Pad Thai in Thailand

May 11th, 2016 § 6 comments § permalink

pad Thai

Simple yet elegant and flavorful pad Thai

Years ago pad Thai acted as my gateway into Thai cuisine. Unsure what to order at a new, neighborhood, Southeast Asian restaurant, I opted for a simple noodle dish that promised complex flavors, interesting textures and a touch of the exotic. With hints of piquant tamarind, crunchy peanuts and salty fish sauce pad Thai delivered on its word. After that first satisfying encounter it became my go-to meal when dining or ordering out.

Bangkok pad Thai

Bangkok street vendor serving made-to-order pad Thai.

After 15 years of sampling this specialty on American soil, I wanted it to be the first thing that I ate in Thailand. I’d tried countless Western interpretations of this stir fry. It was time to experience the real deal. This proved surprisingly easy for you can find noodle carts, shops and restaurants serving phàt Thai on almost every street in Bangkok. The same holds true in Northern Thailand.

Popular with locals as well as food-obsessed tourists, this dish has a lot going for it. For starters, it’s inexpensive. Depending on where you buy it in Thailand, you can pay as little as $1 for this filling and wholesome food. Obviously, it’s not difficult to find and, when you do, your repast will be fresh and made-to-order. Whether it’s the abundance of fresh, local ingredients or my overactive imagination, pad Thai does taste markedly brighter and better in Thailand.

stir-frying pad thai

Stir-frying pad Thai

For a dish that packs a tremendous amount of flavor, pad Thai requires surprisingly few ingredients. Along with the aforementioned tamarind paste, peanuts and fish sauce, it contains of rice noodles, bean sprouts, scallions, shallots, preserved turnip and tofu. Occasionally, cooks will scramble a raw egg into the mixture. They may also add dried or fresh shrimp to the stir fry. A few Bangkok street vendors offer chicken, too, but this is less authentic than the inclusion of egg and/or shrimp.

ingredients in pad thai

Just a few simple ingredients make a delicious pad Thai.

Considering the limited number of ingredients and speed and ease of preparation, I’m surprised that I hadn’t tried making pad Thai at home sooner. After all, I have a wok, rice noodles, tamarind paste, fish sauce, sugar and peanuts. Tofu, scallions, shallots and bean sprouts aren’t tough to track down. Only the preserved sweet radish proved challenging. This I ordered online.

If you leave out the fish sauce, pad Thai is a delightful dish for vegan friends. For those vegans interested in making the following recipe, try this Cook’s Illustrated substitution for fish sauce.

pad Thai in Thailand

My first pad Thai meal in Thailand

If you own a wok, use it to stir fry the ingredients. Otherwise, a heavy, well-oiled sauté or frying pan will work.
Serves 2

2 teaspoons grapeseed or canola oil
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce or vegan “fish sauce”
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 large shallot, diced
2 teaspoons preserved sweet radish, rinsed and minced
4 to 5 ounces firm tofu, diced
Generous handful of rice noodles, soaked in warm water for 5 minutes to soften
2 spring onions, whites sliced and greens cut into 2-inch long matchsticks
Handful of bean sprouts
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, chopped
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 lime wedges

Heat the oil on medium-high until almost smoking. As the oil is heating, whisk together the tamarind paste, water, fish sauce and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside.

Add the shallot to the wok and stir fry for 1 minute before adding the preserved turnip and tofu. Stir fry for 30 to 60 seconds before adding the rice noodles and a smidgen of water. You want the noodles to be soft but not soggy. Stir fry for 1 minute and then add the tamarind fish sauce.

Stir-frying noodles

Stir-frying the noodles

Simmer the ingredients for another 1 to 2 minutes before adding the spring onions and most of the bean sprouts. Cook for 30 seconds or until the sprouts and onions look slightly wilted. Remove the pan from the heat.

Place equal amounts of chopped peanuts and chili powder on two plates. Divide the pad Thai evenly between the plates and sprinkle the remaining bean sprouts over each. Place a lime wedge next to the pad Thai and serve hot.

Sweet Steamed Banana Cakes

April 26th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

banana cakes

What steamed banana cakes lack in sexiness, they make up for in deliciousness.

Still enamored with the foods that I made and ate in Southeast Asia, I want to share another recipe from Thailand. This time it is a dessert featuring my favorite fruit, bananas.

When I say “dessert,” you might imagine a thick slice of Red Eye Chocolate Cake, a bowl of velvety Pumpkin Ginger Trifle or plate of the elegant, jam-filled cookie hindbærsnitte. In the U.S. we tend to like our desserts bursting with flavor, textures, sugar and fat. However, in terms of dessert, Asia resembles the Mediterranean; both regions end their meals on a lighter note with fruit-based sweets. In Thailand you may cap off the night with pieces of fresh mango or jack fruit, poached custard apples or, as is the case in this post, steamed banana cakes.

sliced bananas

Bananas before the mashing.

This dish is a straightforward as its name indicates. To make sweet steamed banana cakes, you mash together bananas, flour, sugar and coconut milk until a smooth batter forms. You then spoon the batter into small bowls, place the bowls in a steamer basket, cover and steam the little cakes for roughly 15 minutes or until firm and cake-like. Easy!

banana varieties

A few of the banana varieties available at Thai markets.

The only trick to making great steamed banana cakes involves the bananas. In Thailand you have over 30 varieties from which to choose. In the U.S. we have one, the mild tasting Cavendish. Because it is neither as sweet nor as flavorful as its Asian relations, the Cavendish performs best when fully ripe. I wait until my bananas have browned and softened before using them in this recipe. Wanting these truly to be “sweet steamed banana cakes,” I also alter the type of and quantity of sugar added, switching out granulated for light brown sugar and bumping up the amount a smidgen. When serving these to diehard sweets lovers, I might pair the cakes with macerated strawberries, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or drizzle of chocolate sauce. Otherwise, I just serve them warm.

Makes 8 to 12 small cakes

3 large, extremely ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
1/3 cup rice or coconut flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch salt
1/2 firmly packed cup light brown sugar, divided
1/4 cup coconut milk

Place a steamer basket inside a stockpot or steamer filled with 1-2 inches of water. Cover and bring the water to a simmer over medium high heat.

In a large bowl using a heavy spoon, mash the bananas until smooth. Add the flour and cornstarch and mash again until the ingredients are well-combined and no large lumps exist. Add the salt, half of the brown sugar and coconut milk and mash again until a batter forms.

Mashed bananas

Mashing together the bananas and flour

Taste and adjust for sweetness, adding up to 1/4 cup (all of the remaining) brown sugar. Note that, if you use coconut flour, you should not need to add the remaining sugar.

Stir the ingredients together until the batter is smooth. Evenly spoon the batter into 8 to 12 small bowls.

Place the bowls on the steamer basket, cover the basket with a lid and steam for up to 15 minutes, checking after 10 minutes to see if the cakes are cooked through. The tops will appear set and be firm yet springy to the touch. The exact timing depends upon the size of bowls that you use. Deep bowls will require longer than shallow ones. Remove the basket from the stockpot or steamer and allow the cakes to cool slightly before serving.

The Vietnamese Fish Dish Cha Ca

April 11th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

The finished dish, cha ca

Thanks to my husband’s stepfather Luong, who was born and raised in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), I know a bit more than the average red-haired, American food writer about Vietnamese home cooking. For starters, in the country you might make your meals on a stove fueled by coconut husks while in the city you probably cook over a gas flame. Your meals may be as simple as noodles, rice or steamed fish or as complicated as spring rolls, hot and sour soups or meat-filled crepes. Whatever you make, it invariably is fresh, seasonal and local.

Cha ca cooking away in Hanoi

While I understand Vietnamese home cooking, until last month, I didn’t have a good sense of what constituted a traditional restaurant meal. By this I mean something generally eaten outside the home or that bears the signature of one chef or restaurant. That all changed when I traveled to North Vietnam and ate cha ca.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in Hanoi’s old quarter, a shop owned by the Doan family began selling a fish dish known as châ cá; cha ca means “fried fish.” Using white, firm-fleshed fish such as locally caught snakehead or Vietnamese catfish, Mr. Doan marinated slices of fish in a combination of fresh galangal, turmeric, fish sauce and lemon juice. After marinating the fish, he lightly grilled it. He then delivered it, along with bowls of dill, basil, spring onions, peanuts and vermicelli noodles, a frying pan and portable burner, to his customer. In turn, the customer fried the fish, herbs and onions until hot.

Vermicelli noodles, shrimp paste sauce, scallions, fish sauce & peanuts all go into cha ca.

Once the ingredients had finished cooking, they were piled atop vermicelli noodles. Dressed with fish and shrimp paste sauces, the dish was finished with a smattering of roasted peanuts. With that the diner could dig into his fish dinner at Mr. Doan’s restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong.

Due to exhaustion, traffic and the confusion brought on by both (8 flights in 11 days can be a killer), I didn’t get my first taste of cha ca at its birthplace, Cha Ca La Vong. Instead I ended up across the street at Cha Ca La Luong. Seated outside at a standard, child-sized dining table on equally small stools, we watched as our server sautéed the greens and pre-cooked fish in a steaming hot, non-stick pan. The experience was memorable, the resulting dish was, too. Cha ca is a pleasing combination of textures and savory flavors and, although associated with restaurant cooking, it can be made at home.

Note: If you cannot find fresh galangal, substitute fresh ginger. Likewise, if fresh turmeric is unavailable, increase the amount of ground turmeric to 2 1/2 teaspoons.
Serves 4

2-inch piece fresh galangal, peeled
3-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 pounds Alaskan cod fillets, snakehead fillets or other firm, white-fleshed fish
1 tablespoon sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes
4 ounces rice/vermicelli noodles
3 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 bunches scallions, trimmed to 4-inch lengths
1 small white onion, sliced
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
2/3 cup fresh dill
1/3 cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
Shrimp paste sauce, optional, to taste

Place the galangal, fresh and ground turmeric and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blend and pulse into a paste has formed. Scoop the paste from the bowl, spread it over the fish slices, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

As the fish is marinating, whisk together the sugar, lemon juice, fish sauce and chili flakes. Set aside.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the rice/vermicelli noodles and cook for 1 minute. Place the noodles in a colander and set aside.

Remove the fish from the refrigerator. Heat half the oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add the fish and cook for 1 to 2 minutes before flipping over the slices and cooking on the other side for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the fish from the pan and set it aside on a plate.

Heat the remaining oil in the pan over medium heat. Add half the scallions, the onion, basil and dill and season with salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add the fish back to the pan and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, until warmed.

Spoon equal amounts of noodles into 4 bowls. Place the greens and fish in the bowls. Sprinkle the peanuts over top. Serve with the fish sauce and optional shrimp paste sauce.

Shrimp Khao Soi in Chiang Mai, Thailand

March 16th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Wat in Chiang Mai

Wat Buppharam in Chiang Mai, Thailand, home of khao soi.

Along with talking to locals, visiting historical sites and browsing museums and shops, eating—and cooking—the regional cuisine always helps me to understand a new place. When I don’t have friends to show me the culinary ropes, I turn to hands-on cooking classes. That’s how I ended up at the Green Mango Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai,Thailand. Situated on a lush, bamboo- and coconut-tree lined property about 20 minutes from the center of Chiang Mai, Green Mango provided a lovely setting, well-stocked cook stations and delicious, classic recipes. Better still, it gave me a chance to learn from a native chef, shop for fresh ingredients and cook like Northern Thais do.

Ingredients in Thai cooking

Flavors of Thai cooking (clockwise from top): Thai eggplant, chilies, turmeric, finger root, shallot & garlic, lime, lemongrass, galangal, mace, pea eggplant, kefir lime and lime leaves

Among the traditional dishes made at Green Mango was khao soi (also spelled “kôw soy”). A specialty of Chiang Mai, this spicy curry features red curry paste, wheat- and egg-noodles and beef or chicken. Since I was the lone pescetarian in attendance, I was allowed to make an untraditional version of this culinary icon, shrimp khao soi.

raw shrimp

Two star ingredients in shrimp khao soi, fresh red curry paste and shrimp

To begin, I pummeled together such Thai favorites as lemongrass, galangal and finger root with a mortar and pestle. Once a smooth, colorful paste had formed, I brought a pan of coconut milk to a boil. A staple of Thai cuisine, coconut milk serves as the base for most curries. It also acted as a garnish for my shrimp khao soi.

shrimp khao soi

Garnishing my shrimp khao soi with crispy noodles, a slice of lime and coconut milk.

After boiling the milk, I added the curry paste and stirred the ingredients together. Within seconds a rich, spicy scent wafted up from my saucepan. Bold in color and aroma but even more assertive in flavor, this dish set the standard for all other curries. It, like my time at the Green Mango Thai Cookery School, remains a high point of visiting Northern Thailand.

shrimp khao soi

The finished dish, Shrimp Khao Soi

Recipe from the Green Mango Thai Cookery School
Serves 1

for the curry paste:
1 tablespoon sliced lemongrass
1 slice of fresh galangal and turmeric
Small piece of finger root
Zest from 1 kefir lime
Mace or grated nutmeg
Pinch of coriander, cumin seeds, garlic, shallot and shrimp paste
3 large dried chili peppers, soaked in water to soften
1 long pepper
1 cardamom pod
Half dried bay leaf
Small piece of cinnamon stick
1/2 star anise
Pinch of fennel

for the khao soi:
1 1/2 cups coconut milk, divided
Curry paste
4 shrimp
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon masala powder
Stir fried egg noodles, for garnish
Cilantro (coriander leaf), for garnish
Sliced shallot, for garnish
Scant amount of coconut milk
Small lime, quartered, for garnish

for the stir fried egg noodles:
1/2 to 1 tablespoon canola oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh egg noodles

Using a mortar and pestle, mash together the lemongrass, galangal, turmeric and finger root until a soft paste forms. Add the kefir lime zest, strip of mace or grated nutmeg, coriander, cumin seeds, garlic, shallot and shrimp paste and continue pounding with the pestle until the ingredients are well combined. Add the remaining ingredients and crush until a firm, evenly mixed paste forms. Note that you can also make this curry paste by pulsing the ingredients together in a food processor.

boiling coconut milk

Simmering the coconut milk

In a medium saucepan bring half the coconut milk to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the curry paste and stir until well combined. Add the shrimp and allow it to cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the flesh has turned coral in color and the shrimp begins to curl. Remove the shrimp from the saucepan and set aside.

Add the remaining coconut milk, water, curry powder and masala and stir to combine. Allow the ingredients to simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until the flavors have melded together and the curry has cooked down.

stir frying noodles

Stir frying the egg noodles

While the curry is simmering, make the stir-fried egg noodles. Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil on high in a wok or sauté pan. Add the egg noodles and toss until browned, about 1 minute total. Remove the noodles from the pan and allow them to drain on a clean, dry cloth.

Add the shrimp back to the pan and toss lightly to reheat. Spoon the curry into a large bowl, sprinkle the noodles, shallots and cilantro over top and drizzle coconut milk over this. Serve shrimp khao soi alongside the quartered lime.

Red Eye Chocolate Cake

February 12th, 2016 § 2 comments § permalink

chocolate cake


Coffee and chocolate. Two things that I love brought together in one cake, the red eye chocolate cake.

For those unaccustomed to hearing “red eye” associated with anything other than an overnight flight, this red eye refers to regular coffee with a shot of espresso added to it. As you might expect, espresso boosts the coffee’s flavor. It also increases the amount of caffeine in the drink. It’s a perfect pick-me-up after a late night flight or simply a late night.

In keeping with its namesake’s bold reputation, Red Eye Chocolate Cake boasts of four layers of cocoa- and coffee-infused cake slathered with thick, rich chocolate ganache. This is a dessert that is both decadent and delicious. I can’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate a holiday known for an arrow-slinging god, a sainted martyr, love and chocolate than with a slice of this lavish sweet.

chocolate cake


Because people often balk at the thought of icing a cake, particularly a layer cake, I’ve made a short, instructional video on how to frost a cake. As you’ll see firsthand, it’s surprisingly easy to do.

I cannot overemphasize the merits of homemade frosting. With ganache you need only two ingredients—chocolate and heavy cream—and 5 to 10 minutes of time. Although fast and simple, ganache looks elegant and tastes heavenly. Once you’ve made a ganache, you’ll wonder why you ever opened a plastic tub of that artificially enhanced frosting.


Serves 10 to 12

for the cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup strong brewed coffee, at room temperature
1/2 cup espresso, at room temperature
1/4 cup milk
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened
3 cups plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature

for the icing:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
24 ounces semi-sweet chocolate morsels
Bar of bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, shaved or grated, for decorating

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and line with the bottoms with parchment rounds two 9-inch springform pans.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.

In a large bowl whisk together the coffee, espresso and milk. Add the cocoa powder and whisk until well combined. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy, periodically scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well combined.

Butter and sugar


Add half the flour mixture and beat until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the remaining flour and beat until just combined. Pour in the cocoa mixture and beat until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically.

Spoon equal amounts of batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean. Remove the pans from the oven and allow the cakes to cool for 20 to 30 minutes. Take the cakes out of the pans and allow them to cool completely on wire racks.

Once the cakes have cooled, you can make the ganache. To do this, place the cream and chocolate in a non-stick saucepan or microwaveable bowl. If using the stove top, heat the two over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the chocolate has melted and the two have combined together. Remove from the heat and, using a wire whisk, whisk until a smooth, creamy frosting has formed. If using the microwave, heat the two for 25 seconds, remove the bowl from the microwave and whisk the ingredients together. Repeat until the chocolate has melted and a smooth, creamy frosting has formed. Allow the ganache to cool to room temperature.

If the cakes seem a bit sticky or soft, chill them in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes before slicing each cake into 2 halves. To slice the cakes, insert a sharp, thin-bladed knife into the middle of the cake’s side and sliced around the cake until you reach your starting point. You may need to re-insert the blade so that you cut all the way through to the center of the cake. Repeat with the other cake. You will then have 4, roughly equally sized layers of cake.



Center the first layer on a cake stand or plate. Placing 1 to 2 tablespoons of ganache on your icing spatula, spread a thin coating of icing — the “crumb coat” — over the top of the cake. You can then spread more icing on it before placing the next layer on top. Put another crumb coat, followed by a regular coat, of ganache on the cake. Angling your spatula, spread ganache over the sides of the cake. Place another layer of cake on top of the iced layer. Repeat the above steps until the cake is fully frosted.

To decorate, sprinkle chocolate shavings over the top of the cake. Serve with coffee or a big glass of milk.

Here’s to Apple Frankie

January 29th, 2016 § 6 comments § permalink

When I started Kitchen Kat in 2007, I wasn’t thinking about social media followers, book contracts or sundry other motivators that drive bloggers today. My intention was, and remains, to share favorite food stories, photographs and recipes. Frequently the posts have been inspired by travel. Equally often they have originated from conversations and experiences with my old neighbor and friend Frank P. Wilmer Jr. a/k/a Apple Frankie.

As is the case with many of our encounters, my earliest memory of Frank involves food. In my early 20s, newly married and new to Southeastern Pennsylvania, I was surprised when a cherubic faced, stout man with a shock of white hair on his head and a plastic grocery bag in his hand showed up on our doorstep one spring evening. Introducing himself as our next-door neighbor, Frank handed over the bag and prompted me to open it. Peeking inside, I saw a jumble of long, beige, honeycombed mushrooms. Wild morels, Frank explained, plucked from the woods behind his farmhouse.

A product of the suburbs, I had never picked a mushroom anywhere outside of a sterile grocery store. Up to that moment, my most radical mushroom meal had consisted of a benign looking Portobello. Faced with peculiar, moist, bug- and dirt-dotted fungi, I decided that I would thank the friendly man for his unusual welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift and, once he left, toss the bag into the trash. Instead of discarding his present, I ended up learning how to clean and cook one of nature’s delicacies.


Rhubarb fresh from Frank and Jane’s yard

My education didn’t end with morels. A few weeks later Frank and his wife Jane stopped over with a bag stuffed with what looked like red celery. It turned out not to be an obscure celery variety but rhubarb pulled from their yard. In spite, or because, of my ignorance Frank followed up with containers wild berries and invitations to pick organic cherries, elderflowers, elderberries, apples and persimmons on the Wilmer’s 30-acre, gentleman’s farm.

While I liked these gifts, what I appreciated most were the lessons that accompanied them. Curious about how to grow grapes, make wine, cider or sushi, dry fruit or chili peppers, gut and fillet fish, craft the Buddha out of marzipan, control the local groundhog population, market a business (one word: signage) or pepper conversations with quotes from Dickinson, Frost or Shakespeare? Thanks to Frank, I possess the know-how to do all these things. Granted, I don’t quote poetry or keep the wildlife community in check but, if I wanted to, I probably could.

Frank Wilmer

Fishing with Frank

Along with hands-on knowledge he imparted life lessons on how to be a good neighbor, an adventurous traveler and informed citizen. He also showed what it meant to be a friend. After my mother, uncle, father, childhood friend, cats and dog died in rapid succession, Frank was the first to call and ask point blank if I was, and was going to be, okay. Clever as well as kind, he was also the first to tease me about being a writer and a food writer at that. “Don’t hold back. Tell me what you really think of rhubarb.”

Frank’s background was as diverse as his insights. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Temple University, worked in military intelligence in Saigon during the Vietnam War and backpacked around the globe with Jane and, later, their children Emma and Cody. He opened a winery—Wilmont Winery—long before operating a boutique winery was in vogue. For roughly 30 years he also ran Apple Frankie’s, a prosperous funnel cake business that he had created in 1973. He was, as we liked to call him, the funnel cake king.

Frank Wilmer

Sean, Pepe and Frank on a buggy, summer morning at the farm

When he wasn’t working at fairs and festivals, wintering with Jane in the Florida Keys, sharing updates on Emma and Cody, golfing, fishing, volunteering, visiting friends or hanging out with his much loved dogs, he buzzed around on his Kubota tractor and golf cart in shorts, a threadbare Temple ball cap and faded T-shirt. With Frank there was no artifice or pretentiousness. He was who he was. He embraced life and, in his own words, ‘had found his bliss.’

A larger-than-life man was bound to become a subject of my writing. First profiled for one of my graduate journalism school assignments, Frank went on to appear in syndicated articles written for Tribune Media Services, features for the Journal Register and Zester Daily, Kitchen Kat posts, my seafood cookbook Fish Market and several Kitchen Kat Youtube videos. When Herring: A Global History comes out, he will appear there, too.

Frank Wilmer

Frank (and my right hand) at the launch of Fish Market

Sadly, unlike at the May 2013 launch of Fish Market where he sat only a few feet from me, smiling as I nattered on about writing and fish, Frank will no longer be my literal right hand man. On January 15, 2016 he passed away unexpectedly. He was 72.

Among the countless things that I will miss about Frank Wilmer are the early morning calls concerning grammar, word usage and his love of ellipsis, photo exchanges of fish caught, food made and vistas seen and emails with a single consonant as the subject line. (Why waste all that time on a subject line? Make people curious. Make them want to open that email.) I will miss the cooking projects, impromptu field trips, colorful stories and comfortable conversations. Most of all, I simply will miss Frank.

With Jane and Frank Wilmer

Honeyed Fruit and Whole Wheat Couscous

January 14th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink



Over the years I’ve prattled on about my fascination with couscous, my unwise decision to drag a couscousiere across North Africa and my ongoing dabbling with these granules of semolina. Light yet hearty, savory yet sweet and toothsome whether hot, room temperature or chilled, couscous’s almost incongruous nature is what keeps me hooked. I’d like to see spaghetti pair as smoothly with such disparate ingredients as cinnamon, cumin, cilantro, dill, cucumbers, dried cherries, balsamic vinegar or almond milk. Yeah, it’s a versatile food.

Before the holidays I started tinkering with an old favorite, Sweet & Nutty Couscous, transforming it into the following dish. To some, the name “Honeyed Fruit and Whole Wheat Couscous” might sound redundant. After all, couscous comes from durum wheat so all couscous could be considered wheat couscous. However, this recipe works best when you use the mildly nutty whole wheat, pearl couscous. If you have a couscousiere collecting dust on your kitchen shelf, by all means wipe it off and put it to work. Otherwise, instant or quick cooking whole wheat couscous is perfect.

Serves 6 to 8

2 cups cooked pearl/Israeli whole wheat couscous
1 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
3/4 cup chopped dried dates
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon white pepper

In a large bowl toss together the cooked couscous, walnuts, cranberries, apricots and dates. In a separate bowl whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, honey, salt, thyme and pepper. Pour the dressing over the couscous and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Note that this can be made one to two days in advance. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

The Dessert Table: Cranberry Torte

December 29th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Dessert table

Partially picked over dessert table

Growing up outside of Pittsburgh, I assumed that all wedding receptions featured those decadent displays known as cookie tables. Weighted down by platters of cream-filled lady locks, lemon bars, nut horns, Mexican wedding cookies, spritz cookies and anise-laced pizzelles, these linen-covered tables attracted guests in droves. Introduced as a low-cost alternative to an expensive wedding cake, the cookie table eventually became a companion to cake. Custom dictated that family members make the cookies but, if you didn’t have gifted bakers at home, you could do as my mother did and enlist the help of a local bakery and family friends.

dessert table

Gathering around the Christmas Eve dessert table

At parties it was the dessert table around which people clustered. Here the cookies were less ostentatious — think chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter blossoms, pecan sandies and butterscotch — but just as plentiful. So too were the brownies, fruit and custard pies, marshmallow-studded ambrosia and heavenly angel food cakes. What didn’t make it to the dessert table? For obvious reasons I never saw ice cream, make-your-own-sundae bars or chocolate fondue pots. Generally, anything that didn’t melt or cause a traffic jam around the table was good to serve.

dessert table

2015 Christmas Eve offerings: Pumpkin igloo Bundt cake, four-layer chocolate cake, cookie tier, cranberry torte

Although I now live far from my childhood home, I still honor these delicious traditions with my own dessert table. The offerings change with each year and party theme but the dessert rule remains the same: Bake two or three cakes. Make a pie, tort or tart. Ask friends to bring a sweet or two. Put it all on the kitchen table and dig in!

cranberry torte

Putting the decorative top on my cranberry torte

This year I replaced my standard Christmastime treat, cranberry bakewell tart, with a cranberry torte. Similar to the raspberry jam-filled Linzer torte, a cranberry torte contains ground nuts, jam and a cut-out top crust. If you’re handy with a rolling pin and knife, fashion latticework out of the torte dough. If not, you can use cookie cutters or a pastry stamp to make a pattern on the top of your cranberry torte. If your torte ends up looking a bit mundane or goofy, dust confectioner’s sugar over the top before setting it out. Confectioner’s sugar not only tastes divine but also hides scores of imperfections. I speak with authority on that!

Serves 10 to 12

for the filling:
4 cups fresh, whole cranberries
4 cups granulated sugar
Juice and zest of 2 oranges
1 cup cranberry juice

for the crust:
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Confectioner’s sugar, optional, for dusting

To make the cranberry filling, place the cranberries, sugar, orange juice and zest and cranberry juice in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high, stirring the ingredients together as they cook. Reduce the heat to medium-low and, using a spatula or spoon, mash and stir the berries. Simmer the ingredients until thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the cranberry jam to cool to room temperature. Note that the filling can be made a week in advance and refrigerated until ready to use.

To make the crust, put the nuts and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process until a flour has formed.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and cloves. Add the nut flour and whisk until combined. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the 1 cup sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy, periodically scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat until well combined.

Scrape down the bowl, add half the nut-flour mixture and mix until combined. Scrape down the sides again, add the remaining nut-flour mixture and beat until combined.

Divide the dough into two balls, with one ball slightly larger than the other. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until chilled.

When you’re ready to bake the torte, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Lightly flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin. Take the larger of the two dough balls and, placing it on the floured work surface, roll out the dough until it is between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick. Lay the dough over the tart pan and pat it down so that the dough is evenly spread out in the pan.

cranberry torte

Spreading the cranberry jam

Using a spatula or frosting spreader, fill the dough with the cranberry jam. You should use most, if not all, of the jam.

Roll out the other dough ball until it’s between 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. Using either a sharp knife, cookie cutter or dough stamp, cut out strips or shapes and arrange them on the top of the cranberry jam.

Bake until the crust is golden brown, 45 to 55 minutes. Remove it from the oven and allow the torte to cool for 20 minutes before removing it from the pan. Allow it to cool completely on a wire rack before dusting with optional confectioner’s sugar and serving.

Books for Cooks – 2015’s Cookbook Reviews

December 3rd, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

Out of the 3,000 or so cookbooks published in the U.S. and the much smaller number that I’ve encountered since last Christmas I have felt apathetic about most, appalled by a few (‘Seriously? Did you not test a single recipe in this book? Apparently not.’) and excited by the following titles. A few are older publications. Several possess 75 recipes or less. Yet, all would be lovely gifts for new or seasoned cooks.

Citrus: Sweet and Savory Sun-Kissed Recipes by Valerie Aikman-Smith and Victoria Pearson (Ten Speed Press, 2015)
In Citrus exotic pomelos, yuzu and kumquats join everyday lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit in 75 recipes for drinks, entrees, sides and dessert. Here familiar dishes—key lime pie, limoncello, whole roasted fish with lemon—appear alongside the inventive—grapefruit and gin marmalade, tangerine sticky ribs, orange-rosemary polenta cake—resulting in a broad, approachable, citrus-driven collection. With colorful photos and text Citrus is a pleasant pick-me-up for those dreary winter months.

Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done by the Editors of America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, 2015)
From the creators of Cook’s Illustrated” comes over 1,000 kitchen tips and tricks packed into one illustrated, paperback book. Not sure how to remove kernels from a corn cob, pin bones from a fish or the seed from stone fruit? How about turning over a whole turkey as it’s cooking or cleaning a French press? Kitchen Hacks has clear yet creative answers to these and innumerable other cooking conundrums. It’s a must-have handbook for both the novice and experienced cook.

Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break by Anna Brones (Ten Speed Press, 2015)
If you have a caffeine lover on your holiday list, Fika is the gift to give. This slim, illustrated book delves into Swedish coffee culture and the art of the coffee break. Although more a narrative history than a traditional recipe book, Fika does provide 40-plus easy-to-follow recipes. On offer are such Swedish favorites as hazelnut meringue torte, chocolate balls and cinnamon and cardamom buns. A nice stocking stuffer for the coffee drinker and sweets fan.

The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker & Jen Stevenson (Artisan, 2015)
While the title evokes warmer weather, lazier days and seasonal, portable foods, this illustrated cookbook has plenty of year-round recipes. From deviled eggs made 12 ways and 6 simple syrups to what to tuck inside a crisp baguette or lettuce cup, it serves up approximately 120 refreshing recipes. As you might expect from a book called The Picnic, tips for transporting food, creating a comfortable outdoor dining spot and food safety are included.

The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (Knopf, 1992)
The recent release of Lydia Bastianich’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine got me thinking about an older but invaluable book that might be overlooked by the modern cook. Originally published in 1973, Hazan’s tome is considered the most authoritative book on Italian cooking. Providing comprehensive instructions, illustrations and a wealth of information on ingredients and techniques, it is to Italian cooking what Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to French cuisine. Hazan’s book is wonderful gift for anyone who loves to cook and consume Italian food.

The World on a Plate by Mina Holland (Penguin, 2015)
Published in the UK as The Edible Atlas, which is the version that I own, and as The World on a Plate in the U.S., Holland’s book presents brief histories, descriptions and classic dishes of 40 cuisines. Broken down by countries and regions, The World on a Plate explores the nuances between France’s Normandy, Provence and Loire Valley and Northern and Southern Spain and the country’s Andalucia and Catalonia regions. It also looks at the overarching cuisine of such countries as Japan, Ethiopia, Germany and Korea. Signature recipes accompany each chapter. A good introduction to a range of cuisines and a solid reference book for travelers and cooks.

Relae: A Book of Ideas by Christian F. Puglisi (Ten Speed Press, 2014)
In Relae: A Book of Ideas former NOMA sous chef Christian F. Puglisi shares his story of starting the Michelin-starred, Copenhagen-based restaurant Relae, discusses crafting its sustainable, locally sourced dishes and determining ingredient pairings. Possessing lush color photos, cross referenced sections and detailed steps for such unconventional recipes as charred cucumber and fermented juice, this is a fabulous book for accomplished or adventurous cooks. Fans of narrative cookbooks and those interested in the rising popularity of Scandinavian cooking will likewise enjoy it.

Honey and Jam by Hannah Queen (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015)
An excellent choice for the baker and sweets lover, Honey and Jam serves up 75 cakes and cupcakes influenced by America’s Appalachian region. While the first 50 or so pages rehash baking basics—how to butter cake pans, fold ingredients, check for doneness, etc.—and what’s-in-season-when, the rest of Queen’s cookbook delivers an agreeable array of creative and toothsome recipes arranged according to season. Some high points are Apple Cider Doughnut Cake, Cranberry Ginger Cheesecake and Strawberry Layer Cake with Strawberry-Basil Buttercream. A tasty little book for any baker and cook.

Root to Leaf by Steven Satterfield (Harper Wave, 2015)
A produce-focused rather than strict vegetarian cookbook, Satterfield’s beautiful Root to Leaf inspires readers to cook and eat all their veggies and fruit, roots, stems and leaves included. The Atlanta-based chef arranges his 175 recipes according to season. Imbued with Southern flavors and charm, they include such memorable yet almost effortless dishes as cold brine-pickled blackberries, sweet potato buckwheat pancakes, orange and brandy mashed parsnips and blood orange ambrosia rice pudding. Well-written and informed, Root to Leaf will motivate even the most finicky to cook and consume a wide variety of healthful produce.

The River Cottage Booze Handbook by John Wright (Ten Speed Press, 2013)
Part of the River Cottage series, The River Cottage Booze Handbook teaches readers how to craft their own liquor, including wine, beer, cider and infused spirits. Using simple, seasonal ingredients, Wright takes readers step-by-step through such classics as rice wine and India pale ale and such modern creations as ginger wine, puffed wheat beer and smoked sloe gin. Wright’s light, approachable tone, wealth of knowledge, detailed steps and thorough explanations of what could go wrong will appeal to ardent home brewers as well as the more casual DIY’er.

Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery (Entrepreneur Media, 2015)
For the record you’ll find my name listed among the contributors to this how-to manual. Featuring 30 over craft producer profiles, it’s a useful resource for anyone dreaming of starting a craft brewery, distillery or cidery.

Crabbing for Blue Crabs

November 13th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

blue crab

Too small to keep, this little blue crab went back into the water.

The first time I went crabbing, I remember feeling underwhelmed. Where was the excitement, the blood rush, the fight-to-the-death with my quarry? Not where I was, that was for sure. I just tied a piece of raw chicken to the end of a nylon string, dropped it into the water, wiggled it a bit to attract attention and waited for a hungry crab to wander by and take hold. Sometimes the crab would sneak off with the chicken, leaving me to re-bait my string and wait. Sometimes he ended up in my plastic bucket. That was as lively as it got.

crab trap

Trap filled with blue crabs in Sunset Beach, NC

Years later I would come to think of line crabbing as far more thrilling than another method of capture, the crab trap. On a recent trip to North Carolina I experienced trapping in action. After baiting his traps with fish scraps, our friend Frank tossed the red, wire containers off his dock and left them to bob about in the water overnight. He didn’t add bait or jiggle lines. With traps there was only the wait. Although even less exhilarating, it proved far more productive than the old, a-single-crab-at-a-time line technique. One trap nabbed dozens of blue crabs.

Live blue crabs

Spunky blue crabs

If you end up with several dozen live crabs on your hands, you might want to do what Frank and his wife Jane did and throw a crab boil. Granted, unless you’re in a warm climate, you may not get a chance to do this until next spring or summer. Nonetheless …

Serves 4 to 6

4 gallons water
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup onion powder
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
Juice of 2 lemons
4 dozen live blue crabs, placed on ice in the refrigerator until ready to cook

Pour the water, spices and lemon juice into a large stockpot and bring the ingredients to a boil. Allow the liquid to boil for 10 minutes before adding the crabs to the pot. Cover and cook for 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the crabs from the pot, spread them onto a platter or a table lined with paper and dig in.

Boiled crab

Crab and shrimp boil

To eat whole, fresh crabs, twist off the claws and set them aside. Using a paring or crab knife or your fingers, pull off the triangle-shaped apron, gills, and intestines on the bottom of the crab. Throw these away. Holding the top shell at the front, pull it off and discard. With your hands tear the crab in half and then twist off the legs. Crab broken down, you’re ready to start eating.

Take the tip of a paring or crab knife and pick the meat off of the body. Do the same with the legs and claws. To reach the claw meat, you may need to strike the claws with a mallet. This will crack open the shell and expose a solid strip of meat. If the legs are small, you can just squeeze or suck the meat from them.