Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I love my wok. I love its sensual curvature, the way it smells, the way it sounds when the spatula clacks against the sides as I mix ingredients, and the fact that I've finally seasoned it to perfection. Not to mention the fact that it was cheap. Okay, not dollar-store cheap, but well under fifty dollars.

As part of our asparagus kick, SJG and I pulled out the wok the other evening to make stir fry. Technically speaking, you don't have to have a wok for stir fry--a high quality skillet, such as a well seasoned cast iron variety, works just as well. But I like cooking with the wok, and fun is a key ingredient in any recipe.

It makes things a lot easier if you have a handy sous chef like SJG to help with all the chopping, grating, marinating, and the other prep work that goes with any stir fry. The recipe below that we use is adapted from Betty Crocker's Chinese Cookbook (General Mills, 1981). Or you can browse one of my favorite sites for recipes,, to find other variations.

Asparagus Stir Fry

1 pound beef tenderloin, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon each, salt and sugar
1 pinch pepper
1 tablespoon tamari

1-2 cups small shitake mushrooms (whole)
1 bunch fresh asparagus, cut into large bite-sized pieces
1 red pepper, seeded and sliced into thin strips
1 teaspoon grated or chopped ginger
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup oyster sauce (you can cut this in half and substitute tamari)
2 tablespoons cornstarch

2-3 tablespoons canola oil for the wok

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chicken broth

2 green onions, chopped (greens too)
1 cup roasted, salted cashews

For the beef marinade:
1) In a large glass bowl, toss the sliced beef with the oil, cornstarch, salt, pepper, sugar, and tamari. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

For the stir fry:
1) Prepare the vegetables and set aside.
2) Prepare the ginger and garlic and set aside.
3) Mix the chicken broth, oyster sauce, and cornstarch in a measuring cup and set aside.

To wok the beef and the veggies:
1) Heat the wok on the stove over a high flame until a drop or two of water beads on the surface. Add 1-2 tablespoons canola oil and rotate the wok to cover the sides.
2) Working quickly, add the beef, ginger, and garlic and cook--tossing constantly with a spatula--until the beef is browned on both sides, about 3-4 minutes. Remove the beef from the wok (you can put it in a bowl or on a plate).
3) Add another tablespoon of canola oil to the wok and rotate to cover the sides. Add the shitake mushrooms, asparagus, red pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 1 minute, stirring all the while.
4) Add 1/2 cup chicken broth and heat to boiling. (This happens fast.)
5) Add the beef and heat again to boiling. (This happens quickly as well.)
6) Add the chicken broth-oyster sauce-cornstarch mixture and cook another 30 seconds or so until thickened.
7) For visual effect, serve the stir fry in large bowls or big plates, sprinkled with the chopped green onions and cashews, to taste.

Serves 4.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Like a lot of people, SJG reads the newspaper online every day. She called me at work one afternoon this week to tell me she'd seen a great online recipe for an onion and blue cheese quiche in the Washington Post and shouldn't we make it for dinner this weekend. We haven't had a quiche since my last trip to Paris, so I agreed to the plan.

The Post's recipe called for edible lavender as well, but since the lavender in my garden is still dormant, we decided to substitute asparagus instead. An odd mental leap indeed, but asparagus has started to show up in groceries in town, tempting us with its slim green spears. (The best asparagus comes from the asparagus man at the farmers market. I blogged about him a couple years ago--see the Early Harvest entry. The farmers market doesn't start until May 1, so we have to settle for out-of-state asparagus for the time being.)

I've been making quiches since I was a young cook, and all I needed from SJG to make this quiche was a list of the ingredients: asparagus, blue cheese, caramelized onions, and bacon. I did check Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1983) to verify the baking temperature for quiches, and then we were set. Late in the afternoon yesterday, as a reward for the first spring raking, we headed to the kitchen to begin our baking. Served with a green salad, our quiche brought a taste of France to our midwestern dining table!

Asparagus Quiche

1 partially baked savory crust (use an 8- or 9-inch-diameter baking dish)
3 large sweet onions, sliced and caramelized
2 tablespoons olive oil for caramelizing the onions
1 bunch of fresh asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces and steamed for 8 minutes (from a cold-water start)
6 thick slices bacon, cut into bite-sized pieces and fried until done
1 generous piece of creamy Italian gorgonzola (about 1/2 pound), cut into small pieces
6 eggs
1 cup half-and-half (or 1/2 cup half-and half + 1/2 cup milk)
salt and pepper to taste

1) Start caramelizing the onions in olive oil. Salt to taste. This takes about 30 minutes over a low heat on top of the stove. Prepare the crust, the asparagus, and the bacon while the onions are cooking.
2) Make the crust and set aside. You can leave the oven on after the crust is partially cooked, though lower the heat to 375 degrees for baking the quiche.
3) Steam the asparagus. When it's done, take it off the source of heat (including the boiling steamer water) right away to avoid soggy asparagus.
4) Fry the bacon and set onto a paper towel to drain off the grease.
5) Cut the gorgonzola into small pieces.
6) In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and the cream with a fork. Add about 1/4 teaspoon salt and the pieces of cheese to the mixture.

To assemble the quiche:
a) Spread the caramelized onions over the bottom of the partially baked quiche crust. Then add the steamed asparagus and a layer of fried bacon on top of that.
b) Pour the egg-cheese mixture over the quiche. Grate a little pepper over the top.
c) Place the quiche in the oven and cook at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until the quiche is set, a bit browned on top, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


About two years ago, a former publishing colleague invited me to contribute an essay to an anthology of writing about gardens she was compiling. She had been reading this very blog and wanted to include me as one of the new voices she was choosing to accompany well known essayists and gardeners such as Vita Sackville-West, Michael Pollan, Diane Ackerman, and Susan Orlean, among others. I was honored by her request and agreed to participate.

The book's schedule was delayed a time or two, and periodically I would forget I'd even written the essay. Spring 2008 eventually became the targeted release date, and today--a breezy spring day--as I pedalled home from work and up my driveway, I spied it. The box with my author copies.

The book, entitled The Gardener's Bedside Reader, is gorgeous. More gorgeous than I could have imagined, filled with crisp, clear photographs, colorful period illustrations and advertisements, images from old seed catalogues, historic hand-colored photographs, Redoute illustrations, and delightful knock-outs throughout. My essay is called "Ashes to Ashes," and it's about, well, about some truths my mother--and my garden--taught me about life and death. Go to for details, and if you buy the book, turn to page 241. That's me!

Saturday, April 12, 2008


It's cold and still snowing where I live, and that's unusual for this time of year, when the temperatures should be in the mid-50s and the bulbs should be pushing through the ground to send up their sprintime greenery. But since it's chilly and wet today, we're making a pork dish for dinner from an
Elizabeth David recipe in French Provincial Cooking, a cookbook my mother used for many years. The recipe, like all David's recipes, is easy, and it includes an unusual ingredient--juniper berries (above)--that gives the pork a slightly piney flavor. And indeed, juniper berries are the female seed cones of various junipers (in the cypress family, according to Wikipedia). Balanced against the contributions of bacon, garlic, and white vermouth, the juniper berries in this dish are subtle in the seduction of the taste buds, and for that reason, the dish is extremely satisfying.

To find juniper berries, try your local coop grocery or visit Penzey's--my favorite spice store, where everything is extremely fresh and beautiful.

(adapted from French Provincial Cooking, Penguin Books, repr. 1970)
1-1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
1 medium onion
4 pork chops
4 small cloves garlic
8 juniper berries
olive oil for browning
salt and pepper, to taste
4 slices bacon
8 oz white vermouth

1) Layer half of the sliced potatoes and half of the sliced onions in the bottom of a Dutch overn (mine is cast iron and works beautifully for this dish).
2) Near the bone of each pork chop, put a clove of garlic and two juniper berries. In a large skillet, brown the chops on both sides in a little olive oil.
3) Put the browned chops on top of the potatoes in the Dutch oven. Cover with the rest of the potatoes and onion.
4) Season with salt and pepper to taste and cover with the sliced bacon.
5) Add the vermouth.
6) Put a piece of tin foil over the top of the pot, cover with the lid, and cook in a very slow oven (325 degrees) for about three hours.

Serves 4 and is delicious with cooked carrots for the side dish.

Monday, April 07, 2008


My father's beloved cat Kanga died three weeks ago from heart failure. He's buried in the backyard, up on the hill, where my father can see the grave as he drinks his coffee every morning. I drove down to see my father this weekend to help say farewell, and we joked that you can see the letters "K-A-N-G-A" from outer space. My father carved them into the log that serves as the grave marker, and that's where we perched ourselves on Saturday afternoon to drink a glass of ale and recall with fondness the life of a white Persian.

As we reminisced, the neighbor's two cats--both of whom were originally strays--strolled past us, just out of reach, to pay their respects. Butterflies floated past in the light warm breeze while chickadees and cardinals hopped from branch to branch in the trees that populate the back hill. Just in front of Kanga's resting spot, we lit sticks of Japanese incense and placed a small cluster of French lavender--still fragrant from a trip to Paris my father and I took together several years ago. We wept and laughed together, I got a little tipsy, and my father commented on the human tenderness that sends us up to a hill, in the sun, to talk to a dead cat.

And then came Harry, an orange tabby (above) whom my father chose this weekend at the local Humane Society to be the new companion for him and for Roo, the resident Himalayan and Kanga's former mate. Harry is about a year old and has a long sleek body with a tail that curls at the end when he arches it over his back and neck. He loves my father's house, with its many piles of assorted materials, its big windows, and the toys he's rescued from underneath furniture and from forgotten corners. And, when I got home last night, my father called to report that Harry loves something else too....roast chicken!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Growing up with a large Sicilian family on my father's side, I learned to love eggplant early in life. It was most commonly served sliced, dipped in egg yolks, breaded, and fried in olive oil. By layering the slices with cheese and tomato sauce, you end up with eggplant parmiggiana--a beautiful and delicious meal. Below is my recipe, adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites (Clarkson Potter/Random House, 1996):


2 large eggplants, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 24 slices total)
4 egg whites
1/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated parmiggiana or romano
1/4 tsp powdered garlic
1-2 tsp dried basil
1-2 cups ricotta
1 lb sliced provolone
3-4 cups tomato sauce (about 2 28-oz cans or recipe below)

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2)Slice the eggplant. In a low-rimmed pie dish, beat the egg whites and the salt together with a fork. In another pie dish, mix the bread crumbs with the cheese, garlic, and basil.
3) Dip each slice of eggplant into the egg white mixture to coat both sides lightly. Then dip the eggplant in the bread crumb mixture to coat both sides.
4) Set each slice of dipped eggplant onto a lightly oiled cookie sheet. (You'll need two cookie sheets.)
5) Bake the eggplant for 20 minutes. While the eggplant is baking, make the tomato sauce.

Tomato Sauce

1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
several cloves garlic, chopped
1/3 c white vermouth
2 28-oz cans chopped, diced tomatoes
1 28-oz can tomato sauce
2-3 tbsp chopped parsley
salt, pepper, and dried basil (or Italian seasoning mix), to taste

1) Heat olive oil in a large kettle. Add chopped onion and garlic and saute until translucent, about 3-5 minutes.
2) Add vermouth and cook off alchohol, about 3 minutes.
3) Add tomatoes and tomato sauce; stir in parsley, salt, pepper, and basil. Heat thoroughly. Set aside until you're ready to assemble the eggplant.

1) In a 9 x 13 baking dish (I use glass, a Le Creuset baking dish, or another nonreactive dish), spread about half the tomato sauce in the bottom.
2) Place about half the eggplant slices on top of the sauce in slightly overlapping rows.
3) Spread the ricotta on top of the eggplant, then add about half of the provolone slices in slightly overlapping rows.
4) Add the rest of the eggplant on top of the cheese. Cover with the rest of the tomato sauce, a light layer of the remaining bread crumbs, and the rest of the provolone. (You'll probably still have leftover bread crumbs; toss them.)
5) Bake uncovered for 35-45 minutes, until the eggplant is thoroughly heated and the cheese is nicely melted.
*This recipe amply serves 6-8 people and is a great dish to serve with a simple green salad and a baguette or two at a dinner party. Or like SJG and me, you can make it on the weekend for easily reheated lunches and dinners during the week.