Call it a mid-life crisis. Call it sentimental. Call it what you will.
I think that cooking is a way of conveying love, and sharing a meal means sharing that love.
My happiest memories as a child, growing up even in the most difficult surroundings, are centered around a passion for food.
I don’t have early childhood memories of the toddler pictured in my strikingly beautiful mother’s arms in the upper-middle-class house in Bangkok, Thailand.
My earliest memories of Thailand are of Mom’s home post-divorce. I was around six or seven and came home to visit on weekends from boarding school. There was no air-conditioning, no glass in the windows. Suspended from the ceiling in my mother’s bedroom was mosquito netting, framing a simple cotton mattress on the wooden floor.
The kitchen consisted of a covered outdoor patio. The sink was a tin tub under a faucet. And the stove was a simple earthenware firepit that held coal in a crater beneath a gleaming wok.
But the memories of that home are colored bright by mental images of fresh fish deep-fried in that wok and covered with a spicy chili sauce that I helped Mom make by pounding red chilis, herbs, and spices in a mortar and pestle wrapped securely in the embrace of my legs while I’m sitting on the floor of the cement patio/kitchen. The aroma of that chili sauce made with prik kee noo (Thai Chillies, at once bracing but cloyingly sweet), garlic, tamarind paste, fish sauce, and sugar, is still alive in my nostrils.
And so every time I cook for my family, I think I’m trying to create memories that will linger long after the meal has been consumed.
Recently my cousin, my best friend from my childhood in Bangkok, and his wife came to visit us. His desire to come was prompted by my recent call telling him that Mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she wanted to see him. For her, time is of the essence. For there will come a time as the disease progresses when she will lose the essence of who she is, as well as who the people she loves are.
As soon as their plane landed, we headed straight to Mount Hood. Mom wanted them to see all of the sights in Oregon, and the road trips in the car provided the perfect setting for retelling of old stories and reliving old memories as we made our way to creating new ones. We snapped pictures at Trillium Lake, with Mount Hood looming beyond the treeline in the background, its image reflected as a ghost on the surface of the lake. Ron and Katie marveled at Timberline Lodge as Mom pointed out the gigantic fireplace and wooden beams.
The only silence during our road trips was on the morning we left for Crater Lake. Ron backed our family minivan out of the driveway at 4:30 a.m. as we headed south toward Eugene and then across the mountains to Crater Lake. As we passed the Willamette Pass on Highway 58, the sun was already out. I looked behind me, and Katie was showing Mom photos on her iPad from their wedding. There was a long pause followed by laughter when they came to a photo of Mom in a cerulean Thai silk dress, smiling as she was dancing with her older brother, Ron’s dad.
The only road trip that Mom didn’t take with us while Katie and Ron were here was the one we took to the coast. Mom was tired so she stayed in Salem and went to Center 50+ when my spouse, Charles, had to work.
On the trip to the coast, we stopped at Fogarty Creek State Park so that Ron and Katie could get out on the beach, explore tidal pools, and take photos. Then, further up Highway 101, we took Otter Crest Loop to Cape Foulweather, where we stopped and took photos and browsed the gift shop. Whales were playing that day off the cape, and Ron and Katie were delighted when they spotted the flukes and spouts shooting into the air in the distance.
While Ron and Katie explored Yaquina Head Lighthouse during a guided tour, I made a dash for the docks of Newport, on a quest for albacore.
I had already made smoked salmon for Ron and Katie’s first dinner at our home. I was hoping to find albacore to cook for them on their second. And I wasn’t disappointed. The first boat I came to had a long line so I went to the second. A Filipino lady was busy on the stern, diligently slicing and removing tenderloins from glistening albacore. The fish was so beautiful. A breeze blew, and I smelled fresh albacore mixed with the salt air. I told the lady that the fish looked beautiful. “It’s very fresh, came in last night around 11,” she said. “How much a pound?” I asked. “Two dollars fifty cents,” came the reply. “Plus $5 for the cleaning.” I asked if she had one around 15 pounds and she said she did. She pulled one out of an icewater bath and held it up. It looked like it was bigger than her forearms. She weighed it, punched the calculator, and said it would be $42. I told her I’d take it and I gave her $47 and told her to keep the rest as a tip. I wandered the docks and took photos to kill time while she finished cleaning the order of the person before me. When I returned, she was working on the fish that I bought. The skin, silver and shining in the sunlight, gave way to her sharp blade, and with a yank she had it pulled off the side of the tuna, exposing the pink muscle below. As she gently carved each tenderloin off the tuna and put it in a plastic bag, she took care to slice off small bits of meat from the head and around the fish’s gut. She said people didn’t usually want this meat, but it was the sweetest part of the fish. “Do you want it?” “Yes,” I said. “The only part of the fish I don’t want is the head, skin, and bones.” She smiled and laughed and asked if I was Chinese. I told her I was Thai. She replied, “Then I bet you know what to do with this.” I told her the tidbits were destined for either fish tacos or fish enchiladas. Her eyes brightened and she laughed.
That night, back at home, I made albacore seared in bacon fat and served on succotash for dinner. Not a morsel was left and everyone was smiling at the dinner table as Ron and Katie told Mom, Charles, and our dinner guests what they did that day.
It’s been about a week since Ron and Katie’s visit and they’ve called Mom twice since they got home. She brightens every time they call. I was thinking of them and their visit a couple of days ago when I decided to pull out those albacore tidbits that I had carefully vacuum-sealed and frozen away. They were destined for Albacore Enchiladas in a Cream and Mexican Cheese Sauce, and a meal to savor my beloved cousin’s visit all over again.
For the Albacore
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ of a Walla Walla or sweet yellow onion, sliced
- ½ of a large red bell pepper, sliced into thin pieces
- 1½ teaspoon Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute (or ½ teaspoon Mexican oregano, ½ teaspoon thyme, and ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes)
- About 2 pounds of albacore, or any other firm-fleshed white fish, sliced into chunks
- Salt to taste
- 10-12 corn or flour tortillas, warmed briefly in microwave to make pliable
For the sauce
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream (or Half ‘n’ Half)
- 2 cups Tillamook Mexican Cheese Blend
- 2 tablespoons chopped roasted red bell peppers (you can find Mezzetta Roasted Bell Peppers in 16-ounce jars at the grocery store)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat oil in non-stick pan over medium-high heat and sauté garlic and onions. When onions begin to turn soft and translucent, add bell peppers, spices, and albacore chunks, and season with salt. Gently stir until albacore is cooked. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Make sauce by gently heating the cream over a low flame in a small saucepan. Add cheese and stir until cheese melts and sauce is thick. Add roasted red bell peppers and stir. Turn off heat.
- Fill tortillas with tuna mixture one at a time and roll and place seam-side down in a 3-quart baking dish. Pour the cheese sauce over the rolled tortillas. Cover baking dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
- Serve with beans and rice.