A random discussion with friends brought up the topic of peanut butter and how easy it is to make yourself, and I remembered this post from 2016.
It wasn't exactly like those dreams I used to have about not being able to find my school classroom on exam day. It was more like the moment I realized that the corn cobs I'd been throwing away for years after a big barbecue—even the half-gnawed ones—could be put in a pot, covered with water, brought to a boil and simmered for 20 minutes to make a lovely corn stock. (Ditto for crab shells, fish carcasses…you get the picture.)
But when I found out that making homemade peanut butter took…literally…five minutes start to finish, it was a big head-slapping moment for me. D'oh!
You could also roast your own raw peanuts, of course—in a shallow pan in a 350° oven for 15-20 minutes—but when I can buy organic roasted, unsalted peanuts in the bulk aisle at the store, bring them home and five minutes later have beautiful, tasty, no-added-ingredients, salted-to-my-preference peanut butter? It's a game-changer, at least around here.
It's not even worth writing up an official recipe. Seriously.
Just put the roasted peanuts in a food processor and turn it on, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides, add a half teaspoon of salt at some point—you might want more or less depending on your taste, of course—and maybe a drizzle of vegetable oil toward the end to thin it if necessary, and in five minutes it's done.
A head-slapper, indeed. Here's a quick and easy peanut sauce to use with the snap peas and pea pods that'll be appearing at your farmers' market any minute!
For the peanut sauce: 1/4 c. soy sauce 1/4 c. rice vinegar 1/2 c. light coconut milk 1/2 tsp. salt 2 tsp. peeled fresh ginger 2 cloves garlic 6 Tbsp. peanut butter 3 Tbsp. peanut oil or vegetable oil 3 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil 1/2 tsp. chili oil or 1/2 tsp. red chile flakes 1/2-1 tsp. Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
For the pasta: 1 lb. pasta or 8 oz. buckwheat soba 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil 2 c. sliced snap peas (or other crunchy green things) 1/2 lb. frozen shrimp Cilantro leaves for garnish
Bring large pot of water to boil. While it heats, put all sauce ingredients into bowl of food processor and process until it makes a smooth sauce. When pot of water boils, add pasta and cook till al dente or, for the soba, follow the package directions. While pasta cooks, heat vegetable oil in skillet and sauté peas briefly, then add shrimp. When shrimp turn pink, remove from heat. Drain pasta and put in serving bowl. Add peas and shrimp and half of sauce (the remainder is terrific as a dipping sauce with salad rolls or raw veggies). Toss and garnish with cilantro leaves.
It's the bane of a sourdough aficionado's life: What to do with all the discard? You see, when you get ready to make something with your starter, first it must be fed, which basically means refreshing or “activating” the starter by adding more flour and water for the bacteria to feed on.
When it's all bubbly and ready to go to work, you'll need to save out a bit for your next project down the road, then take out however much you need for the job at hand. That leaves about half of that ready-to-rock starter sitting there staring at you.
Which is why it's so heartbreaking to toss it in the compost. If you're like Dave, it gets added to a vat of old starter that's been sitting in the back of the fridge for weeks getting a black-ish liquid building up on top of it. Not pretty. But there are only so many friends you can gift with starter, and only so many pancakes, waffles, bagels, etc., etc., that one (small) family can reasonably consume.
Thus the (tragic) discard issue.
Fortunately Dave is always on the prowl for recipes using sourdough discard, and is a dedicated fan of theencyclopedic videos and recipes of employee-owned King Arthur Flour—he and their star instructors like Martin (Philip), Gesine (Bullock-Prado) and Jeffrey (Hamelman) are on a first-name basis at this point. Which is where he ran across a recipe for a lusciously decadent chocolate cake that calls for no less than a cup of discarded starter.
He's used both discarded and fresh starter, and whatever organic all-purpose flour we have in the pantry—the recipe also calls for a teaspoon of espresso powder, which we don't have, and it turns out perfectly anyway. It can be baked in a bundt pan (top photo) or a rectangular baking pan, which only needs to be buttered and dusted with flour to come out like a charm.
1 c. (227g) sourdough starter, ripe (fed) or discard 1 c. (227g) milk 2 c. (240g) all-purpose flour 1 1/2 c. (298g) granulated sugar 1 c. (198g) vegetable oil 2 tsp. vanilla extract 1 tsp. fine sea salt 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda 3/4 c. (64g) cocoa powder 2 large eggs
Combine the starter, milk and flour in a large mixing bowl. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours. It won't necessarily bubble, but it may have expanded a bit.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a bundt pan and dust with flour (you can also use a 9" by 13" baking pan).
In a stand mixerat a low-medium setting (or separate bowl if you're doing it by hand), beat together the sugar, oil, vanilla, salt, baking soda and cocoa. The mixture will be grainy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
On the lowest setting of the mixer, gently mix in the starter-flour-milk mixture until smooth. (The recipe says it will be gloppy at first, but the batter will smooth out.)
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the thickest part of the bundt pan comes out clean.
Remove the cake from the oven and set it on a rack to cool. If using a bundt pan, let it cool for 20 minutes before inverting it onto a platter and removing the pan. Allow it to cool completely. (The recipe on the website also has instructions for an icing that can be drizzled over the cake.)
Something I love to do is mix up a batch of cornbread to accompany a big pot of soup or stew. As simple as it is to make, it doesn't always happen because it's even easier to slice off a few hunks of the fabulous sourdough bread that Dave cranks out like clockwork every couple of weeks. But there's nothing more satisfying than throwing some simple ingredients in a bowl, giving them a few gentle turns by hand and pouring it into a pie pan and pulling it out of the oven just before ladling out the soup.
I love cornmeal ground from organic flint corn with its rustic flecks of red, orange and yellow, and recently I've found a substitute for my beloved Ayers Creek Farm Roy's Calais Flint. Called Floriani Red Flint and grown by Fritz Durst of Tule Farms in Capay, California, it's a rich organic corn flour ground in Junction City by Camas Country Mill. (Read more and find links to purchase it.)
Of course, you can also use regular cornmeal for this recipe, but whichever you choose, and whatever form you choose to make it in—it's wonderful as a loaf, in a round cake or pie tin, or even muffins—definitely give this a try with your next pot of soup.
1 c. flour 1 c. cornmeal 3 tsp. baking powder 1 tsp. salt 1 c. milk or buttermilk 2 Tbsp. melted butter 2 eggs 1 c. sharp cheddar cheese 1 roasted green chile, chopped (optional)
Preheat oven to 400°.
In large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. Stir in milk and melted butter. Add eggs, cheese and chile (if using). Grease and flour baking pan or muffin tin. Pour in batter. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
NOTE: You can also add cumin, a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, some chopped green onions or one-third cup drained corn—it's a very flexible recipe!
Gochujang is making an appearance more and more often on our table, ever since my friend Denise shared her family's recipe for the jammy, spicy, deeply umami-esque red pepper paste that is ubiquitous in Korean cooking.
My fascination with it reminds me of the time, years ago, when Mark Bittman would wax poetic in his New York Times columns about Spanish pimentón, confessing in one column that he "may be at the point where I use more pimentón in my cooking than anyone in Spain."
So I was thrilled when my brother, who's not a big fan of Korean cuisine but graciously accepts that I am, was moved to send me a recipe he'd run across in Bon Appétit by Zaynab Issa for a garlic-laden gochujang noodle dish. I'm pretty sure I immediately ran to the cupboard to check on our noodle situation, finding soba noodles but not the mein, udon or ramen specified in the recipe.
Undeterred, I rationalized that the buckwheat noodles would be a hearty counterpoint to the red pepper paste—and that no one would object too strenuously to this detour from a recipe, especially if I didn't mention it. I also didn't have the broccoli rabe called for in the recipe, but I did have carrots, scallions, garlic and frozen peas from the previous summer.
Stirring together the ingredients for the sauce, with a couple of tweaks to the recipe, took just a few minutes. As always, chopping the vegetables took a bit more than that, but fewer ingredients (and those ready-to-cook peas) makes it simpler. A few minutes of sautéing, then pouring in the sauce and mixing in the already-cooked noodles until they were heated through made this easily a less-than-30-minute meal.
Next time I'm going to get some locally made Umi Organic ramen or yakisoba, but dried udon noodles (photo, above right) or even spaghetti would work. Plus it's infinitely adaptable depending on what you find in your veg bin. And adding some oomph by throwing in cubed tofu, or leftover roast chicken, pork or beef wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
The key is in that sauce, which I can see coming in handy for everything from chicken wings to marinades. Stay tuned!
Make your own gochujang from my friend Denise's family recipe. It's easy to do if you have a couple of hours, it makes enough to last for months and is so much more flavorful than store-bought!
For the sauce: 4 Tbsp. gochujang 1 Tbsp. soy sauce 2 Tbsp. light or dark brown sugar 2 Tbsp. tahini (raw sesame butter) 1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil 1 Tbsp. fish sauce
For the noodles: 8 oz. dried soba noodles 3 c. chopped vegetables (raab, bok choi, carrots, kale, peas, cabbage, scallions or whatever you have on hand) 6 cloves garlic, chopped fine 1/2 c. stock (chicken, pork or vegetable) 1/2 block cubed tofu and/or 1 c. cooked meat (optional) 1 tsp. sesame seeds for garnish (optional) Cilantro, chopped fine for garnish (optional) 1/2 lime, sliced into wedges, for serving (optional)
Bring water to boil in medium saucepan. Cook noodles for 4 minutes. Drain and rinse under cool running water.
Whisk gochujang, soy sauce, brown sugar, tahini, sesame oil, fish sauce and 2 Tbsp. water in a small bowl to combine; set aside.
Heat vegetable oil in a wok or large nonstick skillet over medium-high. Add vegetables and garlic and sauté until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add sauce and cook, stirring often, until thickened slightly, about 2 minutes. Add tofu or cooked meat, if using, then add noodles, tossing gently until heated through, about 1 minute; add stock if it seems too thick. Serve directly from cooking pot or serve individually in bowls, garnishing with sesame seeds and cilantro. Place lime wedges in a bowl on the table for drizzling over servings.
Two Recipes That Got Me Further Down the Root Road.
Root vegetables make me uncomfortable. There. I said it.
As a writer who covers our local food system, the farmers, ranchers and fisherfolk who do the hard work of bringing food to our tables, not to mention the incredible bounty of vegetables, meats, fish and edible delights within that system, you'd think nothing would be able to stump me. Well, I'm here to tell you that many root vegetables have been in a Pandora's box that I'd just as soon have kept shut.
Not that I would put them on my "never put this in your mouth" list or that I find them, to put it in toddler terms, "yucky"—I've had plenty of stellar meals prepared by excellent cooks featuring everything from celery root to kohlrabi to turnips and their kin. It's just that I wasn't brought up eating or cooking with them in a thoroughly middle-class 1960s American home, with Campbell's soup, frozen (or worse, canned) vegetables and that housewife's dream, Hamburger Helper.
My mother, who worked full time and had three kids and a husband to feed, was a good cook short on time, so convenience foods, available and much-ballyhooed in her "ladies magazines" of the time, made sense in her hectic life. As for me, since starting Good Stuff NW, I've inched my way into the world of root vegetables, sizzling sweet hakurei turnips with their greens in the oven or roasting a melange of roots under a chicken.
But subscribing to a CSA the past couple of years put my root-phobic inclinations to the test, since turnips, celeriac, kohlrabi, rutabagas and beets are par for the course in fall and winter in the Pacific Northwest, challenging my "never toss perfectly good food in the compost" mantra. When I found our food bin half-full of turnips the other day, I had to cave and resort to combing my cookbook collection and consulting the oracle (i.e. the Goog) for ideas.
The following stew and soup would qualify as both belly-warming and delicious, and have taken me just a little further down that rooty road.
Quick and Easy Creamed Turnip Soup
This is a super simple, creamy, incredibly luscious soup for dinner that makes enough for four good-sized appetites (top photo). It also makes a fun appetizer (think gazpacho) served warm in small, clear glass cups. Adapted from Spruce Eats.
2 Tbsp. olive oil 2 Tbsp. butter 1 large onion, roughly chopped 2 large leeks, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise in 1/2-inch pieces 6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped 6 medium to large turnips, chopped in 1/2-inch dice 8 c. chicken broth or vegetable broth, or a combination of half water and half broth 2 c. half-and-half Salt and pepper to taste Turnip greens, or parsley, for garnish
Heat the oil and butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and leeks, sprinkle with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the turnips and broth. Bring everything to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook until the turnips are very tender, about 20 minutes.
Take the soup off the heat and, using an immersion blender, purée the soup until very smooth, at least 2 minutes. (If you use a regular blender, allow the soup to cool slightly and work in batches, covering the lid of the blender with a kitchen towel to prevent splatter burns.)
After puréeing, return the soup to low heat and add the cream, stirring to combiine, making sure the soup does not boil. (The more cream you add the thicker and more luxurious the soup becomes.) Add salt to taste. Ladle into bowls and garnish each bowl with a sprinkling of cayenne or chopped turnip greens or parsley, if you like. Serve hot.
3 tablespoons olive oil 2 lbs. lamb stew meat, cut into 1-inch pieces Salt and pepper 1 onion, halved lengthwise and again crosswise into eight pieces 6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped 6 Tbsp. flour 1 c. dry white wine or rosé 4 c. chicken stock or broth of your choice 3 medium-sized turnips, peeled and chopped into 1/2" dice 2 medium carrots, quartered and cut into 2-inch pieces 1/4 c. half-and-half Salt and pepper, to taste Chopped turnip leaves, parsley or mint for garnish
In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, heat the oil until shimmering. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Working in 2 batches, cook the lamb over medium heat until browned all over, about 6 minutes per batch. Transfer to a large plate. Add the onions to the pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 2 minutes; transfer to the plate with the meat.
Remove the pot from the heat and add enough oil or lard to make 6 tablespoons of fat. Whisk in the flour, then return the pot to the heat. Add the wine and bring to a simmer over moderate heat, scraping the bottom of the pot. Stir in 2 cups of water along with the stock and whisk until smooth, then add the lamb and onion mixture and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the lamb is tender, about 1 hour, adding more water or stock if there isn't enough liquid. (Note: Sopping the gravy with bread is critical!)
Add the turnips, carrots and potatoes to the pot and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream; season with salt and pepper and warm briefly without boiling. Ladle the stew into bowls and garnish as desired. Serve with crusty bread.
You can find literally hundreds more recipes for root vegetables and other common CSA offerings at Cook With What You Have, a reference that many local CSA farms offer as a free resource to their subscribers. Have questions about what a CSA is? Get more information about CSAs, and get a list of area CSA farms and what they offer. Also, Portland author Diane Morgan's James Beard Award-winning book Roots is a comprehensive guide to more than 225 recipes for these often-underappreciated vegetables.
It was the mid-70s and carrot cake was all the rage. Dense, dark, full of healthful whole wheat and carrots, it used brown sugar instead of C&H and was the opposite of our mothers' fluffy, preservative-laden Betty Crocker mix cakes.
Made in college friends' apartments in their sketchy ovens, we barely waited for it to cool enough before we dove in. This cake would surely fuel the overthrow of the dominant paradigm.
Vive la révolution! (I was taking French at the time…)
When Dave and I requested carrot cake as our wedding cake of choice, the bakery was aghast. How can we stack it in tiers without having it crumble or topple over, they asked, suggesting instead a nice chocolate or banana cake if we really needed something "different."
But we wouldn't budge, and as a consequence of our insistence—or was it payback—they made a cake decorated to look like a lady's summer straw hat, wide brim, low crown, pale yellow, a frosting ribbon trailing over the side…you get the picture.
But it was delicious, and while our guests were a bit puzzled, it hardly spoiled the day—after all, it was August and a summer straw would have been fitting. Any cases of the vapours were assuaged by the rebels' microbrew, Henry Weinhard's beer (a lager and their groundbreaking Dark Lager), since no Bud, Blitz, Schlitz or Miller would be allowed to darken our day. (I seem to remember my mother added a few bottles of champagne to make the relatives happy.)
So when Santa gifted me with a new bundt pan to take the place of the hideously inappropriate-for-the-purpose silicon version that almost immediately got slimy and cruddy and wouldn't clean properly, a carrot cake seemed like the obvious choice for its first dance.
2 c. whole wheat flour 2 tsp. baking powder 2 tsp. baking soda 2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1 tsp. salt 1 tsp. nutmeg 2 c. brown sugar 1 c. oil 4 eggs 3 c. grated carrots Nuts, raisins, currants, etc. (optional)
Sift whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add brown sugar and combine thoroughly. Add oil and stir in, then add one egg at a time, beating it in before adding the next one. When it is completely combined, add carrots and any additional ingredients you choose—I added 1 c. of chopped walnuts—and combine.
Pour into a greased and floured bundt pan—a 9" by 12" baking pan or Pyrex dish works, too—and bake for 35-45 min, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If using a bundt pan, allow to cool for 20 minutes on a cooling rack. Place your serving plate of choice on top, turn the plate and bundt pan upside down and remove the bundt pan. (Mine is a non-stick version, so this is easier.) If it doesn't plop out, give it a gentle bounce and it should come loose.
It's a Sunday morning tradition around here. After we have both been humbled by the word puzzles on the New York Times website—me moreso than Dave—he starts puttering around the kitchen making breakfast. Sometimes it's as simple as his famous cheese omelets, other times he's got some sourdough left over from bread baking to use for scones, biscuits or even waffles. I know that whatever it is, it's going to be delicious and I try to be appropriately appreciative.
But on holidays, I like to let him off the hook regarding breakfast. There are the tried-and-true, go-to selections—a hearty frittata, fluffy pancakes and real maple syrup from New England, a buttery, crumble-topped coffee cake—but this past Christmas Sunday I chose another standby, strata, which I hadn't made in a dog's age. I pulled out my trusty old recipe box and found the stained index card right there in the "Eggs and Cheese" section.
Dead easy, whether you call it a savory bread pudding or cheater's soufflé, strata consists of bread, eggs, milk and cheese, plus whatever other ingredients you want to add. Usually, in our case, this means mushrooms and bacon, but can include seasonal herbs, kale, tomatoes, asparagus, ham or other meat or seafood.
But note that this cogitating on the possibilities needs to happen a day ahead, since strata really needs to be assembled the night before, with the bread spending all night absorbing the custardy goodness of the eggs and milk in order to achieve its utmost lusciousness. So the evening before I hauled out a half pound of the chanterelle mushrooms that I'd roasted and frozen a couple of weeks ago, plus some of Dave's fabulous bacon and the leeks that we'd received in our CSA share from Cully Neighborhood Farm.
The next morning, after pulling it out of the fridge and popping it in the oven, it bubbled away for ninety minutes while we sipped coffee and dug into our stockings. (And yes, we still do stockings around here…how else can you surprise someone with that probe thermomenter they've been drooling over online?) And I think Dave was pleased that Santa had thought to make breakfast for him for a change.
Bacon, Cheese and Chanterelle Strata
3-4 c. bread, cut in 1/2" cubes (remove crusts only if you want) 1/2 lb. sharp cheddar or other cheese, grated 1/2 lb. bacon, cut in 1/4" strips 1/4 c. butter or margarine, melted 1/2 lb. mushrooms, chopped (I used chanterelles, but any kind will do) 1 med. or 2 small leeks, quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2" slices 3 eggs 2-2 1/2 c. milk (see note) 1 tsp. Dijon mustard 1/2 tsp. salt
The day before baking, sauté bacon until fat begins to render. Add chopped mushrooms and sauté till mushrooms start to get limp, then add the leeks and sauté until tender. Remove from heat and cool. Beat eggs, milk, mustard and salt in a small mixing bowl. In a medium casserole dish (I used my 2 1/2-qt. Le Creuset casserole but it can be made in a 9" by 12" Pyrex baking dish), place half the bread cubes, topped with half the bacon mixture, half the cheese and drizzle half the melted butter over it. Repeat with another layer of the remaining bread cubes, meat mixture, cheese and butter. Pour the egg mixture over the top. (Note: You can add a little more milk the next morning if it seems too dry, but go easy—the bread shouldn't be swimming in liquid.) Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator overnight to soak.
The next morning, preheat the oven to 300°. Place the casserole in a larger pan with about 3/4" of hot water and place those in the oven. Bake for 90 minutes.
The ongoing crisis between Russia and NATO over the invasion of Ukraine, the struggle between protesters in Iran and the government over its extrajudicial killings, or the GOP's imminent implosion? Those have nothing on the potential fireworks involved in negotiating holiday meals with the family. The delicacy and maneuvering required as must-have side dishes are put forward for consideration, old family recipes are tossed in (and out) and dietary restrictions are figured into the mix would have even Anthony Blinken—who has released two songs on Spotify under the name "ABlinken"—scrambling for his easy listening list.
Like one year when Dave learned we were going to my brother's for Thanksgiving dinner. Normally an invitation from my brother isn't even a question due to the quality of his cooking andthe depth of his liquor cabinet. But for this occasion Dave's reaction was a look of disbelief and a cry of, "But I was planning to smoke the turkey in the smoker!"
After assuring him that I'd ordered a turkey so he could smoke it the next day, leaving plenty of leftovers for turkey sandwiches and his beloved turkey enchiladas, he immediately switched into research mode, looking up which wood charcoal to use as well as the complex calculations involved in getting the temperature and timing just right.
Suffice it to say that not only was it a wonderful holiday meal that included incredible cocktails and wines, a whole grilled turkey and some great side dishes, but the next day's smoking produced a bronzed beauty and some rocking turkey enchiladas.
Now to start planning for Christmas. Eek!
Dave's Favorite Turkey Enchiladas
For the sauce: 6 dried ancho chiles, seeded and torn into pieces 2 dried hot red chiles like cayenne, seeded and torn into pieces 3 1/2 c. boiling water 1 Tbsp. cumin seeds 2 Tbsp. (6-8) garlic cloves 4 tsp. oregano 3 Tbsp. paprika (I use 1 Tbsp. smoked Spanish pimenton and 2 Tbsp. regular paprika) 1 Tbsp. sugar 1 Tbsp. salt 2-4 c. roasted tomatoes (optional depending on how strong you like your enchilada sauce)
For the enchiladas: 4-6 c. cooked turkey, chopped 2 c. grated Monterey Jack or sharp cheddar cheese, grated 3 green onions, chopped 1 c. sour cream 1/2 c. sauce (recipe above Salt to taste 8 10-inch flour tortillas
Place the torn chiles in a heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Soak for 30 min. until they are soft and pliable. Drain them, reserving the soaking water, and place them in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients and 1/2 c. soaking liquid and process till smooth, gradually adding the rest of the soaking water. Pour into saucepan and heat to simmer, then remove from heat.
Mix turkey, cheese, onions, sour cream and sauce in large mixing bowl. Stir to combine. Pour 1/2 c. of sauce in bottom of 9" by 12" baking dish and spread evenly over bottom of dish. Put 1/8 of enchilada mixture down center of one tortilla and roll, placing it seam-side down in baking dish. Repeat with remaining mixture and tortillas. Pour sauce over top to cover thinly (there should be sauce left over). Bake 40 min. in 350° oven. Serve leftover sauce on side or save for use in huevos rancheros, tacos, etc.
Note: This is my basic chile sauce and will make approx. 4-5 cups, which gives plenty for other uses like those mentioned above or is fantastic for a pork posole. It will keep basically forever in the freezer, making it easy to pull out as needed!
Sami Scripter's groundbreaking book, Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America, written with co-author Sheng Yang, has just been released in paperback. When it was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2009, it was the first published collection of Hmong recipes since the Hmong people adopted a written language in the 1950s, and it represented a cultural milestone for the widely dispersed Southeast Asian community. I wrote a story about Scripter and Yang for the Oregonian's FoodDay, and I'm republishing it here.
The Hmong people had no written language until the 1950s, so it makes sense that it took until now for them to get their first cookbook.
But to tell the story of the book, we need to go back to 1980. That's when Sami Scripter, the coordinator of the talented and gifted program at Rigler Elementary School in Portland, met Sheng Yang, a young Hmong (pron. "mong") immigrant, in her English as a Second Language class. Scripter's desk was in one corner of the room, and she was taken with the inquisitive and self-possessed 11-year-old.
"Sami was always very helpful," Yang says. "I'm a very nosy person. I'd go up to Sami and she would always answer my questions."
Portland had seen a large influx of Hmong from refugee camps in Thailand as part of a resettlement program in the late '70s. To welcome the newcomers to Rigler and expose the community to Hmong culture, Scripter organized a talent night that showcased Hmong songs, dance and food.
Yang was scheduled to perform in the show and, since they lived just two blocks apart, Scripter would often give her a ride home from practices. Yang's mother would invite Scripter to stay for dinner, and eventually the two families formed a strong friendship. Knowing how fond Scripter and her family were of Yang, her parents asked if it would be possible for her to come live with the Scripters.
"Among Hmong families, children will often go to live with an aunt and an uncle for a year," Scripter says. "It's considered a learning experience. So it wasn't out of character for their culture, and we could help Sheng with her English and her classes."
"When I moved in with Sami and her husband, Don, he actually built bunk beds for me and (Scripter's daughter) Emily," Yang says. "Ever since then, Sami and Don and their family have been a part of our family."
As with many cultural exchanges, it quickly became a two-way street. While Yang's English improved and she learned to appreciate tomatoes, she also began teaching Scripter and her new American family about Hmong cooking.
More than once this new road required some negotiating, as when Yang was making a variation of the traditional Hmong green papaya salad. Since green papayas were not readily available in stores at the time, Yang was making the salad with carrots.
"She needed a certain tool but didn't know the American word for it," Scripter said. "Of course, I didn't have it in my kitchen, so we ended up going back to her house. It turned out it was a mortar and pestle."
Portland's Hmong population is estimated to be around 4,000, relatively small compared with the larger communities found in Minneapolis and Sacramento.* Most came here as refugees after the Vietnam War, when they were targeted by the communist government in Laos for helping the U.S. during the war.
In the mountains of Laos, they'd believed in a form of animism and used shamans and herbal remedies. Wild ingredients such as lemon grass, bamboo and rattan shoots, and banana blossoms, as well as herbs and seasonings such as cilantro, green onion, galangal, ginger, hot chiles, fish sauce and black pepper were commonly used.
Most food was cooked over an open fire, sometimes heated in a pot of broth or wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Compared with the fiery cuisines of many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, the cooking of Laotian Hmong was fairly mild and focused on subtler herbs and broths.
As in many traditional cultures, food often played a central role in most ceremonial gatherings, whether for the new year, weddings and funerals or for shamanistic healing rituals. To this day, many Hmong foods have some spiritual or cultural significance.
But because the Hmong had no written language, until very recently they were dependent on an oral tradition to pass on their cultural heritage, and many of the recipes for these significant cultural foods had not been recorded.
Which is where Scripter and Yang's unique relationship enters the story.
Having written down Yang's recipes over the years, Scripter and Yang, now an adult, began talking about creating a book that would not only introduce Hmong foods to Western audiences but would also be a written record of the traditions that were becoming increasingly diluted by the influence of American culture.
"We wanted it to be representative of Hmong people across the United States," says Scripter, "not just what came out of Sheng's kitchen." She started traveling to different Hmong communities around the country, asking who made the best traditional foods, such as larb or cracked crab.
"So I'd go over to her house and cook cracked crab," Scripter says. "Then I'd ask what else people like that she cooks, and one thing led to another."
"I met a woman and she really wanted to tell me this story," Scripter said of her first meeting with Mai Xee (pron. "my see") Vang.
Vang's mother, Ka Kue, had immigrated without being able to read or write, so she began teaching her mother to read and write English. It soon became apparent that her mother preferred her own language, so Vang taught her mother to read and write in Hmong.
After Vang married and left home, her mother fell ill and eventually succumbed to kidney disease. "Unbeknownst to her children, when Ka Kue knew she was really ill she started writing a journal," Scripter says. "It's all about her life in Laos and is illustrated with her own drawings, with all the traditional farming and cooking implements.
"Because she knew she would die, she wanted her children to have her voice to tell them what to do to be a good Hmong man or woman," Scripter says.
After the funeral, Vang and her siblings found their mother's journal, wrapped tightly in a Hmong skirt and concealed in a basket under her bed. Under the little drawings in her journal, Kue had written, "Peb ua neej nyob yuav tsum muaj tej nuav mas txhaj paub ua peb lub neej nyob. Nuav yog qov ob huv peb lub neej." Roughly translated, her words mean, "In our lives, we must have these things in order to make a good life."
As cabbage season is upon us once again, I thought it was high time to rerun this post from December, 2011. The basic technique described below is the one I still use, though I don't do the water bath canning method that Ron prefers, since I like the crunchy, fresh (and probiotic) quality of the cabbage straight from the crock—the only drawback is you need more fridge space to store it, since it's not shelf stable. C'est la vie!
If it wasn't for a teensy misunderstanding, I might have been enjoying sauerkraut long before I did. You see, my mother had been told that my father's father had come to the United States from Germany as a young man.* So, as a young wife wanting to please her new husband, she tried serving him meals that would appeal to what she thought of as his German-American upbringing.
Occasionally we would come to the family dinner table to find her version of a German dish was being featured, that is, sauerkraut straight from the jar heated on the stove with hot dogs—Oscar Meyer, no doubt—simmered in it. I think it took my father years to tell her he really wasn't fond of sauerkraut, but not before the tart, vinegary, tingle-your-back-teeth feeling was etched into all our minds.
That all changed for me when Dave and I went to France, traveling through the region called Alsace. Staying in an auberge with a fantastic restaurant on the first floor, we had the regional specialty called choucroute garnie, sauerkraut simmered for hours in a rich stock with sausages, pork, ham and other meats. It was truly a revelation, and forever changed the way I think about sauerkraut.
Which is why, when the subject of sauerkraut came up at a dinner we attended recently, I effused about my love for fermented cabbage. It turned out that the fellow I was speaking to was a sauerkraut aficionado, making gallons of the stuff every year from local cabbage, and he asked if I'd like to come observe the process. As you might expect, he'd barely finished asking when I answered, "Hell, yes."
I showed up one morning to find Ron Brey in his kitchen with several gigantic heads of green cabbage sitting on the counter. He buys them from Sun Gold Farm at the PSU farmers' market and looks for large cabbages—he buys 14 pounds total, or about three, per batch—that are tight and "hard as rocks." That amount is good for about seven quarts of sauerkraut, exactly the number of jars that will fit in his canner. He then slices the heads into quarters and then cuts those in slices about the thickness of a dime, slicing around the core.
The chiffonade from the cabbage goes into a bowl and is mixed with 11 tablespoons of salt, which almost immediately starts to "sweat" the cabbage, that is, to pull the moisture out of the leaves. Ron says he uses kosher salt because it has no additives, and mixes it in gradually as he adds more cabbage. The salt and cabbage mixture is then left to sit in the mixing bowl for six hours.
After that, Ron transfers the shreds of cabbage into the glass crocks he uses to ferment the sauerkraut. (The glass-lidded glass jars are from Fred Meyer and he says they're much cheaper than most of the ceramic crocks sold for making sauerkraut.) He firmly packs the sauerkraut in the crock by hand until it's about seven-eighths full, or up to the shoulder of the crock. [It's not necessary to completely fill the crock. I've done batches with as little as 1/3 of the crock and it turned out great.]
Brey emphasizes that it's important that the sauerkraut remains submerged in its liquid in the crock, and various mechanisms have been developed to press down the shreds, some of which work better than others. But here's the genius part: Ron came up with his own method that works like a charm and is so simple it's ridiculous. He takes a gallon zip-lock bag, fills it with water, and sets it in the crock on top of the cabbage. With a gallon of water weighing in at about eight pounds, it's plenty to keep that crazy sauerkraut under control, and it conforms to the shape of the crock. Awesome!
The cover is placed on the crock, and the sauerkraut goes down in Ron's basement to ferment for a couple of weeks. He likes to keep it at 65° for the fermentation…lower than that would be fine, but would slow down the process. He says, "There is some point—certainly by 80 degrees—where it becomes increasingly likely that the kraut will not ferment correctly. It can become soft, dark and lose the combination of tartness and sweetness." The kraut should remain fairly light-colored during fermentation; any serious darkening is an indication the ferment has gone wrong and should be tossed. Ditto, obviously, with mold.
After a couple of weeks the crock is brought up to the kitchen, the kraut is transferred to clean quart glass canning jars and is canned in the same kind of water bath canner my mom used for preserving fruit. Too bad she never knew about homemade sauerkraut and that paradigm-shifting choucroute.
Ron recommends the book "Stocking Up" by Carol Hupping as a basic guide for making sauerkraut and other preserved foods. I would also recommend "The Art of Fermentation" by Sandor Katz as an excellent guide. For Japanese pickling methods, the slim but essential "Tsukemono" is unsurpassed.
* In going through some family papers, I have since found out that my grandfather was born on Oct. 2, 1891, in the town of Sitauersdorf/Sitauerowka in the region of Galicia in what was then Austria, and is now a geographic region spanning southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.