Pani Puri

My husband and I were sad when Mahesh moved south to Santa Clara. No more midnight Scrabble runs, no more weekend hikes that end with naps in the sun. But you can’t blame a guy for falling in love, buying a beautiful home, and starting an adorable family. Luckily for me, the happy couple still invite me to their dinner parties. One of the most memorable (and delicious!) was a chaat party where they filled and dipped and served an endless stream of pani puri.
Continue reading “Pani Puri”

Sweet Snowballs

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I miss snow. Sure, shoveling the driveway ranks up there with washing third-floor bay windows, but building icy forts and sledding right past the edge of safety are among my favorite memories of being a kid. I loved the slow, silent flakes of winter’s first snow, the magic of maple syrup candy, and the crunch of my boots breaking through the late season’s deep crust. The very best, of course, were snowball fights with my sister.

Living half a continent away, I’ve had to figure out other ways of sending her my love. White chocolate truffles are not as hard or as cold or as painful as a frosty, well-aimed projectile, but I guess they’ll have to do.


The original, quick-and-easy recipe from Gourmet (Dec 2000) skips the whole nuts, the fleur de sel, the excess rum and the butter bath that you’ll find in the recipe below. I obviously like booze, crunchiness and that sweet-salty thing, but both versions are equally yummy. The most important part is to splurge on the best white chocolate you can find. Burlingame-based E. Guittard’s wafers are among my favorites. As you can tell from the yield, this recipe was designed for sharing.

12 ounces macadamia nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons rum
1 pound good-quality white chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel (coarse sea salt)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 cups desiccated coconut (unsweetened)

  1. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with plastic film.
  2. Select 64 whole nuts and set aside. Pulse the remaining nuts in the processor until finely ground.
  3. Heat the cream and 1/4 cup rum in a heavy saucepan over low, swirling occasionally, until small bubbles rise. Remove from the heat, add the white chocolate and stir until smooth, returning the pan to a very low flame if needed to melt the chocolate completely. Stir in the ground nuts.
  4. Pour half the mixture into the lined pan and spread evenly. Arrange the whole nuts in an 8×8 grid over the surface of the chocolate. Sprinkle the fleur de sel over the whole nuts. Carefully spread the remaining half of the chocolate over the nuts with an offset spatula. Cover with plastic film and chill until firm, 4 to 6 hours.
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  5. Invert the chilled chocolate onto a cutting surface. Cut into 64 cubes, centering a whole nut in each one. Roll each chocolate cube into a ball between your palms.
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  6. After all of the balls have been formed, stir together the butter and remaining 2 tablespoons rum in a small bowl. Dip each ball into the rum-butter mixture, and then roll the ball in coconut to coat completely.
  7. Chill until firm, letting the truffles return to room temperature before serving.

Makes 64 snowballs.

Hmong New Year Festival

Happy New Year! Or as the Hmong say, Nyob zoo Xyoo Tshiab!

Every year, during this lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day, thousands of Hmong families gather at the Fresno Fairgrounds in the Central Valley to celebrate their community’s most important holiday. Traditionally, it’s a time to rest after the harvest and to celebrate a new beginning. The Hmong New Year Festival lasts for a whole week. The American version now includes a Miss Hmong beauty contest, live pop music, and a meat-eater’s delight…Hmong BBQ.

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At the center of the Fairgrounds, lines of boys and girls in festive clothing toss balls back and forth playfully. In another time, the game pov pob was a way for young men and women in the highland villages to check each other out before getting married. The boys now tend to cluster at the edges and watch (a cultural shift adopted from high school dances perhaps?) while a few brave couples walk the fairgrounds hand-in-hand.

After taking in all the color and sparkle, you can move on to our main attraction…the food.

Follow the massive cloud of heavenly smoke to the food alley, where scores of grills line the thoroughfare on both sides.


The smallest grills were the size of beds.


Like a huge smoky, savory foosball game, this grill sported eight mega-skewers of sausage, pork and chicken that turned automatically with the help of a generator-powered crank and chain.

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Waiting in line for favorite dishes.


Hand-lettered signs rule.


From the air, we have pigeons pressed flat for quick cooking, while from the water, there’s fish stuffed with a generous amount of lemongrass and chiles. From the land, long cuts of pork rubbed with turmeric are the favorite meat.


But the best of all are the fatty, juicy, herbalicious sausages!


Lunch from The Master Grill, conveniently located at the food lane’s cul-de-sac, includes red sticky rice, thick slices of sausage, half of a pigeon and an entire fish.


Ingredients for immensely popular papaya salad await each customer’s order.


Stop at this family’s booth for the absolute best Hmong-style papaya salad in California.


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Oldest daughter Sandra adds papaya shreds and a few slices of tomato…

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…squeezes in lots of fresh lime juice…

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…then pours on the fish sauce. For the hardcore, shrimp paste added on request!

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Mom prepares another batch for a second line of hungry customers.


Pickles seasoned with chile peppers appear at nearly every food vendors’ booth. Behind these, you can see mangoes with spicy salt, but the tropical fruit were not nearly as popular as their distant dill-pickle cousins.


A stroll to the other side of the Fairgrounds leads to a long line for dessert: thick wedges of bananas that fry up crisp and sweet.

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Modern gadgets for classic dishes.

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Just a small sampling of the hundreds of dried roots, stems, buds, shoots, seeds, and flowers that are on display at the medicinal booths. Customers point to scratchy throats and sore backs; vendors share healing recipes and compare favorable effects.

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Community love at the heart of the Fairgrounds.

The festivities will continue through January 1, 2007. For more information about Hmong New Year in Fresno, visit: Click on “Agenda” for a complete listing of events over the 7 days of the festival.

To learn more about Hmong food and culture, check out these books and websites:

Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, by Alan Davidson (Prospect Books, 2003) Land-locked Laos fortunately has the Mekong River to bring its people an abundance of fresh-water fish. Though it emphasizes the cooking of the low-land peoples, this cookbook also offers an introduction to the food of other communities in the country.

Hmong American Community, Inc. For the over 1200 Hmong families farming in the Central Valley, a special USDA grant helps support research and development of organic vegetables for the San Francisco and Los Angeles markets. If you purchase wholesale, this site is a useful source of crop and price information. If you don’t, you can still read up on what Hmong farmers are bringing to market.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) Now required reading in many medical and social service programs, this book tells the story of a Hmong family in Merced, California, and the doctors who struggled to understand and help them. Fadiman includes in her book detailed descriptions of daily life and festive celebrations, an excellent example of journalistic skills applied with an anthropological eye.

Hmong Arts, Books and Crafts From history books to music CDs, embroidered story cloths to herbal remedies, this website includes a wide range of Hmong products.

Hmong Language Written language is a relatively new development for the Hmong people, who relied on a rich oral tradition of storytelling for millennia. Learn about important cultural and religious words and listen to their pronunciation in the “Hmong Means Being Free” program.

Ingredient Shuffle

In this day of confusing health reports and lax public policy, it’s nice to know that there are still some simple guidelines out there. From bread to yogurt, brief is best. You want whole, recognizable ingredients that don’t require a dictionary or chemistry degree to understand. Whether I’m teaching a cooking class for moms in Marin or teens from Chinatown, I always say: Look for short words and short lists.

Lab beakers

How strange, then, to read the latest recipes by cutting-edge chefs. Sure, I’m used to restaurant menus that wax poetic about seasons and provenance, like a rambling culinary almanac, but to see the transformation of recipes into chemistry formulas is jarring.

“Add xanthonomas campestris….Place mixture in blender and add stabilizers….Cover tightly and flash freeze in liquid nitrogen.” Continue reading “Ingredient Shuffle”

How laziness can be healthy

My first job in a restaurant was as the Saturday morning prep girl.

Tomato wedgeOnce I’d proven to the chef that I could pick thyme and reduce parsley to green dust, he trusted me with a day’s supply of concassé. That meant blanching a case of tomatoes and then shocking them in iced water. Then peeling them. Then seeding them. Then dicing them. Continue reading “How laziness can be healthy”