Saturday, June 30, 2012

saturday morning = pancakes

Last night, we got some blackberries in our produce haul from Fresh Fork Market.

I started thinking of different ways to enjoy these berries - in plain yogurt, with a little honey mixed in... in a salad... by itself... and then I remembered the cheese we got. And I remembered how much I love fruit and cheese combinations. Sweet and savory together is always a winner in my book. Like raspberries and Brie. Figs and gorgonzola. Watermelon and feta. Dark chocolate and sea salt.

We were supposed to get some feta from our CSA, but they ran out (it must be really good!). I was a bit disappointed, because this was supposed to be the real-deal sheep's milk feta, from Lucky Penny Farm. So they offered a substitute. We selected Camembert, which was from Mayfield Road Creamery.

The Camembert was amazing. When we got it, it was at the perfect room temperature (which is the temperature to fully enjoy cheese). It was smooth, creamy, and rich, but not too pungent.

As you can tell from the photo, we already did some significant damage to it after enjoying it last night and this morning. 

And, we also got something extra special from our produce pickup - yogurt!!! I was excited about this, thanks to this description from their website:

The next exciting product is our yogurt from Velvet View Farms in Big Prairie Ohio (south of Wooster).  This was my favorite new product last year, to the point that I take a 3 gallon bucket home each month.  The product has exceptional flavor and is very versatile.  It is very runny so I use mine in place of buttermilk in baking and sometimes even milk in recipes.

The yogurt has only one ingredient: cultured milk.  It has no stabilizers like pectin or added milk solids.  This keeps it runny but 100% authentic.  My favorite fact is that it is 17 ft 2 inches from the udder to the pasteurizing  tank.  When the cows are being milked, a valve is turned and the warm milk flows directly to the tank in the other room.  The temperature is brought up, the culture added, and 10 hours later they are ready to bottle yogurt.

It doesn't get any fresher than that. 

So this morning, I decided to make pancakes inspired by Smitten Kitchen's recipe for sour cream pancakes.

This recipe produces pancake batter that is a little runnier than usual, but I like it because I prefer moist, thin pancakes - nothing like the boxed kind that gets a bit dry. I remember when we were growing up, and pancakes were such a treat for us. My brother was great at flipping pancakes, and I remember how he used to flip them like a professional by shaking the pan and flipping the pancake that way, without using a turner. Back home, we didn't even have the real maple syrup (maple trees don't grow there), so we used the imitation "maple-flavored" syrup - which I now honestly think is horrible, after tasting the real deal maple syrup. But back then we didn't care - we had pancakes!

Anyway. This morning's pancakes. I halved the recipe (since there were just two of us) and did a few tweaks.

Sweet and Savory Pancakes, for 2 (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

This recipe makes about 5 pancakes.
  • 4 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour (you can add a bit more if you find this recipe too liquid-y after mixing or if you want thicker pancakes)
  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt (the original recipe calls for sour cream, which is good too)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • a pinch of fresh lemon zest
  • Butter, for pan
  • Blackberries (or any other fruit)
  • Sliced Camembert (without the rind)
  • Maple syrup

(I used a 2-cup glass measuring cup in place of a mixing bow, for easy pouring into the pan)

Heat a skillet over medium low heat so that it starts to get hot while you measure and mix. 

In a small bowl, take some blackberries and add just a little bit of sugar. Let it sit to macerate for 5-10 minutes so that the fruit releases some of its juices.

natural juices of the blackberries coming out

Mix all the wet ingredients into the measuring cup (or bowl), then add the dry ingredients. Whisk together just until incorporated; a little lumps are ok.

I think the key to making pancakes is to keep the heat on medium-low, so that it cooks through without the underside getting burned. Especially with this particular recipe, which has a greater proportion of liquid ingredients to dry, it needs time to cook through on medium-low heat.

Once the pan was hot (I used my cast iron skillet - which, once hot, stays hot very well), I melted a little butter then slowly poured pancake batter into the pan, letting the batter spread until it was the size I wanted (I'd say about 5 inches across maybe?).

Let it cook undisturbed until bubbles start to form:

The pancake itself will "tell" you when it's ready to be flipped. You should be able to insert your turner easily under the pancake to flip it over. If it fights against you, wait just a bit longer.

Then once it's flipped, top with a few slices of Camembert so that it melts a bit while the other side of the pancake cooks.

Once cooked, top with some blackberries (include some of the sweet juice that collects in the bowl after macerating). Pour a little maple syrup over, and serve.


I prefer not to stack my pancakes, as I want a just-right proportion of toppings to pancakes without overwhelming my plate. But that's just me. Feel free to stack as many as you want!

These pancakes are so light and moist - and flavorful from the tangy yogurt, bright lemon zest, and the little bit of vanilla. Of course, it was after I finished my pancakes that I remembered: some toasted slivered almonds or walnuts would be good in here...note to self for next weekend's pancakes.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

when i need a pep talk


What a week.

Been feeling frustrated with my work lately - call it academic writer's block. I can't seem to get unstuck in my writing and editing (or lack thereof).

This song - Defying Gravity - was just what I needed to hear; and performed by no less than Lea Salonga, our national singing treasure (the original Kim in Cameron Macintosh's West End/Broadway musical, Miss Saigon - go Philippines!). Watch the video, and be prepared to get goosebumps.

I remember watching the musical Wicked in Cincinnati some years ago, and crying when this song was sung (ok, ok, I know... a lot of things make me cry, including TV commercials). And it wasn't even Lea singing then. Yes, we refer to her on a first-name basis in the Philippines.

Lea's version here is amazing -- and I love how, despite all her international acclaim from a sweep of so many theater awards for her performance in Miss Saigon -- she is still so Filipino - note how she makes the sign of the cross before singing! As our comedian Rex Navarete says, that is "hella Pinoy"!!!

It's time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes: and leap!

It's time to try

Defying gravity
I think I'll try
Defying gravity
And you can't pull me down!

How's that for motivation?

Oh, and I read that she was actually pregnant while singing this? I can't imagine how someone can breathe for herself AND another little being growing inside AND sing like this.

Now where's that green "defy gravity" shirt? Maybe I should wear it while writing my this point, I'll take anything with even the most remote possibility of helping!

My future is unlimited...

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

is it Saturday yet?

I have so many blog posts forming in my head. About health, yoga, friends, food (been on an Ethiopian food kick lately and made it twice in one week. More on that later)....but I've been pretty swamped with work. We've been having some gorgeous summer days here in Cleveland (well, at least till the 90+ degree summer storm weather on Friday), and all I want to do is relax in the sun like this:

My friends R+N's dog, Elsa. Isn't she a beauty?

And maybe with a pretty drink in hand (well, a "mocktail" for me) like this:

Got some work to do... over and out.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

happy summer solstice!

image source

The longest day of the year...

And we're having what seems to be a heat wave (90+ degrees) in Cleveland. It's usually more pleasant than this.

I've been working my butt off this week to meet some deadlines... and realize I haven't blogged at all this week. After we hit "submit", I have some really fun things to look forward to!

~Visiting my friend who just had a baby last weekend! She also asked me to take photographs of her little newborn Beatrice. The pressure is on...I hope I'm up for the task! I haven't taken any pictures of anything this week (SAD!) and I'm feeling a void... but a photo session with a sweet little newborn more than makes up for it. And I'll get to hold a baby - a tiny, yet incredibly amazing miracle. Can't wait!

~Our weekly produce pickup is on Friday. We are getting fresh peas again! Oh, and tofu - made in Cleveland! (By the way, I found a great resource on how to store produce in the fridge without plastic - there's a printable pdf file on the website)

~Harvesting fresh cilantro from our balcony herb pots - my herbs are growing! (with my not-so-green thumb, I can never tell what plants will make it... and of course as I'm typing this, I feel like I just jinxed it and now for sure my cilantro is going to bolt. Ok, think positive...)

~Joining a yoga class on Friday evening and we'll be doing 108 sun salutations for the summer solstice. (I'm sure I'll take a break and do child's pose here and there, so it won't actually be 108... but you get the idea)

~A. and I are going to Cincinnati this weekend to visit some of our old friends... who I miss dearly... and I miss my old stomping grounds.

Meanwhile, I am craving Jeni's grapefruit frozen yogurt. I don't think I have time to re-create it at home this week... a run to the store might be in my near future. And hopefully soon I can dig into this book.

Stay cool and hydrated, friends!

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Friday, June 15, 2012

hello, coffee... it's you again.

In between some crazy deadlines, I've been thinking about this concept of actualization vs. ambition (see here and here). I've studied and written a little bit about self-actualization before (thanks, Maslow) and it's always been something that interests me. More on that later...

In the meantime... Yes, crazy deadlines. I'm actually working through fatigue right now and feeling like crap, to be quite honest. But I thought I'd stop in here for a bit. This blog has become my respite, for my own sanity.

I used to drink a LOT of coffee. I can remember a time when I could drink it 3-4 times a day. And then it became once a day. Then one day, it was like I woke up and didn't want to drink it anymore. Strange. So for a few years, all I drank (caffeine-wise), was black (Earl Grey, from here) or green tea (my favorite "Sunburst," also from here).

And then over the winter, I started craving coffee. But for me it had to be espresso or with espresso, not regular coffee. Not to be picky, but hey, we like things the way we like them, right?

A. and I went to Chicago the week of Thanksgiving last year (I needed to renew my passport at the Philippine consulate, so we made a short holiday out of it), and as expected, it was COLD. We went to a brunch place and ordered cappuccinos, and they were served in real cups and saucers - which seems to be a luxury nowadays in the world of to-go paper cups. There was something comforting about sitting down to a steaming cup of good espresso and frothy, foamy milk (whole milk, please! If I'm having a cappuccino, I'm going to have a darned good cappuccino.).

Check out that foam! Cappuccino in EATT, Chicago. Sorry for the poor lighting.

After that, I would go get a cappuccino maybe once a month. And then it became once a week... and then I'm realizing, I want it even more often than that now. Thanks to said crazy deadlines.

So. I don't want this to become an expensive habit. Meaning I really should make it at home. I only have a regular coffee maker (which hardly gets any use now). I want my espresso jolt.

I remember back home, we had a pretty fancy espresso maker. It even had a built-in attachment to steam and froth milk. After a few uses, it broke. Then we had the stovetop espresso maker, and it lasted a long time. I remember we also had an antique coffee grinder (as in with the handle you rotate to grind coffee!). Grinding coffee became a ritual.

I've been hearing a lot about these automatic espresso machines...

image source

But I tend to be wary of those coffee-in-single-serve-pods. I didn't like their flavor. Admittedly, I haven't tried this brand though.

And these machines are gosh-darn expensive! Definitely beyond our budget right now, especially after all the traveling we did recently. And as compact as this seems to be, it still takes up some precious countertop real estate in our tiny kitchen.

So I've been eyeing this little guy:

image source

Compact, and for a fraction of the price. Almost a no-brainer.

Thoughts on espresso makers, anyone?

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

putting myself out there, a.k.a. "being vulnerable"

I just stumbled upon this gal's blog through a friend's blog that I visit pretty regularly (I love finding new blogs this way!). In this post, she quoted:

In the Mind of God, there is a fully created image of you at your most creative, abundant and joyful. And there is a divine blueprint by which this image would take form in your life. It is not something you can make happen, but it is something you can allow to happen, by making the softening of your heart your primary goal. This is the meaning of spiritual surrender. (Marianne Williamson)

Wow... this idea of "softening your heart" - it reminds me of the work of Brene Brown (have you seen her TED talks?). There was one talk that I listened some time ago in which she talked about the idea of vulnerability, and how "vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change". Which can then lead us to what Williamson calls our "fully created image of us at our most creative, abundant and joyful".

Pretty powerful stuff. It amazes me to see the connection between what people are saying...

What amazes me even more is the truth to their words. To reach our full potential, we have to put ourselves "out there" - something I've always been hesitant to do.

It's my secret dream (well, not-so-secret now!) to write a book one day. Well, two books actually - one education-related and one would be a book of photographs with accompanying reflections/meditations. It requires putting myself out there.

My dream of starting a small food business. Again, putting myself out there.

Taking the leap to teach yoga again. Once again... it means putting myself out there. Being vulnerable.

But as Brene Brown says, vulnerability is not a bad thing. Galileo put himself in a vulnerable position to say that the earth revolves around the sun.

I went back to the times I put myself out there, allowed myself to be vulnerable. And how it felt to be in that situation. How nerve-wracking it was, and yet, how amazingly fulfilling it was. Like presenting research at a professional conference. It was scary - standing up in a room full of people, all of whom were expecting new knowledge.

I remember other times I've put myself out there in the past. It's funny how I much more of a risk-taker I was when I was younger. When I was in college, I started a small food business with my brother's then-girlfriend (now his wife). We both loved to bake. And she was good at selling. We both came up with an idea, and one Christmas started selling pastries. It was such a great experience - to have people call us and place their orders, baking long into the night, and even making our own boxes (thanks to my brother, who was then an architecture student and made us a template for our boxes!). It was by no means a large-scale venture - we probably did it for at least 2 Christmases - but the point is, we put ourselves out there. We took the risk. More importantly, it taught us lessons. And - we had a blast!

Then again... I realize, I put myself out there all the time. Like on this blog. Even all the writing I do for my academic work... and it's no wonder I get so nervous every time I compose the email to my advisors with my most recent draft attached. I feel vulnerable, because I put my mind, heart, and soul into the work, for someone else to see and judge. I feel vulnerable - there I am, staring at my computer screen, second-guessing myself and then finally taking a deep breath before I hit "send."

It is in that deep breath that I soften my heart, affirm that I've done the work, then let myself be vulnerable... and in the process let myself grow - even if it involves making mistakes or failing.

Because it is in not being vulnerable that I keep myself from being open to opportunity and challenge. And without that, how would I achieve innovation, creativity, and change?

Last year I took the lead in writing a federal grant application to develop and implement a 5-year project. It was a long shot, for sure. Here I am, an inexperienced researcher, writing an application (with the support of my advisor) for which only 9 awards were available nationally. For days and days and days I worked nonstop to put together ~250 pages of work. I put myself fully into the task, and I put myself out there. Six months later, we found out that it didn't get funded (a nice way of saying we got rejected!). But you know what? I was proud of the work, regardless. Because our goal was to innovate and create. We got 2 out of 3 really good reviews, but the 3rd review pulled our score down... but all the reviewers had some great constructive feedback to offer.

And so we are resubmitting again this year, with the feedback in mind to make a better, stronger application. We are putting ourselves out there another time -  in the hopes of innovating, creating, and changing.

How have you put yourselves out there?


PS: Watch Dr. Brown's talk here:

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"you are good at things"

So for the past month and a half, I've been thinking about going back to teaching yoga after a LONG hiatus.

A month and a half of thinking, you think? I know. I take a while.

And I've already talked to this yoga teacher and this yoga teacher.

But I still hesitate.

Ugh. Me and my overthinking. All my "what-if's".

Going through my yoga teacher training is one of the best decisions I've ever made. Even if I haven't taught much, I still consider my training as an investment in my overall well-being. Despite all the recent controversies in the yoga world (how yoga can "hurt" you, how yoga is supposedly sexualized, yada yada yada....and if you've heard of these sensationalized topics or scandals and are discouraged from trying yoga... please, give yoga a chance), in essence it really has been a positive and transformative experience for me.

And wouldn't it be fantastic, if I can help others use yoga as a tool to enrich their own lives, however that might be to them.

But teaching scares the heck out of me.

And I've taught gymnastics.

I've taught infants and toddlers with disabilities. And preschoolers.

I've taught undergraduate and graduate students.

I've taught teachers (in my full-time profession, that is).

And in turn, they've all taught me, and my life is better because of it.

It's still scary.

Granted, I know for a fact that I need to revisit my anatomy studies. Teaching yoga, although it may look easy, is not just about playing Zen-like music and being all calm and collected. There's so much anatomy, alignment, and kinesthesiology that goes into it. Especially when it comes to students' safety.

But it's also largely my confidence (or lack thereof) that's stopping me.

Then I came across this funny video:

(I think my favorite one is the guy who said he's good at subtly letting other people know that they have something stuck between their teeth.)

Reminder: We're all good at things.

So... step 1: Prepare my yoga teaching resume.

Step 2: Review my anatomy books.


Enjoy the video, and tell me which one is your favorite! And lastly... what unique/quirky things are you good at?


In case you are interested...
I like this response to the yoga-is-dangerous controversy, and this one too..
And here is a response to the "sexy" yoga video.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

weekend snapshots... and a recipe at the end

I'm all about pink flowers lately.

gerbera daisy

I'm usually more into yellow flowers. But it must be the baby girl fever happening all around me. I know 4 women around me who either have given birth to a baby girl or are expecting a baby girl this year. There's something in the water in Cleveland :)

peony petals starting to open...

I don't usually buy flowers for myself, but I went ahead and got some pink peonies... they truly are special, being available only once a year.

peony in bloom

 Last weekend a group of us hosted a baby shower for a friend, due in the end of July. It was an all-Indian group (except for me - although I've become an honorary Indian now, I guess!). So the weekend involved making a triple batch of palak paneer (spinach and cheese dish) - using 2 bunches of fresh spinach from the CSA and 3 packages of frozen spinach. But it turned out to be a hit - yay!

The baby shower was pretty fun. I planned a few baby games, and thankfully everyone was up for it...

Left: Each guest wrote a suggestion for the baby girl's name on a piece of paper, put it into a jar, and the mommy-to-be opened them one by one to guess who suggested the name. The most fun name in the bunch was Mirchi (spicy!). We all got a kick out of that.

Right: Guests cut a piece of string according to their best estimate of the size of the mommy-to-be's baby bump - without actually measuring her belly. The one with the closest estimate won a prize - a chocolate bar from yours truly. The one who won had the exact measurement! The others were pretty close. Well, what do you expect when half the group are engineers!

 Left: Indian tradition to bless the expecting couple

Right: guests wrote wishes for the baby, which will go in a scrapbook later

I ate. A lot. After coming back from India, I took a break from Indian food (believe it or not!). I do love it and typically crave it at least once a week, but I realized that eating it everyday 3x a day for 2 weeks (in India) took its toll on me. On our way home from our travels, even A. said, "I think we're both Indianed-out" (yes, that's a new technical term he came up with) and decided to have Chinese noodles and dimsum at our Mumbai airport layover.

But at the baby shower, everyone brought food and I ate a little bit of everything - samosas (dumplings with spiced potatoes), pakora (stuffed peppers, battered and fried), channa masala (chickpeas), dal (lentils), the palak paneer A. and I made, gulab jamun (doughnuts in syrup - like their version of beignets, I suppose). Whew. Everything was really good.

So the next day, I needed some lighter food again...

spring salad with radishes and minted peas

Just a few handfuls of lettuce, sliced peppery radishes, and minted peas...

Minted Peas, for the party-food-hangover

about 2 cups of fresh peas, shelled (or frozen peas)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
zest of half a lemon
a few squeezes lemon juice
chopped fresh mint

I got these peas from last Friday's produce pickup. I realized later that I should have cooked these the very same day I got them - as fresh peas start converting its sugars into starch the longer it sits. Which is why frozen peas actually tend to be sweeter - because they are shelled and frozen right after they are picked. Although these peas were still good and had a nice snap when you bite into them, they had already lost some sweetness. Note to self...

(On a side note. I'm so thankful to have a husband who is not above shelling peas with me.)


Bring a pot of water to a boil. Salt the water (season from the start!), then add the peas. Meanwhile prepare a bowl of ice water. Once the water comes back up to a boil and the peas are bright green (this happens fairly quickly!), take the peas out of the boiling water and plunge them into the ice bath to stop cooking.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a skillet - I like combining the two for flavor, and also because the olive oil helps with the butter's low smoke point (so the butter doesn't burn quickly). Drain the peas and add them to the skillet. Let cook until heated through, then season with salt (if needed) and pepper, lemon zest, and lemon juice to taste. Add the chopped fresh mint at the end.

This can be a great side for another entree, or as a salad mix-in as we did. I didn't even need extra dressing for the salad, as the peas already had a minty and lemony olive oil and butter flavor. Just a tiny pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper over top, and it was good to go. It made for an easy, fresh, and light Sunday dinner after the (over)eating the day before. ;-)

Have any of you eaten fresh peas the same day they were picked? I'd love to hear, as it seems like a luxury nowadays - unless you grow your own, that is.

Off to work. Have a great week!

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Friday, June 8, 2012

summer produce, week 1

This decision is long overdue, but we finally joined a CSA!

I've been wanting to join one for a while, but I was worried about the long-term commitment considering how crazy - but crazy-good - our life has been over the past year and a half (um, 3 weddings anyone? - see #1, #2, #3).

Now that we will finally be settling into a routine, I looked up some CSA programs in our area. I really wanted to join one that either had a pickup location close to us or a home delivery. Unfortunately, farmers' markets are at least a 30-minute drive for us (I'm not a huge fan of driving...). Our neighborhood grocery store does carry some local produce, but not a lot.

I found Fresh Fork Market, which has multiple weekly pickup locations - one of which is practically just around the corner from us. All their products are sourced within 75 miles, with the exception of a dairy farm that is farther than that.

image source

The nice thing too is that we were able to join for just a month (for now) to give us an idea of how much produce we will be getting. I always worry about having too much and wasting food, so this was a concern I had... although, I suppose it will encourage me to get more creative in the kitchen to use up all the produce.

this bag was nearly overflowing with produce!

Then, we can decide later if we want to subscribe for the rest of the season (which runs until November).

They have a variety of packages, and we got the small vegetarian package. Here is the produce haul for this week:

1 head kohlrabi
1 bunch collard greens
1 quart strawberries
1 bunch red russian kale
1 bunch garlic scapes
1 head green leaf lettuce
1 bunch radishes
1 quarter lb bag pea tendrils
2 bunches spinach
1 head broccoli
1 lb shelled peas
1 container feta cheese (4 oz)
1 lb sweet pea and black pepper linguini from Ohio City Pasta

What a list of goodies - Strawberries in season! Pea tendrils! Garlic scapes! (Pardon the multiple exclamation points, but yes I'm excited)

I was also intrigued by the sweet pea and black pepper linguine from Ohio City Pasta... fresh pasta is always such a treat. I couldn't help it, I cooked it for dinner already - just simply tossed with olive oil and butter (and of course the essential ladleful of starchy pasta water for the pan sauce), lots of freshly ground black pepper and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, a la cacio e pepe (which technically uses Pecorino Romano cheese as it is a Roman dish, but A. prefers parm). It was so darn good, it needed nothing else for flavor. I totally get it when Italians say that the pasta is actually the star of the dish, not the sauce... when the pasta itself is this good, it doesn't need a whole lot more than simple ingredients.

sweet pea and black pepper linguine

I can't wait to make this recipe with the kohlrabi... I have to admit I have not tried cooking with kohlrabi yet, so I'm really curious to see how this will turn out. It sure is a funny-looking vegetable.

One day, I'd like to actually work at a CSA/farm and learn about how to grow food - beyond potted herbs on a balcony. I think it will be a good learning experience for me, seeing that I can kill a cactus (and have actually done so before - though my basil and cilantro are starting to come out of the soil now!). There's something to be said about being close to the earth and the source of food and all that.

But in the meantime, I'll enjoy my weekly produce pickup.

peppery radishes (already enjoyed one with butter and salt!)

One thing's for sure... we'll be eating a LOT more vegetables this week! The gears in my brain are spinning as I think of new cooking experiments.

Maybe a frittata with the red russian kale...

Maybe I can replicate the sauteed collard greens from my favorite Ethiopian restaurant...

Then lots and lots of salad combinations with the very large head of Romaine lettuce. Thinly sliced radishes and some pea tendrils will be in one of the combinations...

Hello, summer.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

alfresco lunch for one, just because

Every now and then, I need a little change in my routine. Working from home has its advantages, but also its disadvantages... one of which is that I tend to go a little bit crazy towards the end of the week, after feeling cooped up for days (except for my walks and yoga classes). And I feel sorry that poor A. has to deal with it when he gets home on Friday evenings.

I went out to run a couple of errands today. It was a perfect day - sunny, breezy, 70-degree weather. After my errands, it was time for lunch... so I thought, why don't I have a pleasant lunch out?

So to banish the mid-week slump, I spontaneously decided to drive over to Flour, an Italian restaurant not too far from where I live. The host asked, "Table for 2?" And to which I responded, "no, for one." Why not, right?

I asked to be seated outside, because it was a perfect day for an alfresco lunch. The server greeted me and asked, "are you waiting for someone?" and I proudly said, "no, it's just me!"

Dining alone has its pleasures. As much as I love the company of my husband and friends, lunch is a great time to just be comfortable in my skin and in the company of my own thoughts.

It didn't take long for me to decide on what to have. Not too long after, this beauty came out:

Chilled, basil-infused canteloupe and honeydew soup: it was like summer in a bowl. (It was served with the canteloupe and honeydew in an almost perfect half-and-half division in the bowl; but I decided to swirl it for the photo above)

I do love restaurants that serve seasonal items. This was the perfect dish for a sunny day.

I was almost tempted to dine the way Italians seem to do - in courses - with the bread, the antipasti or starter, first course, second course, etc... but then that is certainly more enjoyable when the meal is shared.

I happily savored and finished my soup and my citrus-fennel salad, then went on with my day.

It's amazing what a difference a little change in routine can make.

What do you do to change your routine?

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Friday, June 1, 2012

lessons from India

I'm savoring a little quiet time now, to finally write after the many thoughts and emotions are now settling down, like residual tea leaves on the bottom of a teacup.  I thought I'd list some of my observations about this new place that I've learned about...

Lesson #1: Personal space does not exist. And it's nothing personal.

We arrived in Mumbai, India late in the evening of May 5th. We took a car to the hotel we had booked for a little respite (and much-needed shower) so that we could feel a bit more refreshed before our next flight early the next morning. After having experienced  the relatively more orderly roads and highways in the US, driving in India to me felt like absolute mayhem. I thought I wouldn't be surprised by it given the traffic conditions I was used to growing up in Manila. But this was an entirely different beast. Given my anxious tendencies, I don't think I would have it in me to drive here. I don't think the video below fully captures it (this was not in Mumbai but in a smaller city) but you'll hear lots of honking. I think this shows the traffic conditions on a good (unusual) day. I wish I took a video in Mumbai... but I was so overwhelmed coming out of the airport after a long-haul flight.

But somehow, it works. Even if only a mosquito could fit between your car and the pedestrian, or the rickshaw, or motorcycle, or the other car. Somehow, people get to where they need to be. It means though that you hear someone honking his horn probably every 1.32 seconds. Which is why this truck - like many I saw on the road - has a sign that reads "BLOW HORN" - to let them know you are near.

Also, when lining up for anything (e.g. security checks at the airport) you are left with very little space between your backside and the person behind you. But again - somehow, it just works.

Lesson #2: Everything starts with a cup of tea.

Chai, as they call it. Not "chai tea," by the way because chai = tea. (One of the things A. explained to me years ago, in my first immersion into Indian culture when I met - and made friends with - Indians at U.C.)

The day starts with chai in the morning. And again in the afternoon. And maybe even sometime before or after dinner. And if a guest drops by, that warrants another cup. Indians can have chai even on the hottest summer day.

Oh, and it's not in supersized cups mugs bowls as we have gotten used to in coffee shops around here. They are in small, demitasse-size cups, like the one above.

Even when we shopped for saris, the shopkeeper offered us some chai.

My mother-in-law makes chai with black tea, fresh milk (delivered every morning!), sugar, and a little grated ginger.

Lesson #3: The many ways to make Indian bread, given an addition of an ingredient or two and a change in the rolling technique or cooking method.

Roti. Naan. Paratha. Puri.

roti dough resting before being rolled out

If it's cooked over the stove - dry - then it's roti.

roti cooked in a tawa (flat pan)

They also put the roti directly over the fire so that it gets nice deep brown marks. Then it puffs up and then flattens again.

If it's rolled with ghee (clarified butter), folded, then rolled again (usually into a triangle shape, but they also make other interesting shapes like spiral ones), and then cooked over the stove with ghee - then it's paratha. Paratha can also be stuffed with a variety of ingredients like spiced potatoes, paneer (homemade cheese), or methi (fenugreek). Plain parathas with sauteed vegetables is the typical breakfast.


(Oh, and when I offered my first paratha to my father-in-law, he gave me 100 rupees as a little gift, as is their tradition. :) )

If it's deep fried, then it's puri.

If it's cooked in a clay oven, it's naan. And most interesting of all:

If it's mixed with ghee, shaped into a mound (instead of rolled flat), cooked in boiling water and then cooked on the ambers of dried cow dung, it's called bafla.

bafla, in the center of the plate

Lesson #4: Rolling round rotis

This requires an artful technique of being able to respond to the dough with just the right touch, pressure, and weight on the rolling pin. Knowing what side of the rolling pin on which to put more weight - ever so slightly - so that the dough, slowly becoming flatter and thinner, almost moves in a circle as you roll.

 Mine would never come out perfectly round, but my mother-in-law's and sister-in-law's rotis always do (as you can see above). Then again, they do make this every single day.

Lesson #5: Slow food.

It seemed like there was something going on in the kitchen ALL the time. Everything was made from scratch. Without a recipe, just by feel.

My mother-in-law takes the cream that settles on the top of the container of fresh milk that they get delivered every morning. She collects the cream for 14 days until she has enough, then she makes butter out of it. Then she clarifies it to make ghee. I wasn't there long enough to see the process happen... maybe next time.

They also make their own chutneys, crunchy snacks for the kids, fruit drinks, addition to 3 meals and a tea time snack.

Lesson #6: Seeing my husband play with his niece and nephew, and hearing him change his voice to a child-like voice to talk to them - it makes my heart skip a beat.

Not that I was all that surprised.

(This is not the sweetest photo I have of A. playing with his nephew and niece, but he's a bit iffy about having his pictures posted here - unless it's a not-so-in-your-face angle like this one)

Lesson #7: Quote from A.: "Indians live for 3 things. Weddings, Bollywood, and cricket."

Our wedding #3 was an amazing experience. There were 700 people! Which, believe it or not, is small by Indian standards; A.'s older brother had over 2,000 people.

No, that is not a Bollywood set or concert stage that we happened to stumble upon and re-purpose for our wedding. It's an actual "wedding stage" - in which the couple greets the 700 (or 3,000, as the case may be) guests who come up to the stage to extend their wishes and offer presents.

And - the brighter the better. The more colorful, the better. 

Lesson #8: Bring on the bling.

Married women have to have a number of things on them to signify that they are married. The bhindi (on the forehead), the bangles on both arms, the mangal sutra (necklace with black beads), paayal (ankle bracelets) and the toe rings. Whew! Quite a departure from my usual minimal accessorizing.

Not just for a wedding...

thank goodness these are not real diamonds

 But even on a regular day.

glass bangles

Lesson #9: Learning Hindi

Hindi is a pretty complex language to me. Like French and Spanish, a "gender" is assigned to things and that changes how the word is spoken/written. Also, names for respect (Chachi/Chacha for aunt and uncle, respectively) are different depending on whether they are from your mother's side of the family or your father's side of the family.  If they are from the father's side, then they are "Kaki/Kaka." And the "Chachi" is spoken after the name. Unlike in English, in which I would be "Aunt Mia", or in Filipino "Tita Mia" - in India, I am "Mia Chachi".

I did well with food names though. Those were easy for me to learn, as I had known them since I started eating out at Indian restaurants in the US, and cooking Indian food at home with A.

Also, the sounds are so different. Some sounds are very nasal in nature, some come from touching the tongue to your upper palate a certain way, some require letting out an almost-exhale, for example when an /h/ follows a consonant. I'm not doing the best job at explaining this. But my sister-in-law, who I call Bhabi (respect for older sister), gets amused at how I attempt to make these sounds. She studied linguistics though, so she was an excellent teacher. Oh, and "Bhabi" is an example - the /bh/ sound is not like a regular /b/. You also somehow pronounce the /h/ next to it, in a subtle way.

And the word kadhi, for example, which is a yogurt-based dish that I like. I can't ever say it right. The /dh/ sound seems to be a pretty common one in their language, so it's a sound I've been practicing even before going to India - much to A.'s amusement. It's the one where you roll your tongue gently against your upper palate.

I think I did an ok job learning Hindi, for a visit that was under 2 weeks. Talking to the kids helped. I brought some (English) picture books for them, and I learned some animal names as a result of listening to them label the pictures in Hindi.

I love it when A.'s 2-year-old nephew warmed up to me and started talking to me like we were having an actual conversation. "Mia-Chachi, Mia-Chachi!!! ..........................(insert a whole string of words I can't understand).............hai na? (isn't it?) -- to which I would say, "accha" (ok) or "ha" (yes). He would tell me whole stories like this, in the cutest little voice ever.

The problem is, the early childhood educator in me would come out and feel regret about not being able to facilitate conversation, expand on his developing language, etc etc etc... Oh well.

Oh, wait - I'm the one trying to develop language here.

I need to start practicing those sounds more. A little trivia: we are actually born with the potential in our brains to make all these sounds; it's just that we only make the synaptic connections to make the sounds we hear in our native language. Which is why children can learn 2 languages simultaneously - because their brains are getting wired early on to be able to recognize the nuances of sounds in different languages and make the sounds to form words and eventually sentences. The infant brain is an amazing, amazing thing. I hope our future children learn all 3 languages (English, Filipino, Hindi).

After 33 years, I hope I can make more synaptic connections...

Lesson #10: Quote from Dadi, A's grandmother: "A human being is a human being."

I feel so incredibly grateful for being warmly accepted by his family, despite the fact that I am the first foreign person in not just his immediate family, but extended family as well.

What Dadi said above (which she of course spoke in Hindi, and A. translated), is something she told him long ago when he first told her about me - a non-Indian of a different culture, religion, and language.

I remember crying upon hearing this, touched by what she said.

Prior to meeting Dadi in person, I actually met her on a Skype video call - in which she blew me a kiss. So sweet.

During my visit, she talked to me in Hindi all the time, and I could only nod, smile, and say "ha" (yes) or "accha" (ok). I think she was giving me advice. All I know for sure is that it was said in a kind, loving voice, as she always touched my cheek or gently or gave me a sincere squeeze with each hug.

Here she is with my Mom...

A petite powerhouse, just like my Mom, wouldn't you think?

More details on the food and wedding #3 next time!

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