PARIS -- I realize how crazy it sounds to take a 6:15 a.m. metro ride across town to go to yoga, but this is what I do every day.
How I pull off this early morning madness: (1) My boyfriend is my alarm clock -- he wakes me up at precisely 5:30 a.m., and hands me (2) a very small, very strong coffee, which I throw back like a shot of tequila. I then shower, and get to the metro as quickly as possible and find a single seat by the window so I can spend the next 25 minutes with (3) a very good book.
Which lately has meant a couple of just-released fabulous food memoirs: A Tiger in the Kitchen (Hyperion, $14.99), by Cheryl Tan, and Day of Honey (Free Press, $26) by Annia Ciezadlo. I devoured both in a week's time on the train, and by the time I'd put my toes on my yoga mat, my stomach would be awake and growling, wanting to taste everything I'd been reading about.
In A Tiger in the Kitchen, Tan took me along on her journey from Brooklyn to Singapore, where she learned how to make family recipes from her childhood, since the kitchen was the last place that you would find her when she was growing up. A first-born child who arrived in the Year of the Tiger, Tan's determination and razor-sharp focus helped her sail through academia and took her to Illinois and then to New York, where she landed a job with The Wall Street Journal, reporting on fashion until she was laid off a couple of years ago.
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Losing her job, it turns out, may have been Tan's biggest lucky star. It wasn't long until Tan had a book contract and was flying across the Atlantic, where she would restitch her family history by learning how to make her Auntie's Khar Imm's pineapple tarts, Auntie Khar Moi's mooncakes, and her Auntie Alice's Teochew braised duck, and along the way, set the stage for her own future.
Ciezadlo's Day of Honey was a rich, delicious portrait of a war-ravaged Middle East, including Baghdad and Beirut, that was so visceral that when I finished, I felt covered with dust, hungry and with a deeper understanding of this culture and part of the world that until now had been elusive and confusing.
"It might be arrogant to expect good food from people at war, sanctions and dictatorship," she wrote in her book, "but it was also arrogant not to. ... It had to have a cuisine, and I suspected that cuisine would be good. I decided to go out and find it."
And she did -- from nibbling on masquf (fat, gray carp) pulled from the Tigris in Baghdad and roasted over a fire with tandoor bread, to sharing hummus with Iraqi tribal leaders and an American colonel, to eating sohan(burnt-sugar pistachio brittle) from Qom -- all while cooking against regulations on a two-burner hotplate in the hotel room she shared with her Shiite husband, also a writer on assignment.
In both books, the theme is food and how it shapes us, comforts us and opens up our hearts. Tan, through discovering her own family history, uncovered parts of herself that she didn't know existed. Ciezadlo, a Chicago-born freelance writer, goes to war and finds humanity all around her. Both are personal and culinary culture rides into another place and time -- juicy, evocative and thoroughly entertaining and served up with a side of humor. That's something especially welcome at 6:15 in the morning.
Crumbled potatoes and eggs
Slow cooking is the essence of this dish. Some cooks deep-fry the potatoes, but Annia Ciezadlo prefers the method used by her mother-in-law, Umm Hassane. It makes for a consistency more like home fries. The standard recipe is eggs, onions and potatoes. But this simple base lends itself well to improvisation: Try adding chopped bell peppers and/or garlic to the onions; add smoked salmon, cream or your favorite cheese with the eggs (Ciezadlo likes feta, goat cheese or cheddar). It's also good with cumin, black mustard seeds and a pinch of curry powder.
10 ounces onions (about 2 medium-large), diced (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
3 pounds russet or Idaho potatoes (about 4 medium-large), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more for salting potatoes and to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as oregano, rosemary and/or thyme
1. Saute the onions in the oil in a heavy or nonstick pot over medium heat. Stir frequently and do not let them burn. Once the onions begin to soften, after 2 to 3 minutes, cover the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low. Check the onions and stir every 10 minutes or so to keep them from sticking and burning. Do not let them brown at this point; you want them to caramelize very slowly. When they start expelling a lot of liquid and are turning translucent, turn the heat down as low as possible.
2. While the onions are cooking, sprinkle the potato cubes generously with salt, toss, and let them sit for about 5 minutes. Rinse very well under cold water.
3. After about 30 minutes, the onions should be starting to turn dark gold. Increase the heat to medium and remove the lid to evaporate as much of the liquid as possible. Add the tablespoon of salt and the potatoes and mix. If you're using fresh herbs, add them now.
4. Turn the heat to very low and cover. Sweat the potatoes until they are soft -- usually 10 to 15 minutes -- stirring gently and tasting every so often. If you like the potatoes crispy, turn the heat up, add a bit more oil, and let them crisp for a few minutes between stirs. The potatoes are done when they just begin to disintegrate around the edges and you can pierce them easily with a fork. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
5. Crack the eggs into the pot. Stir until they just begin separating into creamy curds. Take the pot off the heat and keep stirring until the eggs are done (they will continue to cook for a minute or two in the pot). Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper or whatever else you like.
Note: Umm Hassane recommends serving batata wa bayd with salad. It also goes well with salted, sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 468 calories, 16 grams fat, 68 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams protein, 374 milligrams cholesterol, 1,546 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber, 29 percent of calories from fat.
(Batata wa bayd mfarakeh )
Ai-Kyung Linster's mandoo
2 cups shredded cabbage
2 cups minced chives
1 cup chopped green onions
1 pound minced pork
1 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg, beaten
100 mandoo,gyoza or round Chinese dumpling wrappers
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
Black pepper, to taste
1. Lightly salt the cabbage and set aside. Mix the other filling ingredients in a large bowl. Wring out the cabbage until it is very dry and add it to the mixture.
2. Take a mandoo wrapper and lay it flat on your palm. Dip a finger into a bowl of room-temperature water and lightly coat the edge of the wrapper with water. Scoop a scant 1 tablespoon or so of the filling into the center of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper in half, press the edges together to seal, and then fold 4 small vertical pleats into the edge so the mandoo will seal tightly.
3. Mandoo are cooked in salty water brought to a boil three times. First, add a bit of salt to half a pot of water, turn the heat on high and bring to a boil. Add 12 mandoo for a regular-size soup pot. Cover the pot, and let the water come to a boil again. When it does, add 1 cup of cold water, cover, and bring to a boil again. When the water boils again, remove the mandoo and serve immediately.
4. To make the dipping sauce: Mix a 2-to-1 ratio of soy sauce to apple cider vinegar. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Nutritional analysis per dumpling: 25 calories, 1 gram fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 205 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 44 percent of calories from fat.