Monthly Archives: June 2013


Recipe: Bok choy with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms

[Go to my short story, Cooking Lesson, which features this recipe.]

Recipe: Bok choy with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms

Serves 4


  • 8 whole, dried shiitake mushrooms
  • boiling-hot water
  • ¼ cup thin soy sauce, low-sodium if possible
  • 2 tablespoons sherry
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 3 scallions, sliced into pea-sized pieces
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 8 pieces chicken thighs
  • 8-12 small heads baby bok choy, washed well, ends trimmed, and quartered lengthwise partway
  • for serving: cooked rice


Place the dried mushrooms in a medium bowl and pour about 2 or 3 cups of boiling-hot water over them. Allow them to soften, about 30 minutes, adding more hot water if necessary. When the mushrooms are soft, discard the water. Squeeze out the extra water from the mushrooms, cut off the stems, and slice the caps in half, or, if large, in thirds.

In another bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sherry, cornstarch, sesame oil, scallions, and ginger. Pull the skins off the chicken thighs, and trim off any excess fat. Cut each thigh into three pieces, once lengthwise, then crosswise through the bone. Put the chicken in the bowl with the soy sauce mixture, and stir them together until they are well-combined. Marinate at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.

Add water to a pan with a steamer or wok with a steamer rack; bring water to a boil, covered. Add the mushrooms to the chicken and stir to combine. If using a pan and steamer, place a round, straight-sided cake pan or pie plate inside the steamer, then transfer the chicken, mushrooms, and sauce to the pan or plate. Place the steamer on the pan of boiling water, and cover. If using a wok with a steamer rack, transfer the chicken, mushrooms, and sauce to the cake pan or pie plate. Carefully place the pan or plate in the wok, and cover. Steam until the chicken is just cooked through, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the bok choy to the boiling water, pushing them into the water and stirring them around gently. Return the water to a boil, and cook the bok choy until bright green and still firm, about 3-4 minutes. Drain in a colander.

Carefully remove the chicken in its cake pan or pie plate from the steamer or wok. Arrange the bok choy around the edge of a serving plate. Spoon the chicken and sauce in the center of the plate. Serve hot, with rice.


Cooking lesson (a story)

The tea kettle shrilled commandingly when the water boiled. As I poured hot water over the bowlful of dried mushrooms, I was blinded by a fog of steam on my glasses.

“Mama, what if I married a black guy?” Wiping my glasses on my t-shirt, I looked sideways at her momentarily fuzzy figure. As I sat the tortoise shell frames back on my stubby nose, I saw that her eyes never even lifted from the water running into the pot in the sink. She stirred her fingers through the water, firmly rubbing the rice as the water turned milky.

“Why would you do that?”

“I’m just asking,” I shrugged, watching as she strained the water between bent fingers. I picked up the knife, slicing the ginger and sending its sharp tang into my nose.

“Tsk. You’re cutting the ginger too thick. Give me the knife.” She didn’t wait for me to put the knife down as she stepped in front of the cutting board. “Rinse the rice one more time. Be careful. Don’t let any of it wash away. Only this much water.” She showed me her left thumb, crooked at the knuckle. “Then get it started.” She frowned at the ginger on the cutting board, turned the knife on its side, and smacked the slices hard with the side of the blade. A few pieces flew out from under the knife, which she gathered back impatiently.

I stared at her. Why did she have to tell me how to do it every single time? “So, Ma, what would you do?”

“What?” The knife in her hand beat a staccato so fast it was like a low rumble of thunder, leaving the ginger minced in a thousand little pieces.

“If I married a black guy.”

“Get three scallions.”

I got the scallions, plus the bok choy and the chicken, from the fridge. “So…?”

I watched as she sliced the scallions in a tidy line. “Get the…. Oh. Put the chicken in the sink. Make sure it doesn’t drip.”


I thought I saw her hands hesitate for just one brief moment, then she punctured the plastic wrap and tore it away from the styrofoam tray. She plopped the chicken thighs wetly onto the cutting board. “So you’re getting married now?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then there’s no use talking about it.” I jumped when the knife cracked heavily through a bone. “You have to cut through the bone, you know. The marrow is what makes this dish delicious. Americans think breast meat is the best. But what do they know?” She sniffed as she swung the knife down again. Crack! “Just trim off a little bit from the end of the bok choy, Ming. Cut through the bottom where it’s thick, but leave it whole. That’s how Chinese people like it. And let it soak, so all the dirt will come out.” Crack!

I smiled down at the basin of bok choy. I was already washing it. “I’m just saying, ‘What if…?’”

“What if? What if? Who has time for what if?” Crack! “Did you finish your homework yet?”

“No, Ma.”

“So what are you talking about, what if? See if the mushrooms are soft all the way through, then go do your homework.”

“Ma, just say what you would do.”

She exhaled heavily. “What would he eat, your black man, if you married him? He’s not going to eat this?!” And she jabbed at the soggy pile of chicken pieces with the point of the knife.


[Curious about what Ma and Ming are cooking? Go to the recipe for bok choy with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms.]


Book review: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

Sometimes an ear of corn is just an ear of corn, but occasionally it’s something else altogether. Sigmund Freud and his stogey can relax, I’m talking about Charles C. Mann’s revelations in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Vintage, 2012). In this compelling book, Mann uncovers history and reads the metaphorical tea leaves on our dinner plates. 1493 delves into the new biological era, the Homogenocene, that was touched off by European trade and exploration, in which globalization created a world that’s much more uniform and that continues to change societies in ambivalent ways.

Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, John Smith, and others were chasing the dream of an oceanic route to China, but what they accomplished was a world-spanning trade system that disrupted ecologies and societies across Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia. Some plants and domesticated animals were knowingly transplanted to the Americas. Others were taken from the Americas around the world. The consequences of relocating all these resources couldn’t be foreseen. Corn (or maize, as Mann names it), a native of the North American continent, is a tasty vegetable, but it is also a symbol of this new ecological, economic, and social world. Food plants such as corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes from the Americas were the sources of a new food security, which in turn, lay the foundation for population explosions in Europe and China. Corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes led to the development of modern industrial agriculture, which relies on improved crop yields, high-intensity fertilizers, and factory-made pesticides. These same crops also were followed by new crop diseases and pests, deforestation, erosion, flooding, and associated with these, social destabilization.

Then there were the accidental transplants. Some of these, like honeybees, might be seen as beneficial. Others, like dandelions and earthworms, caused deep alterations in the ecosystems into which they spread. But there can be no doubt that epidemic diseases, and the hosts that carry and spread them (like rats and mosquitoes), devastated the Americas, directly or indirectly killing a vast majority of the indigenous population.


Mann highlights the many changes wrought by the voluntary and forced migrants—human or trade good, mineral or microbe, flora or fauna—as they moved around the globe and the consequences of these movements. The Homogenocene, ongoing now for more than half a millenium, is at best, a cautionary tale. My apple pie, that quintessential American dessert, wouldn’t be possible without apples and honey bees from Europe, sugar from New Guinea (and in more recent history, the forced labor that made sugar an affordable commodity), butter from European cows, or wheat from the Middle East. But when I read about the newest proposal to introduce bacteria to control the odor from bird droppings in San Diego or the newest foodie fashion for quinoa, what I see is the continually spreading ripples of Columbus’s search for China 500 years ago. Not always a cheerful read, to be sure, but I certainly recommend Mann’s 1493 to any Geeky Foodie who likes to toss social and environmental politics, history, and economics with her locally-grown micro-greens.

Do you think a book like 1493, which is not centrally about food and cooking, should be recommended in a foodie blog? What foodie books (geeky or otherwise) are you reading?


The kids in the kitchen

Skip the preliminaries; go directly to the recipe for pasta, cannellini beans, bacon, and sage soup

School’s out this week. The DD is immediately plunging into an intensive summer course to learn a year’s worth of Japanese in 6 weeks, and the DS is whiling away the week learning how to survive on a deserted island. Don’t ask me; this is their idea of fun. I generally let them choose summer camps and activities that they want to do, but this summer, I’m also asking them to plan on cooking one meal once every other week. I tried to suggest that they do it once a week, but a tidal wave of groans and complaints drowned me out.

The rules are simple. It can be any meal of the day, as long as it involves planning and cooking. Making a cheese sandwich does not count, unless they make the bread and the cheese. OK—maybe not the cheese. But it needs to be a well-balanced meal with carbs, protein, and vegetables (or fruits). That cheese sandwich would need to be accompanied by a salad, or have lots of veggie toppings in addition to the cheese. Heating up leftovers does not count. The meal can be something that they have had in the past; it does not have to include dessert. We adults will shop for the ingredients once they’ve supplied a list of what they need, and we’ll supervise and help, but they will be in the driver’s seat.

I keep trying to create opportunities for my kids to learn and practice cooking skills because when they leave home (for college, I hope!), basic cooking know-how should be among the life skills they have: that and not turning their white t-shirts pink in the laundry (not that I did that two weeks ago), cleaning up after themselves, taking public transportation, managing money, having healthy relationships…. can I lock them up in a closet yet?

Anyway, I thought I had cooking—at least—covered. For a couple of years, we organized a Lunch Club with a group of my friends’ kids. They had to present recipe ideas, create a balanced meal plan, make sure the ingredients came in within budget ($5 per person, which we adhered to strictly), cook the meal (without adult help, at least in theory), and clean up (the last was mostly theoretical, since the moms couldn’t seem to help ourselves, and we’d end up cleaning up when the kids melted away to play capture-the-flag). The kids made luxurious meals, like fettuccine with peas, asparagus, and pancetta; roasted baby vegetables; and strawberries with chocolate caramel sauce. Or like fresh tomato salsa on cheese-and-spice tortilla chips; flank steak with corn-tomato relish and grilled garlic bread; and fruit salad with citrus syrup. There were very few dishes that were off the mark, only one cut finger, and no burns. But within two years of the Lunch Club’s demise, the DD seems to have forgotten how to measure flour and the DS is afraid to handle an 8” chef’s knife! Sigh—one step forwards and two steps back.

So I’m back, encouraging them to take up cookbooks and colanders again. Don’t tell them, but I hope this is a habit they will continue even after school starts again! The DD has nominated pasta, cannellini beans, bacon, and sage soup as the first main course they make. It’s one of their favorite dishes, and always among the first ones they request when asked to give input on the weekly menu plan. They’ll have to add on a vegetable side dish, and decide whether to do a dessert or not. Hmmm… I wonder if they remember how to make chocolate lava cakes with whipped cream like they did for Lunch Club?

Recipe: Pasta, cannellini beans, bacon, and sage soup

Makes 4 generous servings

This recipe is adapted from Beans & Rice by Joanne Weir (Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library, 1994). The ingredient quantities are flexible; feel free to put in more or less of any particular ingredient to suit your taste!


  • 2 cups dried cannellini beans
  • 1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 ounces lean bacon, thinly cut crosswise
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth, plus additional if desired
  • 8 ounces dried pasta, such as shells
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • for serving: freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Make the beans. Pick over and discard any stones or damaged beans. Put the beans in a colander and rinse them with water. Transfer them to a large bowl, cover with water by 2 inches, and allow them to soak for at least 3 hours or overnight. Alternatively, quick-soak the beans by transferring them to a medium saucepan; add water to the saucepan to cover the beans by 2 inches. Bring the beans to a boil, cover the saucepan, turn off the heat, and allow the beans to soak for 1 to 1-½ hours.

After soaking, drain the beans, put them into a medium saucepan, cover the beans with water by 2 inches again, then bring the water to a boil. Boil the beans, uncovered, for 5 to 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to low, and simmer the beans until they are soft and cooked through, approximately 1 hour. Check the beans as they cook to make sure they are always completely covered by water, adding more water if necessary. Beans may be prepared in advance. Cool completely, and store in cooking liquid, tightly covered. Drain the beans, and proceed with the recipe.

Make the soup. In a 4-6 quart soup pot over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the bacon, onion, and garlic; sauté until bacon and onion begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sage, and red pepper flakes, and bring to a brisk simmer; turn the heat to low, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and add the broth and beans. Return the soup to a slow boil, then turn the heat back down to low, cover partway, and simmer for another 15-20 minutes to meld the flavors, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and bring the soup up to a slow boil, add the pasta, and cook  until the pasta is al dente. Add more broth or water to thin the soup if it is too thick. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the soup, hot, with Parmesan sprinkled on top.

Tips: Substitute 2 (15-ounce) cans of cannellini beans for the dried beans; drain and rinse the beans before proceeding with the recipe. If you have fresh tomatoes and homemade broth, substitute them for the canned ingredients.


Michael Pollan and the alchemy of cooking

Cooks are modern-day alchemists and mages. We are sensualists, spiritual pilgrims, and death-defying stuntmen. We are healers, change agents, and activists. Our day-to-day routines may obscure these awesome truths, but Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin, 2013), is a heartening reminder. In the second half of May, I had the pleasure of hearing Pollan twice—once in a radio interview, and then live at a book signing in the San Francisco Bay Area—as he “entice[d] people into the kitchen by showing them how interesting and pleasurable it can be.” Of course, with Cozy Foodies, he is preaching to the choir, but he sure has a knack for connecting the dots between good food and cooking, and just about everything that is (or should be) central to living well.

Frankly, I like the idea of a little sorcery in my everyday life. But to become adept at transforming those lumps of leaden raw ingredients into golden morsels of food, you need a few more things. Pollan draws an analogy between cooking and doing yoga: both require patience, practice, and presence. I don’t do yoga (Ssh. Don’t tell anyone! They’ll take away my license to live in the Bay Area!), but sometimes I do a mindful breathing exercise, and—man!—it’s hard to keep your mind only on breathing. Every seventeen seconds or so, my mind shifts to thinking about the worry du jour or the obsession of the moment. But, on good days, cooking is like meditating: I become solely focused on the activity of dicing and slicing, and everything else melts away. My brain quiets down; I’m calm and relaxed. The activity of cooking can be, in and of itself, a moment of living well.

Living well means coming to terms with death. Cooking means that I must grapple with death: as an omnivore graphically contemplating the animal who gave its life to nourish me, but also in the act of fermentation, which Pollan piquantly calls “the management of rot.” It’s not polite, but it is true. Thinking about rot and other earthy topics isn’t comforting when I bite into a well-matured piece of cheese that’s been hiding in the back corner of my deli drawer (I sure hope that was Gorgonzola!). Understanding fermentation, however, adds an extra layer of interest and depth to things like bread, beer, or yogurt. And when I really pause to allow the thought to percolate, it’s also a spiritual one too, in an “ashes to ashes” kind of way. Do you know what I mean?

By now, people’s eyes tend to glaze over when they hear that making more home cooked meals is an important way to take charge of our health or to strengthen our family bonds, so I won’t gnaw on that old bone again. But cooking is also a way to take part in “maker” culture, the D.I.Y. movement—it’s hip and fashionable! Who doesn’t want to be more in control of their lives? By making our own food more of the time, we challenge the balance of power between corporate food producers and ourselves when we cook. As Pollan notes, we don’t outsource our workouts and hobbies; why should we outsource so much of our cooking, an activity that is essential to better health and can be a source of deep satisfaction?

Many of these Big Ideas have knocked around in the old thinker at one point or another, so it’s affirming to have them displayed beautifully like a bouquet of roses. There is so much upside to cooking for ourselves; I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do some magic! How about you?