“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” (Henry James, novelist)
Summertime comes and my three children remind me about the last week of school, counting down each day. Of course, for a working mother, the reminders aren’t necessary. Summer camp tuitions and what to make of those leftovers becomes tantamount to the payments due at the first of each month. As much as I am a positive-minded type, I feel the worry creeping into my mind, and pleasure, my dearest friend, goes under the covers to hide. I’m first out of bed and last to settle down for a mere handful of hours each night. Too many responsibilities, decisions, events. Dishes, laundry, doodads from dolls and toys strewn on the floor. An email box full of newsletters, bill reminders, intro offers for meditation programs, life coaching webinars, and suggestions on how to finally get organized are in between those invites to rooftop cocktail events to kick off the summer. Leftover boxes stack themselves into towers: take-out Chinese, take-out Thai noodles, sushi rolls in to-go containers, a mishmash of salsas in portable cups, hot chili sauce from the Vietnamese tofu rolls. The refrigerator can describe the goings-on of our lives in condiment jars, containers and genuine attempts to prepare homemade meals.
There have been phases. The wrap phase, where I make breakfast wraps in lavash bread, and sandwich wraps for lunch. The cold noodle phase, with tell-tale tahini jars full of my blended concoctions of lime juice, tahini, soy sauce, sesame oil and variations.
The best phase this summer has been the party platter phase. I can honestly say that making platters works for feeding many people, all with different tastes, without spending hours in the kitchen and calling it a bonafide meal. My teen son can eat anything and everything within a matter of minutes. My daughters each have their own likes and dislikes. One doesn’t want pepper, mustard, hummus, strawberries, or tomatoes. The other, my oldest girl, will eat those things, albeit sporadically, asking for avocado toast but eating half and claiming to be full. If I eat her leftovers, she’s fine with that. My love of bread and the intention to lose weight are at odds. The avocado toast isn’t pushed aside in these cases, and I make up for it by believing that bread is a necessary food group, eaten for centuries, and wasted upon the gluten-free. My collection of mustards, my penchant for olives and olive tapenade, all of the items can be gathered and made into a veritable feast.
I had planned a garden, and began to plant what I could anytime I found a little time to spare, with whatever small amount I had in my wallet. A few cherry tomato plants in terracotta pots, some succulents along the path I made on the side of the house with found shells, Mexican beach pebbles, broken pavers that cost less than a dollar each. I had hoped to plant a full vegetable garden this year. Summertime is here. I missed the chance to plant in the spring since I moved into my house two and a half years ago.
California weather is sunny, as we all know, but a few days ago there was a blaze of heat– 111F degrees is not balmy. The sun was a furious torch of relentless fire that completely scorched my newly planted sod. The jasmine vines were charred, as well as the herbs and bougainvillea, and the rosebushes were fried to a crisp. One day, one hundred eleven degrees. My grass looks like hay. I was quite pleased with my luscious carpet of green, even though it was decadent to invest in, and surely not drought resistant. Perhaps it was indulgent of me to want the green grass. Even the succulents were burned to a shriveled brown clump.
So I got out there in the morning with a paint brush and painted the ugly cinder block wall a deep forest green. It gives everything around it the illusion that there is more verdant greenery than there actually is. I’ll do anything I have to in order to make my garden a sanctuary of plants, leaves and flowers. My wooden table– the one you see in many of my food photos– is bleaching out with the direct sun rays on its surface every day. My props for food photography are usually the bleached wood table and the old wooden fence.
Vietnamese summer rolls, Thai-style glass noodle salads, cold sesame noodles, and other dishes that don’t require heat, are on the menu at my house. Though the days have been unbearably long. I wake up around 5:30am and down a half-blended protein smoothie before the rigors of a bootcamp workout. Once I’ve sweated through a circuit of lunges, squats, tricep pushups, crunches, and other forms of physical torture, I’m ready for breakfast. Eating every two and a half hours was a prescribed concept by the trainers that eat for fuel. I’m an eat-for-pleasure type, and the eat-for-fuel approach has me questioning whether or not I can do this sort of thing. If only fuel could be grilled cheese sandwiches, we’d all be losing weight in no time.
A Month of Tofu
I’ve eaten plain tofu with tamari soy sauce for a quick protein fix. I cannot say this is a highly sensual experience in the positive way, although I have enjoyed cold tofu with soy sauce before, as in the homemade tofu that is found in authentic Japanese restaurants– that tofu is sublime, not to be confused with the store-bought. One morning after a workout I tried vegan “eggs” which consisted mostly algal flour and algal protein. They were absolutely repulsive when cooked as “scrambled eggs” and tasted like slimy putty or spongy rubber, or both. I wasn’t sure if I could eat them, even after adding my own dash of this and that, such as Vietnamese curry powder, turmeric, sea salt and cayenne. It’s more like eating a science experiment of flavored play dough. The vegan cheese was gooey and reminded me of the time I stretched my childhood friend’s Stretch Armstrong action figure until the goo inside of its arms squished out.
Needless to say, attempting to eat a training diet has been challenging. I’ve turned down tempting dinner invites and cocktail hours (no drinking while training) and did the usual dinner, dishes and laundry sort of evening, yawning by 9pm, and crawling under the covers before 10pm. Who have I become?
The one dinner that shines in its flavorful glory was at a Chinese vegan restaurant for my birthday. I’m a June baby, and summertime is my favorite time of year—evenings are warm and sundresses become evening attire. This summer, tofu is elevated as the main course for my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I might as well have it made in ways that mimic the marvelous sort of degustatory delights.
This restaurant (Vege Paradise in San Gabriel for those interested) serves plant-based versions of Chinese banquet food. The menu is mind-bogglingly tempting, especially when hungry and even more so when hungry and inquisitive. I asked the waitress for her suggestions, since there were many choices. She brought out a vegan “seafood” soup along with sautéed pea shoot leaves, mushrooms and basil with “kidney” and a sizzling platter of soft tofu in a lustrous amber-colored sauce, covered in crispy bean, which tasted sort of like crumbly pieces of seasoned pork. You might argue this and I don’t blame you. I’ve tasted bacon, pork, chicken, snake, and all kinds of things you wouldn’t expect a vegetarian to admit. To me, life without animal protein means discovering restaurants that serve vegan Chinese food. My romantic partner (and unswerving omnivore), Eddie, known for his extreme eating ways, loved the veggie “kidney” dish. He also swooned over the soft tofu with crispy bean platter. For a food critic of Eddie’s caliber to appreciate and enjoy the food (which is Taiwanese/Chinese Buddhist by origin), this is saying something about the quality. Also, Eddie is Taiwanese. I’ve reminded him of all the vegetarian-friendly restaurants that exist in Taiwan, and discovering Chinese food vegetarian style in our own city of Los Angeles is a second best to that (until we travel to his hometown of Taipei, of course. I’m sure his love of chicken feet and pig brains will be well satisfied).
I’ve always loved veggies, so being a vegetarian for many (or most) years of my life (since I was a teenager) has been easy to do where I live. Los Angeles has a bevy of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, with raw vegan, vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, plant-based organic eateries in every way imaginable: Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Mexican, Indian, and maybe Korean (only at the spa, not the BBQ places). However, where I falter in my plant-loving diet, at least when attempting vegan, is my love of eggs.
This month I am trying to get my protein sources from tofu, and although I appreciate the white jiggly stuff, I’m already over it as a daily meal. Tofu is transcendent as hiyayakko (cold tofu 冷奴), topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), green onions, grated ginger and season with a little bit of soy sauce. Vegan and vegetarian preferences can omit the bonito flakes. You can change the toppings with other condiments, but if the tofu is homemade and of good quality, you’ll enjoy the cold tofu anyway. There is a type of Japanese homemade tofu that is more like a creamy custard than a cube, silky enough to make the eyes roll back in pleasure.
I’ve eaten a vegan egg in a bowl of vegan ramen that surprised my senses delightfully. The chef, Ilan Hall, described his method of creating a vegan egg that looks and feels like the ajitsuke tamago—that perfectly soft-boiled egg marinated in a sweet-salty soy sauce. The ramen broth was unbelievably porky in flavor. The chef said the recipe for the vegan ramen broth happened by accident one night after making some other recipe that involved kombu and sunflower seeds. The sunflower seed risotto that Chef Hall made at his other restaurant was the catalyst for the vegan ramen idea. It begins with a mushroom dashi: cooked onions, roasted sunflower seeds, white miso, and nutritional yeast. The “eggs” are molecular gastronomy gone plant-based, using sodium alginate and some kind of mad scientist level cooking.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I had cravings for the cold noodles at Mandarin Deli. They came to the table in a big serving bowl, slathered in sesame sauce and topped with cucumber slivers. At the time, I lived in an artist loft in downtown near Little Tokyo. The cold noodles became somewhat of an obsession with me. Ever since, that creamy sesame sauce has been my sort of comfort food. Anything to do with sesame— including those addictive little sesame balls we get in Chinatown— has me under its spell.
Cold noodles done Thai as spicy yum soon sen salads, Korean cold noodles in a icy soup. Summer is here, and they are easy to make. Busy days and no time to cook after work, picking up the kids, driving here and there. The Asian supermarkets carry every variety of rice noodle, sauce, sesame oil and seasoning, as well as herbs and veggies.
I have longed for leisure, quiet moments and naps. Eddie has been traveling much, and I’m declining invitations to dinners, mostly due to my deep craving for alone time and aversion to long drives in traffic, aside from wrangling childcare and playdate sleepover plans for my girls. My laptop, an aging MacBook Pro, is on its sixth year, sputtering along, now used for music and games, it has become our arcade and stereo system. I have to-do lists for other to-do lists, all sectioned in projects to tackle and ideas, then the household planners, the list for groceries. Sometime, perhaps one Sunday morning, I’ll find myself wandering to the farmers’ market for fresh ginger, basil, greens and vegetables to create a big bowl of cold noodles for lunch. It is possible I’ll take the day off and go to the beach. Cold sesame noodles make a good picnic basket meal with toes in the sand.