Chef Thomas Naylor on Being Diplomatic in the Kitchen

I recently picked up a gig interviewing embassy chefs for “Eater in the Embassy”, a monthly series that runs on the food & restaurant news website Eater DC. Last week I had a pleasure of visiting the Canadian embassy to chat with their fun-loving chef, Thomas Naylor. And sadly no, I did not get to meet any of the Toronto Maple Leafs…

There’s an old stupid joke about yogurt having more culture than Canada, but it will only take five minutes with chef Thomas Naylor to highlight just how incorrect that is. The 10-year veteran of the position of chef at the Canadian embassy allowed Eater to step behind the scenes during a recent event for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He discussed cooking for diplomats and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as Canadian culinary delights from caribou to cod cheeks with scruncions. And he shared why the best poutines are the ones you eat when you’re drunk.

How did you end up cooking at the Canadian embassy?
I was working north of Ottawa and I went down for a meal and the chef was telling this story about one of his employees that was going to interview for this job. In the hotel where I was the executive chef I worked 16-18 hour days. Three times in a row I didn’t have a day off for 30 days. Obviously there was no vacation for almost 2 years. It was all about my job — food was my lover. So when this guy told me about this job I thought, “Well, I could pick up any moment and leave.” They wanted a Canadian chef. They had a French chef and a Belgian chef and they wanted a Canadian chef to bring the Canadian flavor down.

What was the interview process like?
There was the original phone interview with the executive assistant. Then there was a phone interview with the ambassador’s wife. Then there was clearance interview. Then a face-to-face with the ambassador’s wife. Then they came up to the hotel on the busiest day I ever had. I had 200 people for a graduation, 150 people across the street in the banquet room for a wedding, 18 people for a tasting menu in the basement, 40 people in another room for a buffet. We had three teams going, no one really knew what was going on and I was doing the interview. I sent out five courses each so they got to taste 10 different dishes and the ambassador almost ate everything.

Walk us through one of your days…
I come into work, check my emails. A lot of the finances go through me, and so I have to keep track of it very meticulously. Then usually I’ll do daily shopping or shopping for an event. And I have to run the house. Think about taking care of a large house, all the plumbing, electrical, window problems, cleaning, putting up the Christmas lights — all that we have to organize. I’m a manager and managing is the hardest job to ever have. Not only am I an executive chef but I can’t yell at anybody. I used to, and it was a really great way to get things done. But now I have to be so diplomatic.

Click here to finish reading the rest of the interview on Eater DC 

Ribeye, Not Too Cooked!

That’s what my youngest brother Brandon (Sibling #8) contributed to our discussion on favorite childhood food. Ah, life in Canada must be good! When we were living in Asia the only steak we ever tasted were the bites we stole off our pregnant mom’s special dinner plate (yes, we were monsters). When it came to beef, we were more familiar with what are politely called “inexpensive cuts”. I’ve had liver every way possible, from fairly tasty—coated in cracked wheat and pan-fried, to the truly inedible—boiled. There was even a period where my parents tried, with modest success, to get us to like tongue.

Like the rest of the Stirlings Brandon eats practically anything served to him, but I have an inkling that he perceives starch and vegetables as squatters on real estate best occupied by succulent slabs of beef. Brandon is what I would call a “scrapper”. Quiet and rather small for his age but with a quick wit and an alertness that makes me think he’s simply counting the moments until his height catches up to his mind. A few more of these juicy steaks and it’s just a matter of time before I show up at my family’s front door and am greeted by a tall, gravely voiced young man with one arm swung lazily over a stacked hottie.

This simple method of cooking a steak is something I picked up from watching the meat cook at the restaurant where I worked. Although Brandon likes his steaks rare I timed this one to be about medium-rare. Simply shave off a minute in the oven if—like him—you prefer things bloody.

While writing this post I realized that the youngest Stirlings may have missed out of some key character building experiences such as trying to masticate an incorrectly cooked beef tongue. No worries. That can be easily rectified. On my next visit I will serve up some of the retro-Stirling culinary delights with my very best “back in my day” speech.

Thyme, still alive and growing on my balcony despite the recent cold weather

Ingredients:
1 Ribeye steak (about 1-1½ inches thick) *See Cook’s Note
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Neutral oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed—papery skins left on
2 sprigs of thyme
1 Tbs. butter

  • Preheat the oven to 350°
  • Dry the steak with paper towels. Season generously with salt and cracked black pepper
  • Heat a skillet over high-heat until lightly smoking. Add a good bit of oil (about 2 Tbs.) Once the oil is hot add the seasoned steak to the skillet. Sear the first side for a minute and a half.
  • Turn the steak over & sear for 1 minute. Add the crushed garlic, thyme & pat of butter to the pan (I like to place the butter directly on top of the steak).
  • Place in the oven, on the center rack, for 3 minutes.
  • Remove. Return the skillet to the stovetop over medium high heat and tilting the skillet towards you, baste the steak (spoon the butter & pan juices over the top) for 30 seconds.
  • Remove the steak from the pan & let it rest for 5 minutes.

* Cook’s Note: It’s very important that you remember to take the steaks out of the refrigerator 15 minutes before you’re ready to throw them on the stove.

Mitigate the Damage: Kale Salad with Fried Chicken

I’m horrible with diets. Tell me I can’t eat something and I’ll crave it ferociously. Earlier this year my husband and I decided we would give up meat for Lent. I lasted five days.

I dieted seriously only once before. It was after a six-month stint in Mexico, where I ate tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner and made monthly pilgrimages to Texas to devour the delights of Whataburger. So upon returning home to Taiwan I ate only fruit for breakfast, half a whole-wheat tuna sandwich and raw vegetables for lunch—followed by the exact same thing for dinner. It took a month of that diet combined with daily weighted runs up the eleven flights of stairs to our apartment to erase the damage. But that was when I was 18, intensely motivated by my severe lack of self-confidence and the desire to quiet the snarky comments about my ass.

Now that I’m just a smidge older (ahem) my priorities have changed. I don’t care what bitchy women think of my size, or whether or not a guy finds me attractive (my hubby is locked into thinking it… or at least lying about it FOREVER) but now I’ve got new issues to deal with, namely my health.

Sadly, what our parents threatened is in fact true: as you get older you can’t eat like you did as a teenager without negative consequences. But the other side of the spectrum—only eating turkey breast, brown rice & steamed vegetables is no way to live either. So I’m attempting to mitigate the damage my favorite foods might be doing by throwing them together with “super foods”.

This autumn I’ve been particularly enamored with kale. Raw, sautéed, or added to soup—I love it all. On a recent Sunday after yet another afternoon spent at FedEx field watching disappointing Redskins football we returned home heads hung low & arms cradling a bucket of leftover Popeyes fried chicken. Ten years ago I would’ve devoured the leftover chicken while watching the late night game (who am I kidding, two years ago I would’ve done that) but my newly accepted reality inspired me to throw together this healthy salad which turned out to be a surprisingly delicious compromise.

I am hopeful that the combined vitamin power from a kale, almonds, flax and chia seeds turn this dinner into a super meal capable of undoing (almost) any damage from the fried chicken.

Serves 2

Ingredients:
5 kale leaves (any variety)
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 Tbs. champagne vinegar
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. honey
4 Tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper
2 pieces leftover fried chicken
1 Tbs. almond slivers
2 tsp. flax seeds*
2 tsp. chia seeds*
½ Fuji apple (a handful of dried cranberries would also work beautifully)

  • Remove the thick stem from the kale leaves. You can cut it out or simply tear it out. Stack the stem-free leaves and cut into thin strips.
  • Mix the garlic, vinegar, mustard and honey in a bowl. Add the oil and mix to incorporate. Taste and adjust the vinaigrette to your liking. Add a pinch of salt and black pepper.
  • Dress the kale, mixing the salad with your hands so that it is evenly dressed. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.
  • If you are using cold leftover chicken reheat it in an oven set to 350° until warmed through. Remove and tear the meat and skin up into bite size chunks.
  • Put the almonds, chia and flax seeds in a skillet over medium heat. Toast gently, tossing frequently until the almonds are fragrant and golden. Set aside
  • Cut the apple half into 4 pieces. Remove the core and peel (if desired). Slice thinly.
  • Assemble the salad by tossing all the ingredients together in a large salad bowl.

*Flax and chia seeds can be found in the bulk section of Whole Foods grocery stores.

Sibling #7 Claims the Family Favorite: Beef Fried Noodles

Oliver, or sibling number seven, was my first “baby”. His wasn’t the first live birth I saw, (that distinction belongs to Elaine—sibling #6 for those keeping track at home) but one’s level of awareness is far more acute at twelve than it is at ten. Oliver wasn’t weaned yet when mom found out that she was pregnant with #8, so Oli was booted from mom’s bed & came to stay with me in my Harry Potter-esque room under the stairs. I would wake up every couple of hours to give him a bottle, sing lullabies, and rock him back to sleep in the 2sq. feet of available standing room.

By the time Oliver was a toddler the kitchen was my well-established domain. He would often patter in, stare up at me with his big brown eyes and beg for lumps of brown sugar (the closest thing we had to candy). I could never refuse. I’d sneak him into the pantry where the massive 50lb. sacks of dark brown sugar were stored & together we’d dig out a few choice lumps. Back in the kitchen I’d set him on the countertop & listen to him giggle as he sucked on one and played with the others in his chubby little hands. Once or twice I even slipped him a taste of whatever wine I was cooking with. He’d pucker his little face, smack his lips and ask for more. Don’t judge. I was fourteen.

I’d like to think that our kitchen escapades had something to do with Oli’s current love of food and comfort around the stove, but the more likely driving force is his veracious appetite. Like most male 18-year olds Oliver eats like an unbridled horse after a race.

My sisters (my usual accomplices in the kitchen) & I figured out early that fried noodles are a perfect meal to whip up when you’re short on time & surrounded by ravenous teenagers. It’s a “kitchen-sink” type dish—as in “throw in everything but”. Honestly we could pull everything out of our fridge, cut it up uniformly, boil some noodles, throw together a good sauce & 15min later the hoards would be chowing down on a delicious meal.

Occasionally, if Oli’s hungry enough, he’ll pause from figuring out his current favorite song on the piano or texting his multiple lady friends & cook up his own wicked version of fried noodles… sometimes, if you’re lucky, he’ll even share.

Serves 2

Ingredients:
8 oz. spaghetti *Cooks note I
½ lb. skirt steak
Salt
Black pepper
5 shiitake mushrooms
2 carrots
2 celery ribs
2 handfuls of Chinese greens (bok choy, tat soi, Chinese broccoli)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled & minced
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. oyster sauce
¼ tsp. sugar
1½ tsp. sesame oil
½ tsp. chili garlic sauce (optional)
2 scallions, thinly sliced

  • Place a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Season generously with salt.
  • Slice the beef, against the grain, into thin strips. *Cooks note II. Season with ½ tsp. salt and freshly ground black pepper. Set aside while you prep the other ingredients
  • Slice the mushroom caps. Julienne (thin long sticks) the carrots and celery. Slice the Chinese greens lengthwise.
  • Heat a skillet and 2 tsp. of neutral oil over high heat. When the oil is lightly smoking throw in the carrots, celery & a pinch of salt. Stir-fry for 1 minute. Remove.
  • Add the shiitake caps to the pan. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook for 1 min. Remove.
  • Add 2 tsp. neutral oil to the pan. Immediately add the minced garlic and ginger. As soon as it becomes fragrant (you don’t want any color) add the beef to the pan. Let the beef sear gently for a few seconds before adding 1 tsp. soy sauce, 1 tsp. oyster sauce, ¼ tsp. sugar & 1tsp. sesame oil to the skillet (and the chili garlic sauce if desired). Turn the heat to high & cook for 30 seconds. Remove & set aside until the noodles are finished cooking
  • Once the water comes to a boil add the noodles. Cook until al dente. Drain.
  • Return the skillet to stove. Turn the heat to medium-high. Add whatever Chinese greens you’ve chosen plus a splash of chicken stock or water. Cook for 30 seconds-1minute, stirring frequently. Add the cooked carrots, celery, shiitakes & beef. Stir. Add the remaining 1 tsp. of soy sauce and 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Add the noodles. Stir-fry over medium-high heat. (If the noodles begin to stick to the skillet add a little chicken stock or water)
  • Cook stirring frequently for 2-3 minutes. Finish with a final drizzle of sesame oil. Divide between two plates. Top with sliced scallions (and Sriracha for those who want extra heat)

Cooks Note I: The recipe calls for spaghetti because that’s most likely the type of noodles everyone has on hand. Sometimes I’ll use an Asian egg noodles or rice noodles but most of the time I just use good ol’ spaghetti.

Cooks Note II: Look closely at the beef, with skirt steak it should be fairly apparent which way the fibers are running… lay the steak down so the fibers are running horizontally, slice vertically. You are now cutting against the grain!

A Simple Dinner For A Busy Weeknight: Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Apple & Smoked Turkey & Cream of Cauliflower Soup.

I’m not a huge sandwich lover. I’ll take a bowl of noodles or rice over bread any day. Occasionally if I’m in a hurry I’ll grab one for lunch, but absolutely not for dinner. In my opinion bread and cold cuts just don’t meet the qualifications to be served as the final meal of the day. But last week at the end of a busy day I opened the refrigerator door and began cursing myself for not going grocery shopping. There were the usual residents: milk, cream, & cheese. I spotted a head of cauliflower, an apple in the bottom drawer & a lone smoked turkey leg (I had recently used the other limb to flavor a broth, but hadn’t gotten around to using this one yet). I then remembered that I also had a gorgeous loaf of fresh challah bread sitting on the kitchen counter. In my exhaustion the simplicity of throwing together a warm soup and buttery sandwich suddenly became a tantalizing dinner option.

The soup is one I’d made many times before: cream of cauliflower soup from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc At Home cookbook. It’s ridiculously simple & satisfying. My favorite part is the fact that there’s no need to strain the soup. Which means I don’t have to spend 10 agonizing minutes willing the thick soup though the tiny openings of a fine mesh sieve.

I wanted the sandwich to take the place of both the croutons and beet chips that Thomas Keller’s recipe calls for. I layered Havarti cheese, thin slices of apple and smoked turkey atop thickly sliced challah bread. The bread was smeared with whole grain mustard on the inside and a generous amount of Irish butter on the outside.

There wasn’t anything about the crunchy bread, gooey cheese & salty, smoky meat that I didn’t love. Finally, the tartness from the apple paired beautifully with the hint of curry in the velvety cauliflower soup. Perhaps a sandwich can be a satisfying dinner after all.

Soup Ingredients:
(adapted from Ad Hoc At Home)
1 head of cauliflower
3 Tbs. butter
½ medium onion, diced
1 small leek, sliced (white and light green parts only)
¼ tsp. curry powder
Salt
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups water

  • Remove the leaves & core from the cauliflower. Cut the stem and florets into 1-inch sized pieces.
  • Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks and curry powder. Cook, stirring frequently for 3 minutes. Add the cauliflower & 2 tsp. of salt
  • Cover with a cocked lid and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Increase the heat. Add the milk, cream and water. When the liquid comes to a hard simmer turn the heat down to medium and simmer gently for 30 minutes or until the cauliflower is very soft.
  • Remove from the heat. Blend the mixture in batches in a Vita-Mix or regular blender. Start on low and finish by blending on high for a few moments. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly. *This soup is quite thick so feel free to add a touch more water if you prefer a thinner soup.
  • Drizzle with olive oil, & sprinkle a pinch of fleur de sel over the top right before serving 

Sandwich Ingredients:
Challah bread
Havarti or cheddar cheese
1 Fuji apple, peeled & thinly sliced
Smoked turkey breast, thinly sliced
Whole grain mustard
Butter

  • Spread the whole grain mustard on the insides of the bread. (Full disclosure: I add a touch of mayo to my sandwich as well… hubby prefers his sandwich not tarnished by Canada’s favorite condiment)
  • Layer with cheese, apple slices and smoked turkey
  • Close the sandwich and butter the outside.
  • Grill in a pan over medium high heat for 1-2 minutes per side.
  • Finish in a 350° toaster or oven. The sandwich is ready when the cheese is gooey and melted!

It’s Rebooted Beef Stew for Sibling #6

Elaine is sibling number six. She’s tall, curvy & blessed with a wicked set of pipes. She is also generous, smart and kind. I once witnessed a very large frozen mango daiquiri slip off a serving tray and come cascading down her hair and white blouse. She squealed in shock, and then laughed it off to calm the panicked waitress. I can guarantee you that would NOT have been my reaction.

Elaine reminded me that not all comfort food starts out as a childhood favorite.

“One that I remember is Dad’s stew…I remember haaaaating the boiled carrots and huge chunks of potatoes. But of course every time I eat it now I’m transported to when I was 10 and we’d all be sitting at the dinner table laughing about this “crazy western food” dad made for us. Thankfully the stews have gotten better around here. I’m sure dad got the point and incorporated a little Asian flare. I love meaty stews to this day.” 

Now, if you follow this blog you know that my dad’s scrambled eggs have always been spectacular, but I have to agree with Elaine. As kids his stews were a challenge to choke down. You see, in an effort to keep us all healthy our dad would never peel the potatoes or carrots. And so while they were chock-a-block full with all their natural nutrients, they also tasted like bitter dirt. As for the beef, we would dutifully chew the lumps of flesh. Then when our dad wasn’t looking, we’d coyly spit the remaining mass of gristle into a napkin and quickly stuff it under the rim of our plate. I don’t think my dad cooked with wine; perhaps he used stock. However, more than likely the meat and vegetables were vigorously boiled in water with little added flavoring.

Our poor Canadian papa was probably just trying to introduce his own childhood favorite to his rambunctious brood. Unfortunately, our Asian palates were not amused. Thankfully, as Elaine pointed out, over the years the stews have improved—the cuts of beef got better and peeling the vegetables became an acceptable part of the process—and now this very Western dish is a family favorite.

I thought it only appropriate to serve dad’s stew with the Stirling family silver, a lovely gift from my nana on my wedding day. You wouldn’t guess from looking at me that I’m part Scottish but that family crest is my proof!

Serves 2

Ingredients:
1 lb. beef (chuck, boneless ribs, etc.)
Salt & Pepper
1 cup red wine
1 cup tomatoes, peeled and chopped (canned is perfectly acceptable)
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbs. butter
2 tsp. neutral oil
1 leek, white part only quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 sprigs of thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
1 tsp. celery salt
1 Tbs. flour
2 cups beef stock
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1” thick disks
8-10 cremini (baby bella) mushrooms, wiped clean & stems trimmed
Japanese pickled onions (optional)
Parsley (optional)

  • Heat a skillet over high heat. Drizzle with neutral oil. Cut the beef into 2” x 2” cubes. Salt and pepper generously. When the skillet is lightly smoking add the cubes of beef. Sear each piece on all sides.
  • Once all the beef is seared deglaze the pan by adding a cup of red wine. Turn heat down to medium and simmer until the wine has reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes & 1 teaspoon of sugar, simmer another 5 minutes.
  • Meanwhile heat 1 tablespoon of butter and 2 tsp. of neutral oil over medium-high heat in a pot. When the butter has melted add the sliced leeks and ½ tsp. of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or until leeks become soft. Add the minced garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Cook another 3 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of flour. Cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of beef stock. Stirring well to incorporate.
  • Add the beef, wine and tomato mixture. Cover but leave the lid cocked a tad to allow some steam to escape.
  • 1½ hrs in, add the carrots (if you like things extra complicated but more perfect, boil the carrots separately with a little salt and sugar, add them at the end). 15 minutes later, add the mushroom caps. Simmer gently for a total of 2 hours or until the beef is tender.
  • Serve over creamy mashed potatoes. Top with Japanese pickled onions* and minced parsley.

Cook’s Note:
* In Japan curry is eaten with sweet pickled radishes and onions. Here the tiny onions add a great textural contrast and their sweetness pairs perfectly with this stew. My advice: do NOT use Western-style pickled cocktail onions. Maybe it’s my Asian bias but I found the resulting flavor far too sour.

Riffing On Cookbooks: David Chang’s Spicy Pork Sausage & Rice Cakes

I have an ever-expanding collection of cookbooks, chef memoirs, food and travel related novels. These hefty volumes used to anchor the bottom rungs of my living room bookshelves, but recently have begun to climb upwards—even threatening to evict my “please-be-in-awe-of-my-intelligence-and-take-me-seriously” foreign policy books.

Given my affinity for Asian cuisine, perhaps it’s not surprising that one of my favorite cookbooks is Chef David Chang’s, Momofuku. His recipe for fried chicken is reason enough to buy the book. Brined, steamed, fried and tossed in a spicy, salty, garlicky, gingery vinaigrette, it just might be the best fried chicken I’ve ever cooked or eaten. Unfortunately, making the delectable fried chicken requires a 2-day commitment (there’s the brining, steaming and drying before you ever get to the actual frying part!), thereby limiting my juicy bird feasts to a few sporadic times a year.

However, there are other recipes of note. One of which is the Spicy Pork Sausage & Rice Cakes. Onions, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, Chinese fermented bean sauce & spicy Korean chili powder make for a complex and highly addictive dish.

As tasty as Chef Chang’s dish is, after a couple times of faithfully following the recipe I began to deviate. In fact I don’t use the recipe any more, rather I use the idea of the dish as inspiration for my own. Each time I riff on the original, simply using whatever I have on hand. Sometimes I’ll use ground pork, the next time bacon (if you use bacon sparingly it won’t overwhelm your dish, just enhance everything with its goodness). This weeks’ version consisted of a shiitake & enoki mushrooms, bok choy, onions, silken tofu, Korean rice sticks and ground pork.

And for a robust vegetarian dish simply cut out the meat completely and colorfully market it as a… Mushroom & Tofu Sichuan Ragù.

Serves 2

Ingredients:
4 Tbs. neutral oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
Salt
½ lb. ground pork (or 2 strips of bacon, thinly sliced)
10 shiitake caps, sliced*
1 bunch enoki mushrooms, last inch of the ends removed
1 cup dried chilies
1 Tbs. Sichuan peppercorns
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 Tbs. chili black bean sauce
1 tsp. kochukara (Korean chili powder)**
1 Tbs. soy sauce
½ cup mushroom stock
2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. sesame oil
1 cup mini rice sticks
2 cups roughly chopped Chinese greens (snow pea shoots, tatsoi, bok choy)
1 packet silken tofu, drained
2 scallion stalks, sliced
½ cup fried shallots***

  • Put a large pot of water on to boil (if this boils before you are ready to add the rice sticks just turn it off and keep it covered until it’s needed)
  • Heat 1 Tbs. of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onions and ½ tsp. of salt. Cook, stirring often until the onions begin to melt and turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until golden. About 10 minutes longer.
  • While the onions are cooking place another large skillet & 1 Tbs. of oil over high heat. When the oil is lightly smoking add the shiitake, cook for 1 min. Add the enoki and cook 1 minute more or until mushrooms are soft. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  • Return the skillet to the stove. Turn the heat to high and add 1 Tbs. oil. Add the ground pork and ½ tsp. of salt and ¼ tsp. of white pepper. Brown the pork, breaking apart any clumps as you go along. Once the meat is brown, about 1-2 minutes, remove & set aside.
  • Buzz the Sichuan peppercorns in a spice or coffee grinder. Pour 1 Tbs. of oil into the skillet. While the oil is still cold add the sliced garlic, dried chilies and ground Sichuan peppercorns. Turn the heat to medium high. When the color of the chilies begins to darken and the garlic becomes fragrant pull the skillet off the heat.
  • Stir in the chili bean sauce & kochukara. Return to the heat. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring quickly. Add the mushroom stock, soy sauce and sugar. Stir.
  • Add the onions, mushrooms, ground pork & sesame oil. Stir through for a quick minute. Remove from the heat.
  • Salt the pot of boiling water generously and add the rice sticks. Cook for 2-3 min. Add the chopped greens. Cook for 30 sec – 1 min. Greens should be slightly wilted but still bright green. Drain.
  • Return the mushroom mixture to the heat. Add the drained rice sticks & Chinese greens.
  • In a separate bowl whisk the tofu until creamy then add it to the mixture on the stove. Stirring through as the ragu returns to a boil.
  • Divide the ragu between 2 bowls. Top with scallions and fried shallots.
  • Serve with steamed rice and enjoy immediately.

A shot of dinner from a couple weeks back… the bacon version

Cooks’ Notes:

*When you bring home the mushrooms remove the stems from each shiitake cap. Place them in a small pot with 2 cups of cold water and ½ tsp. salt. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 30 min. Strain and reserve.

**I found kochukara at Super H Mart in VA. It’s incredibly spicy so be careful when adding it to the dish.

***Readily available at Asian supermarkets

Forbidden Rice with Macadamia Nuts and Garlic

The second best thing about being on vacation (the first being that you’re actually on vacation) is discovering new food—unknown produce, exotic spices, exciting flavor combinations, or even just an ingenious use for a common ingredient. While in Maui this August I was rendered speechless by a beautiful silky coconut and vanilla sauce enveloping delicate prawns at the famous (and somewhat tourist-trappy) Mama’s Fish House. Balancing coconut cream and vanilla in a successful savory dish takes serious skill and restraint. Perhaps even more impressive was the breadfruit gnocchi at Merriman’s, a testament to the chef & proprietor’s dedication to local produce. The cooks no doubt employed a touch of culinary sorcery to turn the starchy tropical fruit into soft pillows for the butter-poached lobster to rest on.

Personally I find the most memorable dishes are often the simplest. Case and point: Merriman’s macadamia nut garlic rice. Simple, obvious and yet surprising—this dish begged to be taken back as a souvenir. Of course when I got home, I couldn’t help but tweak it… just a little. Step one was to bring the macadamia nuts to the forefront. I don’t know why, but at Merriman’s they cooked the nuts and rice together so that although the nuts imparted a deep flavor throughout the dish, texturally you couldn’t differentiate them from the rice. I’ve chosen to highlight the macadamias by toasting the chopped nuts lightly & tossing them with the cooked rice at the end. My second tweak is a splash of walnut oil, a little something to further accentuate the delicious nutty flavor. Lastly, a few slices of scallion finish the dish with a peppery zip.

Forbidden rice is a gorgeous heirloom Chinese grain that turns dark purple when cooked, and has a nice “al dente” texture. This dish is fragrant, exotic, striking & yet straightforward… if it were a woman I think my husband would be tempted to run away with it.

Serves 2

Ingredients:
¾ cup short grain white rice (I use sushi rice)
½ cup forbidden rice
Salt
Handful of macadamia nuts, chopped
2 small cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 tsp. walnut oil
1 scallion, thinly sliced

  • Wash the short grain rice gently in a small pot, drain and repeat until the water is clear (about 10 times). After the final rinse and drain, add ¾ cup of cold water & a pinch of salt. Cover and place on the stove over high heat. When it comes to a boil immediately turn the heat down to low and simmer until done, about 30 minutes.
  • For the forbidden rice simply add the rice, ¾ cup + 1 Tbs. of water and a pinch of salt to a small pot. Again, cover and place on the stove over high heat. When it comes to a boil turn the heat down to low and simmer until done, about 30 minutes.
  • Add the chopped macadamia nuts to a skillet (you can chop them on a cutting board or slip them into a ziplock bag and pound them gently with a meat tenderizer or similarly heavy object). If the nuts are unsalted add a pinch of salt. Lightly toast the nuts over medium high heat. When nuts are golden brown remove and set aside.
  • Pour 1 Tbs. of neutral oil into a skillet. Add the garlic. Carefully cook the garlic over medium high heat. Remove the garlic from the oil once it is golden and fragrant.
  • When both pots of rice are finished fluff the grains with a fork. Combine the forbidden & short grain white rice. Add the walnut oil, cooked garlic and toasted macadamia nuts. Toss to combine. Taste and add a pinch more salt if necessary. Top with scallion slices and serve.

Eggplant with Spicy Miso Sauce

We’ve all tasted poorly prepared eggplant—a gray, bitter mushy blob so unpleasant that it left a scar on our food subconscious. I’ve sent back eggplant dishes at otherwise fantastic restaurants because their bitter eggplant brought me the same pleasure I imagine sucking on a metal popsicle would. True, it can be a challenging vegetable to work with, but when cooked correctly, eggplant can also be a thing of beauty.

There is a popular dish in Japan called nasu no dengaku: essentially, broiled eggplants with a miso, sake and sugar glaze. While delicious, I find the purely traditional form to be a little too sweet for my tastes. Even so, I love how the skin gets lightly charred and smoky while the flesh turns creamy under the intense broiler heat.

My version of nasu no dengaku came together after a dinner at Kaz Sushi Bistro in downtown DC. Chef Kaz Okochi has the most amazing spicy broiled New Zealand mussels on his menu. The sauce on this dish is incredible. In fact, I loved it so much that I went home and tried to replicate the flavors. Now I’m sure Chef Okochi’s secret is far more complex than combining three ingredients in a bowl, but to be honest my version tastes SPOT ON. Best of all you can easily whip up the sauce in under a minute & it partners beautifully not only with mussels* (see Cook’s Note), but with eggplant and a variety of fish as well.

Miso, a fermented soybean paste, imparts a deep salty flavor. The mayonnaise makes the sauce luscious, and keeps whatever you spread it on moist. As for the Sriracha… do you really need a reason to invite the ever-popular “Rooster” hot sauce to the party?

I prefer to use Chinese or Japanese eggplants because they lack the bitterness of other varieties. But if you want to use other types try curing them first.

1. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise.
2. Score the flesh. (Tiny cuts in a crisscross pattern)
3. Sprinkle generously with salt and allow the eggplant to sit for 45 minutes to an hour.
4. Rinse and dry the eggplant halves before cooking

Or you can use baby eggplants which typically haven’t had a chance to develop that infamous acrid flavor. Last Sunday I picked up some gorgeous French and Turkish baby eggplants at the Dupont farmers market (I recommend the French ones). I split them in half lengthwise, scored the flesh, spread the miso sauce over them & popped them in the toaster oven. Twenty minutes later I pulled out a visually stunning and deliciously earthy autumnal side dish.

Serves 4

Ingredients
1-quart baby eggplant or 2 Japanese eggplants
Neutral oil
2 Tbs. Kewpie mayonnaise
2 tsp. miso paste
1 tsp. Sriracha
Chives or scallions, thinly sliced (optional)

• Preheat the oven to 350°

• Mix the mayonnaise, miso and Sriracha in a bowl (spice lovers, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little more Sriracha).

• Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and score the flesh, taking care not to cut through to the skin. Drizzle with a little oil.

• Place a generous smearing of the sauce over the top of each eggplant

• Lay the eggplants, cut side up, on a lightly oiled sheet pan

• The total length of cooking time will vary depending on the size of the eggplants you are using but begin by placing them in the oven for 20 minutes. Keep a close eye on the sauce; you don’t want it to burn. If it starts to get too much color cover the sheet pan loosely with foil.

• Check for doneness by squeezing the eggplant. When it’s ready it’ll be soft and give easily.

• Just before removing from the oven blast the eggplant under the broiler for 30 seconds.

• Top with sliced chives or scallions and enjoy immediately

Cook’s note: For the mussel version of this dish scrub and debeard the mussels. Heat a little stock or sake on the stove in a wide skillet. Once the liquid comes to a boil add the mussels and cover tightly. The mussels will open in 30 seconds–1 minute. Remove from the heat and pull the shells apart. Spread the sauce on top of the side containing the mussel. Place the mussels on a sheet pan and under a broiler set to high. Blast for 30 seconds-1 minute. Sprinkle with scallion slices and serve.

Saying Goodbye to Summer: Vietnamese Beef Salad

Summer in DC has all the components of a passionate but ultimately doomed relationship.  Think about it… it starts suddenly, with very little warm up & quickly overwhelms you with its intense heat. Instead of working you spend hours staring blankly at your computer screen, reliving in your mind the wild moments from the night before, and fantasizing about what the weekend will bring. You play hooky from work to drink sangrias on a patio, picnic in a park, or drive out to the countryside for a long weekend getaway… and maybe for a moment you believe it will go on forever.

But you know how this story goes. Things cool off faster than you were expecting. As the heat dissipates the flirty dresses, lacy under-things & satin camisoles are all banished to the back of the closet. Come November, you’ll be stressing year-end deadlines in an oversized sweater designed to hide the five extra pounds you’ve packed on since summer’s abrupt end.

But just as no relationship worth remembering ends without a final steamy tryst, one day before the first frost you will inevitably wake up to a day that feels just as hot as it did in mid-July. It’ll only last a few hours, but it’s enough to make you momentarily slip back into the dreamy haze.

This is a recipe for that day.

Topped with savory beef & drizzled with a spicy lime and fish sauce vinaigrette, this dish is the opposite of a dull everyday lunch salad. Purple perilla brings an herbaceous complexity, while mint further brightens the crisp lettuce, slippery noodles, peppery radishes & sweet onions. You can easily throw this salad together in 15 minutes, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the final warm moments of summer.

So kick off your shoes, pour yourself a tall glass of icy plum wine, close your eyes, and begin the pleasurable task of deciding which summer memories are worthy of a permanent spot on that racy highlight reel of yours.

Serves 2

Ingredients:
Vinaigrette
1 garlic clove, finely minced
3 red chilies, sliced (Vietnamese or Thai chilies if you have them)
2 Tbs. lime juice
2 Tbs. fish sauce
1 Tbs. sugar
1 Tbs. water
3 Tbs. oil

Salad:
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. fish sauce
1 tsp. rice vinegar
½ tsp. sugar
1 lb. skirt steak
1 pack rice noodles (or about 4 oz. per serving)
1 head butter lettuce
¼ red onion, thinly sliced
3 radishes, thinly sliced
Mint leaves
Cilantro leaves
Perilla (look for Shiso or Tia To at your Asian grocery store)
Crushed peanuts (optional)

  • To make the vinaigrette mix the first 6 ingredients together in a bowl or small container. Stirring well with a small whisk, incorporate the oil. * If you prefer, you can substitute the oil in the dressing for water. But if you do it’s better to turn the dressing into a dipping sauce as it tends to make the salad watery.
  • Mix the soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar and sugar in shallow bowl. Add the skirt steak. Cover and let the steak marinate while you prep the rest of the salad.
  • Place a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Salt generously. When the water comes to a boil add the rice noodles and follow the cooking direction on the back of the packet. (Typically, rice noodles take about 5 minutes).
  • Once cooked rinse and drain the noodles well.
  • Wash, dry and tear the lettuce. Slice the red onion and radishes.
  • Place a skillet over high heat. Add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom. Remove the skirt steak from the marinade, tapping lightly to remove any excess liquid. When the oil begins to lightly smoke add the skirt steak.
  • Sear on high for 1 minute, turn the heat down to medium and sear another minute. Flip and repeat on the other side. The thickness of a skirt steak varies slightly but overall it tends to be a rather thin cut of beef. Cooking time will be roughly 2 minutes per side for medium rare.
  • When you reach the desired doneness remove the steak from the heat and set it aside to rest a couple minutes before slicing.
  • You can present this salad anyway you like but I like to set out individual servings. Divide the lettuce between two plates. Add the rice noodles, red onions, radishes and herbs to your liking. Drizzle with spicy vinaigrette.
  • Slice the skirt steak thinly, against the grain. Fan the steak over the salad. Top with crushed peanuts and extra chilies from the dressing.