Zhen Kailian Won Ton Soup: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Six

Last Wednesday, I woke up with a bit of a throat. Nothing big, just one of those fizzy, back of the throat tickles that could be allergies or could be the beginning of a cold. The kind of sore throat that makes you crave chicken noodle soup, or a vegetarian equivalent. Fortunately, I had some homemade, Saturday morning after the Market vegetable broth in the freezer. IMG_0249That could stand in for chicken stock, but what about the noodles?  That’s when I hit upon won tons. I’d had dumplings on the brain since I made pot stickers for Chinese New Year. Some yummy won tons in a slightly Asian-ised vegetable broth with a few fresh veggies and lots of tummy-settling ginger would satisfy my desire for throat-and-soul-soothing, brothy soup while constituting a sufficiently hearty meal for my hardworking sweetie.

What, you might ask, qualifies me — an ageing white chick from the Deep South of the US living in New Zealand — to improvise Chinese soup? Well, first of all, I had a poster of Mao Zedong tacked to the ceiling over my bed throughout my teenage years. Why, you ask? Probably for the same reason I wore a dog collar all through High School: to annoy my parents, to get attention without actually DOING anything. My rebellion was pretty wimpy. I also own and have actually read The Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, relics of my Ph.D. studies.Mao

Second, I took — and survived — two semesters of Chinese History at the University of Georgia. The professor, Dr. Thomas Ganschow, was recognised as one of the very best teachers at the University of Georgia. He was also renowned for his marathon exams, the undergraduate equivalent of the Mandarin Eight-Legged Essays, for which the questions were sort of : write down all human knowledge. Be specific and include dates. Tom was the main reason I finally realised resistance was futile: I would be an historian. He also launched me on my lifelong quest to understand how other cultures work. My Dad continued to hold out for accounting in the hope that I might, someday, be gainfully employed.

Tom and his lovely Taiwanese bride, Lisa, became good family friends over the years. Lisa was the manager of the Athens Area Community Food Bank, where my mother volunteered as a board member and Thank You Note writer. Really, everyone who donated food or money to the Food Bank got a handwritten Thank You from my Mum. The Thank You Note is a lost art, leaving the world a less gracious place. Lisa is also a fabulous cook. Before my first wedding, some of Mum’s friends threw me a Recipe Shower. Lisa gave me her recipe for Chinese Egg Rolls. I cherished it. I still have it. In fact, I think I will dig it out and work on a vegetarian version. Watch this space!

I have been to China twice, both times for work. Because I was not allowed to take any technology — no smart phone, no laptop — into China, I actually got out and did things instead of staying in my hotel catching up on work, which was too often what I ended up doing on work trips. On my first trip I visited the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and met Helmut Kohl, despite my falling victim to fairly paralysing food poisoning. I was at the Great Wall on the hottest day in human history. It was 114F/45C. Honestly! I was the only person insane enough to be up there in such weather. It was so hot my hair turned bright orange! Between sweat and food poisoning, I lost about 5 kilos on that trip!

On my second trip, I had the unique “pleasure” of being stuck in a parked aircraft on the ground while Beijing had a rare, early November blizzard. The snow plows were still in dry dock. But the snow did, temporarily, sweep away Beijing’s legendary air pollution, so I woke up the next morning to the truly once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of Beijing under clear, sparkling blue skies!

My adopted Elder Sister, Kongdan Oh Hassig, a Korean China expert and linguistic whiz kid, gave me a Chinese name for my 50th birthday. Zhen Kailian means “triumph” and “lotus flower.” CCI22032016I love that. Triumph means so much to me, given my lifelong war of attrition with depression and anxiety. And the lotus flower symbolises, according to buddhist.org, “rising and blooming above the murk to achieve enlightenment.” My next tattoo will be a lotus flower.

Note to Katy: my reputation is in your hands. If Zhen Kailian actually means “Old Lady with Baggy Knickers,” it’s on you!

Katy and I traveled together a lot. She is fearless and up for just about anything. Sadly, we have never been to China together, although we did drink civet poop coffee in Bali.299900_10150433922303410_1665493123_n

Finally, some of the most interesting foods I find at the Riverbank Farmers’ Market are Asian: the beautiful Asian greens, giant daikons, strange and wonderful bitter melons, snake beans, and snow peas. Then there is the Thai herb lady who sells all kinds of Asian flavour makers: Thai basil, lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric root. And the Chinese gentleman with his handmade tofu and fresh Chinese noodles.IMG_1267

And last but not least, the “I Love Dumplings” ladies serve up the most delicious vegan potstickers ever.  My last stop every Saturday morning is at their stall, where I buy a dozen dumplings for $5. Sometimes they are so busy, I have to wait. And I do. Because the dumplings are just that good. Simon and I arm-wrestle for them for the rest of the day. I could get 25 dumplings for $10. Every week I consider this option, only to conclude that there can be too much of a good thing. But I don’t believe that. Some Saturday in the future, I’ll probably give in to temptation. But not this week. Their dumplings provided the inspiration for my won tons.

So, armed with these questionable qualifications, I set out to invent a delicious and healing won ton soup that would be 1) edible, 2) not insulting to Chinese cuisine, and 3) worthy of the name Zhen Kailian. What I came up with was pretty darned tasty, if I may say so myself.

Zhen Kailian Won Ton Soup

Ingredients: For the Won Tons

200g / 7 oz extra firm tofu

1/2 small napa cabbage, finely chopped, (about 1 lb / 450g)

1 TBSP grated fresh ginger

3 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press

1/2 0z / 15 g dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in 1 cup / 700 ml) boiling water

2 TBSP / 3 ml white sesame seeds

2 TBSP / 3ml soy sauce

24 fresh wonton or gyoza wrappers

1 egg white, beaten to soft peak stage (optional)

For the Broth:

6 cups / 1 1/2 liters vegetable broth, preferably homemade, definitely low-salt

2 pieces dried kombu (optional, but nice)

a thumb-sized bulb of fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half

leftover mushroom soaking water

2 glugs (about 1/4c / 60ml) low-sodium soy sauce

1 glug (about a TBSP) toasted sesame oil

For the Soup:


1 large carrot, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 stalk celery, also thinly sliced on the diagonal

a handful of greens, I used thin ribbons of kale, but baby bok choy would be nice, too

Steamed Jasmine Rice, optional

thinly sliced scallions for garnish

Let’s Make Soup:

Set the broth on to simmer at very low heat with the kombu, ginger, garlic and mushroom water. Give it at least 30 mins, but an hour plus would be OK, too.

To make the wonton filling:

  1. Toss the finely grated cabbage with some salt (a big pinch) in a colander and let sit for  an hour or so to drain. If you are careful with the salt, you shouldn’t need to rinse the cabbage, but taste it just in case, to ensure that it isn’t too salty.IMG_0372.jpg
  2. Squeeze out as much liquid from the cabbage as you can, then roll it up in a tea towel and squeeze out even more. The cabbage should be really dry. IMG_0376
  3. Drain and finely chop the mushrooms.IMG_0375
  4. Chop the scallions and garlic and grate the ginger.
  5. Either dice the tofu (I used sesame marinated tofu) or chop it in a food processor.IMG_0373
  6. Heat about a tablespoon of neutral oil, preferably peanut oil, in a medium skillet and sauté the shallots until they are getting brown and crispy.IMG_0374
  7. Add the garlic, ginger, and chopped mushrooms and sauté for a couple of minutes.
  8. Then, add the diced/chopped tofu and sauté until it starts to get brown and crispy.
  9. Add the cabbage and sauté until it is wilted and dry.
  10. Take the filling off the heat and add the soy sauce and sesame seeds.
  11. When the filling is cool, fold in the beaten egg white. If you want your won tons to be vegan, you can leave this out. The egg white sort of puffs up when the won tons cook, so they are fluffy, but this is a purely aesthetic thing. If you don’t mind dumpy dumplings, leave out the eggs!IMG_0378
  12. Lay out your dumpling wrappers. Put a generous tablespoon of filling on each one, then brush the edges with water to seal them.IMG_0380
  13. You have a choice of dumpling shapes: if you have square wrappers, you can make flat triangles (just fold them over once and seal), “nurses caps” (pull the two tips of the triangle on the folded edge together and seal, or “purses” (dampen all four sides, bring them together and twist to seal). If you have round wrappers and you are a showoff, you can make pleated dumplings. I didn’t have round wrappers, so I couldn’t make those. Which shape you chose is just a matter of personal preference. Simon and I were divided. He preferred the purses. I thought the bunchy part was a bit too stodgy. I preferred the nurses caps. The flat triangles turned out to be a bit tricky to eat.IMG_0379

Now, put it all together!

  1. Bring your yummy broth to a simmer and add the sliced carrots, celery, greens. Let them simmer for a couple of minutes, add the soy sauce and sesame oil, then
  2. Add your won tons — yes, you are going to cook them right in the broth. Let them simmer for 2-3 minutes.IMG_0381
  3. If this is dinner, you can bulk things up a bit by putting a scoop of jasmine rice in the bowl. This also adds a little textural interest. IMG_0382
  4. Lay the cooked wontons on the rice, then ladle over the broth and vegetables.IMG_0383
  5. You can garnish the whole thing with some thinly-sliced scallions and/or bean sprouts.IMG_0384


Carries’ French Apple Pie: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Five

More years ago than I care to mention, I was named for my two grandmothers: Frieda Matthaie Ziemke and Caroline Ketz Saltenberger. Frieda died too young and many many years before I was born. I never knew her. I have a few photos of her. She was very beautiful, and very young. Sadly, I will never be able to share any of her recipes. We have none. No written memories of her at all. At least none that I have seen. All I have of her are a few photos and her name, which I cherish. She always looks a little sad.

Caroline lived into her 80s, but she was damaged by a series of strokes, also too young, a few years before I was born. I knew her, but the Carrie Saltenberger I knew was frail, largely confined to her armchair (and later a wheelchair). She was felled by the hypertension that runs in my family and that was, sadly, untreated in her case. She was feisty, though, and had a wicked sense of humour. Woe be on any little kid that thought they could pull something over on Grandma because she couldn’t move very fast. She was a demon with her fly swatter.

For the first fifty years of her life, Grandma Saltenberger was a hard working farm girl.


Carrie Saltenberger with her three eldest children, Idamae, Billy, and baby Anita, c. 1936

Along with my Grandfather and his maiden sister, Ida — known to us as Tanta — Grandma worked their little farm in far Northern Wisconsin, raising dairy cows, chickens, occasional turkeys (which she hated), growing vegetables, and sustaining the family through the Depression and the War years on very little in the way of cash.

As the years went by, Grandma became less and less rooted in the present, but her command of the past was astonishing. I remember her teaching me to make biscuits by reciting the recipe, step by step, as I measured, sifted, blended, cut and baked. Much of what I know about the Saltenberger family’s (occasionally colourful) history came from Grandma. Usually on the sly, while my Grandpa was napping. Like many other families, the Saltenbergers have two histories, the official one and the “interesting” one. Grandpa was the keeper of the official history. You went to Grandma for the interesting bits.


Portrait of Carrie Saltenberger in 1975

She was always called Carrie. In our family, I have always been called Carrie. In my mind, I have always been Carrie. I am proud to be Carrie, because I am proud of my Grandma and what she achieved and endured. So, no, “Carries’ French Apple Pie” is not a typo. Instead, it is my take on her long cherished recipe. Two Carries. One pie.

Strictly speaking, this is not a pie at all, but a cobbler or, perhaps, a crumble. I found the recipe tucked among the correspondence between my Mum and her aunt, our Tanta. Tanta would have written the recipe after Grandma’s illness made it difficult for her to write. But Tanta made the provenance of the recipe clear, this was Carrie Saltenberger’s recipe, her favourite recipe. “Many years old.” Part of my family’s past.CCI21032016

As is often the case with Tanta’s recipes, the directions are a bit notional. I’m not sure what makes it French. Perhaps they called it “French” to distinguish it from Dutch Apple Pie, with custard, and German Apfel torte. “Put in a baking pan.” What kind? Glass? Metal? What size? Does the baking pan go in the oven while I’m making the crust? How long? These were all questions I set about to answer, through trial and error.

I did make a few changes to “modernise” the recipe a little, but nothing that changed the fundamental simplicity and homeyness of Carrie’s original. I’m not a huge fan of nutmeg, at least not in large quantities. So, I stepped up the cinnamon, cut the nutmeg, and added another dimension with allspice and black pepper. I love black pepper with fruit. It makes it taste fruitier, somehow. It is a must on flabby tasting supermarket strawberries. The Italians use black pepper on fruit a lot, so perhaps I transformed Grandma’s French Pie to an Italian one.

Grandma would have used apples from their apple tree (which was still going when I visited as a child). The apples would have been harder and more tart and probably would not have produced as much liquid as my New Zealand-grown Farmers’ Market apples would. So, I also added cornflour to the fruit as a thickener (which is entirely optional), and dotted the fruit with 2 TBS / 1 oz / 25g of well chilled unsalted butter, cut in smallish chunks, also to thicken it a bit. I also cut back on the sugar and added a bit of salt to the crust.

As it turns out, the experiment was a thundering success. The result was everything I’d hoped: homey, delicious, and as Tanta wrote, “very good easy to make, too.” Not too sweet, either. The crust tastes pleasantly eggy, something between a cake and a meringue. When warm, the spicy apples cry out for a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but all I had was cream, which was also pretty darn yum.  No wonder Tanta encouraged Mum to try it, adding it was “my favourite recipe and also your Ma’s.” Ladies, you had good taste!

Carries’ French Apple Pie


For the Fruit:

2 1/2 lbs / 1 kilo mixed apples (I used Braeburn and Galas),

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground allspice

1/4 tsp finely ground black pepper

1/2 cup / 100g sugar (I think raw sugar would be nice here, but I used granulated)

1 TBSP cornflour (cornstarch)

1/2 cup water (120ml)

Juice of 1 lemon

For the Crust:

3/4 cup / 105 g all-purpose flour

1/2 cup / 100g sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, lightly beaten


Preheat the oven to 375F / 190C

Butter a glass 9×12 or similar sized baking pan. I used an oblong gratin dish.

Peel, core, and slice the apples.

Stir together the sugar, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, and cornstarch in a small bowl, then combine it with the sliced apples.

Arrange the apple slices in the baking dish, sprinkle the water and lemon juice over them, and put them in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.


See, Auntie J: I tried to arrange the slices in sort of rows! But my soul resists order.

While the apples are baking, sift together the flour, sugar, baking power, and salt. Lightly beat the egg in a separate bowl.


Combine the beaten eggs with the dry ingredients and crumble together like pie crust, just like Tanta says. It will feel softer and crumblier than a short crust dough, but not as dry as a crumble topping.

Take the apples out of the oven, dot with the butter, and spread the dough over the apples.


Return to apples to the oven and bake for another 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.


Serve warm or room temperature with cream, custard, ice cream — whatever you fancy!


Northeast Georgia Barbecue, Sort of: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Four

We are having our first rainy day in. . . oh. . . ever so long, so it is a good time to catch up on my adventure in improvisational cooking.

Of the foods I miss most since adopting the vegetarian lifestyle — bacon, sausage, and really juicy, rare burger — pulled pork barbecue is right at the top of the heap. Actually, I started missing proper pulled pork pretty much as soon as I left North Georgia. True, pulled pork has become a foodie “thing” in recent years, but, to my mind, nothing matches the pulled pork I grew up on in Northeast Georgia. I learned to tolerate other regional versions, but none of them lived up to my tangy, vinegary memories.

Pulled pork reaches its Platonic Ideal at Zeb Dean Barbecue in Danielsville, Georgia. Before I was a vegetarian — and, OK, once or twice since, mea culpa — whenever I went home for a visit, a pilgrimage to Zeb’s was a must. I’ve written before about Zeb’s, in the context of Sweet Tea. In the context of pulled pork, Zeb’s is nirvana. The. Best. Pulled Pork. In. The. Universe.

The key to Zeb’s deliciousness is the sauce. As you can see in the photo above, Zeb’s sauce is fairly thin, with lots of vinegar, pepper, and paprika and little or no tomato. Now, for Southerners, barbecue is a very personal thing. If you travel around the Southern United States eating barbecue, you’ll realise that the preferred meat (pork, goat, beef, or chicken) and the sauce ingredients vary widely from one county to the next. In low country North Carolina, they like mustard-based sauce. In Kansas City, Missouri, where they also pride themselves on barbecue, the sauce is sweet-and-sour, brown sugar and tomato-based. I hear they make barbecue in Texas. Out of cow. I’d say I’m skeptical, but then, I am about to tell you how to make barbecue out of tofu. Glass houses, and all that.

At Red, Hot, and Blue — which was co-founded by Bush 41 hit man, Lee Atwater — the original Memphis sauce was heavy on Worcester Sauce and ketchup. Red Hot BlueNow they are a national franchise and they have wandered from their Memphis roots. RH&B now offers five different sauces, <gasp> Barbecue Brisket, and <double gasp> pulled chicken. The original, homey, hole-in-the-wall location in Arlington has, sadly, closed.

Fairlington United Methodist Church, in Arlington, Virginia, had a chicken barbecue every spring and served absolutely melt-in-your mouth half chickens, cooked over hardwood and mopped with a tangy, sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce. My mouth waters just thinking about it. I haven’t been for years. I hope they still do it.

FUMM chicken

The Annual Chicken Barbecue and Fun Fair at Fairlington United Methodist Church

The sauce I grew up with was a little bit greasy, a little bit hot, very vinery, and very black peppery (which is different from hot). My original exposure to this North Georgia sauce was at PTA fund-raising barbecue dinners that my elementary school had at the beginning of each school year. You’d get one of those plastic, divided plastic school lunch plates with pulled pork, stew (scraps and burnt end of pulled pork that were chopped and stewed with sweet corn, onion and other stuff), coleslaw, and a slice or two of squishy white bread. The sauce looked like a vinaigrette with lots of pepper and paprika.

Charlie Williams’ Pinecrest Lodge was most famous for its all-you-can-eat catfish fry — complete with deep fried dill pickle chips and fried okra — but their barbecue was great, too. Vinegary. Peppery. Smoky. Yumminess. Tragically, Charlie William’s is now gone, too. Sometimes progress sucks.

Charlie Williams

Charlie William’s Pinecrest Lodge on Whitehall Road

Pulled pork, barbecued chicken, and catfish fries are all in my past now. But was it possible that I could develop a formula for a barbecue sauce that might at least pay homage to those childhood memories? I’ve tried various versions over the years. But my Forty-Day Invention Test provided the motivation, finally, to knock the barbecue sauce challenge on the head.

There are some obvious challenges to creating a vegetarian version of something as decidedly carnivorous as pulled pork. If it strikes you as odd that a vegetarian food blogger spends so much time reminiscing about meat, just remember, I’m not doing this because I hate meat. I’m doing it because I love my husband, animals, and the planet, pretty much in that order.

For a sauce that will go on vegetables and/or tofu, the flavour needs to be a little subtler and a good bit more complex. There is also the problem of smoke. I smoked my tofu (I’ve been making smoked tofu “bacon” for several years), but because tofu is essentially fat-free, the smoke taste can be a bit harsh. You have to take care not to overdo it. Smoking the tofu also cooks it, which comes at some price concerning texture. I want to get my hands on a cold smoker, which would eliminate that problem and could enable me to smoke things like cheese. In the meantime, getting some smoke in the sauce gives you options. I added a bit of smokey flavour to the sauce by using smoked paprika instead of the regular paprika that you would typically find in a North Georgia sauce. Smoked paprika is sort of wood-neutral, that is, it isn’t obviously hickory, apple, or mesquite smoked. You could also use Liquid Smoke, which comes in hickory flavour. The only smoke essence I can get here is manuka smoke-flavored, which is lovely, but isn’t North Georgia. I wouldn’t use mesquite smoke, either, but you can do what you want. I’ll never know!

Mouth feel, at least in the tofu version, was a bigger challenge than flavour. Let’s be honest. The thing that makes pulled pork barbecue taste awesome is the fat. Perfectly slow-cooked pork is oleaginous, almost creamy, with crunchy bits of skin and burnt bits of meat. So, all the sauce needs to do is complement the flavour of the meat and balance out the fat. That’s what the vinegar does — it emulsifies with the fat to transform grease into deliciousness.

There is no grease in tofu, so my sauce was going to need more added fat than I might want to put in a sauce for meat. I used butter, but margarine would work just as well, here. Maybe even better.

In general, I disapprove of ketchup in barbecue sauce. In this case, though, it was necessary in order to hold the sauce together and make it, well, saucy. It gave the sauce the substance it needed to coat the tofu bits.

Another challenge for vegetarian barbecue is Worcester Sauce. The best-ever-and-really-only-acceptable Worcester Sauce, Lea and Perrins, contains anchovy and is not, hence, vegetarian. Some of us choose to look the other way, or pretend we didn’t read the ingredients. My ultra-principled partner will have none of that. Here, however, New Zealand came to the rescue with HP (Brown) Sauce, which is a bit like A1 Sauce, but, again, without the anchovy. It also adds a bit of saucy texture. If you can’t find HP Sauce, Pick-a-Peppa (my go-to vegetarian Worcester replacement) would work just as well, but I haven’t found Pick-a-Peppa here in New Zealand. I’ve tried a couple of vegetarian Worcester sauces, but they lack a certain zing.

Kechup is much sweeter here in New Zealand than I’m used to, so I didn’t add any sugar. You can add some, to taste, depending on the sweetness of your ketchup. You know what you like.

I’m pretty sure Zeb’s doesn’t put lemon juice in their sauce, but I like it here.

I’m happy with what I’ve come up with, even though Zeb wouldn’t recognise it. I hope you are, too!

Northeast Georgia Barbecue Sauce, Sort Of

1 cup (250ml) ketchup

1/2 cup (60ml) cider vinegar

1/2 cup water (60ml)

1/4 HP Sauce (60ml)

2 ounces (50g / 4TBS) unsalted butter or margarine

1 TBS smoked paprika

1 tsp garlic powder

Lots of finely ground black pepper (something between 1 tsp and 1 TBSP)

1 tsp Sriracha Sauce (or 1/4-1/2 tsp Tabasco)

1 bay leaf

juice of 1 lemon

Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.

The sauce is best if you let it rest for a day or two so the flavours can marry-up.

Pulled Tofu

There is a Chinese gentleman at the Riverbank Market who sells lovely, very compressed tofu. It is the consistency of cheddar cheese and doesn’t need draining. If you use the extra-firm, water-packed tofu commonly available in supermarkets, you’ll want to drain it very well.

1 lb (450g) extra firm tofu

kosher salt

1/2 recipe of Northeast Georgia Barbecue Sauce, Sort of — more to taste

Optional: your favourite spice rub.

Drain the tofu by putting on a plate and weighing it down with a couple of heavy cans or a bag of flour.

Next, you need to “cure” the tofu. Rub it well with kosher or sea salt,  a 50/50 mix of salt and finely ground black pepper, or salt and your favourite spice rub. Penzy's OzarkI used Penzy’s Ozark Blend, which is very black peppery. Think Col. Sanders secret herbs and spices. If you don’t live in the United States and can’t get Penzy’s excellent spice blends, use whatever spices you like. And next time you are in the US, find a Penzy’s store and stock up! You can mail order, too.

Wrap the tofu with its salt and spice coat in cling film and put it in the fridge overnight.

Next, you have two options.

Option 1: take the tofu out of the fridge wipe off the excess salt, and grate it on the coarse side of a box grater. This gives it that “pulled” look. Sauté it briefly in a neutral oil, like peanut or canola, then add the sauce and let it simmer for a few minutes so the sauce can soak into the tofu.

Option 2: smoke and chop the tofu: I smoked my tofu over hickory wood for about 20 minutes in my handy-dandy Cameron’s stove top smoker. My extra-firm tofu developed a bit of a crust in the smoker, so instead of grating it, I chopped it very fine. The smoker added a nice, smokey verisimilitude, but aesthetically, I would have liked to have had some grated tofu, too. Next time, I think I will go half and half.

Serve the pulled tofu on a toasted bun topped with cole slaw. I used my favourite North Carolina Pickle Slaw, recipe below.

North Carolina Pickle Slaw

I don’t know what makes this North Carolina, except I based it on a recipe from Nava Atlas’ American Harvest: Regional Recipes for the Vegetarian Kitchen (Ballentine, 1987) that she called North Carolina Slaw. Sadly, American Harvest is out of print. I think of this as my one-third slaw, since all the dressing ingredients are 1/3 cup. I guess the metric version would be 75ml Slaw.

I don’t think the celery seed is authentic. But I like celery seed in my slaw. Potato salad, too.

For the Dressing:

1/3 cup (75ml) mayonnaise

1/3 cup (75ml) American-style yellow mustard (don’t use your fancy Dijon for this)

1/3 cup (75ml) vinegar, I used malt, but cider would be more authentic

1/3 cup (66g) sugar

1 tsp celery seed

Whisk all this stuff together to form a smooth dressing

For the Slaw:

1/2 small green cabbage (about 1 lb / 450g), shredded

1/2 small red cabbage, shredded

3 or 4 scallions, chopped fine

1/4 c / 60ml chopped pickles or cornichon

1 large or 2 smallish carrots, grated

a handful of parsley, finely chopped

First, sprinkle the shredded cabbage with a bit of salt and let it drain in a colander for about an hour. Unless you’ve gone overboard with the salt, no need to rinse it. (That’s why I don’t add salt to the dressing)

Second, run the cabbage through a salad spinner to drain out as much water as possible. If you don’t have a salad spinner, wrap the cabbage in a kitchen towel as squeeze it as dry as you can. (These steps ensure that your cabbage will not weep and make the dressing all watery. Don’t worry, the cabbage will stay nice and crisp.)

Third, combine the dressing and the slaw ingredients in a big bowl and mix it well. Let it stand for at least an hour before eating.

Your delicious pulled tofu sandwiches will look something like this. Although, with luck, you won’t burn your sandwich buns!



Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Kuchen: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Two

“A Georgia peach, a real Georgia peach, a backyard great-grandmother’s orchard peach, is as thickly furred as a sweater, and so fluent and sweet that once you bite through the flannel, it brings tears to your eyes.”

Melissa Fay Greene, ‘Praying for Sheetrock’

I grew up in the Peach State.  I’ve lived many places, but in my heart, I will always be a “funny talkin’ honky-tonkin’ Georgia Peach.” Georgia is no longer the United States’ top peach producer, but it still has the best peaches. My High School sweetheart was somehow related to the owners of the local orchard, Thomas’ in the thriving metropolis of Bishop, Georgia. He could get us in early, before they opened to the general public and — more importantly in Georgia in July — before the temperature and humidity rose into the mid-80s.  Still, peach picking was hot, humid work. After an hour or two Thomas’, I’d be sweaty, thirsty, sticky and covered with peach fuzz and the occasional bee sting. But nothing can match the joy of standing on a step ladder in the middle of a peach orchard and biting into a warm, perfectly tree-ripened peach.

Peaches are my absolute, all-time favourite fruit. I came by my love of peaches early. Long before we moved to Georgia. You see, my Great Aunt, Tanta Ida, made the absolutely most delicious peach coffee cake ever.


Tanta Ida (2nd from the left) with Dad, Mum, Grandma, Janice, Grandpa, and the budgie (circa 1955)

My Aunties tell me she would make huge pans of küchen for all the various boyfriends who visited the foxy Saltenberger girls over the years. She made some for my Dad when we visited Eagle River every summer, and I happily embraced the peachy deliciousness windfall. [The family lore says Dad hated Eagle River — he didn’t — because he was bored without any libraries to hand. I think it was more a matter of vanity: people were constantly feeding him and, as you can see in this vintage photo, he got a bit chubby. And then there were Grandpa’s Scotch and Root Beers.]

All my life, I’ve tried to find that special peach deliciousness. A few weeks ago, while I was going through some of Mum’s old recipes, I found a very old, stained recipe for Tanta’s Peach Küchen. Joy! My next invention test was born.

New Zealand produces peaches. They are tasty, but they are delicate wee things. In the effort to minimise the fuzz, the varieties of peaches they grow here have very thin skins. It’s almost impossible to get them home from the market unscathed. Fortunately, the nectarines are fairly robust. Peaches have fuzz to protect the fruit from water and keep it from rotting. It’s like a little peach raincoat. Nectarines are just peaches without their raincoats. As far as this recipe is concerned, they are interchangeable.

I was, however, determined to work with the real thing. Tanta didn’t use nectarines, so I wouldn’t either. As it turns out, getting the peaches home safely was only the first of my challenges. When I started this Lenten journey of recipe invention, I said I would share the successes as well as the less-then-successes. In this case, there were a couple of false starts before I finally settled on formula that works.

The challenge, in this case, was translating a shorthand recipe from another era on another continent into something that I could recreate in my kitchen in New Zealand. The directions were fairly general, but, obviously, 3 cakes of yeast and 7 1/2 cups (1,065g) of flour was going to make one honking big cake.  But how big? “Spread in pan (greased well)” wasn’t much help. And what is the modern, dry yeast equivalent of 3 cakes of yeast?DSC_0787

For some help, I turned to my trusty copy of The Food Substitutions Bible (see “The Third Cookbook of Christmas”). It suggested that one cake of fresh yeast is equivalent to one package, or 2 1/4 tsp (8g) of active dry yeast. Great. That means I would need over 2 Tablespoons (24g) of yeast for 7 1/2 cups of flour! Argh! An oven explosion was sure to ensue.

I decided I would cut the recipe by a third(ish), since there was only me and Simon to eat it, so I trusted my baking experience and estimated how much yeast I would need. So, for 4 cups (568g) of flour, I would use the equivalent of one package of dry yeast, 2 1/4 tsp (8g). And 3 tsp of salt seemed like an awful lot, so I cut that back to 1 tsp.

The next hurdle was the liquid. Tanta, at least before my Grandfather burned the farm down (long story for another post), would have used whole, raw milk and eggs straight from the chicken. My concern was that our supermarket milk, even whole milk, might lack the right balance of fat and natural sugar. We don’t buy whole milk, but I keep a bag of New Zealand’s #1 export commodity, whole milk powder, on hand for baking. That’s what I ended up using.

I reckon the butter we get here in New Zealand is probably closer to what Tanta would have had than the processed butter we used to get in the States. The fresh (unsalted) butter here is incredibly dense, with very little added water. So no worries there.

Her farm eggs were probably as unpredictable as our farm eggs, so I held back one of the yolks, just in case everything ended up too gooey. It didn’t and I ended up using the whole egg.

The biggest question mark turned out to be the fruit-to-cake ratio. The recipe just says “arrange the peach slices on the dough.” How many peach slices? How many peaches?

In the end, I decided, the first time around, to base the number of peaches on the size of the cake. I guessed that Tanta would have made her küchen in a lasagne-sized pan (9×13 inches). I had inherited a marvellous lasagne-sized pan from the farm that Mum told me was Grandma’s coffee cake pan. Coffee Cake? Küchen? Same pan? I decided to use my 8×8 inch glass cake pan. Based on the reduced amount of dough I had, it seemed a reasonable assumption.

Tanta’s recipe called for 3 cups of sugar and 4 1/2 tsp of cinnamon for the topping. Yikes! Another hint that she was making big, sheet cakes. I cut that back to 1/2 cup (100g) sugar and 1 tsp of cinnamon — you can always add more if you like your streusel really cinnamony.

So, my first effort was OK, but not right. Why? It came down to two miscalculations: too much yeast, not enough pan. So my first küchen rose too much and threw most of the fruit and topping out of the pan and on to the pizza stone that lives at the bottom of my oven. Smelly burning sugar mess.

The good news is that two weeks later I tried again, adjusting the yeast, using a larger pan, and, just to put my own spin on things, adding oatmeal and brown sugar to Tanta’s sugar-butter-flour-cinnamon topping. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the final result.

Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen



This is not an extravagantly sweet coffee cake. It is an old-fashioned, gather around the kitchen table for elevenses coffee cake. You can eat this for breakfast and not feel guilty. After all, it’s basically peaches and oatmeal. Right? My theory is that my Tanta and Grandmother developed their recipes during the Great Depression, when money was scarce, especially on farms, and the sweetness in food came, as much as possible, from the natural sugars in the milk and fruit.


1 cup (250ml) whole milk (reconstituted dry works well)

1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar

6 TBSP (85g) unsalted butter

1 1/2 tsp (7ml) active dry yeast (NOT quick rise or bread machine yeast)

2 large eggs

4 cups (568g) all-purpose / standard grade flour

1 tsp (5ml) kosher or sea salt


7 peaches (or more, if you like)

Juice of 1 lemon

3 TBSP brown sugar

1/2 cup (100g)2 granulated sugar

1/3 cup (70g) standard grade flour

1/3 cup rolled oats

2 TBSP butter, melted

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Butter a 9 x 13 pan. To make removing the cake from the pan easier, you can line the bottom and two sides with parchment to form a sort of sling. Don’t forget to butter the parchment.

  1. Scald the milk. This makes the milk taste sweeter and, well, milkier. You can do this on the stove by putting the milk in a small saucepan and heating it until it has a skin on top, but short of a simmer. It will just be beginning to form tiny bubbles around the edges. The easier way is to put the milk, butter, and sugar in a glass container and microwave the whole works for about 3-4 minutes at high. Just to be on the safe side, I zap it for two minutes, check the temperature, and zap it for another minute or two.
  2. Let the milk/butter/sugar cool to lukewarm (skin temperature), then add the yeast and let it proof for five minutes or so. If your liquid is too hot, you’ll kill the yeast. If your yeast is good, it will go to town and end up looking like this
  3. Gently beat the eggs and add them to the wet ingredients.
  4. Sift the flour and salt together in your mixing bowl. If you are using a standing mixer, using the flat paddle, add the wet ingredients to the flour. If you are mixing by hand, make a well in the flour and add the wet ingredients.
  5. Mix everything just until it comes together into a ball. This doesn’t want a lot of kneading.DSC_0756
  6. Cover the dough and let it rise for at least an hour.
  7. While the dough is rising, peel, pit,  and slice your peaches. To peel the peaches, drop them, one or two at a time, into a pot of boiling water for 20-30 seconds then into a bowl of ice water to stop them cooking. Then you can just rub the peel off with a paper towel. Be careful. They are very slippery.
  8. Toss the peaches with the juice of 1 lemon (to stop them turning brown). You can add a little sugar here, but I don’tDSC_0751
  9. Roll out the risen dough into a rough rectangle slightly bigger than your pan, then press the dough into the pan with the dough going up the sides. Like this:DSC_0770
  10. Arrange the peach slices over the dough in one or two layers. I thought seven peaches were enough, but Simon wanted more. Use your judgement here. Or, you can throw in a handful of blueberries. The photo on the right is my first attempt — the one that exploded all over the oven — you can sort of see the signs already. But the combination of yellow and white peaches and blueberries was pretty, and tasty.
  11. To make the topping, sift together the dry ingredients, then stir in the melted butter with a fork. Mix it all up until the butter is well distributed. DSC_0769
  12. Spread the topping evenly over the peaches, then cover with a towel and let rise for another 30 minutes. This is a good time to preheat the oven, if you haven’t already.DSC_0773
  13. Bake the küchen in the 375/190 oven for about 40 minutes. The toothpick test is tricky, with all the gooey fruit. It should be done when the crust around the edges is nice and golden brown. If you did the sling thing, you can try pulling it up. If the whole thing sort of slumps in the middle, you might need a little more baking time.
  14. This is delicious hot, so you only need to cool it on a wire rack for a few minutes before you grab your fork, brew and cuppa, and eat Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen.DSC_0774


Smoked Tomato Bisque with Roasted Corn and Zucchini: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode One

I love smoke. I’m not advocating smoking. Don’t do it.Cigarette smoke is nasty. But, I have to confess an appreciation for the fragrance of good pipe tobacco or a fine cigar. My Uncle Chuck, though, smoked tobacco that smelled wonderful. A whiff of lovely pipe tobacco still makes my heart squeeze and I think of him. And miss him. The smell of a wood fire always smells like winter, and home. Here in New Zealand, lots of households still supplement their heating systems and hot water with wood-burning fireplaces. At the first cold snap, the air smells like hardwood smoke.


A mini Kale Whisperer with Uncle Chuck and his sweet-smelling pipe, circa 1958

I had a wood-burning fireplace in the basement of my house on Mt. Airey lane, but the chimney was three stories high (it was a row house) and didn’t pull very well. Every time I lit a fire, the house filled up with smoke, setting off all the smoke alarms, even the one the top floor — turns out the interior of the house pulled better than the chimney! I also discovered that wood smoke in large amounts gives me migraines. So the WBFP was replaced with a less evocative, but healthier gas fireplace.

Not only do I love the smell of smoke, I love the flavour of smoke. Smoked salmon, smoked cheese . . . smoked anything, really. Smoke is a boon to vegetarians. It is one of the ways to impart a rich, umami flavour to vegetables. I use smoke often in my cooking. I have a Camerons stovetop smoker that my Auntie Janice gave me for Christmas years ago.    If you don’t have an outdoor smoker or a stovetop smoker, though, there are lots of videos on You Tube that show you how to improvise one.


Whichever method you use, it is well worth adding smoking to your vegetarian cooking repertoire. In my first invention test, smoke lifted tomato soup to a new level.

Smoked Tomato Bisque with Roasted Corn and Zucchini

I started out with a kilo or so of tomatoes, half Roma sauce tomatoes (which they call “low acid” tomatoes here in New Zealand) and half regular old slicing tomatoes. The first step was to smoke the Romas. I smoke the Romas because they are meatier and seem to soak up the smoke better. I just sliced them in half, lengthwise, put them in the smoker, drizzled them with a little olive oil and tucked five cloves of garlic in amongst the tomatoes. The garlic smokes nicely and comes out sweet, not at all “garlicky”. These smoked over applewood chips for about half and hour and came out looking like this:

In the interest of not overpowering all the other flavours with smoke, I roasted the slicing tomatoes, along with the kernels from two large ears of sweetcorn.

If you don’t have a stovetop smoker and can’t be bothered to improvise one, you can approximate the deliciousness by adding a teaspoon or so of liquid smoke. Then, you will roast all the tomatoes with the garlic.

Cut the raw kernels off the sweet corn. Don’t worry about getting every last little bit, because you are going to make a broth with the corn cobs. Just break the cobs in half and plunk them into a saucepan, add a little salt and sugar (which enhances the corniness of the corn, but is optional if you are really concerned about added sugar), cover with water and boil those puppies for twenty minutes or so. You can give the cooked cobs to your chickens. We have learned the hard way, however, NOT to give them to your dogs, no matter how much they promise not to yack them all up on your carpet!


Line the baking sheet with foil so you can catch all the sweet roasting juices. Drizzle the tomatoes and corn with some olive oil and smoosh everything around to coat the veggies, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and roast in a 425F (220C) oven for 15 minutes, stir things around a bit and roast for 10-15 minutes more till it looks like this:


The smoked and roasted tomatoes will slip right out of their skin. If you are sensitive to tomato seeds, you can also deglop them. I don’t mind the seeds, but I do like to remove the woody bit of the core that is right next to the stem. It’s not very nice. Put the tomato innards into a medium soup pot in which you have sweated two large chopped shallots or a small chopped onion with a Tablespoon of olive oil, along with the smoked garlic, a few kernels of the roasted corn, and the corn cob broth and simmer over low heat for a while. I like to keep it long and low, say 45 minutes, to really let the flavours combine.

While the tomatoes and broth are simmering, clean a couple of medium zucchini and halve them lengthwise. Remove about 2/3 of the roasted corn from the baking sheet. Smoosh the zucchini halves around in the oil and baking juices, put them cut side down on the sheet along with the rest of the corn kernels. Roast them in the same 425/220 oven for about 10 minutes, flip the zucchini over and roast for another 10-15 minutes, until the zucchini has started to brown. The corn kernels should be brown and crunchy. Cut the zucchini into chunks and set aside with the roasted (but not the crunchy) corn.


Let the tomatoes cool a bit, add a handful of chopped herbs (basil, parsley, tarragon, mint, or dill — whatever you like) then puree everything in a blender, or in the pot with an immersion blender. If you want a creamier soup, you can add 1/4 cup or so of half-and-half or milk. To make a vegan soup, just throw a handful of the roasted corn in when you blend the soup to thicken it a bit.

Now, add the zucchini and the rest of the roasted corn and reheat everything gently (especially if you have added dairy). Stir in a Tablespoon or so of lemon or lime juice or white wine vinegar and garnish each bowl with some of the crispy roasted corn and some more fresh herbs — I used basil.


This is not your mother’s Campbells tomato soup, but it is just as yummy with a grilled cheese sandwich.


This makes four main course servings, unless you’ve invited Simon over for dinner. Then it makes three. If you want more soup, just start with more tomatoes, zucchini, and corn.

1 1/2 kilos (or a little over 2 pounds) of ripe tomatoes, a mix of Romas and slicing tomatoes is nice

2 large shallots or 1 smallish onion

4 cloves of garlic, peeled but not chopped

2 large ears of sweet corn

2 medium zucchini

2 limes, 1 lemon, or white wine vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil

Fresh herbs of your choice (basil, tarragon, mint, dill, parsley)

kosher or sea salt and black pepper to taste

Liquid Smoke (optional)



The Perfect Pizza Crust: A Tutorial

Making your own pizza crust has numerous advantages that you’ve heard dozens of times before: its cheaper than restaurant pizza, it doesn’t have lots of baddititives, you can control the fat, salt, and sugar content, and you can top it with whatever you like. Even potato chips and pickles.

It is also fun and rewarding.

And if you serve it to your non-pizza-crust making friends, they will say “ooh and ahh” (because they will be too busy chewing to say more), and everyone will think you are very clever, indeed!

I have settled on a few basic things that you must remember when making your own version of perfect pizza crust:

  1. You can make pizza crust at the last minute, but you cannot make perfect pizza crust at the last minute. You must plan ahead, at least 24 hours. They key to pizza crust that is the perfect combination of blistery, crispy, and tangy is time. But it takes less than five minutes to set the dough up, and then it just sits happily in your fridge for a day or two. Then, on the day you are planning to bake it, take the dough out early in the day and let it lounge around in your kitchen until it looks like a science experiment. This was, until recently, the greatest barrier to my achieving pizza crust nirvana.
  2. Use plain old unbleached all-purpose flour. Bread flour has too much gluten and will make your crust harder to stretch and tougher. Fancy pizza flour blends are not worth the extra cost. And weigh your flour. That way the ratio of dry to wet ingredients will always be right.
  3. Stretch your pizza dough onto a sheet of parchment or baking paper, and let it rest there. When its ready to bake, you can just shift the paper on to a baking sheet or pizza peel, and shift it directly onto the pizza stone. Don’t let anyone persuade you that you can do the same thing with cornmeal. It will end in tears. And who wants uncooked cornmeal all over their pizza crust?
  4. Use a pizza stone, or baking tiles. The key to perfect pizza crust is to cook it fast at very high heat. If you don’t have a pizza stone and are too poor to go to the building supply store and buy a few unglazed ceramic tiles, you can start the pizza on a baking sheet and the transfer it midway through baking directly on to the oven rack. I leave my pizza stone on the bottom rack of my oven all the time.

So, here’s the drill:

Start by putting 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of active dry yeast in 1 1/4 cups (355 ml) warm (verging on hot) tap water. Don’t use quick rise (bread machine) yeast. Set it aside and let the little yeasties wake up and start farting. After a few minutes, it will look like this:


Measure 497 grams of all purpose flour into the bowl of a standing mixer or food processor. That’s 3 1/2 cups if you don’t have a kitchen scale.


Add 1 1/2 teaspoons (7.5 ml) salt (I used pink salt here, but kosher, table, or fine sea salt work just as well)


When the yeast has demonstrated its liveliness, add 2 Tablespoons (30 ml) of extra virgin olive oil. You’ll end up with a bubbly concoction that looks like this:


Attach the paddle to your mixer (or the metal blade, if you are using a food processor) and run, or pulse it for a few seconds to incorporate the salt and flour. Then, gradually (but not too gradually) pour in the water/yeast/EVO mixture.

Some recipes will tell you to add the flour to the liquid, but I find adding the liquid to the flour just works better.

Let the mixer run until the dough starts to come together into a shaggy glob. It won’t really come together in a smooth ball — if it does the dough might be a bit dry. It should pretty much clean the sides of the bowl, though.

IMG_0200 IMG_0202

At this point, you can take the dough out of the bowl and put it on a well-floured surface. It will look a mess:


Now, gently knead the dough for just a few turns to coax it into a smooth, but still slightly sticky ball:

IMG_0209 IMG_0204 IMG_0206

Put your lovely batch of pizza dough into a plastic bag and pop it into the fridge, like this:


Go to bed.

When you wake up the next morning, you’ll find those little yeasties have been doing their thing all night, and your fridge now looks like this (this is a real, untouched photo):


This recipe makes enough dough for two good-sized pizzas, so at this point, you want to take the now risen and VERY sticky dough out of its overnight bag, knead it down a few turns, and divide it into two more-or-less equal parts (the kitchen scale helps here):


If you are only making one pizza today, put the second ball of dough back in its overnight bag and into the fridge to become pizza another day. Take the lucky ball of dough, that gets to be pizza today, and put it in an appropriately-sized bowl with a bit of EVO. Twirl the dough around in the EVO to get it nice and oiled up. Cover that baby up with some plastic wrap and put it in a nice warm place until about an hour and 30 minutes before you plan to bake your pizza.


By then, your dough will have risen away happily and look like this:


Turn your oven on to 260C or 500F, or as hot as it will go. Make sure your pizza stone is in the oven, if it doesn’t live there. You want that puppy HOT.

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured surface and gently knead it a few more turns, just to incorporate the oil and get it back into a more compact ball. Then cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 30 minutes, and up to an hour.

Now, it’s time to stretch your crust. Start with your nicely-rested dough and shape it into a rough circle, like this:


Then move it over to a sheet of parchment. Making generous use of flour, stretch the dough into the appropriate shape and size. Or you can toss it, but if you know how to toss pizza, you probably don’t need my help. If the dough is being stubborn, you can use a rolling pin, but try not to. My oven is tiny, so to achieve maximum pizza surface area, my pizzas are ovally rectangles:


Now it needs to rest again, for 30 minutes or so. And it is ready to bake. I always pre-bake my crusts for about 5 (no more) minutes before I put on the toppings. It keeps the crust from getting soggy. You can brush it with olive oil, but I don’t. Just slip the crust and the parchment on to a flat baking sheet or pizza peel, then directly on to the baking stone. It will get lots of fun bubbles on the surface, but you can press those back down when you take it out to put on the toppings.


After this initial baking, you won’t need the parchment to move the crust around, so just slide it back on the baking sheet or pizza peel and put on your chosen toppings. I usually start with the thin layer of cheese, but you know what you like.


Put the assembled artistry back into the hot oven for another 8 minutes or so.

Take it out of the oven.


Slice it.


And eat pizza.

Iced Tea

Let me start by warning that, as much a I love him in SVU, I will not be writing about this guy:


We’re just talkin’ a different sort of Iced Tea here. But he does deserve a shout out.

When it comes to per capita tea drinking, New Zealanders are right up there with the British Motherland. I am an enthusiastic convert to the afternoon cuppa — my favourite is Yorkshire tea with a little milk, no sugar. It is a cup that aspires to be coffee, but without the jittery after effects. I like Earl Grey, too, but with lemon, no milk. My all time personal favourite is Lapsong Suchong, which is the closest thing to non-alcoholic Islay Single Malt. But as my beloved is a strict traditionalist, and since it is he that usually puts the kettle on in the afternoon, my usual is English Breakfast, milk, no sugar.  It is important to note that Brits (and Kiwis, in general) believe that strong, hot, very sweet tea, is the cure to whatever ails you. And they’re usually right. I’m not a biscuit dunker, but, Judi Densch’s description of the process of Builder’s tea dunking in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has me thinking twice.

And, just for the record, an oreo cookie just screams for a glass of ice cold milk. I’m a twist-lick-dunk-dunk girl.oreo dunking

I now drink my tea almost exclusively hot, out of a mug. This is a great departure from the South of my upbringing, where tea is drunk only one way: iced and sweet. This shift doesn’t reflect any dampening of my love of iced tea; rather, it is a function of living in New Zealand, where iced tea is just another sugary drink sold in bottles with strange and unwelcome flavours like peach and mango. In most of the world, outside the Southeastern United States, you can’t walk into a restaurant or cafe, order iced tea, and just assume they know what you mean. You are likely to get brewed hot tea poured over ice with some sugar packets or Splenda on the side.

sweet tea

Even where I have to settle for unsweetened iced tea, it is my restaurant beverage of choice. It is more festive that just plain water, less intoxicating (and usually cheaper) than beer or wine, goes with almost any cuisine, and because you actually pay for it, waiters are less cross if you choose to linger over an additional glass after you’ve finished your meal. It plays the same important social function as that last little bit of wine in the bottle. And if you choose not to drink alcohol, you don’t feel quite so awkward hanging around. I costs next to nothing to make, so everyone wins!

Proper iced tea has three ingredients: water, tea, and optional sugar. A slice of lemon is acceptable, as long as I have the option of picking it out. No ginger. No lemonade. No peach, mango, raspberry, or — please GOD — frappe.

Kool Aid pitcher

My Grandpa and Grandma Saltenberger had this plastic Kool Aid pitcher and cup set that made the Kool Aid taste even better

I didn’t grow up with iced tea. My family came from Europe via the Upper Midwest, where the whole point of drinking things was, for the most part, keeping warm. Or intoxicated. When we moved to Georgia, where it is hot . . . DAMN hot . . . for at least six months a year, the refreshing beverage of choice at our house was Kool-Aid. The old fashioned kind that didn’t come with sugar.  And ours didn’t get sugar. It was, to say the least, tart.

I learned about iced tea from my southern friends, who drank the stuff by the gallons.  And iced tea in Georgia is sweet. I mean really sweet. As in make your cavities SING sweet. While the iced tea nation pretty much starts at the Mason & Dixon Line (essentially the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland), the Sweet Tea Nation begins at the Virginia – North Carolina border). If you grew up in Virginia, and you’re accustomed to ordering iced tea and adding your own sugar, you’ll need to change your strategy in the Sweet Tea Nation. Here, tea is sweet. And cold. Even in winter. If you want that other stuff, you will have to ask for it. You will have to say, out loud, in front of God and everybody, ” I would like unsweetened tea, please” and immediately brand yourself as an Yankee. You can also order hot tea, but I won’t promise what you’ll get. It is (sort of) acceptable, and slightly less suspicious, to order half-and-half (iced tea, half sweet, half unsweet).

Now, I know I said I don’t approve of lemon-flavored iced tea, but there is an exception: the Arnold Palmer, which is half iced tea and half lemonade. This is best made with unsweetened tea and real (ONLY real, squeezed) lemonade (not the instant stuff, and not the pub lemonade you get in your shandy). This is not, however, southern. Arnold Palmer is from Pennsylvania.

If you happen to find yourself at Zeb Dean’s Bar-b-que in Danielsville, Georgia, you’ll get: a loaf of Sunbeam Bread (in the bag), a plastic pitcher of sweet tea (you can also get one of unsweetened tea, if you have the courage to ask for it — then you can make your own half-and-half), a serving of “Stew” (aka Brunswick stew, but made with the barbecue detritus instead of the traditional squirrel), a pitcher of Zeb’s peppery, vinegary sauce, and the best damned pulled pork barbecue in the whole wide world. Strictly speaking, however, Zeb’s barbecue is not vegetarian. So this is not an official Kale Whisperer endorsement. But really, if you are ever headed south on I-85, and you eat pork and/or are a slacker vegetarian like me (Shame on you!) it is well worth the 45 minute or so detour. (Sorry, Wee Charlie.) zebs

So, what makes southern sweet tea unique? There are two key factors: the tea, and the sugar delivery system.

First, the tea. Most commercial teas — Lipton, Tetley, PG Tips, etc. — are for brewing and drinking hot with milk. So they are WAY to strong for iced tea. When you chill them, as you must do with iced tea, the tea turns cloudy. Not only does it look awful, but it makes the tea too tanniny. When I was growing up, the mainstream tea companies hadn’t caught on to this yet, so the iced tea brand of choice was Lusianne: “Alway clear as a bell.”

Nowadays, most of the big companies offer special iced tea blends that address the cloudiness issue, but for those who live in non-iced tea cultures, like New Zealand, there is still an alternative to those horrid iced teas in bottles. The answer is sun-brewed tea. I don’t understand the science, but it you brew regular tea in the sun, instead of with boiling water, it doesn’t get cloudy. It works like this:

Sun Tea:

  • Find a large glass container with a fairly tight lid and fill it with the desired amount of COLD water.
  • Add 2 or 3 regular teabags (or the equivalent amount of loose tea) per litre (or quart) of water.
  • Place the jar in the sun for no more than 4 hours (obviously, this only works on sunny days).
  • Then remove the teabags (or strain out the loose tea) and chill the brewed tea as soon as possible.
  • Sweeten (or not) to taste. This works with regular or green tea).

The sugar delivery system for proper sweet tea is easy peasy, and absolutely crucial. You can sweeten your sun tea with Sweet and Low or Splenda, but I don’t want to know about it. Unless you like your tea cloyingly sweet, you aren’t going to add that much sugar anyway. You may, however, add artificial sweetener if you send me a doctor’s note. Here’s the process:

Simple Sugar Syrup for Southern Iced Tea:

  • Put one cup of sugar and three cups of cold water in a saucepan that is high enough not to boil over.
  • Watch it carefully.
  • Bring the sugar and water to a boil and AS SOON as the water starts to boil, turn it down to a simmer.
  • Simmer the water and sugar, stirring constantly, until the sugar has completely dissolved. This usually takes about 5 minutes. Cool for 4 hours.
  • Done. But,
  • If you like flavoured tea, you can, at this point, add mint, basil, a little lemon or orange peel, or fresh ginger — whatever flavour you like — and steep until the syrup is cool. Again, about 4 hours. Pour the syrup through a sieve, and press the flavouring to get out all the essential oils and yumminess. This way, your sugar syrup will taste better and last a long time in the fridge without moulding.
  • You can use the mint syrup to make that other Southern Classic, the Mint Julep, which involves: a mint julep cup (or an old fashioned-sized glass) filled to the brim with crushed or shaved ice to which you add a TBS (or two if you have a sweet tooth or don’t like whiskey), and 1 1/2 jiggers of whiskey — Bourbon or Tennessee mash are traditional, but mild blended scotch works too. What you get is a sort of alcoholic shave-ice. I haven’t tried this with Single Malt because, why would you? But you can try it if you want.
  • Basil syrup makes a nice change, but then you are absolutely not allowed to call it a Mint Julep. Really, though, the cocktail possibilities are endless. Once you try it, you won’t want any other cocktail in the heat of summer, except, perhaps, a nice G & T (with bitters).

And remember:

Sweet Tea Keep Calm


The Kale Whisperer’s Rumpledethumps

Mashed potatoes, mixed with other vegetables, make terrific casseroles that can be either mains or sides. One of my all time favorites, and a regular at holiday dinners in our family, is Rumpledethumps (which is also known as Colcannon or Bubble-and-Squeek, but Rumpledethumps is the most fun to say out loud).potatoes-group

For years, I used the Rumpledethump recipe from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant (Touchstone, 1990). They suggest a combination of white cabbage, broccoli, and leeks. These are yummy, and make a good, traditional side dish. They are really good with turkey gravy.  But I wanted something livelier that could stand-alone as a vegetarian main.

I settled on kale, cauliflower, and leeks. The kale adds texture and a ton of flavor, the cauliflower balances that out with a milder, brassica flavor, and the leeks add a nice sweetness that balances out the slightly bitter kale. The Moosewood recipe uses cheddar cheese, and that works fine with the kale, too. But I prefer something nuttier and more assertive – a Gruyere or Parmesan. Gruyere can be hard to find and, in New Zealand, quite pricey, so my go-to cheese is a mixture of parmesan and cottage cheese.

The star here is the kale. For a recipe like this, I like it cut into thin ribbons and braised. Here’s what I do:

  • Start with a large bunch of kale, roughly 1.5lbs/1kg
  • Take the tough central stems out of the kale (I just grab the stem at the end and strip it off, like you would strip the leaves off a tree branch; you can also cut it out with a sharp knife or scissors), and slice into thin ribbons – no wider than 6mm/.25 inch. Rinse the ribbons several times in cold water to get off any sand, then let them drain in a colander.
  • Heat a Tablespoon of olive oil. When it is shimmering, add a clove or three of garlic, some hot pepper flakes if your like, and sauté for just a few seconds
  • Add the kale ribbons, with whatever water is clinging to them, to the hot oil with a sprinkling of salt. You’ll probably have to do this in batches. Just add a new handful as the previous batches wilt. You might need to add a pinch of salt to help it wilt along. When all the kale ribbons are in and wilted, sauté them a bit longer, just to ensure that they are all coated with oil and fully wilted.
  • Add about 120ml/4 fl.oz. braising liquid of your choice. I like red or white wine, but vegetable broth, potato cooking water, or just plain water will work too. You can even use chicken broth, just don’t tell me about it.
  • Other kale gurus will tell you to just braise it until its crisp-tender, but crisp tender kale still tastes raw to me. I braise mine for about 15 minutes, until it has turned a nice, dark green and is tender, but a bit chewy. Add more liquid if it gets dry. Season it with salt and pepper. Toss in the juice of a lemon or a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, or to taste. It ends up looking something like this:DSC_1015
  • You can use this kale for all sorts of things. Add it to marinara sauce for pasta. Toss it with chunky pasta (like penne) with a little high quality olive oil, chopped raw tomatoes, and toasted pine nuts or walnuts — This doesn’t need cheese, so it makes a nice vegan option. If you really need cheese, parmesan is good and gorgonzola is better. Use it to doctor up commercial bean and lentil soups. And, of course, it is an awesome pizza topping!

For the Rumpledepthumps, you’ll need:

  • 6 cups of diced potato (I like a mix of floury and waxy; leave some of the waxy potatoes unpeeled. If you are a baked potato fan, by all means, leave some of the flour potatoes unpeeled), cooked until tender (save some of the cooking water) and mashed with:
  • 2 TBS/25g butter or oil
  • 2 oz/125g cottage cheese (large curd is best)
  • 1 cup / 250 g mild white cheese (Monterey Jack or, in the Southern Hemisphere, Egmont works great here)
  • 1 TBS Dijon or coarse ground mustard
  • 1 large bunch of kale, preferably lacinato or blue / Russian, braised as per above (Curly kale is hard to cut into ribbons, but if that is all you have, you can chop it fairly fine — in this case, you’ll need to wash it first.
  • ½ medium head of cauliflower, broken into small flowerets and lightly steamed
  • 1 large or 2 small leeks, julienned or thinly sliced and sautéed in butter or olive oil until it is translucent. For a slightly sweeter, richer flavor, you can let the leeks caramelize a bit.

Mix the Kale, cauliflower, and leeks together with the mashed potatoes/cheeses; add a bit of potato cooking water or braising liquid if it seems dry.

Turn the whole yummy, gooey mess into a buttered 2qt/ 1.8 l casserole. Dot with a little more butter or olive oil, sprinkle with about  1 oz / 25g of shredded parmesan.

Bake in a 350F/180C oven until it’s piping hot and the cheese is lightly brown. That will take about 15 minutes if everything is fresh off the stove. Longer if it has cooled. This is even better assembled a few hours (or even a day) ahead. The flavors blend nicely, that way. It will take longer to reheat, and you’ll want to start off with it covered with foil: say, 15 minutes with foil, and 15 minutes without.

For a vegan/dairy free version, you can make a cream sauce for the kale:

  • Heat 2 cups of vegetable stock until it’s hot but not boiling (2 minutes on high in the microwave)
  • sauté a small shallot or 1/2 a small oinion, finely chopped, in 3 TBS olive oil or margarine (if you must) until translucent.
  • Whisk in 2 TBS regular flour and 2 TBS nutritional yeast and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes. It should be the consistency of wet sand.
  • Pour in the vegetable stock all at once and whisk like crazy until it is smooth. Then, bring it to a simmer and cook for a few minutes to let it thicken.

Add the creamy sauce to the kale, leave the cheese out of the potatoes (they might need some extra cooking water to get smooth), and proceed with the rest of the process. This version is good topped with a handful of whole wheat breadcrumbs and some finely chopped walnuts tossed with some olive oil and your favourite chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, and chives are nice)– these will get nice and toasty while the Rumpledethumps bake.