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10 days, tightly packed

So, the cat’s out of the bag. While you weren’t looking, I snuck off to New York with homemade muffins, the requisite amount of love-struck giddiness, and, in a remarkable display of restraint, only six pairs of shoes. My ten-day whirlwind visit included a wedding (no, not mine); a piano recital; a Little League game; a kindergarten performance of Maurice Sendak’s “Chicken Soup with Rice”; three trips to New Jersey; a road-trip to Baltimore; a visit with my favorite meatball maker, Doron; a lot of sweaty days sans air conditioning; and a handsome man; but along the way, I did find time to eat. And lucky for you, a girl cannot live on muffins alone—or at least, in New York, she’d be foolish to.

In such matters, there’s no better place to begin than breakfast. In late morning, and with an oscillating fan as musical accompaniment, we tore into a fresh Balthazar baguette and smeared hunks of it with cool Double Devon cream butter, layering on paper-thin slices of crisp radish from the Union Square Greenmarket, sprinkling each bite with French gray salt, and washing it down with purply-red blood orange juice. Each mouthful was salty and soothing, crunchy and yielding, peppery and cooling, delicious. And so it began.

A day and a half later, with a wedding reception, a falafel, and two trips to Jersey behind me, I had the pleasure of meeting fellow-blogger Amy, in town from Sweden to visit family and friends, for a warm evening of drinks, dinner, and the sort of conversation that keeps two girls firmly planted in their seats until well past midnight. We met at The Dove, a red brocade-lined bar near Washington Square Park, and after a gin and tonic for me and red wine for Amy, we moved on to Otto, where we shared a bottle of wine, two pizzas, and a side of cauliflower “alla Siciliana.” Though the place felt more cavernous and less intimate than I’d expected (and, as Amy noted, the bathrooms could use immediate attention), the pizza was fine and the cauliflower appealingly roughed up with lemon and capers. It was the company, however, that made the meal. I may have come to New York on official Brandon-related business, but I plan to always time future trips to coincide with Amy’s visits from across the Atlantic. Especially if it means getting to attend another barbeque at her family’s home in New Jersey, as we did the following afternoon. Her friends were more than welcoming to this West-Coast outsider; her father was an excellent partner for a porch chat; and her mother makes a mean oatmeal cookie.

And speaking of family, I managed to sneak out to Long Island for a few days with my own—my half-sister Lisa, her husband, and their five children. Between Little League games, school plays, and loads of laundry, Lisa introduced me to her favorite haunts, from her plot in the nearby community garden to Azure Chocolat*, a little light-blue shop on a quiet street in Centerport. And there I discovered the Azure s’more, surely the loveliest specimen of the genre retro-goes-ritzy, homey-goes-haute.

A palm-sized cube layered with homemade rosewater marshmallow, maple rose truffle, and thick homemade graham crackers, the s’mores are generously dipped in dark chocolate and topped with chopped walnuts. They are blessedly subtle in their sweetness, with a complex, hard-to-pinpoint floral quality, and but more importantly, they are blessedly easy on the tongue. Lisa and I took one home, sliced it thickly with a paring knife, and hovered over it, chewing thoughtfully and dabbing at the cutting board with our fingertips to catch every stray shard of chocolate.

And though I bought three more Azure s’mores for the road, that didn’t stop me from seeking out more sweets—also of the nostalgia variety—back in Manhattan. Brandon, ever food-savvy and already keenly aware of my sweet tooth, had studiously compared cupcakes around town and suggested a visit to sugar Sweet sunshine on the Lower East Side, where we, after only minor negotiating, decided to share an “Ooey Gooey” (a chocolate cupcake with chocolate-almond buttercream) and a pistachio cupcake with “the Moose” (a shiny, satiny buttercream).

We sat down at a table by the window with our napkins and chosen cupcakes, as well as a free bonus: part of a pumpkin cupcake with lemon buttercream, a baker’s “mistake” offered to us by one of the girls at the counter. We made fast work of the soft, creamy little cakes,
and as we were discussing the merits of sugar-laced kitchen errors, I noticed a strangely familiar-looking couple standing near the counter: it was Clotilde, of Chocolate & Zucchini, and her boyfriend Maxence! I had known that they were visiting New York from Paris, but, as Clotilde noted in her sweet description of our fortuitous meeting, the odds were razor-thin that we’d find ourselves in the same colorful little cupcake bakery at the same time on the same Saturday afternoon. But we shook off our disbelief, swapped notes on the city, and chatted a bit, and then we parted ways as surreally as we’d come together. Unfortunately, I missed her get-together at Otto the following evening, since I was on my way to JFK and back to Seattle. With any luck, though, we’ll find another time to meet—this time, maybe even with prior planning!—in New York or Paris, or on sait jamais, Seattle.

But in the meantime, I made my way home with a bag full of New York: three little vats of ultra-creamy Sabra-brand hummus; a dark and sour Balthazar pain de seigle; three cheeses from Cato Corner Farm; Jacques Torres chocolates from Brooklyn’s Blue Apron Foods; and fruity, not-too-sweet liquid loot from the greenmarket, strawberry-rhubarb and apricot wines from Château Renaissance. And as a parting gift, I also got to bring home a wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker, at least for a few weeks. It should be enough to keep me busy—and well-fed—until next time.

*Azure Chocolat’s website is still in the works, but you can find them at 90C Washington Drive in Centerport, New York; telephone: 631.425.1885.


Introducing: a wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker, and his orange-nutmeg muffins

In recent months, I’ve spent a lot of time gushing about Seattle. I don’t plan to stop anytime soon, but I should confess that when it comes to cities, I’ve been known to be unfaithful. First, there was San Francisco, and bien sûr, there will always be Paris. And though Seattle and I will celebrate our third anniversary in a couple of months, lately I’ve been feeling downright googly-eyed about New York, or, rather, a wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker. It's serious—the sort of situation that leads to an uncontrollable frenzy of cross-country care-package exchanges, from Ithaca Nut Brown Ale to Fran’s chocolates, and from a vintage KitchenAid stand mixer(!) to orange-nutmeg muffins. I think I heart New York.

Through a variety of forces and what some might call divine intervention, a young man named Brandon came into my life and brought with him, among other things, a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon and a keen eye for ridiculously underpriced kitchen equipment. For our first date, he proposed SoHo, Balthazar, and French martinis, but instead we settled on Pike Place Market, Bottega Italiana, and pistachio gelato. In the months that have followed—during which I’ve secretly and thoroughly vetted him for you, dear reader, and have found him eminently worthy of your company—we’ve sent criss-crossing the country both boxes of food and ourselves. Some might thank the heavens, but I thank the United Parcel Service, JetBlue, and MasterCard.

As a modest early offering, I sent him a dozen homemade chocolate-covered coconut macaroons, and Brandon sent back four bottles of Ithaca Nut Brown Ale and one of his favorite bourbons. I shipped off a jar of homemade apple butter, and he sent back two kinds of pink sea salt, from Hawaii and from the Himalayas, and a jar of hazelnut spread from Le Pain Quotidien. I picked out a package of Fran’s gray salt caramels, and he countered with two bars of Michel Cluizel dark chocolate, a bar of Jacques Torres 60% chocolate, and a thick, dark bar of Spanish Chocovic 72% chocolate from Fairway, all four wrapped together in a silky green ribbon from Ladurée (he’d been saving it, he said, “for the right occasion”); as well as a bag of chocolate-coated and cocoa-dusted roasted almonds from Jacques Torres. I spent one of my loveliest evenings in recent memory sitting alone in my car in the parking lot of UPS, a box from Brandon spilling Styrofoam peanuts on the seat next to me and a smorgasbord of chocolates spread out on my lap. And just as I began to slip irretrievably into a care-package-enduced food coma, another box arrived, this time bearing an original K45 KitchenAid stand mixer.

I suppose I could have been overwhelmed, called a time-out, or picked up my skirts and fled, but when presented with such a show of gastronomic generosity and eBay aptitude, there was really nothing to do but retire to the kitchen and whip up a proper thank-you. Brandon had once mentioned in passing his love for a good nutmeg muffin, and well, I don’t let these hints escape me. Instead, I bake—and I hand-deliver.

So with only a slight delay, I flagged down a flight to New York and arrived with a bag of muffins in hand, red-eyed but no less googly-eyed. Yes, when it comes to cities, I've been known to be unfaithful, but maybe Seattle won't mind sharing me every now and then.

Orange-Nutmeg Muffins

Brandon ate quite a few of these toasty, spicy little cakes at the now-defunct Oberlin Music Café in Oberlin, Ohio (“some of the best espresso I’ve had,” he told me a bit mournfully), but since its closing, he hadn’t had a nutmeg muffin. Though I was unsure of the idea of a muffin flavored with sizeable quantities of what I considered an “only a pinch” spice, I did some detective work and found this recipe. It seemed promising, and with a bit of tweaking and the addition of fresh orange zest (optional, but nice), it more than lived up to its potential. Luckily—or rather, wisely—Brandon thought so too.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup light brown sugar
1 Tbs baking powder
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
Zest of ½ to 1 orange, to taste
1 large egg
¾ cup heavy cream
¾ cup milk (nonfat is fine)
4 Tbs canola oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, salt, and zest. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg well. Then stir in the cream, milk, and oil, whisking to blend well. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and stir to just combine (overmixing will develop the gluten in the flour and make for tough muffins).

Scoop the muffin batter evenly into the wells of the greased muffin tin. Bake the muffins for about 20 minutes, or until domed and nicely golden. Serve warm. [These muffins also freeze beautifully. Allow them to thaw at room temperature; then reheat them gently in a 300-degree oven.]

Yield: 12 smallish muffins.


Tagged: talking cookbooks

I’ve never been much of a joiner, but when it comes to talking cookbooks, no arm-twisting is necessary. And anyway, I’ve been tagged—not once, not twice, but three times—to answer a few questions about my cookbook collection. The peer pressure is overwhelming. Everyone else is doing it, so I will too.

1. Total number of cookbooks I own:
Thirty-five. That actually seems a bit measly, given how much I love the things. I need to improve my average.

2. Last (cook)book(s) I bought:
I was recently in a bookstore that had an extensive used-cookbook section, and for a grand total of sixteen dollars, I walked away with the following three hardcover steals:

Saveur Cooks Authentic American: I’d been wanting this one for a long time. Sister to Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian and Saveur Cooks Authentic French (both of which I’m still lusting after), this big, solid beauty is nothing short of drool-worthy, full of luscious photos and transportive stories, not to mention wonderful-sounding recipes. This is one to sit down and read.

Diana Kennedy's The Tortilla Cookbook: The doyenne of Mexican cooking speaks on the simplest of staples. And dear reader, I love a good tortilla.

Martha Stewart's Menus for Entertaining: Say what you will, but I can’t knock Martha. She may be a bit stiff and stuffy, but she does a damn fine party. I’m especially interested in the menu for her spicy Thai lunch.

[And if I have a say in it, my next acquisitions will be one of Bill Granger’s cookbooks—his recipes feel so clean and inviting—and something Nigella. I find her style a bit heavy on the flirting and finger-licking, but her dishes are straight-up sexy for their honesty and simplicity.]

3. Last (food) book I read:

Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: I was given a proofreader’s copy of this by a friend who’d gotten it from another friend at Penguin, and it was a perfect few-pages-before-bedtime read. Reichl’s prose, as always, is a pleasure; it just feels so effortless. And the recipes are enticing—not simply something to be skimmed over on the way to the next chapter. I have to admit, however, to feeling iffy about her blunt barbs at her New York Times colleagues; on the one hand, I found myself inspired by her courage in “telling it like it is,” and on the other, I also found her unappealingly catty.

4. Five (cook)books that mean a lot to me:

-Julia Child’s The Way to Cook: It should already be clear from the subtitle of this site, but I adore this woman. Not only was she a tremendous cook, but her lust for life was contagious. Plus, the soufflé recipe in this book made me feel like I could conquer the world. [Thanks to Mom and Burg for letting me steal one of their two copies.]

-Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Vegetables: One of my favorite resource books, conveniently organized by vegetable. True to classic Chez Panisse style, it suggests graceful, simple, seasonal treatments with a French-Italian bent. [Thanks to my half-sister Lisa for putting this, some fresh fava beans, and some fresh shell peas into my hands one summer afternoon.]

-Janet Fletcher’s Fresh from the Farmers' Market: A pretty little book, and another great resource. Organized by season, it offers hints for buying and storing fruits and vegetables, and its recipes are simple, fresh, and hunger-inducing. [Thanks to Carey for this and other Chronicle Books Christmas presents.]

-Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets: Two words: “Paris” and “sweets.” I’ve been to many of the boulangeries and pâtisseries that Greenspan features, so for me, this book is like a travel journal in recipes. Plus, her descriptions are always evocative and whimsical, yet straightforward. And oh, that pain de Gênes! [Thanks again to Lisa, who clearly has impeccable taste in cookbooks.]

-And finally, my accordion file folder. It’s not technically a cookbook, but rather a bulging collection of recipe clippings and scribbled ingredients lists, from entire Gourmet holiday menus to James Beard’s pesto recipe on a dog-eared index card. I reach for it more than any single cookbook, and that must count for something.

5. Which 5 people would you most like to see answer these questions?
I’ll be nice. No peer pressure. But everyone else is doing it, you know.


She cooks, she tells yet again

Over at Saucy, the June installment of Cook and Tell is ready and waiting, titled Larb at First Sight.”* This month I revisit a not-so-spectacular summer date that happened to involve a more-than-spectacular summer dish. And yes, I continue to work the puns.

*Special thanks to Amy for enthusiasm in editing, eating, and dishing; and to Keaton for skilful larb-to-mouth shoveling and good, gritty girly nights.


Drawn-out days and noodle nights

Though the topic has already been amply covered by countless wistful love ballads, I’d like to bring something to your attention: the loveliness that is a summer night. Call me a sap—you wouldn’t be the first—but there’s something primordially good about a clear, warm night. Everything thrums—from locusts, the soundtrack of summer, to mosquitoes, the season’s scourge. Even the skin pricks up and hums when warm air rubs softly against it. An icy bottle sheds welcome droplets down the inside of the arm, and the tongue begs for salt, preferably in the form of something cool, slippery, and delivered via chopsticks. Yes, I’ve been eating noodles again, redundancy be damned.

Granted, early-summer Seattle is a bit slow to heat up, but the days make up for their thermometric shortcomings by doing double-time on the clock. Sunrise comes at five in the morning, and sunset, in no mood to hurry, follows sixteen hours later. With each day, the light stays a bit longer, as though too lazy to leave at anything but a slow crawl. Such long, drawn-out days make for long, drawn-out evenings, perfect for simple, leisurely cooking and even more leisurely lingering at the table. All of this points inevitably to big bowls of cold noodles—at least until it points inevitably to late-summer tomato bread salads, any number of things involving pesto and fresh figs, and variations on the theme of avocado.

Last week, I slurped down filmy, translucent rice noodles and sang a song of fish sauce, but today I’m trading Southeast Asia for China. In this week’s routine, I’ve slicked skinny noodles with sesame oil, soy sauce, and balsamic vinegar, revved them up with hot red pepper oil and soothed them with a good dose of sugar. For a welcome grounding among such high-pitched flavors, there’s a soft hunk of roasted eggplant, a ribbon of blanched snow pea or julienned carrot, or the watery relief of a mung bean sprout. Each chopstickful is salty and sweet, clean and nutty, crisp and yielding. I can’t think of a better way to settle into the rhythm of summer, or to set everything thrumming.

Chinese Noodle Salad with Roasted Eggplant
Adapted from The Greens Cookbook

Though I did a brief stint in the kitchen at Greens, it was my half-sister Lisa who introduced me to this delicious recipe. Despite its relatively long list of ingredients, this salad is very easy to prepare, and as an added bonus, the noodles and eggplant will keep well for several days in the refrigerator. For seasonal variations, try adding blanched asparagus tips or garnishing with slivered French breakfast radishes.

For the dressing and the noodles:
7 Tbs toasted sesame oil
7 Tbs low-sodium soy sauce (or tamari)
3 Tbs balsamic vinegar
3 Tbs sugar
2 ½ tsp salt (or less; this seems like a lot, so I've experimented with using as little as 1 tsp)
1 Tbs red pepper oil
8-10 scallions, thinly sliced into rounds
3 Tbs cilantro, chopped
1 lb spaghetti (the original recipe calls for thin fresh Chinese egg noodles, but I’ve found simple spaghetti to yield just as tasty a result; please forgive the lack of authenticity)

For the eggplant and vegetable garnishes:
1 lb firm, shiny Japanese or Chinese eggplants
1 Tbs fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Reserved dressing
1 cup snow peas, strings removed
½ lb mung bean sprouts
3 Tbs sesame seeds, toasted in a skillet until lightly colored
1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned
Cilantro leaves

Begin by making the dressing. Combine all the dressing ingredients (except the noodles, of course) in a bowl, and stir them together until the sugar has dissolved.

Bring a large pot of (unsalted) water to a boil, and add the noodles. Cook until done but not overly soft; then immediately pour them into a colander. Rinse them with cold water to cool them, and then shake the colander to remove excess water. Transfer the noodles to a large bowl. Stir the dressing again; then pour half of it over the cooked noodles, tossing them with your hands to distribute the dressing evenly. Set aside the remaining dressing. If the noodles aren’t to be used for a while, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate to allow the flavors to develop.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pierce the eggplants in several places, and bake them on a rimmed baking sheet until they are soft and their skins have shriveled, 20-30 minutes, depending on their size. When the eggplants are ready, slice them in half lengthwise, and leave them on the baking sheet to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the skin away from the flesh and shred the flesh into rough strips. Add the ginger and garlic to the reserved dressing, and then add the eggplant strips. Stir the mixture well to thoroughly coat the eggplant.

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add the snow peas, and cook them until they are bright green, about 20-30 seconds. Remove them with tongs or a strainer, and rinse them with cool water. Cut them into long, thin strips, and set them aside. Next, put the sprouts into the boiling water, and allow them to cook for about 30 seconds. Pour them into a colander, rinse them with cold water, and lay them on a layer of paper towels to dry.

If the noodles have been refrigerated, allow them to come to room temperature; then toss them with the eggplant and reserved dressing, as well as half of the sesame seeds. Mound them in a wide bowl or on a platter, and distribute the snow peas, mung bean sprouts, and carrots over them. Garnish with the remaining sesame seeds and a few branches of cilantro. Once served, guests can toss the noodles and vegetables together to thoroughly mingle the textures and flavors.

Serves four to eight, depending on accompaniments.


9 am Sunday: chocolate, chocolate, and chocolate

Jimmy springs eternal.
Just when it had started to seem as though we’d exhausted all conceivable possibilities for fatty, sugary breakfasts, Jimmy announced that he was making triple chocolate scones.

One evening, I arrived at my usual Pilates mat class to find a note in Rebecca’s perfect cursive, announcing that “our breakfasts must resume—he’s talking triple chocolate scones, which technically are a breakfast food. Sunday at 9, are you free? P.S. I’m pushing for babies.” Apparently, Jimmy had been eyeing a recipe for chocolate scones, and to make them truly his own—i.e. excessive in every way—he planned to fill them with chocolate chips and douse them with ganache. Rebecca, while in no way anti-chocolate, insisted that so much caffeine would bring her interminable insomnia, so she filed a supplementary request for Dutch babies. As for me, well, I do as I’m told. And so it was that I chased my fat with more fat, my sugar with more sugar, and my baby with a triple shot of chocolate.

When I arrived, the babies were already in the oven, puffing skyward and leaving a smoking pool of butter in their wake on the oven floor. Rebecca’s straight husband John was busy fanning the living room with a pillow, trying to steer the smoke toward the window, while nearby, a rack of artistically and abundantly ganached scones relaxed on the kitchen counter.

“I like to be assaulted by flavor,” Jimmy explained, watching me inspect his silent cocoa-bombs. They were as big as fists, cross-hatched with a shiny web of ganache. A cloud of warm, almost spicy air hovered over them, as did I.

Now, a lemon-sugar Dutch baby is, I’ll freely admit, a nearly perfect breakfast. Until this morning, I might have argued that it was the perfect breakfast—give or take a few buckwheat pancakes, a bowl of homemade granola and yogurt, or the occasional soft-boiled egg with toast, butter optional. But I can now say with the utmost assurance that no breakfast is truly complete without a triple chocolate scone for dessert.

With a texture somewhere between biscuit and cake, Jimmy’s scones have a lightly crisp crust and a moist, tender crumb, and though entirely immoderate when it comes to chocolate, they’re remarkably subtle in sweetness. I’m never one to skip dessert, and true to form, within an hour of finishing my Dutch baby, I had put away an entire triple chocolate fistful—crumbs, ganache smudges, and all. I only regretted it for a minute, until I wanted a second one. Jimmy is clearly onto something: when it comes to dessert, 9 am is a good time to start.

Jimmy’s Triple Chocolate Scones

This recipe makes six large scones, but if you’d like something a bit more moderate, try cutting the dough into eight or ten wedges. With smaller scones, your baking time will be shorter, so keep an eye on the oven.

For the scones:
1 ¾ c unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ c plus 1 Tbs unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
2 ¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
6 Tbs cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
½ cup heavy cream
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

For the ganache:
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (be sure to choose a good-quality chocolate that you’d enjoy eating on its own)
3/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Drop in the butter, and using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter chunks into the flour until they are reduced to pearl-sized nuggets. Stir in the granulated sugar. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cream, eggs, and vanilla.

Pour the wet mixture over the dry ingredients, add the chocolate chips, and stir to form a dough. The dough will be firm but moist, and a bit sticky to the touch. Knead the dough lightly in the bowl about ten times—or, as Jimmy has found, if the dough is too sticky, don’t worry about kneading. It is better to undermix than to overmix.

Form the dough into a 7- to 7 ½-inch round disk on a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough into 6 wedges, and using a spatula, transfer the wedges to a baking sheet. Bake the scones for 17-18 minutes, or until set. Remove them to a rack to cool, and set the rack over a rimmed baking sheet.

To make the ganache, place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan until it is very hot and steamy (not boiling, but close), remove it from the heat, and pour it over the chocolate. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and the chocolate is thoroughly melted. Use a spoon to drizzle the ganache over the cooled scones, and serve. [You will have leftover ganache, which can be refrigerated or frozen; the scones also freeze well and are remarkably good cold.]

Yield: 6 large scones


On fame, funk, and fish sauce

It seems as though every food—almonds to zabaglione, frumpy to fancy—has its fifteen minutes of fame. Yesterday’s coffee is today’s tea; sushi cedes the spotlight to crudo; and pricey imported olive oil gives way to pricey domestic butter. Of this year’s “it” edibles, bacon has perhaps been the busiest on the scene, nabbing the title “best food in the world” in the March issue of Saveur, inspiring a fatty flurry of blogging, and finding its way into this and that, near and far. It’s on everyone’s lips; I long ago stopped counting the number of times I’d heard the exclamation, “Everything tastes better with bacon!” Now, granted, salt and smoke are sublime, but truth be told—no matter how shocking—I’m just not so interested. As far as I’m concerned, bacon has nothing on fish sauce, the newest “go-to” ingredient. I can’t avow that everything tastes better with the stuff, but I’d venture to say that almost everything does, especially when lime juice, garlic, chilies, and sugar are involved.

It may not sound or smell so appetizing, but fish sauce, also known in Thailand as nam pla and in Vietnam as nuoc mam, is the cornerstone of the intensely delicious cuisines of Southeast Asia. Fish sauce is high in umami, one of the five basic tastes recognized by the human tongue, along with saltiness, sourness, sweetness, and bitterness. Umami translates somewhat ambiguously to “savoriness,” though I’d describe it instead as a round, full flavor—the sort of sensation we experience when tasting Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, soy sauce, or mushrooms. Fish sauce adds depth, complexity, and an appealing funkiness to dishes, and when teamed and tempered with the right partners, it’s alarmingly difficult to stop eating. Take, for example, this simple rice noodle salad.

It’s tough to think of a better dinner for an almost-summer night: cool slippery noodles, green slivers of scallion and Napa cabbage, sweet carrot, salty peanuts, chopped cilantro, and chunks of roasted chicken, doused in a dance-on-the-tongue dressing that balances the pungency of fish sauce with the acidity of lime, the heat of chilies, and the sweetness of sugar. You may find yourself oddly tempted to dump the dressing over everything in sight, from plain greens to sliced cucumber, grilled fish, or a bowl of sticky rice; you may want a dab behind the ears, or a long soak in a bathtub full of it. But with a cold beer in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other, you’ll be too busy. Like everything else, fish sauce only gets fifteen minutes of fame, so there’s no time to waste.

Almost-Summer Rice Noodle Salad
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Splendid Table Weeknight Kitchen e-mail newsletter

This salad is very versatile, and you can't go wrong with any variety of ingredients. Try using shrimp or roasted tofu in place of the chicken and roasted salted almonds instead of peanuts, or substitute basil for the cilantro. If you like, add slivered fresh spinach leaves, diced jicama, blanched and slivered snow peas, or a bit of julienned mint. The recipe makes quite a bit of dressing, so you’ll have some left over; it will keep in the refrigerator for several days and can be used to marinate poultry, beef, pork, or seafood before grilling.

1 pound thin rice noodles (roughly the thickness of linguine)
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
2/3 cup water
½ cup fresh lime juice
½ cup rice vinegar
¼ to ½ cup brown sugar, to taste
1 to 2 hot chilies (red bird, jalapeño, or serrano), seeded and minced, or to taste
6 to 8 leaves Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
8 scallions, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded or julienned
½ cup tightly packed cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
2 grilled or roasted chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and cook for 5 minutes, or until tender but not mushy. Drain the noodles into a colander, rinse with cold water, and then place them in a large bowl.

Place the garlic cloves in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to mince. Add the fish sauce, water, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, and chilies, and purée them together. [The mixture will get quite frothy.] Taste, and if necessary, add more chile and adjust the sweet/tart balance. Pour the dressing into a serving bowl, and set it on the dining table.

Toss the vegetables and cilantro with the noodles, and mound the mixture on a platter. Scatter the chicken and peanuts over the top, and serve. Traditionally, this salad is eaten in individual bowls, so invite your dining partners to scoop their own portion from the platter and dress it as they see fit.

Serves 4-6.