Travel

{Travel} Palm Desert and Anza-Borrego State Park, California

A native of the east coast, my impression of the desert has always been as follows:

  • You are always crawling through it on your knees.
  • Saying “agua”.
  • Then you see an oasis. But you collapse before you get there.

Since I’ve lived in California, though, the desert has become a restorative place for me. Nowhere is the sky bigger, the vista larger, the hues more serene. The desert has a majestic quiet about it, coupled with a resolute sense of determination. The desert lives on through the harshest conditions, and surprises us with its resilience.

I’ve been in the desert a couple of times in the past few months. In February, my parents, my brother’s family and mine spent a week in the Palm Desert area.

While we were there, my parents celebrated their 45th anniversary.

I posted this cute picture of them on Facebook and got a bunch of comments from relatives in Taiwan. Embarrassingly illiterate, I had to rely on Google Translate:

灑恩愛,很有版面,值得讚許,願您們在世的日子牽手共度嘉年華。

Sprinkle loving, very layout laudable, you would like to spend their days on the earth in hand carnival.

你們在溫暖中享受鴛鴦划水,我們在冰箱中成為蚯蚓了

You enjoy duck paddling in the warm, we became the earthworms in the refrigerator

I’m a little worried about what I wrote in response, but Google Translate would never lead me astray, right?

We did spend a good amount of time floating around in a pool:

…but we also found time to enjoy the vistas at the top of Mt Jacinto, via the aerial tramway:

The girls had a great time playing with their baby cousin:

It was a fantastic, relaxing vacation and I left restored.

Until a week later.

Back in the full swing of life and work and acquisitions and activities, I was tired again. It was time for a weekend getaway, this time a camping trip to the Anza-Borrego State Park.

This was our first time camping in the desert, and we were excited. Not the least of which because we had finally invested in a tent that actually fit 4 people — not the 4 person tent we had before which entailed my husband sleeping diagonally across the legs of the children.

This was the view from our campsite:

I love those two palms. At night, they look like a frizzy-haired couple watching the moon together.

This was the first time that the kids were able to do some pretty serious hikes. I’d say there were only 3 wpm (whines per minute) as opposed to the 45 or so that we’re used to. And they made it to the top! Of what I don’t know, but it was definitely the top of the trail.

 

One of my favorite new plants we encountered is called the ocotillo:

I just love its vibrant red flowers and its weeping yet sturdy form.

We also did a 3-mile hike to an oasis — this involved a bit of climbing, and it did get pretty hot along the way, so maybe it wasn’t so far off from the desert I had in mind originally. But eventually, we did get to the oasis. Sound advice for the desert: bring lots of water. You’ll need it before you get to the oasis.

On the hike back, we ran into a rattlesnake. I was too chicken to get close enough to take a picture, but then we ran into this guy later on:

We also came upon a group of people with binoculars who had spotted some big horn sheep in the distance. I’d like to think that I saw them too — I just couldn’t tell which part of the brown they were.

But what I did see was the utter vastness of the desert. The open expanse of big sky and mountain ranges as far as the eye can see…I love this feeling of being diminished, of feeling that I’m but a small part of something so much bigger. For an anxious person like me, it takes the pressure off. It’s a nice reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around me.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver

Baking

Gluten-free Chocolate Quinoa Cake

The world is awash today with images of hearts and chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day, friends. I know what you’re thinking. Chocolate, hearts, berries…but what’s Valentine’s Day without quinoa? I hear you, ye tired, hungry and gluten-free. Because having quinoa in your cake is like having dinner together with dessert. It’s just more efficient.

I happened upon this recipe at the Week of Menus blog. She must cook during the day because she has way better lighting than I do, and is reflecting on how to be a better mother while I am just thinking about my hair and thinking about how I can make dinner into a dessert. (I cut my hair. After a couple of weeks of awkward silences and people averting my gaze trying not to comment on it while I was figuring out how to work with it, I have finally found a way to make it look effortlessly tousled which requires way more time than if I tried to make it look like I made a concerted effort. But such is the price of beachy.)

Week of Menus has done a good job laying out the recipe, so I’ll just link to it below, but the basic gist is that you mix the quinoa in a blender with a bunch of stuff and end up with a batter that looks like this:

Bake it like she tells you to. I’m sorry, but making my hair look effortlessly tousled has drained me of my will to share detail. You’ll end up with a cake.

Then you can cut a heart out of wax paper, snowflake-style:

Place it over the cake and dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar:

End up with this:

So follow the recipe. Eat it. Enjoy.

Cooking Food

Vegan Coconut Chana Saag

I’m about as vegan as Fox News is liberal (I recently purchased a vegan leather jacket, because, how often do you find a jacket made of vegans?), but when I was killing time one day while my kids were at their riding lesson when I started reading a vegan cookbook. And it was fascinating. It was like cooking within a completely different universe. The fundamentals were different. It was like learning another language. Switching from PC to Mac. Learning to write with your navel. I’ll come up with the right analogy eventually.

And you know what? The dishes are beautiful. And flavorful. And most surprisingly (I always envisioned vegans as starving), filling.

This is the first recipe I tried. It was really quick, easy, and so flavorful. My carnivorous family loved it.

All you do is brown some onions in coconut oil:

And then add in everything else (spices, tomatoes and chickpeas). Cook it for about 10 minutes.

Stir in the kale and cook for another 5 minutes, and squeeze in some lime juice. Let it sit for 10 minutes and make sure you serve it with something like rice or flatbread to mop up all the vegan deliciousness of the sauce. Enjoy!

COCONUT CHANA SAAG from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Isa Does It

Ingredients

  • 2 TBSP refined coconut oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 TBSP minced fresh ginger
  • 2 TBSP mild curry powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Several pinches of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp anise seeds or crushed fennel seeds)
  • 1/4 tsp garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1 24 oz can whole tomatoes
  • 2 15 oz cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 8 oz kale, chopped
  • 1 14 oz can regular or lite coconut milk
  • 2 TBSP fresh lime juice

Preparation

Preheat a 4 qt pot over medium heat and add the coconut oil. Saute the onion in teh oil for 5-7 minutes, until lightly browned.

Add the garlic and ginger and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the curry powder, salt, pepper, anise seeds, garam masala, cumin, and cayenne and toss to coat the onions, letting the spices toast a bit (for a minute or so).

Add the tomato juice from the can, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze, simply hold the tomatoes and let the juice strain through your fingers. Now add the tomatoes from the can, squishing them with your fingers as you put them in the pot, to mash them up. Add the chickpeas and mix well.

Cover the pan and bring the heat up a bit. Let simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the kale and stir until wilted, then let simmer for 5 more minutes, uncovered, to cook it down even further.

Add the coconut milk adn heat through. Add the lime juice, then taste for seasoning. It tastes best if you let it sit for 10 minutes or so.

Serve over basmati rice with a little mango chutney and cilantro on top.

Gardening Home

On Tree Stalking

 

This is not my garden. It belongs to a guy called Monet.

When we first moved here, I didn’t know much about west coast plants so was pretty much flying blind when we planted the first time. So just before Thanksgiving, we redid our garden. My vision was that it was going to be a Garden of Eden type setup (minus the snakes and except that we would wear loincloths since our homeowners association forbids public nudity) wherein, when hungry, we would just venture outside and pluck food off of a tree for just-in-time consumption. Good-bye, grocery stores!

Aside from a walkway lined with camellias, we installed loquats, figs, grapefruit and avocado. But to have a really well-rounded diet, you need to add persimmon and pomegranate too. But alas! Persimmon and pomegranate were out of season. I could not have them! I had to wait until they were available in bare root form, sometime in the winter. Winter!!! I can be a little impatient and obsessive sometimes (shocked hush falls upon the world).

This camellia actually is from my newly planted garden.

So I started calling. I called every nursery within 50 miles of me, and scoured the ones online too. They were saying January. February. I wept. And after a day of rabid stalking research, the nice man at Home Depot told me he expected them to come in mid-December. This was better news. This was hope. And then a little desperation kicked in because I started calling him every day to check on the trees because what if they came in early? And then I started get a little embarrassed because he clearly recognized me so I started using different accents but the same voice. Hindsight is always 20/20.

These are also from my garden. Oh wait, not mine. They’re from the Queen of England’s garden. Nevermind.

Finally, on the day I used my Alabama accent on the phone, he told me that they were in! They hadn’t been unpacked yet, but they were in! I dropped everything. I sped off to Home Depot. And there they were, a huddle of bare root trees, tied together on the ground like a bunch of people kidnapped for ransom but with sticks for bodies.

Since they were bound together I had to have an employee cut them apart. But…I cleverly avoided the male employee in the department since I feared he would recognize me, and went up to the female employee. She said she didn’t have a knife and walked over to the male employee. He asked me which types of trees I was looking for and I meekly answered him. He looked at me and asked, “Did you call?” to which I replied, “I called yesterday.” which was technically true.

At last. I’ve found you.

I took them home, followed the instructions on the package, and after watching a billion videos on how to prune a bare root fruit tree, pruned them. This stick in the ground is the persimmon:

and this one the pomegranate:

You just have to trust that these are going to produce enough food for a family of four in a few months, people. It’s called faith.

 

Get 10% off grow light when you shop at www.AccessHydro.com. Valid until February 2014.

Cooking Food

Duck with Lavender Honey

It’s a (relatively) chilly December day, bright and sunny with just a bit of bite in the air — the So-Cal way of announcing winter. Though I don’t miss the long, cold winters in the east and midwest, in a place that gets nearly year-round summer, chill is a a bit of a novelty. It’s also the perfect weather for duck.

Crispy-skinned, savory and fatty, o how I love thee duck. What do I make for Thanksgiving? Duck. Christmas? Duck. Easter? You guessed it. Duck is the new black, people!

What I love about this recipe is that it requires very little hands-on time, which leaves more time for fun things like tabletop decor.

Don’t judge my wrinkled tablecloth. It’s too big and unwieldy to iron properly. I just dim the lights and serve wine which seems to take care of most of the wrinkles. And most other things in life, come to think of it.

I’ve been making this duck for about 13 years and I never tire of it. Hope you’ll love it as much as I do!

DUCK WITH LAVENDER HONEY adapted from Williams-Sonoma’s Savoring France

Ingredients

  • 4 tsp fresh lavender blossoms or 2 tsp dried blossoms
  • 4 tsp herbes de provence
  • 1 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 duck, about 5.5 lb
  • 4 TBSP lavender, acacia or other strong-flavored honey
  • 3 TBSP red wine

The day before:  Mix the spices and herbs together in a small bowl. Remove the giblets from the duck cavity, rinse the duck and pat it dry. Using a sharp knife, cut crisscrosses through the fat — but not into the meat — of the breast. Rub the duck inside and out with the herb mixture. Discard the neck. Let marinate overnight, or at least 3 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roast for 2 hours. Remove form the oven and pour off all but 1 TBSP of the collected fat from the pan (I reserve the fat and make french fries with it, but that is admittedly over the top!). Spread the duck breast with 2 TBSP of honey and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Baste with pan juices, and roast another 10 minutes. Remove duck again and spread with the remaining 2 TBSP honey, and sprinkle with half the lavender blossoms. Roast for 10 minutes longer, then baste again with pan juices. Cook for another 5 minutes and remove form the oven.

Move the duck to a platter, cover the it loosely with aluminum foil, and let stand for 10 minutes while you prepare the sauce.

Put the roasting pan over medium heat and add the remaining lavender blossoms and the red wine. Deglaze the pan, stirring with a wodden spoon to remove any browned bits from the pan bottom. Cook until well blended and slightly reduced, 3-4 minutes. Keep warm.

Carve the duck, place on a platter, drizzle with sauce and serve immediately.

Serves 2-4.

 

 

 

 

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Travel

How Boston Restored My Sanity

 

Last month, which shall heretofore be known as The Month in Which I Lacked the Mental Fortitude to Post, I shrieked “I QUIT!!!” to my car, which accepted my resignation with stoic silence. My husband was on business in Boston, my calendar looked like a rainbow had puked, I was sick, my kids were over-scheduled and I was supposed to take them to Boston that weekend for a family wedding (did I mention that we’d be flying on Halloween when they’d be all jacked up on candy?). I was feeling a little resentful about my dishpan hands and the lack of having a house filled with cooks and servants a la Downton Abbey, and that’s how I went into the month of Thanksgiving.

There’s nothing like a getaway and a wedding to fix a grinchy attitude.

I used to live in Boston, long ago. I found my apartment on a quick weekend trip, in the paper (back when people read those): $900 a month for a 2-bedroom, Harbor view, close to the T. Went to check it out, and sure enough, it was right on the Harbor and a steal with a parking spot too, and just a 10 minute walk to the JFK / UMass stop on the Red Line. The rental agent told me it was a diverse community, which I took to mean that it included doctors and dentists.

My first night there I was wondering why there were fireworks. I also thought it was weird that every morning I’d hear on the radio that someone was murdered in my neighborhood.

Yup. My apartment was in the projects.

It was fine, actually. I was a consultant at the time and mostly out of town, and when I was in town I would just walk as if I knew kung-fu and everyone pretty much left me alone. Except for the story of the Chinese girl (me) and the hubcaps…but that’s for another time.

One of my early Boston clients was near Faneuil Hall, so I’d grab dinner there frequently. I dragged my family there and we got lobster rolls. Good start to the weekend. I have simple needs.

Next, we hopped on a double-decker tour bus with open-air windows, at which point it started to pour with rain and howl with wind. There are no pictures of that since we were soaked to the point that we feared we might drown. This made me thankful for California.

The weather cleared up later in the day and we hopped over to Cambridge to visit a small liberal arts college near MIT (sorry, that’s a friendly jab at my cousin). We saw fall colors!

I look forward to our family weddings because our family, though huge (my mom has eight siblings), doesn’t seem to have the stamina to plan a family reunion so we rely on life events to bring the cousins together. Here are some of our kids. We only make girls:

The wedding was lovely and there were a few hours between the ceremony and the reception, so we walked around downtown and ran into Terry and Cornelia in the midst of their photo shoot.

The reception was at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel, which happens to be where I lived for about 6 months on my very first consulting project. I used to get a cranberry-orange muffin at the bottom of the escalator from the Dunkin Donuts cart every morning, which is the only time I’ve been recognized as a “regular” in my life (and even then, only as the cranberry-orange muffin girl). It’s been completely redone and Dunkin Donuts has been replaced by Starbucks, so though I had anticipated flashbacks it looked like a completely different hotel.

The food was fantastic and everyone was happy. That’s what I like about weddings — they’re so happy! I’d forgotten by this time that I had no servants at home.

Now, you see that girl in the red dress on the right hand side?

It’s Jennifer Che from Tiny Urban Kitchen!!! How do I write this in a way that makes me appear not to be a stalker — she’s kind of a big deal. Look at all the award badges she has on her site. Then look at all none of them on mine. People actually invite her to eat their food and blog about it. I have to pay people to let me eat their food, and probably to get them to eat my food too.

My favorite thing about Jen’s blog are the authentic Asian recipes she has on there — specifically, the Chinese / Taiwanese dishes that I grew up with but never bothered learning how to make. After we got home the kids and I were inspired to try making her hand-pulled noodles, which I’ll dedicate a post to later. Suffice it to say that she makes it look easy while we made it look like larvae.

I was really excited to meet Jen, who was super nice and incredibly skinny for someone who seems to eat all the time. I discovered that she sings and plays a bunch of instruments too in addition to being able to pull perfect noodles out of a mound of dough.

Of all the cities I’ve lived in, Boston was never my favorite — probably because with my consulting lifestyle, I wasn’t around much. But it is one of the places where I’ve gotten some of my best stories (see “projects” reference above) and where I did a lot of growing up. And this time — thanks, Boston, for getting me back on track.

Cooking Food Travel

Whole Trout en Papillote

It’s finally the end of the week and I’m feeling like the fish above. He’s all, “Girl, my terrariums are all dessicated and don’t even talk to me about my hair, so I’m just going to lie down in a bed of butter and lemons now.” Am I projecting?

I got back from another business trip to London a couple of weeks ago. Every morning I ran in the mist like a gorilla, which is my favorite weather and method to run in.

Across the bridge:

along the River Thames:

past Big Ben:

and on the first day, accidentally across a finish line amidst a cheering crowd in #theonlyraceilleverwin. Not to worry, the glory didn’t last long because the very next day some piece of cobblestone tripped me into some major Crouching Tiger-style flying and rolling on the ground resulting in this (and yes, as a friend so generously pointed out, I managed to land on the tops of my knees. And don’t judge my skin.):

It wasn’t like I was very noticeable wearing hot pink running shoes, a purple running skirt and a fuschia jacket or anything. I always said that exercise was dangerous.

Later, I did manage to make it to a pop-up restaurant in SoHo called The Full English, and felt much better after stuffing myself with bacon, eggs, tomatoes and beans. Check it out if you’re in London.

So that was London. Now on to fish.

Trout is one of my favorite fish, and what  I love about fish (aside from the brain health benefits that I so desperately need) is the speed with which you can prepare it. I’m not terribly experienced with cooking whole fish, so I used this Whole Trout en Papilotte recipe from the Food Network. Place some chopped onion on a piece of parchment paper, lay the fish on top and cut slits into it. Season it inside and out with salt and pepper.

Stuff the fish with herbs, coat the top with shallot butter (see instructions below) and cover it with a layer of lemons.

I wrapped it in the parchment, grilled it for 20 minutes, and it was done! Moist, tender, and makes you smarter!

WHOLE TROUT EN PAPILLOTE (from Food Network)

Ingredients

  • 2 whole trout, dressed
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup sliced sweet yellow onion
  • 2 handfuls fresh herbs (thyme, parsley and rosemary)
  • 3 tablespoons lemon-shallot butter, recipe follows
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Parchment paper

Preparation

Preheat oven to 400 degrees (I used a grill — either will work!). Cut 2 sheets of parchment paper large enough to completely cover the fish when folded. Wash and dry the trout. Using a knife, score the fish on 1 side by cutting slits into the flesh just until you feel the bone. Season the trout generously, inside and out with salt and pepper. Spread 1/4 cup of the onions on each sheet of parchment. Place fish on top, scored side up. Stuff the inside of the fish with herbs. (It’s ok if they stick out a bit). Top each fish with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the shallot butter. Cover with the lemon slices. Drizzle 1 tablespoon white wine and 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over each fish. Fold the parchment over the fish. Starting at 1 end, fold the paper on itself, making sure to completely seal it. At the end, fold it underneath itself. Repeat. Place fish on large baking sheet and cook for about 12 to 15 minutes. To serve, place trout en papillote on a platter. Cut the parchment at the table to ensure that all the aromas stay inside the package.

Lemon Shallot Butter

Ingredients

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 lemon, zest finely minced
  • 1 small shallot, finely minced
  • Salt and pepper

Preparation

In a food processor, combine all ingredients until mixed. Place whipped butter mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap and roll into a log. Freeze until ready to use. Butter will keep in the freezer for at least a month.

Cooking Food Travel

The Last of Summer Tomato Salad

Et tu, summer?

After my last post about being still, I have to confess that I have been anything but. I woke up one day found myself in London:

I was there for business, but I did manage to fit in dinner with some friends, a few runs in Green Park, a peek at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich:

a meal and a chocolatey porter at the Mean Time brewery:

and a glorious hour at Fortnum & Mason, where I had an internal debate on whether my life would be incomplete without a $700 tea pot:

You know, because I have so many tea parties.

But then I realized that this decision was headed for the same outcome as a purchase I made 10 years ago of pleather pants, so I made a quick jaunt over to Carnaby Street where I bought overpriced scented erasers as souvenirs for the kids.

It was a hectic but productive trip, and as soon as I got home I promptly fell ill. And then got on a plane again soon thereafter.

All this rushing around argues for a bit of simplicity.

One of my favorite things about summer is tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes, to be exact. Colorful, flavorful, deliciously simple. We still have time for that.

I made this salad as part of an dinner we had with friends outdoors on a warm summer night. Because when you are a friend just arriving from Germany, with another on her way to Europe and a third who is Canadian, it would only be logical to stop in for a meal prepared by a Chinese American married to a Brit.

It’s a simple one really — just some slicing and a vinaigrette. But perfectly colorful, tasty, and quick enough to allow you time to enjoy some pause amidst the busyness of everyday life.

HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 5-6 varied, fresh heirloom tomatoes
  • 3-4 leaves of basil

Preparation

Slice the tomatoes into slices 1/4 inch thick. Place them in a single layer on a serving dish, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.

Mix the balsamic vinegar and salt together, until the salt dissolves. Add in olive oil and stir until combined. Grind in some fresh black pepper to taste. Pour over the tomatoes.

Julienne 3-4 leaves of basil and sprinkle over the salad.

Serves 4-6.

 

 

Travel

Postcard from Paradise

I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.

I’m on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, surrounded by lush greenery, birdsong, and the gentle breeze of the trade winds. It’s a quieter version of home, really, and arguably I live in a sort of paradise already. But what I was really looking forward to on this trip was being in the moment. Being still.

Most of my life has been spent in a mad dash to get on to the next thing. It was always a moving target, that next thing. And I wasn’t really sure why I was chasing it in the end. I suppose that it got me to a place where I can have nice vacations, but that wasn’t really why I did it. Maybe habit. But most of the time, I wasn’t really living. I mostly stressed and exhausted.

Two years ago, I decided I needed to change that.

It’s hard for me to slow down and be present, but this is the perfect place to practice. When dawn comes with the chatter of birds and the sound of rustling leaves, you listen. And somehow when you take the time to listen, time becomes, like the universe, an ever-expanding entity, and suddenly, hurry makes no sense.

Day begins with the early stirrings of the sun through the slats of the shutters.

The birds sound busy — like they’re rattling off the tasks for the day and urging their little ones along (or maybe I’m just projecting). There’s a lovely variation in their chatter…unlike the roosters. The roosters strut around saying the same thing over and over again (“Making NOI-ses! Making NOI-ses!”), with one leading the chant and the others echoing as if they’re kids at a YMCA summer camp. They’re kind of like the Ryan Lochtes of the island.

We feast on fresh laid eggs brought to us by the owners of the house we rent, and overlook the garden.

 

 

A hungry cardinal visits us regularly hoping for scraps.

We take a magical path down to the beach.

Some people get so excited they jump right in with their clothes on.

There are so many beautiful beaches with turquoise waters. They imbibe us and bring us to the present.

I begin to notice the tree roots.

The clouds.

The scale of things.

And the stillness. Be still and know that I am God.

We head back to the house and enjoy a refreshing shower outdoors, surrounded by plumeria and ginger, coral and moss.

Back out to see the sunset.

The rhythmic lapping of the waves a reminder of the eternal cycle at work, that tomorrow will be here at its own pace, moving along in slow ripples of time, slow enough for me to notice.