Spaghetti therapy

One thing I love about reading blogs is that I come away with lots of ideas. I saw a photo of chicks in a laundry basket at the Kitchen’s Garden, so when it came time to transport some incubated chicks from our flat to our garden, I looked no further than our mesh laundry basket with a Velcro closure. At Garden to Wok I have discovered new vegetables to grow (I have Red Noodle long beans this year) and how to grow them (I now plant all my bok choy in groups of three, a sort of short cut succession planting).
I could go on for weeks. And of course there are recipes. Many times, I have found the answer to the perennial question of what to cook in blog posts like Squishy Monster’s soybean rice or Lois Elsden’s soda bread.
A good friend of mine living in Abu Dhabi often points out interesting blogs for me to read and it was through her that I began to follow the blog Rachel Eats, written by an English woman living in Rome. And one day she posted a recipe for spaghetti al pomodoro – spaghetti with tomatoes. I shuddered. Let me explain. I went to a high school in Rome for three years, the first two and a half years as a day student, and as a boarding student for my last semester. (I did my senior year in Istanbul.) I am not sure how often we were served spaghetti with red sauce, but it was often enough that the mere sight of it was enough to move me to tears of dismay. I am sure that cooking for hordes of sullen teenagers is a joyless affair, and I mean no slight to the brave efforts of the kitchen staff, but I remain deeply averse to spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Still, I read on and found myself willing to try the recipe. It was so simple sounding. Could tomatoes, garlic, oil and a little basil really become something to write about in such luminous terms?
I made the sauce, using the requisite indecent amount if olive oil (I poured it in until my heart began to pound), tossed the pasta in straight from its cooking water and watched a sauce emulsify on the noodles, like magic. I was serving it alongside something else, but as soon as I began to eat the pasta, I forgot about everything else on the table. Then I forgot about the table itself and everyone around it as I ate the pasta and it took me deep into my own thoughts. The velvety slick of sauce was perfect and beautiful. How foolish I had been to doubt that such a simple recipe could be so good – when it is the right season, tomatoes will shine as brightly as they are permitted. Best of all, it took pasta with tomatoes and dragged it out of the school cafeteria once and for all. The recipe is here. Treat yourself.

both hands
It’s good enough to eat with two hands…


Peking duck Part 2 — steamed buns

I blushingly recall having promised to write this post the day after the previous one. Note to self: just say “later,” never “tomorrow” when talking up future posts. By way of explanation, let me just say that moving house is a little bit like being eaten up by a monster (kraken?) along with all of your belongings, digested, and pooped out the other end. In other words, the less said about the whole thing, the better (I am still being digested, in case you were wondering).

So if I can’t write about the mountains of boxes that I am surrounded by, I can at least make good on that promise and finish my Peking duck story.

As I mentioned earlier, there are those who like to wrap their duck in pancakes, and that is all well and good, but I prefer a steamed bun. There are lots of recipes out there, because this is a very versatile little carbohydrate. It is very similar to the outside of a bao, if you get my drift. That is to say, it is a bouncy yeasted dough that is steamed to create soft pillows that can be peeled open and stuffed with any number of things.

When I was living in China, I noticed that when people talked about “main dishes” they were actually talking about their carbohydrates. You could have rice as your main dish, but it was also equally possible to have noodles, congee, or steamed bread. Everything else that you eat — vegetables, meat, fish, or just something pungent like pork fat and chili peppers, is just to help the main dish down. (One of my new favorite meals is chili bean paste – fermented broad beans and chilis – and a bowl of rice. The bean paste is so potent that the rice goes down a treat with it. A fried egg on top is nice, but in a pinch I can do without.)

So think of these buns as vehicles for whatever tasty dish you fancy, like super soft pitas. I used a recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s amazing cookbook, Every Grain of Rice, which has my mother and me scrambling to try every recipe as fast as we can so we can move on to the next great recipe.

Lotus Leaf Buns  (so named for their shape, which resembles a folded lotus leaf)


you’ll need:

2 tsp dried yeast

500 grams white flour plus more for dusting

2 tbsp cooking oil plus more for greasing

2 tsp sugar

Add the yeast to 100 ml tepid water and set aside for five minutes to bloom. Make a well in the flour and pour in the dissolved yeast. Mix it in just enough to make a paste, then cover and let it sit for 20 minutes or so, or until it goes bubbly. add the oil and sugar, as well as about 225 ml of water — enough to give you a soft, kneadable dough…

…because it’s time to knead! Knead it until the dough is nice and smooth, around 10 minutes.  Put it in a bowl, cover, and let it rise for about 20 minutes.

Knock the dough back and turn it out on to the counter. Now, you’ll split it into around 32 little balls. You can do this more easily by quartering the dough and then getting 8 pieces off each quarter. The pieces should be 25  grams, and because I love my kitchen scale, I weighed them. Think what you will.

Now comes the fun part. Take a little dough ball and roll it out until it is about 8 cm across. Repeat until you have 32 discs. Then lightly brush one side of a disc with oil and fold it over. If you forget, the dough will fuse together and there will be no peeling open the bread for you. (Those are the ones that I eat first so no one can see them.)

Fold the dough over in half and then use a comb to press in the pattern of a lotus leaf into the dough. Then use the back of the comb to gently nudge the dough to make it curl inwards at each leaf vein. In the end, they will look like this:


Then let them rise another 20 minutes while you get your steamer ready. Steam the buns on high heat for 10 minutes. They will balloon! You can eat them right away, or cool them before refrigerating or freezing them. Just steam them to reheat.

If this all sounds a bit fiddly, I have to admit that it is. (But I just confessed to weighing each bun.) I did it twice in three days, though, and had fun. Plus, the buns were good, and I had some leftovers for snacking and for Baki’s lunch box.

If you are eating these buns with duck, here’s how we do it: first peel the bun open and go ahead and lay on a schmear of Hoisin sauce. Then add a slice of cucumber and a few slivers of green onion. Add your duck skin and your ready for blast off. Mmmmmm….

One of my relatives wrote to me after reading the first Peking duck post that he prefers a good Cantonese style roast duck. He’s got a point. It just so happens that I ran across a recipe for Cantonese roast duck in Gloria Bley Miller’s Thousand Chinese Recipes book while we were reading up on duck. My mother and I are very tempted to try it…


Peking duck part 1

Happy new year, everyone! I haven’t been able to read as many of the great new year/old year posts that everyone is writing lately, because we are moving this week. It’s all a bit sudden, and we have many, many books to pack, not to mention all the other stuff. This is when I realize that i really ought to acquire/keep fewer things.

My mom is still here (poor, long suffering mom), and she was trying to count how many times she has moved in her life. She gave up — it has been that many! (Consequently, she is a real pro. Oh thank you long suffering mom for helping me with this insane move!!) She moved plenty before she got married to my dad, and things just got more interesting after that. The first place they moved to, after meeting in Paris and getting married in Greece, was Nairobi. This was in 1969.

My parents’ landlord was the owner of a bookstore, and my mother said she got a lot of great books from there, many of which we still have and some of which we are packing up this week. One great favorite that she kept with her own collection (now in NYC) was a book called Chinese Gastronomy, by Hsiang Ju Lin. It is out of print under that title, but she bought a copy for me some years ago under its new name, The Art of Chinese Cuisine (same exact book inside). It is a fantastic book, written in a calm and conversational style that is a real pleasure to read. The book is so good, in fact, that the recipes are gravy. But they are very good recipes. And that is the book that my mother has always referred to when she is getting herself psyched up to make Peking duck.  Here is an irresistible little quote, in the lengthy introduction to the Peking duck recipe: “It is very difficult to think of a comparable dish in Western cooking. It most closely resembles a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich in its distinctions between textures and delicate flavors.” I know. Just buy the book.

We made two in one week, and I have to say that it’s not so hard, it’s just that you can’t decide to do it on the spur of the moment. The reason for this is that the duck has to get really dry before you roast it so that the skin will be nice and crispy. To achieve this, you hang the duck for at least a day. We hung ours for two.  First we rubbed the inside of the body cavity with salt and hung it up for a day, then rubbed vodka all over it and hung it all day and that same evening we rubbed it with sugar water (2T sugar + 1T water) and let it hang another 24 hours before roasting it. This is more or less how the book describes it, although the process is shorter in the book. At the end of all that, we ended up with a sort of duck jerky:

dry duck

(To see what it looked like before, I refer you to the post previous to this one. You will notice that duck looks soft and flabby while this one is more wizened. You may also notice that the duck is hanging the wrong side down. This we corrected shortly after the photo was taken!)

Notice how my mom tied the wings to lift them up from the body? We did that on day two, when my mom noticed that the skin wasn’t drying much under the wings. Then you heat your oven to 375 F/180 C and place a tray with some water at the very bottom of the oven and the rack at the middle and roast the duck for about an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half. We found that we needed to turn it once after an hour, then turn it again about 15 minutes later, so we did it for an hour and a half. And boy does it get brown:

roasted duck

I guess some people like their duck in pancakes, but we like it in steamed buns. I will post that recipe tomorrow and show you what the duck looked like when we ate it!

My parents left Nairobi in 1970, and my mother was terribly sad. She was sure she would never go back, and I suppose it was a perfectly reasonable expectation. But we moved there as a family when I was 8, and we stayed for six years which just goes to show that you can be sure of something and feel it in your bones, but that doesn’t mean it will turn out that way necessarily.

Fried Chicken

Fried chicken, biscuits, and chard (for a healthy touch…).

It may have been all stars and stripes in NY in the wake of our departure, but it was mostly business as usual here in the garden on the 4th of July. Still, maybe it was reading blog posts about people’s days, or emails from family, but yesterday my mom and I suddenly found ourselves on fire to fry a chicken.
I make fried chicken approximately once a year, and I always use my aunt’s recipe. She knew that I loved it, so she used to make it for me every time I visited her and my uncle in Portland, OR. (That and pigs’ feet in black vinegar. Mmmmm….) When it came time for me to try and make it on my own, I turned to Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and discovered his very clever method for frying chicken and combined it with Auntie’s recipe. This, then, is how we fry chicken at my house:

Auntie Ga’s Fried Chicken

1 chicken, butchered to your liking
2 cups milk
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
1 teaspoon salt
flour for dredging
A big fry pan with a lid
A timer
oil for frying (my aunt used Crisco, my cousin revealed to me. Daisy from Coolcookstyle fed me rumors of chicken fried in bacon fat — oh, if only! Do what you must.)

1. At least an hour beforehand, combine the milk, garlic, five spice and salt in a big bowl and submerge the chicken in its tasty bath.
2. When you are ready to fry, get out your big fry pan and fill it 1/2 inch deep with oil. I’d like to tell you to heat it to about 300 degrees, but really, using a thermometer just illustrated how wildly the oil temperature in my pan fluctuates. Mark Bittman says that when a pinch of flour sizzles upon contact with the oil, it’s ready.
3. While the oil is heating, dredge the chicken in flour. If your five spice has been sitting around for years like mine, you may want to add a teaspoon or so to the flour, and if you like salt you might want to toss in a hefty pinch or two.
4. Now here’s where a timer comes in handy. You will need to gently lay your chicken pieces in the oil (not too many, now!) and cover the pan. Cook for 7 minutes, noting with satisfaction that all that popping is going on safely under the lid of your pan and not spraying your entire kitchen with oil. Then uncover, turn over, and cook for another 7 minutes (try not to be disappointed if the oil takes this opportunity to make up for lost time). Finally, turn once more and cook for 5 minutes.
5. Keeping the chicken in the oven (300 F) will keep it nice and hot and ensure that it is cooked well, but I had biscuits in there, so I couldn’t and the chicken was just fine.

Sour cherries are in season at the moment. Unfortunately, our grand total harvest of cherries for the year was 5 cherries. I’m not proud, so I bought 3 kilos of cherries at the market yesterday and made a cherry pie for dessert with some of them. (The rest are going into jam and into cherry liquer, which I will write about soon.) All in all, not a light meal, but a tasty one.

On a more self-sufficient and healthy note, the garden did provide a some tasty plums. I went down to the tree and I gave it a food hard shake, which elicited a hearty giggle from Kaya (who was on my back in his carrier). I hunted around for the plums and rounded up a nice big bowl of them. They’re very nice — firm and sweet-tart.


smells and squeaks

The garden is full of scents! A honeysuckle that we planted in the outdoor kitchen is in full bloom, and the scent of it wafts about, making kitchen work positively dreamy.

The stinky and the sweet: fresh garlic and the honeysuckle by the kitchen.

As I worked on lunch, Ali wandered over with a flower from the white peony. It’s got a scent that reminds me of lily of the valley, but the scent of it in say, a talcum powder.

Can you spot the spider? Who could blame it for choosing such a sweet smelling home.

I was working on getting some lunch together — bubble and squeak and rarebits. My dad was a great fan of bubble and squeak — I think he liked to say it as much as he liked to eat it. There’s a nice article in the Guardian that breaks it down into a simple formula (equal parts potato and cabbage by volume not by weight, fry well). I thought it would make a good lunch for Kaya as well.

At the table, Kaya happily submitted to eating a few bites of the bubble and squeak that I had pureed for him, before making a lunge for my rarebit. I broke off a piece and gave it to him, and he tore away at it with his new front teeth. He demolished about half of it, eating it as fast as I could give it to him. It was a minimalist sort of rarebit (no beer, for instance), but as he liked it so much, I thought I would share the recipe. It’s a nice thing to make to go alongside a soup or a vegetable dish.

Bare bones rarebit:
1 1/4 c. milk
1 bay leaf
2 T butter
2T flour
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 t mustard
Worcestershire sauce
2 slices bread (you may have enough sauce for more than two, depending on the size of the bread)

Put the bay leaf in the milk with a few grinds of pepper and heat to boiling then shut off and let them get to know one another. In the mean time, melt the butter in another pot and add the flour to form a roux. Let it cook for a couple of minutes. Then add the milk in three installments, stirring well to keep things from getting lumpy. Cook the resulting sauce for another two minutes before removing from the heat. Add the cheese and stir vigorously to melt it. Then stir in your mustard and add a bit of Worcestershire sauce as well if you like.
Heat the broiler and toast the tops of your bread under it before spreading a thick layer of cheesy sauce on them. Set them under the broiler, but not too close, and let the sauce get hot and brown.
Keep out of reach of babies, or else make a helping for any babies present.

Hands off my rarebit!

And while I am on the topic of food that Kaya loves, I have to also make special mention of a wonderful recipe I found at one of my favorite blogs, From the Bartolini Kitchens. It’s for polpettine (diminutive meatballs), a new staple in my kitchen. We had them the other night, and Kaya was jumping up and down in his seat for more (even Baki, the world’s pickiest eater, tucked in happily). What’s so interesting to me about this is that the blog is dedicated to sharing family recipes, many of them tied to wonderful memories and stories. Wouldn’t it be nice if one day Kaya learned to make polpettine so that he could bring back his memories of eating them under the garlic braids in the garden kitchen.