Lots of cooking on a Sunday, like in old times

Pre Kaia’s arrival, Sunday was always the day I did most of the cooking for the week. We’d usually never go anywhere or make plans that day unless it was near home, and I’d focus on food for the week. Then, I’d usually experiment with something new, project-type cooking that would require lots of different ingredients sourced from all over the place, lots of steps, and potentially take hours if not all day. Not much of that type of cooking has happened since she was born, but today almost felt like it. I finally decided that since I saw beef chuck on sale at Whole Foods that I would get to making beef rendang with Auria’s spice blend. I’d had so many rendang packets accumulated, but never got around to making it because I knew that even though she simplified the process by putting all the necessary spices in one pouch, it would still take hours of nursing over the stove and stirring every ten minutes. I decided this was the weekend. I put the oil, water, coconut milk, and spice blend in the Dutch oven. I let it come to a bubble, then added the beef chuck chunks, and then simmered… for FOUR hours. I had to stir it periodically in the beginning, then the last hour, stir every ten minutes, but the result was worth it: it tasted restaurant quality, and it was HOT. I just added some extra sliced makrut lime leaves and salt to the adult portion, and set aside a small bowl for Kaia’s meals this week. I knew it would be good, but I didn’t think that much about HOW good it would be.

On top of the beef rendang, which was already a project, I also made pumpkin spiced mini muffins, quinoa with homemade frozen stock, as well as pessarattu (spiced whole green moong dal pancakes) for the baby, plus white jasmine rice to go with the rendang. That’s five different things in a single day! This was almost like pre-Kaia Sunday cooking, except this time around, I was way more tired. I did all this in between feeding her, pumping, and cleaning. This is really what multi tasking looks like now as a working mom.

Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen – curry spice blend to the rescue

Since Kaia’s birth, although I have still enjoyed cooking, I have also been focused on making things that require less effort and time for obvious reasons. Time is limited when you are not only a new mother but also an exclusive pumper and working full time, so while I want tasty, homemade food, I can’t spend all weekend cooking anymore.

Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen has been quite the God-send during this time. I’ve used her spice blend packets more times than I can remember since Kaia was born, and the latest way I’ve used it is through a method she recently posted on her Instagram reels: instead of using the curry spice blend to make a curry like stew per se, she uses the blend with a little salt and yogurt to coat chicken thighs, then pan fries them on the stove until cooked through. Instead of tending to cooking the meat on the stove, after an overnight marinade with the spices and yogurt, I roasted them in the oven at 425 F for 20 minutes, and then blasted them under the broiler for an additional 4 minutes for some color per her message to me. And it worked out perfectly: the meat was cooked through and still juicy, and it was super flavorful!

I decided to let Kaia have some, too. Even though it does have a little brown sugar, I figured that a little sugar in the overall packet wouldn’t be too much for her. In addition, her portion would be so small. Plus, she’s getting closer to 1 year, so no point in being super insane about avoiding sugar now. I just didn’t add any salt to her chicken thigh. I had her nanny try the chicken beforehand, and while she enjoyed it, she said she thought it might be too spicy for Kaia. At her 5pm feed today, the chicken was the first thing she had… and not only did she accept and eat it, but she didn’t even cry for yogurt or water the way she has done in the past when given really spicy foods! She happily babbled throughout and ate her roasted curried chicken.

“What have you done to your baby?!” the nanny exclaimed, in total shock and awe.

I’m so proud of my little baby, embracing spice and heat.

When your home cooked meal yields no leftovers = sadness

I had my friend come over for dinner on Tuesday night so that we could spend time together with Kaia. With a baby now, it’s easier just to have friends come over and hang out. Not to mention with my pumping schedule, I now pump right at dinner time, so it’s harder to go out in the evening. I prepared most of the food the day before, but I got annoyed with my packets of organic chicken thighs from Costco when I realized that my approximately two-lb bags seemed more like they were 1.5 lb. The total packets are supposed to be about six pounds total, and I’m pretty sure this total was less, which was why this packet was so small. After I prepared Tuesday night’s butter chicken, I looked at the pot and saw how little chicken there was, especially since meat always shrinks after cooking. There was no way we’d have any leftover butter chicken after my friend left! I thought. Plus, with my nanny eating some of the food, setting aside a small portion unsalted for Kaia, and the three adults, there was… just a lot of butter chicken sauce and some diced bell pepper left. I felt so disappointed at the end of the night, seeing how little leftover food we had.

That’s the thing about Asians who cook: we aren’t like most Western people. We get excited when we have leftover food. When it’s from a meal out, that means the cost per meal goes down. When it’s from food that you cook, it maximizes the time that you spent cooking that dish. Oh well. Now, I just need to know to double the butter chicken recipe next time and remember to use more chicken.

Instant Pot is back in action here!

A few months ago, I discovered I made the biggest screw-up in my kitchen: I accidentally melted the side of my Instant Pot pressure cooking lid, which basically rendered the entire device useless outside of steaming, sautéing, and reheating. I was so angry at myself: I had made endless delicious meals in that Instant Pot over the last nearly four years, and to see I had completely ruined it steamed me to no end. Luckily for us, we had gotten it for free with Amazon credits, so it wasn’t the biggest waste, not to mention I had used it so much that I definitely got my money’s worth out of it.. even when it was free! So Chris suggested we upgrade to the Instant Pot/Air Fryer combination when Prime Day rolled around. Well, that happened this week, and so I decided to get the Instant Pot Duo Crisp.

The new Instant Pot Duo Crisp, which actually isn’t new, just new to me, has a lot of enhanced functions: of course, there is a second lid just for air frying, broiling, dehydrating, baking. The steamer rack has been improved in its design and sits up better; it just feels sturdier. And perhaps the greatest new feature is that the venting/sealing knob has been streamlined: now, the knob automatically sets itself to sealing (previously, you had to manually set it, and well, people forget…), and it allows you to push a button to vent. You also have the option to turn it to stop the venting completely. This prevents overcooking and allows you to control when you can safely open the lid. I didn’t completely appreciate this until I saw it in action, but it’s a really great step up. It simplifies the use of the Instant Pot even more and makes it more dummy proof.

The instructions are also a lot clearer if you choose to read them. They have charts describing what exactly is happening in the pot and when, depending on what setting you use. They even have cute little sayings in the manual like, “Turn on the Instant Pot. Go ahead: don’t be afraid! You can do it!” They do this because they know a lot of people are so excited to buy the Instant Pot, but when they finally take it out of the box, they are so scared of blowing up their kitchens that they let it sit there for weeks on end with no use. In the back of users’ minds, they are thinking of the pressure cooker that blew up someone’s kitchen counter or sent an innocent user to the emergency room.

Anyway, I’m so happy to have a working Instant Pot again. I’ve already done the water test, made dal, and steamed sweet potatoes in it just in the last two days. I feel like my kitchen is whole again.

When you go through twice the amount of groceries with double the heads to feed

In the short time that Chris’s parents have been staying with us this trip, given we’ve had the baby and are a lot less mobile, we’ve been eating a lot more at home. What that also means is that given we have four adults as opposed to two, I’ve had to increase the amount of everything I’ve made. With that, it’s made me more aware of how much more quickly we’ve gone through everything, whether it’s toilet paper and tissues, fruit, or even eggs. Chris and I don’t eat eggs that often, and so normally, I might buy a carton of eggs maybe once or twice a month. After just one meal altogether, we went through almost a dozen eggs! So when we went to Costco on Sunday, I got two dozen, which I would usually never do unless I was planning to bake, or if Thanksgiving or Christmas were coming up, which would necessitate more eggs for both cooking and baking. I’m preparing chicken satay for dinner tomorrow, so instead of just marinating two pounds of meat, this time I marinated four pounds. I also doubled the amount of peanut satay sauce, which meant I used my entire bag of peanuts for this. On the one hand, it’s fun to make more food for more people to eat and enjoy. On the other hand, it makes you realize how much more expensive it is to have home cooked meals when your family starts to expand.

When your garlic cuts you

Ever since going back to work, I’ve been thinking more about how to get dinner on the table in the quickest way possible while also eating tasty but nutritious food. Most of what I’ve been thinking about as of late has been around one-pot meals. Ever since baby’s arrival, it’s not like I’ve had all the time in the world to tinker with recipes and research new foods to make, but I hope to get back to more experimental cooking soon.

I was preparing orechiette pasta with hot Italian sausage and broccolini on Wednesday and wanted to slice some garlic cloves for the sauce. I took a garlic bulb and tried to split it with my hand as I normally do. Somehow, out of nowhere, I felt pain in my thumb and middle finger, as though I had cut myself. I put the split bulb down and looked at my fingertips… AHHHHHHH. I had multiple tiny cuts in my thumb and a long slit in my middle finger on my left hand.

Seriously? Garlic bulb skin can cut you???? The middle fingertip cut looked like a papercut, but the tiny cuts all over my thumb tip looked miserable, like tiny wrinkles and broken blood vessels.

When your Instant Pot lid melts

I usually use my instant Pot a lot, as in probably every other week. However, since the baby has arrived, I really haven’t used it that much. I made a lot of things that were ready to eat and placed in our freezer before the baby came, and a number of those things were actually made in the Instant Pot. During this time, I also made food that was pretty simple and quick… At least, by my own standards. Most of those things did not involve the Instant Pot. So I’ve had the Instant Pot sitting near the window by the stove, and occasionally, I would put the lid on the counter right by the stove. Usually, I will try to be careful and will make sure that the lid would be on the counter. But occasionally, I have left the lid on the stove and I never really thought that much about it. 

That is…. until today. I got everything ready to make a dal in my Instant Pot, and I realized that for some reason, the lid was not fitting onto the top of the pot. It was just not clicking shut. I even got a little notification on the Instant Pot screen telling me that the lid was not secure. This was very strange. I had never encountered this issue before. I removed the lid and inspected it on the inside and out. Oh crap, I realized. I noticed that one part of the lid had actually melted, and it had melted in such a way that the lid would no longer fit on the Instant Pot. And even if it did, it would not close. And if the pressure cooker were on, an explosion would probably happen. But well, Instant Pot is super safe, so the pot would never get to that point because it would not turn on for safety reasons.

We contacted their support, and they offered a 20% discount, but their lids are all out of stock. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Grain bowls and how they became a thing

As I am slowly but surely (and unfortunately) approaching my return to work date, I am also weaning myself off of my sixth pump per day, and that sixth one is my middle of the night pump. And as I wean myself off of pumps, I am also slowly but surely returning to my old self before having a baby, as in, I actually have interests outside of my baby that I’d like to revisit. I want to read books. I want to cook and research different things I want to make. These are all the things I used to do before I had a baby. My mind is slowly but surely becoming clearer so that I can think about these things more often once again.

One of the things that I have been prepping over the last few days has been bibimbap, which is just Korean for “mixed rice.” Traditionally, it is just a dish that Korean moms would whip up when they had random odds and ends in their fridge and needed to clean out leftovers. Of course, as with many of these types of things, it ended up becoming a very popular dish in Korean restaurants. The traditional components of what goes in it include: beef, spinach, bean sprouts, zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, rice, and a gochuchang-based sauce to bring it all together. You can also top it with a fried egg. And in restaurants, it is often times served in a hot stone bowl, which creates a nice crunchy rice bottom that I absolutely love. 

Well, as I was prepping all of these ingredients in a combination of blanching in hot water, roasting in the oven, and sautéing on the stove, I realized that this dish is basically like the OG grain bowl. Or, when you think about it, what Asians eat traditionally are basically what grain bowls are based on; it’s just that what Asians eat in terms of how it sounds does not sound that exciting to the western mind. It needed to be branded as a “grain bowl“ in order to sell… To non-Asian people. Because what is it that we eat as Asians: mostly a lot of different dishes that can be poached or stir-fried or sauteed and then combined in a sauce with rice.

Rice is the basis of what most of us eat. And rice is just another grain. There is absolutely nothing new about this. The only thing that is new about grain bowls and them being sold in restaurants is the fact that they are now branded by non-Asian people to sell to non-Asian people. And when I think about it, I just think it’s a little bit ridiculous that people think this is some new thing that is so cool and trendy. Whenever I see grain bowls advertised on signs or in front of fast-casual lunch type restaurants in business areas, I just cringe a little bit and laugh to myself.

Bánh ít trần

Growing up in a household dominated by my maternal Cantonese Chinese grandma, I mostly ate Chinese and random American/Americanized foods when I was young. But occasionally, we’d get Vietnamese food, whether it was pho or bun at a restaurant, or in San Jose or Westminster when my mom would indulge and eat all the Vietnamese foods that were extremely laborious and time-consuming to make. So instead of making the food, which my mom always hated (she’s never enjoyed cooking even in the slightest and only did it out of necessity), we’d just pay money to buy and eat these things. One of these dishes that I didn’t even know the name of growing up but finally got reacquainted with recently was banh it tran. These little sticky rice dumplings that are stuffed with steamed and mashed mung bean, pork, and shrimp are a truly delicacy. They are also extremely laborious, requiring mung beans to be soaked, steamed, and mashed, then combined with minced pork and shrimp, rolled into balls, then covered with a glutinous rice dough on the outside and steamed or boiled. Finally to serve, they are topped with a pulverized dried shrimp topping, scallion oil, fried shallots, and nuoc cham for dipping and dunking. It’s also good to have them with a slide of pickled carrots and daikon. Yes, that’s right: that’s FOUR different toppings for serving! These were traditionally reserved for banquets and special occasions, but in Western countries that have a decently sized Vietnamese population, you can now find them in counts of 3-5 served and wrapped in plastic on styrofoam trays. This is how I ate them growing up; my mom would come across them at a Vietnamese bakery, bring a couple trays home, and warm them up for both of us to enjoy, as my dad and brother never really cared for them.

I came across them via a YouTube video earlier this year, and I knew I had to make them. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen them served anywhere in New York, which isn’t surprising since this is one of those dishes that isn’t really well known in Vietnamese cuisine. I finally got around to making them yesterday. It took a while, and I had to get used to working with glutinous rice flour dough again, as it’s quite tacky and you need to get it to the right texture for it to roll correctly, but it was so much fun. And when I finally tasted them, I knew it was time worth spent. I individually froze about 32 of them for eating once the baby comes; this will be a tasty part of a quick meal when I’m exhausted and covered in milk and drool. They just need to be steamed on high for about 12 minutes before eating.

This is one of those happy food memories for me growing up, though. My mom never really told me what these were called or their background or how they were made. I didn’t even know what was in them before I’d dive in, and frankly, I didn’t care. She’d just plop them in front of me, and I’d eat with her. That’s the thing about my parents: sometimes, all they’d have to do is eat something in front of me, and that’s all it took for me to want to eat the same thing. I hope I am able to pass on food passion and food traditions to little Pookie Bear when she arrives and as she grows, too.

A different Thanksgiving planned this year

In the years Chris and I have been together, we’ve traveled every Thanksgiving long weekend. In 2012, we went to Puerto Rico; in 2013, we went to Germany. 2014 was Budapest, Hungary, and Vienna, Austria, 2015 was Switzerland (too many cities to name given we were city hopping with our Golden Rail Pass), 2016 was Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia, Spain, 2017 was Northern Italy (Milan, Bologna, and Venice, 2018 was Portugal, and 2019 was Amsterdam, The Hague, in The Netherlands, plus Bruges and Brussels, Belgium. So it’s mostly been a European Thanksgiving for us each year, with the exception of 2012. 2020, of course, was different given the pandemic. It was a quiet Thanksgiving here with just the two of us, and our dinner ended up being much later than expected since I was filming a video for the channel on what I made, which was Chinese-style oxtail stew.

Well, this year is also different. Any day now, Pookie Bear will make her arrival, which meant no travel for us at this time of year. Chris is whining about the lack of travel, but honestly, I rather have my little Pookie Bear pending than any world travel. In addition, we’ll be here at home in New York in our own apartment, so I’m hoping Pookie Bear holds off on making an arrival until at least after Thanksgiving day. We invited my best friend over and another friend I met through AFSP fundraising, and some neighbors I befriended at the gym may stop by. Given we have at least two guests coming, I’m trying to devise a menu that isn’t too complicated but isn’t too simple. We will definitely be having a slow-roasted leg of lamb, likely with harissa and a yogurt sauce. One of my friends is pescatarian, so I’ll need to make a fish dish, maybe roasted salmon with orange and pomegranate. I want to make a brussel sprouts slaw with butternut squash and pomegranate seeds since it’s simple and fresh, plus maybe a mushroom-gruyere bread stuffing. Since we have guests, maybe I’ll do my annual challah again, too. I want to make sticky date pudding for dessert, and my friend offered to pick up a pumpkin pie and babka from Breads Bakery because you can never have too many sweet treats on Thanksgiving day.

Thanksgiving is kind of one of those controversial holidays in terms of its origins (mainly Columbus coming and slaughtering all the native Americans yet somehow eating all their food), but for me, I just think of loved ones gathering around delicious food and spending time together. Our early Thanksgiving celebrations with friends were always fun and enjoyable to me, and making food for people I love is always something I look forward to. Growing up in my two-family home in San Francisco, we didn’t have the most gourmet Thanksgiving meals ever: we had Stovetop-brand bread stuffing, cranberry sauce and jelly out of a can, and gravy made from a packet. My uncle would typically make the turkey, which was always quite delicious given he was a line cook by training and profession, and we’d have other things like a generic lettuce and tomato salad, store-bought pumpkin pie, and my dad’s annual German-style cheesecake. But I still loved and looked forward to all of us gathering and eating these foods at the same table every year. The togetherness always made me happy. When I got older, I started contributing to the Thanksgiving table by making homemade everything. It eventually died when my family became extremely dysfunctional and no one wanted to eat together anymore, but that was fine. It just meant I wanted to do this for other loved ones in my life who may not actually be blood family. Now, it’s about chosen family. And that’s all good by me.