John Searles’ Lentil Soup: A Toast to “Help For The Haunted”

Few things make me happier than tasting my friends’ cooking — especially if it’s a situation in which I had absolutely no idea that they knew how to cook.

Recently, I had the pleasure of making one such discovery about a dear friend of mine, a person I adore and whom I know mostly as a writer (certainly not a cook) — the novelist John Searles.

I made this discovery one chilly evening this spring when John’s partner, Thomas (the chef in that family), wasn’t around. Instead of ordering in, John decided to cook up some soup instead. I remain grateful for this decision as this meant that I got to taste his lentil soup, which turned out to be so hearty and tasty that I distinctly remember the delicious sensation of its earthy goodness warming me up from within.

So when fall and all its coolness arrived last week, this soup immediately came to mind.

Besides, I had a very special reason to toast John this month — his third novel, a gripping literary thriller titled “Help For The Haunted” just hit book stores! It’s only been out for a week and it’s already gotten rave reviews everywhere — both Amazon and USA Today just named it one of the month’s best books.

So cheers to the book and to my dear friend John. And of course, let’s not forget his lovely lentil soup …

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Hemingway’s Hamburger: Papa’s Favorite

Earlier this year, I was perusing a Boston Globe story about some Ernest Hemingway papers from the writer’s years in Cuba that had just been donated to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

A book editor who’s on the board of the Finca Vigía Foundation in Boston, which has been working on preserving Hemingway’s Cuba documents and bringing them to the United States, had told me of the story and I could not wait to read it. I’ve long been a Hemingway fan — an admirer of not just his work but also his appetite for life, food and drink.

So it was unsurprising that one line in the story about what the new papers contained struck me: “And the more mundane, like his instructions to the household staff, including how to prepare his hamburgers: ground beef, onions, garlic, India relish, and capers, cooked so the edges were crispy but the center red and juicy.”

Hemingway’s ideal burger? I had to find out more.

Many weeks and a few burgers later, I wrote about my quest to recreate Hemingway’s hamburger in The Paris Review.

I won’t go into details — you can read more there. But for the recipe and another glimpse of the burger, click right here …

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Spam Fries with Key Lime Dip: A Perfect Munchies Hit

A little bit of excitement occurred recently — I just had my first piece of fiction published in an anthology!

It’s a short story titled “Ganja Ghosts” — about, well, smoking the you know what in Singapore. And it’s appeared in a lovely book called “The Marijuana Chronicles,” edited by the brilliant artist and bestselling mystery writer Jonathan Santlofer.

In addition to Jonathan, there are stories in there by Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child and more. To say I’ve been thrilled would barely even begin to describe it. And yes, all of you should absolutely run right out now and buy a copy!

So, it seemed like a celebration was in order — and thankfully, my Let’s Lunch mates were on board. For this month’s lunch date, we decided to share our ideas for perfect “munchies” …

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The Next Big Thing: A Preview

A lovely thing came out of writing my first book — I discovered a community of authors.

Through weeks-long residencies at artist colonies Yaddo and Djerassi, I lived with and learned from writers (and other artists) who listened to my stories and shared many of their own. All of this inevitably led to lasting friendships in which we’ve cheered one another on from coast to coast.

So when the talented and enormously entertaining Peter Mountford (my Yaddo mate as I holed up to write A Tiger in the Kitchen in 2010) invited me to join in on “The Next Big Thing Blog Hop,” I was most happy to oblige.

As Peter — author of A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism — explained, this blog hop is a chance for authors to tell you what they’re working on. Authors answer 10 questions about their next book, tag the person who tagged them and at least five other authors. (You can read Peter’s piece about his second novel, The Dismal Science, here.)

Many thanks for the invite to the party, Peter. And here you all go — a sneak preview of what I’ve been cooking up in my little writing room …

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Gambling Rice: A Grandmother’s Tale

The food of my Singaporean grandmothers has always inspired great yearning in me.

As you’ve probably heard, this yearning was so intense that a few years ago it inspired a journey to rediscover the dishes of my girlhood in Asia, a tale that ended up forming “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”

Of all the dishes that I learned to make in my one year of cooking in Singapore, one stands out: Gambling rice. It’s a simple dish of rice cooked with Chinese mushrooms, pork belly, shallots, cabbage and more — one that my late grandmother used to whip together in her kitchen out of sheer necessity.

At a time when my family was mired in poverty, she turned her living room into an illegal gambling den. In order to keep her gamblers at the table, she started cooking for them when they got hungry — and what she made was a convenient one-bowl dish that they could easily eat as they continued to play cards.

I love the story of this dish because it says so much about my grandmother and the smarts, creativity — and business acumen — of this lady. So much that I’ve shared it with just about everyone I’ve talked to about “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”

I’d never talked about this recipe on my own blog, however. So when my Let’s Lunch crew decided on sharing a grandmother’s dish this month to fete the paperback publication of our own Patricia’s “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” — congrats, Pat! — I knew the time had come …

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Town House Books & Cafe: A Gem of a Meal

When you are known for your appetite and have spent some months on the road, taking the gospel of Tiger cookery through cities from far west Seattle to down south Atlanta, people invariably want to know: What was the best meal you had?

I have been incredibly well-fed, that is true. There was an unforgettable meal at Thistle, a quaint hyper-locavore place in McMinnville, Oregon, where some of the produce on our table that evening came from a co-owner’s mother’s garden nearby. In Seattle, there was the discovery of a superb rendition of New York-style pizza at food blogger Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey. And then there was the restaurant that made me consider packing up and moving to Houston just so I could eat there every week: El Real Tex Mex, where the ethereal refried beans, crunchy puffy tacos and stacked enchiladas share a sacred secret ingredient: lard, which the kitchen itself renders from heritage pigs.

The meal that stands far above all others, however, didn’t occur in a restaurant of great repute or one of the must-try scenes of any city I’ve visited. Rather, it took place in a darling little bookstore in St. Charles, Ill., a town 40 miles west of Chicago that’s perched by a pretty river. At Town House Books, owners Doug and Dave set out to not just host a reading for “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” No, they were determined to truly bring the book to life.

And so it was that just a few days before my June reading there, I got a call from Doug, asking me how exactly did my Singaporean aunties wrap the bamboo leaves around the bak-zhang (rice dumplings) and did my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts need to be kept in a fridge if they were made far ahead?

Bak-zhang? Pineapple tarts? When Town House had mentioned a dinner pairing for my reading, these ambitious offerings were certainly not what I had in mind.

The pangs for my family’s dishes immediately set in. And suddenly, I just could not wait to get to St. Charles …

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Breakfast Tacos: Lunch of Champions

Breakfast has always been my favorite meal of the day. In Singapore, where I grew up, this first meal is not taken lightly — plates of spicy noodles and dishes of coconut rice paired with fried chicken or fish, eggs and flaming hot sambal sauce are common ways to start your morning.

So it’s no surprise, then, that I’m all about the hearty, savory breakfast that works just as well for lunch. When my Let’s Lunch bunch suggested tackling “breakfast for lunch” for our April lunch date, I jumped on board right away.

Leafing through my friend Joe Yonan‘s new cookbook “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One,” I had spied several delectable-looking recipes in his chapter on tacos. One called out to me more than the others: Austin-Style Breakfast Tacos, which Joe began whipping together as a college student in Austin years ago.

With some eggs, chorizo and cheese in hand, I was ready to give this a whirl…

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Popiah: Singaporean Summer Rolls, Just Like Grandma Made

I’ve been thinking a lot about popiah, a Singaporean-style summer roll, recently — not just because temperatures have been creeping up in New York City and the foods of my tropical native country are starting to beckon once again.

As you may know, I’ve been on a bit of a book publicity blitz with the February publication of “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” And in all the interviews and signings I’ve done, popiah — a roll filled with ingredients such as julienned jicama, shrimp, shallots, tofu — has been a recipe that has come up frequently.

It’s a roll my grandmother used to make when I was growing up in Singapore — and it’s one that I crave in the U.S. as you don’t see it often on restaurant menus. Because it’s light, a little spicy and the filling has a nice crunch to it, it’s the perfect snack food or appetizer for warm weather — in Singapore, people often have popiah parties in which the filling, summer roll skins and various condiments are set out and guests mill about, casually making their own rolls whenever they feel like eating one.

During my research for the book, however, I made sure to learn how my grandmother and chef Simpson (of Cafe Asean in New York) make theirs — so when my Let’s Lunch group of virtual lunch buddies decided on small spring bites for our March date, popiah immediately sprang to mind …

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Maple-Bacon Ice-Cream: Cheating Death (For Now)

This is what happens when a girl’s doctor discovers what she sort of does for a living (eat) and starts worrying about her cholesterol and blood pressure:

She comes upon a recipe for maple-bacon ice-cream calling for 12 large egg yolks.

And gosh darn it, she makes it.

One might speculate that there are many reasons for this occurrence — a deep-seated stubbornness, a misguided rebellion, a determination to cling to the belief of invincibility, the attempt to give the specter of death the big, well, you know.

But perhaps the reason is far, far simpler. (This is what she chooses to believe.) This ice-cream has bacon in it. Who wouldn’t want to try making it?
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Panettone: The Seven-Day Bread


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If you are among the people who believe that nothing says “The Holidays” like a festive loaf of panettone, let me just say this: You are mad.

This bread, it is evil.

It will drive you insane, make you tear your hair out. You may find yourself repeatedly staring intently at an unrising bowl of taupe glop, thinking, “Just, why, God, WHY?”

I mean this for the folks out there attempting to bake it, that is. (If you’re the sort who buys panettone in a store then, sure, go for it. I’m sure that’s pretty harmless.)

The problem I had here was holiday spirit.

Recently, I found myself so infused with the stuff that I decided to tackle panettone for the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge

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