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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Come Fall, Come Cook

Crisp nights and mornings and golden, perfect afternoons have overtaken Beijing…though today looks hazy.  Pollution still wins the occasional victory over fall.  A victory I never win against the crisp weather is fighting the urge to bake that comes with the chill.

I went months without making anything besides toast in my miniature oven, then suddenly October arrives and I’m whipping out an almond cake and rice pudding within the space of a few days.  Granted, the latter wasn’t made in the oven, but the kitchen was still warmed from the bubbling pot of creamy rice.

It takes the absence of suffocating humidity in my kitchen, and I’m there in a flash, stirring and whisking and sifting powdered sugar.  I actually sifted powdered sugar for a glaze for my cake!  This shouldn’t require an exclamation mark in its own right, so let me qualify: I’m a lazy baker.  Lazy, and perhaps a bit brash in my confidence: “Oh, I don’t need to measure this exactly!  I can eyeball it.”  OK, sure, maybe eyeballing a teaspoon of baking powder is acceptable…and sometimes everything turns out fine.  Sometimes.

Baking cookies, for example.  Most recipes have you “sift together the dry ingredients into a bowl, and set aside.”  Then, you cream the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs and extracts, and finally stir in your sifted dry ingredients.  I tend to breeze airily past the first step, thinking, “Pshaw!  {I don’t think I’ve ever actually thought the word ‘Pshaw,’ but the sentiment was there}  Who needs sifting?  I’ll just dump the dry ingredients on top of the wet mixture at the end, give it a little stir, then stir everything together!  It’s all stirred up in the end…and we’re not making French pastry here, we’re making cookies, for gosh sakes.”

And so sifting was always eschewed, until, while visualizing my glaze (yeah, sometimes I visualize things like glaze…some people visualize a better future or a dazzling career move, I visualize glaze), I felt worried about the lumps that no doubt would form in the powdered sugar.  Powdered sugar is notorious for clumping.  It lives to clump.  I knew, in this instance, when dealing with a glaze that will cloak the final product instead of being mixed in, I shouldn’t cut corners.

Also, and more importantly, I realized I had an apparatus with which to sift.  Of course I’ve never invested in such a tool, but I remembered my cute squat green teapot, with its   mesh strainer insert–I could force the powdered sugar through the strainer, creating a clump-free glaze!  Yessss.

I felt immense satisfaction watching the snowy sugar settle in a soft peak in the bowl, and even more satisfaction when, as I whisked in the milk, lemon juice, Disaronno liquor and browned butter, it was gloriously smooth.

I scattered slivered toasted almonds over the finished cake–a crumbly fragrant disk of almond flour, sugar, and lemon zest bound with olive oil, orange juice, and egg–and spooned the golden brown glaze over all.

After it cooled Brett and I cut a wedge each and dug in–moist, tender almondy cake fragrant with citrus and rich with the browned butter glaze.

Fast-forward to last night, and there I was mixing up a pot of rice pudding with the leftover rice and coconut milk from Sunday’s curry.  We hadn’t even finished the cake yet, so I stashed it in the freezer to prevent the delicious moistness from turning moldy.

The pudding was dead simple: dump old rice and coconut milk (and a good splash of regular milk) into a pot and bring it to a boil.  Reduce the heat, and simmer until creamy, adding whatever exotic mix-ins desired.  I desired dried cranberries, for a bit of tart chew amidst all that creamy rice.  I also tossed in half a split vanilla bean, some nutmeg, and a dash of Disaronno.  At the end, when some of the liquid had reduced, I added toasted slivered almonds.

MMM…warm, creamy, flecked with vanilla, chewy craisins, crunchy almonds.  Heaven!  I had some for breakfast this morning with toast.

The thing that’s so great about rice pudding is its versatility.  Even if you’re using uncooked rice, it still only takes an hour, which you can spend reading while it’s burbling away, wafting delicious steam.  You can use whatever milk you have.  Coconut milk does give a delicious creaminess and flavor, but regular milk is fine, and almond milk would be good too.  It’s a vegan’s dream dessert.  Then there’s all the mix-ins…dried fruit, liquors, nuts.  A friend suggested rose or orange blossom essence, which would go great with golden raisins and pistachios…a sort of Persian twist.  Or amp up the coconut with toasted coconut flakes.  Or throw a cinnamon stick in with the vanilla pod, with dark raisins for a classic version, maybe with a splash of rum.

There’s still a good bit left in the fridge, but I’m already plotting my next kitchen move.  Cookies?  Soup?  Cornbread?  Probably I should make all three…after I go running.

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Good New Finds, and a Zingy Yogurt Sauce

Last night dinner came together in my favorite way: a bit haphazardly, an amalgamation of skimming food blogs, getting inspired, and patching their ideas together with what I already had on hand, plus a little imagination.

 

I recently found a new blog, deliciousdays.com, based out of Munich.  Actually it’s far from new; it’s one of the oldies started in 2005 or so–that golden era of blog-starting, the time when Orangette started, and Smitten, when they started creating valuable content on their content farms, and now their harvest is bountiful indeed (k sry a little hipster runoff reference.)

 

But really, that was a good time to start a blog.  Starting a food blog was more up and coming then–or so I like to think.  The internet was more sparse, in terms of food blogs, not the overpopulated quagmire it is now.  Back then the internet was to food blogging what Canada is to its citizens–a vast resource teeming with possibilities and open spaces.  Now the internet is like China.  (Don’t think about actual Chinese internet usage, the Chinese government, the Great Firewall–I haven’t factored those into the analogy for fear of complications and potential snags.)

 

The competition is fierce.  There’s just so much valuable food blog content out there.  I want a great food blog; I want success and acclaim and book deals, of course…but has that ship sailed?  Is the internet too clogged with blogs?  Can anyone be noticed anymore?

 

Ummm…OK, back to the point, Delicious Days.  She started in the golden days of blogging, yes.  She has books, yes.  She’s on the Times’ list of 50 best food blogs.  These accolades she deserves, for sure, because her blog is well-designed with a nice Courier font and her writing is pretty entertaining and her archives are jammed with great recipes I’ve been leafing through the past few days.

 

I’m not sure how I’ve missed her till now.  I guess it’s because I tend to stick to my tried-and-trues: Smitten Kitchen, Orangette, and Amateur Gourmet.  I like Smitten because her personality really shines through, her photos are amazing, she’s funny and witty and tells great anecdotes with each recipe, and tests those recipes meticulously.  Orangette has been and will always remain my favorite, maybe because hers was the blog that introduced me to food blogging.  When I read her blog I felt like I had found someone like me, someone who loved to cook so much and, although in a way hipper city with way better foodie options, wasn’t that different from me and my friends.  Someone who thought about food throughout the day, schemed meals up, prepared them with friends, then analyzed and enjoyed and savored every detail of the meals–with plenty of wine, of course.

 

I like Amateur Gourmet because he’s so unpretentious and funny, and I like his blend of restaurant reviews, home videos with interviews of chefs and foodie people-about-town, and recipes.

 

Everyone is different, even if they talk about some of the same recipes and chefs.  I like hearing some of the same conversations, the same famous chefs and great recipes and just-out, must-have cookbooks from all my favorite bloggers.  It makes me feel in on a great conversation I’m never bored with–FOOD.  Because of these bloggers I know about Pierre Herme in Paris, Alice Waters, and so many more.  I know what restaurants to visit now in Munich, Berlin, San Francisco, New York City, and L.A.  (Not to mention Seattle!  I will go to Delancey one day, I swear.  Hopefully in the next few years sometime, once I move stateside.)

 

It’s nice to find new people, too.  I don’t know if Delicious Days will become part of my regular rotation (and by regular, I mean one of the ones I immediately type into my search bar on waking, bleary-eyed and even before morning coffee, to see if there’s a new post.)  I must admit I don’t like the recipe format (is it a German thing?  I’m not sure) of posting the directions, then the ingredients at the end.  I know it’s a minor and rather petty critique, but I find it difficult to read.  Or maybe it’s just because I’m programmed to look for the ingredients’ list at the top, so keep skimming up, only to remember, annoyed, and skim down again.  It feels totally backwards.

 

I made her roasted potatoes last night.  She instructs cutting the potatoes into tiny cubes to ensure even roasting, before tossing with olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe fresh rosemary.  I roasted some potatoes the other day, but steamed them until nearly cooked, so then only the outsides would need to get crusty and brown in the oven.  I’ve had bad results with roasting raw potatoes–the outsides nearly always get blackened before the insides are cooked.  Steaming provides the perfect solution for creamy insides with crusty golden outsides.

 

However, that’s if the potatoes are in bigger slices or sticks or wedges.  If they’re in tiny little cubes, you can just go ahead and roast away, without bothering to boil or steam.  Unless you’re emotionally attached to the shape of wedges, it’s a nice way to cut time and the hassle of dirtying a big steamer pot.

 

I took her suggestion of giving them an Indian twist, with a little turmeric and paprika and curry powder.  I also mixed up a yogurt sauce of plain yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, onion, a dash more of turmeric, chili, and some curry powder…and then plenty of finely minced fresh mint and basil.  Let me tell you, that zingy minty yogurt, fresh with lemon and shot through with spice, was the perfect cold creamy foil for the crusty cubes of warm spiced potatoes.  Though, as Brett and I concluded, the yogurt would be good on anything.  I almost ate it with just a spoon.

 

Alongside we had a salad of roasted eggplant and garlic with chickpeas and quartered cherry tomatoes.  I dressed it with lemon, olive oil, minced onion, some fresh chopped basil, and of course salt and pepper.  A dash of spice, too.  I love spice.  We crumbled some feta cheese on top, too, for some salty creamy tang.

 

For a final touch I smeared some of the roasted garlic cloves on toasted sourdough bread, drizzled it with olive oil, and cracked some salt and pepper over the top for a fresh twist on garlic bread.

 

We washed all this down with a improvisation of Matt Armendariz’s “Summer Sangria,” a delicious-looking white wine “sangria.”  He suggests pineapple, melon, and apricots for the fruit, but I lacked all those, so simply used apples and plums.

 

I had the fresh ginger, though, and the mint and basil, and bashed that up with a bit of lime and lemon juice.  I didn’t have any orange liquor, either, so I used Aperol.  So what we ended up with was a fresh, fruity, herb-infused white wine laced with Aperol.  Not really sangria, or anything like, but delicious and refreshing all the same.

 

It was all so fun and delicious, and came together so easily–just roasting, really, and tossing and chopping.  I’m all for meticulousness in baking (sort of?) and taking on complex projects (sometimes), but this is my favorite type of cooking.  Food that comes together quickly and almost isn’t cooking so much as it’s combining ingredients in simple but delicious combinations of herbs and spices and textures.

 

It reminded me of how much I love putting together a meal, and enjoying delicious food at home.  I want to cook a lot more, now that I’m part-time at my job, which I really really hope means more time to source and prepare recipes.  My kitchen is super-tiny, and don’t get me started on my “oven”…but for the moment, in this big sprawl of a mixed-up city, it’s what I’ve got, and I’m gonna make delicious happen.

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Thunder and Lists, and Irish People

There’s nothing like a thunderstorm to soothe the soul, with rain pattering on the windows, lightning flashes reflected in the windows like camera flashes.  With the Weepies and a glass of plum wine for aperitif hour, it’s a made-to-order Sunday night (well, Tuesday, but Sunday in my mixed-up world, since Wednesday is my first day of the week’s teaching schedule.)

Occasionally there’s a crash of thunder so loud it makes my stomach lurch.  It jars me up a little, but as it dies away in a cross rumbling, the Weepies carry on and I can hear the rain again.

In a few weeks I’ll have a break from work, in between my old contract’s conclusion and signing a new one.  I wanted to rally a friend, someone, to travel with to somewhere.  The one I had in mind couldn’t get time off, so I’m trying to decide where to go, alone.  I’ve never travelled by myself, and I’m looking forward to it, not with the excitement and comfort of sharing it with another, but in a quieter way.

In France I was by myself a lot, for odd hours during the day when I waited for my kids, or when one of my girlfriends couldn’t show up to duck around Paris with.  Then I sat in cafes in Orsay, drinking a Hoegartten before noon and scribbling in notebooks.  I couldn’t tell if the gruff bartender disapproved of me or not.

Anyway no matter where I go I won’t be sipping Belgian beer in dark wood-paneled cafes.  But I will have that blissful lonely freedom–freedom of pace and choice.  I can walk at whatever speed I choose, stop wherever I want.

I have to go somewhere cheap.  I can’t spend more than 4000 yuan on the whole trip, and probably I should spend less.  I might go to Qingdao, or Dalian, both coastal cities.  I’d like to go to Hangzhou, a sultry city in southern China, with a lovely lake and tree-lined streets and rental bicycles and lots of tourists and spicy food.  Daniel told me it was a little expensive, though.

After this contract break, though, comes the real excitement…Katie Crowley and her boyfriend and her brother are coming to visit for three weeks!  Although I’ve met Q and Dave before, I don’t know them well–although I feel like I do because of all the stories swapped in Paris that year.  But it’s not exactly right to say, “My Irish friends are coming,” and it’s a bit long to say, “My Irish friend and her boyfriend and her brother are coming.”  So I’ve taken to saying to Brett, when making plans for their arrival, “When the Irish people are here…”  It’s more convenient, albeit absurd.  I switched it up the other day by saying, “When Katie and her posse are here, we should…!”

It’s funny how, when you have guests coming, you start seeing your city in a new light.  You start seeing it through their eyes, guessing at how it will look to them, seeing everything new again.  Things I’ve gotten used to–the fat men on bicycles, weathered women picking through piles of garbage looking for plastic bottles, waif-thin girls with skin the color of porcelain…and then weathered Tibetan peasant girls, their faces blown berry-red from the plateau.  These things don’t always go unnoticed, but surely they are less noticed than before, which is a rotten shame, really.  I want to go on noticing, and write down what I see.  I want to stay wide-eyed.  I can’t completely, though.  I’ve settled in.  This has become home, if just for a little while.  I’m used to the men spitting, I’m used to the dirty bathrooms, to the point that, when I read a scathingly critical essay by David Sedaris about his visit to China and Beijing in particular, I felt a little defensive.  It’s a funny essay, actually, and contains accurate depictions of Beijing.  One certainly can’t defend the bathrooms, the turds on the street.

Of course I’d like cleaner bathrooms.  I’d like toilet paper and soap in the bathroom in the NICE MALL where I work.  But…I don’t mind the spitting.  It’s relaxed, it’s chill, it’s whatevs…you want to spit, so you spit.  I like the hole-in-the wall restaurants.  Sure, the food there is dubious, but so’s the food at McDonalds.  Both taste good, sometimes.

Yeah, sure, sometimes I want to move somewhere clean, emptier, with blue sky and farmer’s markets.  Or even to another, cleaner city.  Sedaris’ depictions of Japan are appealing–I’d love to visit Japan.  But I sort of resent his constant comparisons of China to Japan.  Why should China be like Japan?  Why should you expect it to be?  I guess it’s natural to compare countries in the same geographic proximity, maybe.

I can’t wait to show this city–which has become, for now, my city–to my Irish friends.  I’m excited to show them the clash of modernity with ancient culture and poverty.  The mile-high bars, the bizarre modern architecture, the Olympic village, the maze of hutongs, the little dumpling place near the house, the luxury malls full of every top brand in the world–most of them disconcertingly empty.  The elderly and middle-aged women doing exercise moves on the street corners to boom-box music at dusk, the fat babies with their bottoms out in the open for all to see, in their little cut-away onesies, made for easy peeing-on-street-corners.  There’s so much to see.

So much, in fact, that I’m going to spend the rest of my evening making a list…a must-see, must-eat-at, must-picnic-at list for these upcoming September weeks.  I think the rain has safely died down, and I haven’t heard the thunder’s death rattle for awhile, so I think I’m safe for a trip to Joy City for some groceries and wine.  Some roasted potatoes with parsley-caper lemon vinaigrette, maybe a fried egg and a green salad, and some olives and a glass of wine…yes, I think that’s the perfect meal to accompany list-making.

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Of Yaks and Yellow Flowers

I could get used to flying first class.  The only reason I’m flying it this time is because regular tickets to Qinghai were sold out, so we had to buy first class there, and economy back.  An annoying extra expense, but at seven a.m., bleary and drunk on exhaustion, I welcome the ample seats, the cloth napkins and real silverware.  If we crashed, we’d be the first to go, but at least we’d have leg room on the way down.

Lesley’s old university classmates are waiting for us at the small Xining airport when we arrive.  I smile, smile, the grinning, friendly American idiot, and we make our way to a waiting van.  There’s an English-speaking tour guide for my benefit, named Helen.  She bombards me with information about Xining and Qinghai Province, really interesting stuff that I’ll never retain.

We’re headed straight for Qinhai Lake, a vast saltwater lake and the largest lake in China.  It’s roughly a two-hour drive, and there’s no way I can stay awake after rising at 5 am after four hours of sleep.  The city of Xining flits by–“It’s developing very quickly,” Helen assures me.  Buildings yield to fields and hemmed by mountains.  There are trees, and green everywhere!  I’m sleepy but happy.  The dust and Soviet-era beige buildings of Beijing are wearing me down.  The fresh air and mountains outside my window are soothing me…soothing…and I drift off.

We’ve wound up a grass-covered mountain for a better view of the lake.  It stretches like the sea across the horizon, reflecting the cloudy white sky.  We’re facing it at the top of a high hill, surrounded by green slopes running down to a meadow below.  A few androgynous Tibetan monks are sitting cross-legged on the grass beside us, dressed in coarse, ruddy robes.  Their heads are shaved.

We head back down the mountain, and set out on the flat road hemmed by yellow flax and green hills.  We pass Tibetan sheep herders and their flocks, with the odd yak mixed in.  They live in yak-skin tents, like teepees.  What would it be like to spend your life on these plains, and wild green mountains–to rise at dawn to bleating sheep, to huddle in your tent, wrapped in yak skins for warmth in the frigid, bone-dry winters of west China?

I think that would be horrible, the frozen-winters part, but watching it flash past from our rented van-with-driver, I idealize it a little.  The part about rising with the sun, watching it creep, creep and come spilling, crashing over those stark green grass hills.  Spending your life in the wind, rain, spring, fields of flowers, all of it, you never leave it.  You never go inside.  How could you not feel cleansed, full, free from desire like Buddha?

Yeah so you’d probably mostly feel cold, and damp, and surely sheep get old after awhile.

We get back into Xining, we check into our four-star hotel, which is nice by any standards, and incredible by developing Chinese city standards.  The bathroom’s a bit cramped, and there are no mirrors in the room itself…but there are two plush single beds with blankets white and soft as baby cheeks.  I want to shower and sink into one, but we’ve gotta go, we’ve got to mingle and eat with Lesley’s classmates.

I’m not really hungry, having had stomach problems for about a week straight, and the peaceful room with its white bedding and more importantly, it’s nice white toilet, are alluring me.  But I gamely, grimly take a seat at a large round table with a huge glass lazy susan in the middle.  Dishes being arriving, and don’t stop.  A dish is spaced every six inches around the lazy susan, and it’s spinning, spinning, and I am urged to eat.  Lesley sits on my right, her only English-speaking classmate on my left.  He murmurs descriptions of each dish as it approaches, and sometimes pauses the rotation for my convenience–I’m a little slow with the chopsticks.

It’s a halal restaurant, since one of the women present is Muslim and doesn’t eat pork.  The food is incredible, light and vibrant and unlike any Chinese food I’ve had before. There’s a dish of lightly poached celery, shrimp, and walnuts in a barely-there sauce.  There are wild Qinghai mushrooms, and delicate white fish.  My beer glass is refilled by the classmate at intervals–Harbin beer, smuggled in, since the restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol.

I’m a little self-conscious about taking sips, because I quickly observe that when almost anyone drinks, first he or she makes a toast, and clinks his or her glass on the table or with those in proximity.  Is drinking without toasting bad form?  I’m not sure, but I’m not about to raise my glass with a hearty English “cheers!” so I wait for the others’ clinks before I drink.

….

The next day Lesley and I rise at around 8–I hear Lesley get up first, around 7:30.  At first it was a little funny sharing a room with a woman I know only from work, in a teacher-student context.  We’ve swiftly been crossing over into friendship, but still it’s a leap to find myself confined in a small space…with stomach problems.

We drink instant coffee, sweet and good, which Lesley informs me is Malaysian.  I’m on my bed, Lesley is across from me in a chair.  She is sporty and glam, her hair slicked back under a baseball cap, in black spandex pants and a sequined black tank.  We talk about travel, nice hotels.  I know a bit about the former, she knows a lot about both.  She’s stayed in five-star hotels in New York City, resorts in Macau.  One night in a seven-star hotel in Dubai.

Suddenly Lesley exclaims, “My god, breakfast!  It’s almost 9!”

We’re supposed to meet Helen and Lesley’s classmates at 9.  I’m thinking we might skip breakfast, grab something for the road, but for all Lesley’s sudden alarm, she seems alright with having a leisurely perusal and ingestion of the breakfast buffet.  There’s an assortment of Chinese and semi-Western food–mushroom noodles, stir-fries, and rice porridge.  There are fried eggs, and insubstantial bread-like items.  I opt for cornflakes, yogurt, and some litchis.  There are a couple of stainless steel dispensers labeled “milk” and “hot milk.”  The “milk” one is empty, so I gesture to a server that I’d like it refilled.  She suggests the hot milk, instead.  I shake my head, insistent.  Hot milk, on cornflakes?  I have standards.  (Or at least until the following morning, when they’re out again and the breakfast is being shut down, so I don’t feel like being choosy.)

We sit by the window, gazing out on the grey city of Xining.  It’s a small town compared with Beijing’s urban sprawl.  We chat, about Wall Street mostly.  We talk about the teachers–Lesley fills me in on the students’ perceptions of me and the other teachers.

“Do the teachers talk about me?”  She asks, girlish in her curiosity.

“Hmm, yeah, I’m sure we have,” I reply.

“What do you say?”

“Uhh…I don’t know.  Like how you’re a really good student and stuff.”

We also say how she dresses fit for the queen, how she’s the sort of glam housewife type.

But being with her here, in Qinghai, after talking to her, my perceptions have expanded; the stereotypes have fallen away a bit.  She worked hard for her money in her twenties and early thirties, she’s told me.  And she’s invested in some kind of mineral; the details are shaky, but the money’s coming in.  It must be coming in, because there are Hermes scarves, Prada purses, and then there are worms.  Yes, worms.  But not just any worms.

Brett told me about these worms before, when a student invited him to a private dining house where he (Brett) was served a soup with a single worm floating within.  The worm had a shoot of grass sticking out of one end, and the student told B. that the worm was incredibly expensive, valuable, capable of extraordinary healing powers, etc.

Well.  Lesley bought some from a friend of a classmate who hunts them, a worm bounty hunter, and showed them to me in a plastic bag later that night.  I stared into the mass of dried light brown caterpillars sprouting grass out their asses.

“I gave him 20, 000 yuan,” Lesley declared, throwing herself onto her bed with a bounce.

“Whaaa?”  That’s more than I make in a month and a half of work.

“My husband says I spend money like a stupid,” she laughed.

“What do the worms do?”

“Mm, they are good for children and for older people.  My son used to have a cough, and then I put these into soup I make at home.  And now his cough is much better.”

“OK,” I say, dubious.  His cough had better be gone at that price, I think.  Your entire family should have immune systems of steel and near immortality, for 20, 000 yuan.

After the hotel breakfast we meet up with Helen and two of Lesley’s former classmates.  We go to see Buddhist temples, nestled into the hills a fair drive from Xining, full of smoky incense and yak butter candles and golden Buddhas with serene smiles painted on their faces.

A young girl and her boyfriend are meandering from temple to temple like the rest of us, the girl clutching to her chest a tiny mangy kitten, yellowish white.  At the entrance to a temple she kneels quickly, kitten and all.  Its meows pierce the temple like needles.

A stream of history and information about each temple, the Dalai Lama, Buddhism, yak butter sculptures…I can’t remember it.  I stare at these intricate carvings, which seem to be marble, but are carved by the monks from yak butter.  They dip their fingers into icy water to keep the butter from melting.  They make new sculptures every year.  It must take hours.

“Their fingers are sometimes destroyed from the ice water,” Helen says.

Outside another temple an old women, middle aged men, a little girl, are spread out, palms down in prayer.  They have a rhythm, like people doing pushups.  They have smooth pads attached to their hands, which allow them to collapse to their knees, then put their hands on the ground and slide out in one smooth motion, then pull back and back to their knees, stand, say a prayer, then back down again.

The old woman fingers what looks like a rosary in between sets.

Helen explains, “They have to say one hundred thousand prayers.  Each time she says one hundred, she counts one bead.”

I can’t stop looking at them, sliding back and forward, smoothing the stones with their sliding hands.

Helen laughs.  “You cannot understand why they would pray so many times.”

“No…I just…think it’s interesting.”

I feel a little sorry for the girl, no more than four.  Her kneeling and prostrating is uneven, erratic.  She gets bored and lingers, watching her grandmother, the passersby.

“Well, at least it’s good exercise, right?”  Helen laughs.

I’m glad to leave the temples.  Too much incense, too much information about a religion I don’t understand.  Helen told me before that Lesley, upon coming here the first time, saw the statue of the Buddha and wept.  She felt peace, the pieces fell into place.  I’m glad for her, I’m glad to make this pilgrimage with her.

I don’t weep, though.  I feel something almost like depression as we troop from one temple to another…all these people cupping their hands before the serene and eerie statues, the crumpled quai at the altars.  For them this is known, this is comforting and true, but for me it feels…like nothing.  I have no feeling.

I prefer the mountains, winding around these narrow roads at concerning speeds, our driver brazen and confident, chain smoking.  I doze, my eyes flutter open then snap awake: a winding gurgling river with lush green grass, dark green tree-covered mountains jutting up, yellow rape flowers in perfect squares, like a yellow quilt spread on the grass.

We go up, up, over a dam and past the reservoir of water on the other side, grazing horses, cows, higher and higher.  There are rams, sheep, and yaks grazing, we hug the mountain and there is no guardrail.  The sky is spitting rain, the mountains are bathed in clean mist.

The towns are low-lying, squat and brown with tiled roofs and sunrooms, huddled in dirt, impossibly poor.  But the view!

We climb a rise to get a view of a snow-covered peak in the distance, beyond fields of yellow.  It’s nearly obscured in mist, and rain is moving in.  It’s windy and chill, like October.

We are descending, retreating, yielding to the wild wind and rain.  There are stragglers coming up–we’ve got to see the view, must get to the top–but they are hesitating, unsure.  Our retreat feels like a warning; their umbrellas are blowing inside out.

When we get to the bottom our driver is munching fried potatoes.  He cheerily thrusts them in our faces and urges us to eat.  I take a round slice with my fingers and take a bite.  Mmm, it’s crunchy and creamy and greasy and doused in a tingly red spice mixture.  Delicious.  We huddle into the van and he orders more for us, and dishes of unsweetened yak yogurt, with a jar of raw sugar for sprinkling.  There is a skin like the kind that accumulates on pudding on the yogurt’s surface, and I peel it back with my spoon.

“Why are you not eating that?”  Lesley asks.  “If you don’t want it, give it to me!”

At dinner that night, we meet another of Lesley’s classmates, who comes armed with a bottle of Great Wall red, and a Qinghai barley liquor.  We drink as the classes are clinked, always with the toasts, and I’m urged to eat.  More mushrooms, delicious and woodsy and mingled with hunks of tender garlic.  There’s a dish of barley tossed with finely diced green onions, nutty and crunchy.

The barley liquor burns.  The classmate offers me more, but I opt for wine.  He said something to Lesley in Chinese.

“He says you’re a little girl,” Lesley said.

The more barley liquor and red wine we drank, the more he wanted to talk politics; there were toasts made about America and China uniting in commerce and friendship.  As if a shy American girl smiling at a table of old friends in the far reaches of China, quietly eating mushrooms and drinking bad wine, meant progress was being made, alliances forged.

“Whatever, I don’t care about politics, we are friends!”  Lesley laughed her triumphant laugh and I smiled at Helen across the table, and was glad too.

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