Green!!

Nope, not green for spring, ‘cuz it’s not here yet.  (I’m angry about the global warming that is apparently affecting the continent of North America but giving the north of China the finger…)

Nor am I going belatedly green for St. Patty’s day, though I was forced to do so at work and host a slipshod party for the students, wherein me and my coworker gave away a bottle of Baileys to the person wearing the most green, and I showed a dubiously culturally relevant youku clip of river dancing monkeys.  Thank god none of my coworkers are actually Irish.  Or actually if any of them were we would’ve made them throw the party and I’m sure it would’ve been much truer to its roots (and much less sober of an affair.)

The green I’m going on about is in the form of (what else) food!  And drinks!  Nonalcoholic ones, for a change.  

I’m late to get on the green smoothie bandwagon, but I am now securely seated thereon.  I saw this idea on blog (http://www.flourishandfancy.com/2012/03/smoothie-love-take-one.html),  featured on another blog (http://www.aflatteringtale.com/) of a former classmate of mine.  This is why the blogosphere (god, what a wretched word) rocks: a blog you follow leads you to another blog which leads you to an awesome green smoothie.  Which you make as soon as you apprehend some spinach.

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If you’re skeptical of whizzing salad fixings into your smoothie, please don’t be.  If you’ve ever tried any type of bottled smoothies with names like “Green Goodness,” or “Green Machine,” than you’ll understand why it’s a genius concept.  

Though the pureed greens lend the drink vibrant green color, the taste of the fruit and fruit juices dominate.  I really couldn’t detect the flavor of spinach at all.  

I used a frozen banana, plain yogurt, honey, strawberry juice, orange juice, and a vibrant pile of spinach. Whirr away, and you’ve got a delicious, vibrant smoothie with fruit AND veggies, all in one!  I’m impossibly stoked about this.  So stoked, I’m using words like stoked.  

But, lest you think with this smoothie and the usage of “stoked,” I’ve used up all my reserves of California hippie-ness, think again!

Oh yeah, we’re talking more green, in the form of avocados!  

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I’m of the conviction few foods are more perfect than perfectly ripe avocados.  I mean, really.  All they need is to be sliced or diced and sprinkled with a whisper of fleur de sel.  Creamy, silky, mild, indulgent perFECtion.  

This one, however, was turned into my favorite breakfast ever: Avocado on Toast (must that be capitalized?  Whatevs, I’m going with it; it’s a proper name, yo.)

Avocado on Toast isn’t just that.  It’s a little misleading that way.  You could slice some avocado on toast and I’ve no doubt that would be divine.  But I find it’s even more divine if you lightly mash the avocado with a clove of garlic, a few jags of hot sauce, chopped cilantro or parsley (or both), a squeeze of lemon or lime, salt and pepper, and a squirt of mayonnaise, if that’s your thang.  I know avocado is lovely and creamy on its own, but sometimes mayo is the correct thing to do.  I like fat.  (In food, not on my body…what, the two are related?  Whaaa?)

Don’t over-mash the avocado–you want a chunky mixture, not a puree.  Smear it on some hot crunchy toast (nice sourdough, preferably) and hot damn, that is the most perfect breakfast I ever did see:

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Wait a sec.  Isn’t this essentially guacamole on toast?  A variation of it, maybe.  I wouldn’t be adverse to dipping tortilla chips in it.  But I like to add chopped jalapenos and canned green chiles into my guacamole.  And I like more lime juice.  And, I’d never put mayonnaise into guacamole.  Maybe I’d swirl it with sour cream on a taco (OK, actually I know I would do that.)  

So yeah, it’s close.  But it’s more of an avocado spread than guacamole.  Oh, also I’d put fresh ripe chopped tomatoes into guacamole as well.  I really go to town with guacamole, apparently.  I can appreciate simpler versions, but I like lots of zingy flavors of raw onion, spice, and fresh tomato.

I can also testify the avocado spread is excellent on a breakfast sandwich, with a fried egg and a slice of melted gouda cheese.  I’m sure it would embellish a slew of sandwiches in a similarly delicious way (turkey and swiss with ripe tomato, a veggie sandwich with tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, and bell peppers…K I’ll let you take it from there.)

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Not sure why there’s a psychedelic glow in this photo–maybe it’s all the positive energy coming from this healthy, green breakfast, man.  Just kidding.  

That said, if you make this for breakfast, or anytime, you will feel energized by the nutrients and flavors of this delectable smoothie and spread.  Go green!

 

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French Toast Flop

The concept was good: make sandwiches of sliced bread smeared with cream cheese/butter/almond syrup on one side, cherry jam on the other.  Arrange these sandwiches in a pool of beaten eggs, milk, and more almond syrup.  Add a dash of brandy.  Sprinkle crushed almonds and dried cherries throughout.

See?  Nice concept, right?  But the final product, while sweet and creamy and gooey (and thereby pretty highly edible, and even tasty) didn’t fulfill my French toast fantasy.  For starters, the best French toast uses fluffy white bread, or brioche.  I used your everyday wheat sandwich bread.  Also, since I baked it in the oven, the side facing up was crusty and brown, while the underside was a bit sodden.  I wonder if it would’ve been better if I’d diced the sandwich into cubes, then baked that.  Like a French toast bread pudding. The ratio of crusty to soggy bits would’ve been better.

Also, for the egg “custard” and the brown butter milk sauce I poured over the top, I used soy milk, because that’s all I had.  I’m not opposed to soy milk (obviously, since I voluntarily brought it into the house), but really, when you’re making French toast, you want real, full-fat dairy.  Just like you want fluffy, soft, eggy bread with no pesky wholesome quality.

I grew up eating French toast prepared on a griddle, and as I recall, those slices got browned and crusty on the outside, but retained a tender eggy interior.  I think because I used a sandwich method, and the toast was two slices deep, and stuffed with gooey cream cheese, it predisposed the end result toward sogginess.

So what lessons to garner from my French toast foibles?

The lessons are three-fold:

1.  Use brioche or fluffy French bread.

2.   One layer of bread is best, so the slices can be crusty/tender instead of soggy.

3.  Use real milk!  Unless you are dairy adverse or allergic, real milk will produce the French toast of your childhood.  Unless you were raised by hippies.  Then you might want to use soy.

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Feasting on the Fly

The other night I found myself in for a solitary evening at the apartment, wondering what I could fix for dinner.  Should I fix something Chinese, rich and savory with umami?  I had a cabinet full of sesame oil, miso, vinegar, and hot spices.  I’ve found myself making more use of these ingredients of late, perhaps because my new budget has me in the kitchen more, determined to make use of local (read: cheaper) supermarket fare.  I’ve made some delicious stir-fried cabbage and rice with diced sauteed kielbasa and pickled vegetables.  I throw in dashes of savory oils and spices as inspiration seizes me–a sprinkle of sesame seeds here, a dab of miso there.  The finished products are delicious and heady with hot and sour and spicy notes, accenting the crunch of the cabbage and the salty meat.

But tonight I didn’t want something so salty, so infused with Asian umami, glorious as it is.  I wanted pasta.  I wanted olive oil, and capers, and roasted little tomatoes.  And anchovies!  OK, so maybe I did want salt.

Off to Chaoyang Da Yue Chang I went, for my tomatoes and other essentials.

A city of malls and shabby apartment complexes, and sometimes lovely winter sunsets

Back at the apartment, I lobbed my tomatoes in half and roasted them with olive oil.  I rinsed spinach and left it draining in the colander.  I decided to get fancy and followed a method I saw for making garlic chips on Matt Armendariz’s blog, “Matt Bites.”  He has you boil the garlic in water, ostensibly to mellow and soften it, before slicing it thinly and frying it in a pan with olive oil.  I decided to go crazy and fry my capers as well.

I opened the can of Chinese anchovies I’d picked up, and gingerly removed a few from the tin.  They smelled like cat food, and I briefly reconsidered defiling my pasta with their stinky saltiness.  Then I thought, eh, what the heck, and tossed them to sizzle in the pan with more oil.

Anchovies--a fish not for the fainthearted...or nostriled

I broke these up and added my tomatoes, the fried capers, salt, pepper, spinach, and a bit of salty pasta water from the spaghetti I had boiled.  I added this all back into the spaghetti pot with the pasta and mixed vigorously to incorporate all the lovely gooey tomatoes and spinach in with the noodles.

On the side I tossed some extra spinach with toasted almonds, pumpkin seeds, dried cherries, and blue cheese.  I made up a vinaigrette with mustard, plum jam, white wine vinegar, and olive oil.

Naturally, while I was cooking I sipped a red grape cognac martini.  Just for class, of course.

100% red grape juice, well-chilled good cognac, and a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar do a delicious cocktail make

I piled my pasta onto my plate, topped with a few extra roasted tomatoes, sprinkled with the garlic chips, and mounded salad on the side.  I poured the dregs from a bottle of Chilean rose into a glass and sat down to a feast for one.  The pasta was delicious.  Freshly shaved parmesan cheese would have sent it over the top, but the roasted tomatoes, crunchy garlic chips, salty capers and anchovies made for a fresh and complex spaghetti.  The salad was the perfect accompaniment.  How can you go wrong with dark leafy greens, toasted nuts and blue cheese?  I’ll tell you: you can’t.

Since I was on a roll I decided to make Smitten Kitchen’s potato chip cookies.  I’ll spare you all the details, because you can go to her site to see those.

(http://smittenkitchen.com/2012/01/potato-chip-cookies/)

However, I will urge you to do so immediately, because these cookies were phenomenal.  I used regular old Lays and crushed them pretty coarsely.  I used almonds instead of pecans, and added chopped dark chocolate.  I dipped the finished cookies in dark chocolate, and sprinkled them with more chopped almonds and potato chips.

Perfection.  There were like potato chip sandies, which, if you think that sounds weird, just push your doubts aside and plough ahead.  They were so simple, because shortbread usually is.  The dough was easy to work with, roll into neat little balls and in sugar, before squishing them flat with a drinking glass.  I loved them.  Salty, sweet, crunchy, refined, crumbly, unexpected.

So if you don’t have anchovies, tomatoes, blue cheese, nuts, or potato chips knocking about your cupboards, I sincerely urge you to make a dash for those and get cooking!  With a martini in hand.

These are as good as they look. Trust me. Make 'em!

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Like a Holiday

The Chinese New Year dinner was a success, although Daniel was so busy translating and snapping pictures, he barely got to eat.

We asked questions about what it was like living in Beijing during the 1960s and 70s.  It was a bit surreal as the fireworks exploded outside the window and we feasted on fish and chicken wings and lotus root to hear stories of how Daniel’s parents used to eat leaves and roots to supplement their ration of dried beans.  As we sipped sparkling wine we listened as Daniel translated their words about how baijiu used to cost a few fen, and you could eat an entire restaurant feast for a couple quai.

They said people were happier back then, though.  We incredulously asked how they could be happy if they were starving.  Because of the translation it was a bit confusing to tell exactly what time they were referring to…maybe they meant the happier time came later, when the food rations increased and the periods of extreme deprivation had passed.    They said people aren’t as happy now, though.  Even though people have so much more, they aren’t as happy.

We were happy, though, despite the somber recollections.  Daniel’s dad bustled around to get beers out for everyone, and his mom brought out plate after plate of boiled dumplings filled with pork and greens.  We dunked them into garlicky vinegar, and clinked our glasses to the new year.  It felt like a holiday, spent with family, crowded around a table with funny awkward lulls and cozy chatter and contented eating.

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Changes in the Dragon’s Year

The year of the dragon is almost upon us.

We’re going to have dinner with Daniel’s parents, which should be interesting as they don’t speak English, and we don’t speak Chinese.  Daniel will enjoy being our translator, I’m sure.  He said we were in charge of cooking steaks.  I’m not sure why steaks should be on the menu, other than apparently they were what Brett served to Daniel the first time they hung out.  Daniel arrived bearing a bottle of wine, a custom he observed from Friends (a show he’s watched in its entirety about thirty times.  I’m not exaggerating.)

Apparently the steaks made an impression on him as a typical American dinner dish.  I’d assume this is the reason he wants us to prepare them for his parents.  Daniel always thinks about details.  He said his mother offered to cook them, but he said, “No.  You can cook dumplings.”  Apparently his mother’s cooking skills are not renowned.  However, neither are our steak skills.  Steaks and dumplings.  A strange pairing, but we’ll keep the wine flowing and I’m sure it’ll all go down fine.

The days leading up to the new year have been quiet.  Brett arrived home on Sunday night.  We celebrated our reunion and five-year anniversary (holy wow) with rose Moet.  A splurge, but the occasion justified it, I felt.  I love a nice cava or prosecco for everyday drinking, or even a cocktail party.  But I’ve been wanting to try this Moet for awhile.

It was delicious.  Dry, crisp, and…yeah, my sparkling wine descriptors are a bit limited.  And it was three nights ago.  Fruity?  No, I don’t think it was fruity.  It was fancy, OK?

Brett popping the bubbly

Keeping in the fancy vein, we had some Hilshire Farms summer sausage Brett brought back.  He got a little carried away and brought three big rolls of it.  Apparently he’s really into H.F. cured meats.  With it we had saltines and a Laughing Cow variety pack of cheeses.  Individually wrapped cubes of blue cheese, cheddar, and original processed cheese.  Yeah baby.  If I’d thought ahead I should have arranged a picnic to match the champagne, complete with pate, baguette, and good French cheese from Le Fromager du Pekin.  However,  Hilshire salami and Laughing Cow are delicious in their own right.

Winter hibernation has settled in in earnest.  I’m on holiday for Spring Festival, and I’m sick, again.  Also the past three days have been swathed in a thick and shrouding pollution.  The city is obscured in white.  Even if my throat wasn’t raspy and my nose not alternately dripping and clogged, I wouldn’t go out to breathe hard in that muck.  I can feel my muscles atrophy as I type, but it’s a question of exercising my heart while destroying my lungs.  I just don’t feel it’s worth it.

This was a few days ago, though I can hardly believe it...the pollution has blotted out all other memories of Beijing other than a grungy ghost city

B. and I are trying to decide what to do after this summer.  Should we return to Beijing, or no?  Factors like the current weather situation lead us toward no.  But there are other things as well…

We’d miss Daniel.  And I’d miss our little apartment, in which I’ve spent many a lovely lazy morning like this:

Beijing has become home, in a way.  I’ve had my first real job here, if you can call teaching English in China that.  I mean I’m employed by a major company and I earn my keep, more or less.

It’s a place of extremes.  I’ve had wonderful moments here, and adventures.  I’ve loved trying the cuisine.  My knowledge of and love for Chinese food has grown exponentially.  I know there’s so much food I’ll miss and crave when I leave.

And maybe we aren’t leaving yet.  Maybe we’ll stick around for a little while yet.  I certainly hoped to introduce a few friends and family members to my Beijing.  It would be a shame not to be able to.

But essentially, for me, Beijing is not a sustainable place.  I mean, it can’t sustain me, personally.  Maybe no place can…maybe…maybe I should start quoting Dylan or some other ballad about drifting souls and wanderers.

I certainly know some can and do live here for long periods of time, or lifetimes.  They weather the icy dreary winters, the bitter winds, the spring sandstorms, the summer humidity, the white fog pollution.  And perhaps their bodies and psyches aren’t too damages by it all.  The city certainly has other charms (dumplings, anyone?) to balance out the harshness of the weather and grime.

But other cities and landscapes beckon.  Maybe even clean American cities, where I’ll pursue the old American dream, before it crumbles…try to slice off a bit of that pie (apple, naturally) before it’s gone.

In the meantime, I’ll brave the cold and go into the city to meet friends and eat delicious food and soak up the crazy eastern charm of this old city.

 

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A Quiet (Caffeinated) Toast

2011 went out with a bang, or rather a blaze of pulsing lasers synchronized to pounding music in a warehouse in 798. Our group filtered out into the bitter new year’s night and packed Brett, huge suitcase and all, into a black cab and bade him goodbye.

We ate hot pot, largely due to the Chinese contingent’s clamoring. It seems western and eastern drunk food ideals differ vastly. Mike and I spoke wistfully about the virtues of diner food while we fished lotus root and wilted cabbage out of the burbling spicy liquid.

In the spirit of contrast, the first day of the year was quiet and lovely. I went into town and had the garish yellow tiger stripes in my hair dyed over with a modest light brown. I ate hummus topped with warm mushroom, and tabbouleh. I read Maxine Hong Kingston in Fish Eye, over a warm latte. To cap off the luxury, I saw a film…a rather overwrought murder mystery starring Elijah Wood. The dialogue was sometimes cringe-worthy, but the experience of the plush theater seats, my own popcorn box, a smuggled chocolate cowtail and a can of cream soda was so worth the 80 kuai ticket.

I’ll feel Brett’s absence in the next couple of weeks, but I like solitude. I’ll get some writing done and muse over the possibilities brimming in 2012.

Last year was a good one. A few highlights were:

-The move to the gritty burbs with Daniel. Occasionally I miss the convenience of Tuanjiehu but overall an excellent decision. I love our little cozy apartment, even with its aqua galley kitchen.
-The whirlwind two weeks in Tennessee with family and friends. Finally got to see the French Mansion!
-The Irish contingent descending on Beijing. Such fun rowdy and relaxed times–McDonalds ordered, the Great Wall scaled, roast duck carved and consumed. So much fun!
-My first Thanksgiving dinner in China. 2010 was spent in Thailand, so this year was the first time I hosted and pulled it off with the Chinese fam.
-All the mundane and lovely moments with the gang. Dancing, cooking, debating, laughing with Kurt, D., Valena, Ileana, Mike, Ashley, Josh, and many more.

In 2012, I can’t wait for:

-My spring festival vacation in a few weeks. We haven’t picked a location yet, but contenders are: Yunnan, the Philippines, and Sanya.
-My trip home this summer. It’s gonna be jam-packed full of beautiful people and places.
-The birth of my nephew in May!!!!!!!!!!!
-Rachelle’s wedding
-Chandler’s wedding
-Visiting California after a five-year absence (In-n-Out Burger, I’m dreamin’ of you!)
-Exploring Beijing in the rest of my time here, and scheming what’s next!

Here’s to 2012. I raise my Starbucks double tall latte to what’s coming.

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Chinese Thanksgiving, Twice

A week after the fact and finally the butter is chilling in the freezer for pie pastry.  I’m making pumpkin and pecan, the favorite pie (fraternal) twins of Thanksgiving.  Though really, in our clan Mom’s famous chocolate pie was the real winner.  Rich and creamy and deep dark chocolate on the bottom, unsweetened whipped cream on top, cradled in a buttery Nilla wafter crust and flecked with shaved chocolate, it was heaven with each creamy, cool, crust-crumbly forkful.

This year, though, I’m going traditional rather than familial.  The chocolate pie’s filling requires eggs to be whipped into fluffy oblivion, and I don’t have a hand mixer.

I’m using a recipe from Epicurious for Bourbon Pumpkin Pie, and for the pecan, I’m doctoring up a jarred filling…with more bourbon.  Yes.

At one of the import stores my eyes snagged on a jar I recognized.  At Gardners Market, the little sandwich shop I worked at during my university years, one of the many whimsical food items we carried was a large jar labeled “Pecan Pie In-a-Jar.”  This might seem superfluous, perhaps even more so because the ingredients in the jar were a straightforward blend of pecans, light and dark corn syrup, sugar, natural flavor, and salt.  Why would you need to buy a jar of these ingredients?

Why indeed.  Maybe you would if you lived in China, wherein a shopping list for Thanksgiving essentials necessitates treks across the city to all the various import stores.  Rather than going on another (probably fruitless, or rather, nutless) search for pecans, when I saw the jar, I felt a profound relief.  All my pie filling needs, provided in one cute and exorbitantly overpriced jar, with the bonus of nostalgic remembrance.  Done and done.

We tried to have Thanksgiving on Monday, and we mostly succeeded, except Daniel wasn’t there.  He couldn’t get back from the military base, and in the drawn out waiting for a word from him, I vacillated about what to do.  Should we cancel completely?  Should we extend our celebration even further from the sacred Thanksgiving Thursday we’d already missed (both Brett and I worked that day, till 9 p.m.)?  Or would Daniel show up at the eleventh hour?

A turkey was perhaps going to be ordered, if Daniel could come, if it wasn’t too late…

and then he finally wrote in that he couldn’t make it.

Fact: I don’t handle disappointment well.  When I got the news I halted my fluttery preparations for the evening and sank into despair.  Yes, we had other friends coming, but Daniel’s our family.  What’s the point of Thanksgiving without family?  (To the friends who made it: you’re dearly loved and valued, but when you live with a dear friend it makes them even more familial…you share all those mundane home moments.)

I rallied, or Brett rallied me, and I set about my corn pudding and my stuffing.  Then Josh called to inform us that, in the confusion of waiting for Daniel and calling the turkey shop to check about cooking times, the turkey had been ordered and was en route.

What?   But…Daniel isn’t coming!  Ah good grief.  Whatever.

So we had our Thanksgiving turkey in the end, four days late.  Without Daniel.

And now, tomorrow, since he’s home, we’re going to go for round two.  This time, we’ll be eating leftover turkey.  I’m going to make green bean casserole, and a repeat of the delicious corn pudding we had a few days ago.

We always had corn pudding at Thanksgivings in Tennessee.  I wasn’t really aware until recently that it’s a southern Thanksgiving tradition, though that makes sense–what with the south’s obsession with grits.

Corn pudding was never a must-have side for me at those family gatherings.  I’ll have to ask my mom or grandma what went into it, but this year I went for something different.

In perusing the internet, I looked over loads of recipes.  Some called for whipped egg whites, some for freshly shucked ears of corn, some called for not much more than canned creamed corn and butter and an egg or two.

The one that caught my eye was one on the Food Network site, using creamed corn, frozen corn kernels, cornmeal, and a healthy knob of butter and cream cheese, along with some shredded cheddar.  Buttery, cheesy corn pudding?  Yes please.  The one I was raised on never had cheese, but I knew the richness of the cream cheese and sharp tang of the cheddar would work beautifully with sunny yellow corn.

And it did.  It was rich, nicely browned, creamy, and cheesy.  In other words, divine.

It’s been a patched up and strung out holiday, but this year I’m thankful for my family here in China, as small and mismatched as it is, and I’m thankful I can spend tomorrow with them eating leftover turkey and (mostly) homemade pie.

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Lasers, Fainting Sofa, Jane

I started out last night writing about my nacho dinner, then segued rather gracelessly into my experience at Tongren Hospital last week.  Instead of writing one post with these utterly unrelated topics, I decided to break it up with two posts.  If nachos are more your thing, read the previous post.  If you’re at all intrigued by my (somewhat) harrowing experiences in a hospital in the middle country, then please, read on.

It wasn’t bad, really…for a Chinese hospital.  I can’t complain.  For a truly spine-tingling account, read my friend Mike Kelly’s blog post (http://mikechriskelly.tumblr.com/post/2824165063/scattershot.)  Still…

I’ve been to Tongren probably 7 or 8 times now, but I wouldn’t call myself an old pro.  I do feel more comfortable striding through the heavy swinging doors now, but only because I’ve grown accustomed to the discomfort that awaits me.  Confusion, hot flashes from the stuffy hallways/waiting rooms, stares from tottering old people, staring in turn at people fumbling down hallways with bandages over their eyes or affixed to their heads, fluorescent lights and a sense of barely sterilized decay.

Nearly every time I visit Tongren I’m overwhelmed with a barrage of conflicting experiences and emotions.

Take Jane, for example, a doctor who’s completing her masters degree by working full-time at the hospital.  A composed girl with brown skin and glasses and kind, round eyes, she’s become my savior and personal guide to the complicated maze and paperwork shuffle every visit entails.  I’m always overwhelmed with relief when I see her, but I worry she feels the opposite when she sees me…”Oh, shit.  It’s that helpless American again.  There goes my productive work day.”

The night before my surgery, a week ago, I began freaking out because Jane hadn’t responded to my text about what time to arrive the following morning.

“I don’t know where to go.  I have no idea!  And this poor girl isn’t being paid to be my personalized doctor, and I don’t want to bother her.  I probably should just cancel the surgery and pay more money to go to a foreign hospital.  If I can’t speak Chinese, I shouldn’t be going to a Chinese hospital.”

All this was delivered in the fatalistic, teary style Brett loves best out of my soliloquies, but he listened patiently and suggested we just go and at least pick up my eye drops at the pharmacy, and see if we could get the surgery done.

As we were waiting in line to pay, and get the paper which we would then take to the pharmacy, Jane finally texted me.  This was after I had gone to the bathroom and came back fuming, “Of course there’s no soap or toilet paper!  Why would I want to wash my hands in a hospital?  Of course!  Why didn’t I think to bring my own roll of toilet paper and hand wipes…to a hospital?”

Brett had to leave for work, so I made my way to the other east building of the hospital, dodging grim old men and weary mothers bouncing babies, and appeared in the examination room where Jane was.

Doctor Chen, the specialist I’ve spoken with before about my high intraocular pressure, looked up from where he was working on a patient and said, “Aubrey, you’re too late!”

I smiled weakly.  “Okay.”

I started to say more, but he interrupted, motioning to a stool near where he sat, poised in front of a boy who sat in the examination chair, his chin in the stirrup.

“Have a seat!”

His eyes were inscrutable and constant, his mouth hidden behind a mask from which his voice emanated out, slightly muffled.

His accent and his manner lent him a dignified, almost disdainful tone.  I can never tell what he thinks of me.  Sometimes I think he’s annoyed that I’ve cast myself in with the clamoring crowd of unwell Chinese, insolently requesting treatment at Chinese prices.

He looked stern.

“Do you have any questions about SLT surgery?”

“Um…”

“Have you read about it?  Have you spoken with doctors and friends who know about this surgery?”

I was fumbling, frantic to appear well-informed and prepared, definitely not a clueless kid who had read a handful of reports online and felt satisfied with those paltry morsels of information.

“You know,” he continued, “In China we have been doing this surgery for about eight years.  In America, they have been doing it for eleven years.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So with this treatment, you must come back for follow-up.  You must come back weeks after, and months later, and in six months, and in one year.”

He looked at me, his narrow eyes looking narrower over his blue mask.

“How long will you be in China?”

“I…don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“No.  I mean, I am going back home next summer, and then I think I am coming back after that.”

“You think?”

“Yeah.”

“You are not sure?”

“No.”

He laughed then, and I laughed a little too, but I wasn’t exactly sure why we were laughing.

“You know, if you do this surgery, and then you don’t come back, we cannot do follow-up.  If you are going to America this summer, maybe you can do the surgery there.  You are a citizen of the United States.”

I felt tears on the fringes, pressing in, but I wouldn’t give in.

“In America, it would cost a lot more,” I protested.

“Yes, that is one part of it,” he allowed.

I nodded, but I wanted to say, no, you don’t understand…that’s ALL of it.  I can’t pay American prices out of pocket.  No way.

He looked at Jane, who was demurely watching this exchange.

“Go with her, and she will talk to you about it,” he instructed.

I meekly obeyed.  I wanted to apologize to the kid in the chair on my way out, who was still waiting for his turn with the doctor.

“Do you want the surgery?” Jane asked me.

“I mean…yeah!”  I burst out.  “I know maybe the hospitals here are not so modern as in America, and they’ve been doing it there a little longer than here.  But I still think–I mean, is Dr. Chen the one who will do the surgery?”

“Yes.  Dr. Chen will do the surgery.”

“Yeah.  I mean, I think he would do a good job.  I want to do it.”

“OK.  Yes, I think it will be OK to do it here,” she replied.  “Let me tell him you will do it.”

Another shuffle from counter to counter to pay for the surgery (RMB 720, for laser eye surgery for glaucoma), then to the pharmacy to get my eye drops.  Then to some examination rooms, then I was outside the room where the surgery would take place.  Jane translated the waiver for me, which said all the usual things: there could be damage to the cornea, retina, and trabecular meshwork, but this was extremely rare, blah blah.  I signed.

Then she put numbing drops in my eyes.  This is maybe where I started to freak out a little on the inside.  OMG, my eyes are about to be shot through with lasers in a Chinese hospital.  OK.  No big deal.  Don’t worry about it.

I sat outside the door, labeled “YAG laser room.”

The door opened.

Jane said, “You can come in now.”  I entered the small room with a machine at a low table, with rickety stool in front of it.  There was another eye examination machine to the right, and behind both was a small sofa.  In the left corner Dr. Chen was washing his hands with great thoroughness.

I sat on the rickety stool, after putting my purse and jacket behind me.  I eyed the machine.  Would this thing really shoot lasers into my eyes?

“Do you have any questions for me before the surgery?”  Dr. Chen asked.

“Umm…”  I didn’t want to appear nonchalant about the whole thing.  “So basically you’re just opening up the meshwork of my eyes to let them drain and reduce the pressure, right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” he answered.

“Now, it’s very important that you are very still during the surgery.  Don’t move.  Look straight ahead at all times.”

I removed my glasses and put my chin and forehead against the plastic frame.  I knew from reading online it would only take a few minutes, and I would only need to wait in the hospital one hour afterwards, so they could check the pressure to make sure it didn’t spike too high.

OK.  Relax.

He inserted some kind of circular ring on my right eye, which clamped it open and pulled my eyelid back.  I swallowed hard and tried to look straight ahead.

And it was underway.  Small discreet zinging noises from the humming machine, and a blinding light slanting across my exposed eye ball.  Was I looking straight ahead?  I no longer knew which direction either of my eyes were pointing, but I tried not to change the direction of my gaze.

My discomfort grew as the blinding light shifted more and more directly into my eye, searing my retina.  The lasers zinged away, small pricks of red light dotting my vision, and god, is it just me or is it really hot in here?

Oh.  Oh I don’t feel good.  I’m really hot.  Ah.

A low groaning whimper escaped me, and the doctor asked if I was alright.

“Um, I’m just…really hot.”

I began fumbling with my hoodie, removing it, tossing it behind me, all while trying to look straight ahead.

Nausea washed over me.

I’m gonna faint.  Ohhh.  Or vomit.  I’m going to vomit and possibly lose control of my bowels at the same time.  Right here on this stool.  

My hearing was dim.

“Umm, I think I’m going to faint.”

“Faint?  What is faint?”

“I’m going to pass out.  I need to lie down.”

I was seeing spots.  The spots were merging with the blinding light and everything was bright and dim at once and I needed to lie down like on the floor right now or it would all be all over…

The clamp was removed from my eyes and I stood up from the stool and staggered to the couch, collapsing on it, raking sweaty hair from my forehead.

The assistant doctors rushed forward.

“Are you OK?  Do you need chocolate?”

“No.  No thanks.  Is my eye OK?

My vision was blurred and my eye seemed to be oozing a viscous fluid.

“Yes, your eye is fine.  I think you are very nervous.  I think maybe we should continue the surgery another day.”

“I–”

“No, don’t talk.  Just rest.  Get better.”

Another patient was ushered in and sat down across from the doctor.  They chatted pleasantly in Chinese, and while I couldn’t understand very much, I imagine it went something like this:

Dr. Chen: Hi, please take a seat.

Patient:  Hi.  OK.

Patient:  So what’s up with the white girl splayed across the sofa?

Dr. Chen:  Oh, don’t mind her.  Just this American who passed out in the surgery.

Patient:  Oh, Americans!  Always passing out during laser surgeries!

(They both chuckle, and Patient calmly endures the duration of his surgery without the assistance of the fainting sofa.)

After he was gone, Dr. Chen turned to me.

“Aubrey, I think you are too nervous, and I am too tired.”   His voice was amused and weary.  “I think we should do the surgery another time.  What do you think?”

“I mean, I want to finish it today!”

He laughed.

“But will you faint again?”

“I don’t know.  It’s just a physical reaction.  I don’t want to…”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“What if…could I listen to music?”

“Music.  Do we have music?”  he turned to the other doctors questioningly.

“No, I have music!  In my phone,” I explained.

“Oh!  Of course.”

I sat in the rickety stool for the second time.  I put in my ear buds, and selected “Perth,” the first song off Bon Iver’s new album.

Focus.  

The music began, haunting and loud, centering me in a calm  place, safe from the lasers and the blinding light.  They were peripheral, and the music was central.  I thought of past family vacations in California.  I thought of lying in the sun at Newport beach while gulls cried and spun overhead.  The crash of the waves and hiss of the tide.  

Where should we go for lunch?  Mmm, In-n-Out burger.  Definitely.  Vanilla milkshake and fries.  Yes.

“Just relax,” Dr. Chen said in his best soothing voice.  “Everything will be over in one minute.”

But I was relaxed.  I was completely fine.  He finished the right eye and moved on to the left, and it was finished.  Jane ushered me out and I sat out in the dingy hall waiting to have my pressure checked after an hour passed.  My eyes were a bit blurred and fragile, but otherwise fine.

A nurse checked the pressure, and I texted Jane the results.  She didn’t answer right away so I called her.  She said that was good, and she would see me the following morning to check the pressure again.

“See you tomorrow,” she said in her quiet voice.

Maybe because I knew the worst was over, maybe because of Jane, maybe because Dr. Chen gave me another chance, even though he was tired and didn’t want to have to soothe the sweating American girl in a language not his own, maybe because I’ve just been there so many damn times…I wasn’t too daunted at the prospect of another day at Tongren.

 

 

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Nachos, Jazzed

Tonight was a night I thought to cook something, but when the moment came, all cooking desire evaporated.

We met a student of mine earlier for lunch at a French restaurant, her treat, and I’d spent the whole morning getting to and waiting in line at Tongren Hospital, so I wanted to spend the grey November afternoon and evening at home.  It was an apt first November day, though the fog might have been more pollution than water-based.  The yellowing leaves of the sycamore and gingko trees lining the dusty courtyard of our apartment were tossing in the wind, and it was just cold enough for Brett to urge me away from the neighborhood produce stand, seduced as I was by apples–”No!  We can get those later!  Let’s go inside!”

I slept for a few hours in the cavelike gloom, then woke and found myself standing in the kitchen, the grogginess washed off with a shower.  Did I want to cook–pour myself a glass of wine, bring in the computer for music, patch together a soup or some hummus with pantry bits?

No.  What I really wanted was to pour salsa into a small bowl and dunk in yellow corn  chips and crunch in rapid succession.  As I crunched, I thought, hmmm, yes, I’m gonna keep going down this road, and make a nacho dinner of it.  But, instead of the standard plate of chips with cheese, chucked in the microwave (though I do this with care, too–the cheese is carefully distributed and if I’m making a big plate, I do layers so the bottom layer isn’t naked, and is properly cloaked in cheese, and I microwave them a good few minutes until the cheese is bubbling, nearly burning in parts, so I’ll peel them off later and eat the lovely crispy cheesy bits…)

I digress.  I decided a plate of nachos for dinner would be nice, but even better if jazzed a bit.  So I chopped up purple onion, pickled hot peppers, and this is where it gets a little Tex-Mex trash, but stick with me–a chopped canned tamale.  Last night Brett grabbed a can of Hormel hot-n-spicy tamales, after asking, “Canned tamales?  Are these good?  Really?”  And I was all, “Yeah, dog, they’re really good,” channelling fond memories of canned goods homeschool lunches scrounged from the pantry.

I scattered this trio over the plate of chips, and blanketed all in cheese.  And it was delicious.  Creamy, meaty, corn husky bites, sharp onion, vinegary peppers, held in place with melty cheddar and dunked in salsa.  I made us up some rum, Cointreau, and lime-spiked cocktails with a tropical juice medley, served in the new martini glasses from Ileana.

Do you have those moments?  Moments when, despite a gloomy fall evening providing the perfect backdrop for some simmering and dicing and sauteing, and wine sipping, what you really want is instant gratification in the form of vaguely dorm-room-ish fare?  Not that I’m knocking nachos.  No way.  But the chopped tamale was taking things a little too far down the Mexican junk food road, though not exactly to Taco Bell levels (oh Taco Bell, I miss you so…).  But it was oh-so-satisfying.  I’m already looking ahead to new jazzy nacho combinations on the horizon.  Perhaps diced chicken and onions, sauteed on the stove with a little cumin and spice, and tossed on the chips with pickled jalapenos and black olives?  We’re really getting into taco salad territory, almost, but as long as everything is sprinkled over a bed of chips and microwaved so the cheese melts, and there isn’t any chopped iceberg, it’s still nachos.

Though I’m breaking with the Mexican theme for dessert (I guess I’d have to do churros or sopapillas for that), I’m continuing in the spirit of submitting to cravings later on and making more peanut butter cookies.  Specifically, Molly Wizenberg’s recipe for peanut butter cookies with milk chocolate chunks.  Divinely indulgent with a glass of milk, or, my favorite, a glass of Smitten Kitchen’s slushy whiskey-spiked milk punch.

(http://orangette.blogspot.com/2011/10/out-on-this-limb.html#comments)

(http://smittenkitchen.com/2010/12/milk-punch/)

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For the Vegans or the Eaters of Excessive Cookies

On Friday I made Melissa Clark’s tomato soup from the New York Times online Food & Wine section.  The recipe is interesting; it’s part of an article about how to serve a satisfying and hearty vegetarian meal.  I like how she notes it’s tempting, when serving meatless food, to add lots of fats like butter and cream to make up for the lack of meat.  With these recipes, though, she eschews this route, and you’d never miss those ingredients, at least in the tomato soup.  I love a good cream-spiked tomato bisque, but I’ve been getting ample amounts of butter in my diet from the cookie streak I’ve been on.

I mix up the dough, bake a few, then roll up the excess into waxed paper, slice it into neat slices and chuck them into the freezer, pleased with myself for not foolishly saddling myself with a load of tempting cookies.  This strategy, while excellent on the surface, isn’t any more effective for me than baking them all at once, in terms of calorie reduction.  The freezer isn’t an out-of-sight, out-of-mind storage vault…I’m all too aware of those frozen pucks of buttery goodness, and the ease with which I can toss a few onto a parchament-lined baking sheet and into the oven.

But I digress.  It’s cookie fixations like these that make healthy, hearty autumnal soups all the more appropriate.  This one is a cinch.  I cut it in half, to avoid wasting leftovers, but it was so good I almost wish I had made the full recipe, and gone the freezer route with them, too.

You start by boiling farro, or in my case, barley, in salted water with some fresh basil leaves.  I didn’t have basil, so I skipped it.  Then you drain the softened barley, reserving the liquid.  Next, toss a sliced leek and minced garlic into the same pot with olive oil, and let it soften into a silken pile of delicate oniony goodness.

This stage is where I diverged from the recipe slightly.  Clark instructs to use fresh tomatoes, but I decided to roast the majority of mine.  I thought it might heighten and intensify the flavor somewhat…plus, I like roasting things.  So while the barley was simmering away, I simply halved my little plum tomatoes and nestled them in a silicone pan, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and gave them a little roast.

After your leek is softened, then, you pour some of the reserved barley cooking liquid, half of the barley, and the roasted or unroasted tomatoes in and let it cook at a simmer.

Here’s where the brilliance happens: you take that lovely mess of soft fragrant tomatoes, leeks, and barley, and puree it in batches in a blender, and it whirs into a thick bisque.  The barley blends and dissolves mostly but imbues the soup with heft and nutty flavor.  Return it to the pan, and add the rest of the barley for some texture and chew.  If you’re me, stir in some dried herbs like thyme, to make up for the lack of basil, and maybe a shot of paprika while you’re at it, because it looks so pretty and vibrantly red in its little jar, and you love its subtle kick.

That’s it!  Done.  Hearty, filling, completely healthy, and packed with flavor.  Next time I’d probably throw in some white wine with the sauteed leek, because I can’t resist adding wine to most things I cook (except cookies…but wait, that could be interesting…!)

We ate it with hearty slices of olive oil toasted bread, and a spinach salad with roasted wedges of baby potatoes with a lemon mustard caper vinaigrette.

And for dessert, cookies, of course.  Brown butter coconut cookies with dark chocolate chunks.  Sheer decadence.  The only thing that could’ve made the meal better would have been a nice glass of wine–maybe a Spanish or Italian red.  But I’m laying off all that for a little while, for the time being.  Soon and very soon, I’ll be back to imbibing, and by extension wine and food pairing.  I’ve been listening to a podcast called The Crush, and it’s made me really want to drink wine in earnest.  I want to try natural wines, and orange wines, and Portuguese and Croatian wines.

The selection of wines in Beijing seems a bit limited, and I really have no idea if I could get my hands on some of the fascinating, small-produced, vintage wines they talk about.  Still, there is enough here to delve deeper than I have in the past.  This is a major city, after all, and though China in general is kind of clueless about wine, the market is exploding and people are curious, and drinking to satiate their curiosity.

And really, I’m clueless too, much as I love wine, and wine with food especially.  I have so much to learn, and Beijing’s wine bars and supermarkets (albeit with their steep import-taxed bottles) can provide me with a decent introductory course.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/dining/a-vegan-dinner-party-for-autumn-a-good-appetite.html?ref=dining

http://www.joythebaker.com/blog/2011/04/brown-butter-toasted-coconut-chocolate-chip-cookies/

http://homefries.com/p/the-crush/

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