Monday, December 31, 2012

Stewed and Cubed Improvisation

I'm going to tell a story. Bear with me if you like, it does evolve into something. It's not just a rambling narrative of the events leading up to Christmas.

Two days before Christmas, my parents held a holiday party.

We arrived almost a week before that, loud and happy - as happy as you can be when your mother is sick - hugs at the airport, promises of a renovated bathroom (no more fighting over who gets to go first!), a prediction of snow, on our way to get a real tree, with real tree smell and pine needles and everything. We'd decorate! There'd be a party on Saturday at a friend's and a party on Sunday at ours, then Christmas.

Of course several issues threatened to bring the whole thing down like a cat latched to a flimsy curtain - some health issues in the immediate family that I won't disclose in full, but I can reveal that basically, my mother will soon be back in chemotherapy, on a different drug. That brought a lot of stress and uncertainty to the holidays. And with it...medical bills.

My parents are having the downstairs bathroom re-done, to make it usable for the first time in years. The work was almost not finished in time, and while it was going on, the well pump broke. We had to have that replaced along with paying the expected renovation bills.

Then, the furnace motor went. It started making an odd sound on Friday, and by Saturday morning it was dead. We found a tech who would come fix it, but the part had to be ordered and wouldn't be in before Christmas. That meant no heat up to and on Christmas Day. Whoopty-freakin'-do. Also, waiting for the tech (who was actually great, this wasn't his fault) on Saturday meant our planned Christmas shopping trip was cancelled. No, I did not get all of my Christmas shopping done, but in the end it didn't matter. At least we have a fireplace.

So...far less money than expected, no heat, medical problems, and the party was on Sunday. I was set to help clean and to cook a few dishes on the day itself, and I'll be honest, I didn't really want to do any of it in a cold house when I was already stressed. To be more honest, I wanted to cancel it.

But Mom, the one who was so insistent we would have a good holiday, was adamant that we had to soldier on. Intractable, even. I did not share her enthusiasm and, as a further confession, did not even try to pretend to. I did, however, agree to woman up and just do what needed to be done if she was so immovable on this. I figured I'd be cleaning in my coat, scarf and gloves (I was right, except for the gloves).

My husband said "this is like one of those Lifetime holiday specials in which the family is subject to trial after trial and problem after problem until the whole house goes up in a ball of flame" (which would have been warmer, anyway, and with all the blown fuses from our many space heaters, seemed to be a distinct possibility. I say: good riddance). "...and at the end, on the eve of the holiday, the family learns the true meaning of Christmas."

Me: "Fuck the true meaning of Christmas, I want heat."
Friend: "You know, Jenna, in those specials, the cynical one always has the biggest change of heart."

For the record, I want Mom to be well more than I wanted heat, but "I want heat" was a funnier thing to say, and since there is no star in this chaotic entropy-verse I can wish upon, hoping it's the eye of a nonexistent God, that will make that happen without the help of modern science (and I do pray to modern science), I may as well say what I please.

So leading up to the party I busied myself helping - I managed to get out of the house to do Mom's Christmas shopping so she could clean. Win-win. Then I came home and started making my various dishes, cold hands and all. One dish - muhammara, which I make regularly - exploded in the far too small blender (no, the tiny food processor is not big enough, and I have no idea why anyone thought we could make hummus, babaghanoush and muhammara, three blended dips, in it in an hour or so). Someone else finished it. I admit I pulled the brat card - you want muhammara at this party, well, this is a disaster, you want it, you finish it, I'm done with it.

What I did make and finish was my beer-stewed beef cubes, which can be prepared as a stew, casserole, toothpick'd appetizer or something you eat with bread or over rice. It's a stew of herbs - mostly dill, but also rosemary, garlic and thyme - beef cubes, beer, grainy spicy mustard, shallots, some butter, and some additions (I'm fond of bell pepper, mushrooms and walnuts personally). Grumble bells, grumble bells, I grumbled all the way to the stove - which had to be lit with a lighter, the pilot was acting up - and started working. I cut the melting butter with olive oil to make the whole thing a tad healthier (ho ho ho, as though that's possible), gently toasted the herbs along with salt, pepper and paprika and added shallots into the fragrant, frothy pan. and browned the beef. Some people began to arrive. My junior high school music teacher was there, some family friends, some of my sister's friends (none of my friends live in the area anymore), a girl who commented that it smelled "gross" (whatever, girl, it's delicious). I dumped in the bottle of beer and mixed the whole thing together. I left briefly to set up some Christmas music on my iPhone. I added a generous dollop of hot, grainy apple cider vinegar mustard and mixed that in. I adjusted for flavor (good ways to improve top notes in this recipe while keeping it rounded is to add orange juice, orange zest or apple cider. For bottom notes, add some toasted nuts, beef boullion, well-toasted paprika or use a darker beer.

I stewed it all together and added the vegetables in order from longest-cooking to shortest (carrots first, then bell peppers, then mushrooms, like that). Really, you can add almost any vegetable. You could throw spinach, cauliflower, squash, potatoes, whatever into there. You might even be able to get away with lentils, Brussels sprouts or zucchini. You can add any herbs as long as you've got dill. You can change the type of mustard or beer. A pilsner and a light, hot English mustard will produce a very different dish from a winter lager with a mottled dijon. You don't even need to use beef, although I hold that a red meat is best. If you make it as a stew you can add butter squash late for chunkiness, or early so they'll disintegrate into the casserole and add more base flavor. In a casserole, I slather fat, soft breadsticks with mustard and place them on top at the very end - it's done when the tops crisp - but you don't have to.

In short, you can improvise. You can do whatever you want. The end product's just got to come out alright.

Finally, I made this dish for my in-laws (fresh dill, butter squash in a casserole with breadsticks), and it was quite different from the one I made for my parents (dried dill, no butter squash, mushrooms, in a stew). In the end, it was the same dish. It was still me. Each time, I improvised. I didn't know the squash would disintegrate, but it came out OK.

I realized as I was cooking it that that's really all we do - we improvise. Mom gets cancer, and we make do. We do what we can, we research, we plan, but in the end, we kinda make it up as we go along. We fight, we make up, and we know we always love each other, even though it's too easy to revert to adolescence when at home, and yes, parents can be just as annoying to adult offspring as those same offspring were as teenagers. The furnace breaks, and we improvise. I huddle under blankets and offer to go Christmas shopping for Mom so she won't have to (NICE WARM SHOPPING MALL), and Brendan does whatever he can, including shoveling snow with a garden spade, to help ease the stress on my chaotic and stressed-out family. Grandma L. calls every day, even though it accomplished nothing other than to stoke her worries.

As an expat, I improvise. As an expat with a parent battling cancer, I improvise. I do the best I can - even when "the best I can" basically means I decide to stay in Taiwan and visit from there, because I can make more money to enable me to visit there than I could doing the same thing at home (and yes, I am experienced and certified, it's not as though I teach kiddie English for $590/hour), and do something I enjoy rather than selling my soul for an office job. I save money as well as I can, I visit in the winter even though I hate the cold, and I try to be supportive even as I'm fighting the impulse to act like a teenager, slamming doors and proclaiming that I hate everyone and nobody loves me anyway waah waah. (I didn't do that, but I kinda wanted to. I don't hate everyone, though). It's cheaper and easier to visit in January, between Christmas and Chinese New Year when work is dead, but I visit at Christmas because it's important. I don't always make these decisions in advance. I want to cancel a party, but I don't 'cause Mom wants it to happen. So I improvise and dance around my bad mood and cold fingers. I made a dish I didn't even really want to make that night, in that cold kitchen.

Life as an expat is a life of improvisation - with an unknown audience, in an unfamiliar theater. Life as an expat whose mother has cancer is a life of improvisation, cubed. You stay abroad and you stew in it - I should be home, I should be there, but I can make the money I need to be supportive here, and anyway here is where I want to live. My life is also important, but I feel selfish for even thinking it. You come home and you stew in it - everyone's emotional, everyone's stressed, you love them but you really want to slam that door. You just want people to acknowledge that it sucks that it's so cold, but instead you get "it's not that cold", "it's fine", "the fire's warm", "the fire makes it pretty OK, don't you agree?" No, you don't agree, it is that cold, can we all please just stop pretending? So you improvise, you stew in it, and you go to the mall.

I even asked if we could just go to Grandma's for the whole deal. Nope...we had to have Christmas at home. That's fine, it's what Mom wanted, but deep down, I wanted heat, and no I did not think the fireplace would be sufficient. We stayed, we improvised. We woke up on Christmas morning, achy, just wanting it to be warm for Chrissakes.

We woke up to snow - a white Christmas, indeed. We started a fire, I made a hot coffee cocktail with cream and Irish Mist and dunked Christmas cookies into it. We opened gifts and it was fun. It was that cold, but we could basically ignore it. I'd like to say I dropped my cynicism and it was all lovely and Christmas special-y, with a soft-focus and white portrait filter, but it wasn't. It was fine, but mostly, we improvised. I was happy to be there, but no, it wasn't rose-tinged and perfect.

We did what we had to do, and for as long as I live abroad and my mother has cancer, we'll continue doing what we have to do, and we won't always know what that is until it happens.

Mustard Cubed Beef

I was going to include a recipe for my beef cubes, but anything I could put on here is something you can add your own flourishes to without much problem. Even I change it up.'s a rough outline of the recipe, but the scant information is deliberate:

Melt some butter in a pan with olive oil, on low, add lots of dill, some rosemary and some thyme along with chopped garlic, salt, a red chili if you like, maybe some orange zest, maybe some paprika. Add chopped shallots, and then beef. Brown. Add a can of beer - dark is great, but pilsner or ale would be fine. Mix and add a few dollops of mustard. Add other vegetables - carrots, chopped bell pepper, mushroom. Add walnuts if you like, or any other vegetable that you think would work. Cook, add cornstarch to thicken if needed. Or cook as a casserole with potatoes, squash etc. with mustard-slathered sliced bread at the bottom, and mustard-slathered breadsticks on top (add breadsticks 15 mins before it's done, it's done when they crisp and brown slightly on top). If you make as a casserole, still brown the beef in the herbed butter, but use more shallots.

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