Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Valley of Memories

I know it's been half a year since my last my post, so let me update you on what happened.

I fnished my semester of teaching. It was fun, challenging, and exhausting. I also had to leave my apartment for a month and a half because of a bedbug situation. Amidst all the chaos, I managed to take the GRE and applied to 5 Ph.D programs. Don't ask me how I did it, I'm just happy that it was all over.

So to relax from all that craziness, I had an incredibly relaxing winter break where I practically did no work. I did, however, finish Amy Tan's new book, the only book I vowed to buy this year before I'm moving out of state in May.

The Valley of Amazement, another heart-wrenching story of mother and daughter, in a different setting this time from her previous mother-daughter stories. This time, the mother was American, not Chinese. Nonetheless, the novel focuses still on the complex relationships that sometimes seemed to be marred only by miscommunication but in actuality something bigger. For the name of love, they suffered and rejoiced and searched. In that enternal search for love, Violet, both as a daughter and as a mother, also struggled with her identity as a "bastard" child, a mixed race, a Chinese, or an American. Her mother, Lulu, on the other hand, was wounded by love and grew to be inable to express her true feelings to her daughter while leading a life she was forced into. But a central theme was survival. Regardless of the lives they had, they survived and carried on and were granted the happy ending, if not so bittersweet.

It wasn't Tan's best work, but it was a true Tan's story. While I found the first few pages hard to get into, the story gradually picked up speed and took me to an interwined world of love and pain of people who would try to survive only to be haunted by the past. But there was humor, and moments of endearment, fonding memories.

I think the cruel thing about memories is that they may over time charr the painful past even more as we choose to remember only the pain. Yet we also get to glorify memories if we choose to remember the beautiful. Because sometimes we have no real proof of the past, we choose to remember the beautiful memories as something more beautiful. Thus was the case with the fruit tart and my American mom and me.

When I came to the States in high school, mom and I shopped at a grocery store called Super Fresh. We were so familiar with the store we knew where everything went and how the aisles were organized. Since then, my American parents had moved from that area and Super Fresh was closed. But one thing about that store always stood out in our memory, especially for my mom and me. It was the fruit tart they sold.

I can't remember the first time we had it, but I remember she bought one to celebrate my high school graduation from Towson. It was so delicious that I often thought I could take a spoon and eat a whole one by myself.

Years have gone, and I have forgotten the exact taste of the tart. I had it at a time when I wasn't very atuned to cooking and baking, and I didn't have it often enough to have real tangible memory of the flavor after so many years. I just know it was divine.

Mom said she remembered the filling was made of cream cheese, so I went online and found a recipe, which, accordingly, is not the classic fruit tart recipe. But it used cream cheese. So we decided to stick to this choice. And I knew I finally recreated the divine taste when my mom said it tasted just like Super Fresh's.

Thank you so much, Joy of Cooking!

Note: we didn't have heavy cream, and I decided to do what I always like to do, use what I have to make the best of it. So I used a whole package of cream cheese instead of two and added vanila soy milk to unthicken the filling. It worked out great.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How much can happen in one day?

About two years ago I watched the movie One Day because of Anne Hathaway, now I'm finally reading the book and finding it a bit too long as I try to recall the movie. One single day every year has been shaping their lives, Dexter and Emma. I can't wait for them to get together yet I know as the end draws Emma's life will be coming to an end too. I like sad stories. Happy endings are such a cliche in Hollywood, I'd rather see something that makes my hear twist. It's the longest book I've read this summer and my heart if yearning for a happy ending that I know it's not giving me. Well, I didn't ask for it.
Each chapter happens in one day. So much can happen in one day. Lives are changed in one day. But when one day becomes every day, they seem to be much more mundane. I have had a rather mundane summer, one might say, my first summer in the United States. I have been staying at home most of the time, away from the heat, chained to the desk in front of my computer working, studying, and playing. I have been cooking more, but my upcoming jobs in the fall require thorough preparation and all the other excitements are also calling for diligence. I didn't go to the beach, not just because I can't swim or my fat body would look horrific in a bikini, but because I have been working on two syllabi for the two classes and three sections I'm going to teach: Business Writing and Freshman Composition. I've read about four or five books and have finally finished one syllabus that is looking rather like a syllabus. Thank God!
Thus my summer has been mostly a one-day summer where every day is pretty much the same and not at all like Dex and Emma's one day. Here's the run down: I struggle to get up early but still consider myself lucky if I can sit down by 10am. I have breakfast and start the Chinese TV show on Youtube which will be the background music as I begin working on either GRE or my classes. I make one big meal in the middle of the afternoon and go back to working. I eat fruit and snack for dinner, and then put my books away when it's 9pm. I play around and read till I fall asleep, which is not always before midnight as I planned before the summer. Intermittently throughout the day, I play games on my phone to take a break away from work. I know, pretty boring. But every once in a while I would have a rather interesting day, yet not always in a good way.
Yesterday I finished my first syllabus, a draft, but a quite mature one. As I turned to my bed around 10pm I saw a small bug near the box spring; it jumped as I approached. I grabbed bug spray and sprayed it and it ran toward the corner under the bookshelf. As I was waiting for it to get out, another one showed up, exactly the same. They looked like grasshoppers. I finally smashed them with paper towels and flushed them down the toilet. Then I thought I'd better check behind the bed. Dried bug skins, shells or whater ever in between my bed and the wall. I pulled the bed away from the wall and started cleaning, killing, spraying, Debugging! Just as I thought I had finished killing whatever was in sight, shells or eggs, a big one appeared on the floor out of nowhere. I quickly pressed down my paper towel and picked up the dead body. It was quite a fright! Once again I feel grateful to my boarding school experience in suburban Beijing where bugs were regular visitors in the dorm and I somehow became the designated exterminator. When the bug extravaganza was over, I realized that my toilet had become clogged for some reason. The day was not over!
And it dragged on till today when the toilet is still not functioning normally I went out and bought a plunger. By the way, do you know how expensive they are? The cheapest one at Target is about nine bucks! I came home to fix the toilet with all the confidence as an exterminator. After thirty minutes, the situation is not improving. I gave up and called the maintenance. I guess I can't be a bug exterminator and a plumber at the same time.
So, my days are not all that mundane after all. At this point, it's probably not very appetizing to talk about food. I shall wait till next time to tell you one of my better adventures.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Illusion of Separateness in a Hotpot

You might have heard of this saying from somehwere: every person can be linked to another person within a six-people chain. That means, through a link of within six people, you can be connected to anyone. It may be stretching a little, but many wonderful stories stem from some unknown chain events. This past month Simon Van Booy brought us his new novel: The Illusion of Separateness. I read his first novel and a collection of short stories because I had heard of his name through a chain of Wikipedia article reading. "If Margueritte Duras and Scott Fitzgerald had a son, he would be Simon Van Booy." I was just beginning to read The Great Gatsby at the time and have been in love with Duras for years, so I had to read him.

Six people, six lives, seemingly unconnected, live through the darkest and most painful moments of their lives across the ocean, continents apart. But there's a chain, an invisible connection that has brought significant impacts on their lives. Some of them have never known who others really were or have only encountered them once. Everything was so beautifully woven and unveiled bit by bit in the book. Van Booy has once again, took my breath away.

"Love is also a violence, and cannot be undone." It's a story of love, pain, and the illusion of separateness.

The best dish in the world that can express the same concept is Hotpot. I'm not really sure if it's one word or two. I suppose either way works, but I prefer one word, another sign of union. The Chinese hotpot is similar to the French fondue, except that it's a much bigger scale version and requires more ingredients and connects more food together.

A trip to an Asian market made my day. Spicy soup base, thin beef brisket, Asian greens, fish balls, a simple hotpot warmed both my stomach and heart. Tastes just like home.

Spinach, beef, fish ball, tofu, frog legs, mushroom, shrimp, fish, tripe, anything you can think of can be put in a boiling pot and cooked together as you dip in and dip out from the pot to your bowl. Sesame paste as a sauce base with pickled tofu, spicy sauce, a bit of cilantro. Ready to serve! You think these things can't go together? Sure they can! Anything is possible in a hotpot. The world is a hotpot.

Global village, tossed salad, or hotpot, whatever the metaphor, the world is in your boiling soup. No matter how different you are, you all participate in enriching the flavor of the soup and you all absorb the flavor of the soup. You swim together, you hold hands, you go through pain and love, you hug one another, you land in the bowl together. Each one of you is essential in making the flavor as a whole. Separeteness is only an illusion.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Home Away From Home

Summer days reading began with Under the Tuscan Sun, I saw the movie a few years ago and bought the book right before I came to this country two years ago and had not read it until recently. After I moved into a studio, living by myself for the first time, I decided to go through my bookshelf and find some easy reading: books that I can enjoy reading once and then sell back to the bookstore to save some space on my bookshelf. When I started this book, I realized how appropriate it was for summer time.

The long, strenuous process of restoring an old house in the Tuscan country is fascinating and almost dreamy. I'm beginning to think that maybe I should try to make more money so that I will have enough saving to have a dream come true one day. It is indeed fortunate to be able to do what you want to do and like to do, even if you have to pay a little price, whether it be the labor and frustration of restoring a house aged of centuries, or moving away from home.

Frances Mayes in her book and I have one thing in common, we are both building a home away from home. While she's literally building a home, I'm only developing a more emtional bond with my surroundings. And to create a sense of home, sometimes one has to recreate the images of home. That's part of the reason I've been cooking more Chinese food lately. The feeling of being away from home has been more present as I hear news after news about my friends getting married and having babies back home, especially since I wasn't present at many of such joyful events.

My best friend from college just got married ten days ago. I had helped her order a Vera Wang wedding dress form the States and shipped it to her back home. I was supposed to be one of her four bridesmaids but couldn't return home this summer due to visa issues. It was the second time that I missed the chance of being a bridesmaid for a best friend. Looking at her pictures, I felt happy and sad at the same time: happy for her wedding, sad for me not being there. This is the price I pay for my dream: to miss the important events in my friends' and family's lives.

Maybe I'm a little homesick. But that can be easily fixed with a warm plate of stir-fry.

Although pork is not a popular meat in Western cuisine, it is very prevalent in China. Many simple stirfries contain only a vegetable and pork slices or cubes.
So I made my wonderful celery and pork and green bean and pork stirfries, best with rice.
Perhaps stir-fry is the easiest and hardest dish in the world. It's easy to prepare, but it almost never comes out with the exact same flavors each time. The temperature of the wok and the amount of spices all affect the final outcome. However, it's the spontaneity that marks the fun label of stir-fry. All you need it vegetable oil, salt, soy sauce, and maybe some Chinese five spices. How much, you ask? Trust your gut!

However, there is a trick when cooking meat. Make sure you add some cornstarch to the meat after you cut it into thin slices and coat it well till you don't see any more starch. If it's too dry, add a little rice wine. You can also add some rice wine when you stirfry the pork, which you do before the vegetables.

Always cook the meat first, then remove the meat and cook the vegetable, then add the meat back in. Celery and grean beans can both take a long time to cook, but make sure they are tender. If you want, you can boil them in water first before the stirfry, which would speed up the process.

This is my home away from home. What would yours be?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Suspense of Chili

To celebrate Ravens' winning the NFL Championship this year, I got up Monday morning to make chili, for the first time in my life. You should know, I'm not a morning person. I don't get up just for anything if I didn't have to. But my love for food is strong enough to pull me out of bed. And you know who else loves food? Alfred Hitchcock.
I love Alfred Hitchcock. Period. I've seen most of his movies, some quite a few times. It doesn't matter how great contemporary horror movies are, Psycho remains the all-time classic. Period.
One of the earliest books I've read about Hitchcock said the Master of Suspense described how you could produce suspense in a story: If you are showing some people playing poker and that later they will be bombed, you should begin by showing there's a mysterious package just under the table and then show the people playing poker. I later learned in screenwriting class that it's part of something called "dramatic irony" where the audience knows what's going on, but the characters in the movie don't. It creates tension and excitement in the audience, and you have to keep watching to see what happens later.
Yes, I do read non-fiction, once in a while. And it shouldn't surprise you if I'm reading anything about Hitchcock.

The book discusses the whole process of how the movie came into being: from how the book came about to why Hitch picked it to all the details in produciton and post-production. It's like a huge Wikipedia article about Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. As obssessed as I am with the fat genius man, I find myself more and more fascinated about his work. Is it possible?
The movie adaptation was great. In fact, I watched the movie before I started reading the book. But now that I'm half way through the book, I still think that the movie is just as great. It seems to have a different focus from the book. The movie shows a lot tension between Hitch and his wife Alma while the book has been solely centering on the production of the movie.
I love the scene from the movie when Psycho's premiere turned out to be a great success, Hitch brings Alma to the front of all the blinking cameras and says to her, "You are my favorite Hitchcock blond." Alma says, "I have waited for you to say that for over 30 years." And Hitch says, "That, Darling, is why they call me the Master of Suspense."

So have you been wondering what kind of chili I made? Did my suspense work?
Here's my recipe, I'm calling it the Super Bowl

Super Bowl

1 lb groud beef
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 onions, chopped
5 cloves of garlic
1 green pepper, chopped
1 can of diced tomatoes
1 can of red kidney bean
1 can of corn
1 can of tomato paste
canola oil
chili powder
cayenne pepper
garlic salt
black pepepr
corn starch
1/3 of a bottle of Guinness beer

Brown the beef in a pan then remove to a plate, don't drain the fat.
Cook the celery and pepper in the fat with a little canola oil, when slightly cooked remove to a separate plate.
Cook the onions and garlic for about three minutes then put the meat back in till the onions are clear. Add the canned tomato with juice and the tomato paste.
When well mixed, pour everything into a pot and add water just barely covering the content. Add the celery and pepper.
Let it reach a boil and then add corn and kidney beans.
As the chili is cooking, add all the spices and salt and pepper till you like the flavoring. (I know I use way too much garlic probably, you don't have to. My boyfriend Mr. Judd would tell you it's disgusting, but even though I love him, I don't think his opinion is valid since he hates onions.)
Add the beer and after a while add some cornstarch till you like the thickness of the chili and turn off the heat. Mine cooked for about 30 minutes tops.

I know I probably put in a lot of stuff that normally don't go together in chili, but I think the great thing about chili is that you can basically put anything in and it would still taste great!
Good Evening!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Everything Beautiful Began After

The title of the book is so beautiful I don't know how to talk about it using a different title, so I decided to steal it for this post. Noted: this is not plagiarism.
I can't believe I never knew about Van Booy before. And he had a workshop in Beijing when I was in Beijing! Somehow, however I managed to miss him on my reading lists, I came around to finally meet him, through this beautiful story of Rebecca, Henry and George. This one book is enough for me to want to read everything else he's written and he will write.
Van Booy is a philosopher. Love is his main subject of study.
Everyone can be a philosopher on love, but he has the power to reach into your heart and twist your brain. The softest emotions, the gentlest feelings, the hardest pain and the toughest adventure in life all float around you in his beautiful manifestation of love. It's a book where you want to write down every single sentence in your notebook.

I'm sorry I have not been here for a while. I'm apologizing to my readers, to my self, and most of all, to my blog itself. I never forgot about you. I was forced to travel downhill on a side road for a little while, and then I got back on track. Now I'm moving forward again. Everything that I thought was beautiful was taken, lost, wiped, erased. But everything truly beautiful has just begun after. It's just a matter of how you define beauty. In Van Booy's story, it's a woman, a love, a city, a life, an adventure, a discovery. In mine, it's a book, a love, a movie, and a dish. So I decided to catch up with my serious cooking adventure.
I might say that this may be my best presentation of food so far. A recipe from Saveur Magazine, Shrimp and Grits.
My American Dad grew up in Virginia eating grits. However, My American Mom has never liked grits. Over dinner, my Dad commented on how it was almost a miracle that he was eating grits in his own house. My mom's comment was, there's so much cheese in the grits, so much flavor, of course it tastes better now. I also have to admit that this my first time cooking grits and eating grits. And it tastes just as beautiful as it looks!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Cheesecake Fantasy vs. The American Dream

I was first introduced to cheesecake when I first came to the States. I remember my American mom bought this collage of different flavored cheesecake from the grocery store and I had fallen in love with this magical creamy delicacy since then. Then I went back to China, and my romance with the cheesecake became a long distance relationship where at the beginning I lived on beautiful reminiscences and then gradually got lost once again in the colorful Chinese gastronomy and alienated from the American desserts. But I was reunited with my estranged lover at T.G.I. Friday's in Beijing.
Now that I'm back in the land of cheesecakes, I have recuperated my love, and I was found whole again.
I remember the first time McDonald's was opened in my hometown in China my aunt took me and my cousin over there for a meal after she got her first paycheck. I took a bite of the Big Mac served in a brown box and was instantly disgusted by it. She bought us many other things as well, but only the disgust I felt towards Big Mac remained vivid in my memory. Who could know that only years later I had acquired a convenient love for the American fast food that was fast invading Chinese market. It was delicious, it's fast and it's American. Fortunately we have passed the era that Ha Jin descibed in his story about the American fried chicken restaurant in China that caused much conflict in the community purely because of the fact that it was considered capitalist and thus bad. The western culture has learned to not only expand to this vast consumer market but adapt to the local tastes. KFC now sells breakfast in Chinese style and meals with rice. I imagined myself eating these wonderful food when I would be in the country of their motherland. It was part of the American dream.
However, I've hardly ever eaten at a fast food place in the States, maybe five times total in the course of a year. I have learned that there's much more to the Western cuisine than McDonald's and KFC and preferred to cook myself, as you probably have figured out by now.
The cheesecake fatansy is realized once more and the American dream is on her way to be realized, I think I shall push it forward more by attempting to make cheesecakes: the task that almost seemed impossible.
So here it is, my 3-D chocolate cheesecake, well technically it's 2-D because I didn't use chocolate graham crackers, you know me, I wouldn't make a single recipe without making a little subsitution.

And I realized I don't have a cookie sheet deep enough for me to put boiling water in to bake the cheesecake, therefore the old saucepan had to do.

When it's chocolate, it has to be a little messy haha.