Monday, December 20, 2010

Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Exciting news! Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam has won Best Asian Cuisine Book (USA Division) in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2010. This puts it in the running for Best Asian Cuisine Book in the World. 

Along with this honor, Communion has received numerous reviews since its publication in May, and I am grateful for the many words of praise. This is such a special book to me, and I hope to see it flourish in 2011 thanks to the support of family, friends and reviewers around the world.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Betty Crocker's Thumbprint Cookies (AKA Dad's Bird Nest Cookies)

When my grammy passed away a few years ago, Christmas changed. For decades my dad, mom, sister and I spent Christmas Eve at her house --- and then a rented hall when we ran out of space in her living room --- with aunts, uncles and nearly a hundred cousins (not counting husbands & wives, step-kids, etc.), but after Gram was gone, each family drifted toward its own traditions. Then my sister married a man from London, and now they spend Christmas there. So last Christmas I was with my dad and mom for a quiet holiday at their house in Tucson.

Thumbprint cookies at the very back

My dad has always been sentimental about his mom’s cooking, and he decided he was going to make not just one of his favorite cookies from childhood, but all of them! He had found a pristine 1956 edition of the Betty Crocker cookbook his mom used, and with the thoroughness and precision of the engineer that he is, he gathered the ingredients and got to work.

Most challenging were the ginger creams that required numerous emails to my cousin Lisa. As you will see in the photo, the trick is to make them as thin as possible. At first it didn’t seem that it was going to happen (the dough was too elastic; then it was too crumbly), but my dad is persistent, and after trial and error and trial and error and trial and error, those crispy, paper thin cookies came into existence. Also on the cookie menu: Russian teacakes and a chocolate log roll. And finally, thumbprint cookies, or as my dad wrote to me, “I call these bird nest cookies, but you cannot argue with Betty.”

I love that this recipe is listed under,
"Sprightly teacakes for family and friends."

I’d love to post the recipe for the ginger creams, but I think those need a few more test runs before we can explain exactly how my dad got them right, so we’ll start with thumbprint cookies, directly from my dad and Betty Crocker (word for word, with the exception of a few tweaks for formatting, which I could not figure out how to do on this page).

THUMBPRINT COOKIES: Nut-rich…the thumb dents filled with sparkling jelly.

We are as delighted with this quaint addition to our cooky collection, from Ken MacKenzie, as is the collector of old glass when a friend presents her with some early thumbprint goblets.

Mix thoroughly………………….
- ½ cup soft shortening (half butter)
- ¼ cup brown sugar (packed)
- 1 egg yolk
- ½ tsp vanilla

Sift together and stir in………….

- 1 cup sifted GOLD MEDAL flour
- ¼ tsp. salt


Roll in 1” balls. Dip in slightly beaten egg whites. Roll in finely chopped nuts (3/4 cup).

Place about 1” apart on an un-greased baking sheet and press thumb into center of each.

Bake at 375 for 10 to 12 minutes until set. Cool.

Place in thumbprints a bit of chopped candied fruit, sparkling jelly, or tinted confectioners’ sugar icing.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Creating new traditions from old

Friday, December 03, 2010

Skylight Books Reading & Slide Show

What a terrific way to wind up the year for Communion—more than 50 people came to our reading and slide show at Skylight Books two Sundays ago. Family, friends, book lovers, Vietnam lovers, and a local food group, Foodie Connection, filled the house, as I read from the book (one of my favorite passages about the Julia Child of Vietnam), and Jules showed slides and discussed photographing the people and food of the country.

Jules & me in front of one of the many
displays for Communion around the store

Afterward, we served Julie’s banana flower salad, my Vietnamese mom’s spring rolls (recipe to come), and wine—both dishes were a huge hit (the wine, too!). As well, the Mandoline Grill food truck parked outside, and most guests ordered at least one dish, perching wherever they found a space in the store to eat Vietnamese "tacos" and banh mi sandwiches. I took home eight leftover sandwiches and ate six during the next two days—so good!

Jules talks about photographing Vietnam

We can’t thank everyone enough for buying Communion and supporting us and Skylight (a great independent bookstore). We also want to thank Skylight for being such an incredible host. The event coordinator, Mary, went out of her way to accommodate my endless email chain of requests; our coordinator for the night, Liz, was a gem, helping us with our many needs; and the staff was terrific about everyone eating, drinking, and lingering throughout the store.

A few members of the Food Connection group

Jules and I were floating on air afterward, from the festive mood of the night and pleasure of being able to share our book and its food with so many people.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, to everyone who has supported Communion since its publication in May!!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Instructional Video for Clay Pot Fish

For her blog, Chopstick Cinema, my friend and colleague Celeste Heiter made this terrific instructional video for cooking my clay pot fish recipe from Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam. The recipe and further information can be found at the bottom of this post here at Serve It Forth---or in Communion!

To read more about the book (including a description, reviews and another recipes), click here go to my website.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Instructional Video for Clay Pot Fish

I was so thrilled when my friend and colleague, Celeste Heiter (editor of To Japan With Love and author of The Sushi Book and more) told me that she had made an instructional video for my clay pot fish recipe from Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam.

(photograph by Julie Fay Ashborn)

While traveling and learning to cook for the book, my sister and I made this dish three times: in Nha Trang, in Dalat, and in Saigon. Based on all three experiences, I came up with this recipe, which we have served in intimate dinner party settings as well as at a party for twenty-five foodies and winemakers. Every time it was a hit!

Celeste’s video is clear and simple, and makes this recipe for clay pot fish accessible for American kitchens. If you don’t have a clay pot, use a heavy-bottom saucepan. Celeste also includes a link to the recipe in her blog post. Check it out here, and give it a try.

The recipe is also given at this Serve It Forth blog post:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cambodia and North India Join the To Asia With Love Guidebook Series

I just learned that To Cambodia With Love and To North India With Love have hit American shores. Very exciting! This brings the To Asia With Love guidebook series up to five volumes---Vietnam, Myanmar, Japan, Cambodia, and North India.

I've posted excerpts from the Cambodia and North India books at For foodies, every volume in the To Asia With Love series has a chapter on unique culinary experiences, and each set of excerpts on includes a few tantalizing essays to give you a taste of the recommendations each book contains. Great for armchair reading! Great for holiday giving!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Banana Flower Salad with the BrookeWorms Book Club

Last week I had the privilege of attending my first book club discussion for Communion. My mom’s book club, The SaddleBrooke BrookeWorms, gathered at my parents' home in the SaddleBrooke community in Tucson, to talk about Communion, make fresh spring rolls, and nibble on a few Vietnamese dishes.

In writing Communion, my hope was to start a conversation not only about Vietnam, but about how we eat reflects who we are as individuals and as communities. Being able to have that conversation with a group of smart, interesting women was the best part of the night. It was so much fun to hear the comments and answer questions about everything from Communism to font size. I was most struck by how much everyone enjoyed reading about my relationship with my sister, who took the book’s culinary journey with me, as well as all the photos. While Communion is about Vietnam, it cannot help but be personal, because of my love for the country and because of the meaning food has for me—I associate eating with the best times spent with my parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

The BrookeWorms

After the talk, we got down to business in the kitchen. It was clear that most of these women are cooking pros, since there were a lot of perfect first-time spring rolls. (After years of practice, mine are still inconsistent and often floppy!) Ingredients for the night were purchased at Lee Lee Market in Tucson, an incredible supermarket that even had banana flowers. Except for Thai basil, which the store was out of, I found everything needed for lemongrass chicken, spring rolls, and banana flower salad.

Making spring rolls

As requested, the name of the sauce everyone enjoyed is “Mae Ploy sweet chilli sauce.” The ingredients that went into our spring rolls were rice paper, rice sticks (vermicelli), red bell peppers, shitake mushrooms, shrimp, mint, a Vietnamese cinnamon-flavored herb whose name I can’t remember, and baked tofu. Since I left the cookbook with the lemongrass chicken recipe at my mom’s house, I can’t share that yet (but will soon, I promise). In the meantime, I’m posting the recipe for banana flower salad.

But before I do … a thousand thanks to my mom for shopping, prepping, hosting, and bragging. To Ann, Dee, Dot, Judy D., Judy H., Marilyn, Marsha, Nancy, Pat, and Sue for not only supporting Communion, but for reading it so thoughtfully. To special guests Marilyn, Sharla, Paula, and Gail for adding to the discussion. And to Bette, the editor of the SaddleBag Notes, who will be writing about the night and Communion for the newspaper. Lastly, to illustrate what a lovely group this is, book club member Elizabeth, who was out of town, called the next day to tell me how much she enjoyed the book. This is exactly the kind of readership I hoped Communion would find.

Julie’s Banana Flower Salad

Serving: 4 as a side or 2 as a main dish for lunch.

Salad ingredients:- 2 banana flowers, thinly sliced (see directions)
- 2 tbsp. peanut oil
- Scant 1/4 cup shallot, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh Thai basil, coarsely chopped
- 3 tbsp. lime juice + 1 lime for the bowl of water
- Large bowl of room temperature water

Dressing ingredients:

- 3 tbsp. lime juice
- 2 tsp. brown sugar
- 1 red Thai chili, chopped
- 2 tsp. fish sauce
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped


1. Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet. Sauté the shallots until golden brown. Leave them in the oil, and set aside to cool.

2. Squeeze fresh lime juice into the bowl of water. This will be used to prevent the banana flower slices from turning brown.

3. Peel back the dark purple layers of the banana flower until you reach layers with just a hint of purple. Using a mandoline, slice the banana flower into thin rings, beginning at the point and slicing about three-quarters of the way down. The rings will look similar to onion rings. Immediately soak the rings in the lime water until ready to use. Set aside.

4. Once the oil is cool, mix in half of the mint leaves and half of the Thai basil with the sautéed shallots.

5. Mix the dressing ingredients in a separate bowl. Heat lovers will want to add more chili.

6. When you slice the banana flower, you will end up with small bits from the center of the flower. Strain these out using a spoon. Don’t worry if you don’t get all of them. Remove the banana flower from the water, and combine with the shallot/mint/basil mixture, chopped peanuts, and remainder of the fresh mint and basil.

7. Toss in the dressing, and serve.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Honey Oat Muffins

Finishing my novel. Getting into the swing of my new (old) job as the hotel editor at With the hours of each day being consumed at the speed of light, there’s not much in the way of creative cooking going on around here. Instead I’m relying on old favorites: turkey soup, chicken artichoke soup, the black bean enchiladas that became a staple in my culinary repertoire more than twenty years ago (recipe to come soon), and pork chops with red onion marmalade. (I’ve also been relaxing at night by making applesauce for my mom and dad). But I did decide to start making muffins every Sunday, so that I can have an easy breakfast food to nibble on throughout the week.

My first attempt was honey oat muffins. They’re good as is, (the first batch I made at my sister's house quickly disappeared), but I want to play around next time I make them. I will 1) add more cinnamon, 2) use only whole wheat flour instead of white, 3) exchange some of that whole wheat flour for bran, and 4) trade out a little more of that whole wheat flour for more oatmeal—I like my muffins with grit to them.

(Photo: Julie Fay Ashborn)
White House Honey Oat Muffins
from Food & Wine

Makes: 12 muffins

  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup wheat or oat bran
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 heaping teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt 
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 2 large eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 375°.

2. In a large bowl, mix the oats with the whole-wheat flour, bran, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, coriander and salt.

3. In another bowl, whisk the honey with the buttermilk, canola oil and eggs. Pour the honey mixture into the dry ingredients; mix just until combined.

4. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups and bake for about 18 minutes, until they're golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean.

5. Let the muffins cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer them to a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Communion’s Pacific Northwest Book Tour

You’re wrong, Mr. Thomas Wolfe. You can go home again. And it feels good. Terrific, in fact. Last week Jules and I traveled to the Pacific Northwest for three readings: Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle, WA), Village Books (Bellingham, WA), and Broadway Books (Portland, OR).

Our tour kicked off unofficially the night before the Elliott Bay reading at the house of my cousin Shelly and her husband Nick. Aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered to help us celebrate, and I even did a small reading—my cousin’s Kathy and Lisa selected a passage about the importance of pies in our family (yes, Pacific Northwest pies are related to Vietnamese food—just read Chapter One in Communion to find out how!) It was amazing to sit before these people who mean the most to me and read, because it is with them that I first discovered the value and beauty of communing around a table.

Cousins and Aunt Norma ... always an appreciative audience.

The next day, Sunday afternoon, more than seventy people filled the audience at the Elliott Bay Book Company. A healthy portion was made up of family members, but there were also former colleagues from my days of working at Elliott Bay, high school friends, and college pals. Our lovely version of This Is Your Life. A pretty terrific life, I might add, given those who came … some of our favorite people in the whole world. As well, Rick Simonson, the store’s buyer and driving force behind the store's acclaimed reading series, joined the crowd, which really made me feel like I’d arrived. (When I worked at the bookstore, Rick was the reason so many exceptional authors came to read, and I was in awe of him.) As with all three readings, I read passages from the book that illustrate how the people of Vietnam led me to a love of the food, and Jules shared slides while explaining why it’s such a pleasure to photograph the people and food of Vietnam.

A full house at Elliott Bay.

Signing books for friends and family.

In Bellingham, the crowd of more than thirty included just a handful of friends and family members. The rest were all curious strangers, who asked lots of interesting questions (we could tell we were in a college town). Afterward, everyone hung around to enjoy fresh spring rolls that we’d brought from Saigon Boat in Seattle (2632 Alki Avenue SW). If you’re ever down on Alki, stop in for a bowl of pho or grilled pork with fresh rice noodles. The banh mi sandwiches are excellent too (we stocked up on those for our road trip to Portland).

Serving spring rolls to the audience.

Our third and last reading was at Broadway Books in Portland. What a fantastic bookstore. Although the crowd was much smaller, it was made up of people close to our hearts, from my high school best friend and college roommate to my high school boyfriend’s parents and our old youth pastor and his wife. As Jules and I read and spoke, it felt as if we were at a reunion in the living room of a close friend. Afterward there was lots of catching up and more spring rolls from Saigon Boat.

It was satisfying to have such enthusiastic crowds (and of course sell lots of books), but most satisfying was to have so many people we love come out and help us celebrate. It felt good to share the Vietnam part of our lives with the important people from our past.

Many thanks to everyone who came, listened, and bought books. For those who would still like a book, Elliott Bay, Village Books, and Broadway Books all have signed copies. Please order from them and support local independent bookstores. Each of these stores was such a generous host, as well as a reminder of what important community gathering places a local bookshop can be.

More photos from the tour can be found on the Communion Facebook page, I’ve been told these links are public and you do not have to sign in to view them. Drop me a note if you can’t see them, and I’ll send photos another way.

Photos from the Elliott Bay Book Company reading

Photos from the Village Books reading

Photos from the Broadway Books reading

Lastly, a thousand thanks to Kurtis Lowe who went above and beyond to set up the readings, drive us around, run the slide shows and, bottom line, make this wonderful week possible.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Communion: Pacific Northwest Book Tour

The time has come! Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam is hitting the road. Please join Julie and me throughout the following week for readings in Seattle, Bellingham, and Portland. We'll be serving Vietnamese nibbles in Bellingham and Portland, and wine in Portland (sorry, Washington, you have such strict liquor laws!).

Elliott Bay Book Company
1521 Tenth Avenue
Seattle, Washington
Sunday, September 19, 2010, at 4 p.m.

Village Books
1200 11th Street
Bellingham, Washington
Monday, September 20, 2010, at 7 p.m.

Broadway Books
1714 NE Broadway
Portland, Oregon
Wednesday, September 22, 2010, at 7 p.m.

More information on Communion is available at my website and the Communion Facebook page. We're looking forward to seeing friends, family, and lots of new faces.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Kitchen Sink Chili-Stew-Soup

This dish all started because I made a vow to myself that I will not waste any more fruit or vegetables. I’m an overzealous shopper, so I always buy enough lettuce or plums for an army. Most recently, my wilting produce included half a red bell pepper, half a yellow bell pepper, and green onions. I also had an accidentally purchased can of S&W chili-seasoning kidney beans. Thinking I could make some sort of chili type soup, I chopped the vegetables and mixed them and the beans (not drained) with a box of chicken broth, garlic powder, and World Market mesquite spice.

The result was fine, but unsatisfying. This veggie soup was in desperate need of meat. I walked over to the Farmer’s Market and asked my butcher for a pound of stew meat. Back home I coated the cubed beef in flour, salt, pepper, and mesquite, and I browned it. I tossed it into the pot. Better, but something was still missing.

I gazed at the frying pan with its leftover layer of beef fat and thought … onions. Out I went again, this time to the little produce shop on the corner of Fairfax and Rosewood. One yellow onion later I was back in my kitchen coarsely chopping the onion and caramelizing it in the fat. Into the pot that went, with even more garlic powder and more mesquite. I let it all simmer for two hours, and OMG! Perhaps the tastiest kitchen sink dish I’ve made so far.

While at the market I’d also bought a bottle of Pinot Noir and a French baguette for dipping in the broth. But now plain bread seemed lackluster in light of the hearty stew soup I’d concocted. I opened the fridge, and there like a small miracle before me was half a carton of buttermilk, left behind from my parents’ recent visit. I also had a chunk of cheddar cheese. I hopped online, Googled recipes for cheddar buttermilk biscuits, and came up with one that called for cayenne pepper too—it seemed perfect. And it was!

Add to this sharing the meal with someone I adore, hours of good conversation, John Coltrane and Art Blakey playing in the background, and that bottle of red wine, and this turned out to be the recipe for a perfect evening.

Kitchen Sink Chili-Stew-Soup

  • Half red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
  • Half yellow bell pepper, coarsely chopped
  • 6 green onions, green and white parts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 lb. chuck/shoulder (stew meat), cubed into half to one-inch pieces and browned in flour, salt, pepper, and mesquite spice
  • 1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped, caramelized in the beef fat
  • 1 32-ounce box chicken broth
  • Garlic powder
  • World Market mesquite seasoning blend

See the description above the photo. Note that I went heavy on the mesquite to give this soup a real kick.

Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits
adapted from
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used almost a teaspoon)
  • 1/2 cup cold butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk

1) In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cayenne.

2) Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

3) Add the cheese and toss.

4) Stir in buttermilk. The dough will be sticky.

5) Divide dough into eight parts to make drop biscuits. Place on an ungreased baking sheet.

6) Bake at 425 degrees F for 15-18 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Countdown to a book launch party …

The book launch party for Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, took place on Wednesday, July 14, at Traveler's Bookcase in Los Angeles. Surrounded by family, friends, and many of the store's regular customers, my sister Julie and I celebrated the publication of this book that means so much to both of us—as a collaboration between two sisters and as a tribute to a country we love. Following is a small diary of the days leading up the big night and the night itself (with plenty of photos). Bon appetit!

Jules and me at Traveler's Bookcase

Three days until the launch:

The invitations have been sent. Announcements have gone out in the LA Times and the LA Weekly’s Squid Ink food blog. Traveler’s Bookcase has taken charge of the wine, and I’m pretty sure I know what I’m going to wear: the bamboo dress that I bought from Loehmann’s on super sale + 75% off. I spend the evening watching a movie (Shopgirl, yes again, if you must know), unwinding and gearing up for the next three days of running around the city shopping for ingredients and cooking.

Two days until the launch:

9 a.m.
I pick up my friend Jenny, who will be my trusty sidekick/sous chef for the preparations, and we drive to the Bangkok Market (4757 Melrose Ave.) to buy ingredients for the three dishes that will be served at the party: clay pot chicken, grilled lemongrass chicken and pork, and banana flower salad (the latter two recipes soon to come). I’m not happy with the fish sauce selection, and there are only five banana flowers (Jules needs ten—sadly, she can't be with us because she's working), but otherwise, I find everything on my list. Then I get to the cash register, the clerk rings the items through, and I see the tiny sign that says the debit card machine isn’t working. Jenny guards our purchases while I drive down the block to take cash out of an ATM. Rather than be annoyed, I just pretend I’m back in Asia, where inconvenience is a part of daily life!

11 a.m.
Jenny and I swing by to get my mom for a trip to Chinatown, where we hunt for a clay pot worthy of crowd-sized servings. I bought one here years ago, for a party in Paso Robles—where I also gave it away. The guy I gave it to deserved it (he let Jules and me stay at his house instead of an expensive hotel for the weekend). Still, I regret giving it to him, since I can't find another one. It was only $7, and it was perfect for feeding a couple dozen people. Lesson learned: make sure to keep a clay pot for yourself before handing them out at parties.

After exploring all the shops (and buying a few fun trinkets), we go to Pho 97 (727 N. Broadway, #120) for lunch, to whet our appetites for the book launch. Jenny has the chicken pho and my mom and I have the grilled pork with rice noodles and spring rolls (#21 on the menu). My mom hasn’t had much Vietnamese food, and she loves this dish. The broth in Jenny’s soup is complex, the way the broth in a traditional, well-made pho should be. I haven’t been to Pho 97 in years and had forgotten how much I like it. I plan to recommend it to everyone who asks me where to eat good Vietnamese food in L.A. (It also seems cleaner than it used to be.)

3 p.m.
On the way home, Jenny and I swing into the Bangluk Market (5170 Hollywood Boulevard), where I find a fish sauce I’m somewhat satisfied with. It still has sugar in it, but only 1%, as opposed to most others with more + fructose and/or MSG. I keep hoping one day that I’ll stumble across a fish sauce made in Vietnam, but for now, all I can find are brands with Vietnamese words on the labels but made in Thailand.

One day until the launch:

10 a.m.
To Costco with my mom and dad to buy pork shoulder, chicken breasts, and all of the serving supplies (paper plates, cups, spoons and forks, etc.) Many thanks to my parents for helping fund the party!

6 p.m.
Because I’m short five banana flowers, I pick up Jenny, who is ready with her trusty box cutter and step ladder, and we head out to plunder the city’s banana trees. We start on her corner: Blackburn and La Jolla, where we not so surreptitiously cut two banana flowers from a tree in front of an apartment building. Feeling triumphant, we drive around her neighborhood for half an hour, but our happiness is soon dampened. The only banana tree we see belongs to a house and is behind a high adobe fence.

Earlier in the day, I saw some banana flowers at a house on Beverly Boulevard near Van Ness, so we take off across the city. But when we get to the house, the banana flowers are higher than I remembered. We prop the step-ladder on the sidewalk, and Jenny does her best to bend the tree down so the flower (big and tempting) is reachable. There we are as the automatic sprinklers soak us, cars race by, and the flower hangs just out of reach. Unbelievably, given all the noise we make, no one comes out of the house to ask what in the heck we’re doing beneath the windows with a ladder and box cutter!

We have one more idea—a banana flower Jenny saw near her mechanic’s just up the road. We score. Two trees with a flower each right in front of an apartment building. We raid the first tree easily—a small flower, but we’ll take what we can get. Then we go for the second tree. Perhaps we’re being punished for our greediness. As we pull the trunk down, Jenny says, “These trees are really flexible.” Snap! Turns out it’s possible to break a banana tree. I quickly cut the flower, and we prop the broken tree behind another against a second floor balcony and take off running. Thrilled with our four contraband banana flowers, and covered in scratches and banana flower sap, Jenny and I spend the rest of the evening drinking wine and prepping ingredients.

Contraband banana flowers from
the banana trees around Los Angeles

Day of the book launch:

5:30 a.m.
I get up early so I won’t be rushed and spend a leisurely few hours making clay pot chicken—which I totally botch. I go against my own instructions and use coconut milk instead of coconut juice/water. It’s too sweet. I try to balance things out by using less sugar in the carmelization process and more fish sauce and chili, but ultimately have to dilute the liquid with water, so what I end up with tastes more like tom kha gai, which will be noted more than once at the party.

9 a.m.
I cut a hundred or so strips of pork and chicken, stab them with skewers, and leave them to soak in the marinade.

11 a.m.
I finish prepping the banana flower salad, so everything will be ready for Jules when she gets off work early—if she gets off work early. We’re still not sure if it’s going to happen, but we have high hopes, since banana flower salad is her dish.

I think I’m going to die from the heat. I finish printing the brochures for the party, then spend half an hour passed out waiting for the next phase of preparations to begin.

1 p.m.
My parents arrive, final ingredients are chopped, and the real cooking starts. By three thirty my dad is standing over a grill finessing the pork and chicken, and Jules has arrived—YAY!—and is fast at work on her banana flower salad.

Dad valiantly grilling pork and chicken (while
reading the paper!) in insane summer heat

6 p.m.
Dad drops Jules and me off at Traveler’s Bookcase to help Greg and Natalie, the owners, set up, which doesn't take as long as expected. But our chance to relax is short-lived. Friends, family, and customers are beginning to arrive—along with the
Mandoline Grill food truck, which parks right outside the store.
Me, Jules, Natalie (owner, Traveler's Bookcase),
Mong (owner, Mandoline Grill food truck)

7:30 p.m.
The store is PACKED with about fifty people: family, friends, regular store customers, people who read about the event in one of the papers, and
Nick Ut, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who took the iconic Vietnam War photo of the girl running from the napalm attack. What an honor to have him at our launch! Jules and I are in awe as we have our picture taken with him!

Jules and me with Nick Ut

My mom and Jeanne serve the food, and once everyone has a plate and some wine, Jules and I get started. I speak briefly about the origins of Communion, I read briefly from the introduction, Jules speaks briefly about photographing Communion, we banter like the good sisters we are, and then we answer a few questions, briefly—because the heat is crazy (the store’s air conditioner broke four hours ago), and it does, as Jules says, feel just like Vietnam tonight. Then …

My cousin Jeanne and Mom serving food.

Jules and me reading, talking,
and having fun with the audience.

8:30 p.m.

The fun begins. I get to sign books (like a real author!!) and listen to want-to-be-writers ask for advice (like a real author!!), while everyone mingles, drinks, and eats inside and out. The sidewalk is crowded with people enjoying dishes from the food truck, and once again Jules and I feel like we’re in Vietnam, sweating like crazy while everyone eats sitting on plastic chairs and the ground. Most people stay until around ten, and the consensus is: success!

Sidewalk dining at the Mandoline Grill
food truck outside Traveler's Bookcase

Natalie and Greg of Traveler’s Bookcase, not only for hosting the party, but for being such enthusiastic supporters of my books; Jules whose photos make Communion the kind of book that people are drawn to from across a room; Mong for hauling her food truck across town and serving such terrific dishes; my dad for being the best dad ever and grilling for two and a half hours in miserable heat; my mom for being the best mom ever and serving food; Jim for really “getting it”; Jenny for being the best banana flower hunting partner ever; Hilary for taking photos all night; Jeanne for serving food with my mom; Connie for being the best writing friend/partner a girl could ever have; and for coming to the party, buying books, and being so proud of Jules and me (that is what touched me the most!): Clive, Colette, Jen B/writing + Ed, Ann, Michelle C., Melissa, Kelly, Jen B/NCJW, Michelle K., Emily, Macie, Anita, Carlos, Kyle, Michael, Marta, Mickey, Josh, Barbara, and the many others I met who had such nice things to say about Communion. Additional thanks to my publisher Albert, my colleague Janet B., and the book's designer Janet M., without whom Communion would not exist.

I had SO much fun—for my first book launch party, I could not have asked for a better night!!

For more pictures from the night, you can go to the Communion Facebook page, where I have posted a full photo album.

For more about the book, please visit my website.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Laurie Colwin's Tomato Pie

Some days I just need a Laurie Colwin fix. There is no other way to describe it. Depending on the kind of day I’m having, I might need to stop everything I’m doing and read Happy All the Time—I don’t know why, but I never tire of Guido, Holly, Vincent, and Misty. Other days simply an essay out of one of her food books will do. Although a “quick fix” can often lead to a binge of a dozen or more essays in a row, or as in the case of last week, everything being dropped so that I could sit on my kitchen floor and read Home Cooking from cover to cover, appreciating “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” just as much on the twenty-somethingth reading as I did on the first. And of course, reading Laurie is inevitably followed by the need to make one of her recipes. This time: Tomato Pie. It was one of the first dishes I taught myself to make as an adult living on my own, and yet I still got a thrill last week (more than twenty years after I first made it) to think that I—yes me!—actually baked that thin, flaky buttermilk crust filled with tomatoes. I know that first loves are often romanticized over the years, but this is one that honestly stands the test of time.

Tomato Pie
adapted from More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin

Making the crust:

• 2 cups unbleached bread flour
• 1 stick butter
• 4 tsp baking powder
• ¾ cup buttermilk

Rub the butter into the flour and baking powder with your fingers. When the butter is well blended, add milk until you have a not-too-sticky dough. Roll out half the dough on a floured surface and line a 9-inch pie plate with it.

Making the filling:

• Two 28 oz. cans chopped tomatoes, drained
• Chopped basil, chives and/or scallions (I sometimes use all three)
• 1 ½ cups grated sharp cheddar
• 1/3 cup mayonnaise (I use crème fraiche), thinned with 2 Tbsp lemon juice

1. Lay tomatos over crust. Scatter with basil, chives and scallions. Scatter half the cheddar. Drizzle yogurt/lemon mixture. Top with the rest of the cheddar.

2. Roll out the remaining dough, fit it over the filling, and pinch the edges of the dough together to seal them. Cut several steam vents in the top crust and bake at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes.

(This dish is very good reheated at 350 degrees until hot the next day.)

Tomato on Foodista

Monday, May 31, 2010

Communion: Now Available!

Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam is finally out in the world! You can purchase a copy of your very own at your favorite bookstore or one of the following places:

- Traveler’s Bookcase
- Elliott Bay Book Company
- Skylight Books
- Your local, independent bookstore
- Amazon

*** Review copies are available. If you're a food writer interested in reviewing Communion, please contact me at

About Communion:

Living in Vietnam for four years in the 1990s, Seattle native Kim Fay fell in love with the romantic landscapes, the rich culture, and the uninhibited warmth of the people. A decade later, she grew hungry for more. Inspired by the dream of learning to make a Vietnamese meal for her friends and family in America, Kim returned to Vietnam and embarked on an unforgettable five-week culinary journey from Hanoi to Saigon.

Joined by her sister and best Vietnamese girlfriend, Kim set off to taste as much as possible while exploring rituals and traditions, street cafés and haute cuisine, famine and feast, and Communism and the legacy of war. Together, the three women discovered a society shaped by its ever-changing relationship with food. Every encounter serves up an enticing morsel, from uncovering the secret world of ragu in the French hill town of Dalat to bonding with the Julia Child of Vietnam in Saigon. Epicures and culture buffs will delight in markets, restaurants, farms, fisheries, and cooking classes as Kim assembles her dream meal and shares recipes such as banana flower salad and clay pot fish. Examining how we eat reflects who we are as individuals and as communities, Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam offers a feast for armchair gourmets, as well as a colorful guide for travelers hungering for their next adventure.

You can also read more about Communion, including reviews, at my website

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Food for Giving

When it comes to gift giving, I often run around like a chicken with its head cut off, looking for the perfect present. Then, after wasting many hours, I decide to make it. A fruit jam, an onion marmalade, a sweet treat—or maybe some combination of these three. The most recent gift I needed was for Jim’s mother (whom I hadn’t yet met) for her eightieth birthday. Clearly it had to be special. Since strawberries are in season, strawberry jam seemed ideal. And since the scones I baked could have been used as hockey pucks, I whipped up a batch of my famous (at least in my family) shortbread. Tucked prettily into tea towels in a bamboo bowl from Vietnam, they made a fetching package.

I don’t know why I ever go to stores looking for “just the right thing.” Any time I give a gift of homemade food, the entire experience is satisfying—the making, the presentation, the giving, and often the sharing. And I always make sure there are leftovers. In this case three extra jars of jam and eight stray pieces of shortbread, which I gave to my dad—who ate all of the shortbread (except half a piece he gave to my mom) and most of a jar of jam in one sitting!

Rather than posting a new recipe (and I do have a couple good ones I’ll soon share), I’m including links below to my favorite recipes for giving as gifts, just in case you need something for a wedding shower, birthday, or simply “I’m glad you’re my friend” present.

The strawberry jam mentioned above is based on the raspberry pear jam recipe that this links to. Just substitute strawberries for the raspberries and pears. I also suggest cutting back on the sugar, depending on how sweet the strawberries are.

This recipe comes from Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. It’s one of the first foods I learned how to make for myself as an adult after college out in the “real world.” I’m re-reading the book again, and all I have to say is … buy it, read it, remind yourself how easy it can be to be to create happiness in your life. As for the shortbread recipe: this time around I made it in an 8x8 pan and scored it in squares, rather than the wedges suggested in the blog post.

Red Onion Marmalade
For friends who like savory foods, this is a never-fail gift. Served with a sharp, hard cheese, it’s the best appetizer ever!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sweet Potato Salad

Some nights are perfect. Just the right combination of family/friends, food, conversation, and—last Saturday night—song. Because my cousin Jeanne’s birthday was so much fun last year, we decided to do a repeat performance this year. Her brother Bill and his wife Jody hosted once again. A menu was carefully chosen—all recipes from Claudia Roden’s Arabesque. And those who know how to play were asked to bring their guitars.

I’d already fallen in love with Arabesque when I made a meal from it last year. The recipes are some of the most straightforward I’ve used, while the flavors are complex. A good example: the Tagine of Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives, which Jody took charge of this time around. It has an exotic combination of ingredients (saffron, preserved lemon, cinnamon), and at the same time can serve as an anchor for nearly every appetizer, salad, and side in the cookbook.

Among the numerous items Jeanne made, the Eggplant Slices with Pomegranate, Yogurt, and Tahini (page 261) was my favorite. I made the crowd-pleasing Orange, Olive, and Onion Salad (too easy/too good), a forgettable fava bean and artichoke salad (I was forced to rely on canned fava beans and frozen artichoke hearts), and Sweet Potato Salad. The latter was a happy discovery because as a side it completes my go-to Arabesque meal—I’d been looking for something to unite with the tagine of chicken and orange salad for a simple summer menu.

Along with dinner, we had beautiful wines—Jeanne’s friend Steve is a wine distributor. And Jules, who was working mad hours all week, valiantly squeezed in a trip to the store so we could finish our meal with some sticky, yummy baklava. After that we headed into the living room for more wine and two hours of Bill, Jim, and Steve on the guitars, with Jeanne, Jody, Jules and Clive, Julie and Eric, and me singing along. As we drove home the music was still in my head … there’s a kind of hush, all over the world tonight … Every night should be so memorable.

Sweet Potato Salad
adapted from Arabesque, by Claudia Roden


- 1 large onion, chopped coarsely
- 5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lb. orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled
- 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. tsp. paprika
- salt
- 6 or 7 green olives
- peel of 1/2 preserved lemon, chopped
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 2 Tbsp. chopped flat-leafed parsley


1. Fry the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until golden.

2. Cut the sweet potatoes into pieces (about 1-inch cubes), add to the pan, and barely cover with water. Add the ginger, cumin, paprika, a little salt, and 2 more tablespoons of oil. Cook until the potato pieces are tender, and the liquid has reduced to a sauce, turning the potatoes over once, and keeping watch so that they do not suddenly fall apart.

3. Serve at room temperature, mixed with the olives and preserved lemon peel, and sprinkles with lemon juice, the remaining olive oil, and the chopped parsley. (I just mixed all of these last ingredients in, with the exception of the olive oil, which I omitted).

Photo by Julie Fay Ashborn

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Whiskey Smoked Salmon Chowder

I’m from the Pacific Northwest. I love salmon—especially wild salmon caught by my Uncle Jim and made with his “secret recipe” marinade. I love chowder—especially with a side of clam strips and chips from Ivar’s down on the waterfront in Seattle. Naturally this recipe for Whiskey Smoked Salmon Chowder called out to me when I saw it. I made it one autumn night at my sister’s when my parents were in town. Then, about a week ago, with the weather perfectly pre-spring chilly, I started to crave it again. But March decided to antagonize me. The temperature turned, and all of a sudden it was July-hot—hot enough for tank tops, shorts, irritation with other drivers on the road, and salads for dinner. Definitely too hot for chowder. But I’m going to post the recipe anyway and have faith that the fog will roll in and the cold will return before the true heat wave of summer in LA begins.

Whiskey Smoked Salmon Chowder
adapted from Gourmet or Food & Wine (I shouldn’t have cut this recipe out without noting the source!)


• 1/4 cup butter
• 2 onions, finely chopped
• 6 celery stalks, finely chopped
• Pinch saffron threads, optional
• 8 small red or white potatoes peeled and diced (2-3 cups)
• 1/2 cup chopped fresh fennel bulb
• 2 cups milk
• 2 8-oz. bottles clam juice
• 2-1/2 cups corn kernels
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 2-4 tablespoons tomato paste
• 1 teaspoon lobster base, optional
• 1 pound smoked salmon, cut into small pieces
• Juice and zest of 1 small lemon
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
• 2 oz. Jack Daniel's whiskey
• Salt and pepper, to taste


1. Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot and sauté the onions, celery, and saffron over medium heat until softened.

2. Add the potatoes and fennel and sauté briefly before pouring in the milk and clam juice. Cover, and let the mixture simmer on medium heat until potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes.

3. Add the corn, cream, tomato paste, and lobster base.

4. Cook 5 minutes more, add the salmon, lemon juice, lemon zest, dill, and whiskey. Season with salt and pepper

Notes on ingredients:

Saffron: To me this is not optional. Saffron gives chowder a wonderfully buttery flavor. It can be purchased inexpensively at Cost Plus/World Market.

Lobster paste: I was too lazy to go out and hunt this down, and the chowder tasted just fine without it.

Tomato paste: I don’t like the taste of tomato paste. It reminds me of cheap pizza from my childhood, so I didn’t use it. Again, the chowder was great without it.

Salmon: I was on a budget when I made this so I used only half a pound. I think this kept the chowder from being too rich. I plan to try a full pound next time just to see the difference.

Photo by Julie Fay Ashborn