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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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.


gluten-free raspberry oat muffins: health aside, welcome to a better muffin

This morning, I bit into this warm, raspberry oat muffin slathered with butter, and tasted a nutty sweetness with tart berries. I didn't once think about the fact that it was also gluten free. That’s how eating gluten free should be in my mind. No gummy textures or odd flavors that remind you that you're eating healthy. Just good, old-fashioned deliciousness.

As more research points to gluten's inflammatory effects even on those not afflicted with celiac disease, cutting back on bready treats when possible seems like a good idea. But gluten-free baking is tricky. The lighter weight and varying texture of gluten-free flours often render muffins flat or chewy, leaving a lackluster final product.

I've experimented for months on creating a gluten-free muffin I would crave as much as my recent favorite blueberry amaranth-wheat muffin. In some batches, I used equivalent measurements to wheat muffins and got only enough batter to fill 10 muffin cups. In other batches, I used the wrong mix of flours, and the muffins crumbled apart when eating them.

Gluten-based muffins with baking powder bubble up in the baking process to produce tall, runway model muffins. Gluten-free flours, unable to capture and retain those bubbles in the same way, fail to produce a muffin worthy of a standing ovation on visual merits alone. However, with the right combo of gluten-free flours, it's possible to achieve a delicious muffin with agreeable lift and texture that won’t leave you longing. 

The trick for me was relying on a base of gluten-free oat flour, which lends a sturdy structure and earthy texture to muffins (like a bowl of oatmeal!). It also pairs nicely with my two favorites, coconut and almond flour. The cinnamon, ginger, and clove combo spices up each bite. Coconut palm sugar, which I use instead of white sugar, lends a nutty flavor and lowers the muffin's glycemic load. This is not a muffin to tolerate because it's healthy. This is a muffin I want to nibble every day with a shot of strong espresso.

Gluten-free Raspberry Oat Muffins

1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill almond flour
1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill coconut flour*
1-1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour
3 eggs
8 ounces raspberries
1 cup milk
3/4 cup coconut palm sugar
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup walnuts (optional)
4 tsp baking powder
3 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp vanilla
1 pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a KitchenAid or stand mixer with a paddle attachment, whisk the eggs until blended evenly. Add the coconut palm sugar and the coconut oil and whisk again until blended. Add the milk and vanilla and blend until smooth. In a separate bowl, mix together the coconut, almond, and oat flours. Add the baking powder, spices, and salt to the bowl and mix well.

With the KitchenAid on low speed, gradually mix in the flour with the wet ingredients until fully blended. Remove the paddle attachment and stir in the raspberries by hand until evenly mixed.

Spray a non-stick 12-cup muffin pan with canola oil spray. Fill each cup almost to the top, ensuring an even number of raspberries in each cup. Bake for 26 minutes or until just starting to brown on top.

*Variation: For a softer muffin, substitute 1/2 of the coconut flour (1/4 cup) with amaranth flour.


indian-spiced pulled pork sandwiches with tamarind “bbq” sauce

This sweet, tangy sandwich stuffed with shredded pork has me reaching with sticky fingers for extra napkins. But each bite, dripping with zingy tamarind sauce, is worth the mess.

I first spotted an Indian-spiced pulled pork recipe in Suvir Saran’s charming and eminently cookable Masala Farm. Saran’s recipe intrigues with its exotic spices but offers no sauce. A pulled pork sandwich with no sauce is like a wedding with no bride. It’s the point of the occasion.

Indoor cooks face the challenge of getting the pork shoulder tender enough, and creating a sauce with just the right tangy flavor. Saran’s concept inspired me to delve into Indian flavors and create this recipe, which employs a pressure cooker to ensure fall-apart tender pork, and then smothers the shredded pork with classic Indian sour-sweet tamarind chutney.

Anyone who’s ordered samosas at an Indian restaurant will recognize the sauce. Tamarind chutney has been called the “ketchup” or “BBQ” sauce of the East. Made from the tamarind tree's sour, pod-like fruit (prominent in Asian, African, and Latin American cuisines and featured in Worcestershire sauce), the silky, sweet sauce pairs beautifully with slow-cooked pork.

Recipes for tamarind chutney vary widely in their ratio of sugar to water. Some are sickly sweet, asking for as much as two and a half cups of sugar to two cups of water. Mine dials it down to a happy medium of a half cup of sugar, blending date sugar with brown sugar to emphasize the earthy tang while offering just enough sweet to balance the fatty pork. 

Served with serrano lime slaw, this dish was so addictive and delicious that when Paul finished his last bite, he turned to me and patted my arm. “Thanks for the slider, honey. Can I have another?”

Indian-Spiced Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Tamarind "BBQ" Sauce

Pulled Pork
4 pounds pork shoulder 
Hamburger buns          

Braising liquid
1-1/2 cups pineapple juice (not from concentrate, with no sugar added, such as Lakewood)
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup diced canned tomatoes in their juices
1-1/2 TB Asian garlic chili sauce
2 TB soy sauce
1 TB apple cider vinegar

Dry rub
2 tsp garam masala
1 TB onion powder
2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
3 tsp brown sugar

The night before you want to serve, coat the pork with the dry rub and refrigerate overnight. The next day, when you're ready to cook, combine the braising liquid in a pressure cooker. Lower the pork into the pot (shaking off any excess rub), lock the lid, and bring up to high pressure. Once the pressure is reached, cook on "high" for 55 minutes. While cooking, make the tamarind sauce, below.

When the pork is finished, let the pressure release naturally for at least five minutes before releasing the rest of the pressure manually.

Shred the pork with two forks or your hands. Top each bun with pork and drizzle with tamarind sauce. Serve the serrano lime slaw on top or on the side.

Tamarind “BBQ” sauce

3 TB tamarind paste concentrate
1/2 tsp garam masala
1-1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 TB canola oil
1/4 cup date sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 cups water

Heat the oil in a sauce pan. Add the spices, stir to combine with the oil, and let simmer for two minutes. Add the tamarind, water, and sugar. Stir until sugar lumps disolve. Simmer on medium-low for 30 minutes until reduced by one-fourth. The sauce should be just thick enough to coat a spoon.


braised eggs with pancetta over parmesan polenta: in praise of normal 

When I saw Paul step out of his gate at the Baltimore airport, he raised his arms and started toward me in a joyful burst of leaping and skipping, arms out, fingers fluttering in the air as we drew closer to one another. I didn’t even see his face up close before his body, nearly twice my size, wrapped around mine. His trip was only a week, but I missed him more than I care to admit. Without him, I let dishes pile up in the sink. The kitchen trash nearly overflowed. I drove home at night once with no headlights. I forgot my wallet at the checkout line. I felt like I was living life with one hand tied behind my back.

As we waited for his bag at the carousel, I attached myself to him like I was one big button on his overcoat. He looked down at me, “What’s for dinner?” he said. “I cannot wait to eat your food.” That’s all he has to say, ever, and I’m his. But this time I didn’t know. I usually plan something extravagant for dinner when he returns from a business trip (steak au poivre! Moroccan lamb shanks!). But his flight landed early and I didn’t have time to shop.  

He heaved his giant suitcase off the carousel, and we rolled through Skywalk B to the parking garage, hopped in our new Nissan with perfect temperature levels  (I cannot tell you how happy this makes us), and drove straight into a traffic jam. While the engine hummed on I-95 behind a sea of taillights at a perfect 75 degrees, I detailed the plot points and twists of the last two movies I saw. Together with Paul, I felt balanced, and like daily rhythms and routines could begin again.

When we arrived home, I opened the fridge and spotted four brown eggs, pancetta, and a half full jar of tomato sauce. I knew then what I was going to make for dinner: Italian braised eggs in tomato sauce. Ending our mutual emotional and physical journeys with humble ingredients from the fridge seemed ‘back to normal’ and exactly right.

Braised Eggs with Pancetta over Parmesan Polenta

Serves 2

4 eggs
1 ounce pancetta (1 thin slice per person), diced
1-1/2 cup tomato sauce
4 garlic cloves, crushed with the back of knife
red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons olive oil

¾ cup polenta
2-1/4 cup water
2/3 cups grated parmesan
Salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan. Add the red pepper flakes, crushed garlic, and pancetta. Let simmer on medium-low heat for 3 – 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add a little water or chicken stock if the sauce dries out too much. Season the sauce with salt to taste.

Meanwhile make the polenta by bringing water to a boil, then adding the polenta and stirring until thickened about 5 minutes. Add the parmesan and season with salt. 

Crack the eggs into individual ramekins and gently slide into the red sauce. Cover the pan with a lid and let cook for about 7 minutes until the eggs yolks have just turned translucent white.

Spoon the polenta onto the plates and top with eggs and sauce.


Jamaican jerk chicken with serrano lime slaw: bringing the Caribbean home

Certain foods trigger vivid memories. Mexican mole reminds me of spending Christmas with my college exchange host family in Queretaro. A croque madame with a gooey yolk brings me back to my honeymoon in France with Paul. And spicy jerk chicken rushes me back to my days working as a wire service reporter in Port of Spain, Trinidad. 

There, in the congested Caribbean city, I lived in a spacious rented house near the top of a stretch of road dotted with tamarind trees. The street unwound like a lazy measuring tape down a long slope onto the city’s Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant roundabout lined with prestigious government buildings. The nearest grocery store, stocked with staples as well as my coveted imported wine and dark chocolate, taunted me from a mile down the hill where the sidewalk occasionally disappeared into dirt and rocks. I owned no car at first, so hiking to the store and back required time and energy that, in the hot tropical sun, left me pooped for the day.

I muscled up the hill bottles of red wine, chocolate bars, and chicken thighs, distributing the weight evenly between two plastic bags so they didn’t dig into my palms. Luckily, a bottle of Walkerswood jerk sauce added little weight and lasted a week. I slathered the marinade – loaded with scotch bonnet peppers, nutmeg, and thyme – on the chicken pieces. As the chicken baked, I sipped my hard-earned red wine and watched small, green lizards scurry across my kitchen walls (welcome to the Caribbean!). Eventually, I plunked down a few hundred bucks to buy a used car and could drive to the store whenever I wanted. Still, I made that jerk chicken every week.

I later learned that authentic jerk chicken is barbecued, usually over pimento (allspice) wood, to instill a smoky flavor into the meat. My version brings the job inside to the oven just like I made it in Trinidad, and turns the Scoville rating down by a few clicks by swapping scotch bonnets for serranos, making this dish more wine friendly. If you like your mouth on fire, use scotch bonnets or habaneros. The serrano lime slaw cools your mouth slightly while holding court with a touch of heat and loads of lime flavor.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken 

8 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on


1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon backed brown sugar
3 serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded
4 scallions
6 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2-1/2 tablespoons grated lime zest (from two limes)
1 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and diced

In a Cuisinart or blender, blend all ingredients until it forms a smooth paste. Place the chicken in a large, sealable plastic bag along with the marinade and shake until the chicken is evenly coated. Leave to marinade at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and place the baking rack in the middle of the oven. Line the broiler pan bottom with foil to make clean-up afterward easier (do not line the top with foil as the fat will not drain properly). Remove the chicken from the marinade and place the pieces on the top section of the broiler pan. Bake for 35 minutes, then switch the oven to broil on high. Broil the tops of the chicken for 5 – 10 minutes, moving the pan around as necessary to ensure even browning under the flame. Keep an eye on it to make sure your chicken gets crispy without turning black (it can happen fast!).

Serrano Lime Slaw

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 serrano pepper, seeded
4 green onions, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
2-1/2 tablespoon honey
1/3 cup canola oil
Salt and pepper
1 store bought package slaw greens (4- 5 cups)

Combine all ingredients, except the slaw greens, in a blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Place slaw greens in a large bowl and toss with the dressing. Season with salt and pepper and let sit 30 minutes before serving.


honey braised lamb shanks with cinnamon and dates: pressure cooker bliss

When Paul posted to Facebook that we were deploying our pressure cooker for the first time, one friend warned that his mom had used one to make navy beans once when the relief valve blew out. "The beans exploded out all over the ceiling!” Another friend echoed: “My mom had a similar experience. Those old pressure cookers were literally kitchen bombs.” Still another person lamented that we would be missing out on the deep, rich smells produced through slow cooking in a Dutch oven.

Pressure cookers have no legacy in my family, but I still thought of them as mysterious and perhaps a little dangerous. After recently reading a Cook’s Illustrated story on pressure cookers declaring them safe and easy to use – and watching countless Top Chef episodes featuring cheftestants relying on them for tender, moist meat in under an hour – I knew I wanted one. I sat down at my computer, opened my browser, and – one click and two shipping days later – my Fagor 8-quart duo pressure cooker arrived.

After several delicious test runs, I’m enamored. Our pressure cooker produces the most tender, tasty lamb I've ever made. And the smell! It’s even more concentrated and fragrant than lamb cooked in a Dutch oven. The steam jets straight from the cinnamon-infused lamb right into our kitchen. I’m still loyal to my Dutch oven but the quality of lamb from the pressure cooker is superior in flavor, moistness, and tenderness.

I adapted this dish from Saveur magazine’s November 2012 feature “Couscous Royale” showcasing Moroccan tagines and other Maghreb specialties as they are served in Parisian restaurants. My version reduces the amount of honey and water for the pressure cooker and includes dates instead of raisins. Saveur instructs cooks to braise the shanks for three and a half hours on the stovetop. With the pressure cooker, these tender shanks are done in an hour and taste sublime.

Honey Braised Lamb Shanks with Cinnamon and Dates

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 lamb shanks
Salt and pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup dates
3/4 cup blanched whole almonds
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons store bought or homemade ras el hanout (North African spice mix)
1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
1 stick cinnamon
Toasted sesame seeds to garnish

Season the lamb generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil and butter in an 8-quart pressure cooker over medium high heat. Brown the lamb on all sides, about 12 minutes total.

Add onion to the pot and cook, stirring, until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the ras el hanout, saffron, cinnamon stick, and simmer together, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the dates, almonds, honey, and 2 cups filtered water. Lock the pressure cooker lid into place; turn pressure nob to ‘high’ and bring up to pressure (about 10 minutes). Once the pressure tab pops, cook for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat, then release the pressure with the nob. Skim the fat off the top of the liquid. Remove the shanks and serve on top of fluffy, whole wheat couscous, if desired, and top with the toasted sesame seeds.