Going to work is easy and fun for me because my workplace is the kitchen, and my work is thinking about, researching, and figuring out how to cook dishes that catch my attention and make me want to learn how to make them and share them in my food stories and cooking classes.
I prefer recipes that have a story — dishes that teach us something about a person, a place, an ingredient, or life in times past. I love dishes that people developed out of necessity: too many tomatoes, a small amount of protein, a limited supply of fuel or cooking oil, and lots of people looking forward to supper.
My Southern Upbringing
I’ve always loved to eat and travel, and I’ve loved cooking since I was 10 years old, when I was able to get in the kitchen and cook on my own. Growing up in Piedmont, North Carolina in the 1960s, I loved weeknight dinners of meatloaf, fish sticks, spaghetti and meatballs, and TV dinners, prepared by my mother who preferred gardening to cooking and was delighted by my eagerness to make casseroles, cookies, applesauce, and fudge.
On weekends and most holidays, I enjoyed the pleasures of traditional Southern cooking when we visited my grandparents (on my mother’s side), whose dairy farm was a mere hour away from our suburban home. My grandmother’s shelf-lined pantry held tall jars of tomatoes, green beans, butterbeans, corn, sweet pickles, chowchow, sour cherry preserves, blackberry jam, and pickled peaches. I can see her mixing up a batch of biscuits in a big wooden tray, and frying cornbread in thin flat cakes in a cast iron skillet. I was too little to care about how she did it or how to do it myself, but I noticed how much she enjoyed being in the kitchen and cooking for her family, and I took that to heart as a recipe for pleasure in my own life that still serves me today.
Learning Thai Cuisine
When I joined the Peace Corps and received my assignment to teach ESL in Thailand, I had no idea how much the food would affect my life. It was 1975, and my knowledge of Thailand’s extraordinary culture and cuisine was nonexistent. The intense flavors, unfamiliar vegetables, dazzlingly fragrant herbs, and rice-centered meals were strange to me, but I had no problem falling in love with Thai cooking right from the start. While the particular dishes and ways of eating were new to me, I felt right at home, since Thai people tend to think about and talk about food as much as Southerners do.
As much as I loved Thai food, I was too young and foolish to learn how to cook it. It didn’t occur to me that a time would come when I wouldn’t have the great feast of Thai cuisine all around me all the time, until I returned home with a passion for Thailand’s sparkling flavors and everyday rice-centered meals. Turning to Thai cookbooks I had brought home with me, I got busy learning how to make Thai food in my apartment kitchen in Greensboro, North Carolina.
I loved cooking big feasts on weekends; spending a Saturday morning going to the farmer’s market, Asian store, and grocery store; and spending the afternoon recreating favorite dishes for friends and family. I loved figuring out complex dishes, making curry paste from scratch, filling and rolling spring rolls, steaming sticky rice — it was a pleasure, not a chore, and when I wasn’t in the mood to cook for pleasure, I loved being back in the South with barbecue, cafeterias, and meat-and-three places to satisfy my love of homestyle Southern food.
The Merging of My Cooking Influences
In my twenties and early thirties, I lived in Thailand, North Carolina, and New York City, where I fell in love with the incredible array of dishes available at every turn: on the street and in neighborhoods, delis, fancy restaurants, and friend’s homes. I married the wonderful man I met in line at the movies my first summer in New York City, and moved with him to Irvine, California, where he worked as a research scientist and I took a food-writing class at UCLA Extension.
A light bulb went on above my head: This was my spot in the world of food. I could be a food detective, coming up with questions that captured my interest, searching for clues and experts and history and trails that led to answers to those questions. At first I thought Asian food was my beat, but over time I realized that it’s not the food of one place, or one kind: My passion is food and stories.
Why I Simplified My Cooking
I kept on cooking for pleasure, adventure, and work, devoting whatever time it took to pursue a particular project or interest. The big change came with family. Once we were parents — with two small children in need of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks — my eyes flew open to the reality of cooking as just one more thing that needs to happen in your day. Parenthood revealed to me that cooking can be a chore, one more home task that had to get done, whether or not I was inspired; and at 6:25 p.m., that was seldom my state of mind.
My quick-and-easy Asian cookbooks and freelance stories came from this new challenge: How to combine my love of interesting, varied, wonderful food, with the limitations of everyday cooking for a family. I found that it wasn’t hard to do as long as I let go of my purist tendencies and let my purpose for a given meal or dish be my guide.
Instead of an all-Thai menu, we could have rice and curry with a big salad, or my husband’s favorite chicken stir-fried with fresh basil over rice with cucumber salad and sliced tomatoes, or frozen petite peas with butter. Pork chops, spaghetti and meatballs, and pasta with pesto, cherry tomatoes, and new potatoes all worked just fine, and when rotisserie chickens came along, I rejoiced and still do.
I still love cooking, even when I’m tired or cranky — it almost always pleases me to get in the kitchen and get distracted by putting my hands on food and turning to the small tasks called for as I dive into a simple dish. When it’s the weekend, or a holiday, or a special occasion allowing time for preparing something elaborate, I love that and find my field trips to multiple markets to be a source of pleasure. But I love knowing that I don’t have to cook this way or that way, that I can enjoy shortcuts when time is tight, and savor the pleasures of cooking a detailed, multi-step, multi-course menu when time permits.
How I Cook Now
I still cook everyday, and while our kids are up and out, we still sit down for dinner most every evening. Sometimes it’s what I’ve been working on for a cookbook or assignment, but if I’m working on holiday baking, pavlova, or recipes for wild persimmons, dinner calls for a change from the day’s creations.
I feel lucky that I still love food and still enjoy cooking. Thai or French, dumplings or fried rice, remoulade sauce or pita bread, I can’t imagine running out of foods I want to research, cook, and eat.
When people write to tell me that they made this dish or that one from one of my cookbooks or classes, and that it worked out, and made them and their family or guests happy, I feel proud. I get to explore something that interests me, work out the how-to, and then share what I’ve learned in a way that brings happiness to someone’s table, often someone I’ve never met. That is a blessing and a joy for me.
My Rice Rules
White or brown, long-grain or short — rice makes a meal for me. With every dish in this meal plan except the Won Ton Soup, rice rounds things out wonderfully. I enjoyed rice as the place to put the gravy when I was growing up in North Carolina, and when I began eating rice three times a day as the heart of every meal in Thailand, I fell in love. Rice brings a satisfying simplicity to everyday meals for me, and I came home a lifelong fan.
Here are my rice rules:
- Keep rice on hand. White rice keeps for months, so I have plenty on hand in a canister on my kitchen counter, right next to the flour and sugar. Brown rice is perishable, so keep it in the refrigerator or buy smaller amounts and take care to use it up within a month or two.
- Make too much. Nothing keeps better or reheats more beautifully than rice. Covered and refrigerated or chilled, rice waits for a brief reheating in the microwave, steamer, or skillet with a tiny bit of oil. Divide it into meal-sized portions before freezing, so you can pull out just what you need.
- Consider a rice cooker if you enjoy rice. It makes mealtime speedy, since all you do after combining rice and water and pressing the button is wait for the chime that says, "Ready!" And if you aren’t ready for it, it waits for you, staying warm and just right for an hour or more. Rice cookers make everyday cooking simple, with a central satisfying grain that can be set up and set aside, freeing our attention units to focus on accompaniments that turn it into a satisfying supper or a great big feast.
5 Soups and Stews to Kick Off Soup Season
Your Meal Plan
- For a supermarket shortcut, buy peeled, seeded, and chopped butternut squash in the produce section.
- The curry paste can be made up to a day in advance.
- If serving with rice, make enough for serving tonight and with the shrimp etouffée on Wednesday.
- Defrost shrimp for the etouffée if you bought frozen. Make the shrimp shell stock, strain, and refrigerate if you have the time.
- You can make the won tons in advance and freeze them until time to cook. Fill and fold the wrappers, and place them on a plate, platter, or baking sheet. Set it in the freezer until won tons are completely frozen. Remove gently and place them in a resealable plastic bag or airtight container. Do not thaw — remove them from the freezer right before you add them to the boiling water.
- Make the cabbage salad and let sit before you make the won tons.
- To prepare up to a day in advance, stop before step 5, letting the cooked sauce cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until about 10 minutes before serving time.
- When ready to serve, bring the sauce back to a lively boil and proceed, adding the raw shrimp to finish cooking.
- Cook rice if you don't have any leftover from Monday.
- The bacon broth can be made up to three days in advance.
- The collard greens can be cut, washed, and dried up to three days in advance.
- The cooking time can also be reduced significantly if you start with canned or frozen black-eyed peas. See the recipe notes for instructions.
- The black-eyed pea stew can be made up to three days in advance. It also freezes well!
- While the stew is cooking or reheating, make the cornbread.
Your Shopping List
This list reflects just the ingredients for the main dishes; please see individual recipes for the ingredients for the optional side dishes.
To buy at the store:
- 1 1/2 pounds head-on medium shrimp, or 1 pound unshelled medium shrimp
- 1 1/4 pounds smoked ham hocks or hot Italian sausage
- 1/2 pound bacon, preferably thick-cut, or side meat or streak o' lean
- 3/4 pound ground pork
- 2 medium bunches collard greens (about 1 1/4 pounds)
- 2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
- 1 small butternut squash, about 1 1/2 pounds
- 1/2 green bell pepper
- 1 to 2 stalks celery
- 3 onions
- 1 shallot or 1/4 onion
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro
- 1/2 bunch basil leaves
- 1 bunch scallions
- 8 cloves garlic
- 2 fresh green jalapeños, or 1 fresh green serrano chile
- 1-inch piece fresh ginger
- 1 pound dried black-eyed peas
- 1 (14-ounce) can crushed or diced tomatoes
- 1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk (about 1 3/4 cups)
- 3 quarts chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
- About 40 square won ton wrappers
From your pantry (check to make sure you have enough):
- 1 cup cornmeal, white or yellow, preferably stone-ground
- Rice, for serving with the curry and shrimp etouffée
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil or lard