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My mother enrolled me in my first cooking class the summer before fourth grade. I think she did it purely to keep my mind off the cancer diagnosis (and subsequent treatment) she’d gotten over the winter, not because I showed any special proclivity or interest in cooking. I was in the throes of a rabid growth spurt that summer, so I certainly had an interest in eating, that’s for sure. My appetite seemed boundless and I remember constantly feeling roiling and empty inside. Perhaps Mama decided that a girl so stomach-centered must belong in the kitchen–a natural habitat kind of thing.

The distraction worked. I loved the cooking class, and it was the first of many to follow. For years, I kept my endeavors in the kitchen fairly simple–I gravitated toward basic, straightforward recipes like sloppy joes, spaghetti, blueberry pancakes. You know–kid food. I made the food I wanted to eat and the food that was familiar.

I didn’t really become adventurous in my cooking (or eating) until high school, when I became kind of obsessed with a local restaurant reviewer who called herself “The Gabby Gourmet.” She had reviews in multiple publications and even her own weekly spot on the radio, where she’d dish on the Denver dining scene and interview chefs/restauranteurs. Her real name was Pat something-or-other, but everyone around town just knew her as Gabby.

I thought Gabby had the coolest gig in town. What kind of a dream career is that–being paid to eat expensive meals and try exotic cuisines and rub elbows with local celebrities? That was a job I could get behind.

I read her reviews voraciously, and began clipping out reviews of restaurants that sounded particularly awesome, which I kept in a yellow Pee-Chee folder. My Daddy-o wasn’t necessarily sure if he liked this new development, because instead of choosing the local steakhouse for a special dinner out, I’d consult my folder of reviews and suggest things that were decidedly out of his comfort zone.

The year I turned 15, I consulted my stack of clippings and chose a place called the T-Wa Inn for my birthday dinner. The Gabby Gourmet had given the T-Wa Inn a five-pig rating (she used pigs, not stars). “To die for!” she exclaimed.

My Daddy wasn’t so sure about this. For one thing, the T-Wa Inn served Vietnamese food, and was, in fact, the first and only restaurant in Denver at the time to serve such a cuisine. He’d never heard of Vietnamese food and wasn’t really sure he wanted to try it–didn’t they eat dog or some such thing in Vietnam? And if Vietnamese food was so great, how come there was only one game in town? The restaurant was also located on South Federal Boulevard, which was in a seedy section of the city. Who wanted to get mugged going to dinner?

“C’mon, Dad,” I cajoled. “It’ll be fun. We tried that Japanese hibachi restaurant two years ago and you liked it okay, remember?”

He raised his eyebrow.

“Dad. I’m sure they don’t serve dog. I read the review and there’s no mention of dog. And I don’t think The Gabby Gourmet would give a ‘to die for’ rating to a crummy restaurant, right?”

He sighed and I got my way, and we made the pilgrimage to South Federal Boulevard on a frigid February night, driving past the pawn shops and the gun dealers to a modest little structure that looked like it was a former Pizza Hut.

“Hrumph. Doesn’t look like much,” Daddy muttered.

“Ronald, behave,” my mother tsked. “It’s her birthday. Plus, look inside. It’s jam-packed in there.”

My mother was right. When we opened the door, the room was full of chopstick-weilding families and small children and faces hovering over enormous, steaming bowls of soup.

Vietnamese faces. We were the only white folks in the joint and we were awkwardly overdressed and the tables were packed close together like sardines. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about my decision.

“Welcome! Welcome!” a bird-boned, raven-haired woman smiled at us. She was impossibly tiny but her smile was genuine. “Table for four?” We nodded.

“What the heck are they eating?” my sister hissed across the table, once we were seated. “Those bowls of steaming stuff–they’re big as bathtubs!”

I watched as skinny little Vietnamese people plucked sprouts and wedges of lime and leafy herbs from platters and swirled them into the cauldrons, smacking lips and passing condiments. I was fascinated by their dexterity; one hand held a spoon and the other wound meat and noodles around chopsticks and somehow, gracefully, the two hands came together to form the perfect slurpy bite.

“They put everything but the kitchen sink in those bowls,” my sister whispered in awe. “It’s like, Garbage Soup or something.”

I was too intimidated to order the Garbage Soup, but we did order egg rolls, which didn’t seem so exotic. We’d had egg rolls with takeout Chinese before. When the waitress plopped down a delicious smelling platter of fried goodness, I was heartened, but then she plopped down a large platter of lettuce and sprouts and mint and a pungently salty bowl of sauce. I was perplexed. Why did we have salad with our egg rolls?

The confusion must have registered on my face because the waitress smiled kindly. “You want I show you?” I nodded.

She demonstrated how to wrap the egg roll in a leaf of lettuce, add a few sprouts and some fresh mint, dunk it in the sauce and eat it like a little garden-egg-roll-burrito. Gingerly, I tried one. It was a revelation. The fresh vegetables and punchy herbs cut the fatty goodness of the egg roll and made it better–fresher somehow.

“Mmmm,” my sister said. “What’s in this sauce? It’s so salty. It’s awesome.”

“It is good,” my mother murmured.

I looked across the table at my father, who was munching earnestly. He winked. We devoured the 4 egg rolls and ordered another round.

The rest of the meal was an adventure in taste, texture, technique. There were fat, juicy shrimp, which arrived skewered and grilled on strips of fresh sugar cane. Feather-light soft-shell crab, fried in delicate batter, which again, the waitress had to give us a tutorial how to eat. There were slippery rice noodles. And on my father’s plate, a meaty, lacquered pork chop that was both deeply salty and pleasantly sticky-sweet. My father, the man who rarely shares his food, took a bite of that chop and then passed it around for the rest of us to sample, because it was something special.

By the time we left, the windows of the tiny restaurant were beginning to fog with steam and tables were beginning to empty and other diners, not ready to brave the cold yet, were topping cups of hot coffee with thick, condensed, sticky milk. The meal was over, but my love affair with Vietnamese food had just begun.

“That was really fun, wasn’t it?” Mama said, as we made our way home.

“Oh my gosh, those egg rolls,” I said. “I could have made a meal out of just those.”

“I’m still scared of that Garbage Soup,” my sister said.

“I’m going to try it next time,” I said. “Almost everyone was eating it. Can’t be bad, right?”

Daddy-o chuckled. “I dunno. That stuff looked pretty weird, kid.”

“At least no dog though, right Dad?”

“Right.”

“Maybe next birthday, we’ll go back to that place,” I said. “I liked it.”

“Well,” he said, “If we do go back there, I know one thing. I’m not sharing my pork chop.”

 

***

It’s been thirty-plus years since that maiden voyage into Vietnamese food. In 2014, I was sad to learn that the T-Wa Inn shuttered its doors, but what a tradition and a legacy they started.  With the success of the T-Wa, Vietnamese restaurants began popping up all over the Denver area, although many remain dotted down the streets of South Federal Boulevard, affectionately now-known as Vietnamese Row. It’s now their job to finish the job the T-Wa started.

Happily, I can get Vietnamese food all over this great state now. Good thing, since those steaming bowls of pho (aka: Garbage Soup) are my idea of the ultimate comfort food.

I enjoy all Asian cuisine, but I’d have to say that Vietnamese cuisine is the food I crave most. I love the freshness of the dishes and the balance of sweet, salty, hot, herbaceous flavors. The recipe below is a nod to the pork chop my Daddy-o enjoyed on that cold February night, so many moons ago.

You’ll notice a healthy amount of brown sugar in the marinade for the pork, but it balances the saltiness of the soy and fish sauce. The sugar turns into a lovely little caramel crust on the pork when you grill it. Don’t be alarmed if the crust looks a little dark–that’s the sugar talking.

Also don’t be alarmed by the unique addition of fresh plums to the herb/chile salad served with the pork–the sweet-tart punch of the plums perfectly highlights the salty/sweet pork. If it sounds too weird for you, you can skip it and just stick to the herb salad, sans plum. I’d encourage you to give it a go, though.

I wish my Mama had been alive to taste this recipe. She’d have loved it, and she would have dug into it with the same spirit of exploration and humor as she exuded the night of my 15th year. My Daddy-o is in San Francisco this week, but as soon as he returns home, I’m making this for him. No sharing necessary.

***

 

P1060505

 

Vietnamese Style Pork with Fresh Herb, Plum and Chile Salad

serves 4

 

For The Pork:

4 boneless center-cut pork chops, about 3/4-inch thick

1 shallot, chopped

2 chopped garlic cloves

2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger

2 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon chile-garlic sauce

Place the pork chops in a large zip-top plastic bag. In a bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients. Pour over pork, seal bag and marinate in the refrigerator at least 4 hours, turning occasionally.

When ready to cook, heat a grill pan or cast-iron skillet over high heat until screaming hot. Pat pork chops dry. Grill pork 4 minutes and flip; grill 3-4 minutes more or until done. Let rest for 5 minutes.

 

For the Salad:

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, torn

1 cup baby arugula, torn

1/4 cup fresh mint, torn

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, torn

2 ripe red plums, slices

1 fresno chile, seeded and diced

 

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

1 tablespoon orange juice

salt and pepper

 

Whisk dressing ingredients and pour over herb salad. Serve on top of pork chops.

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Man, why do I always forget how ass-kickingly hard that first week of school is?  I should know better, but every year, I find myself buried in paperwork and forms and scrambling to adjust to new routines. It feels even harder this year because Miss D. started high school, and yowza, they start high school at an early hour. It’s barbaric.

Of course, this should come as no shocker since I used to, uhhh, teach at the high school level, but whaddaya know? I forgot. How I was able to drag my slacker butt out of bed at 5am every weekday morning in my younger years? I’m feeling the pain, people.

The first week is not just physically hard–my emotions come to the party, too. All of my emotions. The day before school begins, I expend most of my energy worrying. I am a very good and thorough worrier. I worry part of that first day back, too, but then restlessness and boredom kick in, with a heavy dose of mourning sprinkled in for color. I am one of those weirdos who hates it when my kids return to school. I miss them. The house is too quiet and I don’t know what to do with myself and I pace around the kitchen, banging pots and rearranging cabinets. My only solace is that the dog is similarly afflicted, so I don’t feel completely alone. Then comes anxiety surrounding school pickup. Will my kids remember the aforementioned meeting spot? Will they be sulky or depressed? Will they be in tears? Will Miss M. have eaten lunch alone? Will Miss D. have a newfound interest in boys by the end of a single day?

Jesus, I’m a wreck.

One thing I try to have some sort of grip on that first week back to school is meal planning. I need all of my energy for worrying and fidgeting. I can’t afford to expend effort fretting about what to serve for dinner. Plus, I’ve spent at least an extra couple of hours each day consoling the dog, so I’m pressed for time.Usually, I rely on old stand-by’s and staples, like pizza, stir-fry, tacos and spaghetti. Those meals are no brainers and I can do the prep work, like chopping vegetables and simmering sauces, ahead of time.

This year, instead of stir fry, I decided to bust out the lettuce wraps. Who doesn’t love a make-your-own lettuce wrap meal? It’s easy, it’s fun, and it almost feels festive–and let’s face it, we need a little festivity when the school grind comes thundering down, crushing everyone’s groove.

My usual lettuce wraps use steamed white rice or cooked rice noodles as a bed for the seasoned chicken (or beef/pork) but when my husband and I were vacationing in Hawaii a few weeks ago, one of the patio bars at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua featured lettuce wraps with farro. Farro? In lettuce wraps? Well, naturally, I had to order them, since this has pretty much been the Summer of Farro at my house. Did the chef at the Ritz-Carlton have advance warning that I was coming?

Not surprisingly, I loved the dish and vowed to make it upon return. The first week of school seemed like the perfect occasion for doing so.  I must clarify that the Minxes are not part of the farro lovefest at Chez T., so the farro version was for hubs and I only. Luckily, it’s not hard to steam up some plain rice for the pickier palate.

If you want to gussy it up a little, you can serve some chopped peanuts or bean sprouts on the side or make a quick dipping sauce with some soy and a little seasoned rice vinegar. We kept ours simple and didn’t need more than a squeeze of lime and a squirt of Sriracha to call it good.

I hope those of you returning to the back-to-school grind survive these first hectic weeks in good spirits and with a healthy dose of humor. Now if those lunches would only pack themselves…

 

 

P1060510

 

 

Chinese Chicken and Farro Lettuce Wraps

serves 4

 

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs

1/4 cup hoisin sauce

3 tablespoons honey

2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce or Sriracha

1 cup farro

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup shredded carrot

1/2 cup seeded diced cucumber

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

 

Asian Dressing:

1/4 cup finely chopped shallot

1/4 cup grapeseed oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5 spice powder

 

Butter, leaf or romaine lettuce leaves  for serving

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking pan with foil and spray with cooking spray.

Combine hoisin, honey, grated ginger and Sriracha and whisk well. Place the chicken thighs in the lined baking pan and pour glaze over to coat. Bake chicken thighs 18-20 minutes or until juices run clear. Let cool. Slice or shred chicken and set aside.

 

Combine farro, salt and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a rolling simmer and cook farro 15 minutes or until al dente. Drain.

Meanwhile, combine dressing ingredients with a whisk and pour over drained farro. Add carrot, cucumber, cilantro and sesame seeds.

Slice or shred the cooked chicken. Serve on a big platter alongside farro and lettuce leaves.

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A Better Man

August 11, 2016

When I was in my early twenties, grunge music took hold and hi-jacked the American airwaves. To me, it seemed like it happened overnight–but I think that’s more a symptom of my graduate-school myopia than anything. I was ass-deep in Alexander Pope and John Dunne and Jesus-help-me James Joyce to really notice what was playing on the radio. Until I did. Whoa. What was this howl-y, sloggy, slack-grimy stuff blazing out of the radio? I was thunderstruck. When did this happen?  I wasn’t sure if I liked it or loathed it.

I came around, though. I came around to the growling vocals and the clangy garage sound and the dusty, well-worn plaid. In particular, I have a soft spot for the band Pearl Jam. There are many arguments about who defined “Seattle Sound,” and who embodied that heart and angst and spirit of the city best. There are bitter disagreements, even to the point of righteousness, and I get that, but y’all can stuff it. I’ve always had a soft spot for Vedder and the boys. I will never apologize.

I had a boyfriend once who was absolutely disgusted that if given the choice, I’d pass up Nirvana, toss away the Soundgarden, and head straight for the Pearl Jam. Unsurprisingly, that relationship didn’t last. Mainly because I don’t think music is a platform for derision.

A girl likes what she likes, and you can take it or leave it, which is what my husband had to do when he found out that I listened to the wrong Dylan.

Blessedly, he is a forgiving man.

My distaste for Paul Simon was also a black mark on my standing with him (Hey, Julio, hang in the other play yard, far away from my ears). Secretly, though, I think he likes it that I don’t back down. I don’t apologize.

I even won’t apologize that Pearl Jam, bucking the fuck-the-man mentality at the time, was featured in one of my favorite movies of all time, Singles. Those jackass sellouts! But I loved it. It wasn’t expected, and earned them some shade, but fuckit. That movie is pure hipster joy, right there. Hipster joy served up with a healthy serving of self-deprecation and tongue-in-cheek humor? I’m so in. Say what you will.

I’m also so in, and will always be, because…lyrics. Dang.

 

Is something wrong/ she said?

Of course there is.

You’re still alive/ she said

Oh, but do I deserve to be?

Is that the question?

And if so/ if so/

who answers

Who answers?

 

And of course, Jeremy, the song that said so much before anyone knew what was coming for us.

 

Surely I remember/picking on the boy

Seemed a harmless little fuck

Oh, but we unleashed a lion

Gnashed his teeth and bit

The Recess Lady’s breast

How could I forget?

 

You can say that Vedder’s no prophet (and he doesn’t want to be one), and he’s no philosopher, but a poet? Maybe.

A reluctant poet at best. Maybe just a howling coyote.

Even if he’s any or none of those things, he is dear to my heart, because every time I hear a Pearl Jam song, it makes me think of Mama. Because Mama, bless her, could never understand what the fuck he was saying.

I mean, let’s face it, Ed. You could enunciate a little better, dude. You don’t have to go all crazy Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins kind of enunciation, but you have a mush-mouth problem.

Don’t know what mush-mouth problem is? It’s where you’re singin’ with so much feelin’ that nostinkingbody can make out what you are sayin’. Most of the grunge-era bands suffered the same affliction.

Poor Mama. The Grunge Movement was hard on her. Stuck in the car with me, where I controlled the radio, she got very confused. To wit:

Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit: (real lyric): the denial/the denial/the denial.

Mama hears: poke an eye out/poke an eye out/poke an eye out

(don’t even ask what she did with: an albino/a mulatto/a mosquito/my libido. Lordy.)

 

Soundgarden’s Spoon Man: (real lyric): Spoon Man…

Mama hears: S’a Poot Man…

 

and my fave

 

 Pearl Jam’s Better Man: (real lyric): can’t find a better man

Mama hears: Can’t find that butter, ma’am?

 

I have gleefully told the girls about all of Mama’s mis-steps, but they think the last one is especially funny and whenever my beloved Pearl Jam comes across the radio waves, they clap and howl and sing “Can’t find that butter, Ma’am!!” I grin and cackle and my gosh, that’s the good stuff, I tell you.

 

That Pearl Jam song has been on my mind so much lately, because in the complicated, salty-eyed muck of Mama’s death, I’m learning so much about how…okay, this is going to sound sentimental but I don’t care…you find, in so many ways, if you’ve found the Better Man.

Yeah, I’m talking about my husband.

He’s the Better Man, and it seems crazy, but going through this awful time, where my feelings are all over the place and nothing makes sense and there are black, black days…through all of this nasty stuff…I’m finding a deep, new {wonderful} appreciation for my husband.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate him before. I’m well aware that I got ridiculously lucky when I met that man. Ridiculously Lucky. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s nice. He’s a kickass father and works really, really hard. He’s a good-lookin’ devil. He tolerates my neuroses and my, ummm, “quirks.” Many of which aren’t super fun.

And now I’m finding out that not only can he do all of that, he can do all of that when things fall apart. When the proverbial rug’s been yanked out. This is the first big loss for either of us, and it’s been really scary because we have zero idea what to do or how to handle this or what’s normal, or if normal even exists when it comes to things like this.

What I’m finding out is that there are some people who will take your hand and sit in the muck with you and not go anywhere, even if they’re scared, too.

Silver lining. Better man. Lucky girl.

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