This song. It makes me feel hopeful and happy and full of energy. Like a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice in a pretty glass on a beautiful Saturday morning with sunshine streaming in the window and dancing on the table.
I love this video. I love Madison. I love Bucky. I can’t believe we’ll be visiting Wisco in just 3 short months. Can’t wait.
This photo. I love having my parents here. And, as much as my mom hates it, I love taking photos of them too. Finally, Chris has someone to share the burden with!
They made it. After 20-some hours sitting in couch seats on 3 different loooong flights.
So far they’ve had a few meals, walked a few miles, and we’re loving having them here.
I haven’t written a blog post in a few days. I feel negligent. I feel a little guilty. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve been semi-productive in real life.
In the past week I: cooked dinner, baked bread, cleaned the house, hung paintings, did massive loads of laundry, cleaned out the freezer, made and froze dinners and desserts for a rainy day, made progress at work, attended a dinner party, took care of my sicky husband, worked on my “book,” found a birthday present for said husband, worked out twice, and eaten chocolate only once.
Thank you for allowing me to use this forum for self-congratulation. What can I say? I miss gold stars.
But I haven’t been doing it all for the gold stars this week. No way, my inspiration is even better:
My parents arrive in Chengdu tonight. This is their first trip to China, first trip to Asia. Heck, its their first trip overseas together in over 25 years of marriage.
In some ways, I feel like a horrible daughter. They’re flying coach for like 24 hours just to come see us. They will be navigating the Beijing airport alone on their first time outside an English-alphabet country. My father has bad sinuses, a bad back and even worse ADD (he also gets disoriented in crowds and new places–and I’m making him come to China!!?!). My mother is using her luggage to bring me luxuries like maply syrup and baking chocolate.
The least I can do is make sure they have a hot supper ready when they get in and clean sheets to collapse between.
To up the ante, I even put a fruit bowl in their room. And lots of picturse of my sister. Because, oh yea, my parents have to miss my sister’s birthday to be here.
I officially feel like the worst daughter and sister ever.
But anything I can do to convince them that this international travel thing is totally worth the hassle, I’ll do.
Which is why there are coconut macaroons in the freezer on standby and a 2 sets of fork and knives ready to go into my purse for the next 2 weeks.
Now if only the clock would move just a little faster. It feels like the hour hand is buried somewhere in a bowl of wet concrete mixed with molasses.
10 hours folks until they touch down in Chengdu. Can not wait.
Last night we did dinner for six plus two cute munchkins. We served DIY Vietnamese fresh spring rolls with all of the fixings, shrimp, basil, mint, egg strips, honey-roasted pork, crunchy cucumbers, sprouts, and two different dipping sauces. We just crowded everyone around the table, jumping up to grab something from the other side of the table, retrieve a soaking rice wrapper, or check on a munchkin.
The table looked magnificent. The kitchen looked scary. This is one of those meals that is insanely easy to pull off and make it look like a million bucks but I would recommend that one starts chopping and washing the veggies more than 2 hours before service, oops I mean dinner time. (too much Top Chef watching at Chez Dumm!)
You can do the whole thing in under two hours but your kitchen might look like a vegetable garden exploded in it if you do.
I think we scared the good people who tried to help us clear dinner plates and couldn’t find even one single square centimeter of clear counter space to put them on. Even the washer and dryer (hey, they are large and horizontal) were already covered in dishes and strips of cucumber peel.
In any case, our exploding kitchen isn’t the real story here. The real story is dessert.
For dessert I had planned on Thai: Mangos with sticky rice. I diligently started soaking my rice in coconut milk on Friday night, but when we went to market (make that 3 markets and 2 fruit stands) we realized there were no mangos to be had. Ah, the curses of eating seasonally and locally! 🙂
So we needed a plan b, preferably something that wouldn’t waste the massive amounts of coconut-soaked rice I had soaking in the kitchen.
I found this recipe on Epicurious, but decided it needed a twist. I remember this fantastic tapioca dessert we had in Malaysia. At first taste, it was just a slightly salty pile of coconut and chewy goo. Then they poured on the palm sugar syrup and oh wow. That was salty, sweet, smoothness on a plate.
I wanted something like that so I fiddled and futzed and came up with the recipe below. This isn’t totally precise since I was high on improvising and low on time, but at the end of it you should have a smooth, rich pudding and a deep brown sauce to drizzle on to your desired level of sweetness. A sliver of macaroon and a dash of cinnamon round things off and voila! An upscale take on rice pudding that is do-ahead and comes together in a flash regardless of how much or how little counter space you have left.
Coconut Sticky Rice Pudding with Macaroon and Sugar Sauce
To Make the Macaroons (from Epicurious with a few adaptations)
These macaroons kind of make the dish because of the texture contrast (and the yumminess) you can make them up to a few days ahead and just store in an airtight container
1 large egg white
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond or citrus extract
Pinch of salt
2-2.5 cups dried coconut flakes (unsweetened if you can)
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and line a sheet pan with either parchment paper or a silpat.
Whisk together egg white and sugar in a medium size bowl until slightly foamy. Add in extract, salt and then incorporate coconut flakes until all of the coconut is coated in the egg white mixture.
Pour coconut egg mixture onto prepared pan and spread thinly and evenly. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until edges are a deep brown and the center is light brown.
Allow macaroon sheet to cool to room temperature then cut into strips or triangles about 1-2 inches wide and 3 inches long. (A scissors works great for this). Set aside in an airtight container.
Coconut Rice Pudding
1 cup sticky rice, soaked overnight in coconut milk and water (count on using 1 can)
3 12 oz cans of unsweetened coconut milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 Cup dried coconut shreds (this I would consider optional, I sort of felt like they interrupted the smooth pudding texture)
The night before, put 1-1.5 cups of sticky rice to soak in a mixture of coconut milk and water. Make sure there is enough liquid for the rice to be fully submersed.
In a large pot combine 3 12oz cans of unsweetened coconut milk and the rice and soaking liquid. Add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 2/3 cup dried coconut if you are using it.
Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Turn the heat to medium-low and cover partially. Simmer and stir frequently for another 30-40 minutes or until rice is completely soft and the mixture looks thick with very little excess liquid floating at the top.
If serving immediately, portion into bowls. Otherwise, stash the covered pot in a cool part of your kitchen for up to a few hours. Rewarm over low heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.
Brown Sugar/Palm Sugar Syrup
1/2 Cup dark brown sugar or palm sugar (the darker the sugar, the better, feel free to throw in a little molasses if you have to)
1/4 Cup water
Combine water and sugar in saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn heat down and allow to simmer for another 5-10 minutes until mixture is slightly reduced. (This recipe is easily doubled or tripled).
Scoop about 3/4 cup of pudding into a bowl, sprinkle with cinnamon and stick 2-3 macaroons in around the edges. Serve along side a small pitcher or serving bowl filled with sugar syrup to let guests put in as much (or as little) sweetness as they like. This pudding is not at all sweet without the syrup but a few tablespoons or so make it very much so.
We’re over the 6 month mark here in Chengdu. On one hand, the time has gone by somewhat fast. On the other hand, we’re only 1/4 of the way through our tour here.
When we arrived we wondered why everyone didn’t eat the delicious Sichuan food everyday. So cheap and easy and delicious!
6 months later and 5 or 10 pounds later, we too find ourselves cooking at home most nights of the week and splurging on Western fare regularly along with the best of them.
6 months ago we wondered why anyone would use an R&R ticket to go back to the US when there are so many other places you could travel with that ticket!?!
This past week we started booking our tickets back Stateside for early February and we’re thrilled.
It’s more than just the cheap accommodations in the US (read: my parents’ house) it’s also the chance to breathe some fresh air, stock up on some consumables, speak English, and see the people we love and miss.
In short, every reason why they give us an R&R ticket in the first place. I guess those State Department people really know what they are doing sometimes.
In April we arrived, convinced we could find me a non-profit job.
6 months later I have a government job, but also a greater sense of clarity about what I really would love to do all day (write) and what we really should do to ensure that I can get back to my beloved non-profit world at our next post (bid on places that actually allow spouses to work on the local economy and get me a master’s degree for good measure).
We arrived in Chengdu 6 months ago as almost newly-weds, thinking we’d already gotten through a lot together just to get here and ready for a whole new adventure.
6 months later we’ve come to understand fully what “interdependence” means. We’ve grown closer in navigating a new country, a new city, a new social circle together. We’ve each shared great unhappiness with the other and great transformation and have survived to learn just how much we can lean on each other and be better for it. We still hug each other on street corners and go googly-eyed for eachother like crazy teenagers but there’s a deeper, richer undercurrent to our relationship now, a greater respect for our marriage and what we are capable of, both good and bad, together.
6 months ago we spoke a little Chinese and didn’t know just how much we’d need to get around. Now we speak a little more and get around just fine.
6 months ago we didn’t know that people obeying 50% of the traffic rules could be more terrifying than when no one does.
6 months ago we didn’t know what pollution was really like, that men here like to roll their shirts up over their Buddha bellies in the heat of the summer, that elderly women could be so pushy and dangerous.
Now I avoid grocery shopping during the senior citizen’s hour as a life-preserving measure.
6 months ago I wondered whether Chinese people felt constrained by the the great Firewall, the propaganda, the limits to what you can say and do and write.
Last week my colleague told me we’d have to take our simple classified ad for a car to the local government authorities for approval before it could be printed in the local paper. And I didn’t blink.
2 weeks ago a Chinese dissident won the Noble Prize. That no one on the streets knew who he was or cared, that few people here would find the notion of “universal rights” viable or relevant to China makes me a little sad but not surprised.
The truth is, there is a reason why the old ladies are so pushy and feisty here, they lived through a time when they simply had to be to survive. There’s a reason why the middle-aged care for increasing their wealth and nothing else-they grew up poor and hungry and are overjoyed to not be that way anymore. The youth, they may be the ones to finally live beyond the shadow of the past, but it’s still hard to say.
6 months ago I wondered whether I’d like China. Today I know that I’ll never be in love with China but that there are things here that I do like, that I’ll miss when we leave.
6 months ago I wondered if I had what it took to do this Foreign Service life-style. Today there are still sore spots on my ego from where I’ve wrestled with self-doubt, self-pity, and the great fear of never accomplishing anything professionally ever again.
But there is also hope and a growing confidence that I’ll make it work, that I’m always learning what to do to make our next move more productive, that I have the most amazing partner and best friend always supporting me in whatever I want to do.
6 months ago I thought the Foreign Service life-style was about travel and culture and languages and food and being able to afford a housekeeper.
Now I know it’s about all of those things but also about challenging oneself; its about a constant renewal of adventure and the constant demands of a good sense of humor, a strong sense of perspective, and a healthy dash of empathy.
It’s about never getting so comfortable that you can’t imagine another way of doing things. It’s a constant test of the bonds between spouses, families and friends that, while difficult and sometimes painful, brings you closer and make you stronger.
Of course, only 6 months in, this all sounds a little bit know-it-all even to my naive ears. 🙂 So check back in another 6 months or another 18 to see what I have to say then…
(Some oldie but goodie photos to accompany this post)
I love fall. I love the smells. The smell of sweet decay as I kick my way through leaf piles that I should probably just walk around. The cool crisp air that still carries just a whisper of the sunshines’s warmth.
That feeling you get when you open the front door with slightly chilly fingers and feel yourself melt a little bit in the mix of cool air and warm homey scents from the kitchen of cinnamon and pumpkin soup and fresh bread straight from the oven.
My mother has rituals to all of the seasons. Its about this time of year that my mom likes to throw open the windows wide open to the chilly but delicious breezes of a Wisconsin fall day. She cleans the house from top to bottom, washing and dusting and drenching in Lysol all of those tiny corners and tucked away places like under the couch cushions and along the base-boards of every room.
In short, every place I never bother to clean as an adult but still feel guilty about not cleaning at least once a month.
Anyways, she cleans the whole house until it sparkles. She might paint and re-decorate a room or two if she’s feeling extra bored. She airs everything out in the fresh breezes so the whole house feels cool, clean, and completely refreshed, ready for the long winter ahead.
Then, over the course of a week or so, the house undergoes a transformation.
The bright summery white hand towels with blue and green trims in the bathrooms are replaced by luxuriously soft towels in shades of red, gold and a tawny brown.
The candles and scented oils take a scented turn and head for the pines.
Arrangements of red and orange leaves, golden sprays of branches and pine cones suddenly grace the tops of cabinets and dressers.
And all of a sudden the freezer is filled with apple pies made from the delicious Duchie apples that grow almost wild now on my grandfather’s farm. The pies nestle in close next to plump red bags filled with her amazing tomato sauce. Oh and all sorts of other deliciousness.
I remember coming home from school years ago and sitting on one of our squeaky kitchen stools, feeling the cold breeze waft in. Even after a long day working at the hospital or cleaning the house, my mom would always have something toasty and delicious to pull out of the oven for a pre-dinner snack. She’d stir something on the stove and I’d tell her about my teachers for the year, the plans for Friday night football game tail-gating with my friends in the parking lot of our tiny high school.
My fingers would be cold by the time I’d finished, but when I’d head upstairs to change out of my school clothes I’d always pause at the top and breath deep. Breathing in all of those smells of fall and clean and home all at once.
At moments like that, I realized that you can be nostalgic for something even as you live through it. In those moments at the top of the stairs, caught up in the smells and the cool kiss of the breeze on my cheek, I always knew how lucky I was and how much I might miss those sensations someday.
Halfway around the world now, I’m in a place where the closest we get to Wisconsin’s fall colors are what I can picture in my mind and see in friend’s Facebook photographs.
But my mom and dad will be here in a few weeks on their first trip to Asia and the cool air at night has me restless in the same way my mom must also feel at this time of year.
And instead of lounging on the couch at night lately I find myself rearranging furniture, cleaning out the fridge and washing the filters in all of our air purifiers.
There’s freshly-baked dense chewy brown bread on our kitchen counter and some new candles on the coffee table that are about as close to cinnamon and pumpkin pie-scented candles as I can find here.
The holiday hand towels are in my cart on Amazon and just waiting for me to pull the trigger and unleash a whole happy mess of festive cheer and celebration.
Tonight the air was clearer than normal and Chris and I went for a walk in our pajamas. It reminded me of our own fall traditions. Our hikes in the Shenandoah Mountains. The nights we’d throw open the windows and wake up in the morning deliciously cozy in our warm bed, an island of warmth in a chilly, sun-lit room. Our long walks at night, raspberry picking at Butler’s farm and jam making adventures. Fall baking and that trip to Whole Foods to pick up a bag of ridiculously cinnamon-scented pine cones to last the whole season.
And I feel grateful and wistful and nostalgic all at the same time. I miss the fall breezes, I miss those distinctly Americana moments of crunchy fall leaves and Halloween candy advertisements in the middle of the tiny town paper.
But I’m grateful too, grateful to be seeing my parents in a few weeks, grateful for the experiences we have here, how much closer we’ve grown to one another because of them. Every passing season we build more of our own traditions, our own family legacy, our own quiet plans.
This may not be the season I remember and loved as a kid and there may be more ma la in our spice mix than nutmeg, but it’s still fall, its still a time for cleaning house and bundling up, stocking the pantry and lighting candles.
Happy Fall Y’all. Can’t wait to share some of my baking and holiday party plans as we live it up autumnally in the ‘du.
We could have few themes for this post. One might be “waste not, want not” for the shockingly responsible use of nearly every pice of produce in our fridge and on our balcony.
Another might be “experimentation” because, in a rare fit of kitchen genius, the onion jam part of the meal was inspired by a craving I felt rather than a recipe I read.
And when I’m talking craving, I’m talking craving. I stood over the oven, dipping charred bits of onion into my balsamic glaze like some sort of sweet-and-sour junkie. It was only with Chris’ intervention that I was able to move on to the next step in my hypothetical recipe before all of the onions disappeared.
Experimentation and produce use aside though, I think the best theme for this post might be, “look what happens when Dani and Chris are too tired and sick to go out for dinner but too bored to eat sandwiches.”
“What do you want for dinner?” I asked the (sick) man of the house.
He looked at me with tired, tired eyes and sniffled a little.
“Bibimbap sounds good.”
“Do you want to make it or go out?”
“We should go out”
“Do you know how to get to the restaurant?”
“No, I’ll look it up”
“Or how about we try that one place we thought was a brothel but is actually supposed to be a respectable Japanese restaurant?”
“We could,” I replied, leaning my head back on the chair and closing my eyes, imagining the effort required to put on real clothes and walk through the smoggy streets.
“Or we could make dinner here? Maybe noodles?”
“That sounds good. Oh and that reminds me, I wanted to try…”
And then suddenly we were both in the kitchen, splitting our two burner stove and 6 inches of counter space, splashing in a touch of this, a pinch of that. A certain amount of chaos ensued as more and more produce was pulled from the fridge and the pile of dirty dishes grew higher and higher in our tiny sink.
And what we ended up with was:
Appetizer: Sauteed Mushrooms in White Wine and Cream on Toast courtesy of Smitten Kitchen
Main Dish: Pan-Fried Chinese Noodles with Stir-fried Pea Shoots
Side: Roasted Broccoli smothered in orgasmic Onion-Balsamic jam.
Dessert: Basil Ice cream (and potentially a slice of warm bread before the night is over)
The onion jam was soo good and soo ugly, it didn’t make it to the photo series but heaven help me. Nothing that easy should be that good. I’m going to make one final tweak to my recipe and then I’ll share it up here.
The mushroom toasts were lovely, I cut back on the dairy a bit and added some Italian-esque spices to the mix which I think worked well. Went surprisingly well with the Chinese noodles. You can find the recipe here.
The noodles and pea shoots were all Chris and they were fantastic. I’ll post that recipe as soon as he remembers exactly what all he put into that dish.
Surprisingly, the basil ice cream, a dish I’ve been dreaming about making for months now, was somewhat disappointing.
I used more basil than the recipe called for but I still didn’t get quite as much basil flavor as I would have liked. I think the real problem though was that I didn’t have an accompaniment for the ice cream.
I think perhaps basil is a flavor we taste most strongly in contrast to something else, and so this is ice cream, on it’s own, is a bit lacking. Something about the way the basil and the cream interact makes the whole thing feel a bit too one-note. You can taste the basil but it’s not a revelation in taste the way, say an ice cream made with fennel is (yes, still owe y’all that recipe).
That being said, I think you could take this recipe and really do something with it. Maybe throw on a little balsamic glaze or serve it with strawberries and biscuits. That might help. I leave that experiment to you:
2 Cups whole milk
1/3-1/2 Cup of sugar (I found 1/2 to be a little too sweet)
Pinch of salt (big pinch is better)
5 Tablespoons of fresh basil, chopped (the original recipe calls for 3)
4 egg yolks
1/2 Cup chilled heavy cream
1. Bring milk, basil, 1/4 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, stirring, then remove from heat and let steep 30 minutes. Transfer to a blender (reserve saucepan) and blend until basil is finely ground, about 1 minute. (Don’t overbeat, if your milk gets too foamy it makes it much more difficult to tell when your custard is finished in the next step.)
2. Beat together yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until thick and pale, about 1 minute. Add milk mixture in a stream, beating until combined well. Pour mixture into reserved saucepan and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture coats back of spoon and registers 175°F on thermometer (do not let boil).
3. Immediately remove from heat and pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl. Set bowl in a larger bowl of ice water and stir until cold, 10 to 15 minutes. (If your sieve is like mine and growing a bit more lenient in it’s old age, try straining the custard twice for smoother results. Stir the solids gently in the sieve to release more liquid but don’t press down too hard or you’ll end up with almost as many little egg solids in the custard as you started with.)
Stir in cream and freeze in ice cream maker. Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 2 hours. (For easiest churning and creamier results, let the custard chill the fridge for a few hours before freezing in the ice cream maker.)
I love taking photos of Chris. Sure, he’s my husband but he’s also just plain nice to look at and often cute to boot. There were so many good/amusing photos of Chris from the honeymoon that I figured I’d put a few up.
Let’s look at some hotel and sunset and beach porn shall we?
I’ve got a whole post of just “Chris photos” coming up. I married an extraordinarily handsome, patient, and sometimes goofy man. I believe “Awas” means something close to “danger” or “caution” in Malay.
And because we never got it together enough to ask someone else to take our picture, here are a few honeymoon shots we did with the timer on my camera. Will someone please remind me to put on some makeup and just ask a stranger for a photo on our next honeymoon?
My workout for the day we took the above photo came in the form of a mad dash to make it from my camera down to Chris on the beach in time.
Ok, that’s the first batch. More to come as well as a long monologue on why I love, love, love the low-budget terminal of the KL airport. Sweet dreams all and stay well!
We’re back. We’re sunburnt. We’re rejuvenated.
Honeymoons are great. We’ve decided that we’re going to have to do another one eventually. Maybe Italy, maybe somewhere else.
I’ve got a post with pictures of orchids and chocolate cake and beaches and quite a few pictures of a very handsome man who I happened to be honeymooning with.
Yes, it was this guy:
This guy with whom I only wish we had even more time to just lay around, not work, read books on a beach, snuggle, and occasionally reach for one another to share a smile or a thought or an idea.
The honeymoon post with all of the envy-inducing photos and stories is coming up, but first I wanted to share a minor new plan for this blog.
For the last 3 months I’ve sat down every night (and sometimes early in the morning) to write up a post and share a photo from the day.
I started this little practice because I didn’t want to become too familiar with the little things around me before I’d documented them and preserved them in writing for a time when they might later seem ordinary and then then, perhaps, eventually forgotten.
China is changing so fast that I didn’t want to let my memory of the Chinese medicine man under the bridge to leave me. I didn’t want to forget the uniquely dangerous character that is an elderly Chinese woman in a grocery store at 10am.
Now, nearly 6 months into our post here, those things are already becoming very ordinary to me-just as I thought they would. Working everyday in an office and living here-not just passing through as a traveler-means that some days look, from the outside, exactly the same as the day before.
Life here goes on, and some of it in a terribly un-China-fied fashion. And I’m realizing that the more I write, the more there is to write. The more there is to write, the less that fits neatly into a daily blog post.
The less that fits neatly into a daily blog post, the more I let real writing, real stories, real research go by the wayside in a quest to just get up a post, get up a mediocre photo and maintain a daily schedule that began with a wholly different purpose in mind.
Surprisingly, taking a photo every day has, in a way, made me a worse photographer rather than a better one as I rushed around looking for something to take rather than thinking about how to actually best capture whatever I’m photographing.
Surprisingly, I’ve found myself sometimes withholding the most interesting conversations of the day, the most precious memories because they were too complicated to write quickly or too important to write poorly. And so instead, they’ve often, sadly, gone unwritten.
And so, I’d like to propose a small change to this blog.
After 94 days of stories and photos of China, I’m bringing the streak to an end.
It was nice while it lasted, but I think that what’s come will be better.
I’m hoping for fewer posts and more quality. Fewer images but better photos. Less time on WordPress and more time in Word-writing down stories and ideas and characters that just don’t jive with this blogging format but that I feel driven to write about anyways.
Look out for a slower pace, but also a resurgence in recipes and ordinary life; more China stories but also hopefully better ones.
And of course, coming up soon, the Malaysian Honeymoon Review… 🙂