Is it too mean to write about spring break in Hawaii when it snowed again in Ohio this week? I’m not here to wax lyrical about the sand (soft and powdery), or the sea (warm and iridescent turquoise), or the air (marvelously dewy). The beach is the beach – but Hawaiian food is its own unique, quirky, hearty blend that you don’t get anywhere else.

Hawaii’s diverse culinary roots, drawing from China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, and Portugal, trace back to the sugarcane plantations that took over Hawaii in the 1800s. The formerly isolated Hawaiian population had been decimated by illnesses carried by foreign travelers, and plantation owners needed to import labor. The first workers were brought in from China in the 1850s, but later waves of laborers came from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and the sugarcane-growing Portuguese islands of Madeira and Azores.

A basic Hawaiian breakfast – rice, eggs and Portuguese sausage (a version of linguiƧa) – looks plain, but it is deceptively awesome. It’s like fried rice without the work, made even better with a golden runny yolk to coat the sticky rice. Pan-fried rounds of portuguese sausage, spiced with garlic and paprika and smoke-cured, infuse a rich, spicy, meaty flavor to the plate like pepperoni on pizza.

Carrying the culinary history of Hawaii – rice from Asia, sausage from Portugal, eggs from everywhere – this meal holds to the Asian convention of breakfast as a savory meal no different from any other. You could have rice, egg and Portuguese sausage as a meal any time of day. read on…

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Banana cream pie in a cup solves some vexing pie problems. Once you eliminate the tricky part, traditional pie crust – mimicking a cookie crumb crust instead – all you have to make is a simple vanilla pudding and layer it with bananas. Basic ingredients, easy prep, guaranteed to look cute (which my whole pies never are).

And if you’ve ever had a pie-transporting disaster – I’ve had several, and not just with my own pies – you’ll realize how much smarter it is to move pie tucked in jars than to have gooey filling sloshing around in a delicate crust.

This recipe was a surprise find from The Mac + Cheese Cookbook by my friend Erin Wade and her partner Allison Arevalo, who own the mac and cheese restaurant Homeroom in Oakland. Homeroom’s sweets – peanut butter pie, homemade oreos, carrot cake – are as popular as the main attraction, and it comes as no surprise that a duo that has made their living on mac and cheese can be counted on for comfort desserts.

In the book, Erin and Allison tell the story of when Erin’s sister Alexis visited Homeroom and planned to make banana cream pie as a special dessert that night. She messed up the crust and ended up improvising banana cream pie in mason jars. It was such a hit that Erin and Allison created a version for their regular menu. Such a great story – and it makes me feel better about my own many pie disasters. read on…

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beach

Riding the waves

1 April 2014

I was brooding yesterday morning, thinking how the 30s had been filled with weddings and babies, while the 40s seem to be a time of illness, funerals and rocky relationships. I’m grateful to be standing now, but my heart aches as I reach out to loved ones who have had a fall.

And just as I was thinking I needed to write it out, to clear my head, but wondering how to do it without bumming you guys out, something amazing happened.

One little email popped up, with a Twitter notification that chinese grandma is one of six finalists for Best Family Cooking Blog in Saveur’s Annual Best Food Blog Awards. Say WHAAAT?


read on…

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citrus

Meet the citrus

28 March 2014

Even in California this is a lean time of year for fruit. But we get some different citrus here, which is keeping me going as I wait for early summer fruits to hit. Let me introduce you to some tiny and giant citrus family members you may not have tried before.

First the babies, tiny kumquats. Botanically known as citrus japonica, and native to Asia, kumquats look like mini oranges but are only about the size of a large olive.

What’s fascinating about kumquats is that you eat the whole thing, without peeling – pop one in your mouth like a grape. The small bit of juicy flesh inside is tart, but outer orange rind is very sweet. Weird and cool, kumquats are like orange zest with a squirt of pulp – nature’s marmalade in one cute little marble.

Bite in carefully, because they can have a seed or two, and when they do, it’s a full-sized orange seed, not a mini one. read on…

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I don’t live in huckleberry country (northwestern USA and western Canada), nor is it huckleberry season (late summer). But my fourth-grader picked huckleberry pie for her pioneer day project at school, so we’ve been enjoying huckleberry pie in March with frozen wild blueberries, pretending we are pioneers celebrating our berry-picking good fortune.

Don’t pelt me with huckleberries, I hear you that wild blueberries aren’t the same. Wild blueberries come from the opposite side of the continent, particularly Maine and Quebec. Huckleberries are not sold commercially, but wild blueberries are harvested commercially from vast natural blueberry fields, making them widely available frozen.

Huckleberries, a favorite of grizzly bears, grow elusively in the wild, often in steep forests. The huckleberry is the state fruit of Idaho, and huckleberry hunting is an annual rite from the Pacific Northwest to the American and Canadian Rockies.

Small and flavorful, wild blueberries capture some of the intensity of huckleberries, without the hard seeds of their western cousins. Commercially-raised highbush blueberries tend to be bigger, fleshier and thinner-skinned than their wild lowbush counterparts. They release more juice during cooking, and it seems to me they have more pectin than the small wild blueberries, which don’t turn fruit smoothies into jell the way the big berries do.

Pies, an Old World specialty brought to the New World by European settlers, were practical pioneer fare. They could be made with any fillings that were available, and unlike cakes, they did not require leavening ingredients such as baking powder, soda, or even eggs. Flour, lard and water were all one needed to make a first-rate pie crust.

I read the Little House on the Prairie series over and over as a child, an activity that always made me hungry. Even in The Long Winter, in which the Ingalls family had hardly anything to eat, Laura Ingalls Wilder made boiled potatoes sound so irresistibly delicious I’d have to get up and make some for myself.

I didn’t know The Little House Cookbook, a well-researched homage by a Little House devotee, existed when I was a kid. I didn’t need it for boiling potatoes, but I could have used it to make huckleberry pie. read on…

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wood scrap girl

Construction meditation

14 March 2014

Observing someone else’s construction project is like watching someone else’s pregnancy – fun, exciting and surprisingly fast – and the actual experience of building is as staggeringly different as experiencing pregnancy firsthand.

We began a year and a half ago, and I know I’ve been curiously silent on the project. I have a load of useful information I’d love to share, but I haven’t had the distance to be able to communicate it productively.

But I did just discover an update I wrote last June but never posted. I thought I’d share it now, and then the exciting conclusion will be even faster in following.

We’re almost done. And best of all, we’re still married. read on…

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Kung pao (gong bao) chicken

7 March 2014 Asian
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For once I have a recipe that will not cause a casual visitor here to wonder why this place is called chinese grandma. I may have four kids, but I’m no grandma; and I’m the kind of American-born Chinese that took Spanish in school and is rendered apologetically mute when a real Chinese grandma comes […]

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Texas sheet cake

28 February 2014 Chocolate
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Texas sheet cake – moist and brownie-like – is one of the few frosted cakes I make, because even I cannot mess it up. Regular frosted cakes are an avalanche of catastrophes for me: layers not cooled enough, frosting pulling off crumbs, me desperately picking out lumps while making a bigger and bigger sticky mess. […]

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Lessons from Dave

21 February 2014 Death
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My dad lived a quiet life and died a short, quiet death. My father-in-law Dave lived a bright, lively life, and when he died after long years of decline, hundreds of people came to remember the good doctor that had befriended them, healed them, gave them comfort, made them laugh. Everyone has their personal reality-distortion […]

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Apple snacking cake

13 February 2014 Food
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It’s been quite a week, my friends. I’m digging into my Mary Poppins bag of tricks and pulling it all out: perspective, persistence, love, gratitude, humor – thank God for humor – and cake. I made this cake three times in January for birthdays and other gatherings, and the reaction in my house was never […]

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