Sunday, May 31, 2020

Rest and Refocus - Stay at Home Photo Diary and Reflections (Part 1)

April was the first full month of staying at home in earnest.  It started off with Wes's birthday, which we celebrated with many pounds of Boiling Crab for two spread out over our dining table.  We joke about how drastically different our birthdays were—a hundred people sharing food without masks on just six months ago is now totally unimaginable.  We never saw this pandemic coming, or what it would do to life as we knew it.  Ironically, being in a physical state of "lockdown" has actually freed me of some self-inflicted demands that should have been addressed long ago.  It almost felt like a much-needed change of pace that my mind and body desperately needed.  I am also ever more aware of and thankful for what we have during this crisis—safety, health, financial stability, companionship, and a kick-ass yard—things that not everyone has.  To be able to have positive things to say is a total privilege, but I do feel that having optimism is not limited to those with privilege, and vice versa.  Seeing optimistically is how humans find a way to go on.

As for me, although I definitely get sad that we don’t have kids to spend our long quarantine days with (we would have, if I had carried our first pregnancy to term), I’ve realized what a blessing it is to have this time together as a family of two. We always have spent a lot of quality time together anyway, but from the stories I have heard from coworkers and friends with children, it’s been really a test.  I am always envious of them anyway, but in this situation it was easier to breathe a sigh of relief that my body decided that the time wasn’t right for us yet.  I go back and forth, though.  Wes recently consoled me by saying that we are not wasting time, but buying time—look at it that way.  I acknowledge that when it’s something you want so much that others have, it’s hard to be very optimistic. But having to wait is a good way to build resilience and make more husband-wife memories while we still can.  And I daresay that we do still have hope.  I finished all of my fertility testing prior to the crazy shutdowns and nothing was problematic, so our fingers are crossed.

I definitely felt stuck in the beginning—lost in this state of discombobulation.  I do miss the dynamism of being with people face to face and having more places to be.  That mad morning rush of making my coffee or tea while filling my water flask, checking my phone, and packing my lunch, was comforting in its own chaotic way.  Now, I basically do everything from home—my job, my yoga classes, my hangouts, my meals.  There's not even a lot to do at the skilled nursing facility and barely any home health.  Everything from supermarkets to hiking trails is now essentially a danger zone.  The only safe haven is home.  

Don't get me wrong, I've always loved being home.  But, I always had this weird perception that "sitting around" was unproductive.  The sudden lifestyle change that the pandemic has brought on has forced me to stop glorifying hustling and to start noticing the benefits of slowing down.  I used to feel so very important with a full Google Calendar and many weekend plans.  But now, I have actually been able to focus better on my job, to finish one thing at a time, to choose when I want to do yoga, to eat slow lunches with Wes every day, to make time for long-lost homey sorts of hobbies that "I'll get to when I'm bored."  I've just been able to realize how actually liberating it feels being in one place all day.  I am grateful for this opportunity to take some deep breaths and feel zero shame about being more "idle," and to prioritize things that make me feel creative, humored, and relaxed, rather than dependable, responsible, and indispensable.  I think that some part of me always knew that I needed to get to this point mentally, but I was conditioned to the idea that working extra and receiving affirmation for it equated to my personal worth.  The mentality has gotten me to where I want to be, but it's also caused me years of undue pressure and anxiety that no longer serves me.

Wes has always tried to tell me to take it easier, but I had to learn this on my own.  He, himself, can also be guilty of being a workaholic, but the difference is that he doesn't really mind it.  He doesn't let it annoy him, and he doesn't attach any guilt to it.  Also, he is both an introvert and a lover of all home economics, so staying off the streets has been a breeze for his personality type.

For a long time before the pandemic, Wes has been working from home given the nature of his job, so he has had more time to figure out his WFH mojo.  He routinely gets up from the desk to do his "yoga," which is tending to the yard (especially the lawn—his pride and joy).  The pandemic did awaken something inside of him, though.  Towards the end of April, he rediscovered his camera equipment in the garage, and suddenly he was taking photos of everything.  It's been interesting to see what he's been able to capture in our daily lives—from birds in the yard that I never knew were there, to pictures of me enjoying my new routines...or pictures of me struggling with figuring out how to do my job.  I admire him for this hobby in photography, not only for the skill that he has, but also the attitude behind it.  There is something inherently optimistic about the willingness to take photos.  Similarly, there is something inherently satisfying about going back to edit them.  Taking photos embodies the idea of slowing down and appreciating the aesthetics of otherwise mundane moments.  It also helps us remember more.  Someday, we'll look back on these quieter days and perhaps yearn for them, just like how we look back on our travel photos and hope to go back one day.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Quarantine Cooking Series: Chinese Chive Pockets

One of my mom's favorite foods is chive pockets (韭菜盒子).  It's basically a large, flat, pan-fried dumpling shaped like an empanada, stuffed with chopped chives, scrambled eggs, dried shrimp, and vermicelli noodles.  Sometimes woodear mushrooms are incorporated as well, but Wes vetoed that ingredient.  I love ordering these at restaurants, but never dared try to make my own because it just seemed too labor-intensive.  Well, now with all restaurants off limits, there is no better time to try my hand at these.  I attempted these later into the quarantine because I kept chickening out, but finally close to the end of summer school, I decided that I could focus my energies on making these!

I must say that we've gotten the Kitchen Aid out more times in the last two months than over the entire life span of the machine in our dominion.  Whether it was for French baguettes or naan, we were making good use out of it!  Most recipes tell you to knead the dough by hand, but it turned out fine with the Kitchen Aid.  Call us lazy, but we also got out the tortilla press to initially form each wrapper after dividing up the dough.  Wes joked that our ancestors would be rolling in their graves seeing us be so untraditional.  Not to worry, there was still plenty to roll with the wooden rolling pin...we were just trying to be resourceful.

In the end, we realized that it was really not hard to make, but just involves many steps that can be time-consuming.  As if chopping the chives, scrambling and chopping the eggs, soaking and chopping the vermicelli, and stir frying the dried shrimp for the filling wasn't enough work, there also was the rolling and crimping of the dough wrappers.  We did it assembly-line style, Wes was in charge of rolling and I was in charge of crimping.  However, just like the recipe says, it is just not the same at all with store-bought dumpling wrappers because first of all, they would be puny, and second of all, the texture would not be chewy enough.  I really loved how these turned out, and they held up really well to a nice pan sear.  Wes was in charge of that part, since he's the king of making perfectly golden brown potstickers!  After I posted my pictures of the cross section on Instagram, friends and family were all over us.  I guess that means that we'll be making more in the near future!  I posted the adapted recipe here for safekeeping, but please refer to the linked blog for all of the details.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tennesseeing with the Wongs

It was our first time in what you could consider the "deep South," and even though it was a short trip, we really enjoyed our little taste of Nashville, Knoxville, Harrogate, and Middlesboro.  We survived Prince's hot chicken, ate barbecue almost every day, listened to singers in a honky-tonk, milked a goat, wandered through historic Civil War sites and a graveyard, walked among centuries-old buildings, hiked in the footsteps of Native Americans and pioneers, and most importantly, watched Dr. Stacy Wong walk across the Lincoln Memorial University stage to receive her Veterinary Medicine diploma.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Quarantine Cooking Series: Pozole Rojo

Wes says that he normally wouldn't try to make pozole at home, since he enjoys going to a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant to have a bowl over the weekend with chips, tortillas, and all of the usual accoutrements.  But when his craving hit during the pandemic, he decided to look up some recipes and figure out how to make this magical Mexican stew.  We're lucky that we live near some ethnic markets in Altadena.  Baja Ranch Market is our go-to place for legit, thick corn tortillas, cheap produce, and pretty much any Mexican ingredient.  Super King is our place to go for interesting cuts of meats and of course, more produce.  Fortunately, we two inexperienced Chinese people were able to get everything we needed to make pozole!  Ah, but we did have to return to the market for more hominy.  Lots more.  We underestimated how much was in that can...and Wes loves hominy.  We still are not sure what the difference is between pozole and menudo, but Wes has made this recipe twice, and the second time he added tripe.  I think that it's more commonly seen in menudo, but anyway, nobody's stopping him from adding it into this pozole recipe.  Customization is the beauty of cooking at home!  I really enjoyed the rich, multi-dimensional taste of this hot red Mexican pork stew, and all of the toppings that Wes served it with made for an even more customizable flavor profile.  So anyway, here is the recipe and method, adapted from a recipe on the Food Network.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Quarantine Cooking Series: Ikea Meatballs

Everybody's favorite part about going to Ikea is the delicious and economical Swedish meatball plate, right??  Wes found the recipe online somehow (and yes, it actually looks like their signature furniture building instructions) and we knew that this was something we needed to attempt.  These delicious balls are a mixture of ground beef and pork, and the surprising cream sauce ingredient was soy sauce.  We modified it just a touch by adding chopped parsley.  We also crumbled the lonely chunk of white bread stashed in the back of the fridge that Wes made last week for the bread crumbs.  While we had no lingonberry jam, we found that it was not necessary to creating the authentic Ikea experience.  The balls themselves were 100% just as awesome as the Ikea ones, if not better because they were freshly made at home.  So, this recipe is not a knockoff--it's the real deal!

(Click to enlarge)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Quarantine Cooking Series: Osso Buco with Polenta

This pandemic has forced us to get really creative with our virtual hangouts.  My sister had the fantastic idea of cooking a recipe together on Mother's Day.  It was the perfect activity for the family to do together remotely--everyone was able to participate, my brother on the East Coast could join, and my mom got a much-needed taste of non-Chinese food.  Also, we gifted her a brand new Dutch oven, so she was able to make use of it right away!

Aerial view of our stovetop from the portable webcam

My brother is teaching my dad how to open a bottle of wine, lol

A photo of us from my mom's perspective, in her kitchen.

We knew that my mom was sick and tired of her Chinese cooking with all of the restaurants being closed, so we had to think of something to make that was not Asian.  Wes and I often make osso buco in our Dutch oven, so it was the first idea that came to mind for me to suggest.  Everyone was on board, so we each grabbed our own ingredients and clicked into Google Meets on Sunday.  We had everything prepped and spread out, a laptop on the kitchen counter, and a webcam mounted to the top of the stove.  It was definitely the first time we've ever done this.  It was super fun to do this together, and then we all shared photos of our completed dishes when we were done!  We opted to make polenta to go with it this time, but pasta and crusty bread are two other great accompaniments to this dish.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Quarantine Cooking Series: Smoked Brisket, Chicken, and White Bread

Since the start of the stay-at-home order, Wes has been bugging me to let him smoke a brisket.  I have nothing against succulent, tender barbecue, but I know how big briskets come.  Big.  No, sorry Wes, but I don't think two people can (or should) try to finish a 15-pound piece of beef.  He was fine with that answer, but it became a running joke of the pandemic between us.  One day, he was at Costco and actually saw a "small" brisket.  He excitedly took it upon himself to grab it without permission and came home with all 11 pounds of glory.  I wanted to slap him with it, but he said that we would share it with our parents for Mother's Day.  Okay, okay, okay.  Plus, if this is what gets him excited these days, why not?