He did not write a book about restaurants, although he tells how two American ex-pats created one of the hippest dining establishments in Africa.
He did not set out to write about good and evil, but his book describes one of the most horrific genocides in human history, and the astonishing efforts of both the victims and their persecutors to find forgiveness and redemption.
He didn't even write a love story, although A Thousand Hills to Heaven centers on two people who are very much in love—young Americans you might meet at a party, endowed with the same hearts, brains, and DNA as you or I—but who found the strength to work a thousand miracles in a land God forgot.
And he certainly didn't write a cookbook, but he concludes his story with six recipes that will make you want to head for your kitchen and light your grill to try them.
What he did write is one of the most extraordinary narratives of hope I have read in decades—a book that, just for reading it, makes you aspire to be a better person.
When I was growing up, "leafy green vegetable" meant spinach. At some point swiss chard was added to the repertoire and then bok choy. But that was really it. Oh sure, we had salad every night, but no other cooked leafy greens. Later on I discovered the sharp bite of mustard greens, the silky mellowness of cooked escarole and the spicy bitterness of turnip greens. These days my organic market delivery brings me kale and collard greens too. But I still like spinach and swiss chard for sentimental reasons.
Another category mainly skipped over in my childhood was legumes. We ate Mexican refried beans, chili beans, and baked beans, but that was about it. I guess if I had been raised in the South I might have been exposed to more beans and greens, but I wasn't. In college on a budget I lived on black beans, and in Italy I discovered white or cannellini beans. Out on my own I experimented with lentil stews and soups of all kinds until I discovered a recipe for Syrian lentil and chard soup. That was it. No other lentil recipes need apply.
I love Mediterranean food especially from the eastern region, spanning the countries from Greece through Turkey and all the way down to Lebanon and Egypt in the north of Africa. Just thinking about gyros, kebabs, and a platter of mezze from these countries makes my mouth water. It was in college that I first experienced this culinary culture, trying new things like pita bread, falafel, tabbouleh, and hummus. Then on a summer break from school I took a family trip to Hungary and was surprised by all the restaurants selling gyros and kebabs. One corner it was a restaurant owned by a Turkish and on the other corner a restaurant owned by a Greek, all selling similar foods but with different names. That's when I realized the close connection between all these countries: they were all ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
Probably the best thing that came from the Ottoman rule was the melting pot of cuisine. One of my favorite restaurants to go for eastern Mediterranean slash Middle Eastern food is Kashkaval in New York City. I really can't tell which country their food represents, but they have everything on the menu from Hungarain chicken paprikash to Turkish meatballs. Their enormous selection of mezze are a feature of the menu and so are their fondues. The one made from Kashkaval cheese, the source for the restaurant's names, is unbeatably good. A vegetarian coworker first introduced me to the restaurant and I've returned countless times ever since always with friends in tow. It's the type of good food that encourages sharing among everyone.
On vacation for a week in Carlsbad, we enjoyed days without a set schedule. When to get out of bed? Maybe 7:30, or maybe not until 8:30. What time for a walk on the beach? Let's see when low tide is. We slept, ate, read, watched TV and went to the movies when we felt like it.
And we had great weather. Bright sunny skies. Temperatures in the upper 60's and low 70's. We discovered new places to eat, enjoyed our favorite coffee shop--Pannikin Coffee & Tea in Leucadia/Encinitas--and bought flowering plants and three blueberry bushes--that had ripe fruit on the branches!--from a great nursery, Cedros Gardens in Solana Beach.
What a great vacation. When we wanted to hang around the room, with our mini-refrigerator, wet bar and the 2-burner electric stove top brought from home, we made salads, soups and snacks.
Spicy and tropical flavors always transport my imagination to lush jungles or azure beaches belonging to more temperate climates. Mexican food in particular has that effect on me. At home whenever I want to add a south-of-the-border touch to recipes I reach for dried chiles. Ancho chile powder, made of ground dried poblano peppers, lends a smoky and earthy flavor to recipes (think of the many famous mole sauces). Combine it with lime juice and oil and you have the perfect Mex-like marinade for meat or fish. In this case it's shrimp, briefly marinated and then grilled. Paired with a fresh salsa, it's a summery dish that serves well as a quick appetizer when friends stop by.
The grilled shrimp is spicy and savory whereas the mango salsa is sweet and tangy. It may sound a bit unusual to have fruit in a salsa, but it's not uncommon in Mexico and the Caribbean. Fruits indigenous to these areas are utilized in many different ways in recipe preparations. Pineapple, papaya, or guava are also commonly used in salsa frescas. Once combined with savory elements and herbs, such as onions and cilantro, and lime juice to add acidity, the salsa becomes a wonderful condiment, especially for seafood. Use it as a topping for any seared or grilled fish. This dish truly brings to mind Mexico and its unique culinary heritage. Its flavors will have you there in no time.
The biggest lesson I learned when stepping up from someone who occasionally cooked for herself to someone who cooks for a living is that the quality of ingredients is at the apex of importance. Actually, I think tasting the difference between food cooked with cheap or old elements, and fresh, high quality ingredients is a skill everyone develops whether they cook or not. This past summer I was walking home from the gym and passed a Mr. Softee truck. I was feeling depleted and entitled from my workout and stopped for a van/choc swirl cone- a prized acquisition in my childhood.
And you know something? It was disgusting. It tasted exactly like cold, wet plastic. And I was shocked- because I had decided that it was the most delicious and incredibly naughty reward I could give myself. I finished it of course but I had this sneaking suspicion that I would have felt happier had I rewarded myself with something that was good for me like one of the peaches from a local fruit stand. There are things that we all loved as a child that our adult palates won’t tolerate.
And that brings me to Chinese food. As I have mentioned before, I grew up in New York City, on a hearty diet of Chinese take-out at least once or twice a week. It’s what you did. And it was fantastic, I swear. But these days… I cannot figure out why I can’t recapture the blissful Chinese delivery food orgy of my childhood. It all tastes like crap to me, like used fry oil and old ingredients and people skimming every last cent of quality into their bank accounts.
Among all the international foods enjoyed in this country, Mexican food is one of the most popular. It's hard not to love Mexican food: the spiciness, complex and earthy flavors, and multiple textures. It's truly soul-satisfying comfort food. And why shouldn't we like the food of our neighbors? Though we don't always behave so neighborly. With all that's happening right now with Arizona's proposed new immigration law, we can't forget that immigrants built this nation and Mexican-Americans have contributed much to this country.
Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, is the day that commemorates the Mexican defeat of the French army in Peubla in 1862. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not an official holiday and it's not often celebrated. Here in the States we celebrate it as a day of Mexican heritage with lots of food and drink. And what's a Mexican celebration without those two party necessities?
This traditional Mexican snack/appetizer consists of tortilla chips topped with black beans and queso, placed under the broiler so the cheese turns oozy. It's all topped with chunks of tomato and avocado, sliced scallions, and pickled jalapeños. This party food is meant to go with drinks, so grab some Margaritas and dig in.
If I had to pick my favorite type of food, when it comes right down to it, it would have to be Mexican. I do enjoy so many types of food but the fresh flavors of the salsas, onions and avocado, homemade refried beans and I could just go on and on. I just love it.
Living in Southern California for over thirty years gave me countless opportunities to enjoy Mexican cuisine. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo every year on May 5th was always a tradition. We would usually go out for dinner on this festive night, but this year, with the outbreak of the Swine Flu or excuse me the H1N1 Influenza A virus (which is what they want us to call it now and that really rolls off the tongue right, sheesh), I am not too keen on having other people prepare my meals. I'll make my own dinner right here at home thank you.
Anyway, this meant finding a carnitas recipe I knew would taste good and be easy to prepare. I was lucky enough to come across these Pork Carnitas, from Martha Stewart of course, and man it was as good as it was easy.
Rice paper salad rolls are basically salads wrapped in rice paper. You probably already have plenty of salad ingredients in your fridge, but what about Vietnamese rice paper? It's one of those pantry ingredients I've sometimes bought and used once, and then forgot about. And that's kind of a shame because it has a lot going for it. It's cheap, keeps forever and is easy to use.
Rice paper is traditionally used to make Vietnamese "Summer rolls" but like tortillas, it's extremely versatile and shouldn't be limited to only Vietnamese cuisine. Use it as a wrapper for pretty much whatever you like and you've got a great appetizer, snack or meal. While tortillas are served warm, rice paper rolls are served at room temperature.
I believe eating outdoors is more fun than eating inside, and that eating with your fingers makes everything taste better. So that makes rice paper salad rolls perfect for picnics (or take from home lunches). I have used all kinds of different fillings and this is a combination I really like, but experiment! Try sprouts, shredded chicken, smoked salmon, enoki mushrooms--the possibilities are endless.
Panko crusted fish tacos, with a Chipotle-Lime Mayo and Chipotle Spiced Corn....sheer yumminess. Best of all was the Wild Alaskan Halibut I received from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
I'm not sure I could compare the halibut I received to any I have had before. It was a beautiful 2- pound fillet, perfect for making into fish tacos. I have always loved halibut, the texture is just right, and it has a sweet mild flavor, which makes it perfect for a family meal. No complaints of a fishy taste from the munchkins.
Eating seafood from a sustainable source is also something we should all be practicing. Alaskan seafood is some of the most sustainable fish in the world, ensuring continued healthy fish for generations to come.
I sliced my halibut fillet into fairly even pieces, breaded them and pan fried them. This size works perfect in a soft taco shell and these also double as a fish stick if you have little ones who are not fond of tacos.
Dinner comes together so easily when you have amazing food to work with, wouldn't you agree?