Fried Rice and Friendship

Fried Rice and Friendship

This week I prepared a simple fried rice with some day-old rice, eggs, garlic, and nam pla. As I cooked, a memory arose of fixing a more elaborate version of the dish with my former co-worker Mark Harris. We worked together at IFTC, a subsidiary of financial software and services firm DST, nearly thirty years ago.

We worked at adjacent desks separated by low gray walls into a cluster of pods. Another team member, Anita, sat next to us. Mark and Anita were loud, sassy, and outspoken. They brought bold attitude into every conversation, whether discussing paperwork, dissing a customer’s complaint on the phone, or joking with each other.

As a shy Asian-American fresh out of college and inexperienced in the workforce, I couldn’t have been more different from Mark and Anita. They relished being obnoxious and outrageous as extroverts. Mark was a six-foot-tall African-American with a large frame, close-shaved head, and an expressive face. He threw frowns full of dissatisfaction like hatchets. Mark often raised one eyebrow to show surprise, disapproval, or doubt, or simply to convey a nonverbal challenge. Anita was tiny and scrappy, full of rapid-fire commentary, and unwilling to back down in a challenge.

As the newest member of the team, I was quiet and soft-spoken. I let their banter and tirades blow past while I learned the ropes of my customer service job. I laid low for the first two weeks, only asking questions to learn processes and procedures. Mark and Anita chatted, argued, sassed, joked, and slung slang like fastballs at each other while I listened. Their patience with my quietness, apparent lack of personality, and non-participation in their office antics soon ceased. They weren’t having it.

I was on a phone call one afternoon discussing an account with a customer. Mark grabbed a large paperclip and flung it at my head. His eyebrow raised, daring me to respond. Anita watched in anticipation. I felt the paperclip bounce off my forehead, recovered from the distraction, and finished the call. I looked at Mark with a mixture of irritation, surprise, and confusion. Who does that? How rude. Mark and Anita burst into laughter at my shocked expression.

“I just had to break the ice,” Mark said, staring me down with a wide grin. “You’re too quiet.”

Ice broken, I spoke up more, joined in their banter, and countered remarks with my own. I learned and adopted slang of the day, talking about hoopty cars and whatnot. We made up our own slang for the office and the world around us. We told stories about daily encounters that created shared bonds and inspired laughter. We understood each other better even though our background, music tastes, life perspective, and goals remained different.

Over time, Mark and I ate lunch together. We’d hop in his jeep, top down, and zip over to a fast food drive-through or take our packed lunch to the park. Anything to breathe fresh air and get out of the office on a nice day. The latest R&B hits from KPRS boomed on his stereo. Sometimes Mark would sing, crooning with delicacy and soul that ran counter to his bullish demeanor in the office.

Eventually, Mark took an interest in my dual culture background, being half-Thai, and my interest in cooking. I learned basic Thai dishes from my mom and also explored cooking while living on my own in college. As a young white-collar worker, I had no idea that I would pursue professional interests in cooking and writing about food years later.

Mark wanted to eat healthier and learn how to cook fried rice and stir-fry. I volunteered to show him how to cook. One day we bought groceries at the supermarket and took them back to his parents’ home in Kansas City east of the Plaza, if I recall. I steamed rice, sliced and prepped vegetables, and chatted with Mark in his parent’s kitchen. I’m sure they wondered what the heck this skinny guy was doing, but they didn’t interrupt us.

I was eager to show off my cooking skills and introduce Mark to an authentic Thai-style dish. I used freshly steamed rice instead of day-old rice so the grains were too wet and gummy. I added too many types of thinly-sliced vegetables to make the rice more colorful and add volume. The vegetables only added more moisture to the gummy rice. I used soy sauce instead of nam pla (fish sauce) for fear of stinking up the house and Mark’s unfamiliarity with its intense salty, fishy flavor. Working in an unfamiliar kitchen with another person’s pots and pans, I didn’t anticipate the different heat level of the stove or how the pan’s surface would stick. The result was a massive glob of sticky rice, soggy vegetables, and flavorless shrimp. To his credit, Mark didn’t bust my chops over the cooking disaster. We ate as much as we could. I never cooked my hoopty version of Thai food for him again. The subject of cooking never came up at work.

We remained friends and co-workers for another year or so. I left the company to begin a six-year run at Twentieth Century Mutual Funds until it transformed into American Century. Eventually, I left the mutual fund industry and corporate world to pursue an interest in cooking and becoming a chef. That led to another track, where I completed a master’s degree in writing and publishing from 2000-2002 at Emerson College in Boston. I incorporated my professional experience and personal interest in food into writing.

Once I left IFTC, I lost touch with Mark as he pursued his career path. I learned quite a bit professionally from Mark and Anita about working in a corporate office without losing your personality and identity. I experienced fresh perspectives on culture, slang, work, and living in Kansas City. Their lives were far different from my sheltered suburban upbringing and four years of college.

Even now, I remember Mark’s statement to Anita one afternoon. She was worried about some matter troubling her. Mark said, “Don’t be scared. Be aware.”

Simple but empowering. Rather than cower in fear, practice awareness. Listen, learn, and watch. Be informed and prepared as much as you can for life’s challenges and threats. I try to apply Mark’s words in situations that prompt a choice of being scared or aware.

And whenever I come across a large paperclip, I’m ready.

Pork Beans Hominy and Grief

Pork Beans Hominy and Grief

I cut two strips of bacon into inch-long pieces and brown them over medium heat in the bottom of a deep pan. After draining the grease, I remove the crisp bacon and add two pieces of boneless pork chop, cubed, and a diced onion with a couple of teaspoons of water to de-glaze the pan. I finely mince a clove of garlic and toss that in the mix with a liberal dusting of salt and pepper. The pork begins to brown, the onion softens, the bacon returns and brings salty smokiness to the mélange. A hearty aroma fills the kitchen. I came here to escape, or rather find distraction.

Grief finds its way like water, obeying the gravity of the heart and wending its way toward pools, cracks and crevices I didn’t know existed in my chest. It trickles and gathers into streams. Grief accumulates slow and steady as rainwater in a barrel. It forms puddles in the backyard of my life hidden behind fences. At times, it overflows, spills across the landscape, and floods my foundation. Grief seeps deep, undeniable. Grief, like water, doesn’t truly disappear. It may pull back and ebb or evaporate, but its power and presence inevitably returns to remind me of love and loss and longing.

To the pot, I add diced red and orange mini bell pepper, onion, and poblano pepper that had been sauteed previously until caramelized. In goes half a bottle of salsa verde and juice squeezed firmly from a lime like the playful pinch of a lover. Two cans each of white hominy, golden hominy (maize) and northern white beans fill the pot along with enough water to form a broth for the posole.

It’s only later that I realize that I’m making a bastardized version of posole, the traditional Mexican soup or stew that takes different forms depending on the region, ingredients and hand of the cook. Posole, which means hominy, typically includes its namesake ingredient and pork, chilies and other ingredients. Hominy is made from whole corn kernels that are large and tough. The kernels are soaked in a lye or lime solution to break down the outer hulls and then washed to remove the excess solution and hull. The kernels swell in size. When used in soup or stew, the hominy thickens the broth. For the sake of time, I used canned, precooked hominy rather than cooking it from scratch.

This weekend I sensed that the grief welling inside me had been there for a long time. The news of a friend whose wife unexpectedly died this weekend triggered the outpouring of my own sense of loss, a heaviness that soaked my head, heart and soul. My grief is the residue of a long-term relationship that suddenly ended in swift, brutal, unilateral fashion in spring. My grief and loss has no connection to my friend’s recent loss or to the loss others have experienced and continue to live with and bear.

Each instance of grief is its own puzzle, its own pattern of raindrops. The assembly of grief, long after public, shared mourning, finds a watershed that is private and solitary, hidden away from handshakes and hugs and the tedium of busy lives. Grief offers no consolation or replacement for that which prompted it. It is a river that carries its unwilling passenger from one point of departure to another unknown port.

My pervasive feeling of loss, this particular grief, is different. She lives. The connections to her and the kids and pets and intertwined rhythms of life have been severed. It’s too complicated and personal to explain here. It’s my own puzzle. Changes in seasons, holidays, or simply subtle, unexpected reminders of what once was, all of these and other reminders, open pathways for grief to flow as water finding the path of least resistance.

The pot of posole smells good.

I am not a recipe follower. I improvise and adapt, using ingredients on hand, techniques learned and skills honed. The posole’s ingredients blend and unite into something greater as a whole. I add more salt, pepper and water, some garlic powder, sage and dried oregano. The broth is savory, tangy, earthy. The kernels of hominy have absorbed the salt and acid. Perhaps they might swallow my grief.

The posole is ready.

Grief has no recipe. It is part of life, itself a cycle of gift and loss with pathways and patterns that make no sense at times. Grief is an ocean unbound by the Kübler-Ross model for emotional stages, those ports in the storm that seem to be part of an itinerary, a planned passage with navigation points ever present as stars against a dark sky. Yet, grief is raw and elemental as the ocean, as life, and navigation takes its own course defiant of charts and time, indifferent to obligations and expectations.

I cook the way that I live and the way that I grieve seems to follow, without recipe, so I adapt and improvise. I do the best that I can. I allow myself to feel quietly, and plunge into the unknown of the next moment, the day ahead.

I fill a bowl with steaming posole and sprinkle chopped cilantro on top. The herb’s stems and leaves release its distinctive grassy scent, a last whiff of life as microscopic cells are cooked in the rich, savory ocean of broth.

This weekend’s company of friends and comrades, the lure of fire and smoke, craft beer and caffeine, art and attraction, writing and conversation, none of it sufficed as a bulwalk against a rising tide of grief. However, they are reminders of here and now, that life is relentless whether I participate or not. The activity and camaraderie were never meant to protect me from grief that floods my emotions. The grief is an inner sea. When my pillow offered no comfort, and sleep provided no respite, and grief rose in waves, I bathed in it and baptized myself.

This afternoon I rose, felt hunger, and entered the kitchen. With grief ever present, I began to cook with pork, beans and hominy. To cook, and then to eat, is an act of sustenance. I needed to cook not merely to feed myself but to gain ground in the healing process until grief subsides for a time.

Other people steeped in research and cultural heritage have written that corn, such as maize or hominy, was a sacred plant to the Aztecs and people of Mesoamerica. Posole, an ancient dish with ties to human sacrifice, was prepared for special religious feasts meant to honor the gods. Unwittingly, or perhaps through instinct, I needed to make this dish as a ritual sacrifice, to feed body and soul, gain strength and seek higher ground for a view beyond the horizon of grief.

City Market Scene – September 26, 2015

City Market Scene – September 26, 2015

The transition from summer to autumn is evident at the City Market. Summer berries, tomatoes and corn are mostly absent, replaced by pumpkins, eggplant, bell pepper, chili peppers and late season greens. I also spotted squash blossom but resisted buying them.

Today I left the apartment with seven dollars in bills as my budget. It’s amazing how tight-fisted and selective you can be with a set budget versus just ringing up a cart of groceries at the supermarket. I made those seven bucks stretch pretty well even though I’ll supplement the purchases with a run to the store for other goods.

 

Longbeans

Long beans aka string beans or snake beans.

 

I bought some long beans aka string beans or snake beans that will be stir-fried with beef, red curry paste, Thai basil and garlic and served with rice.

 

Thai basil

Thai basil.

 

Water spinach

Water spinach.

 

This water spinach (above), also called Chinese spinach and water morning glory, will be stir-fried with garlic and shrimp and served with rice. It can also be steamed as a side dish with soup or tempura-battered and fried.

Below, I’ll likely slice and saute this summer squash with onion as a side dish. I love the striping that reminds me of watermelon rinds.

 

Summer squash

 

I’ll use some of the ginger and saute it with Asian pear in butter for a light dessert. The remaining ginger will be used in a stir-fry with pork, onion and garlic.

 

Asian pear and ginger

Asian sorrel

Asian sorrel aka sour leaf.

 

I spotted this red-stemmed plant at several Asian farm stands. It was labeled as Asian sorrel, sour leaf and gongura at different tables. The latter is a word used by Telugu, people mainly from the states of Andhra Pradesh, India, where the leafy green is typically pickled. Known as rau chua in Vietnam, sorrel is a tart-tasting herb that is eaten raw as an accompaniment to spring rolls and soups. French sorrel is used in sauces with fish as well as in soups and purees, tucked into an omelette or stuffed in fish. I skipped the sorrel this week but might experiment with it next week if still available at the market.

Fresh chestnuts still in their prickly husk were another find at the market. Of the Earth Farm Distillery had a basket of chestnuts at their stand. I may buy them later in the season. Instead, I opted to by a bottle of blackberry liqueur made from blackberries sourced from the Mule Barn Berry Patch in Lathrop. Sarah from Of the Earth passed out a sample. One sip made a convincing argument to splurge on the liqueur. Slightly sweet with a kick from the 20% alcohol by volume, the blackberry liqueur will be enjoyed as an after-dinner sipper or perhaps added to fruit compote and served over ice cream. Of the Earth also makes and sells fruit-flavored brandy, eau de vie, rye whiskey and grappa.

 

Chestnuts

Chestnut basket

Of the Earth spirits

Sara Of the Earth

 

When I returned home, I was eager to eat some of the fresh produce and herbs I had purchased including an heirloom tomato, a remind that summer has passed. I made crostini, using rosemary focaccia from Bloom Baking Co., topped with blistered strips of yellow bell pepper that I bought at the market earlier in the week, sliced Cherokee purple tomato, Thai basil and a bit of sweetened goat cheese from Borgman’s Dairy Farm. Light, colorful and full of flavor, this dish hit the spot.

 

Bruschetta

Spices to Savor – Cardamom

Spices to Savor – Cardamom

What’s the difference between white cardamom and green cardamom, I wondered?

Now that I’ve settled into my new River Market home, I have re-established routines like food shopping and cooking. I have also taken stock of my pantry, including the over-stuffed plastic bin of spices I have accumulated over the years. While digging around in my bin, I pulled out small bags of green cardamom and white cardamom. I prefer buying whole spices for use in cooking, grinding or shaving them into powder if need be.

Green cardamom seeds

 

Green cardamom seed pods are oval-shaped like pepitas. The hard outer shell is easily cracked and reveals dark seeds encased in a thin, papery skin. As a spice, the whole seed initially tastes sweet and finishes with peppery and bitter notes. The bold aroma is woodsy, resinous and sharp when the spice is dried. The scent softens into a warm, inviting perfume when cooked.

Whole green cardamom is an aromatic spice well-suited for use in autumn and winter foods and beverages. I use it year-round with cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, fresh ginger, clove and other spices to make a strong brew of chai. When I get bored of drinking iced or hot green or black tea, homemade chai offers an added kick of flavor and aroma. After brewing, I like to extract the whole softened green cardamom pods, suck out the rich chai flavors and chew on the softened seeds. Cardamom is apparently good for digestion.

Green cardamom is used often in Indian cooking. I add whole cardamom to sweetened rice pudding or a vanilla crème Anglaise for dessert once in a while. It can also be used with curry, lentils, duck, chicken, rice and squash as well as breads and desserts.

 

White cardamom pods

White cardamom seeds

 

The bag of white cardamom seed pods in the bin went untouched until my recent move. I bought it on a whim while shopping at Kim Long located a couple blocks east of the City Market. White cardamom, it turns out, is simply bleached green cardamom. The type I purchased was round rather than oval and didn’t resemble green cardamom at all. The short, stubby pods also contained brown seeds encased in thin skin. The aroma and flavor isn’t nearly as pungent as the green variety. I found the taste to be more bitter, peppery and harshly concentrated with little sweetness when I ate it straight. It also has a slightly more medicinal menthol aroma.

I’ll experiment with making different test batches of chai using green and white cardamom separately, but suspect that I’ll probably wind up combining them for future use and just stick with green cardamom in the future.

Black cardamom, which I have resisted purchasing, has a smoky flavor and aroma that comes from the drying method as I have learned from some quick online research. Rather than sweet dishes, this version of the spice is better suited to meaty dishes and stews, or even in Vietnamese pho.

City Market Scene – Week of September 25

City Market Scene – Week of September 25

I’ll try not to write about the City Market like a teenager that just discovered sex. Last week I moved to the River Market and quickly fell in love with my new home. I’m eager to share this amazing new discovery. Except the City Market and River Market neighborhood isn’t exactly new.

The City Market’s origins trace back to the mid-1800s when an open-air farmers market formed near the trading docks of the Missouri River between Grand and Main Streets. Then it was known as Westport Landing, a reference to the goods off-loaded and bound three miles south for higher ground in the community of Westport founded by John Calvin McCoy. Westport, Kansas City’s modern dining and entertainment district, was literally the “port to the West.” This trading post and community was a launch point for settlers bound for the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Westport brewpub McCoy’s Public House is named after the “father of Kansas City.” McCoy earned this title because he lead a group of settlers in 1850 in creating the “Town of Kansas.” This downtown area, where today’s River Market neighborhood is located, became the “City of Kansas” in 1853.

That’s enough history.

My new residence on Third Street between Main and Delaware is across the street from the historic farmers market where Kansas City was founded. I’ve lived in Kansas City for most of my life. I have shopped and dined in the River Market countless times over the years so living here shouldn’t feel like a new experience. Yet, it does.

On my first full day of living in my new apartment, I walked across Third Street to the corner of the City Market between Carollo’s Grocery, Deli and Grill and Quay Coffee. As soon as I stepped into the market on Saturday afternoon to grab a bite for lunch, I experienced a sense of deja vu. The September sky was clear blue. The market bustled with weekend shoppers, diners and people milling about aisles and stores. Instantly, the scene reminded me of walking around Pike Place Market in Seattle when I visited there 20 years ago. Then it was late August. The sky was also blue, the air crisp and cool. People crowded the market, browsing between produce, flower, specialty food and seafood vendors. That time felt magic.

Kansas City’s City Market exhibits obvious differences from the famed Seattle market, namely the lack of fresh seafood. For a moment last weekend, I tapped into that same sense of energy, community and interaction found at the best farmers markets. I’ve felt that same sense of adventure and discovery at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Market, Boston’s Haymarket or even the modest Brookside farmers market.

Bloom rosemary focaccia

 

From time to time, I plan to write about life in the River Market and exploring the City Market from the point of view of a resident. Living in the neighborhood further spurs my interest in food, beverage and people. Such easy walking access to places like Bloom Baking Co. for fresh rosemary focaccia means there’s no excuse for spending money primarily at local businesses, a practice that I already inherently do already. It’s great being able to pop over to the market, grab Parmesan cheese and fresh basil from Carollo’s, and shop for fresh produce at cheap prices and use those ingredients that day. I’ve already made some face-to-face connections with local farmers like Jim from Of the Earth Farm Distillery and Janet Smith, the goat dairy farmer-entrepreneur of Borgman’s Dairy, who sells amazing cajeta.

 

Yellow bell peppers

 

I’m eager to explore this growing neighborhood and community as residents and visitors gather at communal spaces like the City Market. I’m excited about the trolley tracks that run directly in front of my building. Months from now, I’ll be able to hop the trolley and be whisked to other parts of downtown. Such possibilities remind me of my urban commuting days from living in Boston for three years.

Thoughts of Boston and its numerous farmers markets feel like I’m cheating on my newfound love. Sorry, City Market. I plan to be here close by your side for a while. I think we’re going to have a great relationship.