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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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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Bacon-Kimchi Fried Rice: Smoky, Fiery, Sweet & Salty

Among the amazing food discoveries of my recent life, this one is certainly up there: A little grocery store very near me in Brooklyn sells kimchi. Lots of it.

It’s the good stuff, too –pungent, spicy, tart and tangy. But what this means is that the sous chef and I have been eating a fair bit of the stuff.

What to do with kimchi? We ran through the obvious in the first several meals — kimchi omelets, scrambles, kimchi with rice, porridge. You name the easy, we tried it.

Kimchi fried rice, however, was daunting to me. Fried rice was the very first Asian dish I tried to make — and if you’ve read A Tiger in the Kitchen, well, you might recall the outcome of my first attempt.

When I read about New York chef David Chang’s fervent belief in bacon and kimchi being made for each other, though — and how he uses it in fried rice — I was sold.

The past was the past, I decided. With a little research into kimchi fried rice, out came my wok and I was ready to give this a try …

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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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Apple-Cheese Meatloaf: Pretty Sweet Meat (And a Gourmet Jerky Giveaway)

At a recent “A Tiger in the Kitchen” reading at Powell’s Books in Beaverton, Oregon, a young man asked a question I’ve been getting a fair bit: “What’s your favorite thing to cook?”

It’s a sound question, given my book is a memoir told through food and cooking. And my answer always surprises people: “Meatloaf.”

Although Tiger is about a year I spent traveling to Singapore, where I was born, to rediscover my native culture by learning how to cook, in my Brooklyn kitchen, it’s often good old American meatloaf that I turn to when I’m looking for something easy, satisfying — and likely to yield lots of leftovers. My obsession with meatloaf began when I moved to the United States at age 18. I had never encountered this brick of meat before — it was truly exotic to me.

Since I mention this fact in the book, some readers have been awfully generous in sharing their prized meatloaf recipes. And when my book tour recently took me to Seattle, where I had a lovely catch up with a dear, dear friend, he happened to mention a magical meatloaf recipe that he adores.

The moment I saw the name of Russ’s recipe — “Apple Cheese Loaf” — I knew I had to try it …

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Cowgirl: A Dessert Surprise


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The evening had been good — entertaining but generally uneventful. Until the question came, "Would you like dessert?"

Having just devoured chicken fried chicken, mashed potatoes, chicken fajitas and a massive bowl of vegetarian chili (plus copious amounts of chips and bean dip), dessert was an unlikely endeavor. But then there it was before us at Cowgirl in New York City: A dessert menu emblazoned with a large tempting picture of the restaurant's signature ice-cream "baked potato."

I was shocked to see the picture — not because of the calories I saw before me. (The dessert consists of scoops of vanilla ice-cream dusted with cocoa powder to resemble a
potato, topped with whipped cream, slabs of lime-sugar "butter" and
chopped pecans dyed green.)

The surprise was there because I took the picture last year for a piece on this blog about Cowgirl's seafood outpost, Cowgirl Seahorse. And there it was, massive and beautiful (if I do say so myself) on this restaurant's menu.

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A Tiger In The Kitchen: Unveiled



Not too long ago, reporter Mark Joyella caught up with me about my cooking and eating adventures for a piece he did for the Brooklyn Heights Blog.

On my little deck in Brooklyn, we had a lovely time chatting about festive cardamom cookies and my stab at eating bull’s penis. (You can also see the video on Vimeo.)

I’d been a little embarrassed about posting it — because you can see exactly how dead my houseplants are in the background of some shots! But Mark did such a nice job, I thought I’d share it with you.

So, if you’ve been wondering what exactly I’ve been up to so far this year, check it out …

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