Valentine’s vegan samosa shepherd’s pie

This year, my Valentine (ūüö®!!!) and I booked a retreat in the piney woods of Crockett, Texas.

A few weeks earlier, I’d gotten it into my head that I needed to stay at a DIY cabin — you know the kind, with repurposed wood countertops and galvanized tub sinks. As luck would have it, we found just the one in a small town, two hours north of Houston.

To get there, KT and I drove through the winding countryside, following mysterious instructions (“pass the church and the fire department and look for the dirt road with the mailboxes”) until we found our sweet little property. There was a miniature horse and donkey grazing out front, and a babbling creek tucked behind the house. Our AirBnB hosts lived in a geodesic dome compound a few yards away. For two city kids, this was really, really exciting.

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Alice Waters’ ratatouille

It was feelin’ real summer-like in San Francisco up until recently, but no longer can we deny it: it is winter. The Bay Area seems to have skipped right over autumn, changing from shades of blue and green¬†to gray and white overnight. I’m spending my evenings puttering around the kitchen, swaddled in a fleece plaid robe and leaving a trail of¬†snotty, crumpled tissues in my wake.

While these days, my cold-weakened body only wants soup and carbs, my mind still yearns for all the bright, delicious dishes of summer. I’ve been meaning to write about one of my very favorites for years now: ratatouille. This fantastically simple stew showcases the abundance of produce available in August, cooking and caramelizing it into silky, savory richness.

While ratatouille can often be an exercise in patience (see Julia Child’s labor of love), I’ve been sticking with Alice Waters’ streamlined¬†version.¬†Some of the¬†vegetables are still cooked separately so that they achieve maximal doneness, but the rest are layered onto one another, resulting in complex, fully married flavors. I’ve often taken many liberties with the recipe, tweaking it to fit the contents of my pantry and CSA box with ease. The final dish¬†can be served at any temperature and with nearly any cuisine, as a side or main — a perfect technicolor representative¬†of summer’s bounty. In fact, even in the dead of winter, I’d love a big warm bowl of this ratatouille.

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“rustic” (lazy) chicken tinga

A theme in my life appears to be¬†not taking advantage of the food resources around me. Even though I grew up mere hours away from the border, my pre-college exposure to Mexican food was limited to Taco Bell’s crunch wrap supreme and Tina’s frozen burritos. To be fair, both foods still hold a very dear place in my heart (oh, the joys of a microwaved spicy beef and bean!) but, thankfully, I’ve explored options beyond the highly commercialized and processed.¬†Now, whenever I fly into southern California, I make a beeline for my favorite hole-in-the-wall taqueria or scrappy food truck.

It was at one of these dingy, street food establishments that I discovered a world of proteins beyond “premium seasoned beef” or microwaved “bean and cheese.” I became intimately acquainted with spit-roasted¬†al pastor, gamey¬†carne asada, intensely umami¬†chorizo. I was beginning to think myself relatively well-versed on Mexican meats until I came across a recipe on Serious Eats:

Chicken tinga is the only taco stuffing on the menu that matches the complexity of al pastor, although it does it in a completely different way with its deeply smoky, spicy, and earthy flavor. It’s completely satisfying, making a couple of small tacos taste like a larger, grander meal than they really are.

Oh. Yes. I’d never heard of chicken tinga before, but I was sure I wanted to make and devour it. Better yet, the recipe looked incredibly simple. However, because I am nothing if not lazy, I chose to skip a step or two to make this a total weekday dinner. Why lug out my food processor to puree the sauce, when I could just… not do that? My minimal effort still yielded maximal pay-off. The chicken tinga, once loaded onto a tortilla with garnishes and sides, was everything promised and more. I’ll most certainly be making this again, especially if any¬†taco¬†parties¬†come my way!¬†(… and no, I probably won’t ever follow the full directions —¬†but better that than taking the truly easy way out and reheating a frozen burrito, right?)

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Korean pulled pork

Around these here parts, we love a good interactive meal. What’s more fun than eating with your hands? (Don’t answer that.)

When I spotted red butter lettuce in our CSA, my mind immediately leapt to¬†ssambap: literally “rice wrap” in Korean. It’s a basic but unbeatable dish: protein, rice, and flavorful paste (typically red chili¬†ssamjang), cradled in the curves of a cool, leafy green. Like Vietnamese spring rolls, ssambap is just as much an experience as it is a meal. Its infinitely customizable components are assembled into handheld parcels around the dinner table — fun, informal, and familiar.

I took it upon myself to make¬†ssambap in an effort to: (a) impress Jay, who is naturally all about the dish, and (b) prove to myself that I’ve learned something about his inherited culinary traditions after all this time. The only problems were that: (a) I wasn’t totally sure how to prepare Korean-style meat and (b) I was lazy and didn’t spend my time grilling, roasting, pan-frying, what have you. Thusly, I turned to my good friend for help… the slow cooker.

Depending on the magical properties of the slow cooker and my own intuition, I set about making a Korean pulled pork (vaguely modeled off of braised beef dishes near and dear to Jay’s heart). First, I browned a massive pork tenderloin in a slurry of Asian aromatics, spices, oils, and sauces. Into the crockpot the whole mess went, along with a strong hit of vinegar. I turned on the slow cooker, crossed my fingers, and prayed for the best. After a few hours, an addictive smell began wafting around the apartment. I lifted the lid of the crockpot, took a taste, and nearly fell over. This was, perhaps, one of the best dishes I’ve made to date — and, importantly, my Korean partner agreed. Like so many slow-cooker recipes, very little manpower was required to reach great levels of meat-melt-y tenderness. Unlike other dishes, though, this one featured an intoxicating mix of onion, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil and a bright punch of vinegar. We spooned the pork into the ssambap, wrapping them up into little gifts of greens, and enjoyed every bite happily and handily.

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my dad’s Vietnamese egg salad

This weekend, as you all probably know, marked the passing of another Father’s Day. While I’ve found it impossible to discuss food without mentioning one particular parent, it’s a totally different story with the other. Like my mom, my dad was an immigrant from southeast Asia. Very distinctly¬†unlike¬†my mom, though,¬†my dad didn’t assimilate into Western culture willingly, instead staying quite firmly rooted in the traditions of his native country. Read: distant authority figure who did no cooking. (I suspect¬†that this approach¬†is not uncommon¬†cross-culturally.)

All the same, it’s not hard for me to conjure up happy memories of us in the kitchen. To be sure, he never made us a proper meal; I don’t think that was a skill he was ever taught or interested in learning. Rather, some nights he’d come home with a butcher paper-wrapped parcel of fish, fragrant and fresh from the market deep-fryer. He’d fold together a makeshift tray, carefully origami-ing a sheet of aluminum foil, and reheat the whole deal in the toaster oven. When the fish emerged, crackling with hot oil, he’d pick out the crispy bits (my favorite) and let me eat them. Other nights, he’d pop open a can of Vienna sausages, warm it up, and serve over white rice. I wonder if his affection for pseudo-meats was a stand-by from his time in the military or refugee camps; whatever the case, those little pink tubes¬†made for¬†unbelievably¬†satisfying comfort food. Among my favorite meals, however, were those for which my dad would¬†really bust out his cooking chops: a riff on egg salad.

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roasted chicken with za’atar and lemon

You might be wondering, given my recent rash of restaurant reviews, if I’ve been cooking over the past few weeks. Answer: minimally. This spring has brought sunny skies and total upheaval into my everyday existence, and I’ve been swept away by easy, but expensive, eating out.

It was with some relief, then, that I found myself alone in the kitchen with a whole chicken. I wanted desperately to get back into my gastronomic groove, starting with an Easter dinner. First, however, allow me to digress… I was born and raised Roman Catholic, in a home¬†where we followed all the Western-invented conventions of religion. When it came to our Sunday suppers, however, my family deviated… and deliciously so. Hold the sparkly glazed hams and fluffy¬†deviled eggs; we’ll take deep-fried egg rolls and sloshy noodle soups, thankyouverymuch.

This year, I kept up the tradition of non-traditional food by preparing a Middle Eastern-inspired spread (though I suspect that the flavors of the Fertile Crescent are actually the most historically accurate and observant of all). Whatever your stance on religion etc., this roasted chicken is worth some worship. I’d always thought Yotam Ottolenghi-authored recipes were intimidating, but my first venture with his cooking came together with astonishing¬†ease. After a nice long bath in a flavor-packed¬†marinade and some luxuriating in the oven, the chicken emerges smelling heavenly and tasting divine. Hallelujah!

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dijon and cognac beef stew

It was late Monday night that I got an¬†email from V with the simple headline, “beef stew tomorrow.” What.¬†I didn’t even have to open the message to know that I wanted in.

Nonetheless, I clicked on the link and and was greeted with a ridiculously delicious-looking recipe. The author, of course, was none other than Deb of Smitten Kitchen. Done and done.

On a weekday night, a few of us gathered at V’s to get to work. We cut up some vegetables,¬†browned some meat, and¬†poured some alcohol.*

The recipe calls for a good long simmer, but it was late in the night and we could only hold off for so long. The lid came off; we dug in. The dish¬†was a smashing success, and, had we any leftovers, I’m sure they would’ve been even better the next day.

*¬†I mean, wine and cognac were part of the recipe, after all… but I’m not saying some of it didn’t make it into some glassware¬†for personal consumption. How else were we going to distract ourselves from the incredible aroma emanating from the kitchen?¬†You’ve been warned — this smells nearly too good to wait.

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Chinese steamed fish

As a kid, I would’ve categorized items like Hot Pockets and microwaveable Tina’s burritos under the “comfort food” category, giving nary a thought to my mom’s plentiful homemade dishes. It’s okay, though. If ever there was a good time for me to recklessly ingest such products, it would’ve been when my metabolism was young and zippy.

Nowadays, though, my palate yearns for the magic my mom would conjure up in her kitchen. One especially nostalgic dish is steamed soy-ginger fish, which has been covered here before. The technique is fantastically easy and nearly foolproof, but I can’t leave well enough alone. Jay and I stumbled upon a variation of the recipe, this time courtesy of the food blogger juggernaut Jaden Hair of The Steamy Kitchen, and put it to the test. It’s only a bit more complex than our previous standby, requiring a few more ingredients to prep and dishes to wash. The extra work prepping the sauce is well worth it, however, for some truly flavorful fish. I’ll be honest; I had my doubts, as I do whenever people try to make Asian dishes Western-palate-friendly, but I shouldn’t have been wary. This was still the familiar food of my childhood, elevated in adulthood.

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kimchi frittata

I am having a love affair with all foods fermented.

Yogurt? Yes.

Pickles? Please.

Kombucha? Kan I have some more?

Maybe I’m just a groupie, but I can’t get enough of this probiotic phenomenon. Chief among my obsessions is kimchi, a spicy pickled Korean dish, typically built upon a base of plain, sturdy vegetables such as cabbage, daikon, and radish.

I didn’t really become a fan of kimchi until I started dating a person of Korean heritage. It wasn’t long before my tame tastebuds came around to its intense, complex flavors: satisfyingly spicy with a saliva-inducing hit of tartness and a faintly sweet finish. Now, I find myself eating it straight out of a plastic gallon-sized jar at 11 pm at night. In order to stop myself from pouring kimchi straight down the hatch, I threw some into a frittata for several days’ worth of breakfast. Even better, cooking it on the stovetop covered resulted in a fabulously soft and puffy texture, similar to another favorite Korean dish: gaeran jim, or steamed egg. Eggcellent.

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Peruvian chicken

Look, I know that picture isn’t appetizing. Sometimes I can really stink at this whole “blogging about food” thing. Sometimes (… or all the time) I just want to get food in my mouth ASAP, pretty plating be damned.

However, for those of us who don’t eat with our eyes only, this recipe is¬†it. It takes two of my favorite, yet woefully underused, ingredients, herbaceous mint and tart lime, and blitzes them into an intensely flavored sauce. Add in a sucker-punch of heat from habanero pepper and a bit of earthy¬†je ne sais quoi from smoked paprika and you’ve got a uniquely addictive dish on your hands. Lucky for me, the recipe yields an incredibly generous batch of food. I can’t promise that I’ll have self-control enough to take a picture when I come back for more, though!

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