keito potato

May 2012 Nanjing Trip
June 1, 2012, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , , ,

I will be moving to Nanjing, China in the fall to teach at the national seminary there.  I am thrilled because I previously lived in China a few years.  It’s fantastic to have an opportunity to move back to China, and with a very fitting job.  I just spent two weeks in Nanjing for job training at the seminary.  I learned about my new job, and also spent time getting to know students.  They are extremely friendly and welcoming, and I feel good about moving there.

Since this is a food blog, I’m sharing the food photos from the trip.

This little hole-in-the-wall dumpling place is open 24 hours a day.  Good thing to know about.  They have two kinds of vegetarian dumplings, and this plate includes both kinds, half-and-half.  They make the classic leek and egg dumplings, but my favorite was the carrot, mushroom, and egg ones.  A plate of twelve was about a dollar US.  And the lime green chopsticks are cheerful.

Di san xian literally means “the three fresh things” and it’s a classic dish in Northeastern China.  When I did a study abroad term in Dalian in 1998, I ate this dish quite frequently.  It’s a combination of potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers, all cut in roughly the same size and shape, and served in a garlicky brown sauce.  It’s seriously delicious.  I ate this at a restaurant quite close to the Nanjing seminary campus, so I’m happy to know I can walk over and order a plate any time I need it.

Ganbian sijidou, dry-fried green beans.  This is one of the most famous Sichuan dishes, and this photo is of a great version at a restaurant near the seminary in Nanjing.  You can see it has plenty of whole hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns) on top.  I don’t know how to say “addicted” in Mandarin, but I got addicted to the numbing sensation of hua jiao when I lived in Sichuan.

Cabbage stir-fried with chilies, garlic, and ginger.  This is fresh and savory.  I absolutely love simple Chinese stir-fried cabbage — I personally think it’s so much more delicious and interested than American raw cabbage coleslaws.  At home I usually stir-fry cabbage with garlic, ginger, and sherry or white wine.  That reminds me — I should post that recipe for you soon!

Morning glory is a classic in China, stir-fried with garlic.  It’s called “kong xin cai,” literally “hollow-heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow.  It’s a tasty and common side dish.

Homestyle tofu is usually sliced thin, fried until crispy on the edges, and then braised in a spicy sauce.  I ordered homestyle tofu with a friend who can’t eat spicy food, so they put together this mild version with black fungus.

Love hot and sour stir-fried potatoes.  Usually they are tossed with lots of chilies and some vinegar, but this version has chile oil instead.  Tasty and bright red.

Some students took me and another teacher out for lunch, and this watermelon drizzled with cream was the appetizer.

Preserved eggs.  This dish is a bit scary for many foreigners, but it’s mild, a few bites are not bad.

Lotus root stuffed with sticky rice.

“Songren yumi,” corn with pine nuts, is a classic combination in China.  In my experience dish usually also includes green chilies.  Thinking about the pairing of jalapenos in savory cornbread, it seems that corn and chilies are a perfect pairing that separate world cuisines discovered.

These tofu noodles are almost like tofu skin, but a little thicker.  They’re paired here bok choi and mushrooms in a satisfying dish.

The students who took us out to lunch also gave us this cake topped with fruit.  The little message on the cake says, “Jesus loves you” which was cute and sweet of them.

Asparagus cut on the diagonal and stir-fried.

Here is another simple and savory version of homestyle tofu.

We were served this vegetable at a special lunch on campus with school administrators.  The vegetable is so rare and special that the cook had to explain it to everyone.  It is similar to a scallion, but is somewhere in between a scallion and a lotus root.  The hue is slightly green, and also slightly grey-lavender.  The cook kept insisting we try it because she said it’s so delicious.  It truly is surprisingly delicious, and extremely flavorful.  I’m sorry that I forgot the name of it !

A simple dish of spongy squash combined with soybeans.

While I ate a few special meals on this trip, most of my meals were with students in the school cafeteria.  The meals were simple and it was great to sit with students and get to know them.  Breakfasts were standard Chinese breakfasts, and it’s a good thing I generally enjoy Chinese breakfasts.  For lunches and dinners, the cafeteria offered about 6 dishes per meal, and usually 2 of the dishes were vegetarian.  The servers behind the counter quickly learned that I am a vegetarian, and would simply put the vegetarian offerings on a metal tray for me.  Since I love cooking, when I move here I will probably prefer cooking for myself in my apartment instead of eating in the cafeteria.  However, because it’s a great place to spend time with students, I will probably still eat there a few meals per week.

Here is a typical breakfast at the student cafeteria.  There were always a few baozi options.  Baozi are the steamed buns that are filled, and then pinched on top.  This one happened to be filled with black sesame, which is delicious and not too sweet.  In my experience, sometimes baozi at breakfast can be dry, but the cafeteria knows how to make them well.  They are fresh and hot.  You can also see a plan steamed mantou bun in the back corner.  There were always hardboiled eggs available, and sometimes they were tea-eggs.  Chinese tea-eggs (cha jidan) are hardboiled eggs steeped in tea, soy sauce, and star anise.  They are richly flavorful and delicious since those strong flavors are infused into the hardboiled egg.  The cafeteria also always offers some sort of porridge.  Sometimes it was plain rice porridge (xifan), but most days on my trip is was this babaozhou, the 8-treasure porridge which includes all sorts of grains including red beans and peanuts.  I think it’s more interesting than plain xifan.

Eating in the cafeteria: here we have morning glory (similar to spinach), a simple and watery cabbage soup, and cold vinegary gluten cubes.  The cold squishy gluten is common in Sichuan, so I learned to enjoy it sometimes.  I once heard that while Americans are usually fond of crispy and crunchy textures, the Chinese are equally passionate about rubbery textures in their food.  So you’ll find lots of rubbery and glutenous items on Chinese menus.

Eating in the cafeteria: fensi noodles with cabbage.  This was tasty.  The dish in the back corner was potatoes with eggplant.

Eating in the cafeteria: simple morning glory in the back corner, and classic leeks with eggs in the front.  They also accidentally gave me “cuipi doufu,” crispy skin tofu, which had pork in it, so I didn’t eat it.

Eating in the cafeteria: stir-fried lettuce in the back corner.  While I’m a person who really enjoys greens, I actually don’t really care for stir-fried lettuce.  It might be too bland?  In the middle we have stir-fried tomatoes and eggs.  I enjoy the egg and tomato soup, but haven’t been a fan of the stir-fried version.  My extended family on my mom’s side all has an aversion to tomatoes, so this dish isn’t my favorite.  The tofu in the front was the star of this meal for me.  Strips of chewy tofu were stir-fried with bean sprouts, green chilies, and lots of ginger.

Eating in the cafeteria: I’m always a sucker for Chinese stir-fried potatoes, so I loved these.  The other vegetarian dish that day was sliced onions with egg.  I felt like this combination has potential, but that the onions were too sharp and overpowering.

Eating in the cafeteria: garlicky cabbage is tasty and enjoyable.  I also enjoyed the cold and vinegary squishy gluten cubes.

I’ll close this post with a photo of students doing late-night eating in a bustling shopping area near the campus.  This shopping area is in between several universities, and is geared toward college students with lots tiny shops selling cheap and cute things.  You can see that the area also has rows of snack places, and many of the stalls had Chinese-Muslim food, which is the unique cuisine from Northwestern China.  This neighborhood also had rows of boba tea and juice places.  In the months to come, you’ll probably find me here snacking.

Garlicky Salvadoran Refried Beans
March 2, 2012, 12:37 pm
Filed under: recipes | Tags: ,

A few months ago I started a vegetarian cooking group with some friends.  The group has an educational bent, and we have been teaching each other recipes and techniques when we gather to cook.  This last meal was Salvadoran, and my friends Ashley and Elvis taught us all how to make pupusas and other Salvadoran items like refried beans, horchata, jamaica, cabbage slaw, and salsa.  I’m sharing the refried bean recipe here because I was so excited to learn this for myself.  You can use these garlicky refried beans in a myriad of ways.  Our group used them as pupusa filling, and also as a topping for Salvadoran enchiladas which look like small tostadas.

Salvadoran enchiladas topped with refried beans, avocado, hard-boiled egg, queso fresco, and cabbage slaw, photo by Kelly McPhail

This version is vegan, but tastes as rich as if it had lard in it.  The trick seems to be the inclusion of an entire head of garlic, plus 2 onions, which all get pureed into the beans.  Part of the onions and garlic boil with the beans, and the rest are seared in a cast iron skillet until blistering and brown.  What surprised me is that you only chop the onion into quarters before sauteing it, and the garlic cloves are left whole to sautee.  Previously, I had always cut these aromatics into smaller pieces to cook in a skillet, but this process sears the edges while it softens in the interiors.  The pieces all turn richly fragrant, and mildly sweet.  In the end, the beans also have a slightly sweet flavor from the softened onion and garlic.  It’s the kind of subtle sweetness you find in caramelized onions or oven-roasted garlic.

The recipe calls for red Salvadoran beans, which you can find at most Latino markets.  If you can’t find them, you could substitute another kind of small red bean.  They are small enough that you don’t have to soak them before boiling.


1 pound Salvadoran red beans

8 cups water

2 onions (separated)

1 whole head of garlic (separated)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cumin

4 tablespoons canola oil or olive oil


Add the beans to a large soup pot with the water.  Thinly slice one of the onions, and add it to the beans.  Peel 4 of the garlic cloves, and leave them whole.  Add the garlic cloves to the beans, along with the salt and cumin.

Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2 hours, until the beans are soft.  At this point, you could stop and enjoy this as soup.

Transfer most of this to a blender.  You may reserve some of the liquid if it looks too soupy.  You can use what you are not using for a separate soup, if you wish.  Puree the beans in the blender until very smooth.

Ashley blending the beans, photo by Kelly McPhail

Cut the remaining onion into 4 quarters.  Peel the remaining garlic cloves, but leave them whole.  Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet on medium heat. When hot, add the onion quarters and peeled garlic.  Saute on medium heat for about 8-10 minutes.  They will develop brown areas, and might look almost burnt, but they will smell wonderful.  With a slotted spoon, remove them from the oil, and add them to the blender.  Keep the oil in the pan.  It has absorbed the flavor of the onions and garlic, and you will use it to fry the beans.

Use the blender to puree the sauteed onions and garlic into the beans.  When smooth, ladle this back into the skillet.  Stir and cook around 10-15 minutes, until it thickens to your desired consistency.  Add more salt to taste.

Basic Vegetable Broth
December 28, 2011, 12:00 pm
Filed under: recipes, soups | Tags: , , ,

I’m sharing this recipe because it’s so difficult to find a good vegetarian broth recipe.  Many believe the myth that good soups have to be built on a foundation of meat or meat broth.  It’s possible to build a fantastic soup on vegetarian aromatics, but you might need some guidance to do it well.  I’ve tried several vegetarian broth recipes over the years, but they were usually too bland or too garlicky.  This trustworthy, balanced, and rich broth comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry.  Of course you can used boxed broth from the grocery, but homemade broths take soups (and risottos) to the next level.

These vegetables in the photo create the broth, displayed in their cut form.  The onions cook quartered with skins on, the garlic cloves are smashed but have their skins intact, and the celery, carrots, and mushrooms are sliced.

You may want to add an additional herb or vegetable, depending on what you plan to do with the broth, or use leftover scraps and stems of vegetables.  For instance, this week I added the dark green sections of several leeks to prepare the broth to make leek and potato soup.  Warning: I added a few brussels sprout leaves once, and the broth was good that day, but tasted too cabbage-y the next day as leftovers.


1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large onions, quartered (include the skin)

1 large carrot, sliced

4 celery ribs, sliced

8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced

1 whole garlic bulb, unpeeled, broken up, and smashed with the back of a knife

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

9 cups water


In a stockpot over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil.  Add all of the ingredients except for the water.  Saute, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the water, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are meltingly tender, about 1 hour.  If you have extra time, you can turn off the heat and let the broth sit for another hour or two to enrich the flavor further.

Strain the vegetables, pressing down on them to extract all their liquids.  Discard (and compost) the cooked vegetables.

Rosemary Potato Soup
May 22, 2010, 9:51 pm
Filed under: recipes, soups | Tags: , , , , ,

It’s been 3 full years since a rattlesnake’s skin was found in my front yard rosemary, but I’m still cautious about fetching the herbs. The rosemary bush has grown over a stone wall, and apparently the rattlesnake squeezed between 2 stones to shimmy out of its skin. To this day I still approach the rosemary bush with a yardstick and massive kitchen scissors. The nice thing about rattlesnakes is that they warn you by rattling — as long as they sense you approaching are not caught off-guard. So I stomp around awhile as I approach the rosemary, and pause to listen for a soft rattle. Maybe I’m going overboard, but rattlesnakes are not pals.

That said, a recipe featuring rosemary has to really put me over the edge before I’m willing to venture out into my front yard desert habitat. I felt this recipe was worth it, a rosemary potato soup made with a simple garlic broth.

I’m falling in love with Bryant Terry’s new cookbook Vegan Soul Kitchen, a healthy and passionate “remix” of southern classics. If you’re familiar with how I cook, you would understand that I can’t help be swept away with a cookbook that is healthful, ethical, and sustainable, while also being sensual, vibrant, and sexy. He wants to push African American cuisine into a more “creative, cutting-edge, and refreshing” direction. I’m smitten.

This soup looks like a traditional rich cream soup, but is completely vegan (no butter, no cream, no cheese). I think it actually has more flavor because it is built on aromatics instead of dairy. I’m not a vegan, but I love pureed vegan soups that are rich and smooth, having fluffy pureed vegetables camouflaging as dairy.

This soup starts with a garlic broth, the easiest one I’ve discovered: just garlic, water and salt. After simmering an hour it has a soft gentle aroma, and perfumes the whole house.

Yukon Gold potatoes are the potatoes of choice here. If you haven’t used this variety yet, the flesh is a rich butter yellow color, and they make fantastic mashed potatoes. If you can’t find them, red potatoes would work, but the soup would end up paler in color.

GARLIC BROTH RECIPE (makes about 6 cups)

4 whole garlic bulbs, unpeeled, broken up, and smashed with the back of a knife
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
9 cups water

In a large pot over high heat, combine these 3 ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour. During this time, the liquid will have reduced to about 6 cups.

Strain the garlic cloves, pressing down on them in the strainer to extract all their liquid, and discard (compost) them.


3 tablespoons olive oil
3 2-inch sprigs of rosemary
2 large yellow onions
1 teaspoon cumin
coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 cups garlic broth
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
white pepper

Remove the rosemary from the sprigs. In a large saucepan over high heat, warm the olive oil until hot but not smoking, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and immediately add the rosemary to the hot oil. Cook until crispy, shaking the pan to ensure that all the rosemary is covered in oil. Remove the rosemary and set aside.

Turn the heat back on to heat the oil again. Add the onions, cumin and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Saute until soft, 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, 1-2 minutes.

Add the garlic stock, potatoes, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer, covered until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

Bryant then purees the soup in a blender, then presses it through a strainer or sieve. I prefer to just use a “stick” immersion blender. Use what works for you. Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Add additional stock to thin, if necessary. Serve hot, garnishing each bowl with crispy rosemary.

December 16, 2009, 11:04 am
Filed under: recipes, starters | Tags: , , , ,

Honey, are you still buying hummus from a plastic carton? Can I help you break that habit? Honestly, hummus is one of the easiest things to make from scratch, and is worlds away from that stuff in the refrigerator case. Most packaged/processed hummus cuts corners by omitting the tahini, the crucial ingredient that makes hummus what it is. Haram! Without tahini, those dreary tubs are merely bean dip. If you’re ready to try, I can hold your hand through the process.

You can experiment with different brands of tahini to find a rich, toasty, flavorful tahini that you like. You might decide to avoid some of the cheaper tahinis which are pale in color, and as bland as mortar. Arab groceries and health food stores tend to carry a good variety. Try to find something dark and rich, something tasty enough to spread on toast. You can always ask the clerks what their favorite brands are.

I’ve been making hummus from scratch for 10 years, but 2 years ago a Palestinian friend helped me refine my recipe. He told me the basic ratio is 1 can of chickpeas to 1 lemon. In the past, I had added the lemon juice a few tablespoons at a time, tasting as I went. Now I know to simply start with a whole lemon as a solid foundation. You can always add more to taste, but this takes alot of the guesswork out of it. Since then, I have also started adding lemon zest. The zest adds a deeper, more elemental freshness.

Some people keep 2 kinds of olive oil in the kitchen at all times: one of decent quality for a saute, and another darker, fruitier olive oil for raw things like salads. If you have a fruitier olive oil on hand, you’ll want to use that here.

I’m lucky enough to have a big food processor in the kitchen, which whips this up in a snap with its big blades and massive motor. If you’re working with a blender or “stick” immersion blender, it will take just a bit longer because the blades are small. With a blender, you’ll need to pause from time to time to scrape down the sides and make sure everything is incorporated. You might also want to mince your garlic clove ahead of time, in case it gets ignored by the tiny blender blades. I suppose it’s easier than making it the traditional way with a mortar and pestle.


14-oz can of chickpeas
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1 lemon
3-4 TBS tahini
1 garlic clove
1/4 tsp ground cumin
generous pinch of salt
generous stream of olive oil
1/4 cup water


Wash and rinse the canned chickpeas thoroughly in a colander over the sink to wash away all of the canning slime. Throw the chickpeas in a food processor with the rest of the ingredients. Blend until very smooth. Taste for adjustments. If you think a particular batch needs more flavor (depending on the size of the lemon or the brand of the tahini) you can add more lemon juice or tahini.

Serve at room temperature in a wide, flat bowl. Make a wide, shallow well in the center of the hummus with the back of a spoon. Drizzle olive oil in the well. Sometimes I sprinkle sumac or zaatar over the top for a pretty presentation. I also had a great version in Lebanon topped with warm, toasted pine nuts. If you’re setting up a mezza spread, muhammara is a natural complement.

Roasted Winter Squash Soup with Sage
November 8, 2009, 10:23 pm
Filed under: recipes, soups | Tags: , , , ,

My kitchen was fragrant this weekend from garlic and acorn squash roasting in the oven. This lovely autumn soup is based on a recipe from Deborah Madison’s cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

roasted acorn squash soup

Halves of winter squash are roasted face down with garlic cloves in their cavities. This technique allows the garlic to slowly infuse the squash with warm garlic steam. When soft, it all is added to a pot of browned onions, herbs, and broth. After simmering a bit, a stick immersion blender purees everything smooth.

I strayed from Deborah’s recipe in increasing the amount of garlic from 6 to 10 cloves. Feel free to even go further. The roasted garlic is soft, rich, and almost sweet.

Deborah Madison recommends pairing this soup with blue-cheese-walnut crostini. That was decidedly fantastic, creating a perfect trio of soup, crostini and red wine. It made a lovely meal with my friend Floriane. The crostini recipe also follows below.


2.5 to 3 pounds winter squash (I used 2 acorn squash)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for rubbing on the squash
10 garlic cloves, unpeeled
12 whole sage leaves, plus 2 tablespoons sage chopped
2 onions, finely chopped
chopped leaves from 4 thyme sprigs, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1/4 cup chopped parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 quarts vegetable stock
fontina, pecorino or parmesan for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375F. Halve the squash and scoop out the seeds. Brush the surfaces with olive oil. Stuff the cavities with garlic, and place them cut sides down on a baking sheet. Bake until very soft and tender, about 30-35 minutes.

Meanwhile in a small skillet, heat the 1/4 cup olive oil until nearly smoking, then drop in the whole sage leaves and fry until speckled and dark, about 1 minute. Set the leaves aside on a paper towel. Using a rubber spatula, transfer the sage-infused olive oil into a heavy soup pot. Add the onions, chopped sage, thyme, and parsley. Cook over medium heat until the onions are browning on the edges, about 15 minutes.

Scoop the squash flesh into the pot along with any juices that have accumulated in the pan. Peel the garlic and add it to the pot along with 1 1/2 teaspoon salt and the broth. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes. Puree the soup with a stick immersion blender. Taste for salt. Ladle into bowls, and garnish with cheese and fried sage leaves.


baguette slices
4 ounces, Roquefort, Maytag, or Danish blue
3 tablespoons butter at room temperature
1-2 teaspoons cognac
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
freshly milled pepper
finely chopped parsley

Toast the baguette slices under the broiler until nicely browned on one side, then a little less so on the second. Cream the blue cheese and butter until smooth, then work in the cognac, walnuts and black pepper. Spread on the paler side of the toasts, then broil until the cheese is bubbling. Remove, and dust with the parsley. Serve warm.

Thai Pumpkin with Tofu and Basil
September 30, 2009, 7:18 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , , ,

Thair stir-fried pumpkin
Southern California finally got a hint of fall this week, right at the tail end of September. I can actually wear a cardigan in the evenings now. I bought a butternut squash to celebrate the change of seasons, and used a fabulous recipe that my sister Deb pointed me to last winter. It’s an elegant and unusual stir-fry from my favorite Thai cookbook, True Thai by Victor Sodsook. Slices of pumpkin are stir-fried with tofu, basil, and an insane amount of garlic.

Now that the weather is cooling off, I imagine I will make this on a regular basis. It’s a cinch to assemble, and I love making my house smell like garlic.

The recipe calls for kabocha pumpkin, but I used butternut squash since that’s what my grocery had in stock today. I might get in trouble for saying this, but I think many winter squashes and pumpkins can be used interchangeably in most dishes.

For this recipe you will need to obtain a bottle of “crushed yellow bean sauce.” It’s an earthy and delicious fermented bean sauce that reminds me of the black bean paste used in Sichuanese tofu dishes like mapo tofu. You can easily find this sauce in an Asian grocery. My “Healthy Boy Brand” bottle has a funny baby on the label.
Healthy Boy Brand yellow bean sauce


1 pound kabocha pumpkin or butternut squash
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons crushed yellow bean sauce (tao jiew dam)
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable stock
19 ounces firm tofu, cut into bite-size pieces
3/4 cup loosely packed Thai basil or Italian basil


Scoop out and discard the seeds and fibers from the pumpkin or squash. With a sharp, heavy knife or cleaver, chop it into quarters. Cut off most of the peel and slice the pumpkin into thin, bite-size pieces.

Place all stir-fry ingredients within easy reach of the cooking area.

Set a wok over medium-high heat. (If you don’t have a wok, a wide skillet will do). When it is quite hot, add the oil. Rotate the wok a bit so the oil coats the sides. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and stir-fry briefly, just until golden and aromatic. Add the pumpkin and stir-fry for 3 minutes.

Add the yellow bean sauce and brown sugar, and stir-fry until blended, about 1 minute. Add the white pepper and vegetable stock and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the tofu and stir-fry until it is heated through, about 1 1/2 minutes.

Turn off the heat. Stir in the basil and cook for a few seconds, just until the basil begins to wilt.

Transfer to a serving platter and serve with steamed rice and chile sauce.