Coming Home.

This is what I remember.

My mother making paella — from where I stand on a stool at the sink I can see the wooden spoon she’s using is stained yellow from the saffron. I’m tearing the legs and shells off of the frozen shrimp she will cook and stir into the pot. My hands burn from their cold flesh but it is oddly pleasing work, and their multiple slender legs make a strange and faint zipping noise as I separate them from their frosty, firm abdomens. I reward myself for each tail I coerce intact from its flimsy gray armor, and don’t realize I’ve been given this task to keep me busy, and quiet.

Tomatoes from the garden gathered in a wooden basket and placed before me. I grasp at them clumsily before they are washed, diced and tossed with feta cheese, herbs and olive oil, and then scooped up with pita bread.

Pan de sal, palm-sized rounds of bread dusted with grainy cornmeal and spread with rapidly-melting butter, brought to me on a hand-painted plate by one of my grandmother’s maids, along with a cardboard box of mango juice. Fried baby cuttlefish the length of my index finger, but much thinner and consumed whole — bones, head, tail. After eating them with my cousins in Manila, I clamor for it, but my mother only cooks the little fish for me once, when my father is out of the house; he hates smell.

Leaves of lox and slabs of cream cheese bookended by bagels from H&H, so salty and thick behind the teeth that talking is impossible. Ful, chick peas and fava beans warmed on the stove and spooned into a bowl before getting mixed with mashed garlic, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil. Honey Nut Cheerios and Rice Crispies, crunched with as little milk as possible so the round O’s and puffed rice still snap with each bite. Eggs scrambled with the sujuk my father hangs inside a wooden frame lined with mesh; it looks like a rabbit hutch, but nothing has ever lived in it but sausages drying.

Dolma, stuffed with rice and ground beef, the leftover orange oily broth of which my mother ladles into a mug for me to drink after dinner. Hummos whirled in the food processor with more and more lemon, garlic and tahini added until my father is satisfied. It’s that or mutabbal, which I dislike. Boureg, sheets of phyllo layered with shredded cheese, parsley and red pepper, flaky on the first day and reinflated in the toaster oven on the next. Tray after tray of baklava and Lebanese pastries, and separating each crumbly tier with my tongue. I suck at its rose-scented sweetness with as much strength as I can before finally chewing.

Spaghetti with meat sauce, my Armenian grandmother’s recipe, full of glistening sautéed onions. I plaster it with so much Kraft Parmesan that it resembles the surface of the moon more than a plate of pasta and I don’t care that it feels grainy. More strands of spaghetti, Filipino-style, sweetened with sugar and ketchup and cooked with sliced hot dogs and Spam.

Baloney sandwiches on white bread or lunch rolls, carried to our table in the dining hall on brown plastic trays. I am scared of the meatloaf, which I have neither seen nor eaten before. Breyer’s Cookies and Cream, chunks chiseled off with spoons while sitting on commercial-grade dormitory carpet next to my roommate, who is eating maraschino cherries direct from the jar. Rum and Cokes, obscenely syrupy, sipped nervously from red Solo cups from the corners of parties.

Wilted triangles of pizza oozing neon drizzles of oil onto flimsy napkins. Pasta salad drenched in bottled Italian dressing and tossed with cubed cheese, tomatoes and olives. We pretend we made it all from scratch and finish the leftovers in front of the open fridge. Wonder Bread toast, blanketed with butter and Smucker’s while still warm, so that together they melt into the crunchy top. Corn fritters we fry on the battered stove and dip into a puddle of maple syrup, leaving sticky trails across the counter.

California rolls, the first sushi my best friend tries, and I convince her to place the entire circle in her mouth even though she’ll struggle to chew it. Char siu baau buns, startlingly tangy inside puffy dough, shared with my mother’s father in countless Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns around the world; I carry this memory with me like a creased photograph kept in my wallet, and pull it out often in the days after his death. Chicken B’stilla, simultaneously savory and sweet, drenched in a yogurt and mint sauce I greedily lap up even though mint makes me think of being a child and ill, and of the strong teas my father brewed for me from the plants he tended in old wine barrels in the backyard. Aloo mutter in a room with tangerine-colored walls on Mass Ave, and the man I will marry in six years winks at me across the table.

Rib-eye steaks cooked medium-rare and eaten off of plates balanced on our knees. We don’t have a dining room, let alone a dining room table. Onions sweated for hours until they caramelize; I stir their gilded ropes into majedera, a mixture of lentils and bulgur, or cluster them across the crust of a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza I will later adorn with an herb chiffonade. Whole split chicken breasts, garlic and lemon slices slipped beneath the fatty ivory skin that will turn crisp and blush gold within the heat of the oven. Butter cookies flavored with mahleb, powder ground from the pits of sour cherries, baked in my new kitchen following the recipe my father’s mother dictated to mine decades before she quietly dies at age eighty-eight in a Los Angeles nursing home that smells of copper and Lysol.

Sausages, sauerkraut and beer underneath the green and white striped awning of a tent on the Rhine. Lechón, the suckling pig I can’t eat without thinking about the sound the animal makes when a knife is plunged into its throat, something I heard for the first and only time when I was ten. Croque-monsieurs on the Pont Neuf, the wind threatening to loosen the scarf from my neck. Fruit-flavored margaritas on D’Aguilar Street; I’m panting in the Hong Kong heat and the tequila goes straight to my head. Cornish pasties and licking crumbs from my fingers in the shadow of Bath Abbey at Christmastime. Squat foil-capped bottles of Yakult, sweetened fermented milk purchased from a 7-Eleven in Seoul. Durian stinking up the car in a Bangkok traffic jam, though later as I eat its sweet and tender flesh, I’ll forget I breathed through my mouth for an hour and nursed a stench-induced headache.

A candied shell enclosing a dollop of sugared olive oil alongside a kumquat skin holding its flesh turned into sorbet. Breaded cubes of liquefied foie gras placed on the tongue whole, then made to explode by the pressure of my mouth closing. Wintermint and vanilla ice cream coerced by science into a pliable rope, knotted and twisted into a cool, icy coil that I cut into with a fork. A Stonehenge of roasted bones upright on a white plate, its marrow shiny and bright under overhead lights before I smooth it across craggy planes of toast, decorate it with verdant parsley leaves and dot it with coarse gray sea salt. And chocolate chip cookies, either straight from the oven or out of a bright blue package that noisily crinkles at my touch, served with a glass of milk to bring me home again.

Coming Home” by Leon Bridges.

Gimmie Some Salt.

This morning I worked in my snowy backyard, making pee-paths for the dog. I leaned against my shovel and glanced up as a black-tipped white seagull floated high above the maple tree. The bird looked strangely perfect against the cloudless wintry sky, crisp and flawless and startlingly beautiful. In that moment, I felt ridiculously capable and adept, the mistress of my destiny and of my shovel. Then I went inside and ate about ten chocolate chip cookies.

So much for being healthy.

In my opinion, the best dessert recipes should have a generous pinch of salt. The salt makes you that much more aware of the other flavors, and intensifies the essence of each ingredient. I think the salt makes you salivate, and thereby activates all the taste buds covering your tongue.

(I kind of made that up, because what do I know about taste buds, but it sounds good.)

This Christmas, amongst other things, my husband gave me Cookie Love, the debut collaborative cookbook from chef Mindy Segal and food writer Kate Leahy. The next day I went through my favorite “new cookbook” ritual of reading the contents cover to cover and marking with brightly-colored Post-Its the recipes I most wanted to try.

Even though I have a few go-to chocolate chip cookie recipes, I’m always interested in giving others a chance to supplant the frontrunner. The recipe in Cookie Love is my new favorite. The results are crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside, caramel-y and salty. Two different kinds of salt are required, on to flavor the dough and one to surprise you with a fun little jolt of salt. It’s a great curveball, and very much appreciated.

Do yourself a favor and do not skip the refrigeration stage of the recipe. It allows all the flavors to intensify, and when the cookies bake they won’t lazily sprawl across your baking sheet like a bunch of apathetic teenagers. Instead they’ll carefully and considerately stretch their chocolate-y little arms into well thought-out and self-actualized versions of themselves.

If only we could all be so fine.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Cookie Love by Mindy Segal with Kate Leahy
Makes about fourteen cookies

1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup cane sugar
1 cup firmly packed light muscovado sugar or dark brown sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups (8 ounces) chocolate discs (53% to 64% cacao)
sea salt, preferably the Cyprus variety, for garnish (optional)

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium speed for five to ten seconds. Add the sugars and beat until the butter mixture is aerated and pale in color, approximately 4 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together.
  2. Crack the eggs into a small cup or bowl and add the vanilla.
  3. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, kosher salt, sea salt flakes, baking powder and baking soda.
  4. On medium speed, add the eggs and vanilla to the butter mixture, one egg at a time, mixing the first briefly before adding the second, until the batter resembles cottage cheese, approximately five seconds for each egg. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together. Mix on medium speed for 20 to 30 seconds to make nearly homogenous.
  5. Add the dry ingredients all at once and mix on low speed until the dough comes together but still looks shaggy, approximately 30 seconds. Do not overmix. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer. With a plastic bench scraper, bring the dough completely together by hand.
  6. With the plastic scraper, fold the chocolates into the dough until evenly distributed. Transfer the dough to a sheet of plastic wrap and wrap tightly. Refrigerate overnight.
  7. Heat the oven to 350°. Lightly coat a couple of half sheet (13×18 inch) pans with nonstick cooking spray.
  8. Using a ¾-ounce (1 ½ tablespoon) ice cream scoop, portion the dough into twelve mounds. Be mindful that the chocolate pieces are evenly distributed among the mounds. Evenly space the mounds on a prepared sheet pan. Bake for eight minutes. Rotate the pan and bake until the edges begin to caramelize and the tops set, approximately four more minutes. Let the cookies cool on the pan for one to two minutes. Using a metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
  9. Repeat with the remaining dough. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. Dough can be refrigerated for up to one week.

One last thing: I really like the use of chopped chocolate here, as opposed to actual chips. They look nicer and so much more fun, all speckled and freckly like Pippi Longstocking. Oh, and if you really want to go the extra mile, you can chill your cookie sheets in the fridge too. It makes quite a difference.

* “Gimmie Some Salt” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).

I’m at my best when I’m cooking. By this I don’t mean that I’m the best cook; I am just the best version of myself when I’ve got a knife in my hand and a pan over a fire. There are few things in life that keep you focused as searing heat and a very sharp blade.

I think part of the reason why it’s so hard for me to diet is because I just love food so much, and I like to cook. There are millions of people across this world who feel as passionately — if not more passionately — than I do about food yet can remain slim and can moderate what they eat. To those people I say, without a single trace of irony and from the bottom of my heart, Good for you. I’ll never be one of you.

That’s all right, though. I am used to not being a part of things. I’ll just have to figure out how to do this my own way.

My own way, something I’m still sussing out, will have to include some sort of contingency plan because my downfall is always me. I’ll have a bad day, or a good day, or a bored day, and the remedy is always going to be food-based. And — let’s be serious — the food is likely going to be butter- or sugar-based. (An apple isn’t going to cut it, unless it’s floating amongst other fruit in a tumbler of white wine sangria.) Then, once I fail, I have a hard time getting back to making smart, healthy choices. I become lost in the woods of full-fat milk and a never-ending chain of garlic bagels and sneakily-purchased barbecue potato chips and raw cookie dough quietly eaten while my dog and husband sleep upstairs.

Something I need to remember: only I can do this for myself. If I lose track of myself, I can find my way back.

Something else I need to remember: I’m working towards an intangible goal. It’s hard to visualize what a healthy body looks and feels like when your mind —your thriving, boundless, wild mind — lives deep within layers of underutilized, settled and slumped-over mush.

So.

Here’s to looking ahead, keeping a mind open to success and failure, and moving on from both.

I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” by Jamie xx

Motorcrash.

Last Monday I got hit by a car; I survived.

Bruised and thoroughly shaken up, I insisted on making dinner the next night, much to Keith’s annoyance.  I could’ve cooked something, he said.  You should be resting.

He’s right — I should’ve been resting, and the short amount of prep time our meal took left me sore, aching and in desperate need of my prescribed Percocet.  That said, the recipe I’d chosen couldn’t have been any simpler.  I like to think I would’ve been able to manage it even if I had been seriously injured, something I hope I never have to put to the test.

Pork Noodle Soup w. Cinnamon + Star Anise -- 10thirty

The beauty of this soup is that you literally throw the majority of the ingredients into a pot, slap on its lid, and walk away.  Soon thereafter, doped up on painkillers or not, you’ll smell the most amazing fragrances emerging from your kitchen.  If you happen to be doped up on painkillers, these alluring aromas will likely have the power to lift you up off of the sofa and gently waft you towards the pot, much like the sweet perfume of a blueberry pie cooling on a windowsill in an old Merrie Melodies cartoon.

When I was younger, my mother frequently made a chicken noodle soup that I now realize must have been inspired by Vietnamese phở; at the time, I just thought it was delicious, though the skinny, silvery noodles my mom used were too squirrely to catch on a spoon.  Later I learned these were cellophane noodles, also called vermicelli or bean thread noodles, but when I was growing up I called them “swimming noodles,” since they too often slid off of my cutlery and back into the broth as smoothly as a fish.

To avoid frustration while eating this soup, I recommend using both spoon and fork, something that is only tricky if your head is cloudy with narcotics and acetaminophen.

Pork Noodle Soup with Cinnamon + Anise, from Gourmet
Makes four to six portions

2 ½ pounds country-style pork ribs
6 cups water
2/3 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup Chinese Shaoxing wine or medium-dry Sherry
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
3 3-inch cinnamon sticks
1 whole star anise (I used two)
5 ½ ounces cellophane noodles
Chopped cilantro and sliced scallions for garnish

  1. Gently simmer all ingredients except noodles in a 6-quart heavy pot, covered, skimming as needed, until pork is very tender, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
  2. Transfer pork to a bowl. Discard bones, spices, and garlic. Coarsely shred meat. Skim fat from broth, then return meat and bring to a simmer. Rinse noodles, then stir into broth and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until noodles are translucent and tender, about 6 minutes.
Motorcrash” by The Sugarcubes.

Pickin’ a Chicken.

We’ve got busy lives, Keith and I.  The working week can be particularly crazy.  Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays Keith is at the gym until 8.30 at the earliest; on those same nights, I try to be in bed by ten o’clock at the latest, as I’m slogging through my own work out Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 5.45.  Those evenings, I teach Puppy Kindergarten and don’t leave sometimes until after eight.  Other nights, I may meet with clients and their dogs and not return home until past nine.

Basically, it’s a little crazy around here.

To make things even trickier, I cook dinner several times a week, probably four meals on average.  A lot of the time, I cook in stages; perhaps I’ll prep my mise en place in the morning, or maybe I’ll make my meatballs several hours before broiling, or I might possibly start a recipe only to finish it later.  If I can, I find a recipe that can cook itself while I’m out — this chicken is a great example of that.

Soy-Ginger Chicken -- 10thirty.I like Asian food; it’s what I grew up eating.  This recipe brings all those sweet and savory flavors together in a highly-satisfying way, and the fact that everything can just be tossed into a pot and left alone is a solid plus.

Next time around, I’ll definitely add more ginger, and I was without a doubt more generous with my scallions and cilantro than the recipe called for, but I think it’s better that way.  And while I’m sure that this chicken is delicious with a pillow of steamed rice, I chose to pair it with some roasted cauliflower since Keith is off grains at the moment.  In my opinion, you can never go wrong with some roasted cauliflower.  Keith didn’t complain, anyway…

Soy-Ginger Chicken, from Everyday Food
Makes four portions

1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2/3 cups fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped, plus whole leaves for garnish
1 piece fresh ginger, about 2 inches, peeled and cut into thin strips
1 packed cup scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground pepper
4 chicken drumsticks and 4 thighs, about 2 ½ pounds total, skin removed
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Cooked rice for serving (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350˚.  In a 5-quart Dutch oven or other heavy pot, stir together soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, cilantro, ginger, ½ cup scallions, vinegar, coriander and pepper.  Add chicken and carrots; toss to coat, then stir in 1 cup water.  Cover pot and transfer to oven; cook until chicken is tender, about 1 ½ hours.  Using a large spoon, skim off any fat from surface of cooking liquid.
  2. In a 2-cup glass measuring cup or small bowl, whisk cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water.  Ladle 1 cup cooking liquid into measuring cup; whisk to combine.  Pour into a small saucepan, and bring to a boil; cook until thickened, about 1 minute.  Stir mixture into pot to combine.
  3. Serve chicken mixture with rice, if desired, garnished with cilantro leaves and remaining ½ cup scallions.
Pickin’ a Chicken” by Eve Boswell.

I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.

When I was about seven or eight, I watched The Parent Trap II with my brother and our cousins.  The storyline isn’t that important (best friends want their single parents to marry, and — coincidence? — one of those parents is a twin played by Hayley Mills) but what stuck with me for some reason was a scene early on in the movie where the two young girls bake cookies.  They had a huge mixing bowl on a kitchen countertop, and the two kept on throwing in what seemed to me to be the craziest ingredients into their dough: marshmallows! Cap’n Crunch! M&Ms! pretzels!  Then the girls formed their cookies and put them in the oven, and all I could think was, Gross.

I really think that that movie is what turned me off of baking.  Interestingly enough, it didn’t turn me off of cookies.

In the time that’s passed since The Parent Trap II, I’ve made my peace with baking, and with what my seven-year-old self would have thought to be gross cookie ingredients.  As a seven-year-old, for example, I never would’ve even considered eating anything with coconut in it; like my former teacher Steve Almond wrote in his excellent book Candyfreak, “Oddly, it isn’t the flavor of coconut that troubles me, but the texture… I feel as if I’m chewing on a sweetened cuticle.”

True dat, Steve.Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies -- 10thirty.

I like coconut, I really do, but its cuticleness just drives me bananas.  I think that’s why I’m so surprised that I adore these cookies as much as I do.  The trick, with these not-overwhelmingly-sweet cookies, is toasting the cuticle out of the coconut and amping up the richness of its natural flavor.  As a result, you get these little soft bites of truly intense coconuttiness — which just so happens to pair quite nicely with a luxe dark chocolate, I might add.

Have these cookies changed my mind about coconut?  Perhaps not.  But they’ve definitely got me thinking about coconut a bit more, and with something like a smile on my face.

Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chunk Cookies, from Cooking Light
Makes about twenty-five cookies

1 cup flaked sweetened coconut
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped
Cooking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Arrange coconut in a single layer in a small baking pan. Bake at 350° for 7 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring once. Set aside to cool.
  3. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk until blended. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in toasted coconut and chocolate.
  4. Drop by level tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. Remove from pan, and cool completely on wire racks.
I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” was originally recorded by Merv Griffith, but I’ve had a huge fondness for Danny Kaye since childhood, and since he was a huge lover of food, I went with his version.

I Am What I Am.

There are many words the people in my life could use to describe me, but I don’t know if the word “nice” would be amongst them. “Creative” would be, and “loyal,” I’d hope. Perhaps “funny,” likely “clumsy,” and ideally “clever.” I wouldn’t mind hearing “chic,” but that may be stretching it. “Nice,” though — that one I’d wonder who was pranking me with vocabulary.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think I’m a bad person; in fact, growing up I was pretty much a “good girl,” a fact I think my parents would even readily admit, even if at the time they thought otherwise. I’m just not who people envision when they envision “nice.” I think they probably envision someone like Reese Witherspoon. You know she’s nice.

Reese Witherspoon -- 10thirty.

I, on the other hand, really like the word “thoughtful.” That’s one I like quite a lot. I mean, I love the holidays for the presents, and not for the reason most would assume. What I love is considering what a person likes. I love just thinking about a friend, and thinking about what I could give or get to make her or him happy. I love thinking, “Wow, Erin would really like this.” I love packaging those presents up, making a tag that says what gift goes to who, stacking a pile of wrapped parcels into a bag for delivery. But mostly I like thinking about the people I love, and finding something that might make them smile.

So when I see a recipe whose flavors I know will appeal to Keith even more than they will to me, I’ll tear that recipe out, file it in my binder, and save it to try one day. There’s a school of thought out there that believes women dress to impress other women more than they do for men. Well, I cook for Keith, and in more ways than one.

I don’t look at this as a domestic thing, or an anti-feminist thing — it’s a love thing.  I care about this man, deeply, and since this man enjoys Indian food, the least I can do I throw together a really easy chickpea curry every now and again.

Chickpea CurryI lack the ability to explain how simple this recipe is, and how quickly it all comes together.  A lot of the times, I read little magazine articles about putting dinner on the table in minutes, and when I try those same recipes it takes me twice as long to make it through as I’ve been promised.  This is not the case with this chickpea dish.  It literally takes as long as it takes to cook rice to make this, and if you use boil-in-a-bag rice as recommended, it’s even faster.  Basically, this dish makes a funny, clumsy, loyal, creative, clever and possibly-but-likely-not chic gal like me thoughtful and nice in one fell swoop.  So everyone wins.

Chickpea Curry with Basmati Rice, from Cooking Light
Makes four portions

1 (3.5-ounce) bag boil-in-bag basmati or brown rice
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, diced
1 ½ teaspoons garam masala
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 15-ounce can unsalted crushed tomatoes
1 6-ounce package fresh baby spinach
½ cup plain 2% Greek yogurt
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Cook rice according to package directions; drain.
  2. While rice cooks, heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add onion; sauté 5 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in garam masala; cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add chickpeas, tomatoes, and spinach; cook 2 minutes or until spinach wilts, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in yogurt and salt. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve over rice.
I Am What I Am” by Spiritualized.
Reese Witherspoon photo from Hooked on Houses.