Category Archives: Melanie

Read. Cook. Apologize.

I must post this swiftly and regrettfully, with most of those regrets to Eric. Last night, the last day of August, I attempted to make the hash browns from Garlic and Sapphires. They were abysmal. I don’t know how a person could f**k up freaking hash browns, but I managed to achieve this quite easily with a spare list of ingredients (8 new potatoes, an onion, salt, pepper, butter). I think I didn’t boil them long enough. I think I used too much potato. I think I need to stick to what I’m good at, which is deep frying and pressing the button on a rice cooker.

Anyway, my bf thought they were good, although they needed more salt he said, and then he said they were like really good baked potatoes in a cake form, and then he said I’m going to put some salt and butter on these ok? And then he was throwing slabs of Plugra on it like frosting. Holy shit is it that bad, I said. And then he said, no! They’re great!, but with a mouthful of the sort-of hash browns, so it was more like Mfno, fey’re gwate! We ate them all, so they were tasty overall, but believe me – they weren’t pretty.

So no picture for now. Sorry, Eric! I’ve failed the RCE club, and think I may be forced to renounce my membership.

If the two shots on Marcus’ cameraphone end up being not so horrific, I’ll post them later…but if I don’t, just imagine the Texas Chain Saw Massacre — with potatoes.

Alchemy and Cheese

Rose is a Foodhist. Worship Buddha, Buddhist; worship Food, Foodhist. She made that up, I can’t take credit for it.

“I’ll teach you to make homemade mac and cheese,” she told me. “I just take whatever cheese I’ve got – I clean out my fridge!” Last night she offered some aged smoked gouda to her husband and my bf as they snacked on wasabi peas and $4.99 red table wine from Trader Joe’s (hey, it was from Spain!) and solved the world’s problems. Then, while penne boiled on the stove, Rose brought out more cheese, a plateful, which if I remember correctly consisted of

  • gruyere
  • gorgonzola
  • pepper jack
  • two blocks of “the expensive shit”
  • “These didn’t look so good before you got here,” she whispered, “but I just cut all the bad parts off and it’s fine!”
    “Oh, I’ll eat it,” I replied, remembering a 9th grade science presentation that mentioned it was ok to cut mold off hard cheeses. What’s cheese without mold, right? Plus, when I’m hungry, I’ve been known to put my immune system to the test.

    Into her blue Le Creuset pan: butter and flour, then whole milk. Then, the cheese, shredded, which came out to about a pound. (No, we didn’t weigh it.) Tomatoes and onions, then the pasta. We mixed it all up, covered with grated parmesan, and popped it in the oven.

    “Oh wait!” Rose clapped her hands. “I know what we can add!” She grabbed a tin of paprika from a high shelf and instructed me to stick my fingertip in and taste. “It’s smoked,” she said. I tried it. It was hot and tasted faintly of hickory. We took the mac out of the oven and Rose rubbed the red spice from her hands with a sorcerer’s flourish, like this was Fantasia with fromage.

    After administering the paprika, Rose seemed content.

    As the oven timer ticked away, Rose and I and her sister Marilyn, also there for dinner, went outside and picked tomatoes, plants with names like Sweet 100’s, Ping Pong, and Early Girl. We made salad with homemade vinaigrette. We sliced up collard greens and sauteed them with olive oil, pancetta, and chopped garlic.

    When the mac and cheese was done, it was amazing! The parmesan had baked to a crumby perfect crisp, and the cheese-laden penne looked like a pan of sunshine, golden and full of promise. Rose had amended the recipe from a cookbook called The Silver Palate (?) – it was Quattro Formaggio something or other, but at my count we’d used six or seven cheeses, not four. So much the better. “What I love about the way I cook it is I’ll never know exactly how it’ll come out,” she smiled. “It’s like art!” I said. Rose agreed. You go in with an idea, keep taste-testing, and in a way let the work guide you just as much as you it.

    The table was set. We started with bowls of romaine, red onion, those sweet 100’s, and little hunks of ripe avocado. We’d finished the Bardolino red stuff, so more cheap wine was in order; Rose’s hubby broke some Smoking Loon chardonnay out of the fridge, and anything featuring water fowl with a cigar in its mouth was totally fine by me and Marcus. The mac and cheese was DIVINE, and the greens proved the best way to intake vitamin A is flavored with bacon. Mmm, yeah. Dessert was homemade strawberry shortcake – the biscuity kind, not the spongy kind – with organic strawberries (both sliced and smushed) and whipped cream. I was full, I was totally muffin-topping, but I ate every. last. bite.

    While cooking, Rose and I had talked about the history of macaroni and cheese and greens, their Southern roots well-known, from soul food restaurant to KFC. “Weren’t collard greens sort of a cast away food?” I asked, thinking of tripe and pig’s feet and other things people ate partly because they were the things wanted least and thus the easiest to get. Collard greens are cheap to grow, Rose informed me, and slaves weren’t allowed any meat but salted pork. As for mac and cheese, I already knew pasta and cheddar and milk were all kitchen fundamentals, and anything of the casserole variety practically screamed to be served at a potluck or on a table for a family of four or more.

    So though mac and cheese or collard greens might be linked to slaves and not kings, I have to say it fed us in a way not many foods can – I was not only satisfied, but I had to resist the urge to lick up every last bit of cheese sauce and pancetta juice (it’s probably bad guest behavior to molest one’s empty dish in front of the hostess). Some meals make you feel rich, even when you aren’t. Rose’s dinner was magic. Soul food, indeed.

    A Cup, A Cup, A Cup, A Cup

    I came to love coffee much the same way I came to appreciate food – from the serving end. Work at Starbuck’s long enough, learn many people can’t pronounce latte to save their lives, much less the difference between that and a cappuccino.

    Now, by coincidence, one of my best friends, Martha, owns a coffee shop. She and I happened to work at that Starbuck’s together years ago, tamped our first espressos on the same machine; I can remember outlining drink recipes with her on a dry-erase board; today, she can smell a coffee bean and tell you whether it’s Guatemalan or Ethiopian, and knows why some diners rush to refill your cup (that stuff only tastes good hot, and probably even better when masked by the taste of pie).

    So by association, I’ve become a bit of a coffee snob. Another friend of Martha’s and mine concurs: she went to Manhattan not long ago and admitted the coffee there “tasted like ass.” Oh my, was all I said.

    There was a time I drank so much of the stuff my dentist thought I was a chain smoker. She actually recommended chemical bleaching. A simple cleaning proved I was, in fact, not a smoker – just a very, very awake college student.

    Then part of me wonders: do I truly love coffee, or am I just ensconced in its myth, its romance, its lovely pairing with cheesecake? The smell of fresh ground beans does send me swooning. Then of course, there’s the I like my coffee hot and black – like my men! quip, of which I never seem to tire. (Note: that also works with sweet and hot, rich and black, or any combination thereof, etc.)

    Until I can learn to do without my regular cup – every morning or so, or at least on weekend brunch – I may never be able to truly answer that.

    Quick Coffee Trivia (as per Martha and memories from working for The Big Green Empire):

  • Some places drip their coffee very light, i.e. they brew lesser amounts of grounds to make them last longer. In short: dripping light, bad, dripping heavy, good.
  • Espresso should cook between 17 and 23 seconds.
  • Many cafés run on the automatic machines now (the ones that don’t require measuring out grounds or tamping), but for those that don’t, notice the barista will grind new beans every few hours; this is because the cooking time will vary depending on the time of day and the weather/temperature. The old espresso grind must be thrown out, or in an ideal world, composted.
  • Really good coffee will still taste good cold. (Not as good as it does hot, but I’ve found it’s mostly true.)
  • For the record, Starbuck’s coffee is quite bitter and I’d rather go somewhere else for coffee if I can, like Peet’s or a local place.
  • Interesting to Note as I End this Post:

  • We grew up with instant in the house. I didn’t have real coffee until I was studying at a friend’s house in high school, and threw in coffee coffee thinking it was Nescafé or whatever. I ended up with a mouthful of grounds.
  • I once dated an Irish-Italian guy from Brooklyn who said “caw-fee.” Of course, I was irrationally enamored with this.
  • Strangely enough, I work at a software company for Java (that’s the computer language, not the drink).
  • So that is the extent of my culinary contributions this week: butter and coffee. Just the simple stuff. Maybe next week I’ll do a post on boiling water.

    Bread and…

    I am up late at night with the munchies. I got out a piece of white bread and butter.

    No, actually, better than butter: Plugra butter.

    Christine and Susan mentioned Plugra to me several months ago. In fact, Christine just plain called it “Plugra” like it was its own species, a different animal, from butter.

    As I lick my Plugra-stained fingertips, I must say I now know why.

    My mother used to buy margarine. In fact I can almost remember the first time I consciously purchased butter instead of margarine as a young adult. I was so confused as a child; the pictures of corn on the side of margarine tub – margarine which I called butter – made me think corn and butter were related, that one was a product of the other. (I know, I know, once I read Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ll find out in some cases, they are!) A chemistry teacher explained it to me on a molecular level: margarine was a really a synthetic gray slab, colored yellow in the 50s because no one was buying it, it was chock-full of saturated fats, little v-like hooks that clog your arteries, when butter was actually much better for you and had, with brown bread, been keeping poor people in Europe or somewhere alive for years!

    My tongue explained it more simply: butter is yummy. In comparison, margarine is not.

    A few weeks’ ago, I noticed PLUGRA on my Traders Joe’s shelf. Here, all along? I’d thought. At only $2.49 for a pound, I didn’t even care it wasn’t cut up in quarters. I decided I’d try it and hack it up myself.

    In a word: delish. NO, in two words, because Plugra butter tastes: like…buttah.

    And yes, an excess of butter will clog your arteries, too, but if you’re gonna go, go rich and creamy with a side of challah.

    To Eat It Is to Love It: Lumpia

    There are eggrolls, and then there are eggrolls. While there’s a lot of crossovery-cousin-ish type similarities between many Asian foods, I have to say that lumpia are not just eggrolls; they are just what they are, a deep-fried wrapped stick of meat that could not go by any other name. LOOM-pya. LOVE it. LOOM-pya.

    Some non-Filipino men seem to remember this about the Philippines and its people more than anything. They have gone up to me and said things like oh, do you eat/cook lumpia? and kumusta ka, maganda ka!. (Those phrases mean, in this order: hey you are cute, do you cook, too? and hi, I’m a dork, will you go out with me?) They kinda are spitting game and kinda want to sample your lumpia; unfortunately, they really want you to sample theirs.

    (Pause for collective “ewwwwwww!”)

    lumpia before and after frying

    Everyone’s mom probably has a different recipe for this dish. Perhaps the biggest difference between lumpia and other eggrolls is that the wrapper is paper-thin, thus fries up very crispy. Re: the stuffing, it varies. Some use pork, some use shrimp, some add shredded carrot, some add corn (note: I do not like corn in lumpia!), others julienned green beans.

    I didn’t make lumpia by myself until a few years ago. I wanted to make it for my bf Marcus; you don’t know how pleased I was when he so loved the garlic/vinegar dipping sauce, that he turned to me and said: I could drink this. Anyway, so I had called up mom and prepped all my ingredients and when the rolling began, I think genetics took over. Memories of relatives sitting at a kitchen table, each assembling dozens of these, just set my hands into motion. It’s sort of comforting, like snapping peas, like hanging out the wash on a summer day, something to busy the body and free the mind. All those years of helping the aunties in the kitchen had paid off, and I had a hundred stacked in the freezer before I knew it.

    I’m going to share my mom’s recipe because I already foolishly handed out copies of it a bunch of folks at a book club meeting for Tess Urize Holthe’s When The Elephants Dance. I don’t know what I was thinking, maybe I felt the need to represent, but mother would probably not be happy – though it likely wasn’t all hers originally, anyway. Plus, I like to think that, recipes aside, each person adds their own culinary flair and love to their cookery. And that, dear Muffin-Top readers, is the one thing you must add yourself…

    Mama Magdalena’s Lumpia Shanghai

    1 package ground turkey (1 lb-ish)
    1 bundle green onions, sliced thinly
    1-2 cans water chestnuts (I like to use 2)
    1- 1 1/2 lb of small pre-cooked shrimp (you know, the tiny kind in the cheap Vegas shrimp cocktails, but really any shrimp chopped up a bit will work)
    A few shittake mushrooms, diced (either fresh or the dried-then-rehydrated kind)
    1-2 eggs (depending on the amount of turkey)
    garlic cloves, to your heart’s desire, chopped
    soy sauce
    oyster sauce
    if you have it
    4-5 packages lumpia wrappers (see: your local Chinatown or the nearest Ranch 99. Round or square is fine, but they must say “lumpia”.)

    Mix the ground turkey with the egg. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
    Mix in the green onion, water chestnuts and shrimp. Finally, add the soy sauce and oyster sauce.

    When you purchase the wrappers, they’ll be frozen, so you will want to defrost them (either a few hours in the fridge or pop them in the microwave for a minute) to make it easier to separate the paper-thin wrappers from one another. I recommend separating a dozen at time so you’ll be able to wrap in batches. They tear, they’re kind of a pain, so get extra packages just in case. Try cutting a bit of the edges too; it helps get them un-stuck.

    Rolling lumpia kind of like making tiny burrito: Take a heaping teaspoonful of the filling and place near the bottom of the wrapper, in the center. Fold the bottom edge over the filling, then fold the sides in and finish rolling the whole thing up to the top edge. Seal with edge with you finger, dipped in a little bit of water, as you might with an envelope. Try to make as uniform as possible, and about the size of your finger. (If they’re too thick your raw ingredients may not cook thoroughly.)

    Fry’em up: I like canola oil in cast iron, enough oil so they float a bit. Let drip in a colander or paper towels or a clean paper bag.

    Serve with plain white rice (sticky is preferable) and a dipping sauce of vinegar, salt, pepper and minced garlic. Mom’s variation: add a touch of brown sugar.

    This recipe makes approximately 120 lumpia. Tip: Make whoever is going to be eating it with you help you roll. Another tip: these freeze EXCEPTIONALLY well and you can enjoy these ages from now, unless you’re like me and Marcus and end up having lumpia for dinner 5 times in one month. (Hey, it happens.)

    As Gawd is my witness, I’ll nevah go hungry again!

    My aunt is from the South. Yeah, capital “S” south, that South, not quite Bible-belt country but close enough. Since I’ve known her as Auntie Dianna from the time I was seven, it doesn’t seem weird to me that she’s this blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman originally from Corpus Christi. The story of how my Philippine-born uncle and her fell in love is probably too long and not food related enough for this blog; however, I will quote their son/my cousin by saying: The South and the Philippines have way more in common than you’d think.

    Namely, if y’all must know, they both likes their food fried. So bring it on because the oil is hot and ready!

    That said, it’s been long that my Auntie D has praised the wonders of cast iron. Tonight, at a writers’ group meeting, I fried up a batch of lumpia (that post coming soon, I swear!) in a friend’s cast iron skillet, and My Lawd, I do declare, but I’ve never seen these fry up so perfectly golden, nevah evah!

    How long have I been frying food and never done so in cast iron? It’s almost shameful, when I think of it: flashes of fried chicken sizzling in their floury skins suddenly bring it all back. Whose fried chicken? I don’t know. I keep thinking of that scene in Ray when Jamie Foxx is cooking a batch of it in the dark. Auntie Dianna knew, my friend Rose knew, Ray Charles knew!

    Geez, if a blind man can trust frying to cast iron, surely I can, too.

    Then, Rose and hostess of the meeting, being a seasoned cook as well as foodie, said she had two skillets the same size. My delight at the fabulously fried lumpia so apparent, she said, “Go ahead and take one of those pans home with you.” This one? Home? It’s fantastic! It’s perfect! It weighs 20 lbs!

    And so here it is: my new frying pan. I can see why angry wives threw these, bet this 10-inch pan sure could pack a wallop. Maybe I’ll even keep it by the back door next to the baseball bat (our “security system”); in the meantime, baby, I’m ready to fry (or bake). A batch of chicken or lumpia or cornbread wants this skillet. This skillet dreams of them.

    What I Did for Pho*

    Right smack in the middle of allergy season, my bf Marcus got an honest-to-goodness, sniffling sneezing coughing aching, baby, gets-me-some-Nyquil cold. We did the boiled ginger tea with honey, we thought he could sleep it off.

    Then, the morning after his first night of sickie-dom, I told him I was going to Chinatown to get him some Soup.

    Pho is no joke. I had never even heard of it until college, when my best friend L took a bunch of us to Oakland Chinatown and introduced us to our very first bowls of Hot Vietnamese Love. (Yeah, there were Vietnamese folks where I grew up, but somehow the Stuff escaped me. It was more a Filipino town. I think there used to be some unspoken rule that you can only have one Asian ethnic group in the majority per city. But I’ll get to lumpia and adobo another day.)

    What is pho (/fuh/)? It’s hot steamy beef broth, added to any of various kinds of meat, for example: chicken (ga); brisket; tendons; beef balls (as in spheres, not testicles); and, rare steak (tai, my favorite – you actually watch it go from pink to cooked in the broth). Mix in your bun/rice vermicelli, some bean sprouts, fresh basil and/or cilantro, lemon or lime, a few sliced chilis, some hot red chili sauce, and some sweetish purple stuff, then tie back your hair and roll up your sleeves. Eat it with people you love, because there will be slurpin’. Yeah, pho is like THAT.

    L, I, and our two friends made numerous late nights runs to our fave Viet spots: Pho Hoa Loa, Pho 84, and yes, there is even a place called Pho King. Something about that protein infused broth works the magic, because it fixed Marcus’ cold, and has been known to give college sophomores the gumption for mid-terms, make a dollar out of fifty cents, and heal a broken heart.

    I don’t know what’s in pho, exactly. L knew how to make it, but she knew the recipe so intimately that she couldn’t even recall the exact names of the ingredients (“you throw a few of those star things in”).

    I think she meant…anise?

    I think…her mama swore her to secrecy.

    Years after my undergrad, I saw Emeril Lagasse pay homage to Pho on his show, in his own Emerilized way: Hey, it take three days to make, but it’s the national dish! Give it a break! Yes, do give it a break, because on an overcast day, when both you and the weather are feeling under the weather, Pho’s powers are instantaneous.

    There was a time when I was eating so much pho, hitting the Viet spots with bilingual L so often that I learned to order food, and the waiters understood me! And then they’d start talking Vietnamese to me! Like in a conversation!

    Of course, after that the jig would be up. Truthfully, my intonation was probably not that great, and more likely it was just some cute boys trying to flirt. No matter. Aside from occasional straying to bun thit nuong –because grilled pork always knows how to please me– when I’m down for Vietnamese food, my heart belongs to pho.

    *Yes, I’m sure this title has already been used somewhere.

    Image courtesy of pho-king fantastic website,