Recipe: Mapo Tofu

Mapo tofu, a staple of Chinese restaurants and now one of my favorite dishes to cook. It’s quick, simple and the perfect comfort food for a chilly evening. There’s a lot of room for experimentation, especially in adjusting the amount of cayenne to change the spice level. This recipe is set to medium spiciness.

The recipe below is a frankenchild of AllRecipes and Epicurious.

Makes 3-4 servings

1/2 lb ground pork (95% lean)
5 tbsp dry sherry (or cooking wine)

1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed (might be called “Salted black beans“)
1 tbsp chili garlic sauce (I ❤ garlic and use almost double this)
2 tsp cayenne pepper
4 tbsp soy sauce
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of ginger, minced

1 package (1 lb) of firm tofu, drained and cut into cubes
3 tbsp of canola oil
1 cup frozen green peas
1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 – 1 tsp Szechuan peppercorn powder
3 tbsp chopped scallions

1. Combine ground pork and sherry in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Combine black beans, chili garlic sauce, cayenne pepper, soy sauce, garlic and ginger in another small bowl and set aside.
3. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a light simmer. Slide tofu into water and maintain at a light simmer for 5-7 minutes as you stir-fry other ingredients. Pre-poaching the tofu this way makes sure that it is tender in the final dish.
4. Heat a wok over high heat until hot (can substitute a skillet) and swirl the canola oil to coat the cooking surface evenly. Stir-fry pork until evenly brown, breaking up clumps as needed. Stir in black bean mixture, peas and pre-poached tofu. Pour in chicken broth and bring to a light boil. Keep stir-frying until it looks ready to eat.
5. Serve topped with sesame oil, Szechuan peppercorn powder and chopped scallions.

Dinner is served

Doodle 4 Google a.k.a best day to be a Googler

On May 4, 2011, online voting for the 4th year of the Doodle 4 Google contest started. Out of a whopping 107,000 submissions, there were now 40 regional finalists, each with a chance to have their doodle featured on the Google homepage for one day.

On that day, I had the pleasure of flying to the school of Victoria Ta, one of the lucky winners, and congratulating her in front of her entire school in an unforgettable assembly.

Click here to watch a video of the happiest girl in the world:

What was different about presenting to 400 middle school students versus 400 adults? Both groups loved being entertained with demos, with the students far more enthusiastic about audience participation.

"Who's been to Disneyworld?"

(l-r) Alicia, Mrs Kirsch, Victoria, Asst Principal Stout, Principal Kircher, me

Conquering your fear: Tips for public speaking

UPDATE: The video of my speech is now available!

A Gallup poll of American adults listed public speaking as the #2 most common fear. Snakes hit #1 – any tips for conquering that fear are not going to come from me. For most of us, we’ll encounter public speaking situations much more often, even if they don’t always look like this:

The same techniques to master an audience this size can be used to keep the attention of your 3-person team. In either situation, you’ll have the same percentage of people distracted, tired or playing with their cell phones – you’ll also have the same potential to capture their interest and give them an experience that will stick in their minds long after you’ve finished speaking.

There are a million and one tips for public speaking out there – I will share the two that I found most useful for my experience speaking at the press event launch of Google for Nonprofits (G4NP) to a 200-person audience that I did not know.

  • Put yourself in the moment: As with roller coasters, job interviews and skydiving, the anticipation is the worst (or best) part of public speaking. At the G4NP event, a series of engineering directors and nonprofit CEOs took the stage for over an hour as I stood backstage, feeling more and more like the butterflies were going to punch a hole in my stomach. I was in no shape to get up on the stage.

    The solution is to force your mind into the moment so you have no chance to dwell on your worries. There are many ways to do this, some people listen to music, others repeat tongue twisters, others play games – I look at pictures of cute animals online. Not only does this wipe worries from my mind, I end up taking the stage with a huge smile on my face.
  • Give the audience a reason to listen: The amount of time since the beginning of an event is directly proportional to the percentage of your audience that will be on their mobile phones when you take the stage. My speech took place well over the event’s halfway point – not a good starting point. There are two reasons that will focus your audience’s attention on you and keep it there:

    1) It’s all about them. This was my intro at the G4NP event:

    “I am honored to be speaking before you today. The technologies I am about to demonstrate have the power to multiply your organization’s impact on the world. I challenge you to think big – because with mobile phones, we are entering a whole new era of technology.”

    A selected mix of flattery, relevance and accountability that the audience do more than just listen – captured their full attention before securing it with…

    2) Show don’t tell. Preferably pretty things. There’s a reason keynotes begin with high-budget video reels and why the massive screens behind Steve Jobs project images of the latest shiny product and not his face. The audience loves watching things, especially amazing things. I was very fortunate to be giving a speech on mobile innovations – the topic is made for awe-inducing demos. In my 10-minute speech, I spoke for roughly 2 minutes and let the phone be the star of the other 8 minutes.

    Composing an email with Voice Actions

    I knew that I had succeeded when after I had composed this email simply by speaking, a woman got up from her seat to take a picture of the screen.

Class dismissed. Now go conquer that fear!

Full video of my speech: Audience member stands up at 6:00

Snowboarding vs Skiing

I’ve been on sporadic snowboarding trips over the past 3 years. I’ve managed to get to a point of relative comfort on blues and willingness to go on blacks with the understanding that I’ll probably falling leaf all the way down.

Given that I had lot of learning left to go on snowboarding, going skiing for the first time seemed like an odd decision. But thanks to over 12 feet of new powder to break falls and a very patient boyfriend, I decided to give it a shot.

The verdict:

Snowboarding Skiing
Less gear
Looking cool
Double black: no problem
Quick & easy recoveries after falls
Chance of wrist injury (bad in tech)
Flat runs are evil
Getting off lifts the hardest part
Going on toe edge against every bodily instinct
More gear
Looking slightly-less-cool
Double black: shitshitshitshit
Look absolutely ridiculous after falls
Chance of knee injury
Flat runs conquered with poles
Just stand up off the lift
What edge?

If you’re brand new to both, your choices are pretty even. You should go with whatever sport more of your friends like as that means more travel buddies and free tips.

There’s one major exception that changes the equation: if you’re like me and have snowboarded for awhile, skiing will seem SO easy.

Last weekend at Kirkwood, I tried skiing for the first time and went down a black with parallel skis my first afternoon. All of the practice I’d had balancing on alternate edges of a board made skis seem like the most stable, predictable platforms in the world. And if you imagine that your feet are still on a board and must stay a fixed distance apart, you’ll keep your skis parallel in no time. I’ll need to take a few lessons to shake out some bad skiing habits, and afterwards… well, who says you need to choose just one?

Self-Experiment: Dinner Party 101

I don’t cook.

I won’t quite say that I can’t cook — when presented with a microwave dinner or brownie mix with instructions printed on the back, I have done an admirable job. But a combination of Google cafes and living in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of Zagat-rated restaurants in San Francisco has made me regard the kitchen with fear and bewilderment.

Therefore it made complete sense for me to volunteer to host a dinner party. What follows is a step-by-step template for how to throw a dinner party for 20+ people, vegetarians accounted for, where your guests happily do most of the work for you and eagerly ask you afterwards for a recipe that doesn’t quite exist.

Step 1: Throw a dumpling making party
I can’t think of a more efficient way to produce delicious food in bulk. And since the guests themselves make the dumplings, they taste that much more delicious to them.

Step 2: Consider the recipes
My mom sent me her dumpling recipe. I remember it had always produced the most delicious dumplings as I was growing up. Of course, that was when she had made the mix:

Vegetarian dumplings

Dry Black Mushroom*
Dry Black Wood Ear*
Bell Pepper*
Fried Tofu
Green Onion
Water chestnuts, well chopped
Soy sauce
Olive oil
Sesame oil

Dumpling wraps

1. Put Dry Black Mushroom and Dry Black Wood Ear into cold water and let them become soft. Wash each piece using cold water (may have some dirt, especially at root of mushroom). By hand, squeeze some water from washing and cut into small pieces
2. Wash the Napa (you only want the leaves and tender inner stems); cut to small pieces; put it in a bowl, add some salt, stir thoroughly. Put aside for awhile till some liquid can be see in the bottom of the bowl. Using your hands or a cheesecloth, squeeze liquid out of chopped napa. If you like, wash the squeezed napa again and re-squeeze as before.
3. Wash Carrot, Celery, Green Pepper, Fried Tofu (this one needs some of the liquid squeezed out after washing also), Ginger, Green Onion and Water Chestnuts and cut them into small pieces.
4. Put all above (1-3) into a big bowl, add salt, soy sauce, egg (you may only want the whites), olive oil, sesame oil, cilantro) and mix well
5. Put proper amount mix on dumpling wrap and make sure closed tightly (you may use some juice from mix or little water to help)
6. Boil water and then put dumpling into and continue cooking. Add cold water three times during cooking whenever the water boils.
7. Serve with sauce on the side (soybean sauce, olive oil, sesame oil, green onions) for self-service

Pork and chive dumplings

Ground pork (or chicken/beef/lamb/etc)
Dry Black Wood Ear
Water chestnuts, well chopped
Soy sauce
Olive oil
Sesame oil

Dumpling wrap

1. Prepare Dry Black Wood Ear just like above
2. Cut garlic, ginger and water chestnuts into small pieces
3. Wash the Chives; cut to small pieces and squeeze some liquid out similar to Napa above. Save the liquid from squeeze into a bow. Then mix the Chive with a little oil.
4. Put meat into a bowl, add egg (you may only want the whites) If meat is too lean, you need to add some of the chive liquid from #3 also. Stir mixture in one direction until it become a little sticky. Add #1-2, salt, soy sauce, sesame oil and mix in the same direction. Note: if the soy sauce be added gradually will be better.
5. Add Chives into the mixture and mix well
6. Follow steps 5-7 as above in vegetarian section

Step 3: Eyeball it
You might notice as I did the distinct lack of numbers in the recipes above. This was by design as my mother always knew how much of each ingredient to put in. There are also a few ingredients in each recipe written in grey. These were items that weren’t in the original list and I ran out to a store in panic to get them when I saw them later in the recipe. Here’s to avoiding that the next time.

So… from microwave cuisine to this. I did the only thing I could: swallowed my fear and eyeballed it. Fortunately dumpling mix is very forgiving and invites a “what the hell” kind of attitude when it comes to preparing it. The only real criteria I used were:

Vegetarian mix: if you’re happy with the mix of colors, then it’s ready. I ended up not even including the carrot, celery or fried tofu. I kept feeding ingredients into a food processor and tossing it into a mixing bowl until the final result looked pretty enough to eat. The food processor is your best friend in this process, except for the items followed with an asterisk. These items either don’t get chopped evenly or get liquefied in a processor, so prepare them by hand.

Pork and chive mix: You never have enough chives. Whatever you prepare initially, double the amount. For that matter, you really can’t have enough water chestnuts, either. Have fun with this one — compared to the veggie dumpling mix, this one is easy.

5lbs of ground pork among other things

5lbs of ground pork among other things

Step 4: Put your guests to work
Have plenty of baking trays and plates sprinkled with flour. Spread out spoons and dumpling wraps evenly amongst the chairs and let them go nuts. The quest to create the perfect pleated dumpling will keep everyone entertained for a very long time. We had many very very beautiful ones at the end:

Art of dumpling making

Art of dumpling making

Step 5: EAT
Dumplings go well with friends, good music and just about any kind of alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink in existence. Thank everyone for attending and start planning your next party 🙂

Bubbling deliciousness

Bubbling deliciousness

TL;DR: Dumplings at a dinner party are delicious and impossible to screw up.

All things in perspective

Over the past 7 days I have:

  1. gotten sick during a Tahoe trip and had to watch others ski from the cabin
  2. stayed sick and had to cancel a long-planned trip to Hawaii
  3. been in so much pain that an attempt to brush my teeth brought me to tears
  4. overdrafted my checking account for the first time ever
  5. had Jeremy drive me to a doctor’s appointment, which resulted in his car getting towed
  6. been unable to eat anything other than soup and hummus

However – this morning, I could not remember feeling happier.

After waking up, laid in bed for over 10 minutes, sulking from ongoing pain. Jeremy (who had just had his car towed last night) jumped on me, tickling and telling jokes until I finally could not stop smiling. He then announced that he was staying home from work to make sure that I was getting better.

7 days of misery were completely wiped away by one kind gesture.

For the next few days as I count the hours until my next dose of Vicodin, I’ll remember that pain truly is fleeting and insignificant. I’m lucky enough to have people in my life to remind me of that.

Self-experiment: Blogging-while-drugged

I am staying home from work today. My out of office message says:

Hi everyone,

I am at home with the flu and will be available by e-mail after noon PST. Please do not call my phone as I currently sound like Vito Corleone with laryngitis.


Not only did writing this make me feel slightly better during a time when I couldn’t remember feeling more miserable – I also got 3 replies from co-workers within 15 minutes about how much they loved my away message. Highly-targeted e-mail marketing could not have asked for a better response rate.

Now to justify the title of this post… here are all of the ingredients currently coursing through my bloodstream:

Hydrogen peroxide (I must have swallowed some of it while gargling)

All of this confirms what I feared when I visited the doctor this morning – they don’t actually know if it’s the flu or something else entirely… just that my mouth feels like it’s swollen twice its regular size. So the best course of action was obviously to throw every drug they could think of at it while the lab techs do their work to diagnose. Where’s Dr. House when you need him?

As someone who never gets sick beyond the occasional sniffles (squashed within 24 hours with obscene amounts of vitamin C), this situation wasn’t likely to repeat itself. Why not make the most of it? Especially since Vicodin = codeine + acetaminophen, and the last time I had codeine following wisdom teeth surgery left me passed out for 12 hours.

Today, I’ll experiment with doing various things while drugged, all intended to provide maximum amusement:

  1. blog (already done!)
  2. have a serious business phone call (scheduled for 30 minutes from now)
  3. film a funny video
  4. learn Java (I’ve had the lesson plans downloaded for weeks)

Additional suggestions are welcome!