Archive for July, 2011

Seeking alternatives to the office life.

One of the main reasons I decided to start freelancing was to get away from working in an office Monday through Friday, 9:00-6:00.

I didn’t like sitting in an office every day, all day. I was physically uncomfortable; it seemed like I was always cold, achy, tired, or hungry.

Worse, my schedule ate up all of the time in which I felt creative and focused. By the time I left work (feeling guilty because it was too early and I wasn’t billing enough hours), ran or went to yoga, and had dinner, it was 8:00 p.m. at the earliest. I might work an hour or two more if I had to, but I couldn’t start on a non-legal project that required inspiration or creativity or focus.

I beat myself up about this for a while—comparing myself unfavorably to friends or acquaintances who could work a 50-hour week at a regular job while writing a book in the evenings and sleeping only five hours a night—but I think I’ve accepted it. I need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. I like to exercise every day. I like to cook. I like to wander.

Because I wasn’t getting any satisfaction or fulfillment from my job, I decided I had to make room in my life to spend time in ways that would give me satisfaction and fulfillment.

It’s working, more or less. I’ve had more time and I’ve spent much of it reading, writing, and thinking. But in this, as in everything, I’m assailed by self-doubt. I waste too much time, and a critical voice inside regularly pops up to tell me that the way I am spending my time is silly. That it is not adding anything to the world. That it will never lead to anything.

Plus, everyone else I know works full-time in an office and is fine with it, making me wonder what is wrong with me. (This is almost certainly not true, but sometimes that is how it seems.) Right now, it’s dumbfounding to me that so many people feel that way, but thinking about this today I remembered my last job before law school, writing proposals and doing other marketing tasks for a school bus contractor.

I never minded going to work, and I felt like I had plenty of time. After work, I sang in a chorus, went to regular yoga classes, and tutored kids in reading. It probably helped that we all left at 5:00 on the dot, and also that my then-boyfriend had a totally different schedule. A stand-up comedian, he often worked at night and always stayed up late. Though our different schedules started to feel lonely after a while, they also gave me more time free of the distraction of someone to hang out with.

I think the key difference, though, was that I was young, and never thought of the job as permanent. I knew I’d be moving on, probably to graduate school or some other adventure, and I did, leaving after two years to go to law school.

So maybe I shouldn’t rule out office work and a 9-5 schedule per se. Maybe there is an office job out there that will feel like an end in itself, that is enjoyable but not too stressful and that makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something I care about while I’m in this world. Until I find that, though, I’m going to focus on work with a different schedule so that I can continue to make space for exploration, joy, and quiet.

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Spicy Pork and Tofu Stir-Fry (Or, Almost Mapo Tofu)

Last year, I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in New York. One highlight of the trip was the blizzard that struck the day after we arrived. Snowflakes started falling during our morning run through Chinatown, and the storm gathered in earnest while we wandered in the Museum of Natural History in the afternoon. By the time we left the museum, eight inches of snow lay on the ground and we had to fight our way uptown through Arctic blasts to meet friends for dinner. The next morning was clear and cold, and the city was blanketed in snow. Buses lay abandoned in the streets, and there was a holiday feel in the air.

Another highlight was my discovery of Sichuan food. After a long flight, we arrived at our hotel at 8:00 p.m. on Christmas day and struck out through the frigid temperatures to find an open restaurant. Without a map or a plan, we settled on a nondescript Sichuan restaurant. The flame of love in my heart for spicy food, dimmed after five years of disappointment in Seattle, was re-kindled.

When I got home, I started experimenting with a traditional Sichuan dish known as Mapo Tofu. I made my version several times before trying it in a Sichuan restaurant. The restaurant version, while tasty, was oilier and heavier, and I’ve continued to make my version at home. The most significant tweaks I’ve made to my recipe from the traditional version are including vegetables; using firm tofu instead of soft; and substituting sambal oelek for spicy bean paste. In addition to being easy and fairly healthy, it’s packed with flavor and satisfying texture. This recipe serves 3-4.

Ingredients:

1 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons sambal oelek or Sichuan bean paste (I’ve used both, but I tend to have sambal oelek in my refrigerator and I have to make a special trip to Uwajimaya to get the bean paste. I think the bean paste makes the dish oilier without significantly changing the flavor).

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 lb firm tofu, drained and cut into ½-inch cubes

½ lb ground pork

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely minced peeled ginger

½ to 1 teaspoon toasted Sichuan-peppercorn powder (don’t skip this! If you’ve never tried Sichuan peppercorn, do; it’s unique and addicting)

3 scallions, sliced

About 2 cups green beans, sliced into 1-2 inch pieces (I have also used baby bok choy and sugar snap peas)

1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

Directions:

To make the sauce, stir together broth, sabal oelek or bean paste, and soy sauce, and set aside.

Heat a wok or large skillet and stir-fry green beans in a small amount of oil until just tender. Remove beans and add pork to skillet, using just as much oil as necessary to keep pork from sticking. (Drain any excess fat; I find this is sometimes necessary and sometimes not, depending on how lean the ground pork is.)  Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant, about two minutes. Add beans back into skillet.

Stir sauce and add to skillet, bringing to a simmer. Add tofu and stir to combine. Stir cornstarch mixture and add to stir-fry. Bring to a boil, stirring gently, and cook until thickened and glossy. Turn off heat and add scallions and Sichuan peppercorn powder to taste.

Serve with rice.

Actual places I have run to in order to motivate myself to go running when I didn’t feel like it:

1. To the grocery store to buy jelly beans.

2. To a Chinese foot massage spa to get an hour-long massage before running home.

Street Donuts

My new food obsession is Street Donuts, a food truck serving mini-donuts at Second and Pike.

They sell miniature donuts–not donut holes–by the half-dozen ($3.25) or dozen ($4.75), with assorted toppings. They are crazy satisfying: golden, simultaneously crispy and soft, and not too sweet. A great snack when you’re walking around downtown.

So far, I’ve had them with a dusting of cardamom and ginger, and with chocolate sauce and a curry dusting. Both were delicious.

Making home-made Thai curry paste.

If you are like me, you often buy pre-made Thai curry paste in the store. I’ve been using it to make soups and curries for years, and I thought it was delicious when I discovered it. But the curries I made never turned out the same as you can get in a good Thai restaurant (or, of course, in Thailand). Last night was the first time I produced a curry that tasted every bit as good as anything I’ve had in a restaurant. The secret, it turns out, was making my own curry paste.

The recipe I used came from Baipai Thai Cooking School in Bangkok. In March, my husband and I found ourselves in Bangkok with a day to kill. Looking for an alternative to battling the noise and bustle of the city, we discovered many glowing reviews online for Baipai Thai and signed up for a half-day class.

The price was reasonable and the glowing reviews turned out to be entirely accurate: an air-conditioned shuttle van picked us up promptly in our hotel in the morning and took us to the cool, comfortable, and modern school facility. There, along with a pleasant group of like-minded travelers from around the world, we learned how to make four Thai dishes. For each dish, our cheerful and competent instructor first demonstrated how to make it, and we got to taste her handiwork. Then, we tried it ourselves at individual cooking stations. Between courses, an efficient troop of quiet helpers cleaned up and set out pre-chopped and measured ingredients. After lunch, when our bellies were full of delicious Thai food, the shuttle returned us to our hotel, recipes in hand so that we could replicate, at home, the dishes we had learned in class. It was a lovely way to spend half a day, and we learned something to boot.

Yesterday, I finally decided to attempt two of those recipes at home: Gan Ka-Ree Gai (yellow chicken curry) and Yam Woon Sen (a spicy glass noodle salad). Below are instructions for the curry, starting with the ingredients:

Yellow Curry Paste (makes about 3 tablespoons)

3 dried red jalapeno chilies (soaked in water until soft, with seeds removed)

¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ginger, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon galangal, roughly chopped

2 shallots, roughly chopped (this quantity seemed off to me, so I used about half of a large shallot. Perhaps the shallots in my grocery store are larger than the ones found in Thailand?)

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons mild curry powder

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

Yellow Chicken Curry (about 2 servings)

1 cup coconut cream

1 cup coconut milk

2 tablespoons yellow curry paste

140 grams chicken thigh or boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces

60 grams potato, cut into bite-sized pieces and pre-cooked

80 grams onion, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 teaspoons palm sugar (or to taste)

3 teaspoons fish sauce (or to taste)

noodles at Uwajimaya

I knew I could find some of the more uncommon ingredients at Uwajimaya, an awesome Asian grocery store here in Seattle, so I wandered down to the Uwajimaya in the International District in the afternoon. The most challenging part of the trip was selecting the correct noodles from among the incredible variety on offer, most lacking English labels.

curry paste in progress

I was able to find almost everything. Although the recipe called for “dried red jalapeno chilies,” the only small dried red chilies I could find were “chiles de arbol” from Mexico. I’m not sure if they are the same thing, but they worked great. Because we like spicy food, I used five instead of three in the curry paste, resulting in a healthy but not overpowering kick of spice. I also bought a can of coconut cream and another of coconut milk, but when I opened them they had the same consistency. I remembered the teacher at Baipai explaining that if you let coconut milk sit in the refrigerator, it will separate into cream and milk. This didn’t work for me–the milk and cream remained the same consistency–but the curry turned out great nonetheless.

the finished curry paste

When I got home, I started by making the curry paste. I used a mortar and pestle, like we had done at the cooking school. It took about 15 minutes of vigorous pestle-ing, but I imagine it could be done with a food processor in a fraction of the time.

To make the paste, start by pounding the chilies with the salt until a paste is created. Then, add the ginger and galangal and pound until the paste is well-combined. Repeat with the shallot and garlic, and, finally, add the curry powder and turmeric.

Stir-fry the paste in a bit of vegetable oil over low heat until it is aromatic, about one minute.

finished chicken curry

To make the curry, stir fry the onion in vegetable oil until fragrant and transparent. Add the yellow curry paste (I used all of what I had made, about three tablespoons, instead of the two tablespoons called for the by the recipe) and coconut cream, a little at a time, until mixed well. Add the chicken, coconut milk, and potato, and stir well. Simmer until the chicken is cooked and the potato is tender. Add the palm sugar and fish sauce to taste, stir to combine well, and bring to a boil again. Remove from the heat and serve with rice.

It was delicious, rich and spicy. We both ate too much. But I’m thinking about trying a red curry paste this evening. Yum.


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