sweet potato gnocchi with brown butter and sage

sweet potato gnocchi

This is going to be a very short (but sweet – ha!) post, because love, as many of you know, is a time vampire. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. When I say “vampire” in this context, I mean the kind of vampire that keeps a diary or has an alluring accent or sneaks into your bedroom or protects you from rogue vans. You know, a hot vampire. The kind that makes it difficult to finish grant applications on time.

It must have been a cruel overlord who made Valentine’s Day on the 14th, because everything important is always due on the 15th: applications, bills, expense reports, registration paperwork, and probably some other stuff I forgot about because there’s not enough room in my brain anymore. Nonetheless, this is my first Valentine’s Day as a wife, so something’s going to have to give (probably that expense report) because failure is not an option. No, this Valentine’s Day needs to be amazing. JM gave me a wildly inappropriate (those are his words) card this morning and I returned the favor by handing him a stack of 100 pieces of paper that list all the ways that he’s awesome. We’re on a total roll, and we can’t give up now. Couples massage class at 7? Check. Homemade confectionery? Check. A lot of stuff I probably should have started on a little earlier so it all wouldn’t be down to the wire like it usually is? Check, check, check, and a few more checks.

This video recipe is dedicated to everyone who forgot to make a dinner reservation for tonight. It’s also dedicated to anyone who is willing to compensate by dedicating an hour or two to creating something extremely delicious. Because really, in the grand scheme of things, a hour isn’t that long – and your return on investment, romantically speaking, will be nothing short of wildly inappropriate.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi from James Mann on Vimeo.

*Note: We used soy flour for this recipe to make it gluten free. Any kind of flour will do (though all-purpose or semolina are probably the tastiest).



This morning, while sitting in on a graduate design seminar, I heard the ten-thousand pound phrase “idealistic usage occasion” bandied about by a market researcher. Googling this phrase produces zero exact matches, indicating that the guy probably invented it, but still – it’s an extremely useful phrase, because it refers to the fantasy that someone has when they see a product. So, for example, when I see an iPad Mini, I imagine myself laying around in my L.L. Bean men’s tartan flannel nightshirt for six hours straight looking at stuff on Pinterest; and when I look at an L.L. Bean men’s tartan flannel nightshirt, I imagine myself sipping hot chocolate in the dead of winter in Vermont and spending six hours straight looking at Pinterest; and when I look at Pinterest, about a hundred idealistic usage occasions start mating with each other in my head, making little baby idealistic usage occasions that cry and scream until I buy them a $350 cashmere throw.

My point is that market researchers are really on to something. When we see a neat thing, we often do imagine ourselves interacting with it in a way that supports our ideal vision of our lives and ourselves. And this is exactly what happens when I see a picture of a really beautiful meal – I imagine myself gathering ingredients, chopping, simmering, baking, plating, and tasting, in a Pinterest-worthy fantasy land of gustatory gratification. I mean, isn’t that kind of what all recipe bloggers do? The hard part, I think, is getting both the photograph and the flavor to match the fantasy. They so rarely do.

As the secret menu enters (sporadically) into its second year, I’ve been thinking about what defines the things I write and make here. I guess I like to think of the secret menu as a safe space for imperfection: imperfect photos, imperfect recipes, and all the imperfections that make JM and myself who we are (and, as it turns out, make us work as a couple). So at the time of year when most people are mulling over their New Year’s resolutions, trying to scramble that much closer to their ideal visions of themselves, I’ve decided to abandon idealism in favor of celebrating a slightly out-of-focus, missing-a-few-key-ingredients seafood stew that I made for my mother-in-law this past Sunday. Vive la déficience!

Luckily, my mother-in-law is way awesome and saw this stew’s finer points. Plus, if you use plenty of good olive oil and have thick slices of baguette for dipping, you are 90% of the way to an idealistic stew usage occasion.

(Imperfect but Delicious) Bouillabaisse
(Serves 3-4)

-1/2 cup olive oil
-1 medium onion, diced
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-1 celery stalk, chopped
-1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
-2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
-1 small bulb of fennel, trimmed and chopped (you can reserve the fronds for garnish)
-a pinch of saffron (optional)
-a 16 oz. can of chopped tomatoes
-3-4 cups of water or stock (fish stock is not easy to find, but works best)
-salt and pepper
-1/2 lb. squid, slices into rings
-1/2 lb. raw shrimp, deveined
-6-8 littleneck clams, scrubbed
-6-8 mussels, scrubbed
-3-4 sea scallops, rinsed and dried thoroughly
-1 good quality baguette, sliced into thick pieces

Fill the bottom of a Dutch oven or a large, deep skillet with the oil. Over medium-high heat, fry up your onion, garlic, celery, carrot, and potatoes, sprinkling a little saffron over them if you have it on hand. When the onions are translucent and the potatoes have softened a little (about 10-15 minutes), add the chopped tomatoes. You can use fresh tomatoes for this, of course, but it’s not necessary. Then add about 3-4 cups of water or stock. When the mixture starts bubbling, lower the heat to a simmer. Now let the liquid cook down a little, until the stew has reached a stew-like (rather than soup-like) consistency. Give it a taste. Does it need salt, pepper? Add that stuff. Make it delish!

The tricky part of this recipe, which is otherwise easy-peasy, is figuring out when to add the seafood. To make a straight-up, Frenchtastic bouillabaisse, you may want to add some nice chunks of boneless fish – I skipped that part, because I prefer seafood with a bit of chewiness. In any case, start with the firmer fish – in this case, the squid rings – to give them more time to simmer. Each time you add something, give the stew a gentle stir to cover the seafood.

After a few minutes, add the clams and mussels. When the shells start opening, add the scallops. The shrimp go in last, right when the clam and mussel shells have reached peak openness. As an aside, any mollusks that don’t open should be thrown the heck away.

Once the shrimp are pink, the stew is ready to serve. Use tongs to separate out the seafood into as many bowls as the people you’re serving. Then ladle in the veggies and broth. If you want to get fancy, you can use the reserved fennel fronds for garnish. Serve immediately, so you can dip the baguette slices into nice hot stew, close your eyes, and imagine you’re wearing a men’s flannel nightshirt. That always does it for me.

yellow birthday cake with chocolate frosting

This blog does seem to have an overarching plot arc, with my blossoming love for JM tracing a fortuitous parallel to foible-rich adventures in the kitchen. And, like any almost-two-year narrative, it also features a few subplots.

One prominent secret menu sideline, as some of my more frequent visitors may have noticed, is this whole issue of baking. Baking, in the secret menuverse, is a metaphor for insecurity. My failures as a baker have been alluded to frequently in past posts, often in connection to my lack of precision and general impatience. Baking is the thing I repeatedly claim that I cannot do, despite only three noteworthy blunders to substantiate that claim and a rapidly growing mound of gluten-packed evidence to the contrary.

So let’s just get it all out on the table, shall we?

When I was in college, I made my brother a birthday cake from scratch. It was exquisitely decorated but tasted awful, because I used all-purpose flour instead of cake flour. This cake debuted at a party. Other details of this trauma are features in my post on whole wheat crepes.

Later, when I was in graduate school, I made a chocolate cake for my immediate and extended family during a holiday gathering. It tasted awful, because I used whole wheat flour instead of cake flour. This cake debuted in a garbage can, but only after an epic kitchen meltdown that made my mother laugh her herself halfway to an asthma attack.

Finally, when I was making a meal for Canadian Thanksgiving (yes, sometimes I celebrate Thanksgiving twice), I made an apple pie with a cardboard crust. It wasn’t actual cardboard – I’d just used extra water instead of extra butter to bind the flour. You could have cracked some heads on that crust, let alone teeth. So, after I’d spent hours telling my friend that I make the greatest apple pie ever, I was almost responsible for shattering his incisors.

Yet all the while, amidst these disasters, I have baked several loaves of bread, a few pies, and even a couple of pastries (though often with the assistance of friends). I can also make a mean chocolate-chip cookie – secret ingredient: one whole bottle of vanilla extract per batch – if I do say so myself. So why all the baking defeatism? Why the refusal to just get back on the cake ‘n’ pie horse and go for a little trot around the park?

It’s simple, really: I expect myself to be instantly good at everything without making any mistakes or getting any help, and when I’m not an instant genius I redefine myself as a person who is irrevocably bad at whatever thing I just tried.

Luckily, I live in a world that does not support this line of reasoning. In fact, my world – in the guise of various individuals who appear at decisive moments – regularly tells me that I can do all sorts of stuff once I stop whining about how I can’t do it. And this past week, that more rational world collided with my deepest insecurities in the form of a lovely young woman I met at a potluck a few years back and who emailed me last Friday, out of the blue, wondering if I could bake a cake for a birthday party.

I won’t go into the particulars of why this young woman – who happens to be the author of the wonderful food blog, Fattractive – thought I might be able to successfully bake and decorate a cake. The point is that, upon reading her email, I made up my mind to say No, No Way. There’s No Way I can bake a cake. I am a terrible baker. So I hit ‘reply’ and starting typing this, yet, despite my best efforts, it came out like: Yes. Absolutely Yes. I can definitely bake and decorate a birthday cake by Sunday night.

Sometimes the hands know what the mind can never grasp. Because, really, I can totally bake and decorate a cake. Who am I kidding? If every other recipe blogger on the internet can make a cake, I can gosh darn make a gosh darn cake. Even if it takes me three days. Which it did.

Yellow Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen
(makes one 9-inch round layer cake)

Cake Ingredients & Supplies:
-2 9-inch cake pans
-a hand mixer (or stand mixer)
-wax paper or parchment
-a long serrated knife
-cling wrap
-cooking spray (or extra butter)
-4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (480 grams) cake flour, not self-rising
-2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
-1 1/2 teaspoons (around 8 grams) baking soda
-1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt
-2 sticks (1 cup, 1/2 pound or 225 grams) unsalted butter, softened
-2 cups (400 grams) sugar
-2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
-4 large eggs, at room temperature
-2 cups buttermilk (475 ml), well-shaken

Day 1: Figure out the game plan. Are we making two layers? Three layers? What flavors are we talking about, here, anyway? Since I was working on commission, a lot of the heavy lifting had already been done by my patroness: I needed to make a basic 9-inch round yellow cake with chocolate frosting and a spider web drawn on top. Once we decided on the type of spider web (as you can imagine, a Google image search yields endless options), all I needed to do was borrow an extra cake pan from my neighbor and purchase ingredients.

Day 2: Make the cake. This requires taking the butter out of the fridge as soon as you wake up so that it can soften before you start baking. You can also cut 9-inch circles out of parchment paper, which you’ll place in the pans later on. Once the butter is soft, you’re ready to preheat the oven to 350°F and douse the pans in cooking spray. Place the parchment circles in the bottoms of the pans and spray again.

Now mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. In your stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using a hand mixer), beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until creamy. Add the vanilla, and then one egg at a time, still mixing on medium. Scrape down the bowl from time to time, if you can remember to do it. Slow the speed to low and add in the buttermilk (warning: this makes the batter look disgusting), mixing until it’s just blended. Now add the dry ingredient mixture, one cup at a time, until the batter is smooth. Pour the batter into your pans, and bake until a wooden toothpick stuck into the center of the cake comes out clean. This took my oven about 40 minutes to accomplish.

When the cakes are done, let them cool completely. If you’re ready to get a-frostin’, proceed to Day 3 (below). If not, invert each cake on to a piece of cling wrap, still attached to the roll, and carefully turn it until it’s covered by at least three layers of plastic. No cake should be exposed to air! Your cake should be prepared to fall in the ocean, okay? If you plan on frosting your cake within a day or two, just leave the wrapped layers out on the counter at room temperature (as long as it’s not insanely hot outside). If you don’t plan on frosting that puppy any time in the near future, stick ’em in the freezer and allow a full day to defrost before doing any decorating.

Day 3: Frosting!

Frosting Ingredients & Supplies:
-A stand mixer or food processor
-a large freezer bag and a pair of scissors
-a frosting spreader spatula (or a large, broad knife)
-a 10- or 11-inch round piece of clean cardboard (you can wrap it in aluminum foil or parchment if you’re extra hygienic like me)
-3 sticks of unsalted butter, softened (about 350 grams)
-6 tbs half and half or milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
-4 1/2 cups of confectioner’s sugar (450 grams)
-6 ounces of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, melted and cooled

This is the easiest thing ever: blend the butter, milk, vanilla, and sugar together at medium speed. Voila! You have white frosting. Take a generous scoop of it out and place it gently in the bottom corner of a freezer bag. Press the air out of the bag and seal it. Voila! You have white frosting to write a name and draw goofy pictures on the top of the chocolate frosting you are about to make. I love typing “Voila!”

Now, this is important: above I listed “melted and cooled” unsweetened chocolate among the frosting ingredients. Melting and cooling, in this case, refers to melting the chocolate in a double boiler and then putting it aside to cool while you start making the frosting. Do not use a microwave, lest you end up with a congealed mess. Anyway, got your chocolate ready? Drizzle it into the rest of the white frosting in the stand mixer bowl, and mix away. You now have some of the most delicious chocolate frosting literally at your fingertips, so try not to eat it all before it gets on the cake.

So remember that long serrated knife you took out yesterday when you were making the cake, because I told you that you needed one? Well, actually, you need it today, because you need to turn your dome-topped cakes into flat layers. If your cakes are still in their pans, you’re all set – if you wrapped them, unwrap them and pop one of them back in the pan. Notice how flat the top of the pan is, due to the marvels of mass production. This flat top will be your guide as you slowly and carefully glide the knife across the top of the cake, decapitating it to form a semi-flat surface. Do this to both cakes.

Center the bottom layer (decapitated side up) on the cardboard round and spackle it with chocolate frosting right up to the edge, making as even a layer as you can manage. Next, gently center the top layer (decapitated side down) on the frosting, making a nice sharp edge.

Youtube is full of helpful videos explaining how to frost a cake, so I’ll keep my directions simple and then you can go look for more details on your own. Basically, the goal is to create as smooth a surface as possible with the chocolate frosting. My secret weapon here was a round wooden serving board with feet that I could turn easily while I spread on the frosting, making it pretty darn smooth considering my lack of professional baking supplies. Once the chocolate frosting is on, go crazy with the decorating: snip a tiny bit of plastic off the white frosting-filled corner of the freezer bag and pipe it on. If it’s not perfect, so what? It’s a homemade cake. Don’t be so hard on yourself! It’s not like the thing is going to survive for more than a few minutes out in public, anyway.

pumpkin stew

Nearly a year ago, JM emailed me the recipe for a seriously amazing baked pumpkin stew that he made, along with a beautiful picture (see above). This morning I went on a hunt for the recipe, looking through every single post I’ve ever done, and it turns out I never actually posted it, or maybe I did and I am just not a very good searcher. No matter: I’m posting it again to cajole JM into reviving the recipe for our dinner gathering tomorrow. JM, you are responsible for baking four pumpkins, okay? And one of them should be made without breadcrumbs. Also, don’t forget to walk the dog in the morning and then work all day and then hang a bunch of pictures in the living room before dinner and then do the dishes after we eat and then listen to me complain for two hours and then kiss me good night and then run out for half-and-half the next morning when I forget to buy it but really need it for my coffee.

Okay, so JM is officially in husband overtime. I need to stop writing now so I can go give him a shoulder rub and then make him lunch and then drive him to yoga and clean up the house while he sits with his feet up reading Tennessee Williams. I like to think that, together, JM and I make one calm work-life balance person and one insane die-at-40 person. Isn’t that what marriage is all about?

Pumpkin Stew
(Borrowed from Saveur)

-1 adorable mini-pumpkin (around 4 lbs.)
-5 tbs butter, divided and softened
-1/2 yellow onion, diced
-3/4 cup of toasted breadcrumbs
-5 or 6 fresh sage leaves, chopped
-2-3 cups no- or low-sodium vegetable stock
-1/2 cup of grated parmesan + 1/3 cup of grated gouda
-1 bay leaf
-1-2 shallots, sliced
-salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut a tennis ball-sized lid on top of the pumpkin and set the lid aside. De-seed and de-string. Rub the inside of pumpkin and lid with 1 tbsp of softened butter, season with salt, and place on a baking pan.

Melt 3 tbs of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the bread crumbs and cook for 2 minutes, then add sage and season generously with salt and pepper. Remove from heat, stir in the cheese, and then spoon mixture into the pumpkin. Pour enough stock into pumpkin to come within 1⁄2″ of the rim. Lay the bay leaf on top, then fit the lid on to the pumpkin.

Bake until pumpkin begins to soften and brown on the outside and the stock bubbles on the inside, about 1 hour. When it’s about 15 minutes from done, fry the shallots in the remaining tbsp of butter.

When the pumpkin is baked, carefully remove it from the oven and transfer it to a plate or bowl. Remove the bay leaf and garnish with the shallots. Dazzle your guests with this fanciness.

ham and eggs with caramelized leeks

On the flight back from New York I became absolutely mesmerized by the tiny television embedded in the seat back in front of me. This happens if I haven’t bothered to bring sufficiently captivating literature or if I am somehow able to justify, through the desperate math of forehead-slamming boredom, the $7 or $8 expense of watching a movie I otherwise wouldn’t even bother to put on my Netflix queue (yay, Hunger Games!). On this trip we were lucky: we had free “entertainment” (i.e. tiny flickering screens) on both legs of the journey, along with complimentary intermittent 200-decibel announcements from the pilot and crew (picture hundreds of people dozing off to episodes of The Real Housewives of Miami and then, in unison, violently tearing the headphones out of their ears as though the little electronic buds had suddenly transformed into wriggling spiders).

Anyway, on the return flight I discovered two things: first, that I am really excited about saying “my husband” as frequently as possible and to total strangers – like, “Can I get a seat next to my husband?” and “My husband is now seated to my left” and then sometimes just “My husband!” – and second, Rachel Khoo. Rachel Khoo! It seems natural that karma has instructed the universe to, in the midst of my (thoroughly irritating) newlywed bliss, send me a TV chef to fall madly in love with.

To give some context, I should explain that I have never really gone for TV chefs. Julia Child is cool. I get it. But when she was broadcasting I was a twinkle in my father’s eye, and then an infant, and then watching He-Man. The first and only time I saw Essence of Emeril I thought it was an infomercial. Nigella Lawson just made me jealous – where does she get off looking so good at a normal weight, anyway? I remember thinking Jamie Oliver was cute, but not really my type; as evinced by my recent marriage, I go for the redheaded American behind the camera rather than the blond Englishman in front of it. Who else? Giada De Laurentiis is too cute, Bobby Flay is too famous, Paula Deen is too reliant on butter (and too secretive about being a registered Democrat – so much for being my Republican friend). I could go on, but you get the idea. When it comes to televised cookery, I am very much like Goldilocks (another thoroughly irritating person) on the hunt for the right porridge.

So of course I never expected that, two days after my wedding, I would become infatuated with the tiny likeness of a blithe, polka dot-clad, red-lipped Englishwoman cooking lentils in a miniature Parisian flat. Forget you, husband, there’s a new show in town! Seriously, the blogosphere could not have concocted a better Anglophone Amélie if it had stuffed Joanna Goddard, Garance Doré, and Joy the Baker into a Telepod and inadvertently created one vintage cupcake pan-wielding gamine while attempting to ship them all to Paris Fashion Week. Avoir peur…très peur!

When I got home, I immediately ordered Khoo’s book – Little Paris Kitchen – with the aid of the frighteningly expedient Amazon mobile app, and waited by the door with my nose pressed up against the glass until it arrived. And when it did, I once again ignored “My husband!” to stay up an hour later than usual to pore over the introduction, run my fingers over every ecclesiastically lit close-up of root vegetables, and peruse every single recipe in the book before passing out in utter ecstasy. Oh, Rachel. I don’t care if you think I can locate rabbit liver in southern California. You are a total goddess.

I based this recipe on Rachel’s Leeks in Vinaigrette with a Poached Egg and Bayonne Ham. What primarily attracted me to the recipe was that I never imagined that Bayonne, New Jersey could be named after a southern French town known for cured meat. I mean, have you seen Bayonne? New Jersey, I mean? It is a clapboard jungle full of teenagers who can drink you under the table in 20 minutes. Any ham you find there is likely to be filling out a pair of Gap jeans. In any case, I liked the idea of doing my own version of this recipe sans vinaigrette, and with ham purchased from Trader Joe’s. Rachel Khoo might have made her name transforming Frenchness into accessible Britishness, but I have made mine by transforming everyone else’s good European idea into something abominably American.

Ham & Eggs with Caramelized Leeks
Serves one

-1 teaspoon + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
-1 large leek, trimmed and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
-1-2 slices of ham (any kind you like – I like thinly-sliced smoked ham)
-1 egg

Melt the butter in a large iron skillet over medium heat. When it’s sizzling, toss in the leek rounds and fry them on one side for 5-6 minutes. Flip the leeks over and move them over to the side to make room for the ham.

Meanwhile, how do you like your eggs? Fried? Over easy? Poached? Pick one and get to it, because you’ll need something to put over the leeks. I fried mine sunny-side-up in a teaspoon of butter while the second side of the leeks cooked.

The ham will only need a minute or so per side, so keep an eye on it. When it’s done, put it on a plate. The egg should be done now, so put that on the plate, too. Take a moment to stir the leeks around in the pan a bit before adding them to the plate, to loosen them up. They should be nice and brown on both sides, and soft enough to break with a spatula.

If you want to make this fancy, you can make a vinaigrette out of a light oil (sesame or sunflower) with some white wine vinegar, salt, and a pinch of sugar. You can also make a béchamel sauce or hollandaise, but that’s more Sunday brunch than quick, pre-dog-walking Saturday fare. My favorite thing about this meal is the way the egg yolk mixes with the leeks, which is a combination of flavors that takes regular old ham ‘n’eggs up a few notches. Try it, you’ll see.

sour thyme lemonade

Remember this summer, when everyone was complaining about the unrelenting heat? And the weather channels all went ballistic? And Toronto had it’s first heat wave EVER? And a bunch of crops failed, Grapes of Wrath-style? And there was even a Wikipedia article called Summer 2012 North American Heat Wave, which helped me gather data for this list of rhetorical questions? Well, here in the whimsical climate system known as Los Angeles, it is still summer – in October. And not happy-fun-time-on-the-beach summer, but the-mailperson-caught-me-lounging-on-the-couch-in-my-underwear-in-the-mid-afternoon-again summer. Today, in fact, was the first time it wasn’t over 90°F (or 32°C, because I’m too amped up to do the usual fake conversions), though the oppressive heat of the California sun has a way of making one’s skin feel like it’s singeing – despite the false comfort of my phone’s conciliatory weather report, which promises me that the city will stay below 80° for the next few days at least.

Yesterday, when I returned home from teaching a 7-hour studio class, I could feel that promise lingering in the genuine coolness of the night air. It wasn’t the usual breezy lick on the back of my neck as I stepped out of the car, but more like the deepening chill of an ice cube plunged into a glass of water. This coolness permitted me to enjoy my first authentic autumnal gesture: hot chocolate, spiked with bourbon. And though in the morning the sun felt much less punishing than usual, that tiny glimpse of fall had vanished into the dishwasher as a pale, frothy ring of lavender circling the inside of a mug.

But, as they say, when life gives you lemons – which, due to globalization, you can get pretty much anywhere throughout the year – it’s best to dump sugar on them and then sell them at a huge markup to your neighbors. I would have done that with the thyme lemonade I made this afternoon, but I like my lemonade pretty sour, and that’s not to everyone’s taste. I like to feel a little burn in my chest when I drink lemonade (on its own, or spiked with vodka), just to remind me that the California sun can never be extinguished, even as the seasons (sort of) change. It’s the beacon that, despite its constant abuse, has kept me fluttering in this insane city’s orbit.

Sour Thyme Lemonade
(serves one)

-the juice of 3 lemons, strained
-3 tablespoons of sugar
-1/3 cup of water
-5-6 sprigs of thyme (I used lemon thyme, which has bigger leaves)

After you’ve juiced the lemons into a glass, put the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat. When the sugar has dissolved completely, with the aid of some stirring, put in all but 1 or 2 of the sprigs of thyme and let the mixture cool.

Once the liquid has cooled, strain it into the glass with the lemon juice in it. Top off with either some chilled vodka or a little more cold water, along with a few cubes of ice, and then garnish with the remaining thyme. If you live somewhere cooler, close your eyes and remember that, just like it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere, it’s also always summer somewhere – so it never really has to end.

tea egg salad

I realize that this title of this post is somewhat misleading because, as you can see from the above picture, I didn’t make egg salad per se – I made a salad with eggs on it. Really, though, the whole salad moniker is a mystery. As far as I can tell, the inclusion of mayonnaise in any admixture of unlikely ingredients – say, overcooked flakes of canned marine creature and chunks of celery – constitutes salad, despite the frequent absence of lettuce leaves or any vegetable that doesn’t also double as a punishment for dieters.

To find out where salad comes from, in the linguistic sense, I consulted the trusty Online Etymology Dictionary. This is basically what it said:

Once upon a time, the Romans didn’t have refrigerators, but they did have a heck of a lot of salt because they were a seafaring people in fashionable togas with no qualms about conquering places all along the perimeter of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Anyway, as it turned out, salt was a good way to prevent your herba (no, not that kind of herba – it’s just the Latin word for veggies) from going bad, and was also a good way to make them taste less boring. Fast forward a thousand years, to the Middle Ages: despite their best efforts, Europeans had still not invented refrigerators, so they continued to eat salted veggies (herba salata). And the French were like, “Okay, that name really isn’t doing this dish any favors. Why don’t we call it salade? It sounds tastier.” So in order to keep up with the joneses – who, in France, were probably called the Jean-ses – other European countries started copying the name to make their boring old Latin textbook salted vegetables seem new and interesting. Fast forward six hundred years, after the invention of refrigerators, to the boardroom of the Wesson Oil company in 1939. “You know what?” said one Jimmy Stewart-looking guy to the rest of the Jimmy Stewart-looking guys at the table, “Now that our society is advanced enough to have refrigerators in almost every home, our vegetables have been left uncomfortably naked. We should try to get everyone to slather all of their vegetables in oil.” The other Jimmy Stewarts nodded in unison, thinking to themselves, “By golly, he’s right. Vegetables do taste better when they slide into my belly on a slick of expeller-pressed lipids!” So after some genial grunting and whiskey drinking and cigarette smoking, they put their heads together and came up with the salad bar: a place where all of your vegetables are plainly visible, making it easy to see whether you’ve coated them with enough delicious oil to make them seem to pop right off the pages of Life magazine.

What did we learn from this story? We learned that toasted sesame oil is infinitely preferable to canola oil when it comes to salad dressing. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn anything about Chinese cuisine, but I’m about to remedy that.

Tea Eggs over Sesame Salad
(Serves 4)

Egg Ingredients:
-8 eggs
-1/2 cup soy sauce
-2 tbs sugar
-1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns*
-1/2 tsp fennel seeds*
-8 whole cloves*
-2 whole star anise*
-2 sticks cinnamon*
-2 tbs loose-leaf lapsang souchong tea (or another black tea)

*Instead of assembling these spices separately, you can also purchase a Chinese five-spice blend from most supermarkets. If you want to go that route, you’ll need a heaping tablespoonful.

Salad Ingredients:
-One head of cabbage, shredded
-1 cup peanuts, coarsely chopped
-1 bunch spring onions, sliced
-1/4 cup of toasted sesame oil
-1/4 cup of rice vinegar
-salt and pepper

First, the eggs: Soft boil them, ASAP. Soft boiling is basically a wimpy hard boil – you put the eggs in a pot, cover them with cold water that you then bring to a boil, and then take them off the heat and let them sit in the hot water for 5-7 minutes. Do not peel these eggs! The shells are key. When you’re ready to go on the tea marinade for your eggs, put two cups of water in a saucepan. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and spices. Bring to a boil, and then remove from the heat. Add the tea and let it steep for 10-15 minutes. Strain into a bowl and put aside.

Crack your hard-boiled egg shells all over. Resist the urge to peel. Pour the tea marinade into a pot and add the eggs. Bring them to a boil again and then reduce the heat, letting them simmer for about 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the eggs cool in the marinade. When you finally peel them – yes, you can peel them now – they will have a really beautiful marbled look. Almost too pretty to eat.

Now, the salad: Shred your cabbage, slice your spring onions, and chop your peanuts. Put all of these things, except for a handful of the chopped peanuts, into a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix together the sesame oil and the vinegar, adding a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Pour the dressing into the salad and toss. Separate out into as many bowls as you have people, and garnish with the extra chopped peanuts.

Slice the eggs in half – each person should get two eggs, because they’re too good to just have one.