Hello Kitty Bento Lunch Box to Hit the Spot!

Her Mama’s Hello Kitty bento box filled with a few of her favorite things: Thai honey-roasted pork riblets with steamed rice happily blanketed in seaweed, dainty and sweet clementine wedges, plus a chocolatey surprise of-the-day, was intended for lunch today but will be her afternoon snack. 12525325_1077025929006793_8122646555194969775_o

She opted for cafeteria food of hotdog on a hoagie bun (What a  healthy and appetizing, right?). More than likely, she will take a few nibbles only to recall this bland food is not her jam. She will glaze over it a few more times with much hesitation. Eventually, hunger gets the best of her and she’ll settle for eating the surrounding sides on her tray. The novelty of standing in line with her peers, buying and carrying a lunch tray by herself to her assigned table – Ah, the excitement to inhale that air of independence! Mama and Dadda are MIA, to sway her from her food choices. She will bask in the glory of autonomy… that of a kindergartener. Her preschool, teacher-directed days were so yesterday… so over.

However, this novelty will quickly diminish. She will realize her grumbling belly beckons for something more satisfying come 1:30 p.m. She’ll be irritable. She might be a bit low-spirited. And just like that… her teacher will announce the ever-ready Snack Time is here. Mama’s surprise snack will be waiting in the wings for her. She won’t know what awaits her. She just knows whatever is in that welcoming bento box will be more promising than her latest, plain school lunch. That box will be summoned to hit that spot… and it will!

Winging it: Wok Wednesdays Stir-Fried Lettuce with Garlic

IMG_7784I’m turning in my Wok Wednesdays dish/homework of Stir-Fried Lettuce with Garlic, from page 195 of Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, a tad late. Hope my tardiness does not constitute a negative grade. I’m citing my tardy on my never-ending mommy duties. Lol! Okay, not really.

I must confess. I’m cooking this Wednesday’s dish purely off of my rusty memory. I no longer have my beloved Sky book! Shocker! I was foolish enough to loan it to whom I thought was a trusted individual but the truth revealed otherwise. I might never see that person again, and that’s beyond ok! However, my Sky book… Darn it! I miss it! I feel somewhat lost without it. We’ve become well-acquainted the past 4 months. Surely I can (and did) order another copy but my original book had many memorable stains on specific pages. Some were doggy-eared and labeled “Next in line”. The various smears and water droplets are like my personal history and battle scars while cooking. They spoke of what I did, when I added what, what notes I jotted down to riff/adjust next time, and how I splashed an entire page with a certain sauce while hauling butt with my wooden spatula in one hand, and long chopsticks in the other. I often felt like a kitchen warrior going into battle for the good of the family, especially when it’s my first time with a new recipe. There’s a certain rush to it all. To fail is not an option – especially with hungry baby divas lurking around the kitchen island, waiting for their feast.

Anyways… Back to the lettuce stir-fried with garlic. I grew up with Asian parents who were, and still are, overly obsessed gardeners. They insisted on growing everything they could wrap their green thumbs around. As a kid, I had eaten too many exotic vegetables and herbs my father grew until I was blue in the face. Some of his must-grows were: mustard greens, perilla leaves, gai lan, all the choys (if you know what I mean), etc. Whatever he harvested, my mother would not hesitate to work her magic with them. They’re guaranteed to be: stir-fried, steamed, boiled, lightly-grilled, braised, etc. I have Forest Gump (with his southern accent) and endless ways to prepare shrimps swirling in my head right about right now, for some reason.

Surprisingly, I don’t have much recollection of romaine lettuce in my childhood diet other than topping them off big bowls of noodle soups where they’re often finely shredded. My mother likes them best, raw and fresh. As an adult, the most adventurous I’ve done to them in recent years was grilling them lightly. This gave them a smokey, slightly more intense flavor than when eaten raw.

Tonight was my first time stir-frying the lettuce; always fun to try something new for the first time.  Totally winging this stir fry… I think the ingredients from the book (when I still I had it) included: lettuce, a few smashed garlic cloves, rice wine, light soy, and a bit of sugar, pepper. I suppose I stuck “closely” to Grace’s recipe with the following exceptions:

  • For extra aromatics, I added a thin slice of ginger and some thinly sliced sweet yellow onions.
  • One tabasco pepper, very lightly smashed with seeds kept in the pod and a pinch of dried pepper flakes.
  • Added thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms (initially soaked in hot water for 30 min., and drained. The soaking liquid was reserved for stir frying later, when needed). After the aromatics were fried in my 12″ CS wok for 30 seconds, the shiitake mushrooms were stir-fried until slightly charred, roughly 2-4 minutes. I drizzled the mushroom soaking liquid over the mushrooms when my wok became a bit dry. The steam created, helped to cook the mushrooms without burning the bottom of my wok.


  • The lettuce were the last ones in, to avoid overcooking the leaves. I still want that crunch on the stems. I added a “very conservative” splash of my favorite fish sauce (Magic Chef, blue bottle) before shutting off the fire.


The outcome was quite delicious. The smokiness of the lettuce was very noticeable along with the bright crunch from the stems – a textural sensation! The chili flakes and tabasco pepper provided a dose of heat I was after but still tamed considering the seeds were still inside the pod. The shiitake mushrooms created a heartiness to such a light fare without being too meaty, as I’d assume with actual proteins. Thanks to my parents’ abundance of “rabbit” food growing up, I’m not much of a meat and potato person. This perfect stir-fry is simple but sublime! Thanks, Ms. Grace!



To complement the delightful lettuce dish, I made a quick chicken freestyle, stir-fry with what’s on hand: diced red bell, sweet yellow onions, shiitake mushrooms (can’t get enough of them).  Aromatics included: smashed ginger, minced garlic, chopped green onions. Seasonings included: light soy, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, sugar, red pepper flakes, black beans chili oil. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs were cut into bite-size chunks, lightly seasoned with soy and cornstarch, then quickly deep-fried in a wok, and drained of excess oil. I then, went about my usual stir-fry business. First: fried the aromatics. Second: fried the chicken pieces with the seasoning sauces.


Added the vegetables and tossing evenly to cook.



The flavor is that of an intense tango between chicken with black beans sauce and kang pao but without the peanuts. I didn’t feel the need to compose a full recipe for this chicken stir-fry because I’m not sure I can reproduce the same flavors again. I suppose that’s the nature of one’s freestyle madness, when executed too rapidly.



As a courtesy to the author, the complete lettuce recipe was excluded from this post. Please refer to Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, page 195 for more information, and other fine recipes.


Freelancing at 40 – Bring it On!

For some, turning the Big 4-0 send chills down their spine and is the root cause of their insomniac madness. This remind me of my Corporate America days just a few years ago, when I was a full-time cubicle dweller. Department birthday parties were a monthly occurrence. For those “lucky” few reaching 40, the spotlight was on them for the next 30 minutes while overly-sweet, heavily-frosted cakes, shouting their name and new age were served to all on the company’s finest paper China. The “Over the Hill” helium balloon was guaranteed to be floating in the background as if to devilishly welcome them (with an evil, cackling laugh) to the “More Matured Club” on their special day… whether they like it or not.

Some of these coworkers accepted the fate rather willingly (and gracefully); some, not so much. One commented,  it felt like AARP was ready with their membership and magazine subscription the minute the birthday candle was blown out.  Another coworker lamented “My life is over! I’m next door to the senior citizens!” Was 40 the new 50? What a drastic and insanely detrimental outlook! Sure, this inevitable road trip to Ageville seems more real than ever at this milestone birthday but, come on. To think the end is near seems dramatic. Don’t we have another good 30-40 years to clock in this world, granted we don’t overindulge on our vices, stay physically active, etc.? Their reactions left me confused, unsure if I ever wanted to be 40. 

In retrospect, I was “clueless” and cared little of their aging crisis (?) during my early 20’s and early 30’s. I obviously lacked the experiences/maturity to offer my two cents, let alone fear it. It just felt like centuries away. I was too busy living my youthful days, forever footloose, fancy free, and resting soundly like Sleeping Beauty every night. I had no kids…obviously. Yeah! Those were the good old days! 

Presently, the table has turned, and quickly I might add. I’m officially “THERE”! Nonetheless, I’m ready to honestly make my assessment on “turning 40”. For nearly six sleepless years, I have pressed the “Pause” button on the only personal life I know and cherish (i.e. full-time career, traveling, random romantic getaways, sleep – oh yes, the much appreciated restful sleep, etc.), to solely focus on conceiving, carrying, and being the primary caregiver to two of God’s almighty miracles. I thank Him daily for He could not have created two more perfect beings. They are healthy, vivacious, feisty, and so kind-hearted! I also thank Him for giving me the best, hands-on, co-pilot ever, my BFF/hubby, to navigate through parenthood’s unpredictable and uncharted terrains.

I’m so fortunate to have the dedicated, quality time with my babies since Day One. This really taught me how to appreciate these early, crucial developmental years; they past too quickly. There are so many “First” and “Wow” moments I’ve personally witnessed from each of my baby divas that I undoubtedly would have missed had they been in a full-time daycare environment. Now the baby of the babies is three-years old. Her round-the-clock basic needs: feeding, changing, sleeping, etc. have drastically reduced. I can somewhat breathe a sigh of relief and can actually eat a semi-hot meal occasionally while having a meaningful (although brief), adult conversation with my hubby. 

On the cusp of my 40th birthday, my perspective on Ageville is more refreshing and most positive. I embrace it wholeheartedly. I have much to look forward to, with zealous and hope! I can steadily inch back into “my old” way of life, enjoy a tad more freedom and mental space. There’s now opportunities for personal improvement and/or self enrichment. I can now stop to smell a rose or two, once and awhile. 


Sentimental – hybrid tea rose, bi-color like a candy cane with a delicate, sweet scent. Resilient and captivating – It’s dead of winter and she’s still gracefully blooming.

Though I’ve become someone’s someone: a wife, a mother, and CEO of All Things Domestics, Inc. (at the moment), these are merely roles in my life. I will always be my babies’ mother for all eternities. I will be my hubby’s life partner until my last breath with Divine’s mercy. However, these roles do not define me; they are not my occupation. When you ask my hubby “What do you do?” He will immediately tell you he’s a computer programming. Never will you hear fatherhood and devoted spouse disclosed first. As such, I am first and foremost, just Me. Then, a wife. Then, a mom, and whatever else! It is “I”, the individual who has too many thoughts and ideas she can’t seem to express fast enough through her words. It is I, the former corporate slave (a.k.a. business analyst/mortgage underwriter/money laundering investigator, or whatever they wanted me to be) who no longer desires returning to the conventional corporate job nor juggle its mundane office responsibilities. By the way, I “won’t” be back (had a bit of an Arnold Schwarzenegger moment, there)! 

I want to seriously write! I want to become a solid freelance writer with some merit on my shoulder. I need to start now! I’m starting now! I might suck initially. I may even be slow to compose but if I consistently write daily, my brain will be exercised and I will be more efficient and effective with my words. 

More importantly, I strive to teach my girls, by setting an example, that a strong woman is defined by what she passionately does for herself; not for the roles she takes on in her life. When my babies leave my nest one dreaded day from now, I will be deeply heartbroken. They will each have a heaping chunk of my soul while the nest sits more disturbingly silent. Yet, I am still me, hopefully a strong freelance writer by then. Regardless, I can (and will) still write. Life still goes on without them physically present, but “I” will roll through it all… one sentence at a time! 

Bring it in, 40! I want to write about what matters most to me. Food makes me write! Cooking the food I love, from what I grow, or teaching my babies about our ethnic cuisines fuels my writing. Life’s beauty, all its rawness and mishaps are worth a few thousand words! Best of luck to me!

A Milestone Birthday Bowl of Bun Bo Hue!

The best birthday gift a husband can give his wife is whisking the babies off her hands for a few hours so she can reclaim an ounce of sanity and enjoy some neglected “Me” time. My bff/hubby did just that! 


With my precious solo time, I had Pavarotti/Sutherland’s I Puritani soaring beautifully in the background while I peacefully made a milestone birthday bowl of wonder that screams “Me”. My Vietnamese Bun Bo Hue is on the horizon. Next to Pho (which is percolating on the back burner for the girls), this all-time favorite beef and rice vermicelli noodle soup is unapologetically spicy, sings of smashed lemongrass and roasted ginger while sweet, salty, and sour flavors dances harmoniously with each mouthful. Fatty pig trotters and fork-tender beef tendons are slightly submerged in a lava broth laden with fresh and dried chili oil. Several hours of steeping on the stove, the fiery cauldron is steadily bubbling and “It’s time”!


Fresh herbs of greens onions, chopped coriander, spearmints, thai basils, purple perilla leaves, crunchy shredded romaine lettuce, and more chilies are sprinkled over the steamy noodle bowl. A generous squeeze of lime on top seals the deal.

To help infuse the broth with freshness, a few of my favorite herbs specifically for Bun Bo Hue were harvested from what remains of my winter garden beds: Spearmint, fresh ginger root, green onions, Tabasco peppers, and lemongrass. Mother Nature’s bounty, though small, is plentiful to contribute to the wonder bowl.


Six messy napkins and two cups of water later, my hubby and I are stuffed to our eyeballs. We might require a Tums or two soon.



To cap off my idea of a “zen birthday” evening, my baby divas beautifully serenaded me with a birthday duet of their own along with a surprise gift. I had no room for vanilla ice cream/chocolate cake but managed to share a few nibbles with my sweeties!

In God’s grace, I’m thankful for this milestone birthday! Now, somebody roll me over and turn out the lights. I feel fully charged and ready to tackle the challenges and chaos of tomorrow. 

A Fragrant Cloud to Welcome a New Life Chapter

On the cusp of a new chapter, I feel emotionally and physically ready to pursue various avenues and alleyways that were once kept afar the last 5-6 years. It’s as though life lessons within these crucial years was ever the key in preparing me for what awaits now. Thank you, God for always giving me the precious time I needed (whether I wanted to or not), for the blessings I often feel less deserving of, and for this glorious, sun-filled birthday!


My favorite Fragrant Cloud hybrid tea rose, bloomed vibrantly on this 40th birthday! Its bold coral hue, spicy, sweet fragrance captivates even in the dead of winter. It’s resiliency always amazes me.

Freestyle – Extra Fiery Mapo Tofu

IMG_5435After a dizzying week of holiday prep, online toys shopping, and cooking/baking for everybody but my own bff/hubby, I’m slowly inching into the New Year with a bit of freestyle, Speedy Gonzalez cooking with what I spy with my curious eyes. From my nearly empty fridge, I found a 1/4 pound of ground pork – what remained from a batch of pork egg rolls my baby diva and I made for her dear martial arts instructor. A pack of silkened tofu sat in the back shelf screaming “Do something with me already”. Scanning the ever-growing (but never completely used up) jars and bottles of Asian condiments on the right fridge door, a familiar and welcoming jar of chili bean paste caught my attention.

We got dinner! Mapo tofu is on the horizon, give or take 20 minutes. This dish is near and dear to my hubby. It’s his warm bowl of hugs during the blistering winter months in Seoul. In his childhood home, meat was also few and far in between. When he was served Mapo tofu with ground beef or pork, it was especially magical.

Tonight’s version is a play off of an old handwritten recipe I wrote years ago. In my college days, I’d worked in a Chinese restaurant where the owners/chefs catered to American-friendly palettes with the familiar Sweet and Sour pork/shrimp, Lemon Chicken slathered with thick sugary goo, beef and broccoli, etc. Yet in the kitchen, the owners’ father, a fierce but subtly sweet man, roughly in his 80’s, nicknamed “Grandpa” would cook these amazingly memorable dishes for the employees after their shifts ended. In minutes, he’d toss out these outlandishly different (to me, anyways), yet insanely delicious home-style, Chinese comfort foods for which remains unknown and unnamed to me. It’s the kind of food you would find if you had a truly nice Chinese friend from your childhood (like I did), who invited you to dinner and her grandmother and mom cooked these unusual dishes to the eyes but you can’t seem to put your chopsticks down even after your belly has cried “Uncle” several times. Yeah! Those!

The only dish Grandpa made that I knew the name of was Mapo tofu. On a good day and when the mood struck him, he would explained the history behind certain ingredients and entrees. He went into great details about different sauces, where they’re produced, and what to look for for best quality. As open as he was about his food knowledge and experiences, he refused to spill the beans on his Mapo tofu recipe (The internet just came to existence but Google was unheard of.). Nonetheless, I was persistent in replicating this mysterious dish. Every time I knew he had the ingredients ready to cook, I would casually walk by a few times. It only took a year or two of spying, numerous tasting to identify key ingredients, test cooking with various bean pastes/sauces, and many failed attempts to compose the final recipe.  One day, after repeated failures, I was ready to toss in the towel. I recalled scooping a hot biteful onto my chopsticks from the hot pan, expecting to be disgusted with disappointments, once again. What I tasted was Grandpa’s Mapo! GET OUT (a Seinfeld catch phrase)! It had depth: a richness from the hot bean paste, a spicy zing from the ground Sichuan peppercorns, and a heartiness of the grounded meat followed by the smoothness of the silkened tofu. Harmony!

Since then, I’ve made a few riffs to the recipe depending upon my moods, for whom I’m cooking and availability of ingredients. Most of the time, the ground pork and silkened tofu is a definite per my hubby’s request. I sometimes make a veggie version with tofu and dried shiitake mushrooms for my parents with the spicy note reduced quite a bit.

Here’s my fiery take on Mapo Tofu.


1/4 lb. ground pork

3 tsp light soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine

2 tsp cornstarch


1/2 tsp sesame oil

1/2 cup tap water

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1/2 tsp granulated sugar

1 tbsp garlic, minced

1/2 tbsp ginger, minced

1 small shallot, minced

2 stalks green onions chopped, green and white parts separated

2 tbsp hot bean chili paste (Pixian variety, preferably)

1 tbsp hot chili blackbean sauce (optional, but I prefer to include)

1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted in hot pan, then smashed or grounded finely in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder

1/2  tsp dried chili flakes (optional, for more heat)

1 pkg silken or soft tofu, 14 oz.

Canola or peanut oil for cooking


In Bowl #1, add 3 tsp light soy, corn starch, pinch of black pepper, and rice wine. Stir well to form a slurry. Add ground pork to the bowl and mix well with slurry. Set aside to marinate for 15-20 minutes.

In Bowl #2, add sesame oil, tap water, 2 tbsp light soy, and sugar. Mix well. Set aside.

In a small pan or wok on medium heat, lightly toast the Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant. Smash or ground finely in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Set aside.

Preheat a wok on med/high heat until lightly smokey. Drizzle 1-2 tbsp of canola oil into the wok. Swirl to coat the bottom of wok, until smokey. Add aromatics: ginger, garlic, shallots, green onions (white part only), stir fry for 1/2 to 1 minute until fragrant. Add ground pork, spread meat evenly to cover the wok’s bottom, breaking up chunky pieces with a spatula. Brown meat thoroughly.


Add hot bean chili paste (Pixian kind for a more red, deeper note), hot chili blackbean sauce if using, finely grounded Sichuan peppercorns, dried chili flakes if using, and stir well. Note: If hot bean chili paste is too chunky, smash/chop finely with a cleaver.



Add the water, sesame oil, light soy, sugar mixture from Bowl #2 to the wok. Stir gently until liquid is evenly bubbling. Add silken tofu. Gently stir tofu into the sauce, breaking up large tofu chunks into bite size pieces. Cook for another 3-4 minutes.


Toss green onions (green parts) on top of dish.


Serve hot with steamed Jasmine rice.


Serves 2-3 as a main course or 4-5 with other dishes/sides.