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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

My Worst Job (and Best Pork Chops) Ever

I once had the worst job ever, and all I got from it was a secret for great pork chops.

I was just out of college, and working as an au pair for a family living near Lyon, France’s second-largest city. I was a hard-core Francophile, and this gig seemed like a dream come true.

In retrospect, there were clues the size of Humvees that something was very, very wrong with that family, but I was too starry-eyed to notice.

“The family has three children,” read the typed letter the Paris-based au pair agency sent me along with my contract. “A a nine-year girl, and six-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. A baby is expected on August 1.”

Wait – August 1? Isn’t that the day I’m supposed to start working for them?

Yup. And when I got there (the baby beat me by a couple of days), I discovered the new arrival was the least of my worries.

Maman, as she had informed me in an introductory letter written in creepily impeccable penmanship, did all the laundry herself. At first, I wondered why she bothered mentioning such a trivial detail. When I got to Lyon, I realized why: Maman didn't just do laundry. She did laundry the way Kobayashi does hot dogs. She ironed every single sock and piece of underwear her family wore, and engaged the housekeeper (who came in every day) in endless debate about the proper technique for folding fitted sheets so that they lay perfectly flat in storage.

Meanwhile, the children were screaming for her attention, literally and figuratively. Six-year-old Lisette demanded that all her drinks be fed to her in a baby bottle. Her twin brother Remy reverted to bed-wetting. Celine, their gentle and intelligent older sister, burst into tears at the tiniest provocation – an undone ponytail, the wrong kind of cereal at breakfast. And the first new French expressions I learned in that household were “But he did it on purpose!” and “You’re mean! I’m telling Mom!”

Oh yes, the twins had also just been diagnosted with dyslexia; could I also spend some time helping them with their lessons after school? After all, who could be better qualified to treat a pair of emotionally traumatized French children with a learning disability than a self-absorbed twenty-two year old party animal with French as a third language?

Back in the States, I was considered a master babysitter. Kids liked me, and I liked them. Ditto their parents. This was in part because I could understand everything they were saying. But in Lyon, everything I needed to communicate to my charges seemed to require vocabulary I didn't have--why hadn't I learned the word for "head lice" in any of my French literature classes?

My credibility with the kids was sinking fast, with no bottom in sight.

And my popularity with Maman (who, family friends confided in whispers, was "very fragile") was also tanking.

“I’m not at all pleased at how you’ve done this," she barked one morning after I'd spent half an hour cleaning the twins' room. "Look at the shoes on the floor!--" (said shoes were lined up neatly along the edges of the beds) "-- Nothing should ever be on the floor. I want the housekeeper to be able to just run the vacuum under the beds every day. And the beds! Look how loose those covers are! It’s not sanitary. You need to change the sheets every day. And make sure the new ones are good and tight, with no wrinkles. Otherwise, how are the children supposed to sleep?

There was no pleasing anyone in this family. So I retreated to the one place where I still felt competent: the kitchen. One of my responsibilities was making dinner for the children every night, and my dinners impressed even Maman. One day, I devised a cauliflower souflle that puffed like a blimp in their cranky old gas oven. Another time, I made Vietnamese-style egg rolls. They turned out a bit wonky, but what child doesn’t love deep-fried objects with a sweet dipping sauce? Friends and relatives drifted in and out and showed me a number of interesting and simple French dishes, which I tweaked and experimented with in my daydreams.

Now there were two women in the house passionately devoted in some aspect of household maintenance while studiously avoiding the very people we were doing all this for.

This was an untenable situation and we all knew it. We agreed that I’d leave at the end of the month. This would give me time to find a job in Paris, where my favorite cousin was studying music and had an apartment she could share. But I ended up leaving much earlier than that.

One Sunday afternoon—Sundays being my day off—I came back from an errand to find that the children had dragged the mattresses off their beds and down two flights of stairs to build a fort in the front entryway. This was another thing that drove me nuts: I was in charge of tidying the children's rooms because Maman and Papa both felt the children were too young to make their own beds – but they were quite capable of pulling stunts like this almost every freaking day.

It’s Sunday, I told myself. I’ll deal with this later. I stepped around the mattresses and went up to my room in the attic.

A few minutes later, I heard hysterical screaming downstairs. Not the usual parental yelling like my mom used to do. It was a weird, primal, and manic wail, like the cry of a wounded animal on meth, and somewhere in there my name was being repeated over and over.

I heard footsteps on the stairs leading up to my room, and Papa was at the door, looking panicked and apologetic.

“You need to leave for Paris tonight. I’ve already paid for your ticket.”

“What? Why?”

He looked over his shoulder. “She’s very fragile right now. And you really should have brought those mattresses back upstairs.”

I left gladly. And I brought their pork chop secret with me. It’s one of the only things about that job that I remember with fondness.


My French family’s pork chops are unusual but dead simple: dredge your pork chops in sugar and pan-fry them. The sugar caramelizes and adds a lovely burnished color and bittersweet flavor to the chops.

I think I learned this preparation from the children’s eminently sensible paternal grandmother, but I can’t be sure. All I know is that it’s the only thing that family did regularly that was simple, agreeable, and actually worked the way it was supposed to.

Quick Caramelized Pork Chops


Pork chops (about 3/4 inch thick), any number

Sugar for dredging the pork chops (amount will vary)

Neutral cooking oil, such as canola, for frying (amount will vary)

Salt and pepper to taste.

1. Put some sugar in a pie tin. Dredge the pork chops in the sugar, so they’re completely coated.

2. Put a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the pan is heated, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet.

3. Saute the pork chops, allowing about 3-5 minutes per side for chops of 3/4-inch thickness. If the sugar starts to brown before the chops are cooked through, turn down the heat. Avoid moving the chops around too much as they cook.

4. Remove cooked chops from the pan, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately. Bon appétit!

Note: The caramelized sugar has an annoying tendency to stick to the cooking pan. If this happens, fill the pan with about an inch of water and allow it to simmer gently while you eat your pork chops. By time you’re done with your meal, the sugar will have dissolved.

Monday, August 2, 2010

East Meets West: A Pan-Asian Take on “Coffee Cake”

My gateway booze in college wasn’t Bud, but Kahlua. By sophomore year, coffee was running through my veins and needed to be replenished at a rate of seven cups a day. By senior year, I was running with a fast crew of night owls who’d put on a pot to brew at midnight. We liked to tell ourselves we were studying.

Since then, I’ve gotten my habit under control and straightened out my life, but I still have a huge soft spot for coffee-flavored sweets. But for all its popularity, coffee isn’t exploited as a flavoring as much as one would think. Apart from some really nice espresso-white chocolate biscotti I tasted recently, I haven’t found too many other coffee-flavored treats apart from the usual range of ice creams, hard candies, and old-school French pastry fillings.

At least, not in the U.S. In Canada, the Coffee Crisp—flaky wafers sandwiched with a sugary coffee-flavored filling and coated with chocolate—can almost be considered the national candy bar. When I living there, I also saw coffee-flavored chewing gum, a notion that goes too far even for me: doesn’t one chew gum to get rid of coffee breath?

But some of the most unusual and tasty coffee-flavored confections come from Japan, a country not known for its coffee-drinking habits. Coffee jelly – essentially sweet black coffee set with gelatin – is a case in point. It’s is one of those amazingly simple, yet out-of-left field concoctions that make one think, “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!.”

Since good ideas tend to spread, variants of this treat have migrated to other traditionally coffee-free regions of Asia, and even to Asian enclaves in the US. My favorite coffee jelly variant came from a Hong Kong-style dim sum restaurant in southern California, where it was misleadingly labeled “layered coffee cake” on the menu: it consisted of layered coffee and coconut-flavored gelatin cut into pretty striped cubes. It was cool and smooth, firm but melting, and the coconut added creaminess and flavor.

I must have scarfed down three or four of those pretty little striped cubes during that dim sum brunch, and I’ve been promising to re-create that “coffee cake” ever since. My version pays tribute to Vietnamese-style coffee (strong, fresh French roast swirled with sweetened condensed milk), and features layers of coffee- and condensed-milk-based jelly. (It’s worth noting that in parts of Asia, sweetened condensed milk isn’t seen as just a utilitarian mystery ingredient, but as a condiment in its own right – and deservedly so.)

At dim sum meals, sweet and savory items are traditionally served together, and diners can choose to eat the available offerings in any order they please. But the coffee jelly also works nicely as a light stand-alone dessert, garnished with a touch of chocolate sauce.

Of course, this garnish isn’t traditionally Chinese – but neither is the jelly itself.

Coffee and Cream Jelly

For the coffee jelly:

¼ cup sugar

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

2 cups fresh hot coffee (use decaf if serving to children or those sensitive to caffeine)

½ cup cold water

½ cup boiling water

1. Pour the cold water into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and stir to combine. Break up any clumps of gelatin and ensure that all of the gelatin is moistened.

2. Pour the boiling water over the moistened gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

3. Add the hot coffee and sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set mixture aside (do not refrigerate; you want the gelatin to remain liquid).

For the condensed-milk jelly:

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (NOT evaporated milk)

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

½ cup cold water

½ cup boiling water

Optional garnish:

chocolate sauce as desired

1. Pour the cold water into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and stir to combine. Break up any clumps of gelatin and ensure that all of the gelatin is moistened.

2. Pour the boiling water over the moistened gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

3. Stir in the condensed milk. Set mixture aside (again, it needs to remain liquid, so don’t refrigerate it).


1. Pour 1 cup of the coffee jelly mixture into a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan. Refrigerate until the jelly has partially set: it should be solid, but still sticky when touched. (This is the only remotely tricky thing about this recipe: If the layer is fully set, the next layer won’t stick to it and the layers will slide apart when the jelly is un-molded or sliced. If the layer is not sufficiently set, it will collapse when the next layer of jelly is added, messing up that neat geometric effect you’re going for.)

2. When the coffee layer is set but sticky, carefully pour 1 cup of the condensed milk jelly on top of it.

3. When the condensed milk layer is set but sticky (it sets faster than the coffee layers), pour 1 cup of the coffee jelly over it to form the next coffee layer.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 to form the fourth and fifth layers.

5. When the top layer is set, the jelly is ready. To un-mold, sit the pan in a container of hot water for about 30 seconds. Remove, and run a knife along the edges to loosen the jelly. Invert the mold over a cutting board.

6. Cut the jelly into blocks or slices as desired. For best results, dip the knife you use in hot water and wipe it clean between cuts.

7. Plate and garnish with chocolate sauce, if desired.