Salmon fishing in New Jersey

We left Seattle nearly six months ago, and the shock has still not worn off. We live in a quaint Jersey town (which I, in my ignorance, didn’t even know was a thing). It was settled nearly a century before the country gained independence.

There are Victorian mansions with ghosts, colonials with Roaring Twenties finishings that have withstood the test of time — which, in our present moment, offer a reminder of the glory days — and a storybook village that checks all the boxes: organic store, local bookshop, Italian pizzeria, Italian pastaria, vegan bakery, local coffee shop, a two-screen movie theater, Starbucks.

The people are creative and engaged. There is a local mercantile, a coworking space abuzz with photographers and writers, and a school where adults can take classes on a variety of trades, languages, and topics. There is a nearby forest reservation with a school for kids to commune with nature, and there is a humanist society that offers children classes on morality. On Saturday, the local library is hosting Ken Burns. I feel like I dreamt this place up.

And yet… I miss the sound of the rain falling pitter, patter on the rooftop shingles. I miss the moist air scented with sharp pine, a warm hug from the universe while you hunker down in your raincoat and squint through the water to see where you’re heading. I miss serious coffee shops with bespectacled, darkly dressed customers reading paper books and sipping warm cups of joe with the interest of a vintner sampling her first barrel. I miss the local food. I miss salmon.

(Today’s Daniel Tiger episode suddenly feels so apropos: “Sometimes, we have two feelings at the same time, and that’s okay.”)

Our town grocery (i.e. Amazon’s Whole Foods) had a special on farmed Atlantic salmon and I decided to give it a go — mostly to see whether I could taste a difference from the stuff pulled out of PNW waters. Salmon is so plentiful there that you can watch streams of fish gliding up the ladders of the city locks during migration season, melding together to form a metallic wave akin to sheet music.

This East Coast variety was a pale pink in comparison to the brilliant orange of Northwest salmon, and it definitely didn’t have the bold flavor of the latter either. Still, I did make a delicious dinner of it.

I soaked a cedar plank, massaged garlic oil on both sides of the fillet, sprinkled kosher salt, paprika, mustard, black pepper and dried oregano. I baked it at 425 until the smoke alarm caught whiff of my ignited cedar, pulled out the plank and finished the job on foil in a total of about half an hour. It went over a pile of cous cous, nestled in sauteed spinach, and coated with a generous drizzle of a fig vinegar-agave reduction. Of course it didn’t need all that (garlic, salt and pepper would have been enough), but B was home early and the kids were enjoying his company during bathtime, so I had fun.

I improvised, I cooked for myself, and it was delicious. The crispy salmon skin cracked in my mouth with a burst of saltiness and umami, bringing to my senses the illusion of a bite of Puget Sound.

An illusion only, of course, because the salmon was raised on a farm. And I, my friends, am 10 miles from the Turnpike.

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My love affair with libraries


I still remember the first time I entered a library. It was an elementary school field trip, not long after my family had moved to California from Pakistan. My mom chaperoned (as she did every trip — helicoptering was her way of ensuring her children were safe in this new world), and when we got to the library, the librarian explained that we could each get library cards and check out books for free. Both our minds were blown, and visiting the library to get books became a regular part of my childhood.

I loved books, so much so that my parents would sometimes yell at me to stop being antisocial and put my books down. I’d read at home, in the car, on the school bus, in between classes and sometimes even at lunch. It became a real loss when, in college, I began to get carsick when I tried reading on buses. I loved walking through the collections at the University of Washington, which has the largest library collection of any public university, and just smelling the books. I’d look for old books that captured moments in history — census data from the 1800s in South Asia, for example — and marvel at the knowledge accumulated in the written word.

Fast forward to being a mom, and libraries took on new meaning for me. They were places for storytimes and gathering with other moms on maternity leave. They were places to escape on snowy days and let the kids have fun. So imagine my surprise when a friend who returned from a stint in Istanbul told me that there were no public libraries there. What did parents do with their kids, I marveled.

Of course, they did whatever my parents did in Pakistan with us. I know now that my mom’s shock at the free public library system was a result of the fact that free public libraries are actually a very special, wonderful aspect of life in places like the United States. How lucky are we that our predecessors thought the libraries were a public asset worth investing in.

I felt very emotional about all this when I reported on the state of public libraries in the digital age. We have a generation of people used to Googling information, not combing through card catalogs, now unsure if they even need libraries. I hope that they decide they do.

Give this article a read to see how one library system is trying to cope with the mounting challenge it faces from the Internet. (Hint: The answer is embracing technology, not fighting it.)

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The trials of feeding toddlers (kale & mushroom quiche)

One of my biggest struggles as a parent is feeding my kids. But if you were to observe our family, that wouldn’t be immediately obvious. The kids are healthy eaters. They tell me when they are hungry. They don’t snack much, they eat at mealtimes, and they are gaining weight appropriately.

Yet feeding them is a great source of stress for me, perhaps because of a sense of weighty responsibility. I feel like I must expose them to nutrient rich foods, expand their culinary world, and hit all the right targets on the nutritional pyramid or wheel or what not every day. I keep telling myself to “let go,” let them eat, and just relax. But I still find myself getting tense as the weekend begins to end and I know I must go for the next grocery run, plan the next set of meals.

There is SO much advice out there from doctors and nutritional experts on how to address this challenge (and I’m not alone in feeling like it’s a challenge). The one that has been most useful for me is to think of meals in terms of responsibilities: I have the responsibility to provide the food, and they have the responsibility to eat it. No force feeding, no bribing, no “you must finish everything on your plate, or else.” If they ask for more of one thing that was served (white rice! bread!), offer it. That works — most of the time. I still usually coax them into taking a few more bites, or to eat the protein on their plates.

Preparing home-cooked foods takes work. I rarely, if ever, pull out a frozen meal, microwave it, and serve it to the kids. I make their mac and cheese from scratch — beginning with a roux. So it can hurt a bit when my son takes a bite (or a whiff) and says, Ew, I don’t want to eat this. It’s yucky. Sigh. I take a deep breath in, steel myself, and begin the evening negotiation. Just five bites, I’ll say, and then watch him resist the urge to gag as he takes down five teeny, tiny crumbles of food. Okay, how about some cookies and milk? #fail

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Weeknight chicken: Vietnamese style

Credit: Emily and Matt Clifton, Serious Eats


I love this recipe because the marinade is so sharp that it doesn’t really need more than 30 minutes to set. I’m not the kind of person to *ever* remember to marinate the meat hours in advance, let alone on a weeknight.

With this recipe, you mix everything together in a bag, let the chicken soak the juices, then lay it out on a baking sheet to cook. Dinner is ready 40 minutes later, with your stovetop free for making rice or a side (I opted for eggplant basil — yay summer veggies still at the farmer’s market) or for you to just sit down and chill until the meal is done. I could see tossing some winter veggies (squash, carrots, parsnips, cauliflower, etc.) in oil and putting them in a roasting pan alongside the chicken for a full meal made entirely without stirring a pot.

I’ve made this recipe twice and it’s been a winner across the board. My husband enjoys the flavor, as do the kids. I love the complexity of the fish sauce, which can smell a bit as the chicken bakes (my kiddo complained) but doesn’t overpower at all in the finished product.

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Building community, then letting go

We’re about to move back to the East Coast after 2 1/2 years in Seattle. If it seems like we can’t make up our minds, you’ve got the right impression! I’m going to miss being near my family and the familiar surroundings of the Pacific Northwest so much, but I am also excited about returning east to some of our closest friends. Things I’m excited about: public transportation, beautiful springs and falls, hot summers at the beach, vibrant city life, diversity.

But there will be many things I’ll long for, like the views of Mt. Rainier, the Cascades and the Olympic mountains on a clear day; the calm of watching ocean tides crash onto the boardwalk; the views of Puget Sound as I run through my parents’ winding neighborhood down to the beach; my neighborhood’s vibrant gardens and the verdant forest all around us; Seattle’s quirkiness and politics; the city’s many great restaurants and all the Asian and Asian-inspired cuisine; my local independent bookstore and Elliott Bay Books (there are dozens more to love); The Pantry, where I have learned so much about professional kitchens and benefited from the knowledge of great chefs; our alt weeklies; all the water; sunsets at Golden Gardens; UW and its glorious campus; the fresh air; and that feeling — elusive for an immigrant — of being home.

Sigh. Now this is getting hard to write.

The great thing is, I always have an excuse to come back. I can’t wait to visit my parents and enjoy Seattle as I have over the last decade-plus — as my little vacation city (and it makes a spectacular one).

Next time I come, there will be two more awesome things about this place that I can say I help built:

B and I have been part of bringing Subcontinental Drift, a South Asian open mic group, to Seattle. We have held two sold-out events where more than a dozen artists (including B!) shared their work, including comedy, rap, musical performances, spoken word and dance. We were so blown away by the talent we found, and I am so excited that the venture is going to continue after our time here.

Subdrift

The other was a group I created and billed, unoriginally, as Seattle Desi Moms. I wanted to meet more South Asian moms who lived in the city, and I sort of took a note from Field of Dreams and decided to build it. Today, more than 60 moms are part of the group. Together we’ve used the group as an excuse to leave the kids at home, get a night out to sample some of Seattle’s great cuisine, and made friends. Yesterday, I met four new moms through the group who have just moved to Seattle, and I’m so excited that one of them will be taking it over to make sure it carries on.

Our time in Seattle made us better people. Our daughter was born here, and we became a family of four. We lived in our first house, and we’ll always associate it with our children’s earliest memories. They went to two awesome preschools that not just taught them, but offered us so much guidance as we navigated life as new parents. And, hopefully, through our efforts, we are leaving Seattle a slightly better place, too.

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Instant coffee: Patriotic and immigrant


NPR has a great story on the history of instant coffee, which was apparently a welcome novelty by WWI troops marching into battle.

The people credited with inventing it are a Japanese-American chemist who invented soluble coffee powder and a Belgian-American named George Washington who mass produced it.

After the war, the product was marketed to households as coffee you can have whenever you want. We always had a jar of Folger’s growing up, and it was the only kind of coffee in the house for my entire childhood. Seattle and Starbucks really introduced me to coffee culture in the 90s, and my obsession has grown from there.

In Pakistan, where my parents immigrated from, Nescafe instant coffee is laboriously whipped with a small amount of water before it’s added to hot milk to make a homemade version of a latte. It would be neat to hear about how other cultures have turned something as simple as instant coffee into something a little more akin to the magic of a freshly brewed cup of jo.

More from the article:

Soluble coffee was notably used on the front lines. Soldiers stirred it into hot water, gulped from tin mugs, and called it “a cup of George,” after the company’s founder — whose name was apparently familiar to at least some soldiers. In a letter from the front that Pendergrast quotes, a soldier wrote: “There is one gentlemen I am going to look up first after I get through helping whip the Kaiser, and that is George Washington, of Brooklyn, the soldiers’ friend.”

Read on.

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Writing in Seattle Mag about Punjabi pot farmers

My story on a family of Punjabi Indian immigrants who are farming (legal) marijuana in Bellingham, Washington, is featured in April’s issue of Seattle Magazine. The article is a big accomplishment for me on several ways, not the least of which is having it be published in a glossy magazine that is so well designed.

I worked as an intern at Seattle Magazine when I was in college, around the time I first began thinking of journalism as a potential career. I was introduced to newspaper writing in high school and wrote for my college paper, but it wasn’t until my time at Seattle Magazine that I got to see how a professional publication came together. I remember admiring the glossy issues and looking at the bios of the writers, wondering if maybe I’d be able to write a magazine article worthy of printing one day. Appearing in that exact magazine over a decade later feels so rewarding!

When I moved to Seattle, I also set an intention to cover more stories about the American immigrant experience, which is near and dear to my heart and speak to my personal experience. When my friend told me about the Singh family’s pot farm, I thought it so perfectly encapsulated an aspect of the American dream: Surjit Singh was a farmer in Punjab, India, but he left that behind soon after arriving in the U.S. to pursue financial gain and stability for his family. He owned a video rental store and a gas station that he turned into an Indian grocery in order to make it. But he had always loved farming, and it was the legalization of marijuana in Washington state that brought him back to his roots. What a roundabout way of achieving the American dream, and all through a still-controversial substance that he himself does not use!

It’s quite the story, and I do hope you’ll give it a read.

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