Finishing the fourth cycle

A bit late, but last month I celebrated my fourth-cycle birthday. For those who may not know, a “cycle” refers to the twelve years in the Chinese calendar*, each represented by a different animal. With any luck, this fourth cycle represents the mid-point of my life and has served as an opportunity to reflect on what I have accomplished so far and what I can hope to accomplish with the time that remains.

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One lesson I learned from my great-grandfather, is that we are each responsible to reach our full potential. I also learned from my family that we are called to help others reach their full potential, too. My family is full of teachers, nurses, soldiers and others called to serve the communities around them in their own ways.

For the 32 years I have worked, regardless of what my job role has been, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and grow and to help others learn and grow, too.

The lessons learned thus far could fill a book (and, I hope, one day will) and started even before my first real job, when I worked a newspaper delivery route in the mornings before school. Understanding how to manage my time, throw papers so they were easy for customers to retrieve, and make collections at month’s end as painless as possible, were early lessons that have proved valuable countless times.

The opportunities to help others grow have been abundant, too: from teaching new ushers the proper way to quickly clean a theatre before the next show began, to having to manage two people who had wanted the first managerial job I was promoted to, to guiding “new generation leaders” as a leadership development consultant, I have found fulfillment in helping others grow and, with modesty, hope that I have had some success.

It may sound corny, but I do have a strong sense of purpose in my life: to help others reach their full potential and, in doing so, to reach my own potential. One commitment I made to myself, is that I will regularly assess whether my current circumstance is allowing me to progress on both halves of my purpose. If not, it will be time for a change.

Looking at the lives of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents – as well as so many mentors, colleagues, and friends – I have an abundance of role models whose examples I can follow.

And this is an important element of my purpose. You see, I seek to fulfill this purpose because it is part of a larger, longer legacy than myself. And it is something that, I hope, will run through me and live on in the lives and actions of others.

If four cycles are all I have, I am satisfied that I have lived my purpose. I hope, though, that I have many more cycles left because I don’t feel nearly finished.

*Also celebrated in many other East Asian cultures

A Birthday Dinner for Friends

There are few things more satisfying to me, than to cook a meal for loved ones. To celebrate my birthday and the birthday of a friend, I took over another friend’s kitchen and we cooked a dinner for 13 people. It was a nice feast and an even nicer group of people.

IMG_3387The menu was full but not too ambitious. I was trying to do something in an autumnal theme, although a few ingredients like figs were not available so did not remain on the menu.

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The most ambitious item was the individual lemon soufflés. I did not have enough ramekins, so made a morning visit to the Chatuchak weekend market to buy a set of 20, along with a set of matching individual pitchers, perfect for serving sauces in.

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A salad of mixed greens including butter leaf lettuce, sunflower sprouts, and radicchio, with persimmon, pears, and pumpkin seeds. Served with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

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The side vegetable was a roasted saffron cauliflower, a Mediterranean-style dish from the cookbook “Plenty” by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. The combination of red onions, raisins, and green olives is fantastic.

IMG_3356The main course was a salt and herb-crusted pork loin with new potatoes. This dish, a mash-up from this recipe and another from Jamie Oliver, went okay but I didn’t have quite enough salt to make a full crust. As a result, the meat was just a tad dryer and the potatoes a tad undercooked. But still, very flavorful.

IMG_3364The finished product. I will play more with this means of cooking. The salt crust locks in moisture and adds seasoning.

IMG_3368To accompany the pork, I cooked an apple and onion chutney, based loosely on this recipe. I am not always good about following recipes.

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I think it made for a nice plate and reasonably healthful, too!

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Dessert was very ambitious. I had prepared the lemon cardamom base, which is essentially a choux pasty (milk, cream, flour, cornstarch, and egg yolks). I then added whipped egg whites. Sixteen of them, in fact.

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Top: as I put them in the oven (not quite as filled as they should be – I quintupled the recipe but only had enough for 13 instead of the expected 16). Bottom: just before taking them out. Since I did not smooth the tops, I didn’t get the typical “high hat” look.

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The end result was perfectly fine, though. Served with a side of raspberry coulis, the soufflés were a show-stopper. Recipe here.

I’m glad I could spend the night before my birthday celebrating with friends in the way I enjoy best: cooking for them.

An Umami Birthday Dinner

Trying to catch everyone up on my recent activities, in November I celebrated my birthday by cooking a dinner for some of my friends. One friend had recently remodeled his condo and was itching to have a dinner party to show off the new open-format kitchen. Never shy about messing up, err… cooking in someone else’s kitchen, I accepted his offer and started planning a meal around the theme of umami.

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Umami is the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). A Japanese word, it describes the “savory,” “meaty,” or “fulfilling” quality. Umami is tasted through glutamates, a type of amino acid that is found in foods such as mushrooms, anchovies, fish sauce, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and MSG.

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The appetizer course featured three umami-rich items: a Parmesan and wild mushroom custard, miso and bacon glazed eggplant, and whole grain toasts with avocado and soy-sauce dressed sardines. This was probably a wee bit ambitious as there ended up being so much food that this course was almost a meal in itself.

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The “soup” course was a bit clever, if I say so myself. I borrowed a friend’s ice cream maker and turned a roasted tomato soup into a granita and served it with Parmesan sorbet on top. It really had all the flavors of a tomato soup (plus a little spicy as I added dried chilies) with cheese sprinkled on top, but it was frozen.

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The main course was balsamic vinegar marinated roast chicken with green olives. This excellent choice of a marinade makes for rich, flavorful, and moist meat. Will definitely repeat this recipe.

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Accompanying the main corse were garlic and black truffle infused mashed potatoes with more Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

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We concluded the meal with a salad course, a Caesar salad with homemade dressing. This is the first time I’ve made Caesar dressing from scratch and it is incredibly easy and really much better than from a bottle. Served with homemade croutons with truffle salt.

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For dessert, I served an interesting Sicilian orange olive oil cake with homemade cardamom ice cream. The cake was interesting because it is made by quartering and boiling oranges (unpeeled) in three changes of water and then pureeing the oranges, rind and all, and incorporating it into the batter. The result is a moist, intensely flavored cake. The cardamom ice cream was an excellent compliment to the cake.

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While there were some friends who weren’t present, the dinner itself was a success. I was very happy with the dishes and while I would probably not be as ambitious next time, I think many of the recipes are worth visiting again.

 

A Birthday Message

Today I turn 41 years old.  This seems to be a popular time for birthdays.  Two friends here in Thailand share my birthday, two other friends have birthdays the day before, and a dozen other friends have birthdays within plus or minus a week.  Perhaps St. Valentine’s Day provides a good explanation for this mini-bubble of mid-November Scorpios.  That’s speculation, though, and beside the point.

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I’ve heard of “peak oil”… does “peak hair” also exist?

To give you a brief update, life is going quite well.  Yesterday, as part of a habit I would like to create, I visited the doctor for an annual physical.  By chance, I was seen by Dr. Nina, an Indian-born doctor whom I had seen a few years ago for a suspected case of Dengue Fever (which, thankfully, it was not).  I’m glad I reconnected with her as she has a wonderful manner and I will make it a point to have her as my regular physician.


In any case, the general conclusion is that I am fine, health-wise.  My cholesterol, which had dropped from about 260 three years ago to only 165 a year ago, has since climbed back to about 250.  We’ll have to monitor this and see if some diet and exercise changes can bring it back under control.  Other than that, a clean bill of health.  If I can lose a few kilograms over the next year, we’ll all be happier at next year’s check-up, too!

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Celebration-wise, I don’t think Tawn and I will do that much to celebrate.  We had a large sausage making, cooking and eating dinner this past weekend with some friends (see “lose a few kilograms,” above), so that was probably enough hoopla to celebrate.  Instead, a quiet evening at home with Tawn should be celebration enough.

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From a general happiness standpoint, I realize that despite the few gripes and frustrations that arise in life, I have very little about which to be unhappy and a very large amount to be thankful for.  Yesterday, in what I interpret to be a nice bit of serendipity, a university friend of mine posted a quote from poet Gunilla Norris that I think should be my birthday prayer:

“Guard me against the arrogance of privilege,
against the indulgence of feeling that I don’t have enough,
and the poverty of spirit that refuses to acknowledge what is daily given to me.”

Beautiful and timely, isn’t it?  When I think of all the wonderful people, experiences, and opportunities I have had thus far in my life, I can’t help but be grateful to everyone and everything that has played a role.

 

Chocolate Raspberry Torte

A little bit more about the cake I baked for my 40th birthday.  For all the cooking I do, I don’t have a lot of experience with cakes and cake-like desserts.  I’m more of a bread man, myself.  Nonetheless, I decided to make a cake because it is always a good experience and there was a recipe for a Revamped Chocolate Torte in the November-December issue of Cooks Illustrated that looked worth a try.

I started the recipe on Thursday afternoon with a little prep work, then did the actual baking on Friday afternoon.  Overall, I think the cake turned out okay although it is such a rich cake – nearly flourless – that it wouldn’t make my list of favorite cakes.  But then, I’m not a big cake person.  One challenge is that the recipe uses a food processor, which I don’t own.  Instead, I used a stand mixer.  Things seemed to work okay, but I don’t know if the slower speed of the mixer affected the texture at all.

I’ll give you a rundown of the recipe and the preparation process:

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The first step was to make some almond flour, basically finely-processed almonds.  You can buy this in some markets (it is used to make macarons, for example) but the recipe explains how to make it yourself since you use a relatively small quantity.  Take 1 cup (4 ounces) of sliced almonds and lightly toast them.

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Then process in a food processor for a few pulses until finely ground.  You then add 1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) of flour and 1/2 teaspoon table salt and process it a few more seconds to combine.  Not having a food processor, I used a coffee grinder attachment for my blender and it seemed to work okay.

Note on food processors.  I had one in the US and didn’t seem to use it often.  But nowadays I keep encountering recipes that call for a food processor, especially in the making of quick and easy pastry dough.  I may break down eventually and buy another food processor. Cooks Illustrated recommends the 12-cup Kitchen Aid model.

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Next, melt 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate with 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) of butter in a bowl set over simmering water.  After smooth, remove from the heat and cool to room temperature, adding 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and 1/4 teaspoon of instant espresso powder.  Not having that, I had to use instant coffee.

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While the eggs are cooling, process 5 large eggs in the food processor until almost doubled in volume.  Not having the processor, I whipped them with the mixer.  I think this may have made the texture a bit more dense than had I used the food processor.  As the eggs are being whipped, slowly add 3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) of granulated sugar.  What you see here is the almond/flour/salt mixture, the egg/sugar mixture, and the chocolate/butter mixture.

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Start by gently folding the egg mixture into the chocolate mixture using the whisk.  This does not have to be thoroughly incorporated.

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Next, gently whisk in the almond-flour mixture.  Divide the batter between two 9-inch cake pans lined with parchment.  The pans were not buttered and floured.

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After baking about 15 minutes at 325 F.  Allow the cakes to cool in the pans and then remove.

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Spread a filling made of 1/4 cup raspberry jam and 1/2 cup raspberries (I used frozen as fresh are way too expensive here), mashed together. 

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Add the second layer of the cake, inverted so the bottom of the cake is facing up, giving you a relatively smooth surface with which to work.

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To glaze the cake, melt 5 ounces of bittersweet chocolate with 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream over a simmering pot of water.  Then pour the glaze onto the cake and use a spatula to spread it evenly over the cake.

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You can then add almonds to the side of the cake.  I think I was supposed to use lightly chopped almonds but all I had were the sliced almonds.  This is kind of a messy prospect.  Also, you can decorate the top of the cake with fresh raspberries, which I didn’t have.  The biggest challenge for me was that the glaze didn’t have a smooth, liquid consistency.  Maybe it needed to be melted a bit further or have just a little more cream in it so it poured over the sides in a smooth motion?  This is where my inexperience with cakes comes in.

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Per the recipe, I put the cake in the fridge for a few hours to let the frosting set.  I didn’t get it removed early enough, though, and when it was served it was still pretty cool and the ganache was solid.  When I arrived at the restaurant I should have asked them to leave the cake out rather than put it in the fridge.  Anyhow, it was tasty enough and considering it was for my own party, I think it turned out pretty nice.

I hope you enjoyed this cooking adventure and encourage you to try the cake yourself.

 

The 40th Party

Just a quick photo entry.  Not too many words.  Tawn and I joined a small group of friends at Soul Food Mahanakorn for dinner to celebrate my birthday.  The food (Thai) was very good as usual and other than the oddity of being served sparkling wine in regular wine glasses (which the owner caught and corrected), everything was very enjoyable.  It rained heavily during dinner, the first rain in a few weeks.  Afterwards, the evening air was cool and relaxing.

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From the left: Doug, Tae, Tawn, Tod, Matt, Suchai, Ken, and me.  We are missing Doug’s girlfriend Bee, who arrived late from work.

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Suchai and Ken goof around for the camera.

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The T-Team: Tae, Tawn, and Tod.

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Slicing my own birthday cake.  How come I’m doing all the work?

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Chocolate raspberry torte.  Made it myself and will write more about it tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

 

Thoughts on My 40th Birthday

Since the day my nieces, now ages 4 and 7, were born, I have been writing them letters. These letters are being collected in a box for them to open when they turn 18. The letters are a combination of funny anecdotes about their childhoods, memories of my life, snapshots of daily activity, and also my reflections on issues, events, or subjects that I think would be worthwhile for them to read when they are young adults.

Normally, I don’t share these letters. But in light of today’s milestone, I thought I would share the letter I wrote to them today.  If you’re keen to watch the video version of me reading it, it is embedded below.  Otherwise you can just read it.


Dear Emily,

Today is my 40th birthday. In honor of the occasion, I want to take a few minutes to collect my thoughts at this milestone birthday and share them with you. Most people seem to dread each passing year and milestone birthdays depress them. Quite the opposite to this, I have found that each passing year gets better. I learn more about life, make new friends, have new experiences, and perhaps gain a little wisdom. To that end, if any of the wisdom I attempt to dispense in this letter turns out to be incorrect, I’ll still have my 50th birthday on which to correct myself before you are old enough to read these letters.

There are myriad lessons on life that are worth learning. Some that strike me as the most useful:

Live to your fullest potential. Your life is an empty vessel that will be filled with experience, activity, relationships, and accomplishments. How full will your life be? So few people are born with the advantages you enjoy. Honor that privilege by making the most of it.

Most people go through life not paying attention. Especially in a world in which communication is happening more quickly and the volume of information we wade through gets greater by the day. By not paying attention, people miss out on a lot of the beauty, a lot of the details, a lot of the important things, and a lot of the opportunities that come along.

The beauty brings joy, the devil truly is in the details, the important things can easily get lost in the chaff, and the opportunities can end knocking on an unanswered door.

Opportunities tend to present themselves more clearly than you would expect. Not only do you have to be paying enough attention so as to recognize them, you also have to be willing to take advantage of them.

Be willing to take risks, explore, push your boundaries, and test your limits. This doesn’t mean that you should do foolish things – although a little foolishness can be a good thing – but rarely will you grow if you only stay within your comfort zone. Try things that you think you couldn’t possibly do and you will be surprised by how things end up just being the baby steps to even greater accomplishments.

Exercise. Not only should you test your limits in terms of experience but you should also push yourself physically. Modern life is increasingly sedentary, a lifestyle for which our bodies are ill-suited. Make movement a part of each day. This doesn’t mean you have to be an athlete, nor do you need to suffer from worry and self-consciousness about your body. Just be active. You will have a greater appreciation for your body and will be healthier for it.

Eat well but don’t fret about food. Americans (and, increasingly, other cultures) have come to obsess about food in an unhealthy way. Enjoy food, but enjoy good food. Too often we mistake an overabundance of additives and preservatives that trick the chemistry of our tongue and brain for truly enjoyable and satisfying food. Eat a wide variety of foods, both for your good health as well as for the enjoyment of trying new things. Practice moderation in all things, including moderation.

Human beings are social creatures. Cultivate relationships by giving unconditionally, without the expectation of getting anything in return. Be caring and compassionate. Give to others, be charitable, be generous.

Assume the best of others. Be quick to forgive, quick to assume you have misunderstood, quick to let go of anger or grudges. They are seeds that bear only bitter fruit.

Things do not buy you happiness. There is nothing you will buy in this life that you will be able to take with you, so don’t accumulate unnecessary things. When you do spend your hard-earned money on things, wait before buying. Compare quality and buy the best quality you can afford, for it is better to have a few good things that last years than an abundance of things that break or wear out quickly.

Be thankful for the things you have – not the physical things – but the blessing of your life. Even when you are facing suffering and difficulties, it is all but certain that there are millions of people whose lives are much worse off than your own. While that may seem cold comfort at that moment, if you can focus your attention on the blessings you do have, it will make you appreciate the situation more.

Finally, cultivate happiness in the present. There is nothing you can do about the days that have passed. There is nothing to be gained by worrying about the days that are to come. There is only one moment that exists, and that is “now”. So be fully present in the now, enjoy it, and make the most of it.

Those are my words of wisdom to you on my 40th birthday. We’ll see how well they hold up when you read them in another eleven years. By then, I may have revised them significantly. But I suspect that while I will learn more lessons in life, these fundamentals won’t change all that much.

Love,

Uncle Chris

What about you?  What lessons have you learned over your years?  What advice would you want to share with someone who is becoming an adult?