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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My Facebook posts were a lot more interesting before I became a mom

I first heard about Facebook while living in Thailand, by a Canadian girl who worked in the refugee camps with me.  I was nearing the end of my contract and Amy, who also lived across the street (it was a very small town), introduced me to the site as a way to keep in touch after I left the country.  She had asked me “Are you on Facebook?”  to which I replied “What the heck is Facebook?”

That was in 2007.  Now it seems that everyone and their father (including mine) is on Facebook.  When I joined, I “friended” family members, old friends, and classmates, as well as my coworkers at ARC and colleagues in Thailand working for other organizations that helped Burmese refugees.  I even became Facebook friends with people I met at a two-week training in Paris before leaving for my mission in South Sudan.  Although we had just met, an immediate bond forms when working for the same non-profit organization, and even among humanitarian aid workers in general.  Facebook was a convenient way to keep in touch with these colleagues, not only to be updated with their whereabouts and the projects they were involved in, but also for the likelihood that we could run into each other in the field (happens quite a bit).  Facebook was also a good way to offer a glimpse of our lives without a lengthy mass e-mail.  Some of my posts while working and living in South Sudan:

“I’m afraid a rat will crawl onto my bed while I’m sleeping, gnaw its way through my mosquito net, and eat my face off.”

“Had to dump a bucket of water over my head at 2:30 in the morning in order to get to sleep last night”

“Evacuated…again”

“Back in Malakal, where men marry goats and donkeys commit suicide!”

*I have to thank Facebook’s new timeline format for the ease in accessing these past posts!

Since I’ve settled back in the U.S. and had kids, my life and Facebook status updates have become pretty mundane.  When my kids were just babies, I often posted about their sleep issues while complaining about my lack of sleep.  Later on, I talked about their eating habits (as well as mine).  I posted about trips we took as a family.  On rare occasions I would mention a child-free outing (like an anniversary dinner, baseball game or rock concert), and once in a great while I’d comment about sports (New Orleans Saints winning the Superbowl) or politics (Obama winning the ’08 presidential election).

I am still in touch with my humanitarian aid friends via Facebook, and I love reading updates about their new missions, projects they are involved in, and cultural differences in their host countries.  I can live vicariously through their work and travels while I stay put in Arizona.  And even though the time we actually spent together was brief, I will always feel connected with them through the intense and unique experiences we shared abroad.  Also, having these friends all over the world makes me realize how small it really is, and I hold on to the hope that I will see them again (perhaps when I go back to the field someday?).  On the other hand, I have met a lot of wonderful people since moving to Tucson, most of them new moms with kids the same ages as mine.  Like in the humanitarian field, there is an instant bond that develops when you discover that you have one major thing in common.  It’s reassuring to know that there are others going through the same things as you, and Facebook has been a great way to share stories, tips, advice, or just plain sympathy with these other new moms.

Yes, the life of a humanitarian aid worker is more exciting and the Facebook status updates are more interesting to read (sorry moms).  And although working in the humanitarian field is meaningful and rewarding (sometimes), being a mom is even more so.  Sure, my day-to-day isn’t quite as exciting and my posts have become downright boring at times.  That’s my life right now.  And I’m okay with that.

Our road trips always lead to…diarrhea

It never fails.  Every time we go on a road trip, it seems to happen – the worst thing to befall a child (and the parents) while on vacation: gastrointestinal illness (i.e. vomiting and/or diarrhea).   We were staying at a hotel the last couple of times it happened, so at least we had running water, plenty of clean towels and sheets, garbage service, etc.  But when it strikes, you would much rather be in the comfort of your own home.  I felt horrible asking the housekeeping staff for new towels and sheets every 2 hours and disposing of the toxic diapers in the main garbage can near the dining area.  I guess it could’ve been worse…we could have been camping.

On our last road trip a few months ago, we were in the middle of the Petrified National Forest near Holbrook, AZ.  I was carrying my then 14-month old girl on my back when she started hacking.  At first we thought the jostling in the Ergo carrier made her motion-sick, but she would not stop throwing up for the next 6 hours.  Then as quickly as it came, it left, replaced by diarrhea (not sure which is worse).  The vomiting curse then passed to my 3-year old son, who threw up all that night into the trash can.  Two nights later my husband was praying to the porcelain goddess.  At least they took turns and weren’t all hurling in unison.  (I suffered from nausea the day after but miraculously didn’t end up vomiting.  Amazing considering that I’m usually one of the first ones to go down in these situations.)

Last week, we went on a road trip to San Diego.  On the third night, my now 19-month old girl was rolling around and whimpering in her sleep.  I could tell she was uncomfortable so I held her, thinking she might vomit.  Then I heard the liquidy-fart sound and thought, Oh no.  We stayed in the hotel room the entire next day as she had her runs, slept, and cried.  We gave her water and Pedialyte, and for the first time in her life, she refused any food.  By the next day, she started to resemble the Sudanese kids that I worked with a few years ago.  Her eyes were wide and glassy with dark shadows underneath, her face was gaunt and pale, and her body lost all semblance to her former chubby self.

As I watched my poor little girl in misery, I asked myself, Why does this happen every time?  Well, I already know the answer.  Road trips mean being out of routine, familiar surroundings, our usual foods, etc.  On road trips I tend to be a bit lax about washing hands (ironically I used to organize hand-washing campaigns at the refugee camps in Thailand), keeping snacks at the right temperature, and de-germing in general.  The day before she got sick, we spent the whole day at the beach.  Not once did we wash our hands.  We ate snacks (yogurt and turkey wrap) that were stashed in an insulated lunchbox without an ice pack.  For dinner, we ate at an Italian restaurant where I shared my linguine del mar (shrimp & shellfish) with the kids.  Between all the sharing, sticking beach-sand hands in the mouth, and eating perishable (perished?!) food, it’s no wonder that some harmful bacteria found its way into my unsuspecting toddler’s gut.

Yep, diarrhea happens.  And while it’s a miserable process, I know that with a lot of water, Pedialyte, probiotics, and the BRAT (bananas, rice, apples, and toast) diet, this will pass within a few days.  We are blessed here in the U.S. to have a standard of living high enough that diarrhea is just a minor worry.  Sadly, this is not the case in developing countries, where diarrhea is one of the biggest killers of children under 5.  In parts of South Sudan where I worked, children suffered from diarrhea frequently due to poor hygiene and drinking from contaminated sources (swamps, the river where I once saw a dead cow floating, etc.).  Limited access to health care and low education increased the risk for the child, whom normally wasn’t given life-saving ORS (oral rehydration solution – water mixed with a bit of sugar and salt to replace the electrolytes lost).  In fact, the mother or caregiver oftentimes withholds all food and water, hoping that it will “dry up” the diarrhea.  Unfortunately, the child ends up dying of dehydration.

It’s tragic that so many children around the world die from diarrhea when it is preventable and treatable (if you are interested in learning more, I found a short and informative video on the subject at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xg26pm_eliminating-child-diarrhea-in-developing-countries_people).  It really makes me appreciate the resources we have in this country that allow us to see diarrhea as a temporary nuisance rather than a real threat to our child’s life.

And for our next road trip, I’ll make sure to pack the antibacterial hand gel.

The ubiquitous “Mommy Blog”

I have joined the ranks of the thousands of other moms out there who have started a blog.  I read somewhere that 1 in 3 blogs are written by moms.  Whoa.  How did blogging become so popular among moms?  My husband says it’s because moms have the time to blog.  I responded (somewhat bitterly) that although moms may have the time, we don’t have much of the opportunity, especially new moms with young kids.   I can barely sit down at the computer before my 3-year old comes in demanding to watch YouTube videos of the Fresh Beat Band and my 18-month old pulls on my pant leg.

The thing is that a lot of moms, especially stay-at-home moms (and dads, for that matter), often feel bored and isolated.  As a stay-at-home mom (SAHM), you crave that outside contact and adult conversation that doesn’t involve the potty, dinosaurs, and various threats.  Aside from playdates with other moms (which sometimes gets difficult with children’s varying schedules, the effort of taking the kids out, etc.), the easiest and most convenient way for that connection is the internet.  That’s why the worst Facebook offenders (the ones who update their statuses and comment on yours several times a day) tend to be SAHMs.   They crave that social interaction, an outlet/voice, and something meaningful to do.  Not that it’s not meaningful to take care of kids all day.  Naturally I think it’s the most important job in the world, but at the end of the day, after all the kids have been fed and bathed and put to bed, the laundry washed and folded, the dishes put in the dishwasher, and the house picked up, SAHMs still feel like they haven’t done anything.  We are way more likely to feel exhausted than accomplished (not to mention appreciated).  SAHMs need something else.  The blog is an easy way for us to channel the little energy we have left over to have a bit of “me time,” as well as share a little of our experiences in child-rearing (perhaps vent a little?), and hopefully find others who can sympathize.

As for me, this is not my first blog.  I had a blog in 2007-2008 while living and working in South Sudan (which I’ve since taken down due to an overzealous country director.  Long story).   Even though my actual job required a lot of writing (and not the fun kind, either – reports, grants proposals, e-mails, etc.), I still managed to write a blog in my limited free time (first on MS Word running on my computer’s battery while the generator/internet was out and later posted online).  Though I had regular readers in my friends, family, and international public health classmates/colleagues, the blog was mainly to record my experiences and thoughts during my time in South Sudan.  The other thing is that I need to write.  Even before blogs were around, I’d kept a journal for years, ever since I received two Hello Kitty diaries at my 8th birthday party.   If I step away from it too long, it nags at me and urges me to get something down on paper (or screen).

Now that I don’t keep a journal, this blog is a way for me to write down the thoughts in my head – whether it’s a phase my kids are going through, a news story I heard or read, or something that triggers a memory of my time abroad.  Plus, writing a blog gives me something else to do and think about aside from my kids.  For the past three or so years, I have been consumed by my kids’ lives.  Except for an occasional entry (that I never got to post), I have been knee-deep in cloth diapers, pureed organic baby food, grocery lists and receipts, and memberships to the Children’s Museum and zoo.  Now that my kids are 1 and 3 and a bit more independent, I have a little more time to focus on something I want to do for myself (gasp!).  So although writing a blog is more for myself than anything, I’d also love the chance to connect with others and share experiences and viewpoints.  Even though we may do things differently, there is something grand that we share: the responsibility of raising children.  After all, it takes a village.

From international aid worker to stay-at-home mom

I still can’t believe I’m a mom sometimes. Just last night I was sitting on the couch with my 2-year old next to me and my 2-month old in my arms. I looked down at them and it suddenly hit me – holy crap, I have two kids! It’s not so strange considering that I’ve always wanted children and thought that eventually I would. It’s strange considering that three years ago I was living quite a different life than the one I have now – single with no kids and working as a development/aid worker in Africa (the two usually go hand-in-hand). At the time, having children seemed like a far-off and intangible dream that I preferred to keep in the back of my mind. I was 35, though, and I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I was not yet married or had children. However, doing so set alarm bells ringing, a panicky knot in my gut and the big question looming in my head “WILL IT HAPPEN FOR ME?”

Well, a lot can happen in three years (even in one year!). Looking at my life now – with two kids, a husband, and a house outside the city – my stint as an international aid worker seems like a lifetime ago. And even though the lifestyle of an aid worker is dichotomous with the one I have now, I enjoyed it immensely at the time. I was living my dream (one of them, at least). Sure, the living and working conditions were horrid at times. I was living in developing (i.e. poor) countries, staying in tents or compounds with my colleagues, taking bucket baths, using pit latrines, battling the elements (no a/c) and working 60 plus hour weeks.  However, I was doing something that was truly meaningful to me, and I never once had to question or quantify my life or career.

Now that I’m a mom, it’s easy for me to live in the sheltered and isolated bubble of stay-at-home motherhood. I definitely have been guilty of it since my son was born two years ago (and it’s even worse now since my daughter was born earlier this year). Whereas three years ago my main concerns were whether Sudan would break out in a civil war or how to convince the locals not to drink water directly from the river, my main concerns now are my toddler’s food allergies or getting my baby to sleep through the night. Although as each day passes and I get further and further away from my former life, it’s never too far away from my mind. I am constantly thinking about my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan or development worker in Thailand and South Sudan. I guess the point in writing this blog is to take those experiences and somehow connect them to my life now. I’m not sure if I’ll have anything worldly or wise to say, but it’s a chance for me to reflect on my experiences and perhaps open my eyes back up to global issues and impart some life lessons to my children. For now, though, I’ll see if I can actually get a blog going (even that seems impossible to do with two young kids!).