About Me

I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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salmon with black lentils and dandelion cream: a culinary 'weed' rises

In my memory, I’m seven and playing in the front yard of our Portland, Oregon, home with my brother. I extend my hand, clutching a dandelion puff, and thrust it in front of his face. “Make a wish.” He closes his eyes, draws in a breath, and blows so hard that the seeds, along with his spit, spray across our lawn, already moist from the morning sprinkler and kept trim and green by our Roundup-ready father. Even drenched in herbicide, the lawn sprouts new dandelions the next summer.

Years later, I spotted dandelion at the grocery store, wedged in between the watercress and parsley. I eyed the bundle of spiny leaves for some time, thinking back to those Roundup summers. Clearly, they were meant to be eaten, which hadn't dawned on me before. They struck me as the kind of edible that might have been popular during The Great Depression, where anything sprouting from dirt that didn’t kill you would be snatched up and stirred into the nightly soup pot. Nettles, chickweed, grasshoppers, why not?

More recently, Paul and I cozied up to a bar at one of Washington D.C.’s top restaurants. I peered over the menu and spotted dandelion, offered up in a salad married to a carmelized pear. When the plate arrived, I unfolded my white linen napkin and pushed around the leaves suspiciously before spearing a few into my mouth. The astringent greens stood up brightly next to the sugary pear. It was tasty, but didn’t leave me running with garden shears to the nearest weedy park.

After creating this creamy dandelion sauce, inspired by a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe that employs watercress instead of dandelion, my mild fascination has turned to an obsession. I prefer the dandelion, in part because I can always find it organic and in part because it reminds me of those summers with my brother. Chocked with mustard seed and garlic and blended with luscious, full-fat sour cream, this sauce transforms the bitter dandelion into a flavor-packed accompaniment to salmon, steak, or just plain lentils for a vegetarian lunch.

Salmon with Black Lentils and Dandelion Cream

Salmon (for two large portions or three medium portions)
3/4 pound salmon, skin on, cut from the tail (the tail has few or no bones)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the salmon in a glass baking dish. Coat it thinly with olive oil and season both sides generously with salt and pepper. Place it skin side up in the oven for about 18 minutes or until the salmon is cooked through but still has a tinge of pink in the center.

Braised black lentils
1 cup lentils, rinsed
2-1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock*
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
1 small carrot, finely diced
1 small celery stalk, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced (if you’re in a big hurry, you can ditch the carrot, onion, and celery, and just add the garlic)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, onions, carrots, and celery and sauté about 3 – 4 minutes. Add lentils, and stir for 30 seconds, and then add the chicken stock. Season generously with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, for about 30 – 35 minutes until the lentils are soft (if they dry out, add more liquid). Taste to adjust seasoning again before serving.

*I find that the amount of liquid really varies depending on the level of heat and the diameter of the pan. I usually keep adjusting until the liquid is evaporated and the lentils are cooked through and tender but not mushy.

Dandelion cream
1-1/4 cup chopped dandelion leaves
1 heaping tablespoon of grainy mustard
1 heaping tablespoon of smooth, extra strong Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup of full fat sour cream (low fat sour cream is terrible in this recipe); add slightly more sour cream if you like a creamier sauce with fewer bitter notes)
2 garlic cloves, blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds
Salt to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon)

In a Cuisinart or blender, blitz all ingredients until creamy and smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning or mustard level if necessary.


italian braised pork spare ribs: cultivating my inner nonna

If I had an Italian grandma, I imagine that wine-braised spare ribs would be her signature recipe. Her heavy arms would command a large wooden spoon, stirring the succulent ribs as the meat falls off the bone. Her apron, smudged with tomato paste and parsley juice, would fit snugly around a plus-sized cotton dress. Her back would be ox strong from years of hand rolling fettuccine pasta into paper thin sheets. She would kiss my cheeks with anchovy breath and sneak sips of homemade limoncello in the afternoons. I would sneak sips of her sips.

And then, my adorable nonna would succumb to years of my pleading, and pass down her secret recipe to me.

Instead, I discovered this dish on the web, and relied on my inner nonna to refine and create my own version, sneaking sips of sangiovese along the way. This dish can be cooked in a Dutch oven or in a pressure cooker. I've done both, and the pressure cooker by far turns out the most tender, delicious meat. This recipe is geared toward that method.

Italian Braised Pork Spare Ribs

2.5 pounds pork spare ribs, cut into two-rib pieces
1 onion, diced
2 small carrots, diced
2 small celery stalks, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large bunch of basil, minced
3 sprigs of thyme
1-1/4 cups tomato sauce
1 cup red wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup water
Pinch of chili flakes
1 small bunch of parsley, minced (for garnish)
Salt to taste

Heat olive oil in an 8-quart pressure cooker over medium flame until hot but not smoking. Add the chili flakes and let simmer for 30 seconds. Then add the garlic and basil and simmer for for another 30 seconds to minute. Add the diced onion, carrots, and celery, and simmer until soft, about five minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients except the parsley.

Secure the lid onto the pressure cooker and increase the flame to high, bringing it to pressure until the pressure indicator pops up. Cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. Use the quick release method to release the steam from the unit. Taste for seasoning. If the sauce has too much liquid, reduce for another 10 - 15 minutes without the lid. Discard any bones that have separated from the meat. Serve on a bed or polenta or with crusty bread. Garnish with minced parsley.


Oaxacan Chicken with Caper Sauce: A piquant taste of Mexico 

During my short stint living in central Mexico in the mid-1990s, Oaxaca topped my list of places to visit. Sadly for me, a revolutionary leftist uprising just south of Oaxaca in Chiapas prompted tourists to vacate the region in droves. I was left to focus on central and northern Mexico, busing from Guadalajara to Zacatecas, slurping steaming bowls of pozole at open-air markets, instead of sampling the foods of southern Mexico. 

I was a college exchange student, kept by a host family in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in the mid-sized town of Queretaro, where I studied Spanish and the Mexican Revolution (Viva Mexico!). I ate taquitos, hand-pounded gorditas, and watermelon aquas frescas at the local markets. During that time, I never once encountered a caper. In my mind, the small, dark green berries were destined for the tuna salads of France or the puttanescas of Italy.

What I found was that the combo works in the same way that jazz piano might jibe with classical violin, producing a vibrant and cool new harmony. And roasted tomatillos provide just the melody to make the jam session work. 

Perhaps the Spanish conquistadors brought the flowering capparis spinosa to Mexico or perhaps it has always been there. Either way, I learned recently that the caper berry, salted and pickled, has a tradition in Mexican cuisine, especially in seafood dishes of Veracruz. It seems fitting that Oaxaca, the rugged home to 16 indigenous tribes with their own native tongues, would invent the aromatic, varied, and almost medicinal blend of capers, cinnamon, and cloves.

Oaxacan Chicken with Caper Sauce and Queso Fresco Polenta

12 pieces of skinless, bone-in chicken (thighs or a mix of thighs and drumsticks)
4 cloves of garlic, skins on
4 large shallots, sliced in half with skins on
1 cup capers
½ teaspoon ground cloves
10 tomatillos, peeled and washed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup of pitted green olives
2 tablespoons pickled jalapeños
1 small bunch of cilantro leaves (optional)

For the polenta (see below):
1 cup Bob's Red Mill polenta
1/4 cup (rounded) diced queso fresco
Salt to taste

Preheat the oven broiler to “high.” Line a roasting pan with foil and broil the peeled tomatillos and the skin-on garlic and shallots for eight minutes, then remove the pan and rotate the tomatillos so they get color on the bottom side and broil for four more minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let the vegetables cool. Then, skin the garlic and shallots.

In a Cuisinart with a blade attachment, add the roasted tomatillos, peeled shallots and garlic, ground cloves, cinnamon, oregano, and capers. Blend the mix until it becomes a smooth sauce.

In a large Dutch oven, heat two tablespoons of olive oil and pour in the tomatillo sauce. Let simmer for about two minutes and then nestle the pieces of chicken into the sauce (some of the meat will still be exposed but the chicken will give up a good amount of liquid after about 10 minutes). Cover the Dutch oven partially and simmer on low for 30 minutes, occasionally stirring and rotating the chicken pieces so they are fully immersed in the sauce. Add the green olives and simmer for another 10 - 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the polenta according to the package instructions, until thick and creamy, adding the queso fresco halfway through the cooking time. Spoon the polenta on the plate and top it with chicken pieces, caper sauce, jalapeños, and cilantro.


Ropa Vieja: Slow Cooking with Cuba in Mind

I fell in love with ropa vieja, a staple of Cuban cuisine, years after I took a trip to Havana. After tasting the slow-braised chicken and peppers served with sweet fried plantain back in the States, I could see how the flavors could originate in a place as culturally vibrant as Cuba.

To my surprise, during my trip, I found simpler, less remarkable fare. The tastiest thing I ate the week I traveled there as a journalist, more than 15 years ago, was served the morning after I arrived by Mercedes, a woman with shoulder length silver hair who ran a ‘casa particular’ or special house for tourists. She served a plate of peppery scrambled eggs, perfectly moist and gooey, on fine China from the Batista era. She poured orange juice from a vintage whiskey bottle and brought me a teacup filled with strong black coffee. I sat in her dim living room with heavy curtains drawn to keep the sun from overheating the home, and ate on a vinyl, spill-proof tablecloth.

I lingered over those eggs, and the heat of the hot pepper sauce mingling with the sweet orange juice on my tongue before heading out for the day, knowing that the city sites may dazzle me more than my next plate of food. I wondered if the lack of culinary highlights had to do with the economic embargo, strangling its resources, or if maybe low wages held back a burgeoning cadre of chefs. Or perhaps, on my Lonely Planet budget, I just missed the good stuff.

Ropa vieja is a dish that matches the pace of the island: slow, like the sultry walks of young couples along the Malecon, Havana's sea wall, as the sun sinks into the Gulf. Preparing it, even with my speedy pressure cooker, takes several hours. It requires cooking the meat (beef or chicken), and then braising it into ropa vieja (“old clothes") in tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices for another hour. The pressure cooker method has the dual purpose of cooking an entire chicken with fall-off-the-bone meat in about 25 minutes while also producing homemade chicken stock, which enhances the ropa vieja flavor. The result is everything I imagined Cuban food would be during my trip, if only I had found the right place.

Ropa Vieja

Chicken and stock

1 large chicken (about 4 pounds)
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in a large pressure cooker. Close and lock the lid and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure. Cook for 22 minutes on high. Let the pressure release naturally for 5 minutes and then release the rest. Remove the chicken (reserving the stock at the bottom of the pot), let cool, and then remove the meat from the bones, shredding the meat as you go with your fingers.

Ropa vieja

Meat from one pressure-cooked chicken, pulled from the bones and shredded (see above)
1-1/2 cups reserved stock from the pressure-cooked chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 Cubanelle peppers, thinly sliced
3 Anaheim peppers, thinly sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons oregano
3 tablespoons paprika
1 pinch cayenne
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tsp honey
1-1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1-1/2 cups chopped Pomi (or canned) tomatoes in their juices
Stock from pressure cooker pan (about 1 – 1-1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cup whole green olives (preferably Sicilian Castelvetrano green olives)
2 tablespoons capers
1 (or more) ripe plantain or slightly green banana, split lengthwise and fried in butter until golden brown (a cast iron pan works great for this)

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until hot. Add the onions and peppers and saute until soft. Add the onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, paprika, ground cloves, and bay leaves, and stir and let simmer for two minutes. Add the chicken and tomatoes and salt and pepper. Simmer on the stove top for 40 minutes. Add the green olives, capers, sherry vinegar, and honey, and simmer for another five minutes. Serve with the fried plantains. 


Oven-baked apple cinnamon pancake with lemon zest: starting the weekend right

While Paul slumbers into mid-morning on the weekends, I'm up, sipping a strong cup of darkly roasted coffee, enjoying the breeze from an open window, and planning my day. On weekday mornings, I’m happy to pair that cup of joe with Greek yogurt and a muffin. But on these more relaxed mornings, when it's just me and the red-headed woodpecker out the window alert and awake, I want to start my day with something special and delicious.

In the past, I would have dived into the nearest sticky bun or syrupy waffle. Nowadays, I shy away from the blood sugar crashes and the lethargy that follows those sugar-laden goodies. No thank you, Cinnabon! I need energy to do my four loads of laundry, shop for the day, make lunches for the week at the office, and squeeze in 30 minutes on the stair climber machine.

For months, I experimented in creating an oven-baked apple pancake that reduced the sugar and the carb load while still satisfying my craving for something sweet. I'm enamored with the result. Consider it a cross between a Dutch baby and German apple pancake with a fraction of the sugar and flour. Baked in a cast iron pan, this airy pancake for two tastes delicious and preserves my energy to tackle the day. And it's so easy to make, I'm usually pulling it out of the oven, perfectly golden brown and ready to serve, before Paul wakes up.

Oven-baked Apple Cinnamon Pancake with Lemon Zest

This is gluten free in part because I love Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour (gluten issue aside). Feel free to use all purpose flour in place of gluten-free oat flour if you prefer. Both versions are great!

2 tsp lemon zest
2 eggs
3 TB milk
1 TB Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour*
1 TB sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp cinnamon
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2 TB butter**
Powdered sugar to sprinkle on top (optional - I usually go without to reduce the sugar but the presentation is lovely)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a well-seasoned and oiled cast iron pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the apples and stir, evenly distributing the apple slices on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top of the apples and let the apples simmer on low for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a KitchenAid with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs on high for three minutes until frothy and thick. While beater is running, add the sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla extract. Keep the beater running and add the flour and then add the milk.

Pour the batter evenly over the apple mixture until the apples are covered and the batter is poured out. Place the cast iron pan in the oven and bake for 12 minutes or until slightly golden. Remove from the oven and let sit for 3 - 5 minutes. With a small spatula or butter knife, gently lift the pancake edge all the way around the pan. The pancake should easily lift from the pan. If it sticks, it may not invert properly. Using oven-proof gloves, place a plate on top of the cast iron pan. Grab the pan's long handle and side handle, pinching the plate corners to the top of the pan. Quickly invert the plate-pan duo so the plate is on the bottom (I usually give one, quick, vigorous shake during the inversion so the cake separates quickly from the pan). The cake should fall out evenly onto the plate. (If it sticks, it may mean your pan was too dry. If using a dry cast iron pan, spray it first with cooking oil spray, then continue with melting the butter.)

*I tested other gluten-free flours and they did not work with this recipe, sticking to the pan and breaking apart while flipping out onto a plate. Substitute other gluten-free flours at your own risk!

**If you like the health benefits of coconut oil like I do, use half coconut oil, half butter. Do not use 100 percent coconut oil. This causes the batter to stick to the pan and prevents the pancake from flipping out onto a plate.


Massaman chicken curry: epiphany of tannins and spice

As a red wine lover also addicted to Thai food, I’m often bummed that I can’t pair lemongrass, kaffir lime, and tamarind flavors with the earthy tannins of red wine.

When I recently spotted a Cook’s Illustrated magazine recipe for massaman curry, chocked full of mild, new world chilis, I wondered if this Thai dish could serve as an exception. I made the recipe twice. It was delicious (and paired well with red wine) but it tasted more North African than Thai as testers omitted the hard-to-find Thai ingredients of tamarind paste and lemongrass to make the recipe more accessible.

My curiosity about the traditional Thai dish, and its potential to pair with red wine, grew. A jar of WorldFoods massaman curry sauce, shipped from Amazon, offered up classically Thai flavors but was sickly sweet (sugar was the third ingredient) and thick as Thanksgiving gravy. I put a spoonful in my mouth and winced. The kitchen sink disposal ate the rest.

I combed through dozens of recipes to find out more about massaman curry. Dubbed the king of curries, it distinguishes itself with Islamic and Malay origins and offers a mellow heat with complex layers of toasted mild peppers, shallot, and garlic.

Massaman curry's smoky new world chili flavor strays significantly from spicy red, green, and panang curries while still grounding itself in the bright, classically Thai counterpoints of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and tamarind.

Once I incorporated those slightly sour, piquant ingredients back into the dish, massaman’s savory notes sang with Thai flavors. I paired it with a glass of zinfandel, and devoured it with my legs folded up on my futon, plate between my knees, relishing the flavors of Thailand. Even better: the zinfandel actually enhanced this complex curry, extending the couch time, and the bottle of wine further.

Massaman Chicken Curry with Bulgur

Most massaman chicken curry recipes add potatoes and suggest serving the dish with rice, which I avoid for reasons you can read about here. I prefer a less starchy meal so I omit the potatoes and serve it over bulgur instead, which holds up nicely to the curry flavors. Also, I strain out the fibrous (and often bitter or sour) bits of pepper skin, ginger, and lemongrass through a fine mesh strainer to produce a silky, more refined curry sauce.

Massaman Chicken Curry
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 dried birds eye Thai chiles
6 dried guajillo chiles
5 large shallots, skin on, split in half
1 head garlic, cloves separated, skins on
1 six-inch piece of lemon grass, diced
1/2 cup peeled and diced ginger
1-1/2 tsp five spice powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp pepper
1 TB tamarind concentrate
3 kaffir lime leaves or 1-1/2 TB lime juice
3 TB coconut oil
1 TB fish sauce
2 TB water
2 cups unsalted chicken stock (if using salted, reduce added salt at the end for seasoning)
1 can low-fat coconut milk (full fat coconut milk works well too but produces an oily sauce)
2 tablespoons  brown sugar
1 tsp of salt (or to taste)

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill quick cooking bulgur (follow package instructions)

1 TB cornstarch
4 TB water

¼ cup cilantro leaves
¼ cup peanuts, chopped
2 TB sesame seeds, toasted 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a cookie sheet lined with foil, toast the whole guajillo peppers for five minutes. Cool, stem, and seed the peppers. Tear them into pieces and add them to a food processor with the bird's eye chilis. Blend the chilis into a fine powder. 

Meanwhile, on the same foil-lined cookie sheet, broil the shallots and garlic cloves for about 8 minutes until blistering. Remove the pan from the oven and let the shallots and garlic cool. Once cool enough to handle, peel them and add them to the food processor along with the lemongrass, ginger, five spice powder, cumin, black pepper, tamarind concentrate, kaffir lime leaves (or lime juice), two tablespoons of the coconut oil, fish sauce, and water. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.

In a medium-sized sauce pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil and add the curry paste. Let the paste sizzle in the oil while stirring for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock and continue stirring. The texture should be like a thick soup. If too thick, add more chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and then turn off the heat. Using a fine mesh strainer and a separate bowl, strain the liquid through the mesh strainer and into the bowl, pressing the solids into the strainer to squeeze out all the liquid. It can take up to 10 minutes to whisk the solids into the strainer to produce the liquid. You should end up with about a half cup of solids, which you should discard.

Return the strained liquid to the pan and add the coconut milk, chicken, sugar, and salt. Simmer on low until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, combine cornstarch and water into a paste and stir into the sauce. Cook bulgur as instructed on the package. Serve the chicken curry over the bulgur and garnish with cilantro, peanuts, and sesame seeds.