23 April 2009


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The color of cốm catches the eye first. Green, almost translucent, almost bright when light shines on it, cốm is a Vietnamese variety of sticky (or glutinous) rice harvested before it’s mature. According to Vietnamese tradition and my mother-in-law, who told me about cốm and directed us to the preeminent seller of bánh cốm (green rice cake) on Hanoi’s famed Hàng Than street, flooding forced villagers near Hanoi to harvest their rice crop before it was ripe. Faced with ruin or a partial crop, they opted to harvest the immature grains, and discovered cốm, which is pronounced by this English speaker with a long O, like "comb."
Today cốm is regarded as both a regional and seasonal Vietnamese culinary treasure. Each fall, villages in northern Vietnam, especially Vòng, regarded as the birthplace of cốm, harvest their rice when it’s around 100 days old, nearly two months before it would be harvested as “regular rice.” Cốm is pounded and cooked and roasted over fire to bring out its brilliant green color; any missteps and the green will be replaced by a dull brown, which fetches a much lower price.
After being soaked, the rice is mixed with sugar and coconut milk. It’s also flavored with pandan, which in Vietnamese is called lá dứa. When it’s fresh, it is wrapped in banana leaves and sold by street vendors. It’s also made into several well known sweets, especially one eaten during Tết, the Vietnamese New Year.

16 April 2009

Thursday dinner

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While scooping second helpings for my kids, I was surprised to hear my oldest daughter call, "Dad, get the camera." She wanted to photograph her dinner plate, and when I asked her why she said, "It's delicious and you can blog about it."

The kids were all busy with after-school activities on this beautiful spring day and we didn't get home until six-fifteen. My wife was gone for the evening so I knew I had to make something quick. With leftover ham in the icebox I put a pot of water on the stove and got ready to make an easy pasta dish. I saw fresh green beans in the fridge and got to work. I minced four or five large garlic cloves while blanching the beans. A big pour of olive oil and the garlic was soon sizzling; I then added a few slices of ham that I cut into smaller pieces. The vibrant green beans were added next, along with a few fingers of tarragon and a pinch of salt. When it was all nice I mixed in the thin linguine and a topped it with a grating of parmesan cheese.

Twenty-five minutes from walking into the house to serving dinner. The kids had time to wash up and set the table, and we sat around talking for a good while after we finished eating. Even on a busy night (soccer, softball, and play practices) we lit candles, sat down to a good dinner, and talked with each other. Mealtimes aren't practice; they're the real thing every day. And some of them are blog-able, according to my daughter.

15 April 2009


Egg-rich and light, this loaf billows and swells, pushes into the oven's heat and rises pillow-soft. Saffron stains the dough deeper than eggs alone, yellow stretching into hues of gold. I love this bread, kneading it long and firm in the kitchen, certain there's a holiday at hand. It's ironic, though, that I make challah at Easter, since it coincides with Passover, the one time of year in Jewish tradition that challah is not eaten – challah is traditionally eaten on Shabbat and holy days. But Easter is the beginning of the liturgical year, the new year for Christians, so it's similar to the special challah baked for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
Room-temperature eggs are cracked one-by-one into the mixing bowl, and raw ingredients are transformed by the resistance of kneading from a primordial brew of goop to a near-living thing. Kneading bread silences time around me, creating a rhythmic space of push, fold, breathe, caress, and the counter I'm standing at is the solid surface of earth and home, the stability against which the dough is worked. In the push slap and thud of kneading, all that's needed is a pair of hands willing to work. My kids sit at the counter and when they want to knead they take the flexing ball of dough and work it awhile. They like the smell of fresh dough as it's beginning to soften under the force of strong hands, and they marvel at the dough's softness when we're ready to let it rise, quiet and undisturbed. Elastic in its slow-building warmth, a loaf of challah rises like it's the first loaf ever to rise. I braid my challah, hefting the snakes of dough over each other, entwining one strand within another. Glazed with egg yolk and topped with poppy or sesame seeds, a loaf of challah is a beautiful beginning to any meal.

12 April 2009

Easter Sunday

Easter dinner on the good china. My wife's parents both here, spring finally peeping. We walked to Mass and I threw a baseball with my son for a bit in the afternoon. My daughter and I went on a short bike ride and she led me to monkey bars at her old preschool. During the course of the day our kids entertained us with songs, "shows," and history projects. And just out the door in a small patch of garden, our arugula has germinated and a few other things are fluttering beneath the floating row cover, used not so much for temperature support but to keep ravenous squirrels from seeds.
Minnesota is waking up again.
But back to Easter for a moment. I think we mark time with holidays, mark time against its broader movement - the time that swoops us along - by remembering the rhythms and rituals we've inherited, invented, believed in. Time is too big, too fast, and in the eddies of Christmas, Easter, anniversaries, we recount our stories, tell our histories, remember the dead. And today feels like it's for the living, for walking in sunshine and tending to plants and children. This morning, on my knees, my eyes closed and my thoughts racing still, I wondered how I can find a way to say and be all the things inside me. How do I connect the life in me to the lives around me? I want to pass on these rituals of sitting and eating and talking and praying and hand washing-and-drying the dishes on Sunday because I, too, participate in this continuum of time.
Isn't each seed we plant connected to the beginning of time? When I hold a seed in my hand, it's the present of an unbroken succession of generations of seeds and plants going back in time, through time, before this specific variety or species even existed, (and still it travels backwards,) remembering in itself the time before it was what it is, because while there may be a beginning to the differentiation that marks the origin of this species there is no beginning of the life that spawned it, until we return to the beginning, and when I plant the seed I participate in the continuing story of life itself. Because the seed in my hand, the one I just planted, is here after all. It's managed after all its generations of mutations and droughts and competition among other species to be here. This life, this seed, this love, wants only to burst out and grow.

05 April 2009

Spring planting

Sure it snowed a little today, but spring is here. Yesterday I spent the whole afternoon in the garden and planted a lot of my spring favorites. First, I planted a variety of fava bean that I've never grown before - fave siciliane - sent to me by a fellow seed saver in southern Italy. The seeds are the largest fava seeds I've seen, and in a note he said they're delicious raw with parmesan cheese. I think our local cheese, Friesago Grano, from Shepherd's Way Farms, will be a beautiful accompaniment. Next, I sowed arugula and bok choy, followed by a row of swiss chard.

If you're a northern gardener who focuses on our summer delights like beans and tomatoes, I'd urge you to try a spring planting. The cool season things I just planted, along with peas and spinach, lettuce, beets, kale and others, all thrive in the early days of spring. Fava beans, for instance, should be planted early because they have to flower when the weather is still mild - if it's too hot the flowers will drop.

Occasionally a variety or two doesn't sprout. Perhaps it's because the ground was too cold or the seed was wet for too long. No matter, I can put in another row next week when it's a bit warmer and drier. But early planting leads to early harvests, and I can usually eat fresh leafy greens a month before my neighbors. Some northerners don't like to plant anything before Memorial Day, but if you wait that long you'll miss out on spring!

03 April 2009

Vang Dalat

I didn't expect my first blog entry (very late in coming) on Vietnam to be about wine. My wife and I returned from a ten day trip to Vietnam with suitcases full of foodstuffs, and one of the surprise finds in a Hanoi supermarket was a small selection of Vietnamese wine. The sight of local wine on a supermarket shelf was a real eye-opener. Yes, the world is flat, and it also has highlands in Dalat! Vang Dalat, the only brand of Vietnamese wine we saw, is produced by Lam Dong Foodstuffs Joint-Stock Company, privatized in 2003, according to their website. The grapes are grown around Dalat, a city that's known as the entry point to the central highlands of Vietnam. Dalat is about 1500m above sea level. The climate of Dalat is temperate, with average temperatures of 64°F, and lows around 40°.

The wine itself was nothing to write home about. The bottle we drank was red, a "Superior" bottling, and they sold a white as well. Only the nose, a delicate bouquet of strawberry, was memorable. Otherwise, the wine was thin and uninteresting, like a German spatburgunder in a vintage marked by heavy rainfalls. But to dismiss the wine itself is missing the point – what's interesting is that the Vietnamese are growing grapes and making wine! Wow, the grape has no barriers, and there's no reason why time, experience and severe pruning won't lead to a legitimate Vietnamese wine industry.