Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kitchen Souvenirs

Summer vacation has unfortunately become a distant memory.  The planet has circled the sun and it's new position has brought about the fall of the year and it's routines.  Time marches on and the future is unknown.  But the things I have done, the places I have visited place a bookmark of sorts in the book that is my life.  My most well well-worn bookmarks are the vacations my husband and I have taken, traveling the world to the extent our budget allows.  Not to run the metaphor to death but sometimes the joy and happiness that bookmarks some vacation from long ago begins to sadly fade
with age.  How have I renewed the memories?

I had an epiphany this summer when I realized I do have triggers that give me the ability to gain back some of that treasured feeling.

In the recession-laden years, our vacations have been less frequent.  Because of this, it's more important than ever to find a way tap those feel good memories until the opportunity for the next adventure arrives.  My vacation escapades are a chance for me to experience a kindred spirit even though the people and cultures may be vastly different than my own.  I love being reminded we live in a global village and that we all have the same basic needs.

I never before had contemplated what I select as a typical souvenir.  For whatever reason I did give it consideration as I was buying my latest keepsake this summer.  The treasures I purchased were three small olive serving bowls created by a local artisan in Arcos De La Frontera, a tiny, but beautiful cliff side White Hills Town in Spain.  As with any of my purchases, I evaluated if I might be duplicating something I already owned.  I also asked myself, am I getting something unique?  In this summer's case, no, I had no olive serving dishes.  Perfect!

Olives in Spain

Souvenir Olive Serving Bowls

Last year we went to Maine.  What did I purchase?  Local homemade blueberry jam.  $7.00!  Before that a wine tasting weekend in the Central Valley of California, the purchase...handmade tea towels.  As
I really started to reflect on my purchasing trends (yes, I'm a research geek), more came to mind from my years of visiting different places.

Toothpicks are big in Japan!

  • A porcelain toothpick holder from Tokyo.  The metropolis can be overwhelming especially with the language barrier.  A challenging trip softened by the very helpful locals through hand gestures and a lot of pointing to select our menu choices.
  • A wooden salad bowl from pre-Katrina New Orleans.  I never use it and not think of the hurricane that forever changed the city.  I use it everyday.
  • My German China egg cup holders from Baden Baden, located in Bavaria on the Westside of the Black Forest.  The town is one of the very few left unharmed by the destruction of World War II.  A charming and grateful group of people.  These people know how to relax as they are the destination for spas and a casino.
  • A breadbasket handcrafted from a village woman I visited with in Fiji.  She had her baby strapped to her chest while we did our transaction.  Her weavings were her only source of income.
  • A hand painted teapot from Victoria, Canada.  My girlfriend Lizbeth and I took a girl trip there where she indulged my quest for the perfect teapot from the town known for their high teas.
  • Banana bread on the rustic road around the north side of Maui, Hawaii.  We brought it home and for the next few days we ate slices in near reverence in the mind space that is Hawaii.
  • A cookbook from the restaurant, La Posta in Las Cruces, NM.  Even though I was born and raised in San Diego, my first memory of Mexican food was here and left a lasting, positive impression.  My grandfather lived in Las Cruces and we took our family vacations there every summer.

Breadbasket handcrafted by a lovely woman in Fiji
As you can tell I'm not a big art collector, antique hunter, jewelry fanatic or general trinket gatherer.  Any armchair psychologist would probably tell you my souvenirs are practical in nature.  My acquisitions indeed are used in my everyday living.  But my souvenir purchase motivations are somehow more than just a practical item. In the final analysis, when I really considered what I brought home from vacation, my motivations are crystal clear. The moment I touch that item, it has the ability to transport me back to the day I bought it.  I have somehow captured the vacation spirit and the people I've met through those symbolic purchases.  That spirit and the former strangers now inspire my daily life and my food preparation.

I know I'm not the only one out there with this affinity.  Recently, a friend of mind shared how he and his wife, early in their French getaway, acquired a not so small cast iron pot and proceeded to carry it with them all across the French country side because it was cheaper than trying to ship it back to the States.  They must have really wanted that pot!  They wanted that pot for the very same reasons I made my purchases; to place a bookmark in a place and time that can evoke their memories every time they cook with it.

Do you have a special souvenir which takes you back to vacation mind-set?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Magic Remedy....Potstickers

Those of us who have lived in a large city occasionally dream about about the peace and quiet of living in a small town.  My husband, John, and I were in our second year of living in (and generally, loving)  Chicago but our patience with big city congestion was being put to the test.  The occasional overwhelming feeling of too many people, the claustrophobia of walls of tall buildings, excessive noise, traffic and long lines was just enough to push us to a decision to take an attractive job offer in the central part of Texas.  Small town life, here we come...y'all.

Within a month of the move, we realized we had made a mistake.  The town was too small for us.  First the porridge was too hot and now it's too cold.  We hadn't calculated in our love of all things big city life provides.  Those loves include theatre, museums, great restaurants, retail choices, parks and ... friends. 

Not only were we lonely we were bored silly.  Our default entertainment choices were the bookstore and a mom and pop video rental store.  Thank goodness for both.

One fall weekend, I rented a little unknown movie at the time called, "Tampopo."  This movie now makes some food writers Top 10 Food Movies of all time list.  If you are not familiar with this Japanese movie from 1985.  Here's a short summary without spoiling the ending. 

It's about a widowed mother who struggles to make ends meet by running a ramen shop.  One of her patrons tells her food is lousy but bonds enough with her and her son and decides to help her find the perfect ramen recipe.  Every time one of the actors slurped the next tested attempt at the perfect noodle soup, John and I were salivating.  Did you know there is an etiquette to slurping properly? 

Our next video foray was "Eat Drink Man Woman."  It's a story about a Chinese Chef who makes elaborate Sunday dinners for his daughters.  Between these two movies, we were starting to get desperate for some great Asian food.   Searching our little town's restaurants high and low, we couldn't seem to satisfy our craving.  Next stop, the trusty bookstore.

There were many cookbook choices, but within the pages of a thin paperback titled, Chinese Cooking at the Academy, we found our life-line out of tedium and into the world of Asian cooking.   The book had recipes we had enjoyed in restaurants and new things we never heard of.  It had an extensive list of tools and pantry items one would need to successfully make the tasty Chinese dishes it contained.  Onto the outlet mall!  I remember the date, December 26, 1995.  First purchase?  A wok!

Our first attempt was Kung Pao Chicken.  It would have been fantastic first dish had I realized you weren't supposed to actually chop the red peppers the recipe called for.  We tried it again the next night and got it right.  The flavors were tantalizing. 

A few days later it's New Year's Eve.  No party or friends to celebrate with, my husband and I turned to each other and decided to try something a bit more complicated from the cookbook. We chose pork and vegetable potstickers.  We had never heard of bok choy and neither had the good folks at the local supermarket, but after a bit of searching we had bok choy and all the other ingredients we needed to create these little fried/steamed dumplings.  The prep and cooking required every available utensil, burner, pot and pan we owned at the time.  Even the oven got in the act.

What beauties we created!  And the taste?  Stunning.

By the time the following New Year's rolled around we abandoned the small town and moved to the "Big D," Dallas, TX.  We decided to throw a 2nd Annual "New Year's Potsticker Bash."  We invited our next door neighbors, a young couple named Lee and Jennifer, to help in the festivities.  What a bonding experience cooking is.  And with potstickers, there are jobs a plenty.  Mixing the stuffing, folding the wontons into the proper shape, trimming the ends, one person to fry and another to steam. 

We enjoyed Tsing Tao beer along the way, laughed, cooked and even improved upon the recipe.  We established lifelong friends that New Year's day.   When their friends and family finally came to visit, forget all that the "Big D" had to offer, it was potstickers they wanted.  Our potstickers.  We were game...bring it on!   What started with John and I now grew to 8 people crowding into our little Dallas kitchen busily involved with the making of the tiny dumplings.  Our reputation as the potsticker experts snowballed from there.

Over the years, we've repeated those scenes many times and continue to enjoy our potstickers and our friends.  The dumplings definitely rank as one of our better dishes.  One night over 20 people came over for "Potstickers Night" and everyone left bonded and full!

But more importantly, the shared cooking experiences refocused us.  Gone was our boredom and loneliness.  Say hello to the joy of self creation and the joy of bringing people together.  Many times when we reflect on our decision to move to that small town, we've struggled to come up with what good came out of that experience.  Usually we've come up dry.  Today, upon reflection, we discovered that for us to overcome something negative, we had to get proactive.  We may not have known what the final outcome would be, but our journey has been so fulfilling.  Our answer now to the question, "What good came out of the small town experience?"  It's...Potstickers!

Consider the following a bit of a post-script.  I was searching the thousands of pictures on my hard drive for candid shots of past potsticker nights.  None exist because when one is up to one's wrists in potsticker filling and laughing away, taking photos is not top of mind.  The next time John and I do potstickers we will document the event with photos and will update this post.

If you have a favorite food movie, book or food inspiration, please post a comment.  Your experience will surely plant the seed for someone else.

Top 10 Food Movies article from LA Weekly:

Top 10 Food Movies from Epicurious:

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