Five Spice Peanuts

These peanuts make a wonderful accompaniment for cocktail hour and a great snack any time! I’ve tweaked a recipe for pecans to use more common Chinese ingredients, peanuts and five spice powder. But I’ve left in the butter – not very Chinese, but it really helps glue the spices to the nuts, and everything’s better with butter (or so they told us in culinary school)!

Five spice powder’s claim to fame is that it includes all 5 flavors found in Chinese cooking: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty. You can make your own by combining equal parts whole Sichuan (or other) peppercorn, cinnamon sticks, cloves, fennel seed, and star anise. After toasting the spices lightly, grind in a mortar or with a coffee or spice grinder. If you’re in a hurry or don’t want to mess with that, five-spice is also available pre-mixed in Asian markets and in some conventional groceries – try the Asian section first, then the baking/spice aisle.

This recipe will make a big bowlful, enough to serve 12 as an hors d’oeuvre.


  • 1 T unsalted butter
  • 1/4 c light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp five spice powder
  • 1.5 tsp sea salt, or to taste
  • 3 c raw, skinless peanuts


  1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter, then add the sugar, five spice powder, and salt. Stir gently over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, but do not allow the mixture to caramelize.
  3. Pour the spice mixture over the nuts, mix thoroughly, then spread in a single layer on a sheet pan.
  4. Bake until crisp and golden, approximately 5-10 m, but check on them frequently because sugar can easily burn.
  5. Remove from the oven, cool slightly until you are able to separate the nuts with your hands. If you let them cool completely on the pan, you may have to pry them off with a spatula.
  6. Store in a tightly covered container away from light – these will last approximately 1 week in the pantry (if you don’t eat them all before that!)

Braised Peas

Spring has definitley sprung in SoCal – I think we may actually get a few days of it before summer hits – and with it spring brings some fantastic English peas. We’ve been putting them in risotto, making stirfried rice with them, and just enjoying them steamed. Here is a simple stirfry version if you can get your hands on some – frozen will work too, just rinse in cold water to thaw and reduce the cooking time. You need to buy a lot and it does take time to shell them, but it’s something kids love to help with (although you’ll be lucky if more go in the bowl than in their mouths!)


  • 12 oz shelled peas
  • 2 slices fresh ginger root, peeled and cut into thin strips
  • 1/4 c stock, broth or water
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • 1 T oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt


  1. Combine stock and sugar and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat just until it shimmers, then add the ginger root and explode until fragrant.
  3. Add the peas and stirfry quickly to coat with oil and heat through.
  4. Add the stock and sugar mixture and bring to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the peas are cooked through and the liquid mostly evaporated, approximately 2-3 m. You may have to add more liquid.
  5. Adjust the seasoning and serve.

The White House Garden

This 60 Minutes clip is worth 1,000,000 words – need anyone say more?

Apparently Michelle Obama has taken Alice Waters’ advice to heart – three cheers for the new White House Vegetable Garden! But really, Mrs. Obama, why not beets?!?

Asparagus with “Hollandaise”

Must be spring: asparagus is flooding the farmers’ market in SoCal, so I hope things are warming up in the rest of the country, too! Here’s a twist on asparagus served with hollandaise – it’s certainly lower in fat than that classic sauce and adds some protein to a vegetarian meal. Just remember cooking the sauce requires a fine balance: you want to cook the sauce on a low enough heat that it won’t separate, but you also want to heat it long enough that the starch is cooked out. If you add the cold beaten egg directly to the hot sauce or cook it to rapidly, you’ll end up with egg drop soup! And a note on asparagus – only buy this veggie from the vendors who store them upright in a bit of water, and when you get it home, if you’re not cooking it right away, store upright in a tall glass with a bit of water at the bottom.


  • 1 lb asparagus
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 c homemade stock or broth
  • 1 T cornstarch mixed with 2 T cold water
  • 1 T oil
  • 1/2 T Shaoxing cooking wine or dry sherry
  • 1/2 tsp salt, to taste


  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil.
  2. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus where they break naturally, then rinse, drain, cut into 1.5″ lengths or roll-cut. Blanch and shock.
  3. Bring the stock to a simmer, then add cornstarch mixture and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly until slightly thickened, then simmer 1 m more to cook out the starchy taste.
  4. Whisking constantly, gradually add 1/4 c of the hot stock mixture to the egg, then add the egg mixture back to the hot stock mixture, whisking constantly. Heat gently until thickened – it should not reach a simmer. Remove from the heat, season with 1/4 tsp salt and keep warm.
  5. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat just until it shimmers.
  6. Add the asparagus and stirfry until crisp-tender.
  7. Add the cooking wine and 1/4 tsp salt, stirfry to allow the sherry to evaporate, then remove to a serving plate.
  8. Drizzle with the egg sauce and serve immediately.

Cooking Personality Disorder

It’s really time to get back to posting some recipes, but humor me one day more – I found this to be an interesting exercise (and being in the middle of not one, but two piles of real estate paperwork, I simply haven’t had time to play in the kitchen!) I recently blogged about the supersizing of cookbook recipes – who ever imagined that home cooking might be as much part of the American weight problem as fast food? – and today, more from one of the main characters in that post, Brian Wansink.

In the New York Times “Well” blog, Tara Parker Pope reprints a “cooking personality” quiz from Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating. The quiz, reprinted here from Parker Pope’s blog,  is meant to determine whether you are a giving, methodical, healthy, competitive, or innovative cook:

1) When I prepare a meal, I typically:

a) Rely on classic dishes my family has always enjoyed.
b) Follow a recipe step-by-step.
c) Substitute more healthful ingredients.
d) Go all out and try to impress my guests.
e) Rarely use recipes and like to experiment.
2) Some of my favorite ingredients are:

a) Lots of bread, starches and red meat.
b) Beef and chicken.
c) Fish and vegetables.
d) A trendy ingredient I saw on the Food Network.
e) Vegetables, spices and unusual ingredients.

3) In my free time I like to:

a) Visit with friends and family.
b) Organize the house.
c) Exercise or take a fitness class.
d) Be spontaneous and seek adventure.
e) Take part in creative or artistic pursuits.

4) My favorite things to cook are:

a) Home-baked goodies.
b) Casseroles.
c) Foods with fresh ingredients and herbs.
d) Anything that lets me fire up the grill.
e) Ethnic foods and wok dishes.

5) Other people describe me as:

a) Really friendly.
b) Diligent and methodical.
c) Health conscious.
d) Intense.
e) Curious.

There may be overlap in the answers you give, but is there one letter that you picked most often? Here’s what your answers say about your cooking style:

a) Giving: Friendly, well-liked and enthusiastic, giving cooks seldom experiment, love baking and like to serve tried-and-true family favorites, although that sometimes means serving less healthful foods.

b) Methodical: Talented cooks who rely heavily on recipes. The methodical cook has refined tastes and manners. Their creations always look exactly like the picture in the cookbook.

c) Healthy: Optimistic, book-loving, nature enthusiasts, healthy cooks experiment with fish, fresh produce and herbs. Health comes first, even if it means sometimes sacrificing taste.

d) Competitive: The Iron Chef of the neighborhood, competitive cooks have dominant personalities and are intense perfectionists who love to impress their guests.

e) Innovative: Creative and trend-setting, innovative cooks seldom use recipes and like to experiment with ingredients, cuisine styles and cooking methods.

I must have a cooking personality disorder – I had to finally admit defeat: for every question, I would probably have to say “all of the above,” or perhaps more accurately, “all of the above except ‘d.'” So maybe I did manage to learn that I am NOT competitive – which I already knew.

I did, however, enjoy Parker Pope’s further discussion of the quiz and the concept of “nutritional gatekeepers” in “Who’s Cooking? For Health, It Matters.” (Thanks, Peter, for sending me that link – it’s been a “don’t have time to skim the paper kind of week!”) With the cost of processed food and frozen food rising, more Americans are turning to home cooking – now the question seems to be, “How healthful IS home cooking?”

Fun quizzes like Wansink’s are certainly a way to raise the public’s awareness of the potential pitfalls of home cooking, but I hope it will send us to the kitchen rather than make us run screaming from it!

The Joy of Supersizing?

Just about everyone has a cooking “Bible” – at my mother’s house, it’s the old Betty Crocker cookbook she got for her wedding. I have coveted that cookbook since moving out on my own 20+ years ago! When I moved into my own apartment, my father bought me a “new and improved” Betty Crocker cookbook, and it was a total disappointment: not only were most of the recipes different, but many of them called for a package of this mix or a bag of that one. No surprise, really, since what the cookbook pushes is use of Betty’s other line – processed, prepared foods!

Now the AP reports that not only have classic cookbooks changed recipes, they’ve changed the portion sizes in the ones that remain otherwise unchanged: “No joy in this cooking: recipes can make you fat” summarizes a study first reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine (the original article is available for a fee on that site). 

“There’s so much attention that’s been given to away-from-home eating and so much attention that’s been focused on restaurants and the packaged food industry, it makes me wonder whether it’s actually deflecting attention from the one place where we can make the most immediate change,” says Cornell University marketing professor Brian Wansink, who directed the study.

By tracking 18 recipes that appeared in every Joy of Cooking edition, Brian Wansink (author of Mindless Eating) determined that portion numbers were reduced, thereby increasing the amount of calories per serving. Apparently, this portion distortion has been going on in cookbooks for a while – first in the 1940s, then again in the 1960s, with the largest jump in the 2006 edition.

Makes you wonder who first invented the concept of supersizing, doesn’t it? It also makes you realize that it’s not only important to know how to cook with whole, close to the source (i.e. non-processed) ingredients – it’s also vital to understand how to eat: changes to portion size must begin at home.

Clams with Fresh Basil

I have not come across too many uses for basil in Chinese cooking, but occasionally you can find a dish on a Chinese menu that is made with something called “nine-layer pagoda,” (jiuceng ta) which is, according to the Evergreen Seeds site, also known as Thai basil. Thai basil has a stronger flavor and a hint of cloves, but if you can’t find it, any fresh basil will work just fine in this recipe. If you can’t find fresh clams, Asian markets sometimes carry frozen ones still in their shells – odd, but they really do cook up well, although I am sometimes a bit wary of how sustainable that option is.


  • 1.5 lb small clams in their shells (visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to learn how to purchase the most sustainable variety)
  • 1 T water
  • 1 T light soy sauce or miso paste
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine or dry sherry
  • 2 T cooking oil
  • 2 slices fresh ginger root, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 scallions, minced
  • 1/2 oz fresh basil, leaves removed from the stem and gently rinsed.
  • 1 fresh red chili (optional), cut into small rings
  • sea salt, to taste


  1. Soak the clams in cool water for 20-30 m to release any grit, then gently rinse and set aside. Get rid of any that do not close firmly when gently tapped.
  2. In a bowl, combine the water, soy sauce and cooking wine and set aside.
  3. Heat the oil in the wok over medium high heat just until it shimmers, and explode the ginger, garlic, and scallions just until fragrant.
  4. Add the clams and stirfry gently, then add the liquid, reduce the heat to medium, and partially cover to allow the clams to steam for approximately 1-2 m. They should just begin to open.
  5. Add the basil and chili pepper, stir gently a few times to combine thoroughly and allow the liquid to evaporate.
  6. Adjust the seasoning and serve.