hula pie

Hula pie

1 July 2015

I don’t know if its the 19 straight days of rain we’ve had since we arrived in Ohio, or the fact that an unusual number of midwest friends have gone to the islands this June, but I have sunny Hawaii on the brain. Last weekend Cynthia married her Hawaiian sweetheart on the beach, and in the spirit of aloha I made hula pie.

Hula pie is the famous dessert from Duke’s Waikiki, a rare hangout that draws tourists and locals both. In a prime spot on Waikiki beach, Duke’s proudly honors local son Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic swimmer and surf champion, and offers down-to-earth Hawaiian hospitality amid the Waikiki circus.

A mammoth slice of hula pie is not just one dessert on the menu, it’s the only dessert on the menu. I guess no one at Duke’s dines alone – and any solo diner with hula pie is sure to find himself with instant friends. I watched a video to find out how they make it so dang big.

They take a regular pie tin, press down buttered chocolate cookie crumbs for crust, shovel in a FULL GALLON of macadamia nut ice cream, and cover the frozen mountain with a lava-thick blanket of hot fudge. A single slice of Duke’s hula pie has over a pint of ice cream. One pint. One tall Hawaiian slice. read on…


sweet vinegar slaw

Sweet vinegar slaw

17 June 2015

Mealtimes with my gregarious Ohio family are much more about socializing than cooking. Impromptu family gatherings call for pizza – round pies cut in snacky squares, as is the norm here – but planned family events, like all four of my kids’ baptisms, are accompanied by takeout from our favorite local barbecue joint.

The smoked beef brisket and pulled pork from City Barbeque are deeply flavorful and tender, but I have a thing for sides: saucy beans with bits of brisket, sweet tea and vinegary cole slaw. City BBQ has mayonnaise-based slaw too, but ever since they started offering the vinegar option, we’ve never gone back. It has a light, fresh crunch, and its sweet-tart taste is a piquant contrast to smoky meat.

It’s such a simple salad – shredded cabbage with a touch of onion, bell pepper and grated carrot, with an irresistible balance of sweet and sour – that I’ve been meaning crack the code on a recipe for ages. But I’m always so busy eating it that I forget to set some aside for recipe development. This week, we had a City BBQ night for Sunday’s Warriors-Cavaliers playoff game, and I finally remembered. So here’s my take, in time for July 4th and the rest of grilling season.

The balance here is all about vinegar and sugar. It seems like a lot of sugar, but think of the mixture as more brine than salad dressing – the vegetables will soak in flavor, and you’ll see that a good deal of the liquid gets thrown out when the salad is all eaten. Many recipes call for equal amounts of vinegar and sugar, but I think 25% less sugar than vinegar is just right. read on…


My mom always drew the raves for her barbecue chicken – tangy and sweet, salty and sticky, equal parts American and Asian – and indeed she spent years gradually perfecting the recipe. But it was my dad who worked the old brick fire pit in our backyard, tending to the coals like incubating eggs, now and then cranking the heavy iron cooking grate up for less heat or down for more.

Before he died, though he was weak and ill with cancer, my dad closed up the fire pit. He knew no one else would have the patience to work the ancient contraption as he had for decades, using his engineer’s ingenuity to keep it operational.

Over the years my brothers and I had offered to buy him a newer device, but he scoffed at kettle grills, propane, and anything new. Faded dusty pink and gray, the square fire pit was original to the house, long before my parents’ tenure, and my dad took pride and pleasure in keeping the old girl going.

Cooking Chinese food is hot kitchen work, and because my mom appreciated the break from the stovetop, my dad grilled regularly year round. Only when it rained was he thwarted, as water poured into the large square smoke hole in the ivy-covered canopy above the fire pit.

My dad never took any credit for his grilling skills, directing all praise to my mom. But after he was gone we didn’t make barbecue chicken for three years. It wasn’t the same without the fire pit, or my dad’s quietly perfected grilling technique. read on…


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…


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

24 April 2015 Food
Thumbnail image for Magic mushrooms

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 […]

Read the full article →

Chicken and veggie lettuce cups

16 April 2015 Asian
Thumbnail image for Chicken and veggie lettuce cups

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 […]

Read the full article →

Discovery Saturday

28 March 2015 Discoveries
Thumbnail image for Discovery Saturday

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 […]

Read the full article →

Irish soda bread (classic and cranberry-orange)

17 March 2015 Breakfast
Thumbnail image for Irish soda bread (classic and cranberry-orange)

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 […]

Read the full article →