Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New Year's Goals, revisited

So remember my New Year's Goals which involved getting organized, writing my book, and throwing 14 dinner parties in 2014? In the interest of being accountable to myself, here's an update.

On the getting organized front, I've done something really, really amazing. One, I talked to a friend here in Shanghai whose recommendation was to do a little every single day. I'm such an all-or-nothing kind of girl. I either jump in over my head until I'm nearly consumed, or I don't participate. The idea of baby steps is foreign to me. We are used to moving every twelve months or so, and that is usually the only time I ever sit down to purge or assess my belongings. We're here for a couple more years at least, and I can't wait that long. So I've really embraced the idea of small changes leading to positive habits which become a lifestyle.

Every single day since January 1st I have picked a small (or large) item, space, or collection of things, and did some organizing. It's a bit of a challenge because some of the work is barely noticeable and therefore feels like I've done nothing! But knowing that I've made it a habit to do something, anything, every day gives me a great sense of accomplishment. Some examples of what I've done are to go through my entire stash of medicines (I have a small drugstore in my bedroom) to see what has expired, what I need more of, and make sure all the similar items are together. A "small" thing, but a necessary one as we'll be having a friend visit soon who can stock up on items we need from America and bring them over. There was also a local clothing drive to benefit victims of the Gansu earthquake here in China. I went through every item of clothing in the boys' room, pulling out everything which was too small but still wearable, and dropped off four large boxes of clothing. It feels good to have a new and healthy habit, and I'm excited to keep going, pacing myself.

As far as the book writing goes, I've not done any actual writing. But I have gone off to my corner coffee shop to read over my notes and outlines and get reacquainted with my characters. I haven't really "hung out" with them since we lived in Macau. As I continue to get organized (including clearing out a working space for me to write), I'll make more progress here.

And finally, the dinner party! I had the first one last night, and invited some people who are lucky enough to have regular business trips back to America or work for the airlines and are going that way anyway, and are always willing to bring us back a suitcase filled with socks and underwear or medicines and school books for the boys. I have no way to repay their efforts in kind, so showering them with gratitude expressed through culinary creativity had to do. I made every bite of food on the table from scratch, and it took two days to prepare. It was shocking to see it all consumed within an hour! I think I need to focus on simplicity for next month's dinner party (see second paragraph above about jumping in over my head)! I didn't do anything fancy with decorations or table setting, it was all about the food this time.

The menu was lasagna Bolognese, a huge green salad, garlic bread, and lemon tarts for dessert. For the Bolognese sauce, I followed this recipe, using my own roasted tomatoes in place of the jarred/canned kind. I doubled the recipe and froze 2/3 of the sauce for future use. So good! For the actual lasagna, I used this recipe for everything except the Bolognese sauce (I'd made the sauce before looking for lasagna recipes). For the salad, I did my usual potluck offering, loads of chopped romaine lettuce, a diced apple or two, a couple handfuls of roasted sunflower seeds, lots of crumbled blue cheese, and a light drizzle of ranch dressing. Perfect blend of salty, sweet, and tart, all in a single bite. And finally, the lemon tarts. Please go and make these at your earliest convenience. I'm sad to say they were a little crumbly and not incredibly gorgeous (my oven was protesting I think). BUT! The flavor! Oh the flavor... Absolute perfection. Especially in the middle of winter after a heavy meal of lasagna. I'm sad to say I didn't snap my usual dozen photographs of the food. I was exhausted after two days of cooking. But you can use your imagination... beautiful and delicious!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Taste the Rainbow

I tagged along with a friend who has a car and driver today, and we made a stop at a Tesco, a huge grocery and home goods store I've not been in before. I didn't get much, but I did take a couple contraband photos in the produce section, which was all arranged by color. A beautiful sight! 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Shanghai Rebel Roasted Marinara Sauce

Readers, I have had it up to HERE with some of the crazy exorbitant prices for imported grocery items in Shanghai. The latest victim of my wrath is the minuscule jars of marinara sauce which cost $5 USD a jar for 400 grams of sauce. I'm too lazy to look up the conversion for the Americans, but here is a photo of one of the jars:

It's not dirty, I just reuse this jar for paint, etc.
I have a baked penne pasta recipe, courtesy of either my mother-in-law Carol or sister-in-law Holly (they both make it, not sure which of them originated it) which I used to make all the time because it was easy, cheap, and feeds a crowd (or, my two growing boys). However, the recipe calls for the equivalent of about 5-6 of these jars worth of sauce. So just in sauce alone, the cost of my penne recipe has already hit $30 USD.  Add in the Shanghai cost of spicy Italian sausage, pasta, a generous amount of mozzarella cheese, plus a small bit of Parmesan to grate on top, and my easy, cheap penne pasta recipe is now a $75 USD main dish. I don't know about you, but when I was growing up, spaghetti was always the meal we had at the end of the month when funds were tight. It's shocking to see that in Shanghai, spaghetti is a treat, not a budget saving staple!

In my quest to throw 14 dinner parties in 2014, I realize one big challenge is going to be creating meals for a crowd which don't use my entire monthly grocery budget in one sitting. Our first dinner party date is quickly approaching, and while pondering the menu for this particular group of people, I decided on an Italian theme. As I made lists of ideas, I circled back to my ire over the price of marinara sauce. Sick and tired of complaining about something which is clearly something I can do something about, I decided to make my own.

I googled a bunch of recipes, but most called for jars of tomatoes, which are no less expensive than marinara sauce! So I went over to the wet market across the street from my house and bought five pounds of Roma tomatoes, two carrots, and an onion from my favorite vendor, who tossed in some garlic for free. Total cost of my bounty? Just shy of 30 RMB, or about $5 USD.

Here's what I did, twice, because I had so many tomatoes:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F/180c.
  2. Cover largest baking sheet I have with tin foil, lightly drizzle olive oil on it.
  3. Cut tomatoes lengthwise, arrange on sheet with cut side up.
  4. Peel and dice one carrot, sprinkle around tomatoes.
  5. Roughly chop 1/2 an onion, sprinkle around tomatoes.
  6. Press 4-5 cloves of garlic over the tomatoes.
  7. Grind sea salt and black pepper over tomatoes.
  8. Sprinkle dried thyme, oregano, and basil over the tomatoes (what I had on hand).
  9. Drizzle olive oil over it all.
  10. Put the whole thing in the oven for two hours and delight in the amazing smell which permeated the whole 38th floor of my apartment building.

When the first tray of tomatoes had cooked down and started darkening at the edges, I pulled them out and put in the second tray. My house smelled amazing! Once I had all five pounds of the tomato mixture roasted, I used my immersion blender to break it down into a slightly smoother texture. Then I put the whole thing in a pot to simmer, and added a couple of tablespoons of butter (a recommendation from all the recipes I googled). I also added a pinch of sugar. It didn't need any more salt or pepper, but if I'd had fresh basil, I would have added it. And then I did my best to wait to serve it over some pasta instead of sucking the whole thing down with a straw!

End result was the most delicious pasta sauce I've ever tried, along with a big, smug Cheshire Cat grin and feeling of supreme satisfaction that with the tiniest amount of prep and some patience, I'd filled my home with amazing scents, filled our bellies with fresh and delicious food, and kept the equivalent of $25 USD in my wallet.

If you're a foodie or have been cooking since forever, I'm sure this post has you rolling your eyes at what must seem like the simplest thing anyone can make in a kitchen. But I feel like such a hacker and a rebel! This is LIFE CHANGING for me! I'm almost ashamed at the excitement I feel over not being held hostage to the high price of one pantry staple we use all the time! I'm going to put this in regular rotation and just freeze it up to have on hand.

And for next week's dinner party? I'm going to be rebelliously hacking a Bolognese sauce to make lasagna. I'm on an adventure, readers. A delicious culinary adventure. Woe to my waistline!


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Shang•High•Noon, Week 2

It's been a beautiful week according to these photos! In date order, they go left to right, starting in the upper left corner, just like reading a book (in English that is!). 

Today is the bottom left corner. A stunner for sure! If only I wasn't on day five of a killer headache and could enjoy gazing skyward...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shang-High-Noon, Week 1

This year I've begun a project that I didn't get to complete in 2013.

Last year I took a photo of the sky in a generally western-facing position every morning at 9:00 a.m. I called it "The Sky at Nine." Sadly, the project ended about the time I went into the hospital in July for my surgery and many-week recovery. I was quite sad to have started something that I didn't get to finish. 

Toward the end of 2013 I started thinking again about doing something similar for this year. I thought about how the 9:00 a.m. photo taking time was a little rough with our daily schedule. And then I thought, what if I do it at noon? High noon? Shanghai noon? And thus Shang-High-Noon was born. 

I'm really hoping to keep it going this year. To keep me accountable, I'm going to Instagram the weekly progress and then post it here.

have plans for a big art project which will use all these photos at the end of the year. Here's hoping I can keep it going and get that project completed! 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2014 Goals

I'm not much of a resolution gal. I don't really know anyone who makes them stick throughout the year. In the past, we've chosen a theme for the year, and have been very successful there. This year I realized there are a few things I've been attempting to do and making space for in my life, and I thought I'd formalize them a bit. Here they are:

First, getting organized. I'm not OCD in the least and feel very comfortable with chaos. However, I have two children and a husband who depend on me for certain things, and I feel like I need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a system of some sort which is going to make our daily lives more functional. I've been implementing some small but effective changes in the last two months, and I'm looking forward to finding someone who is great with this sort of thing who I can bounce some ideas around with. This first item leads right into the next...
Second, there is a book inside me. It's kind of painful, having it stuck there. It's been there a couple of years, and my half-hearted efforts to get it out make me realize I'm not putting the value on it, or myself, which we both deserve. This is the year I get it out of me, and work on getting it out in the world. This means I need to be better organized with my time and responsibilities, and why the first thing is so very important.
And third, food. In the last ten days we've had different groups of people over for a meal four times. I've enjoyed spending full days cooking and prepping to be able to feed a crowd (in fact I spent my Christmas Eve birthday cooking for six hours to prep for a big Christmas day non-traditional meal). This may seem like no big deal to many of you, but if the Me of 2009 could see me today, she would not recognize me. I've never enjoyed cooking. But this kind of crazy thing happened to me in late October when I realized that not enjoying cooking was kind of an act of rebellion on my part. I don't want to be domestic or good in the kitchen or do anything which would cause someone to crack a Betty Crocker or Little Susie Homemaker joke in my direction. I take a sliver of pride in being a rebel and iconoclast. What would happen to my identity if I suddenly found fulfillment in preparing meals? But the thing is, I really enjoy eating what I cook. More than I enjoy eating food in most restaurants (*gasp*). Especially when I go off the recipe card and create my own things. And while I still don't relish cooking for just my family of four (oh the monotony of feeding two ever-hungry growing boys!), when I up that number to a party of twelve or twenty, I find it presses all my creative buttons and I come alive. Weird, huh? It makes me crazy excited. This year Michael and I plan to be really intentional and play that "who would you invite to a dinner party" game in real life, and open our home to a wide variety of different people each month.
Every fall around the time school starts, we choose a word for the year, like many people do. It tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (the year we moved from Macau to Shanghai our word was Change. Woo-boy, lotta change that year!). This year, I realized we have been in survival mode for way too many years. We're not blooming where we're planted, we're just hanging on for dear life. I can't do that anymore. I just can't. That's no kind of life, especially when we are among the small percentage of people in this world who are 100% living our dreams. So this year, my word is Thrive. I don't want to just survive here in Shanghai (and full confession, most days I feel like I'm barely doing that), I want to blossom and thrive.
I think all three of my goals for 2014 will help me, and therefore in turn my family, to thrive in the coming year. And I must say I'm pretty excited about sitting in this same seat a year from now, looking back on the year and evaluating how it went.
Here's to wild success!

Welcome to Midnight!

2014 has arrived in Asia! Here's to a great year full of health and lots of love! Happy New Year! 

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