Friday, June 29, 2012

Pesto, mozzarella, and cherry tomato pizzas

The time had come to cut back the basil. In the last few weeks, it shot up from the dirt like a shiny green rocket. To avoid blooming (which spoils the flavor of basil), I cut it back hard and ended up with a whole lot of basil on my hands. I made pesto

I also had some nice, sweet little cherry tomatoes from the farmers market, and I needed to make something I could pack for a picnic. I thought about trying to make a tomato tart, but I didn't have a lot of time (and honestly, I have yet to make a pie, so I didn't want to mess up dinner the first time trying it). So I made pizzas. Pesto, mozzarella, and cherry tomato pizzas. And yep, they were as good as they sound. Just sweet tomatoes, cheesy goodness, and a nice crisp crust with a smear of pesto.


  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 tsps (or 1 envelope) dry yeast 
  • 1/2 cup semolina flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsps salt
  • 2 Tbsps olive oil


  • 1 cup pesto (approximately)
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 lb ball of mozzarella, sliced thinly
  • grated Parmigiano Reggiano

  1. Mix 1/2 cup of the water with the yeast. Let it stand about 10 minutes. (The yeast should be somewhat foamy. 
  2. Add the rest of the water, the olive oil, the salt, and the flour and mix until the flour is completely incorporated and the dough is slightly sticky. You may need to do this with your hands.
  3. Oil a bowl, place the dough in the bowl. Roll it over a few times so that it's thinly coated with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise for 45-60 minutes. 
  4. Divide the dough into four equal parts and roll them into balls. Let them rise under plastic for another 30 minutes. 
  5. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees (Fahrenheit).
  6. Flatten the dough balls into thin disks (or if you are using baking sheets, rectangles). Try to make the dough as thin as possible without tearing it. Let the disks or rectangles rest another 15 minutes. 
  7. When it's time to bake the pizzas, spread pesto all over them (as close to the edge as possible).
  8. Distribute the mozzarella slices among the pizzas.
  9. Spread the tomatoes on top of the pizzas. Grate Parmigiano Reggiano over the top of the pizzas. 
  10. Bake them in the oven for 15 minutes. Serve and eat. They can also be eaten when they are lukewarm.    

* Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.   

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Black raspberry jam: A lesson in restraint

There should be something like a Hippocratic Oath for cooking that says, "First, do no harm...." Why do I say that? Because I just finished a batch of jam. It has only three ingredients: black raspberries, lemon juice, and sugar. It's perfect. Sparkling, dark, rich, and flavorful. Tastes like a bright summer day.


And, in a way, making this jam was ridiculously simple. It attains perfection by minimal means, by doing so very little with a gorgeous ingredient picked this morning with my very own (very scratched) hands at Green Truck Farm out in Markham, Virginia.

This time of year, backing off and letting the ingredients speak for themselves is the real art of cooking and eating. As a cook, I am often inclined to try to gussy things up, do more, make the food complicated, but with in-season produce at its peak, exhibiting restraint lets you experience depth and complexity of flavor that tells a story about the sun, the soil, the air, and the rain of your world.

This jam is an exquisite example of showing restraint in cooking and letting the flavor of the season shine through. It is not, however, a good example of showing restraint in eating. Since completing this batch a few hours ago, I have been back at the "extra" jar again and again with a spoon. I don't think it will make it through the evening. I am going to have to go back out to Green Truck Farm and get more black raspberries. (Do I have anything I need to do tomorrow...?)


  • 3 1/2 lbs black raspberries, divided 
  • 2 1/2 lbs organic cane sugar
  • 5 oz. lemon juice, strained

  1. Prepare 8 8-oz jars (wash, sterilize, etc.) according to your favorite method, manufacturer recommendations, or the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Keep them warm.
  2. Place a plate with five metal spoons in the freezer for testing the jam.
  3. Combine 1 lb black raspberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a jam pan (if you have one) or a large stock pot. Bring the mix to a boil and let it boil very fast and hot for one minute. 
  4. Add the rest of the blackberries to the mix in the pot. Bring the mix up to a very fast boil again. Skim a few times. Stir regularly, to make sure the jam doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. (Be careful: The jam will spatter, and it is very hot.)  
  5. Let it boil for 10-12 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat while you test for doneness by placing a sample of the jam on one of the frozen spoons. After about half a minute in the freezer, the jam on the spoon should have stiffened to, well, a jammy consistency. If it's still very runny, let the jam in the pot cook for another couple of minutes. 
  6. Carefully transfer the jam in the pot to the prepared jars. Leave 1/4 inch of space at the top (not much more, or you won't get a good seal), clean the edges of the jars with damp paper towels, place lids and bands on the jars, and process in a water bath or oven.
  7. Let them cool overnight without moving them so that they have a chance to set properly. Check the seals in the morning (I love the little pops that the jars make when they seal). If any of the jars didn't seal, use it right away.  
* Based on Rachel Saunders's recipe from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Skagen-inspired shrimp toasts: A special treat for Swedish Midsummer

In Sweden, Midsummer is celebrated on the Friday and Saturday right after (or during) the summer solstice. It's one of the most important holidays in the Swedish calendar, comparable to Christmas and New Year. It's basically an old heathen tradition that celebrates sun and fertility at a time when the sun doesn't really set and the beauty of a Swedish summer has finally come to full flower after a long, cold winter. It's party time. People head out to parks and raise a Midsummer pole that they've decorated with flowers and dance around it to traditional music. They wear crowns of flowers in their hair. And of course, they eat. (What celebration doesn't include food, right?)
A friend let me share her picture of a typical Midsummer celebration. 
Traditionally, Swedish Midsummer meals consist of pickled herring (I must confess that this is not one of my favorites), new potatoes served with dill and butter or sour cream (yum), strawberries with cream (or better yet, the beautiful little wild strawberries called smultron). And with that of course, you are supposed to drink shots of snaps, while singing drinking songs. (I settled for some really good hard cider instead.) 

For our Midsummer celebration and the last Swedish meal for Sweden week, I modified the traditional meal a bit. For one thing, I have never been able to eat pickled herring with joy and pleasure. I have choked down a piece or two from time to time to be polite, but that's the best I can do. I was able to get some lovely new potatoes from the farmer's market, along with some fragrant dill. Strawberries are over for the season here, but we do have raspberries and blueberries (the queen's berries) at the market, which had to suffice. And grilling a nice piece of meat is always popular for a summer meal. 

But, I did want my family to try something I have loved since I first had it that says "party" to any person who has ever lived in Sweden: Toast Skagen. However, because I didn't have the right kind of roe for the dish (I was able to find some herring roe at IKEA and the right kind of shrimp*), I am hesitant to call this dish Toast Skagen (especially because that is such a fine and elegant dish and my toasts were more "rustic," but not necessarily in the gorgeous way). Instead, I choose to call them simply Skagen-inspired shrimp toasts. They are so easy to make, it's ridiculous. The only work involved is cleaning the shrimp. But they are so delicious, even my five-year old son loved them and ate every last bit. 

  • 1 500-gram bag of frozen northern shrimp, defrosted, peeled, and cleaned 
  • 4 teaspoons herring roe (or any other flavorful, light-colored roe you can find; don't use a black caviar, it will stain and taste too strong)
  • 4 slices light bread, toasted
  • 3-4 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • four thin slices of lemon
  • juice from half a lemon
  • sprigs of dill for garnish
  1. Spread mayonnaise on the slices of toast. 
  2. Sprinkle some lemon juice on the mayonnaise. 
  3. Evenly divide the peeled and cleaned shrimp among the toasts. 
  4. Cut each lemon slice through one side of the rind and all way through to the other side without cutting it completely in half. Twist each half of the lemon slice in opposite directions and garnish the shrimp. 
  5. Spoon some herring roe onto the toasts. 
  6. Add a sprig of dill on each toast.
  7. Enjoy!
* A word about shrimp: I don't like most shrimp. I do, however, like the little pink shrimp that you typically get in Scandinavia known as northern shrimp or prawns (their Latin name is Pandalus borealis, which I just had to share after spending quite some time trying to look them up). Compared with most shrimp that I've found here in the United States, they live up to their shrimply name, so cleaning them takes a long time and is fiddly. I still prefer to get them shell and head on, because their texture is weird when they come pre-cleaned. I've only been able to find them frozen at IKEA, which totally ruins any attempts at eating locally, but this is one of those cases where I definitely prefer an imported product over what I can find here.       

Monday, June 18, 2012

Swedish meatballs: A classic dish for the Grand Tour

Because this Friday is Midsummer Night's Eve in Sweden, I decided this week would be a great time to teach and learn more about Sweden during my son's and my Grand Tour summer project. Obviously I know a lot about Sweden, having spent much of my childhood and some early adulthood there, but it's always valuable to approach your own country or city as though you were a tourist and knew nothing about the place. You can often learn things that you never knew before. And it can be a lot of fun.

So I started doing some planning and research, trying to figure out what to serve for Midsummer, but also what we were going to eat throughout the week. Swedish meatballs were one obvious choice (who doesn't think of Swedish meatballs when they hear the words "Swedish food"?). 

Now, Swedish meatballs is one of those dishes that every cook does in his or her own way. Similarities exist among them all (they are all recognizably Swedish meatballs), but each recipe has its own tweak. In some cases, meatballs are served with a creamy brown sauce, as I have done here. Some people prefer a thin beef broth with some chopped onions. And sometimes the meatballs aren't served with any kind of sauce at all, which is usually the case at a smorgasbord (cleaner to snag one with a toothpick that way).

And the accompaniments vary a bit as well. Boiled potatoes are definitely typical. (By the way, I learned a nice tip about adding dill to the cooking water from this Swedish food blog.) Many serve their meatballs with lingonberry sauce, which is very good. But I usually prefer to serve mine either with pickled beets or with Swedish cucumber salad. The acidity of the pickles combines so well with the richness of the sauce.

Most Swedish meatball recipes start with a mix of ground beef and ground pork, but I don't see any reason to get too hung up on that. If you've only got some ground beef, use that. Heck, I am sure that the addition of ground lamb would be tasty too.


  • 1 lb ground pork     
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • about 1/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 tsps salt
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 1 Tbsp dried parsley (or 1-2 Tbsp chopped fresh, if you have it)
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1-1 1/2 cup beef broth or stock 
  • 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
  • Additional parsley, salt, and pepper to flavor the sauce

  1. Combine the ground meats, egg, bread crumbs, onion, salt, pepper, and parsley in a bowl. Have a plate ready to receive the prepared meatballs. 
  2. With clean, bare hands, knead the ingredients in the bowl until they are just evenly incorporated. There should be no major clumps of ingredients, but you don't want to overdo it either. 
  3. Roll the meatballs by picking up about one heaped tablespoon of the meat mixture (or thereabouts) and rolling it between your hands until it comes together into a ball. Once again, don't overdo this step. They don't have to be perfect and the more you work them the drier the meatball will be. Make sure your meatballs are pretty even in size.  
  4. Continue rolling until you have run out of meat mixture, and you have a plate full of meatballs. 
  5. When you have finished rolling your meatballs, heat the butter in a large pan over medium high heat. When the butter is foamy and starting to brown a bit, add half the meatballs to the pan. Roll them around from time to time, cooking them until they are brown all around and no longer pink in the middle (check by cutting one of them open). (Should take about 10 minutes.) 
  6. Remove the first batch from the pan (either set these aside for another time and purpose, such as a meatball sandwich, or add them back to the sauce at the end). Repeat the cooking process for the second batch of meatballs. 
  7. When the second batch is cooked through, add two tablespoons of all-purpose flour to the pan. Roll the meatballs in the flour until it soaks up the grease in the pan and let it cook for a minute or two. (This is probably weird, but I love the smell of hot flour in a pan.) 
  8. Add the beef stock and the vinegar. Lower the heat if it boils up too fast. Let the sauce cook until it's quite thick. If it gets too thick, just add a little more broth or cream. 
  9. Lower the heat and add the cream or half-and-half to the sauce. Taste the sauce and add salt, pepper, and parsley as needed. Add the first batch of meatballs back in at this point if desired and incorporate them into the sauce. Serve with potatoes and pickled beets, Swedish cucumber salad, or lingonberry sauce (if you can find it).      

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Grilled Pork Chops with Tarragon Butter #SundaySupper


I'm lucky. I have a great dad. AND my husband is the best dad ever too. I don't know how I wound up with all the best dads. Once again, I must be lucky. How did I get so lucky? I don't know. Lucky I guess. 

And not only are my dad and my son's dad the best dads, several of my friends are also the best dads. There's Dave and Brian and Russ and Ho and Scott and Dylan and Steve and Jonathan and Mark and Geir and Bassi and John and Paul, and well, you get the picture. Lots of great, loving dads who work hard to love and care and inspire. 

The truth is, great dads never get the credit they deserve. Too often they get the beady eye when they enter mom territory like the park or the grocery store or school. One day, once a year, is just not enough to show dads how much we appreciate the hours of sitting on the floor playing with Legos; the screaming shoulders from carrying the kiddos around; the complete assumption of responsibility for life and security (even though we moms feel like we carry a lot of that too, so give yourselves a break sometimes); the reading, bathtime, lessons, affection, attention great dads put in every day.

But one day a year is all they get, so let's at least make it count. A nice piece of meat on the grill with a delicious herb butter melting with the juices into a luscious sauce. I think that says special occasion. I used pork chops for this recipe (from my favorite farm, Haskins Family Farm, of course), but steaks would work nicely too. What makes these pork chops especially good is the combination of a dry rub with a compound butter that includes tarragon, a herb with a slight licorice flavor. Tarragon is the herb that's used to flavor Bearnaise sauce, and this compound butter reminds me ever so slightly of that classic sauce. Serve up the pork chops with a baked potato and a green salad, and you have a nice summer meal. What am I saying? An amazing summer meal. 

The dry rub doubles easily and can be stored indefinitely in an airtight container. Also, feel free to mix up the spices any way you like. Just try to maintain the same proportions (4 parts sugar, 2 parts salt, about 2 parts spices). Similarly, the compound butter is easy to double. If you have any left, just roll it into logs and freeze for another occasion. (However, I like it on toast or crackers.)

  • 2-4 large pork chops, about an inch thick

  • 4 Tbsps brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsps kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp each of dry mustard, ground white pepper, cayenne pepper, dried ginger, and cumin 

  • 4 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 2 Tbsp fresh tarragon, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt

  1. Prepare the dry rub: Mix sugar, salt, and spices into an even mix. 
  2. Rinse the pork chops, pat them dry. Place them on a large plate. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of dry rub on both sides of every pork chop. Place in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes, up to 24 hours. Let them sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes before putting them on the heat.   
  3. Prepare the compound butter by blending butter, chopped herbs, crushed garlic, and salt into an even paste. Set aside for now. 
  4. Fire up the grill. (I have a strong preference for charcoal, but if you've got a gas grill, well, I suppose you must.)
  5. When the fire is medium hot, place the pork chops on the grill. Cook them for five to seven minutes on each side. Check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. According to my thermometer, the internal temp should be 160 degrees. However, I usually pull the pork chops off the grill at about 155 to avoid drying them out.  
  6. Take the pork off the heat. Put a tablespoon of the tarragon butter on each pork chop and let them rest for 10 minutes before serving. 
Happy Father's Day! And, if you would like a little more Father's Day goodness, check out #SundaySupper, a group of food bloggers who are trying to highlight the importance of connecting with family and friends for a Sunday meal. #SundaySupper is the brainchild of Isabel at Family Foodie.

Here is the whole #SundaySupper menu and links to participating blogs:

Father's Day Brunch:
Dad's Favorite Soup, Salads, and Bread:
Father's Day Favorite Mains:
Dad's Sweet Tooth:
Wine Pairings for Father's Day ENOFYLZ

And don't forget to join the conversation on Twitter. Just follow the hash tag #SundaySupper.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Papa rellena: Peruvian stuffed potatoes

The potato. Such a humble root, with such vast potential both in cooking and in feeding the planet (see what Charles C. Mann, author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created has to say about it in this Smithsonian Magazine article). The summary? The potato fed a lot of people and may have driven some of the world's population explosions and subsequent political restructurings. Ah, the historicopolitical impact of food. 

The potato might be my favorite vegetable (or starch, however you want to view it). I like them mashed, baked, boiled, fried, gussied up, or plain as day. (Always cooked though, of course; raw potatoes contain toxins that can make you sick.) 

I am not alone in loving potatoes. When I was growing up in Sweden, we got lots of potatoes with just about every dish, and, though others were more excited about rice, I was always happy to see those friendly yellow spuds on the dinner table. I once spent an hour with a friend from Ireland, raving about the delights of the potato. (I know, I am a weird geek with weird geek friends.)

In Peru, love of the potato is fundamental. Thousands of potato varieties exist, each one adapted to different microclimates and different storage and nutritional requirements. Some potatoes must be eaten with a specific type of clay to not be poisonous. Some are meant to be frozen and mashed. The variety is so great that Peruvian people who eat only potatoes still get all the nutrients they require. This kind of variety is very different from what we are used to seeing in American markets, even at farmers markets, which are far more likely to showcase oddball varietals of fruits and vegetables (one of the many reasons I love shopping at farmers markets).  

As part of Peru week (read more about the Grand Tour here), I knew dinner was going to feature a lot of potatoes, and the Peruvian dish I decided to try this time was papa relleno. It is a mashed potato ball (more like a football, actually) stuffed with a tasty ground meat filling and deep fried. They are fun to make and, as my son said, "Yummy!" My husband described it as being a little like a mini deep-fried shepherd's pie. 

The ground meat filling I made is somewhat unusual for me. For instance, I used raisins, which I would normally never do because I dislike raisins. But I decided to give it a try and was very pleased with the result. The flavor of raisin didn't come across, only a bit of sweetness that balanced the salt and sour of the other ingredients. So if you don't like raisins and don't like much fruit in savory food, I recommend giving it a try anyway. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised. Other additions I saw in various fillings were chopped hardboiled eggs and chopped black olives. Feel free to mix it up. 

The only trouble I had with this dish was the deep frying, which is a technique I have yet to fully master. I recommend checking out this article to get some tips on deep frying (such as don't skimp on the oil, let the oil get very hot, don't crowd the pan, and cook your food in batches).

  • 3 lbs yellow potatoes, peeled
  • 1 egg
  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 lb ground beef (or ground pork would also be good)
  • 1/4 cup raisins, chopped
  • 1 16-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1-2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro (or you can replace with parsley)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and pepper
  • all-purpose flour
  • vegetable oil (both for making the meat filling and for deep frying, so you will need a lot)
  1. Boil the potatoes in salted water until you can easily poke them with a fork. 
  2. Drain the water and mash the potatoes in a bowl with salt and pepper to taste. (A ricer is a piece of kitchen equipment that you should really invest in if you make a lot of mashed potatoes. Totally worth the cost and space.) Set aside the potatoes until they are really cold. (Overnight would be fine, just cover them with plastic so they don't dry out.)
  3. In a frying pan, heat about 2 Tbsp oil until it shimmers. Add onions and garlic and cook until shiny and a little brown. (Smells good, huh? Frying onions is one of my favorite smells.)
  4. Add the ground meat to the pan and cook until the meat is browned and cooked through. 
  5. Add raisins, crushed tomatoes, cilantro or parsley, cumin, salt, and pepper, and about a cup of water to the pan. Let the mix cook until most of the liquid evaporates and you have a loose mass in the pan. (Don't forget to taste it for salt and pepper, but don't add too much salt early because evaporation will concentrate the salt.) Let the mixture cool. (Once again, you can do this a day ahead.)
  6. When you are ready to start shaping the papa rellena, add 1 egg to the mashed potatoes and mix until completely incorporated and smooth. Put a couple of handfuls of all-purpose flour on a plate for rolling. 
  7. To shape the papa rellena, pick up about 1/4 cup of the mashed potatoes and create a dent in the middle. Place about 1 Tbsp meat filling in the dent and mold the mashed potatoes around the filling. Patch any holes with additional mashed potatoes. Form the mass into a potato shape (the first few won't look great, but you will get the hang of it very quickly.)
  8. Roll the "potato" in flour and set it aside while you shape the rest. You should get about 12-14 papas.
  9. When you have finished rolling them all, deep fry the papas in batches. They will be done when they are golden brown and crispy. Keep them warm in a 200-degree oven until you have finished the remaining batches. 
  10. Eat! Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lomo saltado: First leg on the Grand Tour

So, my son's last day of school for the summer was Friday. Months of summer stretch out before us.

Sounds great, doesn't it? It sounds great... No, not so much really. To be truthful, I doubt my parenting skills (every day). I really doubt my patience. How do I keep this five-and-a-half year old from getting bored (and worse, getting into trouble)? How do I keep from tearing my hair out? How do we keep the boy from losing all the progress he made in his Montessori school this spring? And how do I keep him from watching TV and playing video games all summer while I try to work? 

Then I got the idea. I was inspired by this Washington Post story about the Spanish-themed buffet at the Garden Cafe of the National Gallery of Art and the Joan Miro exhibit. I liked the idea of the food connecting with the exhibit. That could be cool. Each week, we have a different country as the theme: We try the food. We go to relevant exhibits. We learn about the country: the history, the geography. We use all that as a basis for regular lessons in writing, reading, math, and science. We make art in the style of the country. We listen to the music! Hey, this could be kind of fun! 

So I let my son pick the first country on our "Grand Tour." He picked Peru (where one of his teachers, Miss Rosy, is from). Eek, I thought, I know next to nothing about Peru. But now I am so incredibly happy and grateful he picked Peru. I've learned so much! What a fascinating country! When can we go? Incas, Nazca lines, a coastal desert, the root of all potatodom and all tomatodom, Machu Picchu, Andes, and the Amazonian rain forest. 

It turns out Peruvian food is at least as diverse as its landscape. Thousands of varieties of potatoes, tomato species that exist nowhere else, fish, fruit, not to mention the variety of ethnic influences on the cuisine from all over the globe. What do I pick to make and eat?

Ceviche, which may be the dish most associated with Peru, is intriguing but not necessarily a dish you want to introduce to a five-year old. Furthermore, because it requires such extreme freshness of seafood and such a deft hand with acid and spices, it didn't seem like a good place to start as a beginner. I wanted something traditional, somewhat easy, definitely Peruvian, but not so far out there I wouldn't be able to get my son to try it. A friend suggested lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry dish with fried potatoes. So I started looking into what makes the dish. From a few different sources,* I gathered these basic features of the dish:
  • It's a stirfry, reflecting the fact that Peru boasts one of the larger ethnic Chinese communities outside China in the world. 
  • It includes potatoes and is typically served with rice. So yes, that's two, let me say it again, two starches in one dish. 
  • The main ingredients are almost always beef strips, onion, tomatoes, fried potatoes, soy sauce, and vinegar. Often included are either parsley or cilantro. Sometimes cumin is included, sometimes not.  
  • Aji amarillo, a yellow Peruvian pepper is often included, but sadly I couldn't find one. 

So based on these general ideas about the dish, here's how I made it, and I must say it was pretty delicious:

  • 1/2 bag of frozen French fries (I know, I totally cheated on this, but at least they were organic and included very few ingredients)
  • 3 Tbsps vegetable oil  
  • 1 lb of grass-fed stir-fry beef in thin strips
  • 1 red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 tomatoes, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2-3 Tbsps soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • salt and pepper

Before we get into the specifics, here's a general tip about any stirfry: Always make sure that all your ingredients are prepared and ready to go. Stirfrys are one kind of dish where mise en place is critical. So, assuming your ingredients are all chopped and measured and peeled and sliced and ready, here are the instructions:
  1. Cook the French fries according to package instructions. 
  2. Heat the oil in a wok or another thick-bottomed pot on high heat. The oil should be very hot. 
  3. Add the meat to the oil (be careful about getting splattered!). Stirring quickly, let it cook for 1 minute. 
  4. Add the onions to the pan. Let it cook for 2 minutes. 
  5. Add the tomatoes, garlic, cumin, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, and parsley to the wok, stir quickly and let it all cook for about 2 minutes. 
  6. Taste the sauce, add more soy sauce, salt, and pepper to taste.
  7. Serve the stirfried meat over the French fries with white rice on the side. Sprinkle a little fresh parsley over the top. 
Is it completely authentic? Probably not. Is it good? Oh yes. I think I just added a new dish to the dinner repertoire. (And it would probably be good with pork too.) 

* Some sources to learn more about Peruvian food are My Life in Peru, Peru Food,, and's list of traditional Peruvian dishes. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Herbed Ossabaw pork chops

When I was a kid, I visited my grandparents (Afi and Amma) in Reykjavik every summer. They lived in a gray concrete apartment building with a green square of grass in the back. Their windows were hazed with lace curtains, and at night white light quietly tiptoed into otherwise dark rooms. As I tried to sleep, jetlagged and unused to so much night light, I listened to the ticking of clocks and sometimes chimes as another hour came full circle. Because Afi and Amma didn't have a lot of space, I slept on a blue canvas fold-out cot in the dining room, which was put away every morning.

I spent most of my time there either reading or playing on the carpeted stairway that was the main entrance to the building. The outside door had a buzzer; my grandparents' names were hand written next to the button and slightly water stained. The air of Reykjavik was chilly and smelled a bit like fish, while the water in the pipes smelled and tasted like sulfur. Because Afi managed the building I got to go into the basement with him a few times: It was clean, dry, painted concrete with pipes running along the walls. He was a trim, capable man, unconsciously confident in his capabilities, like many of my Icelandic relatives.

Sometimes I went with him to the fishmonger. The fishmonger had a tiny store in a row of about five tiny stores less than a block from my grandparents' apartment. Sometimes I would go and look in the window at the different kinds of fish laid out on ice in the window. They were sold whole, head on, and had cloudy eyes that stared at you. I knew nothing about the different kinds of fish that the fishmonger sold, only that most were silvery gray and shiny. Sometimes, a red one would be in the mix.

So what is the point of all this remembering and what does it have to do with Ossabaw pork chops? It's all in the packaging: The neat butcher paper wrapped around the pork chops brought me back to Iceland, to the little stores on the corner and the green plastic net bag that Afi used to carry his groceries in. And it was a nice reminder that the small cares you take to prepare a pork chop, to wrap it up like a gift, because in some ways it is a gift, can have far-reaching consequences, can reach deep down into memory or seed the future with meaning.

That's what I took away one day a few months ago, when I made the trek out to Marshall, Virginia, to see my friend Jeff who works at The Whole Ox, a rare and wonderful artisanal butcher shop, because I had heard they had some Ossabaw pork and I was dying to try it (yes, it was a round trip of about 100 miles to get some pork chops). I first learned of Ossabaw pigs while watching an episode of The Four Coursemen, a show about some people who love beautiful, local, artisanal foods and wines and want to share their knowledge with others. Ossabaw pigs descend from pigs brought to the New World by the Spanish, supposedly the same kind of pigs that the famous Jamon Iberico is made from. Because these pigs have been isolated on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia, they have mostly retained their unique genetic identity and flavor. Furthermore, because their diet comprises primarily acorns, their meat is said to have a nutty flavor.

To be truthful, I am not sure I detected the nutty flavor. What I did get from these pork chops was amazing flavor, the kind of complex, rich flavor that reminds you why foods that are grown with patience and care, on or in healthy soils, are so superior to processed junk, which are bland and lack dimension. Foods like these pork chops are so good that your best bet is to do very little to bring out their flavor. Because I was so eager to taste the pork itself, I kept the preparation simple: a little salt and pepper, a little thyme, a little butter, and a squeeze of lemon. Mostly I just tried to put some care into their preparation and to share them with family and friends. (My only regret was that I didn't get more of them when I had the chance.)


  • 4-6 Ossabaw pork chops (the ones I got were very small and adorable, probably no more than 4 oz apiece; the size will affect the cooking time)
  • salt, pepper, dried thyme
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 lemon          
  1. Melt the butter in a pan over medium-high heat. 
  2. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and thyme over the pork chops. 
  3. When the butter is slightly browned, place the pork chops gently in the pan. 
  4. Cook each side for about 3-4 minutes per side. Spoon the melted butter over the pork chops regularly. 
  5. To finish, squeeze a little lemon juice into the pan and mix it with the drippings and the butter in the pan.
  6. Serve with the pan drippings. I served them with polenta, but anything that soaks up the drippings is a good option. 
Oh yeah! I almost forgot, I've also got a new Facebook page! Check it out. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Can I eat this fish?

I struggle with seafood. I know it's good for you (lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and so forth) IF it's not chock-full of mercury or other heavy metals, in which case don't eat it all if you are pregnant, nursing, or a young child and only moderately if you are anyone else. I also know that current seafood consumption patterns have the potential to wipe out fish and seafood stocks all across the planet. (Here's a graphic from The Washington Post that illustrates some of the overfishing issues that we currently face.) And I know most of the fish I get is flown or shipped in from somewhere halfway around the world--not a great thought when you aim to live in a way that supports local community and reduces fuel consumption. And then there's the question of farmed or wild? What's better? And perhaps by what yardstick? With seafood, you definitely have to weigh a lot of different factors.

Let's consider some of these factors, starting with sustainability. This topic actually makes me want to chew nails. For one thing, the fish species you thought were sustainable last year, last month, or even last week may not be sustainable today. This week you may be committing an atrocity on fishdom if you buy and eat that kind of fish. It can make you crazy. 

But there are resources to help you stay up to date on what's OK to eat now. In "A Consumer's Guide to Buying Sustainable Fish," Denise Santoro Lincoln notes that your best option is to find a good fishmonger who is passionate about selling sustainable fish and works to keep up with continual changes. She also notes that this isn't really practical for most of us and provides a great list of resources, including Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. World Wildlife Fund also has a list of excellent resources, including some country-specific seafood guides. All this information, however, requires that we as consumers put effort into ensuring we are making good choices. And because the state of a fishery can change so drastically from year to year, it's something we have to check into regularly. (Unfortunately, it's not enough to trust that your grocery store is going to do that work for you.) 

Another factor to consider is farmed versus wild. Some of the problems with eating wild-caught fish are of course depletion of wild fish stocks and the problem of bycatch. However, when done poorly, farmed fish can wreak environmental havoc, including habitat damage, pollution and disease, and escapes, possibly of "Frankenfish." So once again, we have to do our research to find out what's a "Best Choice" and what isn't. I have generally avoided all farmed seafood, but it turns out some farmed species are Best Choices after all (oh boy, I can go back to buying and eating mussels; I love mussels).

For some great tips on choosing seafood that's as sustainable and as healthful as possible, check out Lettuce Eat Kale. Just as fruits and vegetables have seasons, so does seafood and it pays to know when those seasons are.

[Update] And it turns out the cod I had for dinner tonight was from a company that sells Certified Sustainable Seafood (thank you, MOM's Organic Market for looking out for me) and pretty tasty as well. If you happen to have a few cod fillets, here's a really simple recipe.

Cornmeal-Crusted Cod Fillets


  • 2-3 cod fillets (if frozen, defrosted), rinsed, patted dry
  • salt
  • ground white pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal (more or less)
  • lemon wedges

  1. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium-high heat. 
  2. Salt and pepper the cod fillets.
  3. Beat the egg with a fork in a bowl (just enough to incorporate the white and the yolk). Put the cornmeal on a plate.
  4. Coat each fillet in egg. Dip the fillets in cornmeal. 
  5. When the butter is foaming and slightly brown, add the fish fillets to the pan. Fry on each side for about 2 minutes per side. (The cornmeal should be golden brown. If it isn't, give it another minute in the pan.)
  6. Remove the cod fillets to a plate and let them rest about five minutes before devouring. Serve with lemon wedges. Great accompaniments (especially in spring/summer) are boiled new potatoes with butter and a sprinkling of chives and a simple salad of lettuce leaves with some oil and vinegar.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Participating in a creative exchange: The push of a SPARK

So this won't be the usual post about food, as you may have guessed from the image. This is my latest painting, which I have titled "In the Garden." I made it as part of my participation in a creativity exchange called SPARK. SPARK is a way for visual artists, writers, and musicians to inspire other artists and to get a creative spark in return. During each 10-day round, pairs of artists and writers exchange a piece of writing, music, or artwork and use it as creative inspiration to create something new. In other words, it's a creative kick in the butt--something I have sorely needed considering it's been a year since I painted anything new. And I really do love(/hate) to paint.

So when the call for more artists came from SPARK, I signed up. I'll admit, I was nervous: What if I didn't like the inspiration piece? What if I made something horrible? What if I couldn't finish? Eek, ack, gah! Then, the 10-day round of SPARK started. I received these song lyrics from my SPARK partner, Sharon Deegan, as my inspiration:

Are you ready to face the feast my soul companion?
Pull off the boots made for silent marching through the night?
Well you’ve been appeasing corpses, shunning angels,
And me, I’ve been turning the compost every couple of days and my garden grows
Over the bones, and my garden grows.

Do you think you can stop your digging, drop your shovel?
Wash the dirt from your calloused hands?
Life is a well from which we’re all drinking,
How shall we meet our thirst’s demands?

Well you’ve been
Invited to your own wedding,
Invited to your own birth.
Love lies waiting for You-
(spending all your time just trying to bury your true heart
In a plot of dark and lonely and cold unyielding earth )

Will you ever be ready to 
Face the feast  my soul companion?
Pull off the boots made for silent marching through the night.  

When I read it, I was relieved to enjoy the piece. I read the lyrics a few times, allowing specific words and images to hook into me, assuming an idea for a painting would emerge. And it did.

One of the most enjoyable things to do when reading a poem, or in this case lyrics, is to consider individual words. What thoughts do they engender? What alternative meanings do they have? What associations do they have? When you have gathered together this cornucopia of thoughts and ideas, the question becomes how do you put them all together again? How do you form meaning? That explains the process both of unpacking a poem and then of developing new ideas.

Here are some of the ideas and connections I got from Sharon's lyrics: The image of working in a garden and turning over compost reminded me of a poem about compost by Walt Whitman. Whitman's poem celebrates the transformative qualities of compost (and anyone who is a gardener will know what I am talking about), this seemingly miraculous ability of worms and heat and time to transform leftovers, scraps, trash into fresh, dark, beautiful soil that nourishes the garden. The ability of the earth to take death into itself and bring forth life. The ability of the earth to turn rot into the very definition of freshness.

Sharon's lyrics suggest a similar transformation, of burying bones (a tragedy? participation in war? the loss of a loved one?) and allowing the earth to transform them from pain and rot into a feast.

One of the things I wanted to do with my painting was to create layers, to suggest decaying leaves that something fresh and green could grow from, to mimic a process of accretion. Also to suggest the process of letting time and the earth transmute pain, grief, and death into green plants, fresh life, a garden, a feast. This idea of layers reminded me of a painter I heard of many years ago, Claudia Bernardi. She builds up rich saturated images of pure pigments, layer upon layer. Her painting process suggests the work she has done with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Unit to exhume noncombatant civilians who were murdered during the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. In this work, she patiently uncovered layers, using the painstaking tools of archaeology, to lay bare a history of grief and thereby to transmute the darkness into new life and hope.

So these were some of the ideas that went into the painting. I hope that I captured some of the thoughts and feelings that went into writing the lyrics. The process of making the painting itself featured a lot of stress and terror. From creating the underdrawing and then covering that over with paint. Every layer of paint represents another possibility of catastrophe: of making a mistake or a bad choice that you can't recover from. Making the painting was a good reminder: Being creative is an act of courage. Making something new, something for others to like or dislike or misinterpret, is extraordinarily hard to do. Will I do it again? Absolutely.