Focus. Humph. Do you or don't you? Me, I'm of two minds on the matter.
I definitely do. Focus, that is. Sometimes, I think, rather more than I ought to. You know, in job interviews, that classic strengths and weaknesses battery? I always answered, "attention to detail". To both. Then had some serious explaining to do.
Mostly, I absolutely believe it's a strength, this ability to marshal one's inner eagle eye. It's handy come tax-time, and when checking receipts, and when you're asked four times in one phone call for everyone's socials. I rarely miss typos, took first place in spelling bees, and aced accounting (then promptly forgot it). When I paint a room I cut trim by hand, preferring a steady mind to masking tape. Angels on the head of a pin? I count twelve.
It doesn't come automatically, or easily, but when I make up my mind, I can find one mean groove. I get on a roll, and I sort of move in, project-of-the-moment as über-RV. Barreling down the Interstate, just over the limit. This was priceless in college, during mid-terms and finals, and to this day, keeps me up well past my bedtime. Then there's the small matter of Christmas cookies. Not that I'm thinking ahead. No sirree.
This past Sunday, I missed our family movie, sitting out Gort because I absolutely had to paint the new door trim red. The narrow ribbons of white had taunted me for weeks, thumbing their nose, assaulting my eyeballs. No one else even noticed, turns out. Sort of like I didn't notice the (arguably more important) overflowing gutters, until done. The downside, of course, is I miss the big picture.
It's not that I don't see the forest for the trees. I don't see the trees, either, or the trunk, or the branch. I'm too busy admiring that finely turned blossom, third from the left, on that quarter-inch twig. Welcome to my world. Where the f-stop's always under four.
My better half is well aware of this, and I depend on his gentle reminders to step back. Once, years ago, we were walking and talking, and I was busy drilling down on some infinitesimal obstacle. As he's wont to do, he changed subjects entirely, and asked me, randomly, "What do you see?"
You know, you detail-oriented sorts, how maddening such lines of inquiry can be. My first thought was, Four-billion-nine-hundred-thousand-and-twelve things! Enumeration's more powerful than exasperation, my second.
So I set out to answer as best I could. The river. My shoes. This crack in the sidewalk. Nope. The rollerblader. His buddy. His dog. Uh-huh. Those dandelions. These ants. The crumb they're carrying. Keep trying.
It went on like this, for ten minutes, a mile. After itemizing the universe, I finally cried uncle. The answer?
Oh. Right. That.
Focus: good. Oblivious: bad. It's my life's work, I think, to hack some middle ground. Look out. Look around. Look up, for goodness sake. I need this tattooed, somewhere, perhaps behind both eyelids. I'm getting better, reaching, stretching, stepping out. I grew some beans, stitched some seams, moved to Ohio. Stuff like that. Still, I backslide a bit, now and then. And when I do, it's one slippery slope.
Like in April and May, when our dogwood betwitched me. I could not let it alone, for weeks on end. I'd seen dogwoods before, grew up with one, even, but this one, this year, held me enthralled.
The celadon glow of those polka-dot buds. The sudden stark chic, ivory petals, black branch. The way every flower changed form entirely, from upturned teacup to 2-D porcelain saucer. Violet tips, Hokusai stems, the sly wink of new leaves. Even their freckled decline caught my eye, point-counterpoint to kids finally, finally let out. They're my memory of spring, these whitewashed weeks.
It's long gone now, of course, all green leaves since May. Well, green going on crimson. Plus coordinating berries, of late (perhaps you'll forgive me my pre-Christmas moment). But it's one of this year's many deep dives, right up there with this fifth straight week of (gulp) green.
Don't think I haven't noticed. It just can't be helped. I love green food nearly as much as my kids loathe it. I have to take it out on someone (hello, you!). And while I didn't actually plan it this way, by now I'm considering sponsorships, Sesame-Street Style. Brought to you by the color green, just to be on the up-and-up. You can always click away. I'll understand. But you'd miss this bok choy. And then I'd pity you, something awful.
This bok choy is barely a recipe, being all of three ingredients plus two minutes' cooking. In fact, it seems a little silly to mention it. Except that it took me two decades to track it down.
I grew up eating dim sum as a rare treat, and I loved the whole feast, soup to nuts, so to speak. The rattletrap carts, the shrimpy shumai, those leaf-wrapped, sausage-stuffed, sticky rice bundles. But what I craved, what I waited for, was the plate of steamed greens, a deep inky pile in a puddle of brown.
I inquired, every time, what is this deliciousness? "Greens" was the longest answer I ever got. Eventually, I identified the vegetable in question, which in fact were vegetables, plural, gai lan, choy sum, bok choy, all fantastic. But what of the heady mysterious brown sauce, funky and lovely and utterly addictive?
I searched Chinese cookbooks for years. A decade. Never finding this elusive, magnificent dish. Until one day Ken Hom came to my rescue, in a small brief write-up of iceberg and oyster sauce. Oyster sauce! All along, I'd expected some lengthy preparation, a complex reduction of stock and aromatics. And, you know, sixteen other ingredients. Like any self-respecting French sauce, for example. Instead, the moral equivalent was, "First, pick up french fry. Next, apply ketchup". No wonder I couldn't find a recipe.
In the five years or so since I discovered Oyster Sauce, it's earned a spot, front-and-center, in my pantry. I've probably plowed through a dozen bottles of the stuff, almost exclusively on Asian greens, blanched and drizzled. It doesn't take much—a few Tablespoons, thinned with oil—but the end result is the cat's pajamas. The greens—bok choy, here, as it's widely availaible and scrumptious—go all sweet and silky and irresistably crisp. And the sauce brings a magical sweet-savory bling, a heft and richness that defies unscrew cap and pour.
I baked brownies today. Really, really good brownies. I mean to tell you about them, soon. But for what it's worth? I like these greens better. They are that good. And not just because I'm on a roll.
Bok Choy with Oyster Sauce
adapted from Ken Hom, New Chinese Cookery
Unlike so many twee baby vegetables, baby bok choy (4-6" long) genuinely is a suppler, more succulent version of the adult. Asian groceries routinely stock it by the superbly fresh, wildly inexpensive pillow-case full. Many well-stocked groceries do also, as do farmer's markets, in the spring and fall. My Asian greens guy had a purple-leafed variety this week, which of course all washes down the drain after the cooking.
I eat this recipe in its entireity, doubling it if I plan to share. You may be more moderate than I.
4 heads baby bok choy, ends trimmed, sliced in half lengthwise
2 Tbs. oyster sauce
2 tsp. peanut or canola oil
sesame seeds (optional)
Fill a large saucepan with water, and set to boil. Trim ends from bok choy, and slice lengthwise, in two. Wash, hovering a bit at the root end, where dirt sometimes hunkers. When the water boils, toss in bok choy, and blanche, two minutes. That's it. Fetch a clean dish towel, fold it in half, and return to your pot. They're done. Retrieve bok choy with a slotted spoon, and set to drain on the dish towel.
In a small bowl, mix the oyster sauce and oil with a fork, to combine. Lay bok choy on a plate, drizzle oyster sauce over top, and toss a few sesame seeds over all, if you wish. Eat immediately.