My apartment was a furnace this Memorial Day weekend. We spent Saturday at P.C. Richards buying air conditioners but they can’t be installed until Wednesday. The thought of cooking anything (let alone making french fries!) made my face burn with anxiety. Just looking at the oven made me sweat. We ate pizza and Chinese food and Mexican food and anything we didn’t have to make ourselves. And yet tonight, I missed cooking. And our apartment had cooled down a tiny bit. A voice called to me, a familiar voice, a voice that tickled my ears just a few weeks ago in San Francisco. The voice was Heidi Swanson’s and she was calling to me from the cover of her gorgeous new cookbook Super Natural Cooking. She told me to make Otsu.

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Big Trouble, Little China: A Post in Which I Cook Kung Pao Chicken & Dry-Fried Sichuan String Beans


Last year I bought a Chinese cookbook–The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young and Alan Richardson–and for a full year I ignored it, swept it under the rug, hoped it would disappear. On one hand I really wanted to attempt Chinese cooking, but then a million take-out menus, Canal street stops on the subway and frequent visits to Grand Sichuan convinced me otherwise. With so much good Chinese food readily available here in New York, why should I try to cook it? And furthermore, how could I use a cookbook called “The Breath of a Wok” if I didn’t have a wok?

I did have a mock-wok (ha, that’s a funny expression.) My friend Mark sent me one long ago; it’s a Calphalon wok-shaped pan. It’d been sitting in my drawer just as neglected as my Chinese cookbook. One day the Department of Cruelty to Food Related Products protested outside my apartment with placards that read: “Unfair To Chinese Cookbooks and Chinese Cooking Accessories.” I finally broke down and decided I would attempt something. And what I attempted is the dish you see above: Kung Pao Chicken.

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A Menu For Hope: Tom Kha Gai, Coconut Chicken Soup


All praise Pim, creator of A Menu For Hope: a foodblogging fundraiser for tsunami victims. It’s such a great idea. I’m so proud to be a part of it.

Because I am the Amateur Gourmet and not, say, the Hardcore Gourmet I needed some help with a recipe. Pim was incredibly generous. She provided me with the recipe for Tom Kha Gai, Coconut Chicken Soup. This recipe is perfect because it represents one of the many regions devastated by the tsunami: Thailand.

Thai food is delicious. We all know that. And this soup is delicious. I know that. (Because I’ve been eating it for the past three days. (I cooked ahead)). Cooking Tom Kha Gai is a lovely way to pay tribute to the victims of the tsunami. But paying tribute isn’t enough. Before we proceed, we must pay money to tsunami victims so they can have clothes, food and shelter. It’s a small gesture for a wonderful recipe. Click below, donate to UNICEF, and then enjoy my soup.

Have you donated? Have you really? Julia Child’s watching you on high with her rolling pin.

Now then, Tom Kha Gai. According to my research, “Tom” means boil, “Kha” means galangal or galanga (which we will get to in a moment), and “Gai” means chicken. Thus Tom Kha Gai is boiled galangal chicken. It tastes better than it translates.

Here’s Pim’s recipe, interspersed¬†with my comments and pictures.

Tom Kha Gai

(Chicken in coconut soup)

serves 4

14 oz can of coconut milk

4 cups of chicken stock (cut into bite size pieces)

1 pound chicken

1 cup mushroom (sliced into thin pieces)

4 stalks lemongrass (Use only the bottom part of the

lemon grass, up until about 6 inches from the root,

cut into 2 inch pieces and smash them a bit to release

the oil.)

1 handful of lime leaves

5 limes

1 galangal root (peeled and sliced into 0.5 cm rounds)

3 heaping tablespoon Thai Roasted Chili Paste


fish sauce to taste

thai birdeye chilies to taste

Ok, so I couldn’t get hold of galangal (I bought ginger instead) or lime leaves, but otherwise I did pretty well:


I loved buying fish sauce and Thai roasted chili paste because it seemed so exotic. “That’s so exotic,” said the check out person at Whole Foods. (Actually, she asked me about the lemongrass. “What do you use that for?” she asked. I told her I was using it for a soup. I promised to tell her how it tastes. If you’re reading this: IT TASTES GOOD.)

Now then, in the above preparations, you have to cut the lemongrass into 2 inch pieces. Stupidly, I turned my dishwasher on before I began so I was left with only two knives:


These are not the knives you want to use to cut lemongrass, but I made do.


I also peeled the ginger and felt guilty because Pim wrote me the following, when I asked her what galangal was: “Galangal is sometimes called white ginger–but unfortunately you can’t substitute ginger, they are quite different in taste.” Hehe, well sorry Pim–Whole Foods was all out of galangal! And the ginger tasted good, I swear.


1. Cut the chicken into bite size pieces, then

marinade them in 4 tablespoon of fish sauce while you

do the stock.


2. Heat the chicken stock with the lemongrass, about

1/4 cup of galangal rounds, and a handful of lime

leaves (reserve some lemongrass, galangal, and lime

leaves for garnish later). Heat the stock, covered,

for about half and hour.




3. Add the chicken to the strained stock, add the

coconut milk,


then let simmer gently until the chicken

is nearly done, add the reserved lemongrass and

galangal, and let the chicken continue to cook until


And now we play a game. It’s called: HOW DO YOU KNOW IF THE CHICKEN’S DONE?


Luckily, I found another recipe that said it takes about 12 minutes. I tasted it and didn’t die so I think that recipe was right. Plus, when I cut into the pieces they were cooked through. That’s a good sign that they’re cooked through.

You may notice mushrooms above. I added them with the chicken 12 minutes earlier and that worked out fine. I recommend you do the same.

4. Add the rest of the lime leaves and season the

soup, begin with the juice of 2 limes and add more

lime juice or fish sauce as needed.


Finish the soup

with optional chili paste and/or birdeye chili.


(I think the chili paste is vital to the soup. It gives it that necessary kick. And if you don’t like spicy, don’t worry. Up to a certain point, adding this won’t make you choke. Just keep tasting as you add.)

Rememer to remind your guest not to eat the

lemongrass, galangal, or lime leaves, they are there

only as aromatic garnish and not to be eaten!

My guest (read: myself) didn’t have to worry because there was no galangal and no lime leaves. I added all the lemongrass at the beginning and strained it out so there was no choking risk posed. As for the finished product?


Delicious. Honestly. I keep eating it. I can’t stop. Think about the flavors involved: coconut, lime, (that’s like a drink you’d have on the beach), fish sauce (it’s better than it sounds), chicken, mushrooms, and chili paste. Each wages battle for your attention as you slurp and it makes you glad to be a battleground.

That’s the worst metaphor I’ve ever written.

Now donate to UNICEF and check out all the other lovely entries on the Menu For Hope! (You can click in the image below to go to each individual site. It’s really cool! I swear!) Thanks again, Pim. This was a great idea.

A Menu For Hope

Click here to donate!

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Spanish Menu

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I Like You A Latke

Many well-meaning non-Jews mistakenly believe that Chanukah (pronounced with an agressive phlegmy “CH”) is a significant and important Jewish holiday. It is not. It’s the President’s Day of Judaism.

It’s the timing that shakes things up. Because it falls around Christmas, I’ve had non-Jews (particularly Christians) ask me, “What are you doing for Chanukah?” in the same vein I might ask what they’re doing for Christmas. So Christians and non-Jews take heed: I do nothing for Chanukah. Nothing, that is, except make latkes on the fifth night like I did with Lisa last night.

We made this awesome latke recipe we found on Epicurious, featuring apples and celeriac in the latke batter. Celeriac? What’s that? It is this:


It cost $4. It smelled like celery. We used a one-inch cube of it. That, my friends, is celeriac.

We only used a one-inch cube (instead of a two-inch cube) because we halved the recipe. This was wise because we yielded a perfect number of latkes. Anymore and we would have been greasy and explosive.

Here’s what went into the shredding mechanism of my food processor: apple, potato, onion, celeriac:


Then, into a towel where the juices were squeeed out:


It’s unclear whether the recipe wanted us to retain the juice and reincorporate it or dump it. I dumped it (to Lisa’s chagrin) but I don’t think it had any effect on the finished product.

After adding egg, chopped marjoram (which added much flavor), flour, salt and pepper, we poured oil into a skillet and fried ’em up 3 and 4 at a time:


Here’s the final result with presentation by Lisa:


They were delicious. Tasted just like the ones mom used to make, except they weren’t defrosted from a box in the freezer. They capture the true spirit of Chanukah which is–ummm—appley? Potatoey? Celiarcy? Again, Chanukah isn’t a very important holiday.