Postcards from Burma

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

To cross the road in Yangon, it’s best to take it one lane at a time, even if the road is four lanes wide and has a roundabout. Go slow and steady so cars can anticipate your movement—running will throw off drivers. When possible, align yourself with Burmese women who are crossing, preferably older ones, and follow their lead. There is power in numbers, organized chaos, and deference to elders.

In Myanmar, the country still called Burma in most parts of the Western world, drivers drive on the right-hand side of the road. After years of severe trade restrictions, the Burmese couldn’t always get cars with steering wheels on the left side of the car, American style. So in most (but not all) cars, the steering wheel sits on the right side as it does in countries where people drive on the left-hand side of the road. This is just one of the examples of how the Burmese go about things in their own way.

On my first trip to this country, I learned about many of Burma’s quirks (another one: going through security on your way out of the airport). But more noticeable was the pace of change, especially in Yangon. Today, the city is a boomtown. The price of cars (while still out of reach for most Burmese) has come down significantly since the government lifted its restrictions on car imports, and the number of registered cars on the road in Yangon has doubled. International hotels in Yangon boast rates that surpass Bangkok. Office space here rents at a premium, too. And everywhere you go, everyone, even a street vender frying samosas in a wok propped over an open flame, has a smart phone. A country that never had reliable phone service skipped the expensive step of installing landlines and went straight to cellular. The same goes for the Internet. Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most sacred sites for Burmese Buddhists, offers wifi courtesy of Redlink. I had better luck getting online in hotels in Burma than I did when traveling through Italy in 2011. (Consequently, now everyone is on Facebook.) I wish I had visited Burma three years ago to fully absorb the pace of change.

At the same time, so much has stayed the same. Open-air tea shops serving Myanmar-style tea sweetened with evaporated and condensed milk are still filled with mostly men during the day. Men and women alike intersperse wearing contemporary jeans and t-shirts with traditional clothing—I even heard about a women trying to launch an Ann Taylor-like clothing line focused on traditional Burmese women’s wear. Ethnic tensions still plague border regions. And a country that’s already filled with pagodas is still building pagodas.

I was in Burma with a research team from Burma Superstar, the insanely popular restaurant group in the San Francisco Bay Area, for initial research on a Burmese cookbook. Tasting Burmese food firsthand—and seeing how it’s prepared and presented—has kick-started my understanding of a cuisine that I’m still wrapping my head around. The exciting part is it feels like a new food frontier, at least for me. I will be writing more about my trip and Burmese food throughout the year, but for now I wanted to share some snapshots of a country that’s in the throes of figuring out just what it wants to be.

edible tea in Burma

sampling of edible fermented tea in Mandalay.

tangarines for the table

plenty of tangarines for the table.

Mandalay scene

a Mandalay Scene.

Yangon Street Scene

scene in front of Feel, a restaurant in Yangon.

myanmar tea

Myanmar tea.

making myanmar tea

Making Myanmar tea.

Frying eggs for egg curry

frying hard-boiled eggs for egg curry.

beans

prepping beans.

Mt Popa

Mt. Popa from a distance.

view from mt popa

view from Mt Popa.

public drinking water

public drinking water.

our friend in bagan

our friend in Bagan.

bagan pagodas

a glimpse of Bagan’s ancient city.

Bagan temple detail

Bagan temple detail.

girl monk

girl monk on the street of Mandalay.

Meatball Mondays

A16 meatballs
It’s been more than six years since A16 Food + Wine was published. Six years is a lot of time and not much time at all. But when I think back to how things were back in the day, my life was a lot different. I wrote the book while I was in my late 20s. It was published the year I turned 30. I was a former A16 line cook who had only recently switched over to the writing side of the food business—and moved to Chicago. I was a transplant still getting used to my new, at times uncomfortable, identity as a journalist.

When the book came out, chefs all over Chicago poured over the pages. It was the book that earned a spot on the crowded shelves in kitchen offices. Inspired by a whole chapter dedicated to pork, many chefs in the city took to whole-hog butchery. This being Chicago, a city with a long tradition of meat, meat, meat, the butchery techniques of some of these chefs quickly surpassed what we had covered in the book.

Still, I had no idea that the book had had this kind of impact until last week when I went to Alta CA in San Francisco. The chef, Yoni Levy, not only worked in Chicago restaurants but also lived in the same neighborhoods that I had (all off the Blue Line). We traded small-world stories—and could have kept going on about how great Chicago is as a food city, but neither of us wanted to bore Hannah, who had brought me to Alta CA in the first place and had never been to Chicago.

Yoni was the one who told me how much he and his Chicago chef friends appreciated the A16 book. What none of those chefs knew was that I wrote the majority of the book in a second-story apartment on Haddon Street in Chicago’s Ukrainian village. [click to continue…]

Grilled Radicchio on Cannellini Bean Mash

IMG_5291
It’s been a hectic stretch of days since the 20th, when I helped out in the kitchen for my parents’ annual neighborhood Christmas party. The average guest count for the occasion hovers around 50. There are carols and ornament exchanges, but most people come for the food. We always serve Mexican, a throwback to my mom’s memories of going to posadas in Mexico City when she was growing up. We served pork braised in salsa verde with a host of salsas while friends provided the rice, beans, and desserts. What usually happens after this party is that the rest of the week leading up to Christmas we eat Mexican leftovers in between other parties.

By the 26th, the various family members staying at the casa de Leahy were ready for a change. I took over the kitchen to make pseudo-A16 pizzas on the grill (pseudo because I modified the method significantly to handle a time-crunch situation) and threw together a big green salad. But my favorite component of the meal was a plate of grilled radicchio drenched in balsamic vinegar and olive oil and served over mashed cannellini beans.

The dish comes from [click to continue…]

The Festive Season: Brown Butter Persimmon Cake

persimmon brown butter cake

It’s the festive season, which in my world means baking with spices, city lights, and a few parties. For people with December birthdays, this means accepting that your birthday presents will most likely be wrapped in red and green paper.

Patrick’s friend Matt has a mid-December birthday. A couple of weekends ago, we went over to his house for Dungeness crab–Matt’s ritual birthday meal. His mother was in town, and she told us that when Matt was growing up, she waited until after his birthday to pull out the Christmas decorations.

San Francisco Ferry Building at Christmas

San Francisco Ferry Building with holiday lights

These days, Matt doesn’t seem all that sensitive about sharing his birthday month with Christmas. His tree was decorated early in the month. This was all good because I offered to bring cake, but not birthday cake. Instead, I brought over a persimmon brown butter cake filled with warm baking spices, no frosting.

The cake, a recipe from the A.O.C. Cookbook, had been on my list of recipes to try for a while. Last month, I thought I had the goods to make it happen. But it didn’t happen. The Hachiya persimmons were not as ripe as I thought they were, and when I tasted the pulp, it was as chalky as dark green bananas. So I opted for plan B, an experimental apple brown butter cake, and vowed to ripen the persimmons longer the next time.

Fortunately, the corner market near me stocks both kinds of persimmons well into December, and they’re cheap. I bet they come from someone’s backyard tree. It must have been a good year for the fruit—I’ve been eating fuyu persimmons, the firm, mildly sweet orange fruit, like apples since October. Fuyus are the round variety that the AOC book has on its cover.

Corgi christmas

Henry the corgi likes the holidays, too

Compared with Fuyu, Hachiya are not user-friendly persimmons. Larger than Fuyu and more oblong, Hachiya persimmons need to get really soft—mushy, say—before that chalkiness disappears. What you’re left with is a soft, sweet pulp that tastes as if it were lightly infused with nutmeg. I bagged a few Hachiya and let them sit on the counter, and later in the refrigerator, until the pulp was soft enough to scoop out with a spoon.

The pulp is lighter than pumpkin puree, though the color is comparable. A persimmon butter—made like an apple or pumpkin butter—would be delicious. So would persimmon bread. If I were doing it all again (maybe next persimmon season), I would have bought a ton of hachiya persimmons, scooped out the pulp, and froze them in 1-cup portions for future baking and cooking experiments.

Back to the cake: the recipe required 1 cup of the pulp—roughly 3 persimmons, though I did 4 to be safe. I made a few adjustments to the original, upping the salt, swapping out heavy cream out for whole-milk yogurt, and baking the cake in a square 8-inch pan instead of a 10-inch round. These changes did not seem to affect the baking time much. This cake requires at least 1 hour in the oven.

I didn’t tinker with the brown butter, which, aside from the persimmons, was what drew me to this recipe to begin with. Not all of the butter used in the cake is browned, but the portion that gets the browning treatment seems to reinforce the cake’s spices.

With its unapologetically generous amount of butter, this is a rich cake. It’s so rich that it seems impossible that this cake could dry out, even if it was left on the counter for several days. I passed this info along to Matt. He looked at me, incredulous. Did I think he’d let this cake hang around long enough to find out?

On that long note, I wanted to share another idea for your holiday planning– for this year or next. Or if persimmons are out of reach, I have a hunch that apple sauce would make for a fine stand-in. I’m thinking of trying an apple version of this cake out before the festive season is over.

Brown Butter Persimmon Cake
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Browning butter doesn't take too much time, but its nutty flavor adds dimension to spice cakes. You can brown the butter ahead of time and refrigerate it. Before using it, just gently warm it so it's liquid again.
Kate Leahy:
Recipe type: cake
Serves: 8
Ingredients
  • 1¾ cups (3½ sticks) / 395 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 to 4 Hachiya persimmons
  • 2½ cups / 350 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon / 5 grams baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoons / 7 grams baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon / 2 grams kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon / 1 gram cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon / .5 grams nutmeg
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • ¼ cup / 60 grams whole-milk yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon / 5 grams pure vanilla extract
  • 1½ cups / 280 grams granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs, preferably extra large (110 grams)
  • Powdered sugar, for serving
  • Extra yogurt, for serving
Instructions
  1. In a pot (use one with a heavy bottom so the milk solids don’t burn), melt ¼ cup/ 57 grams of the butter over medium-low heat and cook until the milk solids have fallen to the bottom of the pot and turned golden brown and fragrant like toasted nuts, about 5 minutes depending on how cold the butter is to start. Pour the butter into a heatproof bowl and let sit at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until the butter has cooled but is still liquid.
  2. Meanwhile, heat an oven to 350°F. Butter an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan or 10-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper.
  3. Slice the green tops off the persimmons and scoop out the pulp. Put the pulp in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Measure out 1 cup / 260 grams.
  4. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices.
  5. In a separate bowl, whisk together the cooled browned butter, yogurt, vanilla, and persimmon pulp.
  6. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the remaining butter until relatively smooth, 30 secounds. Add the sugar and cream until the butter is light and aerated, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated, 30 seconds tops.
  7. Add the flour mixture in 3 installments, mixing in half of the persimmon butter blend in between additions. Mix briefly until the batter comes together.
  8. Spread the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with the spatula.
  9. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes, then invert the pan onto a plate to unmold. Once cooled, dust the top with powdered sugar. If you like yogurt as much as I do, serve a spoonful over the top of each piece.

Rain, and Minestrone

Minestrone
When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, Californians were locked in the kind of drought pattern that limits how often you can water a lawn or flush a toilet. My mom would save the suds from the dishes to water her roses. When rain came, it was worth celebrating – even more so if you were an introvert kid like me who preferred to stay inside and draw during recess rather than play 4-square on the blacktop.

For the past three years, it’s felt like the 1980s all over again. California’s been locked in another bone-dry spell of weather. This past December was arid, and it didn’t rain at all in January. Which made yesterday’s wild rainstorm all the more incredible. In Sonoma, part of Guerneville was under water after receiving 8 inches of rain and pushing the Russian River beyond its capacity. All the excess water caused manhole covers to blew off in San Francisco.

Luckily, I worked from home all day and never had to battle the standing water on the road. It was definitely one of those days that make you want to use only the food you have on hand–no trip to the store necessary. [click to continue…]

Butternut Squash and Yellow Split Pea Soup

Butternut Squash Yellow Split Pea Soup

Heidi Krahling is one of those people who other people want to be around. The chef-owner of Insalata’s and Marinita’s, two long-running restaurants in Marin County, California, is persistently upbeat. It’s the kind of energy that underplays the mule-like stamina (her words) that you need to run a restaurant successfully.

I helped Heidi write her second book, Insalata’s and Marinita’s: A Tale of Two Restaurants, released this past November. In the book, she provides the backstory of her restaurant through recipes divided among kitchen workstations.  In 1996, she and her husband, Mark Krahling, opened Insalata’s in a vacant space off of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo. She wanted to have a large takeout counter with a little restaurant and a coffee bar, but the restaurant became super popular, encroaching on the coffee bar and takeout counter. Within a year, she had a big restaurant, a little takeout counter, and no coffee bar.

Every six months or so, Heidi would get a call from San Francisco restaurant veteran Pat Coll. He wanted to partner with her on another restaurant, but Heidi always said no. Insalata’s was definitely enough. When a space opened up down the street from Insalata’s in 2008, however, she changed her tune. In 2009, Heidi and Pat opened Marinita’s, a restaurant serving Latin American (mostly Mexican) fare.

Heidi’s restaurants embody her two food loves—Mediterranean and Mexican. What I didn’t expect to find when working with Heidi was discovering the common ground between the two different regions. For instance, Sikil pak, a Mayan dip of crushed pepitas and seasonings, is similar to Turkish tarator, and both work as a dip or as a topping for fish.

While Insalata’s certainly became more than a big takeout counter with a little restaurant, its takeout counter is still a key part of the restaurant—and it sells buckets of soup. Butternut is a perennial favorite, and through the years, Heidi has made countless variations. Most winter squash soup is creamy and slightly on the sweet side, but it doesn’t have to be. In her new book, Heidi offers a recipe with yellow split peas for a savory depth of flavor.

To free myself from a post-Thanksgiving stupor with some wholesome cooking, I made her soup. I cut back a bit on the original quantity of split peas to reduce the yield, but I could have bumped up the quantity of ginger to counter the sweetness of the squash. [click to continue…]

Apple Raisin Brown Butter Cake

piece ofapple raisin brown butter cake
There are a lot of complicated ingredients in the food world. Yesterday, I was reading all about hydrocolloids—things like xanthan gum, guar gum, carageenan, and agar. They thicken store-bought salad dressings, add texture to gluten-free bread, and congeal vegan jello. Hydrocolloids are in almond milk and frozen convenience foods. Remember when it was all the rage to serve foam on plates? Hydrocolloids helped hold those suds together.

Maybe that’s why it is comforting to bake something simple and fall-worthy with a few recognizable ingredients. Filled with chopped apples and raisins, there isn’t anything complicated about this cake. I served slices of it with a spoonful of yogurt on Saturday night for a few friends. My baking experiments are not new to them—they’ve sampled a bunch of trials from Mindy’s book. And I’ve known them all long enough to know that they won’t tell me it’s delicious when it’s just OK.

They went bananas for this nothing-crazy cake. Or at least Jana went bananas.

fall color
I had planned on making a persimmon cake with brown butter, but the hachiya persimmons I had bought were not quite soft enough. So I switched to apple and abandoned the original recipe—except for idea of using brown butter. [click to continue…]

Tamarind Ginger Cookies

Tamarind Ginger Cookies // modernmealmaker.com
There is a reason that cooks from all over the world like tamarind. Its pulp adds a blast of tang and pucker to food—both savory and sweet. Tamarind is like tangy MSG. It makes your mouth water.

In Mexico, it’s used in sweets and agua frescas. Fany Gerson incorporates a few recipes using the pod—like tamarind candy balls season with chile, sugar, and salt—in her fun cookbook, My Sweet Mexico.

It’s also used throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and India. Phat thai wouldn’t be the same without it. When I visited Kerala, nearly ever meal came with a small cup of sambar, a broth of dal, tamarind, and vegetables. Louisa Shafia uses tamarind in a tangy condiment in The New Persian Kitchen, her modern Persian cookbook. In it, she writes:

“It’s believed that the word ‘tamarind’ comes from the Persian tamar-i-hindi, or ‘Indian date,’ so named because the pulp looks similar to a date.”

But I had never thought of connecting tamarind with cookies until I stumbled upon a recipe from Australian Dan Lepard, a UK-based baker who writes for a variety of publications, including The Guardian. His recipe, a spiced-up ginger cookie, adds a spoonful of tamarind concentrate, a dark-as-molasses paste you can find among Southeast Asian coconut milk and shrimp paste or Middle Eastern pomegranate molasses and rose water.

I was immediately drawn in by Dan’s genius idea of tamarind in cookies. [click to continue…]

Fall Salad: Delicata Squash, Kale, Pomegranate Seeds, and Hazelnuts

fall salad with squash, hazelnuts, and pomegranates//Modern Meal Maker
My great-grandmother Emily, a sturdy, short woman of German farming stock, did not find her sense of humor until she turned 80. Instead of comedy, she spent most of her life extolling the virtues of hard work and education. This may explain why, a few years after surpassing her 100th birthday, she “fired” the security guard at her assisted living facility. All he did was stand around. “It’s okay, though,” she then said, acknowledging his personable demeanor. “You’re the bomb.”

If my born-in-the-1800s great-grandmother Emily could work an odd bit of 1990s lingo into conversation, so can I. This kale salad is the bomb.

Say what you will about kale —I thought for sure that interest in this brassicas variety would have peaked in 2013—but there is no denying that its sturdy leaves are made for hearty fall salads.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Cortney Burns, the co-chef at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, for a freelance piece. We ended up dissecting the restaurant’s perennially popular kale salad, which frames mildly bitter leaves with sunflower tahini, yogurt, yogurt powder, and rye bread (For specifics, look up the recipe in the Bar Tartine cookbook.) The salad is one of the few dishes that rarely leaves the menu, but Cortney said it would be off in a second if she or co-chef Nick Balla were tired of it.

“Our guests love it, but we also like to eat the kale salad,” she said. So the kale salad trend—like the burrata trend and the pork belly trend before it—is likely here to stay.

And that’s a good thing. The idea for my bomb-worthy salad came from [click to continue…]

How to Salsa Verde

tomatillos

An American-size tomatillo (left) and a smaller tomatillo (center), the size favored in Mexico

It’s been more than a year ago since my mom and I traveled to Mexico to spend a week with her sister’s family, the Acasusos.

Their home base is just outside Oaxtepec, a town more than an hour away from Mexico City in the state of Morelos. My aunt Pam packed our week with the kinds of activities that most gringos never get to experience. We visited the temazcali in Cuernavaca, where we sat in a pitch-black mud smokehouse sauna and flogged our backs with an herb branch dipped in water—a native nahuatl tradition for cleansing the body and mind. After the self-imposed shvitz, we wrapped ourselves in mats so the healing properties of the smoke could penetrate our skin.

We also swam in the sulfur-infused waters of an enormous community pool in Cuautla, which proclaimed itself a fuente de juventude, fountain of youth. Swimming in the water made our skin tingle and stink—we were advised to bring old swim suits—but the after effects were calming. I was a spry 28 again. Until some unknown insect bit my knee and it swelled to grapefruit-size, making me hobble about.

(My aunt, two hours later: “How are you feeling?” Me: OK, but my knee is freaking me out.” My aunt: “We can rule out a scorpion bite, then. You’d be feeling much worse.” Me: “That’s good…?”)

Apart from the stress-detox adventures, we also were there to learn some real Mexican cooking skills. Pam had asked the cooks at the family restaurant, Suz, in Oaxtepec, to show us how they make salsas at home. [click to continue…]