Cornmeal-Lime Cookies

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I have a bit of a bad habit: whenever I look at the operating hours of a place, I end up planning to get there five minutes before they close. Then I run late (of course) and blindly hope that they’ll stay open a few minutes later so I can sneak in.

Back when I was in Boston, I used to love-hate going to Flour Bakery on Mass Ave. I loved going – if they were open. But half the time, I’d get there fifteen minutes after they closed and stare in longingly as employees packed away the pastries. When I finally got my hands on the Flour Bakery cookbook, I reveled in the fact that I would never have to be punctual again. All of my favorite Boston bakery recipes could available in large quantities (…within six hours).

Well it turns out lack of punctuality runs in the family. The other day, my parents drafted me to make desserts for a brunch with family friends. The brunch started at 10am…we got there at noon. Whoops. Despite the fact everyone had already eaten their fill and then some, these cookies were still a huge hit. They’re a tangy, sweet reminder of the good times I had in Boston, and best of all, they’re super easy to make :)

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Fesenjan, and Why I Started Kitchen Whimsies

IMG_2639When I started Kitchen Whimsies, I was living in a college dorm whose stained, old white stove with rickety, finicky burners sat atop an oven that was at least 20 degrees cooler than the supposed temperature. I had no idea how to cook, as evidenced by early attempts at shakshuka (which turned out more like overspiced soup with poached eggs) and fried tomatillos (mercifully no pictures survived).

In a dorm where (clean) counter space is often limited to nonexistent, one-bowl or one-pot recipes are lifesavers. There are, of course, the so-called “curries” made by mixing some curry powder with beans or lentils, or the one-bowl brownie mixes, but once in a while, a one-pot dish is actually outstanding.

Fesenjan, a Persian pomegranate walnut stew, requires no easily-perishable ingredients and can be made in one pot, and tastes like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. Though I’d made it at least four times while at college, I never posted it because it’s such a quick and easy recipe, I’d often make it in a rush for hungry friends. Though it’s a running joke that all the pictures on this blog are #iphoneonly, I still do put in a little time and effort (even if it doesn’t show :p). After teasing them with enticing aromas, I never had the heart to make my friends wait for me to take some admittedly subpar photos for the blog.

Since I now cook for smaller crowds (a.k.a. myself), I can finally take a half-decent photo of one of my favorite dishes. Fesenjan tastes delicious atop white rice, but I also realized that it has the consistency of pulled pork. Persian take on pulled pork sandwiches may have to appear in the future…

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Scone Experimentation

IMG_2657Over the past week, the number of dreary, grey days has increased as the number of leaves on trees has decreased. Though I love apple cider doughnuts, loose and comfy chunky sweaters, snuggling into my winter comforter, and all other cozy autumn activities, it is always sad to feel the warmth of summer fade.

But autumn brings its own vibrancy, with leaves like flames and multicolored fruits and vegetables ripe for harvest. I had always associated pomegranate seeds with summer because of their “tropical” fuchsia hue and the exoticness of a fruit whose seeds shone like edible jewels embedded in bitter white pith. However, after I discovered they were in fact a fall fruit, pomegranates became a favorite fall time treat (though of course, apple cider doughnuts will now and forever be the best part of fall).

After a week of drab, depressing days drained of color, I needed something delicious, sweet, and visually striking, even borderline garish. Enter my favorite breakfast pastry, the scone, combined with my favorite exotic flavors, green tea and pomegranate seeds. Matcha imparts an earthy, slightly bitter taste, while the pomegranate seeds provide small sparks of juicy sweetness. Paired with a mug of hot tea, these scones are rays of light on rainy fall days.

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Rise of the Alien Fruits

IMG_2570As four-legged creatures, we’re inclined to get a little grossed out by things with “too many” legs, or seeds, or eyes. Centipedes and millipedes and spiders are the creepy crawly stuff of nightmares. Many people can’t stomach kiwis, with their fuzzy exterior and billion-seeded exterior. And watermelons, in a semi-abuse of science, have been genetically altered to be seedless.

However, the last few years have bucked that trend. Heirloom tomatoes, or ugly tomatoes, as they’re affectionately called, appeared in gourmet stores, then in large supermarkets. They’re still sold for unholy prices, but that has done little to dampen increasing demand. And other strange fruits and vegetables have begun to appear on the Whole Foods shelves. I literally don’t even know who buys them, but clearly there’s somehow a large enough market for them.

As people strive to be healthier, they’re embracing chia seeds, and flax seeds, and almonds and pistachios, and the general diet of our dear squirrel friends. Trader Joe’s now sells cartons of just pomegranate seeds, and Whole Foods carries horned fruits, which are basically all seeds (and some extraterrestrial green goo). And everyone and their mother suddenly loves figs.

Though my fight-or-flight instinct remains strong when I see a fly or a centipede or a giant spider, I’ve come to appreciate foods with “too many” seeds. Like this horned fruit I got for free the other day, which seriously looks like alien food, but kind of grows on you after a while. And figs, which I absolutely hated as a kid, but now use for “healthy” desserts and “healthy” salads (that are really more like desserts masquerading as salads by the time I’m done with them…).

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Noodly

IMG_2560My family is split into two camps – the rice people, and the noodle people.

…in other words, everyone in my family adores noodles, except for me.

At Vietnamese restaurants, my sister, mother, and father would huddle over steaming bowls of pho while I ate lemongrass pork on broken rice. At Chinese restaurants, while everyone else had dandan mien or zhajiang mien, I opted for shaoya chashao fan. And while instant ramen was a staple food item in my household, I rarely deigned to touch it before high school.

The only cuisine where we met on common ground was Italian. (Though I am a huge risotto fanold habits die hard.)

As much as I have learned to love chow mien and lo mien and all the other miens, pasta holds a special place in my heart as one of the first western dishes I remember my parents making, and one of the first dishes that my dad “taught” me to make. (Basically, I stood there with a wooden spoon and stirred and felt important while my dad measured out and added all the ingredients.)

I’ve learned a lot in the way of cooking since those early years standing on a stool in front of the stove. And since I’ve known how to make rice for as long as I could remember, I figured it was time to tackle pasta.

So dear noodle camp, here’s my olive branch. Easy, freshly-made pasta that even the rice girl in me can wholeheartedly appreciate.

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Same Words, New Story

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Recently, I dusted off and reread Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I had first tackled it in 2003, when I was a snarky sixth grader who prided myself on being precocious when really, I was just pretentious. At that time, I was a notorious speed reader, competing against other similarly smart-aleck kids to devour as many Redwall books as possible within a month, or finish Lord of the Rings within three days. I loved to read… but maybe not for the totally right reasons.

As you can guess, I completely forgot what Strange and Norrell was even about a few months after I had “read” it.

What I do remember is that when I first attempted it, I allowed myself to be caught up in the action without ever wondering why Clarke had written the book. And since most other books I read in early middle school were populated by heroes and had predictably happy endings, I naively assumed that Clarke’s book, because it was a fantasy novel, must end in a similar fashion.

The second time around, the feeling of the ending was different from what I remembered. I distinctly recall I had believed that the book had an unfinished but hopeful quality and would be followed by a sequel. But this time, I had tears in my eyes.

There are the big moments in your life, when you fully realize that you are taking a step that can never be retracted. Then there are the quieter moments of realization, when it becomes clear that somewhere along the way, you have irrevocably changed. I looked back and saw that though I will perhaps always be too trusting, I have also become more prone to question voices of authority.

I don’t think my interpretation of Strange and Norrell the first time was wrong – at the time, I needed the fantastical, magical escape from mundane middle school life, so that was the aspect of the book that resonated with me the most. But this time around, I was stunned at all the imagery associated with ‘choice’: multiple scenes involving an infinite number of shadowy pathways, forest roads with enchantments of temptation, and the appearance of new fairy roads as magic returned to Britain, offering new possibilities in careers and lifestyle that had not existed before.

It’s 2014 and I am still just a little (or a lot) pretentious and I still do love to read. My tastes in books have changed – they all seem to involve the words “globalism” or “imperialism” or some other -ism – but I hope that in the next 10 years, as I reread half-forgotten old favorites, I will still maintain a mind open enough to glean some new insight each time.

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Franconia, NH

IMG_2502A few days before I left Boston, my friend and I decided to spend our Sunday doing intense things (and no, I’m not talking about intensely lazy Sunday brunch). I woke up quite early (read: 5am), excited for my first big hiking adventure in years, then waited an hour until it was an ‘acceptable’ time to text my friend. I still managed to wake her up…oops.

We headed out to Franconia Notch State Park, otherwise known as the home of the “Old Man of the Mountain”; that is, before he lost his nose to a rockslide. We started at about 10:30am and began our ascent. 

At first, the trail was gentle and cool, passing along a playfully babbling brook that cascaded down a number of beautiful waterfalls. However, as the trail separated from the water, it became progressively more insane, until we were scrambling up rocks and basically everything touching our bodies was soaked in sweat. We dragged our soft city slicker bodies onward, swearing we would not stop until we reached the top. Then at some point, we passed above tree line and found ourselves on a sun-swept, boulder-studded mountain peak. Everything was suddenly open and bright, calming yet awe-inspiring, and of course, breathtakingly beautiful.

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The Ridge, Franconia Notch State Park, NH

There is something kind of magical about hiking and really just being outdoors – there’s the constant thrum that almost sounds like the hum of a refrigerator but yet is charged with life. There’s the hard heartbeats from the climb and the exhilaration (and maybe the high that comes from a little oxygen deprivation) from being 4,000 feet high. We stood up there and we felt like we had actually accomplished something (and all before lunchtime!).

I have to confess, my antidepressant of choice is food. But there is something to be said for the heady rush of wind and a view so clear we felt as if we could see to the shore, a hundred miles away.

So as much as I love scones and biscuits and all other baked goods, I’m resolving to eat a little healthier (woohoo salad recipe!). It’s one thing to enjoy making and eating food, it’s another to use it as an escape. And sugar highs may feel similar to a rush of endorphins, but neither actually really equate to happiness. Here’s to being healthier – in all senses of the word.

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Shakshuka Revisited

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Back when I was still a wee little college junior, I started this blog to help me reconcile with some big changes in my life. I had just returned from a life-changing summer in China, recently become single, and was living in a pseudo-apartment for the first time. One of my goals for junior year was to become a decent cook – it didn’t start out pretty, but I’d like to think my cooking skills have improved, even if my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

I once totally screwed up Shakshuka in a classic example of a beginner cook overeager to use fancy machines for cooking. I blended three beautiful tomatoes into pulp, then threw in some eggplant, and served the watery mess to my friends. (Sorry guys!) Well this summer, I’ve had nothing but time, which has, among other things, allowed me to take the analog approach to cooking. (That and my blender, the only electronic equipment I brought with me, broke en route to Boston, kind of forcing my hand.)

It’s also allowed me to reflect on what lies ahead as my friends and I move away from Boston and to different corners of the world (…but mostly New York and D.C.). I fulfilled my goal of learning to cook, but for a while now, I’ve been a little lost, consumed in filling out assignments and checking off tasks (with an unhealthy dose of life drama on the side).

I can’t go back and fix all the mistakes (perceived or real) that I made in the past and dwell on all the lost relationships I had, but I can work on moving beyond them. Cooking has become therapeutic, a challenge with each new dish, but also comfort in repeating the familiar. And so I don’t gain like 100 pounds, long bike rides and not-so-long jogs are also calming in their own way, as I focus on the rhythm of my breaths and the constant motion of my legs and clear my head.

And so I’ve revisited Shakshuka, that dish I made as a cocky fledgling cook that reminded me that I still had so much to learn about cooking. (1. Always read through the recipe carefully. 2. Always read through the recipe carefully. 3. Don’t make changes to recipes when you have no idea what you’re doing.) And I think I finally got the hang of it! Now it remains to be seen if I can get the hang of life goals…

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Captivated by Caraway

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Cooking for one person is no easy task. Lately, my pantry has been getting precariously full and some of my perishable items were beginning to edge dangerously close to expiration. I needed a sweet recipe that involved zero new ingredients.

I settled on a scone recipe (because you can never have too many scone recipes) which called for fruits — great, I have blueberries that I bought for no reason — and a tablespoon of caraway seeds, which I also had and honestly never expected to use. Before making goulash, I had never used or even heard of caraway seeds. The goulash had so many flavors, mainly paprika, that I wasn’t really sure what caraway seeds would add.

I don’t know if this is a testament to caraway seeds or to the fact that I have no life, but that first bite of scone was the best part of my day. The seeds added an earthy, sharp flavor and a spice-y aroma that I instantly fell for. So of course I had to do a little research on the origins of caraway seeds. According to NPR, caraway was Europe’s oldest condiment and became a staple in Northern European cuisine before being spread by the Romans to Southern Europe. However, it was shunted aside in favor of exotic spices and because it appeared mainly in homier dishes consumed by the lower-class, it never garnered the same appreciation as cinnamon or even dill and parsley, members of the same plant family as caraway.

Funny how history works — I’d say more people know the flavors of cinnamon and pepper than the that of caraway. Traditional North European dishes like sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread and some Scandanavian spirit called aquavit still use it, but it has disappeared from the mainstream diet, while pepper is part of basically all cuisines.

Caraway deserves a comeback in a big way. It is no longer the spice of your German grandma; it imparts a truly unique flavor and adds texture to baked goods. I look forward to future forays with caraway seeds…though I guess I’ll have to wait until I clear out a couple more items in pantry :p.

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Backlog Pt. 2

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When I posted this on Instagram, here’s some of the responses I got:

“Why did you post this?”

“Out of all the things you’ve made, of course you chose to Insta this one.”

“That looks gross.”

“Ew, is that Spam?”

I present to you the sweet yet salty, kind-of-disgusting-if-you-think-about-it-too-hard, absolutely delicious delicacy known as spam musubi. This creation, deceptively minimal in design, requires its own special musubi molder. As we all know, any dish that requires special equipment must be exotic and/or gourmet.

I’ve always found it kind of funny that spam musubi originates from Hawaii. When I think of Hawaii, I imagine the beautiful beaches, the volcanos, the plantations of sugar and pineapple, the abundance of sea life. Enter spam musubi, a bastardization of sushi using canned meat. It combines two non-native, and yet pervasive aspects of Hawaiian culture: the large Japanese population, and the presence of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The first Japanese to arrive in the late 1800s were survivors of a shipwreck, and subsequent Japanese arrived as laborers on sugar cane and pineapple plantations.  Then in 1940, the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved from San Diego, CA, to Pearl Harbor, where they had an unfortunate run-in with the daring and desperate Imperial Japanese Navy. Though the day continues to “live in infamy,” the U.S. fleet remains garrisoned in Pearl Harbor.

Spam was created in 1937 and fed troops and civilians in the US and in war-ravaged Europe. And despite the war and internment and all the general animosity between Japan and US, Spam then caught on with Asian cultures, becoming popular in China, Japan, and South Korea as a cheap accompaniment to rice. And somewhere along the way, some insane, brilliant person decided to take one of the fanciest forms of Japanese cuisine and combine it with a food created expressly for people with tight budgets.

And so this unassuming, budget-friendly, exotic yet familiar snack actually represents a kind of beautiful conclusion to a story of mistrust and mistreatment, of war and reconciliation, and as an understated yet well-loved representation the alliance of security and friendship that has somehow arisen between two former adversaries. And to top it all off, it’s pretty darn tasty.

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