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Monday, May 13, 2013

Remembering my Lola Frances

My Lola,  my Grandmother,my last living grandparent passed away gently in her sleep in the Philippines on May 10th in the early morning hours. She was 104.7 years old and would have turned 105 this coming 8th of October.

A wedding portrait of my Lola Frances and Lolo Jacobo

A studio portrait of Lola Frances when she was in her 50's
A portrait of Lola Frances and her 4 children, L to R:  my Uncle Roly, Auntie Becky, Uncle Reuben and my Mom

My Lola Frances during her 100th birthday celebration

She was a very resilient woman, having been widowed, losing her husband during WWII. Lola Frances was left to deal with the perils of war along with being left as a single mother of 4 children. Lola never remarried. She was a devout woman and would read her bible each day.The church was her second home and she would always remind us that we had to get to church on time and fuss when she had any inkling that we would be running a few minutes late. I can recall how she signed her cards and letters 'with fervent prayers, Frances.'

My Lola Frances in church during her 101st birthday
Lola reading her daily meditation at my Auntie Becky's condo in the Philippines

She came to live with my parents in the 70's so that she could help them take care of my brothers and myself. When we were younger, I remember having fun, watching the game show, the 'Price is Right,; with Lola in the morning. I can recall coming home from school and her having Nilaga ( a Pilipino stew that had beef, cabbage, carrots and lots of sabaw (broth) ), my brother Jonathan and I loved to eat the sabaw with quite a quantity of freshly cooked rice. She would sometimes walk us to and from school. 

If she ever offered us sweets; it would most likely be either hard candies like butterscotch or of course, her favorite, dark chocolate. I don't think as children we could really appreciate the complex flavor of dark chocolate, but we appreciated the sugariness of the hard candies. Our Lola, would help mend our clothing from time to time.I think that she was the first person from whom I learned the basics of sewing. I don't think my sewing skills were ever as good as hers were though, but I'm thankful to her for being able to know how to sew buttons back on and mend holes in shirts and pants. Salamat po, Lola.

Lola Frances helping my Mom get ready for the wedding

From L to R: my Lola Sabel, Lola Frances, Mom, Dad, Uncle Reuben and Lolo Juan

Color version- From L to R: my Lola Sabel, Lola Frances, Mom, Dad, Uncle Reuben and Lolo Juan
A photo of me with my two Lola's: Lola Frances and Lola Sabel

Look at this trio. I know that my brothers and I, must've been a handful =)

My Lola Frances had a special affinity for Jonathan and I remember that she was the only one that he had sang in front of before he had his first 'stage debut', during middle school. Jonathan played the captain in a production of H.M.S Pinafore. Needless to say it took my parents off guard and garnered the attention of the choir director of the local high school. I'm so happy that my brother found confidence with my Lola to open up to her; so he could go out and achieve his dreams. When my Lola was still staying with us, she would ask about Jonathan and we would remind her that he was in Texas, but she would often insist that 'Oh, he must be in Hollywood!'  =)

My brother Jonathan and Lola Frances during her 102nd birthday =)

Along with her daily devotion, she would play her 'mixtape,' of big band and music from the likes of Pete Fountain and so forth, and do her daily calisthenics. She did this until she was in her 90's and needed a cane to get around. Even after that I think she still did chair exercises.  I remember her saying 'Hep!,' as she went through her routine. She would also sometimes say 'Hep!,' when she went to get up from a chair. It was kind of like a battle cry of sorts, to give you the strength to get things done.

Lola Frances, always made sure that her hair was well coiffed and nails painted to match. In her younger years I remember the insane amount of bobby pins that she owned and used. She would use her comb to create the individual nests of hair on her head and pin them to set the curls. Later when she could no longer do that herself; she would happily go to the parlor every other Saturday.
Sitting pretty

Tayo na! 

Look at those curls

Lola was always appreciative of her caregivers, people from the local hair parlor, her doctors, audiologists and so forth. She would always remember them along with her other friends and family and bring back copious amounts of chocolate covered macadamia nuts and Kona coffee from Hawaii. The amounts of chocolate and coffee were so copious that she would often mail a dozen of priority boxes home to Michigan because taking it all home in her suitcase would simply be too heavy (can you imagine; if she had to do this now with all the luggage fees? =) Lola would  split her time between Michigan with my family and Hawaii with my Uncle Reuben and Auntie Celina. Leaving Michigan as the winter grew near and returning when summer approached.

Lola was still able to travel fairly well until she was in her 90's

Lola Frances, used to be able to fly by herself (she even went on a trip around the world when she was in her late 50's), but when she had to start using a cane, my uncle Reuben used to fly to Michigan for a few days; so that he could fly back with Lola to Hawaii. Sometimes, if my Uncle Reuben was too busy with his practice, my Mom would be the one to accompany Lola to Hawaii. I don't recall all the details of why neither my uncle or my Mom could accompany her, but one time I took a week off work; so I could accompany her to Hawaii. Travelling is hectic enough as it is, but it's even harder when your companion is elderly. We had to use a wheelchair service to get from gate to gate and since we didn't have a direct flight, we had a stopover at Chicago, O'hare. I don't know how people navigate that airport, we had to ride one of those service vehicles and take 2 service elevators before we finally go to our connecting gate and even then we had just 20 minutes before boarding for our final flight to Hawaii. It was a whirlwind to get there, but we made it intact.  The day that I had to fly back to Michigan, Lola started to get sad and even seemed to be a bit worried. I told her not to worry because she would see me again in a few months. She was also in Hawaii after all, with my Uncle Reuben, Auntie Celina and my cousin Tony. Lola also had many friend in Hawaii. Her friend Linda Cua who lived across the street, would always address her affectionately as
 'Dona Guerrero.'

My cousin Tony and his wife Vanessa with their first child, Isabella.
Lola at the church in Honolulu, Hawaii with my Mom, Auntie Celina and Uncle Reuben

As I grew older and honed my culinary skills, my Lola would always be delighted whenever I made a soup or dish where the vegetables were soft enough for her to eat. She especially, enjoyed it when I baked a cake, cookie or biscuit that was nice and soft. I always try to cook with balance in mind; which means that nothing is overly salty or cloyingly sweet. Lola would often say things like "It is good because it is soft! or 'It is not so sweet!' with a smile on her face. Amongst her favorite in the realm of Pilipino desserts, were Mamon a type of chiffon cake, Ensaymada a Pilipino style of brioche topped with grated cheese, butter and sugar and one of her most favorites was the Chinese style of puto (steamed rice cake) which I never knew the true Chinese name for it 'pak tong koh,' until many years later.  As I understand it, it was probably more popular in the Philippines during the time she was growing up and maybe to the extent of my parents earlier years, but in the modern Philippines, I think it is a rarity. When I asked my cousins about it, they seemed puzzled and unsure as to what I was referencing. My parents were in the Philippines in February and were able to bring her 2 slices of Chinese puto/pak tong koh from the local Asian bakery; that I had frozen in the freezer. It wouldn't be the same as having it fresh, but I know that Lola must have have enjoyed it all the same.

Since, she loved soft things of course she loved Lugaw/Arroz Caldo a type of hearty savory rice porridge and Champorado a sweet chocolate rice porridge/pudding. One of her favorite dim sum foods were 'Adidas,' the Pilipino nickname for chicken feet. One time we were having lunch with some of Lola's friends in Windsor, Canada and were enjoying the dim sum service. Everything was going well, until two of Lola's friends got a little too boisterous and started yelling' We want adidas! Give us adidas!' I shrunk into my chair and hoped that  nobody saw me with them, 

V,GF Pinakbet

V,GF Pinakbet

The altar that we made for Lola Frances
The Atang for Lola Frances: Ampalaya tea, V,GF Pinakbet,chocolate and almond cookies, chocolate mochi cake and  hybrid mamoul/hopia filled with lotus

One of my Lola's favorite vegetables to eat was ampalaya (bittermelon). It was always ever present in our kitchen. Her favorite dish to cook was Pinakbet. A sort of layered vegetable stew which always required ampalaya of course, along with talong (eggplant),calabasa (squash),okra, peppers, tomatoes etc. I can vividly recall her prepping all of the vegetables and then carefully layering them in the pot. Adding in the ampalaya and talong near the end because you never want to eat mushy vegetables. She would then pick up the pot off of the stove and shake it to toss/mix the vegetables gently. If you were to just try and stir everything together with a cooking utensil; it would make everything taste bitter. Lola Frances was able to cook pinakbet by herself until she was in her 90's. After that, we had to help her because it wouldn't be safe for her to pick up the pot by herself anymore; since there was a good chance that it might slip out of her hands etc. I made my own V, GF version of pinakbet the other night in honor of Lola Frances and Lolo Jacobo whose death anniversary is May 12th. As I held the handles of the pot in my hands and gently shook the pot to toss the ingredients together, the very distinctive sound that it made forced me to smile and really think of Lola.

As young children, I don't know if we really ate the pinakbet by choice ('Anak, eat your gulay!' = Child, eat your vegetables!), but I can remember us enjoying other things that Lola Frances used to cook. One of her other stove-top specialties was Tortang Talong (broiled eggplant, stuffed with ground meat and then dipped in beaten egg, then fried) we loved to eat that with lots of rice. She could also make sweet things, the one that I remember as being her specialty was making bread pudding. She would take all that bread that was luma (old/stale) soak it in a mixture of milk, eggs,and sugar in a loaf pan and then top it off with cheddar cheese and bake it in the oven(I think that most of the time it was from a brick of processed Government cheese, but we didn't care about that back then. It just tasted good. The other type of sweet that she used to make were refrigerator cakes, but I think that Jonathan remembers more about those than I do, probably because I was biased and preferred the bread pudding over the refrigerator cake =)

I was fortunate enough to be able to be in the Philippines to celebrate Lola's 104th birthday last October. What a joy it was to see her with all of her four children there in one place. I'm happy for the time that my family and I got to spend with her. She  may have been 104 and had the natural ailments that come with age, arthritis, not being able to walk without a cane, hearing problems and despite her forgetfulness; her mind was still there and even if it took her longer to remember or respond; when she focused she could tell you such stories with great detail. Lola could even still joke around and also 'make chismis' (gossip) with us. 
As my Mom would say 'Your Lola is a Komikera!'

During her 'true' birthday on October 8th

Watching over Lola as she gladly ate her Mamon
During Lola's 104th Birthday Celebration

I know it was tough for Lola and although she was constantly surrounded by family (daughter, son, grandchildren and many many great grandchildren etc) she was tired and missing her own family. She had lost Lolo Jacobo very early on during WWII, all of her siblings were gone and most of her close friends in Michigan had already died as well. I remember when I accompanied her to Virginia for Lolo Angel's (Blanco), her last remaining brother/sibling's funeral,The distressed expression on her face when we were at the funeral home for the viewing. She talked to her brother and said 'Angel, won't you come back tonight?...'  It's hard to be the last one standing when you've seen everybody around leave.

Lolo Blanco (Angel) and Lola Frances picking apples together

Lola Frances and Lola Blanco (Angel) in Florida

Lolo Blanco (Angel) proudly displaying his local catch, Lola Frances and my brother Jonathan  'Oohhhing and ahhing,' at the sight of the fish.

One of the last photos of Lola Frances and Lolo Blanco (Angel) together

Lola was ready to go and would tell us that "I need to go, I'm overstaying now.' She wanted her Lord to come and take her home, but as my Mom would remind her that it wasn't her decision and say to her 'The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh.' We wanted Lola to stop worrying and just enjoy the present with her family.
My Mom hugging my Lola, last February

A photo of Lola Frances surrounded by (from L to R) her daughter Rebecca, great grandchild Dick, Dick's fiancée Shirley, grandchild Tintin with her dog Bokie and her other daughter (my Mom) Ruth

When my cousin Jojo passed away 5 weeks ago; it was devastating  My cousin Jojo had been battling cancer for number of years and gone into remission and then the cancer would come back. She was fighting until the end and did it on her own terms. Jojo was very special to Lola because she was her very first grandchild. Jojo, had also, in the later years when Lola moved back to the Philippines permanently, taken good care of Lola. Driving her to church, making sure to pick up all the things that Lola needed, just being there in general for Lola.. Jojo was only 51 years old and even though I believe that it's too soon; I know that Jojo is no longer suffering and she's with Lola and the rest of our family now. My Family in the Philippines were apprehensive of telling Lola about Jojo's passing because they feared that it would be such a blow to her heart,from which she might die. I know that when my Uncle Reuben was there for the service, he did talk to my Lola, but he wasn't sure that she understood everything. Even if nobody had said anything to her; I'm sure that she could feel it and she knew it. One of my cousins told me that she had said 'Where is my grandchild?' and called for Jojo, but after the funeral service (which Lola couldn't attend because of her frail condition) she never asked for Jojo again.
My cousin Jojo and I in front of Subic bay, last October.
During her 100th birthday celebration week: Lola Frances and the two Jojo's
Lola during he 100th birthday celebration at the church. L to R: my cousin Dennis, Lola and Jojo

I know that a piece of her heart must have left when Jojo died. Jojo was such a special person. One of the most generous, giving,selfless and loving people that I have ever known. Jojo had an unflappable smile and loved to laugh. I know that she brought light and love into the lives of all the people that she met. Lola, loved her deeply and so it pained her greatly when her dear Jojo died. 

My brother Jonathan and I were concerned that Lola should be able to know the truth; so that she could truly be at peace and not left wondering or feeling betrayed by not being told the truth. We knew that Lola had to know though; she was a very smart woman. She could piece together the truth by what she saw was happening around her. Still we wanted her to at least have the chance. We wished that we could take her to Jojo's funeral ourselves, but felt helpless; since we were thousands of miles away on a different continent. It was heartbreaking for us to see the rest of our family's heartbreak and not be there physically to hold their hands and cry with them.

A photo of the cousins in Jojo's room, after coming back from the funeral service.

In October, we knew that our visits and time spent with Lola Frances, could possibly be our last ones. So, we made the most out of them. We talked to her and listened to her stories, her advice and whatever wisdom she wanted to share with us. We even tried to get her to get up and dance with us, but she would say 'No, dancing and living are for the young!' She still enjoyed marveling at our modern dance moves and even enjoyed my mini review of tap dancing, when I did a few butterflies. The day that we had to leave to fly back home at 2 am, Lola made Jonathan promise to wake her up; so that she could see us before we left. We had worried that maybe it would be too much for her to see us leave, but to our surprise she was calm and upbeat. She wished us a safe journey and we hugged and kissed her. I took our last photos with Lola before leaving for the airport, hoping that we would be able to see her again in a few months, but it was not to be.

Lola, even walked all the way to the door to say goodbye to us <3

This was a photo of the last time that we were able to Skype with my cousins and briefly talk to Lola

She lived a very full life, filled with struggles, hardships, happiness and love. Lola Frances was a survivor, first as a widow of war and single mother and then later as a cancer survivor having a mastectomy in her 80's and still she lived to be 104.7 years old. She was there to witness her grandchildren and her many great grandchildren's successes and milestones. The youngest of the great grandchildren, who may not be able to remember Lola France, will be able to get to know her through us, the grandchildren; who will gladly tell them about their Great Grandma, Lola Francisca Castro Guerrero, and let them know how she influenced our lives.

Lola Frances, Lyla  and myself, having lunch celebrating Lyla's baptism

Her 3rd to youngest Great Grandchild, Lyla Eve (3 years old), posing with my Mom and holding a photo of Lola Frances during her 100th birthday celebration.

I now have no living grandparents left and it's a very strange feeling. As a child I never had a chance to meet my grandfathers, but I still had my two Lola's. When my Lola Sabel died it was a mighty blow to me and now that I've lost my Lola Frances, it just doesn't seem real, but I know that she's gone.

I have to imagine that Lola is having a happy reunion with her husband, my Lolo Jacobo, with her siblings Lolo Blanco (Angel), Lolo Black (Amador ) and Lola Consuelo. Maybe she's even visiting with my Dad's parents, Lola Sabel and Lolo Juan and they're cooking in the kitchen and catching up on old times. Perhaps, Lola will even be able to learn how to play Mahjong with them now; since she never knew how to play while she was with us. I have to think positively and remind myself that Lola is happy now.

I try my best to comfort my Mother for her loss, while trying to comfort my brothers and myself. 

I shed tears for my Lola Frances, but I know that she is truly at peace now.

Mahal kita, Lola

You will always be with us in our hearts

<3 <3 <3

Monday, May 6, 2013

Join me for Merienda: Omma's Kitchen inspired Collard Green V and GF, Bi Bim Bap Wraps

A nyoung ha sae yo! (That's the formal way to say 'Hello,' in Korean =)

I wasn't able to post the previous month due to some personal circumstances, but I am dedicating this post to the memory of my cousin Jojo. I know that she would've loved to have eaten this dish with me. She always had a great appreciation for food and for life. 

My cousin Jojo is on the right. She always had a smile on her face and was one of the kindest and most generous human beings that I have ever known in my life. 

Pinsan, these Bi Bim Bap wraps are for you =)  Mahal kita!  <3

Yes, we're going to be talking about Korean food today. I have long been a fan of Korean food because of its freshness and true flavors. I've been aware of Korean food since a very young age because of a local store that my family would frequent. Let's put it this way, I was more acquainted with Kim bap than sushi as a youngster. In subsequent years, the store would expand to include a tiny restaurant side to it as well. It's really nice to support a small and family run business and I still go to this same store/restaurant today. 

An example of lovely Jap Chae noodles =)

I think that this is somebody's idea of Kimchi heaven =)

Over the years, I've learned many different techniques of cooking from various cultures and adapted them to my taste and my personal regimen. I've been making my own Vegan (as well as Gluten Free) version of various types of Kimchi for the last couple of years as well. I mean, who doesn't enjoy a nice bowl of  Jap Chae, I just add in more shiitake mushrooms and omit the meat/seafood. 

Anyway, maybe I'll have some posts about that stuff another day, but today we're going to pay homage to Ommas Kitchen. This youtube channel features videos of a Korean Mom giving cooking lessons to her daughters. She speaks directly to them; telling them how to make their favorite dishes. It's so cute sometimes when you hear her banter with her husband in the kitchen too. In one video, she was showing how she makes Bi Bim Bap wraps with blanched collard green leaves and I wanted to give it a go myself. 

If you don't already know what Bi Bim Bap is; then you can check out the wikipedia link for it right here:

I like Omma and her kitchen. I can relate to her style of cooking because she's pretty liberal about it when it comes to ingredients and just using whatever you have on hand and adjusting it to your taste etc.

Here is the link to the original video on Ommas Kitchen:

So, let's get down to business and show Omma, some love!

This is going to be a more show and tell type of entry as opposed to the regular recipe posts. If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments section and I'll try to answer them to the best of my ability.

Collard Green leaves you with a good feeling =)

The big difference between how I prepared the leaves, is that she blanches the collard green leaves, but I chose to steam the leaves instead because I didn't wanted to waste all that water. I washed the collard green leaves very well and then cut off the longer stem pieces and put those on the bottom of the steamer tray/basket and then carefully layered the leaves to cover the whole surface area. I then steamed the leaves for about 13 minutes. After steaming the leaves, I then put the leaves into an ice water bath for about 12 minutes and then removed them. The steaming worked well and made the leaves pliable for rolling.

I chopped up the stems of the collard greens and pickled them in a vinegar solution. I don't think that there's ever a time when I don't have some sort of homemade pickle in the fridge; so I will save the pickling liquid and use them for marinades. In this instance, I had pickling liquid leftover from some pickled garlicky daikon ribbons that I had made.

The other ban chans (vegetable side dishes that are traditionally served with Bi Bim Bap)  that I made for this version were fried tofu triangles, sauteed sesame carrots with green onion and garlic, homemade hijiki salad, a bit of korean short grain brown rice and homemade V,GF napa kimchi..

There are so many other ban chans that could've been made or gone into this version, but that's what makes it fun to eat and make. You can play around and figure out which combinations you like the best. I think that I'll probably make a marinated mung or soy bean salad and add in some shredded cucumber as well for the next version. 

Are the Ban Chan's related to Jackie Chan? =p

Another view of the Ban Chan's: Clockwise- Pan Fried Tofu Triangles, Sauteed  Sesame Carrots with green onions and garlic, Hijiki Salad, Marinated collard green stems and homemade V,GF Napa Kimchi.

Hey, we gotta go! Wrap it up, already!

The Ban Chan's at their daily meeting spot.

The two collard green wrappers: America's next top rap sensation?

Portable nourishment! Reach out and grab one! =)

If you encounter the problem of not having big enough collard green leaves to fully wrap your ingredients; you just simply overlap two leaves and problem solved! I am Jessgyver! =p

I should also,give a shout-out to some of the other Korean cooking channels on youtube that I also enjoy and those are:

I hope that you try this style of Bi Bim Bap and also check out those youtube channels. I always find inspiration from everything in my life and from some of these culinary channels as well.

Wishing you good health and happy cooking =)

A nyong hee gae sae yo! (That's one of the formal ways to say 'Goodbye,' in Korean =)

Until next time....