Monday, July 24, 2006

If You Can’t Stand the Heat Wave …

Julie’s 29th (again!) Birthday Party: The Menu

- Anni’s Crostini with Gorgonzola, Caramelized Onions & Fig Jam
- Chocolate & Zucchini’s Zucchini Carpaccio
- Passionate Nonchalance’s Artichoke & Manchego Crostini
- Peach Bruschetta with Blue Cheese, from The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Cookbook
- Figs Wrapped in Blue Cheese & Turkey Bacon
- My Famous Prosciutto Involtini
- Plum Tart, adapted from The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Cookbook, and served with Crème Fraiche
- The “Can’t Have a Fay Sisters’ Birthday Without It” Brown Sugar Frosting Spice Cake

Waiting for praise ...


One of those divine days. My new job doesn’t start for another week, the little bit of work I have can be pushed aside until Monday, and for some reason the Third & Fairfax Farmer’s Market isn’t a zoo, even though it’s the middle of July and the height of tourist season. The bins are full: zucchini, plums, figs, and peaches … all to be incorporated into appetizers for my sister’s birthday party tomorrow night. I pick up apricots for myself, to start a batch of liqueur tonight.

I make a trip to Ralph’s for the essential turkey bacon, since my sister does not eat food from piggies, and to Trader Joe’s for blue cheese, crème fraiche, and assorted party essentials. It’s searing hot out, and the house is miserable, but I haven’t had consecutive free days just to plan and prepare for a party in I can’t remember how long, and 95 degree weather isn’t going to get me down. It’s the kind of day that begs for the Amalie soundtrack, a bit of reading on the couch, a nap with the dog.

Then, once it begins to cool down, while Julie is out on a date, since tonight is her actual birthday, I bake the cake. My mother made this cake for us nearly every year of our childhoods. A Betty Crocker Spice Cake, which has been discontinued, so now I have to make it with a yellow cake mix and quatre epices (cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and ground pepper) that we picked up in Paris in the little spice shop next door to our hotel in the St-Germain-des-Pres.

While the cake bakes and cools, I finish The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, one of the most admirable books I have in years, not only because McCullers was 23 when she wrote it, but because it gives dignity to even the least dignified of the characters. Then I watch—confession—The Truth About Cats & Dogs on one of those cheesy cable channels on the 200 level. It’s after 11 when I finally frost the cake with the ultimate sugar rush of brown sugar and butter melted over a double boiler, then combined with powdered sugar and milk. It’s lumpy as all hell, but lumpy frosting has long been “my thing.”

It’s finally cooling down, I’m high from eating the leftover frosting, and so I start The Good Life and read until almost 3 a.m.

Getting started: apricot liqueur


Although I spend the morning working on my novel, I am actually thinking about tonight’s menu, which originated when I decided I wanted to use recipes from some of the blogs I have been enjoying. I had to try Anni’s crostini, because she sent me the fig jam that goes with it, and I really wanted something from Chocolate & Zucchini. I also decided to play roulette, and go with the first appetizer on the first blog listed on Food Porn Watch at the time I was searching. The winner: a crostini from Passionate Nonchalance. Of course I had to include my involtini, which was a hit two weeks before at our big Italian party. And then I decided to round things out with a recipe from one of my cookbooks I have yet to use. Since The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Cookbook is arranged by season, it seemed like a perfect choice. Right there in the section for summer months were recipes for Peach Bruschetta with Blue Cheese, a Plum Galette, and figs wrapped in blue cheese and prosciutto, which I modify greatly for my sister.

I prep in the morning: the involtini filling, caramelized onions, artichoke filling, and the tarts. Heat fills every corner of the house, and drapes over me like a second skin. Our friend Andrea arrives and immediately head for my sister’s bed to take a nap in front of the fan. The three of us go for pedis, simply to sit somewhere cool for a bit, then return to finish up the food. My sister’s boyfriend calls to tell her it’s the hottest day on record in L.A. As the afternoon wanes, the sky turns a pearly, apocalyptic color, and more than one person will say—at some point in the night, which is filled with lots of laughter and some dramatic heat lightning—that it feels as if something terrible is going to happen. As if the war in Iraq and the crisis in Lebanon isn’t enough! Julie’s O.C. college friends, Robin & Trae, arrive and are put to work, spreading blue cheese, cutting peaches, and tasting my limoncello.

As 7:30 nears, the table is nearly ready, and I wander around it, pretending to be nonchalant, but I’m not. It has been ages since I have done more than provide one or two appetizers for a party, and I’m feeling quite proud of myself. And so, I fuss around the table as the guests begin to arrive and work on a modest demeanor for the “oohs” and “ahs” to come …


The house is a huge mess. This heat is likely to render us unconscious before noon. But everyone LOVED the food. And this makes me very happy.

Simple plum tart

Recipes & Modifications:

Anni’s Crostini with Gorgonzola, Caramelized Onions & Fig Jam: I made this recipe per her instructions, although I sautéed the onions longer to soften them up a bit.

Chocolate & Zucchini’s Zucchini Carpaccio: I could not find poppy vinegar, so I used a very light tarragon vinegar, which was nice and refreshing.

Passionate Nonchalance’s Artichoke & Manchego Crostini: When I made this, I thought, “This is too simple.” Little did I know, that would be its appeal.

Figs Wrapped in Blue Cheese & Turkey Bacon: Just like it sounds.

My Famous Prosciutto Involtini

Plum Tart, served with Crème Fraiche: I cheated and used a Pillsbury piecrust to make this. I’d give excuses, but I don’t have any. I come from an extended family of superb pie makers, and if I ever learned how to make a crust, my mom and aunts would have stopped making pies for me. Also, I couldn’t get my hands on a vanilla bean, so I used a little pure vanilla extract. And in one of the tarts, I chopped up some mint, which turned out to be delish!

The “Can’t Have a Fay Sisters’ Birthday Without It” Brown Sugar Frosting Spice Cake: If you really want this recipe, email me!

Peach Bruschetta with Blue Cheese, from The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market Cookbook

This is an exceptional summer appetizer. I adapted it with smaller slices of bread, so that I would get more appetizers out of it. The original recipe is as follows:


4 slices country bread
2 peaches
extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
½ pound Point Reyes Blue, gorgonzola, or Blue Castello cheese


1. Preheat the broiler.

2. Arrange the bread sliced on a rimmed baking sheet, slip under the broiler, and toast, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. This should take only a few minutes.

3. While the bread is toasting, halve the peaches lengthwise, pit them, and then peel each half. Cut each half lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices, keeping the shape of each intact. (I didn’t peel them, and just sliced them up to fit two per crostini).

4. When the bread is ready, remove from the broiler and brush each slice on both sides with olive oil. Spread one-fourth of the cheese on each slice of warm bread, place a sliced peach half on top, and serve.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Has Anyone Seen this Eggplant?

This post is a plea for help. I am working on two recipes for my book. One is an eggplant dish created by Miss Vy in Hoi An. The other is a traditional ragu from Dalat. Each recipe calls for ingredients I am having a hard time finding in Los Angeles. Some of you may recognize the ingredients immediately, but I am in the learning process when it comes to the English names of vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking, so please take pity on me.


The first ingredient is a white eggplant. I have uploaded two photos, so that you can see the color, shape, and size. If anyone knows the name of this eggplant, and also where I might find it, I would be so appreciative. (Right now I am experimenting with a more egg-shaped, white and purple eggplant my sister found at Whole Foods.)


Secondly, I need specific beans for the ragu. These beans are grown in Dalat, and I'm sure they are probably common here in the U.S. Does anyone recognize the beans in the photos below? If so, please send along their English names. I promise to keep you on file for a complimentary cookbook in the spring of 2007!

My thanks in advance to anyone who can help me out with these ingredients.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Life (with Radishes & Prosciutto) is Beautiful

A Note, by Wislawa Szymborska

Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it's not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;

and to keep on not knowing
something important.

Be careful what you wish for … I disagree. I am now six days into something that I have wished for often over the past two years, and I’m glad that I wasn’t careful.

Last month, I quit my job of four years, and as a fitting farewell for my last day, which was Friday, my coworker-in-crime, Sylvie, took me to a screening of The Devil Wears Prada. I’m grateful to have had that job, for the work itself, which I enjoyed, and for the financially secure footing it put me on, but I’m even gladder that there was a straw that finally broke the camel’s back. Because of that silly straw, I emailed my publisher at Things Asian and said, “I want to quit X-job, where I'm not happy. I want to do something that makes me really, really, really happy. May I work for you?" My publisher, a man of generosity, kindness, creativity, and integrity, said … yes. Sigh! As of August first, (after taking the month of July off), I will be the managing editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook series.

A beautiful life requires proactive efforts, something I had forgotten in recent years and was reminded of, in all places, in the world of food blogging. As I began reading food blogs in April (I know, I’m a Jane-Come-Lately), I discovered people around the world who lovingly, zestfully, exuberantly, and quietly incorporate life’s greatest pleasure into their lives. Reading Chocolate & Zucchini, I think of both MFK Fisher and Laurie Colwin. The words are so light, and by that I do not mean frivolous, but filled with radiance. Reading Orangette, I remember my own twenties, living in Seattle, working at the Elliott Bay Bookstore, teaching myself how to cook and reading Gourmet—I thought I was the height of sophistication when I got my own subscription. I have already made a new blog friend, Anni, who sent me the most amazing fig confiture, and who is inspiring me now by making her own cheese.

Yes, a straw broke the camel’s back and prompted me to quit, but it was all those lovely food blogs out there that pushed me to ask for the job I really desired and reminded me how I want to live my life once again now that I’m free. Just when you think life is too busy dealing you blows—the loss of my beloved Grammy, the loss of a former boyfriend, a mean boss, this really messed up world—it comes up with some crazy way to remind you that it is also a thing of great beauty. Reminds me that I was very lucky to have had Grammy for so long in my life, to have had that former boyfriend who taught me how to appreciate the value of words and faith, to have had a job where I could write all day, to have the privilege of living in this world no matter how messy it is. Free from my old job and inspired by the always positive words of foodies around the world, I spent this weekend celebrating ...

Reading for hours on end the way I used to when I a kid: The History of Love gives me hope in the future of American literature! … Going to the Hollywood Farmer’s market with my sister and friend, Lisa, and buying apricots, artichokes, tamales, bread, grapefruit, and radishes so beautiful they inspired me to spend that night working on an enormous painting for the living room … Sorting through all the recipes I cut out of magazines over the past five years and actually making two of them (the sun-dried tomato tart was nice and the butterscotch biscotti a dud) … Cleaning up the novel I began 10 years ago so I can finally send it to agents … Starting a batch of nocino for Christmas gift-giving … Replanting my balcony garden with herbs and geraniums … Eating and drinking with my sis and our friend, Vickie, who is house-sitting for a friend with a pool—L.A. has never been hotter, and a pool never more enjoyed.

I haven’t cooked anything in the past few weeks that dazzled me, so I’m going to share a favorite recipe. This is a hit every time I take it to a party. And since prosciutto is yet one more thing in life to celebrate—I would nominate it for its own food group, if such a thing was possible—I want to pass it on.

Prosciutto & Artichoke Involtini
(from Food & Wine magazine)


- 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup slivered blanched almonds (2 oz.)
- 1 can artichoke hearts (not marinated), drained and patted dry
- ¼ cup cream cheese, softened
- 2 Tbls freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ tsp finely grated lemon zest
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 18 thin slices of prosciutto


1) Heat the oil in a small skillet.
2) Add the almonds and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool.
3) In a mini food processor, pulse the artichoke hearts with the almonds until finely chopped.
4) Add the cream cheese, Parmesan and lemon zest and process to a paste.
5) Season with salt & pepper.
6) Lay 3 prosciutto slices on a work surface, overlapping them slightly along the sides.
7) Spoon 2 tablespoons of the artichoke filling onto the short end and roll into a tight cylinder. Repeat with the remaining prosciutto and filling.
8) Trim the ends, cut into quarters & serve.

A platter of Prosciutto Involtini
People actually speak with reverence about this appetizer ...