Vietnamese Pork Ribs and Vegetable Soup: The Work Horse of Simple, Hearty Soups

When my girls were between one and a half to three years old, they basically lived off of my Vietnamese pork ribs and vegetable (of the day) soup. It was the work horse of all soups during this busy time in Mommyville for me. The mild, somewhat neutral flavor of the broth were more suitable to their developing taste buds. The softened pork meat and colorful vegetables when mixed with steamed rice were easier on their toddler teeth. The best part was knowing they were slurping with delight, spoonfuls of hearty, nutritious food made by their mama.  These days, my reliable soup has ran its course with the girls as they are progressing to more complex dishes with richer, bolder, at times slightly spicier flavors. I only cook it when someone is under the weather or for my old folks when their dentures become problematic. 

Having made this soup so frequently, I never measured anything or have a precise recipe. It was always by feel and tasting as I went. What’s excellent about this soup is its versatility. If you’re lazy or pressed for time, you can chop the vegetables into large chunks approximately 1″ cubed or cut pieces. If time is on your side, you can dice them like large pea sizes. You can add more or less of a vegetable you like. You can use whatever vegetables are at your disposable, or what grabs your attention while you grocery shop. I sometimes refer to it as “Everything but the kitchen sink” soup because I have purged many vegetables – current or past their prime, from my fridge with this soup.  My greens of choice are zucchini, Korean or Chinese fussy squash, kale or napa cabbage. Those vegetables alone with the pork yields a fantastic soup. However, to make the soup heartier, I will add potatoes – whatever I have. Carrots are not my “thing” but I will include organic carrots to bump up the girls’ beta carotene intake (They don’t like raw carrots.) or purely just for contrasting color. Fresh tomatoes, baby portobellos mushrooms, and fresh corn are nutritious and delicious add-ons to the soup but I found the girls became “baby divas” and objected such additions. Different strokes for different folks perhaps. In the winter, I’ve been known to add canned cannellini beans (drained and rinsed under water first) which brings a hearty, earthy note to the soup. What is very consistent is my use of pork spare ribs. I love the richness and fattiness of the broth from the pork meat and bones. Skinless chicken thighs or drumsticks are reasonable alternatives.  I recently brought this soup to a dear friend after the birth of her beautiful baby. She has since asked me for the recipe so I’m writing a post for it. Hope she finds it useful and will customize it to her own family’s taste.

Ingredients

2 lbs. pork spareribs (ask butcher to cut once against the bone, then into 2-3″ bite size pieces)

2 potatoes (yukon gold, russet, purple, whatever is available) peeled, cut into bite size pieces

2 small zucchini, Korean or Chinese fuzzy squashes, cut into bite size pieces

1 medium organic carrot, peeled, cut into bite size pieces

1 small sweet yellow onion, peeled, cut in half

1 knob of ginger (approximately size of a quarter), peeled, keep whole

1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine, Xiao Xing (optional)

2 teaspoons canola oil

3 garlic cloves, leave whole, smashed slightly

1 shallot (approximately size of a lemon), peeled, chopped finely

1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper or 6-8 turns with a pepper mill

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

3 teaspoons kosher salt – or to taste

3 teaspoons granulated sugar –  more if needed later

2 teaspoon fish sauce – or to taste

1 teaspoon Lee Kum Kee or Knorr chicken powder (very optional; soup is still good without it)

Warm tap water to make the soup

4-5 sprigs cilantro, separating stems from roughly chopped leaves (stems for making stock, leaves for topping soup before serving) – optional

2 stalks green onions, roughly chopped, pea sizes

 

Steps:

  1. Parboil the spare ribs. In a 6 or 8 qt stock pot, pour water half way up the pot. Bring to a rolling boil. Add the first teaspoon of kosher salt. Add ginger knob and pork ribs. Add rice wine (if using). Boil ribs for 5-7 minutes to remove impurities. Drain well and rinse remaining impurities under running water. Set aside.
  2. Roughly wash the stock pot to remove impurities left inside the pot. Quickly dry pot’s interior with a paper towel. Place back on the burner. Set to med heat. When pot is slightly smokey, add canola oil. Swirl oil around bottom of stock pot to coat. Drop in the spare ribs. Add first teaspoon of fish sauce. Use a spatula, toss spareribs around to ensure fish sauce is coated evenly on the ribs. Brown for roughly 2 minutes.
  3. Add chopped shallots, sweet onions, and smashed whole garlic.  Use spatula, toss ingredients evenly, avoid burning the aromatics. Brown for another 1-2 minutes.
  4. Drop in the cut potatoes and carrots. Add black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes (if using). Toss with spatula.
  5. Fill stock pot, approximately half way up the pot, with warm or hot tap water. Add sugar, chicken powder (if using), remaining 2 teaspoons of salt, remaining 1 teaspoon of fish sauce. Bring to a slight boil.
  6. Drop the heat to low, simmer for 30-35 minutes, with pot lid partially closed. Skimming off excess fat/impurities from the surface as needed. Drop in the zucchini/squash after the first 15 minutes of simmering. Add in cilantro stems. 
  7. Taste soup after 20 minutes. Determine if more salt, fish sauce, or sugar is needed and add according to preference.
  8. Approximately 5-10 minutes before cooking is done, taste soup again for seasoning. Again, determine what’s needed and add accordingly. When satisfied with the taste, sprinkle chopped cilantro leaves and green onions, and topped with more black pepper/crushed pepper flakes if preferred.
  9. Serve with hot steamed rice.

  

Serves 4-6

Lobster Tails Wok-Fried With Ginger and Scallions

First Post of 2017

Consider this my first post of 2017. Actually, t’s more like my first post in many months. I almost felt like a stranger blogging on my own blog after being MIA for some time. The priorities of caring for my elderly parents while juggling mayhems in Mommyville leaves minimal room for uninterrupted time to write about a few of my favorite things.  I will do my best to “punch in” more time this year in between life’s madness and religiously practicing my beloved Wong Shun Leung’s Ving Tsun Gung Fu or Wing Chun Kung Fu – but that’s definitely another talk show, scheduled for another time.

Lobster Tails Wok-Fried With Ginger and Scallions: A Goof-Proof, Beautiful, and Luxuriously Delicious Dish That Reminds Me of Him

For now, I’m stealing a couple of hours from the ongoing chaos to write about this beautifully delicious and luxurious dish – Wok-Fried Lobster Tails in Ginger and Scallions. I’ve made this eye-catching dish multiple times as it reminds me of my docile 82-year old papa. It’s his favorite seafood dish in the entire planet.  When he sees the vibrant crimson colored lobster morsels glistened with that aromatic gingery sauce and topped with scallions, his eyes brightens. He gives me one of those subtle grins of approval. For this Vietnamese daughter, that nod of approval weighs more than gold as he gives them so sparingly. 

When lobster goes on sale, like recently ($5 for 5 oz. tail), I can’t resist grabbing a few frozen tails, tuck them in the freezer so I can cook them when I’m good and ready. Last night I was ready. From this home cook’s perspective, although cooking an entire lobster, claws, heads, and all yields an attractive presentation, I honestly prefer the lobster tails for easy prepping, less time consuming and clean up. This means more time to enjoy my savory, worthy creation plus I get to devour more meat, less shells.

With this goof-proof lobster wok-fried with ginger and scallions dish, I’ve paired it with choy sum stir-fried with smashed garlic and my hubby’s favorite, Korean spicy rice cakes for hearty sides. A generous scoop of steamed rice is always a given, isn’t it?

Here’s my recipe (and cooking madness). Enjoy!

Ingredients

4 lobster tails, each approximately 5 oz.

3 tsp cornstarch

1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp light soy sauce

1 tbsp fresh ginger, thinly sliced

2 tbsp fresh ginger, minced

2-3 fresh thai chili, roughly chopped (optional)

3-4 stalks green onions/scallions, cut into 2” spears, green and white part separated

¼ cup chicken stock or warm water

canola oil for stir-frying

 

Seasoning Sauce

½ tsp granulated sugar

½ tsbp light soy sauce

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tsp fish sauce, just a splash (Magic Chef, 3 Crab, or Squid brand works)

1 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine

 

Steps:

1) Lobster Prep and Marinade:

With sharp kitchen sheers or a cleaver, split each lobster tail into halves, lengthwise. Chop each half portion crosswise to yield approximately 4-6 bite-size pieces per tail. Place cut pieces into a wide prep surface (rectanglebaking pan or large shallow bowl). Set aside.

  

In a small bowl, add the first 2 tsp of cornstarch, light soy, ground black pepper. Mix well to form a slurry. Pour the slurry onto the lobster. Mix well to coat each piece. Spread lobster pieces out, with meat side facing upward. Lightly sprinkle the remaining tsp of cornstarch over the surface of each lobster piece. Use additional cornstarch if necessary. Then set aside. Note: This extra step creates a crusty, caramelized exterior to the lobster and helps minimize splattering of oil during the stir-fry. Don’t skip it!

After seasoning with the soy slurry, lightly sprinkle cornstarch over lobsters’ surfaces for golden exterior during wok-frying. Here’s an old picture as an example; its from a similar dish I made but I used tails and claws.

2) Prepare Seasoning Sauce:

In a small bowl, add light soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, rice wine, and sugar. Mix well and set aside.

3) Preheat a 14” wok or large skillet on med-high heat until a hint of smoke appears on the interior of the wok. Swirl in 2 tbsp of canola oil to evenly coat the wok’s bottom. When oil shimmers and becomes smoky, add ginger slices, scallions (white part only), garlic, and chopped chilies (if using). Stir-fry the aromatics for approximately 45 seconds to 1 minute, avoid burning them.

4) Add lobster pieces. With a wooden/metal spatula, quickly toss lobster with the aromatics for another minute. Add the seasoning sauce, evenly stir-fry the ingredients, to ensure lobster pieces are coated well. Drizzle chicken stock or water along the edge of the wok, NOT in the middle, as this will reduce the heat from the wok’s center. Add the scallions (green part). Cook for another 1 or 2 minutes when sauce begins to bubble and thicken. Give the ingredients another toss. Taste for seasoning. Perhaps add another splash of soy or fish sauce, or a sprinkle of sugar, or add more chile peppers, etc.

 

5) Serve hot with steam rice.

Serves 2-3 as main course or 4-5 as part of multi-course

My Family’s Journey to Freedom: Stories and Memories of Refugee Life

While writing my post, A Tribute to My Beloved Parents – From Courageous Refugees to Proud U.S. Citizens, I realized the remarkable story of my parents’ immense hardships and unbelievable obstacles in 1980 to escape communist Vietnam has yet to be shared with their eight grandchildren. They sacrificed everything in order to carve a worthy future for their kids in a foreign land. Why have these unforgettable memories been kept quiet? Our path from refugees to U.S. Citizens included countless, gut-wrenching experiences that overwhelms me today as it did whilst in college when I first “looked back” into our history . As such, I will compose a series of posts documenting our incredible journey to freedom from 1) My parents’ “masterplan” for escape 2) Mindsets and emotions of each family member in prep/during the escape 3) The actual escape 4) Specific details on board that rickety boat with 26 other friends/refugees 5) Daily life in the refugee camps and 6) Obstacles faced in our new world.

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My family of six, stranded at sea for six days was rescued by a naval ship near The Philippines. This picture was taken after we boarded their ship. I am the child in the turquoise top.

Having children of my own, I now feel I have a strong obligation as a parent, as a child of my aging parents, to share this story with our younger generations. My parents’ true legacy must live on. My primary goal is to ensure my children understands our humble origin in order to appreciate the blessings of today and those of tomorrow. They need to know their grandparents never asked for a handout; merely a hand up. They came to the new world with nothing but managed to carved out a beautiful and meaningful life for themselves. Through sheer hard work, sacrifices, and determination, they gave the best they could to their children and grandchildren. It’s a significant 34-year old story worth bringing to light. I hope to do it justice here with my upcoming posts.

A Tribute to My Beloved Parents – From Courageous Refugees to Proud U.S. Citizens

Happy Lunar Year! May the Year of the Monkey bring you much happiness, abundance of health, and prosperity in all that you! To honor this special day, I am dedicating this post to my loving parents, with whom I come to appreciate more and more with each passing day of my residency in Mommy-ville.

A Parent’s Love Knows No Bound

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They vowed until death shall they part!

Both of my parents recently turned a whopping 80 years young. To say they are “great” parents is a definite understatement in my eyes. They not only gave me the precious gift of life through God’s blessings. They have enriched my life in profound and countless ways. Without their personal sacrifices, tremendous determination, and sheer courage, my siblings and I would not have the luxury of living the comfortable lives that we do today in The States. We would not understand the privilege of being U.S. Citizens much less fully embrace true peace and freedom with all their mighty glories. I am always grateful to consider this remarkable nation my home because of them.

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My folks at my Mama’s 80th birthday last summer.

Sacrificing All For The Elusive “Brighter” Tomorrow! They are Nothing Without Their Kids!

I wholeheartedly credit my parents for making the most difficult decision of their lives, to leave their home country of Vietnam when they did. Their sacrifices were immense. They not only left behind priced material possessions they worked so hard for so many years to obtain; a successful business built from nothing. They also abandoned their ethnic cuisine, close relatives and friends, the only way of life they knew, and a rich culture so heavily steeped in traditions. For the sake of their kids’ education and future, they felt compelled to immigrate to a foreign country they knew nothing about let alone speak a word of that native country’s language.

In 1975, towards the tail end of the Vietnam War, the last U.S. military airplane left Vietnamese soil. Saigon was history. The North Vietnamese troops marched victoriously to South Vietnam to claim what was now theirs. Drastic and horrendous changes rapidly impacted not only my family’s way of life but the education system as well. Everywhere we turned, those around us who appeared to be intellectuals, students, religious figures, merchants, etc., were being sent to re-education camps as a way of reforming their minds via education and physical labor. I call it “brainwashing through physical torture with no end in sight”.

Papa often recounts, “Nobody dreads war more than I do. Nobody fears cruel physical torture and imprisonment by the Viet Cong more than I do. I would have stayed beneath their vicious radar for as long as I could. However, when I witness with my own eyes, my children studying their hardest, doing their very best in school only to be left in the dust by the Communist school system. They were merely second-class students. When all opportunities are reserved for the Viet Cong children who barely make the slightest academic effort, it’s beyond infuriating. It’s downright shameful and wrong! My children will never amount to anything but selling coffee in our cafe shop, cleaning seafood or peddling questionable products in street stalls. What kind of life would that be for them… for their children? What kind of a father would I be to sit and do nothing?” Those searing thoughts gave my parents the audacity to bid  farewell to Vietnam after strategically planning for nearly a year.

Into The Darkness: Sailing Forward Through Fear and Not Looking Back!

There were six of us in my family. Leaving in small groups was crucial to avoid being detected by the Viet Cong soldiers. My two older sisters left quietly at dawn that unforgettable day. My mom and I were next to leave later that morning. I remembered she was dressed in the simplest, brown-colored ao ba ba, a traditional Vietnamese long sleeves buttoned-down silk shirt, and silken black wide-leg pants that flowed effortlessly with her with every step. She had a woven shopping basket in one hand, and my little hands in the other. Her voice was calm but stern. We were to give the impression we’re just out shopping for the day’s grocery. My papa and older brother left a few hours later on bicycles. They rode around the markets for awhile then casually ditched the bicycle and hopped on a xe do, a small bus, en route to Cam Ranh, a southern coastal city of Vietnam just one hour away from our native city, Nha Trang. Within a week, we were all united at a family friend’s house near the edge of Cam Ranh Bay.

That very last night in Cam Ranh left a permanent impression in my mind. I was nearly six years old at the time, but I can still recall hiding in that tiny public restroom with my mom. We were tucked in the furthest corner of that blackened “box”. Electricity was unheard of in these rural corners of Vietnam. The stench of the surrounding and the numbness of my buttocks sitting still for hours on that disgustingly wet floor felt overwhelming with each passing hour. We were to remain “incognito” until we got the “sign” to move. My mom looked at me several times, firmly signaling me to not make the slightest sound or movement. Even at that tender age, I knew not to screw up for the consequence would be deadly. Once we heard my papa’s voice calling us, we literally bolted out of that unsettling darkness. That very first breath of fresh air was astounding and so welcomed. Then within minutes, we were told “It’s Time!” by a family friend.

In the midst of a muggy, eerie night on May 15, 1981, we secretly boarded a rickety fishing boat docked nearby. We quietly fled with nothing more than the depressing, filthy clothes on our backs and a small bag of our “everything”. We never looked back! We were at sea for a total of five excruciating nights. The conditions on the boat were extreme and unsanitary: no bath and no toilet for 28 people. The men were on the upper deck, posing as fishermen on the waters in search of their next catch. Women and children were tightly tucked into the bottom wooden deck like a tin can of sardines, with just a two-foot sliding door to enter and exit. It also served as a window to what little fresh air we could inhale. Bare in mind, that bottom deck was built to store fishermen’s netting and their catch of the day. It certainly was unintended for hiding people, specifically 20 scared babies and their mothers.  Starvation was taking its toll. People were becoming restless.  Each family was responsible for carrying enough “nibbles” for their family until we were hopefully rescued by a naval ship from other countries once we entered open waters. Insanity could casts its ugly shadow on its victims in mere seconds. Fortunately, we had no encounter with sea pirates because that was a very frightening but common fact on Asian waters. Within minutes, you could be taken as slaves/wives if you were young girls or women. That would have been the last anyone would ever see or hear from you.

Around three in the morning on the fifth night at sea, a thunderous storm casted its fury on our families unexpectedly. The once calm water was now transformed into monstrous waves, crashing into our boat with massive force. Heavy winds violently splashed briny water into our faces, stinging our eyes. Within minutes, water rapidly crept into the boat despite our countless efforts to remove it. Those from the bottom deck were quickly summoned to crawl out of that hell hole. Families clung onto each other tightly suspecting the worst. With each passing minute, the terrifying waves appeared higher and more turbulent. At times, we felt the boat would surely tip over.

The hopelessness among those on board were thickly draped with a blanket of fear over each pair of eyes. They sensed the inevitable hands of death knocking at their door. We could do nothing but desperately prayed to Guanyin, The Goddess of Mercy. Though my papa had never stepped foot inside a Buddhist temple in his life nor was he a man of any faith, he felt the strongest urge to pray. We were praying loudly in a Buddhist chant, repeatedly begging for mercy and to be lifted from this nightmarish storm. In return for the Goddess’ mercy, some vowed they would never kill another animal of any kind. Some swore to a vegan life for a specified number of years; others – their entire life. A few promised to shave their heads and to remain bald, similar to living the life of a Buddhist monk. My papa promised to devote his entire life to Buddhism. He remains true to his words. He still refuses to kill garden pests like ants or tomato worms despite seeing them destroy his prized plants every gardening season.

Do Miracles Exist? How Can We Explain What Our Eyes Saw?

My parents recalled it was in this brief moment of great despair, when we truly believed we were drifting towards our own mortality, that something miraculous appeared right before our eyes. A firm push was felt and a loud thump was heard from the sides of the boat. A pair of whales, suddenly surfaced from the deep waters, one on each side of the boat. These majestic mammals stayed closely alongside the boat throughout the remainder of the storm which last for 20 amazing minutes. People were in disbelief! Was this “their” own reality? Were they so starved… so desperate for survival… so scared out of their minds, they have ALL reached the state of hallucination? How can a pair of whales come out of nowhere? Why did they anchor themselves so closely beside the boat like they did? Why did they stayed for so long? Was this a miracle? We don’t know! We will never know!  What we do know and witnessed was without them, our boat would have flipped over. The boat was stabilized against the crashing waves upon their appearance. We just know that people were screaming and cheering! Some were overcame with tears; so overwhelmed with emotions. After the storm subsided, the water became calmer. The whales were nowhere to be found. I’ve heard my papa said all my life “If it was just one person witnessing this occurrence, then his words would be doubted. But everyone except the babies on board witnessed the same event. We prayed with our hearts! We believed in The Goddess of Mercy! For that, she granted us mercy!” In his eyes, it WAS a miracle!

At Least We Were Safe! We Were Together!

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My family of six, on board the naval ship that rescued us. I’m in the turquoise shirt.

To make a long story shorter, by early morning of the sixth day, the raging waves was history. Although we were still stranded at sea, we managed to escaped death. Towards mid-day, we were discovered and thankfully rescued by one of U.S. naval ships patrolling around The Philippines islands. They brought on us board and fed us. We “somewhat bathe” for the first time in days. We were sent to the nearest refugee camp in Palawan. In one painfully long year, we meagerly lived at two different camps, awaiting news of sponsorship from our Uncle from The States.

28 family and friends, asylum seekers, risking their lives to escape a communist reign. This was taken after being rescued. by a naval ship near The Philippines islands.

The actual faces of 28 family and friends/refugees, risking their lives to escape a communist reign. That’s me in the turquoise shirt. This was taken after being rescued. We briefly boarded the naval ship docked beside our boat on the Philippines islands. We were headed for the refugee camp on Palawan.

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This picture was taken right after we were rescued at sea. My father (with a hat, white shirt on the left) and the rest of the men stood on this exact fishing boat for six days. That sliding window on the left is the entrance/exit to the bottom deck where I and the rest of the women and children hid until we were out of Communist territories. Before we boarded the naval ship nearby, someone captured this moment as a souvenir.

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My family took this picture on our last day at Palawan refugee camp after being here for three months. We were being sent to the refugee camp in Bataan near Manila for further screening and interviewing. Behind us was OUR fishing boat. The upper deck where the men stood against the side rails for six days at sea, was removed. Behind my father, side rails is kept in tact. During our time at the camp, our boat was used as a public example of what refugees would use to escape death.

Life in the refugee camps was incredibly difficult but we did our best to survive.  At the very least, our family was safe. We were always “together” through the hardships! Food was rationed and disbursed daily by a camp director. Each family received the same amount of food regardless of the number of people in the family. One of our close family friends had 12 mouths to feed. He was given the same amount of food as our family of six. Everyday, my parents woke up before the rooster crowed. They would carry several empty containers to the nearest water pumps, and manually pumped drinking water for our family’s daily use, be it bathing, cooking, drinking, etc. Upon sunrise, the drawing for choice cuts of meats (i.e. fresh fish, pork shoulder/fat, belly, etc.) begins. If luck was not on your side that morning, your family was stuck with the boniest part of the pig or the smallest fish. IMG_8582

Some things are worth their weight in gold! An apple (the everyday fruit I often take for granted these days) which was imported from elsewhere, costed as much as a jar of caviar. One of my mom’s fondest camp memories was exchanging some fish and meats we opted not to eat that day with a local filipino woman selling apples from outside the camp grounds. This was a rare opportunity to taste this rare fruit, so foreign to our Vietnamese family.  She excitedly cut the “expensive” pale red fruit into six thin pieces. She recalled fondly, her piece, though small, was the most delicious and sweetest fruit she had eaten up to that point. If you were willing to fork out one precious can of rice in exchange for a skimpy scoop of ice cream, then your family was beyond rich. Finally, we heard from our Uncle and he graciously sponsored our family to the States shortly thereafter. We arrived on U.S. soil in June 28, 1982. It was the BEST day our lives.

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My family standing in front of our quaint living quarter in the Bataan Refugee Camp. Our first time in new garments in nearly a year. My mom finally cut her incredibly long hair. It was here that we saw her hair traditionally parted evenly in middle for the very last time. We were to board our first ever flight to the United States on this day – June 26, 1982. Plenty of “first” moments to come and we we were so ready!

 

They Gave Us That Which We Cannot See With Our Eyes But With Our Hearts!

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My papa with his granddaughter on Waikiki Beach, Oahu, HI in March 2012.

Since arriving to The States, my parents worked tirelessly as blue-collar workers, with nothing to their names or in their pockets. They forever struggled with the language barrier for the sole purpose of feeding their four growing children. They unselfishly supported their kids in every which way they could through college. How many parents can endure that much and be so loving in their resiliency?

My mom, in her heyday, ran a busy coffee shop and managed the family households with help from her maids. She rarely lifted a finger when she came home from work. She had no need to. In this new world, she was now a factory worker for an auto parts manufacturer without air conditioner or heater. In the scorching heat of summer, sweat profusely flowed down her face. In the blistering months of winter, she shivered down to her bones. For a graceful lady born in the coastal city of Nha Trang with pristine beaches just steps from her comfortable home, factory life was beyond challenging but she never uttered a word of complaint.  My papa became a janitor at a local church nearby. Though the work was physically exhausting, his schedule was flexible and the church staff was kind. They were considerate and patient with his broken english.

On minimum wages, my parents often went with so little but gave plenty to their kids. Despite their long work hours, they made sure home cooked meals were on the table every night. The core values they taught us were preached and practiced throughout their daily lives. Money was important but family always came first.  They ate simply but healthy food. Growing their own seasonal foods was (still is) liberating and rewarding. I am most grateful for their wisdom about life and how to live with dignity, integrity, grace, and confidence. My papa often said, “Regardless of how people treat you, they will always remember you for your character. Be genuine with yourself and others. Avoid the pitfalls of living beyond your financial and emotional means!” I’m still learning and doing my best to practice what they preach.

This blessed child of a courageous and determined refugee family, who came to this country with nothing but hope was given everything (and more) under God’s grace. I feel deeply grateful and most fortunate to call my parents – Ba and Ma!

Writing Prompt – Plunging into Darkness to Answer “Who Would Do This and Why?”

On The Writing Circle via Facebook, the writing prompt of the day was to compose an answer to “Who would do this and Why?” based on a short video clip showing a young diver near the edge of a watery cliff awaiting descent into blackness. One was to answer the questions in a form of a short story. I really enjoyed the writing exercise and challenged myself to create something within 10-15 minutes. I usually take too long to get into a writing groove and wanted to seek improvements in this area. Below is the communication between my mind and my fingers.

The darkness beckons his presence. He, who stares into the eyes of this magnificent abyss with nothing more than a lungful of adrenaline. The concept of fear eludes him as he studies the depths of this mysterious unknown. His lungs are stronger and more powerful than any of his peers. They burst with intensity… of excitement, longing to plunge deeply into this sheer madness. He has nothing to lose. He lives and dies for this exact moment!

My Wok Wednesdays Wok Giveaway Freestyle Stir-Fry Entry Dish: Spicy Lobster and Clams Pad Woon Sen for Chinese New Year

A Wok Worthy of Walking Away With

I’m so thrilled to be an active member of Wok Wednesdays, the online “support” group for wok enthusiasts who praises and practices wok-cooking along with Ms. Grace Young’s treasured book, Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge book. The group is hosting an exciting Wok Giveaway. The challenge is to create a freestyle stir-fry using one of the “lucky” ingredients with symbolic meanings during the Chinese New Year. The cook should refer to Page 194 of Sky’s Edge for the list of these ingredients. The deadline to submit the “winning” entry is February 8th, the day of Chinese/Lunar New Year. This year is Year of The Monkey by the way. The lucky winner will receive a beautiful Cantonese wok: round or flat-bottomed cast iron. My eyes were set on the flat-bottom cast iron wok for nearly a year now but was hesitant to fork out the dough. .

I currently own two carbon steel, flat-bottomed woks: a 12″ Joyce Chen with a long black handle, and a cantonese-style 14″, with double short handles. They have seriously earned their keeps on my stovetop. I use them religiously everyday, sometimes just to fry bacon, to beef up the hard-earned, much sought-after darkened patinas. They’ve cranked out some mighty fine meals with minimal time and fuss, so far. Thus, the need for another wok and its initial upkeep just appears too much of a personal luxury.

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However, the temptation to own a cast iron wok that’s completely differently to the carbon steels I have is just too darn great. With fellow wok members regularly posting delicious morsels made from their cast iron woks, I can’t help but be a tad wok-envy. Sometimes I’m ready to jump over to Amazon, click the “Buy” button, just to put me out of my self-induced misery already. Yet, I pause. My over-rationalizing and indecisiveness overwhelms me every single time. I don’t bat an eye brow when shopping for my baby divas. However, it takes an act of God for me to spend a dime on myself (I know. I got psychological issues.). Now that the Wok Giveaway is in full swing,  I want to WIN that wok! The win will be most satisfying knowing I actually “won” via creative cooking instead of coughing out dough. Plus, I get to rub that sweet victory in the faces of doubt (You know who you are?)… the same doubtful faces that swears my wok cooking is borderline obsession but has no issue divulging my cooked food. The challenge is ON!

My Freestyle Stir-Fry Game Plan

I had way too much fun with this wok challenge and completely embraced the brainstorming process. I liked the idea of creating a unique dish for a special occasion using set criteria while making it my own signature dish. My strategy was quite basic but effective. I thoroughly studied Page 194 of Sky’s Edge. I knew immediately my dish would involve some sort of seafood with the shells on. After the shells are cooked, they would turn a bright red. We all know red is synonymous with the spirit of Chinese New Year. Also, one of my baby divas was born in the Year of the Dragon so incorporating the element of this regal, magical creature would be a very personal touch. Once my key ingredients were identified, a shopping list was determined and the hunt for what’s needed begins. For extra fun, I even wrote a little riddle based on the ingredients used in relation to their symbolic meanings.

RIDDLE ME THIS! 

I am the red majestic “dragon” that gracefully dances through a heavenly world of “prosperity, longevity, and fertility”. “Fortunes” grow abundantly within my realm. My “flaming” breath is renowned and feared. My “intelligence” topped by my “compassion” are heavily prized. What dish am I?

ANSWER

Spicy Lobster and Clams Pad Woon Sen

In a nutshell… The lobster tails (dragon) were chopped into bite-size chunks, then stir-fried with a very conservative splash of sake (longevity), precisely eight “lucky” littleneck clams (prosperity), some shiitake and wooded ear mushrooms (growing fortunes), baby bok choys, a fried egg (fertility), and vermicelli noodles (longevity). The fiery breath was from dried Tabasco peppers scattered around my garden bed. I roughly crushed them before frying with my usual aromatics: minced ginger, garlic, and scallions (white part only) for an added zing. My seasoning sauce consisted of: fish sauce (Mega Chef), oyster sauce, thai light soy sauce, and granulated sugar. Green parts of the scallions (intelligence) and fresh cilantros (compassion) topped the finished product.IMG_8369

A Breakdown of The Spicy Lobster and Clams Pad Woon Sen

To ensure my dish acquired a smoky, spicy note true to a stir-fry, and to prevent the ingredients from being victims to the “braising treatment”, they were stir-fried separately in small batches in this order:

  • Lobster pieces lightly coated in cornstarch/soy slurry were flashed fried with garlic and ginger until the shells were red, then removed.
  •  Shiitake and wooded ear mushrooms, and more garlic entered the picture.
  • The clams followed suit. They need more time to cook, and open their shells.
  • An egg was beaten and fried beside to the clams. (I was suppose to execute this fried egg step while flash-frying the lobster pieces but forgot. That’s ok; t’s not detrimental).
  • Lobster pieces were added back into the wok along with  green onions and baby bok choy. On a whim (or subconsciously wishing to increase my longevity), I also splashed a little Sake (instead of my typical Shao Hsing rice wine) over the shellfish.
  • The vermicelli noodles, chopped cilantro and green part of the scallions, were the final ingredients to be cooked; at the very last 2-3 minutes. They take no time at all, really. Adding the vermicelli too early will result in a mushy texture; possibly sabotaging the entire dish.

The end result was fairly delicious. I am satisfied with the pop of red from the “dragon”. The lobster meat was mild, somewhat sweet, and maintained that slightly firm texture I was after. The eight ‘lucky” clams were nicely cooked, moist but not rubbery. What little clam juice they released was soaked up by the vermicelli noodles. As such, each bite had a hint of  “sweetness of the sea”. The two kinds of mushrooms gave the dish a deep, earthy quality. Chopped scallions and cilantros added freshness overall.

Note to Self… To recreate this Freestyle Spicy Lobster and Clams Pad Woon Sen, here’s the recipe.

INGREDIENTS

4 lobster tails, 5 oz. each

2 tsp cornstarch

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

2 tsp Thai light soy sauce

8 live littleneck clams

1 tsp cornmeal or all purpose flour

1 tbsp minced garlic

1/2 tbsp minced ginger

1/4 cup sweet yellow onions, thinly sliced

1 tsp dried chile flakes (I used homegrown dried Tabasco peppers)

1 organic egg, beaten slightly

4 dried shiitake mushrooms, presoaked, drained, chopped into thin slices

4-5 pieces wooded ear mushrooms, presoaked, drained, roughly chopped same size as shiitake mushrooms

1.5 to 2 cups dried vermicelli noodles, presoaked, drained, roughly chopped into 2-3” segments.

3 stalks scallions/green onions, white and green parts separated, roughly chopped

4 springs of cilantros, roughly chopped

canola oil for cooking

 

SEASONING SAUCE

1/2 tbsp Thai light soy

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1/2 tbsp fish sauce (I used Mega Chef this time)

1 tsp granulated sugar

Steps:
1) Lobster Prep and Marinade: With sharp kitchen sheers or a cleaver, split each lobster tail into halves, lengthwise. Cut each half again, crosswise. Toss lobster pieces into a large mix bowl. In a small bowl, add cornstarch, 2 tsp soy, 1/8 tsp ground black pepper. Mix well to form a slurry. Pour the soy slurry into the bowl with the lobster. Mix well to coat all the pieces. Set aside to marinate for 15 minutes, approximately.
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 2) Clams Prep:  In a medium bowl filled with cold water, add cornmeal or all-purpose flour and mix roughly. Drop the live clams into the water bath for 30 minutes. Clam will open their shells and release some of the impurities; sand mostly. Drain well and set aside.
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 3) Vermicelli and Dried Mushrooms Prep: In a medium bowl filled with warm water, soak the vermicelli noodles, dried shiitake, and wooded ear mushrooms. After 10 minutes, remove the vermicelli, drain well and cut into 2-3″ segments. If mushrooms are still tough, continue soaking for another 10-15 minutes. Once softened, remove and squeeze excess moisture from the mushrooms. Roughly slice them into thin pieces. Set aside. Save the soaking liquid for later use in the stir-fry.
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4) Seasoning Sauce: In a small bowl, add Thai light soy, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and granulated sugar. Mix well and set aside.

5) Preheat a wok or skillet on med-high heat until smokey. Add roughly 2 tbsp of canola oil. Swirl oil to coat the wok. When oil shimmers, add ginger, sliced yellow onions, scallions (white party only), 1/2 minced ginger, and dried chile flakes. Use a spatula to stir-fry the aromatics for 1 minute until fragrant. Add a beaten egg. (This was the step I forgot at this stage but added later after the clams.) Stir fry for another 1 minute and break up egg into tiny chunks as you go. Add lobster pieces and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes,  ensuring the aromatics are infused with the lobsters. When the lobster shells turns red, remove quickly. Set aside in a bowl.

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6) Drizzle another tbsp canola oil to the wok. Add both mushrooms, clams, and the rest of the minced garlic. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Splash a few drops of the reserved soaking water to the sides of the wok. This creates the steam needed to help cook/open up the clams and avoid the wok from drying out completely.

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7) Return the lobster pieces to the wok. Use the spatula to stir the clams, mushrooms, and lobsters together.  Add the seasoning sauce. Stir well. Cover wok with a lid for 2 minutes.

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8) Toss in the baby bok choys. Mix well. When the clams start opening, add the chopped scallions (green part only), and vermicelli noodles. Use 2 spatulas to evenly stir all the ingredients together. Splash a few more drops of the reserved soaking liquid if the noodles looks too dry. Work quickly to avoid noodles from sticking to the bottom of the wok.

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9) Toss in the chopped cilantros.

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Serve immediately over steamed rice.

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