Recipes & Chefs
B and I are both obsessed with food. Around here, if we’re not eating one meal, then we’re talking about the next one. Our kitchen styles are totally different: He’s the mad scientist, dousing honeydew melon with soy sauce and olive oil, or frying up concoctions like oysters with mushrooms, bacon and (I’m not kidding) leftover salad. Does he ever cook the same thing twice? Nope. Would he? Nope. Could he? Probably not.
For me, the kitchen is like the office. I love puttering around, especially when I’m not on a deadline—but in the back of my mind, I’m usually working on a recipe for something delicious. It’s where I figure how to make an authentic Malaysian fish curry with local seafood, recreate Brasserie Lutetia’s silken pommes purees, or try out a Moroccan chef’s recipe for luscious braised lamb. Sometimes I get lucky: Last summer’s fragrant pesto with marjoram, tarragon and basil was fantastic right out of the gate, especially with a dash of tangy Aleppo pepper. But more often I wind up tweaking a dish again and again. Sometimes the simplest recipes are the hardest to get right.
The secret to successful, if compulsive, food shopping: two refrigerators. Our old GE, still humming after 22 years, now lives in the garage where it’s filled with coconut milk, quinces waiting for a recipe, elixirs like Turkish pomegranate molasses and Italian rose syrup. The inside fridge, bigger, fancier (and less reliable), holds everything I use on a daily basis: fruits, vegetables, herbs, seafood, chicken, but also bacon, capers, and a chunk of Parmigiano reggiano. Did I mention champagne? More treasures in the freezer: local pork tenderloins, Texas quail, steaks from Schaller and Weber in New York.
Right now I’m working on a recipe using a Bhutanese spice called thingnay, a.k.a. the Sichuan peppercorn. It’s the berry of a tree in the Zanthoxylum family which grows wild on the hillsides. The peppercorns are amazing, ultra-fizzy with a gorgeous floral flavor—but they’ll numb your tongue much faster than you can say kuzu zangpo la (“hello” in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language). At a café just beyond Dochu La pass, all the guides hang out in a little room where they drink milk tea and eat soupy rice porridge, similar to a savory congee, with ginger and crushed thingnay on top. It’s one of the best cold weather breakfasts you could ask for. Of course, a numb tongue may make your morning conversation unintelligible, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I cannot live without lemons, both fresh and preserved in salt, Moroccan-style. In winter I stock up on key limes, sweet Cara Cara oranges and Texas grapefruit. There’s nothing like a splash of citrus to brighten up whatever’s on the stove. That burst of acidity is like a sharp ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.
Close to home: My favorite dress-up restaurant is Nana’s in Durham. The place to eat is the bar: Graham and his brother take good care of you, and, whatever you’re drinking, the pour is generous. Scott Howell, the chef-owner, does fine seafood and a delectable duck breast with lentils; usually there’s at least one tempting off-menu appetizer, like soft shell crabs or fried green tomatoes. But here’s the real secret: Nana’s makes you feel like a long-lost friend come home (even if you were just there the other night).
Not so close to home: In London, I always have breakfast or a light lunch at the Ottolenghi in Belgravia. In Paris, I go to Yam t’Cha for its exquisite tea service and the “surprise” lunch menu: once, golden pan-seared dourade with tiny oysters and pureed Italian potatoes with seaweed was paired with Yunnan white tea lightly scented with roses. In Bangkok, at David Thompson’s Nahm, every dish on the tasting menu was delicious, but I couldn’t stop eating the funky, fermented carp, deep-fried and rolled up in lettuce with long beans, cilantro, green mango and cucumber.
I’m a believer in taking cooking classes with great teachers – like Julie Sahni. I’d never be able to make parathas if I hadn’t spent the day with her. Now this savory Indian flatbread, stuffed with potatoes spiced with cumin, green chilies and cilantro, is a family favorite. If you’re traveling, a good teacher can instantly immerse you in the culture. I learned as much about regional Turkish cooking by going to Ciya Sofrasi with Selin Rozanes, as I did in her kitchen. Without her, I never would have tasted the amazing sis berek, tiny meat-stuffed dumplings in silken pastry, served in a Southeast Anatolian soup of chickpeas with mint and yogurt—or finished a meal with wild oregano tea.