Entries Tagged as 'Identity'

Blueberry Pie

Sunday, August 3, 2014

blueberries box

Summer in Minnesota is a burst of perfection, and I am clinging to it with a white-knuckled grip and a pining for summers of the past. All seasons remind me of New Ulm, a small town in southeastern Minnesota where my grandmother lived in the same house until she couldn’t live alone anymore. My mom and her sisters grew up in that house, and sometimes I fantasize about knocking on the door and asking the current owners if I can take a quick walk through, just to see if I can still smell it. I’d bury my head in the coat closet and wait for the scent of mothballs and fur coats I only saw her wear in photos until the owners, reluctant but obliged, tapped me on the shoulder and said ok now, time to go. But summer, especially, is the time I miss it, her, the most. Even if she didn’t like to cook, she loved to feed, and her attention to small details at meals left an impression that rooted deep. In fact, we spent more time around my grandmother’s kitchen table than anywhere else in her house, towed back by an unseen force after too much time away. We didn’t know it then, but we were building traditions there that lately I am seeing in pieces as they surface in a flashback, a story, or a keepsake that’ll spark a memory long forgotten.


Tippy’s kitchen is built and maintained with the same traits. Petite as it is, there’s always room for everyone, and even with two people in the corner at the stove, one person at the sink, another with a chopping knife at the counter and three on chairs around her red wooden table, somehow you never feel the old, no good adage of too many cooks. No task is too grand. This speaks more to Tippy’s circuitry than the layout of her kitchen, and I can only hope to give people the same fortifying sense in my own kitchen, come the day. We make sense of our lives by building up from the foundations we were given, adding our own twists, but leaving space, always, for the traditions that were laid before us, for us. So that when the time comes, we can hand them down, and ultimately, let them live.


Last weekend, with our ticking time bomb of blueberry loot, Tippy, Laurel, and I took root in their kitchen and didn’t much move until we’d made our way through twelve and three-quarters of the thirteen pounds Laurel and I had picked days before. We chopped red pepper and minced ginger and squeezed lime for blueberry salsa. We picked lavender and steeped vanilla bean to pour over blueberries in jars for an infused, sweet and floral syrup. We folded warm blueberry sauce into wonton wrappers and fried them until they turned bubbly and crisp, then tore them apart too soon, too hungry to wait. Mike, Tippy’s oldest son, left a box of homebrewed ale in the basement, and that saved the Sunday when liquor stores are closed in Minnesota. We upended four bottles in a stockpot with sugar, lemon, allspice, and star anise, then mixed in red onion and whole berries and boiled it all until it gleamed to a thick, textured jam. We made our grandma’s strawberry honey, sub blueberries, and a hot chutney with curry, dried currants, and jalapeno. We made pies that we took breaks to eat by the forkful straight from the pan.

blueberry wash

The two pie recipes we used were about as different as they could be. Rush River’s version is mostly uncooked and totally uncovered, so that the whole berries maintain their shape and texture, and pop with each bite–sweet, tart, uncompromised. First you make a sauce with sugar, water, and a cup of blueberries that you let simmer away for what seems like eternity until the berries break down and the color turns definitively purple. The Gold Standard of Purple, it is a vision worth waiting for. Then you let it cool, fold in the rest of the blueberries, pour it all into a prebaked 9-inch pie shell, and let it chill (if you can stand waiting). We used a crust recipe aptly named, “Mom’s Pie Crust,” which has been handed down from mothers to daughters in our family, and of whose original identity is unknown. It is a dump crust that calls for corn oil, because that’s what Tippy’s mom uses, and what our grandmother used, what her mother used, and so on, and it just never occurred to anybody to write in an alternative suggestion.

The second pie is from Lan, who I’ve met virtually by way of her captivating, redolent photos. Her interpretation of food is striking, both the recipes she chooses and the way she presents them through her lens, and so when she endorsed her husband’s go-to recipe for pie, I knew it was going to be good. With this recipe, you pulse together a crust of flour, orange zest, pecans, butter (or a vegan alternative) and sugar, and then you dribble in cold vodka and pulse again. Vodka evaporates quickly, resulting in a very flaky, tender crust, and leaves no trace of itself behind. Once you’ve chilled and rolled out the crust in a deep dish pan, you mix together some cornstarch, orange juice, flour, sugar, and blueberries and pour that on top of the crust. You top it with a crumbly sprinkle of oats, cinnamon, sugar, and fat (she uses coconut oil, we used butter) and bake it until the top is golden. A slice of warm pie she told me, is excellent with coconut cream or vanilla ice cream. She was right about that, too. See the full recipe here, and her blog, More Stomach, here.

Now go get yourself some blueberries, and hurry.

Blueberry Pie (from Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, where we also picked all our berries)

9″ Pie Crust**
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup sugar
5 tablespoons all purpose flour, unbleached
4 cups fresh blueberries
Pinch of salt

Mix the cold 1/4 cup of water with the flour and salt to make a smooth batter. Boil 1 cup of blueberries with the 1/2 cup of water and all the sugar. Add batter and stir with a whisk until it thickens. Remove from heat and let cool. Once it’s cool, fold in the remaining 3 cups of fresh blueberries and pour into the pre-baked pie shell.** Chill.

**Mom’s Pie Crust recipe:
Sift these into a pie tin:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, unbleached
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a separate bowl, mix 1/2 cup corn oil (or a different neutral oil of your choice) with 2 tablespoons of milk. Pour liquid into the center of the flour mix. Mix with a fork. Spread with your fingers across the bottom and up the sides of the pie pan. Prick with a fork all around. For pre-bakes, bake at 425 degrees F for 12-15 minutes.

Rhubarb Gochujang Jam

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

We’re into the third week now, and things are starting to settle in, as they always do right around week three or four. The initial elation of being back in the States has worn off, and reality has struck that, for real, I live in Minnesota. For the first time in thirteen years, all of my possessions are in the same city. I have a car, and it runs, hollaa! I’m getting used to driving again, above the speed limit (barely), because everyone’s got places to go, and I’m the Road Tortoise with her hands at ten and two. I have one piece of furniture, my grandma’s old piano, that hasn’t been touched in years. My harmonicas, cookbooks, and spices are all within reach. In the odd in-betweenness of my old life and new, these details are keeping me sane.

It is not easy to move abroad, but so far it’s been harder to move back home. The sensation is closest to grief–like losing a cherished thing, except this thing is more than you can hold, and therefore, difficult to let go. In order to walk one way, you must leave something behind, and the more you’ve invested, the harder this is to do. Risky business, this going all in, but so far I can’t tell if there’s any other way. Sometimes I am resentful to be starting over again. It reminds me of being uprooted as a kid. No place like home to dredge up old insecurities, no matter how much you think you’ve grown. But if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making something from nothing, and here there’s already much more than that.

So here we go.

When I made this jam last week, I burned my wrist, melted a plastic container on the stove, covered Mary Ellen’s counters with stick, swore, cleaned up the mess, cooled the jam, and breathed. All in.

Rhubarb Gochujang Jam (makes about 2 1/2 to 3 pints)

6 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups sugar (increase if you like a jam that’s sweeter than tart)
1/2–1 tablespoon gochujang*
1 lemon, washed well

You might be bone-tired of talking about rhubarb by now, but let’s think of how we’re going to feel in a few months’ time. If you’ve got room for one more rhubarb recipe this season, let it be this one. You’ll have it for months, if you do decide to can it. Or, you could skip the canning process and put the jars straight into the fridge (and then, perhaps, halve the recipe). A spoonful would be dynamite over a piece of grilled pork, though it’s also delicious on a piece of plain toast.

*Gochujang is a thick, sweet, and spicy chili paste from Korea, and it’s become an essential condiment in my fridge. Dong Yang and United Noodles both stock it here in town. You could leave it out if you want, but then you’d have to call this Rhubarb Jam, and there are already enough good recipes around for that, don’t you think?

Add chopped rhubarb to a big non-metallic bowl. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze juice over rhubarb, letting the seeds drop in, too (they’ll add pectin, and help your jam set–you can either fish them out or tie them up in cheesecloth). Add  lemon halves to the bowl, too, then sprinkle with sugar and mix well. Set aside for an hour or more (could go as long as overnight–in that case, store in the fridge).

Pour rhubarb, sugar, and lemon into a pot big enough to contain them, and heat to boiling. Then, turn down the heat so that the sauce simmers, and let it do so for 15-20 minutes. Ladle hot jam into hot, sterilized jars and cover with hot, sterilized lids. Screw the rings on, but not too tightly. Then process in a tall pot of boiling water (water should cover the jars by an inch or more) for ten minutes. Remove from hot pot with tongs and let sit at room temperature until lids pop inward to seal.

A Spring Salad

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Spring Salad

Yesterday, Niki and I visited the St Paul Farmers’ Market in Lowertown, chosen mainly for its coverage from the rain. Everywhere, it was pink and green–stalks of flushed rhubarb stacked in pyramids, scarlet globe and French breakfast radishes, baskets of sugar snap peas, and spring onions bundled next to bunches of pea shoots, their tendrils finely contained. We met some friends in Uptown later in the day, a part of the city we used to frequent as high schoolers, where my youngest brother now lives in his own apartment, and where, for the first time in history (in Minnesota, that is), the bartender did not ask for our i.ds.

Whenever I return to Minnesota after time away, I am struck by how visible I am, both by stepping into the family domain where regular attention is expected (of which is more refreshing than annoying until it is not anymore new), and by stepping into the street. In a bigger city, you’ve often got to knock into someone for him or her to look up, and in Seoul, even that won’t do it most of the time. Here, people will wave from fifty yards away, say hello and smile first if you catch eyes. More than once I’ve been startled enough to stop and look behind me before returning the greeting, realizing it was actually for me. I grew up here, where the social niceties have not changed since then, but being away longterm for nearly thirteen years is enough to make the once-familiar look and feel foreign. At least for now, until I become that person across the street, waving to passersby, just because. Do you think?

We ate this salad for dinner last night before seeing Chef, the movie. (Watching movies! Something else I didn’t realize I missed. Obviously possible in Seoul, but for some reason, was just not a part of the regular. A small discovery, but still good). I’m a big believer that salads, especially green salads, are better written as guidelines than precise recipes, since the fun lies in selecting what you’ve got on hand, what’s in season, and what you like. Swap out any spring vegetables for those that are available where you are, and vary the quantities of each to suit you.

A Spring Salad

Pea shoots (one big bunch, washed, dried, and cut to manageable pieces)
Asparagus (blanched and chopped)
Sugar snap peas (trimmed and chopped)
Radishes (sliced thinly)
Spring onion (green parts chopped)
Basil leaves (torn in pieces)
Feta (or another salty cheese that crumbles, like ricotta salata)

Combine all ingredients but the feta and gently toss with any dressing you like. Add feta to the top of each salad.

Easy dressing:
White wine vinegar
Dijon mustard
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Measure a 1:3 ratio of vinegar to oil. Whisk oil with a dash of dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle in oil, and whisk again to emulsify.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

I turned thirty-one this week, and even though I’ve been wearing the number around for the past month or two, I’m still not totally used to it. I’ve felt both younger and older than my real age, but never completely on par with my peers. Maybe that’s part of being human, and since we are humans and not trees, birthdays must be our simplistic version of ring dating. The simplest way for us to measure our revolutions around the sun.

My friends were as incredible as always this week, and I walked away from brunch today feeling like I could just about shatter. I am easily overwhelmed by gratitude. At the backend of gratitude there’s a sadness, so that after a few hours of celebrating or spending quality time with family or friends, I often need to escape to be by myself.

Birthdays are difficult, especially the closer I get to the age when my mom died, which was thirty-eight. When another year passes, so does the gap between now and then, though in many ways, the loss is more acute with every life event. And maybe you feel this way, too, but when you lose a parent (or a close relative, or a close friend), you become hyperaware of your own mortality and the mortality of those you love (of the fleeting nature of all things, really). Intellectually, I know it’s unlikely I’ll die at the same age, but the number is mired in my identity. I’m not scared of dying, but I am scared of leaving too soon.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be at thirty-one, but I do remember, at the age of twenty-one, desperately wanting to feel good in my own skin, to trust myself, and hoping I’d get there in the next decade (I have–and that’s been the biggest victory of all). I hated to feel vulnerable (but have since learned to find freedom in vulnerability–second biggest victory). I didn’t know if I wanted children, or what that might look like, but I knew that family could stretch beyond our biological definition of the word, that it does take a village to raise a child (and it did). I wanted to experience, to see other parts of the world, to live. I was okay with not knowing or being able to explain most things, like our existence and what happens afterward, and I still am. My heart is full, and that much is true. Also, it’s enough.

Vanilla Maple Cashew Milk

Sunday, January 12, 2014


My memories of my mom are sparse, but they’re vivid. I remember that she loved black licorice, something likely born out of being the baby of three girls and learning to adore the leftover things, black jelly beans among them. I remember that she always put on Lubriderm lotion after taking a bath, but I have no recollection of what kind of perfume she wore, if at all. Her legs always felt prickly if I rubbed my hand in one directly, smooth if I reversed, and as a kid, I was pretty confused by this. If John and I fought, she’d yell, make us sit in the bedroom we shared until she cooled off, then come in and say she was sorry for yelling and that she loved us. Besides that, I can remember exactly two occasions when she got upset. The first time was when I brought home a boy in first grade without giving her a warning. She was taking an afternoon bubble bath when we bounced through the front door, unannounced (surprise!). This boy was the new kid at school and kind of a bully, and he decided pretty quickly that I was the perfect target. I don’t remember what he said or did, but I remember feeling anxious in the mornings about going to school and seeing him and not liking that feeling, and knowing that I had to do something to fix it myself. The way to win him over, I determined, was to invite him back to our apartment to listen to the latest Beach Boys album, Still Cruisin. This was 1989. And it worked.

The other time was when our neighbor Rebecca, a girl my age, came over and ate all the cashews from the canister of Planters mixed nuts. My mom loved cashews, and so do I.


Vanilla Maple Cashew Milk
1 1/2 cups raw cashews
*Soak cashews in water overnight.
4 cups filtered water
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped
*Empty vanilla pods will make vanilla extract, vanilla sugar, or vanilla salt!
pinch cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
maple syrup

Drain and rinse cashews. Add them to a blender with water. Blend until smooth. Add vanilla seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pulse until fully incorporated. Strain with a fine mesh sieve, cheesecloth, coffee filter, or a few layers of paper towels. Sweeten to taste with maple syrup. Can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for four days, five days tops. After that, things’ll start to get funky.