Fish Sauce Junkie

My shoulder has really kept me from the kitchen, but last week I went to Russo’s for the first time in months. There were plums and peaches and pluots, although the apricots were still a touch more than I wanted to spend. And the radishes were a vivid pink, so much so that I couldn’t leave them behind. I started plotting a salad using plums and radishes. Rich was skeptical, but I pushed forward, throwing in cucumber and tomatoes, and a touch of butter lettuce.

I bought plums, but Lilli got a cupcake.

I bought plums, but Lilli got a cupcake.

But what really made this salad was the dressing, the recipe for which has been sitting in my drafts folder for well over a year. I think it’s from Gwyneth Paltrow. I borrowed her cookbooks from the library last year and was happy I did. Think what you will about GOOP, but her dressings are great.

It’s called Vietnamese Salad Dressing, and I think it’s wonderful. Rich does not. I’m an admitted fish sauce junkie, and I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you like Vietnamese food, you’ll probably love this dressing, too.

asleep

My friend Caitlyn, who lived in Thailand, advises that Squid is the brand of fish sauce you want to use. I don’t own spicy sesame oil, just regular, so I used that, instead. I keep mine stored in the fridge, by the way. Agave nectar isn’t as healthy as once thought to be, so I use honey; I think palm sugar would actually be perfect for this recipe if you have it on hand.

Vietnamese Salad Dressing

¼ cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
¼ cup fish sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon hot pepper sesame oil
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 tablespoons finely diced red onion or shallot

Combine all ingredients in a jar. Screw on lid, give it a good shake, and go for it.

I Didn’t Share

Of all the things I gained during my pregnancy – I mean besides 65 lbs. – the strangest of all was an appreciation for Thai food. Most people like Thai food, at least in my circles, but I have never cared for it. I tried to like it, really I did, but the flavors never meshed for me. Something about the sweet and salty, and the spice – especially the spice – didn’t work for me. Love Vietnamese food, but Thai food, not so much. But then I became pregnant, and it was as if a switch was flipped.

Chopsticks

My enjoyment of Thai food became so strong that this year I used a birthday Barnes and Noble gift card to buy Pok Pok by Andy Ricker. Ricker spent years in Thailand learning the cuisine and now has a burgeoning Thai restaurant empire in Portland, Oregon, and New York. He won the James Beard Award Best Chef in the Northwest in 2011. This guy knows his Thai.

So when a handful of kind-of-sad-looking Japanese eggplant came in the CSA a few weeks back, I grabbed Ricker’s cookbook and set out to make grilled eggplant salad. Although the recipe strongly suggested a charcoal grill, I used my oven’s broiler to blacken them. As I assembled the salad, I remembered that my friend Caitlyn, also living in Portland, also a Thai-o-phile, taught me all about this salad when she visited last summer. She even went so far as to find a video of some famous Thai chef making this recipe. “Just skip the step with the shrimp,” she said to me. So I did. And so can you.

A few things about this recipe: Apparently there are dozens of types of eggplants out there, and Caitlyn taught me that small green eggplants are traditionally used in this recipe. That wasn’t an option in my CSA, but the recipe turned out fine. I skipped the fried garlic, only because it called for using thirty cloves and, well, I didn’t have that many in my kitchen. I used the option of red onions rather than shallots because that, along with the chiles and cilantro, came in the CSA. I’m still a wimp about a ton of spice, so even though the recipe calls for 2 chiles, I think I used half of one. I had palm sugar in the house because I found a bag of it in the Gourmet Foods section at TJ Maxx, or maybe it was Home Goods. (One of those two; definitely check out that section if you have the chance. That’s where I’ve found whole vanilla beans for a buck or two.) If you don’t have palm sugar in the house, I think brown sugar will be a decent substitute. I broiled the eggplant one day but only had a chance to make the rest of the salad the following day. I simply heated the pieces of eggplant in a skillet on the stovetop.

I loved this salad. Not sure how many it is supposed to serve, but it served me, and me alone. Rich didn’t even know this salad existed until he edited this post.

Yam Makheua Yao (Grilled Eggplant Salad) from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker

Ingredients

12 ounces long Asian eggplants (2 or 3), preferably green

1 egg, at room temperature

1 ½ Tablespoons lime juice

1 ½ Tablespoons Naam Cheuam Naam Taan Piip (Palm sugar simple syrup – recipe to follow)

1 Tablespoon Thai fish sauce

2 grams fresh Thai chiles, preferably green, thinly sliced (or to taste)

14 grams peeled small shallots, preferably Asian, or very small red onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced with the grain (about 2 Tablespoons)

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed

Directions

Clean, peel and cut the eggplants

Cook the eggplants either on the grill (highly recommended) or in the oven.

  • On the grill: Prepare a charcoal grill and ignite the coals. Once the coals have begun to turn gray but are still flaming, grill the eggplants directly on the coals, turning frequently, until the skin has almost completely blackened and the flesh is very soft (it should meet with almost no resistance when you poke it with a sharp knife), about 4 minutes. The goal is to fully char the skin before the flesh gets mushy.
  • In the Oven: Preheat the boiler to high and position a rack as close as you can to the heat source. Put the eggplants on a baking tray lined with aluminum foil (or, even better, on a wire rack on the baking tray) and broil, turning them over once, until the skin has blistered and mostly blackened and the flesh is very soft (it should meet with almost no resistance when you poke it with a sharp knife) but not mushy, about 6 to 12 minutes total, depending on the size of the eggplants and the distance from the heat source.

Let the eggplants cool for 10 minutes or so. This will make them easier to peel and allow the flesh to firm up slightly. Use your fingers to peel off the skin (don’t go crazy removing every last bit), trying your best to keep the flesh intact. Do not run the eggplant under water. Cut the eggplant crosswise (on the diagonal, if you’re feeling fancy) into 2-inch slices and arrange them on a serving plate.

Cook the Egg: Prepare a bowl of ice water. Bring a small pot of water to a full boil, gently add the whole egg, and cook for 10 minutes. Your goal is a fully cooked egg whose yolk hasn’t become dry and powdery. Transfer the egg to the ice water and once the egg is cool to the touch, peel and coarsely chop the white and yolk into small pieces.

Assemble the Salad: Combine the lime juice, simple syrup, fish sauce, and chiles in a small saucepan or wok, set it over medium heat, and heat the mixture just until it’s warm to the touch, 15 seconds or so. Pour the warm mixture over the eggplant. Sprinkle on the egg, shallot, and finally, cilantro.

Naam Cheuam Naam Taan Piip – Palm Sugar Simple Syrup

Ingredients

2 ½ ounces palm sugar, coarsely chopped

¼ cup plus 1 Tablespoon water

Directions

Combine the sugar and the water in a very small pot or pan. Set it over medium heat and cook, stirring and breaking up the sugar as it softens, just until the sugar has completely dissolved. If the water begins to bubble before the sugar has completely dissolved, turn off the heat and let it finish dissolving in the hot liquid.

Let it cool before storing. The syrup keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

 

Go Fish

When I was pregnant, a good friend of mine suggested we buy a membership to Costco, to help defray the cost of things like diapers. We snorted at the time, because we planned on using cloth. But three months of daily loads of laundry had us questioning both environmental and practical benefits of that decision.

salmon and cantaloupe

So we got a Costco membership, over Rich’s objections. He just didn’t see the point of having to pay to shop somewhere. I kept on insisting we’d find a use for it, and I like the fact that the company pays a living wage. I also like that I don’t have to make us lunch or dinner when we hit it up on a weekend because of all the free samples, and I know he likes any opportunity to eat pork, even if it’s just on the end of a toothpick. He finally relented when, after our microwave gave up the ghost, he discovered that the difference in price between a new one at Costco and elsewhere more than covered the cost of membership.

But other than the occasional small appliance, I keep going back to Costco for a relatively short list of items: bulk hazelnuts, bulk frozen fish, bulk brown rice and produce in the wintertime. I’ve never been bashful about my love of fish; that’s why I call this blog “mostly vegetarian.” And it turns out that Lilli adores salmon as much as her mommy. So I often grab a few frozen filets the night before and toss them in a bowl in the fridge to defrost during the day. I rub a little olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt on the pieces, and simply roast them in a hot toaster oven for less than 10 minutes for a quick weeknight dinner. I cook up a huge pot of brown rice in my rice cooker once a week, and enjoy that on the side.

Elton John

Fish? Did you say fish?

But when I saw this recipe for salmon with cantaloupe and fried shallots in my 2011 Food & Wine Annual Cookbook, I knew we had a keeper. Lilli not only loves salmon, but she also eats cantaloupe at nearly every meal. And when I told Rich I found a recipe that called for both salmon and cantaloupe he noted that there is a slurry of that in her bib after almost every dinner. The fact that this had a dressing of fish sauce, brown sugar and lime juice, my own favorite trinity, was icing on the cake.

I actually had everything in the house for this dish, so it is a pantry dish, at least in my world. I eliminated the horseradish from my version, simply because I despise the taste, but I’ll leave it in parenthesis in case that’s up your alley. I also left out the celery leaves because I never have celery in the house. Buttermilk seems to always linger next to the milk in our fridge.

Fried Shallots, Round 2

Fried shallots, round 2.

I would suggest zesting the lime before you juice it; I wish the printed recipe would have said that. I didn’t scoop the cantaloupe, but used the small pieces I serve Lilli, which turned out to be just about a ¼ of an inch in size.

I’d never fried shallots before and overdid the first batch. Set a timer for four minutes and don’t think they need to be any darker when the timer beeps, because they don’t.

The salmon from Costco is skinless, but I followed the directions on the recipe and it worked beautifully.

This dish is fantastic. As Rich put it, “wow, this was like eating in a fancy restaurant!” Costco, people. Costco.

Salmon with Cantaloupe and Fried Shallots from the 2011 Food & Wine Annual Cookbook

Ingredients

Vinaigrette

(2 Tablespoons freshly grated horseradish)

Juice of 1 fresh lime (remember to zest the lime first!)

1 Tablespoon Asian fish sauce

½ teaspoon light brown sugar

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Fried Shallots

Vegetable oil, for frying

2 large shallots, thinly sliced crosswise and separated into rings

Cornstarch, for dusting

Salt

Salmon and garnishes

Four 6-ounce salmon fillets with skin (or, four pieces of frozen salmon from Costco you will have defrosted the night before)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

1/3 small cantaloupe, scooped into small balls or cut into ¼-inch dice (about 1 cup)

½ cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest

(Freshly grated horseradish)

(1/4 cup celery leaves)

Directions

  1. Make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine the horseradish if you’re using it, lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar and olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Make the fried shallots: In a large skillet, heat ¼ inch of vegetable oil. Put the shallot rings in a colander and dust heavily with cornstarch, shaking to coat them well. Add the shallots to the hot oil in an even layer and fry over moderate heat until browned and crisp, about four minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fried shallots to paper towels to drain. Season the shallots lightly with salt.
  3. Prepare the salmon: Preheat the oven to 400F. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the vegetable oil until shimmering. Add the salmon skin side down and cook over high heat until the skin is browned and crisp, about three minutes. Turn the fillets and transfer the skillet to the oven. Cook for about three minutes, or until the salmon fillets are just cooked.
  4. Meanwhile, divide the cantaloupe among four shallow bowls. Drizzle with the buttermilk and season lightly with salt. Lay the salmon on the cantaloupe and spoon the vinaigrette on top. Sprinkle with the lime zest and grated horseradish. Scatter the celery leaves and fried shallots over the salmon and serve right away.

The vinaigrette and fried shallots cane be kept at room temperature for up to four hours.

 

Summer Obsession

Out of all the food magazines out there, Food & Wine has been my favorite for more than a dozen years. So you can imagine how excited I was when the August issue arrived, with its “Vegetables Now” cover touting “25 Creative Fast & Delicious Vegetable Recipes”. So I settled in on the bus (where I do most of my reading these days) and opened up my magazine.

Watermelon and Radish Salad

They should have titled it “Vegetables Eventually,” because I had to flip through 96 pages of burgers and steak and sausages and mussels before I got to the vegetables. But before I got there, I read about Tom Colicchio’s favorite weekend recipes. I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I had to Google Top Chef because my knowledge of cooking competition shows begins and ends with the last 15 minutes of the season finale of Master Chef, and that was only because our friend Dave Miller was on it. Top Chef, the one with Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife. Got it.

But I do hope Tom What’s-His-Name reads this and invites me to his estate on Long Island, because I would like to personally thank him for this Thai-style radish and watermelon salad. It’s become my obsession this summer –like, stuffed pumpkin obsessed. I wanted to make it straight away. The radishes from the CSA were waiting in the crisper for me, and I spent my lunch hour collecting the herbs at Super 88. All I needed was the watermelon – not the easiest thing to schlep home on the T. With a baby.

Lilli and Rooster

I wasn’t alone in my obsession. I gchatted with Sylvie, who at the end of the chat left to cut up a melon. “Wait!” I wrote. “Did you see the new Food & Wine? There’s a radish and watermelon salad recipe that I’m obsessed with.” She came back to the screen. “Funny you should say that, because I bought this melon with that recipe in mind.”

After days of waiting and wanting, the weekend finally came, and so did a nasty head cold. I was so nervous about getting Lilli sick that I consulted my stepdad, a physician, about what to do: “Wash your hands like Lady MacBeth and wear a face mask when you’re near her.” His advice worked perfectly, but I knew that there was no way I could make the salad for our friends’ BBQ that weekend. So I put Rich in charge. “You know, dear, this recipe has A LOT of ingredients,” he said after reading the magazine. But he did it.

Finally, at the BBQ, I had a bowl of the salad – and was underwhelmed. I wished it had more punch. Maybe more fish sauce. Just a little more oomph. And then I heard hollering from across the back yard: “Oh my God! You guys, you have to try this watermelon salad! This is the best thing I’ve ever had. This salad, oh my God!” The other guests had spoken. Lesson learned: Don’t trust the girl with the cold when it comes to tasting new dishes.

A few notes: My wonderful friend Caitlyn was in from Portland last week. She lived in Thailand for five years so I had her take a look at the recipe. She said that everything about the recipe, except for the ginger, was dead on. She also made it clear that SQUID brand fish sauce is the only brand to use. Listen to Caitlyn.

Thai-Style Radish and Watermelon Salad by Tom Colicchio from August 2013 Food & Wine

¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 Tablespoon Asian fish sauce

1 Tablespoon sambal oelek or other Asian chile sauce (use the Siracha that’s in your fridge)

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

One 5-pound watermelon – rind and seeds removed, flesh cut into 1 1/2 –inch chunks (8 cups)

12 radishes, very thinly sliced

8 scallions, thinly sliced

2 fresh hot red chiles, such as Holland or cayenne, thinly sliced crosswise

¾ cup lightly packed mint leaves, coarsely chopped

¾ cup lightly packed Thai basil leaves, torn

Directions

In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, fish sauce, sambal oelek and ginger. Season with salt and pepper. Add the watermelon, radishes, scallions and red chiles and toss. Fold in the mint and basil, season with salt and pepper and serve right away.

Learning Curve

I’d like to establish a new meal train. Remember that meal train that I talked about in February? The one where people from the community would bring us meals during Lilli’s first few weeks? That was great, but, there also should be a meal train for when both parents go back to work full-time. Talk about juggling a schedule!

Lilli in her vest

Until that idea makes the Style Section of The New York Times, I’ll keep on working at that full-time job/daycare/ spending time with my baby/three meals a day balance that I’ve been tackling for these past few weeks. I’ve chatted with some friends who do it — with two toddlers, no less! Some cook meals for the week in a flurry on Sunday night. Others eat a lot of hummus. The crockpot seems to be a tried-and-true friend. (Meat seems to play a large role in that one, though, so I tend to stay away from mine.) I know my pressure cooker will be making a huge comeback on this blog very soon; I’ll just give it a few more weeks. My friend Jason, who’s done a lot of coaching with me, said last week, “Invest in a wok.” Luckily, my cousin Roz gave us a wok as a wedding present, but I have to admit I’ve barely used it in the past six years. That’s about to change, as you’ll see below.

Thai Eggplant and Basil

But first, there are also a few logistical things I’ve figured out that help me to get dinner together as Rich gives Lilli her evening bath: First, I am constantly doing prep work for the next meal. For example, while my salmon and sugar snap peas poached last week, I peeled and sliced up the next night’s parsnips. I chopped the onion for this recipe before Lilli woke up in the early morning, figuring that, if onion makes my eyes water, it can’t be good for a three-month-old. I keep the chopped onion in a designated Tupperware container in the fridge I have marked with a Sharpie pen.

I cleaned a bunch of parsley by resting it in a bowl full of cold water, right next to some cilantro getting the same treatment. I rubbed down mushrooms and soaked escarole in two washes of cold water last night while chatting on the phone with both Sylvie and Gayle. My methods still need tweaking, as I figure out what works the next day. Mango, I learned the hard way, is touch-and-go two days later.

Now, when I now look at a recipe, I break it down into segments, the way we used to parse a sentence in grammar school. But instead of labeling direct objects and clauses, I break down the recipe into steps that can be tackled at different times, sometimes days apart.

Smile

This dish here is a wok dish, so the actual cooking time is very short. I would also advise wearing rubber gloves to chop the hot pepper if you’re going to be in contact with a baby any time following making this dish. I actually picked up the eggplant, sesame oil and Thai basil at Super 88 (Err, sorry, Hong Kong Market) during my lunch break. Now, I’m not expecting all of you to be able to swing by the market during your lunch hour, although I have learned that markets open very early in the morning. There’s a chance you might see me and Lilli at Russo’s at 8am before she gets dropped off at daycare. If you’re wondering who else is at the market between 7am and 8am, the answer is: seniors.

Do you have a rice cooker? Some people don’t like unitaskers in the kitchen, but honestly, I’ve had my rice cooker since I was 18 years old, and it’s more than made up its $20 price tag. I also use it to cook millet; it’s so nice to set it and forget it. (A pressure cooker can do the same thing, although I find a wok and a pressure cooker on our stove to be a bit crowded.) And rice and most grains freeze and defrost very well.

on the table

This is a pretty quick meal once all the ingredients have been assembled. You can make the corn starch slurry and chop the onion, hot pepper and garlic as the eggplant softens and browns in the wok. The Thai basil can rest in a bowl of cold water as you get everything in order on your counter. And, depending on how many are dining, there’s a very good chance there will be leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

Although the original recipe calls for thin strips of red and green pepper, I eliminated them for time’s sake. They’d be great in the dish if you have the time to clean them.

Thai Fried Eggplant with Basil Adapted from Epicurious.com

Ingredients

3 medium-sized Chinese eggplants, halved and chopped into 1” – 1.5” pieces

1 medium onion, chopped into large pieces

3 Thai or Serrano chiles, finely chopped (depending on how hot you like things)

3 Tablespoons chopped garlic

A generous handful of fresh Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped

4 Tablespoons mild-flavored oil, like canola or sunflower, NOT olive

Sauce:

2-3 Tablespoons fish sauce

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1-2 Tablespoons brown or palm sugar

¾ warm water

Slurry:

2 teaspoons corn starch mixed with 4 Tablespoons cold water

Directions

Mix fish sauce, soy, water and brown sugar; set aside.

Heat wok on medium-high heat. Add 2 Tablespoons oil and eggplants. Fry for 6 minutes on either side, or until they begin to brown and turn soft. Remove from wok.

Add 1 Tablespoon oil to wok. Add onions and fry for 6-7 minutes, or until soft and glossy. Remove from wok.

Heat remaining oil. Add garlic and chiles and fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add onions; fry for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Return eggplant to the wok, and toss to combine.

Add sauce to the wok, stirring for 1 minute. Toss in basil.

Add corn starch, cooking until the sauce becomes thick and coats the vegetables. Serve immediately over hot rice.

Salad Days

The best part of last Tuesday was the tomato sandwich I ate over the sink. Mind you, it was a very good day already. The weather was nice, good stuff happened at work. But really, those August tomato sandwiches are something I wait all year for. Just on Sunday, a West Coast native friend of ours was bemoaning the condition of January tomatoes around here, and I suggested she just not eat them in January and to wait until August. Last year we even had tomatoes coming in the CSA deep into October, so really, three months is already a quarter of a year. Not bad at all!

Rich doesn’t get it. Earlier tonight, as I was making a summer panzanella with leftover challah, quarters of red cherry tomatoes and ribbons of green basil, and a roasted eggplant salad with a cilantro and garlic-speckled yogurt sauce, he poked around the refrigerator. He reminded me that the last brownie in there was mine, that I still had some salted caramels that a friend gave me in the springtime, and there was still a half a box of truffles my dad sent for me in May. Where I go savory, he goes sweet. He actually didn’t stay for dinner, but biked to a friend’s house for chipotle-marinated grilled turkey tips. Not to worry, I was invited to join them, but I had been looking forward to my salads all day.

And last week, when I made this Southeast Asian tomato salad, Rich had a bite, but left the rest for me. He agreed that it was very delicious, but isn’t so big into tomatoes. He snapped the photo of me that’s up there. He’s also insisting I admit that that’s not a regular dish I’m eating off of: it’s the serving platter. Not to worry, I fried up some eggs so there would be a protein on the table. I’ve decided to not share the photo of me drinking the remaining dressing off the platter. But you should drink it, too. You’ll want to, anyways.

The recipe is another winner from Melissa Clark. Man, I just love her. The flavors here will probably remind you of the amazing roasted tofu and cabbage salad; I know it did for me. That’s a good thing. I actually didn’t use a half of a jalapeño, but part of a hot pepper that came in the CSA. I didn’t have Thai basil on hand, just regular basil (which then made its way into tonight’s panzanella.)

Southeast Asian Tomato Salad from Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now

Ingredients

About 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 teaspoon light brown sugar

2 scallions, finely chopped

1 fat garlic clove, minced (or just use 2 small ones)

½ jalapeño, seeded, if desired, and finely chopped

3 large or 4 medium tomatoes, sliced ¼ inch thick

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh Thai or regular basil

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Directions

In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, scallions, garlic and jalapeño. (If you think your fish sauce is very salty, start with 1 teaspoon; you can add more at the end.)

Arrange the tomato slices on a plate. Spoon the dressing over the tomatoes. Let stand 10 minutes to allow the tomatoes time to release their juices. Sprinkle with basil and cilantro; serve.

Put a Ring on It

About six months ago, my left ring finger started to itch and sting. I removed my wedding ring for a few days and applied Cortisone, but as soon as I put the ring back on, the itching returned. I switched the ring to my right ring finger, but the same symptoms appeared a few days later. After talking to friends and poking around on the internet, I realized that at some point I had developed a nickel allergy. Nickel, I recently learned, is mixed with gold to make the white gold my engagement ring and wedding band are made of. As I write this post, my hands are jewelry-free. At some point I’ll probably go to the jeweler and pick up a plain platinum band so there’s some sort of marriage marker, but I’m not interested in buying a new engagement ring.

We’ll be celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary in June, and in the six years I’ve owned my engagement ring, I’ve received piles of compliments on it on a near-weekly basis. It’s not your typical metal band with a stone in the center, but an original creation based on an Edwardian design. It’s a band full of filigree, diamonds and lots of character. And they’re Canadian conflict-free diamonds, which was key for me. When Rich found the ring, he knew right away it was the right one. (Of course he knew, I had given him explicit instructions and design ideas for what I wanted.) He brought me to the jeweler to take a look, and I took it out for a test-drive. We brought it back, and then, because I’m me and like to make sure everything is just as it should be, we then went to 11 jewelers the next day. Just to make sure. Rich was not happy.

When we’d decided on my ring, we asked the designer, Ana-Katarina, if we could maybe replace the center diamond with a higher grade. “Oh no,” she said shaking her head, “You’re getting married. You need to save your money so that you can buy a home and have children. Don’t spend any more money than you have to on a piece of jewelry.” That summer was a hot one, and the store had a special discount depending on the temperature. When the thermometer hit 102, Rich made his move.

My sister and her wife loved my ring so much, that they also went to Ana-Katarina when they decided to get engaged. Their rings are both incredibly unique and inspire oohs and aahs wherever they go. I met someone last year and complemented her on her ring. It was also by Ana-Katarina.

I’ve been trying to make the best of the situation, making dishes that would have required me to remove my rings, like last week’s granola bars, these chickpea patties or this cabbage salad that required an even distribution of the dressing with a few down-and-dirty hand tosses.


I found this recipe earlier this week in “A Good Appetite,” Melissa Clark’s column in The New York Times, and you know how much I love her stuff. I’ve changed things up a bit, and employed my friend Tania’s baked tofu method in lieu of the one Clark suggests. I’ve also replaced the brown rice the salad rests on with wheat berries I soaked overnight and cooked in the pressure cooker.

March is one of those in-between months when it comes to vegetables: You’ve become a little sick of winter’s root vegetables, but asparagus and artichokes are still a few weeks away. Sometimes there are some nice, sweet parsnips that the farmer has picked, but there’s always cabbage. As Clark points out, one head of cabbage can make at least three separate dishes. I used a third of the cabbage I had in the fridge for this dish, and it fed three of us with leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. I hope to use the rest of the vegetable for a warm borscht I’ve been plotting; more on that later.

Ironically, my nose ring is made of titanium, so, for the time being, that’s the one piece of jewelry that’s a constant in my life. And, I guess if this was India or certain African countries, it would be quite evident from that piercing that I am, indeed, happily married.

(Editor’s Note: Because there have been several off-line requests for a photo, I’ve “borrowed” this from one of AK’s albums. I’m a little worried I’m breaking some sort of copyright law by using this photo, so if anyone thinks this might end in a lawsuit, please feel free to chime in.)

Crunchy Vietnamese Cabbage Salad with Baked Tofu

Ingredients

3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons light brown sugar

2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce

Zest and juice of 1 lime

1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced (note: I had a red Thai chili and used half. I think any hot pepper will work in this recipe)

1 garlic clove, minced

4 tablespoons peanut oil

1/2 pound extra-firm tofu

4 cups shredded cabbage

1 large carrot, grated

1/3 cup coarsely chopped roasted, salted peanuts, plus more to serve

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, plus more to serve.

Directions

Preheat oven to 450.

Pat the block of tofu dry using a paper towel. Slice the slab into thirds, and then slice those into thirds. Using your hands, gently toss the slices in a large bowl with a few glugs of olive oil. Place the tofu pieces on an oiled baking sheet and place in the hot oven. At 15 minutes, remove the pan from the oven. Using a silicone spatula, test one piece by flipping it over. You’re looking for a nice crust; it should be golden and beginning to caramelize. If it’s not there, place it back in the oven for another 5 minutes. Remove the pan and flip over a piece. If it’s golden, flip the rest of the pieces and put the pan back into the oven for another 15 minutes. You’re looking for the tofu to be a deep golden and the pieces will be spongy, with just a hint of crispness. Trust me, the texture has an amazing mouth feel and you’ll want to pop pieces of this all night long.

To make the vinaigrette, in a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the first six ingredients, then gradually whisk in the oil.

In a large bowl, toss together tofu, cabbage, carrot, peanuts, cilantro and vinaigrette. Garnish with more peanuts and cilantro.