Today is SUNDAY! Sunday means my beloved is at home. Every other Sunday means that we get the house to ourselves for some precious alone time. Sunday means writing lists for this blog. Sunday means reading. Sunday means really appreciating the things that I am grateful for. And as silly and trivial as it may sound, especially in the face of this global pandemic we are facing, I am truly happy that my anxiety has been relatively manageable these past few weeks.
Here are some things that I find helpful, for me, for those times when shit gets rough.
I find cleaning to be akin to sorting out thought’s in one’s brain. As you are decluttering your desk, you are also decluttering your mind. As you throw out old receipts, candy wrappers, backs of band-aids and so on, from your bag, you’re also sorting out your memories. When I can afford it, the best way for me to calm down is housekeeping. The act of mopping the floor (I do it on my hands and knees) becomes meditative, and the same goes for washing the dishes. Even if the anxiety hasn’t gone away by the end, I can look around at a clean space and feel less overwhelmed by visual clutter.
Cook (a lot)
Since quitting the kitchens, cooking has become restorative for me again and I will work my hardest for it to stay that way. When my internal freak-out alarm is at its loudest, the kitchen is where I find my solace. The calm begins with choosing, or creating, a recipe. But the best part of it is meal prep. Chopping everything and getting them ready in their bowls is so calming. Making something so that your family’s fed and loved is so crucial to me and the way I love. When everything seems to be falling apart, knowing that I can be relied upon to make a big batch of pasta and meatballs, or curry, or chicken karaage that everyone will eat up in a split second is reassuring.
Right, so sometimes I’ve done the first two and I would still find myself bouncing my leg up and down and picking at my cuticles. This is the time to bring out the big guns. And by big guns, I mean some good ol’ HIIT and weightlifting. Full disclosure: I have been living with a seriously banged up knee for more than 20 years now, which means I have to maintain my weight at around 50kg. But to complicate things further, there are A LOT of exercises that I can’t do. Still, there is no better way to feel alive than feeling your whole body moving like an engine and then having sweat pour off of you. I know at that moment that I exist, and that life is a bit crap right now, but if I can do 10 pushups in 10 seconds, then maybe, just maybe, I am fucking awesome.
So I only did the first three things for almost as long as I have had anxiety. I couldn’t keep up with something like journaling and I was basically writing for a living, so writing when I was panicking seemed like a busman’s holiday. Or, in this case, a busman’s nightmare. But sometime last year I got back into writing, but writing poetry to be specific. I really got into the groove of it and it helped to have a little notebook and pen on hand to whip out at any moment– on the street, on the metro, in a cafe, at a party– to sort of expunge myself of any panic I might be feeling at any moment. It worked until one of my exes told her mother that I was a poet when she was asked what my profession was. That lie, among many other screwed up things that were happening at the time, just made me want to stop writing. That is until I stared this blog 11 days ago!
Writing is like cataloguing one’s memories and thoughts. It’s better than a photograph because you need to describe everything that you are going through, in your own words.
Writing is cathartic.
Let’s be real, I have always been a planner. Sometimes the best part of a holiday is planning for it: the places you’ll go, the outfits you’re gonna wear, the things you’ll eat, etc. But I digress.
When I find myself spiralling, it helps me to have visibility on the future. It doesn’t even have to be that far ahead. It could just be planning for the day, or for the afternoon, even. It helps to tell myself I have these non-negotiable things that I need to accomplish, some things that I would perhaps like to do, and a couple of things that I would include to treat myself with if I happen to get everything done. It helps me focus on the immediate and it also gives me motivation to keep going forward.
Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot.
One of the things that I tell myself when my anxiety is riding dizzyingly high is that I need imagine myself walking on a tightrope. The tightrope walker makes it to the other end by placing one foot after the other. Sure, on a long piece of metal string (ok rope. fine, cable), but that’s basically the action. Dwelling on the height, on the morbidity, on its dangers, just renders the act impossible. To me, it’s kind of like managing anxiety. What matters in the end is that we keep on walking.
Cooking used to be one of those things that I did because I had to and I didn’t start to enjoy it until quite late in my life. Now it’s an integral part of me and a way for me to express my love for the people I cook for.
Today I am sharing five recipes that have gotten me through this month. Some comfort food, some amazing family dinners, and some test meals. Why these five and not others? No clue. It is Sunday and I have decided that on Sunday, I’ll share lists. I also think that five is a great number and when I started going through five things that I made this month, these were the first five to come to mind– no filter, no sorting. So here we go:
1. Grilled cheese
Cravings. I can’t be the only one who gets them. My weakness is for things that are savoury and full of carbs. This month grilled cheeses were the thing for me. I didn’t even bother with the tomato soup. The combination of grilled bread, salted butter, slightly gooey cheese (cheddar and gouda are my go to), ham for some texture and a good spread of cream cheese is enough to make me salivate. And yes, I am salivating as I type.
Ingredients (for one serving of grilled cheese)
Two slices of bread per grilled cheese
1tbsp salted butter
Too much cream cheese (yes, that is a standardised form of measurement)
1 slice of cheddar
1 slice of gouda (other good ones include other hard cheeses like edam, mimolette…)
1 slice of ham
Method (but let’s not pretend that this is an exact science)
Butter one side of the first slice of bread
Place it butterside down on a plate and spread an obscene amount of cream cheese
Place your slices of cheese on next. You can just put one of them, or both (the latter is obviously my go to when I am at Peak Craving)
Next is your ham
Heat your pan and then as it gets hot, butter both sides of your last slice of bread
When you hover your hand above the pan and it feels almost too hot, it’s time to place your grilled cheese on the pan
Get both sides nice and golden-brown
Eat the sucker!
There are some people who like to toast their bread first and believe me I have tried but I just really love the way the bread’s interior stays soft while getting hella crunchy when you grill it directly on the pan without toasting it first. So, yeah, Team Untoasted here.
Some people like adding mayo, but nah. Some like adding hot sauce and I love it too, but I would add it after the cooking process and not before. Just a matter of personal preference.
2. Lamb ragout
(Inspired by Samin Nosrat’s Netflix series Salt Fat Acid Heat)
Man, I love a good ragout. We made an amazing one at my partner’s mother’s place this summer with lamb after watching Salt Fat Acid Heat and it was literal magic. So magic that I had to recreate it again less than two weeks after the first one. Live a little, am I right?
Let’s be clear about a couple of things here: do not waste your money and get a good wine. If you are going to really Treat Yourself for this recipe, put it in your pasta and your meat.
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large carrots, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 lamb shoulder
3/4 cup dry red wine
One 28-ounce can peeled Italian tomatoes, coarsely chopped, juices reserved (or a box of tomato puree if not)
1 cup chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound rigatoni or campanelle
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, for serving
Heat oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan or pot over medium-high heat. Add lamb. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes each side or until browned. Transfer to a plate.
Add onion, garlic, pancetta, carrot, celery and herbs to the same pan pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 12 minutes or until veg has softened. Bump up the heat and then add wine. Cook for 1 minute, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add tomatoes and 2 cups cold water. Stir to combine. Bring to the boil. Return lamb to pan. Cover. Reduce heat to low. Simmer, turning halfway during cooking, for 2 hours 30 minutes or until meat is tender. Transfer lamb to a large plate. Cover with foil to keep warm.
Increase heat to medium. Bring tomato mixture to the boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until thickened.
Remove and discard fat and bone from lamb. Using 2 forks, coarsely shred lamb. Add to tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large saucepan of boiling, salted water, following packet directions, until tender. Drain. Put it back into the pot with the shredded lamb and tomato sauce. Mix in the Parmesan
Serve immediately and enjoy!
Pro tip: The lamb can finish cooking in the oven on low heat for a couple of hours before you shred it if you got the time to spare. That’s what we did the first time and it was amazing.
Completely forgot to write a blurb about this before posting, like a total idiot. This recipe has been waiting to be made for awhile now and I have been avoiding it because even thinking about it brought back bad memories. Starting this blog, honestly, gave me courage to face certain truths and then the energy that I had lacked to do things that I needed to do.
Big has been asking me and my partner to make this for her since our ex moved out. She was the one who made it first, just the one time and it made such an impression that Big, who usually doesn’t do spicy, asked for it again. A couple of weeks ago, when this blog was just a sparkle in my eye, I ordered a bunch of ancho chilies and four tins of chipotle in adobo sauce so that I could make this for Big. It wasn’t my best attempt, but at least I know what to do next time: use cocoa powder instead of chocolate, peanut butter instead of marmite peanut butter and no beer (it was such a mistake that I didn’t even include it in the ingredient list below).
2 red peppers
2 ancho chilies
2 tbsp sunflower oil
8 bone-in chicken thighs and legs
2 onions, finely diced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
1½ tsp ground coriander
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp smooth peanut butter
2 tbsp chipotle paste
400g can chopped tomato
25g dark chocolate (look for one with at least 70% cocoa solids)
(Full disclosure: we ran out of limes and I used lemons instead, but it would have tasted so much better if we had limes)
Put the chillies in a bowl and add enough boiling water to just cover. Leave to soften for 20 mins.
Meanwhile, grill the red peppers until blackened and soft. 20 minutes at 200c, approximately. Cool them, then peel and use as needed in the recipe.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a flameproof casserole dish, season the chicken, then brown on all sides. If you don’t have enough room, do it in batches so that you don’t overcrowd the chicken and end up undercooking the chicken. Remove the pieces to a plate.
Add the onions to the dish and cook for 5 mins until softened. Add the spices and cook for 1 min until aromatic.
Remove the chillies from their soaking liquid, reserving the liquid, and discard the stalks and seeds. Put in a food processor with 4 tbsp of the soaking liquid and the garlic. Whizz to a paste, then tip into the dish. Add the peanut butter, chipotle paste, tomatoes and 400ml water (fill up the tomato can and swirl to get all the tomato bits out). Return the chicken to the dish and season. Cover with a lid and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hr (we were hella lazy and hungry and fast forwarded it to 30mins and I regret having done that now).
Remove the chicken pieces to a plate. Using 2 forks, shred the meat and discard the bones. Return the chicken to the sauce, add the chocolate and continue cooking, uncovered, for 30 mins more. If the sauce looks like it’s getting a little too thick, add some of the chilli soaking liquid or some water.
Cook the rice following pack instructions. When the rice is cooked, add the coriander and lime zest and juice, and fluff up with a fork. Remove the mole from the heat. Serve alongside the rice, with soured cream and lime wedges, if you like.
4. Courgette carbonara
Courgette (or zucchini) is one of those things that people either love or hate. We had a week where we barely ate anything green and so I dug this up from my archives. Everyone loved it, because who the hell hates carbonara? And I got to sneak in a whole mess of courgettes in there without anyone noticing (even Big who supposedly “hates” courgettes). Lovely comforting carbs, savoury bacon and pure heaven. No complaints. 100% will make again.
4 medium green and yellow courgettes, finely diced
60mL dry white wine or vermouth
a bunch of basil of flat leaf parsley
100mL single cream
3tbsp grated Parmesan
6 slices of bacon or 250g of lardons
salt and butter to taste
Put a pan of water on for the pasta, salting generously (should taste like the sea) when it comes to the boil, then add the pasta. Cook it for 1-2 minutes less than packet instructions. Meanwhile, get on with the sauce.
Put the oil and onions in a heavy-based pan (that comes with a lid) on medium heat and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Add the courgettes and cook for 5 minutes, stirring every now and again.
Add the wine or vermouth, letting it bubble up, salt to taste, then lower the heat, cover with the lid and cook for a further 5 minutes, by which time the courgettes should be gorgeously tender.
Now get on with your carbonara. Separate the eggs and put the yolks into a bowl. Add the cream and grate in half the Parmesan, and mix together with a fork. Season lightly with sea salt and black pepper, and put to one side.
Heat a very large frying pan and add a good splash of olive oil. Cut bacon into chunks or if using lardons then just add them straight to the pan and fry until dark brown and crisp.
Add the courgettes and stir everything up, so the courgettes become coated with all the lovely bacon-flavoured oil, and fry until they start to turn lightly golden and have softened slightly.
It’s very important to work quickly for this next bit right or your carbonara could end up ruined. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, reserving around a cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta in the pan straight away with the courgettes and bacon, then remove the pan from the heat and add a ladleful of the reserved cooking water and your creamy sauce. Stir together quickly. (No more cooking now, otherwise you’ll scramble the eggs and ruin the sauce.)
Get your people to set the table! While you’re tossing the pasta and sauce, grate in the rest of the Parmesan and add a little more of the cooking water if needed, to give you a silky and shiny sauce. Taste quickly for seasoning.
Eat immediately as the sauce thickens real quick.
5. Luxury instant noodles
Instant noodles always make me think of Hong Kong. It’s not the healthiest food in the world, I know. But when I am getting all nostalgic and weepy, let’s face it, healthy is not the first criteria that I am trying to look for. When I close my eyes and think of home, the first thing that comes to mind is always food. Creamy milk tea, macaroni soup, wok stir-fried spaghetti, watery congee, bright and crunchy stirfried vegetables… The ultimate for me, however, is instant noodles. Not just any instant noodles, but the Demae Ramen sesame oil kind with a fried egg and spam on top. The noodles have to be cooked to al dente, the fried egg cooked until the sides are brown and crispy and finally the spam golden and delicious.
When I started living abroad, whenever I would visit my parents, we would go to the cooked food market (that’s what they are called officially in Hong Kong) every Sunday morning in our neighbourhood after our morning jog at the race tracks. I would always order instant noodles with spam and egg on top with an iced tea (later it would become a milk tea instead). Now that I visit less, whenever I have a bowl, I can almost feel my parents sitting next to me, chatting about our day, our week, our plans or the clientele. I can hear the hustle and bustle of the cafe: the newspapers, the choppiness of Cantonese, the clinking of mugs and metal silverware.
For a place that never truly welcomed people like me, I miss home so much and sometimes when stuff hits me a bit heavy, this does the trick.
1 pack of Demae Ramen
2-3 slices of spam
Cook the package of noodles 1-2 minutes less than indicated on the packet.
Shock the noodles immediately under cold water and discard the cooking liquid.
Set the noodles in your bowl. Set aside the two smaller packets.
Heat up some neutral cooking oil in a small pan.
Cook your spam through and a bit more so that the slices turn golden and slightly crispy on the side.
Set it on a plate lined with paper towel to soak up the excess oil.
Fry your egg in the same pan. Do not touch the egg as it cooks.
Boil around 500mL of water in your kettle and in the mean time, swirl your pan from time to time to ensure that the egg is not stuck to the pan.
Cook the egg until the sides get crispy.
Start plating! First open the two other packets from the ramen and sprinkle their contents on top of the noodles. Pour the hot water that you have boiled into the bowl. Do not cover your noodles, though, or they’ll get soggy! Place your slices of spam to one side and your fried egg on the other.
When I eat, it’s one of the rare moments where I feel like time and space takes on a different shape or feeling and it’s like I can travel back home and feel like I’m little again. Or I fast forward and think about a holiday where I am going to eat a local version of the thing I made. Or I imagine living somewhere else and cooking only using what’s readily available in that place. Good food can bring tears to my eyes, and make me feel alive.