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Friday, June 23, 2006

Meet Ayun Halliday

I discovered the talented not to mention hilarious Ayun Halliday only recently when she added my blog to the list of links on her blog and we traded some emails. On vacation in London or "holiday" as the Brits say, I read her latest book Dirty Sugar Cookies subtitled culinary observations, questionable taste. If you are looking for a book to make you laugh out loud, embarrassing yourself in front of strangers on a plane this is it.

Having grown up in the 70's and 80's there was a lot I could relate to in her stories of a well-spent youth. The format of the book is much like the Ruth Reichl trilogy of autobiographies, each chapter concluding with a recipe. Her recipe instructions are a hoot. For example, she begins her recipe for Vietnamese sandwiches by instructing you to: Grate a fat carrot. Sprinkle it with 2 tablespoons of seasoned sushi vinegar and then give it some privacy. Slice half a cucumber movie star thin...

It's hard to share how funny the book is without giving away the punchlines. Suffice it to say that Ayun's Australian Pizza Incident which takes places in Indonesia is about the funniest thing ever. Having enjoyed a Four Seasons pizza that included broccoli in Budapest (since when is broccoli a season??) I think she's really on to something. Perhaps her next book could be Pizzas Around The World.

Ayun is in the midst of a virtual book tour. This seems to mean that bloggers interview her remotely. That's all well and good but as long as we're going virtual, let's eat instead. In addition I've created a virtual version of "find-something-to-eat-in-a-strange-kitchen", read on for more...

Kicking off our virtual event, Ayun and I share our ideal day of meals:

AMY: I'm having a proper British fry up for breakfast, my version is two poached eggs, (yes I know they are supposed to be fried) toast, grilled tomato, sausages, British bacon and "chips" (fried potatoes). No beans! This was so good in London I'm still obsessed with it.

Whenever I go away on a trip I come back craving Mexican food. For lunch chilaquiles with salsa verde at Sanborn's in Mexico City.

AYUN: Your breakfast fry up sounds pretty good for lunch, but I don't want to rob you of the pleasure of trying a taste off each other's plates by copying everything you're having. I'd go for the shrimp paste grilled on sugar cane at Doyers restaurant in Chinatown, but I've mentioned that dish so many times here on the cyber road that it's going to be hard to disabuse people of the notion that I'm a major shareholder in the joint, so... goddamnit, you got me in the mood for Mexican food and now I can't think of anything else! Okay, wait, I know. I'll go to some restaurant in the French countryside and I'll go in the early 1950s, on the advice of my friend, Julia Child, who can steer me toward the menu's stand out dishes. I don't need Julia to tell me that I'll start out with a dozen raw oysters on the half shell, and I'll wash them down with a wonderful sparkling wine, something I'd never drink in real life. And I'm going to end with chocolate mousse and then some skanky-smelling cheese that's older than my children put together.

Okay, I'll have your lunch for breakfast, and I'll eat it at Frida Kahlo's house. I'm going to have two large cappuccinos with that, because I need to keep my energy up for the final week of the virtual tour.

AMY: For dinner, a plate full of papusas filled with cheese and zucchini from my favorite secret spot in the Mission district. I'll write about it someday, I promise.

AYUN: I'll hold you to that, but wait, no snack? Come on, let's at least have some edamame, salted up good. It'll be like English teatime, but Japanese, with beer.

Now back to dinner - again, I'm hearing the siren call of your Mission district, but I gave myself a hankering for Japanese too, so let's go to this restaurant that my friend Noriko's mother took me and Greg to when we were in Tokyo for the Japanese production of Urinetown. We had more than a more than a dozen courses, all exquisite, all of which featured tofu (or yuba, a by-product of the tofu making process). We were there as Japan was gearing up for its annual plum blossom festival, so we had these little fairy goblets of plum wine, and a beautiful milky soup in which tofu cut and dyed to look like plum blossoms floated. (Did I mention that we're in a private tatami room, and every ten minutes or so the waitress will slide the shoji screens open to serve us the next course, shuffling around on her knees? Yes.) I will let the chef and the tourist authority of Japan decide what we should be served, but let's try and convince them that we're very important food writers from America, the kind of important that should be comped, because I don't think we're going to want to see this bill. Then, on our way back to the ryokan (what am I talking about, the Imperial Hotel), let's stop off under the J Rail tracks for some yakitori. I have to have the eggplant, but you should have the chicken.

AMY: Many of Ayun's stories involving herself as a child or her own kids reminded me of my years as a babysitter. During that time I used to play a kind of game, challenging myself to cook something interesting with whatever was on hand in a strange kitchen. In a virtual extension of this game, Ayun provided me with a handful of her top favorite ingredients or whatever happens to be in her fridge from which I will concoct a recipe or menu.

AYUN: You're on, lady!
Golden Boy Brand Fish Sauce
Nishiki Rice
Brown Rice
Cascadian Farm Frozen Peas
Frozen Eel
Sushi Vinegar
dried Thai chilies
chiptole peppers
poblano peppers
rice noodles
baby spinach
fig jam
and pretty much any seasoning your heart desires plus milk, seltzer, staples, and a supply of noxious allegedly organic items for the children's lunch boxes

AMY: Wow! If I was your babysitter I'd seriously think about bringing a bag lunch. But your list does intrigue me. It makes me think of a Burmese salad. You know the type with little piles of crispy garlic and stuff that you sprinkle over spinach leaves?
Here's how I would approximate that with your ingredients:

Burmese Style Salad

3/4 cup peas (this is supposed to be split peas but let's just be creative, shall we?)
3/4 cup peanuts (if you have them otherwise skip)
3/4 cup fresh ginger slivered into very skinny matchstick
3/4 cup distilled white vinegar
3/4 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (if you have it otherwise skip)
2 tablespoons sesame seed
1/3 cup mild flavored oil
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 cups finely shredded raw spinach
1/4 cup sliced poblano chili, sliced into very thin strips
1/3 cup slivered onion
2 limes or 1 lemon, cut into wedges

Place ginger and vinegar in a small bowl, then cover and chill at least 2 hours or up to 2 days; drain and discard vinegar.
In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook coconut stirring often until crispy and golden brown, about 4 minutes; pour out and set aside. Repeat with sesame seeds, cooking them 3 to 5 minutes.

Add oil to pan. When oil is hot, add peas and stir often until slightly crispy, 12 to 15 minutes. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Believe it or not fried peas are pretty tasty! Repeat with peanuts, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add garlic to oil in pan and cook, stirring often, when lightly golden, scoop garlic from pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels, reserving the oil. Let oil cool. Stir fish sauce into oil; set aside.

On a platter, arrange ginger, coconut, sesame, peas, peanuts, garlic, spinach, chilies, and onion, in separate piles. At the table, pour oil mixture over salad, squeeze limes on top, and mix ingredients. Makes 6 nibble servings.

AMY: As for my pantry it's rather empty at the moment, you'll have to contend with milk, yogurt, bananas, carrots, scallions, eggs, butter, blue cheese and bread plus some bacon in the freezer. Any ideas? (you can use all the staples you want--flour, jam, ketchup, chutney, potatoes, onions, you name it, just assume I have it).

AYUN: Is there someone special you'd like to invite for brunch? Because I've got two recipes in the book that ought to free up some pantry real estate for you. You can use the scallions, blue cheese, milk, eggs and bacon in the Quiche that follows the Gnawbone Camp chapter, though I'd cut that blue cheese with something milder like, I don't know, Monterey
Jack and don't really roll the dough out on a rotten log. I was just being a smart aleck. Flip a couple of chapters ahead and make Post Coital Pancakes with the butter, eggs, milk and yogurt. Fancy them up with the bananas. Hell use a carrot instead of a wooden spoon, keep your staples for the long cold winter ahead and throw the bread out the
window for the pigeons. Et voila!

AMY: Ayun, how did you know my bread was stale and suitable only for pigeon consumption? That or french toast...

And so concludes our virtual blog tour date. Don't forget to check out Ayun's book. This link will let you take a sneak peek.