Saturday, January 20, 2007

Dreary Day Brighteners

We are in the doldrums of winter now. Cold rain dominates our weather, with temperatures hovering right around freezing. Brrr. There is nothing quite like miserable weather to drive people inside to a warm hearth! When the weather outside is miserably cold, I am drawn to spicy flavors that warm me from the inside out. We found just the thing last night - a spicy red curry with fish. The flavors in curries can be immeasurably complex, but eventually they center on the back of the throat with a heat that both soothes and energizes. It eases whatever ails you, just like your grandmother might have made (if your grandmother was Thai, perhaps!).

This fish curry recipe works well for us, plus it is flexible enough that almost anyone can adapt it to fit individual taste preferences. We serve it with a fresh lime and coconut salad. Enjoy!

Red Curry with Fish


1 pound of firm white fish, such as halibut or haddock

2-4 tbs red curry paste

2 cups coconut milk

4+ slices of ginger (sliced into ‘coins’)

1 stalk of lemon grass, outer layer peeled, ends removed, chopped into ½ inch pieces

2-3 cloves of garlic, slivered

3 Indonesian lime leaves (also known as Kefir lime leaves)

1 lime

2 tbs fish sauce

1-2 tbs brown sugar

Cilantro, ¼ cup leaves

Thai basil, ¼ cup leaves

2 cups rice, cooked


Choose fish that is not too thin so that it will hold up throughout cooking. Briefly sauté fish on both sides in a small quantity of vegetable oil. Remove to a plate while you make the curry.

Add the red curry paste to the pan, and quickly stir-fry. Add 1 cup of coconut milk and blend well. As the curry sauce cooks, add ginger, lemon grass, garlic and lime leaves. (Be sure to know exactly how many ‘coins’ of ginger you add in case you wish to remove them prior to service.) Add the fish sauce, juice from one half of the lime, one tbs of brown sugar, and the remaining cup of coconut milk. Allow the ingredients to simmer a few minutes until the sauce is a consistency that you like.

Just prior to service, return the fish to the sauce and add the cilantro and basil. Serve over rice.

Cook’s notes:

This dish is quite flexible, and you can easily adjust the taste according to your own preferences. Add more coconut milk to reduce the spicy heat. Add more curry paste (a tiny bit at a time) if you like more heat. You can also add more lime juice, fish sauce, or brown sugar to fit with your own preferences.

Green or yellow curry pastes make a good variation of this dish.

Serve a lime and coconut salad as a refreshing side dish with this curry.

Lime and Coconut Salad*


1 cup grated sweetened coconut

1 English cucumber, seeded

Grated zest and juice of 1 lime

1 jalapeno, minced

1 mango, cubed

1-2 tbs olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

*Adapted from the Joy of Cooking


Mix all ingredients and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving. May be made a day ahead, although it is best when served within a few hours. Other fruits may be used, such as papaya or melon. Delicious when served as an accompaniment to fish or curry dishes.

Thursday, January 4, 2007


A recent magazine from the makers of my beloved Nespresso interviewed a number of notable people from the art world. Five questions were posed to each interviewee. Of the five, the most interesting (to me) was, “Do you have a daily ritual that you absolutely could not do without?” It is a curious question because rituals are one of the ways in which we define ourselves.

I’ve previously mentioned that making a cup of coffee each morning serves as a steadfast ritual to steer me forward through the day. Perhaps that is one I could not do without. I have other regular activities as well: checking email in the morning, writing a little bit each day, things like that. With the possible exception of writing, most of those regular activities are the normal flotsam and jetsam of life. They don’t really rise to the level of ritual. They are necessities perhaps, needed activities to keep life from going off the deep end. But routine practices and chores are not really a ritual. To be a ritual, I think the practice must be 1) regularly performed, 2) essential for self, and 3) a point of departure for greater experiences. Maybe that is too much importance to place on one cup of coffee or a morning jog, but ritual should be more than a mere habit. Even the ordinary can become special.

Rituals can be grand, of course. Nations and organizations create bold, stirring rituals that are shared communally. These are important for a collective identity. But the most significant rituals are those that are personal and quiet, private moments in which you center yourself, place your feet firmly on the ground, and ready yourself for what ever follows. They are yours and yours alone.

So think about it. Do you have a daily ritual that you absolutely could not do without?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007


The first day back at work after a long break is always a shock. No more sleepy mornings snuggling deep under a comforter, without even a toe brave enough to creep into the cold morning air. No more late breakfasts that stretch into lunch. No more reading books late into the night or midnight movies. Holiday breaks are lovely and sometimes decadent, but unfortunately they cannot last forever. Eventually we must be brave and face those regular routines that, after all, pay for our vacation.

There is no need to suffer, though. There must be a way to easy back into the grind, to create a semblance of dignity to the rude awakening of a back-to-work schedule. Coffee served in a favorite mug fills that need for me. No sissy sugar or cream. No hazelnut or mocha. Just pure coffee, black and strong, points the way through the fog.

I like the ritual of selecting just the right mug, heating the espresso machine, waiting for that familiar sound of water pressing through beans. I like the look of steam rising off a perfect crema. Mostly, I like the jolt of caffiene finding its way into my consciousness.

Call me a java junky. I can live with that.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Good Luck

There are some culinary experiences that you must have at an early age or else it is nearly impossible to have those tastes imbedded in your soul, a part of your identity that has no beginning or end. When I harken back to my childhood days, it is tastes and smells from my grandmother’s kitchen that resonate deep within me.

My grandmother was a practical cook. She grew some of what she cooked or made use of what was available to her in the local stores. She had the essentials of any modern kitchen: 4-burner stove and a double oven (really quite fancy for her day). She had a big Sunbeam Mixmaster and a percolator. She didn’t own any appliances we now think of as important, such as a microwave, food processor, or blender. She probably never heard of espresso, yet there was always a simmering pot of water in case someone wanted a cuppa instant Folgers. Instant coffee aside, grandmother was a great cook before Julia or Jacques taught the rest of us how to cut up a chicken.

My cooking roots grow deeply into that history. In the subsequent years we’ve increased cultural awareness and expanded culinary horizons by having access to fresh food from the other side of the world at our doorstep overnight. We’ve watched chefs on TV teach, compete, and entertain. We have more restaurant options. From my home, I’m within an easy walk of Thai, Salvadoran, Greek, Italian, and French eateries, not to mention burger or pizza joints.

But those early tastes and smells are the ones that call to me from a not so distant history. When I cook those foods again, I share my meal with those who first shared theirs with me.

Today is such a day. Our family (and if you are from the South you already know this) ate a heaping mess o’ black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. If you didn’t have a bowl of black-eyes, you were doomed to a luckless, miserable year. Eat the peas and you will have good luck. Eat a lot of peas and you will know joy and fortune from January to December.

It is said that there are folks from up North who think of black-eyed peas as beneath them, people who don’t really understand why such a big deal is made of eating them on the first day of the year. I cannot explain good fortune to those people, nor can I explain how their very well being depends on a particular pea. One of those people lives in my household. It is with grave responsibility that I see to his good luck every year. It is a heady responsibility, but one that I do not shirk.

So, from my home to yours, I wish you good luck and great fortune this year. But to be on the safe side, you should eat a heaping helping of black-eyed peas!

Texas Caviar

This recipe makes a flavorful salad or side dish. Adapt it with whatever you have on hand to suit your preferred tastes. Be sure to serve black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck!


2 cups of fresh black-eyed peas, rinsed and carefully picked over

2-3 slices of bacon, chopped into small pieces (see Cooks Notes below)

1 cup of sweet onions, chopped

1-3 fresh jalapenos, seeded and finely chopped (see Cooks Notes below)

Several cloves of garlic, minced

½ cup chopped stewed tomatoes, drained (or 1 cup of fresh tomatoes, seeded)

1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar (or red wine, if you like traditional flavors)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire

Salt and pepper to taste


In a medium saucepan, cook the chopped bacon until the fat is rendered and the bacon is beginning to crisp. Remove the bacon pieces to a paper towel, and drain all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan.

To the hot fat, add the onions and jalapenos. After they have begun to soften, add the garlic, and then stir the vegetables to assure that the fat is evenly distributed.

After 1-2 minutes (don’t let the garlic start to brown), add the peas and enough water to just cover the peas and vegetables. Gently simmer for 20-30 minutes, covered, until the peas are tender. (Be careful not to overcook or the water will evaporate and leave you with a burned mess.)

Add the chopped tomatoes to the cooked peas, and then stir in the vinegar and Worcestershire. Simmer a few minutes more, uncovered until all liquids are absorbed.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve warm as a side dish or cold as a salad. May be made the day before to allow flavors to blend.

Cooks Notes:

There are a million ways to prepare a good mess of black-eyed peas. Begin by choosing what form of pea you will use: dried, fresh, canned, or frozen. Then decide if your peas will end up as the main course, a side vegetable, or an appetizer. It is all up to you! I start with fresh peas whenever possible, and let my imagination determine how the peas should be prepared.

If you don’t have fresh jalapenos available, it is fine to substitute canned jalapenos other fresh peppers. If you don’t have any peppers (fresh or hot), try adding some decent hot sauce such as Tabasco.

Black-eyed peas are traditionally cooked with bacon. If you don't have bacon, but have saved some bacon fat from previous cooking adventures, use that fat as a reasonable substitution. It will add a wonderful smoky flavor to the peas. You can also substitute chopped ham or even a bit of smoked sausage. It is up to you!