I’ve become really interested in Chinese food over the past few months. Perhaps it is due to the recent explosion of Chinese restaurants opening up in my neighborhood, or maybe it’s because I’ve started fully embracing meat as part of my diet and am now free to enjoy all of China’s wonderful meat-based dishes. Whatever the reason, this is a cuisine that’s really hitting it’s peak with me right now. It is also one I haven’t explored much beyond simple stir-fries and noodle dishes, most of which weren’t very authentic anyway.

My fascination with Chinese food started earlier this year when I sampled the Gua Bao (pork belly buns) at Chino’s, a new Taiwanese-Mexican joint that opened up down the street from me. Gua Bao are steamed buns filled with braised pork belly and topped with pickled mustard greens and chopped peanuts. They are a perfect food in my book: sweet, savory, rich, crunchy, and a bit sour thanks to the mustard greens. I could happily eat these every day for the rest of my life. Chino’s also offers other interesting Chinese dishes such as Zha Jiang Mian (rice noodles with minced pork and hot bean paste), 1,000-Year-Old Egg with Tofu, and Pig’s Ear Salad (which I haven’t been brave enough to try…yet).

Inspired by the new and exciting and food I’d sampled at Chino’s, I decided to try my hand at Hong Shao Rou (Red-Braised Pork), a traditional dish from the Hunan province of China. For this dish, I braised pork belly for several hours in a mixture of dark & light soy sauce, caramelized sugar, Chinese rice wine, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. The aroma of the braising liquid as it was cooking was incredible. Pork belly can be overwhelmingly fatty and, although my Hong Shao Rou tasted fantastic, I actually found it to be unbearably rich as a standalone dish. On the other hand, a little bit tucked into a steamed bun for Gua Bao or (as I did with my leftovers) inside a toasted baguette with carrot and daikon pickles for bahn mi, and this dish goes from too rich to absolutely perfect.

This week, I decided to try another famous Chinese dish: Mapo Tofu. Mapo Tofu is a casual, everyday dish from the Sichuan province that is known for being especially spicy. It is easy to make but will require a trip to your local Asian grocery store for some specialty ingredients. To make this dish, you need fermented Chinese black beans, chili bean paste (also called hot bean paste) and Sichuan peppercorns. If you’ve never had Sichuan peppercorns before, be forewarned: eat enough of them and your mouth will go numb. I picked some up during my lunch break from work and then nibbled on a few once I got back to my desk. They start off with a deceptively mild peppery flavor, but that soon gives way to a tingly numbing sensation. It’s a strange feeling but one that is somewhat addictive. After the numbness had died down, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few more peppercorns to chew on.

Once you have the necessary ingredients, Mapo Tofu is exceedingly easy to prepare. Simply brown some ground beef or pork in a hot wok, stir-fry your various flavorings, add stock and tofu, simmer until thickened, and garnish with chopped scallions and ground Sichuan peppercorns to taste. The result is a very spicy, highly flavorful dish. Depending on how much Sichuan pepper you add at the end, you will either experience a mild tingly sensation or a full-on mouth assault. Since I love spicy foods, I brashly added 2 heaping teaspoons of pepper to my dish. It felt slightly more like a trip to the dentist than dinner–Sichuan pepper may be one of those things you need to slowly become accustomed to (once again, however, after the numbness was over, I found myself craving more). I made a second batch of Mapo Tofu a few days later using less pepper, and it was perfect. If you love spicy dishes, you won’t want to miss this one. I wonder what new, exciting (and possibly tingly!) Chinese dish I’ll discover next?

Mapo Tofu

3 tbsp peanut oil
6 oz ground pork or beef
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and minced
2 1/2 tbsp chili bean paste
1 cup chicken stock or water
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 lb soft or medium tofu, drained and cut into cubes
1 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp cold water
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 to 2 tsp ground toasted Sichuan pepper*

Heat a wok over high heat, then add the oil. Brown the pork or beef in the hot oil, breaking it up into small bits. Turn the heat down to medium, add the garlic and black beans, and stir-fry for 30 to 60 seconds. Add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for another 30 to 60 seconds. Stir in the stock or water, sugar and soy sauce. Add the tofu cubes. Mix gently to avoid breaking up the tofu too much. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the cornstarch mixture and cook until the sauce has thickened (this should happen right away). Sprinkle with the scallions and Sichuan pepper, to taste.

Makes 3 to 4 servings

*Sichuan peppercorns are typically toasted before being ground. Heat the peppercorns in a dry wok over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Allow to cool, then grind in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle.

After decades of apartment living, one of the things I was most excited about when Robert and I bought our home last year was finally having my own outdoor patio. Although we were heading into winter when we moved in and wouldn’t be able use it right away, I spent all winter and spring imagining myself lounging outside on the patio in the summer with a book and a delicious cocktail. As summer approached, I realized that our patio gets unusually hot. It’s great for morning coffee and perfect for evening cocktails, but step outside in the middle of a warm, sunny day and you’re wilting within minutes. My patio my be too hot for the summertime lounging that I had imagined, but it turned out to be ideal for growing my first crop of tomatoes.

I had never grown tomatoes before so I knew I was going to need some help. Early in the summer, my mom and I headed to the nursery to pick up supplies and tomato starts. I chose three varieties: Sun Gold, Carmello and Matina. Sun Gold was an obvious choice. Everyone in Seattle grows these cherry tomatoes and for good reason. They grow well here and are amazingly sweet with an irresistible tropical flavor. Carmello, a French variety, is a basic red slicing tomato. My last choice, Matina, was perhaps most interesting to me. With its unusual potato-style leaves, the Matina is a small red tomato with a flavor said to rival that of the larger beefsteak. It ripens early and often making it a great choice for our cool Pacific Northwest climate.

I planted the tomatoes on my birthday in mid-June and then sat back and hoped for the best. I can’t say I took great care of them. I learned a little too late about this stuff called “fertilizer” which is supposed to be helpful, and I probably over-watered at times and under-watered at others. My attempts to keep the tomatoes tied to bamboo stakes in an orderly manner were sub par at best. The tomato plants held in there, though. Watching them grow taller and bushier and then sprout beautiful yellow flowers which later turned into tiny pea-sized fruit made me happier than I had anticipated. However, when August started and I still didn’t have any ripe tomatoes, I started to worry. The summer had been cooler and grayer than usual—maybe I wouldn’t have any tomatoes at all!

After so much anticipation, three Sun Golds were finally ready. I brought them inside, gently sliced them into halves and carefully set them on top of a salad. They were the most delectable tomatoes I’ve ever had! Ten days later, I had my first ripe Matina. It was about the size of a golf ball, perfectly round and with a striking red color. I served this in a salad as well. Unlike the Sun Golds, which have their own unique floral flavor, the Matina tasted more like a traditional tomato (a super-delicious traditional tomato). I found that I prefer the smaller size of the Matina compared with a regular tomato—it’s small enough that you can quarter it for salads but still large enough to be sliced for sandwiches. One by one, my tomatoes were finally starting to ripen. Then, we hit a patch of nice weather and things got crazy.

Suddenly we were faced with an overabundance of tomatoes, more than any normal person could handle. We had treated our first few tomatoes like rare, precious jewels. Now we considered throwing them at passing cars for fun. I gave them away to family and co-workers, but that still barely made a dent. Just when I thought I had a grip on things, I’d step outside and see even more tomatoes ripening! Tough life, I know. While the Sun Golds and Matinas were numbering into the hundreds, the Carmellos were a disappointment. I only harvested a few ripe Carmellos and half of those had sun scald. They were also my least favorite tomato flavor-wise. I know lots of people love Carmellos, but they didn’t work out for me this year. Our cooler-than-normal summer really favored tomatoes with a shorter growing season such as the Sun Golds and Matinas.

As for what I have done with all of these tomatoes? What haven’t I done! BLTs, salads, salsas, soups, tomato tarts and broiled tomato sandwiches—we’ve been sneaking tomatoes into everything. At one meal, in very Top Chef fashion, we had tomatoes served “two ways”. One of the best dishes I made was pasta with clams and Sun Golds—with a chilled glass of wine and some simple steamed green beans, it was a perfect summertime meal. I frequently resorted to slow-roasting tomatoes in a low oven, a great way to reduce a lot of tomatoes to a small pile of sweet tomato candy that can be used in a million different ways (we enjoyed it over pasta and on crostini with goat cheese and basil).

Desperate for yet another way to use the tomatoes, I looked to my other favorite pastime: cocktails. Sure enough, the Internet provided plenty of ideas. I tried the Sun Gold Zinger, a gin based drink featuring muddled Sun Golds and lemon juice. Somehow it tasted exactly like fresh-squeezed orange juice. Now that the season is coming to an end, I’m turning my attention to recipes for green tomatoes. I probably have enough unripe tomatoes left to make a few batches of salsa verde and maybe, if I’m feeling adventurous, a green tomato pie. I spent all of last winter imagining myself lounging on the patio during the summer. This winter, I’ll be dreaming about what next summer’s tomato crop will look like!

Living in the city certainly has its advantages—our neighborhood has a couple of great community parks and many of our favorite restaurants are within walking distance. One of the downsides of city life is having limited personal outdoor space. After spending the last decade and a half living in apartments without any deck or balcony whatsoever, Robert and I finally have our very own sliver of outdoor space. It’s not much, but I’m thrilled about it! This summer, I plan on doing many of the things that people with large yards do…just on a much smaller scale. Relaxing outdoors with a book and a margarita—yes! Planting my very own herb and tomato garden—already done! Grilling all manner of delicious foods—absolutely!

Sure, you can “grill” indoors using a grill pan or a broiler, but it’s not the same and usually results in a smoke-filled apartment. It’s difficult to enjoy dinner when you are coughing and fighting with the smoke detector. Now that I finally had my own mini deck, I needed to find a grill to fit it. As much as I’d love to have a big, swanky grill, that just wasn’t realistic. Small and efficient was the goal here. I decided to go with the O-Grill 3000 Portable Gas Barbecue Grill. This grill is great—completely portable, easy to set up and it comes in cute colors too! At 225 square inches, the grilling surface is surprisingly large for a portable grill. The O-Grill turns on in seconds and is fully heated in five to ten minutes. It couldn’t be easier!

I decided to give my new O-Grill a whirl for Robert’s birthday dinner. I chose something I knew would work well—mackerel. Mackerel is a delicious, flavorful fish that works magically on the grill. It is so oily that perfect grill marks are pretty much guaranteed. I threw a couple of fillets on my hot O-Grill, and they immediately started sizzling and smoking furiously. It smelled amazing. A few minutes later, I had some beautifully crisp and moist mackerel fillets. I served them over Sicilian-style pasta with fennel, currants and pine nuts.

Since then, I’ve had success making grilled zucchini (a personal favorite), grilled lemongrass shrimp with Vietnamese rice noodle salad, and beef sliders which we topped with kimchi and fried eggs! For my birthday, Robert and I decided to celebrate by grilling some fresh trout. We kept things simple, filling the fish with lemon slices and a little rosemary (freshly harvested from my very own outdoor space!). We grilled the trout along with some beautiful Alm Hill Garden’s asparagus. The trout ended up being perfectly cooked—moist and tender with grill marks rivaling those of the mackerel. Another perfect birthday meal! The O-grill might not seem like a serious grill, but compromise is another part of city life and so far I am quite happy with the results. I’m looking forward to grilling many things this summer. Corn, pizza, fruit—the possibilities are endless. What’s your favorite thing to grill?

Robert and I have fallen into a pretty steadfast routine of dining out every Friday and Saturday and cooking meals at home Sunday through Wednesday. Thursday has always been our “do your own thing” night. Leftovers, frozen dinners, whatever random collection of edible items you can scrounge together are yours for the taking. As much as I enjoy cooking and dining out, I secretly look forward to Thursdays since it is sort of a night off for me. Since I’m not a fan of frozen dinners and I tend to save leftovers for lunch, I usually still end up doing some cooking. The key is finding meals that can be prepared in 20 minutes or less with minimal effort. My favorite Thursday meal is frozen potato pierogies with a side of sautéed cabbage and onions. It’s healthy-ish and quick to make. I can’t eat this every Thursday so I’m always on the lookout for new quick dinners. Enter Doenjang Jjigae.

Doenjang jjigae is a Korean tofu stew made using fermented bean paste. It may not be as well known in this country as bulgogi and bi bim bap, but doenjang jjigae is a staple everyday dish in many Korean homes. The primary ingredient in doenjang jjigae is doenjang paste, a fermented soybean paste similar to miso although with a much coarser texture. In addition jjigae, doenjang paste is used as a general condiment and to make ssamjang, a sauce for Korean lettuce wraps. It is quite pungent and salty and may not be to everyone’s liking. If you love stinky, fermented foods like I do, you will probably enjoy this. Doenjang paste is sold in plastic tubs in Asian markets.

Few people follow a strict recipe for doenjang jjigae—there are as many different ways to make it as there are cooks. The general procedure is simple. You start by making a broth. Koreans usually make their broth by boiling dried anchovies and kelp in water—a small handful of anchovies should be enough to flavor 2 to 3 cups of water. While the broth is going, portion out a spoonful of doenjang paste into a bowl. Start with a small amount and work your way up—it is quite salty so you don’t want to overdo it. If you like, you can also add a dollop of the spicy red chili paste known as gochujang to the bowl along with the doenjang. After the broth has cooked for 10 minutes or so, strain out the anchovies and kelp. Add a small amount of the hot broth to the bowl and mash the doenjang paste with a fork to break it up. Add that mixture back to the pot along with whatever vegetables and proteins you are using and boil until done!

This is such an easy dish to prepare, and it’s so versatile. Most recipes call for potato, onion, zucchini and tofu, but I use this dish as a way to use up whatever ingredients I have leftover in the fridge that week. Doenjang jjigae can be made with anything from shrimp and corn and jalapeños to beef and shiitake mushrooms. I’ve tried it using a broth made from bonito flakes instead of anchovies—it was good but didn’t have the same pungent aroma (much to Robert’s delight, I’m sure). Doenjang jjigae isn’t meant to be served spicy, but I’ve been known to throw in some cayenne pepper when I’m craving something hot. The one ingredient I do always try to include is the tofu just to keep things somewhat traditional and because tofu is so good for you. For a while now, I’ve been saying that Korean food will be the next big thing. Once people discover doenjang jjigae, it’s only a matter of time. This quick, adaptable, comforting dish is perfect for my Thursday night meals!

Another Christmas and another fantastic Christmas Eve dinner! In my family, we do things a little bit differently for Christmas. If you’ve read my previous holiday entries, you know that each year we choose a different regional theme for our Christmas Eve feast. Past years have included Scandinavian, Indian, Cajun, and Greek. We’ve been doing this for a long time now and have nearly covered the globe. While it’s fun to choose a brand new locale, every few years we return to Mexico. Everyone in my family loves to eat tamales at Christmas, and we can only go so many years without having them. This year, I had a brilliant idea—instead of doing a generic Mexican meal, we could focus specifically on the foods of the Yucatan! I ate lots of delicious dishes when I visited that region earlier this year so I knew it would be a good choice. It would allow us to explore a new cuisine while still providing a venue for our beloved tamales.

Yucatecan cuisine blends local Mayan flavors with Caribbean, Mexican, European and Middle Eastern influences resulting in what some argue is the world’s first fusion cuisine. It is very distinct from what we typically think of as Mexican food. Perhaps the most famous dish from this region is cochinita pibil, a rich and flavorful pork stew. Robert sampled cochinita pibil in Tulum and loved it. In fact, that dish was the primary reason that I suggested doing a Yucatan feast in the first place. The key to cochinita pibil is recado rojo, a seasoning paste made from annatto seeds (which give it a striking red color) and various spices including cinnamon, allspice and cumin. Recado rojo is a critical component of Mayan cuisine—we used it in at least three of our dishes. To make cochinita pibil, you marinate cubes of pork overnight in the recado and some fresh citrus juice (we did a combination of grapefruit, orange and lime). Then you line a casserole dish with banana leaves and bake the pork until it falls apart. It can be served as a stew over rice or, like we did, as a filling for fresh corn tortillas. Either way, cochinita pibil wouldn’t be complete without the essential garnish of pickled red onions. They provide a bright flavor contrast to the rich stew and are pretty too!

The other major dish this Christmas was, not surprisingly, the tamales! Tamales in the Yucatan are different from tamales in other parts of Mexico. The masa dough in Yucatecan tamales is typically flavored with the all-important recado rojo. Diced tomatoes are usually present, either in the masa or in the filling. Also, the filling is commonly thickened by cooking some of the masa dough in broth (this masa-thickened sauce is called a kol). For our tamales, we simmered chicken with fresh tomato and recado rojo and then shredded it. Next, we thickened the leftover broth with the masa and added the shredded chicken back in. I could have eaten a big bowl of this on its own with a spoon, but it was even better inside tamales. Our masa dough wasn’t too shabby either. We were unable to obtain quality fresh masa so we tried Rick Bayless‘ substitute masa which is made by mixing pulverized corn grits with the powdered masa that you find in big bags in Mexican markets. This is supposed to do a better job of mimicking the masa dough that you typically see in Mexico. It had a more subtle corn taste than what I’m used to, but the texture was light and airy and perfect! Our Christmas Eve tamales came pretty darn close to the wonderful fresh tamales Robert and I ate in Xcalak last winter.

Rounding out the meal was a terrific coconut fish stew made with green plantains, sweet bell pepper and—you guessed it—more recado rojo. We also made black beans with epazote, white rice (pilaf-style, as is the custom in Mexico), and a simple spinach salad topped with oranges and jicama. To drink, we served up a family favorite: sangria. It wasn’t as elaborate as some of our past meals have been, but it was certainly delicious and memorable. In my family, if there are tamales on the table, it is guaranteed to be a slam dunk! Happy holidays!

Red chili is the cornerstone of Northern New Mexican cooking. If you’ve ever traveled to New Mexico, you’ve no doubt sampled it in one form or another. The word chili usually conjures up images of chunky meat and bean stews. In New Mexico, when someone says chili they are usually referring to a chili sauce made from red or green chilies. Outside of New Mexico, I typically call it chili sauce for clarity’s sake. Around our house, we just call it red for short as in “those tamales would be way better with a little red on top.” Red chili is most commonly used as a sauce for enchiladas, but you can smother virtually any New Mexican and many non-New Mexican dishes with it. In homes, it is offered as a general condiment, available to be drizzled on whatever you happen to be eating that day. Tacos, corn chips, fried potatoes…it all tastes better with a dash of red chili. I personally love it over beans and fried eggs.

When I first visited New Mexico, I had no experience with red chili other than on enchiladas. Even then, the sauce that I was used to was a milder, tomato-based concoction. I was slightly taken aback by this thick, spicy, deeply red chili sauce that I kept seeing all over Santa Fe. I was even more surprised when Robert’s family offered it to me as a topping for mashed potatoes at their Thanksgiving feast. What, no gravy? I was hooked immediately. These days, I can’t imagine mashed potatoes without red chili. This has since become a traditional Thanksgiving dish in my family as well. It is delicious and also adds a much needed splash of color to the plate (let’s face it, outside of cranberry sauce, Thanksgiving dinner tends to be a little beige).

In its most basic form, red chili is little more than dried red chilies blended with water and perhaps a chopped onion or some garlic. As with all basic recipes, numerous variations exist. Some people make their red chili from whole dried chili pods whereas others prefer the convenience of powdered chilies. Some people add tomatoes, some use stock in place of water, some even add chopped pine nuts! Although Chiles de Ristra (a.k.a. New Mexican red chilies) are the conventional choice, you can make red chili from nearly any type of dried chili. Depending on what you use, your chili may be hot, mild, smoky, or even a tad sweet. Everyone’s got their own family recipe and, not surprisingly, no two are alike.

This Thanksgiving, I wanted to make sure my red chili was extra delicious. I have always been somewhat timid about how much chili powder I use, but I was inspired by the intense red chili I had at The Shed when we were in Santa Fe. I decided it was time to go bold and that meant doubling the amount of chili in my recipe to a whopping ½ cup! My adjustment paid off and my chili turned out fantastic, just like the reds I’d had in New Mexico. My family raved about it at Thanksgiving dinner. I finally have a red chili recipe worth writing home about. The only downside is that we are now going to blow through our precious stash of powdered red chili faster than ever!

Click here for my red chili recipe»

Have you ever tried natto? If so, then you are most likely doing one of two things right now: salivating or plugging your nose and reaching to close your browser. Natto is one of those polarizing foods like cilantro and okra. People who have tried it tend to have extremely strong feelings about it. Natto is a traditional Japanese food consisting of soybeans that have been fermented with the bacteria, Bacillus subtilis. It is stinky in the same manner as some pungent cheeses (think Limburger). It is also known for its slimy, sticky texture. When stirred, natto develops lots of long, gooey strings. People go on and on about the smell, but I think it’s the unusual texture that really gets to folks. Don’t you want to try it now?

I saw “natto gnocchi” on a restaurant menu recently, and it got me thinking about natto. My mom used to eat natto when I was a kid. Of course, back then I thought it was the worst thing ever. I would run out of the kitchen in horror every time she opened up a package. As an adult, I have grown to love all kinds of fermented foods. Kimchi, fish sauce, stinky cheeses – the riper and moldier it is, the better! I decided it was time to give natto another shot.

I picked up a package of organic natto at Uwajimaya. In order to experience the true taste of natto my first time out, I decided to keep things simple by serving it over rice with soy sauce and a touch of spicy mustard. This is one of the most common ways of eating natto; so common, in fact, that most boxes of natto come with tiny packets of soy sauce and mustard inside. I can’t say that I loved it, but it certainly wasn’t terrible. It was surprisingly mild: stinky, yes, but not as much as certain cheeses. The beans themselves were quite bland. I think I enjoyed it less for its flavor and more for the thrill that comes with eating something others wince at. Plus, it is really fun to stir the natto and watch its crazy stringy texture develop. People typically either love natto or hate it, but strangely enough, I fall somewhere in the middle.

Today, I was feeling experimental. I had some extra odds and ends in my pantry, and I thought, “why not mix them all together with some spaghetti and natto?” In a small bowl, I whipped the natto into a stringy, bubbling frenzy. Then I stirred in spicy mustard, tamari and a raw egg. I tossed this with hot spaghetti until it thickened into a sauce and coated all of the noodles. Then I added some edamame and chopped kimchi (because the natto wasn’t quite stinky enough for me). A drizzle of sesame oil and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds completed the dish. It may sound horrific, but it was actually pretty tasty. It reminded me a little bit of sesame noodles, albeit with a slimier texture and a flavor only a natto fan could love. If you like unusual foods, I dare urge you to try natto!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or possibly down in a Dharma hatch) you’ve no doubt heard the news that Lost is ending tonight. People are hosting Lost parties all across the country in celebration of the series finale. I’ve been a fan of the show since the very beginning so I decided to do it justice in my own way: by preparing a Lost-inspired dinner. There are many routes one could take when planning a Lost-themed meal. The most appropriate choice would probably be wild boar cooked over a campfire. You could also do Korean food in honor of Jin and Sun. Or how about Mr. Cluck’s Chicken or Dharma issue ranch dressing for Hurley? Since the show is filmed in Hawaii, I decided to I decided to whip up a bunch of Hawaiian snacks. No Hawaiian snack tray would be complete without Hawaii’s famous surfer treat: Spam Musubi. Sushi rice topped with fried Spam – what’s not to love there? In addition, I chose to make Ahi Poke and Okinawan Sweet Potatoes with Miso-Tahini Dip. Rounding out the ensemble cast were steamed edamame and wedges of fresh mango. To drink, we kept it simple with Dharma-brand micro brews (OK, these weren’t real Dharma beers – Robert made some Dharma labels and slapped them on a couple of Ninkasi IPAs!) It is unlikely that the Lost finale will live up to everyone’s expectations. Regardless of what happens, at least I’ll have a delicious meal to look back on!

Several months ago, I came across this irresistible-sounding recipe for Jamaican Veggie Patties. It comes from Bryant Terry’s new cookbook: Vegan Soul Kitchen. Jamaican patties are traditionally filled with ground beef, but this vegan version features a delectable mix of vegetables cooked in coconut milk and sweet spices surrounded by a flaky, coconut oil-rich crust.

My first attempt at this recipe yielded mediocre results. The filling was great, but I completely messed up the crust (my own fault, not anything to do with the recipe as written.) The crust recipe calls for chilled coconut oil. Having never used coconut oil before, I decided to put it in the fridge to chill overnight – the colder the fat, the flakier the pastry, right? Big mistake! The coconut oil hardened up so much that I couldn’t even get my knife through it. I let it soften for a while at room temperature, but I still had a tough time incorporating it evenly into the dough. Not surprisingly, the crust wasn’t very good. It turned out dry and crumbly rather than flaky. At least the coconut oil made my hands nice and soft!

I decided to attempt the recipe again but this time, instead of making patties, I chose to make pot pies. Pot pies are easier to assemble and provide a higher ratio of delicious filling to pastry (I felt that the flavor of the filling was kind of lost in the patties.) For the crust, I followed a basic butter pie crust recipe which I tweaked slightly to bring it more in line with Mr. Terry’s recipe. I added 1 teaspoon of turmeric to the flour, and I used a combination of butter and coconut oil for the fat. This time, I chilled the coconut oil for only 30 minutes or so – it is already solid at room temperature so it just needed a short time in the fridge to cool down. I followed Mr. Terry’s filling recipe to a tee, although I doubled it to make sure I had enough for two pot pies (I actually ended up with more than enough– fortunately, leftover filling is delicious on its own or over rice!)

I divided the filling into two 2-cup soufflé dishes, topped them with the crust, brushed on a little egg wash and baked them in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Except for my slightly misshapen crust, the pot pies turned out beautiful! The turmeric gives the crust a nice golden color. They were very rich and flavorful and provided some much-needed comfort on our first stormy night of fall. Jamaican pot pies – a unique twist on an American classic!

Last weekend, my sister and her husband threw a big bash in celebration of their 11th wedding anniversary. Of the several desserts served at the party, the highlight for me was the coconut cream pie courtesy of Dahlia Bakery. Chef Tom Douglas has been serving this pie at his Dahlia Lounge for nearly two decades now. It has developed quite a following here in Seattle. Even people who don’t normally like coconut cream pie are said to have become converts upon tasting Tom’s version. When I mentioned to my mom that I had the recipe, she said, “Great, then you can make it for our Easter dinner next weekend.” Doh!

For the most part, the pie was a breeze to prepare. You make a simple pastry cream using milk, sweetened coconut, fresh vanilla bean, eggs and butter. The pie crust – a basic butter crust that is spiked with more sweetened coconut – is blind baked in the oven. Once the crust has cooled, you simply fill it with the pastry cream and top it with whipped cream and even more coconut! The filling turned out great, but my crust ended up a bit doughier than I would have liked. My ingredients might not have been chilled properly or perhaps I simply under-baked the crust. Or, it could be that the shredded coconut in the pie dough results in a softer, less flaky crust. If I ever make this recipe again, I would probably try a plain pie crust instead – the extra coconut flavor in the crust really isn’t necessary.

After a lovely Easter dinner, it was time to try my pie! My family seemed to enjoy it despite the less than perfect crust. Everyone agreed that my pie had an even richer coconut flavor than the version we had sampled the previous weekend. Robert and I ate the leftovers last night – after sitting for a day and a half in the fridge, it still tasted pretty damn good! Tom Douglas’ Triple Coconut Cream Pie recipe can be found in the Seattle Kitchen cookbook and has also been written up here and here.

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