A Fine Dish

dish (v) to emit a ready flow of inconsequential talk... babble, blab, burble... chatter, dither... gab, lallygag... natter, patter, prattle, rattle on... yammer, yawp...also...chew the fat, shoot the breeze, sling the bull.... and (n) a container to serve food -or- the food contained in the dish ....(archaic slang) a hot mama

Location: Rock Creek Township, North Carolina, United States

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Anyone Can Bake

I knew her not as 'who' but as a 'what.'

What is a 'grandma' ? A grandma is old.

Math tells me that she was 57 the first time her youngest grandchild was laid in her arms but from my childlike perspective 50s, 60s, that was OLD. I know now that old doesn't mean much to a kid. Some years ago Helen presented her grandparents at her second grade show and tell. After an elegant introduction of 'this is Grandma and this is Grandpa' she opened the floor to discussion. One floor wriggling classmate immediately asked "How old are they?" Before my father could give his stock answer (old as dirt), Helen leaned to her peer and with unreserved diplomacy whispered to him "It's not polite to ask old people how old they are."

So what is my Grandma? Cheddar cheese gold fish. Crossword puzzles in ink. Undiluted and undivided attention. These are the things that made a lasting impression.

I only 'knew' my mother's mother during the last quarter of her life. She had already been formed/formed the place she would stand until the end of her life. That she had broken barriers to attain a college education, had a career, birthed and raised my mother, were peripheral. She was the person who opened the door so I could (easily) scoot under her arm on the way to the warm kitchen, to the toybox, to books, and a little engine that went huwuhooooooomph! when a thirty pound child sat on it; these were the important things.

With the confidence that only the most priveleged child can bear I once begged the gift of an old cookbook from her shelf, a household tome she had picked up decades earlier. This was a book that she had held if not dear, at least persistently from one age to another, and I remember my irritation as she actually hesitated before she passed it on to me. The fly leafs had her trained but distinctive looping handwritten recipes for 'Scotch Orange Marmalade' and 'Christmas Pudding.' Yet she granted it to me from my simplistic explanation that I wanted to practice 'how to set a table right.'

I'm picking up that cookbook, 'Anyone Can Bake' and a recipe cut from some forgotten newspaper falls out. There's no flag, no date. The recipe is for meat loaf made from pork, beef or lamb heart. It's offered with a menu rounded out with "scalloped potatoes, broccoli, and sliced tomato "from your Victory Garden." But what strikes me is the 'filler' blurb in the corner of the page. It reads--

"Save Tin Cans and You Save Lives.
Two tin cans furnish enough tin to make a syrette.' One syrette holds morphine to deaden pain 10 to 14 hours. Millions of syrettes are neeeded NOW. So keep on saving your tin cans."

I know what my Grandmother was and is to me. She made me the center of a universe. She loved me obviously, surreptitiously, brazenly, constantly. My daughter bears her name.

I am at a loss.

How can I conceive of who this grand woman was?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Don't Try This at Home

Recently I posted a recipe for Vietnamese Dumplings that was given to me by my good friend Kim and is featured in the FaithAction cookbook, Our Mixing Bowl . After the fall of Saigon, the educated Vietnamese as well as anyone connected with the Southern Vietnamese movement for democratic self-determination faced years of re-education and assimilation to the new government. In practical terms, this meant a reduction in status for themselves and their descendants. Teachers, public servants, administrators were largely relegated to agricultural pursuits in a country whose farming practices had not changed for millenia. After all, a rice paddy is a rice paddy and a stick is as useful a tool as it ever has been.

These individuals, though, had experienced a larger portion of the movement of the world than their predecessors. They were more widely read, many were professionals, they grew up under the influence of their native Asian culture tempered by the influence of Western Europe. This is particularly reflected in their cuisine, a marvelous amalgamation of local ingredients and techniques tempered with foreign styles and spices. It's the best of east meets west.

Kim, a former French teacher, told me that she and her children pocketed dumplings before heading out to the rice fields. It was their mid-day meal. While only the size of a fist, it makes for surprisingly filling and balanced sustenance. The filling is the same as that which is used for spring rolls with the addition of a quail egg and some pieces of sweet sausage.

On Monday, my daughter Helen and I celebrated the end of her midterms by doing some shopping. One very important stop was the Mekong market, tucked behind TJ Maxx on High Point Rd. The gentleman who worked there was very helpful, showing us where the dried mushrooms were and even suggesting the substitution of green bean thread for ground pork since I don't eat meat.

Upon arriving home, Helen and I immediately started chopping, shredding, giggling, and mixing in anticipation of a wonderful and special dinner. I must caution you, if you enjoy the ease and convenience of Chinese takeout DON' TRY THIS AT HOME. Once you savor the light crunchiness of a real spring roll, you'll never be satisfied with takeout fare. Since the fillings are the same, I make a double batch of it which yields 50 spring rolls and 18 dumplings--plenty to accompany a dinner of a simple stir-fry with leftovers for a week of lunches.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Agony of De Feet

I never moved out of my parents' house; rather, I just sort of drifted away. During my college years, my parents were like the moon for my tides, allowing me the freedom to go out in the world, drawing me back with their stability and security during vacations and downtimes. It was an odd time for me, not knowing whether my world was still connected with theirs, not knowing on what part of the shore I should settle, the cove, the dune, the dark, dark sea.

And like tide lines at the beach, I left evidence in flotsam and jetsam where ever I briefly alighted. I left books, old clothes, photo albums, cookbooks like driftwood strewn in my wake. My parents were very patient with me during my twenties. It had to be irritating to them to be responsible for all this 'stuff.' Even I recognized that I left 'stuff' everywhere to give me an excuse to come back. I didn't have the wherewithal to understand that I needed no excuse, no rationale. All I needed to bring them was me.

Before there was a philosophy, a movement, a lifestyle, or even a show of questionable taste on Fox TV, my parents stood at the headwaters of Simple Living. They lived within their means, they accumulated only what was necessary, valued material goods for their use. My mother gardened, canned, preserved. My father was a sparing steward of land and resources. So it had to be difficult for them to deal responsibly with the debri I left behind. What do you do with 36 posters when it's time to strip the walls and paint? What is the value of a grinning Bucky Dent, a Brother's Hildebrandt rendition of Aragorn, a black and white portrait of the Knack when the 70's have slipped into the 80's edging into the '90s. Is it junk? Is it valuable? Whose decision is it to relegate it to closet, attic, burn barrel?

And was I any help? During those years I was drifting from one apartment to another, trying to stay afloat in the waters of service work--the boat along with the economy was sinking.

It took my mother 20 years but she has been successful at thoughtfully eliminating the clutter of raising three children in a centuries old farmhouse. All the rooms now are airy and light, the walls tastefully decorated with her own wonderful art, the furniture leaves the openness of each chamber unimpeded. There is a feeling of lightness and movement in that house, unlike the drag consummate consumers draw around and to themselves. The air around my parents feels buoyant, like gravity and inertia have lessened effect.

But still, 20-something years since I drifted away, some flotsam floats to the surface. Last summer when I visited, a T-shirt with a simple hand drawn design and the words 'Agony of DeFeet' lay on the guest bed in my old room. It came from a twenty-four hour relay race I participated in as a high school sophomore in 1979, a fundraiser for some forgotten need. I showed it to my brother who shook his head and wondered how it is that certain things still existed, still drifted ashore.

I thought about that time in my life. I remember so clearly staying up for twenty-four hours , rousing runners, encouraging the exhausted athletes, huddling in a sleeping bag with a stop watch and flashlight under the flood of the Milky Way. I remembered the intensity of having a cause, the exhiliration of working toward making a positive contribution. I remembered the thrill of victory.

I don't know, I wanted to tell my brother. I don't know why this or that was valued, was saved, was preserved. Maybe these things, this stuff just keeps bobbing along, arising and receding until we're ready to acknowledge them, to understand their significance. Maybe these things pop back up to remind us where we were so that we can better get our bearings on where we are now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Oral History

My parents used to have a box, handcovered in red vinyl. They kept it in a low cabinet in their library, a spot easily accessible to the short reach of little arms. Some summer evenings as the warm breezes filled the filmy livingroom curtains, one or another of us would be permitted to fetch the box. We would sit on the soft green wool rug, three of us spilling over my mother's legs as she opened it. Inside was the past.

The box was filled with photographs, black and white snap shots from my mother's family, my father's family. There were uncles in knee pants, dark haired grandparents standing stiffly in front of impossibly clunky cars. There were saucer eyed babies in long white dresses--I could never figure out how my mother remembered which of us was which.

As we pulled out photographs, my mother told us stories. The pictures were only the springboard--her stories were our legends. They were the visible edge of a history that still informs my choices today.

At the bottom of the box was a fuzzy close up picture of a rightly colored parakeet named Yak-yak.

"Tell us about Yak-yak!" we'd clamor.

"Yak-yak was a noisy bird," Mom would tell us. "We got him from the Bird Lady."

The Bird Lady was an informal breeder. She didn't own a pet store, she didn't order up her parakeets by the peck. Rather, she raised them from the egg and hand trained them from hatching. She dispensed instruction and advice with each bird she placed. Her most important guideline--

"Make sure that the dear feels at home, and part of the family. Let him out of the cage to fly, visit with you in the evening, share the family meals."

"We let Yak-yak fly around the house even though we had really low ceilings. Yak-yak would screech and squawk. One night when we were having dinner...."

"Chicken dinner," one of us would say.

"With mashed potatoes and gravy."

"That's right. We had a chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy. I had my plate and Daddy had his plate and Yak-yak had his own little plate of bird seed."

"But Yak-yak didn't want birdseed."

"That's right," Mom would say. "Yak-yak watched me and Yak-yak watched Daddy and when Daddy wasn't looking--what happened, Daddy."

My father, with a pained look on his face would say.

"That bird walked across the table, got on my plate, ate my mashed potatoes and left gravy footprints across the tablecloth."

My sister and brother and I would roar, imagining that bird playing such a trick on my father.

A couple of years ago we opened our home to a fine feathered friend named Toukie-Bob. Toukie is a cockatiel. He is part of the family, he has the wing of the house. He's a great companion, an accomplished musician, and a bit of a clown. Thanks to the lessons of our oral history, though, we take some precautions at the table. As you can see, Toukie gets his own chicken dinner.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Sultanas are a delightful, sweet, tiny, seedless raisin-- a specialty of Tuscany. How do I know this? I read it in a book. I have never had a sultana, never seen one, never chomped this little fruit and enjoyed its bright burst of its flavor.

We are very fortuneate to live in a place where such abundance and diversity are available. Even in pre-internet days, with diligence and good luck just about any ingredient could be found. I remember my family looking for years for 'orange flower water' for a specialty bread, Pandolce, I wanted to make. My grandfather finally found some in Key West and brought it to me.

But to me, the abundance that we can access also carries discipline. Having instant access to everything under the sun and moon doesn't mean that I should grab everything I can at any whim. Like eating strawberries out of season, preciousness suffers.

Some day I may go to Tuscany. I may savor the sweetness of this rare treat. I may sit under a tree at sunrise drinking strong coffee and break open a breakfast bread to find the treasures of raisins, sultanas, and candied citron.


Grease a 2 lb coffee tin with

1 Tbls butter

Line with waxed paper then grease with

1 Tbls butter


1 Tbls yeast
1/2 tsp sugar


1/4 water


4 c flour
1/2 c sugar

Make a well in the center and pour in yeast and

3/4 warm whole milk

Draw the liguids into the flour until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a board and knead for 10 minutes.

Rinse, dry and grease the bowl. Shape the dough into a ball and let rise for 2 hours. Beat in

4 Tbls butter
3 lightly beaten eggs
1/2 cup candied citron
1/2 cup sultanas
1/2 cup raisins
2 tsp lemon rind

until well blended. Re-cover bowl and ler rise for 1 hour. (It will be slightly risen, not doubled)

Put dough into prepared tin. Brush top with a little

butter, melted

Let rise for 30 minutes

Preheat oven to 400. Brush dough with

butter, melted

Bake for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 and bake for 30 minutes, brushing once more during cooking time with

melted butter.

Remove from oven and allow to cool 20 minutes. Remove from tin and transfer to wire rack to cool upright. Serve complerely cold.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Twelve tablespoons of barely thawed sweet butter cut into 1/2 inch dice glisten in a bowl. The sifter poised over a hardwood kneading board holds two cups of flour and 1/2 tsp of salt. With a gentle rocking, the contents drift down making a mound, a slight depression in its center. I drop in the butter, 4 egg yolks, some sugar, splash in dry Marsala, and some lemon rind. The tips of my fingers become wet, sticky, and richly fragrant as I lightly work the ingredients and my mind drifts to my mother's kitchen and a much younger version of these hands tentatively kneading a rich dough.

I never gave it a second thought at the time, but now I am amazed that my parents gave in to my culinary obsession. My mother's shopping day was Tuesday and each Tuesday morning I presented her with a list before careening off to school. "I need cumin and achiote." "Sultanas, Mom, not raisins." "Pick me up some whole squid, please."

The dough is smooth so I put it in the refridgerator covered with a tea towel then start pulling out the ingredients for the filling. The filling is a rich and aromatic blend. I start with 2 1/2 lbs of ricotta cheese sweetened with just a 1/2 c of sugar and smoothed with a splash of fresh vanilla. I grate an orange and two lemons then squeeze one of the lemons on top, picking out the seeds. I put in golden raisins then mix it all with my hands. The flavors blend and the aroma clings to my skin. I remember my grandmother dabbing vanilla on my wrist as a little girl. It was a trick she learned during the Depression when she couldn't afford perfume.

I pull out 3/4 quarters of the pastry and roll it into a thick circle. Gently, I ease it into a buttered springform pan. The filling follows, not quite reaching the edge of the case. I sprinkle a handful of slivered almonds on top. I roll out the remaining dough and cut it into ropes. A stickler, I weave these pieces to make a lattice, over and under. I lightly brush the top with egg white.

After 40 minutes in the oven, the kitchen takes on the odor of a holiday. I think about looking down the table this night, the kids lined up on one side, my parents here for their annual winter visit at the far end. I peek in the oven to see how the filling has begun to swell through the bars of the lattice, the top not yet brown. I think about those things that I took for granted as a child and hope that my own children are growing in an atmosphere where they can take it for granted that their parents will do everything possible to provide for them.

Tonight when I put their guilty favorite, Crostata di Ricotta, in front of them and watch them smile and breathe deep I will hope that they know that this is my way of telling them thank you, thank you. I know in my mind we are just ordinary people, we're just regular. But tonight this dish will say, you are so special, how I love you.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


"Hmmm rhummm chrrruhmmmm."

No, you won't find that one in the dictionary. It's the closest I can get to the deep throaty sigh of satisfaction my father-in-law makes when he tastes something that he really likes. I don't know why I always pause a moment after serving a meal to my in-laws, waiting for that small seal of approval. It's not that he's a picky eater--like many people who went through the hard times of the 20th century, Richard eats what is given, cleans his plate, and after every meal levels his weary green eyes with mine and says "Hm. Thanks."

Maybe it's because the men on my husband's side of the family tend not to be demonstrative. Perhaps it's because they are not easy to please. Sometimes it's not even the presentation or the taste of a dish that prevents their full enjoyment but the suspicion that I slipped something foreign or funky onto their plate like wasabi or anchovy paste. In my kitchen I have developed a 'don't ask don't tell policy.'

This is far from the atmosphere where I grew up. My family is a strange cross of New England reserve and one-generation-off-the-boat southern European excess. Just think of the possibilities in such a connection. Henry James repression meets Mediterranean melodrama. Ah-yup meets Whaddaya, whaddaya? Synergism is Scary.

But in our case, it worked. Each side tickled and tempered the other. The quiet became more complementary, appreciation out of the closet. The gregarious became more spacious, less force increased its depth. Graciousness need not always be expressed with averted eyes and bowed heads, nor with falling plaster and ringing eardrums. Both styles demostrate that there is so much to be celebrated, so many gifts, so much good and it touches everyone as it bubbles naturally to the surface; sparkling overflow. In my family, fabulous flavors stagger conversation. One person or another saying 'ooh, try this, wonderful,' then the dialogue goes on.

It took me awhile to catch on to the nuances of appreciation in the new extension of family I gained when I married my husband. I think the 'aha' came one night almost three years into the marriage. The kids and I were staying with my husband's parents while he was out of town. I had taken over the kitchen (as I kind-of-sort-of do). As it was late in the week, I had played alchemist with leftovers.

"Hmmm rhummm chrrruhmmmm."

That wonderful sound. This time after just one bite those green eyes were leveled across the table.

"This is good," offered Richard.

"Thank you," I said, smiling.

"I've seen some of what's in this, but I've never had this before. Another one of those things you dreamed up?"

"Oh, no. Whenever my mother had leftover ham she would always made a couple," I answered.

"Hm," he answered looking down and rounding up another forkful. "So, if you didn't make it up, what's it called?"

"Qui-" I start to say when my mother-in-law interrupted.

"Ham and Cheese Pie," she announced.

Richard was already concentrating again on his plate when she leaned over and whispered in my ear--

"Real men don't eat quiche."

I can't improve on the quiche Laurie featured in ....slowly she turned. I do have a recipe for pastry that I always use for quiche. It is oven hardy, specifically for dishes that will be baked for an extenced period. It stands up well to liguid fillings, such as pumpkin pie. The two keys are the mixture of butter and shortening and the resting period in the refridgerator. Butter adds flavor but it has a lower melting point. The shortening stands up to the heat longer allowing the crust to develop air spaces, those pastry-like layers. The stand in the refridgerator keeps the crust from becoming rubbery.

For one 9" shell


1/2 c chilled butter
3 Tbls vegetable shortening (or my brother prefers lard)


2 c flour
1/2 tsp of salt

I do this really lightly with my fingers. As the butter and shortening begin to get smaller, scoop up a handful and roll between the palms of both hands. The idea is to get the butter/shortening in small pieces that are covered with the flour. When the crust is heated, the fat 'cooks' the flour, making it in crisp layers.

When this mixture is all crumbly, kind of like cornmeal, make a well in the center. Drip in

4 Tbls ice cold water

Use your index finger to draw the flour mixture into the water using a spiral motion. As you reach the edge of the bowl, put in

1Tbls ice cold water

This is the only 'tricky' part of making a pie dough. You don't want to handle it too much, you don't want it to dry, you don't want it too wet. Guess what? You want it just right. How do you know when it's just right? Practice! The dough should be soft and press into a ball, not crumbling, but also not sticking to your fingers. If necessary, add

1TBls ice cold water

Put the dough ball into the refridgerator covered with a tea towel for 2 to 36 hours. For the longer period, use a wet towel.

Roll and shape as you need.

Monday, October 03, 2005


When I was a kid we just kind of drifted in and out of each others houses and 'cross-culture' happened naturally. Where I grew up there were a lot of people of Italian descent that still had the gestures and style of an older world. I guess these experiences were so meaningful because we weren't dropping in to gawk nor were they an intellectual exercise. We were just there, together, enjoying our similarities and differences. And the food! Pasta fagioli! Baccala! and for Easter breakfast, the unbelievably calorie and cholestorol laden Fritatta!

While I celebrate the opportunities we have to sample authentic dishes from around the world brought right to my doorstep through a wide variety of wonderful restaraunts, something in me craves a deeper connection. Luckily, diversity has hit main street and it is not difficult to find a guide. The medium is food and mentors abound.

Guilford County has some great specialty food stores, particularly for Latin and Asian cuisines. While I get most of my basic spices from Deep Roots, just up on the corner of Spring Garden and Pomona is an excellent Asian market. While I have had some language difficulties, the people who work there have been very accomodating. They have a multi-lingual staff and last weekend there was one young man who spoke English. (A hint--if you're an English only speaker like me and you're in a store where no one seems to speak it, find a customer who is between 10 and 14. I've never failed to get excellent advice from teenagers). They have a great variety and their prices are about half what you find in the major stores. One thing that I have noticed at every Asian market I've been to--they have shown my children the utmost affection. As babies they were cooed over, as toddlers they were surrounded by rich delighted laughter. Now as pre-teens/teens, they elicit a smile and a fond compliment to me. It gives me an almost embarassing satisfaction, you know, like sucking on a Ghirardelli brownie.

So you know where to go, what do you get? The ingredients marked with * are available at most Asian markets.

Vietnamese Dumplings


1 lb ground meat (usually pork)
*1 plg dried black mushrooms
1/2 lb carrots, shredded and with the moisture pressed out
5 stalks celery, sliced thin
1/2 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped
1 egg
1 tsp vegetable oil
1Tbls sugar
1 tsp salt
1 Tbls dried garlic
1 tsp freshly ground or cracked black pepper

Now here's the tricky part. At the Asian market look for a package called 'Banh Bao.' Basically, this is Jiffy or Bisquick, Asian style. So you need--

*2 pkgs Banh Bao

Mix like it says on the package. It's just a baking mix with yeast in it so you have to let it raise.

After raising, pull off a handful of dough. Roll it into a 6 inch oval. Put 2 Tbls filling in middle of oval. Press into filling

*1 quail egg

Whoa--wait a minute. A quail egg? Yup, they come in cans, they're inexpensive, and while they're really little they have a great flavor.

Arrange around filling five slices of

*Chinese-style sausage

Pinch together the edges of the dough around the filling. Seal the top.
Repeat until you've used all the dough and filling.

Steam over water with

2 Tbls vineagar added.

Don't crowd the dumplings as they will rise again as they are cooking. Steam for at least 1/2 hr to make sure pork is cooked through.

In case this recipe peaks your interest, you can find more than 150
more authentic recipes in the book 'Our Mixing Bowl' which is available at the Greensboro NC agency FaithAction. One of the nice things about this collection is all the recipes are from local people. The only continent not represented is Antarctica. The books are $12, $15 with shipping. Their website is http:www.faithaction.com or you can send them a check to FaithAction Cookbook, 705 N Greene St, Greensboro NC 27401

Saturday, October 01, 2005


A cast iron pan is your palette and spices your pigment. You work in earth tones--umber, ocher, raw sienna. The basic spices are a visual treat. You lay sassy paprika next to a sensuous curry just to enjoy how they complement each other. Colors link to memory, the paint scheme of your mother's kitchen or sunlight on fall leaves. You pour out some ground coriander seed for the lightness of the low tone yellows.

Spices are sensual. If their colors spark memory and association, the odors momentarily intoxicate. You reach for some oil to coat the pan. Olive oil, nice, green and exotic. Or peanut --less color but a strong worker, persistent and unremitting no matter the heat. You watch the oil carefully over the high flame then pour on a handful of cumin and coriander or maybe an earthy chili powder, stirring quickly to keep it from burning. This is alchemy--the dry powders steam and the steam carries an intense aroma bringing you into the moment, and yet stirring deep memories of lands and cultures you have never experienced. Generations, ages, traditions, the meanings lost and indescribable and yet present in your kitchen.

The aroma intensifies. It is like the brilliant pheonix swelling to bursting. Unlike the mythical bird, it needs to be fed if it is not to become a pile of sticky ash. You stir in some roasted green peppers and eggplant , the skins pulled off and the bitter seeds skimmed away. As you stir, the pallid flesh becomes suffused with earth tones, as if new blood is being pumped into it. You add the meat of plum tomatos.The mixture begins to swell and sweat and as bubbles burst the air becomes full.

You pull the pan off the flame and quickly move the contents into a hand thrown ceramic bowl. You open the oven and the smell of warmed flat bread greets you like a familiar companion. Your friends will layer the eggplant in the bread, giggle at burnt fingers, too eagar to allow any of it to cool. They look over your shoulder enjoying the colors in the dishes, the steamed redness of your cheeks. They breathe deeply and roll their eyes and sigh. They bite and, ecstasy! The flavors roll on their tongue, accented by a little bitterness of the pan, the textures delight, pillowy bread and the melting filling.