Get to know your kids one-on-one

When I was in my teens and early twenties, my dad took used to take me out for dinner every few weeks, just the two of us. He did that with all of us kids. I don’t recall anything special or profound about the conversations we had during our “dates.” What I do remember is that we always went for sushi and that we always had a good time. Most of all, it was a treat, getting to spend a couple of hours with my dad, just the two of us.

After he passed away suddenly in 2012, I found myself left with a lot of questions that I knew for the rest of my life would remain unanswered. And I wished I had used those one-on-one times better, to talk about things that really mattered.

Then a while ago, I read this article. And now I realize that the most important things I learned from those times with my dad were the ones that went unspoken. For example, that I could and should expect the men in my life to treat me with kindness and respect. And that spending quality time is one of the best ways to show love.

Getting to know your kids, one on one  via The New York Times 

Comfort soup

I remember the exact time my love affair with kimchi began. I’d just written a 3-hour exam, all essay questions, and I was ravenous. But on a Sunday afternoon in downtown Vancouver, there wasn’t much choice. Finally I wandered into a Korean internet café that also served some hot dishes. I ordered the bulgogi plate which was served with the ubiquitous small dish of spicy fermented cabbage. You know how when you’re really hungry, anything you eat tastes delicious? I’d had kimchi before, but it had left me cold. Now, I was in love.

Soon after, I moved in with a Japanese friend who also loves kimchi. One cold night, she boiled up a soup pot, adding almost an entire jar of kimchi to the hot water, along with thinly sliced pork.  Sharing that soup with her at her kitchen table is still one of my favourite food memories.

My mom is partial to a Korean tofu soup, so when I found a recipe for Spicy Kimchi Tofu Stew, I knew I had to make it to welcome her home from her Christmas trip to Vancouver. For me, a steaming bowl of this red-gold soup is satisfying, comforting, and evocative of many good memories—the very best kind of food.

Spicy Kimchi Tofu Soup
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 16-oz. package silken tofu, cut into 1” pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 cups cabbage kimchi, drained and chopped (reserve the liquid)
2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)
12 pieces thinly sliced pork
8 green onions, cut into 1” pieces (finely chop a handful of them and aside for garnishing)
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce heat and carefully add the tofu. Simmer gently until slightly puffed and firmed up, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tofu to a medium bowl and set aside.

Empty the pot and put it back on medium-high heat. Heat the vegetable oil. Add  the kimchi and gochujang and cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, 5–8 minutes. Add the kimchi liquid and 8 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until kimchi is softened and translucent, 35–40 minutes.

Add the pork, scallions, soy sauce, and tofu; simmer gently until tofu has absorbed flavors, 15-20 minutes. Don’t worry if the tofu falls apart a little. Add the sesame oil and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with sesame seeds and remaining green onions.

Serves 6 as a first course.

Cooking for two

Another year has begun.

The last time I wrote about New Year’s resolutions was in March 2016. I didn’t get to do much writing after that — not on this site, anyway — because a few days after that post, I met the man I ended up marrying last summer.

If we were in our twenties, you’d say we had a whirlwind courtship: we met in March, he proposed in August of that same year, and we married exactly a year later. But we are in our forties, and from day one, nothing about our relationship has felt whirlwind-like at all. It was, and still is, more like the sweet relief of coming home to where you know you’ve always belonged.

Still, we’ve had a busy couple of years. But now, it’s winter, and we are finally together, snug under the same roof, and the start of this new year and of this new life seems as good a time as any to try and make a fresh new start online, as well.

And what better place to start than in the place where I began blogging years ago, i.e. at the dinner table?

I’m reading Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser, the woman behind one of my go-to websites for recipes, Food52. One book reviewer calls it a Chick Lit Foodie book, which it is. Others call out the author for being pretentious and snobby at times, with which I have to agree. Nonetheless, my mouth still waters over her culinary prose, and the book is already bristling with sticky tabs marking the recipes I want to try. In fact I’ve already tried one, and made it again for dinner the very next night, and this is the recipe I’m sharing today. It’s fast and easy, delicious and comforting, the very thing you want to be cooking and eating on a cold snowy night after a hard day’s work.

Quick and Easy Cacio e Pepe

You will need:

Table salt
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1/2 pound linguini fini
2 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon very coarse, freshly ground black pepper

What to do:

1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, mix both cheeses together in a small bowl. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook it until almost, but not quite, done. Linguini fini takes just a few minutes, so stay near the stove and test the pasta by fishing out a piece and biting down. When there is just the merest hint of hardness in the centre, scoop out about 1/2 cup of cooking water and set it aside.

3. Drain the pasta in a colander and dump it back on the pot. Drop in the butter, oil and 1/2 tablespoon pepper and stir with tongs or a large fork, lifting and folding the pasta together. Add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the pot and place it over medium-high heat. Cook for a minute, stirring to emulsify the sauce. Test a noodle to see if it’s done. It should now be perfectly al dente. Remove from the heat and sprinkle half the cheese over the pasta. Blend once more, then serve with the rest of the cheese and pepper.

Makes a hearty main meal for two, or a side for four.

Spring gardens

Sometimes I think that heaven must be like a sunny spring day in British Columbia. And if it is, then the heart of heaven must be like the Butchart Gardens.

The first and only other time I visited this beautiful spot was 20-odd years ago. So I’m very grateful to my friend Maureen for taking me there on my recent visit to Vancouver Island. It was one of the highlights of my trip, second only to re-connecting my good friends Maureen and Vanessa and their lovely families.

It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Children of my heart

At the start of this new year, instead of making a bunch of resolutions, I made a few lists in answer to the following questions:

  • What should I start? What should I stop?
  • What should I do more? What should I do less?
  • What should I continue?
  • What should I be grateful for?

The first thing I felt compelled to answer to the last question was, “My siblings.”

Some of the reasons were obvious. I’d been through a tough year, and my brothers and sisters, each in his or her own way, helped me through it. They reminded me with their words and actions that I didn’t have to struggle alone.

But on further reflection, I realized something else: I am grateful for my siblings because, even if I don’t ever get to be a mother, their presence in my life made it possible for me to experience what motherhood is.

I changed their diapers, fed them, soothed them to sleep, played with them, scolded them, took care of them when they were sick or hurt, received their confidences, gave them advice.

I don’t have children of my own, and maybe I never will, but thanks to the part I was able to play in raising my brothers and sisters, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out.

Now my siblings are all grown up, and a new generation has started.

When my sister gave birth to my nephew twelve years ago, and I saw his little face for the first time, I fell in love. To this day I can’t fully explain the feeling I had, the awareness that this baby was my sister’s, but also my own. He was a part of me, and he came straight into my heart, into a place that nobody else had occupied before, and there he has stayed.

A few days ago, my brother became a father, and the miracle is happening all over again.

Children, I’ve come to find, open up spaces in your life and in your heart that you never knew you had. Without them, how narrow indeed my world would be.

New flavours on one of North America’s oldest streets

On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles
On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles

I was overjoyed when, in the middle of a chat about Asian cuisine, the Indonesian waiter at one of my favourite restaurants, Gado-Gado, told me that there was a new Filipino restaurant on rue Notre Dame, just a couple of blocks from where I live.

But I have to admit it was a little surreal at first to eat at Junior.

First of all, most of the clientele are non-Pinoy. Second, being typical Montrealers, they insist on having wine with their pork adobo. Third, many of the servers are non-Pinoy as well, and they love explaining the menu to me and giving me their recommendations.

But owner Jojo Flores is deservedly proud of his friendly, diligent staff, and of the carefully selected wines on the menu. Montreal diners are rather spoiled for choice, and they have selective palettes. Flores says Junior stands out as the only Filipino restaurant downtown. Dishes are rotated in and out of the menu every season. They have also introduced weekend brunches and taco Wednesdays.

Flores, who opened Junior with his brother Toddy in October 2014, is also proud to note that many of the people who eat at the restaurant are non-Filipino. “It’s really cool to see people enjoying the cuisine we grew up eating at home.”

I have to agree with him on that — it is pretty cool to see Filipino food finally becoming internationally known.

My own personal favourites are the crisp-tender lechon kawali and the sisig, which has just the right amount of chili heat and arrives on a sizzling cast-iron plate with the barest drizzle of mayonnaise. Both are perfect with a glass of ice-cold, locally brewed Jeepney beer.

From the “Rice and Shine” menu I almost always choose the lightly crunchy coconut waffles along with the —you guessed it—lechon kawali. (You can also order it with battered fried chicken.) And they do an excellent flat white.

Last but not least, there is the lively yet relaxed ambience, which Flores says is really “a reflection of who we are, and our appreciation for good food and great music.” Come down to Junior any day of the week, and chances are the place will be buzzing.

If you ask me, the Flores brothers have hit on a winning combination.

Sugar shacking

When I was about eight years old, my grandparents came back to Manila from Vancouver for Christmas, and they gave me the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder as a present. I loved them — partly because they had such good eating in them, and also because they described daily life in a mileu that was totally unfamiliar and completely fascinating.

I remember especially vividly the story of sugaring off in Little House in the Big Woods…how Laura’s grandpa whittled and hammered little troughs into the trunks of maple trees to collect their sap, and how he would boil the sap in a big iron kettle hung between two trees to make the maple sugar. One year, there was a “sugar snow,” a last cold snap that caused an extra-long run of sap, so that there was enough for Laura’s grandparents to throw a party, with music and dancing and “hot hasty pudding with maple syrup for supper,” and best of all, maple candy that was made by pouring the hot syrup onto pans of snow.

Well, this may not be the Big Woods of Wisconsin, but Québec has its own maple syrup traditions. During my first visit to a cabane de sucre (sugar shack) I was delighted to see the sugaring-off story come alive in front of my very eyes.

These pictures were taken at La Sucrerie de la Montagne, which I am told is by far the best sugar shack in the region. They have an excellent, all-you-can-eat menu of traditional Québecois cuisine, a boulangerie with an enormous wood-burning oven where they bake all their bread, and all-season accommodations so that you can come and enjoy the surrounding woods. Sugaring-off season starts in February and will continue until April.

Recipes and other food-related writing => 

After the quake*


Funny thing about turning forty. It changes people.

Suddenly, you’re not just one year older—you’ve stepped into a whole new decade. And not just any decade, but the first decade of the rest of your life.

Perspectives change. What’s important becomes clearer. You start seeing what’s still worth your time and energy. And it’s easier to let go of what’s not.

Towards the end of 2015, I finally got around to reading Radio Shangri-La, which had been gathering dust on my shelf for months.

This is what I later wrote its author, Lisa Napoli:

I picked up Radio Shangri-La at a book sale a few months ago, never suspecting how much it would resonate with me, a forty-one-year-old just starting to realize how much of my past life I’ve spent barely conscious.

I just finished reading it today, and I just wanted to let you know I’ve copied [the last] two of the questions from the preface that you say you asked yourself into the notebook I carry around with me.

Thank you for sharing your experiences with the rest of us who are searching.

In case you are wondering, here are the two questions, exactly as Lisa wrote them:

  • What could I do with the second half of my life to make it more meaningful than the first?
  • How was I going to grow old gracefully?

Maybe they’ll start you thinking too. Maybe you’ll start asking yourself, as I now do every time I wonder if something is worthwhile, “Is this meaningful, for me or for someone else? Will it help me grow old gracefully?”

2015 turned out to be a doozy of a year. I went through one or two profound personal earthquakes. But the good thing about earthquakes is that when the dust settles, you look around, and what’s left standing are the things you know now will endure.

Everything else you can re-build, better and stronger than before.


*with apologies to Haruki Murakami