Saturday, December 4, 2010

Biscotti, Naughty and Nice

Claude was my first and only – and I’m glad it was him.

He was a raffish blond who resembled a perpetually hung-over cross between Daniel Craig and Julian Assange. He spoke with a nearly incomprehensible French accent, which only added to his mystique. Women flung themselves at him, and he flung himself back at them with equal enthusiasm.

And he was the chef who hired me for my first and only full-time cooking job, in the pastry kitchen of an impossibly snooty beach resort in California. There, he showed me a strategy for making biscotti – twice-baked Italian cookies – that I’ll never forget.

I have no idea why Claude chose to hire me. Perhaps nobody else applied for the job. Or maybe nobody else applied who could pass the hotel’s strict background checks and drug tests. In any case, he was the only chef among dozens I contacted who was willing to take a chance on a freshly minted culinary school graduate who was (1) nearing middle age and (2) whose most recent job title was “Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow.”

But that wasn’t the only reason I was lucky to be hired. Claude had worked under several three-star Michelin chefs and had won numerous awards for his desserts. This was precisely the kind of chef I dreamed of working with. Someone who was serious about pastry. Someone who could teach me everything.

And I found out way more than I wanted to know.

“Ah,” he said during the pastry team’s ten-minute morning break one day, shortly after I started. “Tomorrow I go back to Las Vegas. I will finally get my driver’s license back!”

I knew that he had previously been the lead pastry chef at a luxury hotel restaurant in Las Vegas, and that he still owned a house there—but the driver’s license bit, I didn’t get.

“Oh, what happened to your drivers’ license?” I asked.

He hemmed. “Eh. It is complicated.”

Mike, one of the other cooks, beamed gleefully. “Three letters: D…U…I!”

Back in cooking school, the instructors’ mantra was “the chef is always right!” Chefs, they warned us, were like four-star generals: they were not to be questioned, challenged, or God forbid, mocked. Ever.

Apparently, Claude’s pastry team never got that memo. And neither did Claude – he just kept on feeding us ammunition for our relentless barrage of jokes (most of which went over his head) and (usually) affectionate teasing. The DUI was just the start of it.

“You know what ze womans like at Hennessy’s?” he said one day, referring to his regular watering spot, “When you bring zem tacos from ze bar. Without zem asking.”

“So wait—you introduce yourself to women by buying them tacos from the bar?” Mike asked.

“Not buy zem—zey are free. At the bar.”

“So you bring these girls tacos that are already theirs for the taking and you expect them to be all impressed?” Renata, another cook, asked incredulously.

“But zey are free—and ze womans, zey like it!”

“Allo my dahling,” purred Mike in his best French accent. “I bring you tacos from ze bar. Zey are free! Now weel you come to bed wees me?”

Claude was – in his own words – “a very bad boy.” But he treated us women in the pastry kitchen with perfect courtesy. Ditto the team’s guys. When he showed up every morning (usually hung over), he’d solemnly circle the room and shake our hands. When our shifts ended, he made a point of shaking our hands again and thanking us for our work.

By this time – late afternoon or early evening for those of us on the day shift – it was often clear that he’d taken a generous swig or two from the bottle of Jack Daniels he kept in his locker. But where his team was concerned, his professionalism never wavered.

As for women outside the pastry department, all bets were off.

“Hola, mamacitas” he’d purr ungrammatically to Elizabeth, his favorite Mexican-American dishwasher.

“EEEE!” she’d squeal in reply. Whether she squealed from pleasure, embarrassment, or bemusement with Claude’s mangled Spanish was anyone’s guess.

Claude knew he couldn’t treat women employed by the hotel the same way as those he found at Hennessy’s. And female hotel employees were smart enough to keep their clothes on around him, at least while in heavily trafficked areas. But then, a brief and wondrous window of opportunity opened for him: he was offered a job back in Las Vegas by one of his Michelin-starred mentors, and he promptly gave his two-weeks’ notice.

Now what could hotel management do – fire him?

On his last day at the hotel, Elizabeth was at the dish sink when Claude approached her with a napkin-covered plate and a big grin on his face. “I make zees for you!” he announced proudly.

Elizabeth dried her hands on her apron, pulled off the napkin -- and jumped back screaming.

“Ay! Ay! No me gusta! I don’t like it!”

The rest of us ran over to the sink and stared at the plate, which was now on the draining board.

Smack on the center of the plate sat an anatomically correct, slightly larger-than-life-size penis baked of biscotti dough. Because Claude was a consummate professional, he had carefully rolled the thing in sugar before baking it, just as our recipe required. And because he was Claude, he had decorated it in great detail with several kinds of chocolate.

I hope I never see white chocolate used that way ever again.


It was easy to see why Claude chose biscotti dough as the medium for his project: we always had tons of it at the ready. Biscotti are great cookies to make during the holidays because they travel and keep well (both the dough and finished cookies can be made ahead). They're also cute – when made normally, they look like little slices of bread – and they taste great.

Biscotti are traditionally served as an accompaniment to coffee. But recently, I discovered biscotti that were actually flavored WITH coffee, and they were addictive. Here’s my version of coffee biscotti, studded with hazelnuts and topped with a safe-for-work drizzle of white chocolate.


3 cups all-purpose flour

1 2/3 cups sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon finely ground dark coffee beans

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 eggs

3 eggs yolks

½ cup whole hazelnuts

Sugar for sprinkling, as needed

1 cup white chocolate chips

1. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and ground coffee in the bowl of an electric mixer.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla.

3. Add egg mixture to the dry ingredients. Using a paddle attachment at medium speed, mix the ingredients until almost combined.

4. Lower the speed to low and add the hazelnuts. Mix until nuts are evenly distributed into the dough. The dough will be soft.

5. Divide the dough into three pieces. Shape each into a log about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide. Place the logs several inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet, sprinkle with sugar if desired, and bake at 325 degrees until puffed and golden brown, about 20 minutes

6. Cool the logs, then cut them on the diagonal with a serrated knife into ¾-inch thick slices.

7. Lower the oven heat to 300 degrees. Place the slices on baking sheets and bake until hard and dry, about 20 minutes.

8. Cool the slices. Melt the white chocolate in a small bowl set over a pot of simmering water.

9. Decorate the biscotti with the melted white chocolate as desired. When the chocolate has set, store the biscotti in a covered container in a cool, dry area.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An (Almost) All-American Thanksgiving

Ungrateful whining is an American child’s birthright. But if you grow up in an immigrant family, you have a whole battery of things to whine about that other kids don’t.

For one, your parents and their friends will insist on infesting every event with dorky, embarrassing stuff from the old country. Back in my whiny years, all my cool friends from school got to have buttery mashed potatoes and flaky little Parker House rolls at their Thanksgiving tables. And I was stuck with... plain boiled rice.

“MOOOM! Why do we have to have RICE? I want potatoes!”

“Rice is good.” Mom would say. “And Dad wants rice.”

End of discussion. (This was another thing Chinese-American kids get to whine about: We never get to have the last word. Ever.)

Thanksgiving, according to my grade-school teachers, was the most American of holidays, a time to celebrate our common heritage by bonding around indigenous American foodstuffs. So I decided it was up to me, as a patriotic native-born American, to protect the sanctity of the holiday from creeping Sinofication.

“You know what Auntie Pat puts in her turkey?” Mom said one night a week before Thanksgiving, “Naw mai and lop cheung.”

Dad’s eyebrows raised from behind the Wall Street Journal. “Mmm, “ he said.

“MOOOM! NO!” my sisters and I yelled in unison. Not that there was anything wrong with naw mai (sticky rice) and lop cheung (dried Chinese sausage), but these weren’t Thanksgiving food. They were everyday boring food. The kind of stuff we ate while relatives interrogated us about our grades and asked us why Mom didn’t have any sons (as if we could possibly formulate an intelligent answer to this question).

Year after year, we successfully fought off rice-stuffed turkeys and stir-fried side dishes. We also managed to increase, ever so gradually, the proportion of toasted marshmallows on top of our absolutely mandatory sweet potato casserole. And as my sisters and I assumed more and more responsibility and control in the kitchen, our Thanksgiving spreads became less Norman Rockwell and more Martha Stewart: pumpkin flans and souffles are more our thing than pumpkin pies.

These days, we count our victory over immigrant dorkitude nearly complete. But the purity of our red-blooded Yuppie American Thanksgiving feast lasts only until the dishes are cleared. That’s when our Martha Stewart idyll ends, and Mom’s annual turkey jook production begins. (Jook is often described, unappetizingly, as rice porridge or gruel, but it deserves to be re-branded as a savory and soothing cream of rice soup.)

While the dishes are still in the sink, Mom puts the turkey carcass (denuded of stuffing and any pieces of meat large enough to save for sandwiches) in a slow cooker and covers it with water. She tosses in a cut-up carrot and a stalk or two of celery. (Neither of these are traditional Chinese soup ingredients, but that’s how she rolls.) Then she turns the cooker on and lets it do its thing while we do the dishes and attempt to foist foil-wrapped packets of leftovers onto our guests.

The cooker stays on all night, and early on Black Friday morning, Mom removes and dumps the carcass, and adds several handfuls of leftover rice from the night before. (Yes, we still have plain boiled rice every Thanksgiving. Since almost no one touches it except Dad, we can always count on leftovers for jook-making.) Within an hour, the rice will have dissolved, turning the rich turkey broth into a silky ivory cream – just in time for a comforting, very traditional Chinese breakfast for late risers.

In the end, that pointless bowl of Thanksgiving rice always manages to redeem itself. And we always end up with a real Chinese dish for Thanksgiving – albeit one with an All-American backbone. And none of us have ever complained about it.

As always, Mom and Dad get the last word.


Jook is traditionally served at breakfast or as a late-night snack. It can be made with fish, meat, or poultry broth, and usually contains pieces of the corresponding meat. (I’ve heard of jook based on plain water, but this would be unthinkable in my family.)

True confession time: I’ve never hosted a full-on Thanksgiving dinner, so I’ve have never had unfettered access to a turkey carcass. (Yes, I know – I’ve missed a crucial milestone of American womanhood and should probably just go and join the Taliban right now.) But I have made jook many times, and it’s dead easy. The recipe below produces a more modest portion than Mom’s – a good starter size for newbies and doubters. It calls for raw rice, since I assume most non-Chinese don’t typically have cold cooked rice lying around. But you can use a larger portion of cooked rice and cook the soup for a shorter amount of time.


4 cups turkey or chicken broth

2 ¼-inch thick slices of fresh ginger

1/3 cup raw white rice, rinsed (or 1 cup cooked white rice rice)

salt and white pepper to taste

1 cup cooked turkey or chicken, shredded into bite-size pieces

For garnishes:

2 scallions, thinly sliced

sesame oil

chile oil

1. Bring the broth and ginger to a boil in a heavy saucepan.

2. Add the rice. Cook at medium heat, stirring regularly, until the rice has fully cooked and broken down (about an hour). The mixture should have the consistency of a thick bean soup (it won’t be completely smooth; little nubs of rice will still be evident). If it’s too thick for your taste, add more broth. If it’s too thin, raise the heat and cook until the mixture has thickened to your desired consistency.

3. Add the shredded chicken or turkey and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Cook until the meat is heated through.

4. Garnish with sliced scallions. Serve with sesame oil, chile oil, and extra white pepper for diners to add at will.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Scary Things To Do with Pumpkins

My scariest Halloween involved several confused Dutch semanticists, a screaming French-Canadian dressed like a skeleton, and half a dozen seriously mutilated pumpkins.

I was living and teaching in Vancouver at the time, and attending a Halloween party hosted by a young colleague of mine and his wife. That year, Halloween fell the night before a conference our department was organizing, and my friends (who I’ll call Ben and Marcy) were not only throwing a party, but providing crash space for three conference participants from Amsterdam.

And Ben and Marcy were determined to show our international visitors the full spendor of a North American Halloween.

“Do you guys celebrate Halloween in Holland?” Marcy asked.

“No.” one of then said.

“You’ll see, it’s really fun. People put on costumes, and kids go from door to door to get candy from people. And we carve jack-o-lanterns.”


“Oh! That’s what we’re going to do tonight!” Ben replied. “See these pumpkins?—“ he pointed to the pile of basketball-sized pumpkins by the fireplace, “—We’re going to hollow them out and carve faces in them. Then we’re going to put candles in them and put them outside! It’s going to be great!”

Imagine you are a doctoral student from the Netherlands, and you have just flown halfway around the world to give a talk at a major conference. You are jet-lagged, you’re exhausted, and you’re wondering if there’s a flaw in that structure you proposed in section 3.3.1. And now the very professors you were hoping to impress want you to spend the night before your talk carving faces in fruit.

“Ah. Interesting.” one of the Dutch visitors said.

“And then we’re going to make a pie from all the pieces we cut out!” Ben added. “Have you guys ever had pumpkin pie?”

Ben and Marcy had everything all worked out. In minutes, several back issues of the Vancouver Sun were spread over the living room floor, and knives were procured for all present. We each grabbed a pumpkin and sat on the floor. I explained to our guests the niceties of pumpkin-carving, from how to cut out a lid around the pumpkin’s stem, to the benefits of saving the seeds for roasting and snacking, to the strategic wisdom of drawing your design on the pumpkin with a black Sharpie before carving.

They nodded slowly as they pondered my advice. “I really enjoyed your paper on Principle C violations in Zapotec,” one of them said.

The doorbell rang.

“Hey guys!” Ben yelled, “It’s Dave and Marie-Claire!”

Dave was the chair of our department, and an all-around good sport. His perpetually effervescent wife, Marie-Claire, was the life of every party she attended– a pretty amazing feat for a teetotaler. Tonight she was wearing a black bodysuit bearing a glow-in-the-dark skeleton design. She pulled off her latex bloody skull mask to give us all proper Gallic kisses on the cheek.

Dave and Marie-Claire immediately put our guests at ease. We settled in on the floor and began hacking away at our pumpkins as Dave chatted about Halloween traditions, snowboarding in Whistler, and his own work-related travels to the Netherlands. Almost all of us had feeble little steak knives, which were not quite up to the task of penetrating the rock-hard pumpkin rinds. But eventually, a goopy pile of pumpkin shards and innards accumulated in the middle of the floor and vaguely face-like patterns emerged on some of the pumpkins.

“Save all that stuff so we can make pie!” Marcy yelled from the kitchen, tossing us a big Tupperware bowl.

We gathered up the gloppy pieces piled on the newspaper and dumped them into the bowl. I wondered if the Vancouver Sun used food-safe ink. And if I should suggest to Marcy that we sort through the pieces to make sure no seeds, residual dirt, or soggy remains of Bank of Montreal ads got into our pie. But I held my tongue: this was Marcy’s home and Marcy’s show. Not my kitchen – not my problem.

“Do any of you guys know what goes in pumpkin pie filling?” Marcy asked.

“Wait—what the hell?” Ben jumped up and peered out the front window. “Those kids are setting stuff on fire!”

We all ran to the window. A loud group of teenage boys was working its way down the street, tossing lit firecrackers at houses. (Fireworks at Halloween are a Canadian thing.)

“That’s dangerous!” Dave said.

“Ooh! Let me take care of this!” Marie-Claire wiped the pumpkin goo from her hands, put on her skull mask, and ran out the door.

“What are you doing?” Ben yelled.

But it was too late. She was already outside.

“OOH! OOOH! WOO WOO! BOO!” she shrieked. (For full effect, imagine this in a very excited Quebecois accent.)

Our dangerous band of hooligans suddenly looked confused. “Lady!” one of them gasped, “What are you doing?”

“OOOH! OOOH! WOOOOOO!” Now she was lunging at them with her hands above her head in the classic Bela Lugosi pose. “BOOO!” she yelled, thrusting her hands and face at the largest of them.

“Oh my God, she’s trying to RAPE me!” he brayed.

“She’s crazy!”

“Let’s get out of here!” one of them yelled, even as his cohorts sprinted down the street ahead of him.

“Wow.” Ben said, stepping away from the window.

Dave smiled. “Irrational behavior tends to throw people off.”

The low-level sore throat I had been nursing all week had just exploded into a full-fledged fever, and now my brain was reeling. What the hell just happened? We didn’t know anything about those kids; Marie-Claire could have gotten beaten up or worse – but somehow, she knew she wouldn’t be. And how did she know her stunt would work? And weirdest of all, WHY did it work? Since when were teenage boys terrified of petite middle-aged women?

And exactly what was going into Marcy's pie? On further reflection, I decided I really didn’t want to know.

I’ve never been one of those with a connection to the unseen. For me, the mysteries of the living are scary enough.


Here’s a non-scary thing to do should you find yourself with a pound of random pumpkin shards. Instead of making a pie, one can use mutilated pumpkin bits to make gnocchi – little Italian dumplings.

Because pumpkins are so firmly anchored to autumn, they scream for autumn flavors: I’ve topped the gnocchi with a sweet/salty sauce of crumbled sausage and maple gravy. (The gnocchi recipe is based on one by Lidia Bastianich; the sauce is loosely inspired by the sausage-maple gravy served with foie gras and biscuits at Animal, a lust-inducing Los Angeles eatery.) The combination of pumpkin, sausage, gravy and maple reminds me of all my favorite parts of a classic Thanksgiving dinner – I like to think of it as a preview of coming attractions.


For the gnocchi:

1 (1-pound) pumpkin or butternut squash (or 1 pound clean, leftover fresh pumpkin bits from carving)

Olive oil as needed

1 large russet potato, baked, riced, and cooled

1 egg

½ cups shredded parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, or more if needed

Additional parmesan for serving (optional)

1. If using a whole squash or pumpkin, cut it in half, remove the seeds, brush the cut parts with olive oil, and bake uncovered at 400 degrees until soft, about an hour and a half. (If using pumpkin pieces, brush or toss lightly with olive oil and bake until soft—pieces will cook faster than halves.)

2. Scoop out the baked pumpkin flesh from its skin and place in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, mashing the pumpkin as you go, until any visible liquid is cooked off and the mixture is smooth and thick. If using pumpkin pieces, put them through a food mill before this second cooking to remove the skins.

3. Measure out 1 cup of mashed, reduced pumpkin; set aside any remaining pumpkin for other uses.

4. Measure out 2 cups of the cooked, riced, and cooled potato.

5. Combine the pumpkin and potato with the remaining ingredients. If the dough is too sticky to handle, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is firm enough to shape. Expect the dough to stay a bit sticky.

6. Divide the dough into 8 portions. Roll each portion on a floured surface into a 12-inch rope, and cut the ropes into ¾-inch pieces. Lay the pieces on parchment-lined baking sheets.

7. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi pieces in two batches, and cook each batch about 10 minutes. When fully cooked, the gnocchi will swell, float, and no longer taste floury. (Note that the gnocchi will probably float to the top before they’re completely done, so don’t take them out just because they’re floating.) Remove finished gnocchi with a slotted spoon and return them to the parchment-lined sheets.

8. To serve, spoon hot gnocchi into a serving bowl, top with sausage gravy (and cheese, if desired), and serve immediately.

For the sausage-maple gravy:

½ pound bulk breakfast sausage (the type flavored with sage)

¼ cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola

1 ½ cups milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon dried sage, crumbled

1 ½ tablespoons maple syrupsalt and white pepper to taste

1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. Crumble in the sausage and cook until lightly browned and cooked through. Remove sausage from the saucepan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. In a separate saucepan, heat the milk until it starts to steam.

3. Sauté the onion in the oil remaining in the first saucepan until it starts to brown. Stir in the sage, then stir in the flour and whisk the mixture for about a minute.

4. Add the milk and continue to whisk until flour is fully dissolved and the gravy starts to thicken.

5. Return the sausage to the gravy. Add the syrup, then add salt and white pepper to taste.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cheesecake for Dinner!

When I made my ill-advised decision to go to cooking school, I chose a certificate program in pastry and baking. This choice was motivated by two factors: first, I’d heard that work in the pastry kitchen was slower paced and less stressful than work on the hot line. (This is indeed true—in the same way that life in Gitmo is less stressful than life in Abu Ghraib). The second motivator was my love of fancy desserts – they’re fun to make and even more fun to eat. Who wouldn’t want a career where you get to work with chocolate every day?

But the strangest side effect of my short life in professional baking was the crazy craving I got for savory foods. My five-hour nightly cooking school classes—where we turned out endless mousses, pies, and cakes—started right at dinnertime. So I’d arrive home at midnight longing for a big bowl of chili. Or braised lamb. Basically, anything salty or spicy and NOT sweet.

And my lust for savories only grew after I graduated and actually started getting paid to make desserts. At the (seriously dysfunctional) five-star hotel where I landed my first culinary gig, my colleagues and I in the pastry shop were free to eat as many day-old cookies and éclairs as we wanted, and we did so with impunity. Our stringent quality-control standards also required us to eat lots of goodies straight out of the oven. But nothing made us happier than the occasional plate of taco salad or bruschetta brought over by Paco, the garde-manger chef, or the occasional treat of bacon or sausage liberated from the main kitchen in the dead of night by Bob, our graveyard-shift baker.

My classmates and instructors back in cooking school clearly shared my craving. One night, a tray of fried chicken arrived in our training kitchen – the leftovers of a project from another class – and we tore into it like a pack of starving hyenas. And any time a savory item worked its way into our curriculum, we'd throw ourselves into it with lustful urgency. Beef Wellington Night—tucked into our course on puff pastry, croissants, and danishes — was one of the best nights of my culinary training, if not my life.

To encourage culinary awareness and creativity, our instructors worked more and more savories into our program, often in unexpected places. The most surprising of these was the seemingly repulsive—but addictive—savory cheesecake. Who would have expected that gorgonzola, prosciutto, and shrimp could pop up in a course entitled "International Patisserie, Custards, Fillings, and Creams"?

But pop up they did—and to amazing effect. The first thing we learned about savory cheesecakes was how to get our heads around the idea. It only took a taste of the chef’s demo cheesecake to convince us not to think of a Sarah Lee cheesecake gone bad, but of a creamy, piquant terrine, prefect for spreading on toasted baguette slices as a buffet appetizer. Or, as we presented them in class, cut into modest slices and served with a vinaigrette-dressed mesclun salad, garnished with toasted nuts, as a first course.

Of course, we didn't make savory cheesecakes in class just to prove it was possible. Our goal was for us to learn how to make great cheesecakes, period. The secrets to making cheesecakes of any sort can be summed up in two words: low and slow.

Like their sweet counterparts, savory cheesecake fillings have a cream cheese base. We learned to beat the cream cheese until soft and completely lump-free, using a mixer with a paddle attachment, before adding the other filling ingredients: this ensured that no unpleasant lumps would appear in the filling. But unlike standard cake batters, cheesecake batters must be mixed gently, at slow speed. Beating the batter too fast and hard would whip too much air in the filling which would cause it to rise, then sink, in the oven, which would make the top of the cake crack. (One of our instructors told us why so many commercial cheesecakes come topped with a thick layer of sour cream: to hide the cracks.)

Also, cheesecake fillings are technically baked custards, and like flans and related preparations, need to be baked in a water bath: this keeps the filling moist, ensures even cooking, and prevents excess browning.. And cheesecakes like a long, mellow bake at relatively low heat: this ensures the eggy, creamy filling merely sets, rather than scrambles.

Below is my version of a savory cheesecake. It’s flavored with blue cheese and sage, and based on a recipe developed by one of my instructors (his included a swirl of pesto and a sprinkling of chopped prosciutto, instead of the sage). The crust is my innovation—or rather, my mistake: on Cheesecake Night, I put the butter for the crust on the stove to melt, and went off to do something else. When I returned, the butter had not only melted, but browned. The instructor who caught the near-catastrophe said that the browned butter was not only still usable, but potentially better than plain butter. And it was.


(Makes one 10" cheesecake or two 6" cheesecakes)


1 cup panko (Japanese dry bread crumbs)

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped

3 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 325°. Lightly grease the bottom of a 10" round cake pan or spring-form pan (or two 6" round cake pans), and line the pan or pans with a 10" circle (or 6" circles ) of parchment paper. Melt the butter and cook over medium heat until lightly browned. Combine with remaining ingredients. Press into a thin (about 1/8" thick) even, firmly packed layer on the bottom of the prepared pan (or pans). Bake until crust is set and lightly browned. Set aside the cool while preparing the filling. (If using spring-form pans, double-wrap them in foil to waterproof them--the next stage of cooking will involve a water bath.)


1-1/2 pounds cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup sugar

6-1/2 ounces sour cream

4 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 large eggs, beaten

1 pint whipping cream

1-1/4 cup finely crumbled blue cheese (Gorgonzola or Maytag)

2 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

1 tablespoon melted butter

Salt and black pepper to taste

Lower the oven temperature to 300°. In a mixer with a paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese and sugar together on low speed until they are thoroughly combined and the cheese is soft and free of lumps. (Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl frequently while mixing the filling.) Mix in sour cream, then the beaten egg and lemon juice.

Separately, combine the whipping cream and cornstarch, then stir them into the cream cheese mixture. Briefly saute chopped sage in the melted butter and cool. Fold the blue cheese and cooled sage into the filling. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper to taste.

Pour prepared batter into the crust-lined cake pan (or pans). Place the pan or pans inside a larger roasting or baking pan; fill this larger pan halfway with room-temperature water. Bake the cheesecakes, uncovered, in the water bath until set (about an hour for larger cakes; about 50 minutes for smaller ones.). Cool completely in pan before serving. If using a springform mold, gently remove the outer ring of the mold once the cake has cooled. If using a cake pan, place it briefly over a stovetop burner to warm the bottom and sides and the cake, run sharp knife dipped in hot water around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Place a plate over the cake pan and flip the cake onto the plate. The cake will now be upside-down (crust-side up) on the plate. Now place a serving plate over the cake and flip it over again; the cake will now be be right-side up.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grossing Out My Inner Child: Savory Apple-Onion Galette

When I was a kid, I had a couple of non-negotiable views about apples. First among these: they were fruit, which meant they didn’t count as dessert unless cooked and sweetened in some way. Apple pies and apple turnovers counted as suitable desserts. Slices of apple and apple pieces in fruit salad didn’t, and only marginally counted as acceptable after-school snacks.

My second fundamental belief about apples was that since they were fruit, they were sweet. And sweet things such as fruit didn’t belong anywhere near non-sweet things. Allowable exceptions were pineapple chunks in sweet-and-sour pork, which was inherently sweet anyhow, and the apple chunks Mom sometimes put in her chicken curry. But other mixtures of fruity and savory things were, quite simply, wrong. The idea of putting cheddar cheese on top of apple pie struck me as downright repulsive. And I made a point of not going to sleepovers at the homes of classmates whose tuna sandwiches contained apples or raisins. Eew.

An important part of growing is learning how to cope when your most cherished beliefs are challenged: When you’re small, you dig in your heels, cover your ears, and hope the offensive information just goes away. When you’re a bit bigger, you start thinking of ways to justify why your take on things is the only right one. Only much later does one develop the fortitude needed to consider the possible merits of an opposing view and, if needed, admit to being – gasp – WRONG!

My beliefs about the ontological status of apples were subverted, ever so slowly and sneakily, by the most unlikely of sources: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.

I grew up devouring Wilder’s tales of her girlhood on the American frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. I loved how honestly Wilder portrayed her youthful indiscretions: she worried about her looks, got thrown out of school for losing her temper, and wrote a snarky poem about an annoying teacher that, to her horror, went viral among her classmates at her one-room school. (This itself was an education for me: based on everything adults of my acquaintance had told me about their childhoods, I believed all kids until my era were perfectly behaved little angels.) I loved – as did most grade-school social studies teachers – how vividly she portrayed the daily routines of life on the frontier. But most of all, I loved how she wrote about food.

She wrote lustfully of crackling cornbread and biscuits and homemade (and home-grown) pickles and preserves. She described unfamiliar but scrumptious-sounding treats such as birds’ nest pudding – an eggy baked confection holding several whole, cooked apples and served with cream. Apples – ever the quintessential American fruit – played a big role in the culinary workings of her books: she described drying them for winter storage, making vinegar from their peels and cores, and feeding them to horses. Farmer Boy, the volume depicting her husband’s childhood on a prosperous farm in upstate New York, is almost non-stop food porn: meals on the Wilder farm invariably ended with several kinds of pies, including apple, followed a bit later by an after-dinner snack of buttered popcorn and yet more apples.

Farmer Boy also contained the most disturbing recipe in the series – one that grated against my sensibilities and haunted my nightmares for years. Horrifyingly, it was the favorite dish of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s future husband:

...They talked about spareribs, and turkey with dressing, and baked beans, and crackling cornbread, and other good things. But Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples ‘n’ onions.

When, at last, they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew what he liked best, and she had cooked it for him.

Apples. And onions. Fried together. Good God, this was just wrong. Reading this as a youth, I felt terribly disappointed in Almanzo, who otherwise seemed like a pretty cool kid. Everyone knows apples are supposed to go with cinnamon or caramel. And onions go with whatever you had for dinner before your apple dessert. But together? No way.

I eventually grew up and gave up childish things. And I had nearly recovered from the trauma of fried apples ‘n’ onions when, a few years after I’d finished college, I got a copy of The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories for Christmas. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one taken with an urge to make salt-rising bread and maple candy after reading the Little House books, and an intrepid soul painstakingly reconstructed many of those old-time recipes. And one of them was fried apples ‘n’ onions! Ack!

I read through that recipe with fascinated repulsion dozens of times, but didn’t quite work up the nerve to try it. But after years of trepidation, I’ve finally made peace with the concept.

The recipe in The Little House Cookbook involved sliced, unpeeled apples and sliced onions fried together in bacon fat. When I first saw the recipe, I grudgingly admitted that the presence of bacon fat made the dish seem slightly less repulsive. But now I realize why: First, bacon makes everything it touches taste better. Second, bacon has both sweet and savory notes, and could potentially mediate and meld the contrasting flavors of apples and onions. Pure freaking genius!

The more my rational adult mind thought of it, the better the apple/onion/bacon combo sounded. Onions are traditionally associated with savory dishes, but can be quite sweet when cooked. Chutneys, which I never found problematic even in my most finicky years, contain a mix of sweet fruit and savory vegetables. And now, previously unthinkable mixes of sweet and savory are almost mainstream: in some places, salt is an almost obligatory topping on caramels and chocolates, and bacon has worked its way into chocolate bars and even doughnuts.

The Little House Cookbook, written in the 1979, describes fried apples ‘n’ onions as a down-home country dish, one of those under-the-radar preparations so routine few people thought to write down recipes for it. Thirty years later, it feels downright modern, if not shamelessly trendy. And I’ve always wanted to be one of the cool trendy kids.

To make this old-time, yet weirdly prescient, preparation even more modern, I’ve enlivened the apples and onions with a touch of rosemary, and turned it into a filling for a galette – a free-form, open-face tart. (The galette dough recipe is lightly adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.) It makes a nice light meal with a salad on the side. Think of it as an apple pie for grownups – that you get to have before dessert.


For the yeasted galette dough:

1/2 cup warm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups flour, or as needed

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water in a medium size bowl.

2. Add egg, oil, and salt, then stir in the flour. When the dough is too stiff to stir with a spoon, turn it onto a floured surface for kneading.

3. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes. Add additional flour if the dough is sticky.

4. Set the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel, and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

For the apple-onion filling:

4 cups thinly sliced onions

4 cups sliced tart apples (such as Granny Smith)

1/4 pound bacon

1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary

salt and sugar to taste

1. Fry the bacon in a large skillet. When done, set aside. Remove all but 3 tablespoons bacon grease from the skillet.

2. Saute the onions in the remaining bacon fat until wilted. Toss in the rosemary while the onions are cooking.

3. Add the apples and another tablespoon of the bacon fat to the wilted onions. Stir and cook until the apples are tender.

4. Taste the mixture and add salt and sugar to taste. Set the filling aside to cool before assembling the galette.

To form the galette:

1. Roll the dough out into a thin 14-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. (The circle need not be completely regular.) If there is extra dough, cut it away and use for another purpose. Fold the dough into quarters and transfer it to the back of a sheet pan or a cookie sheet without sides. Unfold it. It will be larger than the pan.

2. Top the dough with the cooled filling, leaving a border 2 to 4 inches wide. Fold the edges of the dough over the fruit, overlapping them as you go. (The folded-over dough will not cover all the filling; the middle of the galette will remain exposed.)

3. Brush the folded-over dough with melted butter or an egg beaten with a little milk or cream. Sprinkle the glazed dough lightly with a mixture of equal parts sugar and salt. Bake the galette at 400 degrees until the crust is browned and the apples are tender, about 40 minutes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Their Lox Is Our Gain

Every family cherishes its food traditions: a secret recipe, an immutable Christmas menu, or a weakness for the starvation foods of the old country.

My family is no different. Our traditions have been largely shaped by my mother, who has a passion for matzo ball soup and gefilte fish. My sisters and I grew up thinking of the former as the ultimate in comfort foods, and the latter as a quaint relic best appreciated by older generations.

This is actually much stranger than it sounds. My mother was born and raised in Macao, with Cantonese as her first language; and my American-born father's parents came from southern China. Although my parents' devotion to Chinese cuisine borders on addiction (and has led to ill-advised pursuits of dim sum in such places as Cairo and Budapest), at home, their refrigerator sometimes resembles the reach-in at the Carnegie Deli--with a few jars of pickled ginger and chili bean sauce thrown in.

When I was small, this seemed like a perfectly normal state of affairs: there was Chinese food, and "American" food. And what could be more American than a freshly toasted bagel piled high with lox and the up-from-the-bootstraps, straight-out-of-Horatio-Alger people who claimed it as their own? Since most of my schoolmates at the tiny grade school I attended were Jewish--and comprised the vast majority of the non-Chinese kids I knew--there was little in my experience to disabuse me of the notion that most white people regularly ate lox and matzo balls.

This is all my mother's fault--largely because she began her American experience with the same misconception. Although she was educated in Catholic schools and came to America to study at a Catholic university, her most vivid food memories from that time came from her summer vacations working at Jewish resorts in the Catskills. (Watching Mom’s play-by-play fact-checking of Dirty Dancing when it showed up on cable one night was one of the stranger memories of my youth.) The food at the resorts must have been tasty and plentiful, and my mother's line of reasoning in evaluating it, back in her naïve youth, probably went like this: (1) This is yummy! (2) And so exotic, compared to plain ole winter melon soup and braised sharks' fins and curried crabs! (3) And since it's what Americans eat on their vacations, it must be really fancy too!

Years of trolling the aisles of Williams-Sonoma and watching the Food Network disabused her of the last two of these notions. Yet somewhere in her psyche she must still believe them. Why else would someone who changes our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner side dishes every year, according to the latest dictates of Bon Appétit or Food and Wine, continue--for over four decades--to serve bagels and lox every single Christmas morning?

I only realized the strangeness of this tradition when I enrolled in a Catholic high school, where most of my classmates had never even heard of lox. Until this point in my life, there didn't seem to be anything odd about fighting my sisters for a scrap of cold fish while listening to Handel's Messiah. So I tried to justify it: Jesus was Jewish, after all (yes! that must be it!), or more prosaically, toasting up a bunch of bagels is easier for a busy mom than making omelets. But there had to be more to it than that. My parents were genuinely fond of their little tradition. Deep in her heart, Mom probably still believes our Christmas morning bagels and lox are a treat to be cherished--and growing up, so did we.

And we do still. Our family's holiday celebrations continue to evolve and change, but our Christmas lox remains an unquestioned, immutable constant.

Two Christmases ago, my then-two-year-old nephew -- himself a fairly new addition to our holiday festivities -- had his initiation into this family tradition. In classic toddler fashion, he fussed over everything my poor sister tried to feed him that morning -- he didn't want cereal, took no interest in cut-up pieces of bagel, and made it abundantly clear he would rather watch TV than eat pieces of banana and orange. Just out of curiosity, my brother-in-law offered him a tiny morsel of lox -- barely the size of my pinkie nail. And to our surprise, he happily gobbled it down -- then opened his mouth for more.


One of the virtues of salmon, besides its yumminess, is its healthfulness: cold-water fish such as salmon are supposed to be good for promoting healthful cholesterol levels and otherwise keeping one alive and well. Another virtue of salmon is that because it is so richly flavored, a little can go a long way -- especially if the salmon is cured or smoked.

Here is a good post-Christmas dish: low in cholesterol and high in flavor. Its (trans-fat-free!) creaminess, combined with the savory notes of smoked salmon echo, vaguely, the flavor profile of cream cheese and lox. The egg-free fresh pasta recipe is inspired by one in The Artful Vegan: Fresh Flavors from the Millennium Restaurant, a book that can best be described as vegan food porn.


For the lemon-pepper fettucini:

1 cup fine semolina

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

finely grated and chopped zest of 1 lemons

1/4 cup water

1. Combine all ingredients. Knead on a clean surface for about two minutes, until the dough is smooth.

2. Divide the dough into four balls. Wrap them in plastic and allow them to rest about half an hour before rolling.

3. With a pasta machine, roll the dough into sheets of medium thickness, then cut them into 1/2-inch thick strands.

4. To cook: toss the strands into a large pot of boiling water and cook until tender, about 3 minutes.

5. To store the pasta for later, coil the strands loosely into nests (the goal is to keep the strands fairly separate so they will dry evenly and won't stick together) and place in a well-ventilated area until they are completely dry.


3/4 cup shredded smoked salmon

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 cups unsweetened soy milk

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

chopped fresh dill or parsley for garnish (optional)

1. Simmer the soy milk and shallots together in a heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally, until the the soy milk has the consistency of heavy cream. The volume will reduce by about a half.

2. Add the salmon and simmer until heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Toss with the cooked pasta, top with optional parsley or dill, and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as an appetizer, or 2 as a main course.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Adventures in Flakiness and Sloth: Blitz Puff Pastry

Making things makes me happy. Friends and family often give me knitting yarn and cookbooks for my birthday instead of sweaters and dinners out. Nothing is more soul-filling for me than watching some useful – and sometimes tasty – object coming into being in my hands.

But last week was one of those rare periods when I feeling too stressed and slothful to make anything. And because the universe is perverse, it’s always at times when I least feel like cooking that I most desperately crave something special to eat. And last week, I really wanted something flaky and sweet.

If I still lived back in Los Angeles or Vancouver, I’d simply go out and find a French bakery that made perfectly authentic pains au chocolat, or a dim sum place with tiny tarts filled with sunny yellow custard, warm from the oven. But I’m not in either of these places anymore. Gainesville has many virtues, but its primary contribution to the culinary world is Gatorade. Enough said.

So if I wanted a comforting, flaky little treat, I’d have to make it myself.

Before dragging my sorry carcass into the kitchen, I thought about what I could make that would be flaky and sweet, yet easy to make. Then I remembered my very favorite dough from cooking school, which I haven’t made in a criminally long time: blitz puff pastry.

Blitz puff pastry is a quickie shortcut variant of regular puff pastry, which is one of the best things a human being can eat. Regular puff pastry forms the flaky, buttery, sometimes puffed-up base for classic French pastries such as napoleons. It’s also used to enclose savories, such as beef Wellington.

The beauty of blitz puff can’t be appreciated without an understanding of its dressier counterpart. When you bite into a treat made with classic puff pastry, you will encounter hundreds of brittle, paper-thin layers of buttery goodness. To make these layers, a baker must spread a dough made from flour and water with soft, but not liquid butter, then repeatedly fold the dough over the butter, flatten it with a rolling pin, and fold it again. Each fold generates new layers of dough separated by butter. The puffiness comes from steam from the melting butter as the pastry bakes: the expanding steam, trapped between the dough layers, separates and puffs up the layers as they cook.

There’s one catch to making classic puff, though. It takes several hours (the dough needs to rest and chill between folds) and a bit of finesse to make. And I was in no mood for finesse. I just wanted something nice to eat. Now.

And that’s where blitz puff comes in.

Blitz puff is an elegant crossbreed between a pie dough and a classic puff pastry, and it has the added advantage of being harder to screw up than either of these. The first part of its production is rather like making a pie dough: you mix flour, water, and pieces of butter together so that the butter stays in distinct, large lumps suspended in the dough. The second part is a speeded-up version of puff pastry production: the butter-lump-filled dough is folded over itself, rolled flat, then refolded several times so that the butter flattens and forms layers within the dough. (As with regular puff, the trick here is to get the butter warm and soft enough to flatten out between the dough layers, but not so warm that it melts into the dough.) Since the dough doesn’t need to rest between folds, a batch of blitz puff can be yours in just minutes – especially if you have a reservoir of frustration that you’d like to vent with a rolling pin.

The resulting pastry, when baked, has the buttery flavor and most of the puffiness of a classic puff pastry, but the flaky, tender texture of a well-made pie crust. It lacks the brittle, articulated layers of classic puff, but takes only a fraction of the time to make.

‘Blitz’ is German for ‘lightning,’ which suggests how fast blitz puff is intended to be made. Back in cooking school, my favorite chef once did a demo on blitz puff: he invited my classmates and I to time him as he made a batch from beginning to end. He was a huge guy, well over six feet and built like a linebacker, and when he worked that blitz dough, he threw his entire 300-pound body weight –BOOM! – onto the workbench. In less than a minute, the one-man rumble was over, and a neat little rectangle of dough sat where a mass of flour, ice water, and butter had been only seconds before..

Then he made the dough into fruit turnovers that emerged from the oven so flaky, airy and light they practically floated off the baking sheet.

It took me more than a minute to make my blitz puff – including the time I needed to measure out my ingredients, it was more like 10 minutes. I used some of the dough to make some turnovers filled with end-of-the-season nectarines, and stashed the rest away in the freezer, wrapped tightly in plastic, for later.

Yes, I know my project would have been quicker still if I had simply used store-bought frozen puff pastry (which can be quite good). But even in the midst of my slothful funk, I knew this pastry was something I needed to make from scratch, by myself. Making things always makes things better.



3/4 cup bread flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cake flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup ice water (more or less, as needed)

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices

1. Combine the flours and salt in a large bowl.

2. Add the butter slices. Rub the slices into the flour until large, irregular flakes (just under 1 inch) form. The butter flakes should be soft enough to bend, but shouldn’t be allowed to get mushy.

3. Gradually sprinkle in enough ice water to hold the flour together. The flakes of butter should still remain distinct as you mix the water into the dough. Do not over-mix.

4. If the dough seems rubbery or the butter starts to liquify, cover the dough and refrigerate it for about half an hour. This will make it easier to roll (if rubbery) and keep the butter flakes intact.

5. To roll the dough: Lightly flour your work surface. If you chilled your dough, remove it from the refrigerator a few minutes before rolling. Then roll the dough into a 12-inch by 18-inch rectangle.

6. Fold the two short ends of the rectangle so that they almost meet in the middle. Then fold the rectangle in half at the point where the folded-in ends meet.

7. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and roll it out into a 12-inch by 18-inch rectangle again. Lightly flour the rolling surface or dough if the dough starts to stick.

8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 twice.

9. The blitz puff is now ready to use! If not using immediately, wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate or freeze.


2/3 batch blitz puff

3 large nectarines, peeled, pitted, and cut into ¼” pieces

1-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)

1 beaten egg (optional)

sugar for sprinkling (optional)

1. Preheat an oven to 400 degrees.

2.Heat the butter in a nonstick pan over medium heat. When it sizzles, add the nectarines and sugar. Cook until the nectarines are tender and the sugar is dissolved. Taste as you go and add more sugar if needed. Set mixture aside to cool

3. Roll out the blitz puff on a floured surface into a 12-inch square. Cut the square into four 6-inch squares.

4. Spoon about 2 heaping tablespoons of the cooled nectarine filling into the middle of each square. Fold each square in half diagonally and firmly seal the edges. Do not overfill the turnovers or they’ll leak when baked.

5. Place the turnovers several inches apart from each other on a baking sheet. If desired, brush them lightly with beaten egg and sprinkle the egg wash with sugar. (The egg becomes golden and glossy when baked.)

6. Bake the turnovers for about 20 minutes, or until puffed and browned.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Multicultural Baklava in Honor of a Good ‘Hood

A Canadian friend from college liked to say that Canada is more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. I wasn't sure what he meant by this at the time -- but I finally understood years later, when I moved to Vancouver for a teaching position at the University of British Columbia.

The neighborhood I moved to, Kitsilano, was unlike any I’d ever encountered in the States. It was centered on a street portentously named Broadway, and this was, predictably, a wide, busy thoroughfare. What was odd to my urban American sensibilities, though, was the tiny scale of the buildings and shops lining this major artery. There were a few big chain supermarkets and fast-food outlets, but the vast number of businesses along Broadway were small, quirky, and family owned. As I was soon to discover, Kitsilano was walk-able and wonderful.

What I loved most about Broadway was its colorful and varied inventory of little food shops. There was a Safeway supermarket only a block from my place, but I discovered it was cheaper and way more fun to shop like the locals: I’d buy my vegetables and fruit at a little Chinese-owned produce stand; my coffee, spices, and pasta at another Chinese-owned grocery/imported food emporium just down the road; and my cheese and other dairy products at a Greek-owned grocery that always had the freshest feta and house-made yogurt. For treats, I could go to a tiny, well stocked wine shop; an old-school Italian delicatessen and bakery, or a terrific Malaysian hole-in-the-wall that made succulent Hainan chicken rice and laksa noodle soup.

While strolling between these shops, I’d peek into the numerous Greek bakeries scattered throughout the neighborhood, all featuring unfamiliar but beautiful little pastries and cookies, and around Easter, big braided wreaths of bread studded with bright red hard-boiled eggs. On Saturday mornings, when I did my weekly grocery run, the tables at these bakeries were filled with old men in porkpie hats, conversing energetically in Greek over coffee and pastries. Occasionally, one would bark out an order to the person behind the counter, who was usually young and hip-looking enough to be one of my students—and this hip young person would answer back deferentially in Greek.

Walking into any of these places was like visiting another country: the sights, smells, and language spoken in each of them were distinct. Of course, I had shopped at ethnic markets and bakeries of every sort back in Los Angeles, where I grew up —but I’d never seen so many, representing such a diverse range of cultures, so close to each other, and so vibrantly integrated into the greater community. People young and old spoke to their compatriots in Greek or Cantonese and to everyone else in fluent English. And Anglo-Canadian customers at these little shops were perfectly at ease with this. Nobody ever asked the Greek cheese-maker where the Kraft singles were. Nobody ever shook a fist at one of those old men in porkpie hats, yelling, “This is Canada! Speak Canadian!”.

Back in Los Angeles, entering an ethnic grocery could be a fraught experience. Shopkeepers and regular customer sometimes seemed to resent or distrust outsiders. Even in Chinese markets, I’d get the cold shoulder because of my near-non-existent Chinese language skills. But on my weekend forays through the little shops of Kitsilano, I had no such worries. If I asked dumb questions about some basic Greek or Indonesian food product, someone would politely answer them – in English. And this kindly soul would usually make a sale.

At first, I merely marveled at this alien social dynamic and assumed it was a happy quirk of the neighborhood. But it later dawned on me that the cheek-by-jowl Chinese and Greek markets of Kitsilano and the welcoming attitude of local shopkeepers embodied my Canadian friend’s vision of his homeland as a grand tossed salad. Each immigrant culture proudly contributed its unique color and vision to the Canadian landscape, while remaining comfortably distinctive – and comfortable with the cultures and mores of its neighbors.

Later still, I realized why I sometimes got that weird treatment in ethnic markets back in the States: it wasn’t that the owners and regulars had anything personal against outsiders. It was that they feared their cultural distinctiveness would be lost forever in the American melting pot. And they decided -- wrongly and regrettably -- that the only way to keep what was precious to them was to keep everyone else at bay.

I’ve thought often about those little shops in Kitsilano since moving away, and I miss them still. Of course, Canada is not without ethnic tensions of its own, and the US has its share of thriving multicultural communities. My current hometown is one of these. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to find a place here where I could buy hand-made baklava and freshly pressed tofu and gai lan within walking distance of each other, with the hum of Greek and Cantonese conversation in the background.


One of the things I miss most about Kitsilano is the huge number of places where one can sate a craving for sweets. In honor of my old neighborhood, I’ve engineered a love child between Greek baklava and Chinese dessert dim sum, inspired by Kitsilano’s two dominant food cultures. It has the structural bones of a classic Greek baklava (crunchy layers of buttery phyllo dough drenched in a spiced syrup) with a classic sweet dim sum filling of peanuts, coconut, and sesame. It's the type of little sweet that is often offered to visitors in both Chinese and Greek homes. And in both cultures, it would be the height of rudeness to turn it down.



1-1/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts

1/3 cup sweetened flaked coconut

2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds

1 tablespoon sugar

1. Put all ingredients into a food processor and pulse until the nuts and coconut are finely chopped, but not pasty. Set mixture aside until you’re ready to assemble the baklava.


¾ cup sugar

¾ cup water

¼ cup honey

½ stick cinnamon

2 slices peeled, fresh ginger (each should be about the size of a nickel and about ¼ inch thick)

2 teaspoons lime juice

1. Combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil.

2. Remove pan from heat as soon as the mixture starts to boil. Do not allow it to reduce.

3. When the syrup is cool, transfer it to a storage container and put it in the refrigerator. The syrup needs to be cold when poured over the cooked baklava, so should be made ahead of time.


½ pound phyllo dough, thawed

6 ounces (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

Equipment: a 9-1/2 x 14 inch baking pan or slightly larger cookie sheet

1. Grease the baking pan or cookie sheet. Carefully unroll the phyllo dough, keeping it covered as you work so it doesn’t dry out and become brittle. Keep the butter warm and liquid as you work.

2. Place a sheet of phyllo in the bottom of the greased baking pan. Smooth it out to remove any wrinkles, and brush its entire surface with melted butter. (The brand of phyllo I used came in sheets that fit a 9-1/2 x 14 inch pan almost exactly; if your sheets are larger, cut them to fit.) Repeat this process until you have 10 layers of buttered phyllo. When layering the phyllo sheets, try to avoid getting air pockets between the layers.

3. Sprinkle 1/3 of the filling evenly over the10 layers of buttered phyllo.

4. Top the filling with a sheet of phyllo, brush the sheet with melted butter, then top with a second sheet of phyllo and brush that with butter as well.

5. Repeat 3-4 once.

6. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the filling evenly over the phyllo layer, then top with 5 sheets of phyllo, buttering each sheet as you go.

7. Freeze the assembled baklava for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

8. When the baklava is partly frozen, remove it from the freezer. Using a serrated knife, trim the edges and score it into 2-inch squares, cutting through all layers of phyllo. If desired, score each of the squares into two triangles.

9. Bake the baklava until the top layer is golden brown, about 50 minutes.

10. While the baklava is still warm, pour the cold syrup evenly over it so that all pieces are covered. Allow the baklava to cool before serving.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Letter from Gainesville: We Are Not All Crazy (A Non-Culinary Rant)


The time has come to state the obvious.  For the past few days, my inbox has been filled with anxious messages from friends and family: the crazy Koran burners are from Gainesville! OMG! What are you going to do? I can't believe Gainesville is so filled with crazy people!


My answer: It's not. For those who don't know the city, here's the deal:  Gainesville is a small city centered around the University of Florida, both physically and spiritually (UF Homecoming Day is a holiday for the entire public school system and  even the city's recycling bins come in UF's colors, orange and blue). The city's population can be impressionistically broken down into the following subgroups:


Retirees: 25,000


Normal working adults and their families: 50,000


Tobacco chewin' good ole boys who hate those socialist college types but love them Gators!: 15,000


UF faculty who've developed a taste for boiled peanuts but hate those darned local hicks:     2,000


People who claim they're taking class notes on their laptops, but are actually updating their Facebook pages: 25,000


People who are, honest to God, going to file their dissertations this semester, which won't be a repeat of last semester, honest! : 500


Members of fringe religious cults that have lost their tax-exempt status and whose property is currently under foreclosure: 50


Guess which of these groups is the public face of Gainesville these days?

And what are the rest of us doing about it? Yesterday, there was this , and for a while, there has been this and this. Meanwhile, UF's Muslim student group, Islam on Campus, is planning to spend Saturday feeding the homeless and holding a candlelight vigil. They've also advised Muslim groups from out of town not to dignify the burning with their presence.

But of course, measured speeches from the pulpit and grad students in hijabs making sack lunches don't make for particularly dramatic TV. Neither do most reasonable, responsible actions people take on a regular basis. What does get attention is the loud, the obnoxious, and the stupid. Stupid ideas tend to be simple and make good sound bites ("Islam is of the devil!"), while nuanced, truthful ideas don't ("Islam has some radical anti-American adherents, but most of its followers are peaceable").


And since media attention equals legitimacy in the public eye, loud, obnoxious, and stupid people and ideas are seen as forces to be reckoned with. Terry Jones and The Situation are of a piece.


Sadly, this is why the voices of the vast majority of Gainesville's population are being drowned out. It's not that we don't care.


It's just  that we're not stupid enough.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

One Ton of Manly Labor

My father grew up in a restaurant. His parents owned the Golden Dragon, a sprawling Chinese eatery in Portland, Oregon that offered egg rolls and grilled-cheese sandwiches on its official menu and bitter melon with black-bean sauce and birds’ nest soup on its unofficial one. He tells stories of after-school hours spent peeling water chestnuts and washing dishes with his brothers and sisters while the flare of hot woks and the rhythm of cleavers filled the busy kitchen. On New Year’s Eve, the kids stayed up all night, serving sweet-and-sour pork and cocktails to mobs of hungry revelers.

Dad’s apprenticeship at the hands of a gifted chef father and savvy manager mother gave him a lifelong love and appreciation of good food and restaurants – and drove him to stay as far away from the culinary biz as possible.

By the time my sisters and I appeared on the scene, Dad generally stayed out of the kitchen. His culinary responsibilities were limited to standard dad stuff – grilling burgers and steaks in the backyard – and a single indoors task: folding wontons.

Wontons – square pasta wrappers folded into elegant little pods around a savory mixture of ground pork, vegetables, and sometimes seafood – are dead easy to make, but there’s a catch: there are no shortcuts for folding them the right way. Our hungry family of six could go through a boatload of them in a single meal, but there was no way Mom could fill and fold all of these herself – not with so much housework to deal with and so much childhood misbehavior to monitor.

So the folding fell to Dad – who brought to the enterprise serious mass wonton-folding chops, courtesy of the Golden Dragon.

I can still see the set-up: it’s Saturday (or Sunday) afternoon, and Dad is at the kitchen table. Mom’s filling, smelling tantalizingly of scallions and sesame oil, sits in a glistening pink mound in a mixing bowl in front of him. Next to the mixing bowl is an open packet of wonton skins, which Dad keeps covered with a towel so they won’t dry out and crack when folded. At his side is a small bowl filled with beaten egg and a kitchen knife (the egg is the glue that holds the wontons together), and somewhere nearby on the table is a baking sheet soon to be filled with perfectly folded wontons.

By time I got to grade school, I wanted to fold wontons too. I was a bit of a tomboy and seriously into origami, and folding wontons fed both these impulses: because Dad was the chief wonton folder in the household, I somehow got it into my head that wonton-making was one of those noble masculine arts, like bug-collecting and compass navigation, that would be worth aspiring too. And properly folded wontons are a thing of geometric beauty. By time I was eight or so, I’d be sitting beside him, folding away. It made me feel powerful and useful.

For whatever reason, none of my sisters ever took an interest in wonton folding, so I got to see something they didn’t. My parents were masters at keeping up a unified front before us kids, but when it came to wonton folding, this seemingly impenetrable facade ever so slightly cracked. Dad often warned me not to overfill the skins, lest they burst wastefully when boiled in soup or deep fried, Meanwhile, Mom, who grew up on decadent meals Dad could only dream of in his youth, always scolded him for the stingy amount of filling he used.

“Fred! This isn’t the Golden Dragon!”

It took me a while to figure out how to fill and fold wontons in a way that kept both Mom and Dad happy. The optimal amount of filling had to be small enough not to cause the wrapper to tear or the seams to come loose when folded, but big enough to offer diners a generous meaty bite or two. In wonton folding, as in a functional family life, patience and little compromises are the boring but sure secrets to success.


Mom always made ginormous batches of wontons so she could keep some in the freezer for later. To freeze uncooked wontons, lay them on a baking sheet so they don’t touch and put the sheet in the freezer until the wontons are frozen solid. Once frozen, the wontons can be transferred to a freezer bag for storage. On a cold weeknight when you don’t feel like cooking, take some out of the bag, allow them to thaw, and throw them into a pot of simmering broth for a comforting dinner.

I’ve adjusted the recipe to make a more modest number of wontons—only about 100. I’ve also included instructions for the two most common ways of serving them, cooked in soup and fried. The soup recipe serves 2-4; the fried wonton recipe makes as many or as few as you need. Unless you’re serving dozens of people, you’ll still have some wontons left over for the freezer.

Folding all of these will entail about an hour of meditative handiwork for one person, or a pleasant bonding experience for two.


For the filling:

1 pound ground pork

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons minced scallions, both white and green parts

¾ cup finely shredded Chinese (Napa) cabbage

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons sesame oil

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons cornstarch

For the wontons:

1 package wonton wrappers (available in the refrigerated or frozen foods sections of Asian specialty grocers or better supermarkets)

1 beaten egg or ¼ cup water

For wonton soup:

1 liter chicken broth

2 scallions, thinly sliced

sliced, cooked meat and/or chopped vegetables of your choice (optional)

For fried wontons:

Neutral cooking oil (such as canola) for deep frying

Sweet and sour and/or hoisin sauce

1. Thoroughly combine all the filling ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.

2. Get ready to fold a wonton: Take a wonton wrapper and hold it in your non-dominant hand. Place about 1 heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of the skin. Using a knife or small pastry brush, wet the edges of the skin with water or egg.

3. The first fold is simple: Fold the skin in half diagonally so that it completely encases the filling. Press the edges together, being mindful to squeeze out any air bubbles between the filling and the skin. Be sure the edges are completely sealed, with no gaps.

4. The second fold tends to throw people. Your half-folded wonton now looks like a triangular turnover, with one perpendicular corner and two “arms” (long, sharp corners). Dip one of the “arms” of the wonton into egg or water. Then pull it towards the other arm and press the arms together so that the top surface of one of them is firmly glued to the bottom surface of the other.

The finished wonton should look something like this:

5. Repeat 2-4 until the filling and/or wonton skins are exhausted. (Any leftover skins can be wrapped tightly in plastic and stored in the freezer for use with the next batch. Any leftover filling can be rolled into small balls and dropped into soup as meatballs.) Keep folded wontons and skins covered while you work so they don’t dry out.

6. For wonton soup: Heat broth in a heavy saucepan or pot until it starts to boil. Carefully place about 12 wontons in the pot along with any meat and/or vegetables you’d like to add. (Mom used wonton soup as a convenient repository for leftovers.) When the wontons float to the top of the broth and look wrinkly and translucent, they’re done. Toss the scallions over the soup as a garnish. This amount will serve two or three people as a hearty lunch, or four people as an opener to a larger meal.

7. For fried wontons: Heat about 2 inches of oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot enough to make a drop of water sizzle on impact, add wontons, one at a time. The number that you can add will depend on the size of your pan, but you don’t want them close enough to touch each other. Fry until the undersides are golden brown; flip and fry until the second side is also golden brown. Immediately remove from the oil, drain well on paper towels, and serve hot with sweet and sour or hoisin sauce.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Most Exotic Thing I've Ever Eaten

Far-away cultures and folkways intrigue me. But there is one culture in particular that captured my imagination and filled me with fascination and envy. For as long as I’ve known about them, I wondered what it would be like to live among these romantic souls. To breathe in their folkways, so different from mine. To speak their language and sing their songs.

And oh, their food. I wanted to taste their food. The way they wrote about their food made me drool. But none of the restaurants I frequented in my Los Angeles childhood served it. Nobody I knew made it. Mom occasionally made ethnic dishes from the classical European repertoire—osso buco, coq au vin—but wouldn’t go anywhere near the dishes I dreamed about. You wouldn’t like them anyways, she said.

But two years ago, I had the opportunity to live among these people. They tended to live in the rural outskirts of town, and no longer kept many restaurants in our area. Their best dishes, as is the case with many cultures, were well-kept secrets served at home.

Then I discovered that my bird-watching buddy Luz, a Colombian biologist, shared my fascination. It was an autumn Saturday, and we were wrapping up a happy morning looking for migrating wood warblers.

“Oh, I found this restaurant that has this crazy food!” she told me. “It’s right by I-75! I’m going with my friend Valerie for lunch—want to come?”

Would I? I’d never had a whole meal of this mysterious cuisine, and this would be my chance. “That would be awesome—what’s this place called?”

She inhaled in happy anticipation. “Cracker Barrel!”

Yes—Luz and I were fetishists for the food and culture of the American South. I always wondered what it would be like to be a real Southern lady who made fluffy biscuits and towering layer cakes, and served friends fresh-squeezed lemonade on the back porch of an ancient family plantation. Luz went so far as to marry a guy from Tennessee. Her now-former mother-in-law made killer fried green tomatoes.

Luz’s friend Valerie was a biology postdoc from Toulouse, and offerings at Cracker Barrel were even more exotic for her than for us.

“Dumplins? What eez ‘dumplins’?” she asked, peering at the menu.

“Well, they’re kind of like—well it’s hard to describe.” Luz said. “But you have to try the fried okra!”

I knew this was the tourist version of Southern cuisine, and it only whetted my appetite for the real thing. This meant I’d have to find a friendly local who could teach me more about it.

But where would I find such a person? Rumor had it the old-line Southern natives in my little college town resented – and hence, avoided – the Yankees and foreigners attached to the university. After all, people who put tempeh on their pizza and drink unsweetened iced tea are not to be trusted.

Then I remembered that I actually knew a real live Southern lady who didn’t hate me. And I’d been sitting across the table from her on Monday nights for months.

Susie Baxter heads a writing group I belong to, and is a proud native Floridian, born and raised in rural Suwanee County. (This is the north-central part of the state, just east of the panhandle.) One of the first things newcomers learn about Florida is that the more north you are, the more South you are: Suwanee County is closer geographically and culturally to neighboring Alabama and Georgia than to far-away Miami or Palm Beach.

Susie’s memoir-in-progress about her childhood in Suwannee County is a delicious mélange of everything Southern: quiet dirt roads, a homemade rope swing hanging from an ancient oak in the yard, dusty tobacco fields, mysterious bullet holes in floorboards, and of course, lots of food—all cooked lovingly on a wood-burning stove, and almost all grown on the family property.

Meals in Susie’s childhood were filled with all those mysterious Southern foods I’d read about for years, but never seen served anywhere – let alone tasted. Among these are hoecakes.

I discovered that the term ‘hoecake’ is used across the South to refer to a number of different griddled flatbreads, ranging from simple mixtures of cornmeal and water to white-flour-based breads resembling giant scones. The name ‘hoecake’ recalls the old tradition of cooking the cakes on the back of a hoe. (Most sources spell it as two words, but Susie spells it as one, and I’m following her lead – and recipe –here.)

Susie's family’s version is a cornmeal-based griddle cake enriched with eggs and milk. Her family often had them with meals in place of biscuits or bread. Here is Susie’s description of her family’s recipe, from her upcoming memoir, “I, Susanette...”

"Mama often made hoecakes for supper, instead of cornbread or biscuits that required a hot oven, which heated up the house. To make hoecakes, Mama measured the ingredients very precisely—a handful of freshly ground cornmeal, a half a handful of flour, a clump of lard, an egg or two, a pinch of salt and baking powder, and just enough fresh cow milk to make the mixture into a batter.

She checked the temperature of the iron skillet by sprinkling a few drops of water in it. When the water danced, she knew it was hot enough. She poured the batter into five separate puddles, cutting off the stream as each puddle spread to three or four inches. In less than a minute, bubbles formed on the surface of the puddles and began to pop, an indication that it was time to flip them. Her hoecakes always turned out brown and crispy on the outside but soft and warm inside..."

Like biscuits and cornbread, hoecakes can be eaten with either savory or sweet accompaniments. At her childhood meals, Susie used them to block out the taste of turnip greens, which she hated. If she managed to get down enough of those dreaded greens, she also got to have hoecakes for dessert, drizzled with cane syrup.

Susie’s mother made her hoecakes from homegrown corn (which her family brought to the mill to be ground into meal) and home-pressed cane syrup. For city girls like me and Luz, this is as strange, exotic, and wondrous as food can possibly get.


Amazingly, I lucked out on my first attempt to re-create Susie’s mother’s recipe. Since Susie is small-boned and petite; I guessed her mother may have been as well, so “a handful” would have been about half a cup at most. To get the combination of crunchiness and softness, the batter would need a lot of fat and tenderizers such as milk and eggs – so I interpreted “a clump” of lard to mean about a quarter of a cup. I’m not sure exactly how close this comes to the original, but it does fit Susie’s description perfectly: the cakes are brittle and crunchy on the outside, soft and almost creamy on the inside. They look like ordinary pancakes, but their texture is distinctly different--and a lot more interesting.

Susie’s Mama’s Hoecakes

½ cup cornmeal

¼ cup all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon baking powder

¼ cup lard or vegetable shortening

1 egg

¾ cup milk

¼ cup neutral cooking oil. such as canola

1. Mix together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
2. Add the shortening and rub it into the cornmeal mixture with your fingers until it is completely incorporated.

3. Add the egg and milk and stir until a smooth batter forms. It should be about the consistency of pancake batter.

4. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil when the skillet is hot.

5. When the oil is hot enough to cause a drop of water to sputter on contact, start cooking the hoecakes. For each hoecake, pour a large spoonful of batter into the hot skillet. It should spread into a 3-4 inch round and almost immediately start bubbling. When the top of the hoecake is riddled with bubbles and looks nearly dry, flip it over and cook until the second side is golden brown.

6. Keep the finished hoecakes warm in the oven until all are done. Serve hot as a side dish with supper, or if you’ve been very good, for dessert with syrup.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Relishing Bad Peaches, or Memories I Wish I Didn't Have

They say eating peaches straight from the tree is a magical experience. They lied.

The peach trees in my life have been filled with peaches and disappointment in equal measure. When I was growing up, one of our neighbors was blessed with a runty but prolific peach tree. It was barely six feet tall, but managed to produce hundreds of small yellow peaches every summer.

And every summer the same thing happened. Our neighbor Mrs. Yung would tell us that if the birds didn’t eat them, she was going to have her gardener pick and dump those peaches. They’d tried to eat them before, she’d tell us, and they were terrible—all bitter and mealy.

And every year, Mrs. Yung’s eighty-something mother-in-law would sneak over to our house with a big paper bag full of peaches. She had lived through wartime in China and couldn’t bear to see food wasted.

One year I was the one who opened the door when she made the drop. She didn’t speak English and knew I didn’t speak much Cantonese, so she simply pushed the bag into my hands and raised an index finger to her lips. I knew the secret wasn’t one to keep from my parents, but from her daughter-in-law.

And bless Grandma Yung’s heart, but those peaches were downright wretched.

I told this story many years later to some colleagues at California State University, Fresno, where I’d landed my first full-time teaching gig after grad school.

“Oh, I can tell you why those peaches were so bad,” one of them said. “It’s because they weren’t culled. If you grow stone fruit, you have to cull the fruit as they grow. Otherwise the tree works too hard and none of the fruit can produce enough sugar. Tell your old neighbors they have to leave only a few peaches on each branch. That way, they’ll have a smaller number of good peaches rather than a bunch of bad ones.”

Fresno is in the heart of California’s farming belt, in an area known for its copious crops of stone fruit. It is also known for urban sprawl and an utter disdain for zoning restrictions, so my new-ish condo complex was right across the street from a working peach orchard. In early spring, the orchard burst into bloom, and humongous clouds of pink-and-white flowers greeted me on my run every morning. By late spring, the blossoms fell to the ground like snowdrifts and were replaced by tiny green fruit. On my morning runs, I’d see dozens of workers on ladders working intently on the trees, no doubt culling the majority of the fruit to ensure the sweetness of the rest.

And one day in mid-summer, a large sign appeared by the normally-chained-off driveway leading into the heart of the orchard: FRESH PEACHES FOR SALE—OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.


My husband and I wandered down the tree-shaded driveway and bought a purple paper bag holding eight big peaches. They were still rock-hard, but we were sure they’d be great in a few days. We decided to research peach pie recipes while waiting for them to ripen.

We waited. And waited. Then some of the peaches went from rock-hard to flaccid and shriveled. I peeled and sliced them, and made my pie. Meh. Sour and boring and just...meh.

And don’t get me started on the last batch of peaches I bought, just last week. Georgia peaches, no less.

“These are awful,” my husband said after tasting one. “People around here don’t know anything about peaches.”

“They’re Georgia peaches. Georgia is supposed to be famous for peaches.”

“Well, I bet they send all the bad ones to Florida.”

So we were stuck again with another batch of mediocre peaches. Like Grandma Yung, I hate wasting food, even lame and disappointing food, so I had to think of a way to make those peaches palatable.

I cut up two of them and put them in a coffee cake with good results. When raw, the peaches were dry and mealy, but baking brought out what little juice they had and improved their texture. Surrounding them with oodles of butter and cinnamon sugar didn’t hurt, either.

But what to do with the rest of them? Whatever I did would have to mitigate all the flaws of my bad peaches – lack of sweetness and flavor, miserable mealy texture, and plain old ugliness – while bringing out whatever good qualities they had. I knew whatever I came up with would unlikely be a recipe for the ages. Dishes made from mediocre ingredients rarely are. My goal was an honorable rescue mission, rather like helping a D student gain the skills needed to earn a B.

My coffee cake showed that cooking bad peaches improves them, so that would be my first strategy. Mushy, mealy peaches don’t hold their shape well when cut up and cooked (or when cut-up and left raw, for that matter), so I needed a preparation in which the shape of the peach pieces wouldn’t matter. I also needed something that would add flavor and texture to the mushy peach pieces, and that would compensate for – or exploit – their lack of sweetness and peachy aroma.

I decided upon a peach-based relish: the peaches would form a sunny and fruity-enough base for a tangy, spiced-up condiment. Minced onions and red bell pepper add savory notes and texture. Sexiness and spice come from an only-in-Florida specialty: datil chiles, which are grown commercially only in the area immediately surrounding St. Augustine. Datils are close relatives to habaneros and are just as hot – but a bit sweeter. Like habaneros, datils have a fruity aroma (which helped bring out what little my boring peaches had) and a lingering, smoldering heat that tends to sneak up on you. It’s just what you need to breathe a little life into dull peaches.

Peach Rescue Relish

2 cups peeled and chopped fresh peaches

¼ cup finely diced red onion

¼ cup finely diced red bell pepper

1/8 cup finely diced celery

1 seeded and finely chopped datil or habanero chile (use half if you are averse to heat!)

2 tablespoons canola or other neutrally flavored cooking oil

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

1-2 tablespoons brown sugar

½-1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1. Heat a wide saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the oil, then add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and chile. Sauté, stirring, until the vegetables have softened and become translucent.

2. Add the peaches and allspice to the vegetables. Stir to combine. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, until the peaches give off their juice and start to dissolve. Add water if they start to stick to the pan.

3. Taste the mixture and add enough sugar and vinegar to give a good balance of sweetness and tanginess. (“Good” can mean anything you want it to, so this can go as sweet or as tart as you like.)

4. Store the relish covered in the refrigerator. Serve with ham, grilled chicken, or with good bread and cheese.