Persimmons and Chestnuts

the eternal search for umami

Glazed Carrots With Mystery Moroccan Spices

Glazed carrots

I’m blessed that I get to travel to some pretty fantastic locations work. But as anyone who travels a lot for work knows, you often spend more time in a hotel, meeting rooms, and conference space than you do actually exploring the city. Overseas trips often mean 18-hour workdays with little to no time to experience the city. But if you’re really lucky – and so far I have been – you’ll find a wonderful friend with a fast car, who knows the city, and doesn’t mind the company of a zombie.

And that is how I found myself in an old Mercedes convertible, top down, with the Moroccan afternoon sun casting a deep golden glow on the dusty Rabat roads. Adib is the young man at the wheel who has graciously volunteered to take me into the medina to buy spices. I suppose I should have been slightly nervous by the throngs of people and the fact that I don’t see any Westerners in this particular part of the medina. But truth be told, seconds before climbing into the car I had polished off a glass of vodka on the rocks – the celebratory drink signaling the end of yet another successful conference. Thus, blessed with an ambiguous ethnicity and a solid vodka buzz, I’m feeling pretty comfortable in the crowded market.

Adib skillfully navigates the medina. He occasionally pauses to shake the hand of a friend or exchange a few friendly words with a vendor, but he’s always quick to glance around to make sure the crowds haven’t swallowed me up. In no time we find our way to his favorite vendor whose piles of spices mimic a range of yellow, green, and red mountains. Turmeric, cumin, paprika – all excellent but I’m only interested in what I can’t identify. If I can recognize the spice by its smell, I pass. Embracing the challenge, the two men in the little stall begin excitedly pulling down containers of complex spice mixtures. There are hints of the familiar, but most of it is new and enchanting. They begin weighing and filling little bags with my selections. They write poisson in big black letters on one bag, kefta on another. The others they leave blank – ready for a cook’s imagination.

On the way back to the car, Adib introduces me to a local favorite – freshly pressed sugar cane with lime. A simple concoction made by stabbing a couple chunks of lime with the sharpened end of a stick of sugar cane, then feeding everything into a giant juicer. Within a few seconds we’re holding little plastic cups filled with sweet juice, balanced by the acid from the lime.

Sugar Cane Juice

Once home I share my spice loot with the most amazing chef I know – a peace offering for having been so absent from the restaurant world since returning to foreign policy. I don’t know what marvelous creations Chef has devised but I’m hoping they will be the subject of a future post. As for me, one quick and delicious use is a simple dish of glazed carrots with roasted nuts. It’s not a traditional Moroccan dish. But, the smell that is released when these exotic spices come together in a simple butter sauce, serves to remind me that even if you’ve been working 18-hour days for a week straight, sometimes you just gotta down a glass of icy vodka, find a friend, and go for a ride. Because let’s be honest… sleep is so overrated!

Spices

Ingredients
5 medium carrots
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon of your favorite spice blend (would be beautiful with a Vadouvan curry mix)
1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts or halved pistachios
Salt to taste

  • Peel the carrots. Slice into uniform pieces about one inch in length. My preferred method is to slice the carrots on a diagonal, rotating a few degrees after every slice until I reach the top of the carrot.
  • Place carrots, sugar, a pinch of salt, and chicken stock in a skillet over medium high heat. Cover and allow the carrots to come to a full simmer. Once the carrots begin to cook, but still maintain their firmness, remove the lid and allow the stock to reduce by half. (check the doneness of the carrots with a fork. You want to be able to stab the carrot but there should still be resistance)
  • Meanwhile, roast the nuts over medium heat and in a clean, dry skillet. Once fragrant and golden remove from heat and set aside.
  • Once the stock has reduced to the desired amount, add the butter and spice blend to the pan. Toss throughly to glaze the carrots. Turn the heat down if you find that the sauce is reducing too quickly. You can also add an additional splash of chicken stock or water if necessary.
  • When the carrots are cooked to your desired doneness, add the roasted nuts and toss to incorporate.
  • Plate and serve immediately

Head Over Heels for a Cliché

Paris

City of Light. City of romance. Men with no sense of boundaries. Amazing food. Overrated food. Rude waiters. Museum queues for blocks. Fabulous shopping. Snobby Parisians. I’d heard the raves as well as the complaints. Honestly, the first time I visited Paris in 2006, I was prepared to hate everything about it but instead I fell completely in love – and not just the “I like spending time with you” kind of feeling. This was the, “I can’t stop fantasizing about you” kind of attraction.

I’ve just returned from my third successful rendezvous. Like my visit last year, this was another 24-hour, carefully designed, layover – a chance to decompress after an intense eight days of conference insanity in Rabat, Morocco. Here’s my winning formula. Take the high-speed train from the airport into the city, check into the hotel, take a hot shower, put on comfy clothes and ballet flats and let the wandering begin. Sometimes I listen to music, other times I leave the earphones in my room and take in the sounds of the city.

Scheduling a museum visit hasn’t worked out yet, mainly because I don’t want to waste the precious few hours that I have standing in a line. Yes, I would love to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie and be enveloped by Monet’s Water Lilies. However, I’m just as happy to walk along the Seine, gaze at the stunning architecture throughout the city, or grab a cup of tea at a sidewalk café and spend a lazy hour or two watching the lives of others play out around me.  Whittling away an hour of the evening staring up at an illuminated Notre Dame, silk scarf providing a kiss of warmth against the crisp autumn air, brings me indescribable pleasure.

And then there’s the food… Unfortunately, with the crush of work in Rabat some nights the only things to pass my lips are the three vodka soaked olives from a dirty martini. By the time I arrive in Paris I’m ready for a three-hour, thousand calorie feast.

cider&crepes

Thick slices of foie gras torchon paired with plum preserves, and crusty bread.  Crispy duck confit rests on a bed of duck fat roasted potatoes and on the side, a simple green salad with flecks of pink shallot from the vinaigrette dotting the leaves. The yolks of over easy eggs tucked into savory crepes stuffed with smoked duck, gizzards, and potatoes mingle with melted cheese to create a simple sauce. I normally don’t eat dessert, but it’s hard to pass up a lemon tart accompanied by a cup of Earl Gray tea – a simple yet remarkable pairing.

Omelet

In the morning, a final meal before the transatlantic flight home – warm flaky croissants and an omelet filled with cheese, ham and herbs. A lanky waiter pauses by my table, pen in the right hand, spiral bound notepad cupped in his left palm. He leans in, “Madam, I’m so sorry you’ve had to wait so long”. Darling please, you could leave me alone at this bistro table for hours and I’d remain perfectly content. Loving Paris may be cliché, but it’s a cliché for a damn good reason.

omelet

A Simple French Omelet

Yes, there is a technique to making the perfect omelet. But I say, don’t stress yourself out worrying about it too much. Swirl the eggs around the pan, keep the heat medium to low and fold however you like. Remember, it’s a just an omelet!

Ingredients 
2 eggs
2 teaspoons milk
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 Pad butter (about 1 teaspoon)
1 small Yukon gold potato, peeled and cut into 1/8 rounds
2 Tablespoons diced ham
1 Tablespoon grated cheese of your preference (I like using a slightly tangy goat cheese)
1 Tablespoon herbs of your choice – chives / parsley / tarragon – finely chopped
Salt & pepper

  • Crack the eggs into a bowl. Add the milk. Season with salt and pepper. Whip with a fork until everything is incorporated and eggs are fluffy. Set aside.
  • Heat the tablespoon of olive oil over medium high heat in a skillet. Once the oil begins to shimmer add the potato rounds in a single layer. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, turning once until golden brown and cooked through. Approximately 2 minutes per side. Remove the slices and drain on paper towels.
  • Add ham to the empty but still hot skillet. Toss until lightly browned and warmed through, approximately 1 minute. Remove and set aside.
  • Heat a new skillet or clean the existing skillet, dry, and return to medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon of olive oil and the pad of butter. Once the butter begins to bubble slightly add the eggs.
  • Tilt the skillet until the eggs cover the entire skillet in an even layer.
  • Work quickly to layer the ham, cheese, and potatoes atop the eggs. Sprinkle in half the herbs.
  • Once the eggs are ¾ of the way set, fold the omelet in half or thirds (whatever you are comfortable doing).
  • Once folded, jiggle around the pan to finish cooking before sliding the omelet on to a waiting plate. Sprinkle with remaining herbs.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Paired with a simple green salad, omelets make a wonderful brunch or a light lunch.

Island Inspired French Toast

French Toast:Ingredients

You know it’s going to be a good vacation when the taxi driver from the airport inquires about your tropical drink of choice, then promptly calls your hotel to place an order. Seven minutes later a friendly staff member greets us in an airy lobby with two pink Bahama Mama’s in frosty tumblers. Thick slices of juicy pineapple hang from the rims waiting to be dunked into the rum cocktail.

Every now and then even the most die-hard workaholic appreciates a few days of doing absolutely nothing. And absolutely nothing is exactly what I did over the July 4th weekend on the dreamy island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas where the water is the definition of turquoise blue and the sand is as soft as sifted flour, warm and white from the sun.

Eleuthera1

This ridiculously lazy vacation took place at The Cove, a sexy, elegant, slick but unpretentious 3-month old high end-resort where a dozen or so white bungalows punctuate an expansive lawn that leads down to two private beaches. White hammocks swing lazily in the breeze, supporting readers lost in their trashy beach novels and ready at night for a playful couple up for a physical challenge and the rush of possibly getting caught. Hey, I’m not one to judge. After a day in the ocean, drinking slushy piña coladas under a beach umbrella and knocking back a few glasses of champagne with dinner, creativity is awakened…

IMG_0102

After a night of raunchy activities, famished guests can either enjoy breakfast outside along a sunken white bar built into a point that acts as a natural divider for the two beaches, or at the hotel restaurant adjacent to the glassy infinity pool. The French toast, with extra richness and crunch from coconut and macadamia nuts, is one of the menu highlights. My interpretation uses thick slices of challah bread and begs you use more shredded coconut and chopped macadamia nuts than you really need. Slathered in butter and drizzled with syrup, this is a breakfast that will give you all the energy you need for another day of doing the unbelievably decadent, and surprisingly rewarding, activity of doing absolutely NOTHING.

Coconut & Cream 2

Serves 2

Ingredients:
4 slices challah bread, 1 inch thick
2 eggs
2 Tablespoons milk
2 Tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla
2 Tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
2 Tablespoons chopped raw macadamia nuts

Nuts and Eggs

  • In the shallow bowl mix the eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla. Mix well until fully combined. Add the coconut and macadamia nuts. Stir to combine.
  • Place a skillet on the stove over medium heat. Add enough oil to lightly coat the pan.
  • Dunk the slices of bread into the egg mixture. Once the egg mixture is sopped up, use your fingers to scoop up any remaining coconut and macadamia nuts. Slather generously on both sides of the bread.
  • Gently place the slices in the hot skillet and cook over medium heat. The sugar, coconut, and macadamia nuts are all sensitive to high heat so be patient and let it cook low and slow until golden brown on both sides.
  • Remove from pan, spread generously with butter and serve with syrup.

 

Obsession: the Excessive Preoccupation of the Mind

Harissa Shrimp

I consider myself fairly good at controlling emotions, thoughts, desires, and cravings. As a methodical and emotionally conservative individual I equate obsession with weakness. Unfortunately, as an avid food lover I am no stranger to it.

Someone once told me that cravings only last for a set period of time and if you manage to deny yourself the craving it will eventually go away. That person was a liar! My cravings don’t dissipate until satisfied. My ridiculously gorgeous, man-eating, sister once told me that if she ever finds herself obsessing over a boy she recalls a single flaw of his that irked her, and then replays that over and over in her mind until she’s rid of her infatuation. While this method may work for getting over crushes, I haven’t been able to come up with a single flaw to cure me of my obsession with French fries or hay smoked salmon belly.

My latest obsession is harissa, a North African paste with numerous variations but usually comprised of a mixture of chilies, spices, garlic, citrus, herbs and oil. A year ago I would’ve made my own harissa, but the demands of my current job severely limit my time in the kitchen. Thankfully a good store-bought harissa allows me to serve up food that tastes like I spent hours slaving away when really all I did was open a container. You can pull together a decent plate of pasta in about 15 minutes by simply putting some spaghetti on to boil and throwing a spoonful of harissa into a hot pan with olive oil, thinly sliced garlic and chopped tomatoes (fresh in the summer, canned fire roasted tomatoes in the winter). Once the garlic becomes fragrant and the tomatoes begin to breakdown slightly, just add the al dente pasta and a couple splashes of the salty pasta water. Toss together and garnish with freshly chopped parsley and grated Parmesan cheese. On the weekends when I have a little more time to play with my food I rub harissa paste onto pork loin, and allow it to marinate for a couple hours before throwing the thick cutlets on the grill.

HS_Ingredients

A dozen large shrimp were the latest victims of my harissa obsession. Peeled and deveined but with their tails still attached, I marinated them in a tablespoon of harissa, a generous squeeze of lime juice and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. 20 minutes later they went in a hot pan where they were seared on both sides until they were deeply colored and firm to the touch. Served with lime salt (lime zest mixed with fleur de sel) these intensely flavored, and coyly spicy bites, brought me no closer to easing my obsession.

Perhaps it’s time I learn that occasionally it’s okay to relinquish control and allow oneself to become excessively preoccupied by something that brings pleasure.

Fall Weekends and Apple Cider Cream Pie

The first time I went apple picking was at a tiny orchard outside Matsumoto, a city in Nagano prefecture in the northeastern part of Japan. I distinctly remember how the Japanese farmer had carefully laid aluminum foil underneath his well-trimmed apple trees so that the sunlight bounced onto the underside of the ripening apples, giving them a uniformly red hue. In a country where grocery stores wrap each apple in a soft Styrofoam net, and customers buy a single apple for the price of a full meal at a decent restaurant, I suppose it makes sense that farmers would be concerned that each apple’s underside had been properly warmed by the sun’s rays.

I don’t know if it’s due to the experience of growing up near farms as a kid or just my incessant desire for the freshest produce, but I plan weekend trips to nearby Virginia farms at the start of every growing season: strawberries in early spring, cherries in late spring-early summer, and peaches and blueberries in the summer. Each season offers incredible fruit, but with the crisp air and brilliantly colored foliage in the low mountains surrounding the orchards, apple season is by far my favorite.

A couple weeks ago I visited Stribling Orchard in Markham, VA where rows of large apple trees sprawl across 30 acres of gently sloping hills. On the day that I visited, the ground was already covered with ripened fruit that had fallen from the trees. The smell of the fermenting apples immediately—and perhaps somewhat strangely—made me wish I’d brought along a bottle of wine. The beautiful old trees filtered the soft afternoon rays giving the orchard a romantic hazy look. It’s the kind of spot that, were you to bring a blanket, picnic, and sweetheart, you could easily spend a lazy afternoon misbehaving like a couple of teenagers in the grass underneath the trees.

Regardless of what you’re picking, the one constant truth is that you will undoubtedly end up with far more than you know what to do with. Personally I don’t love cooked apples. I’ll do an occasional apple crumble and I love a good French apple tart, but in general I like my apples simple—cored, sliced, and with the peels still on. However, last year Food and Wine magazine had the most amazing recipe for apple cider cream pie. I don’t know what possessed a non-baker like me to make it the first time, but the response from family and friends was enthusiastic enough to prompt me to make it several times since. No surprise, I’ve tweaked the recipe a touch.  I’ve switched out the regular piecrust for a graham cracker crust—a simpler and, in my humble opinion, far tastier option. I also top the pie with crunchy bits of toffee instead of baked apple slices. The reduction of the apple cider and addition of sour cream to the custard filling gives the pie a beautiful balance that’s not overly sweet.

This pie definitely deserves a spot on the Thanksgiving dinner menu.  Or better yet… save it until everyone has gone home, grab your sweetheart and a bottle of wine, and have your own little after hours picnic right there on the living room floor.

A Stirling Engagement Celebration

Earlier this month I flew up to Toronto to celebrate the engagement of my amazing sister Michelle. Shel, as we all call her, is the third girl and fifth child. She got engaged last Christmas and this engagement party is part of her “10 year plan” on the road to the altar – her words not mine!

Shel and her fiancé Tony put together a gorgeous fête. Tony has the imagination and ability to construct just about anything—a truly rare talent in a man these days. He built a stage for their guests to dance on; a rustic lamp, which he strung from a branch that extended over the equally gorgeous and skillfully crafted wooden bar. Cloth covered rectangular hay bales with tree stumps, 2-3 feet tall nestled between them, provided tired guests with a place to relax and nurse their drinks. White paper lanterns surrounded the stage, while red lanterns of matching size were scattered among the branches of a nearby tree.  Holes were drilled into old tin cans, allowing the light from the candles buried inside to cast their magical glow across the garden.

Every time I visit Canada I’m reminded of two truths. One, that country is freaking cold! And two, the Stirling sisters are hilariously similar – headstrong, proud, brutally honest, independent to a fault, and painfully hard on ourselves. For some unexplainable reason we think that doing something the easy way means we’re doing it wrong. We will wear ourselves ragged in the pursuit of perceived perfection, convinced that achieving anything less means we’ve failed. We perform best under immense pressure and thus derive a sick satisfaction from overloading our work and/or school schedules. But when we’re all together, we will happily whittle away the hours sipping wine and chatting about work, food, and the men we incessantly torture with our impossible standards and difficult ways.

Engagement party and wedding speeches tend to be chock-full of tips on how to behave as a couple, or so-called “secrets to a happy marriage”. As the oldest, and only married, sister I suppose I am expected to pass along the plethora of lessons that I’ve learned since I walked down the aisle seven years ago. I won’t pretend to know all the secrets to a happy marriage… I’m still figuring that out myself. So I will leave it to your more “wifely” friends to pass along those particular words of wisdom. What I do know is that you have to remain an individual. And that means the following:

  • Pursue your own passions and interests. It’s hard to respect a woman who only likes something because her significant other is into it.
  • Be with a man who, by his own example, challenges you to be the very best version of yourself.
  • Never make yourself small because he needs to be big in order to feel good about himself.
  • At the end of the day you get one life – from time to time take a step back and make sure you are living the one you’ve always dreamed of having. If you’re not, do something about it.
  • Lastly, if you ever begin to feel like you’re losing yourself, come spend a few quality days with your sisters… we’ll remind you who you are, and that you come by all that crazy honestly!

A special thanks to Shel and Tony’s friend and event photographer, Nicholas Zalevich, for the use of his photos.

Turning Fantasy Into Reality

We all have fantasies. It’s that dream you have of owning a vineyard and sipping wine all day in the south of France. It’s the far-fetched scenario you’ve conjured up of taking two ridiculously hot lesbians home from the bar who are, for some unexplainable reason, totally game for a ménage à trois with a man. It’s the former lover, current crush, or celebrity you think about on when you need just a little something to… how to put this delicately?… “help you cross the finish line.”

A reoccurring fantasy of mine involves a shack on the beach, white tank pulled over a wet bikini, hot sand enveloping my feet, beads of condensation forming on the chilled bottle of rosé, sweet-salty juices mixed with oil and lemon running down my forearms… Minds out of the gutters folks, obviously I’m talking about food. Were you seriously expecting a “Letters to Penthouse”-esque confession?

Lucky for me this particular fantasy of mine played out last month in Cala Torta, a beach on the northeastern point of Mallorca. And I have my fabulous friend and partner-in-crime, Sacha to thank for making it happen. Having spent many a summer in Mallorca, he was the one who directed us to this hidden treasure, just a couple miles outside the town of Arta.

My anticipation was immediately amplified when, upon arriving at the cove-like beach, we spotted two men cleaning fish of various sizes and shapes in the ocean 20 feet from a dusty blue chiringuito (stall, shack, open air restaurant). After an hour or so of swimming and hiking around the surrounding hills we agreed that we were sufficiently ravenous and grabbed a seat at a well-worn picnic table in the corner of the tiny open-air restaurant.

Since my hubby doesn’t eat fish (proof that marriages really can survive anything), Sacha and I split a mixed seafood platter. It was piled high with shrimp, langoustines, calamari, mussels, and two kinds of local fish. Everything was cooked a la plancha, (on a big metal plate) and smothered in a mixture of lemon, garlic, and herbs. We ate with our hands, which I believe only serves to magnify every moment of sheer dining pleasure. The langoustines were so sweet we ordered a second plate of them. My husband even got involved. Eating the bodies and handing off the heads for me to suck on (yeah, okay that might be a little weird for some of you. Don’t judge. They’re delicious).

By the end of the meal we were lightheaded from the wine and covered in juices from the fish. While Sacha demonstrated the effectiveness of using sand to remove unwanted oil, I chose the tried and proven method of jumping into the ocean.  That afternoon I realized that the only thing I need to make my deepest desires a reality is a plane ticket to Spain and a friend who loves simple food just as much as I do.

Stealing Pigs…

It’s 9 a.m. in Mallorca, day four of our vacation. We pull up to the curb outside a large apartment complex and our friend Sacha jumps into our tiny white rental Fiat. Excitedly, he unfurls a thin white plastic bag, “for pigs”, he explains. “Last time I drove up to Cala Torta I found some fantastic ones by the side of the road.” It takes me a couple minutes to figure out exactly what is being discussed here. Pigs = Figs, and apparently fruit-baring trees can be found dotting the arid landscape along the road to the northeastern coast of the island.

A quick disclaimer: we will not be stealing per se… it could be more accurately considered a case of graciously relieving trees, of dubious ownership, of their summer bounty. Regardless, I don’t need to be convinced to participate. This is exactly the kind of activity I wish all my summer days were filled with.

We spend the day in Cala Torta swimming in the crystal blue Mediterranean, eating platters of seafood with our hands, and drinking bottles of rosé and pitchers of sweet sangria. By late afternoon I am in prime condition for “stealing pigs”. We designate my hubby the get-away driver while Sacha and I peer out the car windows searching for targets. The first tree is a bust… already picked clean by other fig enthusiasts. A little farther down the highway we spot a tiny dirt road that leads to a distant farmhouse. A large fig tree overhangs a stone wall and wire fence. (I did admit that ownership was dubious right?) We dart out of the car and climb the fence brushing aside large floppy leaves in search of the purple fruit. A brood of boisterous hens scurries over, clucking noisily. I assume this is an attempt to shame us, but we ignore them. After all, it’s nearly impossible to be scared by something you eat for dinner twice a week. It’s not until I hear the sound of a goat bell coming down the hill behind us that I signal to my accomplice that it’s time to go.

With our bag only half full, we continue our search. It’s not long before we spot two large trees, deep purple fruit weighing down their branches like ornaments on an overly decorated Christmas tree. One illegal U-turn later, and Sacha and I are out of the car even before it’s completely stopped, excitedly popping the sun-warmed fruit off the tree. My hands are sticky with sap. The bottom of my skirt, which has been busily caressing the grass and bramble around the trees, is covered with prickly burrs that scratch my calves and ankles as I move. We fill the bag until it’s dangerously close to tearing, and Sacha is forced to cradle it in his arms like an oversized newborn as we make our way back to the car.

On the drive home I doze in the sun-filled car. The air is redolent of the sea, sweat, and sweetness from the ripe, sugary fruit. It’s 7 p.m. when we pull up to the curb outside the apartment complex. Sacha scoops up the 15-pound bag of figs in his arms, the thin plastic stretching and splitting in several places, and declares with the authority of a teacher trying to get a last word in as the school bell rings, “Lesson for the day people… if you’re going to steal pigs, be sure to bring along a sturdy bag!”

Figs stuffed with camembert cheese and topped with jamon serrano.

Try cutting and stuffing your figs in a similar manner to the one in the photo above. Place them on a sheet pan and into a 375° oven for a couple minutes. The interior of the fig will become soft and incredibly sweet, somewhat similar in taste and texture to a date. Sprinkle with fleur de sel (sea salt) to balance the sweetness. 

And Finally, For the Youngest Stirling—Spaghetti Bolognese.

Jennifer, Jenny or Jen Ju (as in the popular Taiwanese bubble tea) is the baby in our little army. Ask Jenny where she was born, and she will excitedly tell you the true story of how she popped out on the foyer of my family’s Taiwanese apartment. She may be 12, but in my mind she’s still a tiny three-year-old sneaking into my room at 6 a.m., dragging her favorite book and hoping for story-time.

Adventurous and curious about food, Jenny is the kid that chefs and food lovers wish for. Jenny always claims the seat next to me when we go out for dinner, not because I’m such pleasant company, but because—as she once explained—I always order the most interesting food.  My husband is convinced that she is actually mine. I swear she’s not.

Phone conversations with Jenny inevitably land on the topic of food. Sometimes it’s about something new she tried and loved—jellyfish salad for example. Other times it’s all about the things she could do without—tuna casseroles. She loves to hear detailed descriptions of weird things I’ve eaten, like the bull testicle tacos I once treated myself to in Mexico.

But like any other kid, Jenny just can’t seem to get enough spaghetti Bolognese. This dish has been her favorite from the time she could sit up in a highchair—often requesting seconds, or even thirds. Growing up, our spaghetti was never perfect; it’s not easy to make a GIANT batch of pasta perfectly al dente. In an effort to make sure there was enough for everyone sometimes we would be forced to stretch the sauce so thin we were basically topping nests of spaghetti with chunky tomato soup. When we were feeling extra flush with cash a green tube containing “parmesan cheese” appeared at the table and we would blanket everything in that, oh-so-delicious and yet oh-so-wrong, faux dairy product. And you know what? It was fabulous! There’s something wonderfully comforting about sitting around a big table with the whole family digging into a massive bowl of pasta.

So, for this final post in my Third Culture Kids palates series, it seemed only fitting to create a simple recipe for something it seems every kid—no matter where they grow up—can’t help but love.

Ingredients:
½ medium onion, minced
2 small carrots, minced (I’m talking carrots as thick as your thumb)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbs. olive oil
1½ tsp. salt
1 28oz. can diced or crushed tomatoes
¾ lb. ground beef
Fresh ground black pepper
Good fistful of dry spaghetti
Parsley or basil

  • Set a large skillet or wide-bottomed pot on the stove over medium heat. Add one tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil starts to shimmer add the onion, carrots, garlic and ½ teaspoon of salt. Cook gently for 8 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the canned tomatoes and another ½ teaspoon of salt. (I rinse the empty can with a splash of water and then add that to the pan as well)
  • Keep the heat on medium until the tomato sauce begins to bubble then turn the heat down to low.
  • Place another skillet over high-heat; add a splash of olive oil. Once the oil is hot add the ground beef, ½ teaspoon of salt and a few generous grinds of fresh black pepper. Cook the beef, breaking apart any chunks, until nicely browned.
  • Add the meat to the pot/pan with the tomato sauce. Partially cover with a lid and allow the sauce to simmer gently.
  • I let the sauce cook for about 1 hour but if you like to let your sauce simmer for hours that’s up to you. Just keep an eye on it and if it starts to look a little too thick add a splash of water.
  • 30 minutes before serving time place a large pot of water on the stove. Salt well. When the water comes to a vigorous boil add the pasta. Cook according to the instructions on the back, stirring frequently to avoid clumping.
  • Drain the pasta just before what would be considered “al dente”, reserving one cup of the pasta water.
  • Add the drained pasta to the sauce (if the skillet/pot is not big enough return the pasta and then the sauce to the pasta pot). Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, adding a splash of the pasta water if necessary.
  • I don’t like to buy herbs for a single dish because I hate to see the leftovers wasted. I grow thyme and chives on my balcony, but I use so much parsley that it is the one herb that I buy every week. When it comes to this dish you can add some torn or thinly sliced basil at the very end… or you can throw in some roughly minced parsley. Your choice!

A Favorite Childhood Dessert From Guest Photographer, Sibling #9

Except for January, my monstrous family celebrates a birthday every month. That means a whole lot of birthday cake. Before Vanessa came around, all the older sisters dabbled with the world of careful measurements, timing and temperatures. We had a few successes, but many more failures. I can recall two crowning moments of my own. Once I forgot to add baking powder to a cake—you can imagine the outcome. Another time I added liquid dish soap instead of oil to a recipe. Now before you get all judgy, you should know that our dish soap and vegetable oil came in identical 18-liter aluminum cans. Once the labels identifying the products got wet and peeled off, chances were pretty high that you would at best have to rewash all the dishes, or at worst be serving a diarrhea-inducing dessert.

I could make numerous excuses for my less-than-stellar baking skills, but the truth is I simply sucked. Vanessa however, does not. Methodical, precise and patient—she has all the traits baking demands. In addition to being a fabulous baker, my ridiculously talented 14 year old sister dabbles in photography. Naturally, I was thrilled when she agreed to photograph and pass along the recipe for her popular carrot cake so that I could post it on this blog. Vanessa started making this cake regularly after deciphering the scribble on a tattered old recipe card—which she believes was originally adapted from the Joy of Baking (if anyone recognizes it let me know. I’d love to know its origins).

This moist carrot cake is often the star of our birthday celebrations and a happy reminder of childhood.

Ingredients:
2 cup white flour
2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups grated carrots

Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 cup of cream cheese
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)

• Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease and flour one 9×13 inch pan or two 9 inch round cake pans.

• In a large bowl combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Mix until blended.

• Add the oil and the eggs. Mix well. Finally add the carrots. Stir to incorporate throughout. Pour the batter into prepared pan(s).

• Bake at 350° for 25 to 35 minutes. Test the doneness by inserting a toothpick or skewer into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, the cake is ready.

• For the frosting… cream together the butter and cream cheese until smooth, add the sugar and vanilla. Beat until fluffy.