Friday, June 17, 2011

Uncle Jon and Aunt Wilma’s Tuna Pasta

When my parents brought me a jar of the tuna that my Uncle Jon caught off the coast of Washington State and my Aunt Wilma canned (yes, the Aunt Wilma of pie baking fame, for those of you who have read Communion), I knew I had to do something better with it than just swish it around with some mayonnaise and make sandwiches. I felt duty-bound to make a meal worthy of their efforts—for as Aunt Wilma wrote to me, “It’s hard work catching the tuna, messy and time-consuming to can it, BUT very rewarding.”

So off I went, flipping through cookbooks and scouring the Internet. Usually, comes to the rescue, but this time around the most enticing recipe turned up on the Fine Cooking website: Fettuccine with Tuna, Lemon & Fried Capers. Aside from just sounding delicious, this recipe also appealed because it would give me the chance to use some other ingredients begging for my attention:

1) The lemons from the tree in my driveway (their season was coming to an end, and I was dying to use as many as possible).

2) Fettuccine from Pappardelle’s, the new pasta shop at the Third & Fairfax Farmer’s Market.

I’d already tried the garden herb fettuccine: TO DIE FOR, tossed with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, lemon juice, fresh basil, olive oil and grated parmesan!! For the tuna recipe, the lemon basil pasta seemed like a good choice. Because I was going to make a big batch for my parents and Julie’s clan, and because the freshness of Pappardelle’s pasta gives it lots of flavor, I mixed one eight-ounce package of the lemon herb with two packages of plain fettuccine. The result: divine! Every ingredient—especially the fried capers (I went heavy on this)—made the flavor of the tuna stand out. Even though I’ll have to use store bought tuna next time around (sigh), this is definitely a dish I’ll make again.

Fettuccine with Tuna, Lemon & Fried Capers
adapted from Fine Cooking (recipe by Tony Rosenfeld)

Serves 4


- Kosher salt
- 1 lemon, scrubbed
- 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil; more for drizzling
- 1/4 cup small capers, rinsed, drained, and patted dry
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 12-oz. can or 2 6-oz. cans solid white tuna in water, drained well
- 1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
- 3/4 lb. dried fettuccine
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley


1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil

2. Using a zester tool (called a channel knife), zest the lemon into thin strips, or, using a vegetable peeler, shave off the zest, then slice into very thin strips. Juice the lemon to get 2 Tbs. juice.

3. Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a 10-inch or larger straight-sided sauté/frying pan over medium heat. Add the capers and cook until they start to brown and get crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon zest and cook until it starts to crisp and curl up, about 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the capers and lemon zest to a plate lined with a paper towel—it’s fine if a few capers remain in the pan.

4. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the garlic to the remaining oil in the pan and cook, stirring, until it browns lightly but doesn’t burn, 2 to 3 minutes.

5. Add the tuna and red pepper flakes and cook until the tuna just heats through, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

6. Meanwhile, cook the fettuccine in the boiling salted water, stirring often, until it’s just tender to the tooth (see the package for cooking time). Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta.

7. Return the sauté pan with the tuna in it to medium heat. Add the drained pasta, 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water, 2 Tbs. of the lemon juice, and the remaining 2 Tbs. olive oil. Cook, tossing and stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes to blend the flavors. If needed for moisture, add the remaining pasta water.

8. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice.

9. Serve immediately, drizzled with a little olive oil and sprinkled with the capers, lemon strips, parsley, and a few grinds of black pepper.

Cooking note: I'm a lazy cook, and after preparing all of the ingredients, I just tossed them together with the pasta in a big bowl. Not as pretty to look at on the plate, but equally tasty!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Honey-Roasted Onion Tart

So many good recipes … so little time to put them on this blog! But I’m making a belated New Year’s resolution to post at least every two weeks. Preview of recipes to come: quinoa, black bean and corn tacos; mushroom and Swiss chard lasagna; beef jerky; braised leeks; and black bean and spinach enchiladas—all made recently, and all worth sharing, along with this recipe for honey-roasted onion tart.

I made this dish last Sunday for Easter brunch at Julie’s house, and so far, of the onion tarts I’ve tested over the years, this is my favorite. The onions are tossed in honey and white wine and roasted to a caramelized, almost crispy perfection. The bacon (I made two tarts, one with turkey bacon and one with prosciutto) provides richness, while the fresh ground nutmeg and fresh thyme lighten the flavors. Best of all, this is an easy recipe. I prepared the ingredients at my house, and then put the tarts together and baked them at Julie’s. One tart serves 6-8 as an appetizer.

Honey-Roasted Onion Tart
modified from Bon Appetit


• 1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of 17.3-ounce package), thawed
• 3 bacon slices, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
• 1/4 cup honey
• 1/4 cup dry white wine
• 2 large sweet yellow onions (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1/4-inch-thick half-rounds
• Nonstick vegetable oil spray
• 3/4 cup crème fraîche
• 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves


1. Position rack in top third of oven and preheat to 375°F.

2. Using lightly floured rolling pin, roll out puff pastry on lightly floured surface to 14x10-inch rectangle. Transfer pastry to large rimmed baking sheet. Fold 1/2 inch of pastry edges in toward center on all sides, forming 13x9-inch rectangle. Press firmly on pastry edges with fork to form rim. Chill crust.

3. Cook bacon in small skillet over medium heat until brown and crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Reserve 1 tablespoon bacon drippings from skillet.

4. Whisk honey, wine, and reserved 1 tablespoon bacon drippings in large bowl. Add onions; toss to coat.

5. Coat another large rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray. Spread onion mixture in even layer on sheet. Roast 30 minutes. Turn onions over, allowing rings to separate. Roast until onions are caramelized, turning often for even browning, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven; cool onions slightly.

6. Increase oven temperature to 400°F.

7. Mix crème fraîche, sea salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, and nutmeg in small bowl.

8. Using offset spatula, spread crème fraîche over crust to folded edge.

9. Arrange onions atop crème fraîche.

10. Sprinkle with bacon.

11. Bake tart until crust is light golden brown and topping is bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes.

12. Sprinkle with thyme and serve.

Note on bacon: I prefer turkey bacon, since it's not so heavy. Also, if you use prosciutto, don’t cook it beforehand.

(Photo by Julie Fay Ashborn)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Do-It-Yourself Power Bars

Ever since my wonderful agent (Alexandra Machinist) sold my novel in January, I’ve felt like I’ve been running in quicksand. On top of working and volunteering, I have a crazy editing deadline. At first my approach to feeding myself during this time was: minimal effort. I bought loads of prepared foods at Trader Joe's and heated things up as the days went on. But after a week or so, my body begged for some culinary TLC. So I pulled Super Natural Cooking from my cookbook shelf (unopened after three years) and marked recipes I could make on Sunday night to tide me over through each week.

I promise to post the Otsu recipe soon (perfect for lunch), but right now I want to sing the praises of the Do-It-Yourself Power Bars. They are like healthy Rice Krispie Treats, and oh so satisfying despite being wheat and sugar free. (Actually, they call for a fourth cup of sugar, but I have no idea why, since it seems to me that sugar would ruin them.) I’ve made three batches so far, and I’m still not tired of them. Better yet, I’ve shared them with sweet-tooth kids, and they haven’t even realized they’re eating something healthy!

Do-It-Yourself Power Bars
modified from Super Natural Cooking


- 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 1/4 cups rolled oats
- 1 1/4 cups chopped toasted walnuts
- 1/2 cup oat bran
- 1 1/2 cups unsweetened crisp brown rice cereal (not puffed)
- 1 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
- 3 Tbsp. finely chopped crystallized ginger
- 1 cup brown rice syrup
- 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp. fine-grain sea salt


1) Grease a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with the vegetable oil.

2) Mix the oats, walnuts, oat bran, rice cereal, cranberries and ginger together in a large bowl and set aside.

3) Combine the rice syrup, vanilla and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir constantly as it comes to a boil and thickens just a bit, about 4 minutes.

4) Pour over the oat mixture and stir until the syrup is evenly incorporated.

5) Spread into the prepared pan and cool to room temperature before cutting into whatever size bars you desire.

6) Store using wax paper, since the bars are sticky.

Note on ingredients – the best deals

Whole Foods:
- Brown rice cereal: Arrowhead Mills brand (the recipe calls for crisp rice, “not puffed,” but I could only find puffed, and it works just fine)
- Brown rice syrup: Lundberg brand (not cheap, but Whole Foods definitely has it)

Trader Joe's:
- Oat bran: store brand
- Rolled oats: Country Choice brand

World Market/Cost Plus
- Crystallized ginger: store brand

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bac Gai’s Vegetarian Spring Rolls (Bi Cuon Chay)

I first tasted these vegetarian spring rolls when I moved to Vietnam in 1995 and was invited for lunch by one of the students in the English class I taught. Over the following years, that student became like a sister to me, her sisters became my sisters, and her mother called me con thu—daughter number four.

Years later, when I traveled back to Vietnam to write Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, the dish I wanted to learn to make most of all was my Vietnamese mother’s vegetarian spring rolls. She had learned them from her mother-in-law, so that she could make them for her husband on Buddhist holidays.

I’ve made these spring rolls a few times for family and friends, and the last time I made them, I served them at a reading at Skylight Books in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The crowd loved them, with the highest praise coming from a Vietnamese foodie group that had driven up from Little Saigon in Orange County.

With Tet (Lunar New Year) just around the corner, it’s a perfect time to post this recipe—these fresh spring rolls, laced with roasted rice powder and tasting like no spring roll you’ve had before, would be terrific for part of a New Year’s feast.

I’ll admit, the recipe is time-consuming, but it’s definitely worth it—I like to double it, since increasing the amount does not increase the effort, and the spring rolls are still good a few days later if kept in the fridge.

Preparation note: I use a mandoline to julienne the manioc and sweet potato. Don’t worry if you don’t come out with perfect little matchsticks. You’re going to blend everything together for the spring roll filling, and no matter how the ingredients look at the start, they taste terrific in the end.

Rolling the spring rolls

Bac Gai’s Vegetarian Spring Rolls

Serving: 10–15 spring rolls, depending on how big you roll them.

Ingredients for filling, Part One:
- 2 cups carrot, peeled and julienned (about 2 medium carrot
- 2 cups manioc (also called yucca), peeled and julienned (about 1 small manioc)
- 1 cup shredded cabbage
- 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, julienned
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. vegetable bouillon powder or concentrated liquid
- 3 tbsp. vegetable oil

Ingredients for filling, Part Two:
- 3 cups sweet potato (white flesh), julienned, mixed with 2 tbsp. white vinegar and 1 tbsp. sugar and set aside (about 1 medium sweet potato)
- 8 ounces baked tofu, unflavored, thinly sliced
- 3 tbsp. vegetable oil

Ingredients for final mixture of filling:
- 2 ounces green (mung) bean vermicelli (about 2 cups), prepared per package directions and cooled
- 4 sheets dried bean curd skin (tau hu ky), crushed into small pieces (about 3/4 cup)
- 3/4 cup toasted peanuts, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup roasted rice powder

Rice paper: 1 packet 10- or 12-inch rice paper, made with just rice and water (12-inch pieces are easiest to work with for this recipe)

Herbs: Fresh mint, Thai basil, rau dap ca, rau tia to, and other Asian herbs (if you can find only mint and basil, these rolls will still be terrific)

Directions for filling, Part One:

1. Heat oil in a large frying pan.

2. Fry carrots, manioc, and cabbage. Do not let the mixture get too soft. Test the manioc to make sure it remains al dente by the end of the following process.

3. Add mushrooms, and fry a bit longer.

4. Add sugar and vegetable bouillon to taste, and fry just a bit longer still.

5. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool. Drain any liquid.

Directions for filling, Part Two:

1. Heat oil in a large frying pan. Flash-fry the sweet potato until it is yellow-brown and crispy. Remove from pan and set aside to cool.

2. In same pan, flash-fry the baked tofu until crispy. Remove from pan and set aside to cool. (This step is optional. You don’t need to fry the tofu.)

Directions for final mixture:

Once all the cooked ingredients have cooled, mix them together in a large bowl with the rice vermicelli, peanuts, roasted rice powder, and crushed bean curd skin.

Directions for making spring rolls:

1. Using a hard surface, such as a wooden cutting board, lay out a piece of dampened rice paper. Dampen (soften) the rice paper in a wide bowl of warm water. (I like to put 5-6 pieces at a time in warm water in a skillet for efficiency.) Remove as much excess water as possible (let it drip off) before making the spring roll.

2. Line the lower center of the paper with herbs.

3. Lay 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the mixture into a cylinder shape on the herbs. The amount can vary depending on how large you want your spring rolls.

4. Fold the bottom fourth of the rice paper up over the mixture.

5. Fold the right edge of the rice paper in a fourth of the width of the paper, as if you are making an envelope.

6. Fold the left edge of the rice paper in a fourth of the width of the paper, as if you are making an envelope.

7. From the bottom, roll as fast as you can.

Ingredients and directions for dipping sauce:

1. Mix 1/4 cup carrot, peeled and shredded; 1/4 cup cucumber, peeled and shredded; and 1 tbsp. sweet white vinegar. Set aside to marinate. (Do this at the beginning, as you are preparing the spring roll ingredients.)

2. In a bowl mix the following:

- Simple syrup of 1/2 cup water and 1/8–1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup sweet white vinegar
- Juice of 1 lime
- 2 red Thai chilies, seeded and minced
- 2 tbsp. toasted peanuts, finely chopped

3. Cut the carrots and cucumber into small pieces.

4. Mix carrot and cucumber blend with remaining ingredients. Top with peanuts.

NOTE ON SAUCE: This sauce is to keep the recipe strictly vegetarian. I also like to use a basic nuoc cham sauce. A good recipe can be found at