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President Obama’s Love Letter for All

My last love letter was written in 1999, and I don’t remember it to have any perspective or meaningful gestures; the letter was rather a wasteland of cringing words (here’s where you roll your eyes at me). After reading an NPR article on Obama’s love letter to his ex-girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, I was struck by his tenacity to survive living in New York, and his perseverance to pursue his goals when he felt left alone. President Obama’s words reminded me, and hopefully you after you read it, that life should be filled with ups and downs; struggles are omnipresent, and we have the choice to conquer them.

I have been a chef in New York City for over a decade. My struggle with finance often exhaust my mental capacity to be creative and positive. I often wonder if these struggles are self-inflicted or attached to my jobs. For many years, my first two (weekly) paychecks helped me pay my rent, and the next two paychecks were divided among student loans, utilities, NYC Metro Card, gym membership, obligatory dining expenses (chefs don’t cook at home), and cereal and milk (as much home-cooking as it gets). If I could write a love letter to a girlfriend from afar, I’d write,

“one week I have to bring home as many slices of stale bread for the weekend, and the next I have to hope C-town has a massive sales on milk and cereal. But I have saved enough to get a us a bottle of red, or white, when you visit”.

Photo Credit: Eric Medsker
Source: HarperCollins Publisher

I also have struggled with self-image for many years. My insecurity comes from measuring my own success against others, and my own expectation for myself when I set out to be in restaurant business 10 years ago. Most of my friends have already, if not in the process of, settled down. Their ability to be responsible for another (or multiple) human being often becomes a measurement for my own success. President Obama wrote,

“I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups, my American friends consuming their life in the comfortable mainstream, the foreign friends in the international business world. Caught without a class, a structure, or a tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions, classes, make them mine, me theirs. Taken separately, they’re unacceptable and untenable”.

If I need to rephrase that for an imaginary girlfriend, I’d write,

“I wish our Sunday breakfast could be us competing for the last cup of coffee and fighting over just whose turn is it to walk the dog (of course I’d lose). Caught without a clear future of the current restaurant, and having to constantly live from paycheck to paycheck, the only way to ease my anxiety is to be as open minded and compassionate, and grateful, as I could possibly be. Without understanding and compassion, my food and career will suffer.”

I have made two trips back to my country, Taiwan, recently. I suddenly found myself lost in a place where I thought was home. I wasn’t caught up on its pop culture, and I had trouble having small-talks since I could hardly finish a sentence in Mandarin without reserving back to English. President Obama wrote,

“ I can’t speak the language well anymore. I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I’m American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”

Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with the prejudice when I went back to Taiwan. If I really needed to express my loneliness that came with the trip, I’d write,

“ It sucks I didn’t know where to get a well made martini without paying the price of a tourist. I mean…I am a Taiwanese! I just happen to speak some English, and it’s not even remotely good. I met up with couple childhood friends, and I miss them dearly already because I don’t do well when it comes to farewells.”

President Obama’s love letter drew a rare smile out of me. I admire his courage to keep living while almost everything was, or still, working against him. Although President Obama never intended to have his love letters made public (or do you think he was already making a move to the White House at the very young age?), I am glad to have read some beautifully written passages that help me reflect on my mind and maturity. I’d only hope to be fraction as articulate and tenacious as President Obama as I march onward to make Weekday Herbivore viable.

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MIND OF A CHEF: THE THING ABOUT PROTEINS

Proteins are made of a chain of 20 amino acids, and there are nine essential amino acids that we, humans, cannot synthesize; therefore, we must eat food to fulfill those needs.

I am here to tell you that you could absolutely get all your amino acids (note that I didn’t use “proteins” here) from eating plants. I am here to solve the myth of “incomplete proteins” that plants are often mislabeled or misunderstood. “Incomplete Proteins” simply means that the ingredient may be low or lack in one of the nine essential amino acids (eg. lentils are low in methionine, Brazil nuts are low in lysine). In order to obtain all the essential amino acids for our body, we need to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to pool enough amino acids to form proteins. Classic pairing such as beans and rice, corn and beans, and legumes and nuts provide the necessary amino acids intake. As a chef, I love pairings. Pairing food gives me the opportunity to explore flavors and texture; broccoli (my constant obsession) is sweeter if cooked with garlic or chili. Lentil is more savory if paired with walnut. Finally, rice is sweeter if eaten with savory beans.


My walk through a rice paddy field in Taiwan

Here’s a recipe of Italian beans and rice that could get you started on completing-your-proteins from eating through the veggie aisles.

1 large carrots, cut into bite size chunks
1 medium onions, diced to your preference
5 cloves garlic, sliced thin or minced
3 tablespoons of canola/vegetable oil
1 can of great northern white beans or cannellini beans (canned beans has   its benefit in its unique texture), or you may soak some beans overnight     and cook them fresh the next day
½ cup of edamame (optional)
2 sprigs of thyme leaves
1 teaspoons of salt, or more to adjust seasoning
½ teaspoons of ground black pepper, or more to adjust seasoning
pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
1 cup of your favorite rice, cooked (my choices are a mix of short grain         brown rice, jasmine rice, and wild black rice)

  1. Set a pot on medium high heat and add oil, once the oil starts to shimmer, add your carrots, onions, and garlic. Season with salt and black pepper. Cook the onions and garlic until fragrant and soft. Carrots will be stewed and softened in the next step.
  2. Add thyme to the pot and cook until fragrant, and then add enough water to just cover the carrots. Cover the pot, bring it to a boil, and turn the heat to medium low. Simmer the carrots until soft, but not mushy. Bite size carrots will take less than 10 minutes to soften.
  3. Add the can of white beans and leave the pot to simmer for another 2 minutes to thoroughly heat the beans.
  4. Turn off the heat and add edamame. Cover the pot with a lid for 2 more minutes to heat up the edamame with its residual heat.
  5. Serve your Italian beans with your favorite side of rice. Add freshly chopped parsley and mint, and a squeeze of lemon to brighten up the dish, or a pinch of cayenne pepper will wake up your palate and help you enjoy a pint of IPA.


Rustic Italian beans and rice

Last but not least, why eat multiple plants when you could get all the amino acids from a piece of meat? Animal proteins have higher ratios of amino acids that contain sulfur, which is converted to sulfuric acid when digested by humans. In order to balance out the acidic condition, our bodies work harder to keep us alive, alert, and sexually active, as I am told.

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MIND OF A CHEF: CHLOROPHYLL

(Can you spot the difference?)

Implementing plant-based diet to my personal life was an economical decision that pairs with my curiosity for its benefit to triathlon training. Becoming a plant-based chef is a lifelong resolution in learning how to cook the most misunderstood category of food – plants and vegetables.

Most of the professional kitchen is set up to have vegetable cooks (entremetier) working under the meat/fish cooks, who are usually senior to all the staff. Proteins are more expensive; therefore, only experienced chefs are allowed to cook them. After working in numerous world class kitchens, I start to question the tradition of the chain of command; does a senior cook have to be cooking a piece of meat or fish? Or, can a restaurant succeed if proteins are used as garnishes only?

I remember a cook once told me that vegetables are more forgiving; therefore, vegetable cookery is the training ground to build fundamentals. Very true to the latter part, but to its “more forgiving” nature than animal proteins, I say bullshit…based on my own frustration in keeping vegetables’ integrity and flavors when I put them on flames.

(some very overcooked broccoli)

No bull, green vegetables are incredibly hard to handle. Green vegetables are of their color because of chlorophyll, molecules that absorb sunlight and undergo photosynthetic system to become sugar. When green vegetables are heated, gases trapped between cells expand and escape; therefore, we see chloroplast, the green pigment, more clearly. However, prolonged cooking and acidity are the main culprit to the loss of the green pigment. Green vegetables are susceptible to dull colors from its exposure to acidity during cooking. When green vegetables are heated, their cell membranes around chloroplast are damaged; natural acidity leaks out and replaces magnesium ions with hydrogen, a change that turns colorful green pigment to grayish-green or yellow (stop there…getting too scientific). The moral lesson here is that most of the green vegetables should be cooked quickly and swiftly, but long enough to help pocket of gases collapse inside the cells and make the green color more apparent, and appealing to the diners.

(I like my broccoli blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds…no more, no less, and saute the cooked broccoli on high heat for 30 seconds more with chopped garlic and black pepper – my credential to a great uncle-hood)

To how long should you be cooking green vegetables…somewhere between 3 to 5 minutes, or even less, depending on your preference for their texture, in an appropriate size of pot and a more alkaline condition, with temperature at boiling point (that might just be another conversation).