Food and Friendship

Thai Grilled Chicken

C. was my land-lady in Montreal during the summer of 2004, a.k.a. The Summer of Tears.  She rented a room to me in her home in the Plateau, letting me know that although the third floor where I stayed only had a kitchenette, I was welcome to cook in the large kitchen on the first floor.

Every evening, I would wind my way down the steep metal staircase so common in the Plateau balancing a tray full of vegetables and my trusted Wusthof knife.  C. was always there cooking dinner for her family and boarders, and we would chat as we chopped vegetables and maneuvered our way past one another as we took turns at the sink and the stove.

I taught C. that pizza isn’t out of reach for the home cook, that pasta doesn’t have to come drowned in tomato sauce, and some of the infinite wonders of the Sri Lankan kitchen.   C. taught me about the food of Taiwan, that a properly seasoned wok is non-stick, and that fresh tofu is miles away from the stuff in plastic packages in the grocery store.

Eventually, two meals became one.  I broke up with my boyfriend that summer, and was too sad to be by myself for very long.  C. invited me to her family meals.   I would cook a vegetable or two, and help with prep and clean-up. We would talk late into the night each night, discussing love, life, and the state of being rootless in a very large world.

C. is like the elder sister I never had, or a very young aunt; a link between my generation and my parents’, with one foot in Asia and another in North America.  Ours is perhaps an unlikely friendship, but more evidence that the best friendships emerge from shared meals, cooked together in close proximity.

C. has just bought Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s latest cookbook, and she was much taken with the Thai marinade of cilantro root, garlic, and pepper, all moistened with a substantial amount of fish sauce.  C. discovered that the green coriander seeds on that enormous cilantro plant in your garden are a great substitute for the cilantro root, and don’t require you to uproot the whole plant.

Green Coriander

This pungent, spicy marinade goes with chicken or whole sea bass.  Smash the coriander seeds first in a mortar and pestle, add the garlic next, and last the pepper, so that peppercorns don’t fly out of the mortar on contact with the pestle.  Breathe in and pretend that you are on the streets of Northern Thailand.

Or that you are in a homey kitchen in Plateau Montreal, catching up with an old friend.

Thai Marinade

2 heads green coriander seeds from the plant in the garden
3 large, fat cloves of garlic
1 tbsp black pepper
Enough fish sauce to moisten

Smash coriander seeds into a paste in a heavy mortar and pestle. Add garlic and smash. Add pepper. Work until paste is relatively smooth. Moisten with fish sauce.

Use marinade with chicken or fish. Grill.



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Of old haunts


To tell the truth, there’s not much I miss about Boston.  Apparently, it’s been raining these all summer.  Most of my friends from grad school have moved away.  It’s way better to have a full time job than to be a grad student.

But I do miss local, fresh, affordable seafood.  I almost crawled into the fish case at the Brighton Whole Foods when I saw what was on offer: monkfish, bluefish, red snapper, clams and mussels from Maine.  I took the opportunity to make seafood linguine for Karen, my friend who mothered me through the weekend of my dissertation defense.

We  started the meal with sweet, fragrant slices of cantaloupe draped with whisper-thin slices of proscuitto and figs from Russo’s. (Note: if you live in the Boston area, you must go to Russo’s in Watertown.)


I wanted to make a mock paella with the mussels and monkfish, but I couldn’t find Valencia rice and Russo’s appeared to be out of saffron.  So linguine it was: fresh tomatoes, sauted with plenty of garlic and shallots, white wine, briny mussels and sweet monkfish.

It was hard to be back in Boston, but a seafood dinner with friends more than made up for all the trials.


Prosciutto with melon and figs

Mussels and monkfish with linguine

Green Beans with Shallot Viniagrette

Clafoutis of Cherries

Seafood Linguine

1 lb mussels
1 lb monkfish
2.5 lbs fresh tomatoes
olive oil
3 shallots, sliced finely
4 cloves garlic, 1 whole, the others minced
1.5 c. white wine
red chilie flakes
1/4 c. Italian parsley, chopped
1 lb linguine

Bring large pot of water to boil.

Rinse mussels, discarding all broken ones. Bring wine to boil in large pot. Add 1 clove of smashed garlic. Put 4-5 mussels at a time into the wine, wait until they open, then pick them up one by one with tongs, rinse with wine, and set aside. As mussels open, replace with unopened mussels.

When mussels have finished cooking, strain wine and reserve.

Blanch tomatoes in the boiling water, peel and chop. Saute shallots and garlic in olive oil. Add tomatoes, reserved wine, and salt and cook until tomatoes have broken down and sauce is thick.

Rub monkfish with salt. Add to tomato sauce and let cook 8-10 minutes on low heat. Add mussels to sauce and toss until warm.

Cook linguine until one minute short of al dente. Add pasta to sauce and cook one or two additional minutes, until pasta is done. Toss with parsley and serve.

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Life after

Gordon's CupI’m back!

I’ve wanted to post so often over the past year.  But it turns out that writing a book while teaching full time is no small thing, and every time I thought about a post, I would guiltily think about all the things I could be doing to further my career: getting to bed early, writing, cleaning my office, grading, grading, grading…

So I put off announcing my time away, again and again, like I’ve put off so much in my life.  No more.

My dissertation has finally been submitted, I’m returning to Boston for my defense on Tuesday, and I’m finally ready to start post again.

I hope to have more fun, and frankly, more alcohol.  Even a glass of wine interferes with my sleep, and since I’m one of those irritating people who’s most productive in the mornings, I couldn’t risk insomnia that would cause me to miss my 6 am alarm.  So I became a teetotaler.  No more.  In fact, my summer goal is to turn into a complete souse, at least until September.

I’ve never been a fan of most mixed drinks: too sweet, too many additives, icky-tasting alcohol.  But this lovely, refreshing gin-and-cucumber concoction is different from the usual.  Tart, minty, and not too sweet, with crunchy bits of cucumber and a pinch of salt, it’s just the thing for long summer nights when one is finally, finally free.

Gordon’s Cup

Adapted from Orangette. I took Molly’s base recipe and added a sprig of mint and some soda water, which improves any drink, as far as I’m concerned.

Note: I am no mixologist, amateur or otherwise.

5-6 rounds of thinly sliced cucumber (I have been using skinny cukes from the farmer’s market. You may need less.)
1 sprig of mint
1 pinch salt
1/4 c. gin
2 tbsp. simple syrup
1/2 lime
soda water

In the bottom of a glass, muddle cucumber slices, salt, and mint together. Top with gin, lime juice, and simple syrup. Stir and add ice. Top with soda water.


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Weirdest Birthday Present Ever

I got a durian for my birthday.  How weird is my life?

I have fond memories of this infamously stinky fruit.  It’s a favorite of my mothers, and she will fight you for the last piece.  It’s been years since I’ve had one, but thanks to the global food market, my friend Anthony delivered one, frozen, to my doorstep. I gathered a coalition of the brave and willing and sliced into it.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I like durians anymore.  This specimen tasted like a rotten onion and I couldn’t take more than a few bites.  Perhaps it was underripe–it didn’t have the custardy texture I remembered.  Or maybe freezing doesn’t do the poor fruit any favors.

Still, how many people in this part of the world have the distinction of receiving a durian for their birthday?  For the sheer surprise factor, you can’t beat that.


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El Premio Arte y Pico

I am honored, pleased and generally tickled to have received an El Premio Arte Y Pico blog award from Karen at Rambling Spoon. I’ve been following Rambling Spoon since I first discovered food blogs almost two years ago. Reading her reflections on food and human rights in Southeast Asia inspired me to start my own blog. It’s humbling and wonderful to have received praise from such a talented foodie.

The phrase Arte y Pico is a superlative meaning “Wow! The best art! Over the top!” (Clearly, one cannot translate the expression without a lot of exclamation points!!!!!!) The award is a way for bloggers to recognize and honor one another’s work. I take this opportunity to honor the blogs that have most inspired me with their writing, photography, culinary wisdom and creativity.

Official Rules:

  1. Choose 5 blogs that you consider deserve this award, creativity, design, interesting material, and also contributes to the blogger community.
  2. Each award should have the name of the author and also a link to his or her blog to be visited by everyone, and a link to the blog which bestowed it upon them.
  3. The award-winner and the one who has given the prize should include a link to the Arte y Pico blog (English translation here), so everyone will know the origin of this award.

Without further ado, the new winners of the El Premio Arte y Pico blog awards are….

Mercedes at Desert Candy: Mercedes has a love affair with all things Middle Eastern: the food, the language, the land. Reading her blog makes me want to book a plane ticket right now, or at least relocate somewhere where figs and quince are plentiful. In addition to her expertise on middle eastern cuisine, she’s also a creative and knowledgeable chef in her own right.

Pat at The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook: Pat is a culinary ethnographer, collecting the stories and recipes of women from across East and Southeast Asia. Her blog takes you into the kitchens of these wise women, where the art of cooking has been passed down from mother to daughter to grandmother.

Sarah at The Real Potato: Sarah’s down-to-earth reflections on the political nature of every forkful are a must-read. And when you need it most, there’s advice about how you can keep food on the table when you’re broke and your next pay check is two weeks away.

Jules at Stone Soup: Jules has a great palate and every recipe comes embedded in a well-planned menu. She lives and cooks in Australia, however, which means that whenever I’m too hot and sticky to think about turning on the oven, she’s braising lamb! Search the archives for seasonally-appropriate food for the Northern Hemisphere.

Melissa at The Traveler’s Lunchbox: Along with Karen, Melissa was my inspiration for starting my own blog. Her palate is fantastic, her photographs divine, and her writing impeccable.


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The Dissertation, the Oregon Coast, and a Few Raw Oysters

Vacation? Who said vacation?

I meant a writing retreat, the only kind of get-away available to me this summer. It started in January: an idea, the reality of the dissertation and a looming deadline, some conversation, scheming and scheduling. So it happened that I went all the way to Pacific City, Oregon to spend two weeks waking up at five (I love jet lag) to sit at the wooden kitchen table with a tepid cup of tea, cranking out another chapter, distracted only by the view from the window. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must reveal that I was also distracted by the wan wireless signal that my computer picked up intermittently. Addict, I am.) In lieu of a real vacation, it wasn’t so bad, especially as it came with nightly theological discussions with the friend from grad school who so generously hosted me, long walks on the beach, and meal after meal of fresh seafood. This transplanted beach kid needed to get her fill before returning to the Midwest.

I don’t know if they slurp down raw oysters with nam pla prik in Thailand, but in our family, we’ve always eaten them this way. You wouldn’t think briny oysters would benefit from briny fish sauce–but you would be wrong. It’s not just the fish sauce, the bite of lime and fresh chilies somehow makes the oysters crisper and juicier.

My family has these at Thanksgiving. Having always been warned not to eat oysters in months without an “r,” I was surprised to find Pacific oysters available in the summer. I still think they taste better in the colder months, but if you are so fortunate to have oysters come your way, pound up a batch of nam pla prik and slurp them down. They’re brain food, after all.

Raw Oysters with Nam Pla Prik

If you have leftover oysters, you can make a Tha-style Ceviche by throwing in your additional nam pla prik, extra lime juice, fish sauce, shallots and chilies.

As many oysters as you think you and your friends can eat, shucked and left on the half-shell

Nam pla prik

10 tiny green chilies
1/2 c. fish sauce, to taste
1 lime

Pound green chilies in mortar and pestle. Add fish sauce and lime. Taste and adjust flavors.


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The Discovery of India

“What’s Sri Lankan food like? Is it like Indian food?”

I never know how to answer this question. What is Indian food like anyway? There’s the food of South India, redolent of hot chilli and curry leaves. The food of the north uses more yogurt and less coconut milk. The Parsis, the Bengalis, the Gujeratis all have their specialities. So how similar is it to Sri Lankan food? The food of Kerala, based on rice flour and coconut has much more in common with the food of Sri Lanka than the food of Rajastan, where wheat is the staple. So in that sense, there is Indian food that’s a lot like Sri Lankan food. But is there even a such thing as Indian food? And what is Sri Lankan food anyway? Do you mean the food of the coast? The food of the north? The food of central highlands?

I really don’t know what Indian food is, and I certainly don’t pretend to be any expert on the regional cooking of India. Like most people, I’ve learned everything I know about “Indian” food from cookbooks, the Internet, and a few patient friends. This dinner, thrown together in honor of some fabulous halibut I got in Oregon, features what is a Bengali fish curry, according to Cyrus Todiwala. I cooked up a kidney bean curry to use some kidney beans we had boiled the previous week, and some cabbage, the way my mom would have made it (had we had curry leaves, dried chilli and Maldive fish–call it a minimalist Sri Lankan cabbage). Call it a pan-Indian supper, call it whatever you want, it was delicious.

Bengali Fish Curry

1 pound firm fleshed fish (I used halibut here. We had fillets, but you can use steaks as well)
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. salt
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic
1/2 inch piece of ginger
1 small green chile
1/2 teaspoon dried red chilli
2 tbsp. ghee (you can also use a neutral flavored oil such as peanut or canola)
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1 tsp. garam masala
2 tbsp. chopped cilantro

Cut fish into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with turmeric and salt and set aside while you chop the onion. Pound garlic, ginger and green chilli together. Heat ghee in saucepan. Fry fish two minutes on one side and one minute on the other. Remove from pan. Fry onion briefly, add garlic-ginger paste. When onion is soft, add yogurt and cook until thick. (Warning: This is not the prettiest dish; the yogurt will curdle. Accept and move on. It tastes good.) Taste and adjust for salt.

Add fish to sauce and stir to coat. Bring sauce to simmer and cook one minute. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let sit for ten minutes. Garnish with cilantro.

Kidney Bean Curry

2 cups cooked kidney beans
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
1/2 in. ginger
1 green chilli
1 tbsp. ghee or neutral flavored oil
2 medium tomatoes, or use canned
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp salt (use less if using canned kidney beans)
chopped coriander for garnish

Pound garlic, ginger, and chilli to paste. Heat ghee in saucepan. Add onion and cook until soft. Add ginger-garlic paste. Cook one minute more, then add tomatoes. Add dried spices and cook until tomato has thickened and flavors are beginning to meld. Add kidney beans and cook five minutes more. Taste and adjust for salt. Sprinkle with chopped coriander and serve.

Source: Mamta’s Kitchen, Cyrus Todiwala’s Cafe Spice Namaste


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The Lessons of Summer–Finally!

Crêpes with Strawberries and Crème Fraîche

Summer has finally arrived in the Upper Midwest. Due to the cold and wet spring, strawberry season has been delayed by three weeks here, making us all the more anxious for the first taste of local strawberries. Some friends gathered for the very first strawberries of the season. Fiona made homemade crème fraîche; I made crêpes, and there was chocolate and whipped cream as well.

Is there anything better than local strawberries, so much softer and sweeter than the sour monstrosities from California? And to wrap those strawberries in a tender, eggy crêpes? But the real revelation was Fiona’s crème fraîche, made with the cream of grass-fed cows and cultured with kefir grains. It was the best crème fraîche I’ve ever had. Nutty and sweet, even without sugar, with the slightest tang; I swear I could taste the grass that the cows ate, the sun, and the land that nourishes them.

Sitting in the sun, sharing crêpes with strawberries and crème fraîche; I wonder if I would be so grateful for all this had I not waited all year for it. Maybe this is the lesson that the seasons teach; experience all that every season has to offer, taste, touch, smell. Gratitude and impermanence can coexist. They must.

Crème fraîche

The better your cream, the better the crème fraîche will be. Grass-fed, organic and raw is ideal. As I mentioned above, Fiona cultured hers with kefir grains. If you aren’t into making your own kefir, use buttermilk. Be aware, however, that buttermilk enzymes do not digest lactose the way that kefir does. (As a side note, how wonderful it was to have cream without getting a stomach-ache immediately afterwards!)

1 quart heavy cream
1 tbsp. buttermilk

Combine cream and buttermilk. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place 18-24 hours. Refrigerate until ready to serve.


3 eggs
1 1/4 c. milk (I use lactose-free)
pinch salt
1 c. flour
3 tbsp butter, melted and cooled

Beat eggs until homogenous. Add milk and salt. Mix. Sift flour into egg mixture. Beat again. There will probably be lumps; that’s okay, they will dissolve as the batter sits. Stir in melted butter. Refrigerate overnight. (I have just made the crepes immediately after mixing the batter many times. Aside from the occasional lump, it doesn’t make much difference.)

Heat small (preferably six inch) crepe pan or non-stick pan over high heat. Wipe pan with melted butter or oil. When hot, ladle 1/3 c. batter into pan and swirl to evenly coat bottom of pan. Drip excess batter back into bowl. Cook one minute or until edges of crepe are brown. Flip and cook thirty seconds more.


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Spiced Honey Fruit Salad

In order to be a food blogger, you have to live in your senses: the world of taste, smell, touch. Me, I’ve been in my head a lot these days. I’m spending the summer cranking out my dissertation, day after day. Perhaps that’s why I feel so uninspired about this blog, or perhaps the dissertation is sucking all my writing energy, and I don’t have much left over for anything else. I’ll save you the impenetrably dull details, spare the fact that the other night, I dreamt that I was on a date with John Rawls. Apparently, it isn’t enough that I’ve been spending eight to ten hours a day with Professor Rawls for the past two weeks, now, I have to have dinner and drinks with him in my sleep? (No, I don’t know want to know what this says about my subconscious.)

Fortunately, I have a few friends that regularly drag me away from my desk and out of the house. Even more fortunately, these friends are really into potlucks, which forces me into the kitchen, back into my hands and my body. Is there anything more sensual than plunging a knife into a ripe cantaloupe? Grabbing a slippery mango to slice off its peel? And nothing is better on a summer evening that fruit salad with perfectly ripe fruit.

This salad is an invention of my mothers, combining a subtle kiss of warming spices (cloves, caramom, cinnamon, ginger) with the sweetness of summer fruits. It’s simply perfect.

Spiced Fruit Salad

Obviously, you can vary the fruits, but try to include one melon and one fruit from the stone category.

1/2 stick cinnamon
2 cloves
2 pods cardamom
pinch salt
honey to taste, start with 2 tbsp
1/2 c. fresh orange juice (used commercial in a pinch)

1 fragrant ripe cantaloupe
1 pint strawberries
1 ripe mango
1/2 pint raspberries or blackberries
1 peach
rind from 1/2 an orange
1 handful blanched almonds
1/2 c. crystallized ginger, chopped
small handful mint leaves
squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

In small saucepan, heat spices and salt with orange juice. Add honey. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes. Add water if pan threatens to boil dry.

Chop fruit into bite sized pieces. Mix gently with almonds, mint and ginger. Add spiced honey and lemon. Taste and adjust for seasonings.

Source: My mom


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Pizza Crust Reconsidered

Let it never be said that I can’t change my mind.

Remember that Todd English pizza crust I loved so much? It was the only pizza crust I’d made for years, but then, I stumbled upon 101 Cookbooks post of master baker Peter Reinhart’s Neapolitan-style pizza. One bite of this crust, and my stand-by crust was forgotten. It’s everything you could want in a pizza crust: flavorful, light and crispy with big dough bubbles. It has the advantage of being much easier to handle as well.

The key, according to Heidi, is a long fermentation that allows the flavor of the yeast to develop. Even better, the whole process is far easier than my other pizza dough. Just toss the dry ingredients together, add cold water, stir and knead until smooth. Throw into the refrigerator for use anytime in the next four days. By far the hardest part is remembering to take the dough out of the fridge two hours before you plan to make your pizza.

Another trick is that this pizza dough is tossed, thus avoiding the heaviness that comes from the weight of the rolling pin squashing down all the yeast bubbles. Tossing pizza is kind of stressful when you’re having friends over and you’re nervous about pitching everyone’s dinner onto the floor, but it’s not so difficult. The dough has a dreamy texture: soft, smooth and supple. You don’t have to toss very high or flashily, just a few inches will stretch the dough whisper thin and bake up into a crispy, light crust. (If this stresses you out, I recommend breathing deeply before tossing the pizza–in through the nose, out through the mouth and TOSS!)

I resisted buying a pizza stone for the longest time. I just got one, and I can’t imagine what I did without it. I don’t have a peel, so I just use a piece of cardboard sprinkled with semolina to slide the pizza onto the stone.

I’ve linked to Heidi’s recipe above, but my adaptation follows. I use a little whole-wheat pastry flour in my recipe. I like the flavor of whole wheat, and mixing all-purpose with a lower gluten flour mimics the softer flour of Italy.

Overnight Pizza Crust

3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. instant yeast
2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 3/4 c. cold water
semolina or corn meal

Combine flours, yeast, and salt. Add cold water and olive oil and mix until dough is too heavy to stir. On floured surface (or just in the bowl, which is what I do) knead dough 10 minutes until smooth and no longer sticky. Divide dough into six equal parts. Place on well floured cookie sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight, or for up to four days. You can also freeze some of the dough for later.

The next day, two hours before making the pizza, take dough out of fridge. If using a pizza stone, preheat oven to 500 one hour before making pizza. Pick up the dough and place it over the backs of your fists. Gently stretch the dough by moving your fists apart. If you’re feeling confident, gently toss it a few inches in the air. Catch and stretch again. Do this over a clean surface in case of accidents. When dough is as uniformly thin as it’s going to get, place on peel (or piece of cardboard) sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina. Gently place toppings on pizza; avoid pressing dough down into the peel. Slide pizza onto stone, and bake 8-10 minutes. If you do not have a pizza stone, you can bake pizza on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes.


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