10/11/17

Big (Huge) Sur

We all know the saying: If Vanity Fair isn’t coming to you. You go to Vanity Fair. Or, put another way (in case that’s not a familiar saying to you): these idyllic photos of me and my family in Big Sur are what I imagine our fictional Vanity Fair spread might look like.
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Our family (sans Mavis) spent most of last week at an old friend’s place in Big Sur. The trip was both an adventure and a Walden-esque escape pod from the noise of the world. For the past eight months, because of fires followed by cataclysmic rains, this portion of the coast has only been accessible by a 26-mile windy, narrow mountain pass with no cell service or guardrails. In a small way, we were mercifully off the grid. We had satellite Internet, but we couldn’t use our phones to actually call anyone—something Matt still does with regularity. The only TV monitors we saw were dead and stacked in a cross outside of the Henry Miller Memorial Library. We fell into a pretty simple routine that went mostly like this: breakfast, coffee, hike, lunch by the ocean, exploration, wine, dinner at 5pm, campfire, songs, stories, and sleep. It was a really good trip.

As for that noisy world that we instantly returned to? Well, the thing that I’m holding tight to, the thing that became so obviously clear to me during this trip is that of all of the things, people, institutions, etc. one can choose to worship in this world, I choose nature. I choose the ocean—the otters we saw floating on their backs, cracking open abalone, the whales we saw slapping their flippers against the surface of the water, and the giant, heart-expanding redwoods. I choose the sea air, the moon, the sun, the planets. The universe!

As for food, I made another Japanese egg dish. I’ll be sure to share it with you soon.


Teddy inside one heck of a spirit nest.

Isaac got a stick!
Isaac lost his stick!


One million cheers for the hummingbird that just barely made the frame.
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9/7/17

Indian Coconut-Cilantro Chutney

I was wrong about chutney just like I was wrong about Dean. (And when I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong.) A year or so ago, I thought chutney was just another way of saying mango salsa. And just a month ago, I thought Dean was a really good-looking, semi-broken but ultimately sincere and decent-hearted man.

But now I know that there is a whole wide world of chutneys out there, one for all of us perhaps, and most importantly: that I am a fool because of course Dean is a shallow if not normal person with little self control and even less emotional maturity. If you guys don't know what I'm talking about, good for you! I've long justified watching The Bachelor / Bachelorette because I think it does reveal interesting, nuanced things about people / what strangers want for people, but I think what it has mostly, sadly revealed is how tricked we all are by good looks. (On the recommendation of one of my blog readers, I read a large chunk of Timothy Caulfield's Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?, which quotes Nancy Etcoff's Survival of the Prettiest: "We face a world where 'lookism' is one of the most pervasive but denied of prejudices." Pervasive but denied of! Totally. Because it's one of those things we all think we "know about already" so we think we won't fall victim to it, and yet here I am in 2017 and I thought Dean was some kind of 25-year-old diamond in the rough who by some strange accident ended up as a contestant on The Bachelor.)
Back to chutney, I've made a lot of them this past year, almost all hailing from Madhur Jaffrey, and yet the one I'm about to share with you is a variation from Samin Nosrat's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which seems to combine everything I ever wanted in a chutney, plus some coconut for good measure. (Note: shredding fresh coconut is a crazy intense chore. If you know of an Indian grocer, you'll almost certainly be able to find bags of the stuff there in the frozen section. Alternatively, I've used coconut flour and that works great too.)

The reason I love chutneys is because I don't cook a lot of meat and so we end up eating a lot of rice-and-egg-type meals. If you go ahead and add chutney to that, along with maybe some sautéed spinach, feta, and whole milk yogurt, you've got yourself a truly delicious, special meal. Plus, there is usually leftover chutney, which you can eat with all sorts of things, like scrambled eggs on a corn tortilla or roasted potatoes or as a condiment on your grilled cheese, etc.

As for lookism, I do see one upshot to our extreme human-nature-based vulnerability here: more variety of people in media. (Remember when everyone freaked out about Kate Moss because she was only 5' 6 and had a gap in her teeth? LOLOLOL.) OK, bye. Enjoy your chutney!
I LOOK LIKE A NICE PERSON. SO I PROBABLY AM.
Indian Coconut-Cilantro Chutney adapted from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 cup fresh or frozen shredded coconut (or 1/3 cup coconut flour, but beware that this stuff is crazy absorbent so you'll need to add more water, anywhere from 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup)
2 garlic cloves
1 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems
12 or so fresh mint leaves
1/2 jalapeno pepper, stemmed (Obviously, go for the whole thing if you're feeling it.)
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1-2 tablespoons whole milk yogurt
1-2 tablespoons water
salt

NOTE: I know you could use pre-ground cumin here, but for me, toasting the seeds and then grinding them myself in a mortar and pestle seems to do something very tiny for my soul. I always think I'll skip the added step and then I don't and then I'm glad.

Place the cumin seeds in a small dry skillet and set over medium heat. Swirl the pan constantly to ensure even toasting. Toast until the first few seeds begin to pop and emit a savory aroma, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Immediately dump the seeds into a mortar or a spice grinder. Grind finely with a pinch of salt.

Pulse the lime juice, coconut, and garlic together in a blender or food processor for 2 minutes until no large chunks remain. Add the cumin, cilantro, mint leaves, jalapeño, sugar, yogurt and pinch of salt and continue blending for another 2 to 3 minutes. If your blender is getting stuck and the mixture seems too thick, add a tablespoon or more of water. Taste and adjust for salt. Cover and refrigerate until serving. Keeps for about five days to a week in the refrigerator.
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8/14/17

Mothers, Capitalism, and Boiling Eggs Overnight: A Conversation with Tannaz Sassooni

[This is the fifth conversation in a series. For the others, click here.]
You may remember my next guest, Tannaz Sassooni, from my ghormeh sabzi post many years back. It was during that epic, old-school attempt that I first learned about Tannaz’s mother, Violet, and though this most recent conversation with Tannaz began with the recipes she contributed to Lucky Peach’s latest cookbook offering, All About Eggs, soon enough, she and I were talking about Violet again.

All the while, I’d asked Matt to take photos the next time I made oyakodon, a Japanese dish I’d been making a lot lately and one that’s featured in the above-mentioned Lucky Peach book. I thought the images would pair nicely with our conversation. But now as I’m putting this post together, I’m reminded that I first had oyakodon when a friend made it and brought it over for me after Isaac was born and how she told me that it means “parent and child in a bowl” (It’s a chicken-and-egg dish, get it?). The next time I made oyakodon (and Matt got out his camera) ended up being when my mom was visiting. And in case you forgot, a big reason I started this conversation series was to help me handle (come to terms with?) my mom's and my divergent political views. I served up Mom a bowl and Matt caught this on camera. Some might call this kismet? Some might call it something more like: But Amelia, you’re always posting about parent and child stuff. Either way, here's Tannaz and me, two products of our mothers, and a recipe for oyakodon.
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Amelia Morris: One of the recipes you contributed to Lucky Peach’s All About Eggs is Shabbat Eggs, which are super slowly cooked eggs in their shells, along with some onion skins and tea leaves. You say they're often cooked as long as overnight, on a Friday, so that you can enjoy them on a Saturday, the day of rest in Jewish tradition. I love this recipe because it's so tied to culture and practicality. The WASP that I am would never have imagined cooking eggs this long. There's no reason for it. That being said, I'm very curious. Do they really taste that different from a regular boiled egg?

Tannaz Sassooni: There's no reason for it. Unless you're forbidden to touch fire for 24 hours. It's a beautiful tradition to shut down for a day and just enjoy life, but getting there is traditionally a lot of work for the family matriarch. The idea of a "Sabbath pot" of some sort is prevalent throughout the Sephardic world. I think in most communities, it's called hamine, but we (Iranians) call it khalebibi, and it's basically a pot of various things (meats, legumes, roots, tubers) that stew overnight to be eaten for the Saturday afternoon meal. There's a Sephardic concept of huevos haminados, which is eggs that sit on top of whatever's in that pot, and khalebibi can have that, too. In the case of Shabbat eggs, it's just the eggs, no big stew in the pot. The texture and flavor here are the antithesis of what's appealing to western palates today. This is nothing like a bright-yolked, oozy, just-set egg. The yolk gets a little powdery. Its edges take on a grey-green. The whites are straight-up beige! And the smell is, well, what you'd expect from eggs boiling forever (although the tea and/or cinnamon helps!). But it's so evocative for a certain generation of Iranian Jews.
AM: Fascinating. Your description reminds me of something I just read about in Everything I Want to Eat where Jessica Koslow talks about one of her inspirations, which is a moment from Jacques Pépin’s old PBS series where he goes through two ways to make an omelette: “the American way” and “the French way,” which Koslow prefers. She describes his French omelette as “the silkiest, supplest, sexiest omelette.” Your Shabbat egg sounds like the opposite! But not in a bad way. Maybe because it's everywhere here on the east side of LA, but I’m a wee bit sick of sexy food. What about you?
TS: I'm not sick of "sexy" food, whatever that means. I have a place in my heart, for sure, for comforting simple flavors that are nostalgic, but I'm not immune to the wiles of bright fresh things, silky textures, big spicy flavors, all of it. I feel like that's so much of the appeal of food—it's sensual. (Side note, I feel like dumplings are the sexiest food of all, and I am HERE for them.) If we're going to anthropomorphize food in this way, I'd say what I am sick of is toxically masculine food! I feel like there's this ongoing thing where, you have to eat the strangest animal, or the strangest part of the animal, or the most insanely spicy thing, to the point where it's not about pleasure at all anymore so much as just being a pissing contest. I don't buy into the mystique that's been created around chefs staying up for crazy hours, doing lots of drugs, being a jerk in the kitchen, then making these perfect specimens of foods in a vacuum. I feel like there's a fetishism to it all (5 years of apprenticeship before they'll deign to let you make the sushi rice?) that's born of privilege, and it doesn't excite me. Countless mothers, for generation after generation, throughout the world, have been cooking high-quality, delicious food for their (often extended) families, balancing nutrition, taste, aesthetics, and budget, not to mention the whims of fussy kids (and grown-ups!), making do with what they have, cleverly stretching what's left from last night into tonight, day after day, and not waiting around for a round of applause. This kind of grounded, aware, art-out-of-necessity cooking is what excites me, and I don't think it gets nearly enough exposure. I guess, as in life, as we get older, what we see as "sexy" becomes richer and far more complex than what the magazines would have you believe.

AM: But Tannaz, I am waiting for my applause! (Unfortunately, only half-kidding.) I like what you say here a lot. It makes me think that it’s not that I’m sick of sexy food or as you describe it: “bright fresh things… and big spicy flavors.” (I immediately think of the hummus platter at Dune in Atwater Village, which is both beautiful and delicious.) I think it’s the media’s obsession with this kind of food I’m sick of. It goes hand in hand with an idea I keep thinking about (shouting about?) ever since the election—this idea of why do we, as a society, seem to value strength (or the appearance of it) over vulnerability? The shiny over the subtle? Being right over being wrong (and being able to admit it and learn from it)? Being decisive over biding one’s time?

It makes me wonder about how to make practicality and receptivity sexy. I think Tamar Adler does this in An Everlasting Meal. But how to get this idea on the cover of Bon Appétit magazine? I don’t know if it translates to imagery. And imagery is why people buy food magazines, right?

TS: I don't know the answer here, but I think you hit the nail on the head with Tamar Adler. An Everlasting Meal is one of my favorite books ever, and perhaps if everyone could write as beguilingly as she does, we'd have no problem. Whenever I think about traditional food and cooking—of those systems that are ingrained in Italian, Vietnamese, Persian, etc. cuisines—I think about how practicality is also built into them. And then I find myself having problems with capitalism. It seems like everything needs to rely on a product, something to sell, when in fact these systems are about efficiently using the simplest things.

My mom makes elaborate meals, which could definitely be classified as sexy, but her footprint is very small. She buys mountains of herbs and picks them off the stalks, chops them herself. There are very few gadgets in her kitchen—why would you need a lemon squeezer when you have a fork? A jar has never left her home for the trash can—all of her spices live in repurposed jars (a fact I hated when I was a kid). She wastes nothing (no seriously, nothing). She has a system, and it's quite spartan, and amazing things come of it! She eludes capitalism. So in a society where the only things that are pushed forward are those that sell products, I don't know how you cultivate this. This fact troubles me.
AM: Me too, Tannaz. Me too. And speaking of products: Have you spent any time with Samin Nosrat’s new book, Salt Fat Acid Heat? She writes a fair amount about her Persian upbringing and Persian food. I haven’t read the whole book, but a few times she refers to how time-consuming it is to cook Persian food. Do you agree with that general assessment? And also, growing up, did you get a sense that your mom enjoyed her time in the kitchen or that it was more of an understood role or duty she took on?

TS: I haven't read the book yet, but I've been following its development through the instagram of its amazing illustrator, Wendy MacNaughton, and I have no doubt it's amazing. It's a really good question you ask about duty vs. joy. Persian food is without question time-consuming. Technique is a big part of it, and everything is fiddly and "high-touch.” I don't know a single person who is more driven by obligation than my mother; she never complains, she just does what she feels is expected of her, and has for decades. When it comes to big meals, she certainly exhausts herself, but I do feel there are a couple kinds of joy here for her: For one, there's that system. She's got a rhythm down in the kitchen over decades, and I feel like she's perfectly content doing her thing, without interruptions, in a kind of solo meditative state (not to get too hoity-toity about it – she'd never agree with me calling it 'meditative'). Then, she's modest, but I feel like she quietly takes pride in how delicious her food is. I think it's deeply gratifying to be able to make these meals, bring her family together over them, and see how happy it makes them to eat her food and share those experiences.

There's an academic book I read a while back, and it really cleared some things up for me. It's called From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture, by Saba Soomekh, a religious studies professor. She interviewed a bunch of Iranian Jewish women for the book, and in it, she talks about how, in my grandma's generation, while the father would study Torah and pray at the synagogue, the way the mother of the family expressed her religiosity was through keeping the family together, making sure the holidays were observed, preparing meals, taking care of the children. I found this really interesting. I love this idea of doing your faith in a practical way as opposed to just chanting. And it turns a lot of ideas about traditional, patriarchal family units, especially religious ones, on their head.

Anyway, I think this carries through in my mother. I'd say that she is around one-hundred percent responsible for keeping our family together and connected. Yes it's an obligation, yes it's definitely hard, constant work, without question. But she's making a profound contribution, and I think this is deeply gratifying to her.

Finally: It's just in her at this point. She always prefers to cook a meal at home than go to a restaurant. It's a fight to get her to go out even for Mother's Day. She knows she's making healthier food and spending less money, and she honestly gets antsy at restaurants. Obligation doesn't necessarily feel like the right word—it's just in her; it's what she does.
AM: I love that she is essentially repelling capitalism at every turn! Not even a restaurant is going to tempt her. That being said and as much as I love to rail against capitalism, I recently listened to Terry Gross’s interview with Billy Bragg and he said something I loved—that the enemy isn’t capitalism or conservatism. It’s cynicism! So with that in mind, can you tell me about a recent hopeful food experience? (Something you read or tasted or a restaurant you visited?)

TS: Back in 2014, I designed the menu for a three-course dinner at a local arts and culture non-profit called Clockshop, which showcased flavors from Iranian Jewish cuisine. There was a young chef in the kitchen there, a native Angeleno of Filipino descent named Chad Valencia, and it blew my mind to see him treat our family recipes, which I'd only ever seen prepared by my mom and grandmas, with the utmost care and respect. He went on to open a restaurant, Lasa, with his brother Chase, where they serve Chad's take on Filipino flavors, and I recently visited. Every bite was seriously delicious, and the innate hospitality in the room made us feel like family. We ended the meal with a dessert called a sans rival, and this particular rendition had brown butter buttercream, chopped pistachios, calamansi-macerated strawberries, and Persian mint. The meal resonated on so many levels, but this story of kids of immigrants taking their inherited legacy, mashing it up with the local bounty – both culinary and cultural – to make something that respects their roots but is also fully of-the-moment, makes my heart swell. It makes me proud of my beloved Los Angeles, and fills me with hope.

Oyakodon adapted from All About Eggs
serves 4

NOTE: I've been meaning to post about this dish for a while now. I've made it probably a dozen times, but I still haven't perfected it. Ideally, I would like the eggs to take on the consistency of a very soft scramble, but instead they often seem to get lost to the sauce. I think this might be more easily avoided if I made it in a 10-inch cast iron pan, but alas I don't have that size. It's not a problem though. We always eat it happily no matter how the eggs come out. My patience is lacking in the kitchen these days, but what I have done in the past is transfer some of the cooked chicken mixture to a separate pan (8-inch cast iron) and then finish the portions individually, adding two beaten eggs on top and getting more of the soft-scramble consistency I want. In this below version, I've followed the Lucky Peach people and made one big pan. I also sometimes start by sautéing the onion and mushrooms in a neutral oil before adding the liquid and chicken. Either way, I totally recommend this dish. It's become one of our weeknight favorites.

2-3 cups short-grain white rice
1 cup chicken broth (Dashi is what's traditionally used here, but I never have it on hand nor the time to make it myself anymore.)
2 tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup shoyu
2 tbsp. sake
1/4 cup mirin (When I don't have mirin, I've used rice vinegar and it's totally worked for me.)
1 onion, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into thin slices
8 oz. mushrooms (any kind), sliced (optional)
1 lb. boneless and skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
8 eggs
2-3 scallions, trimmed and chopped (optional)
some manner of greens like watercress or mitsuba sprigs or shiso leaves (optional)
chili garlic sauce or Sriracha (optional)

Cook the rice according to the package directions. While it's cooking, make everything else.

Add the chicken broth or dashi, sugar, shoyu, sake, and mirin to a 10-inch cast iron pan (or something similar) and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the onion, mushrooms, and chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and chicken is no longer pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

Lightly beat the eggs in a bowl and stir in the scallions if using them. Reduce the heat to medium-low on the chicken mixture, then pour two-thirds of the eggs and scallions into the skillet and continue cooking until the eggs just start to set around the edges, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining eggs, cover, and let cook for 1 or 2 more minutes, until they look mostly set all the way through. Turn off the heat and let the oyakodon sit for another minute.

Serve over the rice and garnish with the mitsuba or watercress or chopped shiso leaves or whatever other green you think might work. As you can see, Matt likes to eat it with a healthy amount of hot sauce/Sriracha on the side.
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7/12/17

A Resume Attempt

Choose Your Own Metaphor!
Hi, guys. How's your summer going? After three and a half years of making a go of it as a freelancer who also raises children, I've decided to dip my toe in the ice cold waters of looking for a more traditional job with a more traditional paycheck. For anyone who has ever looked for a job, you know how it feels. Can you wear many high-demand hats while thriving in a fast-paced environment? Are you a self-starting multi-tasking professional with expert graphic design skills? Did we mention those HATS? 

I revamped my resume, but I don't think it fully represents me and many of my worthwhile skills, so I made a version that I think does. What do you think? Would you hire me? [I had to load it here as three different screenshots, so please bear with.]
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6/11/17

Video: Magical Mung Beans

Welllllll, all good things must come to an end, right? This mung-bean-centric video marks our last episode of the mom.me 'In the Kitchen with Amelia and Teddy' series. Like most endings, it’s bittersweet. It was a good gig for a freelancing mother of two young kids who is married to a shooter/director. (Here’s the youtube link to all 39(?!) episodes we did in case you want to watch my kids grow up right in front of your eyes and sure, also see the food we made.)

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m ready to spend some time not in front of a camera. I feel like motherhood is a constant exercise of when to let your kids lead and when to assert yourself as the actual person in charge (at least until they start wondering whether anyone is ever in charge). (These days, it surely doesn't seem like it, huh?) Anyway, sometimes letting them “lead” feels like a destruction of the self. Sometimes it’s extremely freeing. Sometimes it’s both! Point being, I’m looking forward to letting this all play out behind the scenes for a bit.

Of course this does mean that I’ll need to find a new job. Maybe UCLA gymnastics is hiring? (Just kidding.) (They’re not. I already looked.)

Either way, see you soon, friends!
Magical Mung Beans
To make your own mung bean sprouts:
Rinse 1 cup of whole mung beans, then put them in a bowl and cover with about 4 inches of water and leave to soak at room temperature for about 12 hours. Drain the beans in a colander and then rinse them with some more fresh water.

Line a large bowl with a triple layer of thick paper towels in such a way that there will be some left to fold over the beans. Fully dampen the paper towels or cloths and put all the beans in the bowl. Cover with the overhanging paper, or use extra dampened paper towel if you need to.

Put the bowl in a dark, warm place (like a closet) for at least 12 hours but up to 24. The beans should sprout. Rinse them in cool water, then cover and store in the refrigerator, making sure to rinse them in cool water every day. They should keep for 3-4 days.

Mung Bean Sprouts with Swiss Chard slightly adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India

2 large stalks of Swiss chard
1 tablespoon olive oil
generous pinch of asafetida (optional) (available at Indian grocery stores)
1 teaspoon whole brown mustard seeds
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
3 cups Indian-style mung bean sprouts
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 lime
1 teaspoon sugar

Cut the chard stems into ¼-inch dice and the leaves into 1-inch dice.

Put the oil in a large frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the asafetida and a second later, the mustard seeds. If the oil is hot enough, the seeds will start to pop in a matter of seconds. Once at least a few of them have popped, turn the heat off. Add the garlic and jalapeno.

Put the pan back on the heat and add the chopped chard stems and stir for two minutes. Mix in the turmeric, then add the bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, chard leaves, 6 tablespoons of water, and the salt. Stir and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Cover and cook very gently for 20 minutes.

Stir in the butter. Once it’s melted, add the juice of the lime and the sugar. Taste for seasoning.

Serve on flatbread or toast with whole plain yogurt.
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