Monthly Archives: July 2013


Birthday traditions

My mom’s birthday is just two days before mine, and my birthday is just a few weeks before my dad’s. Baba passed away more than 25 years ago, and Mama lives on the other coast, but I always feel close to them around my birthday.

Birthdays weren’t a big deal when I was a kid. We had cake, candles, and presents, but these weren’t an important focus of the day. What I remember most clearly was that we would have noodles, a hard boiled egg, a chicken drumstick, and an obligatory lecture: “work hard, be good, be thankful for your parents.” My parents told me, “It’s the way we do it.” For Chinese people, noodles represent wishes for a long life, a whole egg represents birth and wholeness, and a chicken drumstick is a symbol of prosperity.

My parents were working-class immigrants who stretched every penny they earned, and they never spent money on things they considered extravagances, like birthday parties. Maybe they figured that with four of us kids, we were always already a party, no extra guests needed. Maybe they never felt like they could pull off an American-style party. Maybe they were too tired just getting through the day to think about birthday parties. But they leaned on Chinese tradition to justify it: “Chinese people don’t celebrate children’s birthdays.”

I guess the idea stuck, at least in part. We’ve had our share of parties—I think I’ve recovered from staging Swan Lake for the DD’s 5th birthday—and sleep overs and special weekend get-aways. But birthdays are intensely food-centric for my family. At the core of our birthday celebrations is a week of special food for the birthday guy or gal. I still always serve noodles on each of our birthdays. I like having a hard boiled egg, and a chicken drumstick, too — even if it’s served as fried chicken! And the special birthday meal grew to meals over a week. We get a special breakfast, a restaurant meal, a cake or pie, and whatever other favorite dinners we want.

And a week can really be 7 days, or it can be more like 14 days, depending on what else might be on the calendar. For instance, this weekend, the kids have a big swim meet, and it’s right after my birthday. In preparation for the meet, they are sticking to a healthier diet than usual for a week or two beforehand. They even got special permission from their coach to have a slice of birthday cake! So my birthday week will trickle on for a couple of weeks, and it’s not over until I get my fried chicken!

But love of fried chicken aside, abiding recollections of my parents’ dreams and hopes for me and how they wanted us kids to know something of our Chinese heritage even while planting us in the security and promise of American soil inspire my birthday wishes. So, for my birthday week, I choose lots of what I think of as Chinese celebration foods: dim sum, hot pot, wonton noodle soup, and Peking duck. And when I called to wish my mom happy birthday a couple of days ago, she told me that she went out for dim sum, and I told her I was going to have dim sum too, and that I made steamed azuki bean buns. She asked what I was having for dinner on my birthday, and I said noodles. But I know she was hearing me say, “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

What are your favorite birthday traditions?


Essential kitchen tools: my top 10 list

What are the 10 kitchen tools that you use all the time? The ones that, if you didn’t have them, would keep you out of the kitchen or keep you from cooking more than you do now? I’m talking about the stuff that isn’t built into a kitchen, like the fridge, stove, or sink. The answers might surprise you. For me, they aren’t the glamorous, stainless steel items with electric motors that outgun a Prius. If you’re someone who wants to cook more, this list highlights the fact that cooking doesn’t depend on having a lot of fancy equipment. And if you’re setting up a kitchen for the first time, this list will help you get a handle on your shopping list.

As a matter of fact, I was surprised at how ordinary most of the items are, like a vegetable peeler or kitchen towels. More durable items, like knives and pans, can last for decades, so it pays to do some research. I’ve had my tomato knife for about 22 years, and a piece of the handle just broke off the other day. The DH glued it back on; with some luck, it might last me another twenty years! So do get the very best that you can afford, but also keep in mind that price doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. For example, I wish I knew about cast iron pans when I was starting out; I might not have needed to replace my first set of pans if I’d started out with cast iron ones. I’ve included brand names where I could, as well as product links, mostly on Amazon. Note that if you buy these items from Amazon after clicking my links, I receive a small commission. (It doesn’t increase the Amazon price at all.) Cozy Foodies need to pay for our groceries!

I whittled the list down to my top 10, but then, I couldn’t resist adding a second (short) list of items that I use every day, but are arguably not essential, and may not even be considered “tools” per se. All those brawny machines would end up on a third list: the “nice to have, but not essential” list. There’s a long list of things that I would miss, and things I couldn’t make (muffins anyone?), but the essentials list really pares things down to the basic necessities for cooking.

Finally, I asked my kids to check my list, and the DS had a great suggestion: my brain! True enough, but I guess I was thinking about stuff that you need to buy (thanks, anyway).

What are the cooking tools that you absolutely can’t live without?

My top 10 list of essential kitchen tools

  1. 8-inch chef’s knife. I’ve had the same knife for so long, that the manufacturer’s information has rubbed off. It’s either a J.A. Henckels 8-Inch Stainless-Steel Chef’s Knife or a Wusthof 8-Inch Cook’s Knife.
  2. Tomato knife. Besides its most obvious use, I use it as a paring knife to make fruit salad every morning, and it also works well on bread. Mine looks a lot like this Zwilling J.A. Henckels 5-Inch Stainless-Steel Serrated Utility Knife.
  3. Cutting board. My favorite one is a 16” x 20” wooden one with no feet, so that I can use both sides. I like the large work surface and that wood is easier on my knife edge than other materials.
  4. Pans. If I could only have 2 pans, I would want them to heat evenly, release food well, and go in the oven as well as cook on the stove top. My 6-Quart Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless Saucepot and my Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron Skillet would allow me to cook most every day dishes.
  5. Sharpening steel. Cooking is so much easier, fun, and safe with sharp knives!
  6. Measuring cups and spoons. I have several sets of each, and my favorite is this Cuisipro Stainless Steel Measuring Cup Set, with oval cups to reach into narrow-necked jars. I have an older model of this Endurance Measuring Spoon Set, which has rectangular spoon bowls to reach into narrow spice jars.
  7. OXO Good Grips Can Opener. Mine is so old I don’t remember exactly when I got it. The current models look different from mine. But I like the comfy fat handles and knob, and the built-in bottle opener.
  8. OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler. Peel vegetables and fruits, even slice cheese (not very well, but sometimes I’m too lazy to wash the slicer)! As with the can opener, I have an older model, but this one has a similar comfy fat handle.
  9. OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner. Dries lettuce and other leafy greens, serves as a prep bowl, and a serving bowl, and works as a cake dome (not pretty, but it gets the job done). I have an earlier model, and it works very well, but the pull-apart lid has always been difficult to operate (I don’t know if this feature has been modified since I got my spinner). The DH can’t do it at all and claims that these were purposely designed to thwart males. The kids love using the “brakes.”
  10. Kitchen towels. My favorites are woven 100% cotton, not terry cloth or waffle weave. Dry my hands, dishes, countertops, ingredients. Wipe up spills. Cover rising dough. Open jars. Handy oven mitts (not recommended—I have accidentally set them on fire!).

My short list of tools I use every day, but may not be essential

  1. GelPro floor mat. Oh, my aching back and knees! The floor mat allows me to stand for a lot longer than I otherwise would be able to. You can sometimes get good deals on these on Amazon, so check prices.
  2. Seventh Generation Natural Paper Towels. They’re made of 100% unbleached recycled paper, so I feel OK using them once and recycling them. Wipe up small spills. Dry meat after rinsing. Use them to cover things in the microwave.
  3. Wooden stirring spoons. Easier on your pans. I’ve got 4 of these, and more often than not, they are in the sink because I use them so much.
  4. Stainless steel prep bowls. I can drop them without worrying about breaking them. They stack up nicely, and don’t react to foods or retain odors. Prep ingredients ahead of time, and when it’s time to cook, have ingredients ready to go, just like on the cooking shows. I wish mine had lids.
  5. Apron. It’s a splash guard and a towel rack (I tuck a kitchen towel into the pocket).

I got the idea for this post when I made dinner to celebrate my wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago. The DH and I have done our share of romantic dinners at dimly lit restaurants, but this year, we opted to stay home. We made the day special by being especially kind and thoughtful to each other, and by using “happyanniversary” as an adjective when we talked to each other, like, “Take out the happyanniversary trash!” Very romantic (LOL)!

At one point in the evening, I surveyed the mayhem in the kitchen. In one corner of the counter, the slow cooker crouched timidly, meekly cooking the pork shoulder in barbeque sauce. The postage-stamp scale I use as a kitchen scale stood foursquare next to the slow cooker, daring it to take up more space; I had used it to weigh out roughly equal-sized balls of dough for the buns. On the other side of the slow cooker was a cooling rack crowded with the buns and also cream puffs for dessert. The food processor hulked muscularly, preening over how quickly it slivered cabbage and carrots for slaw. The bread machine sulked glumly on the other end of the counter, it’s job making the bread dough completed. In a metal work bowl next to the sink, the pastry bag and tip relaxed in a bubble bath after forming the cream puffs. There were two trays, one lined with parchment paper and the other lined with a silicone baking mat, abandoned on the stove top. And from the other room, the ice cream maker whined loudly, lonely for company. I couldn’t help thinking: this is a ridiculous amount of machinery and equipment for making just one dinner!

But it was yummilicious: pulled-pork sandwiches with coleslaw, and cream puffs with lemon ice cream for dessert. “Oy! Huge happyanniversary mess! Thank you for doing the dishes, honey!” It’s definitely nice to have all these “helpers” when I need them, but, honestly, the kitchen tools I would miss the most are the ones that I use every day!