Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

Last week’s post got me thinking about my time in the kitchen.

My father encouraged his kids to learn to cook, by deed—he always cooked Sunday breakfast, manned the grill on cookouts, and was the go-to guy for fried chicken—as well as by word. The fact that my stepmother was, shall we say, not inspired in the ways of food preparation, was additional encouragement for us to learn how to feed ourselves. The lessons didn’t really “take” with my younger brothers, but with my sister and me, they definitely took root.

My first forays into the kitchen were, naturally enough, in supportive roles. Chopping, measuring, mincing, tending. This was useful as it taught me good knife skills, the benefit of mise en place, how to follow a recipe (and when to improvise), and how to accommodate different cooking times for disparate ingredients.

My first solo flight in the kitchen wasn’t a meal, though; it was a dessert, and the result inducted me into the realm of family legend. I was maybe twelve years old, home alone (for some reason) with hours to occupy myself, and being twelve, I wanted something to eat, something sweet, so I decided to make my favorite cake: Angel Food.

Checking the recipe, I made sure we had what I needed. With three growing boys in the house, a dozen eggs was only about half the supply in our pantry, and sugar, flour, and vanilla were also staples close at hand. I’d seen cakes baked before, so I knew the basics. Mix everything together, pour the batter into a form, bake, and a beautifully risen cake comes out. (Old hands will already see the flawed assumption here.)

Working diligently, I separated the dozen eggs, added some cream of tartar, dumped in the sugar, pulled out the French whisk, and started whipping. “Whip until soft peaks form” was the phrase in the recipe. Not having dealt with egg whites before, this was a bit of a puzzle, but I figured it’d become clear in time. I whipped and whipped. I switched hands when cramps set in. I kept whipping. A sense that I was missing something began to bloom in my sous-chef-heart, a vague feeling of being out of my depth. I switched back to my right hand, added a dash of fervor to my motions, and just as my shoulder started to seize up, I saw the mixture begin to change. It began to get foamy. Aha! My courage was renewed and I kept on whipping as the bubbles multiplied, gathered, grew smaller. But “soft peaks?” What did that really mean? Then, I saw what was happening. The foam began to achieve a structure, and the little bubbles would leave a tiny “peak” when I pulled the whisk up. I whipped more, but not too much, as the recipe also warned against achieving “stiff peaks.”

It didn’t look like any cake batter I’d ever seen—yellow, translucent, with a layer of foam across the surface—but (I reasoned) Angel Food cake didn’t look or feel like any other cake, so I was probably okay. When I poured the result into the cake form, it didn’t fill much of it. But (I again reasoned) all cakes rise in the oven, so this one would, too, rising up to fill the form. So, into the preheated oven it went.

My family arrived home just about the time it was ready to come out of the oven. The house smelled like heaven, and everyone was surprised and eager to try my first culinary attempt.

I pulled the form out of the oven and . . . looked down into its depths. The cake hadn’t risen. Not one millimeter. It was no taller than it was when it went in. If anything, it was shorter. Taken out of the form, it was a horror, a ring of translucent yellowish rubber reminiscent of jaundiced aspic. I stared at it. My kid brothers thought it the funniest thing of the year but, being boys, they cut a few “slices” and we tasted it. It was delicious; all the divine sweetness of Angel Food cake, now in a convenient compressed form. It was Angel Food jerky.

It went down in the annals as “Angel Food Flop.”

I learned a lot about cooking that day, one of which is: I’m not a great baker. Baking (to me) is too much like chemistry, where everything needs to be perfect before applying heat. That turned out not to be my style. My style is “cook a bit, taste a bit, correct” helped along by a healthy adaptability when faced with missing ingredients. I rarely cook anything the same way twice; each time I’ll try a tweak or decide that I want a slightly different mix of herbs this time.

Luckily (or not, depending on whether I’m counting calories), I married a woman who is a great baker, and one who can do with baking what I do with entrees: improvise. She gets the craft, knows it intuitively. She knows the arcane characteristics of baking powder, cream of tartar, sugars, egg whites. She measures by sight, rarely uses a recipe, and makes the best damned banana bread I’ve ever had.

I’m grateful for my dad’s encouragement. It taught me the importance of independence and adaptability, and kept me fed during my impoverished young adulthood. It also taught me the generous love language of spending hours in the kitchen and serving up a savory stew to beloved friends and family.

And I will always remember with love those Sunday mornings, a pitcher of orange juice on the table, KSFO on the radio, Dad crooning along with Mel Torme as he made pancakes, eggs, sausage, whatever his kids wanted for breakfast, while Mom slept in a bit longer.

It was his love language, too.


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I’m taking a break from poetry and politics this week (because, oy, it’s been a rough start to the year), and instead turn to things domestic.

Throughout 2022, I tried a few new things in the kitchen (stop it! I’m talking about cooking, here), some of which turned out exceptionally well. I am not a chef, searching for the finest ingredients, using top-of-the-line equipment, and trying my hand at the most complex of recipes. No. Definitely not. What I am is a cook that likes to make the best meal with the least amount of effort using readily available ingredients and affordable cookware. In cooking, I search for that balance between work and result, cost and return. In other words, I’m a lazy foodie.

Finding that balance can be a challenge, but this year past, I discovered a few new (to me) products that really helped that equation, products I’d like to recommend to you: one brand of cookware, and two ingredients.
(Note: I receive NO kickbacks or compensation for these recommendations; I’m just one home cook passing along info on my good experiences.)

Recommendation #1: Cookware

One of my long-lasting battle campaigns has been with non-stick cookware.

A bit of personal history . . . When I was young, Teflon and Silverstone were the only non-stick games in town. Cheap was a necessary byword back then, and what I bought was awful. Made of thin stamped aluminum, they lasted maybe a year before they started to break down, flaked bits of black into my omelettes, became warped and dented with use, and got tossed out and replaced in relatively quick succession. Sometime in the ’90s I graduated to thicker-bodied cookware—like T-Fal and Calphalon which, while more expensive, didn’t break the bank and definitely lasted longer. Still, though, they were thinly coated products, and that coating still got scratched (despite proper care), the skillets still warped, and though their lifespan was about three times that of the old stuff, replacing them every two or three years annoyed me. Later, my cookware budget increased and technologies changed, so I tried several types of anodized non-stick cookware, but the extra cost did not translate into longer life or a reduction in warping on larger skillets. These days, I use stainless for pots and sauciers, cast iron for grilling and Dutch ovens, but I still want non-stick skillets for sautéing, cooking eggs and fish, and making pancakes/crepes. So, the battle continued.

Until last year.

Last year I saw a non-stick skillet on sale. It was an 8″ skillet, and it was $13. It looked unlike any other skillet I’d ever tried and had received high ratings so, being extremely dissatisfied with my pricy Scan-Pan and Anolon skillets, I figured I could risk a little coin on this loss-leader.

Made by Carote, it was “grey granite” in color—an unusual but pleasantly retro look, reminiscent of old enamelware—was made of thick aluminum with five layers of heavy non-stick coating, and had a wood-tone handle (also lovely) that was super-comfortable and secure in the hand while also being oven-safe to 500°F. It didn’t take long for me to fall for this little skillet, especially after I realized that it had no riveting on the inside (where the handle connects), making cleanup (almost) a pleasure. Moreover, the base of the pan was thick, devoid of “hot spots,” and was designed to evenly expand and thus avoid warping.

When I checked the rest of the Carote line, I found that even the regular prices were a third the cost of the higher-end pans I’d been trying, so I picked up a ten- and a twelve-inch skillet, with covers, all for less than the last Scanpan skillet I’d bought.

They’ve been in daily use for the last three months, and I could not be more pleased. They come in other colors, which isn’t a factor for me, but might be for others, and a ten-piece set (skillets, pans, covers) can be had for around $120.

Recommendation #2: Ingredients

Another of my culinary challenges has been sauces.

If you make sauces, you need stock and you need a thickener. Making stock at home means saving bits and bobs from larger cuts and/or buying bones to roast, then hours of simmering and reducing all to turn a gallon of water into a quart of decent stock. Buying stock means, well, you can’t, not real stock, anyway; sure, you can buy broth and emend it, or you can buy bouillon cubes and try to counter all the salt, or . . .

I present to you More Than Gourmet’s classic demi-glace reductions. These are a collection of gelatinized demi-glaces that may be used as stock, as a demi-glace, or as the basis for a heavier sauce. They are shelf-stable until opened, at which point they will last six months in the fridge. While not sodium-free, they are made with about a third of the salt/sodium of standard bouillon preparations and, to tell you the truth, I really can’t taste much salt in them at all, even at full concentration. They come in various incarnations, including vegetable/vegan, mushroom/vegan, veal, chicken, duck, lamb, and fish.

You can get them in small 1.5 ounce packets (including a variety pack, if you want to try some out), but I’ve been buying them in the one-pound tubs (yes, I use them that much). One thing I really like about the one-pound tubs is that I can open it up, carve off a slice, build my stock base, and if that’s not flavorful enough, carve off some more and deepen the concentration. Whether I’m making a quart of stock or a cup of glaze, these reductions are my go-to ingredient.

But, what about thickening that stock for a sauce? Well, for that I used to spend a lot of time making roux. Take equal parts fat and flour, cook them up at a low/med heat until they get to the desired nuttiness/darkness, and then hope you made enough for the quantity of base you want to thicken. I got into the habit of making a mess of roux, parceling it out into teaspoon punkles or cooling it into a sliceable stick, so I wouldn’t have to make it each time. Not optimal, but workable.

Jacques Pépin to the rescue!

I read an article in which the master (who, it turns out, doesn’t like fussing about with things when there’s a viable, equally useful alternative) sang the praises of Gold Medal’s Wondra. Now, Wondra has been around for decades, and chances are you’ve seen it at the grocer’s, down there on the bottom shelf under all the froufrou flours and organic/non-GMO pastas. Chances also are that you’ve never bought it, used it, or heard of it (I certainly hadn’t).

Wondra is a flour that is pre-cooked and finely milled, so that it dissolves immediately into liquid (hot or cold), with no lumps. Put that liquid on some heat and: voilà! instant thickener. In other words, it works just like corn starch, but it doesn’t have that gummy, flavorless, starchy mouth feel, but rather adds a bit of that woody/toasty base you get from roux. If you add some butter to the mix, it’s almost indistinguishable from a roux-based sauce. Combining Wondra with the More Than Gourmet reduction (and appropriate spices, herbs, aromatics, etc.) is a quick and easy way to get to the perfect ladle of sauce. Of course, if you’re trained at the Cordon Bleu, you’ve just fainted dead away, I’m sure, but for us mere mortals, this is a godsend.

But wait! There’s more!

Wondra has other uses, too. As a dredge on fried foods, it gives a crispier, lighter crust. I tried it last night on the slurry I use to make a lacy “skirt” around dumplings and gyoza, and it was light, fragrant, and oh-so-crispy. A massive improvement over using AP flour.

And it can be used for crepes as well, not only making them lighter and less glutinous, but also allowing you to skip the “resting” step that crepe batters usually require.

Wondra is my latest discovery from 2022 and, as such, I haven’t plumbed the depths of its possible uses, but it’s already earned a spot as a pantry staple.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for stopping by and may the year ahead be healthy, strong, and peaceful.



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The glass still in hand, he knelt and shifted the harness so the fat lower section of the samovar swung around his hip.  Deftly, he crooked back an arm to open the spigot.

David expected either the syrupy, blazingly strong coffee of the Arabs and Turks, or the sweet minted tea that was sipped through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  Both were beverage staples for every Arab café and restaurant.  Instead, however, the man released from the spigot a stream of hot, thick, white liquid.  David immediately smelled a honeyed aroma that filled his mind with the image of pink and lavender flowers in a desert oasis.  It smelled absolutely luscious.

“What is that?” he asked bluntly.  The man looked up from his task, the thick stream still arcing into the glass.

“My friend has never tasted salep?  Ah, such a treat you are about to have.”  The glass was full, and the vendor closed the tap, catching the last drops in the glass with a move of long practice.  He shifted his position, the samovar swung back along the harness strap and settled once more into the middle of his back.  Still kneeling, he placed the glass of steaming liquid into a handled cradle of brass lacework and presented it to David as if it were a delicacy to a king.

David took the cup and ventured a sip.  Thick, hot, smooth, and milky, the concoction was a wonderful collection of taste and texture: a satiny sweetness unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Giambastiani, Dreams of the Desert Wind,
(Seattle, Fairwood Press, 2004), p24

When I lived in Jerusalem, on cool mornings I would go down to the shuk in the Old City where I’d buy two things: a semit and some salep. A semit (or simit) is a large bread ring topped with sesame and other seeds. Vendors would carry them stacked on a stick and I’d buy one, still warm from the oven. Salep (or sahlab) is a beverage made from wild orchid tubers dried and ground into a powder. The powder is a thickener, and when added to milk along with a bit of sugar, some flavorings, and topped with whatever your heart desires, it is a luscious treat. I loved this combo so much that it made its way into my novel, Dreams of the Desert Wind (excerpted above).

Finding true salep outside of the Levant is damned near impossible, and the only sources I’ve found for authentic salep powder run about $10 USD per 1oz/30g. Since it takes a tablespoon/15g of powder per cup of the beverage, that’s way too pricey for my taste, so for years I’ve been looking for an alternative. The mass-marketed “instant salep” powders cheat, using corn starch or potato flour as a thickener, and they are always too . . . something. Too bland, too thin, too insipid, too gummy.

But rice flour, specifically glutinous rice flour, this makes a thickened drink that is the closest approximation I have found. As a rule, I try to avoid posting recipes with uncommon ingredients (life’s hard enough), but in this case, glutinous rice flour and rose water are pretty easy to find, either in a higher-end grocery, a Mediterranean bodega, or online. They’re inexpensive, too, both costing less than an ounce of real salep powder.

Salep (or Sahlab)

Makes 1 serving


  • A 1-quart saucier pan works best for this because of its rounded bottom, but any small pot or pan will work. Just get the whisk into the corners.


For the salep:

  • 1 tablespoon glutinous rice flour
  • 1 cup milk (whole is best)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon rose water

Optional toppings:

  • ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger
  • ground/chopped pistachios
  • raisins or sultanas
  • shredded coconut


  • In a small pot, whisk the rice flour with a bit of the milk to dissolve, adding the rest of the milk when the flour is incorporated.
  • Put pot over a medium heat and warm the mixture, whisking frequently as it thickens.
  • When the salep starts to simmer, pull it from the heat. Stir in the sugar and rose water.
  • Pour into a mug or glass, and top with whatever strikes your fancy.


  • I devised this recipe is for a single serving, but it is easily scaled up for more.
  • You can replace the rice flour with corn starch or potato flour, but there’s a marked difference in consistency and umami. Not recommended.
  • Some recipes out there suggest using vanilla as well. I do not recommend this, as it cuts the flowery aroma of the rose water.


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It’s hot out there. Uncomfortably hot. Freaking hot. Evil hot.

Here’s something tasty. Something easy. Something cool.

With a few common (and one not-so-common) ingredients, you can use this easy-as-you-please recipe to create a luscious, sweet/tart/creamy/flowery treat to enjoy in the long, hot evenings.

No-Churn Lemon Ice Cream

Makes 3 cups (which is like one serving here, but you can stretch it out if you’re feeling generous).


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 tablespoon rosewater (see Notes)


  • In a medium bowl, combine sugar, salt, lemon zest and juice. Stir to incorporate.
  • Add milk, cream, and rosewater and mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved (when you no longer hear a gritty sound as you stir).
  • Pour the mixture into a shallow nonreactive pan; I use an 8×8-inch CorningWare baking dish, but a metal pan will work just as well.
  • Cover with foil, and set in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. It should be crusty at the edges but still soft in the center. Stir to mix and break up the ice crystals.
  • Return to freezer for another hour and repeat until the mixture is frozen through.
  • Serve and enjoy.


  • A garnish of chopped almonds works very well with this.
  • The addition of rosewater is technically optional, but I strongly recommend using it here, as it adds a floral top note to the treat that makes a big difference.
  • Rosewater and orange blossom water are staples in my spice cupboard. They’re inexpensive, but versatile, adding a certain je ne sais quoi to dressings, cocktails, desserts, even dishes like steamed vegetable and mashed potatoes. Like lavender is to Provençal cooking, these subtle, fragrant decoctions are essential to traditional Levantine treats, like my baklava.



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Most everyone knows that I hate single-taskers in the kitchen . . . those items in your utensil drawer or the cupboard that only do one thing. If your kitchen is anything like mine (i.e., galley style layout), you know that I have limited storage space and even greater limits on counter space. So, if I’m going to allow a single-tasker into my kitchen, it has to do an amazing job and it has to take up minimal space. (Example: the Norpro bean slicer; small in size, but an absolute champ at slicing haricot vert lengthwise.)

With that in mind, many of my friends were surprised to hear that, for a holiday present, I had purchased a sous vide cooker. “Sous vide” (pronounced “soo veed,” meaning “under vacuum”) is a cooking technique, long used by professionals, that is now enjoying a resurgence among foodies. (more…)

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On Monday I mentioned that I had gotten myself into a bit of a sticky wicket by offering to run the kitchen while my wife hosted a business retreat. News that we’d have both gluten-free and vegan dietary restrictions gave me serious agita, as I am not well-schooled in cooking for non-meat-based diets.

With a little research and some creative thinking, though, I managed to pull it off. Cooking double-purpose menus meant that I overdid it a little on the quantities, but hey, leftovers, right? (more…)

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I learned to cook from my father. He thought there was one temperature setting: Volcanic. He cooked everything fast and hard. “Braise” was not part of his vocabulary.

It took me a long time to unlearn that — burning through too many pieces of non-stick cookware was part of that re-education — but now I thoroughly appreciate the value of the entire heat spectrum. While the sear and the char are still part of my cooking toolbox, I am now quite familiar with the simmer, poach, braise, and other “go easy” settings.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a perfect example of “go easy” cooking. A few simple ingredients combined with proper (low) heat make for a lovely, light entree. I use capellini (angel hair) as opposed to the traditional spaghetti because I think it lends itself better to the thin, light sauce. (more…)

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