New Ways Of Eating Old Dishes

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Johnny Miller for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Hilary Robertson.

Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic at The New York Times and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, came to my attention not long ago. At that time I did not look at her background and thought perhaps she was a science writer, based on that story. We are committed as much as anything in these pages to featuring stories by people who explain science well to a lay audience. But as of this week I realize she is a food writer and if you believe in James Beard awards she must be one of the best. That makes me think we will see more of her work because that is another of our favorite things. As I went through her website to read some of her earlier work, this story immediately stood out because of the title: Not Your Dickensian Bowl of Porridge. And that has been a favorite topic of mine since introducing savory porridge on our menu in Kerala a few years back. I cannot wait to test this out, even though I favor oats for my porridge:

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Credit Johnny Miller for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Hilary Robertson.

“How much time do you have?” Minh Phan wanted to know, when I showed up at her restaurant in Los Angeles after hours. I was hoping to learn how she cooked the delicious rice I ate there about a week before. It was covered with curls of see-through pickles and little scoops of sticky, savory jams, and many kinds of herbs. The grains of rice were whole and tender — soft but not soupy. How much time could we possibly need, I wondered, to boil some rice until it was tender?

What I learned was that a simple bowl of soft rice, in the hands of Minh Phan, was in fact extraordinary. It tasted familiar and comforting, but it was built meticulously and garnished effusively, its flavors carefully layered, its textures arranged in sequence. Porridge, in Phan’s kitchen, wasn’t a Dickensian breakfast bowl, but a kind of all-day extravagance. And the more time I spent by Phan’s side, the more it seemed to me that porridge as a word — porridge — was a bit unsatisfactory, a bit … vague? “Ooh, everyone was so mad that I called it ‘porridge,’ ” Phan said, using a knife to split open a bright orange heirloom squash, filling the space between us with a scent like freshly cut flowers. “But you know what, if I called it ‘congee,’ or if I called it ‘jook,’ then people would expect a really specific thing. This is California,” she said, “and ‘porridge’ gives me freedom.”

To make her freestyle porridges, Phan picks up ingredients at the farmers’ markets in Los Angeles each week, turning the fruits and vegetables into pickles and crisps, powders and jams, fillings and toppings that change across the porridge bowls constantly. Her squash porridge starts with a mix of whichever heirlooms she can find in season, peeled, chopped and roasted. Phan tips the cooked squash into a blender and pours darkly browned butter over it. She purées the squash and butter until it’s smooth and airy, like a winter pie filling, stopping every minute or so to scrape down the sides of the blender with a rubber spatula and to season. “Taste,” Phan said, pushing a spoon toward me. “Taste!”…

Read the whole story here.

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