Grocery shopping is, at once, one of my favorite activities of all time and a total pain in my ass.
On a free and uncrowded early Saturday morning, with the promise of a full day of cooking ahead…I love the grocery store, I love everyone in it, each charming item on the shelf, each employee and fellow patron. In fact, on mornings like those, I pretty much love everyone and everything everywhere.
But when I’m rushing home post-gym, sweaty and with a million things on my to-do list, only to realize that I’m missing an ingredient in the cookies I agreed to bake for a work party the next day, and then the self-checkout machine freaks out because it thinks I haven’t properly scanned an item, and there’s nary a blue-shirted employee in sight to assist me…well, let’s just say that my mood turns just as sour as it was kite-flying in the previous scenario.
There are times, though, when someone or something pushes me out of my “I am so busy and important” annoyance mode and forces me to relax, interact, connect, even grin. On the day I was buying ingredients for this salad, the man behind the seafood counter took my order for picked claw meat, then winked at me and said, “I haven’t seen you around here for a while. How you been?”
My default was to resist his attempt to engage—I’m in a hurry, I’ve got to get to the check-out, I’ve got to get home, I’ve got to—but his openness and unhurriedness disarmed me, and so we started to chat. Nothing monumental, just polite conversation with good feeling behind it. He asked me what I was making—I described the salad for him. “Oh, a real cook! Well, then—“ and he ducked into the back to grab the freshest meat for me.
I still think of this and other “close encounters of the grocery store kind,” not as profound moments that evidence my own awesomeness, but as reminders that if I pull my head out of my ass every once in a while, it feels pretty good.
slightly adapted from this recipe
As my friend the seafood man says, “Most people think they should buy that jumbo lump stuff because it’s so expensive. But the flavor’s in the claw.” He’s right, and this salad is a light, delicious summery thing—perfect as a lunch or a first course.
for the salad:
½ to ¾ of a head of Napa cabbage, sliced
14 oz. crab claw meat
1 avocado, sliced
½ cup of matchstick-cut carrots
½ cup sliced cucumbers
½ cup each of fresh mint, basil, cilantro, roughly chopped
optional: toasted sesame seeds (for garnish)
In a large bowl, toss together all ingredients except crab. Portion the salad out into individual bowls, then top each bowl with a generous serving of crab meat. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired. Drizzle with dressing and serve immediately.
for the dressing:
½ cup rice wine vinegar
2 T sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Serrano pepper, minced
Bring the vinegar & sugar to a boil in a small saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, then stir in garlic & pepper.
People often assume I don’t eat meat.
Lots of Indian folks don’t, of course, and given that I am rather brown and wear a bindi on my forehead every day, it reflects more cultural sensitivity than insensitivity when people say “You’re a vegetarian, right?”
Wrong. Anyone who’s ever read this blog or gone out to dinner with me knows that I love to eat pretty much everything, and that I live with an unabashed meat eater. There are, however, a lot of vegetarians in my life, including my mom and some of my closest friends. It’s always funny (albeit a little annoying) to go out to eat with these folks, only to have the server inevitably plunk the vegetarian dish down in front of me. I do so enjoy contradicting assumptions.
Enter tofu. It suffers from far more false assumptions than I; people assume that it’s bland, mushy, and utterly unappetizing. On the contrary—when prepared well, tofu can be delicious. Does it taste like meat? No, but I don’t think that’s the point. Eating vegetarian shouldn’t be about compensating for missing meat, but enjoying a complete meal without it.
TOFU WITH SOBA NOODLES
The method here is what’s important—pressing the water out of the tofu before marinating it before cooking it over high heat. Play around with the marinade and feel free to substitute different vegetables like bok choy.
Soba noodles are an obsession of mine. I love how quickly they cook and how hearty they are; they stand up well to the peanut sauce I’ve included here. You could easily swap in some brown rice, though, if that’s what you’ve got in the pantry or if it’s simply what you prefer.
1 package extra-firm tofu
1 package soba (buckwheat) noodles
1 head broccoli, crowns cut off stem
3-4 carrots, peeled & sliced into fat diagonal pieces
To prepare the tofu, first drain it from its packaging. Slice lengthwise into 6 slabs. Arrange the tofu atop a layer of paper towels, supporting underneath by a kitchen towel. Lay more paper towels on top of the tofu, followed by another kitchen towel. Press firmly to force water out of the tofu.
Pour the following marinade into a shallow baking pan. Lay the tofu slices in the pan to absorb the marinade for at least 20 minutes, flipping them over halfway through.
for the marinade:
½ cup soy sauce
2 T sesame oil
2 T fresh ginger, peeled & chopped
2 T garlic, chopped
splash of Mirin or rice wine vinegar
To cook the tofu, bring a grill pan or nonstick skillet to high heat. Coat with a bit of vegetable oil, then remove the tofu from its marinade and cook it until it colors, about 7-8 minutes on each side.
While the tofu is cooking, bring a small pot of water to a boil and cook the soba noodles, which take only 2-3 minutes. Drain, then rinse with cold water. Steam or sauté the vegetables, then add to the noodles.
Serve the hot tofu on a bed of soba noodles & vegetables, topping with peanut sauce if desired.
for the peanut sauce:
1 cup chunky peanut butter
½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup brown sugar
1 T minced garlic
1 T minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. Sambal Olek chili paste or chili flakes
juice of 1 lemon
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, breaking up the peanut butter with the back of a spoon until it forms a sauce. Thin with water to desired consistency. Taste check & add soy sauce for salt/chili paste for heat, if necessary.
In April, I read the New York Times review of Red, a new two-man play about the artist Mark Rothko, with whom I have long been obsessed. “I want to see that,” I said—and, so, I bought myself a plane and theater ticket for June. Last Sunday afternoon, I sat in the very front row of The Golden Theatre, so close I could have spat on Alfred Molina, and watched their incredible performances just hours before Red won a Tony Award for Best Play. Such is the magic of New York.
There’s the magic of half-a-day spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which I’ve loved since I read this book), followed by the best apple streudel I’ve ever had at the glamorous Café Sabarsky inside the Neue Gallerie.
Followed by some wandering around Chelsea Market (by “wandering,” I of course mean “dropping cash on kitchen goods”) and dinner with friends.
There was a magical tour of the cheese caves below Murray’s on Bleecker Street–an incredible experience. So incredible that it deserves its own post, coming next week.
I also had a chance to visit my friend Betsy at her beautiful bakery, Ninecakes, in Red Hook. She makes the most incredible cakes—when I was there, she was working on a fresh strawberry cake & nine dozen cupcakes for a wedding upstate!—but doesn’t use any fondant, instead coating her cakes in the lightest but still decadent, creatively flavored butter creams. Not to mention, she’s an incredibly kind and generous human being and as I can now attest personally to the deliciousness of her cake, I am thrilled but not surprised by her success.
Museums are magical to me—the handcrafted bicycle exhibit at The Museum of Arts & Design blew me away, as did the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art, as did pretty much everything at MoMa, especially the Rothkos I visited the morning before seeing Red. I also went to the Tenement Museum for the first time at the suggestion of a friend and would highly recommend a tour there—they also, as it turns out, have one of the best (if cramped!) gift shops in the city.
There was magical eating, too, naturally! Seriously good fried chicken at Sidecar in Brooklyn, pork buns at Momufuku Ssam bar, Italian at Paprika, chocolate chip cookies at City Bakery, and an amazing end-of-trip meal at Aldea, during which I put away my camera & phone and simply enjoyed. Since I was sitting at the chef’s table, with a direct view into the kitchen, and since the food was phenomenal, that wasn’t at all hard.
Of course, so much of the magic of any trip comes inside unplanned moments: cheering on Team USA, stopping to write postcards, discovering a fantastic bar, winding up on a rooftop in the East Village late one Saturday night.
Thank you for letting me indulge my fondness for this trip—I know it’s a departure from my usual post type, but I hope ya’ll don’t mind. Back to your regularly scheduled recipe posts in a few days.
We joke about it a lot, just how different Jill and I are on paper.
There’s the age difference (19 scandalous years), the skin color difference (she’s white, I’m brown), the religious difference (she was raised Pentecostal, I was raised Hindu), and too many personality differences to count. But rarely do these differences occur to us as stumbling blocks; in fact, they rarely occur to us at all.
We forget our age difference—“Oh wait, you wouldn’t remember that, you were three in 1985,”—and I have, more than once, asked Jill to borrow her concealer, only to realize that “pale beige” isn’t really going to work for me.
Truth be told, the biggest difference between us, or at least the one that occurs like the biggest, is the class difference. Jill was raised in a solid, blue-collar family in Shreveport, Louisiana; I was raised in a decidedly white-collar suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. We may both be Southern women, but the ways of life to which we grew up accustomed are very different.
Jill grew up gardening, hunting, pickling, and canning—that’s how her family got their food. And though her parents, through their frugality and hard work, could easily now afford not to do any of that anymore, they still do. Because it was never just a strategy, it was (and remains) a way of life.
Of course, this way of life has recently become trendy. More and more people are starting to see the value of growing their own food, or at least knowing where it’s grown. Food writers like Michael Pollan and Hank Shaw are helping to remove some of the ignorant stigma against those who have the courage to kill their own dinners. And pickling and canning have seen a real resurgence in the last few years, one which I suspect will only grow.
Last month, in May, I was asked to participate in an incredible grassroots event here in Houston, Outstanding In My Backyard (OIMBY). The event featured local chefs and home cooks using local ingredients to create a literal backyard feast. We raised over $5000 for the Houston Food Bank and hope to double that number when cookbooks featuring recipes from the event go on sale later this summer.
It seemed only appropriate for an event like OIMBY that I cook a dish that has always been Jill’s signature—deviled eggs—using the okra that her parents grew, and that she pickled & canned. For Jill’s family, this “new” emphasis on local, fresh, and organic isn’t new at all, it’s the way they’ve lived for generations.
serves 6-8 as an appetizer
2 dozen farm-fresh eggs, hard-boiled
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 dozen pickled okra spears, roughly chopped*
2 T pickling juice from the okra
smoked paprika (optional)
Slice the eggs lengthwise & gently turn the yolks out into a large bowl. Mash the yolks with the mayonnaise, mustard, okra, & okra juice. Stir mixture until it’s fluffy but not wet, adding more okra juice if necessary.
Spoon a rounded tablespoon of filling into each hollowed-out egg white half, mounding it up as high as you like. Continue until all of the eggs have been filled; garnish each egg with a generous sprinkling of paprika.
*Substitute cucumber pickles. Note: I prefer the texture of hand-chopped pickles to that of pre-made pickle relish.
I’ll take the brutal South Texas heat if it means that I get to buy a flat of these every weekend at the Farmers Market:
The smell of ripe peaches, the fuzz of their skin, the feel of peach juice running down my arm—all scream “summer” to my senses. Peaches arrived a few weeks ago down here, just a few weeks shy of strawberries, bringing with them black & blue berries, soon to be followed by garden-ripe tomatoes and sweet, sweet corn.
Yesterday I watched my eighth graders graduate from middle school; I called their names as they walked across the stage to accept their certificates of achievement, and I got all teary as they and their parents came up in the reception to say goodbye.
While the advent of summer vacation is thrilling (and almost feels like cheating as I sheepishly silence my celebrations in the presence of friends who work, you know, all year round), I know I’m going to miss my kids. In fact, I already do.
I had the pleasure of teaching these students twice—in their sixth grade AND their eighth grade year–and they have become part of my daily life, their mood swings, our inside jokes, and a whole bunch of good conversation. I have witnessed them coming into themselves, becoming these funny, brave, uncertain, kind, perceptive, and hard-working people before my very eyes.
Teenagers don’t get very good publicity, and I know that parenting one is different from teaching sixty-five, but I’m here to tell you; the kids are alright. They are better than alright, in fact, they are awesome.
That being said, I’m still pretty psyched about summer. I’ll miss those punks, but at least I have peaches.
1 ½ cups fresh peach puree*
juice of 1 orange
juice of 2 lemons
½ cup tequila
shot of Cointreau or other orange liquor
Fill your blender with ice, pour in the remaining ingredients. Blend until frothy, serve.
* Peel 3-4 ripe peaches. Remove the pits & slice, then process in the blender until smooth, adding a wee bit of water if necessary. Strain if you’re feeling fussy.
Gingersnap crust, marscapone filling–need I say more? A favorite make-ahead dessert from last summer.
4-5 ripe peaches
½ cup water
¾ cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup sour cream
½ tsp. vanilla
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Cook peaches, water, & sugar in a saucepan on medium heat, stirring occasionally until soft–about 10 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool before processing it in the blender with the rest of the ingredients–I like to leave a few chunks of peaches for texture’s sake.
Chill the mixture in the refrigerator before churning in your ice cream maker. Like most homemade ice cream, this one is best served fresh. If you store it in your freezer for more than an hour or two, it will need significant time at room temperature to thaw to a scoop-able state.
Of course, if Dolly is any indication, it won’t be hard for you to finish the batch straightaway.