Sweet and Sour Summer: Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad)

Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad) (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

When warm weather hits, there’s nothing I want more than Southeast Asian food. I want all the chili, all the lime juice, cilantro, Thai basil and green onion, palm sugar, brown sugar, fish sauce, peanuts, shrimp. I don’t care where in Southeast Asia my meal is from, nor do I care whether it’s stuffed inside translucent tacky skins of rice paper, flash blazed in a hot wok, or served cold with crunchy cabbage leaves. I want it all, insatiably, want my kitchen littered with red onion skins, my fingers rank with garlic’s stink. I want take-out pork grilled so that it’s sour and sweet and above all hot with tiny half moons of chili that sear the tender skin beneath my nose.

Crushing green beans (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Tomatoes, garlic, and green beans (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Not far from where we live, there’s a park whose real name no one really knows – we all just call it Thai Park. On weekends when the weather is nice, women and men set up small stands and cook. They sit on the ground or in low chairs with their makeshift hot plates and equipment, sauces lined up in plastic bottles, pre-made noodles and curries quickly heated in oil and a hot skillet. There’s crispy-fried fish, eyes crusty with panko, there are summer rolls and fresh dumplings, steamed buns, wok-shook vegetables with peanut sauce, pork belly fried with a toothy crunch of cartilage, spicy soups and salads quickly tossed together, dressed with liquid from those mysterious unmarked plastic bottles.

There’s tapioca pudding cool with coconut, milky Thai iced teas and coffee, steamed sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves and slices of sugared mango and mint.

Som Tum Thai Papaya Salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Green papaya (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

You see? It’s all I can think about, these flavors that heat you up and cool you down, that fill you up and keep you wanting more.

What started this season’s obsession was nothing more than a routine trip to the Asian grocery store to pick up a new bottle of fish sauce and some tahini paste. » Continue reading this post…

On Lost Knowledge

Homemade bread and strawberry-rhubarb jam (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Not long ago, while visiting family down south in the lush, low mountains of Germany, I spotted a cluster of sweet woodruff in the woods. The ground was covered with it, bright green fans of star-shaped leaves bursting with clusters of tiny white flowers. I plucked a leaf and crushed it between my fingers, inhaling its herbal scent, then snapped it up between my teeth, surprised by the tingly punch of cinnamon that pricked my tongue. It was then I remembered something about woodruff’s toxicity – the coumarin that lends it its sweet, grassy fragrance is also moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys. And I couldn’t quite remember if fresh woodruff was one of those things you weren’t supposed to eat. So I spat out the remnants of crushed leaves, still feeling the warm prickle on my tongue. Mother, I promise someday to stop putting unidentified foods from the woods in my mouth.

Processing pine shoots to make honey (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Making "Tannenspitzenhonig" (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Sweet woodruff – or Waldmeister, as it is known in Germany – had been on my mind since sampling a craft-brewed Berliner Weisse topped off with a cap of woodruff syrup the marshy color of a toad’s back.

A sour, cloudy white beer, Berliner Weisse is mainly a summer beverage, and people in Berlin drink it doused with a too-generous shot of garish-colored syrup. Red is for raspberry and green is for Waldmeister, but both taste the same – loud, sugary, and thick. The drink has fallen out of favor, especially with the younger generation. It’s too artificial for our coolly understated tastes. And so I was surprised – but maybe not too surprised – to find a stand at a local craft spirits festival serving the “real” stuff: Brewbaker Berliner Weisse with home-brewed sweet woodruff syrup.

It was nothing like its neon twin – a backwoods relative who scoops the potato salad out by hand at the family picnic. » Continue reading this post…

An Admission: Free-Form Mediterranean Summer Salad

Mediterranean summer salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I am not very good at recipes, a fact which may surprise you, given that I write this blog presenting recipes that, ostensibly, I have written, and that are accurate representations of the photos I post.

Be that as it may, I am not good at recipes, either reading them or writing them. My memory leaves something to be desired, so when I cook from a recipe, I spend most of the active cook time re-reading the instructions. Was that 1 tsp. or 1 tbsp.? Was it fry-then-batter or batter-then-fry? It doesn’t matter if the answer is absolutely logical, i.e., obviously you batter the fish before you fry it – I always have to check. And check. And check again.

Mixed salad greens (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

This is sometimes hard to reconcile with the way that I cook, which is to throw things together based on the pinch-of-this-dash-of-that philosophy. It’s a dreadfully exciting and, on the whole, rather unpredictable method of putting food on the table.

But I love reading recipes and cooking new things. Recipes inspire me. I especially love the complicated ones, with many steps and complex techniques. I love being surprised by new flavor combinations, love getting lost in the process.

Perhaps this all sounds rather contradictory: I’m bad at following recipes, but I love cooking from them? What this generally means in practice is that I read the instructions, read and re-read them as I cook, and then willfully decide to ignore them. I decide some step or other isn’t important, that an ingredient can be modified or left out entirely. I’ve cooked enough to trust my instincts, to know that everything will most likely be just fine.

Eggplant, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Roasting veggies for a Mediterranean summer salad (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Veggies ready to roast (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

This way of cooking can make it hard to write recipes, however. If there’s a recipe I’d like to share on EMDM, I have to approach it differently. » Continue reading this post…

Dublin: City of Superlatives

The streets of Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Everything in Dublin was simply the best, and I know this, because all the signs in Dublin told me so. There was the best Irish dancing at the best dinner show. The best deals on souvenirs, the best pub in which to drink Guinness, the best breakfast in all Ireland. There was the best walking tour and the best little shop for all your cake decorating needs. There was even the best poem about a cat in the best book written by monks in the early 9th century: “I and Pangur Bán my cat / ‘Tis a like task we are at…”

Though beset by a bad case of the bests, Dublin is a sweet little city – a street-smart ruffian with a heart of gold, all dressed up in a bright new suit. I imagine him as an impish fellow: a pint in one hand and a ready joke in the other. He reads poetry on the sly, but always has a dirty tale to tell his mates hanging around a table in the back corner of a smoky pub.

The Guinness bird (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A Dublin pub (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A little building in Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Just another pub in Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The city has a good energy, when you get away from the places where the tourists cluster like flocks of drunk ducks. (We paid Temple Bar homage, reluctantly, and briefly, and never again.) On Friday night, we joined an after work crowd at John Kehoe’s. Early in the evening, the pub was already packed with people sitting around tables and crowding into nooks to chat. The weather was holding steady, and the sidewalks were full of overflow from inside. As dusk dimmed into night, the conversations flowed, washed down with pints of dark and creamy Guinness and Smithwick’s Pale Ale. And the atmosphere stayed convivial.

Of course we made the round of pubs. We spent our last evening at The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub (another of those superlatives), built in 1198, but burned down and built up again who knows how many times. » Continue reading this post…

The Festival Season: Black Pepper Tofu

Black pepper tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Life is slowly returning to normal post-supper club. The food-related nightmares have subsided, I can go grocery shopping without feeling panicked, and with the exception of the week I spent holed up in front of my laptop scavenging for stray commas and measuring margin sizes in the draft for the new issue of SAND that went to print on Monday, my to-do lists are feeling less pressing. Somehow, without my really having noticed it (I must have been buried in clauses), the tree in the courtyard exploded into bold green bedecked with conical rockets of white flowers.

Tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Ground black pepper for black pepper tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Shallots, ginger, garlic, and chili for black pepper sauce (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

May 1 came and went, and amidst the grumbles that no one is really protesting anything anymore these days, I gathered in Görlitzer Park with thousands of other Berliners soaking up the fresh spring sun like cats – protesting, for good or ill, nothing more than the warm beer being sold on street corners.

We’re entering the season of no work and all play. In just two weeks, there’ll be the Carnival of Cultures, a wild rumpus of color and sound, where the city celebrates the food, clothing, crafts, dance, and music of all its represented cultures. The streets are littered with crushed limes and plastic cups from Berlin’s favorite summer drink: the caipirinha – “caipi” for short – a mix of cachaça, cane sugar, and lime. Street vendors sell smoky jerk chicken and jollof rice. There’s kimchi and bratwurst, pierogis, falafel, empanadas, tacos, bulgogi… All the foods from all the places. The USA does soft-serve.

Diced ginger (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Blocks of tofu for black pepper tofu (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Shallots (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Festivals aside, the parks will be packed with sunbathers and kids flying kites. In Tempelhof, the cracking runways will be striped with rollerbladers and skateboarders zipping from end to end. Every table outside of every café will be crammed with people sipping coffees and reading the paper, their little dogs lolling beneath their chairs. » Continue reading this post…

The Wolf & Peter

The Wolf & Peter Supper Club (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

You know you’ve done a good thing when in the midst of that thing – that’s been driving you crazier than any other thing you’ve ever done – you think, I wonder if we could get that moonshine distillery to work with us for the next one.

Two weeks ago, my friend Anna and I co-hosted our first-ever supper club, a ten-course tasting menu featuring paired beers from Vagabund brewery. Twenty-five guests spent a dusky spring evening inside Berg Burg Studio, talking and laughing, feasting on a menu of Swedish fusion cuisine as the sun slowly set and the subway rumbled past the vast windows.

Setting up the structure (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Test tubes of salt and pepper (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Herbs in tubes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

We’d tested our menu for weeks, getting together on weekends and evenings to cook through dish after dish: Swedish-style deviled eggs garnished with caviar alongside home-pickled herring and dill & caraway schnapps. Butter herbed with parsley, chive, and sage melting into warm seed and nut rolls. Baby spinach tossed with shaved fennel, orange, and pomegranate seeds with tart Dijon-citrus dressing. Lamb tacos with roasted sweet potatoes, caramelized onions, lemon-tahini dressing, and cinnamon-toasted pecans. Red beet and apple salad with parsley and mint. A duo of white chocolate bark with basil and lime and dark chocolate bark with pretzels, almonds, and sea salt served with vanilla schnapps. Sea salt and caraway crackers with sharp white cheddar and plumion (plum & red onion) jam. Juniper-infused moose meatballs with lingonberry sauce and fresh thyme. Spring rabbit braised in cherry beer with honey-lemon roasted carrots. And finally, after all the endless eating, crisp gingersnaps topped with a scoop of bourbon-vanilla ice cream and cardamom-raspberry coulis.

Anna in the kitchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Prep work (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

But hosting a supper club is more than just cooking and eating your way through a mountain of moose someone’s uncle shot on a Swedish hunting weekend. Hosting a supper club comes along with a mire of marketing and logistics neither of us really knew we were signing up for. » Continue reading this post…

On a Lazy Saturday and the Start of Spring: Khinkali (Georgian Soup Dumplings)

Khinkali (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Spring is coming to Berlin, and the cold, wintry mountains of Georgia are starting to seem like a far-off memory. Of course, spring in Berlin is a relative thing. I’m still wearing my winter coat most days, and bright patches of hopeful blue have only pierced the overwhelming gray long enough to make me crave a picnic blanket in the sun decked with crustless sandwiches and glossy bunches of grapes.

Dough for making khinkali (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Onions (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

On the last of these pretty blue days, I woke early to the sun shining through the windows and felt inspired. I haven’t been feeling that way a lot lately. I’ve taken on too much, and even weekends, I wake up, drink my coffee, and wonder what to tackle next. It’s exhausting, to work in the mornings before going to my job, to work in the evenings when I come home, to keep working on the weekends. I miss doing things that have no ulterior motive or eke me closer to a goal.

It’s hard when my home is a hive of productivity. My computer, my papers, the broom and mop – all grin at me with sharp, consuming teeth.

Rounds of khinkali dough (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Filling for homemade khinkali (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Dough for homemade Georgian soup dumplings (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Stacks of dough for making dumplings (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

What a blessing to wake up on Saturday morning and feel freed by the sunshine. I wanted nothing more than to wrap an apron around my waist and cook – preferably something new, preferably something time-consuming – just to flaunt how free I felt.

I put some podcasts on to play, and while David slept late into a lazy Saturday, I made dumplings.

Ground beef and pork mixture for khinkali (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Rolling out dumpling dough (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Making khinkali (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

One of the best things we ate in Georgia were khinkali, stuffed soup dumplings. The classic dumplings are filled with minced meat like beef, pork, or lamb, herbs, and onion. Others are filled with potato or cheese. We even had tasty, tiny khinkali bursting with caramelized onion and mushroom at a dumpling house overlooking the Kura River and washed them down with crisp, golden pilsner. » Continue reading this post…

The Other Georgia, Part II: Stepantsminda

Stepantsminda, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The morning dawned weakly and dull the day we embarked for Stepantsminda – a village lying at the base of Mount Kazbek, the seventh-highest peak in the Caucuses. The riders in the subway were half asleep, and we ourselves only jerked awake outside the Didube station to the shouts of vendors hawking small lemons and nuts, hot khachapuri and coffee. Marshrutka drivers were looking for passengers to fill their vans. They shouted out destinations – Kakheti, Gori, Mtskheta – places we had seen the day before and places we had not.

A driver hustled our direction and asked where we were going. “Stepantsminda,” we replied, and he gestured toward his weathered red van. That was just the route he was taking, he said. “Are the roads safe?” I asked. It had been unseasonably warm in Tbilisi, but this was February after all, and there was no telling what conditions were like at higher altitudes. “I am from there,” he said. And while I couldn’t have known it at the time, I later found out that what he meant by this was, “No, but I’m used to it.”

We bought a quick breakfast from a nearby stand – crescent-shaped khachapuri stuffed with hard-boiled egg – and ate it as the van hobbled along the highway out of Tbilisi. We were tired and fell asleep, but soon woke to the jolt of the road, littered with potholes and dirty slush.

The road up the mountain, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Monastery on the road to Stepantsminda (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

At a monastery, we scrambled out to take pictures. Snow patched the ground, and wet drizzle chilled my bare hands. Below us, the river sluggishly plowed along the banks, freezing in the shallows. The road continued to climb, and the next time we stopped, there were old women wrapped in headscarves and wool selling fruit leather and churchkhela hanging in long, burgundy rows. » Continue reading this post…