Valentine’s vegan samosa shepherd’s pie

This year, my Valentine (🚨!!!) 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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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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orange chicken & cauliflower fried “rice”

I love my extended family. It hurts that I can’t be around them all the time (… says the girl who doesn’t have to live near her family).

Really and truly, though, it gets most painful when we have a big holiday on the horizon. The Chinese/Vietnamese New Year is this weekend, and my family has been exchanging emails daily about their potluck celebration. They’ve been throwing around words like nem nướng (barbecue pork meatballs), bánh cuốn (rice sheets), thịt kho (braised pork), bánh chưng (stuffed sticky rice cake), cháo thịt (porridge with ground beef) and súp (… soup). The idea of being away from all these familial festivities and food is hard to bear, to say the least.

I need not feel completely abandoned, however, when the kitchen offers me a portal to ancestral traditions. Last night, we created an Asian-inspired dinner that was the perfect balm for my wounds. Jay sauteed a mess of delicious, delightfully sticky orange chicken and I stir-fried some cauliflower fried “rice” and vegetables as accompaniment.  The perfume of garlic and ginger emanating from the kitchen was absolutely intoxicating. The only thing better than smelling was tasting the food itself. Jay proclaimed this his favorite dish since the beginning of my Whole30 program, and I’m inclined to agree. These two recipes are definitely going to see some heavy use, New Year or not!

Now, if only I could somehow conjure up li xi (red envelopes containing gifts of money)…

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