Gorilla French

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I often get together with several French-speaking mothers with children about the same age as my little one. We meet at someone’s home and each bring a dish to share, and while our children play together or independently, we chit-chat about a variety of things—life, schools, travel plans, books, the news, etc. The last time we had met was just before summer started. So yesterday, it was nice to get together again to mark la rentrée.
Farro Salad
In August, France usually slows down—school is out and many restaurants and businesses close. Therefore, many of the French go on vacation for most of the month and are back in September for la rentrée—it signifies the end of vacation and life returning to normalcy—everyone returning home and going back to work; teachers and students going back to school, life continuing after a brief respite.

I always look forward to joining this group of très cool mamans françaises. I sit there, listening, absorbing, and learning nuances in conversation, new vocabulary and phrases. I should say, all of these women are lovely—funny, smart and interesting. Also, all are native French speakers, so whatever they say comes out sounding beautiful. And then… there’s me, the only non-native speaker in the bunch who understands French très bien, but “speaks” French…ahem, not so bien. I call it Gorilla French and sadly, there’s nothing beautiful about it.

Here’s part of my dilemma. As my French comprehension is quite good and I often understand the majority of what’s going on, I actually start to feel like I’m actually in the flow, and part of the conversation. Wow, I think, my French has improved. I smile inside. Bravo Martine! Please note, I’m quite aware of the false sense of security this provides because, as you may already know, reality has a funny way of helping one keep it real.

You see, invariably someone eventually turns to me to ask a question, a simple one: How was your summer Martine? Did you travel? Or, perhaps it’s, what’s the name of the grain in the salad you brought? And just like that, I’m jolted from my sweet French reverie and…temporary paralysis. My throat gets tight, hot and thick. I have to swallow before I can even think of speaking. Next, my heart begins to flutter like a bird in a trap. Ahem, water? Where’s my glass of water?! Eyes on me, I know the words. I hear them spoken beautifully in my head. I quickly respond with a 1-2 word phrase. Phew, that sounded okay! Then, a follow-up question requiring a few more sentences to respond, or perhaps etiquette reminds me it’s now my turn to respond with a question. Again, I know the words and they sound so beautifully spoken, in my head. I think to myself, I’ve got this, I can sound normal. Then out it comes, my gorilla French. Zut!

I’ve been thinking that I’ve been going at it the wrong way. The next time I get asked a question in that beautiful language of love, dreams and all things nice, before I start to struggle with a response I should just pull out what I call my fainting goat technique. I’m sure it would really work well as it’s a great thing to use for life’s stressful situations. When these goat feel startled, stressed or that trouble/danger is near, they just freeze and poof, they faint. It not only should work super well, its also quite funny. Hmm, a temporary solution for me, n’est-ce pas?

To compensate in advance for my gorilla speech, I brought this non-gorilla-like Mediterranean inspired farro salad.

Mediterranean Farro Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1 cup farro
1/3 cup kalamata olives, sliced in half
1½ tablespoons capers
1½ tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
15 cherry, halved or quartered depending on size
4 green onions, sliced thinly
1 small cucumber, sliced
1/4 bell pepper, sliced thinly and cut in 1/2-inch pieces

Vinaigrette
Juice of 1-2 lemons, about 3 tablespoons
1½ tablespoons honey (or other preferred sweetener)
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Make the vinaigrette: Whisk together all ingredients and set aside.

In a large pot of boiling water, add farro and simmer until just tender. Using a sieve, drain and rinse with cold water. Drain again, set aside and allow to cool.

In a large bowl, combine cooked and cooled farro, olives, capers, thyme leaves, tomatoes, green onions, cucumber and bell pepper. Add the dressing and gently mix everything together. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.

 

A Plant-Based Diet

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Food writer Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and other books, re-defined what it means to eat smart when he shared his credo: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Super grains salad
Did you know that reducing your intake of animal products and embracing a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health and the environment
? Now this doesn’t mean you have to become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, if you don’t want to. Small changes in your diet can yield big results. And, studies have proven that a plant-based diet—one based on vegetables, grains, legumes and fruit, with little or no animal products, including dairy—can reverse diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers promoted by scientifically generated foodstuffs, genetically modified foods and animal products.

As a vegetarian I should say that just being a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a healthy diet. As a vegan, you could still eat highly processed foods like potato chips and french fries. The key to a healthy diet is to eat a low fat whole-food, plant-based diet and use minimally processed things. So, whether you’re an omnivore, pescatarian, vegan, vegetarian or any other diet configuration, one thing is certain, adding more whole and plant-based foods means more nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and less damaging fat—all needed for optimal health.

As a global public health professional, I’ve been interested in chronic diseases—obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other ailments—that have been on the rise here in the U.S., and in many other countries around the world. I’ve also been interested in strategies that reduce the incidence of morbidity and mortality from such diseases. Looking for links between diseases and their possible triggers—from diet and lifestyle to environmental and genetic factors—is fascinating. And everyday, research sheds more light on new ways to help people adopt healthier lifestyles and minimize or prevent their risk of getting disease. Part of the beauty of a adopting a plant-based diet is that it empowers us to be healthier and happier than we ever imagined possible!

In a couple of weeks I’ll be heading to sunny California to attend the International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference. I’m excited as many of the leading experts and researchers in the preventive and healing power of plant-based nutrition will be there to speak. I hope to blog and share any new and interesting information I glean while there. Until then, I’ll share a few plant-based recipes I’m making at home. Here’s a salad I made with super grains (a blend of white and red quinoa, millet and buckwheat), peaches and tofu. Nectarines would work just as nicely as peaches, so use whatever is available. I also added a handful of sugar snap peas for added color and texture.

Super Grains Salad with Peaches, Tofu and a Fresh Mint Vinaigrette
Serves 4-6

Adapted from Farmstand Fresh, Summer 2014

1 cup super grains mix*, well rinsed and drained
2 cups water
8 ounces extra-firm tofu, drained and cubed
4 teaspoons olive oil
salt and pepper
3 peaches, sliced in ¼-inch wedges/slices
½ large English cucumber, cut in half and thinly sliced
½ red onion, thinly sliced

For vinaigrette
½ cup fresh mint, chopped finely
½ cup white wine vinegar
2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

For serving
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, torn in small pieces
handful of sugar snap peas**, tough strings removed
4-5 cups salad greens (optional)

Make the Salad
Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a pot. Add grains, reduce heat, cover with lid and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat  and let stand covered for 5 minutes or until water is absorbed. Fluff with a fork and allow to cool.

In a bowl, combine tofu with 2 teaspoons olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, add the tofu and cook over moderate heat, turning until golden, 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

In a large bowl, toss peach slices, cucumber and onion in remaining olive oil. Add cooled grains and tofu.

Make the Vinaigrette
Put the mint, vinegar, sugar, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper in a food processor and process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the salad mixture and toss gently to coat. Cover and refrigerate the salad for at least an hour.

To Serve
Just before serving, gently toss with the torn mint leaves and sugar snap peas. Serve alone or on a bed of fresh greens.

Notes:
* I used a super grain blend of red and white quinoa, millet and buckwheat. If you can only find quinoa, that’s fine. You can still make this salad with just quinoa.
**The finer you slice the peas, the prettier they will be in the salad, but if you’re in a hurry, you could simply chop them. Or, you can blanch them and leave them whole.

Blackberry and Raspberry Crumble Tart

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I had heard that freshly picked, sun-ripened blackberries were worth their weight in gold. Now I know why. Both tart and sweet, they have a perfume about them that far surpasses varieties bought in a store.

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All summer I’ve been getting fresh berries from our local farmers’ market. They’ve been so juicy and delicious. So when a friend recently invited me to join her and her kids to go berry picking on a farm, I jumped at the opportunity. How fun; especially since my little one LOVES berries! I knew he’d have a blast, and that he did. Just as quickly as I could pick the berries, he ate them. Before long his little hands, mouth and t-shirt were stained with berry juice.

If you have a chance to go berry picking, go! Or, visit your local farmers’ market and take a few pints home to enjoy them. As they say, they are worth their weight in gold.
After our trip to the farm, I decided to try an easy to make at home dessert that has been “trending” in the food blogosphere this summer, le crumble. Fruit crumbles, a whole variety of them, are popular in the summer, and with good reason. Summer fruits make wonderful crumbles! Well, since I had never made a crumble before, I thought I should finally join in on the fun. And, to try something a little different, I made mine a crumble tart.

Blackberry and Raspberry Crumble Tart*
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s Apricot Crumble Tart in My Paris Kitchen

Dough
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
coconut oil or butter to coat pan

Crumble Topping
3/4 cup whole almonds
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoon unsalted butter, chilled

Filling
1 pound blackberries
1 pound raspberries
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon potato starch (corn starch or tapioca starch will also do)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

To make the dough: Remove the butter from the refrigerator about 10 minutes before you plan to use it and let it soften slightly in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add sugar and beat on medium. Add the egg yolks, then flour and salt. Mix until dough comes together.

Coat the bottom and sides of a 9″ or 10″ springform pan with coconut oil. Use your hands to press dough on the bottom of pan and about halfway up the sides, making it as even as possible. Put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes.

To make the crumble topping: Pulse almonds, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in a food processor until the almond are broken to very small pieces. Add butter and pulse until your mixture resembles sand. If/when pieces start to clump together, stop pulsing.

Preheat oven to 375F

Line the chilled tart crust with aluminum foil and cover with a layer of pie weights or dried beans. Bake crust for 20 minutes. Remove foil and pie weights and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until tart shell is browned.

To make the filling: In a large bowl combine berries, sugar, starch, vanilla and lemon juice.

Evenly transfer the filling to the tart shell and evenly distribute crumble topping over the berries. Bake the tart until nicely browned, about 50 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack 5 minutes then run a sharp knife around the outside of the tart to separate it from the pan. Let rest for about 30 minutes then remove the sides of the springform pan and let the tart cool a little longer. Although the edges may appear dark, it should taste fine and not burnt. Serve at room temperature with or without a dollop of ice cream to top.

*Notes: I also tried a mixture of blackberries and apricots which was also quite good.

Black Beluga, the Caviar of Lentils

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Striking in appearance, black beluga lentils are said to be the caviar of lentils. Tiny, round and black jewels, they glisten when they’re cooked and look a lot like beluga caviar, the most prized of all caviar varieties.   IMG_4712
Unlike many lentil varieties that tend to disintegrate and become a bit mushy when cooked, beluga lentils hold their shape pretty well, which makes them great for salads, pilafs, or these starters that I recently served for dinner one evening. Here, I’ve put them on a bed of roasted eggplant dressed with a savory cashew cream sauce.

Beluga Lentils with Roasted Eggplant Canapés
2 medium eggplants, cut in ½-inch slices
½ cup olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
salt and pepper
1 cup black beluga lentils
2½ cups water
2 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dill, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
3-4 small carrots, julienned
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tomato, diced (or use ½ cherry tomatoes)

Savory Cashew Cream Sauce
1 cup cashew cream
2 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
sea salt

Preheat oven to 400F.

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Little fingers helped with the sprinkling of thyme and salt.

Place the slices of eggplant on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Use a small sharp knife to make two incisions. Brush well with olive oil. Sprinkle with thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Roast until browned, but not too soft, about 20 to 30 minutes. When done, allow to cool then move to serving tray.

Rinse lentils and drain. In a saucepan combine lentils with water, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain.

In a large bowl, combine hot lentils with 3 tablespoons olive oil, vinegar, and salt and black pepper. Stir, taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. When the lentils are cool, add the dill, parsley and cilantro and gently stir. Set aside.

In another saucepan, sauté carrots in olive oil, a pinch of salt and brown sugar until softened. Add tomatoes. Sauté for about 30 seconds then remove from heat.

To make the sauce: Whisk together cashew cream, olive oil, and garlic and salt. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To assemble: Spread a small dollop of savory cashew cream sauce on eggplant slice. Add a layer of carrots (formed a little nest), followed by a spoonful of lentils. Garnish with tomato and herbs.

Notes: I also tried putting the carrots directly on the eggplant, followed by lentils then topped with savory cashew cream sauce, garnished with tomatoes.

Canapés are usually eaten with the fingers and often in one bite. Here, the roasted eggplant becomes soft and perhaps a little challenging for some to eat with fingers. For a more hearty base, sliced bread (like a baguette) could also work nicely as an added base with this recipe.

Soupe Aux Deux Melons (Two Melons Soup)

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This refreshing soup is a great starter for dinner on a warm summer evening.

When we visit Quebec, we always set time to visit our dear friends, Paul and Caroline. They are two of the warmest, kindest, genuine, and hard working people I’ve ever met.

Paul and Caroline

Aside from their normal day jobs, they’re both musicians—Paul an organist and Caroline a pianist—and they also juggle all the responsibilities that come with living on a small farm.


Caroline and donkeySince our last visit, we heard they got several farm animals—angora goats, a donkey, ducks, and rabbits—and we were excited to have our little one check them out. He was giddy with delight to finally see some of the animals he had only seen before in books.

Caroline is also a wonderful cook and always makes something delicious and interesting to eat. I always leave thinking I should’ve gotten her recipe. This time I finally did.
Caroline

For our summer evening meal she served a starter of Soupe Aux Deux Melons (Two Melons Soup). Velvety smooth in texture and deliciously refreshing on a warm evening, when my husband and I each took our first spoonfuls, we immediately said “Mmmm!” Caroline’s version was made with a bit of Worcestershire sauce. To make mine fully vegetarian I used gluten-free Tamari sauce instead.

Soupe Aux Deux Melons (Two Melons Soup)
Serves 4-6

2 cups cantaloupe melon, cut in chunks
2 cups soft tofu, divided
1 teaspoon ginger, grated
1/2 teaspoon gluten-free Tamari sauce, divided
2 cups honeydew melon, cut in chunks
1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped (keep a few leaves for garnish)
salt and pepper

In a high speed blender or food processor, purée cantaloupe and 1 cup of tofu. Add ginger, 1/4 teaspoon Tamari sauce, and a tiny small pinch of salt and pepper. Pour into a container and refrigerate cantaloupe mixture for at least one hour.

Rinse blender or processor and repeat the same process with the honeydew: purée honeydew with tofu, add mint, Tamari sauce, and a tiny pinch of salt and pepper. Pour into another container and refrigerate honeydew mixture for at least one hour.

To serve, carefully pour the two purées of the melons simultaneously in individual bowls. Use a knife, to delicately create a motif and garnish with mint or melons if you’d like. Enjoy!

Notes: Plain yogurt can be used instead of tofu and Worcestershire sauce can be used instead of Tamari sauce, if you prefer. Be sure to use ripe melons, as it will impact the flavor.

For garnish and added contrast, I puréed an extra 1/4 cup or so of just cantaloupe and swirled it in the mixed soup with a knife. This was done purely for aesthetics and is not necessary for the recipe.

Finally, I also posted this recipe on Food52.

The Concept of Home

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We shape our dwelling, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.
—Winston Churchill

Paella3Having lived in apartments—both here in the U.S. and abroad—most of my adult life, I used to think of home as a house I’d one day have, decorated in a rustically chic and understated sort of way. In my home, I imagined busying myself with creating a comforting nest, replete with simple, yet creative touches that would add texture and depth to an otherwise ordinary room.

Now, however, I think more of the concept of home, rather than its structure. Home, for me, is no longer that house. Instead, it’s the life that is breathed into the small and large spaces to create room for love, laughter, solitude, companionship, and comfort. In thinking of the meaning of home, I often think of the warm sense of well-being the Danes call “hygge“, which means creating a cozy atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with friends and family around you. It’s also the experience of sitting around a table for hours eating, drinking, discussing life—the big and small things. The Danish idea of hygge explains why the Danes are often considered the happiest people in the world.

I recently read an article that said a house is simply a geographic location, a street address, whereas a home is where, and with whom life happens. In my first apartment in Korea, home was heated floors and very attractive sliding wood doors. In California, it was an apartment with French doors and a brightly colored wall that made me feel as if I was on vacation. Now, home for me is more than the structure that provides me warmth and comfort. Home is the sound—the giggling and singing—of my two-year old’s voice filling the air. It’s the sweet music I hear from another room—his dad putting him to bed while singing in French, and off-tune, to a bed-time song he made up: “Fais dodo, fais dodo, mon petit bébé, fais dodo, fais dodo, mon petit garçon…”  Home is no longer a structure, it’s an environment where life grows.

Beans

Rattlesnake (geen and purple) and Dragon Tongue (white and purple) beans I picked up at my local farmers market

little hands

I’ve been fortunate to experience the feeling of home, even while not at home. I wrote about them in Talking Timbuktu in Buenos Aires and Ithaka: Finding Home. Another time was many years ago, when I had paella for the first. As a vegetarian, I preferred to pass on the rabbit and/or seafood filled paellas that had come my way, but this time it was a vegetable paella. I was visiting France and staying with a friend who lived with her parents in a small town. Her parents, known to be very welcoming and friendly people often opened their home to people—colleagues, friends, students, their children’s friends, visitors, etc.

Paella2

One evening, while staying at their home, there were a lot of guests (an eclectic and international group of people young and older) over and my friend’s mother had made a large pan of vegetarian paella. I can’t say that I remember all the people present, or the vegetables that went into that paella, but I do remember that evening and the cozy feeling I had being in that room. It was summer time, and I watched as her mom brought life into the room, talking to everyone as if we were all part of the family, as if we all lived there. With effortless charm, she made it seem as if it were completely normal that we’d be there that evening, eating dinner with her family, like a typical evening of any week. I didn’t know it then, but the Danish art of hygge was certainly present in the house; I felt like I was at home. Every time I come across paella, I’m brought back to that wonderful summer evening in France.

My friend’s kind and beautiful mother has since passed away. I made this paella thinking of her and how she created home for a traveler like me.

Paella1

Vegetable Paella
Serves 4-6

6-8 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into ½-inch-dice
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch slices
¼ pound shelled fava beans, skins removed (do this in advance)*
¼ pound green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces**
¼ pound white beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces, optional**
¼ pound mushrooms (I mixed oyster, shiitake and portabella)
4-5 cloves garlic, crushed and divided
4 ripe medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped or coarsely grated***
salt
2 cups vegetable stock (I made my own)
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon pimentón (smoked paprika)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pinches saffron threads
1 cup Bomba rice (or another short-grain paella rice)
6 ounces artichoke hearts, quartered and packed in oil from a jar, drained and rinsed****

In a 14-to 16-inch paella pan, over medium heat, heat 4 tablespoons oil. Add eggplant and cook for about 2 minutes. Add bell peppers and cook for about another three minutes, until eggplant is browned and peppers are just softened. Remove from heat and transfer to a plate.

Add about 2 tablespoons oil to the pan and add the green and white beans, and fava beans. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Lower the heat to medium and add tomatoes, garlic and salt and cook until the tomatoes have darkened, about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a little oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic, mushrooms and salt. Cook about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Add the bay leaves, pimentón, cayenne pepper, and saffron to the tomatoes. Allow the flavors to meld together, stirring constantly. Add eggplant and bell peppers, then add the stock to the pan. Bring to a boil. Taste for salt and adjust seasoning. Carefully add the rice, distributing it evenly in the pan. Do not stir. Cook uncovered for about 10 minutes, then reduce the heat and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked.

Remove the paella from the heat. Taste and without stirring, adjust seasoning as needed. Distribute the green and white beans, fava beans and artichokes over the rice and cover the pan with foil. Allow to rest for about 5 minutes. Remove the foil and serve.

Martine Notes:
* To easily remove the skins off shelled fava beans, soak them in boiling hot water for about a minute. Drain and allow to cool. Squeeze each bean gently to remove the skin. Discard skins.
** Last week I picked up Rattlesnake (green and purple) and Dragon Tongue (white and purple) beans at the market so I used them, but any been bean will do. If you can’t find white, just use green beans and there’s no need to double the amount of green, if you’re not adding the white.
***I chose to grate my tomatoes with a box grater, for a smoother consistency of tomatoes. If you choose to go this route, cut the tomato in half, crosswise. Use your finger to scrape the seeds out. Cupping the tomato in your hand, slowly grate. The skin, which you can discard, will gradually peel back as the flesh of the tomato is grated.
**** I so wanted to use fresh artichokes for this recipe, but I need to learn how to cook with the fresh stuff. The first time I made paella I tried cooking it with fresh artichokes and well, it was one tough mess. Long story short, it was inedible and I had to painfully pick out all the strips or artichoke that I had cut and added to my dish. Lesson learned. Now I used them from a jar. The ones I used were marinated and packed in oil. I was afraid they’d add an unwanted flavor to my paella so I rinsed them before adding them to the paella.

little hands2

Burma, A World Apart

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This is Burma, and it is unlike any land you know about.
— Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East (1898)

Little girl2

Kipling was right. Burma (also known as Myanmar) is such a very unique and fascinating place. For years it was a pariah state and isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, it has a unique preservation of culture and landscape that has been relatively unchanged. Although there have been many political changes in the past few years and the country has opened to more foreigners, visiting Burma is still like taking a trip back in time—to South-East Asia of twenty years ago. Full of rarely seen sights—beautiful landscapes, magical temples, gilded Buddhas, tranquil lakes, men wearing men skirt-like longyis (similar to sarongs), and women who brush their faces in thanakha (traditional make-up and sunscreen)—Burma still is a world apart.Woman

Older man

Woman2

I went to Burma on assignment in 2008, just after the devastating Cyclone Nargis. It was one of the deadliest storms in recorded history. Although I found much destruction, I also found much beauty—a land filled with breathtaking sights, the serene spirituality of Buddhism beliefs, and some of the kindest and friendliest people I’ve ever met.

Thanaka Bark

Thanakha Bark

There were a lot of things I saw and experienced during my two trips to Burma that year, and now I look back at my photographs and wish I captured more. My photos bring me pleasure in knowing that I was fortunate to learn about a beautiful land and people, but the gaps are a reminder of the many things I missed. I wish I had asked more questions, taken more notes of my impressions, and taken more (and different) photos. I should have been more mindful of my environment and short time there. Lesson learned.

Boy

Little girl

map-burmaOne thing that I certainly remember is Burma’s rich, varied and tasty cuisine which uses a repertoire of ingredients not found in any other cuisine. Rice is the center of Burmese cuisine and meats, fish and vegetables—often quite spicy and very flavorful—are served alongside. As a vegetarian, it was quite easy for me to find delicious vegetarian meals.

Due to its geographic location, Burma’s cuisine is characterized by a unique blend of Burmese, Chinese, Indian and Thai influences. Largely plant and seafood-based, an effort is made in Burmese cuisine to balance the four basic tastes: sour, salty, spicy and bitter.


Since I’ve been back from Burma, I’ve had the pleasure of eating Burmese food at Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe, a family owned restaurant just outside of Washington, D.C. My husband, son and I love their tofu with tomato and cilantro. Absolutely delicious! 

KaYanChin Thee PePyar Hin Tomato, tofu and onion sautéed with fresh cilantro

KaYanChin Thee PePyar Hin
Tomato, tofu and onion sautéed with fresh cilantro

Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe (Authentic Burmese Cuisine)

Saw Myint and wife, Hla Hme

Saw Myint (owner) and wife, Hla Hme (head cook)

We’ve also gotten to know Saw Myint, patriarch of the family, a very friendly and kind man. I recently sat down with Mr. Myint to find out a little more about his life and restaurant. He and his wife and three sons left Burma for the U.S. in the late 80’s to escape political uprisings that had left schools in the country closed. They made a living running a doughnut shop in College Park, Maryland and eventually decided to expand the business into a traditional Burmese restaurant. Here’s a portion of our conversation:

Have you always been in the restaurant business, even back home in Burma?
Actually no, I used to work for the military in Burma. When I moved to the U.S. I worked as a driver for the Portuguese Embassy.

How did the idea of opening a restaurant come about?
When my eldest son was in college he knew of a very popular doughnut shop in College Park, Maryland that was about to go out of business. One day he said to me, “dad, we should buy the doughnut shop.” It cost $70K, just for the business, not including the building. That was a lot of money! I asked him if he knew anything about making doughnuts and he said no. So I told my son to go to the owner of the doughnut shop and ask him [the owner] to teach him [my son] all he could about doughnut making.

How did that turn out?
My son learned quickly, and after a few months we bought the doughnut shop. The business went well. We sold doughnuts and were very successful. But with doughnuts, business is mostly in the morning.

You saw an opportunity to grow your business?
Yes, after a year of selling doughnuts, I asked my wife to quit her job as cook at a Burmese restaurant in D.C. so we could use the doughnut shop as a Burmese restaurant, serving lunch and dinner.

So you were serving doughnuts in the morning and then Burmese food in the afternoon and evenings? That sounds like a very busy time. Did you find it confusing to run two different types of services from the same place?
Yes, our family was quite busy then. At the time I was still at the Embassy, so the restaurant was mostly being run by my wife and sons. We all took shifts to make it work. We were very busy. After some time the restaurant was more popular than the doughnut shop and we needed more room to serve more guests coming for lunch and dinner to eat traditional Burmese food. We decided to close the doughnut shop and turn the space into just a restaurant.

How did your doughnut customers take the change?
Ah, they were not happy… many were very upset with us. Some even sent angry letters, but it [closing shop] was the best thing to do for our family and the business. We were very successful with the restaurant. After five years in College Park, we moved to a larger space in Silver Spring.

How do you and your family make big decisions for the restaurant?
We often have family meetings. We gather together around a table and discuss the pros and cons of major decisions. There’s usually a lot of discussion, sometimes very “lively” ones.

As patriarch of the family, do you have the last word? Do you make the final decision?
{Smiling, he says} No, our process is very democratic. Every adult (including my son’s wives) sitting at the table has a vote. Sometimes I’m in the majority and sometimes I’m outvoted. {he chuckles}

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to open their own restaurant?
It’s very challenging and takes a lot of work. Some things are out of your control so you have to be flexible. You have to be committed and willing to work very, very hard.

It sounds like it can be stressful at times. What do you do to relax and handle the stress?
Five times a week, I run 43 minutes on the treadmill and I meditate.

Why 43 minutes? And did you say that you meditate while running on the treadmill?
Yes. Well, I used to run 80 minutes, but as I’m older now my doctor said I could slow down and that I did not have to run so long. I chose 43 minutes because that seemed like a perfect time for me—not too long or too short. It also is a great time to keep me aware and mindful of what I’m doing. At a certain time, I change pace and after another minute I change again. I’m very mindful of when I must change. I use this time to meditate. As a Buddhist, meditation is an important part of my life.

Staying connected to your roots is also important to you. How do you you do that?
I travel back to Myanmar often. We [my family] also have started many health and education projects in the Magwe Division, where my family is originally from. My youngest son lives in Burma to manage these projects.

You were also involved with fundraising support to assist with the devastation of [Cyclone] Nargis. Please tell me about it.
I had arrived in Burma for a month-long trip one day before Nargis hit the country. I witnessed some of the devastation. It was unlike anything I had seen before. It was terrible. As soon as my family knew I was safe, we immediately started fundraising for relief efforts. After I returned to Maryland, we held a special buffet dinner at the restaurant and also set up a donation jar in the front of the restaurant. The restaurant was so full. Over $17K was raised by our customers and friends.

How rewarding it must have been for you and your family to see such a great turnout from loyal customers and friends in the community who came to support Burma.
Yes, it was very nice. The community was so supportive and we really appreciated their willingness to help so many Burmese who were suffering. The majority of the money was donated to an Emergency Clinic for cyclone victims. The rest went to shelters that provided temporary shelter to those who lost their homes.

You’ve grown a wonderful business here in the community with Mandalay. Do you feel you’ve achieved your dreams?
Not yet. I still have more dreams for our business and for my home [Burma]. My family and I continue to work hard, dream and plan for our future. We are looking forward to accomplishing other things together, as a family. I tell my family again and again, what I want most is that our family is together. No matter what we do, family should always be first, our priority. This is my biggest dream—a family that remains close is the most important achievement. We have nothing if we do not have each other.

The above is an excerpt from a longer interview I had with Saw Myint. Below are a few dishes we’ve enjoyed eating at Mandalay Restaurant.

Laphet Thoke (pronounced la-pay toe)
Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

Burma is one of a very few countries where tea is both eaten and drunk.

Laphet Thoke

Recently, while eating out at Mandalay Restaurant, I had the pleasure of trying their very traditional version of Laphet Thoke, Burmese Tea Leaf Salad. It is made made from fermented tea leaves. Perhaps the most known Burmese food, it is often considered by many to be Burma’s national dish.

A little salty, sweet, spicy, and bitter, laphet thoke is made from a heady mix of textures and flavors that include pickled tea leaves, roasted and crispy peanuts, roasted broad beans, fried garlic, and toasted sesame seeds. The dish I had was vegetarian, but other versions can include dried shrimp.

Served as an appetizer, side dish or snack, this salad is quite versatile. You can read more about it here and the process of cultivating the tea leaves here.

Baya Gyaw Thoke  Gram Fritter Salad

Baya Gyaw Thoke
Gram Fritter Salad

A Sane Gyaw Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and cabbage sautéed with a light brown sauce

A Sane Gyaw
Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and cabbage sautéed with a light brown sauce

Baya Gyaw (Gram Fritters) and Burmese Samosa (Golden Triangle)

Baya Gyaw (Gram Fritters) and Burmese Samosa (Golden Triangle)

I don’t have a Burmese recipe to share in this post, but I would highly recommend you seek out any Burmese restaurants that may be in your community. They’re not as ubiquitous as Chinese, Indian or Thai restaurants, but if you should be so lucky to find one in your area, try it out! And, if you’re ever in the D.C. area you can try Mandalay.

A medley of a few tasty vegetarian dishes at Mandalay Restaurant

A medley of a few tasty vegetarian dishes at Mandalay Restaurant

Finally, if you’re able to visit Burma, go. It’s a world apart, and probably unlike any place you currently know.

Pyè-byè (take it easy), Martine

Bolivian Canahua Pilaf

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Remember how I said (here) that my kitchen cupboards are filled with things like exotic grains and that I’d soon be cooking through my cupboards, so to speak? Well, today I present organic Bolivian Canahua (pronounced “kaniwa”).

Very similar to its cousin quinoa, canahua is a hearty grain that grows in the mountains of the Andes and is virtually unknown outside the high regions of Bolivia and Peru. Like quinoa, it’s high in protein and has a complete amino acid profile. But, it’s a little better. You know how you need to wash quinoa before cooking to remove the bitter saponins? Well, with canahua it’s not necessary. No saponins and no bitter taste. It’s considered the “Cadillac of Grains”.

Roasted and often ground, canahua is traditionally used as a thickener or protein additive to soups, stews, porridge, desserts, and drinks like smoothies.

Here, I’ve paired it with vegetables, herbs, and another bag of grains in my cupboards, mixed basmati and wild rice. If you can’t find canahua, no worries, this recipe will also work with quinoa, in any of it’s varieties—white, red or black.

Bolivian Canahua Pilaf
Serves about 4-6

4 large or six slender carrots
3-4 tablespoons coconut oil, divided
4-5 cloves garlic, crushed and divided
salt and black pepper
½ cup canahua
½ cup mixed basmati and wild rice
4 green onions, sliced, green and white parts separated
1/2 cup red bell pepper, cut into half inch slices
2 tablespoons sage leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons sorrel leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons oregano, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons mint, roughly chopped and more for garnish
2-4 limes, juice and zest

Preheat oven to 400F. Cut carrots at a diagonal, about 1/4–in thick. In a baking pan lined with parchment paper, toss carrots with 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil, 2 cloves garlic, and salt and pepper. Roast until tender, about 20 minutes.

Cook canahua (or quinoa) and basmati and wild rice according to package directions. When cooked, but still a little warm, combine canahua and rice blend in a large bowl.

In a sauce pan, heat the remaining (2-3 tablespoons) coconut oil, garlic, and white parts of green onions. Sauté until fragrant, about a minute or less. Add bell peppers and sauté another 30 seconds. Add sage, sorrel and oregano, and sauté another 30 seconds. Be careful not to burn the herbs, and the peppers should be slightly softened but still firm. Add herb mixture to canahua and rice blend.

Add roasted carrots, including any oil in pan, to the canahua mixture. Add mint, green onions (green parts), zest and juice of 2 limes, and salt and pepper. Toss well, taste and adjust seasoning, adding more lime juice/zest and salt and pepper if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature and garnish with mint leaves and green parts of green onions.

Notes: Each time I’ve made this dish I’ve tried variations, adding golden raisins, dried cranberries, or slivered almonds. Next time I might try capers. Feel free to experiment and if you come up with any great additions/variations, please let me know.

Sorrel leaves add a lemony flavor. If you can’t find them, feel free to substitute with fresh lemon juice. It can be added with the lime juice.

Peach Buckwheat Porridge

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When peaches are in season, this really simple and tasty dish is served in my home again and again—for breakfast or dinner.

Sweet and juicy, summer peaches are one of my favorite seasonal fruits. From cobblers and pies to smoothies and ice cream, fresh peaches are a delicious addition to almost any recipe.

Peaches farmers market

Buckwheat, slowly cooked in milk with peaches and coconut oil until it becomes creamy and tender—while adding cinnamon, vanilla and a hint of sweetness—makes this dish a summer favorite.

Buckwheat groats

Made with plant milk and buckwheat, this recipe is both vegan and gluten free. If you prefer, you can use cow’s milk instead, and if you can’t find buckwheat groats, feel free to use rice.

Peach Buckwheat Porridge
Serves 4-6

1 tablespoon coconut oil
4 ripe peaches, cut into chunks (save a few for garnish)
1 cup buckwheat groats
3 cups plant milk (I’ve used oat, hemp, almond, etc.)
1 cup coconut milk
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon sweetener (maple syrup, brown sugar, or other sweetener of choice (optional)
pinch of salt
sunflower, pumpkin, flax, or hemp seeds, (optional toppings)
walnuts or slivered almonds (optional toppings)

Heat coconut oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add peaches and cook until some juices have been released, about 5 minutes.

Add buckwheat groats and stir until well coated. Add plant and coconut milks, cinnamon stick, and vanilla. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer until buckwheat is tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 25 minutes. Add more milk if it becomes too thick.

Discard the cinnamon stick, and mix in salt and sweetener (if using). Top with chunks or slices of fresh peaches, or peaches sautéed in coconut oil. Add 1-2 other of your favorite toppings. Serve warm or cold.

A Little Cake for Two

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Watermelon Cake by Petit World Citizen
Children’s birthdays these days are often a really big deal. Many times they involve elaborate parties with lots of interesting décor, guests, food, sugar, entertainment, and great goodie bags. Big parties—sometimes stressful for the hosts and/or the child—can be nice and a lot of fun, but I find I tend to gravitate towards the idea of simple birthday celebrations, with family and close friends.

I believe birthdays for children are really what you make of them. Big party, small party, or no party, they’re all great. What I think is really important is that the child feels celebrated, special and loved.

When my little love recently turned two years old, I decided to keep it simple. We didn’t have a party, but still tried to make him feel special in a variety of other ways. Perhaps next year we’ll have a party for his birthday, or not, but one thing is for sure, we’ll celebrate it. Because, doesn’t everyone need at least one day in the year when they feel special and their existence is celebrated?

What’s your family’s approach to celebrating children’s birthdays? Any lessons you’d like to share from parties that turned out well, or not so well?

Closeup Watermelon Cake Fruit for Watermelon Cake

Watermelon Birthday Cake
Earlier this summer a friend hosted a small birthday party for her three year old. She made a wonderful cake out of watermelon and fruits. As soon as I saw it I knew I’d try my own version one day. This is a perfect cake to be eaten in or outdoors, on a hot summer day.

1 small seedless watermelon
An assortment of fruits in contrasting colors. (I used cantaloupe, honeydew, kiwi, seedless green grapes, blueberries, and mango.)

Optional Equipment
3 round cutters in varying sizes, (I used 4”, 2.5”. 1.5”)
Cookie/candy cutters, (I used cutters for the heart, star, crescent, and triangle shapes)
1 skewer

Slice the top and bottom sides of watermelon. Set sliced side down onto a cutting board and begin to rind off the sides of the watermelon.

Watermelon top

Slicing rind

Slice watermelon horizontally to make the tiers. Slice 3 tiers of equal height, each about 2-3 inches high. Use different-sized round cutters to form and cut out three circles. Use one round cutter for each tier.

Stack tiers on top of each other and insert a skewer from the top down to secure the layers together. Trim skewer.

Skewer

Cut fruits into ¼-inch (larger if decorating a larger cake) slices and use small cookie and/or candy cutters to create shapes. Artfully place fruit and berries on and around the layers.

You can use toothpicks to secure decorations in place, but since my cake was so small and I wasn’t transporting it far, I didn’t feel it was necessary to secure each piece of fruit. Also, I wanted to let my son have fun with his cake without worrying that he might hurt himself with a toothpick.

Notes: My cake was quite small. The bottom layer was only about 4-inches in diameter. I sliced blueberries and grapes to keep them a little smaller for such a small cake. If you’d like a larger cake, use a large watermelon. The watermelon cake my friend had made was large and beautifully decorated with pineapple cut-outs, whole grapes, and berries. A larger cake provides opportunities to embellish the cake with a lot of fruit.

If you don’t have cutters, you can still make this cake simply by carving the layers to your preferred size. Don’t worry if the circles (or any other shape) layers are not perfect. The uneven sides will show that it’s homemade and it will still look beautiful and taste refreshing on a summer day!

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