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.

Baking as nesting

This afternoon, since I had some free time, I started making cookie dough for alfajores, those delightfully buttery, flaky South American sandwich cookies that I’m totally obsessed with. I think alfajores are likely one of the most perfect little cookies on the planet, as they are rich, indulgent, flaky, not too sweet, but sweetened with a delicious and sticky caramel filling. The dough is a bit hard to work with, as it’s super delicate and usually made from a mixture of corn or tapioca starch, a tiny bit of regular all purpose flour, and bound with butter and egg yolks, but it’s always so gratifying when the cookie cut outs are made. Alfajores were on my list of things “to make” before the baby came as a small indulgence to myself, both as an activity and as a treat to enjoy.

A lot of people like to make comments that if they had all the money in the world, they would just outsource tasks like cooking certain dishes or baking certain desserts so that they could just enjoy. But to me, it wouldn’t matter if money meant nothing and if I had Jeff Bezos’s wealth because baking and cooking are basically part of my identity and what makes me happy. If you took away cooking and baking from me, I’d probably feel weird and incomplete. I’m partly making these cookies for fun and as a treat for myself before Pookie Bear arrives, but also because I want to share them with my friends who are coming over for brunch this weekend. Food is meant to be eaten and shared and enjoyed, and this will be the very first time we’ve hosted anyone over for a meal since pre-pandemic, so I want to make sure it’s delicious.

the growing list of things to make before baby

While many expectant moms are busy decorating their nurseries and organizing all their future baby’s clothes in the right sizes and categories and textures, I… haven’t really been doing that. Yes, Pookie Bear does have some clothes ready and they have been organized by size, and yes, I do have to wash some of the newborn onesies and sleepers in preparation for her arrival, but honestly, I think I’ve been focusing more on all the things I want to make and bake before she arrives. Some of them will be consumed after her arrival assuming our freezer can make the space.

The scallion milk bread from yesterday was on the list, so that’s been checked off. So was the invisible gateau/apple cake I made last weekend. Today, I made another batch of homemade, toasted garam masala, so that’s been replenished. We also have a jar of chili oil that is ready for dumplings anytime. I have a number of different pumpkin desserts I want to make, including pumpkin apricot bread (more like cake), pumpkin mochi muffins, and maybe even pumpkin streusel muffins. Cream puffs were something I wanted to make, but they are a bit finicky and Chris seemed unenthused by them, so it’s unlikely I will be making them before Pookie arrives. I also want to make the browned butter miso chocolate chip cookies that have long been on my list to make, not to mention finally make use of the tinned passion fruit pulp I have to make a cake, but that will wait until two weekends from now when my friend and her husband come visit. A round cake, at least in our house, seems to only make sense when we have guests to entertain.

Sick of asparagus now

Every spring, I look forward to seeing fresh spears of asparagus at the markets, tight, green, waiting to be roasted or stir fried. If I’m not stir frying them Chinese/Vietnamese style with shiitake mushrooms, then I’m usually taking the lazy way out by trimming the woody ends, cutting the spears in half, tossing in olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe another seasoning or two, and roasting in my oven for 18-20 minutes. Unfortunately, I think I’ve purchased way too much asparagus this season to the point where now, when I see it, I just feel repulsed.

The last time I made it a week ago, even the center parts that are usually nice and meaty felt woody and branch-like in my mouth as I chewed and chewed… for what felt like forever. I ended up spitting out a few mouthfuls of the chewed up spears because I was concerned that they may not actually go down and cause me to choke.

Even with food, yes, you can have too much of a good thing, even if that thing is usually tasty to you and nutritious. Asparagus is “it” for me.

Steamed broccoli is foul

I had two pounds of broccoli that my friend had left for us in our fridge, and while my standard method of cooking broccoli is to roast it in the oven, I was too lazy to empty out all the contents of the oven (I’m Asian, which means the oven is prime storage space!!), so I decided to just do the easier thing and steam them over the stove, then toss them in the Sambal Lady’s lime leaf sambal. Unfortunately, halfway through the steaming process, Chris noted that something smelled off, and I realized he was referring to the broccoli. When you are the one cooking something, sometimes the smells do not affect you in the same way as it does someone who’s not in the kitchen, so I thought nothing of what he said. That is — until I went to take out the trash and came back, and I entered the apartment again. OMG, I thought. That smell is atrocious! It smells like a mix of bad, rotten vegetables and maybe sulfur mixed in. No wonder so many kids hate broccoli, I finally empathized. If I was served broccoli that smelled like THIS, there’s no way I would have enjoyed broccoli growing up!

Well, I am never making that mistake ever again. I am never steaming broccoli ever, ever again. Broccoli needs to be roasted, baked, stir-fried, or even eaten raw in a slaw-form. Steaming broccoli is just pure nastiness.

Taking care

“I was telling my guys at work that it feels sooooo nice to have someone else cook for me,” my friend gushed while we took a walk outside this afternoon. “It’s nice to feel taken care of for once. It’s also nice to not have to think about what I have in the fridge or what I need to cook to get a meal on the table.”

She has been buying a lot of our raw ingredients for my cooking, and a couple days ago she brought back Persian cucumbers, so I asked if she was planning to use them for something. She said no, so I made a quick Sichuanese-style spicy garlicky cucumber salad — my go-to dish when I have a lot of cucumbers but I don’t really have any creativity to think about something new to do with them. We had them as a side for dinner this evening, and she totally obsessed over them. “What’s in the cucumber salad?” she asked. This is my first hint that she really likes something. Then, she said, “I’m ALL about this salad. I’m definitely having another serving.” She finished her plate, got another serving of the cucumber salad, and inhaled it all. I’ve never seen anyone get so excited about cucumber salad, ever.

I love the feeling of taking care of other people. That’s why I hope this transfer works out so I can have a little one to watch grow and nurture and feed endless delicious things. Hopefully, it will have a good appetite and love a variety of foods.