Stuffed grape leaves

I have a Greek first name. Because of this, occasionally someone I’ve just met will ask me if I’m Greek. It always catches me off-guard, and I never have a witty response or a graceful way out of the conversation. So I always answer truthfully, “No. My parents just liked the name.” This usually leads to a brief awkward silence, as the questioner rethinks their line of conversation. I get really nervous during awkward silences, and when I get nervous I talk. So I usually start babbling about dolmas, until the other person gets bored and walks away.

If we’re measuring solely in terms of dolma consumption, I’m probably at least 19 percent Greek. I love them truly, deeply, almost as much as I love any food. When I was a kid, and my parents would host brunches for our extended family, they would go buy big spreads of things from the deli case at the market; I always insisted that they come home with plenty of dolmas. I’ll happily eat any kind, with meat or without, but my favorites are the classic rice-filled ones, just small enough to eat in a single bite. I will uncomplainingly eat as many of these as you can put in front of me, until I’m so full I waddle.

So when my coworker–who, incidentally, is half-Greek–mentioned that she’d made dolmas at home, and they’d turned out spectacularly well, you can bet I got the recipe out of her as fast as I could. And it turns out that homemade dolmas are a whole new level of delightful. They’re intensely flavored, slicked with olive oil and lemon juice, packed plump with rice and fresh herbs and tomato. This is definitely an all-day, labor-of-love, enlist-your-friends kind of project: make a stuffing of raw rice and various flavorful things, roll it in tiny tight grape-leaf bundles, line a baking dish with more grape leaves, submerge the rolls in water with oil and lemon, bake them until they’re chubby and soft, and let them cool completely in their own cooking liquid. The leaves turn bruise-black in places, and swell satisfyingly as the rice soaks up the herby juices. The rolls are just the perfect size, easy to pop into your mouth, each one a satisfying little morsel.

These absolutely must be eaten at room temperature. We got impatient and started eating them warm, and they just didn’t taste right–the rice was too crumbly, and the herbs were too aggressive. As they cooled, the flavors swung into balance, and I found them more and more appealing. They’re also, surprisingly, one of those foods that improves with a night or two in the fridge, as the herbs and rice have even more mingling time. My friend Lucia brought some of these leftover to a music festival the next day, and said they made great picnic food: the rolls stayed firmly together, the filling shone with flavor, and they were the perfect temperature by the time she wanted to eat them. As she put it, “They really didn’t last very long.”

dolmas 4th of july

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Lamb burgers with mint pesto and whipped feta

I’ve already discussed the life-changing burger bun I had in New Zealand. Now let’s talk about what was in it.

I’m not normally much of a burger girl. I’m not anti-burger, by any means–I’ll happily eat one if it’s what’s on offer–but for the most part it’s not high on my list of beloved foods. It takes a really spectacular burger to make me sit up and take notice. And this one did.

I’m basically reconstructing this from memory, but the flavors and sensations made a pretty deep impression. First there was that wonderful pumpkin bun, squishy and sweet and crunchy on top. Then there was the lamb itself, juicy and gamy and just salty enough. And then there were the condiments, smeared just out of sight under the lid: something minty, and something smooth with feta in it. The whole thing was topped off with a cluster of julienned carrot (and a slice of beet, which I immediately removed). Each bite had just the right amount of bready squish, a little carroty crunch, a little salty feta tang, a little grassy mintiness, and a morsel of earthy lamb. God, it was wonderful.

So, for Fourth of July week, what better way to blog than by recreating a burger I had in another British colony? And here it is: a juicy lamb patty, on a bun slathered with mint pesto and whipped feta dip, and topped with shards of carrot. It’s savory and salty and herby and sweet and crunchy, and I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite burger I’ve ever made. The ingredient list looks a little long and complex–you’re basically making two separate condiments from scratch. But because you can make both in the food processor, they come together in minutes, and each can be done several days or even a week ahead. (I normally make pesto by hand, with a knife, but all that lovely texture would be lost here. The machine is fine.)

Burger-cookery is a pretty personal thing, and I definitely have my preferences. For me, a 1/3 pound burger is the perfect size–not too big, not too small. I try not to compact or squeeze the meat too much as I’m shaping it, so that it’ll stay juicy and relatively light. I like to make the burgers just a tad larger than the circumference of the buns I’m using, because they shrink as they cook. And I season the outside of the burgers, rather than the inside, for no other reason than that it means I don’t have to dirty a mixing bowl.

Oh, and a note on the buns. I didn’t have time to make bread from scratch for these photos, so I bought some good-quality buns, and the burgers were just fine. They’ll taste great on pretty much any bun. But please, if you have the time and inclination, I beg you, do try making pumpkin buns for these burgers. They really elevate each other. They belong together. They sing.

lamb mint pesto whipped feta burger

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Orange mocha frappuccinos

Anyone who’s spent any length of time with me–say, more than 10 minutes–knows that I am a huge fan of Zoolander. It’s one of my five desert island movies, hands down. When it first came out, I avoided it, since Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell usually grate on me like crazy, and I’m usually too buttoned-up and serious for movies this goofy. But then I caved in and watched it, and fell under its spell. It’s a dumb movie written by smart people. It’s silly, but sharp underneath.

And it’s insanely, obnoxiously quotable. My parents, siblings, and I will throw around Zoolander quotes at the least possible provocation. Whenever we’re indignant about something, it’s always, “What is this?!? A center for ANTS?!?” If someone coughs, even once, for any reason, you better bet someone will pipe up, “I think I’m getting the black lung.” And, of course, there’s never a bad time for “Orange mocha frappuccinos!!!”

So when my friend Lucia decided to put together a Zoolander-themed party, there was no question that orange mocha frappuccinos would be on the menu. But, surprisingly, when I started poking Google for ideas, there weren’t many recipes to choose from. A lot of folks seem to have done orange mocha flavored things–cupcakes, mousse, actual mocha drinks–but not frappuccinos. With any normal recipe, I would take that as a hint that it was perhaps not the best idea. But I was determined. We needed orange mocha frappuccinos, or the party would be ruined. So I decided to doctor a more traditional frappuccino knockoff recipe with some orange syrup and homemade chocolate syrup, and see what happened.

So did it work? Well…yes, and no. Honestly, there’s a reason you don’t often see coffee and orange paired together–it just tastes funny. Coffee and chocolate are wonderful, and chocolate and orange are wonderful, but all three mashed together make a bit of a flavor muddle. (Things improved marginally with a couple shots of vodka added to the blender, though that may have been the vodka talking.) That said, as a party drink to suit a theme, this more than fit the bill. It was totally drinkable, and awfully fun. I’d recommend it to anyone who needs a sugary, spikeable beverage to take to a gasoline fight.

orange mocha frappuccino

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Chocolate syrup

As a home cook, I often fall into the trap of “fancy is better.” Since I’m mostly self-taught–fairly competent, but decidedly amateur–I still have some lingering insecurities about how much more impressive my cooking could be. So I’m always looking for ways to amaze people, to introduce them to new foods, to show off. And somehow, I keep getting it into my head that the more elaborate and complex a recipe is, the more impressive it’ll turn out.

It’s true that sometimes the most elaborate projects are the ones that wow people. I’ll happily make layer cakes and from-scratch burger buns and quiche and paella, even if they take me all day and leave me sweaty and stained. There is enormous satisfaction in tackling some multi-hour, multi-step cooking process and coming out the other end with something ferociously tasty. But it’s shockingly easy to forget that sometimes the most amazing and appealing dishes are also the simplest. Like Irish soda bread. Refrigerator pickles. Eggs, cooked really well. A pot of lentil soup.

So, when I felt a strong urge to do something flashy recently, I decided to go ultra-simple and make a batch of chocolate syrup. It sounds fancy, and tastes incredible–satiny and bittersweet and dark, dark chocolatey, like a fudgy brownie in syrup form. This stuff is seductive and showy, miles away from the little-kiddishness of the stuff in the squeeze bottle. But it’s also one of the quickest kitchen things I’ve ever done–from start to finish, from dry ingredients to gooey sauce, took under 5 minutes. It’s made entirely of pantry staples and water, so it can happen any darn time. There’s no corn syrup, of any variety, so it’s almost virtuous. And did I mention it tastes like a brownie?

In fact, this stuff is so utterly delicious that I have no idea what the shelf life is, because we blew through the entire first batch in less than 24 hours. Acting on a tip I picked up in the blogosphere, I added a touch of baking soda to the syrup, which supposedly keeps the syrup from going gloppy over time. (It also reacted with the cocoa powder and turned the sauce a deeper, sexier shade of brown, which was a plus.) My guess is that this will keep in the fridge for a couple weeks, and at some point I will test that–if my friends and I can keep our hands off it.

chocolate syrup

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A reunion, a slump, and a salad

A couple weeks ago, I traveled back to Massachusetts for my five-year college reunion. I expected it to be a rollicking good time, and it was. I expected to see a number of beloved faces, ones I hadn’t seen for three or four or five years, and I did. I expected to wander the old red-brick campus and ride a few gentle waves of nostalgia, and I did. And then I came home, and realized something in me had gotten knocked askew.

When I’m home in the Bay Area, I’m pretty content. I have my challenging-but-rewarding office job, my long but relaxing train commute, my exquisitely nerdy techie-friends, my beloved partner. I have a room of my own and the leeway for travel. But it seems like every time I go back to the East Coast–every time my college cohort and I are in the same room together–I start to ache a little for the place I didn’t choose. Massachusetts never quite felt like home to me, but little pieces of it still nestled themselves under my skin. The red-brick walls, weighted with history. The pointy-roofed houses with stairs and gables. The diner food. The chickadees. The clear and palpable shift in the seasons, the slide from green to red to brown to white and back again. The people I once held next to my own heart, whom I now hardly ever see.

It’s a tough business, this growing-up business, having to choose between incompatible things you love. Most of the time, I know that moving back to California, finding a day job and building a new social circle, was the right choice. But going back to the East Coast has a way of rattling that confidence.

It took a couple of weeks after the reunion for my system to return to normal. And during that time, something bizarre happened: I lost my enthusiasm for food. Not my appetite, exactly–if someone put food in front of me, I would eat it. But I didn’t particularly look forward to it, or crave it, or spend my spare time concocting recipes in my head, the way I ordinarily do. I went several days at work without eating lunch, because nothing seemed appetizing enough to make me leave my desk. It was as if leaving Massachusetts, leaving behind the people and the places and the emotions, had temporarily muted my ability to find joy in a place I’d always relied on.

For about a week, I didn’t cook at all; I ate frozen food or takeout or pretzels. I remember sitting in a sushi restaurant, with a huge bowl of udon, mechanically slurping the broth and counting the mouthfuls until I’d be full enough to stop. It was unsettling, to say the least, and I started to wonder if maybe something was really wrong with me.

And then, a week after we returned, Sam and I went to the farmer’s market with a new friend. I hadn’t been to the market in weeks. The sun was out, it was crowded, and the stone fruit was finally showing up. I’d gone to the market with some anemic plan to make an elaborate, blog-worthy dish. But it was sticky hot outside, and just walking around felt like extraordinary effort. Standing under a vendor’s tent, feeling the sweat run down my temples and past my ears, I felt the stirrings of a craving. Forget the plan. I wanted an enormous salad for lunch.

It was the first real food desire I’d had all week, and so we ran with it, picking out some crisp-ripe nectarines, a bag of walnuts, a dozen eggs, and a mound of baby kale. We brought them all back to Sam’s place, cut the nectarines into thin shards, hard-boiled and chopped the eggs, and tossed everything into a huge bowl. I whisked together a quick white wine vinaigrette, and then we blanketed the top with shavings of a Basque cheese Sam had in his fridge. It was a delicious salad, bright and rich and sweet and crunchy, the kind of thing that would be impossible to recreate from a recipe. I forked pieces of kale into my mouth I could feel excitement trickling back into my limbs.

The salad was what brought me out of my post-reunion funk. Sitting at Sam’s table, it occurred to me that if I’d stayed on the East Coast, I would not be eating this salad, with these people, on this day, in this room. I might be doing something else, but I’d never have been able to do this. And as much as I ache for Massachusetts, and my friends, I’m happy here in California. The reunion was a reunion, a short-lived thing, and now we can get on with the business of growing up.

peach walnut basque cheese salad

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Cherry cranberry crumble

When it comes to seasonal fruit desserts, it seems like pie gets all of the attention. It’s certainly popular for a reason: when it comes to delivery systems for warm fruit, flaky pastry is pretty unbeatable. But pie is also a bit of a hassle, with the rolling and the fluting and the slight chance that it could all go wrong. Which is why, lately, I’ve been making crumbles instead–and, each time, remembering why they might be my favorite fruit dessert of all time.

A good fruit crumble (or crisp–the names seem interchangeable, or at least arbitrary) skips right past most of the hassle of pie-making, replacing the pastry shell with a topping of oaty, buttery crumbs. It delivers the same molten, bubbling, thick-and-juicy payoff as a pie, without the need for structural integrity. It relies almost entirely on kitchen and pantry staples–oats, flour, butter, sugar, maybe some chopped nuts–and comes together in the fraction of the time it takes to make, bake, and cool a pie. It’s dead easy to convert to gluten-free, just by swapping in rice flour for all-purpose. And instead of cutting precise slices, you can just slop portions into a bowl, top them with something cool and creamy, and call it a day.

This particular crumble, made with fresh sweet cherries and frozen cranberries, was a real eye-opener. It started as a way to use up a pound of fresh cherries–not enough for a crumble by itself, but too much for almost anything else. I found a partly-full bag of cranberries in the freezer and added them in, intending just to bulk out the crumble. In all honesty, I wasn’t even going to blog about this crumble, because it felt so strange to mix in-season and out-of-season fruit. But then I took a taste, and my mind did a backflip. This was just so, so good.

In Northern California, fresh sour cherries are practically unheard of; the only fresh cherries we can get are sweet. But as it turns out, combining sweet cherries and tart cranberries has a sour cherry-like effect, at once puckery and sugary. It also creates a remarkable texture: the cherries dissolve into the sauce, while the cranberries keep their shape, creating a soft, soupy filling with slippery, tangy pockets of fruit. Cherries and cranberries have very different seasons, so this recipe will always require a mix of fresh and frozen fruit–but it is 100 percent worth it. Add a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, and you’ve got a dessert that’ll make cherry pie jealous.

cherry cranberry crumble plate

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Chicken chorizo meatballs

It’s pretty well established here that I’m a compulsive recipe-tinkerer. I’m also a big fan of returning to recipes I’ve already played with, and tweaking them to make something new. Usually, when I do that, I tend to keep the bones of the recipe the same. But every so often, I’ll come back to a recipe I riffed on months or even years before, and decide to make something entirely different from it.

For example. About four years ago now, my friend Mel tipped me off to an online cooking show her friends were doing, called Economy Bites. The show is sadly now defunct, but I loved it for its goofy spirit, its no-bullshit realness and its creativity. One of the recipes on the show was a chicken and chorizo meatloaf, which inspired me to start mixing ground meat and sausage, which eventually morphed into my turkey andouille chili recipe–still one of my signature and most-requested dishes. But even with the triumph of the chili, I still thought about that meatloaf, and wondered what other directions I might take it in.

My friends were throwing a finger-food potluck, so I decided to make a batch of Southwestern-ish cocktail meatballs. This time, I stayed a bit more literal to the inspiration: chicken and chorizo. The original recipe called for the hard-cured Spanish chorizo, but I swapped in the squishy Mexican stuff. It blended in with the ground chicken, giving the meatballs a smooth and succulent texture. It also made the meat mix fairly delicate and loose, compared to the meatballs I usually make. They were a bit challenging to shape, but the payoff was juicy, tender, almost airy meatballs. The chorizo rounded out the chicken’s blandness with richness, sourness, and a tiny touch of heat; I could easily see these as game-day party fare, alongside a plate of nachos or chips and salsa.

Speaking of chips: there’s another twist in here, which I’m pretty proud of. Because we had a gluten-free partygoer (and I’d forgotten to buy breadcrumbs), I decided to crush up tortilla chips to use as a binder. The crumbs worked beautifully to soak up fat and juices, while adding a hint of cornmeal sweetness to the mix. I crushed my chips in a bag with a rolling pin, but I think pulsing them in a food processor would have worked even better. The finer the crumbs, the smoother the meatball texture–and with these, smoothness is absolutely a virtue.

chicken chorizo meatballs

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