A Bountiful of Blooms Awaits Me

imageSpring was in full swing! Yet, summer is knocking loudly at my door. Mother nature is putting on a dramatic display of colors and she’s not slowing down anytime soon. I am beyond ecstatic like a child just arrived at the Disney store, left to freely wander as she pleases and shop with her excited eyes and eager hands. I thought I would take a few minutes to chronicle what’s blooming brightly in my front and back gardens lately. It rained continuously for several days which did wonders for my plants. Every which way I turn, I can see gorgeous flowers bursting with larges blooms in different splendid shades of the rainbow. To be able to walk up to a freshly blossomed rose with rain droplets still on its petals, to feel the smooth, waxy texture of a white magnolia and smell its heavenly perfume like that of a sweet, citrusy, scented candle one would find at Bath and Body Works (but a hundred times better) is one of nature’s beautiful gifts and pleasures.

A curved row of 16 Japanese and English boxwoods paralleled to the sidewalk have finally reached the intended 5 ft height I’d envisioned in my mind some 8 years ago. I’m amazed that what I am actually seeing before me was a direct result of a landscape plan I scribbled up from a cheap pencil and an 8×10 printing paper within a couple of hours. I’m still astonished and bewildered of what I pictured in my mind came to fruition exactly as I expected given my untrained landscaper’s eyes. No gap in between each boxwood is visible. They currently are the perfect organic privacy fence, shielding our front yard from the street. Each shrub was only 2-2 1/2 ft. tall when I had them planted prior to moving in.

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My Italian and Leyland cypresses, as are the magnolia grandifloras and little gem magnolias are sporting lush green foliages and are  standing gracefully and strong like the corinthians columns at the Pantheon in Rome (well, sort of). What a stark difference compared to what they once were! I recalled many of these trees were no more than 2, maybe 3 years old when we moved in. Some were merely twigs. They have since matured and are safe havens for cardinals, bluejays, and other native birds. In fact, one of my Satsuma orange trees is now home to a pair of cardinals. It’s especially exciting given their nest sits right at eye level outside the family room window. My girls often tiptoe slowly to the window a few times a day to check on Mama Cardinal to see if she’s “doing ok”, whether she’s “nesting” or “hunting”. It’s too cute the girls are curious and eager to learn about nature’s creatures and her creations.

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Magnolia grandiflora

Magnolia grandiflora

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3 Little gem magnolias lining driveway with Italian cypress flanking side of house

My fruit trees such as the Medley plum, Asian pear, Japanese persimmons, and Satsuma oranges are doing quite well. Some are bearing countless baby fruits while others have less than a pathetic handful. Perhaps I have to thank the ever irritating and unwelcoming rodent neighbor, the squirrels. The “generosity” of these squirrels knows no bound because they would spare some fruits (like 10-15 or less) on the trees from the hundreds these poor trees produced, perhaps to share with the birds.  As annoying as they are, I appreciate them as they are part of nature. Again, they help teach my baby girls about different lifeforms in the wild and what/how they obtain their food source. Our older daughter, Sofia, intently witnessed a squirrel harvesting my plums prematurely the other day. She didn’t mind that he was eating the plums, she just didn’t appreciate how he dropped the stone fruit, half-eaten, on the ground and commented “That squirrel is littering, Mama!” A perspective of a preschooler is so fascinating.

My girl picking a Medley plum

My girl picking her 1st Medley plum

Medley plum tree

Medley plum tree

 

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Persimmon tree with baby fruits

 

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Mystery pear tree for 6 years -Walmart erroneously labeled tree as Asian pear. Not!

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Fountain converted to planter for lavender and stevia plants. Maintenance on water feature was a nightmare.

What a difference 2 months makes! When I first did some housekeeping on my raised vegetable beds at the tail end of what appeared to be an endless winter, there were quite a bit of garden debris: leftover dead vines from the prior growing season, a few unwanted weeds and some droppings from mystery creatures. The beds were quite stark even after some of the hardier herbs were planted. Today, many of the herbs and vegetables from the beds tucked in the sunny corner of the house are definitely ready for harvesting. Foliages are so lush and fragrant. A pop of red color from ripening heirloom tomatoes is a perfect contrast to the surrounding green. I can’t wait to see the Chinese chopstick beans climbing up the trellis on the back and sides of the beds. I will add some netting over the top of the beds so the bean can hang over the plants below, like a veiled pashmina shielding those below from the brutal midday sun. Thoughts are beginning to swirl as to what’s for dinner from what I’m seeing thus far.  A few days ago, sweet Thai basils and cilantros were screaming my name. I was thinking a big, steamy bowl of Vietnamese Pho, beef noodle soup, was in order. That’s exactly what we had Memorial Day for supper.

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Raised beds 2 mos. prior

 

Raised bed after 2 mos.

Raised bed after 1 mos.

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Raised beds 2 mos. later, side view

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Raised bed, 2 mos. later, front view

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Baby cherry tomatoes April ’14

 

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San Marzano tomatoes in clusters

 

 

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In April ’14, only a few cherry tomatoes were harvested at a time.

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cherry tomatoes end of May ’14

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Cherry tomatoes are picked in clusters come May ’14

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Pinot Noir bell pepper

Pinot Noir bell pepper, 1 mo. ago

Pinot Noir bell turning purple

Pinot Noir bell turning purple, end of May ’14

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Thai basils

Perilla leaves on left with chives and some pepper plants

Perilla leaves on left with chives and some pepper plants

Spearmints in left terra cotta pot, perilla in right pot

Spearmints in left terra cotta pot, perilla in right pot

Staring at my veggie beds this morning from my family room, I’m seeing a bumper crop of lemon balm, some overly ripened baby cherry tomatoes, with perilla leaves (rau tia to in Vietnamese) and spearmints spilling over my terra cotta pots.  This could mean one thing: another hearty bowl of soup, like a spicy Vietnamese crabmeat, shrimp and vermicelli noodle soup topped with fresh mint, perilla leaves, chopped cilantro, and beansprouts. Thinking about it triggers my salivation. Perhaps I will post a recipe for this special one -bowl wonder soon.

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Lemon balm

Bumper crop on lemon balm

Anyways, back to garden stuff. Sometimes nature’s work is so breathtakingly beautiful that words cannot do it much justice. Therefore, without further ado, I will let nature communicate her true beauty through my camera lens, as best I can. Some of these photos are transformations of various flowers, the life of a flower, if you will. What a treasure to see the differences from a tiny bloom to a colossal blossom of color! Hope you enjoy nature’s bounty as I am.

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Very first dahlia of the Spring, Day 1

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Dahlia, Day 5

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Dahlia, Day 8

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Dahlia, Day 1

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Dahlia, Day 6

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Dahlia, Day 8

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Blue mop head hydrangea

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Same blue hydrangea now a purplish lavender, 2 wks later

 

 

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Pink hydrangea changed to pale lime color near end of bloom

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Magnolia in bloom. Beautiful contrast of red/yellow interiors with white exterior

 

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Magnolia grandiflora flower, not fully bloomed but enormous

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Resurrected fountain now call home next to my Fragrant Cloud rose

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Fragrant cloud

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Fragrant cloud up close

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Double delight rose after the rain

 

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Double delight rose, color varies

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Iceberg rose

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Knock out rose

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Intrigue rose

 

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Lavender in a resurrected, old vase

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Fuchsia bougainvillea clinging onto column

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A magenta hydrangea, up close and personal.

A magenta hydrangea, up close and personal.

 

 

Vietnamese Pho Bo, Beef Noodle Soup for a First-Timer or Busy Cook

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I had every intentions of grilling outdoors this Memorial weekend. Visions of sweet corn on the cob slathered generously with butter and spices, and a slab or two of finger-licking baby back ribs smothered in a thick honey-soy glaze were swirling in my head. Unfortunately, it rained like cats and dogs since Friday with more on the way. That plan was quickly dampened; no pun intended. It was early morning of Memorial Day and I don’t have a clue what to feed my peeps for dinner later. What to do? What to do? I took a step outside to the backyard patio for some inspirations while the rain briefly subsided. At a quick glance, my herbs are doing quite well with lush foliage, especially my thai basils, cilantro, and culantro (cilantro’s cousin). I ran my fingers through some thai basils and could smell the aromatic leaves. I’m already envisioning a steamy bowl of Pho Bo, Vietnamese beef noodle soup topped with freshly torn basils and culantro leaves in front of my face come 7 P.M. This is not just any beef noodle soup, but is one of the signature dishes of Vietnamese cuisine. Pho (noodle) bo (beef) is near and dear to my heart. It’s my favorite childhood food and is also what I dubbed as my labor of love to this very day. My mom use to make pho every other Saturday mornings. By the time my siblings and I were up, we could smell its aroma from our beds and our stomach instinctively growled. This was one of the many fond memories I loved growing up.

However, it was not until I was working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant to pay my way through college that I was completely obsessed with not only eating pho but how to cook it the right way for myself. I befriended a kind-hearted Vietnamese-Chinese woman, named Hoa (flower). She worked in the restaurant’s kitchen but was a master chef in her own tiny kitchen. She could whip up an amazing last minute feast for 10-15 people like nobody’s business. Hoa taught me a great deal about Vietnamese cooking, origin of a dish and how to create its authentic flavors. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to show me how to make this super delicious, authentic, albeit very time-consuming one-bowl wonder.

Years later, I am still perfecting my own pho broth based on Hoa’s recipe. As with every old school cooks, she never measured. All was taught verbally and she was heavy on the “little of this, little of that” concept. For someone who’s always lived with Mom and Dad and never had the desire to step into the kitchen other than to eat, trying to learn such a complex recipe from Hoa’s cooking method was sheer madness and overwhelming. I longed for precise measurements and concrete steps but had to wing it her way. She often said good home cooks cook by feel, smell, and taste, not measure. I’ve rolled with her motto ever since for making her pho and among other things. As a result, some days my pho has a flavorful, rich broth with cuts of beefs so tender that it melts in your mouth. The buttery beef fat comes through with every slurp of rice noodles on my spoon. I’ve literally spent hours babysitting the broth over my cooktop, skimming fat, tasting, seasoning and reseasoning with a little of this, a little of that. In times like that, I would say my pho is near perfection, if not, it’s as good as it gets for me. On other days, I can tell my heart and my time were not fully committed to the process, so the result is 5-6 out of 10 rating at best.

Today is one of those days where I can’t afford to invest the 8-10 hours that often takes me to produce my ideally delicious pho. I got four hours max but I want a fairly decent pho for the girls. As such, I’m trying out a new pho recipe but I’m incorporating some of the steps from my own pho recipe to ensure a quality finished product. When time permits, I will gladly post Hoa’s pho recipe to this blog. It’s a promise!

I’m using a jar of Quoc Viet Pho Bo soup base which contains two aromatic spice bags and a cup full of soup base mix.  This jar has been tucked in the back of my pantry for months. I bought it awhile back because it contained no MSG and it may one day come in handy.  The instructions on the label claims to yield 20 bowls of pho from 2 gallons of water in roughly 2 hours, give or take.   All one has to do was: parboil some beef bones and beef cuts of choice, drain it, replace with fresh water, boil bones and meats for one hour with ginger and onion, add spice bags, and soup base. Simmer on medium heat for another hour or so and serve when meat is tender. Hmm, I’m skeptical!  However, I reckoned when my desperation for a bowl of pho kicks in and with little time to spare, I will get off my made-from-scratch high horse once an awhile.  Well, guess what? Today is the day! I almost never use pre-made seasoning packages but thought “How bad can this be?”. Therefore, with much hesitation, I ran with it, hoping for the best. Nothing worst than having a truckload of quality ingredients ending up in the dumpster due to subpar, untested recipe.

It took 3 1/2 – 4 hours from prep time to my first bite with the latter 2 hours being passive cooking while broth simmers on low. Steps I incorporated from my original recipe included: charring onion bulbs, ginger knob, and star anises. After parboiling beef bones and other beef meats, I added the 2 gallons of water, allowed to simmer on med for 1 1/2 hours, then add spice bags, soup base, charred anises, ginger, and onions. Heat reduced to low/medium and simmered for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I added 5-6 turns of ground black pepper from a pepper mill. Meanwhile, I prepared my condiments, herbs, and had uncooked fresh noodles divided into serving bowls, ready to boil at the final hour.

My conclusion after the first bite is this. The pho flavor with beefy goodness is there. It’s a tasty bowl of noodles with a fairly rich, fatty broth that’s relatively simple to make if this is your first go at it or you need it pronto (not within an hour pronto, I’m afraid). I did not add any additional seasoning other than those mentioned above and the soup base. Therefore, if you make pho as I just did, you will be rewarded with a consistently good, hearty bowl of pho every time because the “little of this, little of that” method was tossed to the wind. It’s  all in the bag (or jar, in this case).

Enjoying a homemade bowl of pho in 4 hours or less is unheard of in my house but it was definitely doable. I will say it will never be as good as Hoa’s time-consuming, labor of love recipe. For those pho aficionados, you may even agree it will never be like your grandma’s or mom’s. Nonetheless, given the reduced time and no brainer seasoning, I would recommend adding this product to your pantry for those ad hoc pho cravings.

Here’s how I made it. Enjoy!

Yields 10-12 large size bowls

Ingredients for Pho Bo Broth:
5 lbs. beef knuckle bones
3 lbs. beef shank 
2 lbs. beef tendons
2 lbs beef oxtail (optional)
1 lb. beef tenderloin, eye of round, or sirloin, sliced paper thin across the grain (can purchase precut beef slices at local Asian grocery market, or make special request with your butcher, or place beef in freezer for 15-20 min before slicing to help achieve thin slices)
15-18 star anises (whole)
2 medium sweet yellow onions, peeled, cut in halves
1 ginger, roughly 4″, peeled, cut into 4 equal, long pieces
1 jar Quoc Viet seasoning mix for Pho Bo (found at local Asian grocery store and Amazon)
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Instructions for Preparing Broth:

1. Roast ginger, onions, and star anises: Preheat oven to 375 degree. Put ginger pieces, onions cut side down, and star anises in a small roasting pan. Place into oven for 15 minutes, with the exception of star anises. They only take 5-7 minutes to roast and will burn quickly if left too long. Once roasted, remove from oven and discard any blackened areas on surface. Place roasted ginger, star anise in a large stainless steel mesh ball tea/herb infuser spacious enough to fit ginger, star anises, and onions. Close lid tightly. Set aside for later use. (If onions is too big for herb infuser, just drop them right into stock pot later when prompted. To avoid onion layers shredding into broth, stick 2 toothpicks into each onion halves before placing them into stock pot.)

Cook’s Note: Ginger, onions, and star anises can also be charred over an open fire on the grill or on gas stove: 15 minutes for ginger and onions, 5 minutes for star anise. Rotate ginger and onions every 5 minutes for even charring. 

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Star anise

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2. In a large stock pot (at least 14 or 16 quartz), place beef bones, beef shank, and tendons into pot. Fill with enough tap water to cover meat. Bring to boil over high heat. Let boil for 10-15 minutes to release all impurities. Carefully dump bones, shanks, tendons and boiled water into sink. Rinse all beef products under warm running water and briefly wash the stock pot to remove remaining impurities.

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Beef shank

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Beef bone

Oxtails

Oxtails

Tendons

Tendons

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3. Return bones, shanks, and tendons to stock pot. Place pot on cooktop. Pour 2 gallons of tap water into pot. Drop in tea/herb infuser with ginger, star anise, and onions. On high heat, allow water to come to boil. Then, reduce heat to medium. Skim off any impurities and excess fat from surface. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours. 

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4. Open jar of Quoc Viet Pho Bo seasoning mix. Remove 2 spice bags from jar and directly add bags to stock pot. Scoop remaining seasoning mix from jar into stock pot. Slowly stir seasoning mix into broth. To avoid cloudy broth, don’t over stir. (It’s frowned upon to serve cloudy, muddy pho broth to your guests.).

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5. Let simmer for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours on low/medium heat. 

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6. After beef tendons, shanks, and oxtails have been simmering in stock pot for a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours, check for tenderness. Ideally it should be slightly al dente, not tough, or mushy either. If ideal tenderness is reached, remove and submerge meats into a bowl of cold water for about 10-12 minutes and drained. This prevents meat from darkening and stays moist. Then, slice tendons and shanks thinly. Leave oxtail pieces whole. Place into a covered container and set aside.

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Ingredients for Noodle Bowls:
1-2 packages of Pho noodles, each 16 oz (preferably fresh rice noodles; if using dried noodles, allow noodles to be submerged in hot tap water for 20 minutes to soften before boiling them)
1 lb. beef tenderloin, eye of round, or sirloin, sliced paper thin across the grain (can purchase precut beef slices at local Asian grocery market, or make special request with your butcher, or place beef in freezer for 15-20 min before slicing to help achieve thin slices). 
1 bunch of green onion (10 stalks), chopped 
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
 freshly grounded black pepper
  
Instructions for Boiling Noodle and Bowl Assembly Come Serving Time:

Important Tip: Be organized at assembly time. When you’re ready to serve, broth should be bubbling and waiting in the wings, while you blanch your noodles for each bowl.

1. Place a handful of uncooked noodles into each serving bowl.

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2. In a 4 quart sauce pan, add water 3/4 filled up the pot and bring to boil. 

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3. When water boils, place a deep mesh strainer into the pot. Drop the handful of noodle from one of the serving bowl into the strainer. Count to 10 seconds, not longer to prevent mushy noodle. If using dried package noodles, then count to 25-30 seconds, and lift strainer up directly above sauce pan and strain noodle until all visible water droplets returns to sauce pan. Return the cooked noodle to its original serving bowl. Repeat this step for remaining bowls you intend to serve. 

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4. Place a few pieces of the beef tendons, shanks, oxtails (if using), and raw, paper thin beef slices on top of each noodle bowl. 

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5. Sprinkle chopped green onions and cilantro over each bowl. 

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6. Using a ladle, generously ladle bubbling broth over the noodle bowl until all pieces of meat are completely covered, especially over the raw beef slices to ensure beef are cooked through.

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7. Serve immediately and enjoy.

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Condiments at My Table (totally optional):
1 lb. fresh beansprouts, washed and drained
10-15 sprigs culantro 
10-15 sprigs fresh basil
lime wedges (1-2 per person) 
Hoisin sauce (in squeeze bottle)
Fish sauce (in squeeze bottle)
Sambal red chili sauce (in squeeze bottle)
Srichacha chili paste (in squeeze bottle)
Fresh green/red chili peppers cut into thin rings
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At my table, I always have a plate of the above fresh herbs and sauces in squeeze bottles ready to go. Each person can help himself/herself to the condiments of choice and how much s/he would like on top of his/her noodle bowl. I especially like a handful of beansprouts, roughly torn basil and culantro leaves, a squeeze of lime, a tiny dollop of hoisin sauce, and plenty of fresh chili slices. Sit up, slurp, and enjoy!

 

Korean BBQ Kalbi Beef Ribs My Way

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Korean Kalbi Beef Short Ribs hot off the grill.

My husband introduced me to Korean BBQ Kalbi beef ribs back when we were dating in high school. He often said Kalbi was one of his favorite and memorable dishes from his early childhood in Seoul, South Korea. Money was rather tight in his family so meats, especially beef, was considered a luxury. Beef was strictly reserved for truly special occasions, like on the anniversary of his Grandfather’s death. When it was served, it was done so quite sparingly. As such, Kalbi was a rare treat he often looked forward to.

In my teens and early 20’s, I was pretty much a “protein and carbs only” kind of gal so Kalbi was right up my alley. I suppose it was love at first bite. I appreciated the dish because it was like an explosion of my senses. The smoke permeating from the sizzling beef, and the sudden popping sound from the beef fat as it touches the built-in grill right at my table sends my olfactory and auditory senses into a frenzy of excitement. Salivation was in full swing. With the first bite, the thin cut of beef was tender and succulent. The flavors of sweet, savory, nuttiness of the toasted sesame seeds, all swayed harmoniously together in my mouth like an unforgettable dance of the Tango. It was sheer perfection.

Since then, I’ve always ordered Kalbi whenever we dine at a Korean restaurant. Over the years, many attempts to recreate this dish in my own kitchen resulted in mediocre or somewhat acceptable outcomes. Online recipes I’ve tried also yielded “okay” results but my quest for the right Kalbi recipe continued. Frustration and disappointments were too common and at times led to my discouragement. However, persistence has paid off after 14 years and countless attempts in my “kitchen stadium”. I’m finally satisfied with my “labor of love” recipe based on my personal taste preference.

It’s not traditionally Korean to add a tiny bit of fish sauce but this is just my way of cooking Kalbi. I find that it adds an extra, subtle depth of savory note (or it could just be in my head). This is what happens when one marries a Vietnamese gal. I joke with my husband that fish sauce is part of my DNA make-up and he’s just going to have to accept me for who I am. However, omitting it won’t hurt my feelings one bit.

Recently, my 4-year-old daughter requested grilled pork riblets which she nicknamed “pork droplets”. She loves grilled or braised meats that’s heavily bathed in some type of sweet and savory marinade or rich sauce. The apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree I’m afraid. I told her “I can do better than pork droplets tonight. How about beef droplets?”. She sweetly replied with “Yummy, Turquoise Dragonfly Mama (her nickname of the week for me)!”. Thank goodness, because the beef ribs were already marinating in the fridge from the previous night.

Quick note: I have often used pork ribs or pork chops pounded thinly for this recipe when the mood strikes and it works equally well and just as delicious.

Here’s my recipe. Serves 4-6, can double up for additional servings.

Enjoy!

Ingredients:
3.5 – 4 lbs. flanken cut beef short ribs (cut thin across the bones)
1 tsp ginger, smashed & roughly chopped
2 tbsp garlic, smashed & roughly chopped
1 small yellow or white onion, roughly chopped
1/2 Korean pear (or Asian) peeled, roughly chopped
3 stalks green onions, chopped into 1″ pieces
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp honey
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine (Sake is doable)
3/4 cup water

Instructions:
1. Rinse beef ribs with cold water to remove any small bone debris from the surface of meat. Pat dry. Set aside.
2. In a food processor, combine garlic, ginger, yellow and green onions, and pear. Pulse a few times to ensure large pieces are broken down.image

3. Add sesame oil, fish sauce, sugar, honey, rice wine, water to food processor. Blend until smooth.image

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Marinade should look like this.

4. In a large container, combine the beef ribs and marinade. Mix evenly and marinate in fridge, covered with foil or plastic wrap, for at least 7-8 hours; overnight is best. Bare in mind, the thicker the meat, longer the marinate time. image

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Ensure marinade covers top surface of meat before placing into refrigerator.

5. On the next day, preheat grill. When grill is flaming hot, place ribs on grill grates for 2-4 minutes. Depends on how hot one’s gas or charcoal grill gets, perhaps 2-3 min may be sufficient. (It takes 3-4 minutes per side on my gas grill.) What’s important here is to inspect the bottom side of the meat. Once it develops good grill marks and turns golden brown, flip meat to opposite side for another 2-4 minutes.  Only flip meat one time to ensure perfect grill marks are obtained. Keep close watch on the ribs to avoid burning as the marinade contains honey and sugar so flare ups and charring will easily occur.

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How Kalbi ribs look after 3 minutes per side on my gas grill.

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Golden, hot off the grill!

6. Serve warm with your favorite side dishes.

 

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Korean BBQ Kalbi Beef Short Ribs, served with sautéed broccoli & corn, pickled kimchi cabbage and shredded radish, and steamed jasmine rice.

Cook’s Tip: Remove meat from fridge roughly 1 hour prior to grilling so meat has time to relax and will react to heat better.

Kimchi and Zucchini Pancakes My Way

imageKimchi pancakes, or Kimchijeon, is one of my favorite Korean dishes because it’s simple and quick to prepare. I can whip up a batch of 7-8 pancakes like nobody’s business in 30 minutes or less to satisfy my cravings for these savory, spicy diskettes. My Korean hubby introduced me to Kimchi pancakes and Korean food decades ago when he was my steady boyfriend in high school. He took me to this hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop, Korean restaurant. If you drove too quickly or blinked, you would have passed up the quaint place and totally missed out on a truly unforgettable dining experience.

He was my window into a cuisine that was so foreign and mysterious to me. I didn’t know what to expect. Once seated at our rustic table in a quiet back corner of the restaurant, he placed our orders in his native tongue and within 10-15 minutes, I was amazed by the number of small side dishes that came with our main course such as little fried anchovies, pickled Boston cucumber laced with chili peppers and garlic, fiery hot cabbage kimchi, and steamed spinach. My favorite were these shredded dried squid that were not only spicy but had a hint of sweetness. Give me a bowl of steam rice and I’ll be happy as a clam.

When our main dishes arrived, I was overwhelmed by the sizzling sound and smoky aroma of the BBQ Kalbi beef ribs. I remember thinking, “Have I been living under a rock all this time?”. The ribs were tender, succulent, with savory and sweet well in balance. I ate my very first Korean spicy octopus, stir fried with mixed vegetables in red chili pepper paste. Holy, guacamole! My mouth was like that of a fire breathing dragon in a pissy mood. My water glass was refilled several times while my boyfriend was chuckling at my wimpy tolerance to his “people’s spicy food” as he called it. Prior to this, I’ve always enjoyed a good plate of squid but mostly in my native Vietnamese style, stir fried in garlic, soy or fish sauce with Thai basil leaves, and definitely not “bitch slap to the face” spicy. Nonetheless, I indeed enjoyed every bite.

Lastly, the kimchi pancakes were on their way to our table. “Kimchi, what?” I recalled asking him out of disbelief. The only pancakes I knew was that of flapjacks at Denny’s or IHOP. I have never cared for pancakes prepared in anyway, in any flavor, and certainly not with maple syrup. I’m a devout waffle gal; still am. Therefore, I had my doubts and preconceived notion as to what the heck these Kimchi pancakes were. My ignorant mind of an 18 year-old, already decided that whoever was the original creator of this kind of pancake had a loose marble and needed to be shot. Why else would you add spicy kimchi to an “American” classic pancake that’s already lightly sweeten and you’re going to top them off with more sugary syrup? Gross! He assured me they were delicious and to keep an open mind. I hesitantly took a small bite. Man, were they good or were they good? Two piping hot, golden brown pancakes were spilling over the sides of the serving platter. They were incredibly thin like that of a French crepe. Each was as large as a dinner plate unlike that of the typical pancakes I loathe which are the size of a CD. With each bite, I got a crunch from the cabbage kimchi, soft texture from the thin batter, subtle hint of sesame oil, and a gentle kiss of heat from the spicy kimchi. Here’s a dish that I can really enjoy without tears or tissues.

What a wonderful dining experience I had that day! I not only was exposed to a different cuisine other than my own, but in the process i learned a good amount about the culture and traditions of the person I was dating, and to whom I would marry 10 years later after graduation.

That was 20 years ago and we now have two beautiful baby girls. I want them to be aware of their Korean/ Vietnamese heritage and rich food history. Sounds easy enough but the task is daunting at times because Korean dishes are mostly bold and incredibly spicy. My preschooler and toddler can deal with the bold flavors but they can’t take the heat; not yet. As such, it’s challenging for me to find authentic dishes that are kid-friendly but over the years I’ve been lucky enough to come across some dishes that fits the bill. I hope to be able to share some of these recipes on this blog. One of them is, of course, kimchi pancakes but instead of using spicy kimchi, I use shredded zucchini as a great alternative when I make some for my girls. They like that it’s pan fried and has a crunchy exterior. They also love that it’s an easy to eat, finger food but has no clue their mama snuck in the much needed veggies. Score!

Just a heads up, the pancakes my mother-in-law and some of the old school Korean cooks might make are the large, super thin, soft (soggy) kind you would typically find at a casual gathering. I personally like my kimchi pancakes small like diskettes, thin, but not French crepe thin, and crispy on the outside and slightly soft on the inside. I like cooking mine my way so here’s my recipe; yields 7-8 pancakes per batter.

Ingredients – Kimchi Pancakes
1 1/2 cup chopped Korean cabbage kimchi, juice drained,

1/2 cup shredded zucchini (optional)

2 1/2 cup all purpose flour

1 1/2 cup water

1/4 tsp kosher salt

3/4 tsp granulated sugar

1/4 tsp sesame oil (optional)
Canola oil for shallow frying

Instructions – Kimchi Pancakes
1. Remove kimchi from jar and drain excess juice through a strainer or small colander over a bowl or sink. Chop into bite size pieces. Set aside.

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2. In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, salt. Mix well.

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3. Add kimchi, shredded zucchini, sesame oil (if using) to dry ingredients. Slowly add water to large bowl, stirring as you go to mix all ingredients well and to avoid big lumps. Batter should be thin like typical pancake batter but not very runny. If too thick, add a little more water to batter if necessary.

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image4. Preheat a nonstick skillet or sauté pan over med-high heat. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet (roughly 2-3 tablespoons). Oil is hot when it easily dances around the pan when swirled.
5. When oil is hot, pour enough batter into skillet to make a pancake (roughly 2-3 tablespoon full for each pancake to equal the size of a CD). Try to form the batter into a circle if possible. Use a spatula to spread out the batter for a thin layer and even cooking. (My sauté pan is 11″ in diameter at the base so I was able to make four pancakes at a time)

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6. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until the bottom turns brown. Flip the pancake to the other side. Add more oil to the skillet to avoid batter from sticking to the bottom.

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7. Cook until both sides are golden brown and cooked through. Continue to make the rest of the pancakes using the remaining batter by repeating the steps. Serve by itself or lightly sprinkle with salt while warm, or dipped into some light soy sauce. I serve it as is because kimchi already has enough salty flavor.

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Ingredients – Zucchini Pancakes

1 cup shredded zucchini

2 1/2 cup all purpose flour

1 1/2 cup water

1/4 tsp kosher salt

3/4 tsp granulated sugar

1/4 tsp sesame oil (optional)

Canola oil for shallow frying

Instructions – Zucchini Pancakes
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, salt. Mix well.

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2. Add shredded zucchini, sesame oil (if using) to dry ingredients. Slowly add water to large bowl, stirring as you go to mix all ingredients well and to avoid big lumps. Batter should be thin like typical pancake batter but not very runny. Add a little more water if batter appears too thick.

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3. Preheat nonstick skillet or sauté pan over med-high heat. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet (roughly 2-3 tablespoons). Oil is hot when it easily dances around the pan when swirled.

4. When oil is hot, pour enough batter into skillet to make a pancake (roughly 2-3 tablespoon full for each pancake to be equal the size of a CD). Try to form the batter into a circle if possible. Use a spatula to spread out the batter for a thin layer and even cooking.

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5. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until the bottom turns brown. Flip the pancake to the other side. Add more oil to the skillet to avoid batter from sticking to the bottom.

6. Cook until both sides are golden brown and cooked through. Continue to make the rest of the pancakes using the remaining batter by repeating the steps. Serve by itself or lightly sprinkled with salt while warm, or dip with light soy sauce. My girls prefer them as is.

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A Mother’s Day to Remember!

IMG_6540On an early, sleepy Sunday morning this past Mother’s Day, my baby divas and hubby were sound asleep. I quietly raced into the kitchen to pour myself a “no time to lose, drink while it’s still hot and fresh” cup of coffee. As swiftly and silently as a mouse with a stolen piece of cheese in his mouth, I sipped my coffee in the dimly lit dining room beside a set of arch windows that overlooks my colorful flower garden. I excitedly gazed outside to see which of my hydrangeas and roses are putting on a dramatic show near the windows today. Next to seeing my babies smile and peacefully playing together, this is one of the tiny pleasures of my day.

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Morning coffee is sacred to me like football season is to my hubby. If he misses a game during the season, especially when his favorite team is playing or God forbids his team loses, he’s due for a brief mourning. I would then, sadly be the recipient of his endless whining and playbacks of fumbles, sackings, and missed touchdowns. Who or what went wrong in the game would be broken down as if he was  one of the head coaches the NFL teams forgot to hire. After enduring what seemed like hours of his pseudocoach preachings, I’m forced to shut him down and will often asks if he’d care for some cheese with his whining.

Anyways, these days, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve poured piping hot coffee into my favorite mug only to leave it untouched, unfinished, or ended up drinking it cold (not tasty) for whatever reason. As such, this special coffee time, I call it ME time, is crucial to an introverted mom like myself who spends most of her day chasing after little feet, decoding baby lingos, and avoiding needless battles over Elsa/Anna and Mickey/Minnie dolls between my little divas. It’s a time to collect my thoughts and mentally prepare for the cheers and chaos of the day that comes with my life in stay-at-home Mommyville. This me time, albeit brief, sometimes too brief, is needed for my sanity because it’s the only time I get to be me. Not me the mom, the wife, the daughter, etc. Granted, I am grateful and deeply blessed to be my love ones’ somebody; make no mistake about that. I would not trade this blessing for the world and would follow them to the ends of the earth without batting an eyebrow. Yet, sometimes I just need a little time to just be me. Me as in me the rookie blogger finally getting her feet wet in expressing her thoughts through writing. Me, the avid gardener who inspects her latest plant propagation project like a botany student. Me, the foreign movie junkie that watches contently and quietly in the dark with a cold beer in one hand and a bag of jalepeno Cheetos in another. Me, the bookworm always scouting out the next Anne Rice novel to add to my “Must read when time permits list”. Did I mentioned me the shoe whore who has more shoes than she will ever need (Is this wrong?)? Yeah, that’s me!

This morning the Heavens above graced me with more than I could ever asked for on Mother’s Day! I would say after several Mother’s Day under my belt, I would consider this Mother’s Day to be the most memorable and cherished! A Mother’s Day to remember, if you will.

First, I got the extended me time for a whopping one hour. This unheard of, uninterrupted hour allowed me to write a blog post titled “Being Honest on Mother’s Day: What I Really Want!” I basically discussed my perception on what I truly want for Mother’s Day from my family. In a quick summary, I just wanted more sleep, a small window of playtime at my local nursery, time for mental thoughts as I mentioned above, and just handmade gifts made by my girls like a handwritten card or anything that’s injected with their own thoughts and creativity. Expensive presents and flower bouquets that whither away within a few days means so little to me. I grow my own flowers, so skip the bouquet and give me a favorite plant instead.

My hubby is usually my second pair of fresh eyes for my blog posts before I actually click “Publish” but today he was unavailable, too unavailable to even read the title of my post much less understand today’s contents. Why was he so occupied? My other half was taking up post as SuperDad for the day! He’s usually a doting, loving, and hand-ons father but today he truly took the Above and beyond route. Not once did he asked me for help with the babies this morning. I was left to click away on my laptop. Between Sofia’s morning wake up rituals of going number one and brushing teeth which could take normal folks a speedy 5-10 minutes. This process could easily consume a time busting 30 minutes and send an otherwise patient individual into insanity if time is of the essence. Then, there’s Madeleine’s changes of diaper, clothes, and morning moods to contend with and we’re out another 20-30 minutes. He handled these girls like a seasoned coach at a varsity soccer game; sanity still in tact.

Breakfast was his next mission in life this morning. While one baby waited somewhat patiently in her high chair with a gently used IPad as her entertainment, the other was her Dadda’s sous chef in the kitchen as the two tackled the task of making homemade waffles like they do every weekend. It’s our weekend tradition to ensure we spend quality time with our girls. By having them help make breakfast, we not only teach them life skills, how to work hard for a meal in order to fully appreciate it, but hopefully we are creating a a fond memory of family time for them for years to come. Sofia mixes the batter while her Dadda preps the waffle maker, fry the eggs over easy, and savory pork sausages. The only thing this mom was asked to do was drag her lazy butt, if just for today, to the table for breakfast. Can you say I was treated like a freaking queen, not just mom? Heck, yeah! How can my partner in crime top this?

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He does! After a satisfying breakfast, he rounded up the girls for some outdoor fun while I took a much needed, lengthy shower; a rare luxury. My shower is usually a 2-5 minute Speedy Gonzalez kind to get the basics squared away. Shaving my legs is optional sometimes. Sorry for TMI but it’s another aspect of Mommyville I struggle with. Time is elusive and I have other priorities.

Once done with my “normal people’s” shower, I joined them in the front yard shortly thereafter. The weather was beautifully pleasant came noontime with fresh air, cool breeze, and a perfect 80 degree. I call it spring perfection. My hubby had Madeleine on his left arm while trying to maneuver a giant, hot pink princess kite in the windy sky with Sofia clinging to his right arm. It’s funny she doesn’t cut him much slack and was quick to tell him not to fly the kite into our neighbor’s shiny SUV but too late. That’s my girl!

It’s heartwarming to see the girls’ father so devoted to them and wanting to expose them to more outdoor activities as oppose to allowing them to be mentally consumed all day in a toddler game on their IPad, our phones, or the tube, YouTube, that is. I know. It’s a different generation than that of my own and my parents. The tube we once know it is rarely on in our house much these days. However, I’m choosing to roll with all these technical glories and handheld conveniences instead of against it to avoid being left behind in the techy dust.

My hubby tells me to keep an eye on the girls while he runs inside the house. I chose to keep the girls entertained by turning on their favorite bubble machine. In seconds, the girls were dancing amidst countless bubbles and Madeleine is running into the bubbles face first with mouth open. It didn’t taste so pleasant, huh, baby girl? He returns with the girls’ yellow table and 2 blue chairs which came as a set. He was setting up a special outdoor picnic for us under the shades of our allergy-infested, mature oak trees on the curved driveway. Luckily, the family’s battle with oak pollen this year is in the rearview mirror. The picnic set up was a sweet gesture and much appreciated. Boy, did we needed that break! The girls’ cheeks were that of overly ripened peaches and their foreheads were dripping with sweats from all that wild dancing and bubble bursting. We were served a healthy plate of freshly cut, cold Fuji apples, Asian pears, and some ice water. What a refreshing and delicious pick-me-up for the girls!

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My girls never cease to amaze me because once done with their break, Sofia declared it was “Water Gun Time”! Mama was going to get soaked for Mother’s Day! Geez! What a gift! Is she for real? Hesitation surrounded me like a dark cloud before a downpour. I absolutely loathe getting wet for any reason other than being in the pool, at the beach, in the shower, or watering my plants. Nonetheless, I succumbed to my baby’s pressure and grabbed a gun. My initial reaction to Sofia spraying me in the face was sheer shock and somewhat grossed out by the stinky hard water smell that came from our outdoor faucet. However, after enduring a few shots of chilly water on my back, the water gun showdown was on and in full swing. This family of four had such a blast. Madeleine was frantically seeking shelter from the water mayhem while her Sissy was the aggressive hunter shooting down her enemy with sheer precision. Sofia shot me countless times in the neck and eyeballs. When my jaw was briefly dropped out of disbelief, she took the liberty of shooting me in the mouth and thought it was the most hilarious thing because she claimed she is “giving Mama a drink of water”. With each blast, she would shout “Happy Mother’s Day, Mama!”. This girl was definitely a force to be reckon with. I laughed so hard throughout the entire time I almost pissed in my pants. It was the most fun I had in awhile because I was able to completely let loose and enjoy the moment like a worry-free kid hanging out with her best peeps.

I can’t appreciate my hubby enough for taking Sofia shopping while I put Madeleine down for her late afternoon nap. The girl was so exhausted she was out like a light bulb in 10 minutes. In the process I snuck in a peaceful nap myself. He later took both girls to Walmart and Baskin Robbins while I made dinner. It was a solid 2 hours that I was alone in the house and surprisingly, my mind was consumed with thoughts of my babies. Were they behaving themselves or about to send their father over the Hudson River? Do they even noticed I’m not there or miss me just a tad? As much as I was enjoying my solo time cooking with Maria Callas serenading me in the background with her unforgettable, soulful aria of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia “Come e Bello”, after awhile I was missing my babies and their little chatty voices. I guess when it comes down to it, my babies are so deeply connected to me like tissue fibers weaving tightly throughout my body. I can’t go too long without them in mind or by my side. They are so much of who I am now and what makes me, me.

The evening ended with my sweet babies surprising me with a second handmade card for Mother’s Day. Both girls had their handprints stamped on the back of the card in royal blue; one of my favorite colors. It was too precious. As if my day wasn’t perfect already, Sofia reminded me I have yet to open the picture frame present she had wrapped in eggplant colored tissue paper and tied with a gingham blue ribbon. I did just that and was deeply moved to see a sweet picture of my baby in her school uniform sitting on the classroom floor. She was diligently stacking red building blocks with eyes so concentrated on the task at hand. The picture was a special treat because it captured her doing activities in her class that my hubby and I rarely get to witness first-hand as parents unless we were flies on that classroom wall.

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Lastly, a gorgeous lavender blue mophead hydrangea plant was waiting for me by the front door, courtesy of my peeps. They understand me so well and  know how to unlock the key to this gardening contessa’s heart. I’m appreciative and grateful beyond words to be blessed with a partner in crime who unconditionally supports all that I do. At that same time, he’s a kind-hearted father who teaches his babies how to honor their mother by allowing her to be herself, giving her the tiny mental space she occasionally craves, and lasting family memories – that which money can never buy. What a Mother’s Day to remember! Thanks, Love!

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Being Honest on Mother’s Day – What I Really Want!

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My Mother and Sofia in Oahu

Mother’s Day is officially here! I want to take this opportunity to wish all the special ladies in my life: my Mother most of all, my dear sisters, my good friends, old and new, and those I have yet to meet, a beautiful, blessed day! How one mother spends her hard earned, badge-worthy day may be completely different to that of another mother. Prior to having kids, Mother’s Day to me was basically a mad juggling of time spent between two mothers: my own mother and my mother-in-law (Mil) and often the miraculous juggle was within one hectic, dizzying day. We understood the importance of appreciating them for their hard work and sacrifices to get us, my husband and me, to where we are today. As such, we gladly race from one retailer to the next to find the best gift, order that most beautiful, arm-and-a-leg expensive, bouquets of roses, and spending even more time with them over lunch or dinner. Quite frankly, it was exhausting but we buckled up and rode it out, and still do, because that’s what they really want as a mother, like all mothers, right?

Actually, after taking up residency in Mommyville for a few years now, I would beg to differ. I want to honestly express what this mother of two wants on her precious day. Not all mothers want their kids to shower them with expensive gifts that perhaps she really didn’t care for in the first place. That lovely bouquet of flowers may be pleasing to the eye initially but will soon wither away like that statuesque, runway model past her prime. For the mothers with more young kids after the first, the second, or the third child, spending nearly an entire day with her might overwhelm her personal space and need for mental and emotional peace. Granted, I’m sure the mothers appreciate their kids’ effort and well wishes. I surely do!

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Enjoying breakfast with a view with my girl

However, I would be overjoyed with the following on Mother’s Day: sleep, sleep, and more sleep! You know the kind of sleep that is restful, extends for more than 4 uninterrupted hours? The ones you had before you had kids? An old mattress commercial comes to mind where a couple is in their silk pajamas, hand in hand and falling slowly back onto their pillowy, white mattresses only to wake up the next day with no heavy bags under their eyes, arms stretched to the sky, and their face beaming with satisfaction they had the best sleep ever. Yeah! That’s the one I’m talking about. My husband and I want that.

I would also appreciate a small window of time to myself where I can mentally roam freely through my own thoughts and machete through various overdue tasks I want to tackle without having to stop and referee another Rise of an Empire battle between my girls. I’d like a brief but uninterrupted time to leisurely browse my favorite nursery so i can literally stop to smell the roses, the camellias japonica, and finger through the damaged, forgotten plants left on clearance just to test my plant reviving skills. I love a challenge. I don’t mind my peeps accompanying me to the nursery but prefer they let me be to “do my thing”, and not rush me out of there like a bat out of hell because I have to whip out my boobs in public (a private nursing mother’s worst nightmare), somebody  has to go potty, or what other crazy personal crisis there might be.

Above all, what I mostly cherish are personal, handmade gifts from my girls in which they genuinely and personally injected their own thoughts into the gift. Last Friday, Sofia surprised me with a handmade picture frame and a special card with her own handwriting for Mother’s Day. She had worked so hard on this Mommy project all week at school, as did her classmates for their own mothers. For that, I’m proud of her and her classmates. I was deeply touched beyond words because it was made especially by HER to her Mama. Each tiny colored square (almost a square) was slowly and diligently cut from construction papers from colors she knew I’d like, and pasted each onto the card. The way she presented to me was so thoughtful, so endearing that it will forever be engraved in my heart. She said “Mama, I have a surprise for you! Close your eyes! Here it is!”. Excitement and a sense of pride sparkled all over her innocent face. Later, she said “You’re my favorite mama, ever!” Actually, she uses “favorite” very frequently to describe many of her likable toys, but Hell, I’ll proudly take it! Simple things sometimes cost next to nothing monetarily but worth everything sentimentally! This mother’s heart is full! I have the rest of life my to sleep. For now, this is as good as it gets.

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