Time to make pie

I helped to make the crust here! Photo by Shauna James Ahern. Used with permission.

I can make bubbling crisps, chewy cookies, melting brownies, moist cakes and quick breads. But I haven’t tried pie.

Well, that’s not quite true. The last time I made pie, it tasted like a cheese plate minus the saving grace of cheese: fruit and crackers. Oh, the shame. And I’m a baker, so I was really upset. So I never made it again. Besides, I reasoned to myself, I don’t have a food processor. And I don’t want to use shortening—scary stuff in a can! And yes, I know there are other options besides transfats, or besides just butter. Pre-packaged crusts seemed to go against why I love to bake. So, I went on, rationalizing my way through all these excuses.

See, I also thought that pie crust was like the other forms of baking that I’ve done: mostly following a recipe, playing very little with the amounts or the ingredients, but mostly using the best-quality ingredients possible. But I cook differently than I bake—I do find recipes, but I often play with them quite a bit. This ingredient sounds good, but maybe I’ll use this instead of this. I’ll look, and taste, when I’m cooking, and mostly relying on my palate’s memory. It’s a lot more of an improvisational game than a putting together a model train, or painting by numbers.

So this week I was thrilled to see some different approaches to pie crust, and to making pie. My dear friend Shauna decided to give me a pie crust crash course. I watched her cut butter, roll her index fingers and thumbs together in order to coat the butter with flour, and  pat crust into her pie plates. It was a busy afternoon—two pies, one by hand and one by food processor, plus an online Facebook/Twitter pie party of 1500 participants, plus four children six and under needing different kinds of attention and snacks—but I learned so much.

If, like me, you are a piecrust novice, I thought I’d list a few things here that might be useful. Here are some things I wanted to remember for myself when making pie. They are not hard-and-fast rules–looking at different recipes, pie-makers will swear by their own rules, which seem to vary widely–but there are some guidelines that I can’t wait to put into practice.
• Chill everything before beginning to mix: your flour, your butter (it should be like ice cubes), your hands, your bowl. Maybe the water, which can be ice water.
• Make your filling first, especially with a fruit pie, so the fruit can macerate and rest in its juices. Cut your working recipe in half, and make the bottom buy albuterol inhaler online no prescription crust, leaving the other half of the ingredients to remain chilling in the freezer/refrigerator. Then once you have rolled out and patted the bottom crust in, you can make the top crust.
• If using a food processor, use about 8 pulses in order to cut the butter into the flour and salt. You want it to look something like dry cottage cheese curds.
• Kerrygold butter is the best. Using European butter with a high butterfat content helps the flavor.
• Work quickly, but not frantically.
• When working the dough with your hands, there’s a motion you can use to cut the butter into the flour—or rather, coat the butter with the flour. Holding both hands out in front of you, pinkies down, practice rolling your index fingers down the length of your thumbs. That’s approximately the motion you want to make in order to meld the butter with the flour.
• Contrary to what Pepperidge Farm and others might have you believe (at least, I did), the goal is actually not a uniformly consistent ball of dough, like pizza dough. You do want it to cohere, but you don’t need it to be smooth all the way through.
• A few lumps of butter throughout the dough actually help. They do not all need to be the size of a pea, either; some might be as large as a shelled walnut.
• The end result, the ball of dough, should feel something like cold cream cheese.
• Most importantly, chill your attitude. Be relaxed, be comfortable, be happy. It’s pie. It’s made to be shared.

Watching Shauna make the pies was inspiring, and it made me understand how I could get into pie-making this summer: it is baking as I like to cook. It is playful, it is flexible, it is creative, and it is pleasurable.

I saw how piemaking could be a meditative act, seeing how the baker should see what is happening to the dough, and simply roll (sorry) with the punches and adjust accordingly. I realized that I want a French rolling pin, which looks more like a mallet slightly tapered at both ends, rather than a log with handles at each end. Christmas elves, take note, please.

And I realized that the truth is that I am a perfectionist, and I hate getting stuff “wrong,” and I have a hard time fixing my “mistakes,” large or small, or starting all over again. I really need to get over that if I am going to return to my childhood dream: being a writer.

It’s time to make some pie. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Readers: any pie tips for me, or any favorite recipes? Or, do you have something “basic” that you’ve been afraid to make, and why?

Assignment #4: How I eat (A letter to E)

Dear E,
How do you eat? you asked in an e-mail message last week. How do you establish a form for this part of your life?

I have written versions and drafts of this to you in my head, upon waking in the middle of the night, on the mat at yoga class, during my run along the grassy median in my neighborhood. Places where spring’s starting to poke out of the ground in crocuses, swell the budding tips of branches, blossom in the cherry and plum trees. And I have written it at my laptop, which is usually next to the kitchen.

I have to begin, I think, with our neighborhood grocery store. It’s less than a mile up the road from our house, and it is our version of Cheers: everybody knows our names, or at least our faces. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that we go there almost every day. We get our double iced Americanos and caramel macchiatos there, our daughters have had birthday serenades and we’ve eaten family cups of gelato there. We’ve made friends there. So it is partly a place where we find community.

Sometimes we do plan our meals for the week, but more often it’s a day or two in advance. Partly because of the store, and because of its proximity, planning what we’re going to have for dinner is one of my everyday pleasures. It is where most of our disposable income goes. We don’t go out to movies very often anymore, we don’t even go to bookstores and music stores very often. But we do allow ourselves the pleasure of our grocery store. And, though we don’t have a year-round farmers market in our city, we do live within five miles of three farmers markets when the season begins. We try to go there even in the rain and cold.

Breakfasts are usually staples on hand. My latest breakfast obsession is peanut butter granola. (Before this it was toast with jam; before that it was peanut butter and jelly toasted sandwiches; before that it was smoothies.). Homemade peanut butter olive oil granola, Greek honey vanilla yogurt, sometimes with a spoonful of homemade rhubarb compote, blackberry jam, or cinnamon-vanilla applesauce. Usually in a glass ramekin, sometimes layered in a jam jar and smuggled in my backpack to school.

Lunches for me are usually leftovers from the day before. Sometimes I will pick up a bagel and cream cheese, or a salad, from one of the campus cafes.

Dinners, it must be said, mostly involve my cravings, and I usually crave some sort of Asian or Italian meal. Sometimes I’ll read about a recipe, and want to make it (parmesan-squash cakes). Sometimes I’ll think about what we have on hand already, and should use up soon (French toast for dinner, or Greek salad because of that stack of pitas in the fridge). Some days I’ll think that we need to have a vegetarian meal (spinach-feta lasagna), because we’ve had a lot of meat lately (kalbi) or that we need something warm because it’s been cold outside (minestrone) or something soothing because one of us has been sick (sinigang). Or something very quick that’s both savory and comforting (adobo).

It’s funny that you mention diet restrictions because we do have them, but I haven’t thought about them in a long time. Josh and C and M are lactose-sensitive, so nothing with cream or cow milk. We try to eat things that taste good to us, and are good for us. We’re not always successful with that balance, but we try to balance it out over a week.

But most of the time, it is about craving. And time: what can I make in a half hour, an hour, sometimes two hours, that will fit my mood and the contents of our refrigerator and the constraints of bathtime for our little girls and our workload for the evening?

I’ve been thinking about your questions, for other reasons, as well. Like you, I have experienced a difficult event recently, though I hope you understand that I am not trying to equate them. I have thought about why you would ask your questions: how do you eat? what enables you to eat? What kind of control do you exert over this part of your life, and why? And I think you might be asking, at some level, how do you find the appetite? In the churning wake of trauma, how do we reach for the hunger that is, by definition, an urge towards life?

And I can tell you about weeks when I ate purely for fuel: a handful of almonds behind my closed office door, a circle of leftover crust from the girls’ morning toast, a few pieces of cold pasta at dinner. I know that I am lucky that I had eating options. But most of my energy went towards getting out of bed, walking down certain hallways, stubbornly clutching the cool mask of a normality that I hope I never have to forge again. How the hell to reach for anything else?

Miraculously, appetite returned: at first as tentative as the signs of spring, then inexorable as the tide, luminous as the full moon, seductive as the inside of a peach. If we ever get to spend more time together, I hope I can tell you how. Maybe I’ll have figured it out by then.

See, my mind keeps circling back to your very first question. You asked how I eat. I’ve talked about how I prepare to eat, and what I eat. All of that pales compared to the family that shares my table nearly every night. With them, I eat gratefully.

And I think you know something about this.  Where and how and why I eat are actually the same…with love, with love, with love.

Hugs, Tamiko

Readers: how do you eat? (See my previous post for more of E’s questions to get you going.) E and I would love to hear from you.

Playing the soup card: sinigang

Say it with me, first: sinigang: see-nee-gahng. Still with me? All right. Let’s cook.

Out of the three Filipino dishes I make regularly at home, this dish is my true comfort food. It’s what I make when I am sick, when I have a cold. Or when someone in my house has a cold (hi, Josh!). I remember drinking it in mugs, just the broth, when I was little. I made it tonight because I’m sick, and I needed some warm food. I’m still reeling from last week’s news. And though our daytime temperatures are up in the fifties, it’s not quite warm enough yet where we can say spring is finally here.

How to describe it? Oh, boy. My version is a lemony, tomato-based, onion/garlicky beef stew with a lot of greens. What’s in it? You remember how I was saying that recipes for adobo vary? Well, the recipes vary even more for sinigang. As far as I can tell, here are its basic elements:
• Sour broth (usually, flavored with tamarind or calamansi or sinigang bouillon cubes/mix)
• Vegetables (usually, at least, a water spinach called kangkung, and green beans)
• Tomatoes
• Onions
• Meat (usually, fish, or pork, but sometimes beef and chicken)
I remember my grandma’s version with clear broth, and  some kind of white fish. My mom’s version was pretty different, so even in one generation, the dish adapted itself to ingredients more readily available in American supermarkets. My mom’s version used lemon juice rather than tamarind for the sour flavor, and she used garlic powder instead of fresh garlic, and she added spinach instead of kangkung (water spinach).

As with so many Filipino dishes, the taste will vary according to the region of the Philippines, as well as individual household preferences and availability of ingredients. To be honest, it varies so widely that I’d be scared to order this dish in a Filipino restaurant because a restaurant version would probably be pretty far from this version. I’ve never tried a mix or powder for the same reason. I’d be hoping against hope for familiarity and comfort, picky eater that I still am.

For years I’ve been playing with the recipe that my mom used, and I think I’ve finally got a version that I can post here. It’s highly adaptable (much like Filipinos themselves), and while some folks may quibble about cultural authenticity, I do love the flexibility. Recently, I asked some of my Pinoy/Pinay friends about a recipe substitution: “Think I’ll get my half-Pinay card revoked for using collard greens in my sinigang? Or will I get bonus points for fusion cuisine?”

And in generous, freespirited, life-loving Pinoy style, here’s what my friends answered:
“J: Filipinos are eminently practical. Use whatever you have on hand, sister!”

“K: Filipinos are known as the great assimilators. Kudos for the fusion!!! I’ll be right over. ;)”

“A: i don’t think you can get your pinay card revoked. it’s the kind of card that’s irrevocable. the sinigang sounds yummmmm”

And it is. Chicken soup for you, maybe, but sinigang for me, please.

The recipe: Beef sinigang

The number of variations and substitutions here is going to drive a precise home cook crazy. If that’s you, sorry. If you are a cook-by-instinct-and-palate cook, feel free to play a bit.

I am somewhere in between these two extremes of home cooking: I like to read a recipe, and then follow it until I reach an ingredient that I don’t like. Then I substitute or add different elements that sound appealing to me. I usually follow the methods more closely than the ingredients. You should feel free to do the same. If you want something buy ventolin 4 mg close to what I described above (lemony, tomatoey, garlicky/oniony), you won’t want to substitute or delete any of those ingredients, and you won’t add vinegar to make the soup sour.

If you want to make a vegetarian version, I have heard from one friend that it works, but I haven’t tried it myself. I think that a lot of flavor comes from the meat, though, so if you do not use meat, then you might consider using vegetable broth. Let me know how it turns out?

• About 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• 1-2 medium onions, roughly chopped into 1/2” pieces
• About 3-4 medium garlic cloves, minced
• About 2 tablespoons of kosher salt (or, salt to taste)
• 1 small can of tomato paste (if you use a no-salt-added paste, add more salt to soup)
• About 2 pounds of stew beef OR top round roast, cut into 1” cubes
• About 3 bunches of greens, chopped up into 1″ pieces. You can use a combination of winter (chard/collards) greens and spring greens (spinach). My mom used spinach. If you use spinach, cut the stems into bite-size pieces. Because they are tender, I prefer spinach and Swiss chard, or a combination. I used Swiss chard because it’s a darker leafy green and therefore more nutritious. You can also, as you saw above, use collard greens, though. Just be sure to cook all greens until they are tender.
• About 2 cups of water to start (then add about 1-1 ½ more later)
• About ¼ cup fresh lemon juice OR calamansi juice or (in a pinch) bottled lemon juice
(Tonight I used Meyer lemon juice and some frozen calamansi juice. It was just right. Meyers and calamansi are sweeter versions of supermarket lemons, though, so if your fresh lemon is quite bitter, you might add just a teaspoon of sugar to correct the bitterness. You want it tangy and sour, but not unattractively bitter. Dare I say, sassy, but not bitchy? And if you use bottled lemon juice, you might need to add a bit more, because it is usually milder than fresh lemon juice.)

1. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions in the olive oil until nearly translucent. Then add the minced garlic and sauté for about a minute. Do not let the onions or garlic burn.
2. Add the tomato paste and salt to the onion-garlic mixture and mix well. Then add the water. Let all of this come to a simmer.
3. At simmering point, add the beef and then more water to cover. Then cover the pot and let the soup simmer for at least an hour to an hour and a half over medium-low heat. Do not boil the soup at high heat, or for a long time, because the beef will become tough and chewy. Use low, moderately slow heat.
4. Next, add the chopped greens. Three bunches looks like a lot, but they will wilt and cook down quite a bit. Simmer the beef and greens for about half an hour more: longer if you are using greens with tougher stems (chard, collards) and less if you are using more delicate greens (spinach).
5. When the greens have cooked down, and the stems are tender, add the lemon juice and stir. Taste and add more water or salt or lemon juice if necessary. Simmer until the beef is fork-tender.

Serving suggestion
We eat it, as we often do, in a cozy earthenware soup bowl, over a mixture of cooked white rice/quinoa. If you are sick, and don’t quite feel like eating, you can ladle the soup straight into a mug and let the lemony broth soothe your throat.

Assignment #3, draft 3.5 (Chicken adobo)

Chicken adobo, for my mama

(I have written this essay for my mom. If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, somewhere down the page you may have picked up that I’m half Japanese American—not to mention the Japanese word “kiku” above. But I’m also half Filipina American, and throughout my life I haven’t written very much about that part of my heritage. I want to write more about that omission, perhaps another time.

Before I go any farther, you should know that this essay is not one of those nostalgic tributes to my mom’s cooking. I mean no disrespect to my mom’s cooking; it’s just that there are a million tributes-to-mom’s-cooking, which are bunny-multiplying on the Internet as I type. And despite the bunny metaphor, I mean no disrespect there, either.  A few weeks ago, I surprised myself by confessing to a friend that I’m constantly auditioning to be a food writer. See exhibits #3-355: the majority of my Facebook status updates.

So, insert a literal and metaphoric gulp here.  And a nod to the food. This piece is a dress rehearsal for that audition. )

I wonder if Filipino cuisine is one that slips through the “all-Asians/Asian foods look alike” cracks. Lumpia’s a close cousin to Chinese eggrolls; pancit dresses an awful lot like chow mein, maybe with a few more vegetable accessories. You can find lechon (roast pig) in Asian grocery stores with a butcher counter, but you might never order it there by using that word. There may be other forms of confusion at work, as well. Spain occupied the Philippines for a long time, so one of the latter nation’s main languages, Tagalog, bears a close resemblance to Spanish. Adobo is Spanish for sauce, and so there are a number of “adobo-style” seasonings and marinades in the “Hispanic” sections of supermarkets. If you like spicy Mexican food, you may have bought a can of chipotles in adobo sauce. I bought my first can of those a few years ago and was genuinely confused by the contents.

I know there are lots of societal and cultural reasons why Filipino food hasn’t caught on in the culinary American mainstream, the way sushi has. And as a picky-eater-turned-foodie (don’t laugh! I know I’m not the only one), I have to confess that I’m still learning to appreciate Filipino food, partly for my Filipina mom.

To eat certain foods with my mom is a way to bond with her: sipping from a cold watermelon on an oven-hot Sacramento summer afternoon; wiping our fingers after eating chunks of lechon from a styrofoam takeout box; scraping the last of a hot fudge sundae from the glass dishes at Leatherby’s, our longtime ice cream parlor. While my mom and I are close, and we love trips to both thrift stores and Asian grocery stores, we’re not always on the same page about food. I love most fruit, for example, but I don’t like watermelon, my mom’s favorite fruit. And when I lived in the Bay Area, I used to take my mom to visit her favorite Filipino cafeteria-style restaurant chain, Goldilocks. And none of the food at Goldilocks looked terribly appealing, to be honest. I felt a little bad that I didn’t want to eat more of it, to make my mom happy.

Growing up, most of the time I saw Filipino food at my grandma’s house, or at parties with her friends. My mom cooked a little bit of it at home, but not very often. Either way, I never ate very much of it. I was too picky, and for that picky child, Filipino food was far too weird. In my defense, here’s one memory that turned me off of most Filipino food for a long time. My grandma had made dinuguan, a dish with a dark, thick, muddy sauce. Maybe my grandma knew how much I loved chocolate, so she told me it was “chocolate meat.”

Dinuguan is made with, um, pig’s blood, which is what turns the sauce so dark. It is spicy and garlicky, from what I have heard. Maybe I’d like it now. But chocolate meat, it is not. (Lesson learned: when I practice “creative food labeling” for my almost-5-year old daughter, I try to make sure the label will mostly fit her expectations. Spanakopita today? I called it “spinach pie.” She loved it. At least for today.)

Adobo, however, is the national dish of the Philippines, and with good reason. It is chicken, or pork, or sometimes both, stewed in a sauce that’s a little sweet and very garlicky, peppery and vinegary. I love the audacity and scale of the butcher paper recipe at the Filipino place (Oriental Market) across from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which begins by calling for “6 whole chickens.” However, I think it may be difficult to make adobo on a large scale and make it taste good. The rendered fat from the meat can be overwhelming and unmanageable, but the sauce needs to be really strong, not watered down. I have seen adobo swimming in too much grease in the chafing dishes of Filipino restaurants. I can’t blame someone who’s tasted it at a restaurant before and not liked it.

But if you’re not vegetarian, and have never made this dish before, I want you to make Filipino chicken adobo. (If you are vegetarian and have made it heroically past the dinuguan, apologies: I’ve conferred unscientifically with a vegetarian Filipino friend, and we agreed that tofu adobo is just not the same. In fact, I think we agreed that tofu adobo is just plain wrong.)  Because now that I can make chicken adobo at home, my culinary Pinay heart will return to marinate in its garlicky vinegary peppery sauce, for always.

You too can make it at home, and it can become one of your weeknight go-to dishes, as it is for me. Picture it! You can 1) bring home some chicken; 2) start your rice cooker; 3) use seven pantry staples to make the sauce in one pot, 4) throw in the chicken, and 5) wait, paying your bills or doing the dishes, for about an hour. College students, or anyone who likes simple home cooking with vibrant flavors, should love this dish.

And my mom? She used to make chicken adobo when I was growing up, too. It’s probably one of the 2 Filipino dishes I ate. Funny, though: I think she likes my version better now. (“You add sugar to yours?” she asked, sipping from the cooking spoon a few years ago.) I’m learning to cook and like more Filipino foods, Mom, a dish at a time. Salamat for teaching me to love my daughters abundantly and generously. Here’s my recipe.

Chicken Adobo

Liberally adapted from, ahem, The Garlic Lovers’ Cookbook (Gilroy Garlic Festival)

I’d tried to make adobo on my own for years after I moved away from home, but the sauce proportions never seemed quite right (garlic: soy sauce: sugar: vinegar, etc). Adapting this recipe did the trick. So if you read carefully, you’ll see that the sauce is everything in this dish. I like it pretty strong.

Some regions in the Philippines use coconut milk, though I’ve never tried that version. Most descriptions I’ve found agree that adobo is a personalized taste, which means that it’s very much about the adobo you grew up with, rather than, say, the adobo you adopted through peer pressure. What you have here might not be the most authentic version, then, but it’s my personal taste. You should feel free to adapt it to your palate.

This recipe makes just enough sauce for the amount of meat mentioned. However, I like to double the sauce ingredients so I have enough to serve over rice. Four secrets that I’ve discovered, through tragic trial and error:

  1. Do not let the chicken boil, because then the meat will be tough.
  2. Do not cover the pot; otherwise, the steam will drip back into the sauce and it will taste watered down. You don’t want the sauce to reduce into caramel (although I did that by accident recently, and it wasn’t all that bad!), but you do want it to retain its strong flavor. This is another reason why I like to double the proportions.
  3. More apologies to the vegetarians: you really need some chicken fat for the right flavor. (Remember the Age of Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts? I made adobo during that Age, and they just don’t do the trick. “What’s missing?” I asked my Filipina roommate, one night. We mused for a while, and then nodded in unison: “Fat.”) I like to use chicken thighs, or a mix of thighs and drumsticks. Either way, make sure that some of the meat has some skin on it, and don’t trim away all of the fat.
  4. If you are really unhappy with the amount of chicken fat in the dish, you can make it, let it sit overnight, and then skim and discard the fat off the top.
  5. You can serve adobo over hot white rice, which is how it’s typically served. I like to serve it with a mixture of white rice and quinoa, both thrown into my rice cooker. So, before you start the adobo, start by cooking your grain of choice.


  • 3 lbs chicken (dark/light meat combo, or just dark, with skin) OR pork, cut into 2” cubes (Honestly, I’ve never tried the pork, I love the chicken version so much. And yes, if you used pork, it would be called pork adobo.)
  • 3-5 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • Fresh ground black pepper to taste (start with about 1 tbsp), or 15 whole black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • ½ cup cider vinegar (or a mix of cider vinegar and white vinegar, whatever’s handy)
  • 6 tbsp soy sauce (I use Kikkoman low-sodium soy sauce)*
  • 2 tbsp sugar (white or brown), or a bit more to taste


Put all ingredients into a pot and simmer, gently bubbling but not boiling, for about an hour. Check occasionally to make sure that each piece of chicken has its turn in the sauce. When the meat is beginning to pull away from the bones, it is probably finished. My husband, who’s deathly afraid of raw chicken (get it?), would want me to advise you to double-check the chicken near the bone and make sure that the meat is cooked.

*The entire dish can be made gluten-free with gluten-free tamari instead of soy sauce.