It Ain’t So Bad…This Thing Called Life.

Before you know it I’ll be 30…I had a lot to think about when I was away this week, like coming to terms with growing older and the frailty of life.  I can try to escape the external influences in my life but that won’t help and well, I just have to face them.   Last week I found out that my dear mom had surgery on her knee and I knew I wanted to be by her side.

To this day even with brooms and mops she still gets on her knees and uses her elbow grease to scrub the floors.  It’s definitely the good old fashion way but it’s also a very slippery one.  It only took one misstep, a loud yelp, and a few screws later… Thank the heavens to bits and pieces that my brother was home to take her to the hospital.  It broke my heart to see the iodine that still stained her skin…not to mention the staples but I was happy to be near her.

I left San Francisco as it welcomed winds and a very strong storm.

As you enter into the world of the vast unknown you realize that to gain momentum you MUST  keep your head high, your goals gleaming like bright beams of light and your inspiration tickling you, wherever you are.  GO.  I’ve said it before…just go.  I’ve managed to keep my sights set on my family and my future…I just have to keep on cooking.

I thought I could be a private chef and work in a kitchen part-time.  I thought…

 

I was wrong.  I have struggled since I left Zuni Cafe to pursue my personal chef duties and made the mistake of trying to work at another restaurant part-time, whilst maintaining a relationship.  Wrong.  So as my client list grows so does my anxiety, and it looks like there is no half-steppin’ over here.  Maybe toddler steps. No, Maybe teenage steps…No taking grandiose steps into the world with a machete to hack through those bushes…with slight trepidation but also with the vigor and curiosity of youth.  I imagine myself wearing a cool flowy blouse, wedges, and cargo style capris while doing so.  Freelance isn’t gonna be easy.

I felt panic, and uncertainty to having a job when I got back to San Francisco…an uncertainty and imbalance with myself and my career. Did I just jeopardize my livelihood by asking for time off so early with this new line cook position?  I assume anyone with a new job would hesitate to ask for the time off, but I just had to.  There was a communication error down the management line and now I must say Au Revoir.

I can’t panic I can’t shake I can’t wiggle out of this and I certainly won’t allow anger and resentment to creep its lowly head into my thoughts.

 

But I’ll tell you what was easy; seeing my nieces.  This really made me realize that maybe just maybe certain things happen for a reason.  Timing… I am a firm believer in the signs that the universe gives…it will give…and it also will take.   It’s like a pointer finger going “You hey you yes you, I’m talking to you”. It was really great back in Southern California…hearing my nieces giggle with excitement, making cookies and pancakes; playing board games, acting silly, and just talking.  Yet always it goes back to cooking and one of the greatest moments this past week was actually cooking Vietnamese food for my healing mom.  As she slowly hobbled over to the kitchen island she smiled a bit when she saw that I was cooking her chicken and rice porridge.   “Oh wow Bery gud…”

 

The times when I laid sickly in bed she would heal me with her chicken porridge w/ginger and I now also cook it for Daniel when he is sick.   She looks at the scars on my arms and clicks her tongue with disagreement, and if it was up to her I would be a doctor by now.   My mom small but oh so resilient.  Her hair a bit disheveled her skin soft, her frame petite and her demeanor inquisitive.  It still surprises me that she still has to ask me why I cook…sort of like a broken record she insists on luring me away from the fire.  Actually, it’s just her asking question after question trying to understand why I love cooking so much.   I kept on chopping garlic, smile and began to tell her my stories…

 

I tell her stories… stories of the times that I spent cooking at home by myself, and how much experimentation was going on at home during Elementary, Jr. High through High School.   It was in college that I really started to cook.   She knows about the joys I had with my dad when we went to our weekly lunches,  she knew about my obsessions with cooking shows on PBS,  she knew how much I loved to eat.   Yet she decided that it was only a phase.  She still doesn’t understand why a girl like me cooks for a living.  My hope is that she is equally excited for me as she is proud.

So…I never tell her how hard it is to work in a restaurant kitchen.  I never tell her about the rushes, when I am in the weeds,  I never tell her about the anxiety, the cuts, the burns, the fire, the late nights, and sometimes the people…

I just tell her how wonderful it is to cook and how it makes me feel to cook for her after all those years of her cooking for me.   I show her with her recipe/my chicken porridge, or with her recipe/my Ginger Lemon grass Chicken.  In her small Vietnamese mom voice she says, “Ngon wah”.  But with this change, it once again brings me to a happier tale of confidence lost (maybe in limbo) and re-found.  Clutching onto this thing called life…I loosely release the pressure of my grip and with my Red Ben Simons on I gingerly walk to more personal chef challenges.

I left Southern California to a windy and horrible storm…and came back to a calmer San Francisco.

I should say I am happy but it seems like I might jinx things by saying so.  All is good and great until there is another detour… Until then I will rejoice in the glories and the pains that enrich and enlivens me every day.

 

VIETALIAN

I fell in love with Italian cuisine when my father used to take me to this small family owned and operated restaurant in our hometown.  Now granted I didn’t venture far from home at the time so my experience with Italian food was very limited. A saucy and tangy tomato sauce topped with 2 large and moist meatballs. Yum yum yum…

I endlessly watched Lydia Bastianich when I was growing up with all those old and classic PBS cooking series.  I love love loved making pasta at home for my brothers, and experimented constantly with different ways to wrap flavor around and through strands of pasta.  I dreamed of studying Italian food with an old Italian grandmother.

One day I discovered risotto and I slowly expanded my repertoire.  What I definitely like about this recipe is its warm and rich characteristics.  The root vegetables lends a wonderful sweetness and the butter and parmesan add another level of flavor and richness. I wanted to marry the idea of Italian and Vietnamese cooking.  So on a cold and foggy San Francisco summer I decided to make an Aborio Rice Porridge.   In Vietnamese we call it a Chao…Here is the rough recipe.

Root Vegetable Chao

For the Stock:

1/2 Left Over Roasted chicken
1 Large yellow Onion
1 cup stalks of celery
1 cup  carrots
1 cup rutabagas
1 cup turnips
a good size rind of parmesan Cheese
olive oil, Salt & Pepper,
1 1/2  cup Aborio Rice
4 cloves Garlic
The rest of the reserved Root Vegetables.
4  cups Chicken stock
1/2  cup White wine
1 T Marjoram
4 T butter
olive oil, Salt & Pepper,
Garnish-Cilantro, Scallions, limes.

Directions:

Season chicken well and roast bones/scraps with salt and pepper, roast on high.

Dice: Onions, Carrots, rutabaga, turnip and celery (reserve 1/2 of each for later).  Smash your Cloves Garlic.

Saute onions (sweat) add 2 cloves smashed garlic, add the diced rutabaga and carrots and add your rough minced marjoram as well as butter.

Add stock and a bit of water, now add the roasted chicken, and parm rind.   Deglaze the pan with white wine to release the drippings add all the goodness to the stock pot.  Season with salt.  Simmer for 1-2 hours.  Deeper flavors will form when you simmer for longer.

When the hour has past, and flavors have started to mingle, in a soup pot heat your olive oil,  Add the 4 cloves of smashed garlic infuse the pan with garlic oil, now add the Aborio rice coat well with oil  add a bit of oil and toast lightly.  Add your vegetable medley that was saved from earlier and continue to stir cook till onions are slightly transluscent.

Photo by Daniel Dent

While that rice is toasting  begin to strain your stock.  Remove your chicken pieces and cool.

Add a good heaping amount of stock to your toasted (not burnt) Aborio rice.  You want to add about triple the amount of water at once and let simmer. Remember you want a porridge not a risotto so add all liquids at once, but more stock can be added as the process thickens.   I think it’s s

o pretty with those sweet root vegetables floating with the Aborio rice.  Add more stock depending on how brothy you would like your porridge.

Season well with salt and pepper.  When chicken bones are cooled pick apart the meat, and leave some ski

n for a nice richness. Add scraps of meat into the porridge.  Stir and let simmer for another 30 minutes. Total give for take an hour or an hour plus+. What about those large chunks of garlic?  By this time they have melted and can be smashed down some more to give the porridge a bit of a buttery soft & savory richness. It just adds to the all around wonderful quality of the dish.

By this time the broth has becomes rich and glutenous but still slightly brothy.  Garnish with chopped cilantro, green onions, and a wedge of lime.

I get choked up.

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It’s the start of a New Year.  Excitement is in the air and so is change and I am looking forward to new endeavors.  With that being said, I am letting go of a $1200 studio apartment.  I am finding it harder and harder committing to such a  heavy workload with such little pay.  I am going to go full force at this in hopes of learning more, without the stress and burdens that rain on me financially…we all know the kitchen is stressful enough.

So…Roommates.  Everyone knows what a task it is to find a room.  Particularly daunting is the thought of having somewhat crazy psychotic or worst a hippie vegan with staunch political views that won’t let me cook in the kitchen with animal products.  Those people exists.  Those people also wouldn’t want me as a roommate.  Roommate postings can range from sane to completely outrageous.  Vegans not wanting to share pots and pans, roommates wanting Taco TUESDAYS, must like this must like that must not do this must not do that.  It gets too much.  Viewings take on another rabid spirit.  When opening a door into a new apartment, there is sometimes that scary screeches from a soundtrack of a horror movie.   Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I don’t want to live with Normal Bates.   Then again it’s San Francisco I also don’t want to live with a Cheech Marin who will wreak of Nag Champa and patchouli.

I will miss my large and new kitchen.  I will miss the oven, where I have created shortbread, and cakes, and roasts, and toasts when I lacked a toaster.

On to a new journey.  More twists more turns.

The other week I cried.  I snorted and blubbered through a moist towel.  I sighed and breathed and got choked up.  I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I don’t obsess over many things, or many humans, but I can sometimes obsess over food.  While watching the episode on Spain, I had a bit of an intense reaction to the beautiful philosophy that a culture had on food.  The innovation the soft beauty that was present in each family story.  Adhering to their roots…their culture, and transforming culinary traditions to create new ones.

It got me to thinking. I wanted to travel.  I yearned to.  I ache to.  I want to taste and savour the splendid tastes and aromas of regional cuisine.  I’ve gone on interviews with various chefs and talked about food, and when asked, “WHY?…do you pursue this…do you want this…what is it about food that you like…”

I’ve stated before that I can get pretty emotional with food, as well with art. But I was not expecting it to suddenly overwhelm me when I was watching the show. It evokes so much emotion in me.  A wonderful spirit.  Maybe it’s my fathers spirit lighting new hope within me ,when at times I thought all there was to this world was making my mother happy, and making money.

I couldn’t stop crying.  It wasn’t sadness, maybe it was envy maybe it was jealousy.  I wasn’t there to smell the wood burning, I wasn’t there to taste the seasonal farm fresh ingredients, overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of a different country.  The aromas, the language the sun all tied in a bundle around my heart.  Squeeeezing it sooo tight, that I really thought that my heart was about to burst.

It was just so beautiful.  And I want to experience that.  I love love love that.  The excitement the passion, and the tactile and sensory experiences.

I am exciting about this years change.  With $1200 of rent away…with getting my deposit back.  I am ready to move with no excuses.  With no looking back, no regret.  To be able to travel, catch that bug that my friends talk about.  Focus on expanding my palate with travel.  I can’t wait.  It will be a bit till I am able to save up for my culinary journeys, but it’s definitely going to happen.

I hail a toast to 2009 and beyond.  May the wine be bountiful and aromas be bright and warm.

The Egg and the Scissors

It has been planned for nearly 3 decades that this day would come that inevitably I would be pursuing cooking FULLY.

Of course its more than fate that lead me to this day.

I remember hearing stories of when my father and mother would tell me that I picked an egg and a pair of scissors. I loved hearing this story because I was always a creative child who excelled in the arts.

So that you can further comprehend, there is this old Buddhist tradition, that in your first year of birth you are allowed to pick up two items from a table that would later determine your destiny. Consider it like self handpicked clue to the rest of your life.

Creativity and Food, I took it as Creativity and Life…

You can look at it either way.

Of course my brothers and sisters picked up, a calculator, pair of glasses, a pencil, a pen and a book. I don’t remember the rest but my sister ended up a driven business woman and dotting mother of 4, my brother a writer/ philosopher and a fireman, and my other brother into sales and marketing, all admirable in their rank, all graduated with degrees and some. Then there was me, the egg and the scissors. While I decided at 18 I wanted to dive into food.

“No” my mother would say. Girls are meant to stay clean and pretty and the kitchen is tough work and long hours. My daughter will never be doing that”

My mother in a nutshell. Actually no, my mother was a manicurist, to expand on this she was quite the workhorse. When she passes she will be a martyr because she lived for her children, she worked and breathed for her children. She was a lowly paid immigrant mother who never wanted her children to struggle like she did. But as long and strenuous and she worked she would come home and there would ALWAYS be fresh hot food on the table. Fresh stocks in the freezer, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. And of course always on a budget.

“Mom don’t you remember that I picked an egg and a pair of scissors? Don’t you think that meant something?”

“Don’t you realize that this was all superstition? It’s just a fun tradition”

“Well then why do you always say that it rang true for everybody else?” Everybody else meaning my brothers and sister.

I was always pretty spiritual and admired the idea that someone out there was looking out for me and that there was something mystical in the air that would lead me to my path. I liked this idea because from an early age I began to cook. I was fascinated by flavors and textures and how food felt in my mouth. I savored every last morsel of my mothers cooking and when my father took me out to “other” restaurants I would sometimes go into a daze about the food I was cherishing down.

My first true experience and my FIRST experience with being in a kitchen was at a spaghetti shack. When I went here for the first time I fell in love with the ambiance but most importantly I fell in love with the tangy and thick marinara sauce that blanketed the strands of spaghetti. The meatballs that were served with plate were large and beautifully savory. This took me back…it took me back to a time when my father would take me to this dingy Italian restaurant in our hometown and my favortite thing to get was the spaghetti and meatballs, that tangy sauce resonated through my memory and for years I never found something comparable to the sauce.

I bugged the chef endlessy for months to let me behind from just being a customer to becoming his apprentice. “For Free” I said. Well months later he called me out on it and I finally had my first training. On and off for a few months I came back into the kitchen. The haunting smells that would linger on me for hours even after leaving “the shack”, this was a safe warmth to me that holds dear to me because it was like a hug from my father.

My delight came from Saturdays with my father when he would come home from work and bring me home “American FOOD”

From Chinese takeout, In and Out Burgers, Fried Chicken, to Spaghetti and meatballs.

To me these were all considered American FOOD because all I had experienced really was my mother delicious Vietnamese home meals.

Her dinners were always abundant, there was always a soup to accompany a rice dish with a luscious table full of cucumbers to freshen the palate from the salty and savory spiced proteins that were served alongside fresh herbs. Her porridge was a homage to her mother and all the mothers and grandmothers who came before her and was like soft cushion of warmth in the cold winter months. Her soups and stocks were elegant and refined with delicate flavors that were bright and vibrant. I can’t say enough about my mothers cooking and there will never be someone who I feel would ever be able to mimic her clean style of cooking. I remember going to the markets with my mother, her 5’1 frame would coyly ask the produce man “Sir would you happen to have anything special back there or fresher??” of course he would run back to her with fresher basil, mint, sprouts anything. I was sometimes embarrassed by how much she would torture the fish mongers and butchers with the same question when they would say no she would argue with them and complain about the quality of meats that were present.

“Look woman if you don’t want it don’t buy it”

to that my mother would reply “YOUR MOM” and elegantly walk away annoyed because she didn’t get her way.

“No no not that one…the one next to it…no the bigger piece…less fat less fat, no no not that one…the eyes are too grey…yeah that one its plump!” From her I learned quality.

My father was the juggernaught of force in my early culinary discovery. I remember a time when he was a cook at a Chinese restaurant. He wore many hats, he was once a school bus driver, a mailman, a line cook at a Chinese restaurant, a line cook at a bowling alley, a gardener, a migrant worker, a janitor, and of course my favorite a baker. He was an educated man who immigrated to his country because he was in love with my mother and in love with his children and wanted a better life for them. So BOTH did whatever they could in order to raise us very well.

One day dad brought home an EEL! I had never seen one before and was curious to what I was about to see. He plopped the thing in the bathtub filled with water and said that it was still alive. It slithered through the water still alive and whipping.

I watched him butcher the writhing creature till it was just bits. Cleaned of all innards and blood it did it cleanly with a cleaver and a wooden cutting board, with his feet flat on the floor and squatting down. Raising that cleaver like it was an axe and he was the cowboy. He made the most delicious curried stew in that electric wok, with lemongrass, garlic, onions, curry powder, carrots and potatoes with of course that one floating bay leaf hidden within. The eel fell off the bone and we gladly ate the fish sauce infused stew with bread.

Both were gifted in the culinary arts, and both were sticklers for freshness and flavors.

My mother would have to work early in the mornings but my favorite day to wake up were Saturdays. I would get a light kiss on the forehead, slowly wake up from my slumber and make a trek to the living room…pulling my heavy blanket through the hallway. Sleep till about 9:00. Do you remember cooking shows before there was even the Food Network? Do you remember these beautiful classic and just straightforward cooking shows that would elevate and inspire so many other future chefs? I do. And I remember Jacques Pepin, and The Frugal Gourmet, Julia Child, Martin Wong, Lydia Bastianich, YES I remember allllll of these and I remember that watching them cook was like learning about the most profound things that I have ever come across. SO within my nearly 3 decades I was talked out of a cooking career. What was the catalyst? What was the last straw? What was it that made me get into cooking now? I remember yearning to try what fresh homemade pasta wasted like, I remember learning important vernacular that I still use to this day. Julienne, slice, dice, mirapoise, bechamel, to butterfly, to pound…I remember it all.

Please read over this post again…Just because I was talked out of it before never made it impossible to pursue.

I have so many fond memories of food and how they have enveloped my thoughts and how much I find passion within flavors and producing awe inspiring cuisine. Learning and working around it alone, I feel that I have been privileged to be around and have such great mentors past and present. I hope this will be an interesting journey.