labneh party spread

Labneh party spread

20 May 2015

Maybe it’s the Chinese in me, but family-style food is my jam. I’ll gladly eat artful, bite-sized hors d’oeuvres, or individually plated works of gastronomic fancy. But as a cook, I just want to set out giant bowls of food and let people gather round, curating their own meals as they please. It’s more sociable, less food goes to waste, and no one has to pretend to eat food they aren’t into, or wish they could have more of what they really liked.

My friend Cheryl laid out just such a spread recently at a party for the release of her dreamy new book, Yogurt Culture – savory grilled meats, berry sheet cake and cheesecake, giant bowls of homemade yogurt with all kinds of toppings and stir-ins, from granola to fruit compotes to deep coffee syrup.

But my very favorite was creamy, tangy labneh (Greek yogurt’s thicker cousin), topped with fresh basil pesto, chunky kalamata olive tapenade and soft, sweet roasted cherry tomatoes. On every table Cheryl had huge slabs of sangak, an oven-baked Persian flatbread, and I kept pulling off pieces to grab more of the cool spread with its intensely flavored toppings.

A big platter of this is going to be at the center of all my summer parties. It’s the best kind of warm-weather eats – less cooking, more assembly. You can easily buy the labneh, pesto and tapenade. Roasting tomatoes takes virtually no prep and only a hands-free half hour in the oven.

Then whenever you’re ready, spoon out the labneh, throw on some dollops of green, purple-black and red. Get some flatbread and go to town.

Gorgeous food, easy prep, live probiotics. Can’t lose. read on…

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Hard water is not so much a people issue (studies indicate that high mineral levels are more likely a health benefit than hazard), it’s just a plumbing nuisance. Cold water isn’t a problem, but when water gets heated, carbon dioxide in the water evaporates and calcium carbonate salt deposits get left behind. So it’s the appliances that deal with warm or hot water – dishwashers, washing machines, coffee makers, tea kettles – that build up chalky limescale deposits.

Brute force won’t win against stubbornly clingy mineral scale, but a little chemistry can outsmart it. A mildly acidic solution dissolves the tough white deposits, making them disappear into clear water. Rinse, and you’re good as new.

Lemon juice or vinegar will do the trick, but a handy white powder called citric acid is cheaper than lemon juice and doesn’t have the residual smell of vinegar.

If I could grow anything, I’d already have citric acid in my household arsenal for canning my homegrown harvest. Citric acid is used in canning to lower the pH to microbe-inhibiting levels, without the added flavor of vinegar or lemon juice. read on…


It always seems intimidating to go out and buy fish, but a year or so ago I signed up for a local CSS (community supported seafood) program that brings the fish to me. It’s like a CSA (community supported agriculture) but instead of seasonal produce from local farmers, I get the catch of the week from local fishers.

Each week I dig into my soft cooler bag of crushed ice and pull out ziploc of filleted fish, more often than not something I’ve never heard of – rockfish, grenadier, sand sole, ling cod – and figure out how to cook it. If it’s salmon, I always make sweetly glazed salmon teriyaki. But for most white fish, this recipe, adapted from Mark Bittman, is one of the easiest and best.

Fish fillets take a short dip in a skillet bubbling with soy sauce, wine (or water) and a bit of sugar. The fish cooks up tender and succulent, with plenty of sauce to spoon over rice. So simple. And it works well with all kinds of fish. read on…


magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms

24 April 2015

Ripe fruit can be perfect in its naked glory, but vegetables like a bit of dress up. A juicy tomato wants great olive oil, a fluffy baked potato begs for melting butter. And this mushroom saute, with minimal enhancement, simply showcases the earthy richness, meaty texture and indefinable umami that are the essence of mushroom goodness.

Mushrooms give off a lot of liquid as they cook, which is why prepared mushrooms often end up watery or shriveled. The genius of this preparation is that thick slices of portobello are cooked just until soft and silky, and the flavor of the cooking liquid is magically transformed, with a bare touch of soy sauce and cornstarch, into a lustrous umami boost. This is mushrooms at their best.

There are so many good uses for these mushrooms: heaped on a burger, rolled into an omelet, piled on crostini with melted cheese. But they also make a simple, richly flavorful meal over a bowl of rice, greens or polenta – especially with a runny fried egg on top.

And did you know the real magic of mushrooms? Like us, they make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight – even after they’ve been picked. So if you put your mushrooms out to sunbathe first, they’ll stockpile vitamin D for you while you stay cool and wrinkle-free in the shade. read on…


I picked up a wavy green head of butter lettuce at the farmers market last weekend, fully intending to make salad. But as I washed its ruffly leaves, the neatly cupped shapes begged for something warm and savory to hold. I felt like the mouse in the kids’ book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk to go with it. If you give a girl butter lettuce, she’s going to want a scoop of minced chicken, glazed with soy sauce, garlic and ginger, to go in it.

In these anti-grain times, lettuce is taking on new roles as surrogate hamburger buns or taco wrappers. But this Chinese dish, traditionally served in iceberg leaves, has in fact been around for ages. It’s not strictly paleo food, since soybeans (in hoisin sauce and soy sauce) don’t hold up in paleo court. But it is legit Chinese food without rice or noodles – doing that neat Asian trick of salty-sweet-tangy-spicy, all in a snappy lettuce leaf. read on…


nut warning

Discovery Saturday

28 March 2015

How smart is this nut warning on a stack of cookies? Like a pirate flag, the lone walnut waves its warning to those on the lookout for a nut attack. Thanks to my smarty pants friend Nancy for this cute and pithy signal.

I love sharing recipes, but eclectic discovery days are my favorites here…and (yikes!) I haven’t had one since last July. I never stop collecting gems, but sometimes I get delayed sharing them.

Unloaf your banana bread

Who knew a pan shape could change everything?

Every so often I bake banana bread in a baking dish: it cooks faster, and squares of banana bread are easier to eat out of hand. But this week I made two in quick succession – a regular loaf that disappeared in two sittings, and the same in a rectangular baking pan two days later. Normally the crowd’s enthusiasm flags a bit the second round, even for a favorite, but this time everyone from my mom to my husband to my kids raved even more.

Banana bread in the baking pan was lighter and softer – so much so they actually thought I’d used a different recipe. In a loaf pan, the bread develops a thicker crust from being in the oven about 50% longer, and the center ends up denser. In the baking dish it ends up with a lighter, softer crumb and makes a great snacking cake.

My mom also loves this method because she has trouble getting the baking time right in a loaf pan. A banana bread loaf browns outside long before it is fully cooked inside, so it’s easy to end up with a gooey center, or to overcompensate by overbaking. In a baking dish there’s no deep center for raw batter to hide.

Girly repair

You know when you drop your makeup bag, and your favorite compact powder cracks into expensive crumbs of pigment? Grab a spatula and a few drops of rubbing alcohol and watch this video to fix it in just a few minutes. Thanks to my friend Kathleen, who knew I would love the resourcefulness of this genius fix. read on…


Irish soda bread (classic and cranberry-orange)

17 March 2015 Breakfast
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If you’ve never made bread before, Irish soda bread – faster and easier than biscuits or cornbread, and just as delicious and versatile – is the place to start. And what better day than today to make a freshly baked loaf that is so soul-satisfying it’s a daily staple in Ireland? Toast St Patrick with […]

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Sparking joy

13 March 2015 Favorite gadgets
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I haven’t gotten around to the real meat of Marie Kondo‘s improbable bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (the tidying part, that is). But the real magic of the book is Kondo’s simple perspective: hold on to the things you love, or as is translated in the book, things that spark joy. And get […]

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Fried won tons with sweet-sour sauce

5 March 2015 Asian
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My mom is the best party guest of all time. She is very kind and wise, ever smiling and helpful. And chances are, she will come to the door bearing a big platter of crispy won tons, golden fried wrappers encasing a succulent nugget of meat and vegetable, with a side of temptingly tangy dipping […]

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Tuscan wild boar sauce (no boar required)

26 February 2015 Food
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I couldn’t tell you what Renaissance masterpieces I marveled at or which churches I visited during the two times I’ve been to the red-roofed dream of a city that is Florence. All I know for certain is that on both trips I lingered rapturously over fresh, wide pappardelle ribbons with wild boar sauce, rich with […]

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