Backlog Pt. 1

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Well, it certainly has been a while. But fret not, not much has changed – my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

So first off, I suppose it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room. Why did I stop posting, and why am I now returning?

For me, this past school year can generally be divided into a “before” and “after.” A before when I was still pretty okay, and an after when everything seemed to be imploding in an almost-comical tweenage “end of the world” kind of way.

In the beginning, I would start to write posts, then realize they were freaking depressing, and while great food is metaphorically made with “blood, sweat, and tears,” no one really wants to read a sob story when all they were looking for was a cookie recipe. So I’d delete and start again and the post would take another down and dispirited route. I tried to write about movies I’d seen, places I’d gone, about my friends and my family. I discovered that it’s surprisingly difficult to write about superficial joys – and not-so-surprisingly difficult to write about people when you’re ignoring their calls (sorry family members!). Every post I tried to write sounded artificially saccharine and after a while, I stopped trying.

Eventually, I reached the elusive “rock bottom.” At that point, I’d been living off almonds and dried cranberries and packages of dried seaweed and not much else. I felt as if I had lost everything that had been my identifiers – my innocence (which is the nice way of saying gullibility), my deep connection to classical music, my love for food, my confidence in my intellectual capabilities, my tendency to be easily excitable and inspired.

While this was all happening, I’d sometimes wish that I could just “wake up,” that I could sleep off the weariness and the insecurities and the nothingness. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought waking up was easy – the number of times I’ve slept through really important alarms (e.g. that one time I was five hours late for my flight) is, well, alarming. I finally recognized that I could not just wait to wake up one day and feel fine.

I am returning now to this blog, and to the life that I put on hold during these lost months, as part of my reclamation of my ‘self.’ I refuse to ever again fall victim to the names I have been called and the rumors that have been spread behind my back.

I’ve chosen to post this recipes because first of all, it is one of my favorites – an airy, ricotta-based lemon cheesecake that is delicately sweet with a tangy kick. It’s also my dad’s favorite dessert that I make, and if there’s one thing I’ve (re)learned from all of this, it is that my family unconditionally loves me, which I somehow forgot along the way. Finally, spring took it’s sweet time arriving in New England, but I can finally pack away the sweaters and proudly display my lingering “insulation” from the winter in tank tops and shorts, and what better way to celebrate than eat lots of (kind of healthy) cheesecake?

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Tomato and Sausage Risotto

IMG_1555Lately, I’ve found myself having to think extensively about what my biggest weakness is. (Seriously though, job interviewers, don’t you want to hear about how great I am in a less roundabout way?) After running through procrastination and all those conventional flaws, I began to realize that giving my all on everything, something I’d always viewed as a positive, might actually be my biggest weakness.

The first risotto dish I ever made wasn’t that great (read: it was actually pretty terrible). I became obsessed with getting every grain of rice translucent and coated in oil, which is basically impossible. Some grains of rice toasted and we ended up eating what felt like risotto mixed with corn flakes, like some misguided contemporary take on the breakfast for dinner theme.

Part of the beauty of risotto is that with simple ingredients, patience, and not too much effort, you can create a rich and delicious dish. The details aren’t important – at the end, all the separate components have melded together, giving risotto its creamy texture and complex flavors.

I used to psych myself out by breaking down tasks into such little pieces to the point that I myself was on the verge of a breakdown. Part of me continues to cling on to the details because they just seem so important, but lately, I’ve been learning to not become entangled in every little nuance and instead keep moving forward, one risotto recipe at a time.

(P.S. This is my fourth risotto recipe! For more risotto recipes, check out asparagus risotto verde, chicken risotto with caramelized onions, and mushroom risotto.)

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Ready-Made

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As a kid, I rarely ever experienced pre-packaged food. The “TV dinner” (and TV in general) remained a mystery to me, a concept that existed only in the fantasy world of books and movies. I remember sneaking in little snippets of TV shows on the rare afternoons when nobody was home. Lunchables were another forbidden fruit, neatly packaged in colorful plastic, the ultimate cool kid’s lunch.

My parents always emphasized the importance of home-cooked food. Even as my mom went back to work and everyone grew older and busier, we did our best to never reach for any pre-made dinner in a box (even Trader Joe’s pre-made Indian dinners, which are actually really delicious and managed to derail even my family). Eventually we resorted to takeout Thursday and reheated lasagna.

Simultaneously, my dad began to develop his latent and extensive cooking talents using all the weird left-over ingredients in the fridge. (Seriously, he’s at the point that he can taste dishes at restaurants and basically recreate them. It’s semi-frightening.) My sister spent a summer at culinary arts camp and…never ever cooked any of the dishes she learned for us. The point is, for my family, the home-cooked meal never lost its allure.

As a kid, I never fully appreciated how great it was to sit around the table with my family, just chatting and enjoying whatever my parents had made that night. I remember loving Lunchables because I could choose the ratios of cheese to sauce to pepperonis. I thought they fostered creativity. But at the end of the day, Lunchables are four ingredients in a little plastic box (as opposed to a refrigerator, which can literally house endless possibilities).

I’m proud to say that everyone in my family can cook. (And a little less proud to say I was the last one in my family to catch on.) As one of my friends said yesterday, cooking has ‘value.’ Now I just wish someone would let Stop N’Shop know stuff like this is not okay:

IMG_1485This is not a joke, not some plastic display of dishes offered in Asian restaurants. These are pre-packaged meals on a whole new level.

That being said, here’s yet another baking recipe. Sorry guys, I keep forgetting to take pictures of my dinners.

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Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies

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I can still remember the first time I ever made red velvet cheesecake brownies. I was home for spring break shortly after the Tohoku earthquake rocked Japan in 2011, and my sister needed some sweets for a fundraiser at her high school. I scrolled through recipes online, looking for something with a vague Japan theme.

For me and for many Americans steeped in the mainstream culture, red velvet conjures up images of Carrie and her posh friends enjoying red velvet cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery, a scene that made Magnolia Bakery a major tourist attraction overnight and set off the cupcake craze. Just the name red velvet sounds luxurious to the point of being hedonistic. The color scheme of the classic red velvet cupcake topped with perfectly white cream cheese frosting is reminiscent of candy canes and valentines and winter festivities.

Red velvet and cream cheese are also the same colors as the Japanese flag. There’s no inspirational reason for why I chose this recipe, no deep rationale attaching the positive connotations of red velvet to a country in need of encouragement. At the time, I was glad to have found a recipe so superficially suited to a fundraiser for Japan. Even better, the recipe was super easy.

Well, my sister came home and said the brownies sold out the fastest out of everything at the bake sale. Everyone had loved them, even the teachers. And I was satisfied.

Every now and then, I would think back to the tsunami. Those pictures of entire villages washed away were terrifying, but the pictures of all the missing people, of all the flowers and alters and people praying for their close ones’ safe return, those were devastating. And yet, after a year, the public’s memory faded. And now that it’s been a whopping two and a half years, the tsunami has ceased to be seen as a massive human tragedy and instead has become a political weapon, with reports of dangerous levels of nuclear leakages from Fukushima, right as Japan was in the process of securing the honor of hosting the 2020 Olympics.

Not to downplay the severity of leakage of nuclear waste, but the timing struck me as suspicious. All these doomsday reports came out of nowhere, with the conclusion that Japan was too dangerous to host the Olympics.

First of all, Japan has done a fantastic job of returning to normalcy. Maybe fantastic is too strong of a word, so instead I’ll use a comparison: they did a significantly better job than our reaction to Katrina. Years after Katrina, parts of New Orleans still lie in shambles, while Japan as a country worked to return many of the hardest hit areas to some semblance of normalcy in just a year.

Secondly, when I first saw the reports, I was extremely concerned, as I’m sure basically everyone who read the articles was. Once nuclear waste gets into the water, it makes its rounds, leading to health and environmental repercussions that are still unknown. But then I got mad. I got mad that for important news events like the Tohoku earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, which ruined countless lives and took many more, we have such a short memory, but we still remember so-called iconic scenes from Sex and the City, which stopped airing in 2004, almost a decade ago.

What is it about pop culture that makes us remember it? Is it because we want to, while images of people huddling in temporary shelters that become flimsy semi-permanent homes, of cities decimated, whether by natural disasters or by war, are too terrible to remember? We can relate to our favorite characters, but we push away real life suffering as something that we cannot fathom unless we too have experienced something as traumatic. Or at least, that’s the excuse.

As for those who have seemingly forgotten the tragic human aspect of the tragedy and have instead chosen to politicize the aftermath to discredit Japan, I truly question their humanity. (They’re also saying this to a nation who created sushi. Trust me, the Japanese care about the health of sea creatures just as much as, if not more than, all the haters.) Just as the Japanese flag represents the rising sun, so have the Japanese risen above tragedy, rightfully earning the honor of hosting the 2020 Olympics.

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Peach Treats

IMG_1438Have you ever woken up and discovered two cats in your living room?

Well, that’s how my Thursday began. I’ve never really been an animal person, not because I don’t love animals, but because I’ve had…bad experiences. It started out with Flopsy-Mopsy-Cottontail, my adorable little bunny. Apparently if you keep offering a bunny food, it will continue to eat, even after it has become completely satiated. Alas, six-year-old me thought I would help out by feeding the bunny…and I fed it to death. After that, we tried again with a hamster, but alas, he escaped his cage and burrowed into the floor in our basement, never to be seen again. After these two incidents, my family realized animals kind of hate us, and now, we just have fish in a pond outside. We throw them some food and they swim around and look pretty. It’s the perfect noncommittal pet-owner relationship for my family.

Our monstrously huge koi.

Our monstrously huge koi, battling for dinner.

So clearly, I do love animals, but these two cats, perhaps sensing that my love tends to kill, have done a fairly good job of avoiding my advances. I’m doing my best to redeem myself, but just today, I found myself falling back on old habits, a.k.a. trying to win them over with food. (Let’s be real, I apply that strategy to all animals that I encounter, humans included.) The kitten, still innocent and trusting, accepted the food happily. However, Blow, the momma cat, saw that accepting the food would only lead to trouble, and staunchly ignored my outstretched hand. Despite this inauspicious beginning, I’m determined to get pet ownership right this time around for Flopsy-Mopsy-Cottontail, may he rest in peace. For now, I content myself with stroking the cats as they run away from me.

Mo, the newest addition to our household.

Mo, the newest addition to our household.

And on that note, here’s a fantastic and easy recipe for toffee-dimpled peach cake. If you’re looking to buy love with sweets, this is the recipe you’ve been looking for. The sweet peaches, the slightly spiced cake base, the crunch of the toffee – it’s just the perfect combination of flavors and textures. I made it not even 24 hours ago and it has already been completely consumed, with rave reviews. Just…try not to overfeed anyone.That cause of death would just be embarrassingly tragic for all involved.

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Jook

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As a kid, one of the staples of my illness-ridden childhood was jook with yuk sung, or dried shredded pork. For all the haters out there, yuk sung may sound strange, but the salty, yet sweet taste and the chewy, almost fuzzy texture made it one of the best parts of being sick. (Too be fair, most of the other aspects – the sore throats, the congestion, and the general self-pity – were pretty negative experiences.)

Seeing as this is the second post I’m writing about things I like when I’m sick, we can deduce three unalienable facts:

1. I’m sick way too often.

2. My parents are wonderful people.

3. If this was Sparta, I would definitely have been discarded as a total weakling in some ditch on the side of the road.

Thank god for modern medicine.

Upon arrival freshman year at college, I quickly came to the scary realization that when I got sick, no one was going to take care of me. Growing up with a doctor as father and a protective mother, I had always had an immediate diagnosis – no, I was not dying, it was just a bad cold – and dishes lovingly left on the stove for me to eat whenever I felt well enough to wander down to the kitchen. No one was going to take time off from work to check up from me, no one would have extensive medical knowledge to talk me down from my hypochondria, no one would cook me delicious jook, the quintessential Chinese sick people food.

As one of my friends discovered this year, jook is actually pretty difficult to find in suburban Boston. In his sick delirium, the closest he could find was…chicken rice soup. While I did not experience this concoction firsthand, from what I understand, it was simply some chicken and rice in what might have been really watery chicken stock, or just water, with a few limp pieces of cabbage. Good try, America, but China’s got you beat on this one.

Yet another reason why my parents are just fantastic people: they taught me how to make jook. Once I heard my friend was sick, I was able to cobble together some frozen chicken breasts, rice, and ginger into simple yet satisfying jook. (Alas, I have yet to find yuk sung that can be easily accessed by public transportation. Oh, the woes of having no car.) Jook is one of those dishes that just makes you feel healthier after just one spoonful. I swear, it’s like the Chinese found a way to recreate the flavors of life force.

Humans have accomplished some pretty amazing feats – there’s the Battle of Thermopylae, which inspired one of the most memorable movie quotes of all time, then there’s penicillin and and polio vaccinations – and then there’s jook, simple peasant food ingeniously imbued with some kind of ability, be it placebo effect or some medically based phenomenon, to make people just feel better. And from my frequent forays into illness, I can promise you, just the promise of feeling healthy can itself be a powerful cure.

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Snickerdoodle Pumpkin Bars

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Autumn has always been a fickle season. With autumn comes fresh-picked apples and butternut squash and trees swathed in beautiful fiery colors, but then there’s also sweltering days and frigid nights and those weird indian summers that fool you into thinking maybe this year, winter won’t be so cold.

Alas, in Boston, the winters are always cold.

Autumn this year has been particularly confusing. One day it was so incredibly hot that not even the professors couldn’t last until the end of class, another day, so cold, we had to turn on the heater. Just today, I was wearing shorts to the supermarket, but by nighttime, I had to change into jeans and a sweater because the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees.

In between the constant wardrobe changes and the insane amount of schoolwork, I’ve been savoring one of the quintessential symbols of autumn – pumpkins. A couple weeks ago, I made pumpkin lasagna, which came out delicious, but massively unphotogenic. And yesterday night, I made some fantastic, super easy snickerdoodle pumpkin bars. They’re sweet and soft and completely satisfying.

Speaking of pumpkin, it’s funny, canning has really made traditionally seasonal vegetables easily accessible at all times of the year, and yet, I rarely think to use pumpkin unless it’s autumn. I love pumpkin – it’s savory and sweet and hearty – but eating a pumpkin pie in spring just does not bring the same joy as a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Trust me, I tried last year. It felt almost sacrilegious.

Despite it all, I still love autumn. If I had to sum up my affection for autumn in two words, I’d probably have to go with “apple cider.” But in all seriousness, despite the few days of intense heat and the many days of dead brown leaves and biting cold wind, those few beautiful days with the cool breeze and the red-orange trees make it all worth it.

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One Year Later

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It has not been one year.

No way.

Well, apparently it’s my blog’s one year anniversary. I feel compelled bake something cute to commemorate this. But for today, we’ll just have to make do with a tomato tart recipe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious (and super easy!) recipe, but if you know me, you know I like (to celebrate with) cake and everything sweet.

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Zebras a.k.a. the most photogenic animals ever.

Anyways, I’ve been thinking about my last post and what exactly I wanted to express. I felt some kind of unease in Africa, some embarrassment about my lack of cultural understanding, and guilt over what felt like exploitation of an entire country. Part of what I so ineloquently expressed is summed up beautifully by Spectra on her blog.

Part of what Africa made me realize was that yes, I am privileged. There’s no pretending that I, and most people I interact with, are affluent. And by going to Africa and donating some small sums of money to schools, and giving large tips to the service, I wasn’t saving anyone. I wasn’t changing anything. It’s unfair how much Africa affected me, and yet how little I could do in return. But I can’t pretend otherwise.

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Lil baby lions :)

Another aspect of my discomfort comes from the fact that as an Asian, I’ve faced cultural appropriation, whether in the form of white people flashing peace signs in photos with me, people wearing kimonos at Halloween, or people asking me to say something in Chinese, as if I must speak Chinese because I look Chinese. I understand what it feels like to be the token minority, like some kind of trophy.

And yet, in Africa, I felt that I was taking advantage of the Africans. When we visited the Maasai village, our tour guide specifically told us to visit because we would pity them. We sang and danced with them, but it was all just some show, done for each group of tourists that drove up to the village. We visited the house of a sick old woman. We heard her coughing, hidden beneath blankets in the darkness. We stopped by a school where children recited the ABCs. And we could do nothing. We were simply there to experience a neat little slice of African culture.

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All the Maasai men could jump ridiculously high.

I had always hated how people treated me like I was an outsider to mainstream American culture, how they always expected me to have different customs and speak a different language because I looked different. And yet, there I was, treating the Africans I met like they were some exotic oddity and feeling good about myself for giving them large tips. Exactly like some kind of Western savior.

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Hungry Like the Wolf

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This past weekend, I witnessed something truly terrifying.

My family is comprised of me, my little sister, my mom, and my dad, who eats less than my mom. As a result, I have rarely been around growing boys at dinnertime.

All the women( and my dad) were in the kitchen, preparing dinner, (yeah, yeah, let the misogynistic jokes begin) when the boys began to literally circle around the kitchen table, asking when the food would be ready. We put out the chicken wings early to placate them. 72 wings, gone in a matter of minutes.

The rest of the food, the salad, the ribs, the steak, the giant bowl of soup, the three pasta dishes, were devoured in a similar manner. I felt as if I’d stepped into the world of mythology where chimeras comprised of vultures, hyenas, and wolves ate everything in sight.

My father once asked his colleague, Ed, if he ever took his family out to dinner. Ed replied that his family could only go to buffets because he had two boys. I never understood how having two boys could be so different from having two girls until I saw six hungry boys eat and eat and still clamor for dessert.

This chocolate cake was one of the desserts served. I had planned to take a picture of a cake slice for this blog post, but people were clamoring at me to serve the cake. It’s a fantastic cake. Easy recipe, moist with a deep chocolatey flavor, finished off with light yet decadent chocolate frosting. Added bonus: since the cake is so dense, it succeeded in finally sating the appetites of six hungry boys.

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Tomatillo Chicken Stew

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True life: I have the opposite of resting bitch face.

As my friends have noted over the years, I don’t really have an “angry” expression. My facial range runs from mildly displease to maniacally happy. Alas, my resting friendly face has led to many strange and uncomfortable encounters over the years.

Take today, for instance. I was buying some ingredients for dinner, when the cashier struck up a friendly conversation by asking if I was Chinese. I replied that I was, and he asked if I’d ever been to China. We then somehow got on the topic of Tiananmen Square, and in a rather contrived manner, he somehow made a pickup line out of Tiananmen:

Cashier: I’m so about the China life, but I’d totally get kicked out of China.

Me: Just don’t mess with the government and you’ll be fine.

Cashier: Oh I am so not about that life. (Seems to be his catchphrase.) I’d probably get thrown out for throwing a protest party in Tiananmen…speaking of parties, what’s your plans for this evening?

Me: Wait, what?

Seriously though, how can Tiananmen Square, site of one of the worst cases of government brutality against its own citizens, be used as a pickup line?

So I had to decline his invitation to hang out this evening. My excuse? “Oh sorry, I already have plans.” Plans to make a delicious tomatillo chicken stew, that is. This dish is infinitely more satisfying than conversing with a guy stricken with intense yellow fever. It’s comfort food, exactly what I needed after an exchange with yet another guy who saw me as no more than some tiny, smiley, Asian female.

Moral of the story: don’t use Tiananmen as a pickup line. And don’t say “ni hao” to me, flash the peace sign, and think I’ll find it endearing. It’s straight up offensive, and I’m definitely “not about that life.”

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