rockin moroccan night

My big brother came to town to absorb some Cali culture and I had to have a flawless welcome plan. My brother lives in Singapore and has all of the amazing flavors of SE Asia at his doorstep, so I decided to draw from a cuisine that he probably doesn’t get too much of at home but is as bold, flavorful and complex as the cuisine of SE Asia to appeal to his palate: Moroccan. This grilled fish and veggie kebabs recipe allowed me to finally break into one of my favorite cookbooks, the gorgeous Modern Moroccan, and also to practice some more on the grill. The only specialty non-substitutable ingredients you need are preserved lemons and harissa, a spice mixture. You can easily make your own preserved lemons, but you’d have to do it months in advance.  Like me, you can buy the stuff at a specialty grocer (Whole Foods had some) or a Middle Eastern store.

The original recipe is for an appetizer serving of whole red mullet, but this recipe makes plenty (like, a lot!) for a dinner serving. I had originally wanted to use a firm white fish like halibut but salmon seemed like an easy way to grill fish without too much worry and the flavors worked amazingly well with this richer fish.

The chermoula is bright and fresh, and the stew of veggies with preserved lemons is a complex layering of acidic, umami-savory, briny, and tart. The salmon grilled in its skin turned out really moist and perfectly done to a flaky medium rare. I know there are skin-down and skin-up controversies, but I found leaving the salmon skin down and shutting the lid of the grill made a really moist fish that was not overcooked even despite varying thicknesses of fillets. It was simple to slide the salmon off the skins and then ladle the stew with veggies over the fish to serve family-style. You can serve this over fluffed up garlic infused couscous for a complete Moroccan meal. For my stew i added purple potatoes, rainbow carrots, and vibrant heirloom tomatoes off the vine for even more color.

The veggies have the Moroccan inflected flavor of tart lemon and aromatic cinnamon which is simply fresh and slightly subtle. The yogurt dip is perfect for dipping the grilled veggies in, or as we did, mixed into the couscous and salmon stew. Its a simple dip with a nice peppery kick from the harissa that would be great for other uses – pita chip dip, topping a baked potato – that makes it certainly worth hunting down a jar or tube of harissa.

summer vegetable kebabs with harissa and yogurt dip

instructions slightly adapted from a recipe in Modern Moroccan, 2008, Ghillie Basan

equal sized pieces of any or all of the following vegetables:



bell peppers

red onion

cherry tomatoes

vegetable marinade:

4 Tbsp olive oil

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp clear honey

1 tsp salt

harissa and yogurt dip:

2 cups Greek yogurt

2-4 Tbsp harissa

small bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

small bunch of mint, finely chopped

salt and ground pepper

Preheat the grill on the hottest setting. Put all the vegetables in a bowl. Mix the ingredients for the vegetable marinade together and pour the mixture over the vegetables. Using your hands, turn the vegetables gently in the marinade, then thread them onto metal or water-soaked wooden skewers. Cook the kebabs on the grill, turning them occasionally until the vegetables are nicely browned over.

To make the dip, put the yogurt in a bowl and beat in a tablespoon of harissa, making it as fiery as you like by adding more harissa. Add most of the cilantro and mint, reserving a little to garnish, and season well with salt and pepper.

serves 4

salmon with chermoula and preserved lemons

slightly adapted from a recipe in Modern Moroccan, 2008, Ghillie Basan

2-3 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra for brushing

1 onion, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1/2 preserved lemon, finely chopped

4 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 1/2 cups fish stock or water

3-4 new potatoes, peeled and cubed

4 six-oz salmon filets

handful of black olives, pitted and halved or sliced

small bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped

small bunch of mint, chopped

salt and ground black pepper


small bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

2-3 garlic cloves, chopped

1-2 tsp ground cumin

pinch of saffron threads

4 Tbsp olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

1 Tbsp crushed red pepper

1 tsp salt

To make the chermoula, process the ingredients together in a food processor then set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the onion and carrot and cook until softened but not browned. Stir in half the preserved lemon, along with 2 Tbsp of the chermoula, the tomatoes and the fish stock or water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes and simmer for a further 10 minutes, until they are tender.

Preheat the grill on the hottest setting and brush a grill pan with oil. Brush the fish fillets with olive oil and a little of the chermoula. Season with salt and pepper, then place the fillets, skin side down, on the pan and cook with lid closed for 10 minutes per 1 inch thickness.

Meanwhile, stir the olives, the remaining chermoula and preserved lemon into the sauce and check the seasoning. Slide a spatula to separate the fish from the skin and serve the fish fillets in wide bowls, spoon the sauce over and sprinkle liberally with chopped cilantro and mint.

serves 4


what i had for dinner: anda bhurji

I love brinner (breakfast for dinner). My first home-cooked dinner when I moved was a stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes. I rarely cook fish, seafood, or beans for just myself, but always have a carton of eggs around for a quick poach, scramble, or fry up. Anda bhurji is brilliant because these Indian spiced scrambled eggs could go either way – a savory breakfast or a quick curried dinner.  They’re gorgeous to look at with vibrant, bright colors of fresh veggies and herbs and the scent of the aromatics sizzling in oil will have you salivating in seconds. I served these up with hot naan dabbed with butter, but toast or even a spoonful of leftover rice will do them justice. These are not very spicy, so if you want a kick I’d add more fresh chile or even more dried red pepper.


what i had for dinner: avocadotaco

My kitchen is flush with summer jewels from the garden. I am both luxuriating in the lush fruits at their peaks of ripeness, just waiting in a bowl to be plucked and peeled and bitten – as well as feeling rather slothful about turning any sort of appliance on to cook away their freshness. For three days straight, I’ve figured out a way to have it all: the avocadotaco. Its a perfect way to enjoy the creamy avocados, juicy ripe tomatoes, and pyramid of key limes I have leftover from hosting taco parties and making gallons of fresh margaritas. This is not a guacotaco: no pre-prepared guacamole will have the same effect. Yeah, you could add leftover meat or beans, but honestly you don’t need them – especially if your ingredients are bursting with ripeness. Key limes are not essential: a tart regular lime will be just as great, but I have a boatload of key limes here and they’re so sweet and provide just the perfect amount of juice per avocado.

The method is lazy-stupid-easy:
– Halve an avocado (preferably after it has ripened nicely to a slightly soft texture), remove the pit.
– Halve a lime. Squeeze the juice of each lime half into each avocado half.
– Add a dose of garlic (fresh minced 1/2 clove per avocado half, or a dab of garlic paste).
– Salt and pepper generously.
– Take a fork and within each avocado skin: mash it up! Keep it chunky and just incorporated.
– Heat up a couple of tortillas on the griddle or microwave.
(I added some slices of cotija cheese and melted it on the tortillas because YUM and also it has just the right saltiness)
– Spread avocado on tortilla.
– Top with really sweet, really ripe, really juicy summer tomatoes.
– Fold, stuff your face, wash down with a cold Pacifico or fresh squeezed limeade.
– Smirk at the oven and the pot and the dishwasher – you showed them!


vegetarian turkey

There are some parts of the world I worry about visiting. Not because of the crime, the crap weather, or the political instability – but simply because I wonder if I would find anything traditional to eat as a non- red or white meat eater. I’m not really a vegetarian (bring on the crab!) but I mostly eat that way. For a split second, I considered this potential obstacle when traveling to Turkey as I tend to think of all the permutations of kebabs and doner when I think of Turkish cuisine.  Luckily, I was so very, very wrong. Starting from the flight on Turkish airlines, I indulged in incredibly flavorful and sophisticated food that happened to also be vegetarian. Yeah, I even snuck out my cell phone camera to snap my  crispy colorful salad with salty fresh cheese on the flight to Istanbul.

The next course was a briny rice and nut stuffed dolma,  (non-veg smoked salmon), and delicately spiced lentil salad.

You want dessert but can’t decide amongst healthy fresh fruits, a light cheese plate or dainty pastries?  No worries, you’ll get all of the above.

For breakfast, we headed to the hotel’s breakfast bar in our PJs to fill up on lemony lentil soup, fruit yogurt, parsley and potato salad, fresh cheese with dill and parsley, cucumber and hard boiled egg, potato croquette,  Turkish pastry, toast with hazelnut/cocoa spread. Then we headed back up for a mid-morning nap. Ah, vacation.

A great mid-day snack that is easily available in Istanbul is the “Turkish pizza” – lahmacun.  Its a canoe-shaped pide (like a pita bread) with a thin layer of tomato sauce, cheese and herbs.

One of my favorite dishes was imam bayildi (“the imam fainted,” supposedly when he tasted this treat whipped up for him) which is grilled eggplant poached in olive oil with tomato and herbs and served at room temperature. The dish tastes like the essence of Mediterranean cooking – smoky, fresh, tart, and absolutely unctuous as the sweet olive oil should be dripping down your chin when you bite into it. Poaching in olive oil such that the oil is an integral part of the dish is a popular and traditional way to prepare vegetables especially for hot weather.

At any time, anywhere, you can dig into a fresh-fried plate of sigara borek for the perfect snack. Filled with salty cheese something like feta, these crisp snacks are named such because they resemble little cigars. We started many meals munching on them.

At a traditional Anatolian restaurant, women prepared these crepe-like flat breads on wide pans. This gozleme is filled with a thin layer of a spinach mixture. Julie and I thought of our last two dishes (the cigara and this gozleme) as Turkish taquitos and quesadilla.

Since we were visiting in winter, we looked forward to a hot not-too-heavy meal after a day of visiting mosques and palaces. Our favorite of the soup was this light but satisfying ezo gelin, a red lentil soup made with bulgar for heartiness, mint for a refreshing flavor, olive oil for richness, and served with fresh lemon for that perfect punch of tartness. Here, it is served with a gigantic pide to dip.

Mmmmm, ezo gelin red lentil soup with mint.

More snacks: Lay’s, I implore you to bring these chips with yogurt and herbs to American shores! I don’t even like potato chips, but these were unconscionably addictive because the flavor was so superior to sour cream and onion – less sour, less intense,  but with a wonderful tang. We brought some for the plane trip back to extend our trip as long as possible.

We did visit one fast food place – Simit Sarayi where you can duck in for a cup of apple tea and a simit, a sesame ring of bread similar to a bagel.  They are also a popular street snack, sold wrapped in newspaper from carts all over the city.

When I did eat as a vegetarian in Turkey, I was not disappointed with the quality or variety of fantastic Turkish veg options (and there were many more things to choose from at every spot, high end or street-side, like stuffed roasted tomatoes, eggs baked in tomato sauce, and mushroom and zucchini casseroles.)

However, let us not forget that Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait and edges into the Sea of Marmara, a nook off of the Mediterranean. So of course, next episode: seafood! Also, a swirl through the spice bazaar where I stocked up on pomegranate tea.

Did you miss the post on Istanbul’s desserts? Go into sugar-shock here.

baking, lunch/dinner

trans-bay tex-mex

Now that my buddy Monisha is for-sure firmly settled all the way across the bay, we don’t get to spend as much time together except for our semi-monthly series of pizza taste testing.  So, we planned to get together and make dinner, maybe even semi-regularly if we can tamp down the inertia that glues us to our sides of the water.  For our first endeavor, we came up with a Tex-Mex theme because she had a perfect recipe she had wanted to make. And, oh how perfect it was. The tortilla soup with corn and roasted red peppers from Mollie Katzen (veggie maven of  the Moosewood Cookbook fame) was bold with both flavor and body that a lot of vegetable soups can sometimes lack.  Monisha wisely saved a few of the herbs and veggies from puréeing, which added texture and made the soup much heartier.  Definitely add the lime, it adds a needed citrus kick that plays nicely off of the chilies.

I made a batch of Ina Garten’s cheddar and jalapeño cornbread to accompany the soup.  This ended up with more of a quichey texture than I expected as I halved the recipe and didn’t have half an egg. However, as non-traditional as it was in terms of cornbread, it was still buttery, rich, and salty-sweet as you could ever want. In other words, a perfect foil for a zesty soup.  I couldn’t really taste the jalapeños, so I may leave the seeds in next time.  I was impressed with our due diligence, as we polished the whole pan off in one sitting.

For dessert, we got tipsy over this margarita cake – simple and unadorned but moist and juicy with bursting flavor.  Double-glazing the cake means not only a super moist cake but also that the luscious margarita flavor soaks into the cake and gives it a tart sweet zing with a background of tequila warmth.  You don’t really taste the alcohol in the cake itself, but with the glaze it’s like the best things in life together on one fork: sweet moist cake and a tart strong margarita.  I’d splurge on a really good margarita mix for this, and if you can find it I highly recommend Tommy’s Margarita Mix.  Tommy’s is a landmark Mexican restaurant here in SF known for their tequilas and their delicious, delicious margaritas.  If you only have access to frozen margarita mix, I’d cut 1/2 cup of the frozen concentrate with 1/4 cup water for the cake but use a tablespoon straight up frozen for the glaze.  This recipe makes enough batter for a Bundt pan or two 8 inch cakes, but since I weirdly made one 10 inch cake, I just used the leftover batter to make mini-cupcakes.

Margarita Cake with Tequila Glaze


1 package white cake mix

1  package instant lemon pudding mix

1/2 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup margarita mix

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup gold tequila

2 tablespoons triple sec


3 tablespoons tequila

2 tablespoon triple sec

1/2 teaspoon lime zest

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon margarita mix

2 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour pan (one Bundt pan or two 8 inch pans).

For cake: Combine all cake ingredients in a large bowl and beat for 5 minutes at medium speed of an electric mixer. Pour into prepared pan and bake 45-50 minutes for Bundt pan (or 35-40 minutes for 8 inch pans), or until an inserted toothpick in the center comes out clean.

While cake is baking, prepare the glaze: Mix all glaze ingredients together in a medium bowl. Add more sugar if needed to desired consistency.

Cool cake in pan for 5 minutes. Use a fork to poke holes on top of the warm cake while in the pan. Drizzle 1/2 of the glaze over the cake. Cool cake for another 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and cool completely. Spoon the rest of the tequila lime glaze over cooled cake.

Serves 12

Last but not least, we ended an evening full of cooking, laughter, and stuffed tummies with a refreshing palate cleanser in the form of watermelon granita. We had to end our Tex-Mex night with another touch of tequila, but that is optional for you (or, consider vodka).

Watermelon Tequila Granita

1 watermelon, about 4 lbs

1/2 cup sugar

juice and rind of 1 lime

1/2 cup gold tequila

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

Cut the flesh from a ripe watermelon into 1-2 inch cubes. Place the watermelon into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Mix in the sugar, lime juice and rind, and tequila until the sugar is dissolved. Place the mixture into a shallow pan and into the freezer. Every hour or so, scrape up the ice crystals with a fork. In a few hours you’ll have a perfectly pink, icy, juicy tequila-watermelon granita. Garnish with fresh mint.

Serves 6


mini-post: what I had for dinner

I rarely cook at home anymore; cooking for one doesn’t inspire me much but the real reason is that I hate to do the dishes.  Without a dishwasher, I dread the tower of pots, pans and utensils that pile up (because I like to make a mess when I cook).   So it was with surprise that I recently rooted around in my kitchen and slapped together some kind of meal for one – which actually ended up being rather delicious.  I had made a rustic pasta sauce by dumping a pint of grape tomatoes into sizzling olive oil and garlic.  I added a few tablespoons of jarred spaghetti sauce as a binder while it cooked down and finished with a ton of fresh basil.  Meanwhile, I toasted rounds of bread in the oven and poached a couple of eggs.  When the eggs were done, I buttered the bread, placed the egg on top, ladled over the garlicky sauce and sprinkled with fresh Gruyère, and placed it under the broiler for a few seconds for a good melt. The results may not be pretty, but the acid from the tomatoes, crisp of the toast, and richness of the egg yolk combined with creamy cheese and basil goodness was splendid. Eggs à la Cocoa?


crepe party

Adam had a crepe party.  He called his sister-in-law in Poland to help finesse his crepe recipe. Then he started ladling, spreading, and flipping – repeat, repeat, repeat – until the crepe stack towered and tottered. I can not ladle, spread or flip – so I sautéed some portabellas with shallot and garlic, caramelized onions with thyme, and prepared crab with cayenne and a touch of fresh lemon. Our friends, in line with plates in hand, pointed and pointed and pointed while we filled the crepes and warmed them over to melt and meld flavors.  We wrapped them like omelettes because we didn’t know how to fold them in quarters. Then we made more. Then we made more. Then we made more. We were stuffed like crepes, and ran out of room for dessert crepes.  Instead, we watched Michael Jackson videos and sang/danced along. A savory crepe party success.

Brie, crab, and chives

Salmon, goat cheese, shallots and capers

Gruyère, sautéed portabellas, caramelized onion, and basil

For breakfast, leftover crepe gift box: Gruyère, egg, thyme


can’t tell that they’re vegan cupcakes

Cooking shows always disappoint me when it comes to vegan food.  Inevitably, during a vegan challenge on Top Chef the creative and experienced chefs collectively groan and panic.  This is usually followed by a presentation of salads and roasted vegetables. Really? I’m not a vegan, but I’ve had fantastic Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian food which happened to vegan as well. Nothing tastes like a poor substitute, because it’s all made true to the cuisine with spice, herbs, and texture.  The only time I’m wary of vegan food, to be honest, is with baked goods.  I find that it’s hard to recreate the richness of eggs, cream, and butter and the end product can at times be brittle, dry, or pasty. And it’s not just vegan baking, I’m not a huge fan of “diet” baking either. If you’re going to indulge, go for it all the way!

Recently I went to a vegan potluck birthday party and I decided to overcome this hang-up and make a vegan dessert of my own. I found this recipe for chocolate cupcakes at Chow which seemed to be a good start. I decided to add chocolate chips to the batter to add to the richness (it’s vegan, but it’s not health food, people). Happily, chocolate chips that are semisweet without milk solids or dark chocolate may be vegan, although they may not be advertised as such so just make sure to check the label. The 360 brand at Whole Foods and Trader Joes’ chocolate chips are some examples.  The cupcakes are wonderfully moist, sinfully chocolatey and its impossibly difficult to eat just one. When it came to the frosting, the accompanying recipe calls for a mixture of vegan shortening and margarine whipped to a fluffy consistency. The thought of shortening in any form kind of grosses me out, vegan or not. Instead, I made a faux buttercream using the Earth Balance vegan buttery sticks, powdered sugar, and vanilla bean – which I loved. I can not stress enough – do not skimp on the sugar! The Earth Balance bars only come salted, so the frosting can become too salty  if you hesitate on the sugar.  You can always add a bit of soy milk to make sure the consistency turns out into spreadable/pipeable creamy perfection.  At the party, amongst the fruit salads and store-bought vegan cookies, these cupcakes were a hit and no one could tell that they were vegan.  I would make these again without a doubt – a truly decadent dessert that loses no flavor or texture just by being vegan.


remy would be proud

Ratatouille.  Yes, I loved the movie, too.  However, the dish delights me because it’s like soul food for vegetarians.  Rustic, comfy, simple food that is bursting with flavor without being smothered in cheese or hidden under sauce (although those types of comfort foods have their deeply satisfying merits, pierogie pizza – I’m looking at you).  Also the one-pot dish factor makes it enticing whether you own only one pot or the dishwasher is full.  You can serve it as a savory side dish to meat or fish, or eat it as we do: a big bowl full of the hearty stew with a scoop of cooked grains (quinoa or couscous or even rice will do).  Either way, just make sure you have plenty of fresh, hot French bread to sop up the delicious sauce!


Adapted from The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook

6 vine-ripened tomatoes

1 eggplant (about 1lb)

1 zucchini (about 12 oz)

1 green pepper

1 red onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons fresh basil, shredded

Boil water in a medium sized pot.  Fill a bowl with ice cold water.  Use a sharp knife to cross the base of the tomatoes and plunge into the boiling water for 10 seconds, then into the cold water.  Peel the skins off away from the cross.  Chop roughly.

Chop eggplant, zucchini, and bell pepper into equal size pieces (about 3/4 inch).   Cook eggplant over medium heat in olive oil until soft but not brown, about 4 minutes, and then set aside.  Cook zucchini in olive oil until softened, about 3 minutes, and then set aside.  Cook pepper in olive oil for about 2 minutes and then set aside.

Add some more olive oil to the pot and cook the onion until soft, about 3 minutes.  Add the garlic, cayenne pepper, thyme, and bay leaves.  Stir and cook for one minute and add the eggplant, zucchini, and green pepper back to the pot.  Stir well and add the tomatoes, sugar, and vinegar.  Stir well again and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper and add fresh basil as you take it off the heat.

Serves 4-6




Ecuador.  My memories of the country are completely vicarious – and yet incredibly vivid.  My friend Linda spent her study abroad there in college, writing me breathlessly unfolding letters of her time in Quito.  Through her blossoming stories, I saw the bustling streets, shared a joke with the American ex-pats, and smoked a cigarette with the locals.  I would fall asleep in my messy dorm room dreaming of Ecuador with the sheaf of papers crumpled under my pillow.  This year, my false memories re-awakened as Wes visited Quito and the Galapagos.  And so I added to my collection of vignettes, stories of fresh-caught fish and instant coffee breakfasts.  With Ecuador in mind, I made some llapingachos for a taste of the country I’ve known but never seen.

Llapingachos – perfectly snackable potato cakes.  The crispy pancakes with a cheesy mashed potato middle go wonderfully well with the peanut sauce – made a bit different with tomatoes and onions.  I highly recommend trying them together, but they’d be just as satisfying with some fresh salsa instead.  You can also experiment with the cheese, I went with the recipe’s Münster but may try queso fresco which might be more authentic.  The annatto oil imparts a beautiful orange color, but I’m not sure how much it really changes the flavor.  A taste of Ecuador, for Linda.

Llapingachos with Peanut Sauce

Gourmet, September 2007,  Melissa Roberts and Maggie Ruggiero

1 and 1/2 pound Yukon Gold potatoes

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup finely chopped scallions, divided

6 tablespoons annatto oil, divided ( simmer 1 tablespoon annatto/achiote seeds in 1/3 cup olive oil for 2 minutes then let stand for 10 minutes, strain oil)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 medium tomato, chopped

3/4 cup mild

1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter

6 ounces Münster cheese, coarsely grated (2 cups)

Peel potatoes and cut into 1 inch pieces.  Cover potatoes with cold water in a medium pot, then stir in 1 teaspoon salt and simmer until very tender, about 18 minutes.

While potatoes simmer, cook garlic and 1/3 cup scallions in 2 tablespoons annatto oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes.  Stir in cumin and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring, 1 minute.  Add tomato and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.  Add milk and bring to a bare simmer, then remove from heat and stir in peanut butter until combined well.  Keep peanut sauce warm, covered, off heat.

Drain potatoes, then mash in a bowl.

Cook remaining 1/2 cup scallions with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in 2 tablespoons annatto oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring, until scallions are softened, then stir into potatoes along with cheese.  Form potato mixture into 8 balls and flatten each into a 3-inch patty.

Heat 1 tablespoon annatto oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot, then fry cakes in 2 batches, turning over once, until crusty, about 6 minutes per batch.  Add remaining tablespoon annatto oil for second batch.

Gently reheat peanut sauce, thinning to a creamy consistency with a little water if necessary.  Season sauce with salt and serve with potato cakes.

Makes 8 three-inch llapingachos