Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mushroom Soup for a Cold Day

All this cold weather entices me to make cauldrons of soup to keep us warm. My go-to recipe this winter is a mushroom soup that has hummus mixed in. Sounds kind of strange, but it adds an extra flavor dimension that complements the earthy mushroom flavor perfectly. I use Trader Joe's Mediterranean Hummus as I love this variety but I think any would do. I also usually use a mix of mushrooms from the West Chester Growers Market, but it would still be yummy with just cremini. The mushroom lady at the Grower's Market is the source of this recipe.

Mushroom Hummus Soup

2 T olive oil
1.25 # mixed or cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 T brandy or Madeira 
3/4 c hummus
2 shallots, minced
Kosher salt & ground pepper
6 cups low salt chicken broth
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 sprigs of thyme or 1/2-1 teaspoon dry thyme

  1. Heat olive oil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook till soft, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add mushrooms, season with salt & pepper and cook till liquid from shrooms evaporates, about 15 minutes.
  3. Add brandy and cook 2 minutes, scraping any brown bits.
  4. Add broth and thyme, simmer gently, stirring occasionally about 30 minutes
  5. Discard thyme sprigs (if using dry, ignore)
  6. Stir hummus into the soup, blend with a whisk.
  7. Transfer half the soup, in batches, to a blender and purée (remove filler cap to let steam escape), then return to saucepan and let simmer 15 more minutes.
Serves 4.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Let it snow...

Jasmine, our dog, seemed to know the snow was coming. She is a spry 11 and a half year old labradoodle and yesterday morning as the first of the flakes were falling, we went out to play. She frolicked like a puppy, teasing me with the frisbee, high stepping and pouncing around the yard keeping just beyond my reach.

I love a snow storm...the hushed, blanketed feel of the world, people settling in to nest for a day. Time seems suspended. This time I ventured out with my husband at the beginning of the storm. He had an appointment in West Chester and I had a couple of errands to run in town. First I stopped at the post office, dropping off a letter and figuring it would be empty so a good time to buy the forever stamps before the price goes up this weekend. Good plan, but it was no stamps on this day. As I left, an elderly man was ahead of me. A man entering the post office cautioned us about the slippery steps. Snow seems to melt personal barriers.

Next stop my local dry cleaner, Eunice; commiserated about the weather and then onto to Starbucks to sit, enjoy some tea and people/town watch. I sat at a seat in the window, listening to the murmur of others in the coffee shop, watching the snow pile up and people make their way carefully on the whitened sidewalks.You can judge the distance a person has walked by the accumulation of powder dusting their caps.

During the 2 hours in west chester 2 inches of snow blanketed the car. The usual 10 minute drive home took 30, cautiously avoiding the drivers who seem to have never learned how to drive in snow.

As the afternoon passed, the snow continues...we have to dig out a spot for Jasmine, our dog, to use in the yard. Then as dusk approaches, a return "guest" appears. For the past 2 years, we've had a 3 legged deer visit our yard. Now she takes shelter under one of our pines, helping herself to some of the branches of pine needles. 

Periodically we re-shovel the front walkway but leave the driveway for tomorrow. I message with Billy in Guangzhou...he is jealous as he misses snow and I miss him and Bobby...helping to shovel all this snow!

I ventured into the back around 10pm, looking at the tracks of animals that have crisscrossed our's so quiet, sounds muffled. 

As we lay in bed, the reflection off the snow glows through our blinds, like night lights outside the window. We snuggle under mounds of blankets and our winter wonderland.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Touch Points

There is so much I love about traveling. Seeing the iconic sights, exploring the hidden streets, finding the perfect boulangerie, immersing myself in the local cuisine. Even going to the pharmacy is an adventure, checking out the local beauty products. In France, there are nearly more skin lotions in their pharmacie than in a US department store. In Japan, there was an enormous section devoted to contact lenses...not lens care products, but the lenses themselves. They were available in a myriad of colors!

But the experiences that make a trip most memorable are the touch points with the people met along the way. This last trip was full of these touch points. On our first day in Tokyo, we went in search of a craft beer bar that Billy had found on the Bento website. It was a tiny place on our way between the Edo Museum and our hotel. There was a small bar and about 6 tables. Once we seated ourselves, we started chatting with the server, who was the epitome of a Japanese hipster: dark horned rimmed glasses, cap on his head and a really serious beer enthusiast! He made great recommendations on the Japanese craft beer they served and once he realized how into craft beers the boys were, inundated us with brochures, magazines, and recommendations of other bars in Tokyo to try. He seemed so excited to have us there.

Then there were the Uzbechi guys from the "stick" bar in Akasaka. They were working in Tokyo and were out with their office for the end of year celebration. The boys had squeezed in next to them and had a fabulous time talking to them, listening to them complain about their boss, but rave about Tokyo.

We all fell in love with the women working at the ryokan in Kyoto. They were so charming and hospitable. Ayako, was amazing: a bubbly, enthusiastic force of nature. She gave us perfect recommendations and seemed delighted to help us. When we asked for a photo with them, they pulled out the NYE paraphernalia for a funny group shot. And as we left, they waved to us for 2 blocks!

In China, we stayed two nights at a quirky inn in Yangshou, the countryside where there are views of the most amazing limestone mountains. There was a waitress there who had the cutest chortling laugh. We had two slightly inebriated dinners at the inn so she had a lot to laugh at. The name of the inn was the Giggling Tree and we figured it must be named for her.

Then on our last day of vacation, we were riding the subway in Guangzhou. Alise and Cathy were making funny faces to an adorable two year old who was amazed and enchanted by the western women. I was sitting a bit away and laughing at them, when a Chinese lady about my own age sat down next to me and said hello. I was responded and she asked where I was from. We then had a lovely conversation. She had just spent the entire morning at the US Consulate getting a visa for a trip to the States. She was very excited to tell me of the trip with her husband and teenage daughter to visit San Francisco, NYC and Washington DC. I gave her advice on the weather and how cold it could be and we had a lovely conversation. She was from the countryside but had a sister in SF. This was really unusual as very few people spoke such good English or were so outgoing to a stranger. She was obviously excited about her trip and it was a bit as if I was talking to a Chinese version of myself!

The people, the sights, the food ...all the memories now shared between our gang of travelers. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Restroom Reflections

Maybe it's just our family but our toilet habits are always a topic of discussion on "regular" we are or how the travel has disrupted our routine. We have two other families that we often travel with and one of them is just like us but the other, a family of runners, thinks we are gross! I blame it on my mom's practice of potty training us with a book. It turned the routine into a respite instead of merely a bodily function. This of course has had it's downside. For years, going into a bookstore had an immediate laxative effect on me. I give you this background so you know why the toilets of our recent trip became such an obsession for us.

When we moved to Japan in 1966, they had begun their conversion to western style toilets where you sit on the bowl, rather than the typical Asian style, "squatty-potty" where you squat over a bowl set in the ground. It was so new that our first apartment had the following "instructional" diagram in our bathrooms:
Well, things have really changed in Japan! They have elevated toilets to an art form! Not only are all (and I mean ALL) the public toilets immaculately clean, but the toilets themselves have become a throne of glory. Let me enumerate the standard features:

  • Heated seat
  • rear bidet spray
  • front bidet spray
  • accompanying sound of running water (to prime the pump or provide modesty, I guess)

Often included (especially in train stations and airports which seem to have the nicest toilets!) are accompanying music as well as a small TV screen! Take a look at the new instructions:

I have to admit, these devices did encourage lingering! My sister and I really shed a tear as we visited our last Japanese bathroom in the Osaka airport as we left for Beijing.

Now the Chinese toilets in public places and restaurants are still for the most part the squatty-potty, though some had handicapped stalls with western toilets (not sure if that is a commentary on what they think of westerners, but we were grateful for them):

These build great thigh strength, but take some getting used to. I found that wedging yourself with your hands on the sides of the stalls helped. Of course, I did try to get myself into condition for these. Before we left, several times I would dry my hair in a squat position. But still it is obviously not a place where you potty train with a book....efficiency is required.

The cleanliness of the Chinese toilets was not too bad...I'd say on par with US ones. And they did have some interesting rules that were clearly marked in some places:

 We are still trying to figure out how or why or what you'd want to fish from the toilet but good to know the restrictions!

Due to our obsession, we found the differences in bathroom culture fascinating. Hope I haven't grossed you out too much!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

An emotional journey...

I haven't written as much as I planned this week as besides being jet lagged, (a 13 hour time change cannot be ignored!) I've caught a cold. To try and overcome both, I've been taking NyQuil for the past 3 nights, which has allowed me to sleep but when I awake my brain feels like it's swaddled in layers of cotton. I think tonight I'll go it alone with the medicine and see what happens.

There is so much I want to recap about our trip from the emotional, experiential and practical perspectives. I plan to add a page on the tabbed section of this blog on trip planning to address some of the practicalities in planning a big vacation. 

On the emotional side, this trip meant so much to me. Firstly, it was wonderful to see Billy after saying goodbye to him in Florence back in June. As I mentioned in my earlier post, to get the concentrated time with both he and Bobby on this trip was truly a gift. I love observing my boys as we travel...seeing how competently they adapt to new is second nature now for Bobby to immediately decode a subway system, which is an amazing skill for a kid who has grown up in the suburbs of Philly. Billy was an awesome interpreter and tour guide through China. His enthusiasm and love of his experience there shone through his interactions with the people and his intensity in ordering food for us! I've come to realize that Dave and I will probably spend many of our vacations following Billy around the world, as he has an incredible thirst for new languages and cultures. Besides China, we went to Budapest a few years ago to see him when he spent a semester abroad there. I see Germany and who knows where else in our future and I love the thought of it!

It's hard to describe how much it meant to return to Japan. Most people, if they choose, can relatively easily "go home" or return to the place where you've grown up. Having spent all of my elementary school years in Tokyo, this was my first opportunity to do so. Of course the city has changed significantly, but I felt immediately comfortable. Memories of the little details flooded back: how the taxis have clean white covers on the seat tops that are changed daily and the drivers wear clean white gloves! Pieces of Japanese vocabulary floated to the surface of my mind: sitting in the subway and realizing that they just announced the doors will open on the right (in Japanese!). I realized that the reason I love traveling to cities is because that is how I grew the world's largest city! One of my favorite parts of the trip was the first morning, when we went out to Asakusa, a section of Tokyo where there is a shrine and an area that retains some of the feel of "old" Tokyo.
 We came out of the subway and didn't know which way to go to reach the shrine. There were young men trying to sell rickshaw rides and we obviously looked a bit confused and like tourists so they approached us.

We said what we were  looking for and instead of pushing their services on us, kindly showed us where to go! We came around the corner and were met by such a sight...this incredible street filled with stalls selling all sorts of souvenirs, leading up to the shrine. But the funny thing was that the people there weren't foreigners but Japanese enjoying the stalls of souvenirs. The crowd was crazy but in the way only a Japanese crowd can be.
 There were stalls making and selling special rice crackers, hot drinks, and sweet red bean treats.
As we approached the shrine, I saw a line of school children in their uniforms traipsing in front of us and my heart melted. Their uniforms looked as they did 40 years ago when I was a school girl. Then I smelled the incense from the shrine and saw the people washing their hands from the wooden scoops and that triggered more memories of weekends spent visiting various Shinto shrines  and sites like Nikko and Kamakura. 

The next emotional experience was when we went to KiddyLand, a toy store that was across the street from one of our apartments (we lived in 3 different apartments over the years). I spent many hours in KiddyLand, collecting Little Kiddles, stuffed animals and all sorts of cute erasers, which smelled yummy. For some reason, when Cathy and Bill had me stand outside the store to have my picture taken, my eyes filled with tears. How could a store bring me to tears? They were great stuffed animals, but I have grown up since then! I suppose it was the rush of memories, having Cathy and Bill there, and being able to share it all with my kids as well.

Another special part of the trip was experiencing it with my siblings, Cathy & Bill. Having lost my mom and uncle this year was a rough experience for us and traveling during the holidays was, in a way, the ultimate in avoidance. We didn't really celebrate Christmas so we didn't wallow in who was not there. But we felt my parents presence throughout the trip. Obviously when we were in Japan, all the memories flooded back: "Here was where Dad worked! Here was Mom's favorite shop for tchotchkes! There's our first apartment, where the maid started a rumor that I was the love child of my mom and a Japanese man from Yokahama (that's a whole other story!)". It rained the whole time we were in Tokyo, but it was if our memories sheltered and warmed us throughout our time there. My sister brought a small pouch with some of my parents ashes on the trip. We were going to drop them in various places along the way. But something weird happened. Consistently, we would forget to bring them. As if we weren't quite ready to let them go. 

So as I said before, it was the trip of a lifetime....

Monday, January 6, 2014

Jet lagged but joyful!

I have a confession to make...we've been traveling for the last 3 weeks (since December 16th), when we left for a trip of a lifetime to Asia. I didn't want to post here or on facebook, taking advice from the insurance ad, though we had a house/dog sitter.

It was an incredible trip. We spent a week in Japan (Tokyo & Kyoto) and then 10 days in China (Beijing, Yangshou, Hong Kong & Guangzhou), returning on January 3rd. We started planning the trip when Billy found out he was going to China on his Luce fellowship. He is not allowed to return to the States, so we decided we would spend Christmas with him in China. Then it expanded to include Japan as I couldn't fly over Japan and not visit as I hadn't returned since we left in 1971. And then since we were going to Japan, we invited my siblings. My brother Bill and sister and her family joined us. My sister stopped in Hawaii on the way and got married. AND then at the last minute, Billy's girlfriend, Anna, decided to join us for the China leg of the trip!

So there were 8 of us in Japan and 9 in China. Amazingly, we all got along drama! We only had a few times when the large group was a hindrance and these were when we didn't know exactly where we were going and had 8 different opinions on which way to go.

The highlights of the trip were visiting our old neighborhood, apartment and hotel in Tokyo, the wonderful staff at the ryokan (Japanese inn) in Kyoto, standing on the Great Wall, seeing the fireworks over the harbor on NYE in Hong Kong and the incredible banquet hosted by Billy's boss and her staff in Guangzhou. If you want to read the details of the trip, Cathy (my sister) and I kept a blog of our trip at

I have a lot of thoughts and ruminations on the trip that I will post this week. For now, I will say that I love my family (I'd have to in order to spend that much time with them!). And an added bonus of the trip was to get the concentrated time with our sons. If we had been home for the holidays, they would have been out of the house more than in, socializing with their friends. On the trip, we had them the whole time to ourselves and we loved it! Of course, now Bobby is back at Pitt and Billy is still in China and I miss them so much.