Italian Vignettes

Etruscan Graffiti – Taggers owe their trade to the ancient race wiped out by Julius Caesar; the above banner is the façade of a home in Cortona and the word graffiti comes from such handiwork. Scholars still debate their origins and they have come up in conversation a surprising amount of times since we’ve been in Europe. A traveler we met at Locanda del Barbaresco said that a recent study was released saying that the Etruscans may have come from Turkey as the white cows prevalent in Piedmont have genetic ties to the oryx. The mystery continues.

Finding Funghi – Order the mushrooms in Piedmont! We happened to be in Alba during the annual truffle festival, which lasts for the entire month of October. On a hike around Palanfre on a misty afternoon, we amused ourselves by spotting various mushrooms along the trail, which was very well kept, considering the fact that we didn’t see any park rangers the entire time we were there. We saw a few Papa Smurf-type homes that are probably poisonous but these here are black trumpet – edible and scrumptious!

Corniglia lurking behind the vines

Cinque Terre Beta – Even though this trail is on every tourist to Liguria’s radar, it is well worth it to do the hike, but only from Monterosso to Riomaggiore. The southernmost two towns, Manarola and Riomaggiore, are connected by a straight cement footpath that is crowded and the complete opposite of charming so it’s better to end on that note, rather than start with it. Considering how many people hike the CT, it is shocking how badly marked the trail is; we got lost a few times and walked on the road in parts between Vernazza and Manarola. Okay, we were a tad tired of walking up and down hills because route 2, the flatter one that runs virtually parallel to the coast, was closed, but still! We hiked trail 7, which had a few steep muddy climbs that began from the roadside and ended farther along the same roads, but was otherwise amazingly beautiful and atmospheric. We plucked fresh figs and blueberries from branches and vines invading the path in parts, and snaked through vineyards, which we hope get kickbacks from the Italian parks commission!

Torta de Pasquale from a cafe in Genova

Ligurian Snack Foods – Don’t be tempted by pizza in Liguria if you are looking for a quick snack.  This is not Naples and the pizza we tried could be compared to average pizza from the United States (no offense to the pizza makers- it was not bad, just not exceptional!)  Stick with snacks Ligurians have been enjoying for centuries: Torta Pasquale and Farina con Stracchino.  The latter is for those who enjoy simple oily deliciousness- a savory pastry made with chickpea flour filled with a gooey, melting stracchino cheese or pesto.  Filling fast food, Ligurian style.  Torta Pasquale (Easter Tart) seems to have a storied pedigree of Biblical proportions.  Originally made with 33 layers of pastry to represent Jesus’ 33 years on Earth, this flavorful tart now has at least six layers of pastry and is filled with dark greens such as spinach or artichokes, as well as ricotta, fresh goat cheese, and egg.

A trophy for trofie – Liguria is famed for its pesto, most commonly served with freshly made trofie, a slight twirl of egg pasta 1-2 inches long. We had it once at Hotel Nazionale in Vernante and once in Monterosso al Mare at Trattoria Oscar; it was excellent both times but perhaps a tad better in Monterosso. More than any other type of pasta, trofie tests the mettle of pasta makers as its thickness and shape is paramount to the pesto being able to stick to it and provide a satisfying, chewy bounce with every bite.

Order what you want! – Italian menus might seem daunting at first, but don’t be afraid to order what you want.  While the traditional meal will be offered in three to four courses (antipasti, primi, secondi and dessert) there is no shame in ordering just and antipasti and then a primi for example.  Or just a primi and then a secondi for those looking to curb the carbs.   This strategy works especially well if two or more people are sharing since everyone can order something different without being forced to order too much food.  And be sure to save room for wine – wine prices are lower in much of Italy than anywhere else in Western Europe!

Starting a problem before trekking up to the lakes

Bouldering over Lago de Alberghi

Bouldering Galore – On our treks in Piedmont, we came across what appeared to be untouched bouldering routes. There were no telltale chalk marks or greasy ledges, and furthermore, it was a beautiful day and we were the only ones there! So if you are into the sport, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring along shoes and a crash mat and try a few problems. We didn’t have any gear on us but still had fun monkeying around.

Delicious wine made by the Manera family, who runs Locanda dei Barbaresco

Piedmontese Hospitality – We’ll never forget lovable Lorenzo at Locanda de Barbaresco or charming Christian and his brother (sorry we don’t know your name!) at Hotel Nazionale. Both went above and beyond the call of duty and made our stays at their properties so memorable that we’ll be evangelizing about them to everyone we know until you all go meet them – andiamo!

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Tuscany: Kristine & Emanuele Tie the Knot and Fatten Us Up

Kri & Eman descending the courthouse steps in Cortona

Rule #1 at Italian wedding dinners – PACE YOURSELF. Same goes for Chinese weddings – perhaps this was something else Marco Polo brought back, or vice versa? Truly we had never eaten so much food per hour in our lives as we had at Kristine and Emanuele’s wedding, which spanned two Tuscan towns – Cortona and Feretto – and twelve hours, only 1.5 of which were not spent consuming anything.

After the ceremony in Cortona where we sang “That’s Amore” as Kristine and her dad, Manfred, entered the courthouse where the ceremony took place, it was off to a terrace overlooking the main piazza for the first gorging. Here, there were several tasty platters filled with cream-cheese tartlets topped with caviar, walnuts or truffle shavings, proscuitto florettes wound around cantaloupe balls, Tuscan bread soup and much more, all washed down with Prosecco.

One walking tour of Cortona and drive back to Feretto later (the aforementioned scant hours spent not eating or drinking), it was time for dinner pre-game – I was glad to be wearing a black wrap dress! Set up in the back of the Giussani family country home was the Frivolezze de Apertivi e Antipaste del Preludio a Buffet, a vast array of salumi and cheese, served with grissini and flatbread warmed in the brick pizza oven. My favorite thing from the cheesy, meaty bounty was the headcheese, which I’d never had in Italy before but supposedly it is widely available in Rome. Agnes, a former colleague and friend of Kristine who served as the wedding translator, said it’s called cuppa de testa in Rome and often has orange or lemon rind in it. During the pre-dinner munching was where we first encountered the keg of La “5” from Birrificio L’Olmaia, a doppio malto that is one of Kristine’s favorites from a brewery in Tuscany. It was an unfiltered rustic farmhouse ale similar to a French Saison but without the sourness. Delicious!

Under the Tuscan Sunset

Then it was straight into the sit-down dinner – whew, all that standing up and eating was really tiring me out! The menu:

La Papa a Pomodoro rivistata alla maniera dello Chef (tomato soup with sesame breadsticks)

Risotto Zafferano Porcini e Tartufo (mushroom risotto with generous shavings of black truffles)

Caramelle de Pasta fresca con pomodorini pachini e basilico

Caramelle de Pasta fresca con pomodorini pachini e basilico (fresh pasta shaped like caramel candies wrapped around goat cheese in a tomato basil sauce)

Grigliata in Bellavista (mixed grill, which consisted of veal, sausage, bistec Florentine, chicken, spareribs and vegetable skewers)

Buffet di Contorni (potato gratin, wilted kale, peas with pancetta, baked mashed potato, carrots, etc)

Ginormous Wedding Cake

Torta Nuzziale (the biggest wedding cake I’d ever seen! Although only the outer circumference of each layer was cake, the amount of real cake would have easily fed double the amount of people present. The bottom layer was over three feet in diameter!)

Buffet di Frutta in Bellavista (pineapple, peaches, plums and other fruits, served alongside 10 other types of cake)

We danced the night away to songs from the 80’s, top 40 dance hits commonly heard at the gym and Rino Gaetano classics before waddling back to our rooms in the house, dreaming of a speedy digestion. All the cakes we didn’t have room to try spent the night in tinfoil, patiently waiting for us on the breakfast table!

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India and Nepal Visa Missions Accomplished!

DANCE OF JOY! (That is what my brother is doing above at LACMA). We got our India and Nepal visas! I have learned a lot in the process – even though procedures are amply stated online, reports vary so here is exactly what I did to seal the deals:


First, I researched cheap passport photo options. I felt like an idiot every time I passed the FedEx/Kinko’s I got my passport photos taken at for the princely sum of $15 for two. Highway robbery! I found this amazing site – Now there is no reason to pay the ridiculous fees charged in the analog world! Simply upload a digital photo taken against a white background, and the site will resize your photo into two rows of three for six perfectly useable passport photos. Download the file and print it out yourself or take it to a drugstore, which we did, and seconds later you have what you need for only $0.29!

I took the following to Travisa Outsourcing, the Indian consulate’s visa agency of choice:

  • a printed scan of my birth certificate
  • a copy of our utility bill – Chris was able to add my name to our bill
  • the form everyone has to fill out online – this link will take you to the proper form for your visa needs after you fill in your Current Nationality, Nationality at Birth, State of Residence and Visa Type:
  • my passport
  • a copy of my state ID
  • two 2×2’s of my expressionless mug – on one website, a point was made that pictures must be “of neutral expression, neither smiling nor frowning”

If you’re getting your visa in New York, be sure to go to Travisa Outsourcing’s office at 316 East 53rd Street, not Travisa’s regular office. The one in Midtown East is specifically for Indian visas and has framed photos of the Taj Mahal and bhangra music videos play on a loop, just in case you’re wondering where you are and why you’re there. Jai ho! There is also a bouncer at the front to make sure you have all the paperwork you need; others in line with me were returnees who were missing some of the above so make sure you have everything. If not, call beforehand to see what else you can provide in lieu of whatever documentation you are unable to produce. I spoke to several people regarding this and all were quite helpful.

If you live in a city where there is an Indian embassy or consulate, there is absolutely no reason to go through a third party visa agency – using one would only incur a comparatively exorbitant service fee (Chris was charged $50 on top of the normal visa charge of $73, which is basically +$50 for someone to take your passport to Travisa), the paperwork you have to bring is the same no matter what and getting it through Travisa was a lot faster. Mine took one day whereas Chris’ took over a week when using the unbelievably unprofessional company profiled in Incredible India Visa Issues. The only reason you might want to go with an outside agency is if you yourself have no time to drop it at Travisa – you also have to go at a pre-arranged appointment time during business hours – or if the people you are traveling with/a relative/a person you work with cannot do it for you. These are the three categories of people that can drop your passport and visa information off at Travisa if you are unable to. Three people checked my paperwork and maybe 15 minutes after I passed the velvet rope, I was given a receipt and told to come back the next afternoon. The next day, I showed up with my receipt and was given my passport with a pretty new 1-page visa in it. Hurrah!


Pretty easy compared to India. All you have to do is fill out a downloadable one-page form and submit a passport photo. BUT the tricky thing is you have to pay the visa fee with a cashier’s check. This is the only payment method they accept – no credit card, cash or personal checks. I went to my bank and they said that it would cost $7 to issue the check! I gave them the ol’ broken record and the fee was waived.

Getting a hold of the embassy was quite a to-do. I wanted to check what time it was open since it was the summer and I wasn’t sure what their hours were. It was worrying that no one ever picked up during business hours. Finally I called the embassy and pressed 1 instead of 2, which goes to “official matters” instead of straight to the visa-processing center. I spoke to a real person instead of a machine; she transferred me to the visa department. Hark, they answered! Chris dropped our passports off the next day, a Friday when they were open from 10am-1pm. Perhaps because of his wide smile, they pasted the visas in on the spot. On the website, it says that visas take seven business days. So now we’re all set!

In honor of these accomplishments, I’m posting a recipe for a dish I made a few weeks ago when I was inspired to work with a new vegetable. I’ve always loved Thai eggplant but never had it in a non-Thai context. The woman I bought them from probably doesn’t sell much of it as she asked, “What are you going to do with them?” When I replied that I didn’t know, she suggested I stir-fry them. Ho hum.

When I got home, I tried one raw, and it was terrible. Some vegetables are meant to be cooked! I set to work and came out with something that we were both pleased with and enjoyed with a 1991 bottle of Riesling Spätlese we’d been saving for a special occasion.

Thai Ratatouille with Chopped Pistachios and Sage

The haul from the farmers market

½ pound quartered Thai, or Kermit, eggplants

1 T Catalunia blend by La Boîte à Epice

4-6 cranks of white pepper

1 T sea salt

8-10 pickled green onions, white part only (we pickled these a few weeks ago with Thai bird chilies, fresh thyme, mustard seed and a mix of apple cider and white vinegar)

1 big ripe heirloom tomato, peeled and diced

1 medium-sized bell pepper, minced

1/3 cup pistachios, roasted and chopped

6-8 sage leaves, chiffonaded

1.     Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick pot or deep pan. When hot, add the eggplant and stir for a few minutes, adding a bit of water if the vegetables need help releasing the liquid within.

2.     Add the pickled green onion and lower the heat to medium low and cover. Check the mixture every 5-7 minutes to stir it and make sure it’s not sticking.

Not the prettiest in the patch but certainly delicious!

3.     After 15 minutes, add the tomato and stir. There should be plenty of liquid in your cooking vessel if the eggplant has cooked properly and the tomato is ripe. Decrease the heat to low and cover for 10 minutes.

4.     Add Catalunia, salt and pepper. Cover again for 5 minutes before turning the heat off.

Minced bell pepper with sage and pistachio

5.     In a serving bowl, combine the pistachios, sage and bell pepper. Mix together.

6.     At the last minute before service, add the hot eggplant/tomato mixture to the serving bowl and stir. The textures and flavors are incredible and the eggplant will be a world away from the raw one you may have tried above!

Thai Ratatouille with Chopped Pistachios and Sage

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Pantry Woes

A morning inevitability – you excitedly leap out of bed with a brilliant breakfast idea in mind, only to realize that you’re short one ingredient. It’s 9am on Labor Day so I’m not sure if the grocery stores are open yet, plus I’m not ready to see the world without breakfast in my stomach. Rumble goes my tummy, and the timeline to relief seems scarily distant.

My stomach wants cheddar jalapeno waffles. A Google search on those three words leads to a Rachel Ray recipe, so I try again, this time with only “cheddar waffles.” The recipe from Season 7 Cheftestant Andrea Curto-Randazzo looks pretty good – – so I set about assembling the ingredients, only to discover that either I can’t find the baking powder or we just don’t have it. The latter is an impossibility, so I hunt through every cabinet, to no avail. Eek!

I look up baking powder replacements and learn a lot about the differences between soda and powder. According to, “Baking powder is made of baking soda and the right amount of acid to react with the soda.” We have baking soda, hooray! I can’t find the cream of tartar, though, that would act as the acid. I’ll bet it’s hanging out with the baking powder, bewitched away by a Household Goblin ( who is mischievously munching on some season-appropriate fruit shortcake. Now what?

On my tour of our pantry, I unearthed a box of water chestnut flour that expires when we are abroad. I’m not even sure why I bought it, perhaps for its chic Mainland-style packaging? In any case, I start looking up recipes and most are a steamed dessert cake that I’ve had a few thousand times and never really loved. It’s popular for Chinese New Year and served as dim sum, but it’s certainly not my top Sino-sweet.

Finally I found this: We happen to have some leftover potatoes that I made the other day, a mix of Adirondack blues and reds that I par-boiled and added to sautéed onion, curry leaves, ginger and mushrooms, and finished cooking with fresh ground clove, coriander and mustard seed. I mashed the potatoes and added it to a whole jalapeno that I had optimistically minced earlier, then added water chestnut flour, peanuts and cumin, and mixed by hand. They turned out delicious – breakfast in Kerala is served!

Singada tikki sprinkled with cilantro and corn salsa, and served with green papaya salad, tomato jelly, mango chutney

Bergen Street Singada Tikkis

1.5 cups parboiled potatoes, mixed with your choice of ground spices

1 cup water chestnut flour

1 whole minced jalapeno

¼ c ground roasted peanuts

1 tablespoon ground cumin

Tikki Dough

Mix the above by hand and form a dough that is more dry than sticky – it should not stick to your hand. If need be, add more flour or maybe even an egg to achieve the proper consistency, but I found the proportions above to be perfect. Roll out lemon-sized portions and place one in the center of an oiled piece of foil atop a cutting board. Fold the foil in half and mash the dough with the palm of your hand until it’s ¼-inch thick. Melt ½ tablespoon of butter in a pan and add the tikkis, flipping over when browned, which takes about five minutes a side. Serve with chutney or any jam/jelly you have on hand. Makes five tikkis.

Oh and I found the baking powder. Can you find it in the banner above? Look for the -ing!

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Meating of the Minds

Feeling anemic? Let’s meat! Thanks to the good people of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats (, Chris and I have several pounds of this and that in the freezer that we definitely want to eat before our trip. To chase away the Monday-ness of Monday, we cooked up a carnivorous feast for our friends last night. We enjoyed the dishes below with a yummy green papaya salad and a transcendental homemade peach pie, which isn’t pictured because it disappeared faster than the 1/30 of a second shutter speed my camera was set to.

Monday Meating

Cocoa Peanut Spareribs
I’ve wanted to make these ever since I slid my chompers into the succulent flesh of a rib at Sapa, Patricia Yeo’s restaurant in Chelsea that sadly closed a few years ago. New York’s loss is Boston’s gain as she is now making magic in the South End at Ginger Park.

I found this video of her making Sapa’s signature dish and typed out the recipe from multiple viewings:

Ingredients and method:

  1. Take two pounds of St. Louis cut ribs and skip every other bone when cutting such that there is more meat on the bone.
    >>For us, this was a moot point as we used country-style spareribs. We marinated first and cut later.
  2. Rub with five-spice powder, equal parts sugar and salt and coat ribs, marinate 8-12 hours.
    >>We marinated for 36 hours and Chris added about ¼ cup dark soy sauce so the dry ingredients would stick to the meat better. Also he used light brown sugar.
  3. Take the ribs out of the refrigerator, cut them into two-inch chunks, except the part with the bone, and let them defrost for 30 minutes.
  4. Heat oil in a pan and brown the ribs. Put the ribs in a rectangular baking dish.
  5. Mix 1 cup smooth peanut butter, 1/5 cup cocoa powder, 1 cup hoisin sauce, 3/4 cup
    miso, 1 cup red wine vinegar and 3-4 cloves garlic in a bowl. Blend the mix with an immersion blender, throw in a jalapeno and a few Thai bird chilies and add water if the mixture is too thick. Pour in pan over browned ribs, then add a cinnamon stick, star anise and cloves.
    >>We didn’t have jalapeno so I used two fresh bird chilies. I will definitely throw another one in next time. Also, I thought the sauce was a little hoisin heavy, so I’d definitely decrease that next time.
  6. Wrap pan with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 1.5 hours.
    >>We stirred it after an hour and baked it for another 30 minutes. When the ribs were more or less cool, we popped them in the fridge so they could get even more flavorful overnight.
  7. Heat in a dutch oven on the stovetop over low heat the next day, and top with fresh cilantro.

Cribbed this from an Eating Club co-founder who couldn’t make it on account of the juice cleanse – it does take the odd timeout to be able to eat like a member! Normally I use Asian pears for the marinade but since they aren’t in season, I used kiwi.

2.5-3 lbs kalbi

2 ripe kiwis, diced
4-6 cloves minced garlic
4-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1/3-1/2 cup light soy sauce
¼ cup dark soy sauce
4 tablespoons salt
6 heaping tablespoons of coarse cane sugar (also called natural brown sugar or for limeys, demerara sugar)
4-5 tablespoons sesame oil
10 good cranks of freshly ground white pepper

Marinate overnight. Place kalbi in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 425 degrees for 8-10 minutes a side. Of course, if you have a grill, fire it up!

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Incredible India Visa Issues

Zukes, Tomatoes, Eggplant and Squash

This is preparation for actually being in India – this thought simmered through my head, only quelled by a few powerful jabs to our helpless sofa pillow. But really, there was little else I could think of to do after another frustrating email from the company supposed to be helping me get my India visa. To be fair, the Indian consulate’s laws have become stricter on account of terrorist attacks, but after talking with several friends, there appear to be several loopholes in the scheme that said company won’t let me go through. After extracting tons of personal information from both of us via a very long online form, they informed Chris that they need copies of our birth certificates as well as state licenses. Fine. The next day, visa wallah Chris gamely goes back with the goods, only to be informed that because my state ID is from California, they’ll need proof of my residence in New York. He is ok because his ID is from New Hampshire, which is “in the same jurisdiction.” I’m getting fed up at this point. The only reason why I went with this company was because I got a visa from them two years ago and they were helpful, kind and convenient to get to from my office. They have since moved offices and become decidedly less helpful in the process. “Stapler, tape, monitor, all packed. Willingness to help customers? Eh, we’ll leave that here.”

I called the company and asked if a credit card statement would do to prove my residential address as all of our utilities are under Chris’ name. He said yes. I asked if there was anything else in the application that they could see as a problem – he took a long look and said, “oh wait, your pictures have a blue background. Yeah – that’s not going to work.” Mind you, these are the exact photographs I used not two years ago to obtain the same visa. I told him to move forward with processing and if the problem is the blue background, to call me.

This morning, I received an email saying the credit card statement won’t do, and the blue background is a problem. I ask if there is anything else I can provide them with to prove my address, he says no – he has to process it through their California office. This is unbelievable. Surely there are scores of people applying for tourist visas to India in New York who do not live in New York. This is a visa that you can get in one day if you pay more – is it one day for people who happen to have tons of paperwork on themselves at hand? Who knows. All I know is the Indian consulate has enough information on me to steal my identity and buy a house in my name, but apparently not enough to visit their country.

I Googled “BS visa applications” and the first return was a string on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree about the vagaries of getting an Indian visa: So I know I’m not alone in this, and to sooth my soul smashed to smithereens by Shiva’s cohorts in the visa game, we’re having ratatouille. The same dish that ameliorated Anton Ego’s skinned knee will reinvigorate the desire in me to press on, take new passport photos and decide whether or not to try to get a visa through the much nicer company – who told me on the phone that in lieu of a birth certificate, I can provide my college diploma.  Because your college diploma is like a utility bill.

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Trend Testing – Squash Blossoms, She Said

Entire farms produce only squash blossoms. When we see them on menus, we mentally congratulate the chef and proceed to order. Who can resist these golden blooms? Certainly not me, but I often wondered why fried squash blossoms are exalted while fried zucchini is for the gastronomically challenged chain pizzeria going set. Is the blossom so much more delicious than the actual squash?

We had to find out. Squash blossoms are $5 for 20 at Grand Army, so we decided to make this our first dual posting and make two dishes with them this weekend. We had planned on having guests over but since that didn’t pan out, eating 10 deep fried blossoms per person seemed a little excessive.

For lunch today, I made a squash blossom soup recipe from Rick Bayless, halving the recipe and adding our own tweaks. It was a delicious splash of summer, but other than the aesthetically pleasing streaks of gold provided by the blossoms, I don’t think the soup was markedly better tasting as a result of the flores de calabaza – in fact, the bases of the flowers are almost bitter – think zucchini skin multiplied by 10. Make this soup with and without squash blossoms, try it blindfolded, and let us know what you think!

Squash Blossom Soup with Pao de Quejio

Golden Squash Blossom Soup (Sopa de Flores de Calabaza)


1-1/2 Tbs. butter
1/2 large white onion, chopped into
1/4-in. dice
2.5 cups good chicken broth
1 small red potato, diced
12 large, fresh squash blossoms
1 cup milk
1 small zucchini, diced
1 cup frozen corn (we didn’t have fresh but this will do just fine)
Cilantro for garnish
Pinch of smoked salt
3-4 Tbsp Vermont Pepper Works chipotle chili sauce
Lime juice to taste

3 servings

In a medium (4-qt.) soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly brown, about 5 min. Scoop out half of the onion and set aside. Add the broth and potato, partially cover, and simmer over medium-low heat for 20 min.

While the broth is simmering, prepare the squash blossoms. Peel off the sepals that come out from the base of the blossoms. Break off the stems. Remove the stamen in the center of each flower and discard. Cut the blossoms crosswise into 1⁄4-in. strips, including the bulbous base.

Add half the blossoms to the broth and simmer 3 min. Blend with immersion blender.

Add corn, milk and reserved onion to the soup; bring to a simmer and cook for 10 min. Add the zucchini, simmer a couple of minutes, then add the remaining squash blossoms. Simmer a couple of minutes longer (the strips of blossom will soften into deep-golden “streamers”). Remove from heat, stir in the cream, taste, and season with salt, black pepper, smoked salt and a few good shakes of the chili sauce. Top with minced cilantro and a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lime juice.

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Trend Testing – Squash Blossoms, He said

Why buy Squash blossoms?  To me, they are the perfect example of a vegetable which is only available during a narrow window of time during the year.  “Seasonality” is a term thrown around a lot these days, but for certain special produce it still holds true; heirloom tomatoes, ramps, fresh figs, blueberries and yes squash blossoms.

Sure we can often find pale imitation of these treats year round in our gourmet shops here in New York City, but when you taste the real thing, you understand why buying direct from farmers is a wonderful luxury.

So to get back to the squash blossoms, we discovered another reason to snatch them up whenever you find them available.  It will be the first recipe to come up when you do a google search and for good reason, fried squash blossoms are ridiculously easy to make and taste exquisite.  A good friend of mine once made them in her small kitchen for a party of over 20 people while drinking a cocktail, which gave me the courage to try them out for a simple dinner.  We borrowed from a recipe from the famous restaurant in Berkeley, Chez Panisse:

Dredging Blossoms

Fried Squash Blossoms with Chevre Goat Cheese

1/4 cup finely chopped mixed herbs, such as chives, tarragon, or chervil
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced shallots
12 fresh open squash blossoms
1 cup fresh chevre goat cheese (We used standard French goat cheese from a tube)
Large pinch salt
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 cup masa harina  (We used a good coarse ground corn meal instead)
Two large pinches salt
Pinch freshly ground white pepper
Vegetable oil

In a small bowl, mix together the herbs, shallot, chevre and salt.

Open up the individual blossoms wide enough to insert a teaspoonful of cheese mixture. Do not overfill or fried blossoms will be soggy. Twist the ends of the blossom together gently.

In a medium bowl, beat 2 eggs together with 1/4 cup milk. In a separate medium bowl, mix together masa harina, salt, and pepper. Dip each blossom into the egg mixture and then roll quickly and evenly in the masa harina mixture, gently shaking off excess. Refrigerate for a few minutes.

Pour 1 inch of oil into a small shallow saucepan or skillet. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Deep-fry the blossoms in batches until they begin to turn light golden brown. Drain on baking rack set over paper towels, and serve immediately.

And by all means, serve them with something else available only during this time of year, like a fresh heirloom tomato salad!  There is really nothing that could replace the squash blossom in terms of an edible, thin delicate envelope to encase all that luscious goat cheese.  Visually stunning and extremely tasty squash blossoms are a happy reminder to enjoy the present, eat your vegetables, and buy local whenever possible.

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Kitchen Staples

Wilde Wiede Gouda with Dreamweaver and a graphic novel - happiness!

People who do not cook regularly for themselves at home often cite expense as an issue. Certainly if you have nothing in your kitchen because you are tired of throwing out expired goods or rotten vegetables from past endeavors, it can be expensive to have to buy every single ingredient in preparation for making a meal. The following are dry goods I keep on hand in my pantry, no matter how tiny my kitchen is. Below that is a list of produce and other items that expire more quickly than the dry goods; I replace these fresh items every week or so.  Having the below on-hand opens up a world of possibilities for simple home-cooked meals. You can easily roast a chicken with some of the ingredients below and a few sprigs of fresh herbs, make a vegetarian pasta sauce, or make fried rice with last night’s take out leftovers and day-old rice.


  • long grain rice
  • soy sauce – light and dark
  • salt
  • 2 pepper grinders, one for black and one for white peppercorns. Or if you don’t really cook much Asian food, one pepper grinder with black peppercorns is fine.
  • cornstarch
  • ground cumin
  • curry powder
  • canola oil
  • good olive oil
  • sesame oil
  • lemons and/or limes
  • dried noodles and pastas – spaghetti, soba and some sort of pasta that sauce will stick to like fusilli (you crazy bastard!)
  • almonds or another nut of your choice
  • dried chilies
  • canned tomatoes
  • canned chickpeas
  • tomato paste
  • your favorite mustard – for my daily mustard, it’s a toss up between Dijon and whole grain
  • rice wine vinegar
  • white vinegar
  • sugar
  • honey
  • dried scallops
  • cinnamon sticks or ground cinnamon
  • Sriracha
  • Oyster sauce
  • all-purpose flour


  • baked tofu
  • your favorite hardy green – broccoli, for example, or even better, Chinese broccoli!
  • milk
  • carrots
  • trumpet mushrooms – these seem to have become popular only within the last 3-4 years; I don’t recall ever seeing them in Asian supermarkets before but now everyone carries them. They are pan-Asian and delicious! As far as I can tell, they’re available year-round.
  • an onion or two
  • eggs
  • a good loaf of bread
  • smoked Gouda or a cheese of your choice
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • green onion or chive buds

Now that your kitchen is stocked for me to come over and cook, here are some of my favorite quick meals:

Monastic Dinner
After doing the Wildrose Cleanse, I determined to have one night a week where I ate vegan fare – Super Vegan Tuesdays, I called it. This never quite materialized but probably twice a week now, I eat fully vegan meals and don’t drink alcohol with those meals. This helps keep my metabolism in check and the weight I’d lost off! This is the meal I made and consumed every time I did yoga, which was up to three times a week. It may sound monotonous, but these ingredients are ones I love and the simple pleasure of eating fresh vegetables is heightened after sweating profusely through the asanas.

  1. 1 trumpet mushroom, cut into long strips
  2. 2 heads of broccoli with stalks, peeled and cut
  3. 2 blocks of baked tofu – they are usually sold in two palates that can be broken into two pieces each so I use half the package. Cut the tofu into strips roughly the same size as the mushrooms.
  4. 1 clove of minced garlic
  5. 1T rice wine vinegar

In a wok or skillet, heat a tablespoon of canola oil. When hot, add the garlic and stir until slightly browned, about 15-30 seconds, depending on the heat of your wok or skillet. Add the tofu and stir it around for a few minutes. Then add the broccoli and stir that for 2-3 minutes, adding water if necessary if your wok starts to smoke and the vegetables need help releasing the liquid within. Add the mushrooms and stir all ingredients together. Add salt and a few cranks of white pepper and the rice wine vinegar, stir and cover. After 3-5 minutes, uncover and taste, then add a drop of sesame oil if you wish. Turn the heat off and enjoy! I usually wolf down about 2/3 of it and have the last 1/3 for breakfast the next morning – the perfect way for the budding yogi to begin a new day!

Noodles with Ginger-Soy Sauce

  1. 1 part sesame oil to two parts light soy sauce
  2. 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
  3. 3 shiso leaves
  4. 1 package of udon or 1 bundle of dried soba

Combine the sesame oil and soy sauce and grate the ginger into it with a microplane. If you don’t have one, mince it. Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the package, then drain in a colander and toss in 5-6 ice cubes to halt the cooking and cool the noodles. When they are sufficiently cool (they don’t need to be ice cold but cooler than lukewarm is best), add the sesame-oil-ginger-soy mixture and stir. Chiffonade the shiso and mix it in. If your noodles are at all warm, the shiso will turn black. If you have it, sprinkle in a tablespoon of black sesame seeds. I love the bite of ginger but if aren’t as crazy about it, decrease the amount of ginger or toss in a teaspoon of sugar to the soy-sesame oil mixture.

Spicy Pork Spareribs

Came up with this on a cold night when I knew that a bottle of berrylicious Cotes du Rhone was on its way home.

  1. 2 lbs spareribs – marinate with 4T dark soy sauce, 1T sesame oil, 2T salt, 3-4 good cranks of white pepper, 1T cornstarch, 3T water, 1-2 generous squirts of Sriracha.
  2. 1 trumpet mushroom, cut into strips
  3. 3 dried dates and 10-15 unsweetened, dried Goji berries – if you don’t have these, add 3T sugar in the cooking process
  4. 1 cinnamon stick or 2T of ground cinnamon
  5. 3-4 Thai bird chilies, reconstituted with hot water if you’re in a bit of a rush as it will be ready in 30 minutes. If you like to plan your meals ahead, marinate the meat the night before and soak your chilies in cold water then.

Brown the marinated meat in a hot cast iron dutch oven in 2T of canola oil, this could be less if your meat is fatty or more if it is leaner.  After the meat is sufficiently browned, probably after 5 minutes or so, add the mushrooms, Goji berries and dates. Stir for a minute. Then add 1.5 cups of water or enough to cover 2/3 of the ingredients. Add 1/3c oyster sauce, sugar (if you don’t have Goji berries and dates) dried chilies with the water they were soaking in and cinnamon. Cover the dutch oven and put it into a 350 degree oven in the middle of the oven. Check it after 20 minutes, stirring to make sure that all the reduced goodness has a chance to work its flavor magic on the meat. After stirring, return it in the oven for another 15-20 minutes and then taste. Season as you wish and serve over white rice.

And as a bonus – if you only have the above lists and nothing more, roast the carrots in the oven with salt, cumin and lime juice and when they are nearly done, toss in a handful of chopped almonds. Cut up some bread and cheese and fill a small dish with olive oil. Pour yourself a glass of wheat beer and there you have an excellent, well-balanced snack!

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A Beer Dinner with a Rock and Roll Friend

Dessert paired with a night-ending beertail

One of our first pairing dinners in Manhattan was to congratulate a friend who recently left an illustrious career in a rock n’ roll gypsy music band to pursue even more exciting trajectories.  Here’s the menu:

Mussels steamed with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Lemon and Fennel paired with Moa White

Flank Steak in Chimichurri Sauce with Guacamole paired with Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales Maracaibo Especial Brown Ale

Kabocha Squash Cakes with a Ginger Cream paired with a devastatingly delicious beer-tail:  Moo Thunder Stout, Cream Sherry and Dark Rum….yum!

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