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It might be hard to believe, oh children of today, but there was a time in California and many other modern places with electricity and running water (bottled water was not yet invented) and telephones (landlines only) where your choice of Asian food was Chinese or Chinese, and by that I mean chow mein or chop suey, which the American diner poured soy sauce over lavishly. (I am loathe to admit we called soy sauce “bug juice.”) If you were really living it up you could also get Chinese BBQ ribs and egg foo yong and sweet and sour pork. A few very avant garde restaurants offered rumaki, though I have never known anyone to actually order it. I was a picky child so when we went to one of the three or four Chinese restaurants in town, I stayed safe with a hot roast beef sandwich.

Then sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s woks became the rage. It was impressed upon we aspiring Chinese chefs that the wok absolutely had to be made of carbon steel, seasoned properly with heat and oil, and used frequently in order to keep up the seasoning else it would rust. It was also absolutely essential that one had the right shovel (a shovel-shaped spatula with a long handle) and that the wok had to have a round bottom, or it was not authentic and your food would likewise be not authentic. This was at a time when electric stoves were pretty standard in most kitchens; round bottomed woks rolled and tilted dangerously on the flat burner.

Also, we had to learn to chop vegetables properly, preferably with a Chinese cleaver, or they wouldn’t cook correctly.  Something about cut-half-roll-cut on an angle. (See above about not authentic.)

We bought Chinese cookbooks that listed a new-to-us array of ingredients that were likewise absolutely essential to Chinese cooking, almost none of which were available in circa-1970 Safeway and Albertsons.  The standard supermarket soy sauce was La Choy (who had a catchy television commercial with a jingle, “La Choy makes Chinese food *swing* American!”). Bamboo shoots and water chestnuts were available in cans; people bought one of each and displayed them to show off their culinary chops. (You didn’t have to actually use them; just owning the cans was enough.) Tofu was  starting to become available but viewed with suspicion.  Garlic was available but ginger less so. It took a drive to a larger city to find sesame oil, five-spice powder,  oyster sauce, rice sticks, and bok choy. (This was before the internet.)

Even around 1980 I remember being served stir-fry dishes in Chinese restaurants that included crinkle-cut frozen French fries and gherkins.  It was indeed a strange time in America.

It took Americans a long time to relax and learn to make Chinese food; from there we segued into Thai and Korean and Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian (which, I have been assured by a Lao woman, are pretty similar), Japanese and Asian fusion. I don’t know just when the tide turned and we started appreciating and making decent Asian dishes, but even small-town grocers stock hoisin sauce and cilantro now.

We have a copy of Lucky Peach Presents 101 Asian Recipes which has a less structured approach to cooking and a what-the-hell punky approach to authenticity, while not ceding anything to white bread America. It’s been helpful in loosening up and having fun while making really good tasting Asian food. I used to have a carbon steel wok but I have no idea where it is now. I use either a cast iron frying pan or a nonstick Ikea flat-bottomed wok.

I bet you thought I would never get around to the recipe, right? This started as something else and became this. But it could become something else yet again if the cook made it so. Lots of possible variations. Much of it can be made ahead. Don’t be discouraged by the long list of ingredients – it’s really simple to make.

Note: This is clearly full of meat, but I suspect a vegetarian version could be made with the spices and some miso.


The Meat Part:

  • 3 lbs pork shoulder or pork butt, beef chuck roast, beef 7-bone roast, country-style spare ribs, chicken thighs, or a whole chicken


  • 1 head garlic, peeled and cut in half
  • 1 fat slice onion
  • 2 quarts water (include some low-sodium broth if it’s on hand)
  • 1/2 cup low-salt soy sauce or tamari (I use Aloha soy sauce and/or San-J Tamari, both low-salt)
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce (I use Squid brand, available in Asian markets)
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, Demarara sugar, turbinado sugar, or golden brown sugar (optional)
  • 2/3 cup Shaoxing rice wine, mirin, sake, or sherry (a generous splash of Madeira would not go amiss here as well)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks, about 3″ long
  • 2 star anise
  • t teaspoon whole cloves
  • 4-5 whole cardamom pods
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds or anise seeds
  • 10-12 whole peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1″ piece of ginger root, sliced
  • 1-4 dried hot peppers (optional)


  • 1 large bunch collards, kale, spinach, or other sturdy greens, hard stems removed, greens sliced thinly (roll them up like a cigar and then slice across)

Optional Vegetables:

  • shredded vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, daikon – about 1/4 cup of each
  • sliced mushrooms – 2 or more, depending on your fondness for mushrooms
  • snow peas – 1/4 pound ought to do it
  • green beans, cut into 2″ lengths -like the snow peas, about 1/4 pound


  • 8 – 16 ounces rice noodles, glass noodles, rice sticks, or other noodles, cooked according to package directions (I used the rice vermicelli pictured above, 14 ounces)

Optional Garnishes:

  • chopped green onions
  • chopped cilantro
  • chili-garlic sauce (Huy Fong Foods makes one version, much more garlicky than Sriracha) or sambal oelek
  • finely shredded cabbage
  • a raw egg yolk for the hardcore


Brown the meat in a little oil, flipping as necessary to brown all sides.  When the meat is almost brown enough, add the onion slice and let it get good and brown on both sides. Toss in the garlic to lightly brown for a few minutes, then the spices to lightly bloom in the oil.


Clockwise from top: star anise, whole cloves, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, whole peppercorns, cinnamon sticks


Pour in all liquid ingredients and scrape up any lovely browned bits from the bottom, bring to a boil, then lower heat and cover.


Let simmer until meat is falling-apart tender – about 1 1/2 hours for chicken thighs, 2 hours for country-style ribs or a whole chicken, 3 hours for pork butt, pork shoulder, or beef chuck/7-bone roast. Remove meat from pot and let cool, then remove bones/skin/fat and shred meat. (This can all be done ahead and put in the refrigerator for another day.)

Taste the broth and adjust seasoning – I like this on the sweet side so I usually add more brown sugar, but this is subjective. (My husband doesn’t like it sweet so for him I  keep it at 1/4 cup. Or skip the sugar altogether.) Strain broth and discard solids. Skim fat from broth (this is easier if made ahead and chilled). Reheat broth, add the thinly sliced greens, and cook until tender – could be 20 to 40 minutes for collards, 20 minutes for kale, almost instantly for spinach. When greens are almost tender, add any other vegetables.

Cook noodles separately, then add to broth with greens along with shredded meat. When soup is heated through, serve with optional garnishes.

Makes a lot.



87 Cents a Pound

87 Cents a Pound


Back in the 1960s and 70s there was a guy named Merle Ellis who wrote a column called The Butcher in the San Francisco Chronicle (later picked up by newspapers nationwide). It was all about how to get the best deals at the butcher counter. In one column he dispensed a jewel of wisdom I have never forgotten:

If you see any meat or fish for under one dollar per pound, buy it and worry about what to do with it later. 

I’m sure I am paraphrasing, but that was the message.

When I walked into the supermarket last week I immediately came face-to-face with a refrigerated case full of half-hams marked 87¢ per pound. Merle Ellis.

I bought two ten-pound hams.

It should be said here that my husband was not quite as thrilled initially with my purchase until he realized he’d been buying sliced ham at the deli for $4 or $5 per pound. He then admitted that it was a pretty good deal.

Dorothy Parker said eternity is two people and a ham, but here the ham seems to be disappearing at a shockingly rapid pace.  I cut one ham in two more-or-less equal-sized pieces & put half in the freezer; we are eating from & cooking from the other half.  The second ham is still in its original wrapper and will keep in the refrigerator at least until February, or whenever we decide to cook or freeze it (ham keeps wonderfully well.)  We seldom have it the rest of the year, so it’s a treat in very late fall and winter (traditional hog-slaughtering time). We’ve been making it into scrambles and ham sandwiches and just big ol’ chunks of ham eaten as is, but I made a couple of dishes that we really liked.

The first is a sauce that I used on Brussels sprouts, but I think it would also be good on shredded sauteed kale, cabbage, beet greens, green beans, broccoli, and whatever else might come to mind (warm spinach salad?). At this time of year the intense deep flavors of winter vegetables sometimes needs a little perking up, and this was really, really good as well as insanely easy.


  • 1/2 cup ham fat and ham, cut into very small (less than 1/2″) pieces
  • 1 cup apple juice or apple cider
  • 2-3 teaspoons mustard (I used Plochman’s Whole Grain)

Put the cut-up ham into a dry frying pan over medium-high heat and fry, rendering the fat, until the bits are browning and crispy. Add the apple juice and continue to cook until reduced by half and the juice is turning syrupy. Stir in the mustard.  Toss with hot cooked Brussels sprouts.

In lieu of ham, some cooked and mostly-drained bacon or sausage would work very well.

The other thing I made is just a fast riff on the Pennsylvania Dutch dish schnitz un knepp, which is pork or ham cooked with dried apples.

This isn’t even a recipe. Cut some ham into pieces about 2″ X 1″ (more or less) and put in a dry frying pan to brown a bit.  Thinly slice some apples (I used Fuji) into the pan, add some apple juice, and toss and fry until the apples are tender. Serve with French toast or pancakes or crepes.






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I went to the local farmer’s market the other day and snagged three fat bunches of Swiss Chard for a buck each. EACH! They’d been harvested about an hour before. It doesn’t get much better than that.

But what to do with them? Fortunately, I also recently snagged The Art of Real Food by Joanne Neft and Laura Kenny, who also wrote the fabulous Placer County Real Food Cookbook. Both books are beautifully photographed, the recipes are simple (though not always for rank beginners), and the books are arranged chronologically so that you can flip to May and see what is likely to be in the farmer’s market, and find a recipe that will showcase that ingredient. Like Swiss chard.
swiss chard by alex flickrPhoto by Alex on Flickr

I made this soup last night and it was wonderful. It was unusual in that the recipe did not include onions – odd for a vegetable soup – but when I tasted it, I understood why. Onions would have overwhelmed the other ingredients. I did include more broth than the recipe called for, but that’s a matter of taste.

The book also included a recipe to deal with those chard stems – deep fried with blue cheese dip. Next time.

This is a lovely and easy soup for this time of year when chard is springing up in home gardens and farmer’s markets.


2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, mined
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 big bunch chard, leaves only, chopped
6 cups chicken broth
2 potatoes, halved lengthwise and then sliced into half-moons
1/4 pound penne pasta
salt and pepper

Heat oil in deep pot. Add garlic, carrots, and celery, and saute over medium heat, stirring often, until the vegetables begin to brown lightly. Add the chard and stir and cook for another 3-4 minutes.

Pour in the broth and add the potatoes. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and add the penne pasta. Cook over medium-low heat until the potatoes and pasta are done.

Season with salt and pepper. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and some crusty bread.


When I was a kidlet – that would be back in the early 1960s – the local 4-H club held a Halloween party at the IOOF Hall (that is the International Order of Odd Fellows, and before you start snickering, read about their long history here).  After kids got done trick-or-treating (which did not take long in a town with about 15 houses) they gathered at the hall for a costume contest, bobbing for apples (an activity that really isn’t as much fun as nostalgia makes it out to be), a fortune teller, various games, and a Spook House.  It was generally accepted that one aspect of the Spook House would be making little kids cry by forcing their hands into cold spaghetti and telling them it was worms. It grieves me in multiple ways that this way of observing Halloween appears to be as dead as the proverbial dodo, for reasons we won’t go into here.

But the spirit of serving ghastly-themed foods at this time of year still survives. Melted chocolate chips in cookies drawn out to look like spiders, marzipan green fingers, tombstone cookies.  If you’re an adult looking for something weird to serve at a Halloween-themed dinner, this green soup might fit the ticket. I’ll leave it to you to make up a name.

This is actually from Love Soup by Anna Thomas, the woman who brought us the best-selling series of Vegetarian Epicure cookbooks. I made a couple of adaptations. Even if it isn’t Halloween, this is a really delicious soup that is extremely nutritious, low-fat, gluten-free, vegan if you so choose, and easy to make. It could be a good way to introduce veggie-phobes to dark leafy greens.

 About Vegetable Broth:

Most people buy boxed or canned vegetable broth instead of making it, and that’s fine as long as you read the ingredients and adapt your recipe accordingly. They may contain gluten, sugar in one of its many forms, or assorted preservatives.  Almost all of them are salty. They vary wildly in taste, color, and texture. One Thanksgiving I bought three different brands to make vegan gravy/stuffing with. One was very thick and carrotty, one was brown and earthy like mushrooms and potatoes, and one was thin, green and grassy.  You might like them all – or none of them, in which case you would do well to pick up a copy of Love Soup and follow one of the recipes for vegetable broth.

From top left clockwise, cilantro (coriander leaves), curly kale, green onions (scallions), spinach.



  • 1 bunch spinach
  • 1 bunch kale
  • small bunch green onions (scallions)
  • 1/2 cup cilantro (coriander leaves)
  • 3 tablespoons rice
  • 2 chopped onions
  • 1 chopped shallot
  • olive oil
  • cayenne
  • lemon juice
  • salt
  • pepper
  • vegetable broth

In a skillet, very slowly saute the chopped onions with a sprinkle of salt in a very small amount of olive oil, stirring often, until the onions turn soft and golden. Do not hurry this – it could take 30-45 minutes. When they are very soft, add the chopped shallot and cook another five minutes, stirring the shallot into the onions now and then.


While the onions cook, wash and chop the spinach and kale, discarding the tough stems of the kale. Leave the spinach stems on.  (The best way to wash often-sandy spinach is to fill a large bowl or sink with cold water, place the spinach in the water, and plunge it up and down several times. The sand will sink to the bottom. Repeat until no sand appears.) Put the greens along with the rice, the chopped green onions, and chopped cilantro in a large pot with three cups of water and a sprinkle of salt, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. You will see that what started as a big pot of greens cooks way down.


When both onions and greens are done, scrape the onions into the greens pot and simmer another ten minutes. Add broth as needed so the mixture pours from a ladle.


Puree the mixture in a blender in batches until quite smooth.  Start on low, then gradually increase the blender speed. (Anna Thomas suggests that you could use a handheld blender. I did this the first time I made this soup. Only do this if you have all day and infinite patience. It takes forever and really doesn’t do a very good job.) Or use a food processor.


Return pureed soup to the soup pot. Add freshly ground pepper, the juice of half a lemon, about 1/8 teaspoon cayenne (don’t be afraid of cayenne!), and let simmer about five minutes, then taste and adjust seasonings as you like.


Anna Thomas says she always garnishes this with a drizzle of olive oil, and you could do this if you have really good olive oil on hand. My preference would be some crumbled blue, cotija, or feta cheese, shredded aged Cheddar, Swiss, or Gouda,  or some crisp crumbled bacon and chopped seeded tomato, or any sort of freshly made croutons or sauteed bread. A spoonful of plain Greek yogurt or sour cream with chopped green onions would be luscious too. For greens lovers, try a shot of hot pepper vinegar.

Changes and substitutions:

Use chicken broth, or a combination of vegetable broth and chicken broth. Homemade light stock would be best if you have it. Avoid Campbell’s. It’s nothing but salt.

Add milk, half-and-half, or cream.

Use olive oil and/or butter.

You can use any leafy greens you like: any kind of kale, beet greens, chard, turnip greens, mustard greens, collards, spinach, water spinach, cress, arugula, and so forth. Tougher ones like collards may need longer simmering, and stronger flavored ones will make a more assertively-flavored soup.

Substitute freshly chopped garlic for the shallot. Substitute very well-washed leeks (including the green part ) for all or part of the sauteed onions.

Cilantro haters;  you cannot taste the cilantro in the finished soup. If you must, you can substitute flat-leaf parsley.

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