Another card

“Mommy! Mommy! I made something for you!”

As we pick up my kindergartener from school, she hands me a white envelope. I open it. There are about a dozen puzzle pieces that she’s colored by hand, in all the primary Crayola colors of the rainbow.

There are no corners, so I start to group the different colors together. She stops me. “No, no, Mommy. The greens don’t go together! I made it a tricky puzzle.”

It takes me a while to piece the puzzle together, with her help. Together we discover that there’s a piece missing, which sends her to her backpack. Several of the pieces are peeling away from the cardboard backing. There’s another piece or two missing, and we’re not sure where they are. But that’s all right. The puzzle forms a heart, and in the middle, she’s written, “Mom I Love You.”

Now that I’m a mother, I have a hard time accepting what the media sells us as “good Mother’s Day presents.” Brunch? Sure, if your mom likes brunch. But what if she likes picnics better? Flowers? Same deal: sure, if she likes flowers. But what if she’d rather be gardening and planting new ones in her own yard instead? Where are the top-10 suggestions for the Mother’s Day presents that ask you to honor what your mother likes, or what she likes to do?

As for me, I know that I will always love the presents that my daughters make me, with their own hands.

When I was a little girl, I remember making a Mother’s Day present for my mother. Two green plastic strawberry baskets and yellow paper and string. It was, ahem, a Ms. Pac-Man figure (yes, it was the 80s). Out of strawberry ventolin inhaler price baskets? You kind of had to be there to see it. And while my mom didn’t love, much less play, that video game, I loved the feeling of making something for her. “You’re so creative!” she exclaimed. And I glowed, hearing her say that. Together we had made snowflakes to tape onto our glass sliding door, and we hung ornaments made out of cutout Christmas card circles. So the act of making a present for her was to say: “I like to make things. And that’s because of you.” True, it might not have honored exactly what she liked, but I like to think that it honored the spirit of what she liked to do, as a parent.

I don’t know how my daughters will remember my mothering, but I do know that making things, and making things together, is one of the main things we do in our house.

There’s a poem that I’ve been thinking about obsessively, for the last several days. There are various versions circulating around the Internet, but all attribute the lines to the Persian poet Hafiz:

Even after all this time
the sun never says to the earth, “You owe Me.”
Look what happens with a love like that,
It lights up the Whole Sky.

When I found this poem, my eyes prickled with tears of recognition. That’s the very best of radiant maternal love.  I hope I can manage to pass on something like this kind of love to my daughters. That’s what my mother’s love has done for me. That’s why I’m a writer.

Mom, I still like to make things. And it’s because of you. Happy Mother’s Day.

Playing the soup card: sinigang

Say it with me, first: sinigang: see-nee-gahng. Still with me? All right. Let’s cook.

Out of the three Filipino dishes I make regularly at home, this dish is my true comfort food. It’s what I make when I am sick, when I have a cold. Or when someone in my house has a cold (hi, Josh!). I remember drinking it in mugs, just the broth, when I was little. I made it tonight because I’m sick, and I needed some warm food. I’m still reeling from last week’s news. And though our daytime temperatures are up in the fifties, it’s not quite warm enough yet where we can say spring is finally here.

How to describe it? Oh, boy. My version is a lemony, tomato-based, onion/garlicky beef stew with a lot of greens. What’s in it? You remember how I was saying that recipes for adobo vary? Well, the recipes vary even more for sinigang. As far as I can tell, here are its basic elements:
• Sour broth (usually, flavored with tamarind or calamansi or sinigang bouillon cubes/mix)
• Vegetables (usually, at least, a water spinach called kangkung, and green beans)
• Tomatoes
• Onions
• Meat (usually, fish, or pork, but sometimes beef and chicken)
I remember my grandma’s version with clear broth, and  some kind of white fish. My mom’s version was pretty different, so even in one generation, the dish adapted itself to ingredients more readily available in American supermarkets. My mom’s version used lemon juice rather than tamarind for the sour flavor, and she used garlic powder instead of fresh garlic, and she added spinach instead of kangkung (water spinach).

As with so many Filipino dishes, the taste will vary according to the region of the Philippines, as well as individual household preferences and availability of ingredients. To be honest, it varies so widely that I’d be scared to order this dish in a Filipino restaurant because a restaurant version would probably be pretty far from this version. I’ve never tried a mix or powder for the same reason. I’d be hoping against hope for familiarity and comfort, picky eater that I still am.

For years I’ve been playing with the recipe that my mom used, and I think I’ve finally got a version that I can post here. It’s highly adaptable (much like Filipinos themselves), and while some folks may quibble about cultural authenticity, I do love the flexibility. Recently, I asked some of my Pinoy/Pinay friends about a recipe substitution: “Think I’ll get my half-Pinay card revoked for using collard greens in my sinigang? Or will I get bonus points for fusion cuisine?”

And in generous, freespirited, life-loving Pinoy style, here’s what my friends answered:
“J: Filipinos are eminently practical. Use whatever you have on hand, sister!”

“K: Filipinos are known as the great assimilators. Kudos for the fusion!!! I’ll be right over. ;)”

“A: i don’t think you can get your pinay card revoked. it’s the kind of card that’s irrevocable. the sinigang sounds yummmmm”

And it is. Chicken soup for you, maybe, but sinigang for me, please.

The recipe: Beef sinigang

The number of variations and substitutions here is going to drive a precise home cook crazy. If that’s you, sorry. If you are a cook-by-instinct-and-palate cook, feel free to play a bit.

I am somewhere in between these two extremes of home cooking: I like to read a recipe, and then follow it until I reach an ingredient that I don’t like. Then I substitute or add different elements that sound appealing to me. I usually follow the methods more closely than the ingredients. You should feel free to do the same. If you want something buy ventolin 4 mg close to what I described above (lemony, tomatoey, garlicky/oniony), you won’t want to substitute or delete any of those ingredients, and you won’t add vinegar to make the soup sour.

If you want to make a vegetarian version, I have heard from one friend that it works, but I haven’t tried it myself. I think that a lot of flavor comes from the meat, though, so if you do not use meat, then you might consider using vegetable broth. Let me know how it turns out?

• About 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• 1-2 medium onions, roughly chopped into 1/2” pieces
• About 3-4 medium garlic cloves, minced
• About 2 tablespoons of kosher salt (or, salt to taste)
• 1 small can of tomato paste (if you use a no-salt-added paste, add more salt to soup)
• About 2 pounds of stew beef OR top round roast, cut into 1” cubes
• About 3 bunches of greens, chopped up into 1″ pieces. You can use a combination of winter (chard/collards) greens and spring greens (spinach). My mom used spinach. If you use spinach, cut the stems into bite-size pieces. Because they are tender, I prefer spinach and Swiss chard, or a combination. I used Swiss chard because it’s a darker leafy green and therefore more nutritious. You can also, as you saw above, use collard greens, though. Just be sure to cook all greens until they are tender.
• About 2 cups of water to start (then add about 1-1 ½ more later)
• About ¼ cup fresh lemon juice OR calamansi juice or (in a pinch) bottled lemon juice
(Tonight I used Meyer lemon juice and some frozen calamansi juice. It was just right. Meyers and calamansi are sweeter versions of supermarket lemons, though, so if your fresh lemon is quite bitter, you might add just a teaspoon of sugar to correct the bitterness. You want it tangy and sour, but not unattractively bitter. Dare I say, sassy, but not bitchy? And if you use bottled lemon juice, you might need to add a bit more, because it is usually milder than fresh lemon juice.)

1. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions in the olive oil until nearly translucent. Then add the minced garlic and sauté for about a minute. Do not let the onions or garlic burn.
2. Add the tomato paste and salt to the onion-garlic mixture and mix well. Then add the water. Let all of this come to a simmer.
3. At simmering point, add the beef and then more water to cover. Then cover the pot and let the soup simmer for at least an hour to an hour and a half over medium-low heat. Do not boil the soup at high heat, or for a long time, because the beef will become tough and chewy. Use low, moderately slow heat.
4. Next, add the chopped greens. Three bunches looks like a lot, but they will wilt and cook down quite a bit. Simmer the beef and greens for about half an hour more: longer if you are using greens with tougher stems (chard, collards) and less if you are using more delicate greens (spinach).
5. When the greens have cooked down, and the stems are tender, add the lemon juice and stir. Taste and add more water or salt or lemon juice if necessary. Simmer until the beef is fork-tender.

Serving suggestion
We eat it, as we often do, in a cozy earthenware soup bowl, over a mixture of cooked white rice/quinoa. If you are sick, and don’t quite feel like eating, you can ladle the soup straight into a mug and let the lemony broth soothe your throat.

Where I start

I know I’m in trouble mentioning the word “miracle” during the holidays. I’m beyond saving if I add the word “family” to the same sentence. But I want to tell you about my family miracle.

Around 10AM on every New Year’s Day of my life, I have had breakfast with my extended family: all five of my dad’s siblings, plus my cousins and their families.  We all eat. Then we go home and cook. We return for dinner: more eating. Unlike other family reunions I’ve heard about, we don’t have T-shirts, we don’t travel anywhere exotic, and we don’t rent out a restaurant.

Longevity is part of the miracle. As far as I know, New Year’s has never been cancelled in over five decades; one year, my grandfather sold his wedding ring to make New Year’s happen. Maybe it’s because my father died over twenty-five years ago, and in some families that would mean that my link to his family died, too. Maybe I’m more aware of longevity now that I have two daughters to bring to the table.

Part of the miracle is also what I get to eat. At breakfast we’ll sip ozoni and eat its mochi, along with its shiitake mushroom, nori and shungiku. We’ll eat my uncle’s sabazushi with pickled mackerel. I can’t wait for my cousins’ carefully timed barbequed teriyaki ventolin inhaler albuterol chicken. At dinnertime we always start by lining up for Auntie Nesan’s chow mein. Another auntie brings arroz con gandules from her husband’s Puerto Rico. My Filipina mom will make lumpia; I’ll make sukiyaki using my dad’s recipe. My cousins and aunties will stuff the inari zushi and roll the maki zushi. There will be teriyaki Spam musubi, oden, crab legs, hijiki, tai, char siu, and umani. Dessert has its own table: fruit salad, pies, finger jello, multiple flavors of leche flans.

As well as we eat, I don’t want this piece to be a “savor the ethnic traditions” one. I’m also resisting the predictable family potluck cliché, about every contribution being valuable.

Yet New Year’s is miraculous: an annual family table. It is my touchstone, and what I think of first when I think of family. The meals are a staggering amount of work, the day has evolved over decades, and it will not always stay the same. Nevertheless, I’m a fairly sane and grounded person…and if anyone asks, New Year’s is where I start to tell the story of my sanity.

(I submitted this piece to a publication–they asked for a 400-word piece about “family” or “holidays.” It wasn’t published, so I get to publish it here! Happy holidays to everyone, and thanks for reading. Back in the New Year, if not before.)

About a library

“I want you to write the blog post about the library,” my dear friend B said to me yesterday.

Last week I told you and B that I found myself wandering—and, let’s be honest, a bit low on funds. And instead of going to the bookstore where I knew I couldn’t buy anything, I found myself on solid ground at my public library. (That’s the main branch, in the photo above.)

I was stunned, literally stunned, at what wonderful places libraries can be. I felt occupied by exclamation points, like Ginsberg’s supermarket in California: there were whole families shopping for books! Shelves and shelves of books! People from all walks of life! Passes for area museums! Movies and TV shows on DVD! A reading area for the kids!

My daughters got their first library cards this week, and though neither of them can even read just yet, it warmed my heart to see them grabbing books off the shelves, then sitting quietly on the alphabet block carpet and turning pages. They made for the reading area as if they were at home. They’ve been to libraries before, but with their cards, I got to introduce them to the magic of libraries: so many books to read, take away, return, and then, the miracle: you can get more!

At their best, libraries strike me as an exercise in loving generously: one that I can only begin to compare to my mother’s love. My mother loves so abundantly that if you love peanut M&M’s, giving you a handful of them is not enough: she must buy you the entire 5-pound yellow bag. This is a literal, not a symbolic, example.

My library visit made me wonder: why in the world do I not visit public libraries more often? For that matter, why have I chosen to haunt bookstores, (mostly) new and used, independent and corporate, over libraries? Why would I rather buy my books, rather than borrow them? And now this tendency even strikes me as miserly, particularly in comparison to the trust and abundance of libraries’ (and yes, my mother’s) goodwill: I don’t want to have to give books back. I want to be able to keep them all to myself, forever and ever if I want. With apologies to Marxists, it’s not Scrooge’s piles of wealth which are the real problem, right? It’s his unwillingness to share.

Well, why not hang out in libraries? There’s the too-quiet atmosphere, for one thing. In cafes, I like working around others who are working. But I want to be able to talk to them occasionally, too, maybe even to ask what they’re reading. I want to be able to listen to music, sometimes even music that the baristas choose for me from their iPods. I want an iced mocha that I can nurse and an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that I can nibble. Give me a piano that an earnest teenager will ventolin or albuterol occasionally strum. Since we’re in the Pacific Northwest, give me warmly painted walls, and lots and lots of windows for natural light. Give me babies who will peek at me over their mothers’ shoulders, and a space where toddlers can wield their crayons freely. No cubicles. Give me tables, lots of tables, ‘neath the reading lights above. Don’t fence me in.

Libraries are not my preferred workspaces, and for a long time, especially during graduate school, libraries meant research libraries. They did not feel like spaces designed for pleasure and quiet revelation (or revolution); they were spaces designed for hushed, solemn work. Gorgeous, but intimidating and uncomfortable.

But why in the world have I not visited libraries more often? See, if I had just discovered libraries, if I hadn’t come from a family of voracious readers and librarians, that would be one thing. But if you’ve been reading along for a while now, you already know that the written word is earth, air, water, fire for my soul.  And I went to the library all the time when I was a little girl. Summer reading clubs were a way to keep track of books I had read, sure, but they were icing on the cake. Moreover, one of my aunts was a children’s librarian in San Francisco. Her husband, my uncle, was also a librarian at the Western Addition branch there, and was a major force behind its Japanese language collection. And my dad was a librarian, the head of Circulation, here.

Marveling at the wonderfulness of my public library, I thought: Oh, shit. Is that why I’ve avoided libraries?

For a month I’ve been working on a project which involves my dad. So everything, even grilled cheese sandwiches, feels like it’s circling back to him. Characters in Colson Whitehead’s amazing novel The Intuitionist are nervous in elevators because elevators remind them of coffins. By comparison, I wonder if I’ve avoided libraries because their silence reminds me of the silence of uncomfortable introspection, or death.

But here’s a clue. I am writing this entry the night before Father’s Day, a holiday that’s been difficult for me since 1984.  (More difficult memories: I wrote a poem for my dad a few weeks before he died, and my uncle read it as part of my dad’s eulogy.) And this week at the library I was looking up Zadie Smith’s book of essays, and reached over to get some scratch paper. I stared at the yellowing piece of paper for a minute, with some nostalgia and even love. For scratch paper, my library still uses old index cards from card catalogs. “Research outlook,” the title on my card said.

Publication year on the card: 1983. That’s the year before my dad died.

Maybe that title’s a command.

P.S. Coming up this week: revisions of earlier assignments. A break from death, for us all. If you’ve been reading from the beginning, many thanks.

More death, and sandwiches (First thing I ever cooked)

The first meal I ever cooked? If we’re talking about assembly, I probably made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a while before this memory. In a rare early-foodie moment, I remember explaining to my little sister that open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were “my way” of making them. When I made lunch one day, she got to choose which style of sandwich she wanted: my way, or the regular way. To be fair, my way had more peanut butter and more jelly.

But when I first read Gluten-Free Girl‘s Twitter assignment (“write about the first thing you ever cooked”), I knew that it was heat, change, and alchemy that meant cooking for me. The first meal I remember cooking was a grilled cheese sandwich on a coffee can.

I learned how to make this sandwich as a Brownie (get it?), so I must have been in second or third grade. Come to think of it, my best Brownie memories involve food and open fires: “dough boys” (crescent rolls wrapped around a stick, toasted over an open fire) and toasted marshmallows in order to make s’mores. And the grilled cheese, cooked over an inverted coffee can.

Here’s how we made the sandwiches: A grownup cut a ventilation door in a clean Folgers coffee can. Then we turned the coffee can over an open fire, placing the already-assembled, buttered sandwich on top. We’d learned how to build a fire, after all: we were Girl Scouts in the making.

The sandwich itself: what I remember is the netting of perfectly caramelized whole-wheat bread, wrapped around a bed of sharp orange cheddar. The grains in the bread were toasted and nutty, and while I had never liked sharp cheddar before, it was just right for this sandwich.In an age of spongy Roman Meal, the whole-grain toasted bread was especially lovely. I remember sitting in my troop leader’s backyard, sitting on her wooden deck, waiting for the sandwiches to finish.


For some reason, today I wanted to resist a nostalgic urge towards my childhood sandwich. Don’t get me wrong: it was a great sandwich. But nostalgia can tint all our memories sepia and soft-focus-camera every moment, creating those gorgeous auras around inaccessible women in Hitchcock movies. I wanted to go somewhere else. Heat, change, alchemy.


I wish I could say that my first grilled cheese sandwich opened up a lifetime of cooking, but I didn’t begin cooking full meals for myself until years later. I wish I could say that this sandwich opened the doors to adventurous eating, but I’m still a picky eater. (Subject for a later post: is a foodie a once-picky eater all grown up?). I do know that I made a lot more grilled cheese sandwiches in our large deep cast-iron skillet, standing on a stool next to our avocado-green stove. (It was the late 70’s, after all.)

Instead, I think the sandwich represented one dish in a line of comfort foods for me. While comfort foods are important for everyone, I think comfort foods for picky eaters are especially important. Picky eaters get panicky when we scan the menus and chalkboards and don’t see any foods that we think we’ll like. Our itch is for the familiar: I know that, I’ve liked that before, and I’ll like it again. In our defense, it may be the fearful urge for easy pleasure in the face of too much uncertainty.

And so I come to the source of the uncertainty and the need for comfort.

I made many more grilled cheese sandwiches during what my sister and I call “the “scrounge for yourself years”: the years right after my dad died. I remember meals out at Sizzlers, buffet houses, and Mongolian barbecues; frozen dinners (some company made an amazing, if incredibly fattening chicken fettucine Alfredo); thinly sliced frozen Philly cheesesteaks called Steak-Umm. I’m not telling you this in order to blame my mother for these memories: she was a single mother supporting two young daughters, and she’d just lost the love of her life. My dad had taught her how to cook many of the dishes she brought to our dinner table.

In response to my dad’s death, my younger sister moved towards adventurous eating: trying whatever was offered to her, wherever it was offered to her, perhaps in order to reach out towards life more. She’s a visual artist and a sculptor now, so maybe trying new foods even helped develop her senses of taste and touch. Part of my response was to become an even pickier eater: to move towards comfort food for its predictability and familiarity in a world that, for a long while, felt like it had lost both. And when I finally realized that “scrounging for yourself” could mean “cooking,” I came to the kitchen with so much more energy.

I’ve wondered how to explain more about how the loss of my dad has defined my life, especially at a relatively early age, 10 years old. I know that it’s one of those statements that will take a long time to unpack. But for now, there are sandwiches.

P.S. If you’re on Twitter, you can search for other bloggers’ posts by using the hash tag firstthingicooked. Sometime this (Monday) evening, you can also check out Shauna’s roundup of the posts here.

Assignment #3, draft 3.5 (Chicken adobo)

Chicken adobo, for my mama

(I have written this essay for my mom. If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, somewhere down the page you may have picked up that I’m half Japanese American—not to mention the Japanese word “kiku” above. But I’m also half Filipina American, and throughout my life I haven’t written very much about that part of my heritage. I want to write more about that omission, perhaps another time.

Before I go any farther, you should know that this essay is not one of those nostalgic tributes to my mom’s cooking. I mean no disrespect to my mom’s cooking; it’s just that there are a million tributes-to-mom’s-cooking, which are bunny-multiplying on the Internet as I type. And despite the bunny metaphor, I mean no disrespect there, either.  A few weeks ago, I surprised myself by confessing to a friend that I’m constantly auditioning to be a food writer. See exhibits #3-355: the majority of my Facebook status updates.

So, insert a literal and metaphoric gulp here.  And a nod to the food. This piece is a dress rehearsal for that audition. )

I wonder if Filipino cuisine is one that slips through the “all-Asians/Asian foods look alike” cracks. Lumpia’s a close cousin to Chinese eggrolls; pancit dresses an awful lot like chow mein, maybe with a few more vegetable accessories. You can find lechon (roast pig) in Asian grocery stores with a butcher counter, but you might never order it there by using that word. There may be other forms of confusion at work, as well. Spain occupied the Philippines for a long time, so one of the latter nation’s main languages, Tagalog, bears a close resemblance to Spanish. Adobo is Spanish for sauce, and so there are a number of “adobo-style” seasonings and marinades in the “Hispanic” sections of supermarkets. If you like spicy Mexican food, you may have bought a can of chipotles in adobo sauce. I bought my first can of those a few years ago and was genuinely confused by the contents.

I know there are lots of societal and cultural reasons why Filipino food hasn’t caught on in the culinary American mainstream, the way sushi has. And as a picky-eater-turned-foodie (don’t laugh! I know I’m not the only one), I have to confess that I’m still learning to appreciate Filipino food, partly for my Filipina mom.

To eat certain foods with my mom is a way to bond with her: sipping from a cold watermelon on an oven-hot Sacramento summer afternoon; wiping our fingers after eating chunks of lechon from a styrofoam takeout box; scraping the last of a hot fudge sundae from the glass dishes at Leatherby’s, our longtime ice cream parlor. While my mom and I are close, and we love trips to both thrift stores and Asian grocery stores, we’re not always on the same page about food. I love most fruit, for example, but I don’t like watermelon, my mom’s favorite fruit. And when I lived in the Bay Area, I used to take my mom to visit her favorite Filipino cafeteria-style restaurant chain, Goldilocks. And none of the food at Goldilocks looked terribly appealing, to be honest. I felt a little bad that I didn’t want to eat more of it, to make my mom happy.

Growing up, most of the time I saw Filipino food at my grandma’s house, or at parties with her friends. My mom cooked a little bit of it at home, but not very often. Either way, I never ate very much of it. I was too picky, and for that picky child, Filipino food was far too weird. In my defense, here’s one memory that turned me off of most Filipino food for a long time. My grandma had made dinuguan, a dish with a dark, thick, muddy sauce. Maybe my grandma knew how much I loved chocolate, so she told me it was “chocolate meat.”

Dinuguan is made with, um, pig’s blood, which is what turns the sauce so dark. It is spicy and garlicky, from what I have heard. Maybe I’d like it now. But chocolate meat, it is not. (Lesson learned: when I practice “creative food labeling” for my almost-5-year old daughter, I try to make sure the label will mostly fit her expectations. Spanakopita today? I called it “spinach pie.” She loved it. At least for today.)

Adobo, however, is the national dish of the Philippines, and with good reason. It is chicken, or pork, or sometimes both, stewed in a sauce that’s a little sweet and very garlicky, peppery and vinegary. I love the audacity and scale of the butcher paper recipe at the Filipino place (Oriental Market) across from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which begins by calling for “6 whole chickens.” However, I think it may be difficult to make adobo on a large scale and make it taste good. The rendered fat from the meat can be overwhelming and unmanageable, but the sauce needs to be really strong, not watered down. I have seen adobo swimming in too much grease in the chafing dishes of Filipino restaurants. I can’t blame someone who’s tasted it at a restaurant before and not liked it.

But if you’re not vegetarian, and have never made this dish before, I want you to make Filipino chicken adobo. (If you are vegetarian and have made it heroically past the dinuguan, apologies: I’ve conferred unscientifically with a vegetarian Filipino friend, and we agreed that tofu adobo is just not the same. In fact, I think we agreed that tofu adobo is just plain wrong.)  Because now that I can make chicken adobo at home, my culinary Pinay heart will return to marinate in its garlicky vinegary peppery sauce, for always.

You too can make it at home, and it can become one of your weeknight go-to dishes, as it is for me. Picture it! You can 1) bring home some chicken; 2) start your rice cooker; 3) use seven pantry staples to make the sauce in one pot, 4) throw in the chicken, and 5) wait, paying your bills or doing the dishes, for about an hour. College students, or anyone who likes simple home cooking with vibrant flavors, should love this dish.

And my mom? She used to make chicken adobo when I was growing up, too. It’s probably one of the 2 Filipino dishes I ate. Funny, though: I think she likes my version better now. (“You add sugar to yours?” she asked, sipping from the cooking spoon a few years ago.) I’m learning to cook and like more Filipino foods, Mom, a dish at a time. Salamat for teaching me to love my daughters abundantly and generously. Here’s my recipe.

Chicken Adobo

Liberally adapted from, ahem, The Garlic Lovers’ Cookbook (Gilroy Garlic Festival)

I’d tried to make adobo on my own for years after I moved away from home, but the sauce proportions never seemed quite right (garlic: soy sauce: sugar: vinegar, etc). Adapting this recipe did the trick. So if you read carefully, you’ll see that the sauce is everything in this dish. I like it pretty strong.

Some regions in the Philippines use coconut milk, though I’ve never tried that version. Most descriptions I’ve found agree that adobo is a personalized taste, which means that it’s very much about the adobo you grew up with, rather than, say, the adobo you adopted through peer pressure. What you have here might not be the most authentic version, then, but it’s my personal taste. You should feel free to adapt it to your palate.

This recipe makes just enough sauce for the amount of meat mentioned. However, I like to double the sauce ingredients so I have enough to serve over rice. Four secrets that I’ve discovered, through tragic trial and error:

  1. Do not let the chicken boil, because then the meat will be tough.
  2. Do not cover the pot; otherwise, the steam will drip back into the sauce and it will taste watered down. You don’t want the sauce to reduce into caramel (although I did that by accident recently, and it wasn’t all that bad!), but you do want it to retain its strong flavor. This is another reason why I like to double the proportions.
  3. More apologies to the vegetarians: you really need some chicken fat for the right flavor. (Remember the Age of Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts? I made adobo during that Age, and they just don’t do the trick. “What’s missing?” I asked my Filipina roommate, one night. We mused for a while, and then nodded in unison: “Fat.”) I like to use chicken thighs, or a mix of thighs and drumsticks. Either way, make sure that some of the meat has some skin on it, and don’t trim away all of the fat.
  4. If you are really unhappy with the amount of chicken fat in the dish, you can make it, let it sit overnight, and then skim and discard the fat off the top.
  5. You can serve adobo over hot white rice, which is how it’s typically served. I like to serve it with a mixture of white rice and quinoa, both thrown into my rice cooker. So, before you start the adobo, start by cooking your grain of choice.


  • 3 lbs chicken (dark/light meat combo, or just dark, with skin) OR pork, cut into 2” cubes (Honestly, I’ve never tried the pork, I love the chicken version so much. And yes, if you used pork, it would be called pork adobo.)
  • 3-5 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • Fresh ground black pepper to taste (start with about 1 tbsp), or 15 whole black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • ½ cup cider vinegar (or a mix of cider vinegar and white vinegar, whatever’s handy)
  • 6 tbsp soy sauce (I use Kikkoman low-sodium soy sauce)*
  • 2 tbsp sugar (white or brown), or a bit more to taste


Put all ingredients into a pot and simmer, gently bubbling but not boiling, for about an hour. Check occasionally to make sure that each piece of chicken has its turn in the sauce. When the meat is beginning to pull away from the bones, it is probably finished. My husband, who’s deathly afraid of raw chicken (get it?), would want me to advise you to double-check the chicken near the bone and make sure that the meat is cooked.

*The entire dish can be made gluten-free with gluten-free tamari instead of soy sauce.

Assignment #2, draft 3

Reading Out Loud


There is a framed photograph sitting on top of my rolltop desk, the left-hand side. Say you’re someone who is drawn to faces. Say you’re also someone who looks at faces first, in pictures. If you saw the picture for the first time, your eye might be drawn to the bottom left corner of the picture first: the largest dark spot of the picture, the back and right side of my auburn head, my face in profile. Then you might glance at my dad’s dark head above mine. Following my dad’s gaze, completing the triangle, you would find my baby sister’s face. Following her gaze, you’d see what the three of us are looking at: a children’s book. It’s a picture that my mom took of me, my dad, and my baby sister, twenty-something years ago. We’re all lying down in bed, reading out loud.

I wonder if I put the photograph there because I’m left-handed, and so I placed it at the writing-hand side of my desk.


I love thrift stores, but usually not for the books. It’s not because I don’t like used books. Powell’s, the city-block-big, six-floor Portland bookstore, is one of my ideas of heaven. No, it’s because the filters that Goodwill sets for its acceptance rate must be pretty different than the filters set for used bookstores. The children’s book section at my favorite Goodwill has, inexplicably, a high ratio of Christian “Little Golden Books” to just about anything else. But then came the day I found this book in the thrift store, which restored my father’s voice.


For the sake of literary symmetry, wouldn’t it be great if that book was the book in my framed family picture? Alas, it’s not.


“One day, a big wind blew. Trees fell, and a gas pump flew….” The book is by Ellen Raskin, and it’s called Moose, Goose, and Little Nobody. Published in 1974, a year after I was born, the book’s illustrations seem to me a product of the long 1960s: delicate outlines of pen-and-ink drawings, filled in with psychedelic colors like coral and chartreuse. It’s a sweet, funny book, about a little mouse (“Little Nobody”) whose house is blown ventolin inhaler price uk away by a tornado—that “big wind” of the first line. He bumps into Moose and Goose, who decide to help him find his name, his house, and his mother.


I put the book in my thrift store shopping cart. I don’t look at it again until I am reading to my daughter, Celia, that night. And from the very first page, to the very last line, there is my father’s voice: (gruffly) “’Hello, Gas,’ said Moose, ‘howdy-do.’”

I am reading it, and there’s my dad’s voice again: his intonations, his alternating between Moose’s avuncular silliness, Goose’s motherly concern, and Little Nobody’s squeaky anxiety.

I am reading it, and there is my father’s voice, in a way I haven’t heard in over twenty years. I was born before the digital age. My dad was an amateur photographer, not a videographer. I think we have one audio tape of my dad’s voice. I don’t know where that tape is.

Even stranger: I don’t think I would ever have read this book out loud, even to myself. Even though to my last day I would passionately defend the importance of reading out loud to children, I can’t believe it:

I am reading the book to my daughter. My dad is reading the book to my daughter. To his granddaughter, whom he never met.


For the sake of literary symmetry, I’d like to tell you that the book is about the mouse trying to find his father. But it’s not. For the same reason, I’d also like to tell you that when I showed this book to my mother and my sister, they remembered it, too. But they don’t.

I don’t mean to criticize them, of course. My dad was a librarian. He checked out, brought home, and read us bookshelves upon bookshelves of books. However, this also means that the memory is just mine.


We writers often write against loss, against death, which our culture may regard as the same thing. But that evening I remembered again how many times the written word has saved me, has restored to me what I thought was lost forever.

These are the luminous, the numinous, ways that we may regain our dead.