Sardinian Seadas: A Sweet Souvenir

Sardinian seadaCooking wasn’t much on my mind when I first arrived in Sardinia five weeks ago. Learning Italian, yes. Writing, yes. Expunging the recent stresses of New York and beyond, yes.┬áThat’s what I’d come to do.

But Sardinia and its charms instantly beguiled me, its platters of pane gutiau (a traditional flatbread drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and baked to crackling deliciousness), spicy mussels and garlicky fried shrimp reeling me in ever deeper.

In Alghero, I’ve had the great fortune of not only eating tremendously well but also having terrific food gurus to watch in the kitchen. Among them is a lovely soul — Angelina Demartis, a local high school teacher who comes from a long line of Algherese women who have taken great joy in cooking well and feeding the ones they love.

Angelina occasionally holds cooking class dinners at her home in downtown Alghero and one night, I got to be a part of one of them. Which is how I came to discover the intense pleasure that is Sardinian seadas.

So when my hardy Let’s Lunch club decided on sharing a recipe they’ve brought back with them from faraway travels, Angelina’s seadas instantly came to mind …

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Lotus Blue: Durian Season

Summer in New York can be a difficult time for me — not because of the stifling heat or the endless streams of tourists who claim my city.

Rather, it’s the height of durian season — a time that I looked forward to when I was growing up in Southeast Asia. It’s when this “King of Fruit” (as it’s called in Asia) is at its peak — roadside stalls selling it are impossible to miss at this time in Singapore. In New York, however, the fruit can still be hard to come by.

What is durian? If you’d ever been within a 100 meters of one, you’d know. This fruit, unopened, looks like a spiky medieval weapon the size of a football — and it’s the shade of Incredible Hulk, no less. The more noticeable thing about it, however, is its scent, which is so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation in Singapore. I’ve seen the smell of durian described by some as akin to burnt tires or feces — lovers of the stuff, though, think that’s, well, c***.

In Singapore, bakeries and restaurants put durian in many things — cream puffs, dessert sandwiches, cakes and puddings. Because of its smell, I’ve only seen it in a U.S. restaurant once — at Jean-George Vongerichten’s Spice Market in New York City.

So when I spied durian puffs on the menu while out with the insatiable Gael Greene recently, I knew I had to order it …

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Lithuanian Poppy Seed Holiday Cookies: Santa-Worthy Treats

I have the great fortune of living near Sahadi’s, a wonderful little Middle Eastern grocery in Brooklyn that’s filled with bins of dates and nuts and shelves of treats such as pomegranate molasses, Turkish apricots and three kinds of orange blossom water.

As much of a thrill as it is to walk through Sahadi’s on any day, given that you never know what new delicious morsel you’ll discover, it’s particularly lovely in December, when the usually crammed store gets absolutely packed with a shoppers and a frenetic holiday spirit that’s uniquely New York. Excuse me, there are meals to be made — out of my way! You going to get that box of tea or what? Hurry up! (OK, perhaps I am alone in having these thoughts — everyone else may well be imbued with saintly patience since it is the holiday season, after all.)

Being there always gives me that seasonal rush that propels me to the finish line that is our Christmas dinner, however. And this year, I picked up a little extra something I’d been curious to cook with: Poppy seed paste.

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Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake: A Toast to Art, Life, Yaddo

Chocolate mayonnaise cake has been on my mind recently.

It’s not so much the cake itself — delicious as it is — but rather, what it symbolizes.

This time last year, I was nestled amid 400 acres of woods in Saratoga Springs, New York, ensconced in a cozy writing studio with little more than a pesky woodpecker for company all day and a big deadline looming ahead of me. The deadline was terrifying — it was for my very first book. And it was, for various reasons, not the sort that can be pushed off for months or years. This book was coming out in February 2011 come hell or highwater — there was simply no changing it.

And so I packed up my laptop, my notebooks, letters and diaries. And I left the intense social pressure and the cacophony of New York City, fleeing upstate to Yaddo, a storied artists colony that I had long dreamed of attending. I had read about this Yaddo — a place of extreme quietude run by a non-profit corporation that devotes itself to providing literary non-fiction writers, novelists, poets, painters and composers with a little hideout away from the crazy world outside, a window of calm to create.

Among these studios and woods, a shimmering roster of artists has passed through. It was here that Sylvia Plath penned the poems that would form the backbone of her first volume of poetry, “The Colossus.” Patricia Highsmith completed “Strangers on a Train,” her first book, at Yaddo. It’s also where Carson McCullers wrote “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.” John Cheever practically lived at Yaddo for chunks of his career; and other artists who have spent time at there include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, composer Leonard Bernstein and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

As a big McCullers and Plath fan, it was humbling for me to be invited to Yaddo to finish my book. (It is hard not to begin your writing day feeling the eyes of those before you scanning your screen, probably thinking, “You really gonna write that?”) More important, however, it turned out to be essential help at a crucial time. I was given a comfortable room, a lovely writing studio, three meals a day and an embarrassment of riches in time and solitude to peck away at my memoir.

Earlier this year, “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family” hit bookstores. That the book managed to make its way out into the world on time is a testament to this warm little place in the woods that gave me peace and fed me well. It was here that I wrote my book, yes, but it was also here that I had my first sliver of chocolate mayonnaise cake at dinner one night.

Both events, I will never forget.

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Caramel-Walnut Upside-Down Banana Cake: Doctor's Orders

There are many perfectly lovely blogs out there that extol the virtues of healthy eating. Page after page will be filled with photos and recipes of jazzed up salads and low-calorie sweets, all nudging you to at least try to live a better life.

This blog, dear readers, is not one of them.

Yes, there has been the recent issue of the doctor’s concern. But when this concern has somehow led to an untouched mound of rapidly browning bananas sitting on the kitchen counter (because the doctor has ordered the consumption of a banana a day), something has to be done.

Not that this leads to any bananas actually getting consumed, mind you. Instead, a recipe is found — one that calls for ripe bananas that will be turned into a banana cake topped with a thick, hot layer of sweet caramel and walnuts.

The recipe oozes decadence and sin. But it does have a saving grace — there are bananas in there, after all. Isn’t that what the doctor ordered?

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