Instant Pot Adventures

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For months now I’ve been stalking two Vietnamese cooking Facebook groups: the Vietnamese Cooking Group (VCG) and the Instant Pot Vietnamese Food Recipes. Both groups are totally nuts in the best possible way about sourcing, making, and eating Vietnamese food.  Everyday I am bombarded with photos of drool-inducing Vietnamese delicacies that come out of home kitchens around the world–from the ubiquitous pho and bun bo hue, to ca ca thang long and banh xeo.  With a membership if nearly 80,000, VCG members post from all 50 American states, Canada, Europe, Australia, and even South America.  The topic du jour (and really tous les jours) is Vietnamese food, but the cooks aren’t always Vietnamese, which just underscores the popularity of Vietnamese cuisine across the world.

As I pored over daily posts on my FB feed, it became increasingly clear that both groups are nuts about two cooking appliances: the airfryer and the Instant Pot. A couple of weeks ago, I finally caved and bought myself an 8 quart Instant Pot Duo with 7-in-1 functions:  Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice/Porridge Cooker, Yogurt Maker, Sauté/Searing, Steamer, and Warmer. I gleefully opened the package and stared at all the buttons and doo-dads. Huh? What had I gotten myself into? I then read and re-read the menu. Oy. What is the difference between low pressure and high pressure? What is quick release? Natural release? It might explode?!? This is not how I’m used to cooking. But so many people have been raving about this contraption and they managed to figure the darn thing out, so surely I can, right? Well, four Instant Pot meals later and I’m still learning!

I love to cook and prefer to make authentic dishes over hasty shortcuts–mostly because I am Type A and like to know how something is supposed to taste even if I don’t quite know how to get there.  I clearly didn’t get the Instant Pot to make cooking easier/better/faster or because I don’t enjoy traditional cooking methods.  I got the Instant Pot because I love soups and soups take a really long time to make the traditional way–bones simmering for hours on a stove that needs to be tended to. My Facebook comrades had assured me that the broths made in the IP (with traditional ingredients) could still be as good or pretty darn close.

So I took a deep breath and did what I do best: cook!  After perusing the recipes on the IP Facebook group, I decided to start with pho ga (chicken pho), which came out pretty good. Relieved that I hadn’t made a big mistake, I launched into pho bo (beef pho), banh canh (chewy thick noodle soup), and bun bo hue. My first tries were just a bit off, especially with the cooking time for the various cuts of meat, but the broths were pretty spot on.  Without further ado, I present you with my first round of IP recipes! We’re going to start with pho today.

Pho Ga (chicken, 8qt. Instant Pot)

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4.5 lbs free range chicken, scrubbed with salt and rinsed
2.5 lbs chicken bones (backs and necks)
1 tbsp chicken stock paste
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp fish sauce salt
1 large onion, charred and peeled
1 6-inch piece of ginger, charred, peeled, and slightly bruised
1 package pho spices, lightly toasted in a pan

 
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 package fresh pho noodles
lime wedges
Thai basil
2 cups bean sprouts, washed and drained

 

 

Place the first 8 ingredients above (as much of bones as possible and set aside the rest) into the pot and fill with boiling water.  Set IP to pressure cook on high pressure for 15 minutes, then QR. Remove the chicken and plunge into ice water bath.  Also remove onion. Skim scum and impurities. Add remaining chicken bones and additional water or chicken stock, and reset IP to pressure cook on high pressure for another 20 minutes, then QR. Remove bones, ginger, spices. Skim again. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and fish sauce. The broth should taste slightly salty. When the chicken is cool, shred into bit size pieces.

In a separate pot on the stove, separate the pho noodles into individual serving bundles. Using a noodle strainer, dunk noodles into boiling water for 15-20 seconds and place into bowls. Top with chicken, scallions, onions, and cilantro, and pour soup over. Serve immediately with lime, herbs, and bean sprouts.

Pho Bo (beef, 8qt. Instant Pot)

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3 lbs beef bones (preferably a combo of oxtail, marrow bones and knuckle bones), parboiled and rinsed
1 lb pork hock/foot, parboiled and rinsed
1 lb boneless beef shank (more poundage if with bone)
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp fish sauce salt
2 medium onions, charred and peeled
1 6-inch piece of ginger, charred, peeled, and slightly bruised
1 package pho spices, lightly toasted in a pan

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1 lb sirloin tips sliced as thin as possible (tip: place meet in freezer for 15 minutes then slice)
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 package fresh pho noodles
lime wedges
Thai basil
2 cups bean sprouts, washed and drained

 

Place the first 8 ingredients above (as much of bones as possible and set aside the rest) into the pot and fill with boiling water.  Set IP to pressure cook on high pressure for 12 minutes, then QR. Remove the beef shank and plunge into ice water bath.  Also remove onions.Skim scum and impurities. Add any remaining beef or pork bones and additional water to the max line and reset IP to pressure cook on high pressure for another 60 minutes, then QR. Remove bones, ginger, spices. Skim again. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and fish sauce. You can also add a bit of water to taste. The broth should taste slightly salty. When the beef shank is cool, slice thinly.
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In a separate pot on the stove, separate the pho noodles into individual serving bundles. Using a noodle strainer, dunk noodles into boiling water for 10-15 seconds and place into bowls. Top with beef shank, sliced raw sirloin tips, scallions, onions, and cilantro, and pour soup over. Serve immediately with lime, herbs, and bean sprouts.

 

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Vietnam 2018

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No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. – Heraclitus

Vietnam used to feel so far away from my life in the US. Not only is it physically half-way around the world from New England, but in my mind, the country and people–my people–seem to inhabit a different time and space, separate from my everyday life. But two months ago I returned to Vietnam for the second time in less than 3 years, and this time, the country and I finally existed in the same reality.

On this trip, I accompanied my mother to Vietnam–the first time she and I had set foot on Vietnamese soil together since 1980. Not to mention that it was also the first time she, my father and myself were in the same place at the same time in 38 years.  As with many of my trips to Vietnam, I didn’t know what to expect. My mother is not an adventurous or confident traveler, not even in her own country. And her anxiety made me anxious.

Ever the planner and with multiple trips to Vietnam under my belt, I make all the arrangements–hotels, transportation, cruises, local tours, etc. In my mind I reasoned with her fears: all she had to do was show up and everything was taken care of.  And indeed, everything went very smoothly. Knowing about her concerns and reservations (as well as mine), I tried to pre-empt every potential disaster. I made sure she had her own room when possible. I made sure airport pick ups were punctual and followed up repeatedly.  I made sure that our Ha Long cruise junk had only three decks and that our cabins were in the middle deck so that she would never have to go up/down more than one deck to participate in activities and meals. I double and triple checked that a car and driver would meet her upon arrival at the airport. My mantra was plan, plan, plan!

I spent as much of my energy as possible on the logistics, so I could avoid pesky feelings that kept coming up before, during and after the trip. I wasn’t quite sure what I was anxious about.  There were no planned grand reconciliations or reunions, nor did I expect any sudden resolutions or renewed relationships. I am no longer the young girl, like many young girls from broken families, who dreamt of her family being whole again.  I have a whole family–my own family with my husband and children. No, this time the anxiety felt different, almost separate from my own narrative.

Now, several weeks after I’ve returned home, I think I know what it was that lurked in the back of my mind. I was anxious for my parents, both of them. I wasn’t worried about how I felt, but rather how they felt and what they felt. My father is getting older and more frail and there is a part of me that senses his desire to “set things right” before he leaves this world.  Every time I leave Vietnam I worry that my next return will be for his funeral. He is a man of few words but I can sense that there are things he wants to tell me; maybe simple stories, or perhaps more painful confessions. And I simply don’t know if I can hear them, if I can bear the weight of them now that I have moved on and finally found my peace.

My mother, who is forever reliving the past, struggled to reconcile her past life with the present Vietnam that feels so different from the country she left behind.  Her memories are a fixed point amidst a gushing river. How does one relive a past in the same places when the present keeps moving on? On the one hand I worried that she would not be able to find her Vietnam anymore. On the other hand, I worried that all she would find only darkness and old wounds. She too seemed to want to tell me something. And again, I couldn’t listen. I am that gushing river, rushing past her memories. 

But if I am to be honest with myself, I was motivated by a selfish sense of freedom. After carrying their regrets and resentments within me for so long, I am free now and cannot go back. I don’t want to upset that delicate balance between accepting the past and living beyond the long reach of its shadows. I cannot rehash old grievances and misunderstandings anymore than I can heal old wounds that still fester.  They are not my grievances, not my wounds. I feel selfish, but also self-preserving, as if I need to protect myself, my sanity, my way forward. I don’t usually put myself first, so this is a deliberate and meaningful struggle.

And yet, I often think that perhaps if I did ask, if I did listen, they would have a measure of peace. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe next time.

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I am woman, hear me roar.

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One year ago today, I gave my son a soaring lecture while wearing a white pantsuit. He didn’t want to come with me to cast my vote. He whined and hid under the covers. What he got in return was an epic lecture. According to the official Facebook record it went something like this:

I just had a pull out all the stops with Souper Boy to explain to him why he had to suck it up and come with me to the polls today. Here were the highlights:
– Your grandmother risked her life, my life, and your uncle’s life to come to this country for a better life. It is our country now and it is our duty to stand up for our beliefs and values and vote.
– You came out of my belly–heck everyone came out of a woman’s belly. So you will come with me to support me, your mother, as well as your sister and all the other women in the world because without us you would not exist.
– I am wearing a pantsuit because just a couple of decades ago women were not allowed to wear pants in Congress. And I am wearing white because it was the color that the women who fought for our right to vote wore.
– You will honor me, your grandmothers, and other women by standing in line and watching me vote.
– There will be times in your life when you need to stand up for your values and beliefs even when it is inconvenient, this is one of those times.
– Suck it up.
(Add many exclamation points.)

Little did I know that those 24 hours would be so gut-wrenching, devastating, and traumatic. The results of that election knocked the wind out me. The next morning, with deep sadness and uncharacteristic tears, I sat on my son’s bed to tell him that we lost. I give you the Facebook history once again:

I’ve been holding it together okay. Sad, angry, disappointed, but stiff upper lip and all. But then I told Souper Boy and I lost it. I didn’t want to tell him how people voted out of fear and resentment. But I forced myself to be honest with him that some people voted out of hatred–racism, misogyny, etc. This is his world too, and he needs to know that sometimes, good doesn’t win. I also stressed that just because you lose doesn’t mean that you give up on your beliefs and values. You get up and fight for what is right even if it just got a lot harder. His response: Where are we moving to?

Something else happened during those 24 hours–something even more important. During the highs and very low, lows, I found myself, I found my voice. Enough of this shit (apparently my new voice likes to curse a lot). After more than 40 years on this earth, persevering through hardships and finding myself in an unexpectedly comfortable life, I owe it to all those who came before me and those who will follow me to speak up. My voice–this voice of a Vietnamese American woman born of war and sacrifice–not only matters, it’s important. So, I don’t shut up anymore. I don’t wait for someone to say the same thing I was thinking. I don’t aim for perfection before I speak. I don’t stand for f-cking mansplaining or any other kind of condescension or prejudice. I call it like I see it.  Above all, I need my children to see the path that I forge so that one day they can widen it.

I know that today, the one year anniversary of our heartache, will be a tough one. I know I will want to stay in bed and cry. But I won’t. You see, over the past 12 months I have found ways to be heard. Mrs. Next Doors and I started a Facebook page to support the Resistance in our town (over 1000 members joined in 5 days). I have joined the board of a Harvard pro-bono alumni service organization. For once I am not hesitant to mention Harvard to lay claim to the privileges of this institution to further social change. I have joined a venture philanthropy group, putting my money where my mouth is. I have also taken on advisory and advocacy roles at Souper Girl’s elementary school, helping to shape the conversation about education, diversity, and the power of community in our progressive Massachusetts town. I have ideas. I have opinions. I have a voice. And damn it, I will be heard.

Many of you have had the same reaction. We have rallied ourselves, friends, families, and communities. We have started Facebook groups. We have supported progressive candidates. We have made enormous donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and Planned Parenthood. We have worn pantsuits. We have marched. We have resisted. And we have tired. Resistance is thankless and it is exhausting. My efforts have ebbed and flowed, but I know that deep down I am still itching for a fight. The only recourse we have is to fight–not just resist, but fight for something.

So here is my proposal. Rather than treating this anniversary as a dark moment in our lives, let’s think of it as our awakening. For on this day 12 months ago, we saw the light and it was withheld from us. We saw the shining city on the hill but couldn’t break down the final wall (or ceiling). We know what the future looks like and it begins with us. We know what we are fighting for–women’s rights, health care for all, immigrant/refugee rights, civil rights, LGTBQ rights, education, the list goes on. They poked the wrong woman. I am here and I will roar. Roar with me.

 

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Becoming an American

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In light of the recent Executive Order curtailing immigration and refugee resettlement, I am sharing my own story of becoming an American citizen. Coincidentally, it’s been almost exactly 20 years.

In 1996 I was a junior at Brown, working towards a degree in International Relations. One day, I heard that Robert McNamara was coming to Brown to give a talk, but attendance was strictly by invitation only.  Upset that such a figure could come to Brown and not address the entire student body, a friend and I sought out the professor who brought him there. We expressed our disappointment and concern about such limited access.

Enter Jim Blight, a dear man, who along with his wonderful wife janet became my mentors and close friends. Jim was impressed by our gumption and asked us if we would work for him as research assistants on a new critical oral history project about missed opportunities to end the Vietnam War. Not knowing what we had gotten ourselves into, we said yes.

Shortly after joining the research team, I was planning for a project conference for February 1996 in Hanoi–it would be my first trip back to Vietnam since I left as a child in 1980. I was excited and a bit anxious.  When I informed my mom of the trip, she was adamant that I should not go.  In fact, she forbade it. Her argument was simple: I was not an American citizen and I did not have a passport so therefore I should not go. She was afraid that the Vietnamese government would not honor my US permanent resident status and I would be detained. In disbelief, I protested that surely the Vietnamese government wouldn’t create some diplomatic row over little me when I was accompanying Robert McNamara and the two countries had just normalized relations. But she was unyielding. No passport, no trip.

I reluctantly told Jim about my predicament, flinching at how ridiculous this must all sound. He listened patiently and asked if my mom would allow me to go if I had a passport. I said yes. He paused and declared that I just needed to become an American citizen.  With barely two weeks before departure, I blanched. There was no way to make that happen.  Jim just told me to let him figure it out.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle:

– Jim called Senator John Chafee’s office.
– Senator Chafee’s staff called me to reschedule a citizenship test.
– I crammed for 2 days for the exam–luckily (and strangely) I am a colonial buff.
– I showed up for my test and was asked to do the following: Write a simple sentence. Read a simple sentence. Identify the first president of the United States.  Voila! Congratulations, I passed the test. It had taken less than 3 minutes.
– 16 years after I first emigrated to the US, I attended a naturalization ceremony and got my passport the next day.
– I was on a plane heading to Southeast Asia within two weeks.

Thus began my foray into a 5-year engagement with a high-profile project with Robert McNamara as a principal investigator. I would spend the next five years traveling the world, with frequent trips to Vietnam to attend conferences and conduct research into declassified documents. I was often the only woman at the table, surrounded by male government officials, military staff, and historians.  I provided interpretation services for Robert McNamara and the rest of the team, helping them navigate cultural and historical complexities.

Those years went by in a blur.  The work was interesting and often intense, with geopolitical undertones and diplomatic maneuvering. But above all, there was the personal journey that I couldn’t appreciate until many years later. Here was a young woman, caught between her family’s history and her new country.  I was both the Vietnamese daughter and the American college student, and the contrasts were great and difficult to resolve.

Obviously, none of this would’ve been possible without that passport, without Senator Chafee, without Jim and all the other people who went out of their way to help me.  I keep this in mind as we watch the scenes of protest unfold at airports across the country tonight –from JFK and Logan to O’Hare and SFO.  This is a country of immigrants and we will rise.

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More about the Missed Opportunities Project:
The Missed Opportunities conference reflects the “critical oral history” approach used by the project’s organizers at the Watson Institute. While the conference focuses on face-to-face exchanges between high-level leaders on both sides who participated in the historical events, the critical oral history approach adds two important elements to ensure that all exchanges conform to the historical record. First, each delegation will include respected scholars who have mastered the historical record and understand the significance of the discussions. Second, scholars and participants from both sides have had access to thousands of pages of new and existing documentary evidence, including recently declassified material, that bears directly on the substance of discussions. The project resulted in a series of publications, including Argument Without End.

For more about my journey from Vietnam visit my blog post A Story to Tell from December 2015.

For more about Jim and janet: Visit my blog post Time and Place from April 2015.  

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Parental struggles

UPDATE:
Thank you to everyone who has chimed in from near and far with words of wisdom and encouragement. As always, I am amazed by the strength of my community and the support that you all provide.  

It’s been a couple of days now and the dust has settled enough that I can see and feel a bit clearer. So, a few thoughts on my emotional outburst and what I’ve learned from you and from myself:

  • As parents we too often lose sight of ourselves when we put our children first.  Sometimes it’s just the little things, such as giving them the last cookie.  Other times, it’s something bigger, like putting mom-duties before woman-duties. To balance the two is difficult and not always possible. But we must try because being true to our WHOLE selves is a great lesson to impart.

  • We don’t just lose sight of our personal selves, some times we lose sight of our partners too.  Amidst the jumble of breakfast, lunch, soccer games and homework, we see the due dates and not the harried partner or unmet needs.  I will do better.

  • Parenting doesn’t start the day the kid is born or even when they are in utero.  For some of us, it starts with reflections about our own parents and how we will strive to be just as strong, or perhaps even better.  Growing up with a single mother, way before I was married or pregnant, I placed a lot of expectation on myself to be the mom I always wanted/needed.  Along the way, I kept moving the goal posts and stressing myself out by focusing on all the ways I needed to be better.  Less obviously, I didn’t realize how not having a father has made me overlook my partner’s contributions–it all seems like gravy to the girl whose father didn’t contribute much.

  • Middle schoolers are just difficult. That’s all.

  • What a ridiculously privileged life I lead to have the luxury of these concerns while so many families struggle with more basic needs.  I am a bit embarrassed by my frustrations and will do better.

**********

Our family went to see Hidden Figures today.  The film was wonderful, the family experience not so much.

As parents, we all struggle to do the best that we can. I really do believe that we all try.  But what happens when you have to drag your 11 year old son to see a movie about women’s empowerment and he not only doesn’t appreciate it but he continues to act as if his soul is being sucked out of him?

I have failed as a parent, as a mother.  I have failed.  I write these words with tears in my eyes.  All this time, I thought having an “enlightened” mother would be enough.  All along, I thought that he has seen and appreciated the hard work and sacrifice that his mother has made. I thought that leading by example would be enough.  I am wrong.

My son scowled his way into the theater, through the movie and on the way out.  As an added act of defiance, he refused to wear a coat in 30 degree weather.

My god it hurts.  More than I would want to admit and more than I let him know.  He doesn’t realize how much his condescension and snarky put-downs about the movie hurt me, his mother.  He thinks that he is being rebellious, refusing to be a subject in his mother’s grand scheme.  He thinks that by putting down the movie that he is exerting his independence from me.

He doesn’t realize that his remarks, his snide comments, cut his mother, and perhaps, more importantly, his sister.  He doesn’t realize that to be a good parent, to not scream at his insensitivity, his mother is swallowing a part of herself.  I am not a martyr, but I am a pragmatist. I know that to preach to him right now will only make him less willing to hear the more important message. I know that if I harp on his negative attitude too much he won’t hear my long-game message about being a good, caring man. I know that playing the long game is harder than the short one. I know that being his mother has often meant putting myself second or even third. What I don’t know is how to do it any differently, any better.

And what of the little sister?  How am I to navigate that fine line between the sister and the brother?  How do I call out his insensitivity in a way that not only makes him see it, but also makes her stronger? How can the sister not notice the disrespect that he has shown towards a movie about women?  Do I call him out on it for her sake? Or do I approach it quietly for his? Do I put her strength before the hope of his awareness?  He won’t hear me now, but she is always listening. My silence could be defining for her.  But his enlightenment could change so much.

My head and heart both hurt.

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Chao ga: chicken rice congee

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The Vietnamese are experts at comfort food. Bowl after steamy bowl of noodles and broths, large pots of simmering soups are at the heart of many family kitchens. Soups hold a special place in Vietnamese cuisine, cleansing and soothing the palate, the body, the soul, and sometimes even the occasional hangover.

Chao (rice soup) represents the simplest, humblest, and heartiest of Vietnamese soups, providing nourishment and comfort. Easily consumed and digested, chao is fed to young toddlers and elders alike. Thermoses of chao can be found by many a hospital bed, soothing new mothers and invalids of all kinds. And in the streets of Saigon, in the wee hours of the morning there are little old ladies, serving bowls of chao vit (duck congee) for late night revelers.

As a blank canvas, chao can take on many different versions, from plain rice with salt or soy sauce, to more luscious chicken and duck soups.  I recently had a holiday party where I set up a chao bar that consisted of plain chao (just a touch a salt) with a selection of toppings: salted duck eggs, raw quail eggs, cha bong (dried shredded pork threads), braised mushrooms and tofu, ginger poached chicken, pickled mustard greens, scallions, cilantro, fried shallots, slivers of ginger, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Guests were invited to assemble their own bowls of chao. The plain salt chao made it possible to meet a variety of dietary restrictions (vegan, vegetarian, egg allergies, soy allergies, etc.). The chao bar was a BIG hit!

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Below, is the recipe for chao ga (chicken congee), one of the most popular version.  This recipe calls for uncooked rice that is sauteed with ginger and garlic before being added to the chicken broth. Sauteeing the rice first helps the soup to stay a little thinner and adds a nice garlickly aroma.  You can substitute cooked white rice instead (about 2 cups), which will cook faster but will result in a thicker soup that some prefer.

Chao Ga
Soup:
4-5 lb young, free-range chicken, rinsed and dried
3 lbs chicken bones, rinsed
5-6 quarts water
8 quarter size pieces of ginger
1/3 cup fish sauce
1 1/2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 quarter size pieces of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup fish sauce, plus more to taste
salt

Garnish:
2 chopped scallions
1/2 medium onion, sliced thin
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, cut into wedges
fried shallots
bean sprouts, rinsed and dried
thinly sliced Thai chili peppers (optional)

Place chicken, chicken bones, water, and ginger in a pot deep enough that the water covers the chicken. Bring pot to a boil, then quickly reduce to a low simmer. Skim scum off as needed. Cook chicken for about 45 minutes or until cooked through. Remove chicken and submerge in cold water until cool.  Allow bones to simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove bones and discard.  Skim soup carefully and leave on simmer.

In a sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat and add minced garlic and ginger. Stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in rinsed rice and sautee for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add rice to the soup and simmer on low for about 30 minutes, stirring very frequently so that the rice does not settle to the bottom and burn.  Add more water/broth as needed.

When chicken is cool enough to handle, carefully remove meat and shred into bite size pieces. Set aside.

The soup is ready when rice kernels have broken up and the soup reaches porridge consistency. Ladle into bowls, top with shredded chicken, chopped scallions, cilantro, onions, fried shallots and a sprinkle of black pepper. Serve with a plate of bean sprouts, lime wedges and chili peppers.

 

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Conversations worth having

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A few weeks ago an old college friend, the mother of two young children, reached out to me via Facebook.  She asked me for general parenting advice.  What she got in return was likely more than she bargained for! I hammered out a heady email (posted below), with the thoughts just streaming out faster than I could type. She responded in kind. Clearly, this was a conversation that we both craved in some way.

I recently came back to this email thread and realized that this conversation was important not just to share, but to encourage other parents like us to engage with each other more.  So, I’d like to start the conversation here and see where it goes. What are your thoughts on parenting, self-worth, social contributions? What do you struggle with?  What advice would you share with another parent?

Dear X,

It must be the phase of life that we are all in, but I’ve been ruminating on these issues for the past few months. I will give you as thorough an answer as I am able.  And forgive me if this is not what you are looking for. Bear with me as I’m not quite sure where to start, so I’ll just start in the middle. 

First, the grass is always greener from the other side. Don’t believe the lovely FB posts and photos; no one’s life is perfect and mine certainly isn’t.  I am not unhappy, mind you, but like many parents of a certain age (ahem), I am struggling with where family ends and I begin. Or, put in another way, what would the younger me think of me now?  

It’s cliche, but I am older and wiser now. I know that idealism has its limits and reality always perseveres. I know that life is not black and white, and moreover, I live/think/feel in the grey areas. I know that as a woman, a mother, a daughter, I am constantly choosing (with my full intention) to put the needs of others before my own. I also know that that’s not what I wish for my daughter or other women. But it also happens to be the most expedient, efficient, financially responsible and loving choices that I can make at this time for my family. I know that I would regret choosing otherwise. And somewhere, in the midst of all that, I fear that I am losing a part of myself. Contradictions abound. 

I wonder daily what kind of mark will I leave? What contributions have I made? I am also simultaneously reminded, in my ever so super-ego-realistic way, that there is still time. That Julia Childs wasn’t Julia Childs until way into her 40s. Deep down inside, there is also a small voice that tells me that I have made contributions, that I have made a difference.  But the ambition in me tells me otherwise.  Again, contradictions. But while I hear both voices, I just don’t know how to reconcile them and where they will lead me next. 

As for motherhood, well, I will be frank with you and tell you that it gets easier and it doesn’t. There will be an end to the fog and you will sleep again, but the worries and stress over sleep and feeding will give way to more difficult concerns. With a son and a daughter, I am keenly aware of the world that they will grow up in and inherit. I worry about bullying in middle school and how to prepare my son for the inevitable disappointments, frustrations and failures. I wonder if his fear of dying (and the tears and anxiety) will manifest in other ways. I wonder how many social expectations my daughter will internalize–she already prefers the beauty of blue eyes and blond hair. I wonder if I am setting her up for failure and confusion by not sharing the truths about our misogynist and racial society. I wonder how to instill in them compassion for and curiosity about the world and people around them. I worry that they are too far removed from poverty and struggle to value hard work and sacrifice.

I am also fully aware that I don’t have many answers, that I will have to do the best that I can (with Mr. No Nom of course), to navigate their childhoods. At the end of the day, I try to remind myself that they will hurt, they will cry, and the best I can do is teach them how to pick themselves back up and move forward.  And above all, I want them to be kind to others and themselves.  But it’s all really a crapshoot, isn’t it?  Just as none of us were able to choose our children’s personalities, tendencies, and talents, we cannot control their path in life–the highs, the lows, the periods that will require great fortitude and personal strength.  We can only try to lead by example, to translate our values into real actions. We hope that we will have given them the skills that we think they will need, and then we keep our fingers crossed. We will fail, in some parts or many. I still have a hard time coming to terms with that.

That I even have time for such wonderings is a massive sign of immense privilege.  Some days I don’t even know how I got here, so far from the little girl who once shared a small apartment with 13 family members. The past seems so far away, and yet a scent, a picture will bring back all the old anxieties and fears. I had forgotten how much has happened and all the way points of this journey. And I realize that much of journey had been running away from things that I now finally have the courage and strength to embrace. 

Older and wiser. I hope that I am doing some small justice to that statement. We are old enough now to have seen something of the world with all its imperfections and moments of transcendent humanity. I think the best we can do for ourselves, each other, and our own children, is to be supportive, to not judge. We each have our own stories and struggles, and as parents, we owe it to each other to appreciate and support each other. Our children are watching and listening. 

I hope you do not regret asking me for words of wisdom.  I’m afraid wisdom is always a work in progress.  But since you’ve asked, this is what I’ve got:

– Be kind to yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. 
– Showers are overrated. 
– They will not be wearing diapers when they’re in college. Ditto for not sleeping through the night.
– Don’t give up who you are — the kids will need to know how to not give up who they are.
– Pacing is everything. There’s plenty of time left to make your contributions to society.
– Ask for help when you need it. There is no shame in that.
– Don’t believe the lean-in shit by Sheryl Sandberg–most of us don’t live with that level of privilege.
– Talk to your friends as much as you can.  I can’t tell you how many extra years I will live because I can bitch to Mrs. Next Doors on a daily basis.
– Trust your instincts and trust your love for your family.

– Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, it’s a losing proposition. 

I think that’s all the wisdom I have for now.  My apologies for going on such a rant and if it’s not entirely coherent. Thanks for reaching out. Let’s make sure to catch up in person soon! In the meantime, I’d be delighted to keep the conversation going.  You are not alone!

K
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