Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Dogs of War

The last Friday of the month meant two things to me back in grade school: air-raid sirens and hot dogs. Both of these things disturbed me.

I never got used to the melancholy wail of those sirens, which were strange box-shaped speakers tucked into odd corners all over Los Angeles, where I grew up. They went off on the last Friday of the month, my parents said, because people were testing to make sure they worked.

"Why do they have to work? What are they for?" I asked.

"In case there's a war and bad people want to drop bombs on us, that's when they'll turn them on," Mom said. This was during the twilight of the Cold War – at this point, those sirens were probably tested more out of habit than need – so Mom never bothered to mention the N word: nuclear.

The sirens always went off just before noon, when I was in school. My teachers pointedly ignored the rhythmic keening outside, urging us to focus on our lessons. My classmates never seemed to notice the sirens, for noon on the last Friday of the month signalled something far more portentious: Hot Dog Day!

Hot Dog Day was a big deal because our school was so small -- the student population hovered at just over 100. In the following years, the school would grow into a high-powered private academy catering to the children of Hollywood executives, but during my years there, it was still experimental, funky and low budget. The school was too small to have a cafeteria or vending machines, so students were responsible for providing their own lunches (no soda or candy, please) – except for the last Friday of the month, when we were treated to hot dogs!

On Hot Dog Day, several volunteer moms set up big white electric steamers full of hot dogs on one of the picnic tables in the outdoor lunch area. On a nearby table were paper plates, bags of buns, and squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard. There were also carrot and celery sticks, individual bags of potato chips, and usually, individually-wrapped cups of ice cream for dessert.

Oh joy.

I didn't understand why everyone loved hot dogs. Something about the combination of a cold gummy bun and a random rubbery sausage just failed to move me. And I hated, just hated, the assumption that just because I was a little kid I was supposed to adore them. "You don't know what you're missing!" the Hot Dog Moms would scold as they watched me toss my nearly-untouched dog in the trash every month.

But one day, in fifth grade, my hot-dog-loving classmates experienced a life-changing crisis of faith.

Adam, one of the popular kids, came running into our classroom just before roll call in a wide-eyed panic, clutching a dog-eared copy of the most recent Consumer Reports. In it was a scathing exposé on hot dogs: many national brands tested by Consumer Reports, including the one we ate every Hot Dog Day, were filled with contaminants such as rat droppings! We'd been eating rat droppings!

The terrifying news went viral. By lunchtime, all but the youngest kindergarten kids were up in arms about the feces-filled hot dogs. What should we do?

Because this was the pre-No Child Left Behind era, our teachers were free to throw aside their lesson plans and turn this crisis into a teachable moment on consumer rights and civic responsibility. First, we discussed the credibility of our information source: Consumer Reports was, sadly, a very credible source, so it was probably true that we'd been eating rat poo.

Next, we discussed our options. I don't remember exactly how the discussion unfolded, except that it involved a lot of class votes. In the end, our class decided to compose a petition to the principal asking that we change hot dog brands – there were a few brands that got glowing reviews from Consumer Reports, and we proposed these as alternatives. I'm sure our canny teacher worked a lesson on rhetoric and composition into this somehow.

The principal, impressed by our diligence, passion, and proper use of punctuation, agreed to change hot dog brands. (Given the brands involved, this probably doubled the school's monthly hot dog expenditures.) But the next time the air-raid sirens wailed and the white electric steamers came out, we circled the picnic tables warily. The moms running the operation had saved the wrappers from the hot dog packages to show any skeptics.

And as usual, I took my hot dog and tossed it after a few polite nibbles. It still didn't do anything for me. But at least this time, nobody gave me any lectures about what I had been missing.


I got over my hot dog hatred in junior high, when I discovered chili. Chili makes everything better.

I also figured out a few general points about hot dogs: First, the buns have to be warm, preferably toasted. Second, just as I learned in fifth grade, the quality of the dog does count. Third, the relation between the hot dog and the bun needs to be mediated by stuff. Lots of stuff. Chili is one of the best things one can use to marry a dog to its bun. My former home town of Los Angeles is arguably the world capital of putting stuff on hot dogs: Chili! Bacon! Pastrami! Guacamole! Cheese! Cole slaw and sauerkraut and kimchee! All of the above! The stuff that goes with hot dogs in Los Angeles can even be abstract, as in the case of Law Dogs, a stand that offers both hot dogs and legal advice.

My version of a dressed-up dog was born of two influences: the curried mincemeat rolls my husband used to enjoy during his school years in South Africa, and the German fast-food treat currywurst (sausage served with a spicy-sweet curry-flavored sauce, with or without a bun). My dog is like a chili dog in spirit, but with a different flavor profile, one shamelessly ripped off from other culinary traditions and made into something that would most likely be unrecognizable back in the lands of its origins.

And nothing could be more American than that.

Afro-Teutonic Dogs

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola

3/4 pound ground beef

¼ cup finely diced onion

1 small clove garlic, minced

½ large tomato, seeded andfinely diced

1-1/2 teaspoon curry powder

½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ cup tomato ketchup

¼ cup water

The rest:

6 hot dog buns

6 good-quality hot dogs

finely diced onion and tomato for garnish (optional)

To make the sauce:

1. Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic; cook until the onion is translucent.

2. Add the ground beef to the pan. Break it up with a spoon or spatula; cook, stirring, until the meat is no longer pink.

3. Add the tomatoes, curry powder, and cayenne; mix thoroughly with the meat.

4. Add the ketchup and water, mix thoroughly with the meat and simmer, over low heat, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are dissolved and the flavors are blended.

To complete the dish:

1. Toast the buns and heat the hot dogs in the manner of your preference.

2. Spoon some of the sauce inside a toasted bun, top with a hot dog and diced onion and tomato if desired, and enjoy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Koeksisters: The South African Sweet That Sucks

I was born in Pittsburgh and raised on a steady diet of Brady Bunch reruns, Barbies, and TV dinners, with the occasional ten-course Chinese banquet thrown in. My husband Glenn grew up in Johannesburg with childhood memories of being chased out of a river by a charging hippo and thinks Christmas was meant to be a summer holiday.

And people think I'M the exotic half of the pair.

Glenn's tales of growing up in South Africa never cease to intrigue me. Even more exotic to my mind than Glenn's explanations of strange South African regionalisms (when Anglo-South Africans say they'll do something "just now", this means "I'll get around to it when I darn well feel like it") are his recollections of South African food. South African cuisine features items such as biltong (venison jerky) and boerwors (farmer sausage) that sound to me like names of things people would fight over in a science-fiction novel ("The Alliance has captured the biltong and taken it back to Nebula 9! We're doomed!").

Glenn's childhood memories are also filled with traditional English plum puddings, a kind of cornmeal mush called mealie pap, various curries and stews, and the enticingly named monkey gland steak, which contains neither monkeys nor glands. All of these dishes reflect the vibrant and often volatile mix of African, Dutch, English, and Indian cultures that molded his homeland.

But the most baroque and intriguing of all the South African treats of his youth is the oddly named koeksister: a braided or twisted fried pastry soaked in flavored syrup until, according to Glenn, it is juicy enough to squirt syrup when you bite into it. Koeksisters are so rich that even the most ardent koeksister fanciers warn against eating more than one per sitting – and yet most traditional koeksister recipes produce several dozen of the things. Perhaps people needed all those extra calories to outrun charging hippos.

The name "koeksister" comes from the Afrikaans words for "cake" and (obviously) "sister". I suspect the "sister" part refers to the two or more strips of rich dough entwined to form a single pastry. The origins of the dish itself, though, are not clear: some sources claim they evolved from traditional Dutch doughnuts (Afrikaners are descendents of the Dutch immigrants who arrived in South Africa in the 17th century); others claim they were brought to South African by Cape Malay slaves originally from India and Indonesia. Some in the latter camp posit the koeksister to be a direct descendent of syrup-soaked Indian fritters such as jalebi and gulab jamun.

A third camp, however, splits the difference, noting the existence of two distinct koeksister variants, each favored by a different demographic: a spicy, cakey (and often coconut-coated) version favored by the Cape Malays, and a less-aggressively flavored type favored by Afrikaners.

In scouring South African cookbooks and the internet for recipes, I've found two basic types: those leavened with baking powder, and others leavened with yeast. Since the yeasted versions would have a more bread-like than cake-like consistency, I wondered if the yeasted version was the Afrikaner variant, and the baking powder version the Cape Malay one.

This theory, though, proved to be problematic: the koeksister version Glenn grew up making (from a recipe given to him by an Afrikaner family friend) was leavened with baking powder, soaked in a plain sugar syrup, and was more cookie-like than breadlike. So the origins of the yeasted version remain a mystery—at least to me.

The recipe Glenn used growing up is long gone. The recipe below – made with a biscuit-like dough and a ginger-and-lemon-infused syrup – is intended to resemble that lost recipe as closely as possible, except for the extra flavoring in the syrup. It is a hybrid of several recipes from a number of different sources. One of these recipes –from Anna Trapido's book Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela, later re-printed in The Guardian, comes with a striking story: these koeksisters were served to Mandela, shortly after his election, by the widow of apartheid architect and former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd.

One can scarcely imagine a more potentially awkward meeting – or a more appropriate way for these two individuals to break bread than over a sweet confection as twisted and complex as the events that brought them together.

Koeksisters (South African syrup-soaked fritters)

Makes about 14 5-inch pastries

Preparation note: It is notable that while there is nearly endless parametric variation in koeksister recipes -- yeasted or non-yeasted dough, braided or twisted strips, flavored or plain syrup -- virtually every recipe emphasizes the same technical point: for the proper levels of juiciness and crunchiness, koeksisters must go immediately from the deep fryer into the ice-cold syrup. You'll know you've got it right if you hear an audible sucking sound as the sizzling koeksister drinks in that icy syrup.

And this secret to koeksister success may be one of the few things most South Africans can agree on: if it doesn't suck, it's not going to be any good.

For the soaking syrup (start the day before)

3 cups granulated sugar

2 cups water

Zest of ½ a small lemon, in large pieces

3 large slices peeled fresh ginger (slices should be about the size of poker chips and about ¼ inch thick)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a heavy saucepan; boil together over medium heat for 10 minutes. When cool, transfer to a storage container and chill overnight.

For the koeksisters:

2 cups cake flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

½ cup milk

neutral oil (such as canola) for deep frying

1. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

2. Rub the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of cornmeal.

3. Add the milk and mix until a smooth dough forms. Wrap dough in plastic and allow to rest for at least 2 hours.

4. Roll the dough out on a floured surface into a 5 x 14 inch rectangle with a thickness of about ¼ inch.

5. Cut the dough into strips about 5 inches long and ½ inch wide. Twist pairs of strips together, pinch the ends, and allow the koeksisters to rest, covered with a clean dishcloth, for about 15 minutes.

6. While the koeksisters are resting, heat about 2 inches of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.

7. Meanwhile, pour some of the syrup into a small container so that it's at least 3 inches deep. A small loaf pan is ideal for this. Keep the loaf pan filled with cold syrup in the refrigerator until ready to use.

8. When the oil is hot but not smoking (about 350 degrees) put in a test koeksister: cook it until it swells and is evenly golden brown.

9. When it's done, remove it from oil, allow excess oil to drip off, then plunge it immediately into the cold syrup. Keep it completely submerged in the syrup for about 10 seconds, then remove and place on a rack set over a cookie sheet so that any excess syrup can drain off.

10. Break it open: if it's cooked all the way through, the oil is at the right temperature and you can continue frying and soaking the remaining koeksisters. If the outside is browned but the inside is raw, turn down the heat.

11. Continue frying and soaking the koeksisters as directed in 8 and 9, adding more cold syrup to your soaking container as needed. Serve with coffee and conversation.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Fruit Tart of My Nightmares

Dreams of flying speak to your ambition. If you dream of ghosts, you fear death. But what does it mean if the dream that haunts you and leaves you in a tearful sweat of panic every night is about—fruit tarts?

In The Worst Dream Ever, I'm walking through a large open-air market. The market looks exactly like the touristy Farmers' Market at Third and Fairfax in Los Angeles, with one difference: instead of endless stalls featuring oranges, T-shirts, and miniature California license plates onto which you can have your name printed, the market in my dream sells nothing but pastries—beautiful, elegant, glazed little confections in every imaginable shape, each glowing with jewel-like fruit, glossy ganache, or delicate filigrees of caramel or icing. Every one of them looks and smells more fantastic and fragrant and mouth-watering than the last, and I long for them all.

But since this is The Worst Dream Ever, I'm running through that market empty-handed in a crazed frenzy of panic and indecision: I have no idea which treat to choose, but I know there is some horrible, unspoken penalty for choosing badly. The clock is running down— for some mysterious reason, I only have a few minutes in that market and have to leave almost as soon as I arrive—and I'm paralyzed by self-doubt. Or stupidity. Or something. And in The Worst Dream Ever, I always have to leave that marvelous world of sweets without tasting anything.

Among the treats that tempt me the most in The Worst Dream Ever are glossy tartlets filled with custard and topped with glistening mosaics of glazed fresh fruit. These tarts have haunted my waking dreams since forever. In grade school, I thought they represented culinary alchemy: they looked amazing—and yet they were covered with fruit. Fruit! Back then, that word automatically brought to mind abstemious little boxes of raisins or slices of apple that adults tried to pass off as dessert if there was no ice cream left. But those tarts magically turned oh-so-good-for-you fruit into something worthy of an extended nagging campaign.

But in my waking life, just as in my dream, the magic of those fruit tarts remained out of reach.

"They look better than they taste," my parents warned me whenever I begged for one. And on the rare occasions they indulged me, I had to admit they were right: they almost all had tough crusts, lumpy or runny filling, and sour, hard fruit. My early attempts to make them myself weren't much more successful.

Only when I got to cooking school many years later did I figure out how to make fruit tarts taste as good as they look. There are a few secrets:

Perfect fruit tarts require perfect fruit. Since the fruit on classic fruit tarts isn't cooked and is a huge part of the final taste profile, it must not only look great, but taste great on its own. If it's not sweet and ripe enough to eat straight off the tree (or more realistically, straight out of the fridge), it doesn't belong on a fruit tart.

Pastry cream is your friend. Pastry cream, which forms the creamy filling of the tarts I learned in cooking school, is a thick, flavorful, and eminently well-behaved custard stabilized with flour or cornstarch. It's the only classic French custard that can (and must) be boiled. Because it's meant by design to withstand high cooking temperatures, as long as you stir it constantly while you cook it and don't do anything too crazy, it's unlikely to separate or curdle or otherwise disappoint you the way more fragile custards can. I can't remember what I was putting in my fruit tarts before I learned about pastry cream, but whatever it was, I'm not going back.

Chocolate! Just about every fruit tart recipe warns you to serve the darn things immediately after assembling them or face the wrath of God (and your guests). This is because the moment the custard filling hits the crust, the previously crispy crust starts to moisten and toughen, and the moment the fruit touches the custard, it starts to release its juices and shrivel up while simultaneously making the custard runny. Yum.

This could be why the tarts I ate as a child were such a disappointment: they were probably fine when first assembled early in the morning, but by the time I got my greedy little paws on them just before dinnertime, they were well past their prime.

There are a few sneaky tricks, however, to extending the fleeting lifespan of fruit tarts. If you choose self-contained fruits such as blueberries, the sagging/leaking fruit problem (temporarily) goes away. In cooking school, I learned a particularly lovely trick for avoiding soggy crusts: line the cooked tart shells with a thin layer of melted semisweet chocolate and allow it to harden before addding the pastry cream. The chocolate forms a protective barrier against the moisture of the filling. Problem solved—and the addition of chocolate makes the tart of my dreams—at its Platonic ideal, a luscious combination of buttery pastry, creamy custard, and sweet/tangy summer fruit—even better.

I haven't had the Worst Dream Ever in years. But now I know that at least one of the elusive sweets in that dream will always be in reach, for the price of some good seasonal fruit and a little elbow grease. It comforts me to think these two facts are directly related.

And I never did figure out what that dream was supposed to mean.


The Fruit Tart of My Nightmares (adapted from Professional Baking (second edition), by Wayne Gisslen)

Preparation notes: This recipe is not nearly as complicated as the following writeup suggests: the filling and dough for the tart shells can be done ahead of time, and the end results will be well worth the trouble. Leftover tarts may not be quite so ethereal the morning after, but they still make a killer summer breakfast.

Tart shells (makes enough dough for 2 12-inch tarts or about 12 4-inch tartlets)

3 cups cake flour

1-1/2 tsp. salt

1-1/2 tsp. sugar

6 oz (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, chlled

2 eggs

4 tsp. water

¼ tsp. vanilla

1-1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

1/3 c. semisweet chocolate chips

1. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl.

2. Cut the butter into small cubes, add to the flour, and rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until the mixture forms lumps the size of small peas.

3. Combine the remaining ingredients in another bowl, then add them to the flour and butter mixture.

4. Toss the mixture lightly until just combined. Pour the mixture onto a floured surface and knead lightly until everything is uniformly combined. Do not overwork.

5. Shape the dough into a flat rectangle, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least half an hour before shaping.

6. When the dough is chilled, divide it into portions to line your tart molds: each portion should be enough to form an even ¼-inch layer on the bottom and sides of each mold; exact amounts will depend on the size of the molds. Roll out each portion to fit the mold; press firmly onto the bottom and sides of each mold. Put the dough-lined molds in the freezer to harden for at least half an hour before baking.

7. Place the now-frozen tart shells in their molds on a baking sheet; prick the tart shells several times with a fork, and bake in a preheated 400 degree oven until lightly browned.

8. Line the baked shells with chocolate. Lazy way: When the shells come out of the oven, immediately put into each enough chocolate chips to cover just under 2/3 of the bottom of each shell. When the chocolate has softened (about 3 minutes), spread it over the bottom and halfway up the sides of the shells with a small offset spatula. Fancy way: Wait until the shells have cooled completely. Then, melt the chocolate gently over a water bath; once the chocolate has completely melted, use a small offset spatula to spread into each shell just enough of the chocolate to coat the bottom and lower part of the sides completely. In either case, make sure the chocolate has completely cooled and hardened before adding the filling.

In principle, the lazy method runs the risk of trapping steam in the shells, causing them to toughen. But the tart shells I've made this way have still turned out pleasantly flaky.

Pastry cream (makes enough for 2 12-inch tarts or a dozen 4-inch tarts)

2 cups milk

½ vanilla bean OR

1 tsp. vanilla extract

4 tbsp. sugar, divided

5 egg yolks

3 tbsp. corn starch

1 tbsp. unsweetened butter

1. Put the milk and half the sugar into a small saucepan. Scrape the insides of the vanilla bean (if using) into the milk; add the scraped bean to the milk as well. Cook over medium heat until it steams.

2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, remaining sugar, cornstarch, and vanilla extract (if using).

3. When milk is hot, pour a about ¼ cup into the egg mixture and whisk until combined. Gradually add the rest of the milk while whisking continuously.

4. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and return to heat. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking continuously, until the mixture is thick and starts to bubble. Be mindful to hit the corners of the saucepan consistently when whisking; the mixture will start to thicken and cook there first.

5. When the mixture is thick enough that the tracks of a whisk pulled through it stay in place, take it off the heat and pour it into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and whisk until the butter is fully melted and incorporated.

6. Put the mixing bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice cubes and continue whisking until the mixture is cool. Store the finished pastry cream in a covered container until you're ready to assemble the tarts.


Amounts vary depending on the size of the tart or tarts you are making, your choice of fruit, and how generously you want to decorate your tart.. Do not use any fruit that browns easily when cut (such as apples or pears), nor any that release huge amounts of juice when cut (such as oranges), nor those not sweet enough to be eaten alone (such as cranberries). Good choices include blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, pineapple, and kiwis.


½ c. apricot jam

6 tbsp. water

Combine the jam and water in a small saucepan; whisk together over low heat until combined. Pass mixture through a strainer. Return the glaze to the saucepan and keep over low heat until ready to use.


1. Using a pastry bag or a spoon, fill each tart shell with an even layer of pastry cream.

2. Now the fun part: top the pastry cream with cut fruit or whole small berries in any decorative pattern you wish.

3. Gently dab warm glaze over the fruit with a clean pastry brush.

4. Enjoy the tarts, and serious bragging rights, as soon after assembly as possible. If not serving the tarts immediately, store them covered in the refrigerator.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cooking in Lyon: The Secret of the Secret Sauce

This is a story about French home cooking, and a dish that won't be found in any cookbook.

The story unfolded during my after-college stint as an au pair in charge of four kids in suburban Lyon. One of my responsibilities was cooking dinner for the kids, who ate at seven o'clock, just before their seven-thirty bedtime. Madame Pontal, the matriarch of the brood, promised she'd show me everything.

The potential coolness of this proposition cannot be exaggerated: Paris may be where Americans went for their food pilgrimages, but Lyon, France's second-largest city, was where Parisians went for their culinary splurges. The Saturday morning bullet train from Paris to Lyon was nicknamed the Bocuse Express for its population of hungry riders headed to lunch at Paul Bocuse's legendary restaurant just outside Lyon. Several equally brilliant stars in the culinary firmament also shone from Lyon's suburbs. To add to this embarrassment of riches, the city was also famed for the robust regional cuisine of its informal bistros, mostly run by women.

And here I was in Lyon, soon to learn real French home cooking from a genuine Lyonnaise mère de la famille!

"Tonight, the children are having pâtes," Madame Pontal announced one evening. "This will be very simple. Just cheese and sauce."

I knew pâtes meant "pasta", and I couldn't wait to see what kind of simple, yet rich and flavorful preparation she would teach me. What would be in the sauce? Butter? Shallots? Herbs? A touch of rustic local wine quickly cooked off to a child-safe hint of terroir?

She threw a few handfuls of dry spaghetti into a pot of boiling water as the children scrambled into the kitchen. "Pâtes!" one of them yelled with glee at the sight of the boiling spaghetti. Now I was getting hungry too.

It was now five to seven. Madame Pontal's pasta sauce must be crazy simple, since she hadn't pulled any other ingredients from the refrigerator yet. Maybe it was just pasta with butter and cheese tossed in just before serving. But she distinctly said there would be sauce. Does melted butter count as a sauce in France? My curiosity was killing me.

The younger children wiggled into their seats at the kitchen table while the nine-year-old eldest daughter rooted around in the kitchen drawers and refrigerator. Aha! She must know what's in the sauce! And this secret pasta must be one of those primal gateway dishes, like Toll House cookies in the States, that first draws young cooks into the kitchen.

Madame Pontal drained the spaghetti and put it in a serving bowl. I carried it to the table. And then I saw what the eldest daughter had pulled out for the pasta.

A tube of tomato paste. A hunk of processed Gruyere. And a cheese grater.

God help me.

The children gleefully squirted earthworm-like wiggles of cold tomato paste onto their spaghetti, topped it with waxy shreds of supermarket cheese, and dug in.

"There's still some left; are you hungry?" Madame Pontal asked me.

I thanked her and said I'd fix something for myself later, after the children were in bed.


And for your dining pleasure, here is the second-most-appalling pasta preparation in human history, courtesy of the otherwise sane and reasonable (and utterly charming) Japanese YouTube cooking channel "Cooking with Dog". It is, as the video explains, a "unique Japanese" take on spaghetti, featuring a sauce of ham, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms—and ketchup. Don't hit me.

What this has in common with pâtes façon Pontal is that it is a perverted take on Italian cuisine by people who ought to know better: both French and Japanese cuisines are famed for their delicacy, sophistication, and profound respect for tradition—all of which mysteriously fly out the window when dishes of foreign origin are concerned.

This weird spaghetti "Napolitan" differs from its French relative, however, in that it's actually kind of tasty. Yes, I've tried it. Twice. I couldn't help it. It's the Sanjaya Malakar of pasta recipes: a jaw-dropping train wreck of a dish so strange and shameless you can't help marveling at the very fact of its existence.

My only "improvement" on the dish was due to cheapness and sloth: I was not about to make a special investment in loin ham (whatever that is) just for the sake of this recipe, so I used a few pieces of classic Southern country ham—a.k.a. redneck prosciutto—that I had in the freezer. So my version was probably less sweet, and more smoky and tangy than the original, with a certain trailer-park cachet the original "Japanese" version lacked.

I can't believe I'm writing this.

Napolitan (Japanese-style tomato ketchup spaghetti)

Adapted from Cooking with Dog

Serves 2


150 g. (5.29 oz.) spaghetti

1.5 liters (6.3 cups) water

2 tsp. salt

½ medium onion, cut lengthwise into 1/3" slices

1 clove garlic, minced

4 slices pork loin ham, cut into 1/3" slices

5 button mushrooms, sliced 1/4" thick

1 bell pepper, seeded and sliced into 1/8" strips*

2 tbsp. olive oil

3 tbsp. tomato ketchup

3 tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

½ tbsp. butter

chopped parsley for garnish (optional)


1. Put water and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil for the spaghetti.

2. While the water is heating, heat olive oil in a deep saute pan over medium high heat. When hot, add onions and cook until they start to brown.

3. Add garlic to the saute pan and cook until it releases its aroma.

4. Add ham and mushrooms to the onions and garlic and cook until lightly colored.

5. Add the bell peppers to the mixture and stir to combine.

6. Add the ketchup and 3 tbsp. boiling water (from the pasta pot) and stir to combine.

7. Set sauce aside. Add spaghetti to the boiling water and cook until done to your liking.

8. Reheat sauce and add the spaghetti, butter, and 2 tbsp. parmesan. Stir to combine.

9. Garnish with parsley if desired. Serve with additional parmesan cheese for topping.

*Note: The original recipe called for two bell peppers, but the Japanese bell peppers used in the video are significantly smaller than those found in the US.