I started following Melissa Clark’s great column, "A Good Appetite," in the Dining section of the New York Times years ago, and I’ve got a book full of clipped, yellowed newspaper pages to prove it. I've mailed and emailed them to my sisters and friends, hand-written or typed, like Johnny Appleseed spreading the good fruit across the land.
More often than not, though, simply copying the recipe is not really enough--I like to photocopy them because, inevitably, Melissa's stories of how she got to this particular list of weights and measures is as delicious as the final dish itself. It's not that she's ever over-the-top or trying to be some kind of E! Entertainment dishy dose for the food world. Not even close. What I like is that when I read her column, I feel like I'm half part of a conversation, half reading a great short story. Like how she taught me and millions of others how to cook slammin' tofu because of a memory spark she had about some ex-boyfriend who had a way with soy cake, or how she never got to eat the spicy, sugary, caramelized bacon-flecked nuts a friend contributed to the cocktail hour of her wedding but managed to get her mitts on them after the fact by recreating them herself. Or just her general meandering thought process when she's rifling through the freezer trying to find inspiration for dinner for her family.
I love her recipes. Truly. They use things that are approachable, but she never dumbs it down. She uses the familiar in both known and new ways, but never in a way that makes me think, damn, I need to save this for a weekend when I've got 2 full days to devote to this. Her column comes out on Wednesday, and appropriately so, I would, and often, consider making the plat du jour on any given work-a-day week night.
But there's another thing to her writing, too--an authenticity that feels familiar to me. Her thoughts on paper, the way she goes about putting together flavors, missing ingredients, a meal, remind me of the way my sisters and I share recipes and stories and tangents about food and all that is involved in bringing it to the table. In other words, her generosity and openness about of her own inner world of ingredient trials and tribulations, successes and failures, feels honest because it is. It's how we talk about food, and really, how we share the experience of it together, as friends and family. If this makes any sense at all, I think that Melissa's purity and (often funny) ability for keepin' it real in her column kind of helps us all to keep it real.
In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite. If you've never read her column, diving into this will feel simultaneously inspiring and exciting, yet utterly comfortable. And probably like you need to call your sister or brother or best friend or parents or whomever it is in your life that you like to share the befuddlement and joy of cooking with. When the following recipe came out in 2007, I was so smitten by the mix of nuts, lime juice, cilantro, soy, and brown sugar, a Xeroxed copies for my sisters and sent them off in the mail before I'd even made it. I also loved that the whole idea for the thing came from a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Crack the book if you want the full story--for now, the recipe ought to hold to you:
Spicy, Garlicky Cashew Chicken
1 cup roasted salted cashew nuts
6 TBSP chopped fresh cilantro, with some stems
1/4 cup safflower or olive oil
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 TBSP soy sauce
2 tsp brown sugar
juice of 1 lime, plus lime wedges for garnish
1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded or not, to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 lbs chicken thighs and/or drumsticks
In a blender or food processor, combine the nuts, 2 tablespoons cilantro, the oil, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, lime juice, jalapeno, and 2 tablespoons water. Blend until smooth, scrapping down the sides as necessary. Taste and season with salt and pepper if desired.
Season the chicken all over with salt and pepper. Smear on enough cashew mixture to coat the pieces thoroughly, but don't make it too thick or the saucce will fall off into our grill. (Set aside any remaining mixture.) Let marinate at room temperature while you heat the grill or broiler. Or refrigerate for up to 12 hours before cooking.
Preheat the broiler or grill. Grill or broil the chicken, turning frequently, until it is crisp and golden on the outside and done on the inside (cut a small nick to check), 20 to 30 minutes.
Sprinkle the chicken with the remaining 4 tablespoons cilantro and serve with lime wedges and the remaining cashew mixture.