Christmas in Mexico Part 2 – Traveling with Children

Before actually having children, I had envisioned myself one day to be one of those rare globetrotting moms, the type you would picture carrying a baby on her back while shopping at the local market in exotic locations around the world.

Yeah, right.  Although I wish that could be me, the reality now that I am a mom is that even the thought of international travel with my children intimidates me.  Whereas one time, I would jump on an airplane and fly around the world on a moment’s notice, now a trip abroad fills me with anxiety and stress. I can barely stomach a family trip to Mexico, let alone the other far-flung areas of the world that I still want to see.  Apparently my adventuresome spirit has left this building.

Even after my parents offered to pay for our trip to Mexico, my husband and I were still reluctant to go, mainly because traveling with kids is a real pain in the ass.  Perhaps if we traveled more often, we would be used to all the hassles and minor annoyances that accompany international travel, and a trip to Mexico wouldn’t be such a major ordeal.  Perhaps traveling with kids is a learned skill and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  However, this was our first trip abroad in two years.  We were rusty and out of practice.  And the bottom line is that traveling with kids is a lot of work for a vacation.

One thing I wish I had more foresight about before making an international trip was getting my children’s passports early!  (Unfortunately, I don’t have much foresight when it comes to my kids.  I’m more of a take each day as it comes, while some of my mom friends are already looking into Kindergartens for their toddlers.)  With both kids, I got the passports exactly one month before the trip.  Not recommended.  I spent two days frantically filling out passport applications, getting passport pictures at Walgreens (which my children were not very cooperative with, so both ended up with passports that look like they’re about to cry), and going to the passport office/post office with my husband and kid.  On top of the passport fee, I had to pay an extra $60 for rush delivery.  Three days before our trip, our daughter’s passport still hadn’t arrived.  My husband, the negative thinker in the family, kept going on about how I should’ve gotten her passport earlier and now we paid for the trip and we’re not able to go, blah, blah, blah.  We don’t fight much, but the stress from getting passports led to a couple of tiffs between us.  Luckily the passport came the following day (as I knew it would).

Then there’s the packing.  Packing becomes a huge project before a vacation with kids.  I used to be the quintessential last-minute packer.  The night before one of my international stints, I would pack 6 to 12 months’ worth of my stuff into one large backpack and a carry-on.  Now, packing for me and two kids requires preparing days in advance.  I make lists so I don’t forget anything, buy things from the store that might come in handy during the trip, and pack a lot of extraneous supplies for “just-in-case”-moments.  My husband and I packed our clothes and toiletries into one suitcase, while the kids got their own big suitcase.  Soon enough their suitcase was full, and then their clothes (although smaller, I packed a lot more of them – 12 outfits for them vs. 6 for myself), diapers, beach toys, books, swim gear, and separate toiletries started to spill over into our suitcase and carry-on luggage.

The actual travel to Cancun required a 1.5-hour drive to Phoenix, two 2-hour flights and a one-hour layover in Dallas.  That was the easy part.  Fortunately for us, our kids are phenomenal travelers on airplanes.  They love the adventure of flying on an airplane, and when that novelty wears off (after take-off), they have their v-readers, coloring books, DVD players and snacks to keep them sufficiently entertained. Of course the trade-off is that I don’t have the chance to relax. I’m always making sure they’re sitting down and buckled in, fetching their entertainment and snacks, telling them not to kick the seat in front of them or catching them from spilling juice.  I can never relax enough to nap, let alone read a book or magazine, because I’m constantly in serving mode in order for my kids to raise the least amount of fuss possible. It pays off, though – on every single airplane ride, they have been complimented by a fellow passenger for their good behavior.

We opted for what we thought would be the easiest way to travel with the kids – the all-inclusive resort.  We didn’t even have to leave the resort grounds because everything was provided for us – the beach, swimming pools, entertainment, shopping, food and drink.  In a sense, it was nice that we didn’t have to worry where our next meal or snack will come from and that everything was a 5-minute walk or shuttle ride away.  However, it was still work bringing the little ones everywhere, and as kid-friendly as the resort claims they are, there are still some things that just aren’t suitable for young kids, i.e. the hard floors in our room (both kids fell off the bed during their sleep).  The buffet wasn’t easy either since the kids aren’t old or tall enough to get their own food.  And when my daughter got Montezuma’s Revenge in her swim diaper by the kiddie pool, the only place I wanted to be was back home.

Back in the day, the way I used to travel was with a Lonely Planet guide book in hand, hopping around the country to different hostels or guest houses while learning about the culture of the country and trying out the cuisine at food stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.  I had the independence, freedom, and adventurous spirit to travel in that way. Not so now.  There would be no adventures or learning about the culture or trying new foods or attempting to speak Spanish in our trip to Mexico.  I didn’t even get to go snorkeling in the ocean, my favorite outdoor activity.  Every day we carried three enormous bags of toys, clothes, towels, water, etc. out to the beach or kiddie pool, where we spent most of our day watching the kids have fun.  We might as well have been on a beach resort in the U.S. (although it wouldn’t have been as warm, which was my parents’ beef about traveling within the U.S.).

Perhaps when the children are old enough we’ll be able to travel the way I enjoyed at one time in my life.  We could be one of those rare families that travel around the world, exposing their kids to different cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles.  But first, my adventuresome spirit needs to come back!

Christmas in Mexico Part I

This past Christmas we celebrated the holidays in my parents’ typical fashion…at an all-inclusive beach resort in Mexico.

Since my siblings and I reached our mid-20s several years ago (yikes), my parents have completely given up celebrating Christmas in the traditional sense.  No more Christmas tree, no decorations hanging outside or around the house, no special Christmas dinner, no Christmas shopping.  Instead, they have come up with a different tradition: traveling to a warm and sunny location in the tropics, preferably by the beach and a golf course.  Considering we’re all grown up and out of the house, and that my parents have extra days off during the holidays when their business is closed (not to mention the fact that Indiana gets so freakin’ cold and dreary before the holiday season even hits), it kind of makes sense.  And so, for the past 15 years or so, that’s how they’ve celebrated Christmas.

One year they traveled to Hawaii, one time they went on a Caribbean cruise, and a few times they’ve gone Mexico and various islands in the Caribbean.  They even came to Tucson three years ago to celebrate our son’s first Christmas.  However, contrary to popular belief, Arizona is not a blazing inferno yearround.  It actually does get chilly in December and January (highs in the 60s, sometimes in the 50s and even the 40s like last week!).  When my parents realized that Tucson at Christmastime doesn’t sufficiently thaw them out from the harsh Indiana cold, they opted for warmer climates, which meant going further south than Florida or Arizona (i.e. outside U.S. borders).  This year they chose Riviera Maya in Mexico.

Initially my husband and I vetoed the idea to meet them there because traveling with kids, especially young kids to international destinations, is a real pain in the neck (more about that in the next entry).  However, my parents desperately wanted to see their grandchildren, whom they hadn’t seen in a few months.  And since it was their turn to travel (last time we had seen them, we all flew Indiana), they offered to pay for our trip, including our flights to Cancun and a week’s stay at an all-inclusive beach resort (very generous, I know).

So our Christmas Eve and Day were spent on the beach.  Don’t get me wrong – it was a gorgeous beach with fine, white sand and beautiful crystalline blue waters.  However, despite the fact that I was with my entire family, it didn’t feel like Christmas.  The resort attempted to make things Christmas-y for their gringo tourists, with a humongous Christmas tree in the lobby, Christmas music playing throughout the resort, and a holiday-style buffet.  Although the resort look more festive, it didn’t successfully achieve the Christmas feel.  I guess the Christmas spirit comes from being at home with family and time-honored traditions (and cold weather, perhaps), not when it’s artificially concocted by a monstrous corporate entity (as our resort was).

Before having children, I hadn’t felt the Christmas spirit in years, not since maybe college.  Toward my adulthood, Christmas became more of a nuisance than a time for celebration.  I don’t even remember coming home for Christmas while I lived in Boston after college because I was too poor to travel during the peak season.  I remember one year I waited tables on Christmas Eve and the next day, two fellow servers and I volunteered at a homeless shelter.  Then there were those years when I was abroad and in places where they didn’t even celebrate Christmas.  During those years I was aware that it was Christmas but didn’t do anything special in honor of it.

Despite the 10 or so non-Christmases I had in my life, I actually have great memories of Christmas when I was a kid.  And now that I have young kids myself, I would like to create wonderful memories of Christmas for them. Part of the fun in having kids is reliving your childhood through their eyes and recreating traditions while starting new ones with them.  We already have started some traditions for the holiday season – watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special on tv while drinking hot chocolate, decorating the Christmas tree, seeing the Christmas lights at Winterhaven (a neighborhood in Tucson that is famous for its Christmas decorations), baking cookies, etc.  It’s fun for them to hear stories of Santa Clause, see the colorful blinking lights, decorate gingerbread houses, and sing “Jingle Bells” (not so fun to visit with Santa Clause…yet), and through my children, I feel the Christmas spirit returning to me.  Although at one time all the music and decorations and presents seemed extraneous and wasteful and unnecessary, I realize that it all contributes to the magical and wondrous feeling that makes Christmas the best time of the year.  And seeing the joy and excitement on my kids’ faces is priceless.

Next Christmas my youngest will be nearly 3 and the oldest 5, so they will start grasping the concept of Christmas. And that’s the best time to celebrate holiday traditions at home and start creating memories for them.  I want my kids to see Christmas as a magical time and look forward to the holiday season each year.  So sorry Mexico, we won’t be spending another Christmas with you.  Maybe another time, though.

A Healthy (and Happy) Thanksgiving Menu

Thanksgiving is upon us – the only holiday of the year in which the primary focus is on food and overindulgence among friends and family. (Okay, maybe the primary focus of Thanksgiving is being thankful, but that quickly becomes an afterthought as soon as we dig into our heaping plates of turkey and its fixings.)  It’s no wonder Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays!

Growing up in my family, Thanksgiving usually involved a typical feast of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and of course, being a Korean household, a side of kimchee (believe me, turkey tastes infinitely better with kimchee). After my mom slaved away in the kitchen all day while we kids watched the Star Wars marathon on tv, we proceeded to sit at the dinner table for all of 15 minutes, quickly devouring what it took my mom all day to cook.  After several Thanksgivings like this and my dad finally declaring that turkey is “the worst meat ever”, my mom changed up the menu to ignore tradition and serve our family favorites of filet mignon and lobster.  However, after a couple of Thanksgivings, my brother and I wanted to go back to the American tradition of turkey and casseroles, so from that point, we volunteered to make Thanksgiving dinner.  (My mom was happy to oblige.)  We did our part to make Thanksgiving decadent by having a massive bird, several side dishes (all of which contained heavy cream and butter) and two options for dessert, one of which was always a French silk pie ordered from Bakers Square Restaurant.

It has been three years since I last cooked Thanksgiving dinner, but this year is going to be different from the past dinners I’ve cooked in that it’ll be….healthy.  Why, you ask?  After all, I love butter as much as Paula Deen (okay, not THAT much).  The main reason is that my father-in-law suffered two heart attacks this year, in which he had stents put into his arteries.  Since then he has completely revamped his diet.  In addition, my husband has high cholesterol and switched to a mainly plant-based diet this year to improve his health. As for me, I want to look good in my bathing suit for a family trip to Mexico over Christmas (not quite as important :)).  I know that Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that overindulgence is allowed, but the health of the men in my life is more important than food that tastes really, really good (butter, butter, and more butter).

So how am I going to do this?  Well, I’m going to focus on vegetables, forgo the side dishes that require two sticks of butter like stuffing (which my husband and I don’t like much anyway), and make healthy alternatives to some of the dishes (I got half of the recipes from Eating Well magazine).  Here’s our menu for Thanksgiving:

Herb-Roasted Turkey
Smoked Turkey Breast (My husband wants to try out the new smoker/grill)
Layered mashed potato/mushroom casserole
Roasted Harvest Vegetables
Steamed Broccoli (my father-in-law’s favorite vegetable)
Cranberry with Orange Sauce
Dinner Rolls
Pumpkin Chocolate Torte

I look forward to cooking and eating this meal, and I hope my family members enjoy it as well.  I really don’t think we will be missing out on anything when we have our feast on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, and I can’t forget the side of kimchee.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Be Gone, Baby Weight!

It has been almost 22 months since I had my last baby and 4 months since I stopped breastfeeding.  I’ve finally accepted the fact that the excess baggage that I’ve been carrying is sticking around, and that I actually have to work to get this baby weight off.  Dammit!

During my first pregnancy, I gained a whopping 45 lbs.  They say it’s normal to gain 25-30 lbs. during pregnancy, and that the smaller you are to begin with, the more you gain.  Well, I wasn’t that small to begin with.  I’m 5’5 with a pre-pregnancy weight of 137 lbs., have broad shoulders and size 9 feet…not the typical petite Asian (a friend once called me a “mutant Asian”).  However, I was in pretty good shape back then.  When I was one month pregnant (and unaware of the fact), I was running 3.5 miles around my parents’ neighborhood and “shredding” to Jillian Michaels’ DVD.  I pounded the pavement so hard it’s a wonder the baby stayed in my womb.

I continued working out through my pregnancy (though not as hard-core), but I also ate for two with a diet consisting mostly of Frosted Flakes and fried chicken.  By the time the baby was born, I was as big as a house (topping out at 183 lbs).  Within a year, though, I magically lost all 45 lbs. without even trying (don’t hate me).  Seriously, I exercised maybe once or twice a week, still stuffed my face, and one day nine months later, miracle of all miracles, I was able to fit into my size 6 pre-pregnancy jeans again.

I wore those jeans for about a year and then got pregnant with Baby #2.  I haven’t been able to fit into those jeans since.  I seem to have a 10-pound band of fat around my midsection (and hips and thighs) that has become a permanent fixture on my body.  I know 10 lbs. isn’t that bad and not nearly as daunting as wanting to lose, say, 50 lbs.  But on my frame, an extra 10 lbs. is obvious and most importantly, I just don’t feel good about it.  I can feel the roll of fat spilling over my waistband, and body parts jiggling when I take the kids out on the jogging stroller.  Sometimes after a big meal, my tummy protrudes so much I look like I’m 5 months pregnant (luckily no one has asked me if I am – that’s a good sign, at least).  The times I feel the worst is when I’m getting dressed to go out for moms’ nights out.  I pull those skinny jeans from my closet, hoping that they will glide back on with ease like they did after my first baby.  It’s just not happening.  I can barely get them over my thighs let alone zipper and button them.  In fact, most of my clothes are from my skinnier days and I don’t look good in 90% of them.  (What’s up with all those short-cropped t-shirts I used to wear?!  I must have been small enough back then for them to cover my gut…definitely not the case now).  I refuse to buy new clothes in a bigger size and I’m sick of wearing maternity clothes! (Yes, I still do sometimes.)  I feel that I have to lose this baby weight before turning the big 4-0 next year, otherwise it all goes downhill and I succumb to frumpy mom-dom for the rest of my life.

Now that I realize I need to work at losing these last 10 lbs., I am going to employ weight-loss tactics that have worked for me in the past (I read somewhere that this is a good way for permanent weight loss).  Although, I had never gained and lost 45 pounds before my first pregnancy, I’ve had my chunky days.  In the Peace Corps, I gained 10 pounds the first year (it was a mystery in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan that male Peace Corps volunteers lost weight while female volunteers gained weight.  It didn’t have to do so much with the fatty meaty greasy food as it did with emotional and stress eating), and lost it the second year by running and eating lots of beans.  In my freshman year of college, I lost 10 pounds from eliminating red meat and fried foods from my diet and taking advantage of my university’s recreational facilities.  After grad school, I was the smallest I had ever been as an adult at 132 pounds.  At the time, I was dating a superficial Ukrainian dork who encouraged me to lose 10 pounds.  I did, but then he wanted to me to lose another 10 pounds.  I thought, Screw him!  I gained back 5 pounds and dumped him (not only did he want me to lose weight all the time, he would also wear his shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest to show off his chest hair.  Ick.).

Anyway, here are the weight-loss methods that have worked for me:

1)      Running.  There is no quicker way to lose weight than to run (or in my case, jog) even though I hate every minute of it.  Back in the day (before having babies), I was able to run 3.5 miles pretty effortlessly.  These days, and I don’t know if it’s my age or having children, but my knees, lower back, and ankles scream for mercy every time I run.  Listening to an iPod makes it slightly more bearable.  This will not be my primary form of exercise in my quest to lose weight – just a couple of times a week at the most.

2)      Turbo Jam.  One time while living in New Orleans, I came home at 1am after a night of drinking and turned on the t.v. to find this infomercial on.  Yes, it’s worthy of an infomercial (a cheesy martial arts and dance workout), but it’s fun, has good music, a charismatic instructor, and it works.  I can’t help it – I love Turbo Jam!

3)      Meal planning/keeping a food journal.  Okay, writing down everything you eat and counting calories is super-tedious, but it makes you mindful of what you are putting into your mouth.  Eating the kids’ leftover mac n’ cheese and Halloween candy is not helping me magically lose the baby weight.  Neither is the glass of wine I have almost every night.  I need to plan my meals ahead of time and stick to them instead of munching on whatever’s around when I’m hungry (usually chicken nuggets and Goldfish crackers).

4)      Eliminate bad foods.  This is a given, but for me, it works better to eliminate fried foods, junk foods, and sugar entirely.  I don’t believe in everything in moderation.  After all, everyone’s interpretation of moderation is different (is small fries in moderation?) plus just a taste of cheese can lead to a whole block, or a small piece of chocolate can lead to the whole bar.  Of course these bad foods are hard to resist, especially with the holidays coming up.  I just need to realize it’s not a free-for-all.

5)      Have a goal, timeframe, mantra, or inspiration.  In my freshman year of college, I had a picture of Linda Hamilton (of Terminator 2 fame) hanging on my mirror to inspire me.  Nowadays moms who are fit and healthy inspire me, whether it’s a celebrity mom* like Gwen Stefani or Jessica Alba or my mom friends who teach Zumba and yoga.  I also have the goal of fitting into my skinny jeans again.  I plan to run a 5K with some of my mom friends in a month to help me along.  It’s easy to fall back to old habits (like this past Monday when I ate a bacon cheeseburger from Wendy’s) once I slack on diet or exercise, but an end goal always helps me look ahead instead of giving up.

I think being accountable also helps, which is why I’m laying it all out there, here on my blog.  I am starting out at 146 lbs. and want to get down to 137 lbs. so I can fit into my size-6 pre-pregnancy jeans again.  I WILL NOT BUY NEW JEANS (my new mantra)!  Okay, I’ll keep you posted!

*Recommended Reading: I’m currently reading a book I picked up from the library called “How to Look Hot in a Minivan” by Janice Min, who is the former Editor-in-Chief of US Weekly.  She gives great tips on diet, exercise, makeup, hair, and style for new moms, and features a lot of celebrity moms for inspiration.  It’s a fun read and very helpful for those moms who don’t want to look like they’ve given up!

It’s (Orange) Pumpkin Season!

The other day the family went to the pumpkin farm to pick our own pumpkins for Halloween.  As the sun went down over the farm fields, we took a hayride to the pumpkin patch, where my son picked a perfectly shaped little pumpkin while I picked a larger, somewhat deformed pumpkin.

Pumpkins…iconic of October, the fall and cooler temperatures (mid-80’s in Tucson), and the best holidays of the year around the corner.  Pumpkins never played a huge role in my fall festivities; in fact, I had never been to a pumpkin patch before having kids.  I only remember carving one pumpkin in my youth.  I didn’t enjoy “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” as much as the Christmas special.  And I thought it strange when my friend Melissa, who was obsessed with pumpkins (her favorite holiday is Halloween and favorite color is orange), would send me a card every year in our 20s with a picture of a pumpkin patch, or of her holding a pumpkin, or a jack o’ lantern.

It wasn’t until I was in the Peace Corps that I began to appreciate pumpkins (when I started appreciate a lot of things) – specifically orange pumpkins.  During my second year, I organized my site’s annual Halloween party.  I really wanted to bring the Halloween spirit to my students since they don’t celebrate Halloween in Kazakhstan.  I even went so far as asking my friends in the U.S. to send me Halloween care packages (shout out to those friends and my sister who spent the money to send a package to Kazakhstan. I still remember who you are!).  I went to the market to look for orange pumpkins and whatever else we could find that resembled the fall, Halloween, or something scary (aside from the sheep’s heads) to decorate for the party.

When I arrived at the “squash” section of the market, however, all I saw were green and white pumpkins.  As I scoured stand after stand for the elusive orange pumpkin, I found one green pumpkin with a few orange markings on it.  I immediately snatched it up, and my local friend who was shopping with me asked the vendor if he had any other orange-y pumpkins.  Magically, the guy at the stand next to him pulled out an orange pumpkin from under his table.  As we looked around the squash section, more and more vendors were pulling orange pumpkins from under their tables and trying to get our attention so we would buy from them (we ended up buying ALL the orange pumpkins).  Apparently Kazakhstanis preferred their squash green or white, and the orange pumpkins were considered freakish, which was why they were stashed under the table, hidden from the shoppers’ view.  I guess they would compare to the heirloom tomatoes, purple carrots, or golden raspberries that you can find here in the U.S. but are not nearly as popular as the traditional variety.

I enjoy pumpkin season now, not only for the joy it brings to my kids, but because you can find an assortment of delicious pumpkin-flavored treats (of course it involves food and drink).  Every October in the U.S., you can find several establishments selling a variety of pumpkin baked goods, from pumpkin pie to pumpkin bread to pumpkin cream-cheese muffins, as well as pumpkin-flavored beverages.  Is there any vegetable as versatile in its flavor as the pumpkin?!  You can even buy canned pumpkin so you can bake your own pumpkin desserts.  I can’t tell you how awesomely convenient canned pumpkin is.  All the pumpkin goodness without the messy work.  When I lived abroad, there was no such thing as canned pumpkin.  I bought pumpkins at the market, lugged them home (not only were they heavy, they were awkward to carry), almost landed in the ER cutting them open with dull knives, seeded them, cooked them, and then used the flesh to make pumpkin muffins in Kazakhstan and pumpkin pie in Thailand.  Perhaps it was the effort I put into making them or the novelty of baked pumpkin goods in these countries, but they were damn good!  Better than any of the premade pumpkin desserts I’ve tasted here.

I also appreciate the orange pumpkin now because it is one of the few vegetables my kids will eat.  Pumpkins are very nutritious – packed with vitamins and antioxidants.  Not only will my kids will eat pumpkin desserts, they will also eat other pumpkin-y foods as well, including pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin ravioli, and pumpkin empanadas.  As for me, there’s nothing better than a pumpkin spice latte or a pumpkin ale.

Whether it’s the picking, carving, decorating, smashing, the seeds, the pie, the baked goods, the coffee, or the beer, enjoy it while you can!

Happy Halloween and Happy (Orange) Pumpkin Season!

Scary Food – Arsenic in Rice

In light of the last entry (“Simple Go-To Fried Rice“), I felt the need to write about a recent news story revealing that arsenic was found in over 200 rice and rice products sold at grocery stores in the U.S.  A study by Consumer Reports showed that rice produced in the U.S. had “worrisome” levels of arsenic, and the FDA followed suit with another study which showed similar results.  Arsenic, in inorganic form, is a “level one carcinogenic and linked to lung and bladder cancer.”

I normally would take any Consumer Reports study with a grain of… well, rice.  After all, they recommended a certain vacuum cleaner and washing machine that I ended up buying because of their glowing reviews, and they both kind of suck.  But since this involves the health of children, it’s not so easy to bypass this story with ambivalence.  After all, parents are encouraged to feed infants rice cereal as one of their first foods.  Baby & Toddler mum-mums are passed around the playground, and rice milk is given as a substitute to children who are allergic to dairy and soy.  And for those families in which rice is a staple in their diet, such as Asian families (like ours) and Latin American families (the rest of Tucson), these findings are very much a concern.

According to an article I read in the newspaper, there are some things you can do to limit the arsenic levels in your rice.  Some of them are totally impractical like cooking rice the way you cook pasta – in a ton of water which you then drain.  Yuck.  I mean, who wants to end up with porridge?  But for the more practical suggestions:

  1. Limit brown rice consumption.  Although brown rice is generally healthier than white rice (it has higher fiber content because the outer husk is still intact), it also has higher levels of arsenic.  This won’t be a hard one for me since I don’t like brown rice anyway, unless it’s cooked in chicken broth, butter, and lots of garlic.
  2. Try aromatic rices like basmati and jasmine.  These rices are imported so they don’t have the level of arsenic that American rices do.  By the way, have you tried Thai jasmine rice?  It is so fragrant and delicious.  I remember one time in Thailand, my colleague brought some Thai jasmine rice to the refugee camps for a special event.  The children just ate the rice plain and said it was so good compared to the rice they received in their handouts (broken, substandard rice).  It really is good enough to eat by itself.
  3. Wash your rice.  Supposedly washing the rice 4-6 times (filling up with water, swishing the rice around, draining the water, and filling it back up again) removes 25-30% of the arsenic.
  4. Check where your rice comes from.  California rice was found to have the least amount of arsenic, while southern states along the Bible belt (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri) had the highest amounts.  And like I said, rice imported from other countries has miniscule amounts of arsenic.

It seems like there’s a lot of stuff we’re eating that’s not so good for us, from genetically modified corn to factory-farmed meat to chemical-laden processed foods.  Even as we speak, there’s a recall on peanut butter sold at Trader Joe’s (due to salmonella), and earlier this year there was a listeria outbreak in cantaloupes.  Although avoiding every single scary food out there would be impossible, I think it’s important to listen to these reports and make changes that you are comfortable making.  In our household we eat rice about 3 times a week, so I’ll probably reduce it by one and replace it with another grain (barley, quinoa, buckwheat – there are lots of options).  And when we do eat rice, I’ll stick to Thai jasmine and the California short-grain that we’re used to eating.  But I’m not going to eliminate rice from our diet altogether.   That would just be too hard for us.  Fried rice, anyone?

 

Simple Go-to Fried Rice Recipe

I realize that I’ve been talking a lot about myself since I started this blog.  That’s precisely the point of a blog though, right?  However, since a lot of my readers are fellow moms, I thought that perhaps I could be a bit more helpful in some of my entries.   With that said, I want to share my go-to recipe; “go-to” meaning that I make this when 1) the fridge is looking rather bare, 2) I have no idea what to cook, and 3) I want to feed the family fast.  I learned this recipe in Thailand when I took a 1-day cooking course in Chiang Mai and have been using it ever since.  It’s easy, fast, and delicious enough to please everyone in the family (even my picky 3-year old).

But first, a story (sorry, old habits die hard):
It was Christmas Eve 2007 in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.  A handful of us expats had the misfortune of staying in our organization’s compound over the holidays.  In order to attain some celebratory spirit of Christmas (and make light of the fact that we were stuck in Juba), we decided to have a gift exchange and a decadent meal (very rare in South Sudan).  Marie, the Food Security Program Manager from France, volunteered to make coq au vin for dinner, in addition to having a cheese and meat plate, fresh bread, chocolate truffles, and free-flowing wine.  She made a list of food and supplies we needed, had one of our colleagues purchase them in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya (she had just left South Sudan so she felt sorry for us), and had another colleague who flew into Juba the day before deliver the goods to us (there was no way we could pull this dinner off with what was available in Juba).

On Christmas Eve, the morning of the big feast, Marie went to the market to purchase two chickens for the coq au vin. The chickens were freshly killed, with heads and feathers intact, which meant that Marie had the unpleasant task of removing them.  She spent hours plucking the feathers off the two chickens as I helped cut up onions and peel potatoes (the easy job).  Since we let the compound’s cook off for the day, we were responsible for making our own lunch as well.  Marie had planned on making a rice salad, but as 1pm rolled around, she still had her hands full plucking, beheading, and draining the blood from the chickens (unfortunately I witnessed all of it). There was a compound full of hungry expats, and since I was the only other one in the kitchen, I volunteered to make lunch.

As soon as I saw the leftover rice in the fridge, I immediately thought of making fried rice.  At that point in my cooking career, it was the only thing I could make spontaneously (i.e. without looking at a recipe).  Fortunately, there was soy sauce, onions, garlic, sugar in the pantry, as well as some leftover meat and vegetables from last night’s dinner. By 1:30pm, I put out a big pot of fried rice on the table.  My coworkers devoured it, and they appreciated the fact that I made something so quick, not to mention different from the other foods they were used to eating (meat or stews).  Okay, it was a small thing feeding a bunch of people, but I felt like a hero.

So all you really need for this recipe is some leftover rice (has to be chilled so that the dish won’t end up being a big mushy mess).  In our household, the rice cooker is permanently affixed to our countertop, and I always make extra rice so I can stash a few cups of cooked rice in the fridge or freezer.  The other ingredients you need are probably already in your kitchen – onions, garlic, soy sauce and sugar.  Just throw in some protein, whether it’s beef, pork, chicken, tofu, shrimp, or eggs, as well as some vegetables (I always have a bag of mixed vegetables in my freezer), and voila, you have a simple and filling meal.  If your kids balk at the sight of vegetables (like mine do), you can always grate in some carrots or chop up tiny pieces of broccoli florets and throw that in.  The point is, this recipe is super-flexible, and once you get the hang of making it, you will be able to  throw in whatever suits your family. I usually serve it as a stand-alone meal a couple times per month, or sometimes I’ll make soup or an appetizer to go with it.  That’s all.  Now you can be a hero at your house too!

Simple Go-To Fried Rice (adapted from Gap’s cookbook)
Serves 4 (2 adults & 2 small children)

3 c. leftover, chilled cooked rice
2 T. high-heat cooking oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 c. cooked meat (beef, chicken, pork, shrimp), cut into small pieces OR fried tofu, cubed
1 c. frozen peas and carrots or mixed vegetables, defrosted
2 eggs, beaten (optional)
2 T. soy sauce
1 t. sugar

1.  Set a wok or large, deep pan (be careful when using a frying pan.  The rice may fly all over the place!) over medium-high heat.  When the wok is very hot, swirl the cooking oil around the edge so the oil spreads down and coats the wok.  Add the onions, saute for two minutes, and then add the garlic and saute for one minute.
2.  Add the rice, making sure the rice grains are separated (if using previously frozen rice, do not add the big block of rice-ice to the pan!  Defrost it first and separate the rice grains).  Use a spatula to scoop up the oil and onion/garlic over the rice, so that the rice touches the bottom of the pan.
3.  Add soy sauce and sugar, mix up rice, and then spread out rice over surface of wok and let cook for 1 minute (this gives the rice a chance to crisp up and cook.  Don’t toss around the rice constantly or the texture of the rice will get mushy).
4.  Add the meat or tofu and vegetables, mix it up with the rice, spread out the rice in the wok and cook for another minute.
5.  Push the rice to one side, add some oil to the other side and spread the egg out over the oil.  Let cook for a minute or so, then mix with the rice (if you don’t have a wok, you can cook the egg in a separate frying pan).
6. Taste the rice, and add more soy sauce or sugar as needed.  Enjoy!

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