Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A New Art Project: Picturing My Food

I only started taking pictures of my food last May when I realized that I wanted to include photographs on the blog. Never in the course of cooking these dishes over and over again had I ever thought about taking their pictures. So here I was having to cook all these old favorites again—in order to take their pictures. We ate the dishes, of course, with so many fond memories. But still it felt like the photographing was just one more thing I had to do in addition to figuring out the technology, conceiving, writing, editing, posting, and the rest. In the process, I learned something about photographing food (the first thing is to remember to do it) and I gathered quite a few pictures on my iPhoto.

But there’s more to it than that. Last fall I bought Paula Wolfert’s new cookbook Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking which I wrote about in a blog on November 18, 2009. I mentioned the problem with the lack of photographs and how I had solved it by taking photos of my clay pots and the dishes I made in them and pasting them into the cookbook. The cookbook took on a whole new character. It was really mine—with useful information and snapshots.

The next steps happened so slowly that I can hardly remember the exact moment I noticed. First I started taking pictures of the dishes I made from cookbooks without photos. From there I proceeded to take photos of my food regardless of whether there was a photo or not. Next I took a picture of everything that went on the table. Finally I went back to all the photos I’d taken for the blog and glued them into the original recipes from which they were adapted. All of this involved lots of pasting and taping—thankfully I am very fond of both.

Slowly it dawned on me that I am embarked on an art project. I am adding color to cookbooks that have none (think of Joy of Cooking). I am superimposing my images on top of the food stylists’ versions. For my own edification, I am recording useful visual information about the cooking pot, the serving platter or the plate and documenting the dish’s appearance. I am making the cookbooks prettier and prettier. The artist in me is transforming the everyday into little pieces of color, remembrance, and art. I don’t know how long this project will last—could be a year, could be less. As long as I am amused and delighted, I'm happy to continue for a while.

How to: About once a week I download the photos from my camera into iPhoto—and move them into the very large “Event” called Food and Store Lists. Then I select the photos I want to print on letter-sized glossy photographic paper. I print the photos small, 2 x 3 inches, so 8 or 10 will fit on a sheet of paper. I cut them up and paste them into the cookbooks with Yes!.

Sesame Chicken and Asparagus Pasta Salad

1 pound thin asparagus, trimmed and cut on diagonal into 1-inch lengths
8 ounces dried linguine, broken into 4-inch lengths
5 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¾ cup chunky peanut butter
1/3 cup brown sugar if using healthy peanut butter, 2 tablespoons if using Jiff
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup sesame oil
¼ cup chicken stock, as needed
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper
3 boneless and skinless cooked chicken breast halves
Note: See cooking directions below.
1½ tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
3 scallions, white part and 3 inches of green, cut into 2-inch julienne or coarsely chopped
1 small cucumber, peeled, halved, seeded and cut into ¼ inch dice

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch asparagus in the boiling water for 1-2 minutes. Scoop out, leaving the water boiling. Drain until dry.
2. Add the linguine to the boiling water and cook until just tender. Drain, rinse under cold water, drain again, and set aside in a large mixing bowl.
3. Place the garlic, vinegar, peanut butter, brown sugar, soy sauce, and red pepper flakes in a food processor. Process for 1 minute. With the motor running, slowly add the sesame oil and the stock, if necessary, through the feed tube; process until well blended. Adjust seasonings as you desire. The sauce should be thick and creamy but not stiff.
4. Shred the chicken into 2-inch julienne and toss with the linguine. Add some of the sauce and 1 tablespoon of the sesame seeds. Keep adding the sauce until the noodles and chicken are nicely moistened. Put the remainder of the sauce in a small serving bowl.

5. Place the linguine and chicken on a large flat serving platter or bowl and arrange the asparagus on top. Sprinkle with the scallions, cucumber, and remaining ½ tablespoon sesame seeds. Serve at room temperature. If you have any of the asparagus, scallions, or cucumbers which don’t fit on the platter, place them in small bowls and bring to the table, along with the extra sauce. You may want to add more of the goodies to your salad as you eat.

To cook the chicken breasts: Simmer the chicken breasts in stock or salted water to cover for about 30 minutes, turning over half way through cooking. Poke a knife into the thickest part to make sure they are cooked all the way through. If they are not, let them simmer little while longer. Let them cool in the liquid. Shred.

6 servings
Adapted from Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ The New Basics Cookbook

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Planning the Menu for a Dinner Party

For the family, I usually cook two dishes for dinner: the main dish and a vegetable or salad. For a dinner party, I might add a first course and most likely dessert. How much and what you cook depends a lot on your guests. If they are dainty eaters, less is preferable. If they are teenage boys, quantity counts. So how do I go about creating a menu that is fun, beautiful, tasty, and doable?

Gathering information
First of all I ask the dinner guests about any dietary restrictions. Is anyone a vegetarian, a vegan, or gluten intolerant? And I think about what kind of food would appeal to them and to me. Next I look to see what is hiding out in the fridge that needs to be used. Finally I think about what is in season. Oranges, lemons, and sorrel are growing in my backyard. New crops keep showing up at the Farmers Market.

With this information in mind, I have two options:
1. I can consult a cookbook for menu suggestions, look at the Winter or Spring section of a cookbook organized that way, or cook a dinner I’ve cooked before and love.
2. I can plan the new menu using my own imagination and tastes. When I choose this method, I use a few guidelines to help me out. I love the imagining part—seeing the plate, tasting the flavors in my mind, envisioning the work flow.
I usually start by choosing the main dish. As I add one dish after another, I ask myself some questions:

Color Will the plate of food be pretty and colorful? I love color. If I’m fixing a pasta with a cream sauce, for example, I might want a fresh green veggie on the side. Cauliflower wouldn’t work. Tomatoes, red peppers and carrots are great favorites of mine for adding color.

Taste/flavor How will the flavors work together? Most of us wouldn’t want to eat a meal where every dish contained cayenne. Our mouths would cry out for the soothing comfort of sour cream, avocado, cold beer. So I watch for balance in the hot flavors with the soothing ones. The same principle applies with sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Balance and contrast rule.

Migration Will the juices on the plate be compatible? A stew with a nice gravy works wonderfully with mashed potatoes. Most of the time a salad needs to be on a separate plate because the vinaigrette merging with the rest of the food would make it all taste like salad.

Texture How will the textures of the food work together? A silky-textured dessert is nice after a crisp salad. Polenta has a nice mouth feel with braised lamb shanks. Full-flavored dips are great with fresh crusty bread or crackers. You get the idea.

Timing Can I fix the meal without driving myself crazy? What can I fix ahead? I try to avoid dinners where too much has to be done at the last moment. I try to imagine the process of cooking the meal so that I can stay calm and collected. Sometimes that means waiting to have a glass of wine until dinner is on the table, as hard as that is. I know I need a clear head.

I love creating menus. But if this process seems too complicated, choose one thing, like Color, and put the rest aside. Keep it easy. Remember that you can BUY some or most of the add-ons so you can focus on the main dish. Most of all, cook with pleasure and have fun with your guests.

Menu 14: A Dinner Party

So here’s the process I use to create a menu. As I said above, you get to choose whatever you think you and your guests would enjoy eating. These guidelines might give you some help in putting it all together.

Catfish with Cherry Tomatoes and Lemon Sauce
I’m going to fix Catfish with Cherry Tomatoes and Lemon Sauce for the main dish. The dish can be put together ahead, refrigerated and baked right before serving. The sauce can be made ahead. I imagine what it will look like with the breading and the cherry tomatoes. (Cookbook photos are so helpful.) I imagine tasting the lemon sauce and the capers in the breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumb Caper topping:
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
¼ cup capers, drained
1½ cups fresh bread crumbs
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ teaspoon pepper

1½ pounds catfish fillets of similar thickness or other white fish fillets
2 tablespoons olive oil
Basket of cherry tomatoes
Lemon Sauce (see recipe below)
Parsley for garnish, optional

1. If you need to grate the cheese and make the breadcrumbs, you can do both in a food processor. Grate the cheese with the grater insert, remove the cheese, and then make the breadcrumbs with the regular blade.
2. To make the topping, combine the cheese, garlic, capers, breadcrumbs, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper and mix well.
3. Preheat oven to 450°F. Place the olive oil in a baking dish. Turn the fillets in the oil to coat both sides and lay side by side in the dish in a single layer.
4. Sprinkle with the topping and the cherry tomatoes. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Test for doneness. When the fish flakes easily, it’s done.
5. While the fish is baking, make the lemon sauce. When the fish is done, sprinkle with parsley if desired and serve with the Lemon Sauce.

Lemon Sauce

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Serve at room temperature.

4-5 servings
Adapted from the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi’s Come On In

Stir-Fried Sugar Snap or Snow Peas
I know that the texture of the fish is nice and soft. The peas would be good because of the color and the crunch. The peas can be de-strung ahead. They need to be fried at the last moment.

1 pound fresh sugar snap or snow peas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt

1. Pull the strings, if any, from the peas, snapping off the top stems and bottom flags if necessary.
2. Heat a frying pan or wok. Add the oil and the salt.
3. Toss in the peas and stir fry until the peas are tender, but still bring green and a little crunchy. You might add a tablespoon or two of water to speed along the cooking. Stir until the water disappears.

4 servings
My own devising

The breadcrumbs on the fish take care of starch. No rice or bread or potatoes are necessary unless one of your guests would feel neglected without it.

If I wanted a salad to serve with the fish and sugar snap peas, I might choose a slaw, such as Jicama Slaw (June 21, 2009 blog) or Erasto’s Slaw (May 23, 2009 blog). Either can be put together ahead of time and stored in the fridge. Stir again just before serving. It might be best to serve in small side bowls.

For dessert, I probably wouldn’t want a big lemon hit because of the fish’s Lemon Sauce. Tiny Chocolate Pots (December 8, 2009 blog) might be just right. They can be made ahead and are ready whenever you are, unless you want to add some whipped cream.

If you want to have something to eat standing around the kitchen, what about a Green Olive Tapenade (August 10, 2009 blog) with crispy crackers or cucumbers? Nice color, can be made ahead, and has a strong distinctive flavor.

Thai-Style Steak Dinner Salad

This is a wonderful dinner salad, perfect when you have some leftover cooked steak. Add some crusty bread and you have a great dinner. It would also work with leftover roasted chicken.

Leftovers from whatever cooked steak you have on hand, sliced in ½-inch strips
Greens (a large handful or two for each person eating): romaine, red leaf or whatever mix of greens you have on hand
½ cup fresh mint, sliced
2 green onions, sliced on the diagonal
½ cup toasted salted peanuts, chopped coarsely, optional

Thai vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or hot pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Mix together all the ingredients in the vinaigrette. Taste for seasoning and adjust as you desire.
2. Mix enough of the vinaigrette with the cooked steak to moisten it nicely.
3. Combine the greens, fresh mint, and green onions in a salad bowl.
4. Add the remaining vinaigrette to the greens. Toss well.
5. Pile the greens on dinner plates. Top the salads with the steak, pouring the vinaigrette from the steak bowl over all.
6. If you wish, sprinkle the toasted peanuts over the salads.

The number of servings depends on the amount of cooked steak you have. If you have a lot, you may need to increase the amount of the vinaigrette. The amount given would serve 4 for dinner with some crusty bread.
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living’s Great Food Fast

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Virtues of Composting

In 1977 I bought my first house in Durham, North Carolina. Its primary asset was a well-established compost pile. It was about 6 x 4 feet with fencing attached securely to metal poles at each corner. I covered it with black plastic and marveled at the proliferation of banana slugs, pumpkin vines and, ultimately, compost. You can see the compost pile on the left of the quilted piece that I made in 1980. Since that initial pile, I am pleased to say that I have created compost piles in two more houses in North Carolina and two in northern California.

Compost is all about transformation. The mix of ingredients you put into the bin are ready at hand and by no means exotic: leaves you’ve raked up from the front yard or the street, grass clippings and garden trimmings, vegetable and fruit peelings (like cilantro, parsley, and celery that have gone yellow in the fridge), dead or dying houseplants, tea leaves and coffee grounds. I stay away from pasta, bread, bones and other kinds of protein; these can go into your yard waste container if your garbage people allow it. Avoid large tree branches or super-leathery leaves because they take too long to disintegrate. Sprinkle with water to keep the pile damp but not swampy. Cover it up. Stir it every so often. Wait for a while and, like magic, this assortment of ingredients turns into a dark, rich crumbly stuff called compost. Add it to your garden as mulch, fertilizer, and soil amendment all in one.

The first thing you need to do is to buy a plastic compost bin or create your own using wooden palettes or fencing and stakes mentioned above. Plastic bins are often available at a cut-rate price from your county’s waste management authority. Check out the resource list below. I put my bin in a side or back yard where it can’t be seen from the street.

The second thing you need to do is find a good way to collect the peelings in your kitchen. While I’m cooking, I keep a metal bowl next to the chopping area and put all the peels into that.

The bowl gets dumped into a blue plastic container with a lid (mine is from IKEA) which fits underneath the sink. I can easily empty it into the compost bin whenever it’s full or getting a little stinky and cover the contents with dried leaves already in the bin.

I am truly dazzled by what happens to this mixture of disparate ingredients. While making supper requires some effort from me, compost mostly cooks itself. I win in every way: my garden soil is greatly enriched, much less of my waste goes into the city landfill, and I get to feel so virtuous.

I Googled ‘building a compost bin’ and got many responses. Among them were
Bay area:
Alameda County 510-444-SOIL (the Rotline)
Central Contra Costa County Solid Waste Authority 925-906-1806
West Contra Costa County Integrated Waste Management Authority
San Mateo County RecycleWorks 888-442-2666
Santa Clara County Recycling & Waste Reduction Commission 408-918-4640
New York City area: (if bins are available in NYC, maybe they are everywhere)
For Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens Compost Projects
I Googled ‘Compost Bins’ and got a huge number of sites offering to sell me one. Some are inexplicably expensive. I think the least expensive was about $90. You might also check with your local nursery for availability in your area.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Menu 13: A Simple Steak Dinner

Bistro-style Steak with Sauce Marchand
This is a good-sized piece of meat on a small plate. I was only able to eat about half of it. The rest will go into a dinner salad. I'll give you the recipe later this week.

2 rib steaks, ½ to ¾ inch thick or up to 1 inch
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup minced shallots
½ cup dry red wine or a bit more
Salt and pepper to taste for the sauce

1. Trim the steaks of external fat. Pat them dry; sprinkle with salt, pepper and thyme, pressing the seasonings into both sides.
2. Heat a heavy nonstick skillet or cast iron frying pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon of the butter. When it has melted and is near sizzling, put the steaks in the pan, searing them for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, depending upon the thickness of the steaks and how you like them cooked. (Four minutes per side works for a 1-inch room temperature steak, if you like medium rare.) Keep the heat high, but don’t let the butter burn. (I hate testing for doneness by cutting into the steak, but sometimes you just have to do it.) When the steaks are done to your liking, remove to a warm platter and loosely cover with foil while you prepare the sauce.
3. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the pan juices. Return the skillet to the heat and add the shallots; sauté until they are translucent. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up any bits clinging to it.
4. Reduce the wine by half (it will thicken), then stir in the remaining butter. Taste for salt and pepper; add more as desired. Pour the hot sauce over the steaks.

2 servings with plenty left over 
Adapted from editors Michael Bauer and Fran Irwin’s The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook

French Potato Salad

2 pounds small potatoes
2 tablespoons salt for the boiling water (if using the boiling method)
¼ cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoon chopped green onions or chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

1. Scrub the potatoes.
2. Place the potatoes in a steamer basket in a pot with water filled to the bottom of the basket. Turn on the heat and steam the potatoes for 20-30 minutes depending on their size. Test regularly with a sharp knife. They are done when the knife goes through the potato with no resistance. Check the water under the basket to make sure it doesn’t boil dry.
Place the potatoes in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Add 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil and cook for about 10-13 minutes or until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a small knife.
3. Whichever method you choose, when the potatoes are done, drain and cool slightly. Peel if you’d like.
4. Cut the potatoes into quarters or sixths, depending on the size, and place them in a large shallow serving dish.
5. Pour the wine over the warm pieces and toss very gently. Set aside until the potatoes have absorbed the wine.
6. Beat together the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl until the salt has dissolved. Gradually add the oil and whisk until thickened. Stir in the green onions or chives.
7. If any of the wine is lingering in the bottom of the dish, pour it out. Then pour the dressing over the potatoes and toss gently. Recheck seasonings and adjust if necessary. Remember that potatoes often need for plenty of salt. Sprinkle with parsley.

6 servings
Adapted from The New York Times Sunday Magazine, July 8, 2001

Oven-Roasted Asparagus
This is the first asparagus of the season and I just couldn't resist passing along a recipe which many of you probably already know. It is a great easy way to prepare this harbinger of spring.

1½-2 pounds asparagus, avoid pencil-thin if you can
2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse or regular salt

1. Prepare the asparagus by snapping off the bottom of the stalks at the place where they break.
2. Preheat the oven to 475ºF.
3. Toss the asparagus with the olive oil. Spread out on a low-sided cookie sheet, lined with parchment paper or silpat.
4. Place the asparagus in the oven for 10 minutes. Shake to turn. Test for doneness. If the stalks are soft, remove from the oven. If not, return to the oven for an additional 5 minutes. If you use pencil-thin asparagus, decrease the time.
5. Remove from the oven, salt lightly, and serve.

Note: If something else is in the oven at a lower temperature, you can put the asparagus in there and watch it until it’s done. Of course, it will take a bit longer than the above times, but it’s just fine. When it’s done, remove it from the oven. You can return it briefly to reheat if you wish.

4 servings
Adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon’s Passionate Vegetarian

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Staying on Top of the Weight Issue

A couple of you have sidled up to me and asked sotto voce “How do you keep your weight so, ah, normal, when you’re eating all this delicious stuff you put on your blog?” I usually mumble something about wearing black or being mindful. The truth is that the first two months of the blog, I gained. And gained enough to make me nervous. Having lived most of my life feeling, if not always looking, chubby, I took the gain of five pounds, hefting me over 140 (at 5’4”), seriously. Having foresworn “dieting” many years ago, I knew that I needed to construct some long-term guidelines for myself that might help stabilize the gain and possibly encourage a loss. Since July, between 10 and 12 pounds have come off very very slowly with many ups and downs. But steadily down. No one will ever call me thin (and I don’t aspire to that description anyway) but I now feel back in my normal range. So here are the principles I’ve been using since that fateful day in July. Perhaps one or two of them will strike you as helpful.

Exercise portion control.

Use smaller plates (10-inches in diameter). Your eye and brain perceive a full plate of food and you feel full eating less. It’s a perception thing.

For lunch, I have a favorite green bowl. I can eat whatever I want, as long as it fits in the green bowl.
Cut back on pre-eating (snacking or having a glass of wine) before dinner.
Serve plates in the kitchen. I tend to nibble when serving bowls sit in front of me.

Pay attention to what you’re eating and drinking.
Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Eat less protein, starches, and fats. But don’t eliminate anything entirely. Our bodies want it all.
Eat desserts, enjoying every bite, for special occasions.
Drink less wine. I have been in the habit of drinking a glass or two of wine nearly every night. I’m trying to drink every other night instead.
Eat more slowly, at least 20 chews per bite. I find this very difficult but worth trying.

Exercise regularly.
I go to Curves about three times a week. It’s a 30-minute workout for women with a circuit of machines, running platforms, music and little mind games to stave off boredom.
I also walk six miles a week using a computer program that virtually walks you across the United States. I walk my miles, wherever I am, and log onto http://exercise.lbl.gov to record them. I have now walked 1609.1 miles and find myself in Kansas. You need to have a pedometer.

I hesitate to mention one more thing that I do: I usually don’t eat breakfast. This practice is idiosyncratic to me and would make nutritionists, dietitians and probably some of you blanch. I have nothing against breakfast. In fact, I love breakfast foods and often eat them for dinner. But I am rarely hungry for breakfast, so why eat? If I’m hungry, I eat. Simple as that.

There are weeks when we are eating out a lot, traveling, cooking dinner parties, or vacationing with friends. The principles don’t exactly go out the window, but they get modified to fit the current reality. And that is how it should be. It is wonderful to eat delicious food without worrying too much about the consequences. Once I’ve returned home, I reinstitute the principles. And that feels good too.

A couple of books have been really helpful in educating me about eating and weight:
David Kessler, The End of Overeating and
Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

Menu 12: An Asian-Influenced Dinner

Cauliflower, Caper and Pumpkin Seed Spread

For the Asian theme, this dip is great served with crispy rice crackers.

8 ounces cauliflower, broken or cut into florets
¼ cup shelled raw pumpkin seeds
1 clove of garlic, coarsely chopped
2 green onions
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon capers in brine + a little of the brine for seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring two cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the cauliflower and cook until tender. Scoop out the cauliflower leaving the water boiling. Rinse the cauliflower in cold water to stop it cooking. Drain and set aside to cool.
2. Dunk one of the green onions into the boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove, drain and coarsely chop along with the uncooked green onion.
3. In a food processor purée the pumpkin seeds until they become a fine meal. Add the garlic and whirl until it mixes well with the pumpkin seeds.
4. Add the green onions and drained cauliflower to the food processor. Process while slowly adding the olive oil, capers, brine, salt, and pepper. When the mixture is thick and well combined, it’s ready.
Served with rice crackers, rye toast, toasted pita, herb slab, ciabatta or cucumber slices.

6 servings as a pre-eating dip
Adapted from Marlena Spieler’s column in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Spicy Soba with Tofu

Linda, my Berkeley next-door neighbor who now lives in NYC, requested a tofu dish.  This one is excellent.

1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 small fresh hot red chili, seeded, deveined, and minced (green is fine too)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon molasses
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoon tahini
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons chili oil, optional
Salt to taste

8 ounces dried soba noodles
½ bunch scallions, thinly sliced
12 ounces firm tofu
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small fresh hot red chili, seeded, deveined, and minced, optional (green is fine too)
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon aleppo pepper or other mildly hot pepper or paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

1. To make the sauce, heat the soy sauce in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add sugar, chili, ginger and garlic. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the molasses, and heat until warm. Remove from the heat. Whisk in the sesame oil, tahini, vinegar and chili oil, if desired, to combine. Season to taste with salt. Set aside to cool.
2. To make the noodles: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles, return to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes or until they are cooked, but still a bit firm. Drain the noodles. Set aside in a large bowl, if you want to serve them warm. Place them in a bowl of ice water if you want to serve them cold.
3. Combine the drained noodles with the dressing and scallions. Toss well. Place on a serving platter or low-sided bowl.
4. Drain the tofu. Pat dry and crumble. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the optional chili and garlic. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Increase the heat to medium high and add the crumbled tofu. Stir fry for a few minutes to sear the tofu. Remove from the heat and add the parsley and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Distribute the tofu over the prepared noodles and serve warm or cover and chill to serve cold. Sprinkle with Aleppo pepper or other semi-hot pepper or paprika just before serving.

4 servings
Adapted from The Junior League of Honolulu, Inc.’s Aloha Days, Hula Nights

Cucumber Salad

Refreshing and so easy.

1 large cucumber
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cider or other vinegar

1. Peel the cucumber and cut it in half length-wise. Scoop out the seeds and discard. Cut the hollowed out halves into about ¼-inch or narrower slices.
2. Mix together the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the cucumber slices and mix well. Serve cold or at room temperature.

4 modest servings
Adapted from Wonona W. and Irving B. Chang and Helene W. and Austin H. Kutscher’s An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking