Year of Grace, Day 88. Thank goodness for frozen peas!

For some reason, heat and I have such an affinity to one another that I manage to burn my fingers or get a splash of hot oil while baking or cooking. I usually apply an ice cube immediately to the affected area, or else put ice cubes in water in a bowl and soak my fingers. The immediate lowering of the temperature eases the pain and stops the absorbed heat from going deeper.

Today for brunch, I made a glorified Spanish omelette – that is, finished in the oven like a frittata. While serving, having forgotten the pan had just come out of a hot oven, I laid my fingers on the frying pan’s very hot handle. Ouch… and discovered with dismay that there were no ice cubes in the freezer! (It’s winter and as the freezer has had ongoing repairs which meant defrosting multiple times, the trays had not been replenished.) Oh dear, what to do?

I grabbed the first thing that came to hand –- a solid pack of frozen meat — but it couldn’t get in between my fourth and little fingers where the burns were. And then I remembered my friend Gillian’s brilliant remedy –- frozen peas! I took some out of the box and put them into a plastic bag. Then I stuck my fingers among the little peas. Relief was immediate! I kept my fingers in as long as I could stand the cold, then replaced the peas in the freezer to stop them defrosting, and repeated the process, until when I took my fingers out of the icy peas and into the air, they didn’t sting as much.

Gillian also uses frozen peas wrapped around with a tea towel as a cold compress or to place on a child’s feverish brow. Super effective! The peas are more flexible than ice cubes and shape themselves nicely around a knee or brow. Thank you, frozen peas! You were absolutely brilliant today! You’re not just one of my family’s fave veggies :-). You’re great for healing too!

Here’s my recipe.

Potato-onion frittata

Potato-onion frittata

Potato-onion frittata for two

2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into matchsticks

1 medium onion, thinly sliced into half-moons

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 large eggs, beaten

regular or smoked paprika, sweet and/or hot as you prefer

1 – 2 tablespoons (or more, to your liking) grated Parmesan or other cheese

2 – 3 tablespoons olive or other oil

Over low heat, slowly warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan with an oven-proof handle.

Once the oil is hot, add the potatoes, grind pepper and sprinkle salt over them to your taste, and top with the onions. Sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper and drizzle the surface with the remaining olive oil.

Cover the pan and raise the heat to medium-low.

Once the bottom potatoes start giving off scent and turning golden, turn them so that top layer of onions and potatoes are now at the bottom. Be gentle so that the potato pieces do not break.

Replace the cover and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender. Turn off the heat.

Pour the eggs, seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper if you like, over the potatoes and onions. With a fork, level the surface so that all are covered with egg. If not, add another beaten egg.

Grate the Parmesan or other cheese over the mixture, sprinkle with paprika to taste (and for visual appeal too).

Place the frying pan in the middle shelf of a moderate oven (180 C, 350 F) for about 8 -10 minutes, or until the eggs are set.

Serve at once, with Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce if you prefer.

And do please remember to leave your oven mitt on the pan handle so that you don’t end up with burnt fingers.

Guten Appetit!

By the way, the number of today’s post — 88 — is a very auspicious one in Chinese and Japanese culture. On this last day of this first month of the new year, I wish you all the very best and a most auspicious beginning for the coming months.






Year of Grace, Day 87. The promise of an amaryllis

This morning began with snow flurries. The sky then cleared and the sun peeped out, only to have the snow come back, driven by gusty winds. But as before, the snow stopped soon after and all that remains is just a dusting of white on the driveway. The sun is lighting up the birch trunks now against a striped grey and pale blue sky. I feel this is going to be one of those indeterminate weather days, but the forecast is for alternating sun and snow in the morning and continuous snowfall from the afternoon until night. It is weird but lovely to have a cloudless caerulean sky lit by the sun one minute, and a few minutes later a drab sky with threatening clouds. Never a dull moment today for sure!

Over the past days I’ve been working flat out to meet a deadline, and at the same time enjoying the company of houseguests – very good friends from way back, Hong Ching from Malaysia and Carme from Catalonia. Savouring these precious moments and delighting in the sharing of ideas and experiences, and even more, our joy at being together after so long — take priority over journalizing, any day! For these rare and pleasurable visits, I am truly thankful.

Garden update: outdoors the skimmia (Skimmia japonica) bushes are looking very handsome with their maroon buds clustered among shiny evergreen leaves. They’re fattening up and getting ready for spring when their sweet scent will carry throughout the garden. Spikey leaves of the scilla (grape hyacinth) have come up under the twisty hazel tree, and a few flowers have opened precociously on one of the forsythia bushes. It’s the one in a more sheltered spot among other shrubs. Their company keep it protected from the chilling east winds. The artichokes seem to have come through being buried by the last snowfall.

Indoors, the lemon tree continues to bloom and deliciously perfume the sitting room. It obviously loves its position by a south-facing window with lots of light and sun (on those rare sunny days we get in winter here in Bonn). The calamondin (calamansi) on the other hand keeps dropping its leaves, signalling its displeasure at its current location facing west, and although there it gets lots of light, it is certainly deprived of direct sun. I shall have to move it next to the lemon if I don’t wish it to drop all its leaves altogether. Plants requirements trump interior design, and I shall have to forego the pleasure of having the calamondin’s fruits and perfume next to an armchair.

Lower bud cropped

On a brighter note, one of my pots of amaryllis has not just one, but two, buds stretching upwards exceedingly fast. I’ve only taken the bare potted bulbs out of their dark “winter quarters” (the boiler room) a week ago, and in that time one of them has managed a bud close to 30 cm (12 inches) showing a sliver of the palest red. They’re both on a window ledge that gets plenty of light but not direct sun. The other only has leaves at the moment. It was the one traumatized by a ferocious snail or slug attack on its flower bud last year, and perhaps has never quite recovered. I’m hoping it will have forgotten and perhaps put out a bud too. Normally amaryllis is in bloom around Christmas, but perhaps because these pots spend their time outdoors in a not very sunny location, they take much longer to build up their reserves of energy. The bud that had been devoured was just on the verge of emerging from the bulb last summer.

For plants that are at their best in winter when other plants are dormant, I am so grateful. The amaryllis’s buds carry a special message –- during the darkest and coldest and most dreary of times, that is precisely when this stately and elegant lily shows its mettle and blooms.

Year of Grace, Day 86. A fascination with snow

Having grown up in the tropics, I have always been fascinated by snow. I woke up to it falling thick and fast this morning, and it never ceases to amaze me what a magical transformation a new blanket of snow can create. And when the landscape is of trees — evergreen and deciduous — like the yews and the neighbouring copse that enfold my back garden, the sight is even more entrancing. I find that snow, unlike rain, falls with such a hushed stillness that the everyday din from streets or cars and the usual chatter from people passing by seem thoroughly dampened – as if the whole world has decided to stop making any kind of sound at the same time. Even the two ponies and their riders from the paddock nearby went by noiselessly.

To add to this morning’s enchantment, I saw a woodpecker intently breakfasting at one of the feeders that M put out in the garden. Its black and white and red feathers were striking against the falling snow. Occasionally it would pause and look up and around, on the look out for predators, I suspect. I managed to steal a few photos and film for a good quarter of an hour before Mr. or Ms. Woodpecker took flight into the white-shrouded branches in the trees in the copse nearby.


As well as this enchanted scene from my windows this morning, I am grateful for my dear friend Hong Ching visiting from Malaysia, and for the joy and much laughter we’ve been having sharing reminiscences and catching up. And yesterday, another friend joined us in the evening, increasing our merriment and the decibel level of our laughter. For wonderful life-long friends, I am truly and deeply thankful. And as well for the sumptuous welcome feast that M prepared – I wish I’d remembered to take photos – prawns grilled with garlic and hot Spanish smoked paprika, a salmon cream sauce to go with it, and thrice-cooked pork with sautéed rucola and leeks. All so yummy! My contribution was dessert — a cinnamony crumble made with tangy Topaz apples, eaten with ice cream (for M and Hong Ching) and poured double cream for me.

We’ve had quite a build-up of 5 centimeters, but I suspect that it will all be gone by tomorrow morning, unless we get another snowfall overnight.

Year of Grace, Day 85. Akebi – an enchanting vine

While going over photographs of my garden in Leamington Spa, England today, I came across one of my favourite plants – a Japanese vine called akebi (Akebia quinata, five-leaf akebi; there is another species with three leaves, A. trifoliata). It clambered over a pergola-cum-garden seat positioned to face a small pond that I’d made with the help of No. 2 son. This was where I loved to drink my morning coffee, hoping to see a newt or two breaking the pond surface, and I was rarely disappointed. (The newts had come on their own.)

The akebi is also known as the chocolate vine, apparently because of the scent of its flowers. The flowers are indeed sweetly scented, though I have to say they didn’t evoke chocolate to me. (Scent is quite subjective, don’t you agree?) The maroon flowers have a most curious and charming shape and I loved gazing at them at all stages of blossoming.

There are purple edible fruits as well. I’ve never had my vine fruit in Leamington though. But perhaps I needed another vine as a cross-pollinator for fruit to set. It is not only the inner pulp of the fruit that is edible, but also the flowers, young shoots, and the pods themselves. Some recipes and more info on akebi can be found here.

The young vines are used for weaving baskets in the Tohoku region in Japan’s Snow Country. I have two well-loved baskets from a basketweaver in a village north of Omagari, Akita Prefecture. I have the smaller one with me in Bonn. It features both unpeeled and peeled vines. These robust and well-crafted baskets have kept their shape and remain as handsome as when I observed them being made over 35 years ago.

Akebi basket from a village north of Omagari, Akita, of natural and peeled vines

Akebi basket from a village north of Omagari, Akita, of unpeeled  and peeled vines

Please note that in the United States, Akebia quinata is considered an extremely invasive species. It is not considered invasive in England though. Perhaps the secret to curtailing its rampant spread in its native Japan is through utilizing the vines in baskets and the flowers and fruits for food. I am grateful to have been able to grow this enchanting vine and enjoy the extraordinary beauty and scent of its flowers.

Year of Grace, Day 84. Sip your dreams by drops

There’s a Japanese drinking tradition called “bottle keep.” Yes, that’s right – a charming Japanese-English turn of phrase, pronounced “bottoru kiipu,” to denote a bottle of whiskey kept locked for you at a bar or nomiya (pub, drinking place) and you keep the key. It’s of course more cost-effective to purchase superior whiskey by the bottle than in separate servings. I came across a rather poetic label on one such bottle kept by a bar in Shunan City in Yamaguchi Prefecture — “A glassful of drops, each drop is tomorrow’s dream, sip your dreams by drops.”

The assorted sake no sakana (Japanese tapas or accompaniments to alcoholic drinks)  were exquisite. The  sashimi and sea bream head braised with tofu were unfailingly superb, each presented on a plate complementing and framing  the colours of the ingredients.

Aji tataki

Aji tataki

Simmered red bream wtih tofu

Braised red bream head and tofu

Bream on Hagi-kiln plate

Bream on Hagi (a nearby traditional pottery) plate.

One of the regulars turned up with a fish he’d just caught, and within minutes, the chef-owner had created a masterpiece, beautifully presented.

Created from one freshly caught fish

All this sashimi from just one fish.

After leaving the nomiya, we passed by an oden stall. Oh… nostalgic comfort food. I hadn’t had oden in decades. Oden is a very homely dish of diverse savouries, simmered in flavourful broth. You choose what you want from a wide selection —  stuffed seaweed rolls, meatballs, hardboiled eggs, fish loaf.  For some odd reason, oden never tastes as good when made at home — I find it best eaten outdoors from one of these stalls, preferable quite late at night. It was one of the delights impecunious students could indulge in, late on a cold winter night, especially after a long, relaxing soak in a public bath (sento).  Despite being full, I found I had room for some gingko nuts (heaven!) and a stuffed fried tofu (abura-age) parcel, both enlivened by an eye-wateringly sharp mustard.



Chicken meatballs, gingko nuts, stuffed fried tofu parcel — all eaten with sharp mustard.

It was the first time I’d ever gone out drinking with one of the children, now fully grown. And what a truly enjoyable and  memorable evening it was. Thank you very much, No. 2 son. And I made sure I didn’t embarrass him by getting giggly over a bit of sake. :-).

Year of Grace, Day 83. It’s not too early to think of sowing seeds

Overnight we’ve had a bit of snow and the bare branches look rather festive in their white overgarments. It even looks as though some are in full blossom. But that’s just wishful thinking on my part, as it’s only midwinter, with greater cold still to come in February. And in previous years, Bonn has seen snow as late as mid-May.

Still… I’m already thinking of what veggies I may be able to sow indoors. There’s no point in me growing ordinary vegs that are available in the shops. With limited time, I plan on growing those I cannot buy or that are overpriced and more often of dubious quality.

I’ve just had a look at organic vegetable grower Charles Dowding’s sowing timetable for Somerset, UK, which has its last frost in mid-May and first frost in mid-October. Quite similar to Bonn, in terms of frost dates. However, he puts Somerset at hardiness zone 9 (minimum -1 to -7°C, 20 to 30° F). Bonn is hardiness zone 7, similar to the coldest area noted for the UK — in the middle of Scotland, the Cairngorms — with minimums of  -12 to -18°C or 0 – 10°F. We had a cold snap here in Bonn down to -30°C for a week some years ago but that was unusual.

For the past two years I’ve been sowing outdoors around mid-May, and this year, I’m attempting to begin much earlier indoors to have more established plants to set out once frosts are over.  On my list are peas for shoots; wild Turkish rocket, which has broader leaves than the usual rucola and which are not sold here; and rainbow chard with their brilliant orange, pink, and red stems, which are prohibitively priced in the organic shops. I hope to sow green shiso and mitsuba as well – these two are not commercially available at all. Once I saw green shiso at the Korean food shop on Bonner Talweg, but they never had it again.

Time to check out what seeds I’ve stored in the fridge and what else needs to be bought. I found some green mitsuba seeds and there are purple mitsuba plants overwintering outside (hopefully they and the myoga will survive the winter). So I just need to track down some shiso – both green and purple – seeds.

I haven’t grown peas for shoots ever, and I’m looking forward to adding them to stirfries. How about you? What  unusual crops are you considering this year?

I’m grateful that eventually the sun came out in the afternoon. This morning was too dreary for the birds — they were nowhere to be seen.

Forsythia in snow

Forsythia in snow

Year of Grace, Day 82. Shards from the past

Some years ago, I was in southern Honshu, Yamaguchi Prefecture to be exact, to spend some time with No. 2 son, who was then working there. He took me on a walk through a lovely park — Manyou no Mori — where prehistoric lotuses, sown from seeds uncovered during an archaeological dig, were blooming. As we exited the park, I came upon some shards of blue-and-white pottery peeking among the shrubbery. The glazes and brushwork were unlike any modern mass-manufactured ones. I wish I could’ve taken some to Bonn with me.

I share photos of those lovely shards with you and I thank the unsung potters who created these delightful wares with such exquisite brushwork. Despite years, possibly decades, of being buried, the glazes on them are as brilliant as if they had been recently applied.

For the simple joy of coming upon such unexpected treasures on a walk, and for a son who knew that I would appreciate a walk through such a garden and the extraordinary plants therein on a lovely summer’s day, I am overwhelmingly grateful.

Year of Grace, Day 81. From rightminding to the naming of cats

Curious isn’t it, how a book can take you on a journey of ideas, the endpoint of which may have little or nothing to do with the starting point? This morning’s journey began with an idea generated by a science fiction book and ended with thoughts on social and economic development. I hope you will join me, as the path has aspects of relevance to our non-fictional world.

Elizabeth Bear introduces the concept of “rightminding” in her book, Grail. Total ecosystem collapse on Earth has led survivors to establish a society in another planet where “rightminding” is a requisite for harmonious and peaceful living. Those who have not undergone the process of rightminding — unrightminded people — are described as “one percent psychopaths and thirty percent sophipaths, leading to societies that uphold untenable ideologies. The unrightminded’s pathological brains do not accept evidence contradictory to their dogma. The more people argue with them, the more the unrightminded defend their ideology, and compromise is never an option (paraphrased from Grail, page 29).  [T]hink of [sociopaths] as small children, without impulse control, any understanding of the subjectivity of emotion, or the ability to compromise” (Grail, page 29). …” [M]any of these [unrightminded] people… suffered from temporal lobe malfunctions causing fanaticism and ideopathy….” (Grail, page 30).

All of these references to temporal lobe malfunction and its effects on behaviour and thought were fascinating. Thanks to the internet, I got linked to Alexander R. Luria, a Russian-Jewish medical doctor and neuroscientist who researched thought processes from the 1920s to the 70s. Onwards to Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit cognitive linguist, on the profound differences in thought processes between literate and non-literate people, and the consequent effects on education and economic development.

What struck me – an advocate for sustainable development – at the end of this morning’s journey of ideas, is that introducing the concept of sustainable development to less-developed societies (most of whose members have only rudimentary education) is not a straightforward issue of substituting one type of economic activity for another — say, growing cash crops instead of traditional subsistence crops. Transforming a subsistence-based economy means transforming the cognitive processes – the ways of thinking – of the entire society.

And that is my one serious thought, my take-home message, of the day. Whether it is valid is up to discussion (and I would appreciate comments) and further investigation of why some societies have made the successful transition to sustainable development and thriving economies, and why some, such as the Philippines, my birth country, have stumbled along the way, despite a promising beginning. For this morning’s musings and fascinating journey, I thank Elizabeth Bear, Alexander R. Luria, and Walter J. Ong.

To tip the balance, I leave you with something fun and playful from The Naming of Cats, by T.S. Eliot

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,

The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

His ineffable effable


Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Dear, dear Morgaine le Fay, otherwise known as Morgie — very much missed.


Year of Grace, Day 80. The colours that brighten winter

Despite days of snow and frost and -5ºC temperatures, there are stalwarts that grace the garden in winter, and I love them all the more and treasure them for hanging on despite everything the fierce weather throws at them. One of them, amazingly enough, is a Mediterranean native – the artichoke – a group of which is stoically braving (knock on wood) the elements on the slope behind the house which is very exposed. Placing them there was an experiment to see if they would do as well as those planted against a south-facing wall. The ten plants are on different levels to see whether the slope and drainage affect their winter hardiness.

Artichoke leaves

Artichoke leaves

Among the earliest to bloom in the backgarden is the Kerria, a Japanese shrub, and it rarely disappoints.  It is now graced with a few cheerful yellow flowers on bright green stalks. The two days of double-digit temperatures have nudged a few into bloom and there are more buds at different stages of plumpness, just biding their time. I find it exceedingly heartening to see this spring bloomer putting forth a few flowers intermittently throughout winter, months ahead of its proper season. It was rather difficult to catch a non-fuzzy photo yesterday as although it was a mild day, the gusty winds were tearing away and whipping at the plants and the trees .

Kerria japonica blooming now

Kerria japonica blooming now

What else caught my eye in the garden yesterday? A bluebell in bloom, moss that I’d been inducing to establish itself on a stone wall (painting the surface with yogurt and sour milk for the past 3 years), catkins on the twisty hazel, lichen on the trunk of a fruiting cherry which looks rather poorly (I suspect it is ridden with honey fungus — the same thing that has already killed several trees), and the brilliant white bark of birch trunks. Fat raindrops began just as I succeeded in taking a non-fuzzy photo of the Kerria flower, and I hurried inside to warm up.

I had forgotten to put on a coat and a hat, silly of me.  A pot of rosebuds, Cretan mountain tea, and a couple of hibiscus petals warmed me up nicely, and the colours of the tea and the perfume of roses went well with a bowl of yogurt and quince syrup. I had intended to make the quince juice into jelly, but changed my mind and left it at the slightly gelled stage – and it makes a very tart-sweet and perfumed addition to yogurt. In a bowl made by potter Michael Moses with a turquoise glaze that puddles into the same colour of the quince syrup at the bottom, it was lovely eye candy as well.

Later I found some forlorn apples in the fridge and since they were no longer crisp enough to eat as they were, I was inspired to try to recreate the baked apples M and I had enjoyed at the tiny Iranian restaurant a month back. It was a hybrid of my Catalonian friend Carme’s Pomes al Forn. (Carme had generously shared a few of her family’s recipes with me for the first edition of the World Cookbook.) It was a good chance to make use of odd nuts – a few pistachios, one (!) pecan in the shell (an escapee from when I made M’s cake obviously), some slivered almonds. Chopped finely and mixed with mulberry syrup (yes, another neglected pantry item just waiting for the right moment for use), enough quince syrup to bind, a dusting of cinnamon, a few squirts of lemon juice — the nut mixture went into the cored apples and were baked for 40 minutes at 160ºC. Oh, I almost forgot – instead of capping the core with the cut-out stalk ends, I fashioned “caps” from marzipan and stuck pistachios for “stems.” With yogurt for me and ice cream for M, we had them later.

For the lovely colours of flowers and plants and fruits (and their scents and flavours as well) that cheered up my day yesterday, and for being around to brighten these dreary winter days, I am very grateful.

Year of Grace, Day 79. In the spring, the dawn

This morning’s sky brought to mind Sei Shonagon’s lines about the seasons in her Pillow Book (Makura no Soushi 枕草紙). I realise it’s not yet officially spring, but the clouds to the northwest gently tinted and layered with soft purple, actually mauve, and gold fitted her words so closely, that I could not resist sharing them with you. Today is an extraordinarily mild (12 ºC) spring-like day: the sun is out now, but it was quite shy this morning, and rain is predicted.

Lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako during the Heian period, Sei Shonagon (966–1017/1025) was famed for her keenly honed wit and equally katana (Japanese sword)-sharp tongue, according to Murasaki Shikibu at any rate (the other notable Japanese female Imperial court writer and novelist).  I’ve searched online for an English translation but found none directly to hand within the time I’ve allocated to writing my morning journal, so you’ll have to make do with my rather rough approximation in haiku. If someone can offer a closer translation, I’d be very grateful.


The Pillow Book

In the spring, the dawn.

Its gentle light

Limns mountain heights,

And cloud tips mauve.

Makura no soushi

Haru wa akebono.

Youyou shiroku nariyuku yamagiwa sukoshi akarite, murasaki dachitaru

Kumono hosoku tanabikitaru.

Northwest clouds, below is the centre of Bonn

Northwest clouds, below is spread Bonn’s town centre; beyond are mountains.


While searching for a translation, I came upon the story of another Japanese artist – Fujiko Hemming, a pianist whose lifestory moved me close to tears.  Listen to her virtuosity on Youtube.

For glorious skies like this morning’s and inspiring and heroic creative women, I am thankful. On such a sunny and mild day, my garden beckons and I shall see what surprises await. I wish you all a lovely spring-like midwinter day.