Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Winterblue Strawberry Cake

Dinner out at Mexico Restaurant

"What do you cook for a last birthday dinner?"

That was the Facebook post I made two years ago today. I had been my dad's personal cook for nearly eleven months as he confronted his cancer. We ate a lot of pancakes in the mornings, a lot of soups for lunch, and so many different concoctions for dinner: Greek chicken with lemon, Spanish paella, Indian burritos...

Dinner usually started with a walk to the grocery store and had me doing research in my "Flavor Bible" to find the best new recipes. I can't stand using the same recipe over and over. Dad, of course, never cared about "fancy" food. He would have been quite content to have me rotate 8-10 old standbys as long as we went out to eat at least once a week. But, I figured if I was stuck in San Bernardino for an undetermined future, at least I would travel with the palate. Dad was the one who had been fond of taking me out to dinner growing up. He introduced me to cheesecake, ribs, and Frank Sinatra on the jukebox at an Italian restaurant. He had me flying across the Pacific every other year. So dog gonnit, I was going to take him around the world with my cooking, and we visited quite a few places. I named this little pseudo-restaurant operation "Winterblue," which is a combination of parts of both of our Indian names, and I tried to post as many of my creations on Instagram (@blueeaglerare) as possible. It felt like something for me to keep my sanity, well, that and Karaoke Tuesday at the Rustic Inn. However, what I hoped it was was a gift to show him where I had been and what I had tasted - all tailored to meet his preferences (well, except for lentils; he hated lentils, I found).

My mom had been meeting with me regularly and sharing fruits and vegetables from her garden. I don't think she knew about the karaoke, so perhaps this was her way of making sure I was okay. At this point, Dad was under home hospice care. I knew his days of chewing were nearly finished if not already, but I was determined to make something he might enjoy if he were able to. I finally arrived at the decision of Greek Steak that I copied to the best of my ability from one of our favorite restaurants in town - DJ's. Mom had brought over a whole lot of strawberries. Dad really loved strawberries, and really all sorts of fruits, so I decided to make a strawberry cake - from scratch, of course. That was the last food he ate.

Why am I telling you this? Yes, probably the least happy birthday you can imagine, but this blog is about discoveries. We are all tasked at some point to use our talents and experience for some sort of benefit to the world, I think. It doesn't always make sense at the time, but I would encourage you to go ahead with it anyway. I'm going to keep feeding people, if they let me. Hopefully it will take me somewhere good. It has so far.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Chasing Yesterday's Sunrise - Appreciations of World Travel

Sunrise with clouds over rocks and calm ocean

In a long solo journey, you learn to appreciate the unique qualities of time as it relates to place: one night with a fascinating new friend trying to get out all of your stories before dawn, one week in a hotel with a family not your own, one hour in a church with a congregation you will never see again. The idea of time is something man created. We found ways to measure it, yet there is nothing we can do to have any influence on it. Time marches on without negotiation, without prejudice, without malice or hope. In travel, just as in life, so much is subject to variables, change, and finality. These all play into what we do and where we are relative to the ticks on the clock. Thanks to the invention of flight, not only can a human actually encounter yesterday's sunrise flying over the Pacific Ocean, but the human brain can realistically comprehend both the size of the planet as well as our relative positions on it. In my five-hundred days and nights of travel - a very long time with seemingly infinite decisions - I found in the end a story that cascades finitely like paint from a brush on the canvas of my life's portrait. Within that story is a lens through which I wish the rest of the world could view.

You can certainly save a lot of money by approaching this understanding in the library with an atlas, some mathematics, and your choice of other books, however there is a restriction to the manner in which the "home" brain perceives time. At home, we generally conform to a schedule based on expectations - our boss's, our family's, or our clients'. Time in this regard, is often the ruler of our day and the master of our universe. Due to inevitable repetition, it is easy to take moments and relationships for granted; the brain is trained to think that there will always be a next time. To see it in terms of muscle memory, the "home" brain allows you to function more efficiently in a familiar environment. However, due to redundancies, we can limit the scope of our grasp outside of what we predict and relive on a daily basis.

In world travel, each day is a possibility - a blatant opportunity for discovery. The "traveling" brain must constantly observe, measure, theorize, learn, adapt, and keep the rest of the body safe from danger in ever-changing environments. While time is certainly a force to be reckoned with in making these discoveries, there is more of a freedom from the mundane captivities of time while abroad. Each day can be fueled by mysterious destinations full of nature, art, and profundity. The "traveling" brain picks up on magnificence, that - while it may not be able to fully grasp at the time - would otherwise go undiscovered.

Consider the confrontation our minds encounter at a funeral. Someone who played a special role in our lives ceased - often without warning - to exist in the human life form. The ceremony is the moment we truly accept the loss of the deceased after a lifetime of next times. Funerals cement a certain finality; brains finally register. That being said, a world traveler can be found to experience a funeral every day, in that there becomes a realization that with every bus, train, or plane, you may very well have lost something or someone from your life forever. It is in this continual pattern of loss and gain due to changes in place and time that the world traveler can learn to adopt a unique appreciation for the moment, as if knowing ahead of time when the next funeral will be. Given an extended journey with some degree of flexibility, the world traveler may attempt to cheat time and "death" by revisiting old destinations or familiar faces. This can be met with some measure of success, but just as you might imagine, trying to travel through time, cheat death, or alter destiny are like trying to capture all the beauty of the world on one canvas - quite exhausting... and ultimately futile.

Nevertheless, just as any rigorous exercise of the human mind such as educational study, pondering philosophy, learning a new job, or even falling in love, chasing yesterday's sunrise strengthens the muscle of possibility. The exploration of time and place to parts unknown - even if you cannot cheat death or alter destiny - pushes us all to seek answers to questions we would have never even thought to ask. With all its stresses and excitements, this may actually be what helps propel humanity to where it was meant to go in the first place - some mysterious destination that is artfully and profoundly magnificent.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

I Can't Not Stand - A Former Coach's Perspective

close-up of man with american flag flying

I had inherited the habit of standing for the entire match from previous coaches of mine, although the trend at the time became that the soccer coach sits on the bench with the rest of the team. Discouraged and upset at our inability to play as I thought we were able one day, I took a seat on the bench to cool off. Coaches are quite cognizant that a myriad of actions, inactions, words, references, even intonations are crucial to conveying a message. I knew that just by sitting down, I was signaling my displeasure and frustration, but I only knew the half of it. Following our loss, my players walked off the field with sour looks on their faces. To my surprise, they were not as upset at their performance as they were with me.

"What is it?" I asked.

"You gave up on us; you sat down. You always stand," one of my players responded.

Dedicated as I was to my group of high school girls and our team's mission, that was a crushing statement. However, it was true and had a wisdom that I always remembered.

A simplistic, nevertheless accurate, way to look at America is that we are a team - a people bound together by circumstances, a common home territory, and necessity. Like all teams, we have our adversities - selfishness, ego, miscommunication, living up to past successes, and losing sight of the common goal or thread that binds us together. One element designed to keep us focused on the unity that is necessary for any team is our flag. Some view it as a piece of cloth, others see it as a tremendous reminder of what we can be or what we have accomplished, still others see oppression and fault.

What does it say when we decide not to stand and show respect for the one banner of our team?

America is not a monarchy. It is neither a dictatorship, nor an aristocracy. We are a democratic republic, and as such, we are a team of people responsible for our own success or failure. The flag does not represent some ruling elite that we can step back, take a knee, and defy in the name of protest. The flag is us and everything we learned in grade school that can be so right in an imperfect world of self-government. Our team fails often at many things - sometimes at events of great consequence. It may seem that kneeling for the national anthem is actually taking a stand against injustice, but what the rest of us see is that you are giving up on the idea of America. And any coach will tell you you cannot improve an ailing team by dividing it further.

Confrontation, however, is imperative. Except confrontation must be approached within the context of constructively working toward the common goal. I realize that polite discussion seldom solves deeply rooted problems. Oftentimes people need to be shocked into change, but disrespect always puts your adversary (or teammate) on the defensive and is unproductive. You may think that sitting out the national anthem is an effective manner of protest and showing solidarity with victims of injustice in this age of hashtag activism, but true meaningful protest is about engagement, rather than disengagement; sacrifice for a goal, not following trends; intellectual thought, not forwarding memes on social media; patient honesty, not jumping to conclusions; love, not hatred. I know it's hard to do all of this when people are getting killed, but protest is meant to be hard. I'm not saying don't act - act, we all must - but there are other ways to do it that don't signal you've given up on the team.

Raising awareness is only the first step. Too often in our culture today it is seen as an accomplishment, but true accomplishment occurs with a game plan, dedication, and hard work. Most sane Americans want to live in peace and harmony - free from fear and senseless violence. What's the game plan with taking a knee? Doing something is not the same as doing something productive.

Lastly, I will say that, yes, we are divided. For some reason, being out of the country for a year helps you see that even clearer. Not to neglect the reality of our problems, but we do seem rather unenraged by atrocities committed against black and other hued lives outside of our borders. Former Lakers coach Pat Riley may have included that in what he termed, "The Disease of Me." A team divided against itself cannot survive. We seem to constantly find ways to divide ourselves, and it is increasingly troubling. We can fix that, but we have to stand together.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Pasta, French Fries, and the Meaning of Life

There is much to learn about the world and about life by lessons made evident in how we eat. Food, in its infinite forms, can be an expression of joy, survival, greed, family, pride, creativity, and love. Traveling the world, I discovered some valuable lessons. Certainly, many are no-brainers, but when they are so obvious that we no longer think about them, we get a little lost in satisfying that ever-perplexing quest for the meaning of life.

Woman in Vietnam selling cut fresh pineapple
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hard Work and Dedication

In many places, food can be too easy - bountiful and convenient. We often forget all that goes into what goes on our plates. This Vietnamese woman carts out her pineapples to the busy street every day, slicing them up just right for her customers. While not always exciting, hard work and dedication are essential to a meaningful life.

Tacloban, Philippines
Try New Things

My Filipina friend Phoebe had never tried s'mores before, so I was proud to introduce that to her (and a bunch of other international volunteers) one evening on base with All Hands Volunteers. Without exploring, we may as well be snails in a garden; discovery is what enlightens us to all this world has to offer and all this life can be.

Tacloban, Philippines
Make Time to be Together
Busy working to help people as part of a volunteer organization, the staff usually just ate when it was convenient individually. One day, we decided to schedule a lunch with everyone to eat together. It is well documented that we are not meant to be alone. If there is an option to be together, perhaps we should.

Paris, France
Appreciate What You Have

One stark realization I had flying from Asia to Paris and visiting a local market was that you can't get delicious tomatoes everywhere... or endives... or cheese. There is a lot in Paris you can't get in other places. Being thankful for what you have is something quite evident in places like the Philippines. Then when you hit France, you realize how good some people have it by comparison, yet maybe aren't quite as content.

Banana and mango trees and blue sky
Muona, Malawi
God Provides

Religious or not, if you think about it, you will see that many of the keys to life are at our fingertips - free will, air to breathe, love, opportunity, family, and our own talents. While many foods are not plentiful in rural Malawi, there is water in the ground and mango and banana trees above it. It was so hot there, we took our lunch breaks from digging wells under what I called "The Magical Mango Tree." Even in one of the poorest places on Earth, this tree provides some of the basic necessities of life in an otherwise inconspicuous fashion.

Basel, Switzerland
Accommodate the Needs of Those Around You

I was fortunate to have two great hosts let me stay with them in Switzerland. I wanted to show my appreciation by cooking dinner one night. I like a good culinary challenge, but it was difficult to create a tasty meal that was vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free. It would have been easy to go for something mundane or just offer to show my thanks another way, but I decided it was worth the effort to come through with my versions of espinacas a la catalana and a potato soup with garlic mushrooms (the beer was for me). In the end, I can't guarantee it was their favorite meal, but at least they know I made the effort.

Tacloban, Philippines
Bring People Together by Sharing Your Culture

American Thanksgiving doesn't exist in the Philippines, so I brought it. I was worried that close to 90 people from many different countries would think I was trying to force my culture on them, but their reaction was quite the opposite. I got to celebrate my special holiday, and a bunch of other people got to learn a little more about me and the land that I love.

Pievepelago, Italy
Teach Others

The first day I woke up in my friend Alessia's family's hotel, I was ushered into the kitchen after my cappucino and promptly began my lessons on Italian cooking. Chef Bagatti was happy to share her knowledge of la cucina with me. Teaching is a way of communicating that enhances people's lives and it ensures our survival as a human race.

Valle D'Aosta, Italy
Celebrate Family and Celebrate Life

Surprise, surprise - Italy is on here more than once. From my point of view, Italians constantly win at life. My friend Susi invited me to her Dad's home in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I was in awe of the air, the colors, the mountains... and then I was treated to a delicious meal. It was clear to me that this man loves his daughter and wanted to enjoy the precious time he had with her. And as a guest, I was given the best treatment.

Tacloban, Philippines
Give What You Have

Nowhere in the world so far have I enjoyed this priceless lesson more often than in the Philippines. I was invited as a stranger into homes for food and karaoke. I was treated like an esteemed member of the family. I was given love, friendship, respect, smiles and countless memories by so many people. Sometimes the best thing you can do is simply invite someone into your life.

Sister Maura Redington
Roscommon, Ireland
People We Encounter in Life are Not an Accident

Sr. Maura was my 6th Grade teacher. After that, she was my principal. After that, she was a treasured member of the community. After that, she allowed me to come visit her in her native Ireland. Of course, I learned countless lessons in her classroom, but she continues to be a source of inspiration, even in retirement.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Around the World in 80 Plates

I traveled the world in search of the best food on a modest budget from April 2015 to September 2016. Out of 26 countries in just over 500 days, these were the best and most memorable in order of the country visited on the trip:

Hawaii, United States
White fish, capers, sweet Maui onion, and creme fraiche on toast - Kimo's (Maui)
South Korea
Fried chicken with pickled radish
The Philippines
Halo-Halo: creamy shaved ice, beans, ice cream, gelatin, etc 

Skewer of pickle, sausage, cheese, and marshmallow

Balut: fertilized duck egg with salt and vinegar

Bangus Sisig: milkfish sauteed with onion, chiles, and calamansi

Laing: taro leaves in coconut milk with chiles

Lechon: roast pig on a bamboo spit

Pork Sisig: pork ears and face sauteed with onion, chile and calamansi

Pulled pork belly sandwich with slaw and fried egg & Chocolate Hills Porter - Refinery (Manila)

Suman Moron: rice flour and coconut sweet with chocolate

Grilled quail eggs wrapped in bacon yakitori - Tambai (Manila)

Tortang Talong: eggplant fried with egg, onion and peppers

Grilled mussels with butter and cheese

Hokkien Mee: stir-fry of noodles, egg, pork, prawns, and squid

Kobe beef roll with imported sake

Laksa: spicy rice noodle soup with coconut, fish, and fried tofu
Roti Pisang: fresh buttery flatbread with bananas

Curry Mee: spicy curry soup with noodles, sambal, egg, chicken, fish balls, potato, and green beans

Roti Cannai: fresh flakey flatbread served with chicken, dahl, and fish sauces - Nagasari Curry House (Kuala Lumpur)

Chicken sizzler with buttery gravy over rice

Mo-Mos: dumplings that can be found with a variety of fillings and sauces

Stuffed chicken with butter, garlic, and potato puree

Dal Baht: steamed rice and lentil soup, often accompanied by a curry and a vegetable

Peanuts with cucumber, tomato, onion, green chile, and parsley - The Lemon Tree (Pokhara)

Set menu of samples of too many foods to list; just go there and eat!

Fresh watermelon seasoned with salt and black pepper

Murgh Hazavi Kabob: marinated chicken with yogurt, cilantro and mint - The Nawabi (Bangalore)

Bun Cha: grilled pork and white rice noodle soup with fresh herbs

Thanh Long (or "dragon fruit") by itself or in a smoothie

Morning glory sauteed with garlic and chiles

Nem Cua Be: crab, pork, and vegetable spring rolls

Nem Ran: fried spring rolls with pork, shrimp and mushroom

Pho: beef and linguine noodle soup with fresh basil and bean sprouts

Pineapple Chicken: sweet and sour fried chicken, pineapple, onion, tomato, and chiles

White Rose Dumplings: rice paper, ground shrimp, and toasted garlic - Morning Glory (Hoi An)
Stuffed Squid with pork, shrimp, and wood-ear mushrooms - Morning Glory (Hoi An)

Scallops with peanut sauce

Chinatown spicy seafood soup

Seafood Curry

"Maine Lobster Salad" with frozen red curry - Sra Bua (Bangkok)

Nut cake with salted ice cream and frozen icing crumbles - Sra Bua (Bangkok)

Lotus root chip with horseradish cream - Sra Bua (Bangkok)
Duck confit with fried potatoes

Eggs Benedict - Laduree (Paris)
Monkfish, squid, and spinach stew - Le Saveur du Poisson (Tangier)
Chicken tagine with potatoes, green beans, and olives - Restaurant Al Mamoun (Casablanca)
Croquetas: bechamel fritters, usually ham or chicken

Tapas y Jerez: Sherry wine with small bar snacks

Fabada Asturiana: traditional fava bean stew with pork and blood sausage

Patatas Bravas: fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and alioli

Baked imported provolone with tomato, olive oil, black pepper, and oregano - Casa Gonzales (Madrid)

Pulpo a la Gallega: boiled octopus and potatoes with sea salt and paprika

Surf and Turf Sandwich: pork belly confit, shrimp and sweet potato bread) - A Cevicheria (Lisbon)

Carne de Porco a Alentejana: clams and pork with garlic, parsley and fried potatoes

Quejo de Azeitao (sheep milk cheese) with peanuts and Vinho Verde - Lisbon Winery (Lisbon)

Irish Breakfast at Sr. Maura's home in Roscommon

United Kingdom
Banoffee Pie: bananas, cream, and toffee

English Breakfast

The Monster Dog: bockwurst, chilli, melted cheese with craft beer - Draft House Tower Bridge (London)

Scallops in butter - Old Port Bar (Port Askaig, Islay)

Cacio e Pepe: spaghetti, black pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese

Polpette: Chicken meatballs with parsley sauce and arugula - Ristorante L'Arcangelo (Rome)

Pizza con i fiori di zucca: Roman white pizza with squash blossoms and anchovies

Pizza alla Napoletana - Roman pizza with tomatoes, olive oil, and anchovies

Cannolo: pastry with whipped sweet ricotta filling - Dulcis (Milan)

Fresh mozzarella filled with gorgonzola - Corti Abbadesse (Milan)

Potato gnocchi with tomato, cream, and parsley - Il Latini (Florence)

Scallopini Balsamico: veal in balsamic reduction - Ristorante Bucaneve (Pievepelago)

Pastry with white and dark chocolate filling and cappucino

Bigoli con crema di fagioli e pancetta croccante - Osteria Ai Scarponi (Padua)

Paprikas Csirke: braised chicken in paprika with noodles - Seasons Bistro (Budapest)

Fried Camembert in breadcrumbs with blueberry sauce - Pozsonyi Kisvendeglo (Budapest)

Roast veal in gravy with fried potatoes

Sausage stew with peppers and onions
Kebab platter with pide, charred tomatoes and yogurt

Tavuc Gogsu: creamy chicken breast pudding with cinnamon and ice cream

Manti: lamb dumplings with sumac, yogurt, and red pepper sauce

Takoyaki: battered octopus balls with ginger, green onion, and bonito flakes

Ramen: wheat noodles in broth with pork and miso