Archive for December 2012

The Jade Emperor Smiled

December 29, 2012


After a steady diet of holiday food we were both craving something sprightly, taste-awakening, rejuvenating. As I listlessly glanced over my cookbooks my eye fell on a tiny tome that I hadn’t thought about in years: Dining With Headhunters, by Richard Sterling. A pang of guilt and sorrow struck me. How had I managed to forget all about a book that I’d once loved so well?

My copy is signed by Sterling himself, who wrote: “Dear Abra, May the Jade Emperor always smile on your kitchen,” referring to a Vietnamese story  in which the kitchen deities make an annual report to the Jade Emperor about whether a kitchen is a place of love or strife. And indeed, my various kitchens around the world in the time since I first discovered this quirky and delightful book have been singularly blessed.

Dining With Headhunters is full of stories of Sterling’s time in Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and the Philippines. The best part is that the excellent stories are punctuated with recipes that are easy and accessible. Although they seemed almost hopelessly exotic to me the first time I tried them, back in 1996, I realize now that the list of Asian ingredients available to most of us has increased exponentially since then, and there’s been a proliferation of authentic Asian cookbooks. However, the beauty of this little book is in the context; the recipes sprang from far-away times and places, and each is embedded in a story of Sterling’s adventures.

So I was very curious to discover whether, with an additional 15 years of serious, and for a while even professional, cooking under my belt (not to mention around my hips) the recipes would have stood the test of time. I chose an old favorite, Burmese Red-Gold Pork, as well as a Burmese green bean salad, and a Cambodian country-style smoky eggplant. A couple of hours in the kitchen and the results were as you see them above. A lively green bean salad with sauteed shallots, chiles and sesame, a hauntingly delicious eggplant with fried pork, shrimp, and Thai basil, and the ever-entrancing Red-Gold pork, spicy-warm, beautifully burnished and fragrant with sesame oil.

Unlike much Asian food, this stuff is rich, soothing comfort food. If you’re looking for light and clean, look elsewhere. But if what you want is a bit of soul-warming exoticism on a winter’s night, you could scarcely do better than this.

Burmese Red-Gold Pork
adapted from Dining with Headhunters by Richard Sterling

2 lbs pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
1 1/2 T dark soy sauce
1 tsp black pepper, coarsely ground
1/2 cup toasted light sesame oil, or use dark sesame oil with half Chinese peanut oil
1 1/2 T minced fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup water, divided use
1 1/2 T regular soy sauce
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 large onion, sliced
salt to taste

Rub the pork with the dark soy sauce and pepper and let marinate for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet with a tight-fitting lid (I like the Le Creuset for this) and stir in the ginger until fragrant. Add the pork and stir-fry for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and 1/2 cup water, stir, and cover. Simmer until the water has evaporated, about 30-40 minutes. Add the soy sauce, cayenne, and remaining 1/2 cup water, stir, cover, and simmer again until the water evaporates, another 30 minutes or so. Add the onions, cover again, and continue to simmer until the pork is richly browned and the onions are almost reduced to a sauce. Plan about 2 hours start to finish for this dish, but most of it is unattended and you’ll be able to prepare other dishes while the pork is simmering away, making your kitchen smell unbearably delicious, and no doubt making the Jade Emperor smile widely and delightedly.

Is There An App For That?

December 26, 2012


This Christmas I decided to drag myself kicking and screaming into 2013. I asked for a Smart Phone, even though I was enjoying being just about the last person I knew who was satisfied with a Dumb Phone. On Christmas morning, the Big Deal Phone was the last present left under the tree, ready to burst into my life, Da Da Da Dum, and turn it upside-down.

I wanted it and I didn’t want it. What I really didn’t want, though, was to make now the moment at which I decided that I just wasn’t going to keep up with the rate of change anymore, and was going to settle down forever with my arcane and archaic ways. I didn’t want to start being that old lady who couldn’t be bothered with a new-fangled contraption like a food processor, especially not at my age. So, I sighed and sucked it up and asked for one. Shel, naturally, obliged, relieved at the prospect of no longer being married to a person who never even remembered to take a phone with her when she went out. “You’ll have to keep it with you all the time” he reminded me helpfully, or maybe hopefully.

Since I rarely take anything with me when I go out except the barest of necessities, I had him take my teeny tiny Bagalini purse with him to the phone store, because the thing is designed, basically, to hold only 2 credit cards and a couple of twenties. He found a phone that could squeeze its smart little self in there: a Galaxy S. Not necessarily the smartest, but the smallest.

Its camera makes things look funny as you can see, but hey, I have a sweet Nikon. I’m sure it will make perfect phone calls. Being small, it has the daintiest of virtual keyboards, and my fingertips are  wide and round and can’t type worth a damn on it. It tells me the time and the weather, because other family members who shall remain unnamed seized it right away to set it up for me, and put all sorts of nifty stuff on there that I have no idea how to use. But today I went off in a quiet corner, just me and Ms. Smarty, thinking that we’d get acquainted on our own terms, and let me tell you, she won in the first round. Kicked my butt. I could no more figure her out than fly to Timbuktu.

And what did I do about it? Persevere? Yell for help? Why no. What I did was go out in the kitchen, even though it was way too early to begin preparing dinner, and got my favorite knife and a couple of gnarly celery roots and a mess of Jerusalem artichokes. I slowly enjoyed peeling the celery root, a task that normally does not thrill me, and I relished the crisp knobbiness of the Jerusalem artichokes, and the slippery feeling as I tossed them all with olive oil and salt, and popped them into a hot oven.

Evidently I’d rather cut up root vegetables then Get With The Program. Is there an app for that?

Mole de Navidad

December 21, 2012


We have a holiday tradition of making tamales, black-as-the-night tamales, based on a luscious mole (pronounced mo-lay) poblano and pork. Although this year we’ll be making the tamales in January, as part of Shel and Eric’s joint birthday celebration, I’ve already made the mole and frozen it. It’s a huge production – it used to take me an entire day, but now that I’ve done it several times I can do it in about 5-6 hours, depending on how much I hustle.

You start by gathering a relatively daunting list of ingredients, including a nice assortment of dried chiles.


You stem and seed them, then fry them lightly in lard or canola oil. Home-rendered lard makes the best mole, but canola oil works well too. I stay away from those blocks of preserved lard sold in the grocery store, but I’m guessing that’s actually what most Mexican-Americans would use. You simmer the chiles in chicken broth, then purée them to a thick paste.


Next you fry up a colorful mixture of nuts and seeds, then purée them and add them to the simmering chiles.


You fry up a plantain,


and a heap of tomatillos and tomatoes,


then simmer it all together with raisins. You purée this mixture (your food processor really gets a workout making mole, and I can only shudder to think about Mexican women in the past, making this by pounding it all by hand in a molcajete), and add it to the simmering pot, which is beginning to smell really good.


Next you lightly char a bunch of white onion and garlic and, you guessed it, purée it too and add it to the pot. Now you toast and grind your spices, cloves, pepper, allspice, anise, cumin, cinnamon, Mexican oregano, and thyme (a heavenly combination) and into the pot they go. Fry up some bread and tortillas, purée them in broth, and add them. The last step is adding Mexican chocolate and piloncillo or brown sugar, and letting it all simmer to perfection. I have to say that at every step the sauce splatters like crazy, so invest in a roll of paper towels and be prepared to wipe your stove top and backsplash more times than you would think possible for one dish.


Actually, here’s the real last step, the hardest of all. You need to put the mole through a chinois, or possibly a food mill would work, to turn it into a velvety smooth sauce. It’s amazing how, even though you’ve puréed each ingredient to a faretheewell, there’s still a whole lot of solid debris to be removed. Don’t be tempted to omit this step, however, as the texture is crucial.

Now you’ve got a beautiful sauce, traditionally served with turkey or chicken, but also fabulous in tamales or even eaten straight from a spoon. You’ll have a lot of it, so you’ll get to experiment with all sorts of uses, and no worries, the sauce freezes perfectly so you can have it on hand to whip out for a special impromptu meal.

I use this recipe for the sauce, but since I don’t make the turkey I use chicken broth as the liquid. It’s takes about 3 quarts of broth, although it’s good to have 4 quarts available, because you might need more. I’ve never been tempted to tinker with this recipe because it’s so perfect just as is, and its very length and level of detail makes for a truly satisfying winter’s day in the kitchen.

If you’ve only eaten restaurant mole this one will astound you with its depth and complexity. And if you’ve only eaten mole from a jar, this will be a genuine revelation.