥差不多岁数。在孤独或困惑的时候,我偶尔幻想我跟她像老朋友那样坐下来喝茶聊天,我的心便渐渐温暖和坚定起来。姥姥的人生观和价值观是我以不变应万变的准则。当我能跟姥姥那样远离庸俗的时候,我对自己是满意的。所谓的成功或者不成功都只是过眼烟云。

Moroccan Chickpea & Turkey Stew

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Tiffanie Hsu is the writer director for Adeline, a film that Audrey will star in.  Tiffanie is a 27-year-old Harvard graduate.  In my girls’ eyes, the Harvard degree instantly gives her credibility and legitimacy.  Tiffanie came up from LA today to see Audrey and she assigned her to read the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Audrey dutifully purchased it on Amazon and began reading it as soon as Tiffanie left the house.  Perhaps I should ask Tiffanie to tell her to practice piano, or to do dishes. 

To give Audrey a crash course in acting, we watched Natalie Portman’s first film, The Professional.  Portman’s fierce raw talent simply incinerated the screen. Audrey loved the film so much that she wanted to watch it again tomorrow.  She seems to take this spring break acting gig quite seriously.

I wonder what life has in store for Audrey.  What will be her passion?  What will give her meaning, and in turn make her happy? 

Seeing how quickly my children grow up right in front of my eyes brings a twinge in my guts.  It’s frightening how time skates by so fast.  I can easily flash forward and see myself like my own mother waiting thousands of miles away for her wayward children to visit home.   

Audrey told me this morning that she was having a free weekend, meaning that she would allow herself to eat some meat.  I instantly began to cook this Moroccan Chickpea and Turkey Stew.  I found that a pot of stew is perfect for the weekend — you cook it on Saturday and it will last you till Monday.

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Moroccan Chickpea & Turkey Stew

Ingredients:

1.3 lb package 99% lean ground turkey

1/4 cup cooking wine

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, light

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

3 tbsp poblano pepper, chopped

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced celery

2 1/2 ripe tomatoes, diced

2 (15 oz) cans chick peas, drained

2 cups low sodium, 99% fat free chicken broth*

2 tsp turmeric

2 tsp paprika

1 tsp coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

2 tsp coarse salt

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup Bertolli Organic Olive Oil, Basil & Garlic tomato sauce (optional)

2 tbsp fresh Italian parsley or spearmint, chopped

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Preparation:

Mix ground turkey with cooking wine.  Let sit in the fridge for 15 to 30 minutes while you chop the vegetables.

Heat a large nonstick skillet with 1 tbsp olive oil and over medium high heat cook ground turkey for 10-12 minutes.  Break up the ground meat and mix so meat cooks evenly; place in a soup pot.

Add the remaining olive oil to the skillet, add onions, tomatoes, pepper, carrots, and celery and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes.

Transfer to the soup pot with chick peas, spices, broth and gently mix well.  Cover and bring to boil, then simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.

Garnish with fresh herbs.

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Adapted from: skinnytaste.com

What Is a Mother to Do?

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I slept horribly and woke at 4:30 in the morning.  Eyes barely open, I began baking muffins at 5 am — letting the methodical and mindless whisking of the ingredients comfort and sooth me while my mind went back again to last night.

After dinner, Audrey brought up the sleepover that she had mentioned sometime ago.  And I said no I don’t want you to go. She argued that I had agreed to it earlier and I retorted that I changed my mind. I reasoned with her that she’d be too exhausted to do anything the next day and she had so much on her schedule.  Audrey got very upset and teary, and said that she had it all arranged with her friends.  I became angry and told her that she didn’t know her priorities.  Audrey shouted a promise is a promise and I muttered something like if she chose to be a failure in life she could do whatever she wanted.  Immediately I regretted but it was too late.  The words have already left my mouth.  Audrey went up to her bedroom and after a few minutes I went up to talk to her.  There was an angry sign on her door that read: “Sleeping!  Stay away!  My failure in life is contagious!” I felt awful but decided to respect her wish. 

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Audrey got up earlier then usual too.  All silent and sullen.  I went to hug her and she pushed me away.  I apologized and she walked away.  I repeated my apology and told her that I loved her a dozen times before she finally relented to let me give her a hug. I got her the muffins and told her to pour some milk for herself while I got dressed.  When I came back from my bedroom, Audrey had fallen asleep at the breakfast table.  My heart broke when I saw her sitting there, head resting on her folded arms.  Like me, she had slept very poorly last night.  Even though she posted the sign for me to stay away, she was expecting me to knock on her door. 

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Never go to bed angry, a very wise friend once said.  I went to bed feeling like a terrible mother.  And she went to bed feeling hurt and angry. Both of us had very little sleep.  Now that the tension had finally eased, at least to some degree, she was relieved and dozed off.

My girls are excellent children most of the time though they have their issues now and then, but who doesn’t? So often I don’t know what is the right thing to do with them. As a matter of fact, I feel clueless.  How do I prepare them for a world that is ever changing, and with increasing speed?  I lean toward tradition when there is nothing else to rely on. There is a proverb in Chinese: 以不变应万变— answer all changes with non-change.  Be steadfast, I tell myself.  But to exactly what?

Perhaps I should just leave them be and hope they will find their passion somehow and pursue it wholeheartedly without anyone nagging them.  That’s the only way to be happy, isn’t it? — to pursue one’s passion and to create one’s meaning.  But what about Ivy League universities?  Isn’t Ivy League the goal?  I see my husband, with his prestigious training, working long hours everyday, always behind schedule, always exhausted.  He is one of the best doctors in the city, but he seems to be losing his passion for the profession because of all the changes occurring in medicine which require him to be more of a scribe than a physician, to do more documenting than doctoring. Do I want my children to be grinding all the time so they can go to their next elite school and the next after that?  Then what?

I don’t have the answer.  Sometime ago, I wrote down a quote from some  pre-Socratic philosopher, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”  I suppose I will have to let the unknown challenge me but not frighten me.  I will let its mystery drive my search and not daunt me.  Perhaps when and if I find the answer, it will no longer matter.

Perhaps to love them, house them and feed them is all that’s required of me.  And feeding them healthy, nutritious and delicious food is something I know how to do.  This is a comforting thought. 

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Recipe In the End

With that thought, I went grocery shopping with Angela, who didn’t have school today.  When I saw her reaching up the shelf in the baking isle, I thought she looked very mature, which scared me.

It seemed only yesterday that she was a three-year-old who couldn’t stop asking why.

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Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup almond flour

1/2 cup oat bran

2 bananas

1 grated large apple

1 grated medium carrot

1/2 cup raisins

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp xanthan gum

3 large eggs

Baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes.

The muffins are very moist without any added oil because of the almond flour.

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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