Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Is it safe?

May 12, 2020.  51 days since we were asked by our Prime Minister to stay home, be safe, do not shake hands, shop alone, exercise only with the person or persons you live with, make sure you keep a 1.5 meter distance from others, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.

May 12, 2020.  Day 2 of the relaxed lockdown. 

Here in Holland, the primary schools have opened their doors allowing the children to come back to class.  In small groups, carefully socially distanced from one another and for shorter periods of time. Football fields have been unlocked for practice sessions, but not for competitions.  Hairdressers, along with other grooming salons are back in business. Albeit by appointment only. Goodbye corona hair – on various parts of the body! 

But is it really safe to go out again?  There is a commercial running on television about not only washing our hands, but washing away our fears?  Really?

The Coronavirus aka covid-19 has cordoned us off from one another.  Fear has become the new normal (another corona inspired catch phrase). It has held us hostage in our homes.  With every one and every thing outside suspect.  The invisible enemy attached to the grocery bags and the pizza boxes delivered to our homes or to the breath and sweat of the man jogging or biking pass us as we take our late afternoon walk in the woods.

 We have not had total lockdown in this country.  More of  an intelligent lockdown making us responsible not only for ourselves but for others - the people who risk their lives in the hospitals, in the care homes, in the supermarkets, in the postal, fire, sanitation and engineering services.

And yet, as we try to make the world a safer place, we also begin to isolate our selves.  Turning inwards.  Taking care only of me and mine.  Oh, yes, we think of those every day heroes who risk their lives.  We clap our hands or bang on pots to say thank you.  We paint rainbows and hearts and hang them on our windows. We even transfer a few euros for this cause or that. And it feels good.  We have done our part. Ok, not in philanthropic proportions, but we have contributed in our own way.  We have even found ways to communicate with friends and family near and far via Skype, Zoom, Facetime, etc.  We have virtual morning coffee or happy hour with wine and cheese.  We write more letters, send more parcels, cards,  flowers.  We even invent parlor games that can be played at the same time from different parts of the globe! It's almost like being there.

And yet,  we are still home. Safe.

What I miss most during this time of quarantine is the physical contact.  Yes! That squeezing, almost suffocating  embrace I give my grandchildren when they come to visit.  The hug I exchange with friends when we meet. The eye contact of face to face conversations.  The traditional Dutch triple airkiss on the cheeks, even the handshake when I meet someone for the first time.

I know, I am one of those touchy-feely types.  But aren’t we all?  We need to love and to hold.  It is not only for wedding ceremonies.  It is for every day.  It is for glorious, happy celebrations.  It is for times of loss and grief.  It is for giving comfort. I still feel badly that I could not wrap my arms around my daughter-in-law when her mother passed away in April.  Both of us afraid of infecting the other with the virus.  Three weeks later, on Mother’s Day, her first without her beloved mother, we hugged.  Reluctantly.  But we did.  And we both felt so much better.  Often, words are simply not enough and a touch can say far more.

The coronavirus has killed our spontaneity.  Like the irresistible urge to hug a bearer of good news or drop by a friend’s house for a cuppa just because you feel like a chat after a tough day at the office or to invite friends over for an instant party just because the sun is shining and you have cold prosecco in the fridge.  The hardest part of this isolation is not being able to be with the ones who live closest to you.  Zoom is good for the friends and family who live across the seas. It is easy to understand the need for digital closeness.  But for those who live down the block or a few minutes ride away, it can be quite frustrating. Depressing.

Every day we are cautioned about too much contact with people, whether they be family, friend or stranger. Have your face mask and plastic gloves at hand at all times. This may be the status quo for quite a long while until a safe and dependable vaccine can be found.  

Until then, we have to tread carefully.  Never quite letting our guard down.  Because you never know when that 120 nanometer virus with its prickly crowns may hit you.

So, is it safe out there?  Who knows?  Honestly, sometimes, you just have to go where your heart leads you.  

Imperfect Empanada

Lockdown makes you do things that you never had time for. Like cleaning cupboards, polishing the floor, reading War and Peace… and for me, getting the courage to make empanada.  I was convinced I could not make good pastry.  But my taste buds hungered for home and those delicately wrapped pastries my mother used to take home after her visits with my grandmother. So, I searched the net and found a step by step guide.  This is the result : My Imperfect Empanadas.  They won’t win any awards in a bake off but if I close my eyes, the pastry is melt-in-the-mouth and the filling taste almost like home.  

The Pastry*
3 cups flour
4 tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
6-8 tbsp. cold water 
* good for 24-28 small empanadas (about 3 inches)  

Minced Meat Filling
2 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced 
1 medium-sized potato, diced (or leftover boiled potato)
250 gms. minced meat (pork, pork and beef mix, or chicken)
choose one or more or all of these : ½ cup frozen green peas, ½ cup carrots, diced, ½ raisins, 1 cup chopped mushrooms
1 bouillon cube
¼ cup water
salt and pepper to taste
Eggwash : 1 egg and 1 tbsp. water, beaten together

The Pastry :
·      Put the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a food processor. Mix with a spoon to blend all the dry ingredients.
·      Drop the cubes of butter into the mix.  Turn on the processor and pulse the ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal. There may still be bits of butter remaining.
·      Slowly add water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing the mixture until it is no longer crumbly but more like a soft pastry dough. You may not need 10 tbsps. Remove the mass from the processor and gather it to form a ball.  Divide this into 4 parts.
·      Roll out each quarter and flatten to about an inch thick. Cut out circles using a large cookie cutter or the mouth of a whisky or juice glass. This worked for me!
·      Dust each circle with a bit of flour in preparation for the filling.

The Filling :
·      Saute garlic and onions in oil.  Add the minced meat and cook till the meat is brown. 
·      Add the uncooked potatoes and carrots, mix them through the meat.
·      Crumble the bouillon cube into the meat and pour in about ¼ cup of water, stirring well into the mix.
·      Cover with a lid and allow to simmer until the vegetables are tender.
·      The raisins and peas can be added at this point.  Cook for another 5 minutes or until the peas are soft.
·      Turn off the heat, pour the meat mixture on to a colander to let the excess liquid drip out.  Allow to cool.

Preparing the empanadas : The amount of filling that you put in your pastry depends on the size of your empanada. 
·      Roll out the prepared pastry to form an oblong. I found that this way, the filling does not spill out. Place a spoonful (or more) of filling in the center.  
·      Gently fold the top part of the pastry over the filling and press the ends of the pastry together.  It will look like a half moon.  Use your fingers or a fork to crimp the edges.
·      Lay the empanada on a wax paper lined tray. Prick the middle of the pastry with a fork to let out  the steam released while baking.  Brush the top with the prepared egg wash.
·      Bake till golden brown at 200 degrees C for 15-20 minutes. Serve warm or cold.
The empanadas can be prepared ahead and frozen.  Allow them to stand for about half an hour at room temperature before baking. They cook for nearly the same time – about 20 minutes.

There are so many other recipes for fillings. Choose the combination that you and your family like best

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Travelin' Lite


This year, I have decided to travel light.  That’s really good news for my husband who has always said he feels like a donkey carrying all the baggage when we go on trips. But he is not off the hook yet.  I did not mean it literally. 

What I am doing is shedding.  Like coming home to a warm house after a long walk on a cold, frosty morning and removing the layers of clothing.  First the hat, then the scarf, followed by the gloves, that heavy, wet coat and lastly those cumbersome boots. 
I’m doing the shedding in stages as well.   
First to go are the things which cause pain.  Like the tight-fitting jeans that I put on with my face scrounged in pain as I contort my body into them. It’s time to get those senior-friendly versions with the elastic waistband. 
Much as I am letting go of those figure-hugging clothes of the size 34 I used to be; in the autumn of my life, I choose to be with the people who make me breathe. And smile. Friends far or near who I know I can count on for solace.  With whom I feel safe.  And with whom I am comfortable enough to share a dirty joke or a bitchy remark without fear of judgement. Never feeling needlessly exposed and vulnerable. Accepted for being just me.  
Next to go are the responsibilities I have taken on for myself.  Yes, tasks I have volunteered for or even created for myself.  I liked to say that I bloom where I am planted. I am now rooted to the ground.  There is no longer any need to reinvent myself with every move. No longer any need to prove that I am more than just another lady with time on her hands - available and capable!   Need someone to organize the church group? Here I am.  Need reading support for the class?  Here I am.  Need someone to edit the newsletter?  Here I am.
I can finally put my hand down. 
 I have (at long last!) realized that I just do not have that kind of energy anymore.  Because the years do take their toll.  And the person who has always been supportive of all my grand schemes and dreams has gotten old too.  My donkey’s back can no longer drag crates of beer and shopping bags full of groceries from the supermarket to the car, from the car to the basement and back up again for the events that I have organized. It is time for younger, fitter beasts of burden to takeover that task. 
Next to go are the I-have-to’s.  I’ve come to a point in my life where I can actually afford to ask myself – Do you have to?                                                               And that reply should be – Only if you want to.   
I am taking my time with this unburdening.  Every decision has to be made with care.  Specially if it affects others.  And it nearly always does.  Because none of us live on an island isolated from the rest of the world.  Life is so interconnected that when you let go of one thing, you can almost hear and feel the dominoes as they fall down the line. Yes, some things will take longer to let go of.  Maybe even not at all.

 The crucial question now is: what do I want to carry as I travel through these last years of my life?  
The simple answer is:  Only who and what really matters.  

This is such a quick, tasty dish to make. Perfect for the Fridays of Lent!
Chili Prawns
500 grams fresh, peeled and deveined prawns or shrimps (frozen ones are just as good as fresh!)
2 tbsp. cooking oil (not olive oil)
1 tbsp corn starch diluted in ¼ cup water
Pound or blend :
·      2 red chilies ( 1 if you like it less spicy)
·      1 big piece of garlic
·       thumb size ginger
In a separate bowl, mix :
·      1 tbsp. sesame oil,
·      a pinch of salt
·      1 tbsp sugar
·      2 tbsp tomato paste

Procedure :  Heat the oil in a pan, add in the pounded ingredients.  Saute till fragrant. Stir in the prawns. Cook for a couple minutes until the prawns turn pink, making sure they are coated with the spices.  Pour in the sesame oil and tomato mix. Blend well.  Taste to see if it needs any more salt or sugar.  Thicken with the corn flour mixture. Stir every thing once again.  Quickly turn the heat off. Do not overcook the shrimps.

Serve topped with a few coriander leaves or some sliced spring onions.

Family or party stretcher :  You can also cook a few hard boiled eggs, peel them, cut them in half and lay them on the bottom of a serving dish and pour the Chili Prawns over them.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

If I had had a crystal ball.....

As I sat on the stage clad in a makeshift black and gold cape, posing with nearly 80 of the 120 girls who graduated high school with me in 1969, I had to take a deep breath and control the flood of tears which I knew was beginning to swell from the pit of my belly.  No, they were not tears of sadness.  They were of joy.  Of being right there in the midst of the women whom I had known from my childhood.  Each of us with a story to tell.  A story of love, of loss, of disappointments as well as triumphs.  Perhaps not of Olympic proportions but monumental in our own little worlds.
As I looked at the faces around me, I recognized in each one of us dressed in that glittering polyester outfit, sporting wide smiles for the camera - a survivor. 
Perhaps survivor is too dramatic a word.  It was, after all, a highly emotionally-charged  moment.  Resilient is really more appropriate.  Because not many of us knew at 16 that we were stronger than we had given ourselves credit for. I know with certainty that I did not. Perhaps I could have been a more confident teenager had I known, saving myself from all that angst. But I didn’t. 
1969 was a year of great expectations.  It was the year Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind; flower power exploded into a gigantic party called Woodstock; Ferdinand Marcos was reelected for a 2nd term; another Filipina, Gloria Diaz was crowned Miss Universe; the Cultural Center of the Philippines opened its doors for the first time.  Yes, the moon was on its seventh house! 
If I had had a crystal ball, maybe I would have been more assertive. I would have raised my hand more often in class. Studied harder (oops… Maybe not).  Dared to do more in the age of Aquarius.  Just think of all those missed opportunities, so many I-could-have-done’s but didn’t do. 
But would I still be me? The person I am today. 
I like to think that the person looking at me from the mirror is a reflection of all the accumulated fears, self-doubts and epiphanies of that 16-year-old girl.  Not knowing what the future held, meant that I, like every single one of the women with me on that stage, had to learn to do with what I had been given.
With my mother working day and night at our pharmacy, I learned to managed a household.  To create meals for the family from whatever was in the cupboards. Watching those TWA commercials (Up, up and Awaaay!), I wanted desperately to travel the world or become an exchange student to the USA or to Europe like many of my classmates. But that was not within my parent’s budget.  So, I applied to become a flight stewardess – too short.  Then I tried out for an international dance group – can’t dance.  My soulful moves were not quite ballet!  Eventually, I settled for a summer travel program and then joined a local student travel organization which took me to Marawi, in Mindanao, the Southern part of my country.  The process, allowing me to realize that there are many roads to travel and many ways of getting there.
If I had had that crystal ball, I would not have had that most wonderful surprise of my life. Meeting my husband Louis. At 16, hopelessly in love with Captain Kirk of the Star Ship Enterprise, I would never have guessed that I would meet a blue-eyed Dutchman in the living room of a friend’s house in Makati.  Marry him at 21 and leave my childhood home and friends for a life of many unknowns. Many new frontiers.
Now, as I sit in my dining room in Holland writing this blog, I look back at the 50 years since we were last on that same podium.  Not in the bold colors of gold and black but in the innocence and purity of our white high school graduation caps and gowns.  Yes, we have all come a long way.  No longer wide-eyed and naïve, but women seasoned by time and experience.  Blessed with the knowledge that in spite of all the years apart, we have always had our friendships to fall back on and carry with us.
Today, I not only understand, but truly appreciate why looking through a crystal ball would not have guaranteed a happily ever after. There are choices I wish I had not made or had done differently.  There are roads which should been left untraveled.  But, here I am.  The sum of all of the above. Scarred but not beaten.
Why do we want to know what the future will bring?
Isn’t it better to just live each day as it comes?  Welcoming each sunrise. And as the sun sets, looking forward to whatever tomorrow has in store. 
Borrowing a phrase from the kids of today...bring it on!

One of my favorite Indonesian snacks or side dish to a meal is fried tempeh with peanuts.  Tempeh or tempe is a traditional Indonesian soy product that is made from fermented soybeans. It is a natural product made through a controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form. 

I have never been able to recreate the ones we used to have when we lived in Jakarta but this recipe comes very close.  The sweet-salty combination and the crunchy peanuts make it a wonderful meat substitute. And the best part is that my grandchildren think they’re delicious! 

Fried Tempe with Sweet Soy Sauce and Peanuts


 Ingredients :
500 gm. tempe, sliced into about ¼ inch strips
2 pcs. Garlic
3 -4 shallots or 1 small white or red onion
2 -3 tbsp. sambal badjak  (sweet sambal)  or sambal oelek (saltier version)
2 -3 tbsp.  kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce)
2 -3 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp. lemon or lime juice
1 lemon grass, bruised (optional)
1 cup of plain roasted, salted or unsalted peanuts
oil for frying

Preparation :
        1.  Grind the garlic and onion/shallots in a mortar or use an electric grinder.  I use the latter because it is just so much easier!!
2.    Heat the oil.  Deep fry the tempe until golden brown. Do this in small portions so that you do not use too much oil.  Set the cooked tempe aside on paper towels to drain off any excess fat.
3.    Leave about 3 tbsp of oil in the frying.  Saute the garlic and onion mix for a minute or so and then add the sambal oelek (if you don’t like it to be too sweet) or sambal badjak (my family’s choice of sambal).  Put in the lemon grass if you have one.  Mix well.
4.    Pour in the kecap manis.  And then the lemon juice, blend well into mixture. 
5.    Add the peanuts
6.    Lastly, toss in the fried tempe.  Combine all until they are all coated with the kecap-sambal mixture.
Serve hot immediately or at room temperature.  It tastes better after a couple of hours as it gives the tempe time to soak up all the flavors and spices.
It can be kept in the fridge for a week (if it lasts that long). Microwave or allow to cool to room temperature, serve as a side dish or a snack.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Where is home?

From the day I left Manila four and half decades ago, my dream had always been of coming back home again. Home to my mother and father, my siblings, the girls from school I grew up with, all the familiar smells, tastes and sounds of the place of my birth.

Today, my parents are gone. My siblings have gotten married and have started their own families.  My girlfriends have done the same, many of them moving to other countries as well.  Each and every person in my place called home has moved on.  Maybe just down the road or all the way across the globe.  But home is no longer what I had envisioned it to be.

So, where is home?

It is no longer the house my father built in Marikina. Sure, the mezzanine where the beige rotary dial phone used to be, is still there. The phone has gone many years ago to a trash heap.  Replaced by more modern cellular devices. But I can still see myself huddled in that corner by the window, in the wee hours of the morning, talking to my best friend, trying to contain the excitement in my voice as I describe the boy who asked me to dance and then asked for my number. So many hours of my life spent in that one spot   - laughing, crying, dreaming.

There are but a few traces of life as I knew it then.  The memories remain though. And the feelings that come with the flood of memories is overwhelming, even palpable.  Coming home in September for the reunion of our 1969 high school class threw me into an emotional overflow that still lingers to this day.

It wasn’t because of the frenetic catch-up rehearsals for the 7- minute dance performance in the auditorium and the lunches, dinners, even breakfast get-togethers in-between.  It was really going back 50 years to 1969.  Remembering once again all the insecurities of being 16 – middle class, not exceptionally brilliant in school, certainly not one of the beautiful belles, not wearing an oversized boy’s college ring on my left ring finger or even hanging from a gold chain on my neck, just one of the girls in a class of 120.

Walking into the first reunion meeting took a lot of courage.  Yes, I do have my core group of good friends, the ones I have remained in close touch with through the years by mail or by phone.  The girls who make up my must-see list each time I come to Manila.

But then there are all the others!  That was unknown territory.  Will they be as friendly and as welcoming? 

They were.  Really.  There were open arms and tight hugs everywhere.   Naturally, there were some awkward moments too. One former classmate even asked me to point out who I was from our high school graduation picture.  
 50 years can change one’s appearance.  Some of the girls were instantly recognizable.   Others took a bit longer to recall until the familiar sound of a voice, a certain smile or a mannerism triggered a chord in my declining memory.  Followed by even tighter hugs to conceal the embarrassment and to affirm the genuineness of the sentiment. 

Yes, 50 years not only changes how we look; it changes how we view the world.  At 16, the future was crystal clear – go to college, find a job, get married, have children…  Whilst eating lunch in the canteen, we would look at the other girls and try to guess who was going to be successful, famous, important, mom of many children and some, even all of the above!

Fast forward to 2019 and we have all come to realize that it was neither simple nor clear. Our preconceived ideas of our rightful place in the world was exactly that … pre- and ill- conceived.

The best part of the reunion is that as I embraced each familiar face and recalled some of the crazy, mundane, happy, even sad events of our lives, we knew that we had all come a long way from the confines of our convent walls and our sheltered lives. We have all lived and have survived, some better than others.  But that is what life teaches you along the way as well. It’s not a perfect world out there. We just have to create a safe haven for ourselves and for the ones we love where ever we are.

So, where is home?

For me, home, like the cliché goes, is where the heart is.  And my heart is in many places.  It is in Manila with my siblings, my extended family and my childhood friends.  It is in every place that I have lived in, where friendships born out of necessity have blossomed into lifelong attachments.  

 It is here in Hilversum, in our little white house with green trimmings where we have lived for the last 22 years.  The home which our children have used as a springboard to start their own lives. It is here where our grandchildren now come to play with the toys their parents have left in our attic.

Where is home? 

I am home. 

Post script :  The black and white sketch above was done by a little girl named Olivia.


The one true cure for homesickness (aside from taking the plane home) is food from home.  And for me, at the moment, it's Palitaw.  A simple, 4-ingredient wonder that lies heavy on the tummy when you eat too much.  But it sure makes the heart feel happy and light! 

for the dough :
2 cups glutinous rice flour
1 cup water 

the garnish :
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
1 cup grated coconut 

for cooking :  10 -12 cups of water  in a large pot 

Procedure : 

1. Boil the water.

 2. In a large bowl, combine the rice flour and the water.  Mix this by hand, add more water if it feels dry.  But do this carefully, adding just a bit at a time.  The consistency should be like soft, maleable playdough! 
Take a bit of dough and form it into a ball, the size of a big walnut.  Then flatten it with your hand to form an oblong or even round patty.  Place on a plate or cookie.

3. As soon as the water starts to boil, drop one patty at a time.  Once the patty is cooked, it will float to the top (thus the name - palitaw - to appear!).  Lift each one from the water with a slotted spoon and gently lay it on a plate to cool.  Do this until all the dough has been cooked. 

4.  For the garnish -  Prepare 2 plates.  Place the grated coconut on one and the sesame seeds mixed with sugar in another.  First, coat both sides of each patty with coconut.  Then dip it in the sugar mixture, making sure both sides are coated.
Arrange the patties on a nice serving plate and sprinkle the leftover coconut and sugar mixture on top. 

Please note that this dessert/merienda should be eaten within the day.  It really does not keep.  Nor can it be refrigerated.   Keep it in a cool place once done and serve within a few  hours.