Pad Thai


pad-thaiMy good friend Sarah and I have been taking cooking classes at Sur La Table in Costa Mesa. (Sarah is the pretty lady in the middle holding what is left of a tray of  minced chicken lettuce cups). What fun!


Our most recent class was Sur La Table’s “Thai Restaurant Favorites” class. Among other delicious Thai recipes, our excellent teacher, Melody Rodriguez (pictured above in red) , taught us to make Pad Thai.

Pad Thai, if you are unfamiliar with it, is a rice noodle dish that Thailand considers its national dish. Thais are not the only ones in love with Pad Thai.  In a 2011 poll, CNN listed Pad Thai as number five among the world’s most delicious foods. (I’m not all together sure about that CNN poll, though. Chocolate was number 25. How could that be?)

The history of Pad Thai is pretty interesting. (I know, I know. I always find history interesting.)

There was a revolution in Thailand (then Siam) in 1932. The absolute monarchy was toppled in favor of a constitutional one backed by a strong military. Field Marshall Plaek Philbunsongkhram became the powerful head of the new Thai government as Prime Minister (read that military dictator). He was determined to stoke Thai nationalism, rush Thailand into the modern age and ensure Thailand’s independence from colonial rule by the West or by China. In the process (and under pressure from Japan), he eventually allied Thailand with the Axis powers during World War II.



In his quest to modernize “Thailand”, Philbunsongkhram (he was known as Phibun, for short) issued twelve cultural edicts. Some of his rules were quirky, Everyone had to wear hats, for example. Thais were instructed to kiss their wives goodbye each morning.

Others of the twelve edicts were right out of the ultra-nationalist playbook of the 1930s. Everyone had to be loyal to the new government. The Thai flag must be revered. There was to be a single national language. People should dress modestly.  Everyone needed to eschew foreign products in favor of Thai products.

Foodwise, Phibun’s decrees directed Thais to abandon everything Chinese.  Thus, there was a new government-approved slogan: “Noodle is your lunch” and a new government-approved Thai noodle –sen chan rice noodles named for the eastern Chanthanburi province. In no time,  a new national dish incorporating those noodles had the government’s blessing. It was Pad Thai and the government subsidized pad Thai food carts to popularize the new dish. The rest is history.

Here is my “take” on the Pad Thai recipe we learned in our Sur La Table class.

Ingredients: Pad Thai

Pad Thai

8 oz. Chantaboon rice noodles
1/3 C. peanut or vegetable oil
4 large eggs (beaten)
3 garlic cloves (minced)
2/3 cup Pad Thai Sauce
1 C. fried tofu (cut into 1/4 inch cubes)
4 T. thinly-sliced sweet preserved radish
1/2 C. finely sliced green onion
2 1/2 C. bean sprouts

1/2 C. roasted peanuts (chopped fine)
1 lime (cut into wedges)

Pad Thai Sauce

2/3 C. tamarind concentrate
2/3 C. white vinegar
2/3 C. light soy sauce
1 t. sea salt
1 C. grated palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
3 T. garlic powder
1/8 C. Sriracha chili sauce (or to taste)


For Sauce: Combine tamarind, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, sugar, garlic powder and chili sauce in a saucepan. Boil over medium heat until sauce thickens. This will take approximately 10 minutes.

For Pad Thai:

Soak rice noodles in hot water for 30 minutes or until the noodles are al dente soft. Drain and set aside.

Heat a oil in a wok over high heat. Add eggs and stir fry for about 30 seconds. Add garlic and noodles to eggs. Mix and add 2/3 C. Pad Thai sauce. Simmer noodles in the sauce for one or two minutes until the noodles are cooked. Stir in tofu and radish. (If noodles are not tender enough, you can add water to your pan. ) Add green onions, 2 C. bean sprouts and peanuts and stir. Remove Pad Thai from stove.

Serve pad thai warm or at room temperature on a large plate garnished with bean sprouts, additional chopped green onion, chopped peanuts, and lime wedges.


Elaine’s Fettuccine Alfredo


Elaine’s fettuccine alfredo.

If it was good enough for Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, this fettuccine alfredo recipe is worth a try. (Kennedy-Onassis said it was “terrific, ” by the way.)

As recipes go, this is a simple one. Like so many  gourmet dishes, the magic is in the ingredients. A fine quality cheese is essential. The cup and a half of heavy cream doesn’t hurt, either.

So, who was this Elaine after whom the dish was named?


Elaine was the infamous New York restauranteur Elaine Kaufman, proprietress of the eponymous upper east side Manhattan restaurant that attracted the who’s who of the New York celebrity and intellectual scene from 1963 until its closing in 2011 after her death. Her restaurant was so quintessentially New York that Woody Allen filmed a scene from Manhattan in the restaurant. Billy Joel mentioned the restaurant in the lyrics of Big Shot.

Kaufman was designated a living landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2003.

Her eccentricities were legendary. 

After graduating from high school, she dyed her hair green (this was in the 40s!) and refused to seek permanent employment in the limited range of mostly office jobs open to women. (I don’t know for sure, but I suspect dyeing one’s hair green would pretty much foreclose most job interviews in the 1940s.) Eventually, she opened a restaurant in a then-unfashionable section of Manhattan.

Kaufman’s Elaine’s, a saloon and a salon, was less known for the food than it was for the scene–a fact that irritated Kaufman to no end.

Elaine’s was far from a luxe destination. Comedian Alan King described the restaurant as being decorated “like a stolen car.”

Kaufman said of her venture, “I live the party life. Elsa Maxwell used to have to send out invitations. I just open the door.” And flock they did. From Sinatra to Allen. From Mailer to Styron. From Baryshnikov to Ephron. Even Trump. They came. (I bet Elaine didn’t take any ‘tude from Trump! Just sayin…)





Like Seinfeld’s “soup nazi,” you didn’t cross the mercurial Kaufman. She regularly railed at the mediocre reviews her restaurant received for its food. She once punched a belligerent customer in the face. Regularly, she yelled at customers who took her restaurant for granted and didn’t order enough food. She was fiercely protective of her customers, once hurling a garbage can lid at paparazzi photographer Ron Galella.

She had a sense of humor, too. Once when she was asked for directions to Elaine’s restroom, Kaufman, without missing a beat,  told the customer “Take a right at Michael Caine.”

Here is a link to the obituary that the NY Times ran when Kaufman died. It is worth your time to read if only for the Normal Mailer anecdote.

Elaine’s Kaufman’s Obit in NY Times

This recipe was adapted from a recipe that originally was published in the New York Times. The link to the original recipe appears at the end of this post.

Ingredients: Elaine’s Fettuccine Alfredo.
2 T. sweet butter
1 small clove garlic (finely chopped)
1 1/2 C. heavy cream
1 large egg yolk
1 pound fresh fettuccine
1 C. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Asiago cheese
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Garnish with minced parsley or basil leaves


Melt sweet butter in a large saucepan. Add garlic and sauté until it is fragrant but not brown. Whisk cream and egg yolk in a bowl and pour mixture into butter/garlic mixture. On medium low heat, cook cream mixture until it reduces and thickens a bit. Do not let mixture boil.

Boil fettuccine in a pot of water until it is al dente. Drain.

Pour cooked fettuccine into the cream sauce and stir until the fettuccine is well mixed in the sauce. You can add a bit of pasta cooking water if you need to make the sauce more liquid as you cook it. Add grated cheese and toss to mix.

Garnish with parsley or basil and lots of freshly-ground pepper.


Here is a link to the original NY Times recipe for Elaine’s Fettuccine Alfredo:

Elaine’s Fettuccine Alfredo from The New York Times


Friendship, Carole King and Cheese Enchiladas






Last night, a group of old friends and I got together at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts to see the Carole King musical Beautiful.

It was a snap-your-fingers kind of show, one that made you laugh out loud and sing along. The audience was large, appreciative and, for the most part, of-a-certain age.

And there we sat, six good friends enjoying each other’s company. Most of us taught high school together for decades–seeing each other daily and unified in our commitment to give our students the best we had on any given day.

These days, we’re sure to make time to enjoy each other’s company. We get together for the theatre. We take in an occasional movie. We share events in each other’s lives over lunch.  As good friends do, we also support each other when life throws us those inevitable curves and the going gets tough.

This morning, when I think of my friends Carol, Carole, Murnez, Michelle and Debbie, the final lines in one of Carole King’s classic songs come to mind:

“Ain’t it good to know, ain’t it good to know, ain’t it good to know/You’ve got a friend/You’ve got a friend”

Ain’t it, indeed?

Here’s the food part of this post. In the spirit of the 70s when King’s solo career began to soar, what could be more appropriate than a casserole dish? Remember all those casserole pot-lucks?

Here is a recipe for a pretty wonderful cheese enchilada casserole. I hope you will share it with your friends.

This recipe was adapted from a Ree Drummond recipe. A link to the original recipe appears at the end of this post.

Ingredients: Cheese Enchiladas

1 C. sour cream (at room temperature)
1/4 t. ground cumin
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
2-3 green onions (sliced)
3 C. grated sharp cheddar cheese
10 corn tortillas
Enchilada Sauce (see recipe in the Blue Cayenne index at the right or by clicking on this link

As American as enchilada sauce…


Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.

Spoon a few tablespoons of the enchilada sauce into a baking pan.

In a medium bowl, combine sour cream, cumin, cayenne pepper, green onions and 2 cups of grated cheese. Set aside.

Heat corn tortillas (on a grill or in the microwave). Dip each tortilla in the enchilada sauce. Lay the tortilla on a plate and fill the tortilla with a strip of the cheese filling. Roll the tortilla and put it seam side down in a large casserole dish. Repeat until you’ve used up all your tortillas and all your filling.

Cover the enchiladas with remaining cup of grated cheese and bake in the 375 degree F. oven until the enchiladas are hot and bubbling, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let enchiladas sit for a few minutes.

Garnish with chopped avocado, sliced black olives, sour cream, chopped onions and/or additional grated cheese.

Here is a link to the original Ree Drummond recipe:



Lentil Soup with Spinach


I love fall. I love the crisp cool edge that creeps into the mornings.

I love the changing colors of the leaves on my Japanese Maple.

I love the songs of autumn.  If you need a little fall “fix,” here is a great rendition of Autumn Leaves by the late Eva Cassidy. If you don’t know about her, you are in for a treat.

And, in the cooking realm, I love that fall gives me permission to make soup again.

I posted my all-time favorite lentil soup recipe on this blog back in December. I hope you have found time to try that recipe. It is one of the wonders of the soup world. That soup is called Egyptian Lentil Soup and you can look it up in the index that appears on the right side of this page or by clicking here

The lentil soup I’m posting today is also excellent. It is a little more “tomatoey” and takes a slightly different spice turn with the addition of a small amount of curry powder and a small amount of dried thyme leaves. It is also just downright pretty with its bright oranges, greens and reds.

If you can’t work up the energy to make lentil soup today, don’t put your lentils away just yet. It is clear from a quick Internet search that lentils (and beans) are a popular crafting item. For example, someone had a good sense of humor and was definitely “feeling the Bern” with this piece:



The Bernie picture got me to thinking that orange lentils would be perfect for portraying The Donald’s hair. Go for it and be sure to send me a picture!

This recipe is adapted from one that appeared on the Cookie and Kate Food Blog. A link to the original recipe appears at the end of this post.

Ingredients: Lentil Soup with Spinach
1/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion (chopped)
3 carrots (peeled and chopped)
1 garlic clove (minced)
1 t. ground cumin
1/4 t. curry powder
1/4 t. dried thyme leaves
Generous pinch of whole cumin seeds
1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 C. orange lentils
4 C. vegetable broth
2 C. water
1 t. salt (more to taste)
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 C. chopped fresh spinach leaves
Juice of 1/4 to 1/2 lemon (to taste)


Heat olive oil in a large soup pan.

Sauté chopped onion and carrots in hot oil, stirring often, until onion is softened and translucent. This should take about five minutes. Add chopped garlic, cumin, curry powder, and thyme leaves to the onion/carrot mixture. Stir spices to mix then in thoroughly–about 30 seconds.

Add the diced tomatoes and continue to cook for a few more minutes. Stir.

Add lentils, broth and water. Add pepper flakes and salt. Season with freshly-ground black pepper. Bring soup to a boil then lower heat and let the soup cook at a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes.

Stir in chopped spinach and cook for a few more minutes until spinach is softened.

Remove from heat, add lemon juice and taste for seasoning.

Here is a link to the Cookie and Kate recipe from which this recipe was adapted:


Lemon Buttermilk Pound Cake




Cutting the lemon
the knife
leaves a little cathedral:
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
aromatic facades.

                    –Pablo Neruda


I’ve always loved lemon cakes. 

Back in the 1980s, I remember that the Miss Grace Lemon Pound Cake set the standard. Do you remember that cake? It was moist. It was beautiful. It was bold; the tart lemon flavor that infused the cake grabbed you by the lapels.

Recently, in the grip of a moment of nostalgia, I went online to see if Miss Grace cakes are still available. Apparently they are, but, according to Yelp reviews, customers aren’t altogether happy with the current iteration of the cake. And, a Miss Grace lemon cake costs $37.07 on Amazon (with a collectible gift tin!).

So, I set out looking for a cake that could live up to my sweet memories of the cake and one that could stay within my budget.

Here it is. If you like to pucker up with a jolt of lemon flavor, this buttermilk pound cake is for you!

The link to the original recipe appears at the bottom of this post.

Ingredients: Lemon Buttermilk Pound Cake

For the Cake
3 C. all purpose flour (spooned into a measuring cup and leveled-off with a knife, plus more for the pan)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter (softened)
2 1/4 C. granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 C. buttermilk
2 T. grated lemon zest (packed)
2 T. fresh lemon juice

For the Syrup
1/3 C. water
1/3 C. granulated sugar
2 T. fresh lemon juice

For the Glaze
1 C. confectioners’ sugar
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1/2 t. lemon zest (packed)
1 t. unsalted butter (melted)


Prepare your oven and your pan. The oven should be preheated to 325 degrees F. Your bundt pan should be sprayed with a generous amount of cooking spray (or buttered) and then should be dusted with flour. My cake was a little cranky about coming out of the pan once it was cooked, so I can’t emphasize enough the importance of properly preparing your pan and being careful when removing the finished cake from the pan.

Place flour, baking soda and salt in a medium-sized bowl and whisk. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar in an electric mixer at medium speed (using the paddle attachment) until the mixture is light and fluffy. This will take 3-4 minutes. Scrape down the batter from the sides of your mixer bowl and then add the eggs one at a time. Beat the mixture well after each egg addition. Again, scrape down the sides of your mixer bowl.

Combine the buttermilk, lemon zest and lemon juice in another bowl. Set aside.

Turn your mixer on to a low speed and mix one quarter of the four mixture into the butter/sugar mixture. Then, mix in one third of the buttermilk mixture. Repeat until all the flour mixture and buttermilk mixture have been incorporated into the batter. Again, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Using your mixer, give the batter one last fast mix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared bundt pan. Use a spatula to smooth out the top of the batter.

Bake for one hour and five minutes at 325 degrees F. A cake tester should come out clean when the cake is done.

Remove the cake from the stove and cool the cake on a rack on your counter for at least ten minutes. I gave my cake about 20 minutes and loosened the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife. Take your time with this step.

While the cake is cooling, make the syrup by combining the water and sugar in a pan and bringing it to a boil. When the mixture boils, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

Invert the cooled cake onto a wire rack, being careful to ease the cake out of the pan. (Keep your counter clean by slipping parchment paper or aluminum foil under the rack to catch the drips of syrup.)  Using a pastry brush, brush the cake with the hot syrup. The brushing should be done slowly so that the syrup has time to be absorbed into the cake before you brush on more syrup. Once all the syrup has been brushed on the cake, let the cake cool for at least one hour.

Finally, once the cake has cooled, make your glaze combining confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and melted butter in a bowl. Stir the glaze until it is smooth. Your glaze should be thick but pourable (the consistency of thick honey). You can add more sugar or lemon juice to achieve the right consistency. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the cake and down the sides of the cake.


Here is the link to the original recipe:


Spinach and Cheese Strata




I have a brunch coming up next week and I’ve been experimenting with breakfast stratas (Is that the correct plural for strata? My spell checker is being a little edgy about the “s”.)

There are, I’m finding, a lot of mediocre strata recipes out there, particularly if you plan to skip sausage as an ingredient. I tried one that had high praise from many many many reviewers and it was just plain mushy–even with day-old bread. Awful. So, then, I tried another recipe. Meh.

Then…there is was. Spinach and cheese strata based upon a old Gourmet Magazine recipe. (The loss of Gourmet Magazine was a category 5 catastrophe for cooks in my opinion.)

What is so good about this recipe? The mix of gruyere and parmigiano-reggiano is a perfect blend, (Costco has a good gruyere at a reasonable price that I used for this recipe.) The egg custard flavored with a bit of Dijon has a good texture and just the right amount of bite. The spinach and onion give the dish just the right mellow savory taste.


Cook’s Note:  I’ve made this several more times since posting this recipe and find that the amount of custard you need to use is quite variable depending upon the denseness of bread you use. In my last strata, I held out a good cup and a quarter of the egg custard mix. I would recommend that you pour the custard slowly over the bread/cheese/spinach base but stop short of using the whole amount. To my taste, you don’t want to have the mixture awash in liquid.

Ingredients: Spinach and Cheese Strata
1 ten ounce bag chopped frozen spinach (thawed and water squeezed out)
3 T. unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion (chopped)
6 ounces coarsely grated Gruyere
8 C.  (1/2 pound) Italian sandwich bread (cut into 1-inch cubes) I used Trader Joe’s Tuscan Pane bread and dried it out in the oven at 200 degrees for a half an hour before using it. This might not be a necessary step if you are using day-old bread.
2 ounces finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
9 large eggs
2 3/4 C. half-and-half (or milk)
2 T. Dijon mustard
1  t. salt
1/2  t. black pepper
1/4 t. freshly- grated nutmeg

Thaw spinach and squeeze as much of the liquid out of the spinach as you can. Set aside.

Melt butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté for about 5 minutes until onion is soft and translucent. Stir onion frequently to keep it from burning. Add 1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper and nutmeg.  Add the chopped spinach, stir and remove mixture from heat.

In a 3-quart buttered baking dish, spread one third of the bread cubes evenly over the dish. Spread one third of the spinach/onion mixture over the bread cubes and then sprinkle one third of each of the cheeses over the top of the spinach. Repeat this layering twice, ending with grated cheese.

Whisk eggs in a large bowl. Add half-and-half (or milk), mustard, and remaining salt and black pepper. Whisk the mixture until it is well-combined. Pour this egg custard mixture over the strata, distributing the custard as evenly as possible.

Cover strata with saran wrap and press down on the mixture to be sure the egg custard is evenly distributed and covers the bread. Refrigerate overnight. Remove from refrigerator 1/2 hour before baking.

In a preheated 350 degree F. oven, bake the strata (uncovered) until it is puffed, set and a light golden brown all over the top. This will take 45 to 55 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let the strata stand for 5 minutes before serving.


Here is the link to the original recipe from Gourmet Magazine:


Artichoke Gratin


artichoke gratin222

I’m in love with this dish.

What’s so special?

First, it is a gratin. What is not to love?  Second, it has hints of lemon and thyme–a flavor combination that elevates just about any dish in my opinion.  And, then, there is the cheese–the glorious gooey cheese. I rest my case.

I’ve had this recipe marked to try for some time. But, truth be told, I have a whole lot of recipes marked to try. If my stack of to-try recipes is any indication, I think there is a long life ahead for the Blue Cayenne Food Blog. By the way, Blue Cayenne will be a year old in October. How is that even possible?

This recipe is from Yotam Ottolenghi’s 2010 cookbook Plenty.  I’ve cooked from his wonderful cookbooks before for Blue Cayenne. Here is the link to my adaptation of his Turkish Eggplant with Green Chile Oil that I posted a couple of months ago. It is another exotic dish you might enjoy trying the next time you are in a Middle Eastern frame of mind: Turkish Eggplant with Yogurt and Green Chile Oil

Incidentally, Ottolenghi’s original artichoke gratin recipe is subtle and elegant in its simplicity. It did not include the garnish of cherry tomatoes you see in the photograph, but they were on my counter and needed to be used. I just popped them into a pan with some of my best olive oil and sautéed them lightly.  I thought they made the presentation of the dish especially pretty. The tomatoes do, however, make the gratin quite a bit more robust in flavor than Ottolenghi’s original dish. I like the dish both ways and urge you to do your own taste test.

Recipe: Artichoke Gratin

1 3/4 lb. frozen artichoke hearts
Grated zest and juice of 4 large lemons
2 medium onions (thinly sliced)
1/4 C. olive oil
salt and black pepper
3 T. chopped thyme
6 T. chopped parsley

4 T. unsalted butter
1/3 C. plus 1 T. all-purpose flour
1 C. water
1 C. milk
3/4 t. salt

3/4 C. ricotta
6 T. grated Parmesan, Asiago or combination of cheeses


Put frozen artichoke hearts and lemon juice in a pan of boiling water. (I used Trader Joe’s and the small size of the artichoke hearts was perfect.)  Simmer until artichokes are tender. Drain.

Salt and pepper sliced onions and sauté in olive oil over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Onions should be light brown when they are ready.

Stir browned onions (and their oil) into drained artichokes. Add lemon zest, thyme and parsley. Stir. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Prepare the béchamel. Melt butter in a large saucepan. Stir in flour (stirring constantly) and cook for about two minutes until the flour is lightly browned. Mix water and milk in a cup and slowly whisk the liquid mixture into the flour/water mixture. Add salt. Continue to whisk for about ten minutes until the mixture is thick and creamy.

Lightly grease an oven-proof baking dish. Mix the béchamel with the artichoke mixture and spoon mixture into the baking dish.

Using a small spoon, make holes in the artichoke mixture and drop in teaspoons of ricotta.

Cover with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle cheese over top. Increase oven heat to 400 degrees F. and bake uncovered for an additional 15 or 20 minutes. The cheese layer should turn a golden brown and the béchamel should be bubbling vigorously.

Serve hot or warm.

Cook’s Notes: I doubled the cheese that I sprinkled on the top of the gratin before the final cooking in the oven. I used asiago but I think I will use a mixture of gruyere and asiago next time. I did put the dish under the broiler for a couple of minutes to get a nice golden crust on the cheese.

Also, I made half the recipe and the portion could easily have served 4.


Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew (for the good times)



The vocabulary word for today is umami.

Now don’t go getting all “low energy” on me. I really don’t want to see any of you putting your heads down on your desks and hyperventilating like this is just too hard.

                                                           U- M- A- M- I.   (  Just.   Sound.   It.   Out.  )

Simply put, umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “delicious.”

In 1908,  Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that kombu, a brown algae used for thousands of years as a soup stock base, is a rich source of a distinctive compound called glutamate. Also found naturally in a number of other foods including tomatoes and cheeses, Ikeda found that glutamate intensified a unique savory flavor in the mouth and could be extracted from food in powder form as monosodium glutamate (MSG). He named the new flavor umami.

Once Ikeda’s research findings were securely patented, commercial production of this new flavor-enhancer/creator began almost immediately with the Japanese company, Ajinomoto, producing a “MSG” powder grown from wheat gluten proteins (and later from bacteria) as a seasoning. (Today, MSG is produced by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses in a fermentation process similar to that used in making yogurt.)

In the years since Ikeda’s research, scientists have found still other umami substances– in cured skipjack tuna and shiitake mushrooms, for example. Like MSG, these substances ramp up the savory (umami) flavors of foods. When they are combined with MSG, there is an explosion of flavor in the mouth.

Finally, in 2001, the “fifth flavor” science was irrefutable.  UC San Diego biologist Charles Zuker proved conclusively that there are specialized receptor cells on the human tongue that respond to MSG. Those receptors produce a unique taste and mouth feel (Ikeda’s umami) that cannot be adequately described as sweet, sour, salty or bitter–the traditional terms used to describe the variety of human taste sensations.

So, what does umami taste like?

Mellow. Just ask Garrison Keillor.

That’s what I think Keillor was talking about in those glorious For the Good Times with Barb and Jim “catchup” skits that touted ketchup’s “mellowing agents.” If you have time, take a moment to enjoy one of the classic ketchup skits from Keillor’s satirical radio show, The Prairie Home Companion, and learn for yourself about ketchup’s seductive powers. The bit is guaranteed to make you laugh, particularly if, like Jim in the skit, you are hanging on to some of those adolescent humiliations:

Others have described umami as  “brothy,” “savory,” “creating a (pleasant) coating sensation over the tongue,” “imparting a long-lasting aftertaste.” The Umami Information Center (Yes. There is one.) describes umami’s effect this way: “Umami signals that we have consumed protein… and triggers secretion of saliva and digestive juices.”

Ikeda wasn’t the first to recognize umami’s effect on taste. Cooks have understood and applied the umami concept to their food preparation for a very long time.

The ancient Romans enjoyed a umami-rich fermented fish sauce (like modern-day anchovy paste) on their foods. The medieval Byzantines and Arabs incorporated a fermented barley sauce into their cuisines and Chinese cooks are believed to have used fermented soy and fish sauces in their kitchens as early as the 3rd Century.

Innovations in cooking ingredients and techniques are often not without controversy, however, and in the midst of MSG’s surging wave of popularity, there was a health scare in the 1960s. MSG as an additive was blamed for “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” a bad reaction reportedly experienced by some people who ate MSG-enhanced foods. According to Harold McGee’s highly-regarded On Food and Cooking, the “Chinese restaurant syndrome” theories rested on decidedly-shaky ground and toxicologists eventually exonerated MSG. McGee notes, however, that the real harm from MSG was that it was all- too-often used so heavy-handedly as to obscure rather than enhance foods’ flavors. The FDA is still hedging its bets on MSG, however, and categorizes the practice of adding MSG to foods as “generally recognized as safe.”

But, you ask, is umami really a full-fledged”fifth taste?”

Scientists and foodies have ruminated over this question for decades.

Finally, in 1982, research scientists attempted to put the matter to rest by organizing The Society for Research on Umami Taste (SRUT) and, in a 1985 symposium in Hawaii, declared umami a legitimate scientific term that “characterizes the unique taste imparted by compounds such as monosodium L-glutamate and 5′-nucleotides, inosinate and guanylate.”   (One can only imagine the wild partying that must have gone on at the SRUT umami convention. I’ll bet the souvenir tee-shirts are now worth a small fortune on e-bay.)

So, how can you get your umami “fix” this Labor Day?

You need go no farther than your closest purveyor of ketchup and fries. Both contain a high number of free glutamates and, when combined, will synergistically send you into umami heaven.

Or you could make this Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew.  It’s delicious.

Happy Labor Day.

The link to the original recipe from the New York Times appears at the bottom of this post.

Ingredients: Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew

1 1/2 lb. cultivated brown mushrooms (shiitake, cremini or portobello–I used baby bellas)
1/2 lb. pale wild mushrooms (chantrelle, King trumpet or oyster–I used oyster but I would use chantresses in a heartbeat if they were available)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion (diced)
Salt and pepper
1 t. chopped thyme
1 t. chopped sage or rosemary (I used sage)
Pinch red pepper flakes or cayenne
1 T. tomato paste
3 Small ripe tomatoes (peeled, seeded and chopped)
1 T. all-purpose flour
Heated broth (Mushroom or vegetable)
1 T. butter
3 garlic cloves (minced)
3 T. chopped parsley


Clean mushrooms and trim tough stems from  mushrooms. Keeping different types of mushroom separate, slice mushrooms about 1/8 inch thick.

Dice large onion.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven and saute chopped onion over medium high heat. Season onion with salt and pepper, lower heat to medium and cook onion for about ten minutes until onion is soft and browned. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add 1 T. oil to pan and, over medium to high heat, saute brown mushrooms until they turn a little bit more brown, seasoning lightly. This will take 3-4 minutes. Lower heat a bit and add spices (thyme, sage, red pepper) and tomato paste and stir. Add chopped tomatoes and stir into spice mixture until well mixed. Cook for about one minute.  Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle 1 T. flour over the mixture. Stir for one minute and continue to cook for one minute more. After one minute, add reserved onions.

Add 1 C. broth to the mixture and stir until thickened (1-2 minutes). Add more broth (up to a cup more) as needed to bring sauce up to a gravy-like consistency (I did not need to add the additional broth but you might)  and cook for an additional two minutes. Adjust seasonings.

When you are ready to serve, melt butter and 1 T. olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Cook just until the butter begins to brown and takes on a nutty flavor. Add wild mushrooms and salt and pepper and saute for about two more minutes. The mushrooms should be heated through, lightly cooked and slightly brown. Add garlic and parsley and stir, cooking for one more minute.

Combine brown mushroom mixture with wild mushrooms and serve in a warm serving bowl.

Serve with pasta, polenta, biscuits or over a toasted slice of sourdough bread. Garnish with chopped parsley, sliced cherry tomatoes and/or grated Asiago.

Here is the link to the original recipe:


Knife Tips

Sorry not to have posted for a couple of weeks. My beloved dog, Juliet, has been sick and I’ve been worried sick about her. When I’m “worried sick,” I eat Rosarita refried beans right out of the can. It is my comfort/junk food.

She is feeling better. Me, too, and I’m beginning to feel like cooking again.

Here is a photo of my beautiful brown-eyed girl catching a well-deserved nap.

Juliet Eyes2223

On the subject of cooking, here is a link to an interesting post about choosing knives. If you don’t know a tang from a Santoku, you might want to read on.

Years ago, I bought my first serious set of knives, Wusthofs, at the now defunct Fedco store (Anyone else wistfully remember that store?). I think my actual first set of knives probably came straight out of Pic’n’ Save.

I just checked the knife block in my kitchen and most of those original Wusthofs are still in use. Maybe it is time to upgrade. After all, those sublimely-balanced Santoku knives advertised by the big cooking stores are as beautiful as a piece of kitchen art. On the other hand, my Wusthofs are like old friends–comfortable and reliable, if not quite as sharp as they used to be. (I hope my old friends will forgive me. The knife joke was just too good to pass up.)

If you do decide to upgrade your knife collection, most cooking stores now carry a dazzling array of expensive and beautiful knives–knives far too costly to risk making an uninformed choice. That G-Fusion Santoku knife pictured in the Tribune article, for example, retails for $319 and Williams Sonoma is advertising a ten-piece Michel Bras knife set with blades coated in titanium for $3080. (If I remember correctly, my family’s 1963 VW cost about $1900 new off the lot.)

Who would ever have imagined paying that much for knives?

How to buy a knife from Chicago Tribune


Persian Eggplant Sandwich and A Serious Cookbook Addiction


Is there a support group for compulsive cookbook buyers?

Hundreds of cookbooks share my office bookshelves with my collection of history and political science books from my thirty-two year teaching career and my growing collection of photography books.

My history books are sacred possessions but I’m beginning to think I could free up some space for more cookbooks by donating my political science books to the library. Given this miserable election cycle, I don’t want to read any stinkin’ poli sci.

One of my most recent cookbook purchases is Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour, a book of recipes from the southern and eastern Mediterranean. Persian-born Ghayour is a food writer (The Washington Post, The WSJ, Saveur), teacher and cookbook author. This simple recipe for eggplant is from Persiana.

I used her spread to craft an exotic open-face sandwich for dinner last night, adding a couple slices of mozzarella and an absolutely exquisite slice of a red-ripe tomato from my friend Gene’s garden.

I’m going to keep this post short. I’m expecting a cookbook delivery of David Tanis books from Amazon.

Ingredients: Eggplant Sandwich

1 large white onion (cut in half and sliced thin)

1 large eggplant

1/3 to 1/2 C. labneh (or strained thickened yogurt or Persian kashk/whey)

Sea salt

Sourdough Bread (or pita or nan)

Mozzarella Slices

Chopped cilantro (or basil or Italian parsley)

A slice of my friend Sarah’s home grown tomatoes


Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil in a large pan. (I used my Dutch oven.) When the oil is hot, fry the thinly-sliced onion until the onion is dark brown, being careful not to burn the onion.

Peel the eggplant and slice it into rounds and then into 1/2 inch cubes. Using the oil you used to fry the onion, fry the eggplant cubes until they are soft and beginning to color. Using a slotted spoon or cooking spider, remove the cooked eggplant cubes to another pan. (Use some self control and refrain from eating all the wonderful fried onion before proceeding.)

Using the back of a spoon, mash half to three-quarters of the eggplant cubes. (You want some of the cubes to keep their shape so that your eggplant dish will have some texture.) Stir in 3/4 of the fried onions. Add the labneh (or yogurt) and sea salt to your taste.

Turn the heat to medium low and cook your eggplant mixture for halt to three-quarters of an hour, stirring frequently until the labneh (or yogurt) turns a medium brown color.

Spread eggplant mixture on a lightly-toasted piece of sourdough bread (or pita or nan). Top with sliced mozzarella and heat under your broiler until the sandwich is hot and the mozzarella just begins to melt. Garnish with remaining fried onion and a slice of tomato. Enjoy.